Regular readers here are already aware that I’m a man of many prejudices, so it won’t surprise you to know that I approached Marjorie Burns’ Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth with suspicion. I fully expect any book written by a female academic to be tailored for the Women’s Studies Department—full of anger at men and contempt for the Christian religion.
So I’m delighted to report that this book, written by a female English professor at Portland State University, was a very pleasant surprise in almost every way.
Burns notes that many scholars have traced the Norse and Anglo-Saxon themes in The Lord of the Rings. But she is convinced that Tolkien also drew (less openly, because of the fashions of his day) on Celtic myth and folklore as well. She examines all of Tolkien’s fantastic works (not only The Hobbit and the Trilogy, but the Silmarillion and the later gathered works) and points out (quite convincingly, it seems to me as a non-expert) Celtic parallels that may be nearly as important as the Norse. (Tolkien, she explains, loved Wales but did not care for Ireland. Also, there was a general opinion that Celtic matters were in some sense effeminate, lacking the practicality and fatalism of the Viking world-view. [Reviewer’s note: When you think of it, Tolkien and Lewis were an odd pair of friends—a Catholic Englishman and a Protestant Irishman.])
Gender issues are certainly in Burns’ mind as she examines the accusation that Tolkien’s work, with its vast majority of active males and small minority of (generally) passive females, is a mark of misogyny. But she stands up for him in what I’d call a courageous way. For one thing, she thinks that Tolkien (based on the prejudice mentioned above) had the Celts in mind, and therefore a sort of vital femininity, in his portrayal of the Elves. She also makes much of the manner in which males frequently assume traditionally feminine roles in the books—cooking, nurturing, housekeeping, nursing, etc.
She also spends much time refuting the accusation that Tolkien’s characters are cardboard, either all good or all evil. She not only points to the weaknesses, frailties and near runs with temptation that the good characters display. She also notes the way Tolkien “doubles” his characters—each good character being matched with an evil one. Thus, while Gandalf clearly embodies many of the more positive characteristics of the Norse god Odin, Sauron (who, like Odin, has one eye) displays the god’s wicked traits.
Burns ends the book with a short chapter outlining three questions about the books, and giving her own answers. These answers are blessedly free of radical feminism or condescension towards Tolkien’s Christian faith. In fact, she seems to appreciate the significance of the doctrine of the Incarnation.
So I enjoyed the book very much, and recommend it.