Review of O What a Tangled Web
The following review appeared in the September 2013 edition of Beyond Bree on pages 7-8, and is reproduced here with kind permission.
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O WHAT A TANGLED WEB
Review by Nancy Martsch
0 What a Tangled Web: Tolkien and Medieval Literature - A View from Poland, edited by Barbara Kowalik; Walking Tree Publishers, 2013; paper, 201 pp, 6 1/16 x 9 3/16" (15.4x23.3 cm). $24.30 from amazon.com. Cover: olive grey with black text and an illuminated green "T" entwined with a red dragon, by Anke Eissmann (which makes the title look like "TO What a Tangled Web..."). Introduction, eight essays, no Index.
The term "Medieval Literature" is applied rather loosely here, and serves more as an organizing theme for this collection of very readable essays - all of which, though of Polish origin, are written in excellent English, and the majority of citations are to English-language works, too.
For some English readers, the greatest revelation will come in Barbara Kowalik's Introduction, "Tolkien in Poland: A Medievalist Liaison", where she traces the history of Tolkien studies in Poland. Unlike other countries, in Poland Tolkien's work has always been a subject of serious literary criticism. This is due to Prof Przemsław Mroczkowski, medievalist and head of the English departments of the Catholic University of Lublin, and later of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. Mroczkowski, a Roman Catholic and personal friend of Tolkien's, championed Tolkien's work and was influential in getting The Lord of the Rings translated into Polish in 1961-3, making it the third LOTR in a foreign language after the Dutch in 1956 and Swedish in 1959. In spite of its small print runs, Tolkien's work appealed to Polish Catholics under Communism. The name "Tolkien" comes from the village of Tołkiny in Eastern Prussia - now Poland.
In "0, what a tangled web" Joanna Kokot gives an excellent explanation the medieval interlacement technique (and why it differs from modern cross-cutting). As more stories accreted around King Arthur (and other legendary figures) some authors tried to tie all the stories together into a single narrative in chronological order. They did this by telling part of one tale, then jumping to a part of the next, then the next, then back to where the first left off, and so on. This is "interlace", a technique Tolkien uses to describe the actions of the characters after the breakup of the Fellowship.
Bartłomiej Błaszkiewicz compares and contrasts "Orality and Literacy in Middle-earth". Middle-earth differs from our world in that the speaking peoples were not the product of long evolution, but were created fully-formed. Although the Elves acquired literacy early, being near-immortal they did not need to rely on the written word to record history because they could remember. Much of their history was oral, in song, and they were more spiritual. Whereas the Numenoreans and the Hobbits relied on the written word (which can be lost). Ents and the Rohirrim were oral, and also lower-class Hobbits. Among Hobbits, literacy was the property of the upper classes.
In "Rohan and the Social Codes of Heroic Epic and Chivalric Romance" Justyna Brzezińska compares elements typical of the Epic Hero and the Chivalric traditions (there is some overlap), and notes that, while the culture of the Rohirrim was more heroic, some of their ceremonies are chivalric. For instance, the ceremony by which Theoden gives Eowyn a hauberk and sword when he names her regent resembles an early version of dubbing a knight.
"Tolkien's Queen-Women in The Lord of the Rings" by Maria Błaszkiewicz counters the "lack of women" criticism with a symbolic reading of the role of women in LOTR. Middle-earth is dying, Mordor already dead; restoration will come with the return of the King and his marriage to the queen, bringing peace and fertility to the land. "Queen-women" are leaders, protectors of their land. The number of named female characters is greatest in the still-intact north-west (home of the Shire) and lessens as the Fellowship progresses across the mutilated south-east. The safe refuges where the Fellowship stay (Tom Bombadil's house, Rivendell, Lothlórien) all contain protecting females ("queens"); other places of rest lacking women are unsafe. Mordor holds the monstrous anti-queen, Shelob. Eowyn alone is not a leader: evil has invaded Rohan, she is a helpless nurse of an aged king, her "cage" powerlessness and inaction. She matures through her love for Faramir and will become a "queen" restoring fertility to lthilien. Evil in Tolkien's world is usually male, single, and infertile. Tolkien's women are few, but they play a powerful role.
"Elbereth the Star-Queen Seen in the Light of Medieval Marian Devotion" by Barbara Kowalik explores parallels between Mary Queen of Heaven and Elbereth Gilthoniel Star-queen, especially through medieval devotion to Mary and the Elves' (and Hobbits') invocations of Elbereth. This essay merits the "medieval" designation.
Katarznya Blacharska compares and contrasts "The Fallen: Milton's Satan and Tolkien's Melkor". Tolkien was influenced by the Bible and Milton, and also by the Old English Genesis B, in which God delegates power to his angels. Lucifer rebels and is cast into Hell; where, being unable to contest God directly, he tries to corrupt God's creation. Milton's Satan and Tolkien's Melkor differ in that Melkor tries to create (an element missing from Milton) and to enslave. Milton's Satan is more passive, and more given to self-aggrandizement and lust.
In "Berserkir, Bödvar Bjarki and the Dragon Fáfnir: The Influence of Selected Medieval Icelandic Sagas on Tolkien's Works for Children", Renata Leśniakiewicz-Drzymała highlights Old Norse elements in The Hobbit and elsewhere: Beorn as berserkir/bear shape-changer, Fáfnir the dragon, references to the Völsunga Saga in "Bombadil Goes Boating", etc.
In "'He has gone to God glory seeking': Tolkien's Critique of the Northern Courage and Rejection of the Traditional Heroic Ethos in 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son'", Łukasz Neubauer declares that Tolkien's "Homecoming" and accompanying essay are important to studies of the "Battle of Maldon" poem. Tolkien put his view of the "northern heroic spirit" into the mouth the practical Tídwald. Beorhtnoth's ofermod was his lust for glory: a leader should think of his people. Tolkien's heroic leaders Gandalf and Aragorn sacrifice themselves for others.
Andrzej Wicher asks "What Exactly Does Tolkien Argue for in 'Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics'? An Attempt at a Metacriticism". Tolkien's thesis is that one should focus on the poem (thus anticipating John Crowe Ransom's New Criticism, which says the work should be studied in isolation), but as an Anglo-Saxonist Tolkien was also aware of context. He views Beowulf as written by a Christian looking back toward the pagan past. But the poem also serves as a window into the past for us. Tolkien sees the pagan world as struggling to keep a light against the monster-containing darkness. Monsters represent old evil.
In "On Fairy-stories" Tolkien believes that faërie is also a form of magic. Tolkien's religion causes him to equate conventional forms of magic with arrogance, a desire to control, hence evil. Tolkien's "magic" is humble prostration before God's majesty. The magic of faërie, of the elves, is somewhat between these two views, but closer to religion: empathy, understanding. Tolkien also looks to literature for moral inspiration and guidance, which New Criticism does not.
While the reader will find few new trail-blazing revelations here, 0 What a Tangled Web is interesting, well written, and serves as a good introduction to ideas in Tolkien studies for the mid-level student.