Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits.
Dmitra Fimi's Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History is a strong addition to the growing field of Tolkien studies. Based on her doctoral dissertation, it has some residual qualities that can detract: a need early on to defend its method of criticism, transitional chapters that add little to the overall argument, and rather pedestrian statements of what will be proven in each section. Nevertheless, the work as a whole is rich in background and has the grace to avoid too much theoretical jargon. After an introductory chapter, she divides her investigation into three parts: Tolkien's early corpus in relation to Victorian and Edwardian fairies; the philologist's invented languages in relation to early twentieth-century views of linguistics, phonetics, and universal languages; and his invented world in relation to nineteenth- and twentieth-century expressions of history, race, and material culture. What holds this collection of topics together is the book's stress on the cultural and social context that shaped and resisted Tolkien's own literary creation.
Part I (chapters 2 to 4) primarily examines Tolkien's youthful poetry and his The Book of the Lost Tales, as well as the first Sketch of the Mythology. In her introduction, Fimi observes that in the course of his career Tolkien moved from a "mythological mode" to a novelistic (or historical) one, or from a "Victorian Tolkien beginning [to] a modern end" (5-6). This thesis guides her study of the Victorian and Edwardian love affair with fairies and its impact on Tolkien's earliest writings. Fimi explores an area charted by John Garth's 2003 work, Tolkien and the Great War, examining how Tolkien's early views of fairies (i.e. elves) shifted from the diminutive and delicate creatures of the Victorian imagination to the immortal and powerful beings of his developed mythology. By closely studying each of the earliest poems and the first versions of what would become the Silmarillion, she identifies the transitional stages that continue even into The Hobbit and thus shows that Tolkien's own conception was an evolving process rather than a sudden change in literary taste.
In turn, Fimli traces in chapter 3 the potential impact of Victorian fairy plays and of fashionable paintings on the Tolkien of the 1910s, showing that the author had a place for flower-fairies in his early Quenya Lexicon. In similar fashion, she establishes the influence of the play Peter Pan on Tolkien's early "Cottage of Lost Play" and its place in The Book of Lost Tales. Just as children are drawn by Peter to Neverland, so children in the realm of the elves are given the task of comforting the bereft in their dreams. Fimli treats in chapter 4 the moral mission of the TCBS, Tolkien's circle of friends at King Edward's, as well as the young writer's desire to create what has been called "a mythology for Anglos-Saxon England." These topics are less ground-breaking, mostly bringing together insights from Garth, Verlyn Flieger, Michael Drout, and Tom Shippey; however, she does uncover some surprising insights, such as how at one point, gnomes and goblins were briefly associated in Tolkien's mind and how the Englishness of fairies was important to him in the earliest stages of his mythology:
Part II of Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History is the least developed of the three sections and, consequently, the weakest. Part II addresses two broad concerns: 1) Tolkien's beliefs concerning the genetic and symbolist nature of language, and 2) the influence of universal, artificial languages and phonetic alphabets on Tolkien's own invented languages. To examine the former, in chapter 6 Fimi looks closely at Tolkien's essays A Secret Vice (1931) and English and Welsh (1955). Tolkien conjectured that a person's aesthetic preference for the sounds of certain languages might have its origins in genetic heritage. Clearly uncomfortable with such an idea, Fimi makes an effort to relocate Tolkien's linguistic preferences in certain ideological and nationalist notions. For example, she speculates that Tolkien found Gothic beautiful because he held it should have served as a liturgical language, one which would have helped establish a more native and long-lasting Germanic Catholicism. She reaches similar conclusions about Tolken's love of Finish and of Welsh. Fimi wisely offers these in a somewhat tentative fashion, yet the lack of extensive evidence renders her supporting theory as unconvincing as many would presumably find Tolkien's own. Likewise, Fimi places Tolkien's "heretical" belief that the sound of a word may indicate a kind of "phonetic fitness" (88) within a larger pattern of Russian and European sound experimentation, including that of Dada, Russian Futurism, and the work of Lewis Carroll and James Joyce. This section is also only suggestive, and one is left wanting more. Surprisingly, Fimi concludes chapter 6 admitting that while Tolkien's views are out of fashion, they acknowledge that "beautiful sounds and words [seem] to come from the human soul, from the heart of our very existence" (92). One is entitled to ask if this claim, too, given Fimi's position, should be reduced to ideological preference.
In Part II, Fimi sides with Garth's position that Tolkien's mythology did not arise out of his invented languages but rather that the two arose independently, though they quickly became interconnected. To buttress this claim, in chapter 7, she looks at the twentieth-century interest in universal languages, such as Esperanto, Ido, Volapuk, and Novial, and traces Tolkien's own views of the projects. She theorizes that Tolkien's early Quenya arose from similar motives for developing an ideal language, but one that also shared the goods of phonetic fitness and of aesthetic power. Something of a lacuna, however, remains between Tolkien's early interest in a project like Esperanto and that of his fledgling lexicons, and Fimi herself admits there is no way to fill this gap except through conjecture (98). Her subsequent treatment of the notion of language decay is more convincing, though this, too, wants additional study. There is much to commend as she traces language decay in Tolkien's 1937 linguistic account of his artificial languages, The Lhammas. However, considering Flieger's landmark treatment in Splintered Light (2002) of fellow Inkling Owen Barfield's influence on Tolkien, one wonders why Fimi overlooks the concept of language decay in Barfield's 1928 Poetic Diction. Additionally, Fimi further supports Garth's and her position by drawing attention to the similarity between Tolkien's early alphabets and various phonetic spelling projects of the last few hundred years. The visuals in this section are particularly interesting and helpful.
Part III (chapters 8 to 11) is almost half the book in length, and its topics, in contrast to Part II, are some of the best developed. Fimi's study of race and Tolkien is nuanced and quite balanced. In chapter 9, she traces the development, at times a palimpsest, of his views. Rather than caricature Tolkien, she shows the complexity of early and middle twentieth-century views on race and the author's shifting place within them. Fimi is careful to historicize Tolkien's early schoolboy attitudes, as well as his views of Nazi Germany, of the terms "Aryan" and "Nordiac," and of words such as "race," "peoples," and "kindreds." The strength of her study is in Tolkien's treatment of humanity--the Three Houses of Men, the "Swarthy Easterlings," the Numenorian and Gondorian view of blood, and the "noble savages" that are the Wild Men of the Wood. She also takes pains to parallel the mongoloid features of the Orcs with then-current views of Down's Syndrome. Fimi concludes that Tolkien had only begun in the 1950s to think about race in the more contemporary sense of a potentially false or misleading category.
Chapter 10 studies the growing stress on material culture in Tolkien's later works. As these became more novelistic, they called for increasingly detailed descriptions and settings, which in turn called for a greater coherence in his imagined cultures' physical worlds. Among other "archaeological" matters, Fimi notes the author's linking of Gondor and Rohan to various historical cultures, his awareness of Scandinavian archaeology through fellow Anglo-Saxonist E. V. Gordon, and Tolkien's use of the Bayeux Tapestry to correct perceptions of the Rohirrim. She also shows the similarities between the King of Gondor's crown and Viking and Celtic helmets--again, the visuals are quite helpful. Her discovery that the Sarehole Mill of Tolkien's childhood, upon which he based the Old Mill of Hobbiton, is actually an example of early Industrialism saddens in its own way. It is terribly ironic that the mill that Tolkien idealized as the loss of a rural ideal was and is a product of mechanization and of modernity.
Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History is a worthwhile study and should attract readers and scholars from a number of quarters. Fimi's volume further investigates or opens up a number of interesting directions for Tolkien studies, and one can look forward to how she herself might continue to explore these matters.
Philip Irving Mitchell
Dallas Baptist University
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|Author:||Mitchell, Philip Irving|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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