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  • The Sweet and the Bitter: Death and Dying in J.R.R. Tolkien's by Amy Amendt-Raduege
  • Robert Steed
The Sweet and the Bitter: Death and Dying in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, by Amy Amendt-Raduege. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2018. 160 pp. $13.99 (softcover). ISBN 978-1-60635-305-9.

This short book, if not perfect, is certainly excellent. Amendt-Raduege provides the reader with a fascinating survey and overview not only of death and dying in the sub-created world of The Lord of the Rings, but also of how Tolkien's depiction of these topics bears upon death and dying, and the practices surrounding them, in the primary world. Making the text even richer is that Amendt-Raduege does not restrict herself only to providing a survey and analysis of the topic; she also produces a text in which she allows herself, and therefore the reader, to contemplate the larger meaning of death in both sub-created and primary worlds, moving beyond a strict literary analysis to create a recurrent meditation upon her topic.

Amendt-Raduege divides the book into an introduction and five chapters: "The Wages of Heroism," "The Bitter End," "Songs and Stones," "Haunting the Dead," and "Applicability: 'Hope without Guarantees." She follows these chapters with permissions, acknowledgments, extensive notes, a comprehensive bibliography, and a detailed index, all of which serve as part of the overall well-crafted scholarly apparatus of the text.

In the introduction, Amendt-Raduege discusses her reasons for writing this volume before mapping out the directions the text will take throughout its chapters. Here the reader first encounters Amendt-Raduege's lucid writing style and intimations of her careful processes of analysis, but beyond those important points, the contemplative aspects of her book begin to appear as well. She writes of her experience in discovering that soldiers on tours-of-duty in Afghanistan and Iraq frequently add two-and-a half pound one-volume editions of The Lord of the Rings to the roughly 80 pounds of field equipment they already carry, choosing to carry a "fairy-story" into battle above any other choice they might have made. Pondering this fact led Amendt-Raduege to a sustained examination of her topic and eventually to this book. This leads her to a particular epiphany which I find fascinating: that The Lord of the Rings can function as a contemporary form of the medieval ars moriendi; that is, the novel can serve as a guide for how to have a good death.1 Amendt-Raduege writes: [End Page 245]

In a sense, then, The Lord of the Rings works like an ars moriendi—a guide to the art of dying well. But it goes beyond that. Many modern views about death and dying are rooted in the Middle Ages that Tolkien studied and loved. These ideals continue to linger in what Raymond Williams calls the "residual" element of culture, which "has been effectively formed in the past, but … is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present." Three great themes of death that pervade contemporary and medieval culture are united in The Lord of the Rings: the way we die, the need to remember the dead, and, above all, the lingering apprehension about what lies beyond the grave. (5)

In other words, The Lord of the Rings can be understood as an ars moriendi that links contemporary people to a largely-forgotten set of historical cultural practices that shape how Western cultures understand death and dying, bringing to light both why they culturally define the concept of a good death in the ways they do and how to embrace that good death. Amendt-Raduege returns to this theme of the ars moriendi throughout the text.

Chapter One, "The Wages of Heroism," presents the reader with Amendt-Raduege's analysis of the concept of the elements that constitute a heroic death, according to Tolkien. She outlines the characteristics of such a heroic death, pointing out that there must be, for medieval peoples (and...


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