Valar - Matthew Dickerson

Comments by squire, March 15, 2007

With so little room, Dickerson makes do. He covers the early history of the Valar, their essentially angelic nature despite their pantheistic organization, and their characteristic inability to get things right.

Perhaps with some squeezing, he might have expanded on how Tolkien uses, or doesn't use them, in his legendarium. Their absence from The Lord of the Rings is in fact not much more notable than their explicit inaction during the War of the Jewels section of The Silmarillion, pointing out the paradox that Tolkien himself admitted, of creating a traditional pagan pantheon for a mythology that is ultimately monotheistic. Too, his general omission of Melkor and his neglect of the Valar's earlier and more lively involvement in The Book of Lost Tales is regrettable.

Dickerson cites only Purtill in his article for an opinion other than his own, though his bibliography gives a sampling of the more religiously-oriented Tolkien scholars. I am surprised that the Valar have not received any more critical attention than that list implies.

Comments by N.E. Brigand, July 19, 2007

Actually Dickerson twice cites Verlyn Flieger in addition to Purtill, and also quotes Tolkien’s own comments on the Valar from Letters.  Otherwise I agree with squire’s review.  Additionally I think Dickerson’s opening paragraph would be difficult for the uninitiated, using the names “Eru”, “Arda”, and “Eä” without explanation.  The first two have separate encyclopedia entries, but Dickerson’s See also list doesn’t note this.  I’d also have liked Dickerson to have noted that Tolkien’s pantheon changed over his lifetime, both in its membership and in its members’ characters, perhaps most notably in the loss of his two gods of war from the Lost Tales.


Vale of the White Horse - Michèle Fry

Comments by squire, May 18, 2007

The subject is inherently interesting: a part of England with several natural or manmade features that surely inspired Tolkien when he was inventing bits of Middle-earth for The Lord of the Rings. Fry establishes that Tolkien often visited the area, and then describes the basic features of each: the Berkshire Downs that could be the Barrow-downs; the stylized paleolithic white horse etched onto the green hillside that became the heraldic symbol of the Rohirrim; the Long Barrow known as Wayland's Smithy that is like the barrow the hobbits were trapped in.

Several references are more dubious: did the folk-tradition of periodically "scouring" the white horse really inspire the title "The Scouring of the Shire"? Can the low mound called Dragon Hill really be the inspiration for the landscape-dominating Weathertop? And why not mention the tradition that the rocky patch on Dragon Hill's summit, where no grass grows, represents the place where the dragon died by St. George's lance? Surely it at least hints of the barren grave of the Fell Beast, close by the green howe of Snowmane, Theoden's horse. The overlong aside about the etymological connection between the Mark of Rohan, and Mercia in England is completely out of place in an article of this limited scope.

It's not clear to me that "Life of Tolkien" is the proper thematic category for this article; why not "Sources"? The See also is fairly limited, though the 'Further Reading' seems fine. A stronger editorial hand would have been helpful here across the board: tightening up the loose discourse, catching the jumbled phrasing in the next to last sentence, and suggesting as well that Fry quote directly from Tolkien rather than elaborately and conspicuously paraphrasing his poetic description of the barrow-downs.

Comments by N.E. Brigand, May 19, 2007

Fry’s suggestion of a connection between the scouring of English chalk figures and the Shire’s scouring could have been strengthened by citation of Emma B. Hawkins’ article, "Chalk figures and scouring in Tolkien-land" (in Extrapolation, Kent: Winter 2000. Volume 41, Issue 4), which includes this remark:

“The English countryside is dotted with chalk figures; all are definitely linked to myths or legends of one kind or another, and some may be pre-historic in origin.  Given the substantial number of references to white horses or images carved in the shape of horses incorporated into his works, logically we might conclude that Tolkien was familiar with not only the chalk drawings, but also with the mythological origins and maintenance rituals associated with them.  ‘Scouring’ was one such ritual.”

There are additionally two references to chalky soil in "The Scouring of the Shire", both in names unique to that chapter.  First the imprisonment of "Flourdumpling", a nickname here given the mayor, Will Whitfoot, because he had been covered in chalk dust in the collapse of the ceiling of the Town Hole in Michel Delving in the Westfarthing (as related by Pippin in Book I, Ch. 9).  Second the news of Frodo's return that passed through "Whitfurrows", the message station in the Eastfarthing mentioned by Robin Smallburrow; Tolkien notes in the "Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings" that this name refers to white soil.


"Valedictory Address" - John R. Holmes

Comments by Jason Fisher, March 1, 2007

In this excellent entry, I can find only small beer to complain about. Holmes does a great job of summarizing the content of this little-read piece and explaining its significance to the larger world of Tolkien studies. Homes also makes an astute comparison between the Address and Tolkien’s story, “Leaf By Niggle.” And his invocation of misology is right on the mark. Though Holmes mentions Shippey’s discussion of the piece in The Road to Middle-earth, he might also have pointed out that Shippey makes a convincing comparison between the “Valedictory Address” and Smith of Wootton Major in Author of the Century.

I do think the title of the entry ought to have been the fuller title generally given the essay, “Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford”; however, this is hardly Holmes’ fault. But he can be faulted for failing to mention when the address was delivered (5 June 1959), as well as for failing to note that its appearance in The Monsters and the Critics, which he cites in his Further Reading, was not its first. It was first published in a slightly different form in Salu and Farrell’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Scholar and Storyteller (1979, four years before M&C), which Holmes does not cite. Holmes also misses #306 in Letters, in which Tolkien wrote about the address long afterwards to his son Michael. I won’t summarize Tolkien’s brief comments here, but interested readers should take a look – particularly for his remark that “the University press refused to publish it.”

However, these are relatively minor gripes, and this succinct, well-written entry captures the most important information those perusing the Encyclopedia would be after. One final word: for having mentioned “Leaf By Niggle”, one might expect to see Tree and Leaf in the See Also, but again: small beer.

Comments by squire, March 1, 2007

I was slightly less impressed by this article. It seems padded and flabby, as if Holmes is running out the clock with too little to say - truly a rare instance in this Encyclopedia . His style is also troubling: too often his voice and Tolkien's get mixed up, so that we are not sure if he is commenting on or paraphrasing the Valedictory speech. And finally, I should have liked a brief explanation at the beginning, in plain language, of just what the lang/lit divide at Oxford actually is or was, for those readers just coming across it for the first time. Similarly, a clearer explanation of how Tolkien Studies is supposedly likewise divided, per Tom Shippey, would have been welcome, especially as Holmes emphasizes the point in his exhortatory conclusion.


Valinor – David Oberhelman

Comments by Jason Fisher, January 24, 2008 

Generally, this is not much more than a long physical description of Valinor and its history (though Oberhelman deserves credit for considering texts beyond the published Silmarillion). Only his second and final paragraphs approach its meaning and thematic significance. These ought to have been substantially expanded, while the rehearsal of “Middle-earth facts” should have been abbreviated considerably.

In addition, a series of small problems add up to a weaker than expected finish. For instance:

  • If Formenos is in the northern part of Valinor, as Oberhelman says, then at least a few of the Noldor abode in Valinor; but Oberhelman implies that only the Vanyar dwelt there.
  • Oberhelman fails to clarify that Avathar is in the southern part of Aman; rather, his wording suggests it’s in the north, or the west.
  • There’s a general lack of control over tense in the entry, lapsing between the present, past, and perfect – “the Darkening of Valinor occurred”, “Eldamar lies beyond”, “Valinor […] has been completely removed” (emphasis mine).
  • Oberhelman writes that “Eärendil […] successfully navigated back to the shores of Aman”, which makes it sound like he had been there before.


Viking Raids - Roberto Arduini

Comments by squire, June 18, 2007

There's not much here, even for so short an article as this. Arduini is not economical of his word count, spending too much time on the history of the Viking attacks on England and on Tolkien's academic credentials. He finally gets to his only point of worth, that Tolkien's verse play (the accompanying article is not mentioned) The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth originated with a famous English battle with the invading Vikings.

The next and final paragraph is most unclear. Arduini says that the Viking raids also relate to Tolkien's character of Ælfwine, the supposed old English recorder of the Lost Tales, but the following explanation seems to say that the connection is only that Ælfwine is fictively contemporary with King Alfred the Great, whose reign was one long fight against the Vikings. Ælfwine is forgotten at this point, as Arduini goes off on an irrelevant tangent about Alfred, Boethius, and the nature of Evil (do the depredations of the Vikings prove that evil is a positive presence rather than an absence of good?), which ends the article - most unsatisfyingly.

Perhaps the editors intended this article to treat with some well-known tidbit of Tolkien scholarship relating to the Viking raids, that Arduini simply failed to discover. As it is, it's pretty slim pickings - Boethius is surely not what the editors had in mind? But, if one has to do something on this subject, I should have expected at least a mention of how the Corsairs of Umbar in The Lord of the Rings act as raiders on Gondor's southern shores, sometimes ascending the rivers. There is also, perhaps, a hint of the Danelaw in the way that the Easterlings take over Hithlum and lord it over the native inhabitants in The Silmarillion - though there is no element of maritime assault there.

Comments by Jason Fisher, June 19, 2007

Something Arduini missed is the reference to Viking raids in The Notion Club Papers. Toward the end of that abandoned story, Arundel Lowdham and Wilfrid Jeremy join in a sort of shared dream, in which they partly reenact experiences set in the context of bona fide Anglo-Saxon England. A part of that dream-reenactment involves their participation in coastguarding England’s southern coastline against raids by the Danes.

Comments by N.E. Brigand, July 19, 2007

Do the depredations of the Vikings prove that evil is a positive presence rather than an absence of good?

I suspect that is indeed the idea that prompted this entry: Tom Shippey, in The Road to Middle-earth, which appears in Arduini’s 'Further Reading' list, emphasizes that Alfred’s translation of Boethius includes “statements about the nature of evil which would go past Boethius but stop short of Manichaeus” because Alfred “had the experience of seeing what Viking pirates did to his defenceless subjects” (p. 141).


Violence - Christopher Vaccaro

Comments by squire, March 22, 2007

This is an odd topic, handled oddly. Vaccaro never really defines the terms, or the moral center, of his discussion. He begins by reminding us that "fairy-stories" have always contained violent episodes, while assuming that we modern readers look to fairy-stories, and so also The Lord of the Rings, to "escape" or be "protected" from the "reality of violence." Yet by this point he has already recorded Tolkien as being on the side of "reality", violent or otherwise.

A quick excursion into The Silmarillion goes nowhere in particular, and the focus soon returns to The Lord of the Rings. The article rambles on from there, constantly tying itself up in knots over the question of justified violence, both in literature in the interests of realism or excitement, and in real life in the interests of self-preservation when threatened.

It is disconcerting to read Vaccaro's defense of the wartime violence displayed (and glorified) by the heroes in the battles of Helm's Deep or the Pelennor Fields. He justifies because it is waged to avoid slavery "or worse" with an analogy to World Wars I and II, implicitly from the point of view of the western Allies. But then in the next sentence he praises Tolkien for seeing some virtue in the soldiers of Nazi Germany and finding "orclike" behavior amidst the British during World War II. This article should attempt to resolve this kind of Tolkienian paradox, not just accidentally state it.

The sidetrack on Tolkien's dislike of "violence" directed against trees is interesting but adds a whole new dimension to the question, since many people would not agree with Tolkien that cutting down trees is "violence" equivalent to cutting down men in a war. And Vaccaro never connects it back to the central question of the necessity of warlike violence against evil.

Ultimately, Vaccaro tries to emphasize Tolkien's mystic or pacifist side, quoting him several times in ways that seem to forswear violence because of its corrupting nature. He does not quote Tolkien's soldier side on the sometimes unavoidable necessity of violence, so eloquently expressed at different points in The Lord of the Rings by Faramir, Eowyn, and Merry.

Comments by N.E. Brigand, July 19, 2007

For me, the main problem with this article is that violent acts and their portrayal are confused.  Also, besides squire’s comments, I noticed a couple questionable statements by Vaccaro.

First, Vaccaro is right that sometimes Tolkien describes violence generally, sometimes in detail.  However, his examples of the former need some clarification.  Vaccaro writes that the deaths of Elves in Gondolin are not described.  Here he should have specified that he refers to The Silmarillion, because Tolkien describes the battle in some detail in “The Fall of Gondolin” in the Lost Tales.  And then Vaccaro notes that Tolkien scants the deaths suffered by the Rohirrim during the battle at Helm’s Deep, but this portrayal is countered somewhat when Tolkien later has Théoden observe that Saruman’s orcs “hewed Háma’s body before the gates of the Hornburg, after he was dead”.

Second, when describing violence against forests, Vaccaro writes that “Saruman uproots hundreds of trees around Isengard”, but offers no explanation for that figure, which I would guess would result from the destruction of less than ten acres of woodland.


Virgil - Cecilia Barella

Comments by squire, January 13, 2007

To start with, I should think that a writer would realize that an article about Virgil in a Tolkien encyclopedia isn't actually supposed to be about Virgil. It's supposed to be about Virgil in relation to Tolkien. Further, when pressed for word count (and who wasn't), it's a waste of space to give a reader much more background on this titan of world literature than a quick summary of the Aeneid, before getting on with the Tolkien business.

However, once Barella gets into the right pool, one senses that she is out of her depth. True, her bibliography (rarely enough) cites four articles on this exact subject, with two (even more rarely) from Mythlore. But though she admirably tries to give the basic parallels between Tolkien and Virgil, between Aeneas and Tolkien's heroes, and between the Aeneid and The Lord of the Rings, none of it is very clear or very perceptive. The flow, the organization, the transitions - they're all missing.

It would be most valuable to make explicit the distinction between Virgil as the author of the classical Aeneid, and "Virgil" as a character in Dante's medieval poem, when considering the relationship between Virgil and Tolkien. Indeed the entire article could well have been organized around that duality.

Finally, and this is really annoying, this article stands out for lack of copy-editing and proofreading. The typos and grammatical bloopers are glaring. The effect while reading is most uncomplimentary not just to Barella, but to the Encyclopedia itself.

Comments by N.E. Brigand, April 3, 2007

Barella is on the right track in three of her comparisons between the works of Tolkien and Virgil, but falls short in each case.

First, comparing their mythologizing intentions and methods, Barella writes, “In the Aeneid Tolkien appreciated the ‘impression of depth… effect of antiquity… illusion of truth and perspective’, as Shippey points out”.  She gives no page reference, and Shippey doesn’t appear in her bibliography.  In fact the words are Tolkien’s (MC 27, 7) as quoted by Shippey on p. 228 of The Road to Middle-earth (2003 edition), and not only does Tolkien not apply the third remark to Virgil –though he probably would– but Tolkien and Shippey mean the descriptions to apply to both the Aeneid and Beowulf, which weakens the special connection Barella wishes to make between the fiction of Virgil and Tolkien.

Second, concerning attitudes toward the natural world, Barella outlines a symbolic relationship in Virgil’s work in which the countryside is the source of a kingdom’s “nourishment” and “true human values”, but for Tolkien she says only that the Shire shows “a love of country life”, which is no comparison at all.

Third, Barella’s comparisons of Aeneas to Frodo and Aragorn are too broad, and she contradicts herself by saying that their shared underground journeys are both the connection “most impressive to the reader” and “a typical step in the pattern of most mythical tales”.

Turning to the character in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Barella’s suggested parallel between Virgil and Gandalf as guides may be worth further investigation, but she makes no effort to support the comparison.  How do those two figures differ from other literary examples of sage stern guides, and what accounts for the differences in their presentation by Dante and Tolkien?

As noted by squire, the editing here is atrocious: “during the I centurry”, “Modeled on Homer’s both Odyss and Iliad”, “who are a find on a missions”, and “were non much more popular” are a few of many examples.