Did Tolkien Cheat His Readers?
Review of Holly Ordway, Tolkien's Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages (Park Ridge, IL: Word on Fire, 2021).
How would you feel learning that your favorite passage in your favorite book was paraphrased from a book you had never heard of and which, as summarized, could never be described as a great work of modern literature? A variety of adjectives spring to mind. Cheated. Tricked. Disillusioned. Disenchanted. I am not sure I would be able to forgive.
Before reading Tolkien’s Modern Reading, I had no illusions that J.R.R. Tolkien drew only on medieval sources for the construction of his fantasy. The thought of a medieval literature professor so dedicated to his source material that he would not read beyond Chaucer is itself a modern fantasy, much beloved of those, like Tolkein’s erstwhile “authorized” biographer Humphrey Carpenter, who would like to believe that academics, terrifying as they are in their specialist knowledge, may be safely ignored by those who live in the “real” world. Writers for The Guardian may enjoy sneering at lovers of Tolkien for being out of touch with modernity, but serious readers of Tolkien have long followed Tom Shippey in recognizing The Lord of the Rings as one of the great works of post-War modern literature. The course that I have taught since 2005 at the University of Chicago is purposefully labelled “Tolkien: Medieval and Modern” for precisely this reason: drawing on medieval sources, Tolkien speaks masterfully to the quintessentially modern longing for history in its desire for Enchantment, what Tolkien called “Escape,” but which might as easily be called “Release from Bondage.”
I am not, therefore, surprised to learn from Holly Ordway’s diligent catalogue of “all the modern literature . . . that we are certain Tolkien read.” Listed are some 148 authors and more than 200 works, showing that his recreational and scholarly reading ranged from children’s stories to boys’ adventure stories to fantastic romances to science fiction (”scientifiction,” as his characters put it in The Notion Club Papers) to historical fiction to detective stories to modern novels like Howards End and Finnegans Wake. Nor is it a surprise to learn that Tolkien drew on such modern authors as Beatrix Potter and Sinclair Lewis for his invention of hobbits, so rabbit-like in their Babbittness; or George MacDonald for his descriptions of the underground haunts of goblins; or Sir Henry Rider Haggard for his use of maps and meta-textual artifacts like the Book of Mazarbul, although I do confess I had not considered how much Galadriel resembled Haggard’s “She-who-must-be-obeyed.”
There is much to savor in Ordway’s book. Readers of The Notion Club Papers will enjoy Ordway’s close analysis of David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus (—”a deeply weird book,” in Ordway’s words; no wonder so few people have read it!).2 I myself was particularly grateful for Ordway’s close attention to William Morris and his influence on Tolkien’s use of such resonant phrases as “the story tells” and “the Men of the Mark,” as well as for Tolkien’s description of the Dead Marshes as modeled on Morris’ description of Silver-dale in The Roots of the Mountains. To learn that Tolkien’s imperial Orcs depend far more on Morris’ Romans and Huns than peoples any further south than the Mediterranean is a refreshment and historiographical delight, as is Ordway’s commendable contrast of Tolkien’s Wild Men with the unambiguously racist portrayals of Australian aborigines in books like Alexander Macdonald’s The Lost Explorers, a copy of which Tolkien donated to his school, so we know that he at least owned, if not read it. I had hoped that Ordway would discover that Tolkien enjoyed more of Dorothy Sayers than only her earlier Peter Wimsey stories, but I was happy to learn he liked Agatha Christie. I can perhaps forgive him for disliking G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, given his enthusiasm for Chesterton’s poetry, but I do not share his enthusiasm for E.R. Eddison. I should have guessed that the odd scene with the animal servitors in The Hobbit came from Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle, but why am I sorry to learn that Frodo’s “asterisk” version of “The Cat and the Fiddle” was most likely inspired by E. H. Knatchbull-Hugesson’s “Puss-Cat Mew”?
I could easily go on, so rich is the dragon’s hoard of authors and references, but with a caution. Ordway’s book is massively well-researched and engagingly written, but at root it is a catalogue for connoisseurs. I would most certainly not recommend it for anyone previously unfamiliar with Tolkien’s work. The question is what effect it will have on those, like myself, who have spent our lives reading and rereading Tolkien’s stories, only to learn that our favorite narrative devices or characters or turns of phrases weren’t even his, at least not his inventions de novo.
Ordway’s ostensible purpose in Tolkien’s Modern Reading is to rescue Tolkien and his creative life from the misapprehension instantiated and perpetuated by Carpenter’s egregious (and oft-cited) claim that Tolkien “read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it.” On the contrary, as Ordway shows, it was his friend C. S. Lewis, not Tolkien, who never read the newspapers and considered “‘news’ as on the whole trivial and fit to be ignored.” As Tolkien told one interviewer in 1966, he subscribed to three newspapers: “I take a strong interest in what is going on, both in the university and in the country and in the world.” Comments to the effect that there was nothing in English literature worth reading past Chaucer need, again, as Ordway shows, to be taken in context both of debates over the Oxford English School curriculum in which Tolkien was engaged as a professor and of Tolkien’s own English proclivity for hyperbole, irony, self-deprecation, and mirror-talk.
As Ordway aptly puts it: “It is helpful, in interpreting Tolkien’s various statements about his sources, influences, reading preferences, and creative process, to realize that he is often hyperbolic in what he denies or rejects, but modest or ironic in what he affirms or claims.” My favorite example of this oh-so-English mode of speech, not cited by Ordway, comes in his “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936), where Tolkien claims, unlike his successor Joseph Bosworth, not to have “read all that has been printed on, or touching on” the poem, but only “enough” to venture an opinion on one aspect of its reception—as a poem. Cognoscenti will appreciate that it is thanks to Tolkien that students of English, at least for the better part of the twentieth century, read Beowulf as a work of literature at all, rather than simply a quarry for historical and ethnological details about a near mythical “Anglo-Saxon” past. If Beowulfiana was “rich in many departments,” it is typical Tolkienian understatement to insist that it was but “specially poor in one”: the study of the poem as a poem.
The pitfall is a familiar one, particularly for scholars like Ordway, steeped in a love of Tolkien’s work as stories. The question is whether Ordway herself, in her enthusiasm for proving that Tolkien read more widely than Carpenter and his selective editing of Tolkien’s letters would have us believe, has not obscured the very process she hoped thereby to celebrate. Now that we know how many books of modern literature Tolkien drew upon in creating his own stories, what are we left of the stories themselves? In the Beowulf essay, Tolkien suggested an allegory for appreciating how such “source-hunting” (quellenforschung) destroyed the very thing it purported to interpret: A man inherited a field filled with old stones, which he used to build a tower, but his friends came along and knocked the tower over to look for “hidden carvings and inscriptions,” as well as clues to where the man’s ancestors had originally quarried the stones. Having knocked the tower over, the friends then complained about what a muddle it was in. Why did the man not build something more sensible than his nonsensical tower? “But,” Tolkien concluded his allegory, “from the top of that tower, the man had been able to look out upon the sea.” Ordway is too good of a scholar—and too much an admirer of Tolkien’s creativity—not to appreciate the irony of hunting for the “hidden carvings and inscriptions” that mark the stones of Tolkien’s tower-stories. Nor, she confides in her conclusion, did she set out expecting to find so many modern “carvings”—or, rather, leaves taken from other trees to nourish his own story-telling, to use another of Tolkien’s famous allegories. “Tolkien’s modern reading” is but a small piece of the story. Why, then, am I left feeling like we have knocked over the tower and lost sight of the sea?
I blame Tolkien himself, not Ordway, even if it is her enthusiasm for source-hunting that brought me to this pass. In compiling her catalogue of references, Ordway was careful to consider only those books and authors whom she could verify Tolkien mentioned in his letters, nonfiction writings, and interviews. Like Ordway, I have spent years reading Tolkien’s letters for insight into his compositional process and purposes. I know most of the references she gives for things like hobbits and goblins. I have a fair number of them on my own bookshelves, so I am familiar with many of the examples she gives—but not all of them. I should, for example, have thought to read J.H. Shorthouse’s John Inglesant—mentioned by Tolkien at length in Letter 257 as a “melancholy warning” against wasting time over-explaining his own story-telling—but even Tolkien admitted that, although the book had seemed to him “queer, exciting, and debatable” in his youth, “few now find it possible to read.” And yet, it is impossible to read the passages from Shorthouse cited by Ordway and not see the influence they had on Tolkien’s own writing, down to the most resonant themes of his masterwork: the importance of Pity for the eventual destruction of the Ring, and the commingling of sorrow and joy in the Music which the minstrel played on the Field of Cormallen. I have until now always read the latter passage with a catch in my throat; reading it now, I feel numb realizing it is, in effect, paraphrased from Inglesant, “translated into sorrow,” you might say.
We should not expect a story-teller to footnote his own samplings from the great Cauldron of Story on which all stories depend. It is much better, surely, to enjoy the soup as soup, the story as a story, rather than spend our time parsing the ingredients. But is it too much to ask of an author who, when asked about the sources for his own characters and plots, claims to have no memory of where his ideas come from, to remember his own friends’ creations? Or not to pretend that his characters have a more transcendent source than his boyhood reading? If I was shocked to learn that the association between sweetness, discord, contrasting musical themes, sorrow, and joy played out on the Field of Cormallen had roots in Mr. Shorthouse’s romantic Catholic lunacy, I was frankly horrified to realize that Treebeard is a green bushy version of C. S. Lewis’s Malacandrian sorns and that, far from being purely a penitential reflection of Our Lady, Galadriel is more likely directly modeled on Rider Haggard’s ancient and beautiful, but evil and murderous “She-who-must-be-obeyed.”
In short, Tolkien lied—at the very least, could not have been completely honest—when he claimed in a letter to W. H. Auden to have no conscious memory of “inventing” Ents, having written the chapter called “Treebeard” off “more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labor pains) almost like reading some one else’s work.” How else to explain the similarities in plot and character between Ransom’s meeting with the sorn Augray and Merry and Pippin’s meeting with Treebeard, down to the details of Augray’s booming voice and the hobbits’ riding on Treebeard’s shoulders exactly as Ransom rode on Augray’s? Nor was Tolkien being completely honest with his friend Fr. Robert Murray when he welcomed Murray’s comparison of Galadriel with the Virgin Mary, “upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.” Was this hyperbole or irony? Self-deprecation or mirror-talk? Or was it embarrassment at admitting to a priest that the Lady of Lothlórien had a fore-mother in ancient Kôr—that is, the city in Africa where Leo Vincey discovered Queen Ayesha, not the ancient city of the Elves in Tolkien’s Eldamar, although the latter is without question modeled on the former—even Christopher Tolkien admits as much. It is surely one thing for an author not to pepper his creations with references; it is wholly another to pretend not to have used one’s own friend’s work as a source of inspiration and detail. But to claim to a then student-priest, in the very next sentence, that one’s work is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously a revision,” after crediting Our Lady as the foundation of “all” one’s “small perception of beauty,” when some of that perception came from one’s own boyhood reading—if this is not lying, it seems a matter for confession.
Humphrey Carpenter may be at fault for perpetuating the image of Tolkien as the Oxford don to whom nothing much happened after he settled into his professorship in Anglo-Saxon and spent the next thirty-four years lecturing on the great works of Old and Middle English literature, but it was Tolkien himself who dissimulated when pressed for sources for and influences on his stories. Ordway would doubtless (and rightly) insist that “the process of creativity can be obscure, even to the author himself,” thus leaving room for the “unconscious assimilation” of elements from stories enjoyed over one’s lifetime—but Tolkien was not just an author of tales, he was a scholar of languages and history. Remembering details like where he first read the phrase eald enta geweorc or “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill” was his job. Is it truly credible that he could have forgotten where he first encountered a hnau who welcomed a visitor, “Come in, Small One,” with a booming voice (Out of the Silent Planet, ch. 15)? Or a beautiful woman whose loveliness lay “in a visible majesty, in an imperial grace, in a godlike stamp of softened power, which shone upon that radiant countenance like a living halo” (She, ch. 13)? Murray—who thought he saw Our Lady in the ancient Lady of the Elves—was more than just a Jesuit friend; he was the grandson of Sir James Murray, the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, at which Tolkien worked for two years before taking up his first academic post at Leeds. Tolkien was literally trained in remembering where words and phrases came from; I find it impossible to believe that his own memory was so poorly organized that he could not remember Augray the sorn as the ur-Ent.
Which leaves me with a conundrum. Tolkien never claimed to be a great inventor of stories. His stories came to him—sometimes in dreams, sometimes in the pages of other story-tellers’ books, sometimes in recitations of other people’s works. He confected his stories out of other stories, not creating, but, in his own words (if they were his “own” words) “sub-creating” out of the bones, seeds, stones that he had to hand. Would we, if we had found ourselves listening to Mr. Inglesant’s violin playing, have heard the Music of the Ainur in the “plaintive sweetness broken now and again by cruel and bitter discords—a theme into which were wrought street and tavern music and people’s songs”? Or would we have concluded with the source-hunters that the tower was in a terrible muddle, after it was we who had knocked it down?
Ordway, 273. ↩︎
Ibid, 211. ↩︎
The Inklings , cited by Ordway, 7. ↩︎
Carpenter, Biography , 121, cited by Ordway, 15. ↩︎
Ordway, 17-18. ↩︎
Ibid, 286. ↩︎
Letters, 348. ↩︎
The Lord of the Rings, bk. 6, chap. 4. ↩︎
Letters, 211-12. ↩︎
Letters, 172. ↩︎
Letters, 172. ↩︎
Ordway, 221 and 223. ↩︎
Featured image: Library in photo by Janko Ferlič via Unsplash.
Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown, an Associate Professor of History at The University of Chicago, teaches on medieval and religious history. A co-editor of History in the Comic Mode (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), her books include From Judgment to Passion (NY: CUP, 2002), and Mary and the Art of Prayer (NY: CUP, 2017). Her academic and popular writings can be found on her website and her blog, Fencing Bear at Prayer. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.