Tolkien’s Modern Reading. Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages    
Holly Ordway, 2021, 382 pages

J.R.R. Tolkien has had millions of readers since he published The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and he continues to have them. Why? For them the answer is obvious. They read and re-read his books because they enjoy them.

But Tolkien has his critics. Some might allege that his books are just children’s books and therefore cannot be taken as serious literature. A linked criticism is that Tolkien is a medievalist: is he popular because his books are an escape into a children’s wonderland or an idealised medieval world?

Holly Ordway has written this book in part to show how unfounded this criticism is.

She points a finger (politely) at Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, who, in her view, is responsible for a myth that Tolkien was some sort of medieval recluse out of touch with the modern world. Specifically Carpenter wrote in his 1977 biography: “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.” 

Ordway produces abundant evidence of Tolkien’s reading of modern works (she confines her studies to books published between 1850 and Tolkien’s death in 1973) to prove the absurdity of Carpenter’s statement.

Meticulously she demonstrates Tolkien’s familiarity with the writers of his time: 148 authors are listed and more than 200 works. While in no way denying that Tolkien was a lover of and accomplished expert in medieval literature, Ordway shows how Tolkien was fully in touch with the modern world and its problems. The accusation of medievalist escapism is simply false.

In proving this, Holly is given the ammunition to counter-attack. Author of children’s books? Tolkien did not see this as a reproach. He loved such books for children and for himself. Not only did he read them as a child. He continued to read them all his life and to write them.

There is something snobbish and indeed unchristian about disparaging children’s books. It can be a sign of looking down on children and forgetting the need to become like them in order to enter the kingdom. Children’s books can have enduring value and universal appeal.

Having made this point, Ordway proceeds to another.

Many of the books which Tolkien read were immensely popular at the time yet few of them are remembered now. Ordway surveys scores of books which were best sellers a hundred years ago and have now sunk into oblivion.

Why have they not survived? Why, instead, is Tolkien still avidly read? Her conclusion is that they fall away not because of their lack of moral ideas but through their lack of substance and human authenticity. Tolkien deliberately eschews moralising. He does not see it as his job as an author. But what he does do convincingly is to depict a credible world with a worldview that gives enduring strength to his writings.

Having successfully demolished these criticisms of Tolkien’s work, Ordway might have opened Tolkien to a different criticism.

Her painstaking research (and it is only fair to point out that this book is not a pain to read, but very entertaining – she has done a lot of the hard work for us) uncovers many of the debts that Tolkien owes to his predecessors.

Debunking the claim that Tolkien had no familiarity with modern authors can lead to a swing in the opposite direction.

Once it is clear that Tolkien has read and deeply appreciated a lot of modern literature and is happy to acknowledge his debt to it, one can go in the opposite direction and contend that he is a plagiarist, simply harvesting stories and styles invented by others.

In answer to this, Ordway makes and offers detailed studies of how Tolkien enters into the books he reads, assimilates their material, develops it and enriches it when introducing it into his Middle-earth. His success was due to the fact that his world view was so much richer than that of many of his sources (in particular those now fallen into oblivion).

Ordway’s research opens us up to a kaleidoscope of issues. Tolkien’s interest in names leads him to authors as diverse as Lord Dunsany, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, P.G. Woodhouse and E.A. Wyke-Smith, whose The Marvellous Land of Snergs proves to be “an unconscious source-book for the Hobbits”. Snergs are like Hobbits – in size, longevity and kindliness. They are “like pixies, who finally disappeared about the reign of Henry VIII”.

Somewhat surprisingly, Orcs are linked to Romans. In William Morris, Tolkien finds that “Romans are the enemy in The House of the Wolfings, where Morris reverses the stereotypes of barbarian tribes and civilized Romans.” We are told that “the nature of the Orcs remained a vexed question for Tolkien throughout his life”, and he wondered where to fit them into his theory and system. In connecting Orcs and imperialist Romans, Tolkien “might also have been hinting at the dangers of a corrupt and decadent civilization. He had seen at first-hand, in both World Wars, that horrifically destructive wars could be instigated by nations that boasted a high degree of ‘civilization.’”

Then there is Ayesha in Rider Haggard’s She. Ayesha is conditionally immortal. She can be compared with Tolkien’s Galadriel, both of them extremely old and beautiful, dressed in white, powerful, with an immediate effect on men. Some have compared Galadriel with the Virgin Mary. However, “Tolkien does not make Galadriel a perfect Marian figure, nor does he simply transpose the dangerous attraction of Ayesha into Middle-earth, but rather creates a powerful female character who believably chooses the path of humility.”

Returning to Carpenter, we may ask ourselves why is he against Tolkien?

Carpenter admitted that his intention was to topple Tolkien off his perch, to tarnish the aura surrounding him. One might say, then, surely all that is needed is to ignore Carpenter? That won’t do, unfortunately. Carpenter is the author of the best-known biography of Tolkien and until a better and more accurate one is written it is likely that Carpenter’s erroneous views of Tolkien will continue to be influential.

To use a current term, Carpenter in some way is seeking to cancel Tolkien’s reputation. Ordway has taken up the cudgels. In doing so, she is also opening up exciting new avenues for Tolkien research.

Father Andrew Byrne is chaplain at Grandpont House, a residence for students at the University of Oxford, in England.