Tolkien in the Land of Heroes: Discovering the Human Spirit (review)
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Tolkien in the Land of Heroes: Discovering the Human Spirit, by Anne C. Petty. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Press, 2003. 328 pp. $16.95 (trade paperback) ISBN 1892975998.

Anne C. Petty's study Tolkien in the Land of Heroes is a collection of related essays that explore the themes of power, loss, and heroism, as they appear in J. R. R. Tolkien's finished works set in Middle-earth: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Petty's study is explicitly aimed at a non-academic audience. Both its value and its weaknesses seem to stem from this approach. As a general reader's introduction to Tolkien studies, Petty's work is valuable not only because of its own insights, but also because of its abundance of annotated resources, which [End Page 273] include scholarly studies of Tolkien, as well as religious, philosophical, and sociological texts pertaining to the themes under discussion. Unfortunately, despite its potential, the book suffers from pervasive flaws of documentation, style, and analysis.

Parts I and II of the book, "The Myth of the Fall" and "The Consequences of Power," form the strongest part of Petty's study. They contain rigorous, clearly-structured, well-illustrated analysis that reveals a number of interesting insights about the texts. In Part I, "The Myth of the Fall," Petty examines Melkor's fall from grace and the ways in which that fall manifests itself in the careers of other figures of evil. She traces compelling parallels between Melkor, Sauron, and Saruman, parallels that demonstrate the thematic continuity between The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, a feature that Petty highlights throughout her study. In Part II, "The Consequences of Power," Petty discusses secondary agents of evil in the three books. She applies a variety of models to Tolkien's characters. Petty draws these models from sources relevant to Tolkien's intellectual background—the Bible, the Icelandic sagas, the Faust legend, European folktales—and even as she measures the characters against them, she points out the limitations of such models and categories. The discussion is summarized in a table of agents of evil (109) that provides an overview of both her theoretical categories and of the data that these models describe.

Part III, "Loss and Longing," explores the themes of "impermanence, mortality, loss and longing" (179) that pervade Tolkien's work. In Chapter 5, which focuses on death and loss, Petty provides a detailed overview of Tolkien's techniques for dramatizing the age of his invented world: the inset narratives of history and legend, the presence of characters whose long lives encompass both the present of the story and the mythical past, the ubiquity of ruins and ancient statuary from lost or decaying civilizations throughout the landscape of Middle-earth. As well, this chapter contains an analysis sophisticated in its conclusions and delightfully novel in its method: like an archaeologist, Petty examines the various burial sites and practices of the races of Middle-earth. She highlights the cultural or racial attitudes towards life and death reflected by funeral customs, as well as the thematic significance of certain individual graves.

Chapter 6, "In Defense of Nature," analyzes the impact of both the evil and the good inhabitants of Middle-earth upon the natural world. Exploring the effect of evil on nature, Petty convincingly establishes another aspect of the thematic continuity between The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. Nor is Petty's exploration reductive: she points out what Drout and Wynne call "the complex interplay between wilderness and cultivation, and between nature and civilization, that Tolkien does not resolve unequivocally in favor of nature" (Drout and Wynne 114-15). [End Page 274] However, less paraphrasing of Tolkien's descriptions and more analysis would make this chapter a more useful resource. For example, concerning the Dead Marshes and the land outside the Black Gate, Petty writes:

The sense of reality created in the detailed descriptions of these passages lets you know that Tolkien has seen these places as well as Frodo. The only green to be found here is pond slime. The imagery used throughout these sections of the narrative creates an...