- J.R.R. Tolkien: Romanticist and Poet by Julian Eilmann
Julian Eilmann's J.R.R. Tolkien: Romanticist and Poet fits into a fairly broad category of Tolkien scholarship which attempts to track Tolkien's influences and observe the ways in which Tolkien's works fit within certain traditions in certain ways. However, Eilmann attempts to differentiate his scholarship in this broad field from the most widespread areas of focus. Eilmann rightly notes that "Tolkien's work is now largely interpreted in the context of his professional background as a philologist and expert of medieval literature"; Eilmann goes on to say that, thanks to authors such as Shippey and Flieger, many people are aware of and familiar with Tolkien's Anglo-Saxon, British/Celtic, and Norse influences (5). The validity and value of that approach is clear: these scholars have added greatly to the field, but at the same time, it's tempting to feel as if that path is now closed because of the depth, breadth, and thoroughness of that scholarship. Eilmann sets out to find a new, less-travelled path: "As meaningful as their studies grounded in history and philology may be, their dominance makes it difficult for other aspects of Tolkien's complete works to become visible" (6). The other aspect which Eilmann has chosen is the similarly broad field of Romanticism.
Following the "Romanticist" portion of the title, Eilmann argues that viewing Tolkien in the light of the Romanticism movement of the late 18th century and early 19th century is an underused and valuable [End Page 250] method of scholarship. Eilmann devotes a large portion of this book to defining the key elements of Romanticism, which may seem unnecessary, given the popularity of Romanticism throughout history, and given the fact that many readers will be familiar with at least one Romantic poet or poem. However, as is often the case with conversations about genre, categories, and classifications, there is no clear and easy definition of Romanticism. Eilmann is careful to establish a few criteria by which we can determine if something is or is not within the Romantic spirit or tradition, which allows him to make classification a little less vague.
Romanticism is also difficult to define, in part, because so many people have attempted to define it. One of the most interesting portions of this book is a discussion of how Romanticism was intentionally repurposed in Germany during the rise of the National Socialist party, particularly in speeches given by Joseph Goebbels. Eilmann acknowledges that this inclusion is a bit of an aside, and is also very specific to his background as a German scholar, but he justifies this diversion into the "inglorious afterlife of historical Romanticism in the so-called Third Reich" (13) by showing the potential importance of historical and literary scholarship: the implication is that if we aren't careful with our studies of our cultural and artistic past, then it might be misused or misinterpreted in the future. This also sheds light on Tolkien as someone living through the major world events of his lifetime; while he undoubtedly looked backward in his Anglo-Saxon and Norse studies, he undoubtedly also was keenly aware of the state of the world in his times. At the same time that Goebbels appropriates parts of the Romantic aesthetic, Tolkien is also reimagining and reinterpreting Romanticist works.
One crucial element of Romanticism which Eilmann rightly attributes to Tolkien is the quality of imagination which Tolkien described as recovery. The Romanticists (and Tolkien) encourage or enable their readers to see their everyday surroundings from a different perspective; through this, as Eilmann describes it, "the known and everyday experiences recover the dignity of the unknown and are thereby spiritually enhanced" (77). Eilmann identifies the quality of imagination while also establishing a sort of mission statement for fantasy literature in general: "In this way, fantasy is able to uncover the marvel in the mundane. In this context, it is not crucial at what we are looking, but how...