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8659Re: [mythsoc] Tolkien's Literary Resonances

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  • David S. Bratman
    Mar 10, 2003
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      At 12:54 PM 3/10/2003 , Steve Schaper wrote:
      >What are the views of the worth of _Tolkien's Literary Resonances_?
      >
      >I'm pondering getting it.

      Here's the review I wrote for Mythprint of the book I presume you're
      referring to:

      George Clark and Daniel Timmons, ed. _J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary
      Resonances: Views of Middle-earth_. Greenwood Press hardcover, 213 pages,
      $58, ISBN 0-313-30845-4, 2000.

      Not too long ago, Greenwood Press issued two important new collections of
      essays on Tolkien. _Tolkien's Legendarium_, edited by Verlyn Flieger and
      Carl F. Hostetter, discussed "The History of Middle-earth" series and our
      new understanding of Tolkien's other works obtained through it. The
      present collection focuses on _The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit_, and _The
      Silmarillion_. Some of these essays began life as Mythcon papers, and most
      of them are comparative studies of Tolkien and other authors, particularly
      those from whom he may have derived ideas. Perhaps the best of this group
      is Jonathan Evans's discussion of Tolkien's use of Old English and Old
      Norse dragon lore in _The Hobbit_ and _The Silmarillion_. Charles W.
      Nelson's attempt to find one race in LOTR to embody each of the Seven
      Deadly Sins is very intriguing, if a little strained. In other essays,
      George Clark compares Bilbo's, Frodo's, and Sam's heroism to Beowulf's and
      Beorhtnoth's; William Rogers and Michael Underwood compare Gollum to a
      similarly degraded character in H. Rider Haggard; Roger Schlobin finds
      numerous thematic similarities between LOTR and _Sir Gawain_; Debbie Sly
      compares Valinor to Milton's cosmos; Tanya Wood compares Tolkien's theory
      of literature with Sir Philip Sidney's; and C.W. Sullivan points out, but
      does not take very far, LOTR's use of forms and techniques of saga and
      fairy-tale in the form of the novel.

      Turning to more recent comparisons, David Sandner discusses C.S. Lewis's
      creation of Narnia, and how it resembles both theory and practice of
      Tolkien's sub-creation. In a most interesting essay, Faye Ringel applies
      Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence to four recent women
      writers of fantasy (including MFA winners Patricia McKillip and Delia
      Sherman), showing how both a love for Tolkien and a desire to find their
      way out of his path influenced the creation of fantasies very different
      from his.

      What all these essays have in common is their demonstration of the rich
      applicability of Tolkien's work. Schlobin, for instance, takes care not to
      claim that Tolkien derived his themes from _Gawain_ (though he thinks it
      likely), but the similarities show the care Tolkien put into crafting his
      work, and the rich reward in store for a thoughtful reader.

      A few essays are less comparative. W.A. Senior uses Tolkien's evocation of
      great loss and sorrow to defend him from charges of light
      escapism. Geoffrey Russom gives a close analysis of metrical structure in
      Tolkien's verse. He does not address the vexed question of whether the
      verse is any good, but like the other critics in this collection, he
      demonstrates that Tolkien took care in his work. This essay may be paired
      with Joe R. Christopher's discussion of Tolkien's poetic diction in
      _Tolkien's Legendarium_, and Ursula K. Le Guin's similarly close study of
      the prose of LOTR in the forthcoming _Meditations on Middle-earth_.

      Lastly, the finest two essays in the book are by the two most distinguished
      scholars. They show that, even after 45 years of commentary, it's still
      possible to say something startlingly new about _The Lord of the
      Rings_. Tom Shippey begins by showing that evil in Tolkien's characters is
      a form of self-delusion, a cognitive dissonance between their ethics and
      their behavior; and concludes by praising Tolkien for his close integration
      of public and private morality. Along the way he compares C.S. Lewis's
      similar treatment of these themes, and contrasts with contemporaries who
      ignore the vital issue of public morality. And Verlyn Flieger will bring
      every reader up short with her observation that Tolkien's favor towards
      trees was not unmixed: what Saruman is cursed for doing in Fangorn is
      exactly what hobbits, in Merry's historical account, are praised for doing
      in the Old Forest. The only difference is motive, which can hardly matter
      to the trees. How his writing led him into this inconsistency, and why, in
      the end, it compliments Tolkien to point it out, are subjects that take up
      the remainder of the essay.

      These two searingly thoughtful essays would grace any critical
      collection. But all the contributions are well-put and worthwhile, a
      bouquet of demonstrations of the depth, subtlety, and resonance of
      Tolkien's fiction.

      - David Bratman
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