- There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien by Verlyn Flieger
It is not always wise to take an author's analysis of his or her own work at face value, as the reader of Verlyn Flieger's new collection soon learns from one of its earlier chapters ("But What Did He Really Mean?" 17–31). However, Flieger's description of her volume in its introductory remarks is worthy of note. The selected essays "are in essence an unpatterned mosaic," she writes, composed at different times to meet different occasions. But, she goes on to say, "when I assembled the individual pieces … what I saw taking shape was a more coherent picture than I had anticipated, a picture of a man as complicated as the books that bear his name … a man whose work does not seek for right or wrong answers so much as a way to accommodate both; a man of antitheses, as his biographer Humphrey Carpenter [End Page 235] described him" (xii). The key words for the theme of this volume are indeed complicate, accommodate, and antithesis, along with their siblings paradox and contradiction. As a single statement into the ongoing conversation of Tolkien and Middle-earth studies, this anthology highlights evidence for the complicated nature of Tolkien the historical man, as equally of his sub-created mythology which readers continue to enjoy today.
The compilation touches repeatedly on such points as Tolkien's penchant for both optimism and pessimism, and the way he used fiction as a vehicle to work with his conflicted feelings about death, religion, morality, and the nature of reality, both inside a story and outside of it. Its nineteen essays are grouped into four parts—divisions that prove useful, but within them and across them are further parallels where individual essays may profitably be read together to illuminate one another's arguments. One such subsidiary grouping is the "Celtic" material from Part Four, consisting of "Tolkien's Celtic Connection," "Drowned Lands," and "Voyaging About: Tolkien and Celtic Navigatio," which together bring a concerted emphasis to not just Celtic but specifically Irish influences. Critics addressing Tolkien and Celtic themes often focus on Wales and/or Brittany, Flieger not excepted in her previous essay collection, Green Suns and Faërie ("Brittany and Wales in Middle-earth," 202–10). Bringing renewed attention to the importance of Ireland as a locale and to Irish literature and myth as sources for Tolkien's writings is a major achievement of this volume. Another cluster forms around "On Fairy-stories." This ranges from extended explanations of both the first and second halves of Tolkien's foundational lecture/essay on fairy-story ("There Would Always Be a 'Fairy-tale': J.R.R. Tolkien and the Folklore Controversy," 5–16, and "Re-creating Reality," 32–48) to its relationship to Tolkien's actual practice of writing fiction ("The Jewels, the Stone, the Ring, and the Making of Meaning," 100–12; "The Forests and the Trees: Sal and Ian in Faërie," 129–44; "How Trees Behave—Or Do They?" 145–56). Yet a third axis is Tolkien's unexpected dark side, found in discussions of Beowulf's tragic outlook ("Eucatastrophe and the Dark," 59–65), Tolkien's use of the dangerous fairy woman motif ("Fays, Corrigans, Elves and More: Tolkien's Dark Ladies," 165–77), and his hapless, tragic Kullervo ("Tolkien, Kalevala, and Middle-earth," 183–95). That such re-arrangements are possible and just as helpful as the actual authorial design for the book is support for its thesis that Tolkien's work can be understood in some sense as a lifelong negotiation among competing and overlapping preoccupations, held all in a glorious tension without resolution. [End Page 236]
Following the style of the earlier Green Suns and Faërie, some of the unedited essays contain colloquial language or wry humor, which balances what would otherwise be grave subjects. Flieger's comeback to Germaine Greer's assertion about Tolkien admirers wearing puffed sleeves...