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How Not to Study Tolkien

Three books came out recently which are meant to be introductoryapproaches to Tolkien, aimed at the market for high school and public libraries. Two of them are pretty poor efforts, and the third is more interesting, but I'm not sure how successful it is.

The first two are both edited under the auspices of Harold Bloom, the well-known and rather bombastic literary critic. Both books are the latest entries in two large series of books, edited by Bloom and published by Chelsea House. The first, in the series Modern Critical Views, is titled simply J. R. R. Tolkien ($34.95, ISBN 0-7910-5660-0). The second, in the series Modern Critical Interpretations, is called J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings ($34.95, ISBN 0-7910-5665-1), and concerns itself mainly with Tolkien's masterpiece. Bloom himself has contributed only about two pages of material (as introductions, and editor's notes) to each book, while the remaining contents are made up of excerpts from previously published books and articles. Both volumes are greatly overpriced.

Cover of Harold Bloom's J.R.R Tolkien
click on the images to see them close-up

The first one, J. R. R. Tolkien, contains ten articles or excerpts, dating from books published between 1968 and 1984, with most of the criticism from the 1970s. Some of these books (like Paul Kocher's Master of Middle-earth , dating from 1972), were excellent books in their times, but they have been long superceded. Others remain more as curiosities (like Timothy O'Neill's Jungian interpretation, The Individuated Hobbit , published in 1979), while the rationale for using a biographical section from Daniel Grotta-Kurska's uninspired and tedious biography of Tolkien, instead Humphrey Carpenter's entertaining and far more informative book, is beyond me. The section for T.A. Shippey's Road to Middle-earth (1982), is probably the best and most insightful piece in this volume, but it is merely a section from a very interesting full-length study that should be read in its entirety.

What really palls is Harold Bloom's attitude -- a sort of weary sneer. In his Editor's note, he refers to Tom Bombadil "who is a bore" in the same sentence that he misspells Shelob as "Shelab," then he describes Timothy O'Neill as compounding "poor Tolkien with Carl Gustav Jung," and follows this up by calling the mythology of The Silmarillion "rather dense." All in the space of a few sentences. Bloom's introduction centers mainly on The Hobbit (parts of which Bloom actually seems to have enjoyed), but Bloom gives us the magnanimous prediction that he suspects "The Lord of the Rings is fated to become only an intricate Period Piece, while The Hobbit may well survive as Children's Literature."

Cover of Harold
     Bloom's J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
click on the images to see them close-up

The second book, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings , has a really awful cover -- sort of a 1960s drug-induced fantasia of what might be interpreted as a hobbit hole. It contains nine excerpts or essays dating from 1968 through 1981 (though the last essay comes from a revised 1988 edition of a 1981 book). At least in this volume an excerpt from Humphrey Carpenter's biography appears instead of from Daniel Grotta-Kurska's. But again Bloom's smug attitude sets the stage for his curious selections. He evidently chose a piece by Hugh T. Keenan because he thinks it "analyzes the literary flaws of the trilogy." Bloom, in his introduction, calls Roger Sale (who wrote on Tolkien only in the 1960s) "Tolkien's best critic," and observes:

Sale accurately observes that the trilogy purports to be a quest but is actually a descent into hell. Whether a visionary descent into hell can be rendered persuasively in language that is acutely self-conscious, even arch, seems to me a hard question. I am fond of The Hobbit, which is rarely pretentious, but The Lord of the Rings seems to me inflated, over-written, tendentious and moralistic in the extreme. Is it not a giant Period Piece? . . . I am not able to understand how a skilled and mature reader can absorb about fifteen hundred pages of this quaint stuff. . . . Sometimes, reading Tolkien, I am reminded of the Book of Mormon. Tolkien met a need, particularly in the early days of the Counter-culture, in the later 1960s. Whether he is an author for the coming century seems to me open to some doubt.
Harold Bloom is still lost in the mindset that views Tolkien as a phenomenon of the 1960s, as an aberration that spoke to the hippie generation. He is completely unsympathetic to the older literatures (Anglo-Saxon and Norse) that inspired Tolkien, and which led Tolkien to reconstruct heroic romance into a modern genre. And he seems completely unaware of all of the work that has been done on Tolkien, including Christopher Tolkien's marvelous twelve volume series on The History of Middle-earth, since the early 1980s. Bloom is simply twenty years (or more) out of date, and living in the critical past, unwilling or unable to look beyond his long-standing biases. Whether Bloom himself is a critic for the coming century seems to me open to some doubt.

Cover of
     Readings on J. R. R. Tolkien
click on the images to see them close-up

The third of these recent guidebooks is part of the Greenhaven Press Literary Companion Series. It is called Readings on J. R. R. Tolkien, and is edited by Katie de Koster ($21.96, ISBN 0-7377-0245-1). Compared to Harold Bloom, it is like a breath of fresh air, and while it is easily the best of the three volumes considered here, it still has considerable problems of conception and execution. Yet even solely on the basis of its physical appearance, with the very nice photograph of Tolkien on the cover, it stands out as pleasing compared to the Harold Bloom volumes. It contains some fifteen extracts, plus a long, original biographical piece on Tolkien, presumably by the editor. The pieces range in date from 1968 through 1997, when Patrick Curry's worthwhile but slightly glib Defending Middle-earth appeared. However, a note states that "the articles in this volume may have been edited for content, length, and/or reading level. The titles have been changed to enhance the editorial purpose." For example, Edmund Wilson's infamous denunciation of Tolkien, "Oo, Those Awful Orcs," appears here under the title "The Lord of the Rings is Greatly Overrated." Such editorial meddling, and shortening, is really not necessary.

Volumes like these three, made up predominately of excerpts from other books, are really a mishmash, designed to give high school students a few more references to crib from for their assigned papers. A single reading of a source like Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, or T.A. Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth , or better yet The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (a seminal book which Bloom seems blissfully unaware of), will give anyone a much greater understanding and appreciation of Tolkien than any one of these books. In the end, some of the pieces within these three volumes are worthwhile, especially if they happen to encourage readers to search elsewhere for better and more extensive (and up-to-date) considerations. But if one wants to learn more about J. R. R. Tolkien and what he was really doing with his world of Middle-earth, these are not the books to start with.


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