Jane Chance, The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power (University Press of Kentucky, 2001)
Jane Chance, Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England (University Press of Kentucky, 2001)
It's interesting how some authors always hit the nail on the head (so to speak) and some authors can't help but miss their mark every time. Most, however, fall somewhere in between, writing both good works and bad. These two books by Jane Chance show the author firmly entrenched in the latter camp: one of the books is an excellent study, the other is forgettable (and I pray I can forget it soon).
Both books are reprints by the University Press of Kentucky of previous Tolkien Studies. The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power is revised from Chance's previous book of the same title, which was a part of the Twayne Masterworks Studies series. The structuring of the chapters has been altered slightly to reveal a more coherent thesis throughout the book (the Twayne edition read like a collection of only marginally related essays), and some of the sections have been rewritten to reflect recent scholarship. Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England is also a revised edition, but aside from the incorporation of more recent scholarship, I didn't find many changes from the original edition.
It is comforting to see Tolkien's Art back in print, making it available to a new generation of people wanting to read about Tolkien's skill and craftsmanship, but it's a true shame that, even with its revisions, The Mythology of Power was reprinted.
Jane Chance's main thesis for The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power is that The Lord of the Rings is a book mainly about giving a voice to the dispossessed and the powerless. There is a strong argument for such a statement, but it is not to be found in this book. Rather, what we are treated to is a politically correct, bordering on postmodern, analysis of Tolkien's masterpiece. In Chance's view, the dispossessed are given voice via political avenues. Central to this view, however, is a definition of "political" that is never provided. The reader is left scratching his head, trying to figure out what exactly Chance means by "political." For example, in her discussion of the birthday party in the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, Chance states that "[t]he party also thus symbolizes Bilbo's enduring political concern" (30). She does not, however, really state how Bilbo's concern for others is what would traditionally be considered political. Indeed, there is no polis, no city-state involved in Bilbo's actions, so one is left to assume that for Chance political may mean "social actions that involve the usage of power." Indeed, this is borne out by her lengthy and often contrived comparison of Tolkien with postmodern theorist Michel Foucault. Foucault saw all actions as political in nature, but he defined political exactly how Chance does: if one person has power, then it is political. The problem with this theory, however, is that it proves too much. With such a viewpoint everything becomes political, and thus nothing is political. Chance, however, assumes Foucault's assumptions and runs with them. The result is a book that drips with postmodern assumptions. And if there's one thing that scholars are starting to learn, it is that many postmodern theories are examples of the Emperor's New Clothes.
One such example is where Chance is discussing Frodo's anti-quest to destroy the One Ring. She writes that the Ring "must return to its 'mother' source [i.e., the Cracks of Doom] rather than its father creator, Sauron" (32). Are we meant to take such a statement seriously? It is drowning in sophomoric analysis, and yet Chance gives no hint that she is being ironic.
Perhaps even more offensive to the text of The Lord of the Rings is Chance's assertion that the book is really about sharing power across people groups. Like with most of her assertions, there is a kernel of truth in what she is putting forth, but not enough to make it an actual theme of a book-length study. "Power, so Tolkien insists, must be shared with those individuals and peoples who are different, in gender, nature, history, and temperament" (62). Gender? If there's one criticism of The Lord of the Rings that has validity, it is that the book is too male-centered. There are only three main female characters Eowyn, Arwen, and Galadriel with a few tangential female characters Goldberry, Sam's Rosie, and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Arwen is almost a tangential character, leaving us with just Eowyn and Galadriel. Yes, these are both strong women, both of whom assert themselves in ways that are not the norm for their cultures, but can one draw from two characters among a cast of (literally) thousands that Tolkien is concerned with equality across gender?
The racial statement is almost as ludicrous, for lurking behind it is an assumption of equality of kind as well as position. The latter is definitely there in the text, but not the former. Yet Chance leaps from the one to embrace the other.
If you're looking for a good book to read concerning Tolkien, I recommend instead Chance's other book, Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England. It dispenses with silly trendy theory and instead looks at the how and the why of the writing of The Lord of the Rings and comes to a conclusion that is startlingly accurate: this is literary scholarship at its best.
Tolkien's Art was originally written in 1979 when a lot of Tolkien's papers had yet to be published and made available to even the scholarly community. Using just the text of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion, Chance came to the conclusion that what Tolkien was attempting in Middle-earth was to create a mythology for England, constructing it along the lines that, as a philologist, he knew other great mythologies had come to be. How surprising, then, that with the publication of Tolkien's letters, we find letter 131 stating that very premise! Furthermore, Tolkien scholar Thomas Shippey in a separate work The Road to Middle-earth came to very similar conclusions a few years after Chance.
This new edition, as I stated above, has been updated mostly to remove outdated ideas (oh, that she'd done the same for The Mythology of Power) and to incorporate new scholarship that has transpired in the more than twenty years since initial publication.
So different is Tolkien's Art from The Mythology of Power: the latter is almost impossible to read, while the former is incredibly accessible, even to the 'lay' reader who is not steeped in scholarly language and conventions. While I would still recommend Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth as the study in this area, Chance's book is a close second place. In some ways, Chance's book is even better, in that its structure makes her argument easier to follow than Shippey's. Chance has divided her study along thematic/textual lines, dividing Tolkien's opus into broad categories, and in each chapter breaking apart those works and showing how Tolkien created a new mythology for England. Chance's categories are Tolkien's lectures, prefaces, and forwards (i.e., his non-narrative writing); Tolkien's children's story (i.e., The Hobbit); Tolkien's fairy-stories; Tolkien's medieval parodies; Tolkien's epic (i.e., The Lord of the Rings); and Tolkien's lost tales (i.e., The Silmarillion). By dividing the opus this way, Chance creates a strong case not just for Tolkien's all-encompassing vision, but also for how he managed to execute that vision. True, the works weren't published consciously in the order that Chance discusses them, but by imposing her structure upon them, Chance is able to reveal the genius behind Tolkien's life work.
So effective is Tolkien's Art that I am left wondering how it could have been written by the same scholar who wrote The Mythology of Power. It's a shame that these have both been brought back into print together and in similar packaging because I'm sure there will be Tolkien fans who will buy them both and either read The Mythology of Power first and not continue on to Tolkien's Art or who will read them in reverse order and still feel they've been cheated out of some money.
[Matthew Scott Winslow]