A review of: The Epic Realm of Tolkien - Volume 1;
Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie, 2009, ADC Books.
by Jonathan Fawkes.
Here then is an informative and interesting book for those who like to explore new possibilities in Tolkien studies. Lewis and Currie have written 2 previous books to this one, both published by Medea Press, and this book follows up their ongoing study of the medieval and Middle-English sources that lay behind Tolkien’s major works. In the earlier book The Forsaken Realm of Tolkien, the authors examined the Fall of Gondolin and compared it very persuasively to the medieval Trojan tales. In this book, they examine the early versions of the Arthurian Matter, chiefly in the Mabinogion. Lewis and Currie compare the tale of Culhwch and Olwen with that of Beren and Luthien in its many different forms. They also examine Parzival and various other medieval sources of Arthurian legend for similarities and sources. Their research is quite painstaking, and although it’s quite as complex as Christopher Tolkien’s work with the History of Middle earth series in some respects, the authors manage by breaking it into small parts to make it quite understandable and not at all the daunting prospect that I had come to assume much of the early Mabinogion and other related texts to be.
We are told that this is merely one way to look at Beren and Luthien - as if through a prism. But it seems to be a very fruitful way to do so. They use source comparison to show similarities between the tale of Beren and Luthien and that of Culhwch and Olwen and other Arthurian legends - and indeed there seem to be quite a lot of them when one looks beneath the surface. One or two coincidences would be nothing more than that - but Lewis and Currie have come up with more than twenty and that surely is significant. I was very taken by the analysis of the Grail legend and its properties and how they compared it to the Silmaril. But there are smaller things too - how come Tolkien vacillated about whether Beren should be a man or an elf? Nobody has ever explained that, but Lewis and Currie have found a plausible explanation for the reader.
I don’t think that they are in any way diminishing Tolkien’s creativity by showing such links and similarities for us - the creative genius of JRR Tolkien lay in the way he handled material both original and derived and interwove it to form his own unique body of legend. In that sense, Tolkien was quite right to term what he did as Legendarium, and not Myth.
There’s one striking piece of investigative journalism that I really must praise - somehow the authors have found a very plausible real world equivalent to the Elivish dancer Luthien. It is a lady called Loie Fuller who came to prominence in the year that JRR Tolkien was born - 1892 and was very famous in Europe to well beyond the end of the First World War. The descriptions of her bat-dance and serpent dance are so very similar to those of Luthien dancing that I am drawn to agree with the authors about how this modern dance innovator could have been the underlying - possibly unconscious - source of the dancing elven lady who so entranced Beren when he entered the forest.
Lewis and Currie also take a delightful excursion into the Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, and compare Coleridge’s poem to the sea-stories of Aelfwine and Eriol, and thus also to the likes of Earendil. They come up with some very interesting - and bold! - conclusions. One might not entirely agree with all their findings, but they give you plenty of scope for thought. Often I have had to go back and check a passage to see if it really was as they described - every time they were shown to be right and that leads to a much deeper appreciation of Tolkien’s writings too.
Their bibliography is extensive, and from what the authors told me, apart from the Tolkien-centred index given in the book, they have produced an Arthurian- based index for those more interested in Arthuriana, and which is available from the publishers website for free.
I can therefore strongly recommend this book. It is not a light read, but it draws you in and is compelling. You will learn a lot from the efforts of the authors. It is to be hoped that more will follow - and I’m sure it will, seeing as this is subitled volume one.
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