Perilous Realms: Celtic And Norse in Tolkien's Middle-Earth
by Marjorie J. Burns
Review by Edward Carmien
University of Toronto Press Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0802038069
Date: 06 August, 2005 List Price $27.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Publishers such as BenBella Press (see their "Smart Pop" line, including Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in The Matrix) and Wesleyan University Press (see, for example, Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan) have recently been issuing texts that are both readable and deep about popular cultural phenomena such as The Matrix and the Buffy TV series. Perilous Realms addresses a potentially accessible subject that underlies Tolkien's massive act of creation, but in a way that only a fellow academic can love. This is unfortunate.
Burns' text is well documented, though her points are sometimes laborious. For a reader completely new to Tolkien scholarship, the labor might be required. For a reader with a good understanding of middle-earth (one that extends beyond Lord of the Rings and into the less traveled territory of The Silmarillion, for example) the hiking required here might seem more work than the result justifies.
Burns shows a nice awareness of contemporary scholarship about fantastic literature, in one section referring to Diana Wynn Jones, and in another illustrates a compelling similarity between some of Tolkien's work and the writing of William Morris, who chronicled a journey to Iceland. Never a more Hobbit-like fellow are we likely to meet in a travelogue.
Tolkien scholars wishing a peek into the expected Norse and (as Burns argues) less expected Celtic underpinnings of Tolkien's literary character will find Perilous Realms a worthwhile text, though it does not read well cover to cover. I suggest it serves better as a text from which specific subjects can be plucked, chapter by chapter. Seeking wisdom about Galadriel and her role as the eternal rebel and land-grab artist? See Chapter 5: "Spiders and Evil Red Eyes: The Shadow Sides of Gandalf and Galadriel." Fans residing outside of the ivory tower will likely find this a hard slog, unless perchance one also has a strong interest in Norse and/or Celtic culture.
I think Christopher Tolkien has spent a lot more effort tidying up and publishing his father's old notes than his father ever would have gone to the trouble of, but there could be interest here. I have to ask myself though, whether I'd give this any more than a glance if Tolkien's name wasn't on it. Probably not.