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Tolkien's Modern reading

Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages

by Holly Ordway


Tolkien’s Modern Reading addresses the claim that Tolkien “read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it.” This claim, made by one of his first biographers, has led to the widely accepted view that Tolkien was dismissive of modern culture, and that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are fundamentally medieval and nostalgic in their inspiration.

In fact, as Holly Ordway demonstrates in this major corrective, Tolkien enjoyed a broad range of contemporary works, engaged with them in detail and depth, and even named specific titles as sources for and influences upon his creation of Middle-earth.

Drawing on meticulous archival research, Ordway shows how Tolkien appreciated authors as diverse as James Joyce and Beatrix Potter, Rider Haggard and Edith Nesbit, William Morris and Kenneth Grahame. She surveys the work of figures such as S.R. Crockett and J.H. Shorthouse, who are forgotten now but made a significant impression on Tolkien. He even read Americans like Longfellow and Sinclair Lewis, assimilating what he read in characteristically complex ways, both as positive examples and as influence-by-opposition.

Tolkien’s Modern Reading not only enables a clearer understanding of Tolkien’s epic, it also illuminates his views on topics such as technology, women, empire, and race. For Tolkien’s genius was not simply backward-looking: it was intimately connected with the literature of his own time and concerned with the issues and crises of modernity. Ordway’s ground-breaking study reveals that Tolkien brought to the workings of his fantastic imagination a deep knowledge of both the facts and the fictions of the modern world.

Publisher:  Word on Fire Academic

Release Date:  January 25, 2021

Format: Hardcover, cloth with dust jacket, full-color photo gallery

Pages:  392 pages


Dr. Holly Ordway is Fellow of Faith and Culture at the Word on Fire Institute and Visiting Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

She is the author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith, and Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, and has contributed chapters to volumes such as C.S. Lewis at Poets' Corner, The Inklings and King Arthur, The Story of the Cosmos, and The Pivotal Players.

She is also a subject editor for the Journal of Inklings Studies and a published poet. Her website is


This is a work of the first importance. Holly Ordway’s painstaking scholarship, her close reading of primary sources in their proper context, challenges, and thoroughly revises, the image of Tolkien as someone who took no interest in contemporary culture. Ordway also offers a fine critical understanding of why and how Tolkien drew on those sources, an understanding that will enrich anyone’s experience in re-reading the legendarium. Her book is itself highly readable, devoid of jargon and presented with real elegance and wit, a delight for the general reader, but also a groundwork for future Tolkien studies.

— Malcolm Guite

Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, and author of Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination

A distinguished work of detailed literary scholarship that is enjoyable and accessible for all readers. Ordway has undertaken a careful, sometimes combative, psycho-bibliography that shatters any sense that Tolkien was simply a clueless and nostalgic curmudgeon. Rather, she gives us a portrait of a nuanced thinker and reader who was generous and aware, Catholic and conscientious, creatively engaged with, but not bound by, his own culture.

— Michael Tomko

Professor of Humanities at Villanova University and author of  Beyond the Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Poetic Faith from Coleridge to Tolkien

In this important book, Ordway enhances our notions of influence and enriches our understanding of Tolkien’s life and work. Supple prose; a strong, clear voice; inspiring breadth; genuine insight. Tolkien’s Modern Reading addresses and corrects a multitude of misguided and outdated notions. It is a welcome, even remarkable, achievement.

— Diana Pavlac Glyer

Professor of English at Azusa Pacific University and author of The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community

As a medievalist myself, I am well aware of how crucial Tolkien’s own primary field of the Middle Ages was to him as both scholar and artist. But he was also well and widely read outside that area and this has long seemed to me insufficiently appreciated. Holly Ordway in this well-researched study focuses on another important area, the modern era in which Tolkien himself lived, and shows how he engaged with the fiction, poetry, and drama in English of his contemporaries which he can be shown to have read. This is a valuable addition to Tolkien scholarship covering much little-known material and showing how the modern authors under consideration contributed to the artistic development of one of the major authors of the twentieth century.

— Richard C. West

author of Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist

Holly Ordway’s Tolkien’s Modern Reading is a much-needed study that fills a noticeable gap in Tolkien scholarship. This is a well-written, interesting, and engaging read that is thoroughly researched and clearly communicated. Ordway challenges the common assumption that Tolkien was not interested in modern literature, demonstrating that he was a man who loved the riches of the past and yet engaged with his own time. This may be the first extensive work on Tolkien’s modern reading, creating a foundation for a new path within Tolkien scholarship. Indeed, this will become the starting point for any literary scholar wanting to engage Tolkien’s modern reading.

— Lisa Coutras Terris

author of Tolkien's Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth



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