Tuesday 23 August 2011

Tolkien and Wales

Carl Phelpstead. Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011

Christina Scull has posted a review of this book on her and Wayne Hammond's blog, and overall I agree with just about everything Christina writes, and if you take only one thing away from this, let it be that this is a very excellent book that I recommend warmly!

The contents of the book are:

Definitions, conventions and abbreviations
Part I: Language
1. Encountering Welsh
2. Linguistic taste
3. Inventing language
Part II: Literature
4. Mythological sources
5. Arthurian literature
6. Breton connections
Part III: Identity
7. Insular identities
Appendix: Tolkien’s Welsh books

Overall the book is, as said above, excellent — truly a gem! As a non-native speaker, I often find the academic works on Tolkien to be rather slow to read, but Phelpstead's language makes it easier to read this book without, as I perceive it, loss of clarity or precision. There are few specialized expressions, and those that are there are necessary and are well explained (such as i-mutation and i-affection).

The Chronology lists only the main events discussed in the book along with very few primary events of Tolkien's life (presumably to put the events of the book in context). While there is little there that cannot be found in the Chronology volume of Hammond and Scull's The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, I actually found it very useful while reading to have this overview handy.

The part on languages is well-structured, and gives, besides what is hinted at in the chapter titles, an overview of the books that Tolkien owned on Welsh subjects and which are now in university collections in Oxford (the Bodleian or the English Faculty libraries) — valuable new biographical information — and an overview of the subject of Celtic and Celts both culturally and linguistically — this is a very valuable introduction to the question both as it were when Tolkien lived and as it stands now. Apart from this, the first chapter deals with Tolkien's encounter with Welsh and draws heavily on readily available sources, the second chapter dealing with linguistic taste contains the discussion of the evolution of the concept of ‘Celtic’, but I would have liked more depth in the discussion of Tolkien's personal linguistic taste to go along with his general theory, and in the last chapter that compares Sindarin and Welsh, I would have like to see a discussion of how the sounds, the phonemes, of Welsh influenced Sindarin. There may at times be a tendency to trust Tolkien's statements a bit further than may be wise. We know that Tolkien was given to a certain degree of exaggeration for rhetorical effect and to drive his point home, so I think Tolkien scholars need to be a little more careful when evaluating Tolkien's statements.

The part on literature also gives an overview of the surviving medieval literature in Welsh, Arthurian literature and Breton lays (each in the appropriate chapter). We get an overview in each chapter of the work Tolkien is known to have done pertaining to each area, including the influences that this literature has had on his fiction. Generally these influences on Tolkien's fiction are easier to spot in his smaller works such as Farmer Giles of Ham, Roverandom, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun and the unpublished The Fall of Arthur. With respect to the influences on Tolkien's legendarium, from The Book of Lost Tales to the late Silmarillion writings, the influences are often more conjectural. Phelpstead is clearly far more careful than many other writers, but cannot completely avoid what seems a small confirmation bias. He is, however, (as Christina Scull also notes) careful not to present such conjectures as fact.

The final, single-chapter part on identities presents the reader with an excellent discussion of Tolkien's personal identity as a west Midlander, Mercian or Hwiccian. There are some hints at a deeper theory of identity, but these are, I think, not elaborated enough upon to do the topic full justice. Tolkien's general ideas about regional identity may not be politically correct in our day, but they were nonetheless his and would, I think, deserve a closer investigation in a book that dedicates an entire chapter to Tolkien's own regional identity. I think that further work on this topic would be a valuable contribution to the field of Tolkien studies.

There is little for me to say about the addenda. It starts with an appendix listing the books Tolkien owned on Welsh matters that are now in either the Bodleian Library or the English Faculty Library. The forty pages of end-notes are a mix of references and comments (personally I would prefer to have separate systems for citations and explanatory notes), and they are followed by the bibliography and the index. The index seems to be quite good - only a couple of my test keyword searches failed (Beleriand and Lay of Leithian).

For me, one of the best things of Phelpstead's presentation is his inclusion of background knowledge on many of the scholarly topics that he discusses. While the book touches on many topics, and few can be expected to be experts in all of them, a scholar specializing in medieval Britian language and/or literature will probably find most of this superfluous, but to the non-expert is is invaluable. Where else would I have learned about the kingdom of Hwicce, and why this is relevant to Tolkien?

They say that people generally remember only the first and the last of what you say, so let me repeat what I said in the beginning: if you take only one thing away from this, let it be that Carl Phelpstead's book is excellent: a fine piece of Tolkien scholarship which is a rare pleasure to read, and which I warmly recommend.

Other on-line reviews:

Christina Scull: http://wayneandchristina.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/tolkien-and-wales/

Andrew Higgins: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mythsoc/message/22418

Pieter Collier (announcement): http://www.tolkienlibrary.com/press/971-Tolkien_and_Wales-Language_Literature_Identity.php

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