August 1968. I was born in London. Raised in Muswell Hill, The Hobbit was read to me age six or seven, fuelling a teenage obsession with The Lord of the Rings. Patrick Curry’s Defending Middle-earth illuminates how, in the1980s, innocent obsessions could mature into political consciousness. Where this tide left me, at the turn of the millenium, was mired in a study of political economy in Cambridge University in the early 1870s. This at least taught me a respect for some minds, now dead, far greater than my own. I stepped out of these Victorian moral sciences by publishing a book in 2009. Since then I have been raising children in a small moshav in Israel, engaging with a new set of fears, and reading a subject with a mind very different to any I found in Victorian Cambridge.
Today, J.R.R. Tolkien is the author I try to follow.
A Professor of English at Oxford University in the twentieth century, Tolkien wrote scholarly texts as he must in his youth but sparingly once a professor, and dedicated as much time as he could to composing his own stories and inventing languages within and around them. Murmurs of disaproval in Oxford circa 1970 that the professor never wrote the book beg the question. Charity dictates we take Professor J.R.R. Tolkien at the word of his actions and credit him a conviction that he best served his scholarly position by engaging in his artistic or sub-creative practices. We may allow for some wishful thinking, but once we sense in our subject this idea a world of his thought opens up from which we may, if we wish, learn much.
How did Tolkien think The Lord of the Rings? These thoughts cannot be articulated without saying unspeakable names at the center of his story, and the very inquiry must admit to adopting the Eye of Sauron and looking to ideas that Tolkien most certainly thought yet refrained from ever writing down. But then we should not kid ourselves: Tolkien was of course aware that his work as artist was most obviously mirrored within his story by Sauron the Necromancer (an anticipation of the “dead author” who today metaphorically haunts literary theory). Indeed, Tolkien’s professional life was spent listening for the voices of those now dead, and both comparative philology and intellectual history are arts that tread close to necromancy.
A magic ring is at the center of the vortex. The mind boggles. In the same world of thought, the world of thought of one person, we begin to discover Tolkien thinking through his story from every which way and by means of diverse and subtle trains of thought, passages of self-conscious erudition and art few could and perhaps none other would ever have taken. In the published stories and the now published drafts of them, in diverse scholarly writing, and in his almost theological statement of literary criticism, On Fairy-stories, our author is drawing the same picture.
I am way out of my depth and can only keep swimming. Because it is the way of organizing my thoughts I have now been trained in, these new studies are giving birth to a book. I wished to avoid some of the massive structural faults of my first book by preparing an index this time before finishing it. Now I find the index generating new perspectives and ideas.
Simon J. Cook.