In 1936 J.R.R. Tolkien made acomment about Beowulf that could as easily be applied to his own work. Assessing the state of Beowulfcriticism at the time, he said,"It is possible . . . to be moved by the power of myth and yet to misunderstand the sensation, to ascribe it wholly to something else that is also present" (MC 15-16). Tolkien was challenging the then-current critical opinion that Beowulf was an important poem in spite of its fantastic content, which featured battles withogres and dragonswhere the critics would have preferred more realistic human foes. His point was that the power lies precisely in those ogres and dragons rather than mere human opponents,which best embody and support the poem's pervasive theme that lif is læne: eal sceaceƒ liht and if somod, "life is loan: all perishes, light and life together" (MC 18), the inevitability of death asthe central tragedy and ultimate foe of human life.In short, said Tolkien, readerlyresponse to Beowulf was unforced and genuine, while critical assessment was based on the mis-assumption that it ought to have been something else.
We have only to turn to a certain school of negative critical response to The Lord f the Ringsto see how the same commentmight apply toTolkien's own work. Critics skeptical ofthe power of his mythos have deplored its fantastic content, ascribingits popularityprecisely to the kind of fantastic elements the critics of Beowulf deplored, to the enchantment and arresting strangeness of hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, and talking treeswhich are its surface and most salient features. And it is true that readers meeting at first hand a work so full of marvelscould and often do"misunderstand the sensation," their attentioncaptured by the fantasy as such with little awareness ofits more serious implications. Nevertheless, as with the early audience of Beowulf,they are in fact responding at a deeper level than they realize to a more profound content than they are consciously aware of, to a narrativecontent that transcendsthe novelty of fantasy to touch the heights and depths of human hope and despair.
As the fantastic nature of the monsters of Beowulf tended to obscure their deeper representation of the "hostile world and the offspring of the dark," so the fairy tale aspects of Tolkien's legendarium tend to overshadowtheir contribution to that story's more seriouslevel of meaning. Both stories are ultimately about loss and death. The fantasy elements of Tolkien's imagination are, like the monsters of Beowulf, valuable not just because they are fantastic, but becausetheir fantasyis the vehicle for themore somber, indeed tragic theme ofmortality,of death as the end of human life. For all its beer-and-mushroom hobbitry, its epic battles and fairy taleaventures in mysterious woods, the real strength of The Lord of the Ringsresides in its dark side, its concern—carried over from its parent mythology of the Silmarillion—with death and deathlessness.
Like a deeply buried substrate of ore, loss, mortality, and death lie beneath the surface of Tolkien's entire corpus,and without this deeper level the surface would collapse, for it is the encounter of Tolkien's characters, even his immortal Elves, with the loss and impermanence of life on earth that gives his work its substance. The need for serious study of this substrate is obvious and indeed overdue, and it is to address this need thatthe present essays have been gathered. They are a major contribution to our growing understanding of Tolkien's fiction and our appreciation of its importance not just for his own time but beyond.
The essays in this collection, all by serious scholars in the field,are part of a current and very welcome wave in Tolkien criticism. Until recently much of the scholarship devoted to Tolkien has focused on the variety of his invention, the completeness and integrity of his Secondary World, the complexity of his languages, and the relationship of his mythos to medieval epic, romance and fairy tale. Though the situation has changed for the better in recent years, there has been as well a general tendency to focus on Tolkien's magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, with less attention paid to fitting that into the larger legendarium, and still less attention given to the shorter stories and poems which though different in form, nevertheless are concerned with the same theme. All these writings are part of a web of relationships woven into one another and into the larger issues of history and theology and philosophy, and it is these larger issues with which the present collection is concerned.
The collection begins with Franco Manni'sdensely packed and carefully argued"An Eulogy of Finitude: Anthropology, Eschatology and Philosophy of History in Tolkien." This is an examination of the relationship between the circumstances of Tolkien's life (early deaths of parents and close friends, two World Wars) and the deeply philosophical currents which, though seldom if ever explicitly named as such,inform his work, currents which Manni describes as " themes which are central to the philosophical tradition: ethics, aesthetics, anthropology, history, and religion."
Claudio Testi's essay on the legendarium as a meditatio mortisclosely examines the entire corpus, from the earliest and most mythic Lost Tales of 1917 to suchpost-Lord of the Rings writings as thelate-century "Athrabêth" (the most overtly theological discussion in all Tolkien's stories) and the more anthropological "Laws and Customs Among the Eldar." Testi sees these late, philosophical writings as addressing the question raisedin the earlier writings by the existence of Tolkien's two races of Elves and Men, races with conflicting attitudes toward death. His essay provides a consideration of the emotional, practical, and philosophical issues thus raised.
Roberto Arduini'sessay "Tolkien, Death and Time: The Fairy Story Within the Picture,"matches Tolkien's theory with his art by showing the interconnection between the essay "On Fairy-stories" and his short story, "Leaf by Niggle." This approach is further amplified in Lorenzo Gammarelli's analysis of the theme of loss and bereavement in Tolkien's shorter works, a miscellany including "Aotrou and Itroun";"Imram"; "The Stone Troll"; "The Mewlips"; the two "Man in the Moon" poems, and some of the darker poems from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, "The Sea-bell"; "The Hoard"; "Shadow-bride"; and "The Last Ship." Smith of Wootton Major and "Bilbo's Last Song" round out the discussion.
Taking as his text Tolkien's comment in the letter to Milton Waldman that his work was concerned mainly with "Fall, Mortality, and the Machine," Alberto Ladavasillustrates "The wrong path of the sub-creator" through Tolkien's treatment of the people of Númenor and the Ringwraiths, all of whom are prey to the evil of possessiveness, both of life and of art, which leads to the "Machine," domination, the exertion of power of which the Ring is the supreme example.
Moving between the Primary World and Tolkien's Secondary World, Simone Bonechi places Tolkien's treatment of his fictive dead within the context of Britain's commemoration of its dead from the two great wars of the 20th century, and uses this perspective from which to consider the variety of funeral rites enactedin The Simarillion and The Lord of the Rings.
Andrea Monda's essay focuses on Escape from death,and on Memory as a kind of Escape, examining these in the context of Tolkien's treatments of longevity, or longaevitas, in The Lord of the Rings. Elves, Hobbits, Denethor, Saruman, Treebeard, Tom Bombadil, and the Ring itself embody aspects either positive or negative of Escape and Memory, and all are parts of Tolkien's theme.
Returning to the "Athrabêth" in his second essay in the collection, Claudio Testi addresses the logical structure of Tolkien's dialectic in thismost dialectical of all Tolkien's stories,a very late writing and surely the most explicit example of argumentation in the whole legendarium. This thanatology isnot so much a summing-up as an unresolveddebatebetween Finrod and Andreth representing Elves and Men, raising but not answering each other'squestions about death and deathlessness. Resolved or unresolved, the "Athrabêth"is an important text, both theologically and philosophically, as Testi shows: "a synthesis of profound literary and theoretical importance."
Giampaolo Canzonieri's essay, the last in the volume, takes a somewhat different approach, analyzing,in terms of differences between Tolkien's Men and Elves, the dualism of death and painin place of the more conventional dualism of death and immortality as treated in the other essays.
These contributors, and the editors who brought them together, are to be congratulated on making available to a wide audience of Tolkien readers and scholars a collection whose strength lies in its variety within consistency: not simply in the authors' varying approaches to Tolkien's theme of death and immortality, but in the range of works considered in that context—from minor and little-read poems and stories in defunct periodicals, often now difficult of access, to the more popular works by which his name is known.
In his Foreword to the 1977 Simarillion Christopher Tolkien observed that the old legends of his father's mythos became over time the carriers of his most profound reflections, while the later writings tended to replace mythology and poetry withmore theological and philosophical concerns. The present volume strives to bring togetherthe poetic and philosophical aspects of Tolkien's work, further to connectboth to Tolkien's own comments on death and immortality in his letters, and finally to show all three asvariouscomponentsof the same essential concept—all the offspring of Tolkien's thought, as the Ainur were the offspring of Eru's.