Wednesday, 7 July 2010

'The Keys of Middle-Earth: Discovering Medieval Literature through the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien' - Stuart D. Lee and Elizabeth Solopova

Writing in response to John Henry Newman's comment in The Idea of a University that "English Literature will ever have been Protestant", G.K. Chesterton reminded his readers that, "English literature was English a long time before it was Protestant." On this occasion at least, Chesterton was right and Newman was wrong but you would be hard pushed to know it if you look around most bookshops. We live with the tyranny of the present and readily assume that if a book is more than a few hundred years old it's not worth reading.

However, to be Catholic means to be conscious of our need for the past to help us launch ourselves into the future and no Catholic writer of recent times has been more aware of this than "the author of the century", J.R.R. Tolkien.

There have been innumerable books about Tolkien and his fiction but the value of Stuart Lee and Elizabeth Solopova's The Keys of Middle-Earth is that it takes us back to the (mainly) English pre-Reformation literature which inspired him and which was the focus of his working life. Lee and Solopova, who can also be heard talking about Tolkien at Oxford in podcasts from Oxford University, give us an overview of Tolkien's life and career, a basic introduction to the three languages which he drew upon when writing his fiction - Old English, Middle English and Old Norse - and a survey of the main thematic parallels between his fiction and medieval literature. So far so technical, you might think. Perhaps. But even Tolkien enthusiasts will gain new insights from Lee and Solopova's overview.

What really distinguishes the book from others on the market though is what comes next: passages from Old Norse and Old and Middle English literature printed alongside commentaries on the parallel passages from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. So, for example, we discover the roots of Mordor in Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For anyone who has read Tom Shippey's excellent The Road to Middle-Earth, little of this is new but what is different is the presentation. By giving us relatively lengthy passages from early English literature, Lee and Solopova force us out of our contemporary shells.

One of the most intriguing sections in their book, for example, comes when they compare the crossing of the Nimrodel and the entry into Lothlórien with Pearl, the Middle English poem about the death of the poet's daughter and his dream vision of her on the other side of a heavenly stream which flows out from the throne of God. In most modern fiction the afterlife is usually ignored, parodied or mocked but neither Tolkien nor the Pearl poet succumbed to these temptations and their writing is the richer for it. What we get in Lee and Solopova's book, in other words, are new insights into Tolkien's fiction and a glimpse into the rich world of pre-Reformation English fiction, a world that is now all but forgotten by most readers.

I have only two minor quibbles with the book. Firstly, the authors repeatedly refer to Tolkien's "novels". However, as Tom Shippey pointed out in The Road to Middle-Earth, one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings is interesting is precisely because it is not a novel. Rather he demonstrates that "the basic structural mode of The Lord of the Rings [is] the ancient and pre-novelistic device of entrelacement." This may seem like a minor semantic quibble but, since novels "have rights to that designation only insofar as they display their origins in and their debt to the Northern European Protestant matrix," according to Valentine Cunningham, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, the issue is actually of profound importance to Catholics. Tolkien is one of the few Catholic writers of fiction to have been aware of the fundamentally post-Protestant, secular nature of the novel and also, crucially, to have done something about it.

My second quibble concerns Lee and Solopova’s use of the term "medieval" throughout their book, even though they acknowledge that "it is a term that now has a derogatory connotation". The truth of the matter, as C.S. Lewis long ago demonstrated in his book on 16th Century Literature, is that the term has always had a derogatory connotation. It is in its very essence a put down, a criticism, an attack. And this matters because by using the word "medieval", Lee and Solopova unwittingly help to bolster the tyranny of the present which I referred to at the start of this post.

On his recent trip to Portugal, Pope Benedict said that, "Today's culture is in fact permeated by a tension which at times takes the form of a conflict between the present and tradition. The dynamic movement of society gives absolute value to the present, isolating it from the cultural legacy of the past, without attempting to trace a path for the future." The great value of Tolkien's fiction and The Keys of Middle-Earth, despite my quibbles, is that they help us to escape from this conflict. They also provide the Catholic English teacher with a ready-made way into pre-Reformation literature and for that alone we should value these books.

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