Tolkien Beyond the Myth

After reading (well, devouring) Holly Ordway’s new book, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages, I will never look at J.R.R. Tolkien the same again. Given that I’ve been thinking—sometimes non-stop—about the great man since 1978 or so, this is about the highest praise I can offer. Not only have I read everything Tolkien wrote, but I’ve read most of everything—especially the books and many of the articles—that have been written about him, around him, and near him over the last 40 years.

Yet in a variety of brilliant and innovative ways, Ordway cuts through so much of the cultural debris and intellectual mathom that has come to surround not only Tolkien but his works. As Ordway makes quite clear, most of this flotsam and jetsam that has accrued over time came from the early (indeed, premature) biography written by the late Humphrey Carpenter. Carpenter was the first and only authorized biographer of Tolkien, the editor—along with Christopher Tolkien—of the sanctioned and invaluable Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, and author of the first major and comprehensive group biography of the Inklings. Others, such as Charles Moorman, Chad Walsh, and R.J. Reilly had also dealt with the Inklings, but in a topically focused manner, not offering a biography. This means, of course, that Carpenter—especially given the timing of his books, all coming out roughly concurrent with Tolkien’s posthumous The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales—radically, fundamentally, and dramatically shaped the world’s view of the great man.

In his various works—original and edited—Carpenter created four falsehoods about Tolkien. First, he held that Tolkien despised modern literature and was stuck, at least in terms of taste, in the Middle Ages. Second, Carpenter held little sympathy for his subject, and his edited volume of letters makes Tolkien seem “impatient, defensive, and uninterested in anything modern.” Third, despite the immense differences between Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on everything from tastes in literature to the playing of sports, Carpenter conflated the two men, making them a kind of composite figure. And finally, he presented Tolkien as relentlessly anti-modern in his attitudes not only about the present world and its problems (if he paid attention to them at all) but also, especially, about its technology. Carpenter, it seems, made Tolkien a kind of eccentric, irrational, Luddite crank. “We have seen, then, four reasons why this faulty popular image of Tolkien,” Ordway laments, “has taken hold, all of them traceable, in some measure, to Humphrey Carpenter.”

With the passion and the tools of a modern debater and lawyer, Ordway not only challenges these four myths about Tolkien, she utterly destroys them. Each chapter is an intense argument about this or that issue, and each ends with a summary conclusion of the argument just made. Tolkien’s Modern Reading, therefore, comes across on one level as an amicus brief and on another as a reference guide. In her writing, she is wonderfully and captivatingly fierce, and I found myself engaged without the desire for relief from the opening sentence of the book to the last. Indeed, rarely have I been so immersed in a work as I was in this one. It’s very good that that Word on Fire Academic press put some money into the physical sturdiness of this volume, as I constantly referred to the endnotes, jumping back and forth from the text as I read with a certain fury. A lesser quality book would have disintegrated from my madness.

In her countering of Carpenter, Ordway brilliantly provides a better narrative of Tolkien. First, Tolkien read everything—ancient, medieval, and modern—and he did so voraciously. Second, Ordway approaches Tolkien from a standpoint of sympathy and sees him not as a fuddy crank, but rather as a liberally integrated person with strong and informed views on himself and on the world about him. Third, no matter how close Tolkien and Lewis became as friends, Ordway shows that they were fundamentally different persons, different minds, and different souls. Tolkien relished all that was most English about England, but Lewis, fundamentally, remained an Ulsterman to the end of his days. Finally, while Tolkien distrusted technology as a product of fallen man, he was no Luddite. Rather, in a humane and Catholic way, he feared that fallen man might be doubly fallen with technology. Technology itself, though, could of course be used for good as well as for evil. In this, Tolkien was a rather mainstream Christian humanist, sounding very much like Romano Guardini or T.S. Eliot.

“Tolkien’s catholic taste in literature is, we might fairly say, but a manifestation of his Catholic faith: extensive, expansive, inclusive. Taste and faith alike are formative for Middle-earth.”

Holly Ordway, Tolkien’s Modern Reading

In addition to writing with a fine pen, Ordway has done—and by the structure of the book and her argument had to do—something special with her sources. Having done my own work on Tolkien and Lewis—often quite intense—over the past two decades, I had prided myself on having collected every known primary and second source about the Inklings. But Ordway showed me up, repeatedly. She finds critical insights in the most unlikely places. I was especially taken with Ordway’s use of one of the most important but strangely neglected primary sources, Clyde Kilby’s Tolkien & The Silmarillion. Kilby was a professor of English at Wheaton College, and he spent a summer in the 1960s attempting to help Tolkien get The Silmarillion into a publishable state. It was, critically, through Kilby that Tolkien revealed that the “Secret Fire” which Gandalf proclaims to be his master was, in fact, the Third Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

If there is a complaint about Tolkien’s Modern Reading—and, believe me, it is truly a trivial one—it is that Ordway’s sources serve only to prove her argument: they exist to take down Carpenter. This, of course, is as it should be, but it leaves something out that could’ve made this book the book on Tolkien. For example, Ordway references all of Jane Chance’s edited works on Tolkien, but she excludes her major monographs on Tolkien. She references two of Joseph Pearce’s works on Tolkien, but not his seminal Tolkien: Man and Myth. And, there’s no reference to important Tolkien authors such as Matthew Dickerson, Marjorie Burns, and Fleming Rutledge. Again, these criticisms are minor, but a comprehensive bibliography would have rounded out Ordway’s book nicely. Let’s hope that she corrects this in the second edition.

It would also be a disservice to suggest that Ordway is merely challenging Carpenter. She does this in spades, but she does so with many great affirmations, not just negations. Throughout the book, Ordway demonstrates that Tolkien’s reading tastes were so wide in appreciation, that one has a difficult time narrowing him down to any one genre. He read Francis Thompson, G.K. Chesterton, Sinclair Lewis, Rider Haggard, and Isaac Asimov, to mention merely a few. As Ordway explains, “Tolkien’s catholic taste in literature is, we might fairly say, but a manifestation of his Catholic faith: extensive, expansive, inclusive. Taste and faith alike are formative for Middle-earth.” In other words, Tolkien was not merely influenced by the Icelandic Sagas, Beowulf, and Norse mythology, but from sources too broad to be easily and readily countable. Rather, she continues, “we have seen that Middle-earth does not emerge onto the page ex nihil, but from an astonishingly wide array of texts, assimilated and transformed into something uniquely inclusive, detailed, varied, and integrated.”

One must also note that the book is beautifully laid out, for which Word on Fire Academic is again to be commended. Not only is the font readable and the illustrations actually illustrative, but Ordway was able to include a critical table as an appendix, “A Comprehensive List of Tolkien’s Modern Reading.” Like everything else about the book, Ordway has provided us with glorious and difficult to obtain detail.

Ordway has achieved something grand. This book is not merely for Tolkien fans, but for anyone curious about modern literature and its vast influence on our culture. If you happen to be a Tolkien fan and a lover of modern literature, then Ordway has blessed you twice. If you happen to love all of these things and admire good writing and brilliant research, then Ordway has blessed you four times. Tolkien’s Modern Reading is not only a serious achievement, it is a thing of immense beauty.