“There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful.” So The Hobbit describes Bilbo’s first glimpse of Smaug’s hoard. In this modern age, dragon treasure is rarer still, but a faint echo of Bilbo’s staggerment may be experienced by surveying the sales room at a Tolkien convention. The vast and ever-growing pile of books about Tolkien’s works contains many nuggets of value and some genuine gems. But to read it all is beyond the means of mere mortal.
To stand out, a book about Tolkien needs to say something new, which is difficult. But the size of the pile offers a second strategy, which is to act as a guide to key ideas. There and Back Again: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Origins of The Hobbit unites both approaches, in a highly accessible style.
Dr. Mark Atherton is not just a tutor and lecturer in Old English at Regent’s College; he’s also clearly an expert weaver. Here, he splices a literary analysis of several books with strands from Tolkien’s life, his wider contemporary world, and his varied sources. Into what is ostensibly a study of The Hobbit he weaves passages about many of the author’s other works, both famous and obscure. It’s an approach that suits Tolkien as it would few other writers, so thoroughly are his works intertwined with each other and with their sources.
Atherton’s method is to take The Hobbit section by section to use it as a window on Tolkien’s earlier or later works; and also to interleave a more-or-less chronological account of Tolkien’s formative years, from rural childhood to war to university philology. He manages this complex task with such a light touch that his book reads, for the most part, effortlessly.
A wide-ranging and reliable survey of sources and analogues will have surprises for all but the most hardcore student of Tolkien: on one page the toponymist Margaret Gelling; on the next Black and White Ogre Country, a book of the childhood memories of Tolkien’s brother Hilary. It’s a testament to the unique stature of Tolkien that some of the more surprising analogues are not with Old English literature such as Beowulf but with modern fiction.
Atherton pinpoints striking likenesses between Tolkien and other writers generally thought to have nothing in common with him, such as E.M. Forster, who wondered in 1911 why England had no great mythology – the very thing Tolkien (who probably never read Howards End) was attempting to produce a few years later. Kinship is also explored with children’s classics such as The Wind in the Willows and Dr. Dolittle. And for me, it’s a pleasure to see attention paid to another writer of promise, a man whose personality enriches my own book on Tolkien: his old schoolfriend G.B. Smith, a poet who was killed by a stray shell in the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme. The import of all this intertextuality is that Tolkien was a man of his time, reflecting the concerns of the day and drawing upon common experience.
Inevitably, with all this weaving, there are some stray threads and frayed ends. Names or titles sometimes appear with no accompanying explanation as to their place in Tolkien’s complex mythology. There is rather too much extended précis of plots, too, and also some over-basic word-level literary analysis.
Other writers have provided far closer and more thought-provoking readings of Tolkien’s philological background (Tom Shippey), of his Ælfwine figure (Verlyn Flieger), of his faëry lore (Dimitra Fimi), and, dare I say, of the shaping influence of the First World War. Atherton lightly and engagingly touches on all this – and more. He has learned well the lesson that Tolkien himself learned in The Hobbit: complex and strange material can be made amazingly accessible if seen through the eyes of someone down-to-earth.
By John Garth
John Garth is the author of Tolkien and the Great War, a HarperCollins paperback, ebook and audiobook.