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a reviewer’s complaint

That’s part of the title of a little opinion piece by Thomas Honegger in the latest issue of Hither Shore (v. 12, dated 2015), “To whom it may concern – a Reviewer’s Complaint.” Honegger’s complaint is over a lack of “a certain minimal level of professional quality” in Tolkien studies. He mentions fact-checking and proofreading, but his main concern is lack of bibliographical research, scholars unaware of major and basic work in the areas they are covering. “How are we going to advance Tolkien studies if scholars in the field are ignorant of each others research?”

Well, I know how and why this happened. It’s the explosion in the size of our field. About 30 years ago – it seems such a blip in time – I wrote an article for Beyond Bree giving a potted summary of every book about Tolkien that had ever been published, including the art books and parodies. I had them all in my head, and almost all of them on my shelves. I couldn’t do that any more. There’s just too much stuff out there.

(At this point a real article would provide statistics. This is not a real article, and I lack both time and inclination to do that work right now. But if you’ve been paying attention to the field over the years, you know this too.)

Scholars were used to knowing off the top of their heads what work had been done in specific areas of the field. Perhaps they’re still trying to do so, but failing.

Thomas Honegger has, of course, the answer to this. Research. There are bibliographies, online databases, etc. And don’t I know it. I’m right in the middle of doing my lonesome best at compiling the bibliography of Tolkien studies for 2015 that will be going in the next issue of Tolkien Studies. It’s an adventurous life, being a bibliographer: having to travel mountain highways half-blocked by rain-sodden mudslides in search of remote college libraries that have access to the databases I need. Not quite navigating the pass of Caradhras, but not exactly the most relaxed of armchair work either.

And that also is why I’m reading Hither Shore 12 right now: because, perforce, 2015 is the only date on it. So even though it didn’t appear until late 2016, into the 2015 bibliography it goes.

Besides the bibliography, there’s the accumulated texts of “The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies,” at first written and latterly edited by me, and covering, so far, work of 2001 through 2013. Here’s a statistic for you: 220,000 words. Just of summaries of what other people have written. It’s available online through Project MUSE as well as in print, of course, though accessibility issues are another topic. I often do word searches on my own personal files of the “Year’s Work” to check on what’s been written on a topic. Even though I wrote much of the “Year’s Work” myself, that doesn’t mean I can remember what’s in it.

We need, perhaps, more reliance on research and less on personal memory or knowledge. Although based on the written word, Tolkien studies was long more of an oral culture, or at least capable of being one. You could keep it in your head. That’s now much more difficult.

As a poor, ignorant bystander, I wonder how scholars manage it in fields with even more weight to them. Shakespeare, for instance. Literally centuries of the most prolific and voluminous study. What does someone wishing to write an analytical study of a Shakespeare play do? There are online reference sources, and printed guides to the literature, to be sure, but compared to the immense size of the literature, the climb for scholars must still be very steep. Whatever they do, we could learn much from them.

Then there’s the classic story in science, of how three researchers, each working independently, discovered the principles of genetics (or something close to it) almost simultaneously in the year 1900. And then each, performing a literature search before publication, discovered that a monk named Gregor Mendel had already published a comprehensive study of just those principles in an obscure journal over 30 years earlier. All, of course, cited his work, bringing it to public attention, and treating their own merely as confirmation of it. Dodged an embarrassing bullet there.

Unsurprisingly, Thomas Honegger is not the first to have raised these issues. Michael D.C. Drout made some of the same points in “Towards a Better Tolkien Criticism” (in Reading The Lord of the Rings, ed. Robert Eaglestone) in 2005. That one comes to my mind. But it still needs saying.

And then there’s the fact that new literature keeps coming up. In the same issue of Hither Shore, Honegger contributes a disappointed review of the book J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy. It may have been one of the contributing irritants that led to Honegger’s Complaint, but he also notes that there’s nothing in it about “the birth of modern fantasy.” If only he had read Jaime Williamson’s The Evolution of Modern Fantasy, which was published just afterwards, which covers exactly that subject. (I reviewed it in Mythlore 129, Fall/Winter 2016.)

Come on, everybody, back to work: there’s plenty to read.

About the Author: David Bratman

David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.