Thursday, 4 April 2019

Why is Paul Kocher's Master of Middle Earth (from 1972) 'still' one of the best books about Tolkien's work?

Paul Kocher's Master of Middle Earth is one of the handful of very best works of Tolkien scholarship - 'yet' it is by far the earliest; published in 1972 during Tolkien's life, and before The Silmarillion (1977), before the biography, letters, chronology and the many posthumous volumes edited by Christopher Tolkien.

This is an interesting fact; because it demonstrates something of the nature of genuinely great literary criticism. It clearly shows that the limiting factor on the quality of literary criticism is the person writing it - his ability and motivations. This turns out to be more important than the person's access to 'material'; and it explains why the 'age of the internet' and a massive increase in the accessibility of information has done Nothing Whatsoever to expand the quantity of high-quality literary scholarship.

From the evidence of this book (I have not yet read any of his other writings) Kocher was clearly an exceptional man - intelligent, thoughtful, and deep. Furthermore, he writes from a shared Christian perspective, he shares Tolkien's assumptions more fully - I think - than any other of the major Tolkien scholars and critics. 

Master of Middle Earth has a density of insights that is outstanding, yet unobtrusive, elegant. He seems never to be merely summarising, there is nothing perfunctory - nothing for the sake of appearances. Everything said seems to have a reason and importance. Thus a slim paperback of 200 pages manages to cover a great deal of ground.

And like all the best critical writing, it is worth reading for its own sake. The chapter on Cosmic Order is one of the best discussions of providence and free will that I have seen anywhere; and indirectly a clarification of the deep and fatal flaw of our modern materialist society that rejects creation and tries (but fails) to live coherently in an accidental and purposeless universe. The chapter on Aragorn has all kinds of wisdom about the nature of goodness, heroism and authority - as well as being a wonderful account of the character and his development.

This book was written immediately after Kocher retired from a distinguished academic career, mostly at Stanford; and seems to have been written for pure love, and from a very personal engagement.

Freed from working responsibilities; he is unselfconscious about ignoring literary convention and consensus. So that Kocher greatly admires Tolkien the poet; and attends closely to his three longer, free-standing works - Imran, the Homecoming of Boerhtnoth..., and the Lay of Aotrou and Itroun (still hardly known). And on the other hand, he doesn't much like The Hobbit; and is mostly critical of its faults - deploring the way that it gets linked with the Lord of the Rings.

The permanent value of Kocher's book reminded me why the very best of old scholarship, biography and criticism - Samuel Johnson or ST Coleridge on Shakespeare, for instance - is never superseded by the most recent and comprehensive work.

The older writers are, nearly always, wiser, more intelligent, and better motivated - and write for the amateur enthusiast with general interests. Whereas the moderns are nearly-all lesser individuals; writing for professional advancement; seeking to impress appointment and promotions committees; and wanting approval from the peer review cartels that award prizes and honours. 


Wurmbrand said...

"...peer review cartels" -- I like that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W It is a concept I developed when trying to understand how science became converted to a bureaucracy.

Wurmbrand said...

I hope we'll see more posts here about articles, books, blog entries, etc. that could refresh us who want to learn from the Inklings -- though of course having their own writings is a great boon indeed.

Let me recommend one, S. L. Bethell's Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition, which one might, not entirely seriously, describe as a book on Shakespeare that C. S. Lewis might have written if he had written a book on Shakespeare. It might also remind readers acquainted with Owen Barfield's thought of that author's perception, as when Bethell writes about the "multi-consciousness" of the Elizabethan-Jacobean audience member.

Steve said...

Oh, you are THAT Bruce Charlton. As I read the last paragraph, I was thinking, "I just read a book which made much the same point."

I thoroughly enjoyed "Real Science", and read aloud some of the dry wit to my wife, who also appreciated it. Thank you.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Steve - Yes indeed, I am he. Everything is connected... Perhaps it was 'peer review cartels' that you recognised, since I invented that phrase for the Not Even Trying book.