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The Broken Scythe: Death and Immortality in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien ed. by Roberto Arduini and Claudio A. Testi (review)
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The Broken Scythe: Death and Immortality in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Roberto Arduini and Claudio A. Testi. Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2012. xxviii, 256 pp. $24.30/£15.00 (trade paperback). ISBN 9783905703269. Cormarë Series No. 26.

This long-overdue single-topic examination of death and immortality in the works of Tolkien is not simply a collection of thematically linked papers gathered by an editor. Ideas were thrashed out in a string of preparatory meetings among the contributors. It is therefore something of an organic whole, with a complementary set of approaches, philosophical, exegetical, and encyclopaedic. It was, as the editors explain, created to fulfil the need for a scholarly all-Italian book on Tolkien, and although it is too diverse to represent any single ‘school of thought,’ it certainly has a flavour quite distinct from most Tolkien scholarship from Britain and America.

The contributors also come from overlapping circles: several are on the committee behind the Italian publisher Marietti’s Tolkien e dintorni series of publications, which first published this collection under the title La Falce spezatta: Morte e immortalità in J.R.R. Tolkien (2009). Some are involved in the Tolkien journal Endòre [sic]. Several are professional translators, and have turned the book into English (at which point I must declare an interest, because one of them, aided by a further three, translated my book Tolkien and the Great War for Marietti). There are experts in philosophy, history, and religion, whose expertise and background in mainland European academe give the collection its distinct character. However, while the topic is well defined and overlapping materials are discussed, the approaches taken in the different papers are so distinct that it is best to take them one at a time.

To deal first with the quasi-encyclopedic elements, the book provides two papers which are almost pure information rather than argument. In “Tolkien’s Legendarium as a meditatio mortis,” Claudio A. Testi provides a thorough chronological taxonomy of the concepts of death and immortality as developed by Tolkien in his Elves and Men, from the “Lost Tales” to the end of his work on “The Silmarillion.” This is exceptionally useful, because the matter is complex and details are scattered across many separate books. Testi gives due weight to Tolkien’s late, extended explorations of the topic, published in Morgoth’s Ring, while showing clearly which of the later ideas were innovative and which conservative. His summary is above all a useful antidote to simplistic assumptions that (a) Elves live forever and are brilliant and happy, and (b) mortals just wink out of existence. The relationship which Tolkien refined is both elegant in its simplicity and complex in its ramifications: Elvish existence lasts from their birth until the end [End Page 244] of the world, but is bound within it; but human death is an exit from the world and probably from time itself. Among the easily overlooked points is that for mortals, death of the body is not necessarily the same as leaving the Circles of the World (49). Testi also examines some of the salient moral and philosophical ramifications of this world-picture, such as that it is Man’s mortality which dictates that faith must underpin human existence.

Lorenzo Gammarelli performs another useful task by providing brief descriptions of how Tolkien’s relevant shorter works treat death and immortality, ranging from the well-known “Leaf by Niggle” to the almost unobtainable Lay of Aotrou and Itroun. Terse discussions of bereavement and of the relationship between Faërie and dream suggest he might have much more of interest to say. On the other hand, he dismisses possible significances in “The Mewlips” too easily, by taking at face value the title of the original version: “Knocking at the Door: Lines induced by sensations when waiting for an answer at the door of an exalted academic person.” I suspect Tolkien’s title was a wry afterthought, a joke he knew would be appreciated by readers of the Oxford Magazine where it was published (apparently ten years after its composition). Maybe the imagery is “merely the product of playing with sounds...