19 January 2017

Review: J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology by Simon J. Cook
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In an imaginary world like Middle-Earth, which is 'at once so multifarious and so true to its own inner laws' (C.S. Lewis), nothing could be easier than for fans and scholars to find some parts of this world far more fascinating than others. Many, for example, devote long study to Tolkien's languages, which are of great importance for his world and are indeed fundamental to its very creation.. Others find questions of the adaptation of the books to film, and of the impact of the books on popular culture (and the reverse), to be irresistible. Still others investigate the spiritual lessons and spiritual foundations of Tolkien's work. The list could go on to cover many more areas, all worthy of detailed study.

Now my own interest generally resides in a very old-fashioned, very detailed literary analysis of the texts themselves as they unfold their tale, and so I have never really paid much heed to Tolkien's famous statement that he felt the lack of a 'mythology for England' and wished to remedy it. But every now and then a work comes along that changes your perspective, that changes your mind about what is interesting. Simon Cook's J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology is just such a work.

At 49 pages, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lost English Mythology is more of a monograph than a book. Yet its brevity makes it only more impressive. With admirable force and economy, Cook analyzes Middle-Earth as 'an exploration of the ancient imagination of the North, forged from profound scholarship as well as literary genius, and situated on the threshold of actual history.' Through investigation of Tolkien's earliest tales, his work on Beowulf, and his response to Hector Munro Chadwick's The Origin of the English Nation, Cook has put together a compelling argument for the origins of Tolkien's 'mythology for England' and for its larger relevance to understanding how Tolkien came in the end to write The Lord of the Rings he wrote.

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