Tolkien: The Forest and the City ed. by Helen Conrad-O’Briain and Gerard Hynes (review)
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Tolkien: The Forest and the City, edited by Helen Conrad-O’Briain and Gerard Hynes, Dublin; Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 2013. 197 pp. $74.50/£55/€60 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-84682-429-6.

This collection, arising from a conference at Trinity College Dublin in September 2012, comprises a judicious mixture of established authorities and more recent voices. Together, they bring a wealth of scholarship, seasoned reflection and new insights to the subject of nature and culture, in their many aspects, in Tolkien’s work.

The editors frame the collection as building on my own Defending Middle-Earth (1997, 2004), Dickerson and Evans’s Ents, Elves and Eriador (2006) and Liam Campbell’s Ecological Augury (2011), but going further and deeper. I don’t accept that the first addresses its subject in “narrow environmental terms” (14), Dickerson and Evans probably see themselves as addressing more than simply Tolkien’s ethic of Christian stewardship, and it seems unfair to describe Campbell’s exploration of ecological themes as “unnecessarily limiting” (14); after all, he doesn’t [End Page 189] try to ban other interpretations. It’s also a strange feeling to find that something I wrote back in my 1997 book (“Middle-earth appears as a character in its own right,” Curry 61) has now become a “cliché” that needs no attribution (13). More importantly than all this, however, the work collected here amply fulfils the editors’ promise.

The first paper, “Goths and Romans in Tolkien’s Imagination” by Tom Shippey, is a tour-de-force. It doesn’t cohere with the rest of the collection’s focus on the natural world. Instead, he brings into sharp relief a historical dimension of Tolkien’s fiction that many readers and even scholars will have only sensed. By the same token, he throws new light on the creative use Tolkien made of history, which often consisted of repairing, in his imaginative world, what went disastrously wrong in the world we agree to call real.

We are all aware of the Shire as a West Midland county that never suffered a Norman Conquest, and more vaguely of Middle-earth as a Europe that was never modernised or even Europeanised. Starting from examination questions set by Tolkien in the 1920s and 30s, however, Shippey unearths a major historically-informed aspect of the work midway between those two. We also now have an even earlier date than Tolkien’s hated Norman Conquest for a historical Fall: the fifth to sixth centuries, when the Goths succumbed to the heresy of Arianism, which, according to Tolkien, forestalled an alliance with the Roman Catholic church that would have enriched both parties, and us.

Thus, the Goths became the Riders of Rohan, in alliance with a leader who succeeds in uniting the long-sundered Northern (Roman) and Southern (Byzantian) kingdoms. This is to put the matter crudely, of course, but Shippey supplies convincing detail, for example, on the linguistic and probable cultural affiliations between the Goths and Anglo-Saxons which facilitated their synthesis as the Rohirrim.

Like many others, I have long felt the presence of encoded history in Tolkien’s work beyond what I could consciously grasp. I thought of this recently when reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s superb account of his walk across continental Europe in the 1930s, A Time of Gifts. It is interwoven with historical accounts which—even beyond the obvious resonances of assailants from the East, led by the Huns; pitched battles between the paladins of Christendom and the paynim hosts of Islam; a carved ivory horn from “the oliphant of Lehel”; and the thousand-year-old crown of St. Stephen—kept reminding me of The Lord of the Rings, very much including the Appendices. I now know why.

There are also wonderful vignettes, such Tolkien pretending suspicion (easily, one imagines) of the first tape-recorder he was subjected to, and reciting into it the Lord’s Prayer in Gothic in order to exorcise any demons (23). [End Page 190]

Verlyn Flieger’s paper borrows two characters from Alan Garner’s novel Thursbitch, Sal and Ian, in order to use their perspectives—mythopoetically animist and sceptically secular respectively—to explore the...


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