Dick Blackwelder (1909-2001) was an entomologist and zoologist, whose 1978 encounter with Tolkien's writings led to his amassing a huge collection of secondary materials on Tolkien and the compilation of A Tolkien Thesaurus (1990). Since Marquette already owned most of the manuscripts for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Blackwelder's bequest enhanced the Wisconsin university's already great importance for Tolkienian researchers. (Wayne Hammond's paper in the present collection discusses the importance of original manuscripts for the study of Tolkien's fiction and illumination of his life.)
In celebration of Blackwelder's own work and financial contribution on behalf of Tolkienian scholarship, and to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Lord of the Rings, a 2004 conference brought together many of the most prominent scholars in this field. Publication of the resulting 20 papers has been subsidized by the Blackwelder endowment, which no doubt helps to keep down the cost of this attractively produced book.
Readers interested in Tolkien's literary creativity will be interested in several essays. Paul Edmund Thomas shows that we owe Tolkien's publishers much gratitude, because their refusal to accept the Silmarillion materials as a follow-up to The Hobbit compelled Tolkien to conceive and to write The Lord of the Rings (in fits and starts). Thomas and the next essayist, John Rateliff, discuss the importance of the sense of antiquity (something Tolkien found basic in Beowulf) as central for Tolkien's fiction. (One would have appreciated a reference for his statement that Lord Dunsany was "one of Tolkien's favorite fellow fantasists.") Verlyn Flieger zeroes in on Tolkien's desire to provide fictional antiquarian explanations of the origins of his Middle-earth books (the Red Book of Westmarch, etc.), suggesting that the 1934 discovery of the Arthurian Winchester manuscript and its 1947 publication influenced not only this element of Tolkien's fiction but his wishes for a multi-volume format in which his fiction could be published. Christina Scull's paper is an enjoyable distillation of evidence of the History of Middle-earth series and Tolkien's letters, highlighting several remarkable changes from initial to final conceptions in LOTR. David Bratman's paper complements Scull's, examining changes made by Tolkien not only prior to publication of The Lord of the Rings but from the first edition to the second.
Several essays take up the topic of class in Tolkien. John Garth focuses on Frodo's experiences as a transmutation of those of British soldiers in the Great War; Garth notes in passing the typical wartime arrangement wherein officers had commissions for class reasons, while the privates actually possessed more experience relevant to the conditions of trench warfare. Marjorie Burns surveys the persistence of hierarchy (the "high," the noble, the ancient) in Tolkien's fantasy, finding that Tolkien also rewards the meek and finds ways to break down "social division" (as she notes Christianity does). Jane Chance sees feudal contracts as recurrent in LOTR; Gollum's homage to Frodo as Ringbearer, Merry's pledging of himself to Theoden, and Pippin's service to Denethor all show the deference of "third estate" (commons) figures to "first estate" (aristocracy) figures (and each of these commoners is ultimately disobedient, too).
In two further papers, Gary Hunnewell contributes "Naysayers in the Works of Tolkien" and Matthew Fisher finds Tolkien "`working at the crossroads' of Northern courage [as seen in Beowulf] and the theology of Augustine" in LOTR. Much of Fisher's paper, however, is given to the exposition of Augustine and to excerpts on theological topics from Tolkien's letters; perhaps a more extensive treatment of Augustinianism and of the pagan Northern theory of courage will appear eventually.
This essay collection has no papers on the recent LOTR movies. The prominence the films gave to the romance of Aragorn and Arwen may, however, prompt interest in their story as Richard West has sensitively pieced it together from widely dispersed elements in the book.
Several papers deal with Tolkien's scholarly interests. Michael Drout discusses the composition of Tolkien's most famous professional essay, the Beowulf lecture; Tolkien worked on it till it was "not only logically sound but also rhetorically persuasive." The Gothic language may be said to straddle a line between real language and imaginary language because so much of it must be reconstructed, and Arden Smith shows Tolkien at work doing that. Tolkien's interest in the Old English dialect of the West Midlands and his comparison of two manuscripts, showing that they conformed to the same linguistic standards, features in Arne Zettersten's article.
Tom Shippey, whose Road to Middle-earth is my choice for the one essential study of Tolkien's fiction, has been working on a book about the Grimm brothers as philologists. His paper in this collection connects Tolkien's scholarly work with theirs, and includes enjoyable linguistic "unpackings" of two unusual words in LOTR, Sam's "ninnyhammer" and Eowyn's "dwimmerlaik." Few indeed could be those who know as much as Carl Hostetter does about Tolkien's invented languages. One probably could not do better, if seeking to know what Tolkien thought he was doing, and what he was not doing, in his creation of Quenya and Sindarin, or to recognize the limitations of their further development, than to read his essay.
The rapid emergence of fantasy as a publishers' marketing genre, after the paperbacking of LOTR in the mid-1960s, is traced by Douglas Anderson. (LOTR had sold well before then, though.) Anderson unearths a remark from Tolkien, not included in the Letters volume, in which he claimed membership in science fiction and fantasy "fandom." Mike Foster provides good ideas for anyone who will be teaching a college course on Tolkien's fiction.
This collection - which is indexed (something not to be taken for granted!) -- is a must-purchase for college and university libraries, and is also recommended for public and secondary school libraries that have significant Tolkien holdings.