A Blog of Book Reviews

These book reviews are also featured on my blog, Scorpion Stalking Duck. Here they are distilled out of the rest of the posts, kind of like that scum at the top of a pot full of boiled potatoes. The title of this blog - and the quote above - come from the forward of Hillaire Belloc's book, The Path to Rome.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources

Tolkien and the Study of His Sources

Edited by Jason Fisher

McFarland & Company, 2011

I finally broke down and let one of the children buy Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.  I did insist that only those who have read the books would be allowed to watch the movie, though.  So on a lazy afternoon, with popcorn and drinks at hand, two of my sons and I settled in to watch the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring.  Although the movie was good, it still left out so much of the book that I finished watching it with a feeling of disappointment, and a desire to go back and read the books again.  I also had to admire the beauty and complexity of Tolkien's work, and not for the first time I had to ask myself, 'what was he thinking when he wrote this book?'

Jason Fisher's book, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources, answers this question by looking at where he received the inspiration for his epic tales.  While I personally see it as a story influenced heavily by Tolkien’s Catholic Faith, many of the contributors to this book indicate that there are other, some older, sources which were used in his writings.  The Old Testament, Greek mythology, Barbarian tribes which conquered Europe, and even more recent authors such as George MacDonald are all implicated as sources of inspiration for the Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.       I found it curious that Tolkien himself discouraged the very discipline which makes up this fascinating book.  Several of the contributors acknowledged this while making a good argument for this literary endeavor.  Tom Shippey said it best with this rationalization:

“It is true, as they say, that you do not have to have the recipe to appreciate a cake: (sic) but it is also true that you can learn a lot from seeing what a great cook has in his kitchen.”

J.R.R. Tolkien is a fascinating man in so many ways.  This book sheds light on just one aspect of this man’s life.  For those who are true enthusiasts of literature, and particularly Tolkien, this book is indeed a treasure.  In this day where the greatest literary works appear to be stories of vampires and werewolves, it is sad to think that there are not more authors around who will tackle such subjects as the burden shouldered by Frodo at the end of the book The Return of the King:

“Alas!  there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,” said Gandalf.

“I fear it may be so with mine,” said Frodo.  “There is no real going back.  Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same.  I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden.  Where shall I find rest?”

Gandalf did not answer.

One comment I would have to make about this book is that it is extremely esoteric at times.  I had to constantly refer to online sources (that is a nice way to say Wikipedia) to understand what the author was talking about in each chapter.  Still, this book is an excellent starting point for those interested in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Then there is this aberration, which is also part of the fascination with all things Tolkien:

Consider that all of these pretty young women are probably grandmothers now:

"Grandma, tell us again how you danced around with Leonard Nimoy, singing about a Hobbit?"

"Not now, dear. Grannie is tired."

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