Dictionnaire Tolkien. Ed. Vincent Ferré. Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2012.
Reviewed by Anna Smol (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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 1986.2 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 http://elrondslibrary.fr/ 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 www.pourtolkien.fr, 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.
Mount Saint Vincent University
Mount Saint Vincent University
1 A chronology of translations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can be found on elrondslibrary.fr at http://www.elrondslibrary.fr/Chrono_GB.html.
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 http://vincentferre.org/?q=node/7.
3 A list of these and other translations can be found on the website of Tolkien’s French publisher, Christian Bourgois Éditeur, at http://www.christianbourgois-editeur.com/tolkien.php. 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.