Review: The Proverbs of Middle-Earth

I’m a Tolkien fan. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings every year for at least the last ten years, and probably longer than that. I know the books more or less inside out. For better or worse, they have shaped me as a reader, as a thinker and as a person.

It’s precisely for this reason that I very rarely read criticism of Tolkien’s work*, and I never write it. When you know a text that well, it’s impossible to get any sort of critical distance from it. What efforts I have made to say something meaningful and insightful about the books have turned out shallow and insubstantial; I think there’s a tendency as a reader to mistake personal gnosis about a beloved text for objective critical insight.

I mention this because, in my view, this fannish lack of critical rigour is exactly what afflicts David Rowe’s study The Proverbs of Middle-Earth. Rowe’s stated intention is to interrogate the different cultures of Middle-earth, and the individual members of those cultures that we meet in the texts, through the proverbs that they use. This isn’t inherently an unsound proposition, although I can think of more interesting approaches (for instance, considering how proverbial utterances represent assertions of power in the text – I’m thinking of passages like Gimli and Elrond’s proverbial exchange on the subject of whether the Fellowship should be required to take oaths of loyalty in The Fellowship of the Ring). But it’s one that’s very open to the sort of Watsonian textual interpretation that I see a lot in fandom, and that I personally find very frustrating for the way it elides the role of the author: discussing elements of a secondary world as if they were real, without reference to wider cultural factors or artistic goals that might have influenced how they were written. So, in his chapter on Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, Rowe concludes that “Instead of profound counsel to navigate the vagaries of existence, the subjects with which Bombadil and Goldberry’s wisdom concerns itself are the simple things of their simple lives…Courage, war, justice, death, and the wider world are off the radar.” This isn’t an incorrect assertion (although I’d argue that you don’t need to spend seven pages talking about Bombadil and Goldberry’s use of proverbs to get to it). But any sort of critical development is missing. How is the pair’s simple life important to the text? How does it relate to Tolkien’s conception of the relationship between humanity and nature? Could Thorin’s comment in The Hobbit about valuing “food and cheer and song above hoarded gold” shed any light here? Who knows? Not David Rowe, it seems. This is the case in every chapter: Rowe will come to some fairly obvious conclusion about the culture he’s describing and fail utterly to interrogate the significance of that conclusion within the text and within Tolkien’s corpus as a whole.

There are points, too, when Rowe veers from Watsonian exegesis into wholesale fabrication, as when in his chapter on Hobbits he posits that “three intermingling streams can be identified within the wisdom culture of the Shire-folk”. These three streams, he claims, correspond to the three different classes of Shire society: Rustics, Gentlehobbits and Travellers (the latter a class made up exclusively, apparently, of Frodo, Bilbo, Sam, Pippin and Merry). But the text, I’d argue, doesn’t support these neat divisions; certainly not in so clear-cut a way as Rowe’s confident laying-out of these classes might suggest. They’re presented as divisions that exist unambiguously within the world of the novel, rather than as interpretive tools. This may seem like a semantic difference, but to me it’s symptomatic of the lack of rigour Rowe displays throughout the book.

This lack of rigour is also evident in Rowe’s failure to stick to a useful definition of what counts as a proverb within the texts. Early on, he cites eminent paremiologist Professor Wolfgang Mieder in defining a proverb as “a concise statement of an apparent truth that has had, has, or will have currency among the people.” It’s the “currency among the people” part that Rowe struggles with: while there are a number of sayings in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that are clearly marked as proverbs, explicitly or implicitly, there are plenty of other aphoristic pieces of dialogue that might be Middle-Earth proverbs, except that we have no textual evidence either way. Sprawling as Tolkien’s worldbuilding was, in many cases we simply don’t have enough access to each Middle-Earth culture to know whether a phrase has “currency among the people” or not. But instead of restricting himself to aphorisms that are obviously proverbial in-universe – which would, I think, actually have made the book more focused and thus more insightful – he broadens his scope to include practically every phrase that sounds even vaguely profound. Is Aragorn’s “It is perilous to cut bough or twig from a living tree in Fangorn” a proverb? Clearly not. It’s just dialogue. It maybe looks like a bit like a proverb from our perspective because of Tolkien’s archaic diction and sentence structure, but there’s nothing to suggest that lots of people actually say this on a regular basis in-universe. Or what about Gandalf’s “There is nothing Sauron cannot turn to evil uses”? Again, not so much a proverb as a statement of fact, a truism. Thus at times The Proverbs of Middle-Earth begins to feel like an investigation not of Tolkien’s proverbs but of his dialogue; and not a very interesting one either.

In David Rowe’s Introduction to his book, he speaks tellingly of the proverbs of Middle-earth as key components of Tolkien’s worldbuilding:

They…constitute one of the most widely-occurring streams of credibility-building detail in Tolkien’s work, meaning that studying them is one of the best ways in which…Tolkien’s convincing, satisfying world [can be] enjoyed.

That Rowe’s key justification for studying Tolkien’s proverbs is in order to enjoy the novels more – rather than to examine Tolkien’s prose style, or the Old English oral storytelling traditions his work often harks back to, for instance – goes right to the heart of the amateur enthusiasm that powers The Proverbs of Middle-Earth. The book is clearly a labour of love in the truest sense – but I can’t see it granting new insights to anyone who already knows The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings inside out.

*I’m not, here, talking about work that exposes Tolkien’s racism and sexism: as with any author, I think it’s vital to acknowledge and grapple with the more problematic aspects of his writing.

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