Sad news, that my friend and the distinguished Tolkien scholar Richard West died on 29 November in Madison, Wisconsin. He was 76 and retired from the University of Wisconsin, where he’d been an engineering librarian. He had been in hospital with another chronic illness and contracted the covid. His wife, Perri, was also in the same hospital with the same thing, and it’s part of the cruelness of the virus that they were unable to see each other. (She’s since reportedly recovered.)
I can’t remember how long I’ve known Richard personally: at least thirty years, possibly as many as forty. But I’ve known his work longer than that. When I first explored Tolkien scholarship, and that was getting on to fifty years ago, I quickly learned that much of the best work was being done in fanzines, and one of the top fanzines in the field was Orcrist, the journal of the University of Wisconsin Tolkien society, which was edited by Richard C. West. In its pages he was the first scholar to begin to poke around in Tolkien’s draft manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings, which were – and still are – kept at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and to report in print on what he found there. His judgment, “If we pick [various discarded ideas] out of the scrap heap it is only to show how wise the author was to throw them there,” has long been my lodestone in dealing with this material, and I’ve quoted that sage advice in at least two papers of my own.
In the same early period, Richard wrote one of the pioneering studies in Tolkien’s use of medieval literary techniques, “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings,” but in the years since then he’s never stopped. In recent years, he’s concentrated on bringing insights to the stories of Lúthien Tinúviel and Túrin Turambar, penning essays showing how Lúthien’s actions demonstrate how deeply truthfulness and honor are embedded in Tolkien’s morality, and comparing Túrin’s impetuousness to the ofermod that Tolkien famously discussed regarding Beorhtnoth in The Battle of Maldon. His studies were always both clear and detailed. In the hospital, he was still planning his next trip to Marquette to look over the manuscripts there again.
He was Guest of Honor at Mythcon in 2014, where he gave a remarkable speech on the theme of “Where Fantasy Fits,” where – unusually for his scholarship – he drew on his knowledge of science fiction and its fandom (he was a member of the group that founded Wiscon, the pioneering feminist SF con) to discuss their perception of the category of fantasy in the years when Tolkien was writing, before fantasy became a publishing genre of its own. One of his points was that, while few fantasy novels for adults were published in this period, “those that did manage to find a publisher were usually very, very good.”
You may read that speech online at the Mythlore archives, but it was another thing to be there in the auditorium to hear it. The formal honor led to Richard’s greatest triumph in public speaking. Ordinarily he was not a prepossessing speaker. He spoke quickly and softly, and seemed to address a lot of asides to himself. But if you could hear what he was saying, it was always worthwhile, as the printed versions show. This time, though, his voice rang out with gratifying clarity.
There was, also, the remarkable occasion at the 2000 World SF Con in Chicago, when the organizers put Richard, myself, Doug Anderson, and Tom Shippey on a panel investigating the reasons for Tolkien’s popular success. I don’t remember much of what we said, except that Richard had a lot of statistics to buttress his points, but I do remember that the evening before the early-morning panel, the four of us went out to discuss it over dinner at one of Chicago’s notable steakhouses, one of those glorious outings of four people truly dedicated to Tolkien’s works.
Richard was a private person, reticent about his personal life, a devout Catholic and a support to B. in her searches for a good church to attend Mass at when the two of them were at a conference together. His observations in discussions of others’ presentations were as worthwhile as his own, and despite his retiring social quality he could be a good companion for one-on-one conversation, as I found a couple times when we went out for meals together.
Somehow apart from Richard’s other work is his magnum opus and only book(s), his application of his librarian profession to Tolkien studies in the two editions of the bibliography Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist (1970 and 1981). They’re still useful for evaluating and checking up on early Tolkien scholarship; little-known is that Richard also published a supplement, a selective annotated evaluative list of the best Tolkien criticism of the next 20+ years, published in Modern Fiction Studies in 2004.
There may be another book, though. At a gathering of Tolkien scholars a couple years ago, Richard mentioned plans to collect some of his articles into book form, which we thought a splendid idea and immediately embarked on coming up with appropriate Tolkien-inspired book titles derived from the evocative surname of West. May this book come to be.
(Updated from my personal blog.)