The Uncharted Realms of Tolkien (Text, context and subtext in the works of JRR Tolkien)

 

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Introduction

Before begining I should confess that I may be singularly ill-positioned to write a review of this book. I have a large number of Tolk-crit volumes on my bookshelves, from Shippey to Pearce through Kocher, Martinez and Helms.

All of them were read when I bought them but have been rarely taken down since for perusal, academic or otherwise. With time (or is it age?) I find such treatments and treatises more and more difficult to devour, less and less relevant to my own response to Tolkien's writings.

Secondly, I have never studied the mechanics of literary analysis (my O-level "Unclassified" in English Literature is something I wear with rather more pride than shame). As I take up pen I feel woefully inadequate to the task. Where do I start? What should I be looking for? How learned (or ridiculous) am I going to appear?

On the other hand (such a good idea of Eru's to give us two each) this is a book written by two people who believe they have something different, fresh and worthwhile to add to the Matter of Middle-earth. And I have read what they have to say and I want to share the discovery. So maybe this is not so much a "Review" as a "What Martin thinks about this book". Or is that a review?

The authors - Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie - introduce themselves to us on page three. Alex is a former Chairman of the Tolkien Society (but we shouldn't hold that against him) and a prolific and accomplished communicator with an admirable list of publications, seminar presentations and radio interviews under his belt (if that is an appropriate place to carry such a list). His artistic / creative endeavours are no less impressive.

Alex founded and continues to edit the publications of Nigglings, the writers' Special Interest Group of the Tolkien Society. Where S Rushtoes Esq would be without him is anyone's guess.

We are given rather less information about Elizabeth but she has also been active in the Tolkien Society for many years. Wildly creative in her own right she is also that rare thing, a student of both Science and the Arts.

These two - who "between them have over fifty years combined experience and research into JRR Tolkien, his writings and the environment of his time" - declare their intent in the following words:

This book is about explorations. The title was chosen with great care: we believe that over the years Tolkien's works and views have been to a greater or lesser extent misunderstood or even misrepresented.
By 'uncharted', we wish to indicate that we are treading unfamiliar lines of enquiry. By 'realms' we take the broadest possible definition. The chapters deal with a wide variety of subjects, but each will hopefully throw new light on Tolkien, his works and his stature. ....
If we can illustrate that the 'tapestry' woven by Tolkien was richer than most people realised, then we will have succeeded.
 

Presentation

Physically, the book is rather appealing. Lettered in black, the deep red cover is striking and distinctive with elegant yellow-gold borders and artwork by Ruth Lacon. Readers of Reunion magazine will know Ruth from the pen and ink illustrations which have ennobled several of her own tales and articles.

The volume itself is well-produced and bound. The printing and paper are of high quality, which makes for a very satisfying feel on taking it up to read.

Unfortunately, this initial positive impression is immediately marred on opening the book by an unusually high number of typographical blunders and faults with the layout of the text.

What leaps from the page for me might go unnoticed by another reader and I hesitate to draw the attention of others to what they might otherwise overlook (or more readily forgive). However, the errors did distract me and I feel compelled to mention them.

The most glaring faults are a general but not quite universal rendering of the un-hyphenated "Middle earth" for Middle-earth, over-large indentation of the first line of each paragraph and occasional omission of an indent altogether. The last error when it occurs makes it difficult to determine where one paragraph ends and the next begins.

In a similar vein, blockquotes can be poorly differentiated from the body text. Double indenting or italicisation would have really helped here.

More subtle faux-pas include the underlining of (and full stops at the end of) chapter headings; the use of the hyphen "-" in place of the proper em or en dash and the quoting (rather than italicisation) of published titles: hence "The Lord of the Rings" in place of The Lord of the Rings.

All this said, it is notable that there are very few, if any, mis-spellings. This may indicate that the blame for the other faults lies more with the typesetters and editors at Medea Publishing than with the authors themselves.

[I should confess that I am myself habitually - and deliberately - guilty of the hyphen-for-dash error, at least in our web (HTML) publications. This is because the typographic em and en dashes are not universally supported by web browsers. Any and all other errors in Reunion and Parish's Garden are attributable to the cat.]
 

Structure

The book is divided into five sections or "realms". It is perhaps useful to summarise these to give a better impression of the material Alex and Elizabeth cover.

Incidentally, the authors are at pains to make clear that whilst this chapter or that might be primarily the work of one of them or the other, "both authors had an input into all aspects of the work .... The old adage "two minds are better than one" would seem to serve admirably."
 

Realms of Mind: those Uncharted Realms

Here our authors distinguish two "categories of story": "story as history" versus "off the map fantastic". Tolkien excels because he manages to "[fuse] them together inseparably in his stories - where 'story as history' ends and 'fantasy off the map' begins is difficult to tell."
 

Realms of Ecology: Tolkien and the Physical Universe

This rather dry title belies an extremely interesting treatment of Tolkien and the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (of whom I had previously been totally unaware: this book is nothing if not educational).

There seems little in the way of hard evidence that the exploits of von Humboldt actually enriched Tolkien's awareness of the natural world: the central tenet of this essay. Nevertheless there are sufficient coincidences and parallels to warrant the exercise.

I rejoice in any authors prepared to draw such compelling parallels between the aged yet vigorous Humboldt and one Bilbo Baggins, Esq.
 

Realms of the Perilous

In this section our authors discuss the opinions of folklore that were current in Tolkien's time and how he utilised both these ideas and elements of folklore itself in his own writings (there is a lot more in there than these few words of mine convey!)
 

Realms of Inspiration

This is arguably the most "Lit-Crit" section of the book, especially the first two sub-sections, "Maps beyond The Hobbit" and "Maps beyond The Lord of the Rings". Here we are treated to detailed examinations of the development of these two works and of Middle-earth itself, drawing on the monumental wealth of published material with which we have been blessed, largely thanks to Christopher Tolkien.

I have to confess that these are not my favourite chapters but that is more a re-statement of my response to such writing than a reflection of the material itself. I find such dissection does a disservice to the finely tuned (and probably highly contradictory) balance in which I hold the varied Matter of Middle-earth.

However, the final sub-section "An Analysis of Tom Bombadil" is wonderful! I will have rather more to say on this essay later: for now I shall restrict myself to stating that I found this one of the most rewarding parts of the whole book.
 

Realms of Gender

In this section (which boasts two beautifully titled sub-sections , "Lily-maids and Amazons in Middle-earth" and "The Professor and The Mariner's Wife") our authors unpick the tangled question of sex in Middle-earth - or rather the balance and treatment of male and female characters in Tolkien's writings.
 

Realms of Immortality: Tolkien and Shakespeare

As its title suggests, the final section attempts to answer the question "How important is Tolkien?" by comparing and contrasting his works and legacy to those of Shakespeare.

It is our contention that Tolkien shall in due time be seen as important to English literature as Shakespeare. Tolkien's works will be as long lasting and hold as much 'applicability' and relevance to succeeding generations as the Bard's have done and will continue to.
 

Approach / style

In the Introduction our authors state their linguistic and textual aims:

We wish to present a useful and thought provoking book that does not delve into complexities. .... To this end we have attempted to keep the language as simple as possible throughout.
We have avoided all use of jargon or academic terminology so that the widest possible range of readers might benefit from its explorations.

This is a far more ambitious statement than it at first appears. This is, after all, primarily and explicitly a book about Tolkien, his life, world and works: something our authors know a heap more about than most of us do. This is rather less an exploration of equals, rather more a safari excursion with our authors as the safari guides.

Their duty is to lead us, to guide our steps through the Perilous Realms of unfettered interpretation, pointing out the interesting flora and fauna, sights, sounds and smells as we go and hopefully saving us from getting ourselves ripped to pieces by jaguars (or wargs) along the way.

Inevitably, perhaps, given the joint authorship there are distinct differences in tone throughout the text. At times the approach is - to my ears - hard-core scholarly ("proper Tolkien crit", one might say). Then suddenly there is a little aside or a playful pause that includes rather than instructs the reader.

There are also different shades of the scholarly voice. This is perhaps as much a matter of the reader's taste and experience as anything else but I found the essays on von Humboldt, the matter of Hobbits and badgers and the discussions concerning Tom Bombadil far easier to digest than some of the others.

It is worth pointing out in defence of any such perceived tonal shifts that our authors have made their task the harder by explicitly opening up the safari to anyone and everyone who wants to tag along. To keep us together, to keep us interested and not asking too many awkward questions (at least until we are all safely back at the lodge) is no easy achievement, as a look into the eyes of any National Trust guide would reveal.

If the commentary seems to our ears to vary in tone and style then we must remember the other pairs of ears it is attempting to reach. If it helps, imagine an expedition led jointly by Sir David Attenborough and Steve Irwin: you can expect a little jarring of tone from time to time but - Crikey, mate! - it's not going to be boring!
 

Baggins the badger

It is time at last for the fun bit, where (pressing the safari metaphor into service a while longer) I get to tell you about my favourite sights along the way.

Top of the list for exuberance, for audacity and for the sheer delight it afforded me must be the discussion of Hobbits and badgers. This appears in the section Realms of the Perilous: Transformation in Action: Tolkien's Hobbits.

Starting from the infamous hobbits-as-rabbits theory we are invited to consider that our diminutive cousins owe rather more to another four legged creature of the hedgerows than they do to the proverbially promiscuous and decidedly non-native cotton-tail. This six page whistle-stop excursion takes in biology, habitat, folklore, place names and much else besides, bringing us at last and breathlessly to a halt outside a house with a round door:

Following that line of thought, 'Baggins' itself could mean 'badger's people or family' - an intriguing possibility to say the least. Such a reading would make 'Bag End' a multiple pun of note.
Firstly there was its real world application, as the name of a farm at which Tolkien's aunt Jane Neave lived for a time. Secondly, there is the 'bag end' = 'cul-de-sac' comparison that Shippey points out. Thirdly, 'baggin' is food one takes to work in a bag, which makes Mr Baggins himself something or someone edible ....
Fourthly there is 'bag' < bacga,
?badger, which turns Bilbo into Mr Badger living in Badger's End.

These six pages alone are worth the price of the book!

The section concludes with reference to the poem The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, suggesting that "the appearance of the Badgers in that poem may well reflect both Tolkien's awareness of the curious linguistic and folkloric puzzles surrounding badgers and his earlier writings on such subjects."

I would like to offer the possibility that the Bombadil poem takes the tale a little further. If badgers=hobbits then it is a family of hobbits that imprison Tom in their "earthy burrow", an observation that recalls to this reader at least Mr Kelly's infamous tale of "malevolent hobbits" which so shocked one former member of Middle-earth Reunion that she felt compelled to leave us for altogether less perilous realms.
 

Wise fool Tom

Talk of Bombadil brings us to the second of my favourite sections in this book. Bombadil, of course, is the eternal bridesmaid and it is good to see the old fellow finally afforded his due regard.

In fact, our authors devote to him a full chapter in the Realms of Inspiration section totalling just over thirty pages in all, though I feel there is far more that they could have said on the matter. A taster should convince you of the merit of the meal as a whole.

There is the promise of a very interesting discussion of Tom-as-Nature-Spirit (or not) which proceeds from the position of certain writers that "if Tom is a 'nature spirit' then he must be 'non-rational'. Our authors begin by sharply dismissing such a claim by RJ Reilly:

[Reilly] .... is clearly wide of the mark, as the slightest reading of LotR ought to show. Tom Bombadil may be decidedly eccentric, but he is perfectly rational.

They then propound the weaknesses of the argument itself on three grounds:

It fails to ask whether Tom Bombadil is rational, it begs the question of what exactly is rationality, and its underlying premise that 'nature spirit' equals 'non- or ir-rational' is never proven by the authors who invoke it.

Unfortunately, these distinctly intriguing questions are barely addressed in the pages that follow, although in discussing the idea of Bombadil as a spirit of nature our authors do recognise something important and easily overlooked:

What Tom Bombadil does in all his encounters .... is to restore the 'natural' state of affairs, the proper balance of life.

The chapter's closing passage is one of the book's most lucid and flowingly written, and seems to this reader to capture much of the importance and essence of this much maligned bridesmaid of a character. I beg leave to quote from it at length. The attentive may recognise an almost complete reversal of opinion as to the Old Tom's rationality from that cited above. Perhaps after all, that is the whole point.

[Tolkien] left Tom buried in LotR like a thorn on a rose - a pointed reminder that things may not be what we think they are. .... The answer is that there is no one answer, no single and unified figure to find.
Frustrating as such a conclusion may be, it is an important one. That fluidity of form and meaning is as much a part of real literary creativity as the fruitless effort to confine it in neat boxes is a part of literary criticism.
There is after all something in the notion that Tom Bombadil is not rational. From a standard literary-critical point of view, he is certainly no such thing. Yet for the critic the foolishness of Tom Bombadil could be the divine madness of inspiration.
In the tarot deck created by Terry Donaldson, the Fool is portrayed as Gollum and Bombadil represents the Hermit. In many ways, a reversal of these values would be appropriate. The manyfacetedness born of Tolkien's unwearying creativity almost makes Tom Bombadil into the Trickster, the Fool, pointing away from the known and into the uncertainty of the new, with all its risks and rewards.
 

Creativity

I would like now to take a look at what our authors have to say on the subject of working creatively within the Middle-earth story-space. This is an area of signal interest to me personally, as someone who seeks to explore the borders of that space and its relationship to what we commonly refer to as the "real world". It is also a topic which seems to have been afforded little attention by other writers (or do I just display my ignorance of them?)

In Haunted Landscapes: Tolkien's Use of Folklore we are led on an exploration of the nature of the creative process, which cannot function in a vacuum but proceeds always from a given point in time and story.

For the creative artist, the message is that one's own version [of myths, legends and folklore], if it is made in knowledge and sympathy, is as likely to be right as anyone's.

This is a very important statement indeed. Of course, Tolkien's "version" is important; learned. It is not to be dismissed lightly. But he does not have the first and last word to say on the matter.

If we have any belief in our own vision and creativity, there is every reason why we should not .... simply accept Tolkien's judgements on this material as a creative writer and stay within the rules .... but rather take the harder and genuinely more creative option of making our own minds up.

At that point in the book our authors are discussing Tolkien's use of what he himself called the "soup of story". But of course now Tolkien's works are themselves a part of that broth, and others dipping their ladles into the pot may find Elves and fire-demons, white ships and black riders among their portion.

This is a theme taken up in the closing pages of the book. There are, of course, certain legal niceties obstructing such a freely creative use of the elements (let alone the elephants) of Middle-earth but at least our authors can look to a time when such restrictions may be swept away.

At the point in time when copyright [in Tolkien's works] expires, many different projects may become possible that would otherwise have been prevented from taking shape.
.... Tolkien wrote in a now-famous letter about a great canvas where 'many hands wielding paint, music and drama' might add to his vision - and he may have been spectacularly prophetic.

I could hardly agree more! However, I do feel that our authors have missed an opportunity in failing to address in any detail the impact of the Peter Jackson / New Line movies on the creative process.

In the past few years we have witnessed an unprecedented explosion of creativity within the Middle-earth story-space, both official/licenced and unofficial/unlicensed-but-tolerated. The input from both established and "fannish" Tolkien specialists - artists, linguists and the like - in the making of the movies themselves has been immense and immensely valuable in claiming a broader ownership for Middle-earth.

There is a darker side, though, especially where money is to be made, and there are some signs that the very powers that have opened the doors to us may be about to slam them in our faces.

In any event I would have liked to see some such mention in the current book by our esteemed authors. Or perhaps what I perceive as an omission is the cornerstone of Uncharted Realms Two ...
 

Conclusions

In conclusion I would say that Alex and Elizabeth have indeed achieved their aim, to "illustrate that the 'tapestry' woven by Tolkien was richer than most people realised".

I cannot speak for "most people" but, inspite of some very real problems with presentation, this book has certainly enriched my appreciation of both Tolkien the man and his legacy.
 


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