- Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth
Source studies, and especially hunting for medieval sources, have been a favorite approach in Tolkien criticism. From Tom Shippey's seminal study The Road to Middle-earth (1982) to numerous articles and books of varying quality and merit, scholars have been exploring Tolkien's sources, with special emphasis on medieval texts, sometimes providing worthy contributions that allow a deeper understanding of Tolkien's work, and sometimes playing the source-hunting game only superficially and adding little to Tolkien studies. However, despite its title, Marjorie Burns's Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien's Middle-earth is not the source-study the reader might expect. This general, all-encompassing title initially suggests that the book is an attempt at a synthesis of current and past research on Tolkien's sources in medieval Celtic and Norse texts, and a well-structured and organized presentation of this material into a book that can become one of the definitive textbooks on Tolkien and his sources. However, Burns's book is rather a study of Tolkien's characters, focusing on how Norse and Celtic material influenced the process of their creation and development.
Marjorie Burns has revised and extended in this book a number of previous articles that have appeared in conference proceedings and journals, and has also added two more main chapters. The feel of the book, then, is more that of a collection of articles than of a monograph on the subject she is dealing with. As implied above, the book does not concentrate so much on motifs and storylines that Tolkien used from his Norse and Celtic sources, but more on Tolkien's characterization, and how his [End Page 187] characters draw their depth and complexity from their roots in figures of Northern myth. The book's primary references and examples come from Tolkien's most widely known works, namely The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, with only occasional references to The Silmarillion, Tolkien's shorter works, and the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth.
At the same time the terms 'Norse' and 'Celtic' are understood in a broader sense than the medieval texts usually associated with them. Burns's non-Tolkienean primary sources range from the Norse Eddas and sagas and from medieval Welsh and Irish literature to the much wider Arthurian literature (including much later re-workings) and texts more or less contemporary with Tolkien by authors such as William Morris and Rider Haggard. It seems, then, that Burns uses the terms Celtic and Norse in their more romantic or popular sense, to denote a certain atmosphere, which may not in fact be true for the original medieval texts in these languages. The lack of a definition of these two terms and of a discussion of their use in the book initially perplexes the reader.
The first chapter provides some necessary introductory background to the thesis of the book, by discussing the "fusion" of Teutonic and Celtic in Tolkien's representation of "Northernness," and by examining issues pertaining to the English sense of identity (in terms of its Celtic and Teutonic past), as well as Tolkien's own reaction to the tension of these two strands of "British" tradition. The discussion of historical details and ideological implications is sometimes simplified, but the chapter provides a comprehensive overview of the conflicts and ideas around the terms "Celtic" and "Teutonic" in Britain of Tolkien's time.
Chapter 2 concentrates on Beorn, and explains the ambiguity of this character as a blend of Norse and English elements, English being understood as late Victorian English. By this main example Burns attempts to show the merging of traditions that Tolkien valued equally, resulting in the creation of multifaceted and intricate characters. Chapter 3 explores how Tolkien transfers his readers gradually into the world of Middle-earth by having his characters crossing passages, doors, and natural barriers such as water. Burns argues these means...