In Tolkien, Race and Cultural History, Dimitra Fimi traces the development of J. R. R. Tolkien’s legendarium from its conception through its partial realization in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and beyond to Christopher Tolkien’s posthumous publication of his father’s manuscripts and notes. Fimi’s main concern is to explore the correspondences and contradictions between Tolkien’s personal and professional development in light of the shifts in philosophical, cultural, and scientific thinking taking place around him in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras through his death in 1973. Enlarged, Fimi views her project as “a case study for comparative research between fiction and biography, and the ways in which such comparisons can be mutually illuminating.” While acknowledging the slipperiness of biographical analysis, she convincingly reasons that Tolkien’s “endless documentation of how he viewed his own work and its meaning” in letters, essays, and the like supports the relevance of such an analysis (7). Fimi makes excellent use of all of the materials Tolkien left behind, which she deftly intertwines with her historical and literary research to provide an exhaustive, interesting, and original look at his legendarium, both as a whole and in the fragments of its evolution.
Tolkien, Race and Cultural History is a model of clarity and organization, being divided into three main sections that logically unfold to analyze Tolkien’s process, from “How It All Began” to “Ideal Beings, Ideal Languages” and finally “From Myth to History.” In part 1 [End Page 355] Fimi seeks to establish the “central” position of the elves in Tolkien’s mythology for providing “a viewpoint from which deep human questions are explored through a Secondary World” (10). Using his early poems, as well as The Book of Lost Tales and his children’s stories as her primary texts, Fimi considers how Tolkien’s earliest thinking about fairy beings transforms from an “imitation of ancient myths . . . into a spiritual and theological goal” (11). Here her work takes into account Tolkien’s personal theology and “admiration” for the Finnish Kalevala (53), as well as the English impulse toward having a “national mythology” (51), which brought folklore and fairies to the forefront of his society at a time when his “mythological project” began to take root in his mind (53).
Throughout her study Fimi emphasizes Tolkien’s famous love of language, but in part 2 she really hones in on the relationship between Tolkien’s construction of original languages and his subcreation of “Ideal Beings” (63). Here Fimi’s line of inquiry becomes especially innovative, yet troublesome, as she wonders about the validity of accepting Tolkien’s “often reproduced . . . claims that the languages came first and the mythology followed” (64). Fimi’s basis for looking at these “claims” more critically is that Tolkien’s earliest writing—prior to his invention of his elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin—included “‘fairy’ subject matter” that was “later incorporated into the mythology” (65). While this argument remains valid, one might point out that just because Tolkien’s early work focused on Faerie does not absolutely mean that his later, most important work was not begun as a result of the language construction that more immediately preceded it.
Also, to support her proposition that the languages may not have come first, Fimi points to Tolkien’s “distinct motive for mythmaking,” his interest to provide his country with a mythology “as opposed to just providing his invented languages with a world where they could exist” (66). Again, this makes sense, but it is necessary to emphasize that for Tolkien the languages would be a major—if not the most crucial—part of mythology construction, and once created, could have provided the impetus for him to believe himself capable of such a project. So even if the idea for a mythology emerged foremost in his mind, devising the languages may have been his real first step toward its realization. Recognizing these possibilities, Fimi’s exploration leads her to conclude “that language and mythmaking did begin independently, but became interconnected very early in...