- Interrupted Music. The Making of Tolkien’s Mythology
Verlyn Flieger's third book on Tolkien does several things that needed doing. Incorporating material published over the last few years, this book makes an argument with numerous new conclusions, and opens ways for "other minds and hands." Flieger described her theme some years ago as "Tolkien and the idea of the book"; relying on trends in Tolkienist research that have come to the foreground in the last few years, the book is an inspiring combination of cultural and literary history, with an admirable command of Tolkien philology. What it gives us is a new way of looking at "The Silmarillion," and a new approach to the vexed question of Tolkien's "English mythology." And as with all good books, it poses as many new questions as it answers, urges counterarguments or modifications.
Flieger's basic idea is that "The Silmarillion" includes a metaphor (although probably accidental, 143) for the whole of Tolkien's oeuvre: the unfinished music of the "Ainulindalë." One of the book's essential strengths is thus that it intends to approach the whole "Silmarillion" tradition. The work for other critical minds is, however, apparent as one reads on: the variants and fragments need further accounting for, further inquiry, in exactly their variance and their individual existence, as individual texts, related to each other and to the pattern Flieger observes, which, in turn needs to be seen as a theoretical construct as well. What Flieger undertakes, however, is perfectly well fulfilled in her treatment of the pattern and insightful contextualization.
The book is divided into three parts, each on different but well-tied up themes. The first part deals comprehensively (in four chapters, the last of which, "The Tradition," is in my opinion the most important part of the book) with Tolkien's idea of a "body of connected legend," "dedicated [End Page 173] to" England. The second part discusses the strategies of presentation he thought up over the years for this body; and the third explores the Celtic influence in Tolkien which in the meantime has received its full evaluation in Marjorie Burns's Perilous Realms (2005). Flieger maintains a reader-friendly logic in the argument to connect these parts; and her sensitive, always readable style ensures easy comprehension for any reader of Tolkien, academic or otherwise. This, however, means that sometimes the argument or the terms she uses remain on a less abstract level than some readers might wish. The handling of myth, for example, which as a term naturally runs through the book, might elicit specifications: myth as embodying the "quest for meaning in an otherwise random universe" (11) sounds commonplace but is an excellent starting point to examine ways in which myths or mythmaking communities make their meanings; myth as always produced by specific cultures (therefore showing a specific point of view, 45) and being many-voiced (54) are suggestions that are not pursued much further (but then, Flieger's focus is admittedly not one of cultural or religious history). But the hint that myth is a "certain kind of literature" (15, even if it occurs only in "[literature] of myth and fairy tale") seems more problematic: the whole argument, in fact, urges that myth is not literature, and that in the final analysis Tolkien succeeds in writing mythology (if he succeeds at all) exactly because he writes the culture that uses stories in a certain way.
The four chapters of Part 1 give a comprehensive survey of Tolkien's "English" ambition, his concept of the linkage of language, story and the human mind; the models, both personal and literary (one could say philological), that he imitates in the corpus; the strategies of authorization and point of view, and the overall cultural historical fiction that Tolkien creates in providing a "tradition" for his stories. Today's theoreticians will of course recognize the theologically based Cartesian cogito in Tolkien's claim (summarized by Flieger) that "Language, story, and human imagination are inborn faculties" (23); and even though...