Academic journal article Mythlore

The Hobbit and Tolkien's Mythology

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Hobbit and Tolkien's Mythology

Article excerpt

THE HOBBIT AND TOLKIEN'S MYTHOLOGY. Ed. Bradford Lee Eden. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2014. 236 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-7960-3. $29.95.

Ad indicated in Eden's Introduction, this book grew out of a 75th-anniversary celebration of The Hobbit at a 2013 conference in Valparaiso, Indiana, featuring two plenary papers which turned into two of the best chapters included here, one by John D. Rateliff and one by Verlyn Flieger. It is unclear whether the rest of the essays were other papers presented at the conference, or solicited, or a combination of both; but the end result is a wide variety of perspectives on The Hobbit, from astronomy to theology to optics to media studies.

Although Eden has organized the table of contents into three parts, the three are of quite unequal length; what they really are is two pairs of thematically-related essays (the first two parts) and a hodge-podge of subject matters in the vast majority of the rest of the book (the third part). Had there been at least three essays each in the first two parts, and/or if the essays in the third part had been more closely tied together, this organization would have made more sense; as it is, it gives the impression of wanting to pretend to be more organized than it really is.

Besides the essays discussed below, there is a cursory "About the Contributors" section and a small but serviceable index.

John D. Rateliff leads off the collection with "Anchoring the Myth: The Impact of The Hobbit on Tolkien's Legendarium," which places the writing of The Hobbit into the context of the writing of the Silmarillion. He demonstrates, through copious examples of Tolkien's writings before, contemporary with, and after the publication of The Hobbit, how Tolkien's concept of the dwarves of Middle-earth changed as a result of how he treated Thorin and company as characters. Early writings followed Nordic/Germanic folklore traditions that cast dwarves as villains, or at least as untrustworthy; but incorporating the dwarves of The Hobbit into the world of The Lord of the Rings necessitated a change of that perspective, one that carried over into later Silmarillion writings as well. Rateliff also points out certain historical events in Middle-earth that made their way into the post-Hobbit Silmarillion that did not exist before, due to the new characteristics of the dwarves as a people.

Unfortunately, the following essay, "From Nauglath to Durin's Folk: The Hobbit and Tolkien's Dwarves" by Gerard Hynes, spends its first six pages essentially duplicating exactly what Rateliff had just said, with only slight differences of focus and examples. Hynes only begins to contribute new information about halfway through, when he brings in dwarves described in the books of William Morris, Andrew Lang, and the Brothers Grimm. However, even much of this material seems like mere digression and not actually relevant to a discussion of The Hobbit; Hynes spends another five pages or so on this side trip. Of the remaining five pages of the essay, several of the points he tries to make are inconclusive at best: "[some passages] do not shed much light [...]"; a "possible explanation" is "shown as inadequate"; a purported connection "is unlikely"; an interpretation "may be unclear"; and "this author cannot find a clear cause" (32-33). After another half page of duplicating Rateliff's findings, Hynes finally says some interesting things about the dwarves, but those are the dwarves of The Lord of the Rings, not The Hobbit. All in all, there are only about two or three pages worth of relevant, original thoughts in this essay.

The reader's palate is cleansed by the following pair of essays, both of which use genuine astronomical science to reflect on the possibility of Durin's Day (as defined by Tolkien) in the real world. Kristine Larsen, a professional astronomer and college professor as well as a fine Tolkien scholar, contributes "'It passes our skill in these days': Primary World Influences on the Evolution of Durin's Day," in which she discusses Tolkien's admirable attention to astronomical detail, and attempts to reconcile this with what might be considered an inaccurate definition of Durin's Day. …

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