Flieger, Verlyn. Green Suns and Faerie: Essays on Tolkien.
Verlyn Flieger, grande dame of Tolkien studies, has been writing on Tolkien for more than thirty years and reading him for more than fifty. She is co-editor of the journal Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. This collection, her fourth book with Kent State University Press, combines nineteen previously-published (including one originally appearing in The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts) and six new essays from the period 1981-2012. Across three sections, the twenty-five essays explore subjects broad and narrow, playful and serious, but always engaging and often instructive.
The first section, "Tolkien Sub-creator," contains eight essays explaining the believable, realistic, and internally consistent "Secondary World" of Tolkien's Middle-earth. Here and elsewhere in the collection Flieger uses Tolkien's programmatic essay "On Fairy-stories" as a constant touchstone. Though fantastic, Tolkien's Middle-earth makes sense in itself and connects to the real "Primary World" the rest of us inhabit. Hobbits, elves, and orcs, plausible in context, are recognizably and typically human, while Middle-earth is also our earth. Like us, Tolkien's men (and hobbits) make free choices that determine their destinies.
"Tolkien and the Idea of the Book" considers Tolkien's "intentional, interconnected efforts to bridge the fictive world of the story and the outside, real world, to connect inside with outside and fantasy with actuality through the idea of the book" (43). Tolkien made a physical book in his fictive world, the Red Book of Westmarch, the source for what was later published in the real world. As a medievalist, Tolkien knew about manuscript transmission and textual criticism; more specifically, in the 1930s, the Winchester Manuscript of Thomas Malory's Arthurian Morte D'Arthur was discovered. Tolkien, then, had general and specific models for presenting himself as compiler of his fiction, rather than as author, the original compilers and authors being the hobbits Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam. His authorial conceit thus derives from the real-world transmission histories of actual medieval manuscripts and indicates his abiding interest not only in stories but in the tellers of stories and the transmission of stories. Stories may be told by multiple voices, none of them necessarily authoritative, as multiple manuscript copies may witness a single text.
The second section, "Tolkien in Tradition," contains ten essays treating the influence of medieval literature (its characters, genres, geographies, and languages) on Tolkien's fiction and mythology. "Tolkien's Wild Men from Medieval to Modern" transitions nicely from section one, specifying not only Tolkien's fantastic characters' connections to the human condition but also their reworking of medieval character types. For instance, outsider characters in Tolkien (e.g., Strider, Turin, Frodo) are like the stock medieval "Wild Man of the Woods," but more complex and alienated, especially Gollum who becomes not just wild but a "schizophrenic" (125). Tolkien reimagines the medieval Wild Man "into a figure at once medieval, modern, and timeless" (126) who can reveal aspects of the human condition as well as something about Tolkien's use of medieval sources.
Some of this section, and much of the collection, emphasizes Tolkien's desire to write a mythology for England, which he felt lacked an appropriate one. Comparable to the above-described influence of the Malory manuscript on Tolkien's authorial method, Tolkien also was influenced by medieval Arthurian legend as a whole, sometimes referred to as the "Matter of Britain" because it concerns the legendary history of Britain. Tolkien found the Matter of Britain insufficient as a mythology for England, and so he reworked it, more or less unconsciously, into his own mythology for England, removing its explicit Christianity and overly fantastical elements. We might consider Tolkien's fiction the "Matter of Middle-earth," doubling as a national mythology. Thus, Tolkien enriches his writing in both general and specific ways with his knowledge and use of medieval literature.
The third section, "Tolkien and His Century," contains seven essays showing that while Tolkien was steeped in the Middle Ages and its literature he was also very much a man and writer of his time. We must study him as both and not reduce him to either. While the medieval provided inspiration and models, the modern provided crucial contexts, in particular Tolkien's experiences with war. Tolkien's mythology for England "presents a picture of a culture in decline, torn by dissension and split by factions, a society perpetually at war with itself" (238). It is a bleak scene more like Orwell's 1984 than like escapist fantasy, with Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings having become a soldier returning home with posttraumatic stress disorder.
There is much death in Tolkien's Secondary World, as there was in his Primary World. "Gilson, Smith, and Baggins" suggests the wartime deaths of Tolkien's closest friends caused him to become distraught and to ask himself, perhaps as one suffering survivor's guilt, tough questions about life, death, fate, and ambition. These thoughts and the war that caused them influenced Tolkien's fiction and allies Tolkien with war writers of his generation more than is usually granted.
"The Mind, the Tongue, and the Tale" argues for Tolkien's connection to the intellectual climate of his century, specifically current theories about meaning in language. For him "language, stories, and storytellers together make up an interlocking, interdependent system" (242). Tolkien got this idea from a school of linguistic thought associated most immediately with language philosopher and fellow Inkling Owen Barfield. Tolkien, himself a sort of philosopher of language, put these principles to work in his fiction of Middle-earth, for though he loved language and languages, "He was a practitioner, not a theorist" (250).
The book concludes with bibliographical information for reprinted essays, brief notes for all the essays, a works cited section, and a detailed index.
This is a welcome and successful collection without major problems. Flieger commands a broad, deep grasp of Tolkien's evolving and interconnected corpus, not just the most popular books, as well as relevant scholarship on Tolkien and his influences. While making localized literary arguments, she contributes to larger discussions about Tolkien's autobiography, ideas, politics, and theology. Her prose is clear and a pleasure to read, simple but detailed and intellectually complex when necessary. She offers frequent insights, and her arguments, though once in a while supported by overstatement, convince without being strident. She is linguistically sensitive, and there is something very humanistic about her writing.
Minor problems include the repetition of ideas and quotations perhaps inevitable in a single-author collection written over so many years. Support for a few of the arguments is sometimes problematic or weak. For instance, "Tolkien and the Idea of the Book" ignores the fact that many medieval manuscripts, not just the Winchester Malory, were written in black and red ink. Sometimes there are unfortunate formulations, as when Flieger refers to "Woden, the Germanic counterpart of Odin" (144) as if Norse were not Germanic.
My main negative comment (in no way ad hominem) concerns sentiments that the collection endorses and that elsewhere get carried away by other scholars to extremes. At times the grande dame becomes a fawning fangirl, repeatedly praising the genius of Tolkien's authorial intentions (though she states Tolkien himself was against the tyranny of the author). Some sentiments border on hero worship and special pleading, as when she says the job of Tolkien scholars is to "labor to enhance without dissecting his vision" (53) or she apologizes for the inferior early portions of The Hobbit. We must remember that, however realistic, Tolkien's Secondary World is not real. We cannot live in Rivendell. Tolkien's work brings enjoyment and rewards study, but we should not try to claim that Tolkien is as great as Chaucer, deserving more scholarly sessions at a medievalists' conference than The Canterbury Tales or Beowulf. Of lesser note are minor typographical errors and other issues related to formatting and printing.
Green Suns and Faerie should find a wide audience of Tolkien lovers and medievalists. Readers new to Tolkien will find much to inspire them and help them understand how rich Tolkien's fiction can be. Scholars of Tolkien and medievalists who know him through his scholarship will find material to edify and challenge them. It is a book to read for instruction and pleasure.
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|Author:||Zwikstra, Corey J.|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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