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  • Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits
  • Thomas Honegger
Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, by Dimitra Fimi. Basingstoke, Hampshire, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. xvi, 240 pp. £50.00 / $85.00 (hardcover) ISBN 9780230219519.

Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits is the product of Dimitra Fimi's extended academic interest in the development of Tolkien's writings. Fimi is a lecturer at the University of Cardiff and has been teaching courses on the professor's work for several years. She has also published various articles on Tolkien, some of which have been re-used for two of the chapters.

The basic approach of the study is biographical-historical. Fimi links events from the professor's life and times with the growth and transformation of what is usually referred to as Tolkien's legendarium. She establishes three main foci, which correspond to the three main parts of the book: Part I discusses Tolkien's concept of fairies/elves; Part II looks at his imaginary languages and his theory of language aesthetic; and Part III analyses the effects that his published fiction (predominantly The Hobbit) had on the further development of the legendarium.

Fimi proceeds in all three parts in a similar manner. First she presents the relevant published (or accessible) material from Tolkien's writings and, to a lesser extent, also drawings and paintings. She then goes on to discuss the contemporary opinions and theories on the topic and finally works out the relevance of these elements for the inception and further development of Tolkien's work.

The discussion of fairies/elves starts with some of the early poems (e.g. "Wood-sunshine," "Goblin Feet," "Kortirion among the Trees," "An Evening in Tavrobel,"). The fairies/elves (Tolkien predominantly used the term "fairy") in these early pieces are still very much indebted to the Victorian and Edwardian folk-tradition, which presents them as sprites of diminutive size. The discussion of the fairy tradition up to Tolkien's time offers the reader a well-written and informative introduction to the [End Page 289] predominant concepts. Fimi traces the diminutive size of the fairies back to Shakespeare's sprites that may constitute, next to Michael Drayton's creations, the major models for all the diminutive beings of later centuries. She deals with fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest yet does not mention the Queen Mab sequence from Romeo and Juliet, which might be due to the fact that the main focus is on the Victorian and Edwardian depictions of fairies—in poetry as well as pictorial art and drama. Modern readers are most likely familiar with the tiny Tinker Bell (from Peter Pan), a typical product of the "diminishing process" and more or less contemporary with Tolkien's early poems. Fimi also provides a brief overview of the rather confusing and confused terminology (goblin, fairy, sprite, elf, etc.), which is, to some extent, also reflected in Tolkien's early work. Even the professor needed some time to work out the exact differences between the various categories of beings, and traces of the initial "confusion" can be still found in The Hobbit, where "goblin" and "orc" occur side by side as synonyms.

The material analyzed and the conclusions drawn in this section are coherently and clearly presented albeit not really new. This is not Fimi's fault but rather due to inaccessibility of the unpublished fiction and poetry. Some of the early material has been edited in the volumes of The History of Middle-earth, yet the full text of "Wood-sunshine," which Humphrey Carpenter had obviously been able to read in its entirety, remains unpublished. Fimi, like any other reader, has to rely on the passages quoted in Carpenter's biography. This state of affairs may not bother those who use the new criticism method, i.e. who focus on the published text of a work and interpret it without recourse to biographical or historical information. However, Fimi has explicitly chosen a different procedure and is thus hampered by these restrictions. Further potential pitfalls of such an approach become evident later on when she relies on the text...


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