Review: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology by Simon Cook

Author: Simon Cook 
Format/Source: eBook/Author
Published: October 2014
Publisher: Ye Machine
Length: 49 pages
Genre: Literary analysis
Why I Read: Enjoyed Cook’s article on Tolkien fundamentalism
Read If You’re: A Tolkien fan, esp. one interested in how his mythology connects to English history
Quote: “Thus the two traditions of Ing identified by Chadwick are, for the first time in Tolkien’s writings, seamlessly integrated” (74%).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.

Back in the spring, Simon Cook published a short article, “On Tolkien Fundamentalism“,  at Tolkien Library. I enjoyed the article and posted a response, which Cook commented on. I was happy to engage in discussion, and so I was also happy accept an invitation to review his recently published essay, “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology”.  The essay explores “how The Lord of the Rings arose as a conjectural reconstruction of the lost mythology of the English” (9%). Cook explores H.M. Chadwick’s understanding of ancient English history and how Tolkien’s mythology responds to those theories.

Until about 60% of the way through, I wondered what evidence exists to show Tolkien was very familiar with Chadwick, as I had not heard of him before. Early on, Cook notes that Tolkien would have studied Chadwick during his undergrad (24%), but given the extent of Cook’s discussion I expected more evidence of Tolkien’s engagement with Chadwick. Cook eventually points to the lecture notes published alongside Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf earlier this year (which I have not yet read) that demonstrate Tolkien’s familiarity with Chadwick (63%). So, if you’re like me and wondering if Cook’s argument has a solid foundation – it does! 

I was cautioned that the essay might be a tough read due to its scholarly nature. Admittedly, it was a bit of a challenge for me – not quite because of its nature but because of its content. I think I may have got more out of the essay were I familiar with Chadwick’s work. This essay was my first encounter with him, though I am sure now it will not be my last. Regardless, I enjoyed the reading and feeling my brain working hard (it has missed critical thinking since I finished university). I made many highlights and notes to make sure I could keep on top of everything. A lot of groundwork is laid before reaching the final segment, “The Lord of the Rings”, in which Cook demonstrates how the central characters of that story relate back to the ancient English history about which Chadwick theorized. Following along carefully, I understood and appreciated Cook’s analysis and conclusion – what Chadwick argued, where Tolkien disagreed with him, and how the ancient stories influenced Tolkien’s mythology. The bulk of the essay was a lot of new information for me, but I had an “Aha!” moment of understanding as Cook tied everything together towards the end.  Cook successfully argues how (and why) Tolkien constructed his mythology to stand in for lost English mythology, partially in response to the ancient English ideas of Chadwick.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are stories of little Englanders who depart their rustic homes in order to explore a wider, perilous world of ancient English tradition. (12%)

At the very heart of [Tolkien’s] project stands the passionate conviction that the stories of the ancient English could spark imaginative delight in the hearts and minds of a modern audience. (84%)

Part way through reading, I made a note – “it’s exciting to consider Tolkien in new ways (possibly not just me this time?)”, meaning I think there are fresh ideas here even for a more well-read Tolkien enthusiast than I. That Tolkien constructed his mythology to stand in for the mythology England ‘lost’ is part of the reason his work is so fascinating to me. It’s fiction, yes, but the historical roots make it so much more real.  This is an aspect of Tolkien’s work I really enjoy and I liked reading more about this connection between the mythology and English history. There is always so much to read about Tolkien’s mythology, I have trouble focusing on one topic, but this is an area I would love to delve into further one day. Of course, it might be helpful if I acquaint myself a bit further with English history… (that 6 credit course on the history of the English language can only get me so far).

The Bottom Line: For those unfamiliar with Chadwick, this essay may take some work to get through. I would like to read a bit more from Chadwick and then return to this essay. But, if you’re interested in how Tolkien’s mythology relates to English history, definitely give it a read.

Further Reading: 

Quick Review: I Am Malala and Life After Life

These two books are about living, about life, about living your life to make a change.

  • I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • Gives a lot of background and historical context to Malala’s father and her fight for the right to education.
    • I suppose somewhere in the cynical side of the world, people accuse Malala’s father of using her as a prop and they would dismiss this book as furthering her role of mouthpiece? But, I think if you read this you’ll realize she’s just a girl who wants to go to school. There’s nothing terrible about that. 
    •  It’s hard to put my finger on what, but I felt something was missing from the story. I think I wanted to read even more about Malala and her opinions on education. There is a lot of history and ‘this is what happened’, which is very informative and interesting to read, but I thought I would get more of a ‘Malala manifesto’. That being said, still give this book a go if you’re interested in the topic or Malala herself!
    • A good introduction to the struggles girls face in pursuing education in Pakistan.
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
    • Rating: ★★ [ratings guide]
    • I kept reading at the start because, even though it felt slow to me, I thought I liked Sylvie (hahaha, Silly Reno).
    • I liked the earlier part of the book much more than anything else. There were some poignant parts – for example, when Ursula falls out of the window trying to fetch her doll. That part really hit home for me.
    • The whole does she or doesn’t she remember her pasts lives was a bit weird for me. It seems she has some vague feelings about what happened before? The flu scenario starts to show this (I liked how getting past the flu proved difficult). 
    • Every now and then the story skips ahead to Ursula’s life in Germany. Most of them these ‘flashfowrds’ felt abrupt and disconnected (123, 206).
    • The one tragic lifetime that Ursula experiences, where she wants to die but doesn’t (and ooh, here’s where I realized Sylvie’s quite terrible [209]) was very sad, as you realize many women have found themselves in her position. When she finally broke out of that loop I felt immensely relieved (232).
      • This is where I felt the book should have ended…I felt very disheartened when I realized I was only halfway. 
    • I became bored after 250 pages and skimmed the last 200 (although a certain character’s death did, okay, make me pretty sad).
    • Around 355, my stream of consciousness was: okay what why Germany then why hanging around how did you get here in the first place again. The Germany parts of the story just felt so disjointed to me. It’s supposed to be the main part, I think, but it felt like excess to me.
    • Overall , Life After Life was a disappointing and uninteresting read. The main plot is woven in strangely and doesn’t seem very important, or integral, or clear.

Review: No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Author: Glenn Greenwald
Title: No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
Format/Source: Hardcover and eBook/library 
Published: May 2014
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
Length: 254 pages
Genre: Journalism
Why I Read: Learn more about the subject from a key player
Read If You’re: Concerned about US surveillance and your privacy
Quote: “I only have one fear […] that people will see these documents and shrug, that they’ll say, ‘we assumed this was happening and don’t care’.” (29).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

I thought No Place to Hide was going to be about the process of Snowden’s decision to leak documents and how the immediate aftermath of that affected him. Actually, this book can be divided into three very distinct yet significant parts. The first two chapters (~35%) of this book are indeed about Snowden, documenting his initial attempts to contact Greenwald up through the release of the first documents. These chapters, by nature of the activities they document, are exciting, intense and fascinating, especially if you want to know more about Snowden personally. Greenwald is one of the more qualified people writing about the leaking to give an account of Snowden’s personality and motivations.
The third chapter (the second part), “Collect it All”, explores some of the leaked documents. This chapter is extremely important and shocking (if, like me, you hadn’t looked at any of the actual documents), but it’s not as thrilling as the previous segment (again, by the nature of what the chapter describes – these are static documents, not people taking daring action). Because I had thought the entire book was going to be about Snowden, I was a bit taken aback and thus disappointed (though that’s my fault fault for having misconstructed expectations), but I still found this chapter a good, enlightening read. I did get stuck here for awhile because it’s so abruptly different from the first two chapters. The information contained is important, but it might be better served by having its own book. Here’s one disclosure that really blew me away:
The NSA routinely receives – or intercepts – routers, servers, and other computer network devices being exported from the United States before they are delivered to the international customers. The agency then implants backdoor surveillance tools, repackages the devices with a factory seal and sends them on. The NSA thus gains access to entire networks and all their users. (176)
I’d also like to note that the super secret classified PowerPoints slides are outrageous in their poor design and use of Clip Art. The visual presentation makes you laugh until you read the actual information being presented. Chapter Three concludes with the goal of surveillance:

When the United States is able to know everything that everyone is doing, saying, thinking, and planning – its own citizens, foreign populations, international corporations, other government leaders – its power over those factions is maximized. (198)

The third and final part of this book explores why citizens should be concerned about surveillance. This is where Greenwald starts to pick up steam again. He provides a clear reasoning as to why, even if you’re an upstanding citizen who never does anything wrong, you should be concerned about government surveillance. Even though I consider myself pretty left wing, I did sometimes naively wonder, “But if you haven’t done anything wrong, what’s the problem with surveillance?” Although I knew surveillance was bad, I couldn’t reason to myself why. Greenwald does a good job of that, making me think “Ah, yes, of course! That’s why.” One notable point he brings up is how surveillance has been passed from Republicans to Democrats, how it isn’t a dualistic issue with one side for and one side against (231). He concludes Chapter 4 with an important reminder summary of his discussion about transparency vs. privacy:

That is why we are called private individuals, functioning in our private capacity. Transparency is for those who carry out public duties and exercise public power. Privacy is for everyone else. (244)

The Bottom Line: No Place to Hide feels like three mini-books of information, each of which could easily filled a full book on its own. There’s a lot packed into these 254 pages (perhaps too much), but all of it valuable and fascinating and terrifying.

Elsewhere:

Quick Review: A Snicker of Magic and Escape from Camp 14

When I do a quick review post, there’s usually two books and I’m able to connect them somehow, as indicated in the post title. But with these two I can’t manage a connection!

  • A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
    • Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]
    • A very sweet and comforting story, about family and friendship and belonging and magic. I like that adult struggles were included alongside Felicity’s (the narrator) own.
    • I don’t think I’ve ever read a story where the only conflict was overcoming personal challenges. There’s no antagonist to be found here. This is part of the reason why I think this story is very sweet. No one is the bad guy, no one is against anyone else. 
    • I liked Felicity’s word collecting and her little sister Frannie Jo (can Frannie Jo have a spin-off book, please?)
    • Jonah, one of the main characters, has a physical disability. I think how Lloyd incorporates that disability into the story should serve as an example to anyone looking to do the same. His disability is not the story, but nor is it an invisibility. The references to Jonah’s wheelchair take up no more space than if he didn’t have a wheelchair. For example, where one might read “He ran ahead”, you’ll find “He rolled ahead”. This is how easy it is to include a diverse character. They really can be just like any other character.
  • Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]  
    • An extremely illuminating and significant read 
    • Brutal and real in order to give readers an understanding of how life in the camp impacted Shin (could be difficult for some to read)
      • A saddening exploration of how a bad environment (nurture) affects a person. Shin’s only frame of references is life in the camp, under what he learns from the guards and his teachers, and so he buys into that completely, because he doesn’t know any different. The book does go on to explore the difficulties he has adjusting to life outside of the camp and how he comes to realize that he did not ‘learn’ to feel the right emotions (ex. didn’t care at all about his mother, now feels guilty about it).
    • Although Shin’s experiences are contextualized by what was happening in North Korea at the same time, the book doesn’t give a full picture of the situation in North Korea (and it doesn’t purport to; it’s primarily Shin’s story). Further reading is necessary if you wish to learn about North Korean history or the overall quality of life for general citizens (not those born and raised in a political prisoners like Shin)

Review: Torture Team by Philippe Sands

Author: Philippe Sands
Title: Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: May 2008
Publisher: Allen Lane
Length: 315 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Library browsing, looked interesting
Read If You’re: Interested in the intersection of law + politics or the legality of torture
Quote: “…[all] aggressive interrogative techniques recommended by Jim Haynes and approved by Secretary Rumsfeld [were] used” (8).
Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound | Chapters | Book Depository

In Torture Team, Sands explores “the role of lawyers who are required to give legal opinions on sensitive political matters, and asks what responsibility they bear”. He does this by focusing on the ‘enhanced interrogative techniques’ approved and used on Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani. I did not think I would review this book. It took me a long time to read, due to the high level of detail and wide cast of characters with titles and relationships that took some effort to keep track. My understanding of the American political system and the intersecting branches of the CIA, FBI, army, navy, etc. is limited so at times I found it tiring to try to keep track of how everyone related to each other. Thankfully Sands includes a list of “principal characters and the positions they held during 2002”.

The bulk of this book consists of in-depth interviews with most major players in the decision-making process (then President Bush and Vice President Cheney excluded). I had not expected to find conversations between Sands and the villains of the book.  I expected such people would not grant interviews to be published in a book condemning their actions. The inclusions of such interviews makes this a revealing read. I also like that Sands includes his own perspective to temper the wealth of interviews. He documents the ease or difficulty of securing an interview, and the interactions that arise from his interviews, thus giving a sense of each person as just that – a person, not just a player for the ‘torture team’.

“John Yoo had declined my invitation to discuss the Alstotter case but I had a slightly more willing response from Doug Feith, although our conversation was far from easy. It had the great merit, however, of teasing out the main issues ” (228)

The chapter goes on to document the banter between Feith and Sands, with Sands concluding “Dough Feith went some way in persuading me that the Alstotter case wasn’t exactly comparable and that further inquiry would cause offence in some quarters at least” (232). Sands writes with personal investment and doesn’t just fall back on relaying “he said, she did”. This makes the book easier to swallow as I think it would have been very dry without these touches.

Sands takes an odd turn towards the end of the book in his attempt to draw parallels between the White House lawyers and Nazi lawyers.  Sands concludes, “What happened in Washington in 2002 bore no comparison with what had occurred sixty years earlier in Nuremberg” (245), but he immediately follows this with a sentences beginning “Yet it wasn’t quite that simple…”. Although I agree with Sands’ argument that the White House lawyers acted far beyond their bounds, I don’t think its appropriate to compare to them to Nazi lawyers. This side-track does not add anything to the book. I would have preferred to read more about the connections (or lack-thereof) between torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, as Sands occasionally mentions a connection but does not flesh it out. He writes in the conclusion, “At the very least, however, it is clear that the pictures of abuse that emerged from Abu Ghraib would have been less likely without the Haynes memo and the culture of ill-considered aggression it embraced” but I’m not sure how this is ‘clear’.

Also alluded to throughout the book is the process of revelation, or declassification, or investigation, of al-Qahtani’s treatment – I wasn’t too sure because Sands never explains clearly. He writes like the public knowledge of what happened was something I should already know about (I think the book was published shortly after everything came to light). Perhaps Americans know all about the case but I did not, so I would have appreciate more context regarding what was publicly known and what was investigated.

While preparing this review, I came across a cover that said ‘includes new material’. I couldn’t find specific information on an updated edition, but maybe one does exist?

The Bottom Line: An extremely in-depth exploration of the role of lawyers in how the torture of Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani came to be permitted, but Sands tempers the information overload by portraying the persons involved as real people rather than mere information sources.

Further Reading: