Tolkien as a Modern Reader
Holly Ordway, PhD, is the Cardinal Francis George Fellow of Faith and Culture at the Word on Fire Institute and Visiting Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. Her research, writing, and speaking focus on the Inklings, imaginative apologetics, and fantasy literature. Her new book is Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-Earth Beyond the Middle Ages (Word on Fire Academic, 2021). More of her work can be found on her website.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Luke Foster: I have the book, Tolkien’s Modern Reading, right here. It was a lovely read, beautifully written, and the publication work was very nice. Actually, going through the Victorian fairy stories brought back a lot of my own childhood reading, so apparently an overlap with Tolkien’s reading, which I didn’t know. My opening question is extremely broad, what is your book about? What did you intend to convey in doing this pile of research?
Holly Ordway: Well, the pile of research came about because I was investigating the question of where did The Lord of the Rings come from. What were the sources that led Tolkien to create this masterpiece? I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings for decades, I’ve been thinking about it seriously for more than thirty years. It’s such a compelling book, and it’s such a compelling book for the modern era. It just seems strange that a book that speaks so profoundly to the modern age should be exclusively grounded in medieval literature.
This view has really been the prevailing assumption amongst readers of Tolkien, more so amongst the popular audience, a little bit less so amongst scholars, but still definitely the overall view. It was profoundly shaped by his biography that stated Tolkien “read very little modern fiction and took no serious notice of it.” Boom, there you go. That’s his official biographer and editor of his Letters, Humphrey Carpenter. You would think he would know when saying, “for him, English literature ended with Chaucer,” so there’s an assumption that Tolkien stopped being interested in literature after Chaucer.
When I started researching his reading ten years ago, I assumed that was correct. I started out just wanting to know what Tolkien had read of his contemporary fantasy authors. Because I had done research on modern fantasy and its origins for my dissertation years before that, I knew there were some interesting authors of fantasy literature, like Lord Dunsany and William Morris, who had certain interesting similarities and points of connection with The Lord of the Rings. From that perspective, I wondered if Tolkien had read any of these folks.
And that issue, combined with the question of whether The Lord of the Rings had any other sources other than medieval literature and language, got me looking at what had Tolkien read, starting first with what’s mentioned in his essay, “On Fairy-stories.” “On Fairy-stories” lists a number of authors, especially of children’s literature from that era. And I distinctly remember, when I had two dozen or so authors on my list, I thought I had some good material. Well, I ended up with 149 authors and more than 200 books, so that list kept growing. About five years into the project, looking at the books that he had read—ones he actually knew, not just ones with thematic associations, or that he might possibly have read—I realized that this list doesn’t comport with the claim from his biographer that “he read very little modern fiction and took no serious notice of it.”
He thought about it. He wrote about it. He had interesting things to say about it. That is what became the book you have in your hands: it was me asking, what had he read, why does it matter, what does it show us about his creative imagination, and how on earth did we end up with this odd picture that’s so incongruent with the evidence as we have it? I did not anticipate this discovery that Tolkien did read a lot of modern literature and he did take serious, thoughtful, engaged notice of it, sometimes in ways that really surprised me. That to me sheds a lot of light on his personality. I always loved Tolkien, but he is even more interesting now. It helps to answer the question, how it is that The Lord of the Rings is so powerful for the modern day. It’s in part because Tolkien is in fact drawing from the modern experience as expressed in contemporary literature, and he’s transmuting it.
The way he works with modern literature tells us so much about his creative imagination. It’s even more powerful than I thought that it was. So, this is what I ended up discovering with my research.
Luke Foster: The first thing that strikes me is that you use the language of “discovery.” You didn’t set out to correct the record. It didn’t start off as a polemical book against other Tolkien scholarship or intervening in awful academic literature. You’re trying to trace a thread of the history of fantasy that interested you, and then, in the process, you learned that a lot of the prior work had been misconceived.
Holly Ordway: Absolutely. I didn’t set out to set the record straight. I didn’t know there was any setting straight that needed to be done. And, I was the first person who needed to be convinced, because I came into it trusting Carpenter and assuming that the prevailing view was correct. Why wouldn’t I? Of course I would. It made sense. Intuitively, it seems to comport with what we know of Tolkien. So, I thought, let me add a little bit of nuance to it. I didn’t realize I was going to be shifting the conversation. That helped me because I wasn’t looking for this angle. I discovered it and I had to step back—literally step back—and say, I need to make sense of this data I have accumulated, because my existing hypothesis is not adequate to account for all of what I found, not just all of the evidence of Tolkien’s reading, but all the evidence of how thoughtfully he engaged with it.
One of the things I did was look up every possible interview with Tolkien that I could find. I ended up going to the archives of the Bodleian Library, Marquette University, the Wade Center, the Oxfordshire History Centre, everywhere I could find. I ended up finding a good many interviews that had not been reprinted. There’s a standard subset of interviews a lot of Tolkien scholars and readers turn to. They’re quoted often, they’re the same go-to ones. I found them and they are great, but there are also quite a lot of other places where he talks about his reading and his attitudes about things like technology. There was a very revealing interview thanks to great archival work from Stuart Lee, who tracked down the original footage cut from the 1968 BBC interview of Tolkien. They cut a lot that didn’t make it into the final film, Tolkien in Oxford. In it, Tolkien talks about his views on technology and says that he enjoys driving cars. What? Tolkien said that?
So, there was a lot of looking at what Tolkien had said, and also looking at interviews with his family, such as with his daughter, Priscilla, and his sons, his students, and his colleagues, and finding these little bits and pieces of insight into Tolkien’s personality. Again, I was putting it all together and stepping back and saying, what’s the picture here? Let me get a fresh view. And that view wasn’t so much different from the accepted view. Rather, it gives a whole new angle on it. It’s like stepping to the side and seeing an additional three-dimensionality.
It’s absolutely true that Tolkien is fundamentally a medievalist. That’s completely true, and I would say that the inspiration for The Lord of the Rings is deeply medieval and linguistic. That’s a case that has been made very successfully by a lot of excellent scholars. It’s absolutely true, it’s just not the whole picture, and that’s the thing that’s been overlooked. And, interestingly, there’s been quite a few scholars who have said maybe there’s something more. Verlyn Flieger and Tom Shippey are voices saying we should look a little more at this. Various scholars have looked at little bits of it, and said, oh, he did read that author, and it’s interesting in this way. But, the trouble has been that all of these scholars have been doing good work but still working within the paradigm of “this is an exception”: that he’s exclusively medieval except for this one book that he read, or he’s fundamentally nostalgic except for this one curious engagement with Joyce.
But what I have argued in Tolkien’s Modern Reading is these are not exceptions to the rule of him reading only medieval literature, because there is no rule. It’s part and parcel of the way that he engaged with literature. And if we throw away the rule—we throw it into the Crack of Doom and let it be destroyed forever—then we can properly acknowledge all of his reading and his insights into literature. And, all of these critics who have written one article here, one chapter there on his modern reading, all of a sudden are much more relevant. Kudos to them, because they’re not just talking about an exception. It’s actually part of the major fabric of Tolkien’s creative imagination.
Luke Foster: You’re not just working to accumulate a piece of evidence, but also trying to give a new frame that other scholars’ pieces of the puzzle can fit into.
Holly Ordway: Yes, and I’ve certainly benefited from scholars who’ve done that as well. I’m thinking of two particular scholars whom I owe a great debt to. One of them is Diana Pavlac Glyer and her book, The Company They Keep, which is about the creative collaboration of the Inklings. She tackled the prevailing assumption that the Inklings were just a group of like-minded friends having beers together who didn’t have any creative influence on each other. She shows this is fundamentally not the case. Her new paradigm for how the Inklings engaged with each other was really pivotal for me in seeing how to approach this without preconceptions. And John Garth, in his magnificent book Tolkien and the Great War, approaches Tolkien’s First World War experience with new research and insights, and shows that, no, Tolkien wasn’t just stuck in a nostalgic view of the past. He engaged firsthand with the massive trauma of modernity in the Great War, and it influences his writing in profound ways. That’s also a major paradigm shift very important to my work. So, I’m trying to do the same thing, to look at all of this information we have about his reading. Does this help us see better how Tolkien engages with the contemporary literary landscape?
Luke Foster: You bring up Garth. An angle of modernity in Tolkien that is somewhat trodden ground is this question of the First World War. To some extent, the prevailing critical narrative was, for people like Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory, the idea that somehow epic or myth had been killed or rendered impossible by the disenchantment of the war, and, therefore, precisely the kind of thing that Tolkien does is impossible. And yet, it’s quite clear that not only is Tolkien taking seriously the horror and the disillusionment of war, but, at least on the level for someone like T.S. Eliot, he is constructively, creatively showing a way forward for literature through it.
So, I’m curious that you don’t take that angle very much in this book. There are a couple mentions of the Trench Poets and the experience of the war, but mostly you leave that aside. What leads to that choice on your part, because it must have been a deliberate choice?
Holly Ordway: It was, but, frankly, the deliberate choice was that I’ve already spent ten years writing this book and I needed to finish it. One of the great difficulties was being able to draw those boundaries.
In the ten years of working on this book, I have gained an insight into Tolkien’s personality from inside. I understand much more profoundly now why it took him so long to write The Lord of the Rings, and why it was that he never finished The Silmarillion in his lifetime. I’ve got sympathy now from a writer’s perspective, which I didn’t have before. Why couldn’t he just finish it? Well, there’s so many things that I could have talked about in this book that would have made it twice as long, and it would have taken twice as long to finish. I had something that I wanted to say, and, as a writer, you want to get it out into the hands of readers. Especially having realized that this did frame a new view on Tolkien, I wanted to get it out there so my fellow scholars and readers could build on it, because it is my hope that this is a starting point, a constructive foundation.
I have not said the last word on this by any means. There’s loads more to be discovered. Whenever possible, I pointed out in the notes where things fell beyond the chronological scope. I set 1850 as my cut-off date for various literary reasons. I had to have a cut-off date someplace as a starting point. That meant I didn’t talk about Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1849). So close, but if I let in 1849, what about 1847? I had to have a line, yet I turned up really fascinating things, like the fact that Tolkien enjoyed seventeenth century and eighteenth century literature: he appreciated Jonathan Swift. That’s not something I would have guessed. Now, actually knowing how much he read of satire in modern literature, it doesn’t surprise me now. Could I fit it in this book? No, so I noted it for future reference. It was the same with looking at his interactions with people, as that’s another line that Glyer investigates. I had to look only at literary influences, not influences of interactions with people. And, with the Great War, we have not exhausted its potential. But could I engage with that and still keep to my remit of looking at his reading of modern literature? No.
Still, this is a really fascinating line of thought. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Tolkien is not even mentioned in the index, yet he is one of the most important popular writers to come out of the Great War. There is an assumption that the only way people responded to the trauma of the great war was through irony and disenchantment. C.S. Lewis writes about enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment, in his essay, “Talking About Bicycles.” I talk a little bit about this idea at the start of my chapter on “Fine Fabling,” that disenchantment is where modernity is. A lot of mainstream literary critics have written Tolkien off because they assume the only legitimate response to the trauma of modernity is realism, satire, irony, bitterness, and disenchantment. Therefore, in their thinking, anything that doesn’t partake of those qualities is escapism, nostalgic and backward-looking.
Humphrey Carpenter has a lot to account for in terms of Tolkien being viewed in this way. But he’s not the only culprit. The contemporary mainstream literary response has pushed back against the idea that Tolkien has anything to say to modernity, because he chooses not to articulate it in the dialect that is acceptable to the ironic, disenchanted view. He even says—as I quote in Tolkien’s Modern Reading—to his son, Christopher Tolkien, that he tried keeping a diary as a way to process his experiences, and it didn’t suit him, so he turned to his fantasy writing as a way to put his experiences in another mode. He directly says he is using fantasy as a mode to engage with his experiences. He is engaging with the trauma of modernity, just in a way that’s different. That needs more exploration now that we, as literary critics, can point to how he engaged with contemporary literature.
Luke Foster: Of course it is Carpenter, but it’s not just Carpenter. This prejudice of literary criticism gets applied to Dickens, Chesterton, and many other eminently modern writers who are viewed as too naïve or too optimistic. Yet, what you’re inviting is thinking about what lies underneath optimism.
I want to slightly challenge one of the premises in the book. Why is it important that he is more modern? Perhaps, sometimes we moderns or postmoderns need the challenge or sting of being told that our literature is not very good or our prejudices are not fitting. Does it really diminish Tolkien if he did dislike the technological project of the modern world or if he did dismiss most twentieth-century literature? It seems, from the tone of the book, that it’s quite important to you, and that it’s quite important for us as readers, to see Tolkien as one of us, as belonging to our age. If he were an anti-modern, would that be so terrible?
Holly Ordway: This is a great question and a very legitimate challenge. If he were completely antimodern, it would be fine. It would be no better and no worse than what he is. It is vitally important to see him as he is. That is what’s essential. And if he were fundamentally antimodern, then we would need to take stock of him as an antimodern writer, and then account for The Lord of the Rings in that way.
When I went into this project, I assumed that he was basically antimodern and then realized that he’s not. My argument fundamentally is not that it’s either good or bad that he read modern literature. It’s that he did, and since he did, we should think about how that mattered to him, and allow it to give us a more accurate picture of him as a writer. Because, whatever he is as a writer, he’s certainly a writer of genius who’s written these books that have been popular worldwide, translated into dozens of languages, tremendously powerful as literature. I honestly think that, in the long scope of things, he will rank with Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen.
As a literary critic, I have a responsibility to see him as accurately as possible, and not to project onto him any assumptions, whatever they might be. I had no problem with him being strictly a medievalist. I was initially a medievalist myself—that’s what I started studying as a graduate student. I love medieval literature. I’ve taught it. It just wasn’t what he turned out to be reading exclusively. He did read a lot of medieval literature, absolutely, but then he read much more widely, including authors whom I don’t really care for. This is another thing I did in the project: as far as I could, every time I turned up a book that I knew Tolkien had read, I read it myself. That’s something that a lot of times has been skipped over. In his letters, he says how important The House of the Wolfings by William Morris is. How many people have read The House of the Wolfings? He notes John Inglesant by J.H. Shorthouse right there in his letters. How many people have read John Inglesant? In ten years, I met just one person who had read Inglesant before reading my book other than me. Well, what did he read? He enjoyed Sinclair Lewis. I don’t enjoy Sinclair Lewis. Not everything he liked, I like. It’s a question of seeing what he did read.
Luke Foster: The one that was really striking for me was James Joyce, which I tend to think that if there’s anybody you can justify a prejudice against modernist writing, it’s probably Joyce, but apparently Tolkien managed to appreciate him.
Holly Ordway: I think “appreciate” is the right word, because to appreciate something and take it seriously is not the same thing as to enjoy it, like it, or want to read more of it. We only have notes on Joyce, but he took a full page of notes. He doesn’t evidently approve of everything Joyce is doing, but he takes it seriously, he’s interested in it, he sees it as something worth thinking about. Did he like everything he read of modern literature? Absolutely not. But he liked more of it than people had thought. People have assumed the dislike, cherry picked his negative comments, and did not take into consideration his hyperbolic tendencies, which I had to grapple with myself.
Even when he dislikes something, he’s engaging with it. He’s not dismissive. That nuance helps us understand him as a thinker. How does he engage with the authors with whom he disagrees and whose work he dislikes? Charles Williams is an interesting case in point: one of the Inklings. Tolkien is on record as really disliking his poetry and novels. (I can’t stand Williams’s poetry, myself). What I think Tolkien is getting at is that that he dislikes certain things about Williams’s work, as he speaks much more positively of other parts of Williams’s work. Williams wrote plays and a lot of nonfiction. Because what has survived of Williams’s work popularly are the novels and poetry, we tend to focus on the idea that Tolkien didn’t like Williams’s work at all. Well, he didn’t like those, but he seems to have an overall appreciation for other things that Williams did. If we say then, what were his concerns with the poetry, and the novels? How did he engage with them? It’s not about whether he liked something or didn’t like something as being the crucial point. It’s how he interacted with it.
How does this show us his creative imagination? And, then, what does that show us about his own work and his own engagement with his writing?
Luke Foster: I do want to push you on that. I read you as in a way praising Tolkien’s character. It’s deeper than just saying he’s a gifted writer. Whether his frustration or his sense of the inadequacy in the occasionally chauvinistic adventure literature of his boyhood, or his interest in developing serious and emotionally plausible female characters, or his taking seriously the temptations and the possibilities of modern technology, you actually say those are all part of his small-c catholic taste: his sense of the goodness of the created world and his desire and take it seriously, even at times in the face of the prejudices of his time.
So, I think there is a note of eulogy in your writing, your developing of his character and embracing it. Is that not accurate?
Holly Ordway: Oh, that’s completely accurate. It’s important to tell the truth about who a writer is. If he is praiseworthy, praise him. You don’t embark on this kind of project without having a great fondness for the writer. I started out with a great admiration for Tolkien and his work. By the time I was done, I found that I admired him as a man, as a person, and as a writer even more because of what I had learned. In a way, this ties in with this mode of disenchantment. It’s very much a characteristic of modernity that we assume everybody has skeletons in their closets. We tend to assume that if we get to know our favorite author, we’re going to be disappointed, and that he’s going to turn out to be really a jerk underneath the surface.
I, to a certain extent, share that tendency of thought. There’s always a little bit of, oh, do I really want to read this biography of this figure whom I admire? Will I learn things that make me not admire him so much? But that in a way is almost a disease of modernity—that what can be a healthy skepticism has metastasized into a general assumption that everything is rotten to the core if only we look at it closely. I found completely the opposite: when I dug deeper into Tolkien, I honestly found more that made me admire him.
For instance, some of the boys’ adventure novels that Tolkien read may have their titles mentioned by scholars, but usually nothing more than that. Well, I hunted down copies and read them. Oh, my word, they were just horrible, racist, and colonialist. It made me realize, while we still have a lot of things to deal with in our modern culture, we’ve gotten better in some respects. The kind of racism in Alexander Macdonald’s The Lost Explorers was just repugnant. This was typical of the adventure fiction of Tolkien’s boyhood. So, when looking at the way Tolkien handles issues of race made me realize: what a remarkable man. This has a lot to do with his Catholic faith and his mother’s influence to reject those racist assumptions. It would have been so easy to just roll with it. But he doesn’t. He actually does some quite different things in The Lord of the Rings. And it’s praiseworthy, so I praise it.
He wasn’t perfect, certainly not. But it’s part of truth telling to be able to say honestly, yes, this is a good man who did things that were even more amazing in literary terms than we realized. What a nice surprise for a change.
Luke Foster: That’s a subtheme I noticed within your book and the way you’ve done the research. A lot of it is based on other fairy stories or other tales often for children. What emerges is a picture of Tolkien as a father and a grandfather, in the ways he remained interested in stories for children and taking children seriously as human beings who had serious tastes, throughout his life. Talk a little more about that aspect of his character through that concern for generations coming after him, which we see in his reading.
Holly Ordway: I ended up with multiple chapters on children’s literature. One on Victorian literature, one on Post-Victorian, then one on George MacDonald, and then one getting into the more young adult fiction. He read a lot of it, first as a boy and then for his own children. This is where we see the mention of one of the most significant books in this regard: E.A. Wyke-Smith’s The Marvelous Land of Snergs, which he describes as “an unconscious source-book” for the hobbits. There we have Tolkien naming a source. He would talk about his sources at times, and he praises this book to his publisher that he has been reading it with his children, and that they all enjoy it.
That gives us a glimpse into the matching of his creative life with his familial life. We see it with his grandchildren. He’s very attentive to his grandchildren: he supplies them with books to read. The typical view, that he hated The Chronicles of Narnia, is much overblown. He didn’t care for them, but later called them “deservedly very popular,” and kept a set of them for his grandchildren to read when they came over to visit. Given his attention and care to the reading habits of his grandchildren, this is a pretty big endorsement, frankly. He also has a professional interest in children’s literature—which we see powerfully demonstrated in his essay, first given as the Andrew Lang lecture, “On Fairy-stories”—all the way to the end of his life. When, for instance, Sterling Lanier sends him The War for the Lot, Tolkien read and praised this children’s book. He’s still able to respond to children’s literature in an appreciative way, grounded in the fact that he was a father, a grandfather, and a great-grandfather. There’s a charming anecdote of George Sayer coming to visit Tolkien and finding him playing trains with his grandchildren, like Thomas the Tank. It’s absolutely charming.
First, this gives a picture of Tolkien’s engagement with children and their concerns throughout his life. But it also sheds light on his creative imagination, and busts another one of the typical stereotypes of writers—the ivory tower academic, or the angsty, tormented writer who secludes himself up in the attic and writes while neglecting his wife and children. This idea that family life is in conflict with literary production is really prevalent. It even comes out a bit in the ending of the Tolkien biopic by Dome Karukoski. There’s this assumption of a tension between his writing and his family, because isn’t that always the case, right? If you’re a great writer, you must be neglecting your family, or if you have a family, it must be keeping you from your writing—and that wasn’t the case. Was he always pressed for time? Absolutely, he was. This is life. But Tolkien was deeply involved with his children. He used to go out on walks individually with his children, not with all four of them together, so that each one of them would have the opportunity to talk with him one on one and he would be able to relate to them as individuals. That’s pretty sensitive parenting, yet he’s also writing, and it’s not in conflict.
This is one of the things we learn and discover from seeing the bigger picture because it tells us something about the creative imagination. Writing doesn’t have to be in conflict with our families, with our friends, with the rest of our lives. It can be integrated into life and draw power from it. I don’t think Tolkien’s writing would have the power that it does if he had not had that integration with his family life.
Luke Foster: You give that lovely anecdote during his son Christopher’s childhood. The little boy comes downstairs to check on his father in the study painting a watercolor of Rivendell. One of the boy’s tears falls onto the page, and is actually incorporated into the painting itself, which is a metaphor for many things.
As a specialist in the field exercising this analytic mode of tracing influence and tracking down sources, do you feel a bit of what Edgar Allen Poe describes about science and scholarship more generally, that we dissect? Has your own enjoyment of the Legendarium been diminished in any way by your knowing and seeing how the sausage is made in such an intimate way? I think many, many Tolkien fans might fear that. Going into such detail, we would lose the sense of the beauty and the wonder of the whole.
Holly Ordway: Did it detract from my appreciation of the Legendarium? No. In fact, I have found that it has enhanced my appreciation of it. I’m very grateful, because it doesn’t have to be that way. When I did my dissertation on fantasy literature, I had that experience: I couldn’t read fantasy for years after that because I had gotten so burned out on it. I didn’t even want to think about it. So, I had that in the back of my mind. I didn’t want that to happen with Tolkien, and was aided in two ways in this project against that alternative. One was seeing Tolkien warning against it.
I had to grapple with this very early on, because I’m doing effectively a source study, and Tolkien has some very strong words about reductive source study. I felt that it was something I should take heed of, if Tolkien is warning against certain reductivity of approach—as his friend, Roger Lancelyn Green said, “to cut open the ball in search of its bounce.” I felt that Tolkien gave me the model, for his essay, “On Fairy-stories,” is powerfully analytical about the way fantasy works. He gets right down into the heart of what makes things work. Yet, when I read that essay, and then read a fantasy story, I’m getting more out of it. It’s helping me to enjoy it more.
The other thing that helped me was my friend and colleague, Michael Ward. He wrote this fantastic book, Planet Narnia, about the literary structure and spiritual significance of the Chronicles of Narnia, and the way that the medieval seven heavens are infusing it. That book is an example of literary criticism done right: I read Planet Narnia, and then read the Chronicles of Narnia again, and found them more enjoyable because now I was absorbing all of these additional levels of meaning. I thought, okay, it can be done, it is possible to do literary analysis that is fundamentally appreciative without being less analytical. This is a really hard line to walk. You don’t want to just say this is wonderful, nice, interesting—you’ve got to ask the question of why.
That’s always the question I asked. Okay, he read this. Why does it matter? Why should we care? How does this advance our understanding of his work? How does this show us something about his creative imagination? I always try to do that within the frame of how this helps us better appreciate and read with enjoyment and meaning and pleasure. This is the point of reading: to gain meaning out of it. It’s not a math problem to solve, it’s an experience to enter into. And, I wanted to make this book, insofar as it was in my power, the kind of book that would allow people to experience Tolkien’s work with added meaning, added pleasure, added significance.
I’m hopeful that it does, because the research did help me to appreciate his work more. I’m rereading The Silmarillion right now. Amazingly, I have not gotten tired of Tolkien even after writing this book.
Luke Foster: It’s a very scholarly book. You have a very thorough bibliography. You also have a Tolkienesque appendix where you go through every work in English we know he read. The beginning of each chapter layouts carefully which authors you’re going to talk about, with a thorough recapitulation at the end. It’s written almost as a kind of reference work, with a certain encyclopedia quality that doesn’t seem like a book to take up and lay down after one sitting. What do you hope the reader will do with it? Who is it for?
Holly Ordway: Rather ambitiously, I’m hoping to have two different audiences overlapping. Obviously, this is an academic book. It’s published by Word on Fire’s Academic line. It’s a book of scholarship. I’ve got something like 1,500 endnotes, plus all the footnotes, the appendix, and the bibliography, which is twenty-seven pages long. I wanted to make this a resource for other scholars by making the case that he engaged extensively with modern literature. That’s what I set out to prove: he took it seriously. It’s important to him, therefore it should be important to us. Here are the resources we continue carrying on with that endeavor. I’m hopeful my particular analyses aid in that, but, fundamentally, that they get the conversation going and provide the resources and insights into his character that will allow us to do more scholarship and open up new dimensions. In a major way, it is aimed at literary critics and academics, but Tolkien’s such a fascinating author that I wanted this book to be readable and interesting to anybody who enjoys Tolkien, enjoys Lord of the Rings, and wants just to know more about Tolkien. There are so many interesting things I turned up about his personality. If I were just a casual reader of Tolkien, I’d want to know. So, I tried to make the book readable.
It’s very important to write in a clear, enjoyable, and accessible way to the ordinary reader. I feel quite passionate about that as a writer and academic. A good academic book should be accessible and enjoyable to anyone who has a serious interest in the topic. And if they want to, they can learn more. That’s why I’m quite pleased with my publishers and editors allowing me to separate footnotes and endnotes: the endnotes have all the citations. If you’re an academic and want to look up where I found this information, you can track that down, but if you’re a reader who wants to just go with the flow and see where I’m going with the argument, it doesn’t distract you. I did that quite deliberately for reading experience. One reason I did the introductions and conclusions in each chapter was to make it inviting for someone to pick it up and say, okay, I’m not ready to read all 300 pages just now, but I’m really interested in what he said about H. Rider Haggard. Let me read that chapter. Or, what did he say about Victorian fantasy literature? Oh, let me read that chapter.
So, I’m trying to make it accessible for any reader who wants to learn more about Tolkien.
Luke Foster: Having done all of that background reading of the things he was reading, you when necessary provide plot summaries. Those give enough material for the reader to understand why it’s significant. I was probably familiar with a third or half of the names that you cited, but even the ones I’ve never heard about, I could follow up on. There were so many more things we could talk about. I really wanted to ask you about the Pre-Raphaelites as encapsulating how Tolkien thinks about the neo-gothic, the medieval in modernity; Morris is incredibly rich for that.
To end, tell us about what in the end modernity stands to learn from Tolkien. Tolkien is interested in showing us a type of virtuous pagan through depicting people, without divine revelation necessarily, who still know about right and wrong, and strive, sometimes without hope, against evil. We live in an age very different from that ethos, and, yet, Tolkien portrays an age like that. He actually shows us it for our own sake, especially as we engage with questions of a post-Christian society. So, what do you think he shows us?
Holly Ordway: Tolkien is in many ways very, very critical of modernity. He’s one of us and yet he’s not one of us. That is possibly the point where we can learn from him, because there’s two errors we can make about Tolkien.
One of them is to view him as purely nostalgic, stuck in the past, that he thought everything past Chaucer was a waste of time. That trivializes him. It trivializes medieval studies, frankly, which has a lot to say about modernity. But it also safely corners him off. Oh, there’s cute little Tolkien with his elves, we don’t need to pay any attention to what he says about modernity because he’s stuck in the past, right? That’s one error, but another error is to assume him into modern culture and say that he partakes of everything that we partake: that he has the same views as modernity writ large. Oh, he tells great stories but he doesn’t challenge us. There is a certain tendency in the wider culture to want to digest Tolkien in that way. They want to assimilate him and they want to make him safe by digesting and pulling apart his distinctiveness.
But the real Tolkien doesn’t fall into either of those two errors. That is what we can learn from him. One of the most profound images I found of Tolkien was from one of his students. He was talking about Tolkien’s teaching of Beowulf, as it happens, and he describes Tolkien as an interpreter between the world of Beowulf and the modern era of the students. In order to be an interpreter, or translator, between the medieval world of Beowulf and the modern world of his students, certainly he needed to know the world of Beowulf profoundly well, and he does. But if he were only immersed in that medieval world, he might know it better than anybody, but he wouldn’t be able to communicate it to students in the modern world. He knows both languages, medieval and modern. This is very apt for Tolkien, the master of language.
That is how I think he partakes of modernity. He is in modernity: he fought in the First World War, he had two sons who fought in the Second World War, he lived through massive cultural changes, some of them very positive, some of them extremely negative. He was part of this culture, and, yet, he was able by virtue of his grounding in medieval literature to also stand back from it and critique it. I think it’s that “both and” where he’s part of it: he’s in the modern culture but not of it. He’s engaging with modernity but not on modernity’s own terms. He refuses to accept the rules of the game that say he has to write this disenchanted, ironic literature. He engages with it in his own way. There’s a line in his essay “On Fairy-stories,” he says, “Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.” And, what I added in the book was that, “Part of what Tolkien brought to the workings of his fantastic imagination was a clear-eyed acknowledgement of, but not a weak-willed acquiescence in, the facts of the modern world.”
That is why we should look at his modern reading: it shows us the extent to which he did know the modern world that he then responds to in various ways, some of them extremely critical. He’s very critical of the abuses of technology and totalitarianism. When we see that he partook of the modern world, it means we can’t escape it. We have to confront his challenges. We can’t push him into the convenient cute little hobbit hole, and we can’t just say he’s one of us. We have to see that he challenges us. That’s really his power for the modern day, and, ultimately, why it matters so much to see him in the modern world. We see that he doesn’t just acquiesce to the modern world. He challenges it by knowing what its issues are and then responding in his own way, drawing from the tremendous resources available because of his great medieval knowledge and reading.
Featured image: Photo of Dr. Holly Ordway via Word on Fire.
Luke Foster, a PhD candidate with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at Sciences Po in Paris. His doctoral work in philosophy of mind and political theory focuses on the moral formation of education. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.