- Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J. R. R. Tolkien ed. by Verlyn Flieger
When the foremost American Tolkien scholar releases a new book, it’s cause for celebration. In each of her three earlier books on Tolkien, Flieger has broken new ground and advanced our understanding of Tolkien’s work. Splintered Light (1983; rev. ed. 2002) looked at the way Tolkien’s ideas about language shaped his work, as well as how the theories of fellow Inkling Owen Barfield might have influenced Tolkien’s thought and imagery. A Question of Time (1997) considered Tolkien’s treatment of dream and time, comparing his conceptions with those of J. W. Dunne. And her magnum opus, Interrupted Music (2005), explores just what it means to set out to create a mythology.1
In addition to her books, for more than three decades Flieger has contributed insightful and thought-provoking essays to a disparate array of volumes devoted to Tolkien’s work: Tolkien’s Legendarium (2000), which she co-edited; the Blackwelder festschrift, The Lord of the Rings, 1954–2004, edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (2006); the forthcoming Shippey festschrift; all three volumes edited by Jane Chance growing out of the Tolkien sessions at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo (Tolkien the Medievalist, 2003; Tolkien and the Invention of Myth, 2004; and Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, 2005); among others, as well as to a wide array of journals (Tolkien Studies, Mythlore, The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts). Even the most diligent admirers of her work will have found it difficult to keep up with all the works collected here—e.g., those published in conference [End Page 235] proceedings in Finland (1993) and Norway (1997). It’s good to have this wealth of scholarship gathered together into one volume, to place on the shelf alongside her book-length studies.
This new collection offers twenty-five essays, five of them2 published here for the first time. The essays are arranged into three sections: Tolkien as Sub-Creator (eight essays), Tolkien in Tradition (ten essays), and Tolkien and His Century (seven essays), and the book comes with that ever-useful tool too often omitted in essay-collections, an index.
It has long been a hallmark of Flieger’s work that she is not afraid to take on the big issues, like the interplay of fate and freewill in Arda, just how reincarnation works in Tolkien’s world (and how it differs from inherited memory), or Frodo’s ‘failure’ at Mount Doom and its enduring personal consequences for him. At the same time, she brings keen attention to the seemingly obvious, such as the role of Tolkien’s narrators or the effect of Tolkien’s pseudepigrapha and embedded authors, with results that challenge preconceptions, as when she delves into the unexpectedly deep significance of the honorific ‘elf-friend’ and the role those so designated play in the transmission of the story. Add to this thoughtful consideration of what are often treated by others as minor texts—the Notion Club Papers, the Athrabeth, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, The New Shadow, and especially Smith of Wootton Major—and you have a distinctive body of work well worth reading and re-reading. There is much to absorb, much to mull over, and much to respond to in these essays.3
A few outstanding pieces deserve special mention. High on the list is “Allegory Versus Bounce: Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major,” a lively exchange between Flieger and Tom Shippey over interpretation of Tolkien’s final story. Shippey reads Smith as an autobiographical allegory mainly dealing with Tolkien’s professorial career, while Flieger reads it as a pure fairy-story which presents but does not explain.4 That two such eminent Tolkien scholars draw diametrically opposed readings from the same tale shows just how much depth and breadth there is even in Tolkien’s shorter and apparently (but perhaps deceptively) simpler works. Shippey’s...