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Book Notes, June–December 2021

December 26, 2021

Wayne writes: In no particular order, here are books I read during the past few months. It’s an embarrassingly small number, which I put down to: our having subscribed to the New Yorker, which has distracted from books (but is such a civilized magazine); my having taken up crossword puzzles; and my being occupied with things to do as I approach retirement from my library job after more than forty-five years.

The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773–1783 by Joseph J. Ellis. Liveright, 2021. I’ve enjoyed Ellis’s books on the Revolutionary period (e.g. The Quartet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers). He has an easy style, and I’ve always learned something new from him, which I’ve been able to use in lecturing at Williams College about American documents. That said, The Cause is a short book for a big subject, and feels miscellaneous in its coverage, skipping over some events I would have liked to see treated more fully. Well, I’m sure it’s the book Ellis wanted it to write, and we should judge it as such. But it could have used better copy-editing: it has a few typos and one real bloomer, where Ellis credits the phrase ‘the shot heard round the world’ to Longfellow rather than Emerson, and it frequently has ‘comprise’ when ‘compose’ would be correct.

Gordon Wood Power and Liberty coverPower and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood. Like Joseph Ellis, Gordon Wood is one of the leading scholars of the early American republic. His manner of writing is more staid, and his style can be repetitive, but this book too opened my eyes to a great deal of history I had never learned, such as that some who supported the proposed federal constitution did so because Rhode Island (especially) had harmed upper-class financial interests by flooding the country with paper money not backed by specie. Whenever I read books like Power and Liberty I think back to high school, where everything was compressed, leaving no time for interesting stories or sidelights, and to college, where the first course in American history was hijacked by the professor’s personal interests: ‘You heard all about the Pilgrims in high school, we’re going to spend the semester talking about slavery!’ Then the instructor in American History 102 assumed that we had, in fact, heard about the Pilgrims, and everything else up to the Civil War, in 101; but we hadn’t, so were at a disadvantage.

Kay Nielsen: An Enchanted Vision: The Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection by Meghan Melvin, with an essay by Alison Luxner. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2021. We saw a lovely exhibition of Danish artist Nielsen’s (1886–1957) works from the Daniels’ collection at the MFA two years ago. This book, less a catalogue of the exhibition than a related monograph, has finally appeared. It’s an attractive volume, well illustrated and with an intelligent text. Nielsen’s art is endlessly fascinating, akin to work by Aubrey Beardsley and Jessie M. King and clearly influenced by Japanese prints, but uniquely his own, very unlike illustrations by contemporaries and rivals such as Rackham and Dulac. Unlike so many other art books Christina and I are reading these days, the designer of Kay Nielsen has paid attention to type size versus length of line, so that the text blocks aren’t a challenge for the eyes.

John Hassall: The Life and Art of the Poster King by Lucinda Gosling. Unicorn, 2021. Hassall (1868–1948) is best known today for his 1908 travel poster Skegness Is SO Bracing and its successors, showing a jolly fisherman prancing on a Lincolnshire beach, but this was only the smallest part of an enormous output. Hassall worked hard, and he worked fast. Gosling says perhaps more than she needs to about the artist, his life, and his methods – one can’t complain that she left something out – but it’s an interesting account of a commercial artist in Britain of the period, and not incidentally of the business of art at that time. One could wish, however, for a larger format: so many of the illustrations are tiny, and their captions (in narrow sans-serif) tinier still.

Questland by Carrie Vaughn. Mariner Books, 2021. A bit of fluff, really, but amusing. I’m a selective fan of Vaughn’s novels (Bannerless, for example), and Questland seemed up my street. The hero is a literature professor with expertise in fantasy, hired to help a mercenary strike team penetrate the defences of a high-tech island being developed as an amusement destination with animatronic dragons, unicorns, and other elements of myth and magic. It’s sort of Jurassic Park crossed with Ready Player One. RPG and Tolkien references abound.

Hiroshige coverHiroshige: Prints and Drawings by Matthi Forrer, with essays by Suzuki Jūzō and Henry D. Smith II. Prestel, 1997. An account of the work of Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), one of the leading creators of woodblock prints. The book has many well-printed illustrations, which however represent only a fraction of Hiroshige’s pictures. In addition to their intrinsic beaity, the reproductions given here are interesting for similarities to be found between some of Hiroshige’s prints and elements in Tolkien’s art, especially for The Hobbit. We know that Tolkien was attracted to Japanese prints, and some of his illustrations have a stylistic sympathy with Hiroshige’s work, more so than, say, that of Hokusai.

Guarded by Dragons: Encounters with Rare Books and Rare People by Rick Gekoski. Constable, 2021. Book dealer and literary treasure-hunter Gekoski supplies thirteen essays on writers, literary research, and the adventures and perils of the book trade. He drops a lot of names, from D.H. Lawrence to J.K. Rowling, among them two or three I know, or knew, personally from my years as a librarian. I found myself nodding frequently in agreement at his afterword: ‘I regret the gradual decline of connoisseurship, a term more often associated with the art market, but which can be pertinent to sophisticated book collecting.’ My first boss at Williams said that it was his goal in the Chapin Library to teach the students to be connoisseurs of books, and he did succeed with a few; but this wasn’t, and isn’t, the goal of the faculty, and it’s their work we’re meant to support. ‘For many of us [booksellers, bookselling] is a vocation, rather than a job, which can be practised to the very edges of senility, and sometimes beyond. You can still hunt treasure even when you don’t remember where it is. But if we carry on, it is not always a comfortable process . . . it is too easy, and in a way too agreeable, to compare the past favourably with the present.’ I’ve bought and worked with books and manuscripts, professionally, about as long as Gekoski has sold them, and although it has been a job, it has also been part of my life – what I think Gekoski is getting at – not something I leave at the office at five o’clock. And although much of the present is preferable to the past (I do not miss typing catalog cards), many good things of the past were better (more civilized, more elegant) than what pertains now.

Imperial Splendor: The Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire, 800–1500 by Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Joshua O’Driscoll. Morgan Library & Museum/D. Giles, 2021. Published to accompany the exhibition held at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, on now until 23 January 2022; Christina and I saw it last month. The book is informative but hard on the eyes, with lines of type spread out both horizontally and vertically. Its colour reproduction is good, but some of its pictures are much smaller than the original book or page.

The Left-handed Twin by Thomas Perry. Mysterious Press, 2021. The ninth of Perry’s Jane Whitefield novels, featuring a Native American woman who helps people in fear of their lives disappear into a new identity. These books (since Vanishing Act, 1996) have been entertaining, sometimes gripping, but in the new story the author seems to have been concerned only to write a potboiler to attract fans of the series (clearly, it did the trick). The situations are familiar, and so is much of the dialogue. As in every book, Jane is teaching a frightened client to live a secret life, and as in Poison Flower (2012), criminals are trying to capture Jane in order to locate the people she has helped over the years. What we haven’t seen before is an ending this contrived and unsatisfying. With The Left-handed Twin (the title refers to Hanegoategeh, the Destroyer, a Native American devil figure), Perry has taken this series perhaps as far as it should go.

Nature's Palette coverNature’s Palette: A Color Reference System from the Natural World. Princeton University Prss, 2021. I need to preface this note with mention of The Anatomy of Colour: The Story of Heritage Paints and Pigments by Patrick Baty (Thames & Hudson, 2017; the U.S. edition, from the same publisher, is The Anatomy of Color – presumably someone felt that Americans would not buy the book with the -our spelling, but I did). I see that I bought The Anatomy of Colour in 2017, but didn’t read it until earlier this year or late last year, and seem to have overlooked it when writing previous Book Notes. Its history of paints is fascinating, and it has a strong bibliographical component, describing house-painting and colour manuals through the years, and it’s beautifully designed. Then, not too many months ago, I ran across an algorithm-generated recommendation for Nature’s Palette, which has a similar design aesthetic, and again the participation (but not sole authorship) of Patrick Baty, historic paint consultant. The later book, also a visual delight and bibliographically informative, takes as its point of departure the importance and influence of German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, devised in 1774 and subsequently expanded and refined by others.

Wolk All of the Marvels coverAll of the Marvels by Douglas Wolk. Profile Books, 2021. Wolk, a critic of music and comics, read 27,000-plus superhero books published by Marvel Comics in order to write about them as a vast, interconnected epic, and about their creators (especially Lee, Kirby, and Ditko) and their influence on popular culture. I don’t entirely buy the interconnected-epic argument, given the many restarts and reinventions since the Marvel stories began in the 1960s, but as an old (literally) comics hand, I found it interesting to read of Wolk’s journey and to look back on my own on-and-off experiences with Marvel. I was a Batman and Superman fan from the late fifties, following their titles as well as delighting in the occasional DC surprise, such as the Doom Patrol in My Greatest Adventure and the Metal Men in Showcase. Then, aged eleven, I ran across Fantastic Four no. 20, November 1963, ‘The Mysterious Molecule Man!’ and was hit hard by Jack Kirby’s art (much more so than by Stan Lee’s script). I didn’t know who these characters were, but suddenly Superman and Batman were prosaic in comparison. I started an X-Men run with no. 7 (‘The Return of the Blob!’), and Spider-Man with no. 9 (‘The Man Called Electro!’, wowed by Steve Ditko’s drawing) * – it was an exciting time. I gave up comics in high school, as my interests turned elsewhere (especially to Tolkien), but was drawn back in the early eighties when I read that Jean Grey of X-Men had died; at that time a comic hero’s death was not yet common, except in an ‘imaginary story’, and I was intrigued. Comics dealers having become a thing, I was able to find back issues, and became hooked by the Claremont and Byrne/Austin X-Men, Byrne’s ‘back to basics’ revamp of the Fantastic Four, and so much else (such as the Levitz/Giffen Legion of Super-heroes and the Wolfman/Pérez New Teen Titans, returning also to DC’s line).


Two days ago, the New York Times ran an article by Julie Lasky, ‘How Many Books Does It Take to Make a Place Feel Like Home?’ Lasky quotes Reid Byers, author of the recent book The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom (Oak Knoll Press), who has coined the term book-wrapt ‘to describe the exhilarating comfort of a well-stocked library’. Byers suggests 500 volumes as a minimum number for ‘any self-respecting home library’, though he allows that a smaller quantity is possible, in a smaller space. One of the accompanying photos shows a ‘book wall’ which is more whatnots than books, so really a cheat to think of it as a ‘library’. There are more than a thousand comments attached to the article as of this writing, predictably a blend of ‘never enough books’ and ‘get a Kindle’. (Yes. No.)

* Edit 30 December: Sorry, my memory deceived me. My first Spider-Man was actually no. 5, ‘Marked for Destruction by Doctor Doom!’

Tolkien Notes 20

June 17, 2021

This will be a shorter ‘Notes’ than usual, indeed very brief, as we’re pressed for time, with various appointments, landscape work on our property to do or be scheduled (we’ll have another post about our garden soon), car repairs, and so forth. But nothing Covid-related: we’re fully vaccinated, and life where we are, at least, has returned to mostly-maskless. Of course it’s less good in many other places, which is worrying. And there are still many restrictions on travelling.

In Tolkien news, addenda and corrigenda for our books (mainly addenda) are accumulating, and we’ll have another group of these posted to our website before long. We’re catching up with several books about Tolkien from the past few years, including Holly Ordway’s work on Tolkien’s reading, which have provided new information or different perspectives. There are also a number of Tolkien-related textual questions we’ve received, which we assure the writers we’ll answer, or try to.

Speaking of catching up, a long Zoom interview we gave on 25 February to four Portuguese-speaking Tolkien enthusiasts – but speaking in English to us – has just been posted to YouTube. For this, our thanks to Cesar, Inês, Ronald, and Sérgio. (It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Christina already knew Ronald Kyrmse, from correspondence back in the 1980s in regard to the linguistic journal Quettar.) The interview is one of many videos (most of them in Portuguese) on the YouTube channel ‘Tolkien Talk’, including some devoted to our books.

Book Notes, April–May 2021

May 31, 2021

Wayne writes: Not in any particular order, here are books I read during April and May (and an extra):

The Dig by John Preston paperback coverThe Dig by John Preston. Penguin Books, 2021 (first published 2007). A fictionalized account of the discovery and excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial treasure. ‘Certain changes have been made for dramatic effect’: indeed, yes. Preston is entertaining, but fortunately we have some good books on the actual events, which involved many more people and multiple dig seasons.

Fearless by Allen Stroud. Flame Tree Press, 2020. This seemed from descriptions as if it might be a good science-fiction novel about a sort of Coast Guard-rescue ship in space. Not quite. It’s ‘woke’ in a forced way, it’s told awkwardly from multiple points of view and in ‘real time’ (a character telling the story in one chapter turns up dead in the next), the physics of the action are questionable, and the novel ends without a resolution – so, the start of a series, but I won’t be returning.

E. McKnight Kauffer: The Artist in Advertising, edited by Caitlin Condell and Emily M. Orr. Rizzoli/Electa and Cooper Hewitt, 2020. Kauffer was an American graphic artist (1890–1954), a pioneer of the Modernist poster and dust-jacket. This new biography, by multiple authors, is a good example of how to make a book uncomfortable for the reader. The main type is sans serif, none too large and with enormous indents, shoulder notes are in a tiny (six point?) typewriter-style face and in red, and captions are also tiny, in a light roman font, and difficult to relate to the pictures. The text shifts here and there on the page, out of alignment, as do the illustrations, which are not always as sharp as they might be. The book’s designer, who explains at length in a sort of manifesto, chose to reflect Kauffer’s personal contradictions and ‘varied nature’; each spread is ‘its own composition and . . . part of the overall gestalt’. Sorry, no, not over nearly 300 pages. Prefer Mark Haworth-Booth’s E. McKnight Kauffer: A Designer and His Public (2nd ed. 2005).

University Printing Houses at CambridgeThe University Printing Houses at Cambridge from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century by Brooke Crutchley. Cambridge University Press, 1962. This is one of the series of short Christmas books issued by the University Printer in Cambridge for many years. I had long admired the Chapin Library’s copy – elegantly printed in an oblong format, bound in a lovely rust-colored cloth, and housed in a marbled-paper slipcase – and when a chance came along recently to buy one for myself at a discounted price, I leaped at it. Now if I could find, also at a good price, the 1961 Cambridge Christmas book, Bridges on the Backs, with lift-the-flap illustrations by David Gentleman, I would be even happier.

Arts and Crafts Pioneers: The Hobby Horse Men and Their Century Guild by Stuart Evans and Jean Liddiard. Lund Humphries, 2021. A good, if overly long, account of a different side of British art and design, and (especially from my point of interest) book production, in the late nineteenth century, concurrent with and following on the work of William Morris. Well illustrated in a tall format.

Evelyn Dunbar Lost Works coverEvelyn Dunbar (1906–1960): The Lost Works, edited by Sacha Llewellyn and Paul Liss. Liss Llewellyn Fine Art and Pallant House Gallery, 2015. Dunbar is best known for her Second World War paintings of Land Girls and other scenes from the home front, but like so many other British artists of the period, she had a varied output including murals and book illustration. The ‘lost works’ of the title refers to a cache of Dunbar art set aside at her early death and forgotten, though in family hands, for a generation. Dunbar’s biography is more fully presented in Gill Clarke’s excellent Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country (2006), and more recently in Evelyn Dunbar: A Life in Painting (2016) by the artist’s nephew, Christopher Campbell-Howes, which I have yet to read.

Time for Tea by Tom Parker Bowles. 4th Estate, 2021. The latest publication from Fortnum & Mason, London grocers and tea merchants (since 1707). Much more than everything you ever wanted to know about tea, and a blessing to anyone wanting to be a tea connoisseur: where tea is grown, how it’s grown, what kind of tea (so many kinds) one should choose to fit a mood or occasion, much more sophisticated than my Darjeeling if I can get it, but English Breakfast in a pinch (and for breakfast, with lots of milk and one sugar), and Orange Pekoe for iced tea. Plus recipes for scones, etc. I have a fondness for Fortnum’s, and very much regret that they gave up (due to the pandemic) their gallery restaurant in the Piccadilly store as well as their satellite café at St Pancras.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir jacketProject Hail Mary by Andy Weir. Del Rey, 2021. I enjoyed The Martian, but skipped Weir’s Artemis as it had terrible reviews and features a wisecracking petty criminal, which I didn’t think would appeal to me. One review of Project Hail Mary noted that Weir now returns to his hero ‘sciencing’ his way out of many, many problems, which was enough to convince me to order an autographed copy from Blackwell’s (and I liked the U.K. dust-jacket better than the American one, and Blackwell’s pack so beautifully). Science, indeed, to the extent that having some math and physics and biology background is definitely a plus for reading this book. Anyway: hey, I read a best-seller! It’s not often that my tastes align with the mainstream. Although I did read another best-seller recently, which I forgot to put into my January notes:

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline. Ballantine Books, 2020. I read Ready Player One not all that many years ago, enjoyed it, and like other readers never thought that it needed a sequel. After reading Ready Player Two, my opinion hasn’t changed. Characters who were sympathetic in the first book are here acting like jerks, and if they have only a limited time to save the world (another quest!), why do they sometimes act as if they aren’t on the clock? To be fair, I also enjoyed Ready Player One more than the sequel probably because I was more familiar with the pop culture Cline used in the first book, compared with what Wade and his friends deal with in Ready Player Two, except for one chapter set in the world of The Silmarillion. I’m hopeless with the music of Prince, and with most of the films of John Hughes.

Tolkien’s Modern Reading

May 25, 2021

Holly Ordway Tolkiens Modern Reading jacketTolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth beyond the Middle Ages (Word on Fire Academic, 2021) is advertised as a ‘major corrective’ to the idea that ‘Tolkien was dismissive of modern culture, and that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are fundamentally medieval and nostalgic in their inspiration’ (to quote the jacket blurb). We were eager to read it, not least to see what Holly Ordway would make of an argument – that Tolkien distanced himself from modern (contemporary) literature – which was put to rest some time ago. See, for example, our article ‘Reading’ in The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006, second edition 2017) or even, much earlier, L. Sprague de Camp’s passing remark in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers (1976) that ‘practically anything in English literature, from Beowulf down, Tolkien had read and could talk intelligently about’ (p. 244).

We were also curious to learn if Ordway had identified more works that Tolkien read which we had not yet taken into account. Indeed she has, and in doing so takes admirable care in her method of proof. ‘For instance,’ she notes, ‘although Tolkien refers on several occasions to Jekyll and Hyde, I do not believe we can take this as definitively establishing that he had read Stevenson’s novel (though it is probable that he did so), because the Jekyll–Hyde dichotomy has become a commonplace. Here the critic must make a judgment call on each individual allusion’ (pp. 30–1). Is it likely that Tolkien read John Buchan’s Midwinter, The Blanket of the Dark, and Huntingtower, in which scholars have found parallels with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit? Yes, says Ordway, it is ‘highly likely’, but ‘it is not certain that Tolkien read them, and therefore we must handle them differently than true “certains”’ (p. 31). She lists her ‘certains’ in a useful tabular appendix, comprising ‘148 authors and more than 200 titles’ (p. 295).

Ordway defines ‘modern reading’ as works of fiction, poetry, and drama in the English language published no earlier than 1850. One could quibble with this distinction, and Ordway does so herself: modernity, she admits, ‘did not begin either in 1850 or in any other particular year, but some sort of cut-off point is necessary’ (p. 27). 1850 is a convenient date to delimit works Tolkien would have considered modern, though it is also inconvenient as it eliminates from discussion authors we know he read, such as Scott, Macaulay, and Swift. Moreover, the term modern has more than one definition, both chronological and conceptual.*

Not without reason, Ordway blames Humphrey Carpenter for the impression that Tolkien was not interested in modern (i.e. post-1849) literature. In The Inklings (1978) Carpenter wrote that Tolkien’s ‘roots were buried deep in early literature, and the major names in twentieth-century writing meant little or nothing to him’ (p. 158). Carpenter’s 1977 biography of Tolkien suggests this also. For those of us who read Carpenter’s books at or soon after publication, there was little else in print at that time which might call Carpenter into question, and the views of Tolkien’s authorized biographer carried special weight. More than forty years later, much has been added to our knowledge of Tolkien’s life and interests, as more resources have come to light or been opened for use, and one can now see how Carpenter’s statements may be flawed. Ordway claims that ‘Carpenter’s account of Tolkien’s creative life’ has tended ‘to squelch further study of Tolkien’s modern reading’ (p. 7), but this may be true only for those who read Carpenter’s work uncritically, or consult little or nothing else in the now very extensive literature of Tolkien studies.

Though Carpenter’s Biography and The Inklings aren’t correct in every respect, they have much of value, and don’t deserve the heavy weight of criticism Ordway persistently lays upon them. She also takes Carpenter unfairly to task for his edition of Tolkien’s letters (1981), which she says ‘reflects something of Carpenter’s unsympathetic attitude toward his subject. Both in his selection of letters and in his editing of them we can observe an agenda at work that serves to make Tolkien seem impatient, defensive, and uninterested in anything modern’ (p. 12). There was indeed an ‘agenda’ in the editing of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, but it is to be explained by marketing decisions rather than personal bias. Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien as collaborator, was faced with an immense number of surviving letters, many of which had to be left out of what was intended only as a selection, in order to have a book of reasonable size which could be sold at a reasonable price.† Also, to create a book with potentially the most interest to Tolkien fans, there was a deliberate focus on letters in which Tolkien discussed his Middle-earth stories, with the result that other subjects were given less attention than many of us would like, such as Tolkien’s family life, his academic career, and his dealings with publishers. One can regret this approach while understanding its practicality.

It was for these reasons that some letters were truncated, some of them severely – chiefly to extract information relevant to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and ‘The Silmarillion’. One need not find anything sinister about it. It’s unfortunate, for example, that Tolkien’s letter of 31 December 1960 to Professor L.W. Forster (Letters, p. 303) ends just at an intriguing reference to William Morris, making it ‘impossible to say whether Tolkien provided more explanation or context for his remark’ (Ordway, p. 323, n. 54). We do not ourselves have access to the original letter, so can’t answer the question; and yet, it seems likely that if Tolkien had had more to say about an influence on The Lord of the Rings, Carpenter would have printed it. We can, at least, defend Carpenter in another instance: on p. 51 of her book, Ordway refers to Tolkien’s letter to Charles Furth of 31 August 1937, in which he writes that Carroll’s Through the Looking-glass is ‘much closer [to The Hobbit than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland] in every way’. ‘Unfortunately,’ Ordway says in a footnote, ‘Carpenter has chosen to omit the rest of the sentence . . . so we lack any explanation Tolkien might have provided for the comparison.’ Here we do have access to the letter, from the Allen & Unwin archive, and can confirm that Tolkien stopped writing at that point, and Carpenter omitted nothing.

In another note, Ordway complains that the index to Letters omits any citation to the Virgin Mary, ‘despite a number of references to her by Tolkien’ in the text, an omission which ‘reflects Carpenter’s lack of interest’ (p. 12). In fact, we have long thought that the original index to Letters (before it was replaced by our expanded index in 2000) may not have been Carpenter’s own work. Its contents and construction suggest that it was made by someone with much less familiarity with the letters, and with Tolkien, than Carpenter himself certainly had. So one should not accuse him of a lack of interest in Roman Catholicism, or in Christianity, because of an omitted reference; it may have been out of his hands (though one could perhaps argue that an editor should bear final responsibility for his book’s apparatus). Ordway also criticizes Carpenter’s criteria in the selection of letters to publish, referring to him as ‘an atheist who had rejected an Anglican upbringing . . . and who described Tolkien’s Christian values as “uptight”’ (p. 262n). In fact there are many references to Tolkien’s faith in Letters: we needed a third of a column in our revised index to cite them.

Ordway’s account of Tolkien’s interest in post-1849 literature, while not entirely original, usefully adds to our knowledge. Her argument that Tolkien read more modern works than is generally known is valid, and she makes it with impressive industry. She does not do so entirely for its own sake, however, but to support the main thrust of her book, which is the identification of literary sources and influences in Tolkien’s Middle-earth fiction other than the medieval works on which critics have tended to focus. She spends not a little space defending source-hunting (or influence-hunting) in regard to Tolkien, presumably to fend off critics like ourselves, who object that Tolkien’s works can be made to seem ‘less original creation than a patchwork of second-hand ideas, [in which] every element in his books must have a pre-existing source, leaving no room for independent invention, even by an author whose powers of invention were profound’ (Reader’s Guide, 2017, pp. 1247–8).

‘As we consider the modern works that Tolkien read,’ Ordway writes,

we will see that some of them can properly be described as ‘sources’ for his own writings. We find Tolkien using this term himself when he calls E.A. Wyke-Smith’s The Marvellous Land of Snergs ‘an unconscious source-book’ – an interesting turn of phrase, as it shows that he was aware that his imagination absorbed and used what he read on a level that was recognizable later, but not necessarily conscious at the time. [pp. 33–4]

Tolkien ‘recognized that he did not write in isolation and knew that he could not have done so even if he had wanted to’ (p. 41). Conventional wisdom, Ordway says, following Diana Glyer’s research in The Company They Keep and again criticizing Carpenter, has it that Tolkien was immune to influence, when in fact he was subject to it and made use of a variety of sources.

In her chapter on William Morris, for example, after recounting the aspects of Tolkien’s more elaborate prose style inspired by Morris (as Tolkien attested), Ordway discusses his comment in his letter to Professor Forster that ‘the Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon [in The Lord of the Rings] owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme [but] they owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains’ (Letters, p. 303). Ordway draws from this stray remark an argument culminating in the suggestion that ‘Tolkien’s Orcs were, in his creative imagination, mediated through Morris’s Huns and Romans’ (p. 178), who are presented as evil, corrupt, foul enemies in the two works in question. She looks for parallels and tries to divine Tolkien’s thinking, referring to ‘possible literary influences’ (p. 182). But in her summary of this chapter she states more strongly: ‘We have carefully followed the traces and discovered that these works contributed not only to Tolkien’s construction of the landscape through which Frodo and Sam journey en route to Mordor, but probably helped to shape Tolkien’s creation of the Orcs as he imagined Morris’s Huns and Romans into his own sub-created world’ (p. 183). Although Ordway’s theory is intriguing, it seems to be directed only at The Lord of the Rings, whereas Orcs developed earlier, in ‘Silmarillion’ texts. One could also argue that Tolkien already had sufficiently strong, more direct, and attested sources for his Orcs in the Old English tradition and in historical barbarians from the East (as seen from the European point of view).

We found more plausible ideas in the following chapter, on H. Rider Haggard, where Ordway suggests interesting parallels between the ‘facsimile’ map in Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and Thror’s Map in The Hobbit, and between the ‘Sherd of Amenartas’ in Haggard’s She, densely covered with inscriptions, and the Dwarves’ Book of Mazarbul in Moria. We were also particularly struck by her comment that ‘images and scenes need not have a single source’ (p. 190, referring to her comparison of the caverns of Helm’s Deep to a treasure chamber in King Solomon’s Mines, while Tolkien himself noted Cheddar Caves in Somerset as his caverns’ inspiration) and her admission that some parallels between Ayesha and Galadriel ‘may be fortuitous correspondences’. Observations like these, allowing for alternate sources and for chance, should constantly inform any attempt at source-hunting.

On the other hand, Ordway remarks that the ‘Head of the Ethiopian’, a mountain top in She ‘carved into a massive head, which the travelers see as their ship approached its African destination’, ‘is suggestive of the Pillars of the Kings’ in The Lord of the Rings (p. 193). But these seem to us distinctly different, and the Pillars have real-world counterparts closer in conception than Haggard’s ‘Ethiopian’, such as the Colossi of Memnon in ancient Egypt. Ordway also suggests that the Sherd of Amenartas made such a strong imprint on Tolkien’s imagination that ‘it seems possible that it contributed something to the eventual formation of the One Ring’ (p. 199): well, many things are possible, but not necessarily so.

In the course of her book, besides her chapters on Morris and Haggard, Ordway explores children’s literature in Tolkien’s youth (fairy-tale collections such as Knatchbull-Hugessen’s Stories for My Children, Lewis Carroll, Andrew Lang) and later (Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, Kenneth Grahame, et al.); George MacDonald; ‘boys’ adventures’ such as Crockett’s The Black Douglas, the works of John Buchan, and Barrie’s Peter Pan; science fiction, in which Ordway classifies E.R. Eddison’s ‘Zimiamvia’ stories; ‘fine fabling’, a category which includes Dunsany and Thompson, Algernon Blackwood and J.H. Shorthouse; and a very miscellaneous group with Sinclair Lewis (Babbit), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Hiawatha), T.S. Eliot, and G.K. Chesterton, among others.

She pays particular, and particularly lengthy, attention to Shorthouse’s John Inglesant (1881). Ordway declares that Tolkien took ‘an abiding interest’ in this curious romance. She even imagines him in 1904 standing with his mother in Duchess Road, Birmingham, as she points out ‘the house where John Inglesant was written’ (p. 1), though it seems more likely that when Mabel Tolkien left hospital in late June 1904, after treatment for diabetes, she went directly to Rednal to recuperate. Ordway cites Tolkien’s remark to Christopher Bretherton that John Inglesant was ‘queer, exciting, and debatable’ (Letters, 16 July 1964, p. 348), and she draws upon two 1975 articles by Canon Norman Power, in the Tolkien Society journal Mallorn and the Roman Catholic publication The Tablet.‡ In each of these, Power relates Tolkien’s mention, in a letter to Power, of a house in Duchess Road ‘of supreme importance in my personal history’ to his gift to Power, with the same letter, of a spare copy of the annual Essays by Divers Hands with an essay on Shorthouse and John Inglesant. (Shorthouse had been a Churchwarden at Ladywood, Birmingham, where much later Power was Vicar.) The implication of the gift, Power reckoned, is that the Duchess Road house was in sight of the Inglesant house, and John Inglesant – with its battle between Good and Evil, its strange creatures, and its scenes of pity and forgiveness – was an unknown early influence on The Lord of the Rings, one ‘unnoticed by the critics, but of which the great man was himself aware’ (quoted in Ordway, p. 239).

Ordway admits that Power ‘does little to substantiate this claim, but I agree with his basic thrust, for it seems improbable that Tolkien would have been so interested in a man whose writings were of no particular account with him’ (p. 239). She believes that John Inglesant, which in its time was admired and provoked discussion, attracted Tolkien who was interested not only in matters of Catholicism, but also ‘in books that imaginatively presented, or appeared to present, an Anglican point of view and provoked theological debate’ (p. 241). She declares, on the strength of Tolkien’s letter to Christopher Bretherton and his late correspondence with Norman Power, that John Inglesant ‘stayed in Tolkien’s memory throughout his life’ and influenced him at various points, especially in its theme of Pity which is echoed repeatedly in The Lord of the Rings.

Ordway’s argument is forceful, but her proof is tenuous. Pity, of course, is by no means unique to Shorthouse’s story, if one wanted to search for an external influence, and was an element of Tolkien’s personal faith. When he wrote about John Inglesant to Christopher Bretherton in 1964, only ten years after The Lord of the Rings began to be published in three volumes and to the puzzlement of some reviewers, it was by no means complimentary. Shorthouse was ‘a mere amateur (like myself)’ when he ‘suddenly produced a long book’ which ‘few now find it possible to read. . . . I think he never wrote any more, but wasted the rest of his time trying to explain what he had and what he had not meant in John Inglesant. . . . I have always tried to take him as a melancholy warning . . .’ (Letters, p. 348). He certainly does not look back on the experience of reading Shorthouse’s book with anything like nostalgia or gratitude.

More telling is a third, post-Biography account by Norman Power not cited in Ordway’s bibliography. Published in 1993 in Mythlore, it shows that Power now knew that the importance to Tolkien of the house in Duchess Road was not due to any relationship it had with John Inglesant, but because it was there (in the Faulkner home, at 37 Duchess Road) he met Edith, his future wife. Power still had the impression, from the book Tolkien sent him, that John Inglesant could have been a literary influence, but he does nothing more than comment on parallels of renunciation in The Hobbit (Bilbo giving up the Arkenstone) and The Lord of the Rings (Frodo renouncing the Ring, though in the end he cannot). It may be that Tolkien sent Power Essays by Divers Hands only because of the connection of Power’s church with Shorthouse, and because Tolkien happened to have an extra copy at hand, presumably from his membership in the Royal Society of Literature (publisher of the Essays).

As we read Ordway’s book, each of us in turn, we took many pages of notes. Word on Fire, the publisher of Tolkien’s Modern Reading, kindly sent us a copy for review, and we felt obliged to be thorough. Here are a few of our shorter comments:

— It is probably an overstatement to say that ‘Tolkien maintained a watching brief over developments in children’s literature well beyond the youth of his four children’ (p. 62, italics ours) simply because the first of Mary Norton’s ‘Borrowers’ books (1952–61) were in the Tolkien household.

— The 1962 volume The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book, as published with more than one poem at Rayner Unwin’s suggestion, is by no means ‘physically similar to the [Beatrix] Potter books’ (p. 65), but in a much larger format. Ordway was presumably thinking of Tolkien’s original conception for publishing his ‘Bombadil’ poem by itself.

— Ordway suggests (p. 220) that Tolkien’s ‘concept of the Ban of the Valar and the fall of Númenor was shaped in part by his admiration for Perelandra’ by C.S. Lewis, which reimagines the Fall of Man. But the ban against the Númenóreans sailing west is present in the earliest version of The Fall of Númenor, circa 1936–7, predating Perelandra by a few years.

— In her discussion of Tolkien’s awareness of the works of Lord Dunsany, and referring to ‘a 1919 review essay [in the New York Times] on Dunsany [which] includes praise of The Gods of Pegāna’, Ordway comments that ‘Tolkien followed the news and so saw many reviews that would have escaped his newspaper-averse friend C.S. Lewis. Since Dunsany’s fantastic cosmology was taken seriously by readers and reviewers, how much more – Tolkien perhaps thought to himself – would readers appreciate a world with a far richer linguistic and literary foundation, such as Middle-earth? It would not have been an unreasonable conclusion for him to draw’ (p. 230). We have long read newspapers, too, but no one could reasonably assume that we’ve noticed everything that passed before our eyes. In any event, was Tolkien following the news as closely in 1916–17, when he began The Book of Lost Tales, or earlier when elements of his mythology appeared in his poetry, as he did in the later years for which we know his habits best? And was he thinking of publication, and a readership, when he began his legendarium? Tolkien kept ‘The Silmarillion’ private, or within a small circle of friends, until The Hobbit became an unlooked-for success. In our Companion and Guide article ‘Reading’ we suggest that if Tolkien had not read any works by Lord Dunsany earlier, ‘he might have been inspired to do so by a review in the June 1920 issue of the Stapeldon Magazine describing The Fall of Gondolin, which he had read to the Exeter [College] Essay Club in March that year, as being in the manner of Dunsany’ (2017 edn., p. 1058).

— ‘[Francis] Thompson’s highly sentimental and ornate style has not aged well, and he is now out of print and out of fashion’ (pp. 230–1). Whatever else may be true, Thompson is by no means out of print, and probably never has been. Indeed, since he is out of copyright, there are many reprint editions available.

— Tolkien’s personal library was indeed dispersed after his death (p. 275). It was also dispersed, in various senses, at other times during Tolkien’s life, as he changed his living and working arrangements, and thus the space available for books.

If Tolkien’s Modern Reading offers so many debatable points, it is only because it contains so much of note in its lengthy text. Holly Ordway’s book deserves a place on any shelf of Tolkien studies, and we will be making grateful use of it to improve our Tolkien Companion and Guide.


*  John Magoun has suggested (on the Tolkien Society’s Facebook page), and we would agree, that Humphrey Carpenter had in mind Modern literature, with a capital M, ‘referring to the minimalist, ironic, and arch style of the early 20th century’s avant-garde art movements. Tolkien’s extensive reading of 20th-century works focuses on genre fiction and light pop fiction, the kind that doesn’t win prizes and isn’t taught in modern literature courses.’ Ordway’s subject, on the other hand, is modern literature in a chronological sense. It’s clear that Tolkien read widely, including authors of his own day, and probably not excluding some who would be considered Modern. Ordway has certainly kept an eye out, as when she wonders about possible contact between Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh at a 1939 Newman Society (i.e. Roman Catholic) dinner, at which Waugh was among the guests. ‘Humphrey Carpenter,’ she writes, ‘with his unfriendly, or at least uninterested, attitude toward Tolkien’s Catholicism, is likely to have underplayed the importance of [such] interactions’ (p. 262). One could also imagine that Tolkien and Waugh were both there but didn’t meet.

† Rayner Unwin once told us that ‘letters don’t sell’, that is, as a category of books. And it’s true that sales of the first edition of Letters were disappointing. There was no need for a reprint until the Unwin Paperbacks edition of 1990. Reportedly 92% of the original American edition copies were remaindered; it then had to be brought back in 1991, on the eve of the Tolkien centenary year. Letters now sells consistently in paperback, augmented since 2000 with our new index.

‡  More fully, Norman Power’s three articles were ‘Tolkien’s Walk’, Mallorn 9 (1975), pp. 16–17, 19; ‘Ring of Doom’, The Tablet, 20/27 December 1975, pp. 1247–8; and ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’, Mythlore 19, no. 1, whole no. 71 (Winter 1993), pp. 40–1.

Book Notes, February–March 2021

April 14, 2021

Wayne writes: Not in any particular order, here are books I read during February and March, heavier on fiction than usual:

The Silence: A Novel by Don DeLillo. Scribner, 2020. I was attracted to this short novel (‘novel’ is much too generous to describe its length, even ‘novella’ would be excessive) which takes as its potentially interesting premise that digital technology has suddenly, inexplicably failed. Planes crash, computers don’t work, electronic communication is dead. What would people do without all of this, who have come to rely on it? Apparently they would not really know what to do if they couldn’t watch the Super Bowl on television. Conversation would be dull and tedious. They would not be inventive and resilient. DeLillo wrote this before Covid-19 became a thing, but it was published when its readers were in the midst of a pandemic, and for the most part coping – if with even greater reliance on technology than ever before. One could pan this slight work in so many ways, and many of Amazon’s reviewers have done so.

Ed Kluz illustration for John Fowles The Tree dust jacketThe Tree by John Fowles. Little Toller, 2016. A largely autobiographical essay by novelist Fowles, first published in 1979. A bit rambling, but with some interesting points about trees and nature. To be honest, I bought this for its stunning cover by Ed Kluz.

Ernest Gimson: Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect by Annette Carruthers, Mary Greensted, and Barley Roscoe. Yale University Press, 2019. The publisher’s blurb calls Gimson ‘a central figure in the British Arts & Crafts Movement’. I had never heard of him, but that’s my ignorance, now corrected. Christina and I have a good Arts and Crafts Movement library, to which this is an interesting addition though the text is repetitive.

We Are Not Amused: Victorian Views on Pronunciation as Told in the Pages of Punch by David Crystal. Bodleian Library, 2017. Rather more of language expert Crystal (not a bad thing) and less of Punch cartoons than I expected.

Tales from the Folly: A Rivers of London Short Story Collection by Ben Aaronovitch. JABberwocky Literary Agency, 2020. I’ve enjoyed Aaronovitch’s series since 2011, when the first novel, Rivers of London, introduced Metropolitan Police constable and apprentice wizard Peter Grant. Since then the books have become more complex and have branched out with new characters. Tales from the Folly (the Folly is the headquarters of the London ‘magic police’) fills in some of the gaps between and around the novels (or novellas).

What Abigail Did That Summer by Ben Aaronovitch. Gollancz, 2021. Speaking of Aaronovitch’s novellas, this one features teenager Abigail Kamara, junior apprentice wizard and fox-whisperer, who was introduced in the third novel, Whispers under Ground. The story fills a gap between Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree. I like Abigail, and Aaronovitch clearly does too.

Wild Cards I cover by Michael KomarckWild Cards I, edited by George R.R. Martin. Tor, 2010 (I got the ‘mini-hardcover’, 2017). There was a short piece about this in a recent Locus which convinced me to give it a try. I had known about the series for some time and was intrigued by the concept (just after World War II, an alien virus mutates random survivors, giving some of them superpowers) but was reluctant to start, with more than two dozen ‘Wild Card’ volumes and counting. I don’t think I’ll continue with it. Since it’s a ‘shared universe’ with multiple authors contributing interconnected stories, the quality naturally varies, with some parts more exciting, or more tedious, than others. Of course, readers of genre fiction will think of fictional antecedents: Airboy comics, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the Justice Society appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, etc.

Designing English: Early Literature on the Page by Daniel Wakelin. Bodleian Library, 2018. Despite having worked with rare books for more than forty years, I learned a lot from Wakelin, and from his book’s many illustrations from the Bodleian’s superb collection of early English manuscripts. If I had to criticize this it would be for its design: long lines of text in a small size, and often very long paragraphs, all of which is wearying to the eye.

The Desolations of Devil’s Acre by Ransom Riggs. Dutton Books, 2021. The sixth and apparently last novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, unless Riggs goes for a third trilogy. This has been an inventive series, and like all stories with interesting characters one wants to read more of them, but the fiction has often seemed forced when Riggs invents incidents or traits to suit the strange antique photographs with which he illustrates his books, and it became overblown in the fifth novel, if not the fourth. The last has some blatant dei ex machina and ends on a pleasing but perhaps too sentimental note.

Later by Stephen King. Hard Case Crime, 2021. A semi-supernatural mystery – Jamie Conklin can speak with the dead – Later moves quickly. Although interesting, as King always tells a good story, I found it less satisfying than much longer books by him, such as The Stand.

Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth beyond the Middle Ages by Holly Ordway. Word on Fire, 2021. Christina and I were sent a copy of this by the publisher, and have a separate review coming up in our blog.

Book Notes, January 2021

January 31, 2021

An advertising email received this morning from Pottery Barn asks: What are some creative ways to utilize wall space? Our answer, for the most part: bookcases! This is also our answer to the question of utilizing floor space.


Wayne writes: Not in any particular order, here are books I read during January:

Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham. Macfadden, 1967 printing (first published 1930). The first full Albert Campion mystery. Rather clumsy by today’s standards, and compared to some of the later Allinghams.

Merton College Library: An Illustrated History by Julia C. Walworth. Bodleian Library, 2020. An attractive book on the oldest library in continuous use at a university (Merton College, Oxford was founded in 1264). Christina and I did some work there when writing The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.

Beetles The Illustrators 2020 coverThe Illustrators: The British Art of Illustration 1865–2019 and The Illustrators: The British Art of Illustration 1894–2020. Chris Beetles, 2019 and 2020. When we can, time and global pandemics permitting, we like to see the exhibitions at London art dealer Beetles, and as we have a keen interest in illustrations, we’ve picked up the mostly annual catalogues for Beetles’ Illustrators shows. Each is well written and has many good reproductions. These can also be read online, but well, we’re book collectors, so we have the physical volumes.

True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s & 1930s by Patrick Elliott and Sacha Llewellyn. National Galleries of Scotland, 2017.

Evelyn de Morgan Oil Paintings. Compiled and edited by Catherine Gordon. De Morgan Foundation, 1996.

The Edwardians and Their Houses: The New Life of Old England by Timothy Brittain-Catlin. Lund Humphries, 2020. I bought this on the recommendation of a review in the Voysey Society journal, but expected it, despite the honest emphasis in the title, to have more on the houses and less on the Edwardians. ‘This book’, the blurb says, ‘is the first radical overview of the period since the 1970s, and focuses on how the leading circle of the Liberal Party, who built incessantly and at every scale, influenced the pattern of architecture across England.’ I did enjoy the section on the development at this time of magazines such as Country Life and Architectural Review.

Defending the Rock: How Gibraltar Defeated Hitler by Nicholas Rankin. Faber & Faber, 2017. Now here the title definitely misinforms. A good part of this unnecessarily thick book, entertainingly written though it is, deals with other events in World War II, only some of which are needed to treat to put the doings on Gibraltar in context; and Gibraltar didn’t defeat Hitler in the sense of direct, sustained resistance to attack. In fact, one of Hitler’s biggest blunders was that he didn’t take Gibraltar when he could (before he turned his sights on Russia), thus cutting off the Mediterranean to British support for Malta or Egypt.

Enchanted Norman Rockwell Museum catalogue coverEnchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration. Edited by Jesse Kowalski. Abbeville Press, 2020. Published for an exhibition scheduled for this summer at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Christina and I were attracted to this book for obvious reasons, but were disappointed. It defines fantasy much too broadly, from fairy tales, mythology, and the Bible to Tarzan and Star Wars, much of the focus is narrowly on illustration of the late twentieth century, and the text is often on the level of Wikipedia. But it has many images I had not seen before.

Book Notes, November–December 2020

December 31, 2020

Ten Best Books

Since 2004 the New York Times has named selections for the ten best fiction and ten best non-fiction books of the year, and earlier this year published a tally of all of these titles through 2020. Two out the 340 published over the seventeen years of the survey coincide with Wayne’s reading over the period: Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer in 2004 (on Colonial troops under George Washington crossing the Delaware River to attack Trenton on 25–26 December 1776), and The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes in 2009. No doubt each of our readers could suggest a different set of ‘bests’.


Looking Ahead

Blackwell’s are presenting, for pre-order, a selection of notable books to be published in 2021. Among these is The Nature of Middle-earth by Tolkien, edited by our friend Carl Hostetter. It’s illustrated on Blackwell’s home page; in the list proper it’s on the third screen of titles. Among other books scheduled for next year is the final (?) novel in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs and a new Rivers of London novella by Ben Aaronovitch.


Antiquarian Variation

A bookseller’s catalogue that came our way illustrated how collecting tastes and interests, not to say nostalgia, can affect prices of secondhand books. William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1948), a work generally considered an important American novel, was offered as a first edition in its original dust-jacket, in collector’s condition, for $250. But this price isn’t a patch on the $2,000 asked for a first, in jacket, of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957) by Dr. Seuss, even granting that Seuss firsts are more scarce (and harder to identify) than first Faulkners. In the same catalogue, a 1930 printing of Tolkien and Gordon’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in dust-jacket and with some wear, was offered at $450.


New Reading

Wayne writes: Not in any particular order, here are books I read during November and December:

Heal’s Posters: Advertising Modernism by Ruth Artmonsky and Stella Harpley. Artmonsky Arts, 2020. Heal’s is a venerable furniture maker and dealer in London, who also helped to promote contemporary artists.

N.C. Wyeth: New Perspectives by Jessica May and Christine B. Podmaniczky [et al.]. Brandywine River Museum of Art; Portland Museum of Art (Maine); Yale University Press, 2019. Wyeth is looked at from contemporary points of view, including racial criticism and suggestions of depression in the artist, for some of which I have limited sympathy. The reproductions are excellent.

Buried by Vesuvius: The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, edited by Kenneth Lapatin. Paul Getty Museum, 2019. A technical book but worthwhile for anyone interested in either the architecture and culture of Herculaneum or, like me, the carbonized papyrus scrolls found there.

Last Supper in Pompeii by Paul Roberts. Ashmolean Museum, 2019. Published to accompany the exhibition of this title which we saw in Oxford in summer 2019. It cleverly uses food as evidence to help reconstruct Roman life in Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius.

Tales of Barnett Freedman, edited by Emma Mason. Bread and Butter Press, 2020. A slight but interesting booklet about the twentieth-century illustrator and designer, about whom we have more substantive volumes.

At the Sign of the Rainbow: Margaret Calkin James 1895–1985 by Betty Miles. Felix Scribo, 2005. We had never heard of this artist, and were glad to learn about her. This booklet, among other titles, turned up at a discount at the online Pallant House Gallery Bookshop.

Wrapping It Up: 50 Years of British Packaging Design 1920–1970 by Ruth Artmonsky and Stella Harpley. Artmonsky Arts, 2019. The authors really needn’t have apologized, as they do more than once, for writing a history of packaging. Yes, packaging (in excess) has been bad for the environment, but it deserves attention as much as anything else with graphic designs.

Sybil Andrews and the Grosvenor School Linocuts. Osborne Samuel, 2015. A small gallery catalogue of Andrews’ linoleum cuts alongside work by contemporaries such as Cyril Power.

True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe 1780–1870 by Ger Luijten, Mary Morton, and Jane Munro [et al.]. National Gallery of Art, Washington; Fondation Custodia; Fitzwilliam Museum, 2020. The exhibition, which we saw at the National Gallery, was impressive in person but doesn’t translate well into book form. The pictures needed to be larger and brighter.

Conversations with Madeleine L’Engle, edited by Jackie C. Horne. University Press of Mississippi, 2019. As with any book of this sort, which collects a variety of interviews made over a period of years, there’s a lot of repetition. But L’Engle’s books, beginning with A Wrinkle in Time, have long been favourites.

Sanctuary: Artist–Gardeners 1919–39. Garden Museum and Liss Llewellyn, 2020.

Edward Burne-Jones, edited by Alison Smith. Tate Gallery, 2018. A must for anyone interested in Burne-Jones, William Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites, though the text is sometimes overlong. The book is very well printed.

The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016 (first published 1983). I haven’t seen the Netflix series, but I want to. I dabbled in chess in my high school days (never in competition) and still fondly remember the game in which I offered up my queen in sacrifice, something my opponent couldn’t resist. After that it was checkmate in one.

Design: Wyndham Payne by William Connelly and Paul Payne. ACC Art Books, 2020. A brief biography of the illustrator and graphic designer (1888–1974).

MI9: A History of the Secret Service for Escape and Evasion in World War Two by Helen Fry. Yale University Press, 2020.

Art, Faith and Modernity, edited by Sacha Llewellyn and Paul Liss. Liss Llewellyn, 2019.

A Shimmer of Joy: One Hundred Children’s Picture Books by Chris Loker. David R. Godine, 2020. Loker, a dealer in antiquarian children’s books, chose one hundred ‘outstanding picture books read by American children from 1900 to 2015’ of which ‘only one work by each picture book author or illustrator’ would be included, unless ‘two books by the same creator seemed necessary to include’. It would have been better simply to say that this is a personal selection: there are five cases when two books by the same creator appear (Peter Spier, Robert McCloskey, Crockett Johnson, Leo Lionni, William Nicholson), Maurice Sendak, David Wiesner, David Macaulay, and Anno receive only one example, and there are no entries for Nancy Ekholm Burkert, Trina Schart Hyman, William Joyce, Fred Marcellino, Alice and Martin Provensen, Genady Spirin, or Lisbeth Zwerger – et al.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic. Bloomsbury, 2017. Published to accompany the exhibition of the same title, which we unfortunately missed at both the British Library and the New-York Historical Society.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters by Jan Marsh (et al.). National Portrait Gallery, London, 2019. A feminist history of women artists and models among the Pre-Raphaelites. The subject is interesting but the typography (a Futura-like sans serif and a Bodoni-like modern) is unattractive.

Mr Campion and Others by Margery Allingham. Penguin Books, 1960 (first published 1939). Short stories involving Albert Campion, one of the most curious of British detective fiction characters. This is from a baker’s dozen of Allinghams, twelve of them from the old green Penguin paperback mysteries, once owned by a late arts colleague from whose library I was allowed to pick what I liked. It was only after she died that I learned we shared some of the same literary tastes.


Margery Allingham mysteries on shelf

A ‘baker’s dozen’ of Margery Allingham mysteries

Tolkien Notes 19

December 21, 2020

Richard C. West, 1944–2020

Richard West Minnesota 1993One of our oldest friends, Richard West, died on 29 November from Covid-19. We first met him in the nineteen-eighties, and were awed by his knowledge, kindness, and humility. When asked by a Tolkien fan if he was the Richard West, he replied that he was only a Richard West. But as one of the leading figures in Tolkien studies, he was indeed the Richard West, noted bibliographer of Tolkien, a founder (in 1966) of the University of Wisconsin Tolkien Society (which itself this year became a victim of the pandemic), editor of its journal Orcrist, and author of one of the best essays on Tolkien even to this day, ‘The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings’ (1975). For nearly four decades we have been honoured to see Richard from time to time at Tolkien-related gatherings and to read, and hear, his occasional essays. His scholarship was always full of insight, well informed, and well argued. We cite many examples in our own books.

Richard did not shy from considering aspects of Tolkien’s legendarium less studied by other scholars, such as mythology in the story of Beren and Lúthien (2003) and ‘tragedy and divine comedy’ in the tale of Aragorn and Arwen (2006). Recalling his B.A. and M.A. studies in English language and literature at Boston College and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he explored Old English elements in Tolkien’s story of Túrin (2000) and The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth (2018). He also (in 1997) gave Warren Lewis the attention he long deserved, as a historian and scholar in his own right, not merely the brother of C.S. Lewis and a diarist through whose eyes one could view the Inklings. A list of Richard’s writings was compiled by Douglas A. Anderson for Tolkien Studies 2 (2005), and will be updated in next year’s volume.

In our work we often consult both editions of Richard’s Tolkien Criticism – the first (1970) marked writings he thought ‘especially valuable or that ought to be read for some reason’, the second (1981) was expanded but, perhaps necessarily, omitted critical recommendations. A brief addendum appeared in 2004 in the journal Modern Fiction Studies. Tolkien Criticism influenced Wayne’s early efforts as a Tolkien bibliographer, and was essential to Christina when, in her first years as a collector, it served as a vade mecum as she sought out books and articles to read and copy. When we came to edit The Lord of the Rings, we looked for guidance into Richard’s ambitious but unrealized plans in the nineteen-seventies to create a variorum edition of that work.

Richard was a librarian by profession, by the time of his retirement a few years ago the Senior Academic Librarian at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He was also active in the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies symposia at Kalamazoo, Michigan, and in the Dorothy L. Sayers Society. His interests extended far beyond Tolkien, and he could speak just as expertly about comic books, animated films, and classic detective fiction. He leaves his wife, Perri, and many friends and admirers.


Addenda and Corrigenda

We have updated some of our web pages providing additions and corrections to some of our books:


The New College School Hobbit

On 14–17 December 1967, students of the New College School, Oxford, performed a dramatic adaptation of The Hobbit (‘a play for children and adults’) prepared by Humphrey Carpenter, with music by Paul Drayton. Tolkien himself was present on the final night, and reportedly was pleased as long as the text followed his own words. Carpenter was then an Oxford undergraduate, and played double-bass in the show’s orchestra.

Remarkably, two copies of the printed programme for the production are simultaneously for sale (at the time of writing). One is offered by Maggs Bros., London, in their Christmas catalogue (Catalogue 1511), as item 121: autographed by Tolkien, with light creasing to the outer margin, ‘the odd spot’, and a rust mark to the lower cover, ‘otherwise near fine’, it is listed at £8,500. The second copy, in the December 2020 catalogue (no. 169) of Peter Harrington, London, item 170, is likewise autographed by Tolkien, as well as by Carpenter, Drayton, and nine of the actors, and contains hand-colouring by Andrew J.A. Sharp, a student at New College School who played First Goblin in the production; with binder holes punched in its margins, and ‘very faint soiling’, it is nevertheless ‘remarkably well-preserved’.

Peter Harrington earlier listed (at £3,000, apparently since sold) Andrew Sharp’s marked copy of the script for the production, with his own illustrations and the signatures of ten of his fellow student actors. The work was described as having wear to its edges, light foxing and minor soiling, and a small early tape repair, though generally ‘remarkably clean and bright’.


Outstanding Contribution Award

Wayne and Christina with Tolkien Society award

At the Tolkien Society’s annual Oxonmoot gathering in September – this year, held expertly over Zoom – we were given the Society’s Outstanding Contribution Award, for our body of work on Tolkien rather than any specific book or essay. (We won’t look on it as an award for lifetime achievement, hoping that there is much more life, and achievement, to come!) The physical award is a heavy metal statuette of a winged dragon. An interview we gave during Oxonmoot with our friend Mike Percival was videoed but has not (yet, at least) been made available on the Tolkien Society’s YouTube channel; currently it can be seen, through 31 December, only through paid access. (Those who had paid memberships for Oxonmoot have free, password access for the same period.)

Another, audio-only interview, however, which we gave to the German Tolkien Society, can be heard as a podcast on YouTube. Please keep in mind that we both had bad colds at the time!


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), for many years Tolkien’s primary American publisher, are exploring the sale of their trade division. HMH have had declining income since 2019, and are now focused on a ‘digital-first, connected strategy’ and educational technology. It is not clear what this would mean for HMH Tolkien titles, which presumably would be a desirable property in any sale.


The photograph of Richard West was taken by Wayne at a 1993 Tolkien symposium in Minnesota; Richard is seen here with Matt Fisher.

Apples of Our Eye

November 20, 2020
apple crisp

Back in July we wrote about the three apple trees on our front lawn bearing abundant fruit, and were looking forward to a good harvest come autumn. But between hungry squirrels and crows and, for the first time this year, yellowjackets, only a half-dozen apples survived in an edible form. Next year we’ll double down on yellowjacket traps; there’s not much we can do about other critters, though if not for the insects there would still have been a good crop.

In the past, Wayne has baked a succession of apple crisps which were doubly satisfying for being made with our own apples. This year we had to drive an hour to Windy Hill Farm in south county to buy two bags of their freshly picked honeycrisps. Those are gone now, but our Big Y supermarket had bags of organic Fuji, so apple crisp has been on the menu again. Here’s Wayne’s recipe:


Peel, core, and slice 5 or 6 apples, medium or large size (they cook down). Grease a pie plate or the like (Wayne uses a 9-inch ceramic quiche dish, as in the photo). Add the sliced apples in layers, with 1/4 cup raisins (Wayne uses golden raisins). Add a sprinkling of granulated sugar and ground cinnamon (or apple pie spice) per layer, more or less sugar depending on the sweetness of the fruit. (The topping of course will add sugar. This recipe on the whole minimizes sweetness to allow the taste of the apples to come through.)

Combine in a medium bowl 1/2 cup light brown sugar, 1/8 cup granulated sugar, 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, a dash each of cinnamon and cloves (or apple pie spice), and a pinch of salt. Rub or cut in 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter; the result can be rough. Spread this mixture evenly over the apples.

Preheat an oven to 375° F (190° C or Gas Mark 5). Put the dish with the combined apples and topping in a shallow pan, cookie sheet, or the like, to catch any spill-over, and bake for about 45 minutes, until the topping is a golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack.

Book Notes, October 2020

October 25, 2020

Books on sofa October 2020


The venerable London bookseller Sotheran’s (mentioned before) headed an advertising email ‘A month devoted to reading books & revelling in art’, and called this month ‘Booktober’ (and maybe next month ‘Novel-ember’). Isn’t every month Booktober, just as every day is Book Lover’s Day?

In the Eye of the Beholder

An antiquarian bookseller described an item as ‘interior excellent’ but did not mention the condition of the binding other than that it was made from later tree-calf (i.e. calfskin chemically treated to have a pattern roughly resembling a tree). Wayne asked for more information about the binding, as a bookseller will sometimes emphasize one quality to distract from a defect: interior excellent, (by implication) exterior not so good. In this case, the binding was in fact good, though nothing special.

Around the same time, Wayne read a Catalogue No. 1 by another bookseller. There are few antiquarian catalogues no. 1 being issued these days, especially in print, but they’re always worth looking at, since booksellers just starting out may offer exceptionally good prices in their inaugural catalogues to attract customers and develop a base. This was also a well-designed catalogue; but because a professional-looking catalogue can subconsciously confer the notion of quality on anything it lists, it’s important to read the descriptions very carefully. Wayne thought this one notable for the disconnect at the end: ‘light shelfwear and soiling to cloth, toning and foxing throughout text, some light waterstaining to margins, rear free endpaper torn, a handsome copy’.

Struggling Indies

The New York Times published an article about the struggles of independent bookstores (indies) versus the online behemoth (predominantly Amazon). ‘Buy books from people who want to sell books, not colonize the moon.’ Some of the readers who commented don’t buy books locally because they’ve adopted ebooks. Others say, with perfect reason, that local shops don’t (can’t) offer the discounts Amazon can. A few book buyers do still patronize their local independents. In our rural village in north-west Massachusetts there’s only a small shop for new books, which also sells coffee and handles college texts; it seems to do good business, or did before the pandemic, but for the most part it doesn’t stock what we want to buy (books like most of those listed below). A half hour away is a Barnes & Noble, but its stock isn’t as broad as at other Barnes & Nobles, not even all of the new Del Rey Tolkien editions which surely come under the heading of popular literature, and anyway B&N isn’t an indie. There is an indie about an hour’s drive from here, but it’s small and has never had anything to tempt us.

Sometimes we buy from Book Depository (UK), but they’re owned by Amazon, and Book Depository’s prices are sometimes much higher than Amazon’s. Amazon UK get a little business from us, but their packaging leaves much to be desired. Wayne received a box broken open at the ends, and the book inside not only had damaged (indeed, shredded) corners and edges but was wet, unsalvageable – and it wasn’t raining that day in Williamstown. More and more, for British books at least, we’re looking to Blackwell’s in Oxford, as their prices are good and their packing has been excellent. Wayne has also discovered the Pallant House Gallery (West Sussex) bookshop for certain art books; they too pack very well.

The photo at the head of this post shows our current month’s haul (so far; a few more should arrive still in October). Christina puts them in our booklist, and covers dust-jackets with Mylar, at the end of each month.

Time Magazine’s Best One Hundred Fantasy Books

John Rateliff mentioned this recent list in his blog. Some of the one hundred titles haven’t been out long enough to earn the title of ‘best’, while at the same time (as John points out) the list omits important authors such as Lord Dunsany. But really, the whole thing is a cheat to begin with. The Lord of the Rings is on it, naturally, but as three of the one hundred: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, as if they were separate works and not three parts of a single whole. Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy gets the same treatment; granted that The Golden Compass (Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass were written and published with more separation than The Lord of the Rings, they still comprise a single work rather than a series, and should be treated as one work on lists like this.

New Reading (Wayne)

Aquatint Worlds: Travel, Print, and Empire by Douglas Fordham. Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2019. A beautiful book on aquatint prints of foreign lands (relative to Britain), with much on their makers and the culture that produced a market for them. The text, however, is aimed at specialists rather than general readers.

Cosmos: The Art and Science of the Universe by Roberta J.M. Olson and Jay M. Pasachoff. Reaktion, 2019. A folio with many illustrations, emphasizing related art more than the science of astronomy. I’m teaching a course on the great astronomers this term with Prof. Pasachoff, and have known Roberta (Curator of Drawings at New-York Historical Society) for many years.

Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style by Alison Brown. DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2019. This catalogue accompanied the splendid exhibition we saw at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, last year.

John Nash: Artist & Countryman by Andrew Lambirth. Unicorn Press, 2019. A long account of Nash (1893–1977), perhaps too long, setting him in a larger history and art culture. Its images are often too small to be effective, and there are many works mentioned in the text which aren’t illustrated. I’ve just bought yet another biography of Nash; we’ll see how that compares. I disagree with Lambirth’s appraisal of Eric Ravilious, that his popularity stems largely from nostalgia, and that had he survived the war (Ravilious’s plane disappeared over Iceland in 1942) he would have had nowhere to go in terms of artistic development – by which Lambirth means, presumably, he would have remained a ‘decorative’ artist or given art up altogether.

The Lost House Revisited by Ed Kluz. Merrell, 2017. Kluz makes sad, haunting mixed-media pictures of English grand houses that have been lost to time, mainly to fire and neglect. Here again I know some of the contributors: Tim Knox, ex-Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum (now at the Fitzwilliam), and art historian John Harris.

POW: Allied Prisoners in Europe, 1939–1945 by Adrian Gilbert. John Murray, 2006. A more concentrated account than Gillies’ Barbed-Wire University I read earlier.

Scene through Wood: A Century of Modern Wood Engraving by Anne Desmet. Ashmolean Museum, 2020. Another exhibition catalogue, but for obvious reasons we couldn’t get to Oxford this year to see it. The book reproduces many (to me) unfamiliar wood-engravings and provides a good history of the art in the past century, but the arrangement, by theme, confusingly spreads information about individual artists hither and thither.

Serpentine by Philip Pullman. Penguin Books, 2020. A story of Lyra and Pantalaimon set between The Amber Spyglass and The Secret Commonwealth, and anticipating the latter. Filled out with illustrations by Tom Duxbury, it’s a very slim book; I read it in about fifteen minutes. But I love Lyra, and forgive Pullman the adverse comments he has made about Tolkien.

Telling the Map: Stories by Christopher Rowe. Small Beer Press, 2017. I was attracted to this book by its cover art by Kathleen Jennings, the style of which deliberately echoes Pauline Baynes’s Tolkien poster-maps. The stories are science fiction mainly in the short, strange, Twilight Zone mode. Most are too short, ending just when a concept or character was getting interesting. Even the longest piece, the novella ‘The Border State’, needs more space to avoid an ending that seems abrupt.

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