- Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings": Sources of Inspiration
In the Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien attempted, emphatically and ultimately unsuccessfully, to shape the reception of his masterpiece and, in so doing, to mute discussion of its motive, meaning, and sources. In his now-famous words: "I should like to say something here with reference to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of the tale. The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. . . . As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. . . . Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written . . . " (FR, Foreword, 6).
That the author was unconvincing and unsuccessful in this attempt is no surprise. The result of this failure, we know, has been the development of scholarship on Tolkien. Stratford Caldecott and Thomas Honegger's collection contributes to a growing scholarly tradition and thereby participates in a larger shaping of the critical appreciation of, and exegetical approaches to, The Lord of the Rings. Many of these ten essays result from a Tolkien Studies conference held in 2006 at Exeter College, Oxford. Caldecott, in his Introduction, characterizes the conference as a sign of "the 'coming of age' of Tolkien Studies" (5) and finds significance in the fact that it was held at Tolkien's former college at the initiative of the Rector, Frances Cairncross. Completing the circuit from Tolkien's student days to the current day is indeed noteworthy. Especially when viewed against the backdrop of the political, social, and economic realities of the intellectual and collegiate world, the imprimatur of Exeter on a Tolkien conference does in fact signify a milestone for the field.
The evolution of critical appreciation for Tolkien that Caldecott sketches is significant in the current moment. Indeed, a new generation of literary critics is focused on Tolkien; the learning and scholarship [End Page 294] underlying Tolkien's project is generally acknowledged; the journal in which this review appears bears the scholarly stamp of a university press. A number of very high-quality scholarly publications on Tolkien have appeared over the course of the last two decades and more; among the best of these have been produced by the editors and contributors to this very journal. Still, it may be early to claim a coming of age. Such publications could be more common; and the list of scholars could be longer. Taking these latter factors into account, it is fair to say that the field is established but that it remains nascent. Only time will tell if it will blossom and endure. There are good reasons to be optimistic, of course. The field has excellent material to work with and a strong base of scholars; still, it has its limits and weaknesses both foreseeable and unforeseen.
Some of these limits and weaknesses are present in this volume, and they make themselves apparent in subtle ways from the cover art, through some of the essays, and on to the final credits. In general, I believe they arise from and contribute to an unresolved tension in the field: Many of us—most of us? all of us?—came to Tolkien Studies because his work succeeded exactly as the author intended. It held our attention, it amused us, delighted us, and at times maybe excited or deeply moved us. Hence the question, and the tension: is it possible to bracket this kind of affection for the work and the author and, from there, to apply the kind of dispassionate critical perspective to his text that the norms of scholarship require? If it...