An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

April 11, 2014

Chappell: Perilous Passages

Julie A. Chappell.  Perilous Passages: The Book of Margery Kempe, 1534-1934. Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.

Reviewed by Candace Robb (eccr14 at gmail dot com)

The one required course in my graduate program was Introduction to Graduate Research, designed to inspire and intimidate. The texts were the MLA Stylesheet, A Chicago Manual of Style, a pamphlet on the graduate research paper, and The Scholar Adventurers: enduring account of literature’s most famous research puzzles by Richard D. Altick.[1] We were to read Altick before the first class. A brilliant strategy: with chapter headings such as "The Secret of the Ebony Cabinet" and "Exit a Lady, Enter Another," Altick presented literary research as detective work.

Julie Chappell’s Perilous Passages: The Book of Margery Kempe, 1534-1934, brought back that sense of adventure for me, and it is no accident: as Altick echoed detective novels in his chapter titles, Chappell references the game of Clue (Cluedo) in her prologue: "Was it the Colonel in the Library with the candlestick? Or the Colonel in the ping pong cupboard with a box of matches? Like any good English mystery, this one began with a body purportedly found in the library of an English manor house belonging to a member of a gentry family of some antiquity" (xliii). The contradicting versions of the early twentieth-century discovery of a manuscript of The Book are fairly accurately described in those Clue-like questions. She carries this atmosphere of mystery and surprise through the book. I came away with a sense of wonder that such a manuscript, an affective account of a woman’s spiritual journey, survived the violent destruction of all that was deemed “popish” in the centuries after the manuscript’s completion. How it did is quite a story.

As Chappell explains in her "Proym," she did not start out to trace the journey of the manuscript. She was frustrated by the editors’ choices of extracts from Margery’s Book in The Norton Anthology of English Literature (1986 edition). Taken out of context, the excerpts "created a most extraordinary late medieval woman…for whom [the students in her survey class] could largely feel neither empathy nor sympathy" (xx). Wanting to provide such context, she reread the book in Middle English as well as reviewing current research on women’s spirituality in the late Middle Ages. Chappell’s proym chronicling her journey into Margery’s Book and its context is itself a brief, clear review of the literature. She came to see Margery and other pious laywomen as seeking "an authority with which to sanction their spiritual (and, by association, their earthly) lives [which] led [them]… to erase themselves through visionary experience, to become human palimpsests, spiritual beings written over the erasure of the earthly ones. Their authority, their voice would be understood to come from the highest auctor, God" (xxii). This was particularly important as Archbishop Arundel’s 1409 Constitutions made clear his abhorrence of women offering spiritual advice of any kind as it warned that vernacular versions of the Bible might permit "any old woman to usurp the office of teacher” and “dare to instruct men" (xxix).

But  her study took an unexpected turn when "a scribal ‘correction,’ the crossing out of ‘Pope’; in [a] litany of souls for which Kempe begged mercy" led Chappell to the British Library to see the manuscript of the book. "The manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe was glossed and edited by rubricating hands from first leaf to last. Margery Kempe’s as yet unnamed sixteenth-century rubricators/editors made additions, deletions, glosses, symbolic drawings, and other enhancements…" (10). Chappell’s curiosity about the rubricators shifted her focus from Kempe’s life to the story of the manuscript itself. Beyond the two bookplates in the manuscript identifying the owner as Henry Bowden, born in 1754, and an earlier inscription on the verso side of the binding leaf facing fol. 1r identifying it as in the possession of the Carthusians of Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire, we knew nothing of the whereabouts of this manuscript until Butler-Bowden brought it to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1934.

Chappell finds that two separate individuals altered the manuscript—one working in the late fifteenth century, the other, the one who made "the last hurried marginal glosses and corrections," including the striking of the word "Pope," working slightly later, during the upheaval of Henry VIII’s religious reform. Comparing the hands with other manuscripts, Chappell identifies the two Carthusian scribes, and proposes the path by which the manuscript came to reside at Mount Grace. The later rubricator added a note to one of his marginal additions citing Richard Methley, a Carthusian mystic, as his source, a former vicar of Mount Grace whose work was similar to the books Margery Kempe claims to have "heard." His being referred to in the past tense provided Chappell with a date after Methley’s death for the first sixteenth-century rubricator of The Book (23).

To have come to reside at Mount Grace was key to the survival of Margery’s Book, as the Carthusian order held the copying and sharing of spiritual books in high regard, and Methley in particular translated into Middle English Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls, similar in its affective piety to Margery’s work.
Mount Grace itself was one of the last religious houses to be dissolved by Henry VIII, on December 19, 1539 (xxxviii). Discovering that Margery’s Book is not among the manuscripts listed as in the possession of Mount Grace at the time of its dissolution, Chappell searches for and finds a likely avenue of transmission, one that would bring the manuscript to the London Charterhouse. She includes a gut-wrenching account of the fate of the prominent members of the London Carthusian community, to emphasize in what reverence a member of the order, Everard Digby, held Margery’s Book, that he risked the fate of his less fortunate fellows to spirit the manuscript to the safety of a Popish recusant family.

In the chapter "Digbys, Erdeswicks, Bowdons, and Butler-Bowdons," Chappell outlines the genealogical path by which the manuscript was passed down through the centuries by Catholic recusants, documenting the marriages that led from Everard Digby in 1538, to the late eighteenth century Henry Bowden who pasted his bookplates in the manuscript, to Col. William Butler-Bowdon who discovered it tucked into a ping pong cabinet beside a fireplace in 1934.

From there the manuscript moved to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it was placed into  the competent hands of the scholar Hope Emily Allen, who had the background to recognize what it was, "an incomparable record of ‘medieval pilgrim-routes [and] medieval social history [which] brings to life not only famous persons of the early fifteenth century, but also humble ones, at home and abroad’" (69). What I expected to be a triumphant end to the tale becomes the most ignoble part of The Book’s passage, a too-familiar battle in which an inexperienced but ambitious younger scholar (Sanford Brown Meech) chafes at the slow deliberation of his more experienced co-editor (Allen) and plays himself up to the Colonel, who is eager to gain credit for his family’s heroic preservation of such a find and easily joins in Meech’s impatience with Allen. In the end, Allen is pushed to the sidelines. It is an infuriating episode, but what good detective story has a happily ever after ending? 

Dr. Julie Chappell, Professor of English at Tarleton State University, has published scholarly texts, creative non-fiction, and poetry, and it is her ease in all three styles that makes Perilous Passages a pleasure to read. While thoroughly documenting each step of her research, she pays attention to pace and pauses for emphasis, summing up the pertinent details, inserting anecdotes about the more colorful characters whose lives were touched, sometimes unknowingly, by Margery Kempe’s Book.

That a manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe survived now seems just short of a miracle to me. I wonder what other marvels of medieval piety we have lost, or what gems still lie hidden behind paneling or tucked beneath the false bottom of a cupboard in some ancient pile, waiting to be discovered.

Candace Robb
Independent scholar; author of the Owen Archer Mystery novels and, writing as Emma Campion, The King's Mistress and the forthcoming A Triple Knot

[1] The Free Press, 1966. 

April 3, 2014

Sigu: Médiévisme et lumières, Véronique. Médiévisme et lumières: le Moyen Age dans la ‘Bibliothèque universelle des romans'. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, August 2013 (SVEC 2013:8).

Reviewed by Jessica Stacey, King’s College London (

That the Middle Ages were not highly regarded by eighteenth-century French society is widely known. This is the age of Voltaire writing of the dismal, barbaric birth of Europe, of gothique as a byword for confusion and ugliness, reaching its apogee in the neo-Classicist French Revolution. However, it is also in the eighteenth century that French medievalist scholarship is born with the work of antiquarian La Curne de Sainte-Palaye, who wrote memoirs on chivalry and troubadour poetry which made their way to Horace Walpole’s library at Strawberry Hill.[1] Alongside this serious scholarship, medievalist (or medievalish) short stories were rapidly gaining in popularity. Paperback collections, or bibliothèques, such as the populist Bibliothèque bleue made folk tales and characters dating back to medieval romance cheaply available to an expanding reading public. It is amidst these contrasting strains of thought that, in 1775, the first volume of a new project, the Bibliothèque universelle des romans, is published. The title page is graced by an ambitious mission statement to which Véronique Sigu frequently returns over the course of her new study, Médiévisme et Lumières: le Moyen Age dans la ‘Bibliothèque universelle des romans’, and it is worth quoting this key passage at the outset: ‘La Bibliothèque universelle des romans, ouvrage périodique dans lequel on donne l’analyse raisonnée des romans anciens et modernes, français ou traduits dans notre langue; avec des anecdotes et des notices historiques et critiques concernant les auteurs ou leurs ouvrages; ainsi que les mœurs, les usages du temps, les circonstances particulières et relatives, et les personnages connus, déguisés ou emblématiques.’[2]

The BUR is interested in the process of categorisation. This process was key to the formation of what Roger Chartier, in a well-known article which Sigu cites more than once, dubbed ‘libraries without walls’: encyclopaedic or exemplary collections of texts, in vogue since the seventeenth century.[3] As a universal library of novels, the BUR posits eight distinct classes according to which all novels can be ordered, and the second of the eight categories is romans de chevalerie.[4] It is on these extraits (extracts) or miniatures and their analyse raisonnée that Sigu focusses, also drawing occasionally on the third category of ‘historical’ novels, to elucidate her thesis on the role of the BUR in crafting a place for the medieval in both popular and intellectual thought.

The Bibliothèque universelle des romans has garnered criticism for its pretensions, which were lofty: the editors, working from the Marquis de Paulmy’s extensive collection of manuscripts and with the help of the antiquarian La Curne de Sainte-Palaye, aimed at a more sophisticated audience than the Bibliothèque bleue but, as Lise Andries has shown, BUR extracts were often based not on manuscripts but on the Bibliothèque bleue itself.[5] Sigu acknowledges this charge, but seeks to elevate the collection’s status for both medievalists and eighteenth-century specialists by emphasising both the project’s commitment to ‘serious’, manuscript-based medievalism (especially in its earlier years), as well as the close ties between those working on the project within philosophe as well as antiquarian circles. Sigu makes the philosophical stakes of her project clear in the introduction: as the philosophes often mocked erudition and erudite scholars were frequently hostile to the philosophes, the possibility of the BUR as a site of crossover renders the periodical interesting to those who focus on the history of ideas as well as to those who focus on the history of medieval reception. If accepted readings of intellectual currents in the eighteenth century see reason (philosophy) opposed to memory (erudition) in epistemology, and reason triumphant with far-reaching implications, Sigu seeks to establish the BUR as a location in which these opposed forces might, to some extent, be reconciled (15). Hence the work’s title, which unites rather than opposes médiévisme and lumières – medievalism and Enlightenment.

To elucidate this claim, Sigu begins her analysis with portraits of the two major personalities behind the BUR, the Marquis de Paulmy (who guided the publication from 1775 to 1778) and the Comte de Tressan (who took the reins after Paulmy’s somewhat acrimonious and mysterious departure). Sigu situates the two men in French intellectual life with reference to the salons they attended. We learn that both would have mixed extensively with Montesquieu and Voltaire at the salon of Madame Tencin, as well as attending the salon of Madame Doublet where the antiquarian La Curne de Sainte-Palaye made his intellectual base. She reveals the surprising fact that the two men were closely linked with the philosophe par excellence, Voltaire, who was invited to the editorial board and seemed, at the age of eighty, regretful of having to decline (17). Whilst acknowledging that there is a schism between the time of Paulmy and the time of Tressan – the loss of the former’s extensive library as a resource seems to have led to a more slapdash, less antiquarian approach – she argues that the Bibliothèque universelle des romans took two major ideological stances towards the Middle Ages, created under Paulmy’s reign and continued, even reinforced, under Tressan’s. These stances are, firstly, a particular ideology of fiction and history which seeks to rehabilitate the novel or romance through its historical content, and secondly, the creation of the medieval as a site from which ideal masculine models, both aristocratic and patriotic, can be drawn.

In arguing for a rehabilitation of romans through their historical content, Sigu is engaging with an anxiety foundational to eighteenth-century medievalism. Novels and romances become valuable for their faithful portrayal of the customs and morals of past times; the BUR was following La Curne de Sainte-Palaye who, in his Mémoires sur l’ancienne chevalerie (developed during the 1750s) had set out an extensive defence of using fictional texts to ground assertions about history and about actual medieval life. These same novels or romances were, however, considered potentially dangerous, and this is the crux of the BUR’s engagement with fiction – what are its safe uses and what, when making an extrait or miniature should be excluded, or even rewritten? a fascinating discussion of the implications of the term extrait, Sigu convincingly argues that we must take its origins in chemistry seriously. The BUR generally masked the more violent or sexual aspects of medieval texts, figured as dangerous, inflammatory, or simply poor-taste: medieval writing must be ‘distilled’ to recover only the useful or harmlessly diverting. Infamous anti-philosophe Fréron, reviewing the BUR in 1775, praised the process in intriguingly chemical language: ‘D’après ce que j’en ai vu, j’ose dire que tous ces ouvrages lus dans la Bibliothèque en question, non seulement n’ont plus rien de dangereux, mais qu’ils contiennent les plus grandes leçons de sagesse et d’excellents préservatifs contre les séductions du vice. Le poison secret qui pourrait s’y trouver renfermé reste dans le creuset de l’analyse, laquelle se borne à donner l’esprit et, pour me servir de l’expression même des auteurs, la miniature de chaque roman: miniature dans laquelle n’entrent que les traits propres à caractériser l’ouvrage, et d’où sont bannis toutes les images qui ne seraient pas avouées par la décence la plus rigoureuse.’ (quoted 120-121, my emphasis)[6] As Sigu notes, what is conserved is the fond historique (historical foundation), and what is left out is the imagination en délire (fevered imagination) of pre-modern writers.

The primary issue that can be taken with Sigu’s analysis of this process concerns how far it can be considered a rehabilitation of the novel/romance form. She qualifies that this rehabilitation is not wholehearted, comporting a moralising taint that the reader may find paradoxal, but the purification implied by this process of extraction – which results in something which no longer has the form of a novel or romance – may be more significant than Sigu allows. On the one hand, Tressan is happy to speak of the roman de chevalerie as valuable for having ‘point de modèle dans l’antiquité. Elle est dûe au génie des François ; & tout ce qui a paru, de ce genre, chez les autres Peuples de l’Europe, a été postérieur aux premiers Romans que la France a produits, & n’en a été, pour ainsi dire, qu’une imitation.’[7] On the other, content is pruned, and the form itself undergoes extensive modification to produce an easily digestible miniature.

Sigu’s second major argument revolves around the changing ideological function of the Middle Ages in France towards the end of the eighteenth century. She identifies two primary deployments of a medieval ideal in the Bibliothèque universelle des romans, roughly splitting between Paulmy’s and Tressan’s directorships but present throughout the publication’s history. The first is the chevalier as critique of and model for the modern aristocrat, and the second is medieval France as the birthplace of the modern French nation. Concurrent to the textual and narrative harmonisation practised by the editors, there thus runs a harmonisation of power dynamics between rulers and their vassals, which tends to recast kings as absolute monarchs and knights as absolutely loyal – not through a sense of feudal obligation, but through an anachronistic nationalism (228). She quotes Tressan who, blending aristocracy and national progression, figured chevalerie as a civilising aristocratic force pushing society forward (139). Of course, not all knightly characteristics fit this assessment. In a century which had forbidden duelling, the central role of single combat was downplayed (147), whilst the religious attitudes of the knights, uncomfortably close to superstition and fanaticism for eighteenth-century thinkers, were also modified or skipped over, even when the Grail Quest is at issue.

Rehabilitators of the medieval past are interested in grounding French national character, and particularly their gallantry in love, in the Middle Ages, but most (aside from the notable exceptions of Boulainvilliers and his followers) seek to divert attention from medieval political organisation. In common with other eighteenth-century retellings of medieval tales (Baculard d’Arnaud’s Nouvelles historiques, for example), the BUR expands (or even fabricates) a principal role for individual sentiment, and elides the troubling non-individuation of the medieval hero/heroine (‘son étrangéité’, 177) and the primarily social function of courtly love. Furthermore, love of the eighteenth-century kind is used to mask medieval political concerns: Blanchefleur’s feudal war in Chrétien de Troye’s Conte du Graal is rewritten with the damsel besieged by a spurned suitor (169). Sigu also demonstrates that greater emphasis was placed, throughout the BUR’s treatment of the medieval past, on conjugal rather than extramarital love, and convincingly argues for a sexist undercurrent restricting female agency (notably, 176 on Guinevere and Lancelot in Le Chevalier de la charrette).

A minor criticism, but one pertinent to medievalists, is that Sigu’s medieval secondary references are rather venerable, whereas her eighteenth-century secondary sources are much more up-to-date. This may, of course, be because she deals with well-established medieval texts, whilst the study of eighteenth-century medievalism is in the process of blossoming. This imbalance has no particular negative impact on the investigation, but it might have been interesting to reference more recent work by, for example, Carolyn Dinshaw on nineteenth-century amateur medievalism. However, this is not to say that her work does not engage with problems of contemporary relevance to medievalists for, by situating the BUR’s extract of The Perilous Cemetery in relation to the periodical’s editorial technique more generally, she draws conclusions important to the manuscript tradition of the medieval text. In contrast to the text’s editor Nancy Black, who judges from the great disparities between the BUR version and the extant manuscripts that a lost manuscript must have been known in the eighteenth century, Sigu demonstrates that the variations from extant manuscripts to the BUR version are no greater than those extracts for which the source manuscript is known for certain, refuting the lost-manuscript theory (discussed 147-151). Another moment which will bring a smile to the faces of medievalists is when she cautions her readers with one of the fundamental elements of engagement with medieval literary tradition, but applied to the BUR: ‘évitons [...] de juger trop sévèrement le manque de fidélité de la reécriture à l’original mediéval, nous imposerions des critères tout à fait anachroniques à ces travaux d’adaptation’[8] (254). A medievalist Enlightenment indeed.

Sigu has undertaken a formidable amount of research, supporting her analysis of the ideological agenda of the BUR by citing reviews from many contemporary journaux which back up her assertions, suggesting a widespread engagement with, and appetite for, the brand of medievalism the BUR was selling. Her critical engagement with the implications of the metaphor of chemical extraction is, overall, highly compelling. Her extended analysis of the technique consistent throughout the BUR’s publication (no matter who held the reins) of distilling ‘unwieldy’ or ‘barbaric’ medieval texts down to a particular conception of their essence, and then adding a great deal of moral or historical commentary to produce a more coherent image of chivalry, builds a convincing picture of a publication seeking to enhance the chevalier for eighteenth-century reappropriation – though this by, ultimately, denigrating medieval literary production. In identifying a move, as the publication evolves, from the medieval figured as a place from which to criticise modernity to the medieval as modernity’s origin point (244), Sigu situates the Bibliothèque universelle des romans at the heart of the current revaluation of what medievalism meant to the Enlightenment.

Jessica Stacey

King’s College London

[1] Mémoires sur l’ancienne chevalerie; Considerée comme un établissement politique et militaire. 3 vols. (Paris: Chez Duchesne, 1759).
Histoire littéraire des troubadours, (Paris: Chez Durand, 1774) (Horace Walpole’s annotated copy held at the British Library, class-mark 1464 d.1).
[2] The Bibliothèque universelle des romans: periodical giving a reasoned analysis of novels ancient and modern, French or in translation, including anecdotes and historical and critical annotations regarding authors and texts, as well as the morals and customs of the past, particular and related circumstances, and known, disguised or symbolic characters.
[3] Chartier, Roger, ‘Libraries Without Walls’ in Representations, No. 42, Special Issue: Future Libraries (Spring, 1993), 38-52.
[4] As Sigu notes on 197, the term ‘roman’ (novel) as used by the BUR includes many forms not covered by modern usages – medieval romances, contes, even poetic retellings of history.
[5] Andries, Lise, ‘La Bibliothèque bleue et la redécouverte des romans de chevalerie au dix-huitième siècle’, in Medievalism and manière gothique in Enlightenment France, Damian-Grint, Peter (ed.), (Oxford: SVEC, 2006) 52-67.
[6] ‘From what I have so far seen, I dare say that all the works in this Bibliothèque not only no longer contain dangerous material, but that highly edifying lessons and effective defences against the seductions of vice are to be found therein. The secret poison which could have been hidden within is left behind in the crucible of the analysis, which restricts itself to portraying the spirit or, to use the favourite term of the authors, the miniature of each novel: miniature into which are admitted only those traits necessary to convey the character of the work, and from which are banished any images which the most rigorous modesty would scruple to avow.’
[7] ‘no model whatsoever in Antiquity. It was a French invention, and all other works of this genre which appeared in Europe were posterior to those first novels/romances produced by the French, and were thus imitations of them.’ Tressan, le Comte de, ‘Discours préliminaire’, in Corps d’extraits de romans de chevalerie, (Paris: Pissot, 1782)
[8] ‘let us avoid judging the lack of fidelity to the medieval original in the retelling too harshly, for this would be to impose utterly anachronistic criteria upon these adaptations.’

March 24, 2014

Dictionnaire Tolkien, ed. Ferré

Dictionnaire Tolkien. Ed. Vincent Ferré. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2012.

Reviewed by Anna Smol (

J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction is read around the world, having been translated into dozens of languages, from Vietnamese and Korean to Slovak and Catalan to French, German, and Italian.1  Critics have commented on Tolkien’s work throughout the late twentieth century, but the last fifteen years have seen a surge in the scholarly attention paid to it. Anglophone scholars have organized numerous academic conferences, produced a steady stream of new books and articles by university presses or specialist publishers such as Walking Tree, and established peer-reviewed journals such as Tolkien Studies and, most recently, The Journal of Tolkien Research. The francophone world has also witnessed an increase in activity since the turn of this century, with print and online sources being produced and conferences and conventions organized to discuss Tolkien’s work. The Dictionnaire Tolkien makes a significant contribution to this growing body of scholarship, providing French general readers, students, and academics information about Tolkien’s œuvre as well as summarizing current research and laying a foundation for further investigations.

The editor of the Dictionnaire, Vincent Ferré, is a leading French Tolkien scholar who works in the field of medievalism and twentieth-century literature. He has assembled over sixty contributors from diverse fields such as comparative literature, history, medieval literature, philosophy, English literature, film studies, including independent scholars as well. Although you will find a few from places such as Québec, Germany, and Spain, most are from France; all represent a healthy cadre of scholars engaged in Tolkien studies in French.

Of course, the reception of Tolkien’s work in French has been affected by the pace and availability of translations. The Hobbit, published in English in 1937, was translated into French in 1969. The Lord of the Rings, published in English in 1954-55, was first translated into French in the year of Tolkien’s death (1972-73) but the Appendices, which contain a wealth of background information, were only translated in 1986.Various translations of Tolkien’s other works have followed, such as Tolkien’s letters in 2005 and in 2006 the important essays in Les Monstres et les critiques et autres essais (The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays). Most recently, the lag time between first publication and translation has narrowed considerably with Les Enfants de Húrin (The Children of Húrin) in 2008 and La Légende de Sigurd et Gudrún (The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún) in 2010, both appearing in French only one year after their first English publication. The most recent posthumous publication, La Chute d’Arthur (The Fall of Arthur) appeared in translation only a few months after the English version in 2013.3 Certain texts, however, are still unavailable in French, such as the last seven volumes of The History of Middle-earth, a twelve-volume series published in 1983-96 by Tolkien’s son Christopher, who compiled this record of his father’s early stories, manuscript drafts, and previously unpublished essays. In this context, the Dictionnaire comes at a particularly important time for an expanding French readership who want to know more and for researchers who are looking for useful references, whether in French or English, to guide them in their work.

The Dictionnaire includes concise entries covering elements of Tolkien’s fiction, his work as a professional medievalist, his life and family, the reception and adaptation of his work, and critical approaches to and areas of investigation into his work. I was especially interested in seeing what might be the distinctive emphases and/or strengths in a book representing a French perspective on Tolkien.

An excellent section of the book for students and researchers, whether working in English or French, is the series on various “Lectures” (readings) of Tolkien’s work, presenting an overview of different scholarly approaches with references to major critical texts. The series begins with a survey of approaches to The Lord of the Rings from 1954-1974, touching on major English critics and early allegorical, psychoanalytical, political, and literary readings. Following this introduction to early Tolkien studies, the series continues with Christian, eco-critical, feminist and gender studies, political, and psychoanalytical readings. Each entry offers a concise and balanced overview of major scholarly works exemplifying its particular approach.

In “Lectures chrétiennes de l’œuvre” (Christian readings of the work) you will find French critics considered together with English ones, so that, for example, Grégory Solari and Joseph Pearce are discussed alongside each other in their views on how Tolkien’s faith  renders  The Lord of the Rings a thoroughly moral and religious text for Christian readers, while Michaël Devaux and Verlyn Flieger represent critics with literary concerns who refer to Christian tradition as a way of illuminating some aspects of the text. In various spots throughout the “Lectures” section of the Dictionnaire, we are also introduced to other French critics, and the list only grows as you dip into the book elsewhere or check out the bibliography at the back: you might find, for example, Isabelle Pantin, Vincent Ferré, Didier Rance, Charles Ridoux, Anne Besson, Annie Birks.  In the essay on Celtic legends (“Celtiques, légendes”), I was introduced to the expertise of Aurélie Brémont whose doctoral thesis on the Celts in Middle-earth at the University of Paris - Sorbonne is, I presume, the foundation for this entry which distinguishes between what is likely and not so likely in Celtic legends to have influenced Tolkien’s conception of the Elvish world. Brémont argues that in elements such as Elvish languages, the marriage of a magical being with a mortal (as in Lúthien and Beren), and other mythological and literary traditions all represent a pervasive Celtic influence.

The presence of French critics in the entry on Christian readings is perhaps one indication of a focus on philosophical and theological issues in French Tolkien studies, and further examination suggests a political emphasis as well. As someone who works in English, I inevitably have a similar reference book, the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment4 in the back of my mind as a point of comparison, and I find it notable that the Encyclopedia does not have similar essays as the Dictionnaire on, for example, “Grâce” (grace), “Don” (gift), “Échec” (failure/ defeat), “Le Sacré dans Le Seigneur des Anneaux” (the sacred in The Lord of the Rings)  “Économie en Terre du Milieu” (economics/the economy in Middle-earth),“Conservatisme: Tolkien était-il conservateur?” (conservatism: was Tolkien a conservative?), and “Amour” (love). Of course, such topics can enter into discussions of Tolkien’s work in any language, but their appearance as separate essays in the Dictionnaire lends them prominence in the context of French studies of Tolkien.

Other entries that you will find in the Dictionnaire but not in its English counterpart include “Amour courtois, courtoisie” (courtly love, courtesy). Given the origins of the concept of fin’ amors in French literature, it is perhaps to be expected that surveys of Tolkien’s medieval influences would include such an entry, which provides a brief history of the concept and suggests a few ways in which it is applicable to Tolkien’s work.    

Also, it should not be surprising to find among the biographical entries one for Adam Tolkien, Tolkien’s grandson and son of Christopher, who moved his family to France in the 1970s.  Adam is the translator of the two volumes of The Book of Lost Tales (Le Livre des contes perdus) as well as Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien, translated as Peintures et aquarelles de J.R.R. Tolkien (paintings and watercolours by J.R.R. Tolkien). He works actively with his father Christopher for the Tolkien Estate, encouraging the publication of further translations.  

Sometimes, though, a unique topic may surprise and delight, such as the entry on “Vȇtements” (clothing), which considers the significance of characters both clothed and naked; for example, the decision of the Valar to clothe themselves in human forms, the naked women who run through Túrin’s story, the dwarf hoods in The Hobbit, Tom Bombadil’s distinct look, and many other examples, including the cloak Faramir offers to Éowyn.  In other words, when seen in aggregate, these examples appear far more significant and plentiful than one might have at first assumed. The entry is a reminder of the strength of French independent scholars such as the writer of this entry, Tolkien book collector Yvan Strelzyk, whose website is one of several informative French websites and discussion forums dedicated to Tolkien. Just as in the anglophone world, Tolkien study in French, it appears, is not the sole domain of professional scholars.

It is impossible in the confines of a short review to cover every entry or to comment on every contributor in the Dictionnaire, and readers will most likely find their way to articles that have a specific interest for them. For example, in reading “Parodies,” I discovered not only that the English classic Bored of the Rings has been translated into French as Lord of the ringards, but also that other parodies probably unknown to English audiences also exist online. I was also eager to read the entry on “Fans” and was happy to find an account not only of Tolkien’s interactions with fans in his letters but also a brief history of fandom, especially the establishment of societies and fanzines in the United States and then elsewhere. What disappointed me with this entry, however, was the lack of a bibliography – somewhat surprising given that so many other pieces had a list of sources for further reading.  The essay on feminist and gender studies readings did refer to a complementary online bibliography at, but that site’s “Bibliographie sur Tolkien and la fantasy” (bibliography on Tolkien and fantasy) was unavailable at the time I was writing this review – which is unfortunate, as I was curious about whether it would include any references to work on masculinity or queer sexuality, a topic that is not dealt with under the gender studies entry, which otherwise did provide a concise outline of important essays on women, feminism, and female characters in Tolkien’s work.  However, a general bibliography of primary and secondary sources is included at the back of the book, so the references are not limited to an online source or to those listed at the end of many entries.

The Dictionnaire Tolkien is handsomely produced by CNRS Éditions. The headings and subheadings make it easy to search, as do the separate indexes of Secondary World names, characters, objects, and things and Primary World names and titles. The list of contributors and list of topics along with a bibliography and a biographical outline further render the content easily accessible to readers. And there are also a few helpful visual guides, such as the family tree of languages in “Elfiques, Langues” (Elvish, languages), or the table in “Les Aventures de Tom Bombadil” (The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) which outlines the complicated history of publications and revisions of the poems in that volume.

The Dictionnaire Tolkien is a crucial publication for francophone readers and scholars, providing reliable information about Tolkien’s works, surveying current scholarship, and suggesting approaches for future research. The study of Tolkien in French appears to be growing rapidly. Perhaps we shall soon see the tide shift, and instead of English works being translated into French, the work of our francophone colleagues will be translated into English so that a broader audience can participate in the worldwide interest in Tolkien studies.

Anna Smol
Mount Saint Vincent University

1 A chronology of translations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can be found on at
2 Ferré, Vincent. “La réception de J.R.R. Tolkien en France, 1973-2003: quelques repères.”  Tolkien: Trente ans après. Ed. V. Ferré.  Paris: Christian Bourgois, 2004. 17-35. Available from
3 A list of these and other translations can be found on the website of Tolkien’s French publisher, Christian Bourgois Éditeur, at The Dictionnaire also includes a bibliography of Tolkien’s works.
4 Michael D.C. Drout’s edition of the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, published by Routledge in 2007, is probably the closest publication in English to the Dictionnaire Tolkien, providing brief entries arranged alphabetically on many topics relating to Tolkien’s life and work. Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s two-volume reference work, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2006, is a valuable encyclopedic work, but its entries consist of much longer essays, with an emphasis on biographical and bibliographical matters.