Reviews 2015

Prstenovi koji se šire: junačka potraga u djelima J. R. R. Tolkiena [Widening rings: heroic quest in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien]

Prstenovi koji se šire: junačka potraga u djelima J. R. R. Tolkiena [Widening rings: heroic quest in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien]. Petra Mrduljaš Doležal. Zagreb: Algoritam, 2012. 315 pages. 138,99 kn (paperback).

Although the works of J. R. R. Tolkien have enjoyed wide popularity among Croatian readers even before they were first translated into Croatian in 1994 (The Hobbit) and 1995/96 (The Lord of the Rings, henceforth LOTR), the same cannot be said for their status within the academic community. However, the doors of the proverbial ivory tower that have largely remained closed to Tolkien and fantasy literature in general are slowly but surely being prised open. This is due to several notable studies published within the last five years, primarily Zoran Kravar’s Kad je svijet bio mlad: visoka fantastika i doktrinarni antimodernizam [When the world was young: high fantasy and doctrinaire anti-modernism, 2010], Darko Suvin’s Preživjeti Potop: fantasy, po-robljenje i granična spoznaja [Surviving the Deluge: fantasy, commodification and liminal cognition, 2012], Kornelija Kuvač-Levačić’s Moć i nemoć fantastike [Power and weakness in fantasy, 2013] and the volume under review – Petra Mrduljaš Doležal’s Prstenovi koji se šire [Widening rings, 2012]. The comprehensive and highly accessible book by the translator and lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb Mrduljaš Doležal is notable for being the first Croatian study entirely dedicated to Tolkien’s oeuvre.

Taking as her theoretical framework the writings of Northrop Frye (and, indirectly, Carl Gustav Jung) and Joseph Campbell, Mrduljaš Doležal analyses The Hobbit and LOTR (with occasional references to The Silmarillion and Tolkien's letters and essays) through the lens of the hero's journey monomyth. The book, based on Mrduljaš Doležal’s doctoral thesis, identifies and analyses the different phases (Frye) and stages (Campbell) of the heroic quest in Tolkien’s two novels. Following the tripartite structure of the heroic quest (departure – struggle – return), the book’s twenty chapters are organized into three parts. Each chapter has both an imaginative title and a clever descriptive subtitle in the manner of fantasy novels which announces its "plot," e.g. "Chapter Two, which tells of the age-old battle between monsters and their critics" (23 [my translation])1. Visual aids such as diagrams and tables comparing Frye’s, Campbell’s and Jung’s terminologies and concepts further facilitate understanding the text.

Part one provides an informative introduction to fantasy in general and high or epic fantasy in particular. After an extensive discussion of (high) fantasy, which addresses its origins, development, themes and language, its relationship to fairy tales and the criticism lodged against it, the author turns to Tolkien, whom she considers to be the genre’s most prominent representative. The remaining chapters in the section are therefore dedicated to Tolkien's biography, literary influences, his work as a linguist and the historical and socio-cultural context in which he lived. Most importantly for the main discussion, this section of the book lays down the methodological and theoretical groundwork by discussing Frye’s and Campbell’s theories, the relationship between myth and fantasy and the concept of the monomyth.

Parts two and three focus on the stages of the heroic quest as manifested in both The Hobbit and LOTR. Special attention is given to individual motifs, topoi (e.g. the forest, the sea) and characters (e.g. elves and their symbiotic relationship with nature). Of particular note is the discussion of Tolkien’s place within anti-modernism in part three.

In her discussions of individual motifs and episodes from Tolkien's novels, the author makes ample reference to a wide range of generically, culturally and thematically diverse texts, from Greek myths, The Kalevala, Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Grimms’ fairy tales, to the novels of Charlotte Brontë, Joseph Conrad, Kenneth Grahame and 20th- and 21st-century fantasy writers (to name but a few). To be sure, the sheer number and diversity of examples serves to illustrate the notion of monomyth and its universality and mutability, but some rationale for selecting these works over others would be most helpful. However, the biggest problem I have with this book is not the seeming arbitrariness of the numerous examples, but the fact that only a small number of the works cited or referred to in the text are included in the rather slim bibliography (a modest four and a half pages). Moreover, the sources for some of the examples (most notably the Greek, Nordic and other myths) are not mentioned at all. The failure to list or properly cite sources makes it impossible to tell whether direct quotations have been translated by the author or taken from existing translations. The bibliography itself is in need of thorough editing: the first names of several authors are missing (e.g. Howard, 299; Škreb and Stamać, 300), surnames are not always listed alphabetically (e.g. Carpenter is listed before Campbell, 298), first names are mistaken for surnames (e.g. "Sandner, David" is followed by "Stuart D. Lee," 300), the titles are not always italicized and the order of information (e.g. publisher, names of translators) differs from one entry to another. While these complaints may come across as nitpicking, my disappointment with the bibliography stems primarily from the book’s pioneering status. Seeing that it is almost guaranteed to become the starting point and inspiration for future studies of (high) fantasy and Tolkien in Croatia, one would expect it to provide more resources for those same studies as well. To this list of complaints I would also add some minor factual errors, such as the reference to Rapunzel’s eyes being put out (278), which is not only inaccurate but also not mentioned in Max Lüthi’s Once Upon a Time, which the author cites (Lüthi mentions a wicked witch putting out the eyes of a "fairy-tale heroine," not Rapunzel; 45).

Despite its (mostly technical) problems, Mrduljaš Doležal's study is a valuable and welcome addition to Croatian research on fantasy. That the book’s topic and engaging, clear and jargon-free style has already made it popular with fantasy fans, academics and the general readership alike is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that it received the 2013 SFERA Award (awarded by SFera, the Zagreb society for science fiction) for best scholarly work on SF and/or fantasy.

Nada Kujundžić
University of Turku, Finland
University of Zagreb, Croatia


1 (Croatian original) "Glava druga. U kojoj će biti govora o vjekovnome boju čudovišta i njihovih kritičara."

Works Cited

Lüthi, Max. Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. Trans. Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.