Review of In the Nameless Wood

In the Nameless Wood(to the main page on In the Nameless Wood)

The following reviews appeared in the December 2013 edition of Beyond Bree on page 8, and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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Review by Nancy Martsch

In the Nameless Wood: Explorations in the Philological Hinterland of Tolkien's Literary Creations by JS Ryan; Walking Tree Publications, 2013, $24.30. Paper, 6 1/8 x 9 3/16" (15.6x23.4 cm), 370 pp. Cover shows a path through a North American pine forest; back cover, a French forest.

JS Ryan was a student of JRR Tolkien and later a Professor at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia. In the Nameless Wood is the second collection of essays by JS Ryan*, previously published in the 1980s and early '90s (some have been revised for this book), plus one new essay and the complete text of Tolkien's poem "For W.H.A.". Nameless Wood contains an Introduction (Ryan bio), "Prequel" (derived from a speech given at a Mythopoeic conference in New South Wales in 1986), 21 essays divided into four Parts, an Appendix (the new essay), Bibliography, and Index. The first ("Prequel") and last (Appendix) are written in measured, stately prose - not academic, but slow going. The other essays are much shorter and easily readable.

In his Prequel, "'The Nameless Wood' and 'The Narrow Path'", Ryan discusses the "nameless wood" to the East, a place of adventure and danger; and muses on the etymology and implications of "path". The Appendix is a long (40 pp) essay on "JRR Tolkien and the Ancrene Riwle, or Two Fine and Courteous Mentors to Women's Spirit". Ancrene Riwle, which Tolkien studied and edited, was a Middle English text written to advise three sisters on how to live as religious recluses. Ryan compares the wisdom and compassion shown by the anonymous author to Tolkien's tutoring of women students, especially Roman Catholics. This is an important contribution to a neglected area of Tolkien scholarship.

The remaining 21 essays are divided into four Parts: "The Ancient Middle East...', "Romano-British Lydney...", "The North and West Germanic Tradition...", and "Twentieth Century Oxford and England". The first two are a reminder of sometimes overlooked areas in Tolkien's life. In the 1930s archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia generated intense public interest, and would have interested Tolkien both as a scholar and as a Roman Catholic. Though Ryan's association of "Saruman" with the Assyrian nobleman "Suruman" seems forced. (Essay #3) Ryan's reminiscences of Tolkien's lectures, and his references to the texts Tolkien studied and used, should prove invaluable to students of Tolkien's life.

But Ryan has a strong tendency to declare "source" and "connection" for what might better be considered "potential additions to the 'leaf-mould of the mind'". Also the reader needs to bear in mind that these essays were written 20-30 years ago, so Ryan's references to Tolkien scholarship are of the time of writing, not of today. (A fact which the editor would have been well advised to mention.) Some of the material which was new when written is still pertinent, even if well-known today (such as Essay #15, on "warg", "wearg", and "vargr"). And Ryan makes little use of The History of Middle-earth (1984-1996), although much was contemporary with his writing - perhaps it was unavailable in Australia? Thus his association of Tolkien's concept of Dwarves with Grimm and Thomas Keightley's The Fairy Mythology (Essay 14, 1986) ignores the treatment of Dwarves in The Book of Lost Tales (1984). One or two are strange, as Essay 16, which associates "Fifteen birds in five fir trees" with "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest", as "horrible songs" which contain the number fifteen - ? If one casts one's net wide enough, one can find connections with practically anything.

The reminiscences on Oxford and the Inklings are of interest, and Essay 21, "Tolkien and Auden", contains the complete text of Tolkien's hard-to-find poem "A Tribute to Wystan Hugh Auden on His Sixtieth Birthday", usually referred to as "For W.H.A."

As the editor of a fan magazine, I am saddened that, though Ryan's editor Peter Buchs describes his difficulties in obtaining permission to reprint these essays, he gives no information whatsoever about the magazines in which they were published (save for the English and Australian ones). Nor does he mention that these magazines are housed in the archives of Marquette University (Milwaukee, WI), even while crediting Marquette for assistance. Folks, these were fan magazines: "Minas Tirith Evening-star", "Mythlore", "The Book of Mazarbul", "Amon Hen", etc. A great opportunity to educate Tolkien scholars about the importance of fan publications has been missed.

So, would I recommend In the Nameless Wood? Yes, but with strong caveats. Ryan's reminiscences of Tolkien and his references to the texts which Tolkien used should prove very helpful, as are his reminders of the importance of Mesopotamia and Roman Lydney. The book contains two important "new" texts: the essay on women and Ancrene Riwle and the poem "For W.H.A." As for the rest, I would urge caution when considering Ryan's etymologies and "sources", for they do not include recent material and some are just plain odd.

*The first was Tolkien's View: Windows into his World, Walking Tree, 2009, $24.30.

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