Nature - Patrick Curry

Comments by squire, February 14, 2007

Curry has a few good points to make about how Nature is characterized by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. These points are almost buried in sludgy prose. A thorough rewrite, eliminating indistinct clauses and tenses, odd vocabulary ("ineliminable"?), vague and unsupported generalizations, and just about every use of "thus", would be a tremendous help in making his case.

As to his case, I felt a jolt at his implication that Tolkien is correct that "every natural place has a cultural dimension". Perhaps it is a more European perception of Nature to reject the idea of absolute wilderness, but I find it quite possible to conceive of nature as something that is (or was) truly independent of culture, that is, usefulness to humans.  Curry admits that the Old Forest and Fangorn do not really fit his rule, so perhaps Tolkien is ahead of him here, but my real point is that Tolkien has an interpretation of Nature, not the interpretation, as Curry seems to imply.

His other points, about specificity and agency are very good, I think. One sorely misses an extension of his inquiry into Tolkien's other works, specifically The Silmarillion. The entire article is quite obviously a recapitulation of Curry's book, the only one cited in Further Reading. It's a shame to think that his semi-mystical interpretation is the only critical assessment that Nature in Tolkien has so far received.

Comments by N.E. Brigand, January 2, 2008

Curry claims that The Lord of the Rings presents the natural world in a manner consistent with a “pagan animism” that has since been superseded by a “modernist ideology (with Platonic, Christian and Cartesian roots)”.  There is much that is right with this statement, in my view. It is generally agreed that Tolkien was opposed to modernism, it is well-known that he admitted having “cut out” almost all references to religion in LotR, and other critics including Tom Shippey have argued that Tolkien respected some aspects of pagan tradition (“there were worse things … for them to reverence than ‘stocks and stones’, rocks and trees, ‘merry Middle-earth’ itself’” – The Road to Middle-earth, p. 222).  However, this must be set against those occasions in which Tolkien attempted to incorporate or belatedly identify Christian elements in his work: allowing that lembas shared characteristics with the Eucharist, identifying the Lord’s Prayer as bearing on the climax of LotR, and even hinting at Christ’s incarnation in the Athrabeth.  And specifically concerning Nature: is Curry claiming that Tolkien meant to refute Genesis, where humankind is famously granted “dominion” over the natural world?

There is also an unresolved tension in Curry’s article between the idea that there is no “foundational distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’” and his specific identification of natural places: aren’t all places natural, by his broader argument?  Thus, two of Curry’s three examples of “distinctive” natural settings are places modified by their inhabitants: Caras Galadhon, a walled city of trees in the Elvish land of Lórien; and the abandoned dwarf city of Moria, carved beneath the Misty Mountains.  If those are natural places, why not also the citadel of Minas Tirith or even Saruman’s Isengard?  Similarly, in Curry’s discussion of the “agency” of nature in Middle-earth, his example of the storm created by Caradhras is undercut by Celeborn’s suggestion that the mountain’s well-known malevolence is an aspect of the Balrog: “We long have feared that under Caradhras a terror slept”.


Nazi Party - John Garth

Comments by N.E. Brigand, January 25, 2007

Garth confidently traces the historical movements that spurred both the mythological revival of which Tolkien was a part and the Nazism he abhorred.  He comments on Tolkien’s political views and the applicability of Tolkien’s fiction to Hitler and World War II, noting inconsistencies in Tolkien’s own words on the subject, and remembering “The Lost Road”. 

No source is given for the many helpful quotes in this article, yet another example of the encyclopedia’s inconsistent reference style and no help to readers who haven’t read Tolkien’s published letters, the main source.  Presumably Garth, whose other publications are thoroughly referenced, could have provided proper citation on request, and his article is otherwise solid.  

Certainly Garth could have referred to other critics besides Tom Shippey on this subject, but his own writing is strong and clear enough to make their absence a minor flaw.


Neave, Jane (1872-1963) - Colin Duriez

Comments by squire, March 20, 2007

Duriez has no doubt captured as much of Tolkien's maternal aunt, Mrs. Jane Neave, as any student of Tolkien's life and work could demand. What he leaves out is compensated for by a reference to the three (actually four, if we count #231) published letters he wrote her at the end of her life in the early 1960s. Those letters, by the way, are not just about The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and do contain many hints about Neave's life and character that Duriez, for lack of space, cannot report to his readers.

Orphaned at an early age, no doubt Tolkien loved her, as Duriez ventures to suggest. But we really know almost nothing about her. The standard Tolkien sources that include her are all about him, not her. She mentions children who love The Pied Piper, in her footnoted letter to which Tolkien's #234 is a reply, but Letters editor Carpenter does not tell us if those children are her grandchildren or not. Unless the Tolkien family or a researcher reveals more at some future date, Aunt Jane remains an enigmatic bit player in the drama of Tolkien's life rather than a real person.

Comments by N.E. Brigand, January 2, 2008

In addition to the collected Letters, Duriez cites an unpublished letter by Tolkien, but he also ought to have included a ‘Further Reading’ list, and put on it Carpenter’s biography, and two works in which Tolkien’s art appears: J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator by Hammond and Scull, and J.R.R. Tolkien: Life and Legend by Judith Priestman.  Both include sketches Tolkien made when he stayed with the Neaves in 1904, including a picture of Jane and Edwin asleep.  Also, the See also list here, with only three entries, should be supplemented with “Adventures of Tom Bombadil”; “Art and Illustrations by Tolkien”; “Children’s Literature and Tolkien”; “Christ: ‘Advent Lyrics’”; “Eärendil”; “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo: Edited by Christopher Tolkien”; and “World War I”.


Netherlands: Reception of Tolkien - René van Rossenberg

Comments by squire, July 3, 2007

Van Rossenberg has done some fabulous research on the reviews that The Lord of the Rings received in the Netherlands in the mid-1950s. The range and perception of the comments reported here put the article on the "Success of" LotR to shame. Interesting also is an accurate representation of the high price of the first edition, five times what a typical book cost at that time.

Strangely, that's just about it. The following fifty years are wrapped up in a paragraph. And no account is given of how the Dutch liked The Hobbit (translated in 1960) or The Silmarillion (no date given, though one imagines from the tone that it was soon after the original was published).

As so often, no interpretation is offered for the Dutch "perception" (as opposed to reception) of Tolkien's work. Van Rossenberg repeats the famous story told in the Letters, of Tolkien's rare venture overseas in 1958 to be feted by his fans in Rotterdam. Tolkien noted that they spoke "entirely of hobbits" -- could this be a sign that the Dutch responded most readily to the homey domesticity of hobbits? Yet one Dutch reviewer called the early part of Fellowship, with its strong echoes of the more childish The Hobbit, "rather rough going".

It might also have been worth mentioning that the Dutch translation of LotR, besides being the first foreign edition, was (with the Swedish translation) the spur for Tolkien's monograph for translators, "Notes on the Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings". This contains numerous comments on how not to translate his work, with the Dutch edition used for examples.


New Glossary of the Dialect of the Huddersfield District, A - Tom Shippey

Comments by N.E. Brigand, April 22, 2007

A few trifles aside, this is a fine article, full of engaging writing and fascinating insights.  Shippey introduces Walter Haigh, explains his 1928 Glossary and Tolkien’s possible influence on that work, and identifies connections between the Glossary, Tolkien’s Middle English scholarship, and his fiction, including a possible joke in Tolkien’s use of “auction” in The Hobbit and an explanation for Sam’s exclamation of “Noodles!” in LotR – though this article doesn’t tell readers where in the text Sam uses that word (in Book IV, Ch. 1, “The Taming of Sméagol”, after descending from the Emyn Muil).  Shippey doesn’t say whether Haigh’s book or Tolkien’s foreword have been cited in later scholarship. 

There is no cross-reference here to Janet Croft’s entry on "Haigh", and there are some discrepancies between the two articles: Croft gives 1931 as the date of Haigh’s death, while Shippey has 1930.  Shippey says that Tolkien “probably” met Haigh in 1922 after addressing the Yorkshire Dialect Society, of which Haigh was a leading member, but Croft says that Tolkien joined the Society in 1920-21 (I suppose both claims could be true).  And this article, unlike Croft’s, lacks a 'Further Reading' list, though I don’t know if anyone besides Shippey himself – in The Road to Middle-earth and his article “History in Words: Tolkien’s Ruling Passion” from the recent Blackwelder conference proceedings – has previously addressed this subject.


"Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings" - Jared Lobdell

Comments by squire, January 14, 2007

While this is a useful entry, it suffers from Lobdell's too-close association with its original publication. Far less space should have been devoted to the technical minutiae of publication, and given over instead to examples that show Tolkien's thinking about translations of his work. A little more analysis of what it reveals about Tolkien's invention of nomenclature would have been welcome, as would some account of who in the professional publishing world has used it since it first appeared. Likewise one would have like perhaps an anecdote of some translations that have violated Tolkien's dicta.

The most telling story, and one that only Lobdell could provide, is that both J. R. R. and Christopher Tolkien professed bafflement as to why this text should have seen print at all. Lobdell properly (if repeatedly) points out that it was more valuable to Tolkien studies in 1975 than now; yet it still provides a unique view of Tolkien's mind at the intersection of The Lord of the Rings, language, and commercial publishing. It is indeed fortunate that it is back in print, as part of Hammond and Scull's The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion.

Lobdell's note about the "Tolkienian pun" is witty, but unattributed. Likewise his comment about Chaucer teases rather than elucidates. In writing for a general-purpose Encyclopedia, Lobdell too often forgets who his audience is.

Comments by N.E. Brigand, January 2, 2008

The “Nomenclature” as published in Hammond and Scull’s Reader’s Companion includes Tolkien’s reference to Algernon Blackwood as a possible source for the name “Crack of Doom”, rectifying what Lobdell here terms the only significant omission from the 1975 edition.


Norman Conquest - Martin K. Foy

Comments by squire, February 5, 2007

This is as excellent an example of a short Encyclopedia article as one could wish for. Minimal general history, maximal Tolkien. I particularly like his phrase for Tolkien's goal with his fiction: "to fashion a mythic surrogate" is much better than "a mythology for England".

Foy's conclusion is a little overwrought and falls of its own weight. A light hand with the red pencil could have made it sing.


Northern Venture, A - Douglas A. Anderson

Comments by squire, May 5, 2007

Anderson thoroughly covers the publication history and contents of this literary collection from Tolkien's time at Leeds in the early 1920s, with an appropriate emphasis on Tolkien's three (or four) contributions, and several others by his colleagues and a student of his.

But given that Tolkien's two poems in A Northern Venture are also covered in the "Poems by..." articles (as Anderson notes and gives references for), why even have this article? It is not really a "publication" of Tolkien's. It's as if  the editors could not decide just how they wanted to cover all of Tolkien's writings, including his poems: piece by piece (or poem by poem), or collection by collection.

Anderson here is covering the collection rather than the contents: indeed, he tends to throw away any information about Tolkien himself that comes up in the course of his research:

Of course, I may be asking for more than Anderson's brief encompassed. Possibly this article is meant only to document the existence, background, and contents of A Northern Venture, for a reader's general ``reference. Notably, it is not listed in the Thematic index, indicating it was added to the project at a late stage.

But A Northern Venture was only one of at least four anthologies containing Tolkien's poetry from his Leeds days, as I gather from reading three or four different Encyclopedia articles. Only two of the anthologies have their own entry - see the near-twin to this one, "Leeds University Verse 1914-24". The existence of the other two, The Gryphon and Yorkshire Poetry, is buried in "Poems by Tolkien: History of Middle-earth". And this doesn't even include the stuff from his early years at Oxford, pre- and post-Leeds.

In other words, no one article has all the information on Tolkien's lesser early poetry, and no one article discusses Tolkien's artistic identity and development in these years as captured by this nearly-anonymous outpouring of verse via small press. As elsewhere, here is an example of where the Encyclopedia has broken a subject into overly small pieces, to its readers' disadvantage.


North Polar Bear – Penelope Davie

Comments by Jason Fisher, April 18, 2007

Though she hits most of the right notes, I found Davie’s entry uneven at a number of points. She begins with the bold assertion that the “North Polar Bear is one of Tolkien’s most vividly drawn characters” – quite a claim! While the character is certainly entertaining and charmingly illustrated, I’m not sure I can agree with this statement – unless Davie meant to restrict its scope just to the Father Christmas Letters.

Davie works most of the essential points into her essay – the North Polar Bear’s comic antics, his desire to be helpful, and a nice observation on his philological interests – but the writing is often clunky and muddled. The opener to her second paragraph is an example – the wording presupposes one ought to be looking for a “parallel character” to the North Polar Bear in the first place. Although her Beorn / North Polar Bear comparison has a point or two worth mentioning, it is less than conclusive.

The third paragraph has another example of the kind of loose, clumsy writing that is bothering me here. “[The North Polar Bear] represents how a child is seen as dangerous, uncontrolled, and without discipline […]” Noting the passive construction, I also have to ask – dangerous?! Is Davie suggesting most people think of children as dangerous?

I'll offer a few more corrections and suggestions:

The Further Reading and See Also are good. I might have added Joseph Pearce’s Tolkien: Man and Myth with its relevant Chapter 3, “Father Francis to Father Christmas: The Father Behind the Myth.”


Northern Courage - Carl Phelpstead

Comments by squire, July 5, 2007

Phelpstead gives the subject a thorough and balanced treatment. He starts with the literary theory of hopeless Northern Courage, so-called, as interpreted by Tolkien in contrast to Christian beliefs in a final triumph of good over evil. Examples follow from the major Anglo-Saxon literature that Tolkien drew on. Last comes some acknowledgement of Tolkien's fictional treatments of the same theme, in the mock-scholarly Homecoming of Beorhtnoth... and the mock-mythological The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

The quotation from Treebeard about the last march of the Ents is a welcome surprise as the LotR example. Perhaps a nod could still have been inserted to the quintessential instance in LotR: Aragorn's self-sacrificial march to the Morannon with a hopelessly outmatched army, as noted by Kocher.

And of course it doesn't seem like a real article about Northern Courage and Tolkien without some discussion of the contrasting value of ofermod, and of Tolkien's famous translation from The Battle of Maldon: "Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens". But the 'Further Reading' and See also lists, both excellent, will take the reader right to these topics elsewhere in the Encyclopedia and the critical literature.


Norway: Reception of Tolkien - Nils Ivar Agøy

Comments by squire, May 11, 2007

"Norway: Translation of Tolkien" might be a better title for this article. As with so many of the other "Reception of..." pieces, there is such an emphasis on the publishing history of Tolkien's works in Norwegian, that no room seems left for a more extended discussion of what the Norwegians thought of Tolkien after they had read him in translation. Much of the long first paragraph on book titles and publishers should have gone straight into an attached bibliography.

Agøy's anecdotal remarks on the changing popular perception of Tolkien's literary quality seem to ascribe this shift to greater accessibility following the multiple translations, but as we know this phenomenon has not been restricted to Norway. I would have liked more specifics on the particular relationship between the Norwegians' awareness of their own Norse literary heritage and their growing appreciation of Tolkien's use of it. As well, Agøy casually remarks that sales of Tolkien's works in English have been high, and notes that Norwegian fans protested the poor quality of the early 70s translations. Both these remarks beg for a short discussion of the experience of a bilingual fandom that can read Tolkien in the original and in translation.

Finally, I only know what I read on the internet, but I recently saw a comment that there is a new Norwegian translation of LotR just out in 2007, in the Norwegian vernacular dialect as opposed to the high Norwegian/Danish literary dialect used in the earlier translations. This news postdates Agøy's article, obviously, but it raises for me the interesting question of how one should translate LotR when a language has both high and low working dialects - especially when Tolkien himself attempted to express a broader range of English styles (e.g., 'heigh' and modern) in his book than many critics were willing to tolerate. I wonder who decided to produce this new translation, and why? And have Norway's English-speaking Tolkien scholars done any work exploring the possible uses of this difference between English and Norwegian in interpreting the book's style? Or, could the use of the high Norwegian in all the existing translations be one of the contributing factors to Tolkien's increased respectability that Agøy remarks on?

Naturally, these kinds of question remind us of the oddity that there is also a separate article by Agøy on "Norwegian Language"!


Norwegian Language - Nils Ivar Agøy

Comments by squire, May 12, 2007

There's almost nothing to say about Tolkien and modern Norwegian after "He was able to read modern Norwegian but probably not to speak it." For whatever reason, the Scandinavian languages do not seem to have inspired Tolkien's philological fancy, unlike Finnish. So Agøy does the right thing under the circumstances, and hijacks his topic to include Norway's "language, history, and culture."

On these new terms, Agøy produces excellent but limited results. He mentions Tolkien's familiarity with Norwegian philologists and with Norwegian folklore. In an extended aside, he reviews Tolkien's deep knowledge of and use of Old Norse - a picturesque detour that will prove unnecessary, since there is an entire article about "Old Norse".

Ultimately, of course, we realize that Tolkien's relationship to Norway is almost entirely with its linguistic past, not its picturesque present. The erudite references to Norway in his fiction peter out after "Father Christmas" and "Roverandom", i.e., when he stopped writing stories with a real-world component. Ultimately, we can only ask once again why this article was not combined with its twin on "Reception of Tolkien: Norway". Between the two, there is at most one good article's worth of material.