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Will the Real J.R.R. Tolkien Please Stand Up?

January 25, 2021


I am delighted to announce, at last, the release of my book Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages. I’m honored beyond words that it should be the inaugural publication of the new Word on Fire Academic imprint.

As the title of my book indicates, it’s a study of Tolkien’s engagement with modern literature, which turns out to be much more extensive than anyone previously realized, myself included. I was surprised, for example, to find that one kind of modern literature that he had an enthusiasm for was detective fiction. But given that my research was much like a detective story, this discovery was highly appropriate!

How did this book get started?

We could go back to when, as a young teenager, I read Tolkien’s great essay “On Fairy-stories.” I was already a huge admirer of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but it was at this point that I realized Tolkien had also written about the genre of fantasy—what it was and how it worked. His analysis of fairy-stories planted in me a seed of interest in literary criticism.

Another marker would be exactly twenty years ago, winter 2001, when I received my PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I’d written my dissertation on the history of the modern fantasy novel, tracing its origins before Tolkien and following its development in the wake of his transformative effect on the genre.

A few years after that, I was teaching college literature, and still thinking about The Lord of the Rings. I began to wonder how much of that earlier fantasy Tolkien himself had read, and whether it had any effect on his writings. In 2009, I read Diana Pavlac Glyer’s groundbreaking study of the Inklings, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. She revealed that Tolkien had in fact been influenced by his fellow Inklings: he was not, as had been claimed so often before, an un-influenceable ‘bandersnatch.’ And I read John Garth’s brilliant Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, where he shows how Tolkien’s experiences as a young man before and during World War I were formative for his later imaginative writings. This brought home to me the importance of Tolkien’s modern context: he had fought in the trenches in the catastrophic, culturally transformative Great War—how could he be unaffected by that? It also highlighted the importance of considering chronology: Tolkien created his legendarium over his entire adult lifetime.

It seemed to me that the somewhat static picture I had of Tolkien—of a tweed-wearing, elderly, pipe-smoking Oxford don poring over medieval manuscripts—was, although not exactly incorrect, not a very high-resolution portrait.

It was around this time, in 2011, that I happened to broach the topic with my friend, the C.S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward. He thought it was a fascinating line of inquiry. “I’ve always wondered where The Lord of the Rings came from,” he said. “Indeed, I once asked my tutor at Oxford which writers paved the way for Tolkien and he didn’t give me a very convincing answer. Perhaps you could solve the mystery.” This was the tipping point: I decided to work in earnest to find out!

The mystery was how this supposedly medievally-inspired work should have become so phenomenally popular in the modern day. I knew about Tolkien’s deep roots in Old and Middle English literature, and his love for Beowulf, the Kalevala, and the Norse sagas, but that didn’t seem to be a sufficient explanation for the way his fantastic world had seized the imagination of  readers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Might there be a bridge of more recent influences linking Tolkien’s expertise in the Middle Ages to his best-selling creation of Middle-earth?

When I started, I didn’t expect to find very much: after all, Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s authorized biographer, had written that “the major names in twentieth-century writing meant little or nothing to [Tolkien]. He read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it.” Still, I knew there were at least some exceptions. In his essay “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien mentioned quite a few names of modern-day fantasy authors, and in the Letters he noted that William Morris’ books The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains had been an influence on The Lord of the Rings.

So I set out to make a list of all the modern authors (I picked 1850 as a suitable cut-off point) that I could find referenced in Tolkien’s letters and published writings. I was startled to find, almost immediately, several dozen modern authors that he knew well! And the list kept on growing, the more I researched. (By the time I finished, the total was nearly 150 different authors and more than 200 individual titles.) Like a detective finding that each clue opened further avenues for investigation, I kept on following up on all sorts of threads of research. I looked at every academic work that touched on the subject—from the magisterial J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, to the invaluable edition of On Fairy-stories edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, to Michael D.C. Drout’s compilation of Tolkien’s lectures on Beowulf. (I could go on at great length!)

I tracked down every interview with Tolkien that I could find, spending many hours in the archives of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois, and the Special Collections at Marquette University, Wisconsin. I perused Tolkien’s own unpublished letters in the British Library—on his birthday, no less!—and looked, page by page, through the Librarian’s Suggestion Book of the Oxford Union Library, to see if Tolkien had made any suggestions. (He hadn’t, though he did have overdue books from the Union Library!) I traveled to Durham, England, where I consulted the archives of the Newman Association and made a pleasing discovery about Tolkien’s involvement with the Association. I read, or listened to recordings of, reminiscences from Tolkien’s family, friends, and students.

All this bloodhound-style sleuthing not only confirmed that Tolkien knew authors like George MacDonald, William Morris, and Rider Haggard (each of whom gets a chapter of their own in my book), but disclosed that he was influenced by them in significant and often rather unexpected ways. And there were many authors he read, and even admired, who were distinct surprises: Isaac Asimov, James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Beatrix Potter, P.G. Wodehouse . . .

Along the way, I was turning up a lot more about Tolkien that rounded out the picture. He subscribed to three newspapers, evidently being very keen to keep up to date with national and international news. He had a number of female friends among his colleagues in the English faculty. He was fascinated by the latest technology, owning multiple typewriters and experimenting with tape-recorders. He didn’t detest C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles.

I visit Oxford regularly—usually twice a year—and have done so for more than a decade. Part of the experience of writing Tolkien’s Modern Reading involved spending time in the places that were important to Tolkien himself. Browsing in Blackwell’s Bookshop (where Tolkien ran up a substantial tab) . . . attending Mass at the little parish church of St. Gregory and St. Augustine, where he worshiped . . . doing research in the Bodleian Library, which he used throughout his years in Oxford . . . relaxing in the Eagle and Child pub, the favorite haunt of the Inklings . . . strolling along Addison’s Walk in Magdalen College, where Tolkien encouraged C.S. Lewis to become a Christian. All of this helped to add texture and depth to my sense of Tolkien as a man and as a writer.

One particular bit of ‘detecting’ had to do with his boyhood in Birmingham. I explored his old neighborhood on foot, visited the Birmingham Oratory to speak with the priests there, and spent many hours in the Historic England Archives to determine everything I could about the place where he grew up. With the help, eventually, of Royal Air Force aerial photographs, I even managed to pinpoint the exact location of the ‘Inglesant House’—demolished decades ago, with no extant photographs—the home of author J.H. Shorthouse, a local celebrity, famous for his best-selling novel, John Inglesant. Tolkien passed the Inglesant House every morning on his way to Mass and described the novel written there as “exciting” and “debateable.”

And, as I added books to my list, I did something that (curiously) very few writers about Tolkien seem to have done: I made a point of reading the works that he had read. Often this entailed tracking down obscure, out-of-print titles. Who now has read Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, Sheila Kaye-Smith’s A Challenge to Sirius, or Roy Campbell’s The Flaming Terrapin? It also involved reading with fresh attention many works that are mentioned in Tolkien’s published Letters, but have somehow been overlooked by scholars: the historical novels of Mary Renault, the romances of S.R. Crockett, the fantasy tales of E.A. Wyke-Smith and Edith Nesbit. And yes, the detective fiction of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton! Slowly but surely, the mists of mystery began to clear. I gained a picture of Tolkien’s creative imagination that was much more complex, nuanced, varied, and frankly, much more interesting, than what I had previously thought.

Carpenter’s claim that Tolkien “read very little modern fiction and took no serious notice of it” is, simply put, totally incorrect.

I didn’t expect to come to this conclusion. It startled me when I did—and led me to the final stage of this detective adventure. I asked: How did we end up with this faulty image of Tolkien as ‘stuck in the past’ and rejecting all modern literature culture? Why has it been so persistent, in the teeth of the evidence? These questions developed into a fascinating exploration of the history of Tolkien’s biographers, and a consideration of the way that his own personality contributed to our misunderstanding of his attitude.

Whether or not my readers agree with the particular arguments that I’ve made about any given source or influence, I believe that I’ve established beyond reasonable doubt that Tolkien did read far more widely in modern literature, and thought much more highly of it, than has hitherto been assumed. He was not simply stuck in the past, as too many have assumed. He knew the past intimately, of course, but he knew modernity too. He wore traditional tweed and colorful ornamental waistcoats, so to speak. I hope that other scholars and researchers will build on what I have done, as I have built on the efforts of those who preceded me.

In working on this project for the last ten years—a true labor of love—my admiration for Tolkien, both as a man and as a writer, has grown even stronger. I’m awed by his genius, and appreciative of his complex, many-layered personality. And I’ve found that my research has helped me to enjoy his writing more deeply—to read The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion with fresh appreciation and greater pleasure. I have written Tolkien’s Modern Reading with that end in mind: that readers of this book will likewise find it encourages them to know Middle-earth better and to relish it more richly.