Lee, Stuart D. and Elizabeth Solopova, eds.: The Keys of Middle Earth: Discovering Medieval Literature Through the Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien.
Instructors of medieval literature-who have long been aware of connections between a number of Old English, Middle English, and Old Norse literary works and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings--as well as those readers who are familiar with Tolkien's well-loved fictional works but are relatively new to the study of medieval literature, will find this text both useful and entertaining. Lee and Solopova offer an attractive solution to what many have and perhaps still do view as the problem of the "alterity" of medieval literature to modern readers by providing a fresh context in which to discover and explore both well-known and not so well-known Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic poetry and prose. New, line-by-line translations of a cross-section of the corpus of The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and of excerpts from the Poetic Edda make these texts accessible while also providing readers opportunities to engage more fully with the Old English and Norse languages and even to challenge themselves by reading excerpts from such Middle English works as Sir Orfeo, which is not translated into Modern English but rendered in Middle English with copious marginal glosses. The choice to bring in excerpts from Tolkien's fictional works is also a skillful strategy for making the study of medieval works seem more familiar or comfortable to fledgling readers.
Lee and Solopova begin their innovative project with a well-researched general introduction of just over fifty pages, which provides information on not only Tolkien's impressive academic career but also on the history and study of Old English, Middle English, and Old Norse literature and languages. Additionally, the editors provide "five short essays" in which they "cover ... thematic parallels (the quest and the epic), and technical parallels (the use of runes, names and alliterative poetry)" in order to uncover the "sweeping themes and underlying structures" that they believe "strike a chord with those in medieval literature" (25). Lee and Solopova are quick to point out, however, that this project is not intended to be strictly a study of Tolkien's sources; it is instead meant to acquaint readers with "the literature [Tolkien] studied, taught, wrote about and greatly admired" (4).
The essay on the Old English language, included in the general introduction, is useful in that the editors provide neither too little nor too much information for an audience of readers who may be studying Anglo-Saxon literature in translation for the first time but who are at least curious about how the English language once sounded. For example, as an aid for the heightened enjoyment that a new reader might discover in attempting to read Old English aloud, Lee and Solopova include a guide that demystifies the pronunciations of the Old English thorn, eth, and ash symbols and also explains how to articulate such consonant clusters as cg and sc. On the other hand, their essay on Old English meter pales in comparison in that they do not provide clear or sufficient illustrations of the Old English metrical patterns A-E. Lee and Solopova do indeed direct their audience's attention to Edward Sievers's treatment of these five basic patterns in his Altgermanische Metrik; however, readers wishing to understand Old English meter, but unable to read German, would rind their efforts to become more familiar with this peculiar element of Old English poetry frustrating.
The essay that Lee and Solopova provide on runes is also admirable and apt. As the editors themselves note, readers and fans of Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings found their curiosity piqued by Tolkien's inclusion of actual Old German runes on the cover, and, it may be added, in the text of The Hobbit. So, appropriately, in their discussion of runes, the editors anticipate this continued fascination with runes and provide a table that lists, names, and defines the twenty-four runic letters, which "are accompanied in parenthesis by letters representing equivalent Modern English sounds" (32).
One element that the general introduction of The Keys lacks--but that would have been useful and informative (particularly for the audience whom Lee and Solopova seem to have visualized as they compiled this collection)--is more in-depth discussion of medieval manuscript production (paleography). Such an addition would seem logical given that in the prefaces that they provide for of each of the works translated in this collection, Lee and Solopova include at least some commentary on the original manuscripts through which the medieval works have been transmitted to modern readers. Since a significant percentage of the audience for which The Keys is intended would probably have little or no knowledge of manuscript production during the Middle Ages--of the terminology used in the naming and description of such texts, for example, or of the preservation, classification, or even the cataloging of such original manuscripts in the great libraries where they are housed--an essay covering such material in the general introduction of this anthology would certainly be appropriate.
In addition to the general introduction, Lee and Solopova provide prefaces for the individual literary works included in their collection. In each prefatory segment, the editors begin with a summary of events, from one of Tolkien's fictional texts that have been inspired by a particular Old English, Middle English, or Old Norse poem or prosework; then, they provide information on the purpose, historical/cultural/thematic context and dating of the text before presenting the excerpt itself. The selections are organized and, according to the editors, meant to be read in a sequence that follows, chronologically and respectively, chapters in the texts of Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. While this order is especially useful and logical for an audience studying Tolkien and his works in particular, it need not be followed slavishly in a setting wherein The Keys might treated as a supplementary text in a course or course segment that introduces students to medieval literature by way of Tolkien's fiction.
Lee and Solopova provide excerpts from, and in a few cases the entire texts of, fourteen works from Old English, Middle English, and Old Norse, including three separate segments from Part II of the Beowulf poem and selections from Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Eddic Voluspa (the Prophecy of the Seeress). Particularly interesting is the section of The Keys that presents the less commonly known Old Norse Vafpruonismal (the sayings of the giant Vafpruonir) and excerpts from the Old English Soloman and Saturn poem, which the editors include as texts that inspired the memorable chapter in Tolkiens's The Hobbit, wherein Bilbo and Gollum play a game of riddles for possession of the ring of power. And the editors' choice to include The Wanderer in its entirety is also apt, given the wealth of knowledge and insight into Anglo-Saxon culture and thought that this poem provides and given the elements of Old English culture and thought that Tolkien subtly incorporates into his saga of Middle Earth, elements that give his work an added dimension of charm. Lee and Solopova also provide a useful bibliography from which readers desiring more information or complete versions of the texts excerpted in this anthology may draw to further their explorations of the works of Tolkien and of Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English literature. The Keys of Middle Earth will sit well on the bookshelves of academics, students, general readers, and Tolkien fans who wish to learn more about the literary traditions and forms that inspired the fictional works of this well-loved author.
KAY MARSH, Texas Women's University
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2008|
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