Like the road in Bilbo Baggins' song, the Tolkien industry goes ever on. No self-respecting medievalist's pension plan is complete, it seems, without a "pop" book explaining how J.R.R. got it all from Beowulf, the Old Norse Poetic Edda and other early medieval, northern European literatures. The publisher's blurb on the flyleaf then, is all the more shameful for its claim that Mark Atherton's book is "the first to show in depth" the debt that Tolkien's fantasy novels owe to these earlier traditions.
Where now Shippey's Road to Middle-Earth? Where now Lee and Solopova's Keys of Middle-Earth? Where the companions Gilliver, Marshall and Weiner, generous givers of The Ring of Words? Literary reputation is indeed as fleeting as Bede's sparrow through the lit hall when another Peter Jackson blockbuster is on the horizon and the marketing people can smell a treasure hoard around the corner.
What is truer to say is that Atherton is the first medievalist to bring his philological expertise to bear more narrowly on The Hobbit, focusing on that single novel, usually regarded by Tolkien nuts as the lesser achievement, the minor prelude to the magnum opus that is The Lord of the Rings. The result is rather refreshing, and certainly a challenge to that notion of the Tolkien canon, for Atherton (who teaches Old English at the University of Oxford) is not only concerned to excavate nuggets of allusion to "the Dark Ages" with "dwarvish" enthusiasm but also brings a broader knowledge of literature to the novel, and a reader's sensitivity as well as a philologist's eye for detail. So alongside teaching us that Smaug the dragon gets his name from the Old English verb smugan ("to creep"), Atherton points out the several surprising similarities between The Hobbit's opening and that of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows. Once-popular children's literature such as E.A. Wyke-Smith's The Marvellous Land of Snergs is given equal attention with the Old Norse Volsunga Saga, Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill with Henry Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer.
Atherton has also quarried seams of lesser-known materials in order to map the compositional processes by which The Hobbit's narrative was gradually formed. Thus the early drafts of the children's story Roverandom, as well as the text of the important Andrew Lang lecture, delivered at St Andrews in 1939, and preserved in the university library there, are brought into dialogue with Bilbo's adventure in illuminating and engaging literary criticism.
Occasionally Atherton's fine attention to minutiae temporarily leads him into a scholarly mirkwood: that Tolkien once wrote "a green great dragon" as a boy, but in maturity would write that Gandalf had a "tall pointed blue hat" and a "long white beard", is not really an indication that he had learned (from Sweet's A New English Grammar or otherwise) and was now exploiting to his advantage the rule of increased specialisation of adjectives in English; it is a principle all native speakers naturally absorb and can hardly avoid. If anything, these particular examples illustrate only that Tolkien's descriptive prose could at times descend to a poverty of cliche.
But Atherton is excellent on what surely attracts most of Tolkien's large fan base: the rich intertextual depth that lies beneath the surface of his simple plot of "there-and-back-again" adventure in the form of the many stories and narrative traditions that are hinted at in what Beowulf scholars would call the "digressive method" of telling. Such strategies of story were once ubiquitous in the Middle Ages. Perhaps those hoary old bards with their long white beards knew a thing or two? And Atherton is a great, digressive guide on our journey to reading in sympathy with them and their famous descendant.
There and Back Again: J. R. R. Tolkein and the Origins of the Hobbit
By Mark Atherton
I. B. Tauris, 288pp, £20.00
Published 12 September 2012