- The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition
The Lord of the Rings is a house built on many foundations. Almost a decade ago, the late Daniel Timmons pointed out that "detractors rarely recognize that the literary aspects of Tolkien's work have been prominent in Western literature from Homer to the present day" (Clark and Timmons 3). Worse, it would seem that many of Tolkien's proponents are equally unaware of this heritage. Timmons went on to say that "although criticism exists on Tolkien's works in relation to medieval literature and twentieth-century fantasy, relatively few studies situate the author in a broader context. Tolkien's writings have links to every major period of English literature from Old English to Renaissance poetics to religious epic to nineteenth-century popular narrative" (5). It is this large gap in the scholarship that Martin Simonson aims to spotlight in his new study, The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition, which expands on his previous work, published in volume three of Tolkien Studies (2006), as [End Page 264] well as in various collections from Walking Tree Publishers.
Source-scholars have long argued that a wide variety of literary sources forms one foundation on which The Lord of the Rings is built. Simonson attempts to extrapolate a larger, more generalized theorem from this argument—that The Lord of the Rings may be regarded as an accretion not merely of sources, but of genres, revealing the influence of the major milestones in the history of western (that is to say, European) narrative literature: the mythic, epic, romantic, and novelistic traditions. In parallel to this, Simonson attempts to apply Northrop Frye's theory of modes—though not so much his theory of genres (both expounded in Anatomy of Criticism)—to The Lord of the Rings. The book consists of five chapters, of vastly disproportionate lengths: the first and final chapters, no more than an introduction and afterword, are each less than five pages; the fourth chapter is more than one hundred. The second provides a general summary of the western narrative tradition, without reference to Tolkien. The third chapter introduces Frye's mode of ironic myth in the context of Tolkien and several Modernist writers. The fourth, the centerpiece of the book, examines many aspects of The Lord of the Rings in the context of what Simonson calls the "intertraditional dialogue." While a certain amount of background material may be necessary, fully one-third of the book (19–93) has almost nothing to say about The Lord of the Rings or its author, barring only occasional (and superficial) points of contact.
From the outset, a main contention is that it is difficult to assign The Lord of the Rings to a discrete genre. What Simonson never makes clear, however, is why this should present a problem for readers or scholars. Walking Tree series editor Thomas Honegger offers a preemptive answer in his Preface: "Its defiance of traditional critical categories and the critics' difficulties to link it to a definite genre seems [sic] to lie at the heart of many a dismissive response" (5). Yet there are questions left unanswered. For instance: why is it inadequate to identify the genre as "prose romance," "heroic quest," or simply "fantasy," as many sympathetic critics have done?
Frye himself called The Lord of the Rings "quest romance" (Notebooks on Romance 80) and "sentimental romance" (Notebooks for Anatomy 111, 274). Frye's own generalized definition of romantic literature, particularly its second clause, seems perfectly applicable to The Lord of the Rings:
(1) A fictional mode in which the chief characters live in a world of marvels (naive romance), or in which the mood is elegiac or idyllic and hence less subject to social criticism than in the mimetic modes. (2) The general tendency to present myth and metaphor in an idealized human form, midway between undisplaced myth and "realism."(Anatomy 367) [End Page 265]
That The Lord of...