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Studies in French on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien

A survey of the first fifty years of French scholarship and studies on J.R.R. Tolkien, following the publication of The Lord of the Rings in 1954 up to 2004, with a postscript on some works published in the last decade.

Since the translation of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography in 1980, about thirty books have been published in French concerning the English author, more than three quarters of which came out after 2001. As was to be expected, the first among these were translated from English – works by Carpenter, Kocher, and Hammond & Scull; and it was not before the end of the 1990s that similar studies came to appear in the French language.

We may ask ourselves whether it is useful to read about Tolkien, when there is already so much to read by Tolkien. But we might also consider his correspondence (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981; 2005 for the French edition) to be the best possible introduction to the man and his works. The aim of the present article, however, is to help readers who are discovering J.R.R. Tolkien, or seeking to familiarize themselves with the various works dedicated to his writings, to distinguish between general texts of introduction or presentation, and others of greater specialization, either focusing on particular aspects of their subject, or adopting a more academic perspective and discourse. We will not review all existing publications; a selection of works has been made, and those retained are presented in chronological order, in each of the two categories.

It is worth noting that this article makes no mention of critical studies originally published in the English language, except those that are available in French. For a presentation of English language critical studies, see the article by David Bratman.

Discovering Tolkien

First of all, let us mention Humphrey Carpenter’s seminal Biography (1980), recently republished in a revised and enlarged French edition: although the work of an author is not to be explained away by any sort of biography, Carpenter’s book contains a large number of quotations drawn from Tolkien’s letters and diaries which serve as a commentary on his works of fiction; it also emphasizes the slow genesis of his texts, especially The Lord of the Rings, and those presented in The History of Middle-earth. It is fortunate that, of all biographies that were published in English, it was this one and not another that was made available to the French public: extremely factual (wherein lies its virtue and its limits), it informs the reader without really imposing an image of the author.

The beginning of the 1980s also saw the translation of Paul Kocher’s book, Master of Middle-earth: the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981 for the French edition). Now out of print, and little-known among contemporary readers, this book had the virtue of dealing with the text itself – at a time when Tolkien was already becoming the subject of biographical or controversial analysis –, of debunking a number of tenacious clichés (regarding Tolkien’s allegedly simplistic, ‘good against evil’ mentality, for example), of propounding fine if sometimes cursory analysis of such central themes as the question of free will, of evil and the figure of Sauron, or Aragorn and heroism. Moreover, it did not simply examine The Lord of the Rings, but also The Hobbit (in structure, modes of address to the children, possible double-readings by adults, likenesses and differences with its ‘sequel’) and seven other texts in the original version – but not in the French translation: none of the stories Leaf, by Niggle, Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham (published in the French anthology called Faërie et autres textes along with The Homecoming of Beohrtnoth and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil), nor the poems Imram and the Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, were mentioned at any point in the French edition of the Kocher book, doubtless because some of these works did not become available in French for twenty or thirty more years (except the two poems, still unpublished).

For the next two decades, only J.R.R. Tolkien, Artist and Illustrator seemed to cast a new light on the subject: this book by Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull (translated in 1996) offered a survey of Tolkien’s oeuvre as an artist, in watercolours, ink and pencil, from the early works of his youth (landscapes), through the illustrations of the first legends and drawings made for his children (Letters from Father Christmas), up to the illustrations for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, including maps and parchments.

Some twenty years after these milestones were first published in English, there came out in 2001-2004 a series of texts among which we may mention, in chronological order, Tolkien: Sur les Rivages de la Terre du Milieu (2001), by Vincent Ferré. This book is intended both as a presentation and analysis of The Lord of the Rings. Since it was the first book entirely devoted to The Lord of the Rings to appear in French, it was necessary for Sur les Rivages… to present the fictional world (its geography, history, and languages), the characters, the relations between Tolkien’s various texts, the genesis of The Lord of the Rings, and its relation to Fantasy, before attempting, in the second part, an analysis of the romance focusing on the question of death and of mortality. Identified by Tolkien as the key to his book, yet still largely unheeded by English critics at the time, this motif indeed provides a better understanding of what is truly at stake in The Lord of the Rings: a global interpretation of the book can be attained by putting the question of death in relation to that of the quest, of nature, of light, of human emotions, of the use of strength (and of the Ring), of individual freedom and of the reach of actions, but also of the evolution of characters, of repetitions in the story and of the end of legend – and the form of the tale. Tolkien’s own analyses of medieval literature, mainly those on Beowulf, are at the background of Sur les rivages…, hence the intent not to mask but to underline the tragic dimension of The Lord of the Rings, in its depiction of human condition.

Whereas this book purposefully steered clear of the question of religion, Irène Fernandez’s essay, Et si on parlait… du Seigneur des Anneaux (2002), attempts precisely such an approach, heavily represented among American critics, who do not always present it in so convincing a manner as in this short book, brief – contrary to the important thesis on C.S. Lewis by the same author – yet dense, offering a ‘moral’ reading that touches on the essential issues, while putting strong emphasis on faith, through a heavy reliance on Tolkien’s own words, by means of his correspondence.

Finally, let us mention, in addition to two fanzines, in the noblest sense of the term – L’Arc et le Heaume (published by the Tolkiendil Association) and the first issue of Faeries (edited by Ch. Camus and N. Cluzeau) – containing short feature articles, analyses and interviews, an original book: Meditations on Middle-earth, by Karen Haber, in which the voice of authors is happily amplified, and, in addition to the testimonies of English-speaking writers like George R.R. Martin, Raymond Feist, Paul Anderson, Terry Pratchett, Robin Hobb, and Ursula Le Guin, those of several French writers (Henri Lœvenbruck, Mathieu Gaborit, Fabrice Colin, Laurent Genefort, Ange) and of the artist John Howe, who also contributed as the illustrator of the book.

Every one of these books may serve, at least in part, and to a different degree, as an introduction to Tolkien’s universe; they may thus be complemented by more academic or erudite studies, which often remain accessible to the merely curious reader.


For a deeper understanding of Tolkien’s works

The book by Pierre Jourde, Géographies imaginaires (1991), is as much concerned with Tolkien as it is with Julien Gracq, Jorge Luis Borges and Henri Michaux, but it deserves mention for having been published more than ten years before any of the other books mentioned here. As the title indicates, it is concerned first and foremost with the natural environment (water, forests, mountains), its structure, and from there, with the peoples who inhabit it, their customs and their tongues, along with a cursory examination of possible sources.

This paved the way for subsequent essays which came out after 2001, such as the journal entitled La Feuille de la Compagnie. This Cahier d’études tolkieniennes (‘Journal of Tolkien Studies’) edited by Michaël Devaux is affiliated with the website www.jrrvf.com, an unheard of type of alliance at the time between the internet and a publication in book form, illustrated by the contributions in the Feuille of webmaster Cédric Fockeu, of Didier Willis and of Philippe Garnier, also members of the Compagnie de la Comté (‘Shire Society’). Published in Autumn 2001, the first issue featured articles on ‘the shadow of death’ (an expression found in Tolkien’s writings, but also in the Bible and in Beowulf) and giants, as well as reviews of critical studies published in English (about a dozen in this first batch). Two years later, the second issue, entitled Les Racines du Légendaire, doubled in size in order to offer, among others, previously unpublished Tolkien material: part of the famous ‘Letter no. 131’ to Milton Waldman (both in English and in French), where Tolkien offers a résumé of The Lord of the Rings. Features on Tolkien and Bouyer (the first Frenchman to have drawn the attention of the public to the works of Tolkien), on Eriol and Ælfwine, or on the structure of the volumes of The History of Middle-earth pertaining to The Lord of the Rings, are accompanied by articles concerning the body of angels, the truth of myth, neo-Platonism and Barahir. This volume features, like the previous one, reviews of recent Tolkien editions and critical studies in the English language.

The following year (2004), three publications offered complementary reading. Tolkien, trente ans après (1973-2003), edited by Vincent Ferré, celebrated the anniversary of the French publication of The Lord of the Rings and memories of the author (who passed away the same year) by collecting fifteen or so articles, as well as interviews with Christian Bourgois, Tolkien’s French publisher, and the artist John Howe. The articles, penned by contributors from the academic circles or closely associated to www.jrrvf.com, as well as world-renowned critics (Tom Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, Thomas Honegger), discuss a wide range of topics, such as intertextuality (the riddles of The Hobbit), specific episodes of the tales (the fall of Gandalf in Moria), Tolkien’s web of languages, the status of The History of Middle-earth, or still the representation of evil, the concept of heroism, the visual adaptations of Tolkien’s universe, and its influence on contemporary fantasy literature.

That same year, the author of the last article, Anne Besson, issued a book entitled D’Asimov à Tolkien, which is not entirely devoted to the author of The Lord of the Rings but confronts him to detective stories, in addition to fantasy and science fiction, in order to bring out effects of structure. Bearing the secondary title of Cycles et series dans la littérature de genre, it analyses these two forms to underline their similarities, differences and points of intersection, around the concepts of unity, discontinuity and propensity for expansion. The book deals with temporal effects induced by structure, both in the narrative and the reader’s memory. Let us mention, in closing, a work of consolidation, devised as a tool for researchers and students: Le Chant du Monde, by Charles Ridoux (2004), relies on the studies previously mentioned and those of Shippey and Flieger to offer a biography of Tolkien’s life, a detailed presentation of the Anglophone and Francophone critique, and a commented bibliography. Between these chapters, Charles Ridoux presents the works of Tolkien, encompassing The History of Middle-earth as well as The Lord of the Rings, while following the thread of song and music in their relation to the cosmogony.

And then? A fertile decade: 2004-2014

This survey only mentions books published in the first fifty years following the publication of The Lord of the Rings, in 1954-1955; but since 2004, important books have been published in French. In Tolkien et ses légendes. Une expérience en fiction (2009), Isabelle Pantin insists on placing Tolkien in the general context of the twentieth century and its literary history; Pantin studies à l’Histoire du siècle dernier, et l’étudie sous l’angle de la cosmologie, de la poétique et du rapport au temps.

A côté de cet ouvrage personnel, on en mentionnera un autre (Vincent Ferré, Lire Tolkien, 2014) et plusieurs entreprises collectives : le Dictionnaire Tolkien (2012, dirigé par V. Ferré), Tolkien et le Moyen Âge dirigé par Leo Carruthers (2007) et le troisième volume de La Feuille de la compagnie, dirigé par Michaël Devaux : L’effigie des Elfes (2014) – sans oublier les ouvrages publiés par des associations, tels Tolkiendil et Le Dragon de Brume.

These are the many avenues, then, by which to apprehend and explore the works of J.R.R. Tolkien in French, for beginners and seasoned readers alike!

References of books mentioned in this article

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, HarperCollins, 1995.

L’Arc et le Heaume (Tolkiendil Association), 2005 onwards.

A. Besson, D’Asimov à Tolkien. Cycles et séries dans la littérature de genre, CNRS Editions, 2004.

Ch. Camus et N. Cluzeau (eds.), Faeries n°1, Nestiveqnen, 2000.

H. Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, une biographie, Christian Bourgois, 2002.

M. Devaux, La Feuille de la Compagnie. Cahiers d’études tolkieniennes, no. 1 (2001); no. 2, Les Racines du Légendaire (2003); no. 3, L’Effigie des Elfes (2007).

I. Fernandez, Et si on parlait… du Seigneur des Anneaux, Presses de la Renaissance, 2002.

V. Ferré, Tolkien: Sur les Rivages de la Terre du Milieu, Christian Bourgois, 2001.

—, Tolkien, trente ans après (1973-2003), Christian Bourgois, 2004.

W.G. Hammond et Ch. Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien, artiste et illustrateur, Christian Bourgois, 1996.

P. Jourde, Géographies imaginaires, J. Corti, 1991.

P. Kocher, Master of Middle-Earth: the fiction of J.R.R Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 1972 .

Ch. Ridoux, Tolkien, Le Chant du Monde, Encrage, 2004.