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Tolkien’s Words and Worlds: A Landmark Conference

September 7, 2023

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September 2, 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of J.R.R. Tolkien. One of the ways this was commemorated was by a two-day academic conference at Oxford University, where Tolkien spent nearly his entire academic career (and nearly all his adult life). It was a marker of the significance of the date that there were in fact two Tolkien events in Oxford that weekend, the other being the Tolkien Society’s Oxonmoot. Both events were full to capacity. 

The Oxford University conference, Tolkien’s Words and Worlds, was distinctive in its approach, taking the 50th anniversary as an opportunity to assess where Tolkien scholarship is, how it has developed, and where it has scope to grow in the future. A truly international event, speakers and attendees traveled from the UK, US, Japan, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Poland, Czechia, and elsewhere to attend—a fitting way to honor the multi-lingual Tolkien, who had friends across many nations.

The conference itself was held at Corpus Christi College. Tolkien’s own colleges at Oxford were Exeter (where he was an undergraduate), and then Pembroke, where he was the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, and later Merton, where he was the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature until his retirement. However, as a young man Tolkien did stay at Corpus Christi College in December 1909, when he sat for his first scholarship examination for Oxford University (at which he failed to win any scholarship award; he succeeded on the second try, though), and his friend GB Smith would attend Corpus Christi when he came up to Oxford. 

The aim of the conference was, as its organizer Guiseppe Pezzini explained, “to exhibit and reflect on the range of different approaches, methodologies, and backgrounds with which Tolkien has been studied in the past 50 years, which reflects the complexity of his personality, the richness of his creative work and the breadth of his reception.” The academic world, like the rest of the world, has suffered from internal divisions and people separating into intellectual and social bubbles, but, as Pezzini pointed out, “Tolkien had provided an exceptional meeting place, for very different people united by a common interest. Just as in the ancestral music of the Ainur, the conference aims to be a polyphonic event, in which different scholarly endeavors can come together in a moment of shared reflection and celebration.”

Good food and good wine, the company of friends old and new . . .  

And that was indeed what we experienced as attendees. Over the course of the day and a half of the conference, we heard ten academic papers that covered a range of topics and methodologies. John Garth, well known for his award-winning Tolkien and the Great War and his more recent The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, set the tone for the event with an excellent paper titled “‘An Entirely Vain and False Approach’: Literary Biography and Why Tolkien Was Wrong about It.” The first part of the title is a quote from Tolkien who, as Garth pointed out, was objecting to a specific approach to literary biography that was in vogue at the time: a Freudian, psychologizing approach that placed great emphasis on ferretting out supposed psychological complexes and secrets and often ended up being reductive and distorting. Indeed, Garth pointed out that Tolkien himself engaged in a bit of literary biography in his work on Chaucer, using information about the poet’s life to draw some conclusions about his use of language. In short, understanding context is essential for understanding Tolkien’s writings and his life. 

Other papers addressed various aspects of Tolkien’s work. Michael Ward’s “Tolkien’s Faith in Fact and Fiction” considered the significance of the date of the climax of The Lord of the Rings (which is in fact at the Field of Cormallen, not at Mount Doom, as he has convincingly argued), showing how it ties in with both a key event in Tolkien’s life and, he argues, with Tolkien’s spirituality.

Several papers considered Tolkien’s sources: ancient, medieval, modern. Hamish Williams spoke on “Classical Ideas in Tolkien,” Łukasz Neubaur on “Beowulf, Maldon and All That: A Tangled Web of Tolkien’s Anglo-Saxon Scholarship and Fiction,” and Grace Khuri on “Kipling’s Medievalism and Tolkien’s The Book of Lost Tales.” I spoke on “Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Past Perspectives, Present Insights, Future Study,” drawing on my research for Tolkien’s Modern Reading and suggesting that there is a lot of exciting work ahead with regard to considering what Tolkien read in post-medieval literature, and how this helps us to get a more nuanced and substantial understanding of his thought and his creative imagination.

Lastly, another group of papers considered Tolkien in the context of his academic work and theories of authorship and canonicity. Simon Horobin’s excellent paper “‘Never Trust a Philologist’: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Place of Philology in English Studies” was illuminating of the academic context that Tolkien found himself in when he arrived at Pembroke as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. Yoko Hemmi spoke on “Tolkien, ‘British’ identity, and the Celtic studies,” Michaël Devaux on “Tolkien’s Textual Variants and the Authorial Status,” and Giuseppe Pezzini on “Tolkien’s Language Invention and Literary Theory.” 

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The papers were short—only 20 minutes each—so we had time as well to chat with fellow attendees over coffee and lunch and during the tours of the two Tolkien exhibitions. Both Exeter College and Merton College had set up special exhibits of Tolkien items for us to view, which was a real treat. I was delighted to see the very copy of William Morris’s Some Hints on Pattern Designing that Tolkien received as the Skeat Prize at Exeter College—and amused to discover that (despite his love of Morris’s work overall), he never actually read this particular volume: as the Exeter archivist pointed out, its pages are uncut! 

It was abundantly clear from the whole conference—the conversations over coffee as well as the papers—that these are exciting days for Tolkien scholarship. And I was encouraged as well by the spirit of collaboration and support amongst scholars, and the fact that the attendees ranged from seasoned scholars with multiple books, to keen graduate students working on their PhDs, as well as many people who were there simply because of their interest in Tolkien and his writings. 

In addition to this conference, a weekly lecture series will be hosted in October and November, starting with Stuart Lee’s “How to write The Lord of the Rings” and Michael Ward’s “Peak Middle-earth: Why Mount Doom is not the Climax of The Lord of the Rings.” 

Michael Ward shares a toast to J.R.R. Tolkien. (Photo by Ignacio Saavedra.)

Perhaps the highlight of the whole conference was the dinner, in the stunningly beautiful dining hall at Corpus Christi. Good food and good wine, the company of friends old and new, all enjoying lively conversation: what better tribute could there be on the very anniversary of Tolkien’s death? And indeed, it was fitting that Michael Ward led us in a toast in his honor, and we all raised a glass “To J.R.R. Tolkien!”