- Tolkien's View: Windows into His World
Few now remain of those who brought out the first wave of books on Tolkien in the late 60s and early 70s. William Ready, Clyde S. Kilby, Paul H. Kocher, and Lin Carter are all gone. Of that generation, only two remain active in Tolkien scholarship: Richard C. West (A Tolkien Checklist, 1970) and J.S. Ryan (Tolkien: Cult or Culture?, 1969). And while West's Tolkien Checklist became the guide for many a budding Tolkienist to track down works in the back stacks of university libraries, to discover the joys of Interlibrary Loan, and to join in trades of photocopied or even hand-copied material, often across borders and even continents, Ryan's work remained little known, largely because it was published only in Australia and few copies ever reached England or America. And this is a pity, because Ryan's book was ahead of its time: an attempt to comprehensively cover all of Tolkien's published oeuvre, with particular attention to the influence his medieval scholarship had on his literary work—thus anticipating a core concern of Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth (1982) by more than a decade. He should have been a founding father of Tolkien studies, but he worked in such isolation, and so few people were exposed to his work, that instead he was somehow relegated to the role of a distant uncle who never shows up for family reunions.
Now Walking Tree Press is redressing this problem, an effort we should applaud. Having already published a most welcome collection of Tom Shippey's Tolkienian essays (Roots and Branches, 2007), they now offer this collection of Ryan's work. Indeed, so prolific has Ryan been over the years that the Preface here makes clear these twenty-one pieces make up only the first of two volumes, with the second to follow next year. The value of such a collection is that it brings together Ryan's piecemeal publications, which have been scattered among so many places: Mallorn, Mythlore, Seven, Folklore, Angerthas, Minas Tirith Evening-star, Inklings: Jahrbuch für Literatur und Ästhetik, and more ephemeral publications. Two chapters are reprinted from Ryan's 1969 book (essays XV & XVIII), and one of those had previously appeared in periodical form as far back as 1966. Few Tolkienists will have access to all these publications, so such an assemblage is a real service.
As for the essays themselves, they range widely in topic but largely focus on Ryan's main concern as a Tolkien scholar: to seek for the primary influences on Tolkien in his academic milieu. His greatest strength is his desire to improve our knowledge of the context in which Tolkien wrote, particularly by researching and writing up such topics as what subjects Tolkien had to master for his undergraduate degree (essay II), ideas he [End Page 340] expressed through his annual overviews in The Year's Work in English Studies series (VIII), the topics he focused on as Oxford's primary teacher of Old Norse (IX), and the like. Ryan also includes pieces focusing in on specific figures who he feels were important to Tolkien in some way, like J. H. Shorthouse (essay I), Mary Wright (III), William Craigie (IV), George Gordon (VII), and Christopher Dawson (XIV). But the most characteristic of these essays focus on some topic that captured his attention and whose connection with Tolkien he thought worth exploring, like the Púkel men and Pouka legends (XX), or the Wild Hunt (XVI), or English saints named Edith (VI). In one notable case, he devotes most of a twelve-page essay to a discussion of Tolkien's use of the hyphen (XII).
If this list sounds somewhat random, it's because it is: Ryan has no overall guiding theme that might unite this disparate collection of what he calls "exploratory essays." He confesses in his Introduction that many of these pieces were "originally drafted to...