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NESP Reviews

Leslie Ellen Jones, Myth & Middle-earth (Gold Spring Press, 2002). 
ISBN # 1-892975-81-5. $14.95.

Review by R. S. Radford

When J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" first hit the United States in 1965, I - like probably 99% of the book's newfound mass audience - seized upon it as an allegory for the war in Viet Nam.  Later on, when I learned the author's age, I worked it out that the story must really be an allegory for World War II.  Almost 40 years later, a new generation of Americans is enthusiastically embracing the movie version of LOTR, and I suspect the majority of those who are encountering the trilogy for the first time have no more clue of what Tolkien was really writing about than I did.

Enter "Myth and Middle-earth," a very accessible, short paperback (169 pages of text, plus index) designed to initiate new Tolkien fans to the author's mythological sources and the uses to which he puts them.  Given Leslie Ellen Jones' rather modest goals and target audience, her book succeeds in its mission.  It even goes a bit beyond that.  I didn't expect to learn anything I didn't already know about Germanic mythology and its use by Tolkien (who for most of his life was a professor of Old English at Oxford University), and I didn't.  I did, however, become more aware of Tolkien's use of Celtic mythology, including useful references for further study of this material, if I so choose.

Mostly, Jones introduces her readers to the existence of dwarfs, elfs, wizards, shape-shifters, and kings in Tokien's Old Norse and Old English sources, and explains what he was trying to do with this material.  Along the way she tosses in a brief but fascinating biography, highlighting the influences in Tolkien's own life that show up in his masterwork.  (It turns out I was at least a little bit right about parts of the tale reflecting his wartime experiences, although of course Tolkien saw combat not in the second world war but in the first - a conflict in which one-third of Oxford's student body perished.)  Jones' book is also rich in anecdotes and unexpected bits of trivia - I didn't know, for example, that Tolkien had published a poem in Oxford Magazine in 1934, entitled "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil," in which Tom and Goldberry end up engaged in the very activities that occupy them when Frodo and his companions stumble across them in The Fellowship of the Ring.  Or that Tolkien's two Elven languages are based on Welsh and Finnish.  Or why Tolkien always capitalized Elf and Elven (or why he insisted on spelling it that way).

Unfortunately, it's precisely where she tries to press beyond a bare introduction to Tolkien's sources that Jones goes astray.  Distressingly often, when she goes into any detail about Old Norse mythology, she gets the details wrong.  I don't know whether she's equally vague about the specifics of Celtic mythology, but that would have to be my assumption.  It also annoyed me that, while she correctly recounts Tolkien's insistence that mythology has nothing to do with allegory, she herself lapses into the sort of primitive, myth-as-expressing-the-relationship-between-Man-and-Nature bilge that would have done Sir James Frazer proud.  Another distraction is that much of "Myth & Middle-earth" reads as though it had been hastily scribbled out on the back of a cocktail napkin (okay, a stack of cocktail napkins), and rushed into print without proofreading, much less editing.  This will bother some readers more than others.  Personally, I deal with so many first drafts of manuscripts that I immediately recognize one when I see it, and I had to suppress the urge to start correcting syntax errors, restructuring sentences, and adding marginal notes to the typesetter.

All in all, as I said at the outset, this book succeeds as an introduction to readers who have encountered the Lord of the Rings, but have literally no idea what sources its author drew on.  For this audience, I don't know if it really matters that Jones gives the wrong explanation of *why* Odin hung on the World Tree pierced by a spear.  The important thing is to inform the readers that such a myth exists.  In a sense, it's sort of like giving an unsophisticated jazz fan a Kenny G. CD in hopes that he or she may eventually come to appreciate John Coltrane.  The road, as Tolkien often noted, goes on and on, and sometimes the most important thing is to help people to take the first steps down it.  "Myth and Middle-earth" will do that.

Review (c) 2003 by R. S. Radford.  Reproduction in any form without the author's express written consent is prohibited.

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