So, as many have doubtlessly heard by now, the Tolkien Estate is yet again publishing some of the Great Dead Professors’ writings. This time, it is The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, a Norse epic in verse.
You know, I may be committing a mortal sin as a Tolkien fan in acknowledging this publicly, but when I heard about this, I wasn’t even a little bit excited. I mean, I can already get Sigurd and Gudrun if I want it. (And I already intended to read it at some point between the end of this semester and beginning of the next but because of its influence on his books, not his relationship to it as a translator.) So what if it doesn’t have Tolkien’s name on the cover. It’s not Tolkien’s story.
Juno mentioned the new book on her journal, and I commented there that I felt like the Tolkien Estate is becoming crass in trotting out unfinished, doctored, and reworked (by CT) manuscripts every few years. Not because I don’t think that JRRT’s early and incomplete writings and notes should not be shared: quite the opposite! I consider myself not just a fan but a student of his work and, as noted already, S&G was already on my radar for its influence over his Middle-earth-based writings. And his version of S&G might allow additional insights as to how he saw the story, which might illuminate how S&G came to influence his own original writings. I probably will buy it but my excitement over its imminence only marginally eclipses the excitement I felt for reading S&G in the first place and, trust me, given some of the other books on my between-semesters reading list, that wasn’t particularly overwhelming.
My distaste isn’t caused by the book itself but, rather, the feeling that the reputation of The Lord of the Rings (and, to a lesser extent, The Hobbit, though I expect this to change once the movie’s out) is being used to fuel interest in and hype a book that is really better aimed at students and scholars of JRRT’s writings. This is not to say that fans of his more popular books can’t and should not try to enjoy S&G. To the contrary, I hope that at least a few of the people who pick it up only because of his name on the cover do enjoy it and perhaps develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for the mythological influences on LotR and TH. Furthermore, I hope that for at least a few of them, S&G will act as a springboard into a deeper, lifelong interest in medieval literature and mythology, much as The Silmarillion jumpstarted my interests in the same topics. It would be fitting to allow a professor to continue to inspire students in his field.
But I doubt that’s what will happen because I doubt that the new book will be presented in such a way to foster that attitude and approach by its readers. Adam B. Vary of Entertainment Weekly gushes that,
Maybe this new Tolkien story — which the good professor reportedly wrote before spinning his tales of furry-footed Hobbits and ring-seeking dark lords — would prove just as richly filled with fodder for a sweeping fantasy epic that wins oodles of Oscars.
Until he realizes that, ick, “it’s written in verse. Eeep. And it’s a retelling of old Norse epics. Yikes.”
Yeah, I suspect that will be the reaction of a lot of people who pick up S&G (a reaction likely compounded when they realize that “verse” isn’t even the lilting metered, rhymed verse of French origins, certainly not limerick, but alliterative verse, that kind that doesn’t even rhyme! Double ick.) Only they probably won’t have even done the minimal research required of an EW blog post beforehand; they will see a favorite author’s name on the cover, which will inevitably be appended with the exclamation Author of the bestselling The Lord of the Rings! Now a major motion picture! and correctly assume that the book is more of the same.
I know because it happened to me. I was smitten by LotR when I heard of The Silmarillion and tracked it down in the store, expecting it to be a lot like LotR. The cover didn’t do much to dissuade me. “The Epic History of the Elves in The Lord of the Rings,” it promised. The blurb on the back didn’t help much either:
The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s first book and his last. Long preceding in its origins The Lord of the Rings, it is the story of the First Age of Tolkien’s world, the ancient drama to which characters in The Lord of the Rings look back, and in which some of them, such as Elrond and Galadriel, took part.
Elrond! Galadriel! I know them! Lord of the Rings! (Mentioned three times on two covers!) The blurb is more about LotR than the Silm, intentionally written to snare LotR fans. No one tells you that The Silmarillion is the Old Testament with Elves; no one tells you that it’s nothing like LotR. I hated it. Yes, your resident heretic loremaster and the founder of the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild hated the Silm the first time she read it. It was only when I went back and read it again–prepared, this time, for what to expect–that I could here the story past the anguished scream in my brain of “THIS IS NOT LotR!!” to appreciate the stories it contained on their own merits.
This, I think, is the reason for my distaste with the Tolkien Estate’s long-running habit of drudging up old stuff to put into print. It’s not that I don’t think that his unpublished works shouldn’t be published, and it’s not that I don’t think that they can’t be read and enjoyed by readers who aren’t normally inclined to Norse epics written in alliterative verse. (No modern reader is normally inclined to Norse epics written in alliterative verse, so we must arise from somewhere.) What I dislike is that, through JRRT’s primary association as the author of LotR and The Hobbit, they are presented as writings by JRRT the Popular Author and not JRRT the Scholar of Medieval Literature. And anyone who knows anything about JRRT knows that his incarnation as the Popular Author was fleeting, an accident of chance, and the Scholar was the one who was there to stay, and did. Presenting his scholarly writings otherwise is deeply unfair to readers who go in expecting “a sweeping fantasy epic” and get something very different.
But what to do, what to do? On the one hand, Dawn (you might say), you want his writings published because you want to geek out over them. On the other hand, you don’t want readers feeling misled by what those writings are. What do you want, a disclaimer like: LotR fans beware! Severe nerdiness enclosed! Don’t buy this unless you want to become a nerd! (possibly enclose a photo of Dawn Felagund staring vacant-eyed at her computer screen on a Friday night, partially obscured by a pile of books) Legolas sold separately! Trying to have our cake and eat it too, are we?
Not necessarily. My unasked-for suggestion to the Tolkien Estate is to, yes, please continue publishing JRRT’s drafts and notes and unfinished works for those of us who wish to study them without taking our vacation at Marquette University every year. But publish them online. Make some free–so that fans of his books can explore and see what they’re all about–and require a subscription for the rest and the compilations that CT is inclined to produce. Maybe make such compilations available in print through the site for those who want them. (Some, I hear, like to keep a shelf with all their Tolkien books, even though they use e-books for almost all research purposes, just because it looks impressive. *ahem*) But this habit of riding the wave of success from LotR and The Hobbit to peddle almost completely unrelated scholarly books looks like you’re just trying to make a killing on a legion of fans who salivate at the mention of Tolkien’s name (yes, the deplorable cult), and it’s getting unsightly.