Monday, January 4, 2016

The State of the Field in Tolkien Scholarship

First, a quick note to say I've uploaded to my review of Smith of Wootton Major: Extended Edition edited by Verlyn Flieger.  Direct link here.  And a teaser below:

Smith of Wootton Major: Extended Edition, edited by Verlyn Flieger and utilizing the Bodleian Tolkien manuscripts, was first published in Great Britain in 2005. Ten years on there comes a newly formatted pocket edition (6 1/4 by 4 3/4 inches), slightly revised, and with some material new to this edition (mostly comprising illustrations by Pauline Baynes). Neither the 2005 or the 2015 edition has had distribution in the United States—scholars must order the British edition. The differences between the two editions are given a close comparison here, followed by an overdue and detailed description of some of the serious flaws of the original edition which, unfortunately, remain unaddressed in the new one. . . . 

Second, I'd like to call  attention to  a piece by Thomas Honegger, also just posted at, entitled "A Reviewer's Complaint."  It's a short, one-page piece, and you can read it all here. Basically, it notes some alarming trends in recent Tolkien scholarship, ranging from pure sloppiness and the lack of copy-editing, to the more serious lack of engagement with existing scholarship in the field.  I've noted these problems growing in occurrence for some years now. Some potential scholars seem to be treating scholarship as equivalent to the writing of blog-posts--chatty, personal, and one dimensional.  While blog-posts can be just those things (chatty and personal especially) they don't have to be. There are many bloggers whose blogs are up to rigorous standards of scholarship, and I think that's a good thing. Perhaps it is not amiss to suggest that bloggers might practice more scholarship, and that potential scholars should cease to emulate blogs. Honegger's charge that new scholarship exhibits a limited knowledge of the field is more serious and more problematic. The first "scholar" who comes to my mind as guilty of all these traits is Adam Roberts, whose publishing credits include some truly execrable parodies of Tolkien (they sold well enough in England that Roberts has been laughing all the way to the bank), and a cosmetic "revision" of Lin Carter's Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings (1969; "updated"--barely--by Roberts in 2003), which manages (among other problems) to retain Carter's basic errors of plot-points.  Roberts moved on to write a book-length blog on The Riddles of The Hobbit (2013), which simply ignores most previous scholarship on the subject. Yet the book was published by a respectable academic publisher, Palgrave Macmillan (What were they thinking?  Merely that they should publish some Hobbit-related book while the Peter Jackson Hobbit films were current? Palgrave should be ashamed.).  Roberts's contribution (on "Women"--probably the worst essay in an otherwise very good book) to Stuart D. Lee's Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien (published by another academic publisher, Wiley Blackwell) similarly has almost no engagement at all with  the work of other scholars. Yet on these credentials Roberts was invited to deliver the second "Pembroke Lecture on Fantasy Literature In Honour of J.R.R. Tolkien" on 2 May 2014, at Pembroke College Oxford. The mind boggles.  Here glib trendiness has pushed aside the opportunity for real scholarship, and the chance to honor Tolkien became instead a slap in the dead writer's face. How completely depressing. I (for one) think Honegger's complaint is too soft. 

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