- The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies 2012
Biographical [Merlin DeTardo]
Tolkien in East Yorkshire 1917–1918: An Illustrated Tour by Phil Mathison (Newport, Yorkshire: Dead Good, 2012) supplements the work of John Garth and Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond with a little more information about places Tolkien stayed during his military and convalescent posting there. The illustrations mentioned in the title, filling some 37 pages, are mainly modern and period photographs of locations in what Mathison refers to as the Tolkien Triangle, plus photographs of Tolkien’s army medical reports, and some sketched maps. Mathison’s maps are not to scale, and he only occasionally mentions distances. Besides the War Office records, from which Mathison quotes, his sources include area directories, election registries, regimental yearbooks, and the wartime diary of a local resident, plus the dates and addresses only—not the content—of correspondence between Tolkien and his wife held in the Bodleian Library. He also conducted a few interviews. Mathison is cautious about local Tolkien legends, notes occasional discrepancies in the records, keeps his speculation about possible influences to a minimum, and acknowledges questions still outstanding (e.g., he has been unable to determine where Edith Tolkien was living in June and July 1917, which would have been approximately when she famously danced for her husband in a grove near Roos). The whole book, with one chapter for each location, might have been better organized, so that Mathison would not need to refer “back” in an early chapter to something covered later and the reader would not need to hold the book open to two places, jumping between the text and the chronology that closes the book (or three places if the map is needed). As a whole, Mathison’s work, resting somewhere between guidebook and history, helps by providing some new data, but no more.
Raymond Edwards’s booklet, J.R.R. Tolkien: His Life, Work and Faith (London: Catholic Truth Society, 2012) is a fine short biography with a modest Catholic bent. Although a secondary work without original research, Edwards’s text shows him to be well versed in Tolkien’s writings and the major Tolkien biographies, and he tells the story of Tolkien’s life in a fresh way, brimming with insight and flavorful writing. The narrative incorporates discussion of works published [End Page 199] posthumously (like The Lays of Beleriand and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún) in their appropriate chronological positions, and attends to works often unmentioned in Tolkien biographies, like “The Wanderings of Húrin.” Notable are Edwards’s comments on the TCBS and “their collective sense of themselves” (14); the first Earendel poem, well paraphrased to show how it led to later Silmarillion conceptions; the “werelit horrors of the Dead Marshes” (31) and other motifs that derive from World War I (Edwards is very careful not to overstate influence); and a contrast between the “classic” Kenneth Sisam and the “romantic” Tolkien (37). A general summary of Tolkien’s “profound and often heartbreaking meditation” on good and evil is first-rate (32). Acknowledging, with a nod to Tom Shippey, the decline of philology, in which Tolkien not having published a “big and important book” on the subject played some part, Edwards argues that through The Lord of the Rings, philology “has won a stupendous victory” in popular imagination, although readers may not realize it directly (66). When describing efforts to get Tolkien’s works published posthumously, Edwards thoughtfully notes that Christopher Tolkien might have edited The Silmarillion differently given more time and experience, and he remembers to include the linguistic journals Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Eldalamberon. The book closes with “Tolkien the Catholic,” a commentary in which Edwards’s light touch continues, as he advises against overstating superficial Catholic motifs in The Lord of the Rings, noting that “any well-told tale will convey some elements of God’s truth” (86). Here he brings in the discussion of “On Fairy-stories” and “Leaf by Niggle” that he had been saving since merely mentioning those texts earlier...