Review of In the Nameless Wood

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

The following review appeared in Hither Shore Volume 11 (2014), and is reproduced here with kind permission.

Hither Shore is the journal of the German Tolkien Society (DTG).

J.S. Ryan: In the Nameless Wood: Explorations in the Philological Hinterland of Tolkien's Literary Creations Zurich/Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2013, xv + 365 pp.

This collection of articles by J.S. Ryan is a follow-up to the previous volume, Tolkien's View, published by Walking Tree in 2009 and reviewed in Hither Shore 6 by Jason Fisher, many of whose remarks are equally relevant to this new selection. Most of them have been assembled from a variety of Tolkien journals and fanzines, some no longer in existence, and varying in length from just three pages to 22. In addition, there are two original pieces, labelled "Prequel" and "Appendix" respectively. The first of these, "The Nameless Wood&apos and "The Narrow Path'", traces the medieval origins and associations of these two well-known Tolkienian topoi, while the second, "J.R.R. Tolkien and the Ancrene Riwle, or Two Fine and Courteous Mentors to Women's Spirit", not only draws attention to an important area of Tolkien's research which has seldom been mentioned in the context of his literary works, but also draws a parallel between the author of the Middle English text and the modern Professor, emphasising Tolkien's generous contribution to the supervision of female Catholic students at a largely male university.

The re-printed essays are grouped into four main sections, the first of which deals with the ancient Middle East and its associations in Tolkien's fiction. Tolkien maintained a keen interest in Middle Eastern archaeology as a possible source for tracing cultural and linguistic influences on western Europe, so it is not surprising that Ryan sees significance in his use of the names Uruk (as in Uruk-hai) and Erech, both of them variant forms of the name of a powerful Sumerian city and a source of fear to its neighbours. It should be mentioned that although it is closely argued, this section contains a lot of speculation; like Mark T. Hooker, Ryan believes that Tolkien liked to fill his fiction with philological references and double meanings, so all names and invented words are open to scrutiny for possible associations. 1

The second part deals with the importance of Tolkien's experience at the Romano-British site of Lydney for the development of his legendarium. Ryan remarks that it was a hint from the medievalist and Celtic scholar Nora Chadwick which first led him to investigate that field. In particular Lydney had once been an ancient centre for mining, and the remains from that period were known locally as Dwarf 's Hill, so according to Ryan, not only did this provide the association of dwarves with mining, but it also suggested the secret passage to Smaug's lair in The Hobbit. It is also suggested that the temple of Nodens, which appears to have been visited by people seeking a cure from illnesses, could have been a source for the Houses of Healing. However, there is a curious error about this temple; Ryan quotes from an archaeological report that it overlooked the Severn Valley, and adds a footnote to specify that therefore it faced west (130). However, since Lydney lies west of the Severn, it must have faced towards the east. Similarly, he places Caerleon in south-west Wales (121), whereas of course it is in the south-east.

The third part deals with North and West Germanic traditions and Christian- ity, which is an area that has been well explored, although Ryan has some new sidelights to shed. However, the last part, devoted to 20th century Oxford and England, is of great importance because two of the three articles are based on Ryan's personal knowledge of Tolkien and his circle of acquaintance. Here the topic is his interactions specifically with Roy Campbell and W.H. Auden.

However, in a number of the articles there are passing references, such as the one to Nora Chadwick mentioned above, which suggest that Tolkien had an easy relationship with a good many other Oxford academics familiar with his personal interest in creating a mythology. This is a very different picture from the one presented by Humphrey Carpenter, of someone who was certainly sociable but nevertheless really opened up only in a close circle of friends. Possibly Ryan's impressions are those of a much younger man who saw at the time only the affable social exterior. Certainly he claims that Tolkien and Auden had "a close friendship for many years" (243), and had kept in touch ever since Auden's student days, although the conventional version is that they started to correspond only after the publication of The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, they led such different lifestyles that it would be difficult to see many points of contact, but the speculation is an interesting one.

All in all, this is a fascinating volume to dip into. Since the articles were written at different times and for different readerships, there is a certain amount of repetition between articles, so browsing is probably more rewarding than reading from cover to cover. What comes across most strongly in every article is the personality of the author and his enthusiasm for what he is writing about.

Allan Turner

Footnote:
1: Tolkien was not always impressed by Ryan's guesses about the origin of his names; see Letters, 380 (footnote).

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