Review of Tolkien's View: Windows into his World

Tolkien's View: Windows into his World(to the main page on Tolkien's View: Windows into his World)

The following review appeared in Hither Shore Volume 6 (2010), and is reproduced here with kind permission.

Hither Shore is the journal of the German Tolkien Society (DTG). Jason Fisher is the author of the blog, Lingwë - Musings of a Fish, and frequently reviews Tolkien publications (external links).

Ryan, J. S. Tolkien's View: Windows into his World. Zürich/Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2009 (Review by Jason Fisher)

Professor John Ryan is one of an elite, and sadly vanishing, coterie of scholars who actually knew Tolkien, and this close personal association gives him an invaluable vantage point from which to approach Tolkien's work (x). Likewise, Ryan's education and career followed in the blueprint of Tolkien's own, from his "'colonial' nurture" to a "strictly classical education" followed by "a discipline move back to the west of Europe, to the older Germanic languages, and Old English and Old Norse in particular" (loc.cit.). While a student at Merton College, Ryan both studied under Tolkienand interacted with him in "many unplanned and more social meetings [...], many walks and pacings together with him around the College Garden" (loc.cit.). In short, he acquired a much better sense of the man, intra muros, than many of the scholars of the past four decades have been able to do. He had first-hand exposure to "the Tolkien mental climate" (xiii). In addition to having known Tolkien personally, Ryan has been one of the most prolific scholars of his work. At the same time, he is one of the least read, mainly because most of his published work is long out of print. That unfortunate situation is largely remedied by a new collection from Walking Tree, published in two volumes (the second to appear in 2010). The present review concerns the first volume only.

While readers' tastes will certainly vary, the material collected here should appeal to a broad range of interests. The essays in the present collection fall into three broad categories. The majority may be categorized as Quellenforschung, or the study of Tolkien's sources. In some cases, Ryan attempts to identify the source(s) of individual words or phrases, as in "Before Puck – the Púkel-men and the puca"; while in others, Ryan highlights more general wellsprings of source material. Even better, Ryan points to works often overlooked — e.g., Elizabeth Wright's Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore (1913) or William Craigie's Scandinavian Folk-Lore: Illustrations of the Traditional Beliefs of the Northern Peoples (1896) — as the "richly veined source[s]" (45) Tolkien mined for his legendarium. He might have added F. J. Child and Thomas Keightley, inter alia, but perhaps these folklorists will make an appearance in the volume to come.

Other essays in the collection explore more general critical approaches to Tolkien's fiction. This group contains several important papers, of which the most important may well be the one with the most typographically challenging title: "By 'Significant' Compounding 'We Pass Insensibly into the World of the Epic'". This is an insightful look at the prose style of The Hobbit in the light of Tolkien's comments in "On Translating Beowulf", originally written a year or two after The Hobbit. Tolkien's prelude to The Lord of the Rings is often treated as an immature children's story by comparison to its sequel, but Ryan demonstrates that this such cavalier treatment may be misguided. He collates a wealth of illustrative cases — kennings, epithets, examples of "[t]he compounding habit" (128–9) — in what is even today a pretty novel comparison, one usually reserved for Tolkien's more 'serious' works (e.g., Michael Drout's essay on "Tolkien's Prose Style and its Literary and Rhetorical Effects"). As part of his conclusion, Ryan notes that "concordances would be needed to quantify the relative contextual frequency of compounds in The Hobbit as against the [...] prose style of The Lord of the Rings" (127), seeming to call for an extension or addition to Professor Blackwelder's Tolkien Thesaurus (published the year before). Now, of course, Blackwelder's concordance to The Lord of the Rings is long out of print, and a concordance to The Hobbit is still an unfulfilled desideratum.

The remainder of the essays are of a more biographical nature, collecting facts and dates of Tolkien's education and professional life. One of these, "The Oxford Undergraduate Studies in Early English and Related Languages of J.R.R. Tolkien (1913-1915)", is a very interesting look at Tolkien's undergraduate studies and examinations; while another, "J. R. R. Tolkien: Lexicography and other Early Linguistic Preferences", is perhaps the only extended exploration that has ever been made of Tolkien's three substantial essays for The Year's Work in English Studies. These essays will inevitably be treated as raw material for subsequent scholarship, rather than as conclusive on their own. In some cases they have been superseded by the research of others (e.g., Peter Gilliver, et al., Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull). But even so, they remain valuable for Ryan's intimate knowledge of Oxford, and specifically Merton College (where Tolkien taught from 1945–59). This institutional knowledge survives in both Ryan's own memory and an impressive collection of university documents, both ably deployed in many of these essays. Ryan turns up and turns over many wonderful resources overlooked by (or unavailable to) scholars today — e.g., contemporary syllabi, examination papers, and other ephemera of Oxford. For one example, from The Oxford University Gazette, 9 December 1932: "[t]he chief event of the year was the complete re-organization of the philological section of the Library carried out by Professor Tolkien, Mr C. L. Wrenn and the Assistant Librarian Mr J. L. N. O'Loughlin" (quoted 94). As a side note, Scull and Hammond add that this complete reorganization was completed by January 28 (162–3). Was 1932 really so uneventful that its "chief event" occurred in the first month of the year?

Tolkien's View is well organized and attractively presented, with decorative illustrations by Anke Eißmann and a beautiful cover photograph of Merton Meadows, as viewed from Tolkien former rooms. The book contains a complete bibliography and an index, quite valuable in a collection with such varied and densely packed contents. I have found a few errors — e.g., IWES for YWES (78), an extraneous footnote (92), and the lecture "On Fairy-Stories" was delivered in 1939, not 1938 (103, et passim) — but apart from such occasional slips, the quality of the book is very high. Ryan's style often dips into the inkhorn; I personally find this parts of his charm, but some readers may be put off. Other essays sometimes read more like dense and hasty outlines — in his own words: "treatment [that] is selective and impressionistic" (51). It is a collection best read in its historical context, as many of Ryan's findings are dated and have been improved on by subsequent scholars; however, Ryan was one of the first (and still one of the few) scholars to dig into the most arcane corners of Tolkien's professional life for evidence of the thinking behind his fiction. Frequently, Ryan calls for further research which has regrettably never come to pass. Today's scholars might well take note of both these points; there is still much to learn from Professor Ryan's example.

Works consulted

Blackwelder, Richard E. A Tolkien Thesaurus. Garland Reference Library of The Humanities, Vol. 1326. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

Drout, Michael D. C. "Tolkien’s Prose Style and its Literary and Rhetorical Effects." Tolkien Studies 1 (2004): 137–62.

Gilliver, Peter, Jeremy Marshall, and E. S. C. Weiner. The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.


Read other reviews of Tolkien's View: Windows into his World

Read reviews of other Walking Tree Publishers books