Sailing to the West: The Fall of Arthur, Beowulf, and Tol Eressea (Keynote Lecture for Oxonmoot 2017)

The last few years have seen the publication of two of Tolkien’s works that scholars and serious fans have known about for a very long time:

  • Tolkien’s unfinished alliterative poem The Fall of Arthur[i] and
  • Tolkien’s prose translation of Beowulf (together with relevant notes from Tolkien’s lectures, as well as his fairy-tale Selic Spell and two Lays on the story of Beowulf)[ii]


A lot has been written and said about the contribution of the Beowulf volume to Old English scholarship and on the ways Tolkien thought about the English Arthurian tradition as evidenced in The Fall of Arthur, but what I want to focus on today is what is it that linked those two works in Tolkien’s imagination as represented in his Middle-earth mythology.

So let me start with The Fall of Arthur:

It’s probably bad etiquette to begin with a quotation from my own published stuff, but bear with me: in this paper I may have to be self-reflective at points as I have long been interested in Tolkien’s “Celtic” sources, and I have hazarded public speculations on The Fall of Arthur before it ever appeared in print. So, here it goes:

In my 2007 paper in Tolkien Studies, volume 4[iii], I wrote about The Fall of Arthur:

Carpenter seems to be pointing to Malory’s Morte D’Arthur as an immediate source for Tolkien’s poem. However, Tolkien’s poem was written in alliterative metre, while Malory’s is in prose.

There are actually two very short fragments, of no more than forty five lines in total, from the unpublished “Fall of Arthur” available to the researcher within Tolkien’s manuscripts at the Bodleian… [and] it is significant that Christopher Tolkien’s note on the Folio refers to the poem as “Morte Arthure”. This title would not point to Malory’s poem but rather to the Middle-English text known as the Alliterative Morte Arthure. This is a late fourteenth-century Arthurian romance, which, together with the almost contemporary Stanzaic Morte Arthur, forms the main English Arthurian tradition before Malory […] Tolkien might have showed a preference for this poem rather than for Malory’s work because of it being part of the alliterative revival, a literary movement which began in the mid-fourteenth century and included such works as the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Tolkien co-edited with his colleague E. V. Gordon and also translated into Modern English alliterative verse. […]

Apart from a tribute to the alliterative form, though, the poem could also be a tribute to the Arthur of the English, to the English Arthurian tradition. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s “Fall of Arthur” is not available to consult and compare with either Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, or the Alliterative Morte Arthure, but both works would qualify as depicting an English Arthur, as opposed to a Welsh, or even worse for Tolkien, a French one.[iv] (emphasis added)

At that time I had very little to go on: just Carpenter’s description of The Fall of Arthur[v] and those 45 or so lines in the Bodleian (in pretty undecipherable handwriting), but Tolkien’s love and desire for a modern revival of alliterative poetry had been long known (not least from his published work – especially in The Lord of the Rings) and, of course, much has been written and discussed about Tolkien’s Francophobia; and Tolkien as a writer of Englishness, interested in an English mythology and identity, as opposed to “things Celtic”.

I suppose I got some things right – which brought a great feeling of relief when I finally read The Fall of Arthur in its entirety: the Alliterative Morte Arthure is indeed the most substantial source for Tolkien’s unfinished poem, and Christopher Tolkien’s commentary seems to support the idea that Tolkien had in mind the English “chronicle” tradition of King Arthur, rather than the French “Romance” tradition, or the Arthurian folklore tradition from the Welsh material. But, then, I really didn’t expect that Tolkien was contemplating linking The Fall of Arthur with his own legendarium. This was a complete surprise, which opened entirely new questions and research avenues.

For me, The Fall of Arthur raised two intriguing questions that demanded answers:

  1. What was Arthur doing in the East at the beginning of The Fall of Arthur?
  2. Where (and what) is Avalon?

I will address the latter first.

From Tolkien’s drafts and MSS on The Fall of Arthur, we know that he had certain ideas about how his poem would end. As I said above, Tolkien followed very closely (and for a large part of his poem) the Alliterative Morte Arthure. But the Alliterative Morte Arthure ends with the mortally wounded Arthur taken to Glastonbury, where he is eventually buried with great ceremony. In Tolkien’s drafts we have, instead:

Arthur dying in the gloom. Robbers search the field. [Excalibur >] Caliburn and the lake. The dark ship comes up the river. Arthur placed upon it.

Lancelot… rides ever west. The hermit by the sea shore tells him of Arthur’s departure. Lancelot gets a boat and sails west and never returns. – Eärendel passage.[vi]

And in another draft:

Lancelot parts from Guinevere and sets sail for Benwick but turns west and follows after Arthur. And never returns from the sea. Whether he found him in Avalon and will return no one knows.[vii] (emphasis added)

In the extraordinary draft poem that follows, which Christopher Tolkien calls, for convenience, “Eärendel’s Quest” (it seems to be the “Eärendel passage” Tolkien refers to in the last but one quotation), Eärendel seems to take the place of Lancelot (or vice versa?).

But the draft I am most interested in is the next one, which Christopher Tolkien calls “Arthur’s Grave”, in which the same lines (or at least very similar ones) with the last part of “Eärendel’s Quest” are now attributed to Arthur, after listing the graves of other Arthurian characters:

The grave of Gawain under grass lieth
by the sounding sea, where the sun westers.
What grave hath Guinever The grey shadow
her gold in [?ground] [(struck out:) gleams like]
her gold in silence unseen gleameth.
Britain nor Benwick did barrow keep
of Lancelot and his lady.
No [(struck out:) grave hath Arthur]
No mound hath Arthur in mortal land
under moon or sun who in ………..
beyond the miles of the sea and the magic islands
beyond the halls of night upon Heaven’s borders
[(struck out:) the] dragon’s portals and the dark mountains
of the Bay of Avalon on the borders of the world.
up[on] Earth’s border in Avalon [sleeping >] biding.
While the world w….eth
till the world [??awaketh]

(Christopher Tolkien notes that “In the penultimate line the verb is not waiteth and seems not to be watcheth.[ix])

Historia regum Britanniae, reproduced from

Now this ambiguous idea of Arthur mortally wounded, on the one hand, but carried over to Avalon over the sea to be healed, on the other, goes back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the beginning of the Arthurian legend as we know it today, where we hear very briefly that he was “carried thence to the isle of Avalon [insulam Auallonis] to be cured of his wounds”[x]. In his later work, Vita Merlini, Geoffrey elaborates on Avalon, and translates its name: he refers to it as the “Island of Apples, which is called the Fortunate Isle” [insula pomorum que fortunata vocatur]. Most scholars agree that the derivation of the place-name “Avalon” confirms Geoffrey’s translation: in Welsh afal means ‘apple’, so the term “Avalon” and its otherwordly associations point to a Welsh tradition. A cognate and parallel mythological use is attested in early Irish literature: Emain Ablach, ‘Emain of the apples’, is the poetic name for the Isle of Man when it is specifically identified as the blessed and otherworldly domain of the sea divinity Manannán mac Lir.

Though there are much more numerous in Irish medieval literature, there are examples of otherworld islands in the Welsh tradition, e.g. the timeless feast in the island of Gwales in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi. But, most importantly, Arthur himself is involved in an expedition to an otherworld island in the early Welsh poem ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ (‘The Spoils of Annwfn’, c.850-1150). He leads a sea raid on an otherworldly stronghold made of glass in his ship, Prydwen. The aim is to rescue a prisoner and steal a magical cauldron that ‘does not boil the food of a coward’.

Vita Merlini, reproduced from:

But the tradition that Tolkien seems to be alluding to in his draft, is Arthur’s departure to Avalon and his promised return, a Messianic prophecy that gave the Anglo-Saxons and Normans a lot of headaches when they were faced with Welsh nationalism. In Vita Merlini Geoffrey includes this belief in Arthur’s return. But the belief seems to be earlier, part of the Welsh, pre-Galfridian Arthurian tradition. The first hint of this tradition in the Welsh medieval corpus is a text that Tolkien definitely knew, and that – I think – he emulates in his projected ending of The Fall of Arthur: the Englynion y Beddau (the Stanzas of the Graves). This is series of verses in the manuscript known as The Black Book of Carmarthen which list the locations of the graves of famous Welsh heroes.

The MS is quite late (13th century) but the stanzas themselves have been dated to the 9th century. The heroes whose graves are catalogued include important characters from the Mabinogion (Pryderi, Dylan), and Arthurian characters are very much present also. So we hear about the graves of Gwalchmai (Sir Gawain), Bedwyr (Sir Bedevere), and March (King Mark) of the Tristan stories, among others. The most important lines for the purposes of this paper are those of stanza 44:

Bet y march.
bet y guythur.
bet y gugaun cletyfrut.
Anoeth bid bet y arthur.

[There is] a grave for March, a grave for Gwythur,
a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword
the world’s wonder (anoeth) [is] a grave for Arthur.[xi]

Now the word anoeth is archaic and difficult and can mean a wonder, or something difficult to obtain, or an impossible task. (So, for those of you who are familiar with the Mabinogion tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the “impossible tasks” that the giant Ysbaddaden demands that Culhwch should accomplish to win Olwen for his bride are called “anoethau”).  The line Anoeth bid bet y Arthur has variously been translated as “A wonder of the world is the grave of Arthur”, “a difficult thing is the grave of Arthur”, “Impossible to find in this world is the grave of Arthur”. Patrick Sims-Williams has linked this stanza with the Welsh tradition of Arthur’s temporary departure and eventual return, which is corroborated by William of Malmesbury’s remark in his Gesta regum Anglorum (c. 1125) that ‘Arthur’s grave is nowhere seen, whence antiquity of fables still claims that he will return’.[xii]

To my knowledge, there is no other medieval work that lists the graves of Arthurian heroes in the way Tolkien does, other than the Englynion y Beddau. Tolkien actually owned two copies of this text: one in a 1888 facsimile and one in a 1907 edition and reproduction of the Black Book of Carmarthen. You can see the latter (in the exact edition Tolkien owned) in Image 1, and the pages containing the verses quoted above in Image 2.

Image 1

Image 2

So much for the Arthur of the English, then!

As I was reading The Fall of Arthur, I was definitely getting elements of motifs and tone from the Alliterative Morte Arthure (the strong homosocial bonds between Arthur and his knights, for example; or the insistence on the epic/chronicle depiction of Arthur as an active war leader, rather than the more shadowy Arthur of the Romances); but I was also getting bits and pieces of the Arthur of the Welsh. In Tolkien’s work, Arthur’s ship is Prydwen, a name attested in the Welsh tradition only (Geoffrey had evidently heard it but got it wrong, as he gives the name Pridwen to Arthur’s shield). Wales also figures as a location in the poem with somewhat mystical associations: twice Tolkien describes Wales in his poem as “the hidden kingdom” (Canto IV, lines 12, 67). There are many “hidden kingdoms” of the Elves in the legendarium, including Gondolin and Nargothrond, but the term Hidden Kingdom, capitalised, usually refers to Doriath, which – as I hypothesized in my 2007 article – is associated with tales for which Tolkien was inspired by “Celtic” material.

But what is more significant, is that – by the point of the projected ending of Tolkien’s poem – the Welsh-derived tradition of Arthur as the “once and future king” seems to have prevailed. And I think it is significant that the MS of the Alliterative Morte Arthure seems to echo exactly what Tolkien did: As I said before, this 14th-century poem ends with Arthur’s elaborate funeral and burial at Glastonbury. But added to the very end of the poem, in a different hand from that of the main MS scribe, is the line: “Hic jacet Arthurus, rex quondam rexque futurus.” (Here lies Arthur, king once and king to be.) Scholars have debated this addition, claiming that it clashes with the scene of Arthur’s funeral just a few lines above. Is this added line a reference to Arthur’s importance even after death? Is it Arthur’s supposed epitaph? Or is it – as Mary Hamel has claimed – that the writer simply ‘disagreed with the poet’s ending’[xiii]? I think that Tolkien’s interpretation would be the latter – or at least, he himself disagreed with this ending and went back to the older Welsh tradition, to Avalon and the absence of a grave for Arthur.

But why link this tradition with his own legendarium? Why make the Arthurian Avalon equivalent to Tol Eressea, the island of the Elves off Valinor?

In the notes that accompany the texts of The Fall of Arthur, Christopher Tolkien gives a full commentary of the emergence of the name Avallon in Tolkien’s mythology. In the legendarium, Avallon was also (initially) associated with Tol Eressea, but is there given as an alternative Elvish name for the island, in the mode of the linguistic punning that Tolkien often liked to use. The term first shows up in the legendarium with the emergence of Númenor and Tolkien’s unfinished novel The Lost Road around 1936-1937. Was that around the same time he was also contemplating the ending of The Fall of Arthur? Perhaps. Christopher Tolkien actually gives us a list of Tolkien’s plot notes for the ending of the poem (see Image 3) on which he writes down the date “Aug 1937” at the point where Arthur departs for Avalon, so there is corroboration for this hypothesis.

Image 3

Now calling an imaginary island in an imaginary mythology Avallon, is one thing. But to retell the story of Arthur’s last days, a legend of the real world, and then equate the Arthurian Avalon with the imaginary island in your own mythology, is quite another. What I think may point to an answer of why Tolkien explicitly links the Avalon of primary world legend to his own secondary world, may have to do with the first question I posed at the beginning of this paper:

What was the point of Arthur’s campaign in the East in The Fall of Arthur?

Christopher Tolkien is at pains to show that this is not a campaign against Rome and the Roman Emperor, as in much of the “chronicle” Arthurian tradition, including the Alliterative Morte Arthure, but a campaign to defend “the Roman realm”, which Christopher Tolkien concludes must be a reference to Roman Britain, i.e. Christian Britain, after the Romans left, but before the Anglo-Saxon invasion[xiv]: this is indeed the usual historical context for the possible existence of a “historical” Arthur, as per the writings of Gildas, Nenius, the Welsh Annals, etc. It was, definitely, astonishing for me, when reading The Fall of Arthur, to suddenly realise that Tolkien was in this poem writing from the point of you not of his usual semi-historical/semi-legendary Anglo-Saxon heroes, like Eriol, supposedly the father of Hengist and Horsa in The Book of Lost Tales, but from the point of view of the people the Anglo-Saxons oppressed, the Romano-British population, defended by Arthur in the Welsh Arthurian tradition. Tolkien’s much-praised Anglo-Saxon heroes are here oppressors, ravagers and – worst of all – heathens! The soul of the Frisian sea-captain, who brings Mordred news of Arthur in Tolkien’s poem, goes straight to hell[xv]. The sense of impending doom at the beginning of the poem is highlighted by lines that point to the end of an era:

Thus the tides of time to turn backward
and the heathen to humble, his hope urged him
(Canto I, lines 5–6)


Now from hope’s summit headlong falling
his heart foreboded that his house was doomed,
the ancient world to its end falling
and the tides of time turned against him.
(Canto I, lines 176-9)


Time is changing;
the West waning, a wind rising
in the waxing East. The world falters.
(Canto II, lines 147-9)

Now we’ve seen many times in Tolkien’s world this motif of sorrow and loss over a changing world that will never be the same again – most recognisably in The Lord of the Rings, but it is astounding that Tolkien here laments the end of the Romano-British world, and portrays that Anglo-Saxon invasion as a disaster. Christopher Tolkien’s commentary also notes this remarkable deviation from Tolkien’s usual sympathies, and – significantly – he links this sense of a world at the edge of doom with Tolkien’s other long alliterative poem on a semi-historical, semi-legendary event: The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth.

Wild blow the winds of war in Britain! says Sir Cradoc, when telling King Arthur (I.160) of the heathen dragon ships driving in on the unguarded shores; and five centuries later Torhthelm, in The  Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, repeats his words with reference to the Norsemen:


So the last is fallen of the line of earls,
from Saxon lords long-descended,
who sailed the seas, as songs tell us,
from Angel in the east, with eager swords
upon war’s anvil the Welsh smiting.
Realms here they won and royal kingdoms,
and in olden days this isle conquered.
And now from the North need comes again:
wild blows the wind of war to Britain![xvi]

In this poem we have another invasion from an external foe at a much later time, against England and the previous invaders, the Anglo-Saxons: the new invaders are the Vikings, some of whom came to stay. Tolkien was – I would claim – very interested in the idea of English history as a series of invasions: his drafts of The Book of Lost Tales include the idea of the “Seven Invasions of Luthany”. Some of the invaders are listed as: the ‘Rumhoth’, the ‘Ingwaiwar’, and the ‘Forodwaith’, identified as the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Vikings[xvii]. In The Book of Lost Tales, the “good” invaders who save the Elves and learn their legends are the Anglo-Saxons, and it would be their perspective that would serve as the framework of The Book of Lost Tales. Much later, Tolkien contemplated another “framework”, the story of Númenor, now linked with the legend of Atlantis, and the transmission of the legends of the Elves via collective memory, rather than via the Anglo-Saxon ancestors[xviii].

Was Tolkien – at the time of The Fall of Arthur – contemplating yet another potential framework? The framework of the Arthurian legend? Would Lancelot find Arthur and learn the legends of the Elves in Avallon/Tol Eressea? Was Arthur going to come back, eventually, and save Britain from the waves of invaders that followed? I appreciate that this is pure speculation, but it may be that such an idea possibly entered Tolkien’s mind, if only for a while. After all, this was around the same time he was definitely considering different frameworks for his mythology, associated with the emergence of the Númenor story, which led to his famous note-to-self: “Do the Atlantis story and abandon Eriol-Saga” (brilliantly discussed by Professor Flieger in the first volume of Tolkien Studies).

I suppose we can’t ever know what “would-have-been”: but I’d like to emphasise here the strong attraction that Tolkien felt towards the idea of the otherworld over the sea.

The significance of the Voyage to an Otherworld island in the West in Tolkien’s mythos cannot be underestimated. It could even be claimed to be central. The example most readers would think of is the departure of the Elves, Gandalf, as well as Bilbo and Frodo, for the Undying Lands at the end of The Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien’s extended mythology abounds with examples of many other characters who make the same voyage overseas – not least Eärendel, whom we mentioned already earlier. And that’s where we can bring in Beowulf.

It is noteworthy, I think, that in Tolkien’s lecture notes on Beowulf we find in the recent volume, there is a discussion of the lines on Scyld Scefing and the famous scene of his ship funeral. In this note, Tolkien claims that the Beowulf poet blended the history-based legend of a heroic ancestor with a myth of a “corn-god” or “cultural hero” who comes in a boat “out of the unknown” and is returned to that unknown land upon his death. In Tolkien’s words, the Beowulf poet combined Scyld as a semi-historical ancestor with:

the more mysterious, far older and more poetical myth of the mysterious arrival of the babe, the corn-god or the culture-hero his descendant, at the beginning of a people’s history, and adding to it a mysterious Arthurian departure, back into the unknown, enriched by traditions of ship-burials in the not very remote heathen past…[xix]

So here’s a point of convergence. Both Tolkien’s rendition of the Arthurian legend and Beowulf include the motif of an otherworld land somewhere out there, across the sea. And they are not the only mythological texts to do so. Other European traditions include visions of otherworld lands or islands, and Tolkien himself reworked – or contemplated reworking – two of them:

  • The Voyage to Vinland as portrayed in OId Norse sagas[xx] and
  • The Irish material of St. Brendan’s voyage (you may be familiar with Tolkien’s poem “Immram”)[xxi]

So what is going on here? Is the motif of the voyage across the sea to the Undying Lands so strong in Tolkien’s imagination so as to make Arthur’s sailing to Avalon (perhaps the most iconic representation of such a story) to gravitate towards the more Anglo-Saxon-focused bulk of his mythology? And, if I go back to the hypothesis that Tolkien may have contemplated an “Arthurian framework” for his mythology, is it possible that Tolkien would have made the point that all of those heroes of all of those Northern European legends (Scyld, Arthur, St. Brendan and his company, the Vikings who travelled to Vinland, etc.) were all just misremembered fragments and versions of the same story, Eärendel’s voyage to the Lonely Island?

I suppose we’ll never know – unless any further notes or manuscripts emerge. But I think it is significant that there are numerous cross-references to the Arthurian matter throughout Tolkien’s lecture notes on Beowulf. I am just noting a few, among around ten I located.

  • Apart from calling King Scyld’s departure across the sea “Arthurian”, (as per my earlier quotation) Tolkien also says that
  • any sense of a historical Beowulf would only be “historical, if at all, in the sense and degree that King Arthur is”[xxii]
  • And he also refers to “the ‘Arthurian’ court of Heorot, glorious and doomed, gnawed already by the canker of treachery”[xxiii].

In a longer parallel Tolkien notes:

Heorot was still glorious, but it was doomed to be burned. All the history of Heorot was in the mind of poet and audience; but the poet was conscious of dramatic time (as throughout). The ultimate doom of the dynasty of Healfdene and the great hall built by Hrothgar cast a shadow over the court of Heorot in Old English – as later a shadow lay on Arthur and Camelot.[xxiv]

One could argue that Tolkien’s Arthurian references in his Beowulf lecture notes are there for educational purposes: to help his student gain a deeper understanding of the contexts and atmosphere of this Old English poem. After all, everyone knows something about the story of King Arthur – the tale of Beowulf doesn’t have the same resonance for most people. But that may also explain Tolkien’s own fascination with the Arthurian legend, and may point to the reason why he may have contemplated bringing King Arthur’s departure to the heart of his own mythology. If the otherworld voyage was such a powerful stimulation to his imagination, how could he leave Arthur’s Avalon out?

Tolkien’s continued to be fascinated with what happened to King Arthur, precariously balanced between both being “mortally wounded” and “carried to Avalon to be healed”, an ambiguous ending that the Welsh tradition supports, a tradition that was bequeathed to Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings.

In his other unfinished novel, The Notion Club Papers, written nearly a decade after The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien includes a character named Ramer who narrates a dream scene to the rest of the members of the Notion Club. This is the image of an old librarian looking through “a volume made up of various manuscript-fragments bound together, probably in the sixteenth century.” Ramer continues:

In the remembered bit of the dream I knew I had been able to read the page before he turned over, and that it was not English; but I could remember no more than that – except that I was delighted, or he was. Actually it was a leaf, a unique fragment of a MS. in very early Welsh, before Geoffrey, about the death of Arthur.[xxv]

This desire for a more ancient, pre-Galfridian, and perhaps more “authentic” medieval source about Arthur’s death (or departure and perhaps possible return) which is only hinted at in The Stanzas of the Graves, remained strong in Tolkien’s imagination. Christopher Tolkien refers to the unfinished status of The Fall of Arthur as “one of the most grievous” of Tolkien’s “many abandonments”[xxvi] but we are lucky to have at the very least the drafts of how Tolkien might have imaginatively rendered the tradition of Arthur’s overseas voyage and how he might have linked it to his own mythology.



[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fall of Arthur, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2013.

[ii] Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2014.

[iii] Fimi, Dimitra. ‘Tolkien’s “‘Celtic’ type of legends”: Merging Traditions’, Tolkien Studies, 4 (2007), pp. 51-71, also reprinted here:

[iv] Ibid, pp. 59-60.

[v] Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: Allen and Unwin, 1977, pp. 168-9.

[vi] The Fall of Arthur, pp. 135-6

[vii] Ibid., p. 137

[viii] Ibid., pp. 138-9

[ix] Ibid., p. 139

[x] Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, transl. by Aaron Thompson, with revisions by J.A. Giles, available at:, p. 193.

[xi] Sims-Williams, Patrick. ‘The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems’, pp. 33-71, in Bromwich, R.. Jarman, A.O.H., and Roberts, B.F. (eds.) The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991, p. 49.

[xii] Ibid., pp. 49-50.

[xiii] Morte Arthure: A Critical Edition, edited by Mary Hamel. Garland Medieval Texts, 9. New York and London: Garland, 1984, p. 397.

[xiv] The Fall of Arthur, see pp. 86 and 88

[xv] Ibid., Canto II, lines 59-67

[xvi] Ibid., pp. 89-90

[xvii] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Book of Lost Tales: Part II, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1984, pp. 294 and 323.

[xviii] See ‘The Lost Road’ in Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lost Road and Other Writings, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1987.

[xix] Beowulf, pp. 138-9

[xx] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lost Road and Other Writings, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1987, p. 77

[xxi] See in Tolkien, J.R.R. Sauron Defeated, edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1992.

[xxii] Beowulf, p. 147

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 153

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 158

[xxv]  Sauron Defeated, p. 192

[xxvi] The Fall of Arthur, p. 124

Tolkien and the Art of Book Reviewing: A Circuitous Road to Middle-earth

The Tolkien Society has just uploaded on YouTube my talk for Oxonmoot 2016, titled: “Tolkien and the Art of Book Reviewing: A Circuitous Road to Middle-earth”. I thought, therefore, that it would be a good idea to publish the text of the talk and slides too. The talk focuses on Tolkien’s three book reviews on “Philology” for The Year’s Work in English Studies, published between 1924 and 1927. I start with some general observations on academic book reviews, their challenges and pitfalls (so this part may prove useful for postgraduate students and early career researchers), and then I present some links between Tolkien’s book reviews and some of his lifelong concerns and interests that fed into his literary creativity. Please note that the talk has been written to be delivered orally (rather to be published) so it includes colloquialisms and the referencing (though included) does not follow any specific referencing system religiously.

Tolkien and the Art of Book Reviewing:
A Circuitous Road to Middle-earth


Dr Dimitra Fimi
September 2016

So, Book Reviews. Book reviews are undoubtedly a useful thing. If you’ve just picked up a book, any book, chances are that somewhere in the front or back cover there will be an extract from a review, attempting to convince you to read it. From the columns of national newspapers and periodicals, to the reviews submitted on Amazon, Goodreads and other such platforms, book reviews are ubiquitous, can be very influential, and – apparently – nowadays any of us can submit them.

But in the academic world, book reviews are a completely different game. Yes, they do serve the utilitarian purpose of convincing you (or discouraging you from) buying the book (perhaps for your course, or your university’s library, rather than just for you!), but they should also:

  • discuss the book’s place in the wider academic field it is supposed to contribute to and
  • evaluate it in the context of the (often very specialized and niche) interests of the academic journal that hosts the review

In terms of the first point, well, book reviews are often the locus of “showing off”. Yes, says the confident reviewer, I know the field pretty well, I can explain to you VERY clearly what this book brings to the debate that is fresh and new, or I can equally rubbish it because “that’s already been said, in fact by Professor x in 1997”!

In terms of the second point, in preparation for this talk, I was having a look at book reviews of my first book, on Tolkien. (Of course I had read them avidly back then, but it was interesting to look at them again after a considerable time distance) and the review for the journal Tolkien Studies was markedly different in focus and tone from the review for the journal Folklore, or for The Times Literary Supplement. Good reviewers are supposed to cater for their readers.

At the same time, though, there are traps and pitfalls when you have a book review to do, one of which is personal relationships. Suppose you have been asked to write a review for a book written by a good friend, or esteemed colleague, or even a mentor, and you end up thinking that the book is, well, how shall I put this, not that brilliant! Academia is a small world and these things happen – how do you deal with that?

To make matters worse, all of the difficulties and intricacies mentioned so far (the wide, authoritative knowledge of the field, the clear understanding of the niche interests of your readership, AND the issue of personal acquaintances) come to a violent clash when it comes to the people who are often the ones to be asked to do book reviews more than any: PhD students or recent graduates, or early career academics.

Yes, I can feel the shivers going up and down the spines of those of you in the audience that have one due to be submitted soon! For all the reasons I outlined a minute ago, they are daunting, cumbersome and generally a rather unwelcome task. And yet, younger academics who are keen to build a track record of publications often begin with book reviews and cut their teeth in a task that is pretty tough, but can really pay off if you get it right. The best book reviews are those from which you learn something, and the exceptional ones are those that contribute to the relevant academic debate themselves via the act of critically evaluating another scholar’s work. I know, it’s tough, but it HAS to be done and it CAN be very rewarding.

Now, why have I started this talk with such generalizations about book reviews in academia, reflecting – I assure you – on the dread and ennui of having had to do them, pretty regularly, for a good few years of my academic career? Well, because the subject of my talk is Tolkien’s own academic book reviews, all three of them, published between 1924 and 1927 in the journal The Year’s Work in English Studies (YWES). Tolkien was – at that point – exactly in the position most academic book reviewers are today: what we call now an “early career academic”. When the first of these reviews was published, he was still at his very first academic post at the University of Leeds (appointed only four years before), and by the time the last review was published he had only been in his next post at Oxford for two years. He was, therefore, within 10 years of beginning his academic career – exactly the definition we use today for early career academics.

And as if reviewing one book is not already an ordeal, Tolkien had to review a number of them in each article, because The Year’s Work in English Studies is not ANY kind of journal. Its “About” webpage (yes, the journal is still going strong!) describes it as such:

The Year’s Work in English Studies is the qualitative narrative bibliographical review of scholarly work on English language and literatures written in English. It is the largest and most comprehensive work of its kind and the oldest evaluative work of literary criticism. The Year’s Work in English Studies does not merely offer annotated or enumerated bibliography entries, but provides expert, critical commentary supplied for every book covered. (“About the Journal”)

So here you have it. Poor Tolkien didn’t just have to write a review of one book, but to survey and provide “expert, critical commentary” of all important books in his field (philology) for the year. Needless to say, this involved:

  • reading (or at least scanning!) a large amount of publications,
  • selecting the entries that would fit the subject he was assigned (and the selection had to be based on his own criteria – philology encompasses and interacts with a number of other scholarly fields)
  • and providing intelligent and informative commentary, as well as attempting to generalize and see evolving trends in scholarship

I should also note that the books Tolkien reviewed in these three volumes were not only in English – he also read them in German, French, and even modern Icelandic.

At the same time, it is important to note, I think, that although The Years Work in English Studies rightly boasts today to be “the oldest evaluative work of literary criticism”, at that point it was a relatively new publication, so reviewers must have felt the burden of responsibility to do a good job, establish the journal, and make it successful (as they clearly did). A look at the names of the reviewers that preceded and followed Tolkien in writing the review of books on “philology” for the journal reveals some that Tolkien scholars will recognize: E.V. Gordon (Tolkien’s friend, colleague and co-editor of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) did the “philology” review the year before Tolkien started his, and a few years later Charles Leslie Wrenn (who succeeded Tolkien as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford) took over for two consecutive years. By the way, the last reviewing article on “philology” the journal ever published was in 1940 – after that the topic was eliminated from the journal’s contents, perhaps elements of it subsumed into Old and Middle English, etc. This is, I think, a clear reflection of the loss of favour and popularity philology suffered in the second part of the 20th century, a process that Tolkien was already seeing in the 1920s – of which, more in a minute!

As I said before, Tolkien wrote these reviews for three consecutive years, and the toll they took (as well as Tolkien’s own humorous reaction it) are directly reflected in the opening section of each review. So, naturally, let me begin at the beginning with the three openings in quick succession.

The 1924 review begins very succinctly and dutifully, but the opening sentence also makes sure that the writer is afforded some justification over possible criticism of not having included everything he (perhaps) should:

THERE are probably more books and articles that call for mention in this section for the year 1923 than is usual. (Opening of YWES 1924)

The 1926 review follows the same desire to fend off criticism of selectiveness, but this time Tolkien is a little less reticent to show how overwhelming the task has been, and how tired he is getting of accomplishing it:

PHILOLOGICAL studies, in common with other branches of organized scientific and historical research, have become so abundant in material, so varied in aspect, and at once so minute in detail and so far-reaching in scope, that a general view and appreciation of recent work (even of one year’s work) is already a task for a polymath of unusual leisure and voracity. As generals in command of modern millions may be imagined to have sighed for the simple little operations (and great renown) of Caesar, so now does a reviewer weakly sigh for the happy nineteenth century. (Opening of YWES 1926)

So here we have the “look, this is nigh on impossible” sort of declaration, but also – interestingly – a sort of “Homeric” simile that gives as a little glimpse into Tolkien’s views on the Great War (from which he had returned only 10 years before). Notice how the “generals in command of modern millions” – the new model of war in the 20th century – are unfavourably compared to the “little operations” but also the “great renown” of Caesar. Both “expeditions” – of course – were of pivotal historical significance, changing Europe in an unprecedented way. But, to me, it sounds as though Tolkien is also criticising not just the effectiveness of modern war, but also its idea of heroism, its worthiness to gain “fame” – “renown”. The comparison is apt and hits the nail on the head: there are so many scholarly works on philology now that the poor reviewer can’t hope to read all of them, not even those written in one year, but back in the 19th century – with such giants as Franz Bopp, Wilhelm Grimm, Wilhelm von Hamboldt, Max Müller, and others – there was less to read AND it was better, or more important. Yes, the work of these pioneers wasn’t right in all of its minute details, and they were usually interested in bigger themes rather than painstaking studies of one word, for example, but – gosh! – their “big ideas” were transformative: they gave birth to an entire new scholarly field. Tolkien and his contemporaries are – like Men to Elves – just followers.

I will come back to Tolkien’s comments on the Great War in these reviews, but let me complete my point by showing you the opening of the third and last review, published in 1927:

IT is merry in summer ‘ when shaws be sheen and shrads full fair and leaves both large and long’. Walking in that wood is full of solace. Its leaves require no reading. There is another and a denser wood where some are obliged to walk instead, where saws are wise and screeds are thick and the leaves too large and long. These leaves we must read (more or less), hapless vicarious readers, and not all we read is solace. (Opening of YWES 1927)

Well, what can I say! We’ve moved up a notch here, haven’t we? This is the cry of desperation of a “hapless” academic, locked inside on a glorious summer’s day, with a book review deadline looming over his head!!! (It sounds like my summers!!!) Here we have another simile: walking in the shady woods on a warm summer’s day, their leaves compared to those other “leaves”, the leaves of the piles of books Tolkien has to read and review– most definitely NOT what he wants to be doing, but do it he must! (note that the metaphorical wood in the simile is “dense” and the leaves are “too large and long”)

The quotation with which Tolkien begins, which critic S.J. Ryan (2004) has linked to “Leaf by Niggle” as well as Aragorn and the fellowship walking in the woods of Lothlórien in The Lord of the Rings, comes from one of the Robin Hood ballads, collected by Percy and also printed by Child, and believed to be one of the oldest ones with a “mythological” aspect. Here it is, as it appears reprinted in Popular British Ballads from 1894:

WHEN shaws been sheen, and shrads full fair,
And leaves both large and long/
It is merry walking in the fair forrest,
To hear the small bird’s song.

Tolkien only changes the stanza around a little and paraphrases, but keeps the first two lines intact:

IT is merry in summer ‘when shaws be sheen and shrads full fair and leaves both large and long’. Walking in that wood is full of solace.

Now if I have it right, I don’t think anyone else has identified the quotation before – and if I am wrong I am sure one of the eminent scholars in this room will tell me so. We also know that Tolkien had heard a paper by G.B. Smith on “Early English Ballads” in King Edward’s School in 1911 (Garth, 2003, p. 352), so there’s clearly a bit more sleuth work to be done here, and perhaps a reconsideration of Tolkien’s knowledge of the Robin Hood legend and what bearing this may have in his portrayal of “outlaws” in the legendarium – of which there are a fair few.

You see that – already – a close reading of these very academic (and often very heavy-going and technically challenging) reviews opens up new vistas and proves a pretty fruitful exercise. What I hope to do in the remained of this talk is share some further insights into Tolkien’s ideas, creativity and philosophy that these reviews reveal, and I have structured these under the following categories:

  • Biographical insights
  • The usual suspects, and
  • Echoes of Middle-earth

Let me take these one-by-one: starting with biographical insights.

I talked a minute ago about Tolkien’s comment on the Great War, as opposed to the more glorious wars of antiquity. It shouldn’t surprise us that comments and asides about the War found their way in Tolkien’s book reviews – after all this was all a very recent (and rather painful) experience for him. Characteristically, he handles such references with humour, but also with a certain bitterness at times.

Two such instances come when Tolkien is reviewing A Concise Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, by E. Weekley. Tolkien notes:

The dictionary is specially strong in recording, if not in etymologizing, recent neologisms, americanisms, slang, and war-words—but bumf… has escaped Mr. Weekley’s trawler. (YWES 1926, p. 50)

Bumf is an interesting word, originally 19th-century schoolboy slang, a shortened form of “bum-fodder”, i.e. toilet paper, but later appropriated by WWI soldiers to refer to excessive (and largely irrelevant) military paperwork, and eventually associated with the junk mail of our daily existence today. Tolkien is clearly familiar with it from his own war days, as he also is with the word blimp and the menacing presence of its signifieds. Here is a picture of blimps over London. Tolkien objects to the etymology of blimp given by Weeekley:

Blimp might, finally, be cited as an example of less successful guessing. An air-officer suggested ‘bloody limp’ to Mr. Weekley; but the word was in use before the air-force had much success in making German captive-balloons even unqualifiedly limp; they hung swollen and menacing upon many an horizon. And the word was applied to our own. It is perhaps more in accordance with their looks, history, and the way in which words are built out of the suggestions of others in the mind, if we guess that blimp was the progeny of blister + lump, and that the vowel i not u was chosen because of its diminutive significance—typical of war-humour. (YWES 1926, pp. 51-2)

I think I can sort of “feel” Tolkien slightly shuddering here, remembering these enormous structures hanging “swollen and menacing upon many an horizon”. But he quickly also captures the dark side of war-humour: instead of blister + lump making “blump”, which would give a sound symbolic sense of something swollen and big, the word ended up being “blimp”, something swollen but little, the front vowel “i” usually associated with smallness in contrast to the back vowel “ə”, which implies something larger. Black humour is typical of war and other similar dark circumstances – “blimp” is a diminutive, ironic pet-name (in the same vein of calling Robin Hood’s gigantic chief lieutenant Little John), though it is associated with far more deadly and perilous things…

Tolkien also mentions the war when he discusses philology and its German origins and tradition. I said earlier on, that the journal for which Tolkien reviewed stopped featuring an article on philology in the 1940s and that philology was already in danger of decline in the 1920s, when Tolkien was writing these reviews. But philology was in his heart and soul, a way of merging the study of language and literature rather than artificially divorce them from each other with consequent intellectual losses on both sides. Tolkien was at that time very much involved in another “war” within his own Faculty at Oxford about the English syllabus over how much ‘Lit’ or ‘Lang’ students should be taught, and wrote about philology as the natural way to bring these two together. It is with vexation therefore, after having spent two full pages going through René Huchon’s Histoire de la Langue anglaise, mainly picking on all sorts of problems and issues, that he notes:

These remarks are tempered by regret that they do not reflect more plainly the cordiality with which we should wish to greet any mark of attention shown by French philology to English matters.
Not that the danger at the moment is one of excessive reverence for German ideas or achievement. Indeed, not only is the great contribution of German-speaking scholars liable to be foolishly belittled, but ‘philology’ itself, conceived as a purely German invention, is in some quarters treated as though it were one of the things that the late war was fought to end (and certainly, we think, will not); (YWES 1924, pp. 36-7)

No, its German scholarly origin and tradition wasn’t the only reason for the decline of philology, but it certainly didn’t help. Tolkien here is “fighting the long defeat” through his review – all the more heroic because unsuccessful.

My next category is the “usual suspects”, those concepts and ideas that we know from other works and writings that Tolkien was keenly interested in, and which surface rather naturally in his book reviews. He often talks about his fascination with words and the beauty of lexicography. While reviewing an article on etymologies of a group of related Germanic words he points out:

The article will interest both lexicographers and place-namers. The author says that he has not permitted himself to follow up many of the interesting side-issues. Knowing how these little lexicographical chases open vista after vista and one complication after another, we can well believe that much self-denial was practised to keep the notes down to thirteen pages. (YWES 1927, p. 35)

To me this brings to mind “Leaf by Niggle” again, and the attention to detail that opened up Tolkien’s imagination to consider further minute details, leading to other details, both in his legendarium and in his scholarly work, thus NOT practicing “self-denial” and neglecting the larger “tree” of his mythology, or of his academic writings.

Elsewhere he gives us a wistful and perceptive point about dictionaries:

But a perfect dictionary is an attractive mirage, and its nearest possible realization an aesthetic joyappreciated most by those least in need of it. (YWES 1927, p. 36)

One can’t help but think of the numerous dictionaries and lexicons that Tolkien devised for his invented languages, the Qenya Lexicon, the Gnomish Lexicon, the Etymologies, all unfinished, all promising the beauty of perfection, and all “appreciated most by those least in need” of them – Tolkien himself of course. And do forgive me for bringing in David Bowie, but his point, I think, complements Tolkien’s really well:

“Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary? When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.”

Tolkien himself, of course, worked on the OED before he got his first academic post in Leeds, and we know that the entries he was responsible for where all under the letter W. It was his fortune, then, to have to include in his book reviews the latest instalments of the OED, all picking up where he left with further words starting with W, and often words he researched himself but did not write-up. His confidence and pleasure at evaluating his former colleagues’ efforts are demonstrated by his relaxed style and humorous asides. In his first review he writes:


In lexicography, and in English philology generally, the appearance of new sections of the Oxford English Dictionary remains still the chief annual event… This year there is, however, a special reason for mention of the new sections: Wash— Wavy forms the last completed and official contribution of Dr. Bradley to the Dictionary and to English studies, and is, fittingly, full of lexicographical problems. The suggestion of wetness made by the title-words of this section is not deceptive; thirty of its sixty-four pages are occupied by Water and its compounds. (YWES 1923, pp. 20-1)

In his second review he notes:

The chief lexicographical event remains, as usual, the newest section of the Oxford (New) English Dictionary: WhiskingWilfulness. The editor, or chance, again chooses suggestive title-words. This should be an irresponsible and light-hearted section. It is not. (YWES 1926, pp. 47-8)

Tolkien reviews both sets of entries magnanimously, but he also takes the chance to question them when they didn’t take up his own etymological suggestions during his preliminary research.

One theme that comes up again and again throughout the three reviews, as it also does throughout Tolkien’s legendarium, is a fascination with England’s Anglo-Saxon past. Tolkien continuously betrays his interest in the adventus saxonum, the process via which the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain and changed its culture forever, and seems also very excited at the possibility of place-name studies recovering linguistic elements of the native British languages that were there before Old English. He comments on Germanic gods in English place-names (chiefly Woden), and he quotes verbatim (with what seems to me to be sheer exhilaration) O. G. S. Crawford’s explanation of why place-name studies are so important:

‘we are gradually collecting facts in order to construct a series of maps of England, or parts of England, as it appeared in past ages’. (YWES 1926, p. 65)

Now one can imagine what an impression this statement would have made on Tolkien. He follows the quotation from Crawford with these words:

In other words this study is fired by the two emotions, love of the land of England, and the allurement of the riddle of the past, that never cease to carry men through amazing, and most uneconomic, labours to the recapturing of fitful and tantalizing glimpses in the dark… (YWES 1926, p. 65)

Well, if the entire project of Tolkien’s mythology is not the prime example of an “amazing, and most uneconomic, labour” to recapture “fitful and tantalizing glimpses” of England’s mythical/imaginary past, then I don’t know what is!

Tolkien also mentions other research into Old English texts and motifs that we know were significant for his legendarium. He comments on a new article “on the OE. charm against elfshot” (Tom Shippey has linked this with Tolkien’s elves’ skill with archery) and on a proposed new etymology of the name Beowulf, yielding the sense “wind wolf” rather than the usual “bee wolf”, i.e. bear.

And, by mentioning Beowulf, I am now passing into my third category: echoes of Middle-earth in these book reviews.

Commenting on an article on “Place-names and Archaeology” Tolkien notes:

the gem is on the first page—a delightful illustration of what at the best may be hoped for (though hope may rarely be rewarded) from the alliance of Philologia and Archaeologia. The expression on fāgne flōr occurs in Beowulf 725, and might be guessed to mean paved or even tessellated floor. Fawler in Oxfordshire claims as earliest form Fauflor (1205). ‘Æt þam fāgan flōre?’ says the philologist; ‘was there a Roman tessellated pavement?’ The archaeologist replies: ‘at the south end of the village a Roman villa with a tessellated pavement was discovered in 1865’. (YWES 1926, p. 64)

Here are the lines from Beowulf Tolkien refers to and here is his own translation of these lines – I have highlighted the particular phrase about the floor:

onbraéd þá bealohýdig            ðá hé gebolgen wæs,
recedes múþan                          raþe æfter þon
on fágne flór                           féond treddode

Beowulf, lines 723-5

He [Grendel] wrenched then wide, baleful with raging heart, the gaping entrance of the house; then swift on the bright-patterned floor the demon   paced. (Tolkien’s Beowulf translation, p. 33)

And here is the tessellated pavement in the Roman villa in Oxfordshire that the article Tolkien has reviewed is referring to.

These Beowulf lines for sure, and perhaps even this image of the real floor, found their way in The Lord of the Rings, in the description of Meduseld when Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli enter:

The hall was long and wide and filled with shadows and half lights; mighty pillars upheld its lofty roof… As their eyes changed, the travellers perceived that the floor was paved with stones of many hues; branching runes and strange devices intertwined beneath their feet. (LotR, p. 512)

But for me another instance in which I got a sudden dejavu and a flash of a scene from The Lord of the Rings, was Tolkien’s review of an essay on English personal names and their peculiar and often comical ‘attributes’:

the chief and longest part of this chapter deals with the ‘attributes’ (e. g. Stoke D’Abernon), of various kinds, origins, and meanings; with their distribution, dating, and interpretation. These attributes are the elements that perhaps most quickly catch the casual eye in English names; they provide jokes for American comic papers, and humorous bogus names in our own; and of course the philologist pure and simple cannot deal with them by himself. The author of the chapter amusingly juxtaposes the comic Bagpuize, Bubb, Coggles, Goose, Gubbals, Pudding, Wallop (some of these are less well known than they deserve) and the chivalric Champflower, D’Evercy, Lancelyn, Montague, Morieux, and others. (YWES 1926, p. 60)


Well, the first string of “comic” but very traditionally English names, brought immediately to my mind:

My dear Bagginses and Boffins, Tooks and Brandybucks, Grubbs, Chubbs, Hornblowers, Bolgers, Bracegirdles and Proudfoots! (LotR, p. 29)

If the hobbits are another aspect of Tolkien’s representation of Englishness, then those names are fittingly English and comic, very much in the spirit of the names cited in the essay Tolkien reviewed.

I would like to close this paper with a few more gems from Tolkien’s reviews, which I will not analyse or discuss too much, but which I wish to leave with you to ponder about, and which may reveal further aspects of Tolkien’s intellect, creativity and humour.

First, two similes in which Tolkien borrows from geography and palaeontology respectively. He writes:

The boundary-line between linguistic and literary history is as imaginary as the equator – a certain heat is observable, perhaps, as either is approached… (YWES 1927, p. 59)

Here we are back in the ‘lit’ and ‘lang’ territory and Tolkien’s creative use of imagery from geography to show that these two are not as separate as his colleagues may want to think – indeed, the line that divides them is as “real” as the equator.

While marvelling about the capacity of philology to “excavate” lost and forgotten languages he notes:

One may pause to consider why the results of comparative phonology, uncertain enough, appear, when contrasted with the application of the comparative method to other linguistic features, so solid and reliable. It is of the nature of things that the skeleton lasts longest. Palaeontology rescues rather bones than flesh, it gives us little information concerning the cry of the taranosaurus; the history of language recovers for us many word-forms whose full richness of tones and of meaning escapes us—it can hardly hope to drag back much of the syntax and idiom of the lost past. (YWES 1927, pp. 55-6)

So yes, philology can rescue and restore the “skeleton” of dead languages, its bare bones, its main structures and characteristics. But it cannot bring it back fully alive – it can’t give us idioms, syntax, connotations, pronunciation. Just like palaeontology can’t tell us how the dinosaurs sounded like. Philology, therefore, satisfies both of Tolkien’s well-known desires: the re-discovery or restoration of the past, but also the inevitable gaps in our knowledge, the romance of things of the past that are now lost forever, and we can only imagine them and attempt to recapture them in fantasy.

Second, two examples of sheer humour, lest we forget that melancholy and nostalgia is only one of Tolkien’s “modes” – wit and light-heartedness is another, and equally powerful at times:

Passing pretty harsh judgement on the efforts demonstrated in Words and Idioms: Studies in the English Language, he says:

This philatelic attitude to their language attacks most people from time to time. It has certainly attacked Mr. Pearsall Smith. The lists of idioms in chapter v of Words and Idioms… have precisely the personal value and public lack of it possessed by a small stamp-collection. (YWES 1927, p. 58)

Here Tolkien manages to insult both Mr Pearsall Smith and philatelists with small stamp-collections!

Commenting on an article on Old English phonology and its intricate methodology he says:

The Anfänger [beginners] need not rejoice. It will not make the bog less treacherous for tender feet to walk on; it will only learnedly expound to one up to his neck in it how the bog came there and what it is made of! (YWES 1927, p. 43)

And, to close, may I leave you with just one short phrase, which Tolkien only uses in passing, but which may prove – I think – to be a worthy addition to all of those other proverbial “wise sayings” which The Lord of the Rings is full of. I will say it just once and let you think about it:

rumour is mythopoetic (YWES 1926, p. 43)

Thank you ever so much for listening!


Works Cited

“About the Journal”, The Year’s Work in English Studies, available at:

Garth, John (2003) Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, London: HarperCollins.

Johnson, R. Brimley (1894) Popular British Ballads: Ancient and Modern, Vol. 1, London: J. M. Dent; Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company.

Ryan, J.S. (2004) ‘Folktale, Fairy Tale, and the Creation of a Story’, in Isaacs, Neil D. and Zimbardo, Rose A. (eds.) Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1924) ‘Philology: General Works’, The Year’s Work in English Studies, 4, pp. 20–37, available at:

Tolkien J.R.R. (1926) ‘Philology: General Works’, The Year’s Work in English Studies, 5, pp. 26–65, available at:

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1927) ‘Philology: General Works’, The Year’s Work in English Studies, 6, pp. 32–66, available at:

Tolkien, J.R.R. (2004) The Lord of the Rings, 50th Anniversary Edition, edited by Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull, London: HarperCollins.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (2014) Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Together with Sellic Spell, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: HarperCollins.



Mythgard classes, Tolkien’s Beowulf, JTR, Tolkien Companion and Kalamazoo

It’s  been a while since my last update: I am back to lecturing full-time now, and I really hit the ground running this term! Among other modules, I taught Literary Transformations (Year 2), Gothic and Science Fiction (Year 3) and Representing ‘the Past’ (Masters) at Cardiff Metropolitan University. I was also Visiting Professor at the Mythgard Institute (Signum University), where I taught for the first time in a synchronous online learning environment (my previous online courses are asynchronous, based on written lectures and occasional podcasts, video lectures, etc). My course was on Celtic Myth in Children’s Fantasy, in which I explored with my students the Irish and Welsh medieval mythological texts, and the ways they have been reshaped and re-imagined by fantasy authors addressing a child or young adult readership. It was great fun and I really enjoyed the real-time online interaction with my students (what a great bunch they were!). A sample lecture is available to watch for free and the entire course (all recorded lectures in video and audio format) is now available to buy here.

I also ended up appearing for a guest lecture/session just a couple of weeks ago in another Mythgard course: The Lord of the Rings: A Cultural Studies and Audience Reception Approach, taught by Dr. Robin Anne Reid. Dr Reid used my book (Tolkien, Race and Cultural History) as a main textbook during the first 5 weeks of the course, and it was lovely to be invited for an extra Q&A session as part of her class to discuss my research, and new directions in Tolkien scholarship.

packshotTolkien scholarship has indeed been enriched during the last few months by the appearance of new, significant, publications. First of all, Tolkien’s long-awaited prose translation of Beowulf has been published, edited by Christopher Tolkien, together with other bonus material (commentaries, Beowulf-related creative pieces, etc.). Needless to say, the book created huge excitement in Tolkien fan and scholarly circles, culminating with the Online Beowulf Launch Party on 24t May, co-organised by the Middle-earth Network and the Tolkien Society. I contributed a brief talk on “Sellic Spell”, Tolkien’s attempt to ‘reconstruct’ the Anglo-Saxon folktale that may have inspired motifs and the wondrous elements in Beowulf. The video of my talk is available to watch online here.

In addition to an original publication by Tolkien, the last few months brought into fruition two projects that have been in the works for a while:


The Journal of Tolkien Research (JRT) has now been launched. This is an open access electronic journal published by ValpoScholar, the publishing and institutional repository of Valparaiso University (supported by Bepress). The editor is Brad Eden and the book reviews section will be edited by Douglas A. Anderson. I am delighted to be sitting on the editorial board. See here for guidelines on how to submit, how to “follow” the journal, etc.

Lee_A Companion to JRR Tolkien_v1.inddA Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Stuart D. Lee (Wiley-Blackwell) has also just been published. This book is aspiring to be the new, complete resource for scholars and students of Tolkien, as well as fans. It covers Tolkien’s life, work, dominant themes, influences, and the critical reaction to his writing. Themes explored include mythmaking, medieval languages, nature, war, religion, and the defeat of evil. The Companion also discusses the impact of Tolkien’s work on art, film, music, gaming, and subsequent generations of fantasy writers. I contributed Chapter 23 on “Later Fantasy Fiction: Tolkien’s Legacy”, in which I explore Tolkien’s influence on later fantasists such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling.

Other activities of the last few months included:

A paper at the “Tolkien at Kalamazoo” sponsored sessions during the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, at Kalamazoo, Michigan (8-11 May 2014). My paper was titled: “Where Is Avalon? Tolkien’s Otherworld in the West and The Fall of Arthur”. It examined possible sources for the mysterious death of Arthur (or survival in Avalon?) in the Arthurian legend and Tolkien’s retelling. I was also very proud to listen to my PhD student, Andrew Higgins whose paper was titled: “Approaching ‘Se Uncuthaholm’: Tolkien’s Early Study of Anglo-Saxon Poetry and Prose as a Source for the Invention of Ottor Waefre”. His paper was very well-received and sparked a lot of discussion.

A lecture on Tolkien and Kipling for the “Exploring the Past” free lecture series at the Cardiff University Centre for Lifelong Learning, on Wednesday 22 January. The lecture was titled: “Tolkien, Kipling and Romantic Anglo-Saxonism: two ‘mythologies for England’”. It was great to be back at Cardiff University (where I taught for a long time before my current post) and see former colleagues and students.

Also, I reviewed the newspapers for BBC Radio Wales’ Good Morning Wales Programme on Saturday 1 February and Saturday 15th June. These reviews are always great fun to do!

Last but not least: have you seen the new, revamped website of the Tolkien Society? It’s really worth a visit! (or two, or three!) It looks really great, it’s very user-friendly and it now includes blog posts from notable bloggers in Tolkien scholarship and fandom.