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Croft's Book on Tolkien and Shakespeare freshens Tolkien Studies12 Mar 2008
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I would like to open this review of Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language edited by Janet Brennan Croft with an observation by Thomas Honegger.
"The discussion of Tolkien's possible sources and their influence on his conception of Middle-earth has yielded important insights into the meaning of his work. For the time being, however, it looks as if the most important parallels and analogues have been investigated... Future scholarly endeavor in this field is therefore likely to yield results that are quantitative . . . rather than qualitative."
("A Note on Beren and Lúthien's Disguise as Werewolf And Vampire-Bat." Tolkien Studies 1.1 (2004) 171-175.)
Mr. Honegger proceeds to share a possible influence from Medieval literature for the scene in which Beren and Luithien disguise themselves as bat and werewolf in the Silmarillion.
I agree with Mr. Honeggar that scholars have a finite pool to dip from if their contribution to Tolkien studies involve identifying inspirational source material for Tolkien's work in either Medieval literature or the history of J.R.R. Tolkien's life in order to interpret the work. For that reason, the finitude of quality inspirational sources left to be discovered, require a different strategy within Tolkien Studies for the discussion of Tolkien's work to continue to be fruitful and interesting.
"Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language" edited by Janet Brennan Croft is a book that heads the right direction in keeping the discussion within Tolkien Studies fresh and meaningful. It is tempting to dismiss the title because we all know about Tolkien's professed dislike of Shakespeare expressed from his school days in debate club through to letters of his maturity. We are also aware of Tolkien's opinion that Shakespeare got it wrong, that he was cheating as a story teller when he had the forest move in the play "Macbeth" by having soldiers use branches as camouflage. Tolkien believed that within the context of the story that if the forest was going to move that it had to actually move, as he himself did with the creation of his Ents in The Lord of the Rings. Also, we know that Tolkien resented the trivialization of fairies, by Shakespeare, in "A Mid-Summer Night's Dream". The temptation is to dismiss Ms. Croft's title with the question: `What is there to discuss?'
However, Ms. Croft's book provides a lot to discuss. The essays within the volume do not so much identify and discuss source material for interpretation of Tolkien's work as it uses the common literary heritage that both Shakespeare and Tolkien shared as a jumping off point for discussions within the various chapters. Particularly successful within this volume is the section on the realm of Fairie. The authors of the essays are dead on in their presentation of the literary tradition of Fairie that Tolkien admired, was working from and contributing to. Within the discussion of the shared tradition of Fairie literature we get a deeper understand of Tolkien's aims within his writing and why he would say what he did about Shakespeare.
Also, particularly successful was the section on Power, that, among other things, provides an interesting discussion of leadership within English literature, which explores the theme of the indecisive prince as seen in the character within "Hamlet" and Aragorn from "The Lord of the Rings".
The collection of essays within Ms. Crofts book are almost a deconstructionist approach to the literature of Tolkien and Shakespeare rather than a traditional piece of criticism. A well known element, Tolkien's dislike of Shakespeare, is emphasized and used as a jumping off point of discussion. The result is fresh discussion and insights.
Another book I see as having used this technique is: "Ents, Elves, and Eriador: the Environmental vision of J.R.R. Tolkien" by Mathew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans. The authors emphasize Tolkien's environmentalism within his work as the jumping off point and the result is a stunningly original and thoughtful contribution to the discussion Tolkien's Work. I highly recommend either book and hope that others will freshen the discussion within Tolkien Studies by using a similar strategy for discussion of the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Phillip Fitzsimmons Serials, Government Documents, and Digitization Librarian Al Harris Library Southwestern Oklahoma State University