11 November 2015


E. L. Risden. Tolkien's Intellectual Landscape. McFarland, 2015.

The work of J.R.R.Tolkien has had a profound effect on contemporary fiction and film-making. Often disparaged by critics, Tolkien's fiction created a market for the 'fantasy trilogy' and his academic work represents an innovative contribution to the field of philology. In the 20th century, his fiction bridged the gap between 'learned' and 'popular' readerships.
Today the fantasy genre continues to grow, moving energetically into film, gaming and online fan fiction. This book describes how Tolkien's imaginative landscape continues to entertain and inspire, drawing new generations to Middle-earth.

It has been said of Tolkien's greatest and best-known work, The Lord of the Rings, that the world is divided between those who have read it and those who are going to read it. In 2003 it was named as Britain's best-loved novel of all time in a comprehensive survey conducted by the BBC. Since its publication as three volumes in 1954 and 1955 it is now the second best-selling novel of all time, having sold over 150 million copies. Only Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities has sold more copies worldwide, now over 200 million. Peter Jackson's magnificent and highly successful film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings has brought Tolkien's epic to an even greater audience.

Dr Risden's scholarly work is clearly aimed at fellow academics and teachers rather than a popular readership. Unless you already have an extensive working knowledge of literary critics, terminology and subjects this book may seem rather daunting and heavy going in places. It does not help that on many pages the text is laid out in rather long, dense paragraphs that are crying out for a bit more space and variation. One also gets the impression that throughout the text there is some unnecessary repetition of points that have already been made. If a second edition is to follow, improvements could be made by judicious editing and re-arranging to make this worthy book more accessible.

However, having made a few critical comments, I must now say that for lovers of Tolkien's work such as myself there are many great nuggets of insight into Tolkien's themes and techniques to be found here, and much else of great value besides. Risden's 'Intellectual Landscape' is very broad indeed, and he allows himself free rein to examine the cultural and historical context of Tolkien's whole life's work. He even spends several pages waxing lyrical about fractals and cathedrals in relation to Tolkien's style. As Risden says in his introduction: "My study here aims to expand on the context and ideas of Tolkien's work, to stretch the critical compass for additional examination of the landscape of his thought, and to extend the argument that Tolkien's writing fits rather better than one may guess amidst the intellectual movements of his lifetime."

In this regard it must not be forgotten that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was principally a philologist and university professor before he became better known as a fiction writer. He was a natural genius at languages far too numerous to mention here, but including Anglo-Saxon, Old English and Old Norse. Even the learning of Finnish, a notoriously difficult language, was for him a pleasurable hobby. He based his created Elvish high language partly on Finnish.

In Tolkien's particular case as a writer, the word 'fiction' is not entirely appropriate. He created works that may be described as 'classic high fantasy', in which he formulated entire languages, names, characters and worlds that the reader can enter as an alternative reality. Like so many other millions of readers, I will never forget those magical months when, as a teenager, I read the whole of The Lord of the Rings and Middle-Earth became real to me. In fact I had my own Middle-Earth, a vast wild wooded area by the River Irwell in Salford where I grew up. Only in recent years did I discover that Tolkien had his own Middle-Earth during his childhood in Birmingham, particularly Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog. When I visited those places I felt the same magic, that spiritual connection. At the heart of Middle-Earth is, of course, the Shire.

In a newspaper interview Tolkien fondly recalled the area, saying that the Shire was "inspired by a few cherished square miles of actual countryside at Sarehole". From one small area there grew a great world in Tolkien's fertile imagination. Even the name Saruman, the corrupted wizard, may be drawn from Sarehole, where there was a mill which exists to this day and may represent the encroaching industrialisation of the English countryside. This immediately brings William Blake to mind, and Risdale makes these perceptive comments in the chapter 'Afterword: Mechanized Landscape and Spiritual Landscape': "Like William Blake, with whose interest in world creation he had quite a good deal in common (as well as their mutual Christianity, love of England, and love of art-making), he encouraged others to create for themselves: the act of sub-creation continues the creative act of God and represents humans at our best, our most godly, most inspired, most alive."

English readers naturally associate the Shire with England at its best, a 'Merrie England' whose folk live happily on the land and enjoy a peaceful life in villages with friendly ale-houses and tobacco is smoked in pipes. Many academics link Rohan to Mercia, that great Anglo-Saxon nation of the Midlands where Tolkien spent his youth. George Sayer, who wrote the biography of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien's great friend at Oxford University, recalled hiking with Tolkien in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, and said he openly compared some parts there with the White Mountains bordering Rohan and Gondor. On holiday in Venice in 1955, after he had completed The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien remarked that Venice resembled Gondor, and that Gondor's power to build the "gigantic and massive" resembled Ancient Egypt. It has been suggested that the illuminated clock tower at the University of Birmingham, visible across the city, might have inspired the ever-watchful 'Eye of Sauron', the Dark Lord. The towers of Perrott's Folly and Edgbaston Waterworks may well have influenced his descriptions of dark towers.

In a letter to his son Michael, Tolkien wrote that a memorably impressive trek he made through spectacular scenery over mountain paths in Switzerland in 1911 inspired Bilbo Baggins' journey from the Elvish settlement at Rivendell to the Misty Mountains. One further example of real-life experience that deeply affected Tolkien was his service in the British Army during World War I. He admitted that the scenes of devastation and of corpses lying in pools in the Dead Marshes, that so terrified Frodo Baggins, "owed something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme". Many of his closest friends from school died in the First World War.

He later wrote that "all but one" of his close friends had died by 1918. But, as Tolkien wrote in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings: "An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soils of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous".

Risden's study goes much further and deeper than these speculations about where Tolkien got his ideas. In the chapter 'Tolkien as Scholar, Narrator, Stylist' he explains thus: "While critics have plenty to say about Tolkien as philologist, as Christian, as sub-creator mytho-poet, and as post-war writer, the impact of his fiction often so outweighs that of his scholarship that we fail to pay sufficient attention to exactly what he says about the works that influenced him most and perhaps most drove him to creative work of his own. His own particular way of parsing Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight lead us directly to some of the most potent philosophical problems of The Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien had a fondness for saying his fiction wasn't really about anything, that he sought in it an integrity of plot, character, and world all its own, any writer who begins as a scholar inevitably brings a toolbox - I won't say baggage - from his or her scholarly world to a fictional construction project. He did so perhaps mostly as a protection against rude questions."

The acknowledged greatest living expert on Tolkien and his work is Tom Shippey, a British scholar of medievalism, medieval literature including Anglo-Saxon, fantasy literature and science fiction. He first met Tolkien in 1972 in Oxford. They both had much in common, both academically and personally. Shippey acted as a consultant to dialect coaches working on Peter Jackson's film The Lord of the Rings. Risden quotes extensively from Shippey, and here provides us with a keen insight into the reasons for Tolkien's enduring and increasing popularity. "In Author of the Century Shippey pursues the reasons why several British polls placed Tolkien or The Lord of the Rings at the top of their list for most important, influential, and/or enjoyable writers or works of the twentieth century." 

Shippey suggests that the reason is that Tolkien, and a few other authors including C.S. Lewis and George Orwell,were "deeply involved in the most traumatically significant events of the century ... and had to find some way of communicating and commenting on them." Tolkien stands out among those authors as master philologist, a subject which he knew better "than anyone else in the world" ... "Intense interest in and attention to language increase the potential of story."

Risden quotes and compares many literary critics and sources, giving argument and counter-argument from the academic world. That Tolkien's fiction has drawn negative criticism may surprise those who thoroughly enjoy and appreciate it, but Risden explains it in this way: "Tolkien's work draws attack, I suspect, because those who think themselves above it fear its lack of sexual-identity questions, existential angst, and self-obsession. Tolkien's work is less about Tolkien than nearly any fiction from any time or anywhere is about its author, despite the fact that it comes largely from his own imagination. It deals with his world, not with him."

Tolkien stands apart from most of his fellow twentieth century authors who "rejected what they saw as the staid, weak, overly serious and narrow humanism and manners of the late Victorians and Edwardians in favour of a preoccupation with style, ornament, splendor and high manners. They maintained an interest in a kind of realism of the rich, traveled, and influential classes ... one can see why Tolkien would have nothing in common with them, and they would have taken no interest in him. He looked like a thoroughly conservative academic philologist with a devotion to Roman Catholicism and his own abiding narrative with deep grounding in the great perennial, perplexing questions of human existence - and he was." Risden states that among those other authors, only Ian Fleming, for his influence in the spy genre, Graham Greene for his novels, and to a lesser extent George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh have maintained a presence in popular culture.

It is perhaps in the chapter 'Good and Evil, Choice and Control' where Risden best expresses the real essence of Tolkien's uniqueness and cultural value. "The twentieth century had much to say and much to show about the nature - and practice - of good and evil. It had much to teach about leadership, and about how we follow leaders, good and bad (mostly bad). Tolkien saw a great deal of evil, and of leadership problems, in person."

Perhaps in all of Tolkien's creations the greatest embodiment of wisdom is Gandalf, but along with that quality come courage, integrity and loyalty to friends and to the cause

It is in Aragorn, one of the central characters of The Lord of the Rings, where we find the issues and dilemmas of leadership perfectly embodied. "Aragorn has willingness to serve and eagerness to lead - the tasks to which in Tolkien's world he was born - but he will not take power except with the consent of the governed and having proved himself worthy of it ... Gandalf, similarly, has in his nature both to serve and lead, but knowing the dangers that leadership engenders for one as powerful as he, he tries instead to inspire others to lead..."

These themes of leadership, moral dilemmas, the meaning of friendship and community, the dangers and corrupting effects of power and temptation, the yearning for peace and how to maintain it, are all the very stuff of Tolkien's world. In the twenty-first century, as more crises and conflicts arise around the world, communities are tending to fragment and the powers that be seem intent on producing yet more of the same, these issues are ever more relevant and urgent.

As with all the greatest literature, from Greek Tragedy to writers such as Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Tolkien, its lasting gift is not mere entertainment or diversion. The presentation of characters, with all their inner conflicts, fears, hopes and wishes, and the situations with which they are presented, can give the reader the greatest gift of all: wisdom. Perhaps in all of Tolkien's creations the greatest embodiment of wisdom is Gandalf, but along with that quality come courage, integrity and loyalty to friends and to the cause. Gollum, one of Tolkien's most interesting and memorable character creations, is by contrast a self-conflicted individual who can be very nasty indeed yet has some redeeming and somewhat endearing qualities. At the end, Gollum falls to his complete annihilation, whereas Gandalf, after his fall to destruction, comes back resurrected. Frodo, the hero of the story who so nearly fails at the end, is left permanently injured. His end, with Gandalf, is not death but a transition to another world.

Whatever we are facing in the world at this time, even the threat of apocalypse, Risden has wise words here that neatly encapsulate the significance of individual roles within the cosmic drama:

"...the potential for the greatest evil occurs within Mount Doom when Frodo nearly fails to destroy the Ring: without Sam and, most ironically, Gollum, he probably would have failed, as might any of us in such a circumstance. The apocalyptic moment, Tolkien might have said, comes for all, even the smallest of us, and tests each one. The apocalyptic world is as much personal as it is cosmological." -- Kevin Murphy


For another Magonian view on Tolkien see Facts, Fraud and FairytalesMUFOB New Series 9, Winter 1977-78

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