Review of The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition

The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition(to the main page on The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition)

The following are extracts from a review that appeared in Tolkien Studies 6 (2009) on pages 265-272.

Simonson, Martin. The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition. Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2008. 256 pp. $22.80 / 11.50 (trade paperback) ISBN 9783905703092. Cormarë Series no. 16.

The Lord of the Rings is a house built on many foundations. Almost a decade ago, the late Daniel Timmons pointed out that "detractors rarely recognize that the literary aspects of Tolkien's work have been prominent in Western literature from Homer to the present day" (Clark and Timmons 3). Worse, it would seem that many of Tolkien's proponents are equally unaware of this heritage. Timmons went on to say that "although criticism exists on Tolkien's works in relation to medieval literature and twentieth-century fantasy, relatively few studies situate the author in a broader context. Tolkien's writings have links to every major period of English literature from Old English to Renaissance poetics to religious epic to nineteenth-century popular narrative" (5). It is this large gap in the scholarship that Martin Simonson aims to spotlight in his new study, The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition, which expands on his previous work, published in volume three of Tolkien Studies (2006), as well as in various collections from Walking Tree Publishers.

Source-scholars have long argued that a wide variety of literary sources forms one foundation on which The Lord of the Rings is built. Simonson attempts to extrapolate a larger, more generalized theorem from this argument — that The Lord of the Rings may be regarded as an accretion not merely of sources, but of genres, revealing the influence of the major milestones in the history of western (that is to say, European) narrative literature: the mythic, epic, romantic, and novelistic traditions. In parallel to this, Simonson attempts to apply Northrop Frye's theory of modes — though not so much his theory of genres (both expounded in Anatomy of Criticism) — to The Lord of the Rings. The book consists of five chapters, of vastly disproportionate lengths: the first and final chapters, no more than an introduction and afterword, are each less than five pages; the fourth chapter is more than one hundred. The second provides a general summary of the western narrative tradition, without reference to Tolkien. The third chapter introduces Frye's mode of ironic myth in the context of Tolkien and several Modernist writers. The fourth, the centerpiece of the book, examines many aspects of The Lord of the Rings in the context of what Simonson calls the "intertraditional dialogue." [...]

Where Simonson is at his best is in his demonstration that there is a progression of "intertraditional dialogues" at work in The Lord of the Rings, a discovery which has the potential to add a great deal to our understanding of the work. But before he can lay out this argument, Simonson must set up the necessary background on the history of the western narrative tradition. In his second chapter, he traces its development with great care, from the epic tradition (represented by Homer, Virgil, Appolonius, Rhodius, and the anonymous Beowulf-poet) to the romance (medieval, renaissance, and modern); thence, to the "fantasy novels" of Tolkien's immediate forebears, George MacDonald and William Morris. Such a backdrop is clearly important because "the study of genres is based on analogies in form" (Frye Anatomy 95), and those formal analogies will come up again and again in Simonson's subsequent analysis. This historical review might have benefited from including the Bible; though not strictly part of the western narrative tradition per se, its influence on that tradition is beyond question. [...]

Taken as a whole, The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition is an ambitious and intriguing new study. While neither faultless nor comprehensive (so very few studies can be either), it nevertheless advances the study of Tolkien's masterpiece in new directions. As I have said, I hope it will prove to be the starting point for further research by Simonson himself and others, examining The Lord of the Rings in both greater breadth — taking into account its development, history, and context among Tolkien's other writings — and depth — exploring characters and settings relegated to the sidelines in Simonson's book. Until that time, it provides another solid foundation (one of many) for approaching The Lord of the Rings.

(extracts from book review by Jason Fisher, Dallas, Texas)

Read other reviews of The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition

Read reviews of other Walking Tree Publishers books