The Pleasures of Reading Tolkien Criticism

Every year, when I embark on my ritual re-reading of The Lord of the Rings (and occasionally The Hobbit), I also take it upon myself to read some Tolkien criticism. I usually try to read at least one new critical text on Tolkien per year, either classical or contemporary, in order to enrich and deepen my appreciation for the richness of Tolkien’s work and philosophy. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about reading a critical appraisal of my favourite author and my favourite book.

While Tolkien Studies is slowly but surely become an established part of the world of academic disciplines, it’s still fairly rare to see a very nuanced and complex discussion of its contours. Imagine my surprise that  a piece recently appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books that took a rather dim view of the contemporary state of Tolkien scholarship. The author, Norbert Schürer has some good points to make. Some fields, Tolkien Studies and Film Studies among them, have a tendency to be populated (at least in part) by those who allow their fan-infused enthusiasm for their love object to cloud their critical apparatus in some unproductive ways. This is not to say that there isn’t some value in those pieces, mind, just that it’s important to find a balance between those two halves of one’s scholarly life (an aspect of being a film scholar with which I still sometimes struggle).

However, as the authors of a response published at Mythgard point out, there is a danger dismissing so quickly this kind of fan-driven scholarship. They raise some compelling points, and to their commentary I would add that sometimes there is both pleasure and emotional reward in allowing your personal enthusiasm for a subject or an author bleed into your scholarship. Just as there is a danger in becoming too emotionally involved in your academic criticism, there is an equally potent danger of leeching the joy and the pleasure out of the act of critical interpretation.

For myself, a Tolkien scholar and critic who combines the best of both worlds is the masterful Tom Shippey. It’s very rare indeed that I read a scholarly book, particularly a work of literary criticism more than once. It’s not that there isn’t something to be gained from such a re-reading. It’s just that I don’t have enough time in my busy life to re-read much of anything. However, Shippey’s two masterful works on Tolkien, Tolkien:  Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth, have been staples of my re-read schedule since I first discovered them as an undergraduate. Shippey is that most masterful of literary critics, i.e. one who combines a deep and rich knowledge and love of his subject with a talented literary critics sharp eye for detail and systematic analysis.There is, furthermore, something both accessible and oddly comforting about Shippey’s prose style. He has a knack which few rigorous academics truly master:  he conveys sophisticated arguments into elegant and readable prose.

In recent years, however, I’ve expanded the reach a bit, and last year I had the distinct pleasure of finally reading Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light:  Logos and Language in Tolkien’s Work. What really makes her work such a special and invaluable one for the field as a whole is that it takes the other parts of the Legendarium that often go ignored in popular scholarship (due in no small part to the popularity of the film adaptations) as an essential part of Tolkien’s philosophical pursuit. As with Shippey, Flieger manages to convey the complexity of Tolkien’s voracious mind with a lively and spirited prose that keeps even the casual reader engaged.

The best part about reading Tolkien criticism as a fledgling literary and film critic and scholar is that reading the best of it serves as both inspiration and model for my own forays into the world of scholarship. Writing work that passes academic muster is sometimes a very daunting task–especially when your object of analysis has only reluctantly been allowed into the echelons of “true scholarship.” However, seeing it done successfully–and, just as importantly, seeing it published by reputable academic presses–gives you a measure of hope that yes, indeed, you can produce scholarship that you enjoy writing and that, hopefully, others will enjoy reading.

While my primary pleasure will always be found in Tolkien’s original words themselves, I continue to seek out new pieces of scholarship that help to deepen my love and appreciation for his genius. This year, I hope to finally get around to tackling Corey Olsen’s Exploring J.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I might also take a look at Tolkien:  The Forest and the City and Light Beyond Shadow:  Religious Experience in Tolkien’s Work. If I can snag it from Interlibrary Loan, I also hope to take a gander at A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien. 

It looks like I’ve got plenty of things to ask for for Christmas this year and plenty of pleasurable reading to do.

Happy Tolkien Appreciation Month to me (and to all of you)!

Book Review: Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World

I recently had the pleasure of reading Verlyn Flieger’s scholarly book Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Well-written and thoroughly-argued, the book is a stellar example of sound literary scholarship and is necessary reading for anyone looking for a more nuanced understanding of Tolkien’s work and fantastic philosophy.

In essence, Fliger argues that, for Tolkien, the power of language and the power of light remain inextricably intertwined, with the former providing access to the latter. However, Tolkien’s acts of subcreation, especially as represented in his invented English languages, also suggest that language undergoes a never-ending process of (de)volution. While it comes to provide a more nuanced understanding of the world, it also becomes more distanced from the original light from which it originated. Given that in Tolkien’s view language constructs and springs from reality, this has far-reaching consequences.

Most compellingly, in my view, Flieger suggests that Tolkien’s work does not unambiguously elevate light over darkness. Instead, she suggests, Tolkien’s various polarities that exist within the mythos rely upon each other for their construction. Motivated by his Christian (and specifically Catholic) worldview, however, Tolkien also argues that while life, and history, is a long defeat (a Fall), it is humankind’s lot and duty to persevere and retain faith even in the certainty of that defeat.

She traces this motif through much of The Silmarillion. She has a clear, strong grasp of the nuances both of Tolkien’s invented languages (she focuses primarily on Quena and Sindarin), as well as the many branches of the Elves that emerged after their emergence in Middle-earth. She traces a number of interesting features among the most important figures in Tolkien’s most difficult yet ambitious work, including Feanor, Thingol, Beren, and Luthien.

Much of the book remains focused on The Silmarillion. It is only toward the end that Flieger shifts gears slightly and moves into a discussion of the ways in which the characters of The Lord of the Rings, pointing out how Frodo’s sacrifice is so powerful precisely because he journeys, willingly, away from the light of the West and into the encroaching dark of the East. Frodo’s fate, like so many tragic heroes, is to give up everything that he values so that others may possess them. He has given up and gone away from the light, yet there is hope, never entirely guaranteed, that he may regain it.

If there is one quibble I have with the book, it is the lack of a broader sense of the historical context in which Tolkien was writing. Admittedly, this sense may be due more to my own scholarly inclinations (I am an unashamed historicist), but to my mind it goes a long way toward explaining how Tolkien was not an escapist, but rather a writer struggling to come to terms with the world in which he lived.

For the most part, however, Flieger’s is an accessible yet nuanced exploration of Tolkien’s work. Her writing, clear and lucid throughout, makes her an ideal gateway for those non-academics seeking a richer understanding of the works of Tolkien. However, it is advisable to read The Silmarillion in its entirety before tackling Splintered Light.

There is something profoundly satisfying in reading a solid piece of scholarship. As one of those responsible for elevating Tolkien into the ranks of “legitimate” literature, Flieger’s work deserves especial praise. Rather than seeing Tolkien’s work as mere escapist fantasy, or indeed as mere fiction, Flieger allows us to see the way(s) in which it they work as a profoundly subtle and nuanced explorations of the deepest and most troubling philosophical questions haunting the 20th (and now the 21st) Century.


In Praise of Christopher Tolkien

Today I finally got around to finishing up a post I started two years ago. For some time now, I’ve been thinking about how very much we Tolkien fans–laypeople and scholars alike–owe Christopher Tolkien. From The Silmarillion to The History of Middle-earth (12 volumes!) to the upcoming volume on Beren and Luthien, Tolkien has been a masterful and truly dedicated curator of his father’s literary legacy. While I disagree with some of his positions (particularly about the Peter Jackson films), on the whole I admire him and feel very grateful to him for his willingness to devote his life to cultivating his father’s posthumous reputation.

Imagine how poorer we would be if Christopher (with the assistance of the wonderful Guy Gavriel Kay, a great fantasy writer in his own right) hadn’t managed to carve out a legible narrative from his father’s manuscripts to give us The Silmarillion. While I know that that particular Tolkien work is not to everyone’s taste, it’s important to remember that in many ways this later volume was the core of Tolkien’s entire life’s work. To my mind, no appreciation of Tolkien is actually complete unless one has read The Silmarillion at least once. To this day, I am in awe of the amount of dedication and editorial virtuosity it must have taken in order to gather together such far-flung and often contradictory fragments into a cohesive (and very compelling) narrative.

Or take, as another example, the publication of the voluminous The History of Middle-earth. While some might find this slow going, I was surprised (upon picking up the first volume some time ago), how eminently enjoyable it was to read. It really is utterly fascinating to see the ways in which Tolkien’s vision slowly took shape over the long years. While the works’ primary value is in showing the working processes of the elder Tolkien’s mind, Christopher’s commentary is often enjoyable, as he always has a keen grasp of his father’s mind, and one cannot help but be in awe of the sheer amount of hours it must have taken him to make his way through the mountains of manuscript pages.

However, it is also important to point out that Christopher has also been slowly but surely solidifying his father’s academic reputation. It’s no secret that J.R.R. was not a prolific writer of academic articles–something no doubt incomprehensible to today’s academics, who seem to exist in a perpetual state of anxiety about their lack of publications–but he had a mind that was more than suited to his chosen profession. One need only look at something like the extensive commentary in the recently published Beowulf  to see that Tolkien was that most extraordinary type of academic, i.e. one who brings a true passion to the material that he taught, translated, and loved.

One area in which I fundamentally disagree with Christopher is in his not-so-secret disgust with the way that his father’s work has been translated to screen. There is, of course, a great deal of discussion among Tolkienists about whether Jackson’s adaptations, and the question of whether or not they were faithful to Tolkien’s original vision (or whether that is even the right question to ask) will no doubt continue to motivate many in the community to write about it. While I disagree with Christopher about this, I do think that his is an important voice. After all, if there is anyone who is familiar with the intricacies of the elder Tolkien’s mind, it would of course have to be this man, who has done so much to excavate and make public his father’s work.

While it may seem impossible that Christoper Tolkien could unearth any more of his father’s work, those of us who just cannot get enough of the elder’s work are in for a treat this spring, when the stand-alone volume finally comes to bookstores. It’s hard not to be in awe of this venerable editor, who even well into his 90s continues to be a custodian of his father’s work and an inspiration to all of us who continue to yearn for more of the old master’s work.

We can only hope that Christopher has at least a few more volumes in the pipeline.