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Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language
edited by Janet Brennan Croft
McFarland & Company, 336 pages

Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language
Janet Brennan Croft
Janet Brennan Croft is Head of Access Services at University of Oklahoma Libraries in Norman, Oklahoma.

Janet Brennan Croft Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

Before I go on to say anything else, let me say this: if you hated something like The Silmarillion, this is not the book for you. This is essentially an academic book on the Faerie, however incongruous that might sound, and it discusses enchantment in terms that many might find dry, and boring, and superfluous to requirements -- if your interest in the Faerie is merely entertainment, then steer clear of this book.

But I loved The Silmarillion.

And I dived into this book with glee.

To be honest, it isn't something you can pick up and read from cover to cover. It's a dipping book, full of essays by various erudite and knowledgeable people, essays with footnotes and bibliographies overflowing with works of other erudite and knowledgeable people. It's no text book -- but it's a work of scholarship, and as such it requires concentrated attention, at least for short spans of time. However, this is a work of scholarship that is divided into four sections, and they are entitled "Faerie," "Magic," "Power" and "The Other" -- and it is hard, at least for someone like me, to understand how essays on the topic of Magic and that spellbinding concept of The Other could ever be made boring or tedious.

Shakespeare is, of course, the demigod of Western literature -- but he was a product of his time, and what he did to the faerie realm was picked up and run away with by the Victorians and their storied penchant for prettifying. The net result is an increasing dichotomy between the concepts of "fairy," as used in Shakespeare, and "Faerie," as resurrected and re-visioned by Tolkien. One of the early essays puts it in a nutshell -- the "fairy" stories, the ones Shakespeare was fond of, the ones involving Oberon and Titania and Peaseblossom and sprites with butterfly wings, are shallow, almost superficial -- the interests of the Fairy Court often seem to be confined to things like hunting or riding or feasting or playing practical jokes on those they consider to be of a lower social stratum than themselves -- all of these are activities and interests of an aristocracy, a leisured "upper classes." But there is very little indication of any real power behind the throne, as it were, and the vision of a fairy court so preoccupied with trivia diminishes them in metaphorical as well as real terms -- they shrink in size as well as impact, and they become frivolous, minuscule, without a real presence -- they are, in fact, perfect for Shakespeare because they become two-dimensional and hardly more than characters on a stage, only present because they may have a spare line in Act Two somewhere which can be used as an accent or a grace note but hardly has any real weight or permanence in the greater story being told.

Faerie, by contrast, is -- as one of the essayists puts it -- "..pure and unadulterated enchantment drawing us from our real and mundane world." Drawing us into a different place, where wounds really bleed and it is possible to really die if you are hurt. A place where things are bigger than you are, where the enchanted and the spellbound are not just window dressing but as much a part of the greater whole which could not exist without that underpinning. A place where a Puck is replaced by a Gollum, or even a Sauron; a place where time runs differently than in our own world, where a stray word or a thoughtless action might echo through the centuries, and where laughter isn't absent but where it means more because the sorrows are more real, too.

When I was younger I was amused by the little tiny winged fairies found in the illustrations of children's books -- but even then I was less interested in tales of Thumbelina than I was in the great mythical cycles of the Norse and the Celts, where "real" faerie often walked. This book -- for me -- is a vindication, of a sort. As one of the essayists puts it, "Tolkien has reclaimed honour for Faerie" -- and that's something I've always loved about Tolkien's work. I'm entertained by Bottom's being given the head of an ass, by love spells going awry and the Fairy Queen herself being besotted by said ass -- but I love Tolkien's Elves, with a great and fiery love, and reading a book like this one feels like reading their history, as seen by human eyes.

Not for everyone. But if you like this sort of thing -- this book is a gem.

Copyright © 2007 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves." When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her international success, The Secrets of Jin Shei, has been translated into ten languages worldwide, and its follow-up, Embers of Heaven, is coming out in 2006. She is also the author of the fantasy duology The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days, and is currently working on a new YA trilogy to be released in the winter of 2006.

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