Review – Tolkien’s Modern Reading

Middle-Earth Beyond the Middle Ages

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Overview

Synopsis Much has been made of Tolkien's classical influences, but what of his contemporary ones? What nominally "modern" books most inspired Middle Earth and why?

Author Holly Ordway
Genre History/Literature Analysis

Length 392 Pages

Release Date January 22, 2021

J.R.R. Tolkien does NOT need an introduction from me. The acclaimed Lord of the Rings writer has more than earned his reputation in history as one of the great writers of the 20th century, one of the greatest Catholic writers of his time, and one of the greatest students of mythology in English history.

Still, such fame does come with its downsides. An author and professor as legendary as Tolkien is certainly going to have plenty of urban legends and media narratives pop up around his life that cloud the perception of reality.

In her newest book, Tolkien’s Modern Reading, Professor Holly Ordway specifically targets one such narrative in the life of Tolkien surrounding his reading habits.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: Themes of Catholicism and a mature viewpoint of how to live in a modern society

Violence: None

Language/Crude Humor: None

Sexual Content: None

Drug/Alcohol Use: None

Other Negative Themes: None

Positive Content: A nuanced exploration of Tolkien’s approach to reading and interpreting modern literature in light of his Catholic beliefs

Tolkien reading with a pipe in his mouth

Review

This reviewer received a free copy of Tolkien’s Modern Reading from its publisher Word on Fire.

It’s a well-established fact that J.R.R. Tolkien was a student of medieval poetry. If you’ve read any of his books, this is very clear. He’s written multiple lectures about the classics, publicly credited them as his influences, and wrote many scholarships on numerous works such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

But was that reputation overstated? 

There’s a popular quote frequently attributed to Tolkien by biographers and dramatizations of his life in which he supposedly said that “Literature stops at 1100; after that, there are only books” or “Everything after 1066 should be excised from schools”.

Such quotes are apocryphal. Tolkien never sincerely said anything of the sort. That would be fine for the most part but the popularity of such quotes has largely affected the way that the public views his entire body of work. Tolkien has taken on the baggage of being perceived as a Luddite, a technophobe, and a radical reactionary thinker who completely rejected everything nominally modern in favor of a nostalgic vision of the past.

Professor Holly Ordway, a fellow for the Word on Fire Institute and a visiting professor at Houston Baptist University, specifically takes aim at this narrative in her new novel Tolkien’s Modern Reading.

Blonde woman in a blue jacket with glasses

The book is a massive and impressive undertaking for addressing such a specific niche. Her nearly 400-page labor of love is a startlingly comprehensive exploration of Tolkien’s known reading habits. It not only charts his extensive interests and fascinations but contextualizes them by sewing themes and motifs into his middle-earth novels to show just how deeply “modern literature” (defined for discussion as between 1850-1973 as that would’ve been considered contemporary) influenced him.

In this study, then, we have carefully considered all that we know Tolkien to have read of post-1850 English-language poetry and prose… We have noted the occasions when Tolkien himself granted that his modern reading influenced his fiction including how George Dasent and Algernon Blackwood helped him arrive at the names of “Moria” and “Crack of Doom”; how George MacDonald helped him depict Goblins; how William Morris helped him find the mixed prose-and-verse form of the earliest tales. These are Tolkien’s own admissions of indebtedness and there are others (274).

Such a description doesn’t begin to cover half of what the book accomplishes. Not everything this work describes is surprising. One need not be surprised that he was a deep reader of contemporary fairy tales and Catholic writers such as George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, and G.K. Chesterton. It’s also not surprising to learn that ideas from his contemporary Oxford writers C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams quietly worked their way into his works. 

It is quite surprising to find out that Tolkien deeply enjoyed the works of radical socialists and feminists like Sinclair Lewis and Simone De Devoir. He didn’t agree with EVERYTHING they said; however, he did read their bibliographies comprehensively.  

Professor Ordway makes the argument in her book that Tolkien’s supposed hatred of modernity and modernism was deeply overstated. She argues Tolkien was a deeply contentious and aware man who cared about the modern world. He attended movies, read modern books, enjoyed driving cars, subscribed to several newspapers to keep up with world events, and engaged in occasional political activism. He even took harsh stances against issues such as South African apartheid, when it was hardly even a blip on the international news’s radar. He even nominally supported Vatican II, a series of liturgical changes that modern traditionalist Catholics still grumble about sixty years later. 

Such a feat was only possible because Tolkien was a chronic reader. He consumed every book he could get his hands on. As Ordway writes, one year he purchased upwards of 200 pounds ($8,000 in modern dollars) worth of books proudly.

Certainly, Tolkien’s adoration for the classics of Homer, Chaucer, Beowulf, and the various Norse and Icelandic myths isn’t in question. He was, first and foremost, a classicist. When he had the chance, he always encouraged Oxford to focus its limited teaching resources on old-English classics, placing secondary importance on middle-English and modern-English texts, a la Shakespeare and Dickens. That doesn’t mean his reading taste was “narrow” in any respect. 

As Ordway argues, Tolkien’s close friend C.S. Lewis could be more readily written off as a Luddite well before him: 

… Lewis could much more fairly be described as a technophobe. Lewis never learned to drive a car and disapproved of modern transport on principle. He exclusively used a dip pen all his life, relying on his brother to type letters where necessary (206).

Lewis didn’t follow the news, almost exclusively read classics, and didn’t have much of a life outside of the university. Of course, Lewis wasn’t a Luddite either. He was brilliant and intellectual in most of the same ways Tolkien was but merely focused on different areas of study. Both men had their own strengths and weaknesses as writers and political thinkers. 

So which books did inspire Tolkien?

As one might expect, Tolkien had many fascinating, contradictory, and strident views on contemporary literature. Some of the most interesting nuances come in his curious pickiness. Tolkien repeatedly cites the great Scottish writer George MacDonald as an influence in his work early in his career and specifically sites his books like Princess and the Goblin, The Golden Key, and Lilith as influential to him.

Alternatively, he disliked other MacDonald books like Phantastes (a curious choice given that this book, in particular, was one of CS Lewis’s favorites).

MacDonald himself is important for Tolkien as he was one of the writers the young man most identified with as an adolescent reader of fairy stories. As mentioned above, Macdonald’s visualization of Goblins worked its way into The Hobbit. Beyond that, his themes of death, faith, greed, and adventure similarly worked their way into the legendarium. 

Tolkien wrote that ‘Death is the theme that most inspired George MacDonald whether in fairy stories, or what in he called the romance of Lilith‘… MacDonald was a man much acquainted with grief, as indeed was Tolkien, who had bereaved of both his parents by the age of twelve, lost all but one of his close friends by 1918, and himself went through the horrors of the Somme. It is unsurprising then that his same theme of death should have continually troubled and fascinated him. In one of the rare instances when he said what The Lord of the Rings was about, he confessed, “it is about death and the desire for deathlessness (98-99).

Tolkien never admits to stealing ideas or concepts whole cloth. Moreso, he takes an approach to a theme or a naming scheme and reworks it to fit within the premise of his own books. He doesn’t necessarily do this consistently or cognitively. Many contemporary writers seemed to have merely been the intellectual stew which his mind was trained in. 

One such example that Ordway suggests is J.H. Shorthouse’s influential 1881 novel John Ingleshant which she suggests might’ve inspired Tolkien’s fascination with pity in The Lord of the Rings

Shorthouse and Tolkien build up to their climax with preliminary encounters that develop and foreshadow the motif of pity and its spiritual significance (242).

Some writers he admits to taking direct influences from such as the fairy tale writers Andrew Lang and Beatrix Potter. He sites books like The Marvellous Land of Snergs and The Wind and the Willows as having had conceptual influence over his work.

At times, the book also explores how Tolkien’s relative disinterest or apathy towards authors and books gave him ideas to work against, as was the case with his Oxford contemporary Charles Williams.

One possible reason for Tolkien’s dislike of these novels is the overt presence of theological elements within them. The keyword here is overt. As discussed in Chapters 4 and 5, he did not enjoy Christian allegory that he considered too obvious, as with the Narnia books, but could appreciate stories that handled religion more subtly (217).

Tolkien was also prone to vast changes in taste and opinion across his life. When he was older, he publicly denounced his interest in George MacDonald and other fairy writers such as JM Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.

As Ordway suggests though, there may have been a professional dimension to this. Tolkien seems to have actively disliked the attempts by scholars and researchers to psychoanalyze his work and interpret his middle-earth novels in light of their influences.

Tolkien’s solution was simple: he denied having any influences.

His famous pronouncement that he despised allegory in all its forms also came from this frustration. He didn’t want readers analyzing his book in the fashion of an overt allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress and hated when people interpreted his book as a metaphor for the rise of Nazism (Sauron) or the destructive power of the nuclear bomb (the Ring of Power). This consistent denouncement added to the air of curmudgeonly-ness that surrounds his popular reputation as an anti-modernist and an anarchist.

Older Tolkien holding a book

This was only one of several reasons why the narrative of Tolkien’s anti-modernist streak has come about. As she ultimately suggests, there are numerous layers to how this idea has taken root. She cites how Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography on Tolkien editorialized to the point where such ideas were popularized, how differences between American and British culture colored the public perception of his comments, and how Tolkien’s own bloviating hyperbole shaped his public image. 

It’s wonderful that Professor Ordway has created such an intense work of scholarship to address this singular issue. The book’s depth and research are daunting, and much of the information she manages to drudge from the vast body of available Tolkien scholarship is incredible. It’s fun to learn about Tolkien’s enjoyment of pulp magazines like Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and to discover that he had a great deal of antipathy towards the Roman Empire for its imperialism and cultural destruction of European societies.

Tolkien’s Modern Reading is an incredible work of scholarship. I can’t begin to imagine the depth of work and effort it took to cross-reference so many works of archaic, out-of-print literature against one another with this much attention to detail and a cohesive understanding of how they fit into Tolkien’s life. 

Positives

+ Intensive comprehensive research
+ Deeply scrutinous research into cross-referencing Tolkien's work/quotes

Negatives

- Excessive/mildly pedantic length for casual readers

The Bottom Line

Maybe 400 pages of literature analysis isn't useful for casual readers. For Tolkien obsessives, a book like this is essential reading if you want to understand the origins of the 20th century's greatest work of high fantasy.

 

Writing 9

Editing 8

8.5

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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