THONART : Tolkien or the Fictitious Compiler (ULiège, 1984) – Introduction

Tolkien, Map showing Middle-Earth (c) 2004 Royal Mail

INTRODUCTION

[Underlined letter codes after quotes refer to entries in the Bibliography]

Game n°1: which one doesn’t belong

(t)weode
gifena in dys ginnan gr(un)de Heo d*aer d*a gearwe fu(n)de
mundbyr(d) aet d*am maeran theodne, tha heo ahte maeste thearfe
hyldo thaes hehstan Deman, thaet he hie wid* thaes hehstan brogan gefridode, frymda waldend. (JUDI)

Ich was in one sumere dale;
In one suthe dizele hale
Iherde ich holde grete tale
An hule and one niztingale. (OWNI)

Lo, we have listened to many a lay
Of the Spear-Danes fame, their splendor of old
Their mighty princes and martial deeds! (OAEL)

One summer season, when the sun was warm, I rigged myself out in shaggy woollen clothes, as if I were a shepherd, and in the garb of an easy-living hermit I set out to roam far and wide through the world, hoping to hear of marvels. (WLPP)

The siege and the assault being ceased at Troy,
The battlements broken down and burnt to brand and ashes,
The treacherous trickster whose treasons there flourished
Was famed for his falsehood, the foulest on earth. (SGGK)

… was broken
He bade a warrior Abandon his horse
And hurry forward, to join the fighters,
Take thought to his hands and a stout heart. (OAEL)

No sculon herigean heofonrices weard,
metodes meahte and his modge thanc,
weorc wuldorfaeder, swa he wundra gehwaes,
ece drihten, or onstealde. (OAEL)

Once in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (TBH)

Game n°2: which one doesn’t belong

The mice have returned, he said.
The elder said nothing, Watt wondered if he had heard.
Nine dampers remain, said the younger, and an equal number of hammers. (OAEL)

Jimmy : Why do I do this every Sunday ? Even the book reviews
seem to be the same as last week’s. Different books – same
reviews. Have you finished that one yet ? (OLBA)

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with Spring rain. (ELWL)

I have walked by stalls in the market-place where books,
dog-eared and faded from their purple, have burst with a white
hosanna. (WGFF)

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve to shore to bend
of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back
to Howth Castle and Environs. (JJFW)

Once in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. (TBH)

Illustration by Tolkien :  » Once in a hole… » (c) 2004 Royal Mail

The answers are in both game I and game 2 the last extract : the first sentence of The Hobbit (TBH, first published in 1937) that J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote on a blank leaf, as the legend recalls (HCTB, p. 177). In game I, I have chosen a series of medieval extracts mixing heroic and romantic literature. Being a twentieth century writer, Tolkien was naturally to be considered as an intruder among the Beowulf-poet, Caedmon and Nicholas of Guildford [author of The Owl and the Nightingale ?]; the subject of this study being, however, precisely to compare Tolkien’s works with medieval
literature, as one will read further. In game 2, contemporary extracts were neighboring the innocent sentence of the Oxford professor. It will appear to any reader of Tolkien that the author of The Lord of the Rings is not an « angry young man » (be it only because of his age, he was 58 in 1950) as Osborne nor an experimental poet as Eliot. Tolkien could not be compared either with modernists as intellectual Joyce or post-modernists as moral Golding. Finally, the absurd is not exploited by him and his treatment of language is no doubt completely different from Beckett‘s. Where is then outsider Tolkien to be classified – since classification seems to be the first preoccupation of many critics in front of originality ?

Avant de quitter le roman historique, il est deux écrivains dont nous voulons dire quelques mots : Mervyn Peake et J.R.R. Tolkien. Les ouvrages sur le roman moderne n’en parlent guère. Ils représentent pourtant une catégorie d’auteurs qui n’est pas nouvelle dans la tradition littéraire anglaise, une forme particulière de fantastique ou plutôt de fantasy, terme dont le français n’offre aucun équivalent satisfaisant. (RRGB)

I shall not make comments on the association proposed by Jean Ruer in Le Roman en Grande-Bretagne depuis 1945 between Tolkien’s complete mythology and the gothic world of Mervyn Peake‘s novels : a Tolkien fan must prudently avoid any possible offence to a virtual Peake lover. It is nevertheless true that the label « fantasy-writer » is vague enough for a critic to group the two writers under it.

In our century the means of narration have become diversified : a story-teller has the possibility of practicing his vocation in the cinema, literature, TV-serials, theater, cartoons, comics or elsewhere. Inside literature itself, there is a great profusion of modes of writing (one has to compare Beckett’s experimental plays or novels with the more traditional ones of Isherwood or Waugh). If we further focus on fiction, we realize that the general diversification also caused a multiplication of subject-matters : from the psychological novel to space-opera writings, English (and American) literature offers a whole range of possibilities. There remains, however, a strong (academic) selection as to what is to be considered as « literature », and fantasy-writing is not always given its due status. There are indeed many « low brow“ books depicting the adventures of glamorous astronauts encountering sexy venusian queens, precisely the kind of tales (not novels) that gave fantasy its bad reputation; although there are some writers who succeeded in giving some « works of literature » to the genre (Abraham Meritt and A.E. Van Vogt being two of these).

Since many fantasy-writers enjoy creating bizarre civilisations on remote planets or even post- or pre-civilisations on earth (be it in an invented past or « after the bomb ») Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth could as well be put on the same book shelf as Isaac Asimov, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. But there is more to Tolkien than mere remoteness of setting. There must be more to Tolkien since over ten millions of The Lord of the Rings had been sold when the author died, since the work was translated in at least twenty different languages, since a kind of hectic ‘Tolkien-craze spread over the USA and crossed the ocean to settle in Great Britain : calendars, maps of Middle-Earth, postcards, pictures of the various characters of the tale, have been sold all over the world. In the United Kingdom as in the States, there are « Tolkien Societies », the members of which eat mushrooms sitting on dead trunks and telling stories of the Three
Ages. Tolkien, however, was not so pleased with that frenzy, as he commented on the “campus cult » in a letter to a reader of his :

Being a cult figure in one’s lifetime I’m afraid is not at all pleasant. However I do not find that it tends to puff one up; in my case at any rate it makes me feel extremely small and inadequate. But even the nose of a very modest idol cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense. (HCTB)

Ruer also mentions that (RRGB)

Consécration suprême : dès 1969 paraissait aux Etats-Unis une première parodie : Bored of the Rings.

Why were (and are) Tolkien’s « molly-coddled Hobbits » so attractive ? Why did the very hobbit-like professor become almost deified by the Hyppy culture ? Could it be for the mere sake of escapism ? It is indeed true that the Shire offers a tempting quietness and that the tribal world the author presents appears under similar forms in the work of other writers of his century. There seems to be a tendency to go back to social genesis in modern fiction from Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) to Golding : the latter for instance demystifies « le bon sauvage » in The Lord of the Flies and examines the social (dis)integration of a group of English young men left alone on an island; in The Inheritors he goes back to prehistory in order to explain his opinion on man. Similarly, utopias and anti-utopias also try to recreate « remote » worlds, where « remote » civilizations cruelly emphasize the shortcomings of our present society, by contrast or by caricature. But Tolkien is not a utopist and refuses any allegorical interpretation of his work. What is then the spell that Tolkien cast over the Anglo-Saxon world (cartesian France e.g. was far less enthusiastic about The Lord of the Rings) ?

The many possible approaches to Tolkien’s work (giving evidence of its artistic value) led me to make a choice : I had to study Tolkien and his work from a particular point-of-view and try to demonstrate why The Lord of the Rings is not a common fantasy-book.

The first impression of the reader when he enters pre-industrial Middle-Earth is that is « looks like » being medieval. There are indeed features in the tale which are medieval, and it is precisely my point in this study to compare genuinely medieval texts with Tolkien’s work in order to establish whether this “medieval look » is a mere varnish or is deeply rooted in the pre-renaissance tradition.

Moreover there is not one Middle Age, there are Middle Ages : Old English poetry and Middle English romances will serve as a base for my comparison; these two kinds of medieval literature are distinct in time, in form and in matter : I shall therefore try to conclude on which Middle Age inspired Tolkien for his creation. It is a piece of criticism that determined me to contrast these two literatures : Derek S. Brewer wrote The Lord of the Rings as a romance in which he tries to demonstrate why it shares enough common features with genuine romances for us to take the book shelf mentioned above and put it beside Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Degarre, King Horn, Havelock the Dane and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. I shall try to explain why I do not agree with Dr Brewer in the first chapter, the other chapters being devoted each to a theme of comparison that could illustrate my point : in what sense I consider that Brewer has been a little excessive when he concluded in favour of the romance-likeness of The Lord of the Rings.

I have been so far giving professor Tolkien intentions which he may never have had : did Tolkien write medieval tales on purpose ? Did he systematically apply Old- and Middle English patterns in order to create his stories ? Is The Lord of the Rings creation or re-creation ? Could we parallel the professor’s work with that of Chaucer, the anthologist of the Canterbury Tales ?

The fundamental question is in fact : If The Lord of the Rings is a « compilation » of medieval motives, was the distinguished Oxford medievalist aware of being a compiler or was he simply a « fictitious compiler » ?

One has to know that the mythology of Middle-Earth, according to the author himself, was created as a background to the professor’s own-created languages. Hence two possibilities : if professor Tolkien purposedly reproduced. medieval patterns, his books are technical achievements – this is, however, not my point here – or if the lecturer of the revolutionary Beowulf : the Monsters and the Critics sincerely created a story with elements he had in his mind (in this case medieval ones), his tale then should appear rather as a mere « digest » of medieval literature than as a romance or a heroic poem. In both cases, the success they encountered bears witness to the relevance of these medieval motives : medieval man was as human as we are and not yet divorced from the fundamental values in life. It is therefore normal that his problems should be similar to ours, and that his reactions as presented in his literature should be as useful to our modern selves as any modern writing concerned with human problematics.

Shame on the Renaissance and its inheritors for having confined medieval literature to the then pejorative status of child-literature. The Dark Ages were simply human.


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