Review of The Broken Scythe
The following review was published in Mythlore 31.3/4, Spring/Summer 2013 and is reproduced here with kind permission of the editor and review author.
Mythlore is a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal published by the Mythopoeic Society that focuses on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and the genres of myth and fantasy.
Link to the website of the Mythopoeic Society.
THE BROKEN SCYTHE: DEATH AND IMMORTALITY IN THE WORKS OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN. Edited by Roberto Arduini and Claudio A. Testi. Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2012. xxviii + 252pp. $24.30. ISBN 9783905703269.
A TRANSLATION OF A WORK ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ITALY as La Falce spezzata. Morte e immortalità in J.R.R. Tolkien (2009), the twenty-sixth volume of the Comrarë Series from Walking Tree Publishers is a collection of nine essays focusing explicitly on what Tolkien declared in at least three of his Letters to be the central theme of The Lord of the Rings, at least for him. A portion of one excerpt is included on the rear of the book, and is expanded here:
I do not think that even Power or Domination is the real centre of my story. It provides the theme of a War, about something dark and threatening enough to seem at that time of supreme importance, but that is mainly 'a setting' for characters to show themselves. The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race 'doomed' to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race 'doomed' not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete. (Letters, 246)
Descrying a lack of scholarly focus on this remark and the themes it invokes, The Broken Scythe presents itself as both a remedy and an invitation, analyzing some of the many, many roles played by death, fatality, deathlessness, and other issues of mortality in Tolkien's various writings. In keeping with the remarkably international scope of both publisher and series, The Broken Scythe is the work of eight Italian scholars, having been submitted for publication in Italian and assessed by "some truly polyglot members of the Board of Advisors" (i). The formal translator(s) is/are uncredited; the English is good, with only a preposition or two ringing off-tune. Series editor Thomas Honegger nevertheless stresses in his preface that the Englished product "does not deny its origin in the Italian tradition," as well as in the specific study-groups which gave rise to the project (i). It should be stressed that, as a specimen of this tradition, The Broken Scythe demonstrates no formal and analytical practices that might prove disorienting to those from Anglo-American traditions. The essays are well-structured and supported, and show idiosyncrasy primarily in their footnoting of informal material, such as emails.
Verlyn Flieger provides a brief preface, outlining each of the collection's essays after reflecting upon the themes of death and loss common to both The Lord of the Rings and, as Tolkien argued in his "Monsters and the Critics" lecture, Beowulf. Applying Tolkien's argument to his own magnum opus, she argues that these themes are what set both works beyond critics' charges of puerility and whimsy, and that the fantasy elements are a vehicle, mere but essential, for the conveyance of the texts' deepest meanings:
For all its beer-and-mushrooms hobbitry, its epic battles and fairy tale adventures in mysterious woods, the real strength of The Lord of the Rings resides in its dark side, its concern – carried over from its parent mythology of The Silmarillion – with death and deathlessness. (xxiv)
Flieger goes on to welcome the essays of The Broken Scythe as being "part of a current and very welcome wave in Tolkien criticism," one that moves way from traditional critical issues, as well as involving works beyond The Lord of the Rings (xxiv).
Beginning the collection is Franco Manni's "A Eulogy of Finitude: Anthropology, Eschatology and Philosophy of History in Tolkien." As much an open discussion as a study, the paper seeks to give some formal philosophical and theological context (including, but beyond that of Christianity) to considerations and presentations of death, the purpose of life, and the Afterlife across Tolkien's writings, including both his legendarium and biographical material. The paper, which presents itself as a potential source-study, finds difficulties in the paucity of explicit philosophical language among Tolkien's writings, as well as the scarcity of works of philosophy within his personal library and literary canon of expertise. This formal absence will seem inconsequential to many, as Tolkien's works are demonstrably and profoundly philosophical – for that, some of this paper's positions seem overcautious and sometimes overlook the crucial distinctions between the various fictional and nonfictional contexts of Tolkien's writings. As the paper recognizes, Tolkien was capable of representing many different voices and perspectives among his fictional characters, some of which he personally disagreed with (31); any alleged correspondence between these perspectives and Tolkien's own, much less those of contemporary philosophers, must answer as much to literary contexts as to epistemological ones. For this, the paper's consideration of "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth" from Morgoth's Ring is excellent, demonstrating philosophical perspectives internal to the world of the legendarium, as well as the philosophy inherent in philology. Though there is some loss of coherence due to its scope, the paper works very well as a lecture, with many useful and interesting elements – including considerations of love, free will, "finiteness," and experience – rising from its breadth.
Next is co-editor Claudio A. Testi's first of two papers in this collection, "Tolkien's legendarium as a meditatio mortis," which demonstrates a solid grasp of the literary contexts, creative processes, internal beliefs, and external significance of Tolkien's fictional cosmos. The paper is rigorously researched and organized by numerated sections, looking at death and immortality among Elves and among Men separately, and across five different stages:
— I. 1917-25 ("The First Unsorted Ideas" [The Book of Lost Tales, first versions of poems on Túrin, and Beren & Lúthien])
The paper's presentation of the legendarium as a meditatio mortis is based on the suggestion that modern humankind now faces the prospect of "making human life indefinitely long and young, in one word to gaining immortality" (39). Through considering the respective mortalities and fates of Elves and Men in Arda – as well as the creative processes through which they evolved in Tolkien's mind – Testi concludes that "[t]he more death is looming on the horizon of our lives, the more we open ourselves to a brighter and ultimate hope, whereas the more we ban death from our lives and look for perennial longevity, the deeper we sink into the darkest despair" (68). Due to the mechanical format of the essay body, the foreword and conclusion serve more as decorated bookends than as integrated statements, but the essay is enormously useful as a research tool on its topic.
Co-editor Roberto Arduini's "Tolkien, Death and Time: The Fairy Story within the Picture" presents a rather casual consideration of death and time as they appear – as individual words as well as themes – in some of Tolkien's creative and autobiographical works, as well as in Humphrey Carpenter's biography. References to and citations of contemporary philosophers, particularly Freud, are made in an attempt to frame Tolkien's sensitivity to mortal themes as a consequence of his involvement in the First World War – the sensitivity seems defensible, the pertinence of Freud not so much. The title of the paper comes from a review of Tree and Leaf, including an interpretation of the sub-creative theories of "On Fairy-Stories" as an escape from death and an explanation of their processes in "Leaf by Niggle." Tom Shippey has done this twice now, and Arduini cites these precedents heavily; his own contribution is to elaborate its aspect of consolation, especially as it pertains to the artist's concern with time and the completion of his art. Of Niggle's painting, Arduini claims that "it is quite obvious that the Tree is the Lord of the Rings (or perhaps a completely finished and integrated version of the entire story of Arda)" (93); he concludes the essay with a review of the poem "Mythopoiea," arguing that it too demonstrates Tolkien's concern with death and time.
Lorenzo Gammarelli's "On the Edge of the Perilous Realm" is a shorter (14-page) essay which seeks to "extract [...] the theme of loss, or bereavement" from fourteen of Tolkien's shorter and lesser-known works, all of which might be considered fairy-tales (103). These are The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, "Leaf by Niggle," "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun," "Imram," the poems of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Smith of Wootton Major, and "Bilbo's Last Song." Though the essay warns that its approach will result "inevitably in a heterogeneous essay" (103), the paper appears more like a catalogue, with the treatment of each work – sometimes only a couple of sentences – appearing under its headword. The paper begins with a section "In Praise of Shortness," which argues, in essence, that these works are better subjects for thematic analysis than, say, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, being more concentrated in their themes than longer writings, and less likely to support multiple interpretations. Another preface, "The Perilous Realm," considers Tolkien's definition of Faërie; its relevance is to the following works as types of fairy-tale, but its inclusion seems unnecessary. Actual treatment of the works seems light, amounting largely to origin and plot summary. Even where a sizeable amount of attention has been given, as with Smith of Wootton Major, the approach remains descriptive. In all, the paper seems to serve a collective function in The Broken Scythe, filling out the corners by involving Tolkien's shortest and least-known works.
Alberto Ladavas's "The Wrong Path of the Sub-creator: from the Fall to the Machine and the Escape from Mortality" considers the Númenóreans and the Ringwraiths specifically, two excellent case studies for analyzing themes of death and immortality. Citing from a pair of Tolkien's Letters which declare themes of mortality and immortality in the legendarium (no. 203 and 131), the paper attempts to demonstrate in its subjects a "possessive attitude, wish for immortality in order to enjoy it as long as possible and the consequent rebellion against divine laws" (118). This paper's obvious weakness is its foremost strength; it is likely because the thesis is self-evident that the writing is so enjoyable, and the consideration of evidence seamless and uncontrived. Ladavas's review of the fall of Númenor adheres exclusively to Tolkien's own material. His analysis of the Nine includes elements from Augustine's De Consolatione Philosophiae and the Old Norse-Icelandic legend of Þiðrandi, both of which bring a Christian perspective – unnecessary but not indecorous – to the examination.
Simone Bonechi's "'In the Mounds of Mundburg': Death, War and Memory in Middle-earth" is a historical source study, relating "as far as possible" the burial and commemorative practices of Britain during the First and Second World Wars to the funeral rites found in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings (155). With the overwhelming prominence of wars and war-dead in both worlds – that is, Primary and Secondary – a comparison of the commemorative practices of each seems thematically justifiable, at least. When it comes to describing the actual influence of the two wars, particularly the Great War, on Tolkien's creative works, Bonechi's position is wisely conventional: they must have played a role, absolutely, but such an influence is very difficult to quantify. As in John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War, to which the paper refers, the parallels remain largely implicit, and the portion dealing with the rites of Middle-earth specifically might stand alone with little revision. One of the best-written pieces of The Broken Scythe, the paper's consideration of evidence concludes that
while in post-war Britain the commemoration reached an equilibrium between the will to celebrate the dead collectively and the need to respect their individual identity, adopting a uniform headstone and engraving it with name and regiment of the fallen or remembering the names of the missing by writing them on special memorials, in Middle-earth we have the total identification of the fallen with his symbolic role, at least among Men and Elves. (146)
There are, in other words, no commemorative celebrations of individuals, only of their roles in great events. Such seemingly forgotten private details are, nevertheless, reserved for the greater glory of Tolkien's own narrative – "acts of unsung sacrifice and the incurable wounds of Frodo" whose subtlety and moral dimension undermine the military agency which Sauron and his minions are able share with their heroic combatants (153).
Andrea Monda's "Death, Immortality and their Escapes: Memory and Longevity" focuses on particularly long-lived characters and races – longaevi – and how they exemplify what Tolkien identified in his Letters (284) as the 'escapes': serial longevity, and hoarding memory" (156). The paper begins with a consideration of longaevitas as it is ascribed to fairy creatures of C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image and also to the long-lived races of the first three ages of Middle-earth. From there, the 'escapes' of memory and longevity provide the paper with a loose thread by which to consider the Elves, the Hobbits, the One Ring, Aragorn and Arwen, Denethor, Saruman, Treebeard, and Tom Bombadil, all of whom exemplify different aspects of the two. All are argued to be negative in some way – whether through sadness, misery, or downright evil – altogether amounting to the conclusion, explicit in the title, that death and immortality have no substitutes. The lengthy concluding section, however, seems to start work on another paper, or at least to present contextualizing material which might have been better integrated into the preceding material.
Claudio A. Testi's second paper, "Logic and Theology in Tolkien's Thanatology" makes a dense and invaluable contribution to the collection in two ways: by further examining the "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth" and by involving Catholic theology concerning death. The paper is to be commended for emphasizing and detailing aspects of Tolkien's Catholicism (183), which is easily overlooked by readers who do not share his faith, but which no doubt plays a major role in the themes examined by this collection. Testi's position, which deserves much deeper consideration than it will receive here, is that the thanatologies of both the "Athrabeth" and Catholic theology (primarily as developed in the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas) evince aspects designated "natural" and "conformity to [divine] design." The two different conceptions of death presented and debated in the "Athrabeth" are subjected to a dialectical analysis, after which their thanatology is distilled and articulated before being compared to Catholic positions such as the original Goodness of the Earthly Paradise (a difference from the example of the Ainulindalë) and the three states of Humankind – pure, complete/noble, and decayed – which correspond to both examples. A chart is included which itemizes the essay's findings, as well as a conclusion that makes the crucial point that "Tolkien was neither a theologian nor a philosopher nor a logician. He was a philologist, a scholar and, above all, a man who, in his works, dealt with the great topics of human life, focusing most of all on the topic of death" (191).
The paper is a difficult act to follow for the final, topically intertwined essay "A Misplaced Envy: Analogies and Differences between Elves and Men on the Idea of Pain" by Giampaolo Canzonieri. The paper looks at the relationship between death and pain (both "inner" [i.e. grief] and physical), and "is centred on pain as a possible but neglected alternative to death as a source of resentment of Men against Elves" (204). Canzonieri first looks at the particular immunities and vulnerabilities of Elves, asking "why was the possibility of death from grief introduced as being among the inborn characteristics of a people who, in their Creator's original intentions, should never have known grief?" (198). His answers are that it serves both a literary purpose – essentially, to make a more interesting story – and a salvific one, allowing for inner growth as well as greater empathy with the Secondborn. The paper's consideration of physical pain is more open-ended, weighing the hardier constitution of Elves as a lesser point of envy for Men than their relative deathlessness. The paper concludes with a meditation on the relationship between pain and death for Men, arguing that death implies a "necessity of faith," differentiating Men from the Elves, who possess no uncertainty in their mortal fate. An illustrative case study is made of Arwen Undómiel, and the liminal situation she faces as an Elf who abandons her native condition to be with her human husband.
Concluding with a consolidated bibliography (including a separate section dedicated to "Tolkien Studies Concerning Death and Immortality") and comprehensive index, The Broken Scythe will be welcomed particularly by scholars seeking more specialized and theme-specific studies than those generated by the more holistic or dianoiac approaches which are conventional to Tolkien studies. At the same time, the collection provides constructive counterpoints to those opposed to such theme-parceling, with the occasionally disorienting slippage among such topics as death, deathlessness, timelessness, fate, and the purpose of a mortal existence challenging traditionalists to define and defend their generalized methodologies more thoroughly.
– Harley J. Sims