The Uncharted Realms of Tolkien

A Book Review


by Franco Manni-(TV)

Copyright: October 9, 2002



    This substantial work (250 pages of small type), jointly written by Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie, is subtitled: “A Critical Study of Text, Context and Subtext in the Works of JRR Tolkien”.  The authors emphasize that the title was chosen “with great care”; “uncharted” because the Tolkienian territories they wish to explore are unfamiliar.  They use the metaphor of a tapestry (the works of JRRT) composed of many different threads, some already well known (philology, history, geography, politics and mythology) and others to now be added: folklore, the fantastic setting, non Middle-earth elements and gender.

    In the first chapter the two major categories of  story are defined (according to whether or not the events take place “within the map” or “off the map” of known History) : “story as history” and “fantasy”. Numerous works from Homer onwards are analysed on the basis of this distinction.  And Tolkien?  He operates both on and off the map.  In the Lord of the Rings (LotR), we have history, in a time before it was written down, in a definite region: the north-west of the Old World (i.e. Europe). […] The Shire is equated geographically with, even though there is no English Channel […] Readers could equate the Misty Mountains with the Alps.  Tolkien himself […] suggested that Minas Tirith in Gondor was around the same location as Genoa in Italy. Yet it cannot be denied that the places are “fantastic” and “off the map”.      


    The effect is similar to that in Homer’s Odyssey;  places such as Scylla and Charybdis, the island of Polyphemus, Circe, Ogygia and the island of the Phaeacians are of mixed ontology: both known and unknown.

    It is suggested in the second chapter that one of Tolkien’s sources of inspiration may have been a work which was well known in the early twentieth century, Alexander von Humboldt’s Journeys through the Equinoctial Regions.  Humboldt (1769-1859) was a naturalist and explorer and made contributions to meteorology, geophysics and  oceanography; he made a 5-year-long voyage from Spain to the Canary Islands, Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia, ascended the volcano Chimborazo in Ecuador and explored the entire length of the Orinoco River and most of the Amazon River system.  He arrived in South America a believer in the theory of Neptunism (all rocks are sedimentary in origin) and then became convinced of the correctness of Plutonism (mountains are formed by violent upheaval); some of his descriptions resemble those of Mordor and Mount Doom, written by Tolkien.  Von Humboldt’s catastrophism is reflected in the history of Arda, where the transition between the Ages is marked by violent upheavals (the fall of the Lamps, the War of Wrath, the collapse of Númenor and the explosion of Mount Doom).  Similarities are demonstrated  between Humboldt’s account of his ascent of Chimborazo and the descriptions of the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit (HOB) and the Caradhras in LotR.  

    The third chapter deals with the inspiration Tolkien drew from English folklore.  It starts by demythologizing the idea (widespread in the late 19th and early 20th century) that the “countryside” is a timeless and unchanging entity, a notion that could only be entertained by idealistic town dwellers who had never lived in the country.  On the contrary, when  an honest Yorkshireman was asked […] if things were much different to fifty years  ago, he replied that […] nothing was the same…


    In Tolkien this recognition of change is to be seen in the way he recounts the history of the Shire.  Like a Medieval historian, he had a clear idea of  the discontinuity of tradition which resulted from  invasions; this is evident when he describes the Wild Men or the Woses.  It is for the same reason that he differs from Frazer (The Golden Bough), who depicts “paganism” as “dark and bloody”, well beyond  what might have been arguable from the available evidence.  Tolkien describes pagan (non-Christian) cultures as neither dark nor bloody.  Furthermore, Frazer and his followers “wanted” to believe that paganism was preserved unchanged in folklore, whereas Tolkien, who possessed greater factual knowledge, knew that this was untrue and that successive waves of Christianization had profoundly modified popular legend.

    The fourth chapter discusses the haunting of the landscape in myth and legend and declares its opposition to the commonly held view that “by now, after the industrial revolution, the English countryside has been ‘cleansed’ of all haunting”.  The authors cite numerous rural legends in circulation today with regard to “mysterious happenings” in rural England, attributed, for example, to long-dead Saxons whose burial grounds are disturbed. Tolkien drank in this feeling, still present,  of the haunting of landscapes, and many examples from his writings are given.

    In the fifth chapter the authors explain that myth was responsible for the birth of Hobbits not as rabbits (as found in rural legends, see the discussion in Shippey’s book, JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century), but rather as …badgers!

    The sixth chapter consists of a profound, detailed and absolutely convincing analysis of The Hobbit  which shows that the origin of this novel is completely independent of the “Legendarium” of the Silmarillion (SIL) and how it was only after the LotR was written that HOB began to be drawn into the Legendarium.  The authors expound upon their thesis concerning the editorial transformations of HOB; this account has been anticipated since the 1992 Oxford Centenary Conference and  here, at last, it is.  Initially, neither HOB nor LotR were set in the Middle Earth of the SIL.  The change was due to the publication and success of HOB and the subsequent request for a sequel; this became “enormous and monstrous” in the hands of Tolkien (whose primary concern was to publish SIL) and gradually absorbed both HOB and the sequel - which was, by now, LotR – into the Legendarium.

    Various inconsistencies in HOB are reviewed : the Trolls’ talking purses, for example, (absurd in the Middle Earth where there are only two talking swords, forged by Eol the Dark Elf) and the numerous Elven-rings scattered about.  The authors point out that one of these purses could potentially have become (with the capital letter)  the Purse of LotR, much as one of the HOB rings became the Ring of LotR.

    The seventh chapter, which is longer and  more detailed than the previous one, continues this argument (Tolkien’s two novels were not created from the Middle Earth, but ended up there) with an analysis of LotR.  The material is considered from the viewpoint of the 45 year old Tolkien embarking upon what was still the sequel to a children’s story, the “New Hobbit”, and not the 60 year old author who drew all the conceptions together by the end of LotR.


    The publisher, who had refused Tolkien’s request to publish SIL, suggested that he use it as a “mine” for  books similar to HOB.  In the end there was a compromise; SIL was not published, but the “loans” to the New Hobbit were so significant that the story became progressively darker and was no more a children’s tale.  Tolkien told his publisher in 1938 that he was finding it only too easy to write the opening chapters (from the world of HOB) but that for the moment “the story is not unfolding”.  Gandalf no longer provided inspiration, because at that time neither he nor the Istari are mentioned in SIL,  they were inserted, due to the evolution of LotR’s plot, in 1950.  In the beginning the most important link between HOB and SIL was Bilbo, whom Tolkien  wanted to give the role of Eriol (the Elves’ friend in the Lost Tales), which was to find the Elves and listen to their stories.  But it did not remain thus: Bilbo was marginalized, Gandalf took the centre stage and new characters, Frodo and Aragorn, appeared.

It should be noted, however, that although the story of HOB was absorbed into the SIL Legendarium, SIL itself was modified; the map of  Middle Earth was enlarged to join Beleriand (of SIL) together with the places referred to in HOB and, as LotR progressed, the Third Age was constructed : in 1948 Tolkien still thought that the events in HOB were close to the Last Alliance between Gil-Galad and Elendil!  In about 1950-51 Tolkien  saw clearly that the Lord of the Rings, originally expected to be a sequel to The Hobbit, [is rather a sequel] to The Silmarillion. Not merely a sequel to, but a reconstruction of, SIL.  The authors emphasize and illustrate how it was in the Appendices to LotR that there emerged a comprehensive historical structure of the Second and Third Ages.  Even Akallabêth (which tells of the destruction of Númenor) post-dates the writing of LotR, appearing only in the Appendices!


    What can be said, perhaps, after studying the History of the Middle-earth  in tandem with the Letters of Tolkien and Carpenter’s Biography, is that a highly complex individual emerges.  Tolkien seems to have divided his writings into what one might call “serious” and  “trivial” – and there was a huge gulf between the two that finally LotR bridged.

The “trivial” creations of Tolkien would have probably constituted Roverandom, Mr Bliss, The Hobbit, Farmer Giles of Ham and the Father Christmas Letters.  These are characterised by a large comedic content and that they seem aimed at children.  They were indeed created for his own children.  [LotR blends the “trivial” with the “serious”], with the hobbits acting as “mediators” as Shippey and Carpenter describe them, between the modern world and the old high style of ancient days.


    Things could have gone differently. Tolkien, as a result of the pact with his friend C. S. Lewis (he was to write a “time” story and Lewis a “space” story), had intended to incorporate the Númenorean material into a novel called the Lost Road, a work which was to have linked the legendary SIL material with real history from the Fourth Age (instead, this happened later in LotR).  But there was an unforeseen  disturbance: HOB was published, was successful , a sequel was called for and Tolkien began work on it.


    Between 1944 and 1946 Tolkien had a change of heart; he could not write too dark a sequel to HOB (such as that which was developing), but did not wish to abandon “serious” writing for “trivial” material and so interrupted work on the New Hobbit and took up once more the  idea of the Lost Road, turning into the Notion Club Papers.  But when this “serious” book seemed to be getting nowhere, Tolkien returned to the “trivial” hobbits and allowed the floodgates to open; a great deal of material from both the Beleriand and  Númenor traditions was incorporated into a work (LotR) which became by definition “serious”, but retained the Shire and the hobbits and their point of view (The Red Book of Westmarch).


    The eighth chapter considers the character Tom Bombadil.  Who is Tom? The “Maia” and “Vala” hypotheses are rejected, together with the audacious “Ilúvatar” theory (it is true that Goldberry says “He is” of Tom, but, as the authors rightly point out, in his cartoons Popeye the Sailor-Man often says “I am what I am,” without any pretence to being Yahweh).  It is instead proposed that he is a personage who does belong to the fantasy world of Middle Earth (Tom Bombadil is mentioned neither in the Ages which precede the LotR events, nor in the introduction to the Fourth Age), but rather that he is connected with the actual England in which Tolkien lived.  The authors suggest that he is based on the medieval Green Knight and a red-haired, sparkling-eyed figure from North English folklore called  the Brown Man o’ the Muirs, a vegetarian who rebukes the hunters who search for prey on his land,  threatening the creatures in his care.


    Tom is an element from the “hobbit” material of LotR, whom Tolkien never wished to integrate into the SIL Legendarium.  Tom seems to be the embodiment of a “pure” natural science ; he is the spirit  that desires knowledge of other things inasmuch as they are “other” and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a rational spirit which desires knowledge as an end in itself : zoology and botany, not cattle-breeding or agriculture.  But the authors underline (almost repeating sir Karl Popper’s maxim):  

No theory (this one included!) is ever The Truth; they exist to be challenged, and that is how disciplines move forward.


    In the ninth to eleventh chapters (entitled “Realms of Gender”) the authors deal with issues concerning gender in Tolkien’s works.  They point out that in LotR and Unfinished Tales there are many “strong” female characters, no female figures at all in HOB (a book which was written for his own sons when they were young) and few (but “strong”) females in LotR.  By “strong” they mean women who are not dependent in their decisions upon men or bound by family or social conventions, able to enter into conflict in their search for their independence and to achieve their goals.  Although these figures of womanhood may not seem “liberated” according to our standards in the year 2000,  if we examine them against the background of  the majority of twentieth-century narrative, they stand out for their nonconformism.


    Furthermore, in the description of a certain female character, the criticism of a certain type of feminism which Tolkien disliked (that of Virginia Woolf, the authors state) may be discerned.  This is Erendis, wife of Aldarion, the Mariner King of Númenor. Erendis, in a grotesque inversion of the male stereotype according to which the woman ought to dissolve into the man and his interests, wants Aldarion to live only for her and abandon every other interest and vocation.  This tyrannical will of Erendis causes much damage to her daughter and to Númenor itself.

The feminism Tolkien criticises is that which does not limit itself to establishing the importance of  specific female interests, but which considers masculine interests narrow-minded and ridiculous or disgusting and believes males to be nothing but overgrown children who amuse themselves stupidly with their endless game of war.


    In the last chapter a comparison is made between Tolkien and Shakespeare, both innovative and influential authors in English literature.  Both lived through grave political crises: Shakespeare during the attempted invasion by Philip II’s Invincible Armada (if it had succeeded, the religious tolerance of Elizabeth I would have ended and episodes like the St. Bartholomew Massacres in France would have followed).  Tolkien lived during Hitler’s attempt to invade England  in order to export his ferocious totalitarianism and wipe out the last trace of liberty in Europe.


    Both writers had other, principal, occupations: Shakespeare was an actor and theatrical company director, Tolkien an academic philologist, and their peers underrated their secondary activities (respectively playwright and novelist).  The works of neither were recognised as “high literature” by the critics of the time, but rather as “popular literature”.  Both were innovators: Shakespeare did not use the customary stock figures (the King, the King’s Son, etc.), but rather, individual characters (Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.).  Tolkien created the fantasy genre using the technique of “intralacement”, as has been clearly demonstrated by Tom Shippey in his analysis of  “The Council of Elrond” chapter in LotR.   


    Both liked poetry and wrote it ably.  Both were interested in how, at the heart of individual, private matters, important forces are born which then influence the public sphere of major historical events.  Both lead fairly ordinary private lives without dramatic interruptions and were made into myths, Shakespeare by nineteenth-century critics and Tolkien by his fans (“a deplorable cult”, he said), in homage to the Romantic  stereotype of “genius” according to which the life of the genius should be remarkable.  Lastly, both left works which can be enjoyed by readers from different epochs and cultures. Just as Shakespeare’s plays do not age, LotR continues to receive an enthusiastic reception from generations well after the nineteen-fifties (in contrast with, for example, the novels of C. S. Lewis, overly tied to contemporary events and tastes).  



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