Illuminating the scholarly background to Tolkien’s storytelling

Published 21 September 2009

tolkiensviewJohn Ryan is the last of J.R.R. Tolkien’s students still writing about his work. Dr Ryan’s latest book, Tolkien’s View: Windows into his World, offers its readers – in the words of his University of New England colleague, Professor Peter Forrest – “a way in to something more wonderful even than Middle Earth: the world of philology”.

“Tolkien’s philology was based on the thesis that the past we identify with is the world of our linguistic forbears,” Professor Forrest said when launching Tolkien’s View at the Armidale Library earlier this month.

The book – a newly revised and edited selection of John Ryan’s essays relating to Tolkien – reveals in fascinating detail the way in which Tolkien’s deep understanding of his culture’s linguistic and mythic past informed his work as both Oxford Professor of English and author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

“Tolkien had always seen philology as the way back to mythology, history, and even the proto-religion of the European peoples,” Dr Ryan explained to the guests at the book launch. “For him, all transmitted language was a way to the past – back through surviving documents to the ancient trade routes from the East, the history of the human race, and the earliest thoughts of early men, and so a way to reach to the origin of mind, to the First Word, and to the Deity Himself.”

Tolkien’s View reveals the richness of Oxford philological scholarship in the first half of the twentieth century – an intellectual and cultural milieu in which Tolkien played a leading role, and which made a strong and lasting impression on the young John Ryan. Dr Ryan recalls, in the Introduction to Tolkien’s View, his immersion in “holistic studies comprising language, literature, archaeology, landscape and culture, and the ‘folk memory'”. His new book – a product of what another of Dr Ryan’s UNE colleagues, Associate Professor Michael Sharkey, called “independent, passionate scholarship over many years” – is ample evidence of that formative experience.

“My last Oxford year was spent in 20 Merton Street, the home of Professor David Nichol Smith, in a sparrow-visited attic looking out over the Botanic Gardens towards Magdalen College – and so onto some of Tolkien’s favourite trees,” Dr Ryan says. And it is a similar view of this timeless landscape from Tolkien’s own window, with all its mythical, archaeological, linguistic, historical, religious and academic associations, that is referred to in the book’s title and illustrated on its cover.

Dr Ryan recalls in the Introduction his “many unplanned and more social meetings with Professor Tolkien, many walks and pacings together with him around the College Garden, [and] discussions about possible areas for my researches”. He also notes that Tolkien acted as a referee for his academic posting to UNE.

John Ryan is recognised as one of the world’s leading Tolkien scholars. Tolkien’s View (Walking Tree Publishers, Zurich and Jena, 2009) is his third book about Tolkien.

Clicking on the image (a section of the book’s cover) displayed here reveals a photograph of Dr Ryan (left) with his colleague Dr Robert Haworth, who assisted in the preparation of  Tolkien’s View.