- Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader
Those who loved The Lord of the Rings a decade ago may well complain that J.R.R. Tolkien's rich and complex books have lately become diluted for the masses. The recent films themselves have generally received high marks even from Tolkien nerds, but readers who appreciate the depth and subtlety of Tolkien's prose must often cringe at the ubiquitous marketing tie-ins—including flashy new books. Along with the posters, T-shirts, and action figures, an avalanche of new volumes on Tolkien is now available to help consumers extend the thrill of the movies, or to understand Tolkien's world without actually traversing his texts.
It is a considerable comfort, however, that scattered throughout this avalanche are several serious academic studies. The last five years have seen incisive new biographies, such as John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War; first-rate monographs, such as Tom Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century; a peer-reviewed journal, Tolkien Studies, published by the University of Kentucky Press; and a handful of scholarly anthologies, including Tolkien and the Invention of Myth, edited by Jane Chance.
I do not mean to imply that such academic advances merely respond to the recent films. Several of these scholars were publishing strong criticism on Tolkien long before The Lord of the Rings was a glimmer in filmmaker Peter Jackson's eye. Indeed, the impressive bibliography that concludes Tolkien and the Invention of Myth shows a small but robust tradition of Tolkien criticism extending back at least thirty years. What the recent films have brought to such scholarship is, among other things, a market. Tom Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century—in my view the best book yet written on The Lord of the Rings—routinely appears on the "Tolkien table" in megachain bookstores, right next to glossy coffee table books full of pictures from the movies.
Tolkien and the Invention of Myth is not written for the casual reader. It assumes familiarity with Tolkien's work (including The Silmarillion) and an interest in both mythology and philology. The book attempts to provide a comprehensive source study of Middle-earth: a daunting task indeed. The table of contents alone reflects the heterogeneity of Tolkien's work. The book's eighteen essays are divided into an introductory section [End Page 134] and four sections devoted to historical or regional groupings of texts: Classical and Medieval, Old Norse, Old English, and Finnish.
The introductory section contains four general essays that are relevant to the project but which do not fit neatly into any of the following groups. Michaela Baltasar explains how Tolkien's notion of "sub-creation" supersedes the work of two folklorists who strongly influenced Tolkien, Andrew Lang and Friedrich Max Müller. Catherine Madsen tackles the question of natural religion in The Lord of the Rings, arguing that while Tolkien's own Christianity does influence his writing, he strips religious ideas and images of their uniquely Christian characteristics when building them into his fiction. Mary E. Zimmer explores the connection between language and magic, suggesting that in The Lord of the Rings, the act of naming something is akin to the magic of creation. David Lyle Jeffrey describes the philology of Tolkien's writing as a highly detailed and subtle form of allegory, illustrating his point with a detailed philological analysis of the name "Aragorn."
Each of the remaining four sections looks to a particular tradition from which Tolkien drew. Section two focuses on sources in Greek and Latin (both Classical and Medieval). Gergely Nagy shows how Tolkien's uses of myth are quite close to those of Plato. Sandra Ballif Straubhaar investigates Tolkien's multicultural attitudes by comparing mixed-race marriages in Middle-earth to those described in late Roman sources. Jen Stevens shows how the ancient story of Pyramus and Thisbe relates to Tolkien's tale of Beren and Luthien, and Kathleen Dubs demonstrates that Tolkien's sense of providence, fate, and chance is essentially that...