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Tolkien’s Modern Reading

May 25, 2021

Holly Ordway Tolkiens Modern Reading jacketTolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth beyond the Middle Ages (Word on Fire Academic, 2021) is advertised as a ‘major corrective’ to the idea 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’ (to quote the jacket blurb). We were eager to read it, not least to see what Holly Ordway would make of an argument – that Tolkien distanced himself from modern (contemporary) literature – which was put to rest some time ago. See, for example, our article ‘Reading’ in The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006, second edition 2017) or even, much earlier, L. Sprague de Camp’s passing remark in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers (1976) that ‘practically anything in English literature, from Beowulf down, Tolkien had read and could talk intelligently about’ (p. 244).

We were also curious to learn if Ordway had identified more works that Tolkien read which we had not yet taken into account. Indeed she has, and in doing so takes admirable care in her method of proof. ‘For instance,’ she notes, ‘although Tolkien refers on several occasions to Jekyll and Hyde, I do not believe we can take this as definitively establishing that he had read Stevenson’s novel (though it is probable that he did so), because the Jekyll–Hyde dichotomy has become a commonplace. Here the critic must make a judgment call on each individual allusion’ (pp. 30–1). Is it likely that Tolkien read John Buchan’s Midwinter, The Blanket of the Dark, and Huntingtower, in which scholars have found parallels with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit? Yes, says Ordway, it is ‘highly likely’, but ‘it is not certain that Tolkien read them, and therefore we must handle them differently than true “certains”’ (p. 31). She lists her ‘certains’ in a useful tabular appendix, comprising ‘148 authors and more than 200 titles’ (p. 295).

Ordway defines ‘modern reading’ as works of fiction, poetry, and drama in the English language published no earlier than 1850. One could quibble with this distinction, and Ordway does so herself: modernity, she admits, ‘did not begin either in 1850 or in any other particular year, but some sort of cut-off point is necessary’ (p. 27). 1850 is a convenient date to delimit works Tolkien would have considered modern, though it is also inconvenient as it eliminates from discussion authors we know he read, such as Scott, Macaulay, and Swift. Moreover, the term modern has more than one definition, both chronological and conceptual.*

Not without reason, Ordway blames Humphrey Carpenter for the impression that Tolkien was not interested in modern (i.e. post-1849) literature. In The Inklings (1978) Carpenter wrote that Tolkien’s ‘roots were buried deep in early literature, and the major names in twentieth-century writing meant little or nothing to him’ (p. 158). Carpenter’s 1977 biography of Tolkien suggests this also. For those of us who read Carpenter’s books at or soon after publication, there was little else in print at that time which might call Carpenter into question, and the views of Tolkien’s authorized biographer carried special weight. More than forty years later, much has been added to our knowledge of Tolkien’s life and interests, as more resources have come to light or been opened for use, and one can now see how Carpenter’s statements may be flawed. Ordway claims that ‘Carpenter’s account of Tolkien’s creative life’ has tended ‘to squelch further study of Tolkien’s modern reading’ (p. 7), but this may be true only for those who read Carpenter’s work uncritically, or consult little or nothing else in the now very extensive literature of Tolkien studies.

Though Carpenter’s Biography and The Inklings aren’t correct in every respect, they have much of value, and don’t deserve the heavy weight of criticism Ordway persistently lays upon them. She also takes Carpenter unfairly to task for his edition of Tolkien’s letters (1981), which she says ‘reflects something of Carpenter’s unsympathetic attitude toward his subject. Both in his selection of letters and in his editing of them we can observe an agenda at work that serves to make Tolkien seem impatient, defensive, and uninterested in anything modern’ (p. 12). There was indeed an ‘agenda’ in the editing of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, but it is to be explained by marketing decisions rather than personal bias. Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien as collaborator, was faced with an immense number of surviving letters, many of which had to be left out of what was intended only as a selection, in order to have a book of reasonable size which could be sold at a reasonable price.† Also, to create a book with potentially the most interest to Tolkien fans, there was a deliberate focus on letters in which Tolkien discussed his Middle-earth stories, with the result that other subjects were given less attention than many of us would like, such as Tolkien’s family life, his academic career, and his dealings with publishers. One can regret this approach while understanding its practicality.

It was for these reasons that some letters were truncated, some of them severely – chiefly to extract information relevant to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and ‘The Silmarillion’. One need not find anything sinister about it. It’s unfortunate, for example, that Tolkien’s letter of 31 December 1960 to Professor L.W. Forster (Letters, p. 303) ends just at an intriguing reference to William Morris, making it ‘impossible to say whether Tolkien provided more explanation or context for his remark’ (Ordway, p. 323, n. 54). We do not ourselves have access to the original letter, so can’t answer the question; and yet, it seems likely that if Tolkien had had more to say about an influence on The Lord of the Rings, Carpenter would have printed it. We can, at least, defend Carpenter in another instance: on p. 51 of her book, Ordway refers to Tolkien’s letter to Charles Furth of 31 August 1937, in which he writes that Carroll’s Through the Looking-glass is ‘much closer [to The Hobbit than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland] in every way’. ‘Unfortunately,’ Ordway says in a footnote, ‘Carpenter has chosen to omit the rest of the sentence . . . so we lack any explanation Tolkien might have provided for the comparison.’ Here we do have access to the letter, from the Allen & Unwin archive, and can confirm that Tolkien stopped writing at that point, and Carpenter omitted nothing.

In another note, Ordway complains that the index to Letters omits any citation to the Virgin Mary, ‘despite a number of references to her by Tolkien’ in the text, an omission which ‘reflects Carpenter’s lack of interest’ (p. 12). In fact, we have long thought that the original index to Letters (before it was replaced by our expanded index in 2000) may not have been Carpenter’s own work. Its contents and construction suggest that it was made by someone with much less familiarity with the letters, and with Tolkien, than Carpenter himself certainly had. So one should not accuse him of a lack of interest in Roman Catholicism, or in Christianity, because of an omitted reference; it may have been out of his hands (though one could perhaps argue that an editor should bear final responsibility for his book’s apparatus). Ordway also criticizes Carpenter’s criteria in the selection of letters to publish, referring to him as ‘an atheist who had rejected an Anglican upbringing . . . and who described Tolkien’s Christian values as “uptight”’ (p. 262n). In fact there are many references to Tolkien’s faith in Letters: we needed a third of a column in our revised index to cite them.

Ordway’s account of Tolkien’s interest in post-1849 literature, while not entirely original, usefully adds to our knowledge. Her argument that Tolkien read more modern works than is generally known is valid, and she makes it with impressive industry. She does not do so entirely for its own sake, however, but to support the main thrust of her book, which is the identification of literary sources and influences in Tolkien’s Middle-earth fiction other than the medieval works on which critics have tended to focus. She spends not a little space defending source-hunting (or influence-hunting) in regard to Tolkien, presumably to fend off critics like ourselves, who object that Tolkien’s works can be made to seem ‘less original creation than a patchwork of second-hand ideas, [in which] every element in his books must have a pre-existing source, leaving no room for independent invention, even by an author whose powers of invention were profound’ (Reader’s Guide, 2017, pp. 1247–8).

‘As we consider the modern works that Tolkien read,’ Ordway writes,

we will see that some of them can properly be described as ‘sources’ for his own writings. We find Tolkien using this term himself when he calls E.A. Wyke-Smith’s The Marvellous Land of Snergs ‘an unconscious source-book’ – an interesting turn of phrase, as it shows that he was aware that his imagination absorbed and used what he read on a level that was recognizable later, but not necessarily conscious at the time. [pp. 33–4]

Tolkien ‘recognized that he did not write in isolation and knew that he could not have done so even if he had wanted to’ (p. 41). Conventional wisdom, Ordway says, following Diana Glyer’s research in The Company They Keep and again criticizing Carpenter, has it that Tolkien was immune to influence, when in fact he was subject to it and made use of a variety of sources.

In her chapter on William Morris, for example, after recounting the aspects of Tolkien’s more elaborate prose style inspired by Morris (as Tolkien attested), Ordway discusses his comment in his letter to Professor Forster that ‘the Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon [in The Lord of the Rings] owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme [but] they owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains’ (Letters, p. 303). Ordway draws from this stray remark an argument culminating in the suggestion that ‘Tolkien’s Orcs were, in his creative imagination, mediated through Morris’s Huns and Romans’ (p. 178), who are presented as evil, corrupt, foul enemies in the two works in question. She looks for parallels and tries to divine Tolkien’s thinking, referring to ‘possible literary influences’ (p. 182). But in her summary of this chapter she states more strongly: ‘We have carefully followed the traces and discovered that these works contributed not only to Tolkien’s construction of the landscape through which Frodo and Sam journey en route to Mordor, but probably helped to shape Tolkien’s creation of the Orcs as he imagined Morris’s Huns and Romans into his own sub-created world’ (p. 183). Although Ordway’s theory is intriguing, it seems to be directed only at The Lord of the Rings, whereas Orcs developed earlier, in ‘Silmarillion’ texts. One could also argue that Tolkien already had sufficiently strong, more direct, and attested sources for his Orcs in the Old English tradition and in historical barbarians from the East (as seen from the European point of view).

We found more plausible ideas in the following chapter, on H. Rider Haggard, where Ordway suggests interesting parallels between the ‘facsimile’ map in Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and Thror’s Map in The Hobbit, and between the ‘Sherd of Amenartas’ in Haggard’s She, densely covered with inscriptions, and the Dwarves’ Book of Mazarbul in Moria. We were also particularly struck by her comment that ‘images and scenes need not have a single source’ (p. 190, referring to her comparison of the caverns of Helm’s Deep to a treasure chamber in King Solomon’s Mines, while Tolkien himself noted Cheddar Caves in Somerset as his caverns’ inspiration) and her admission that some parallels between Ayesha and Galadriel ‘may be fortuitous correspondences’. Observations like these, allowing for alternate sources and for chance, should constantly inform any attempt at source-hunting.

On the other hand, Ordway remarks that the ‘Head of the Ethiopian’, a mountain top in She ‘carved into a massive head, which the travelers see as their ship approached its African destination’, ‘is suggestive of the Pillars of the Kings’ in The Lord of the Rings (p. 193). But these seem to us distinctly different, and the Pillars have real-world counterparts closer in conception than Haggard’s ‘Ethiopian’, such as the Colossi of Memnon in ancient Egypt. Ordway also suggests that the Sherd of Amenartas made such a strong imprint on Tolkien’s imagination that ‘it seems possible that it contributed something to the eventual formation of the One Ring’ (p. 199): well, many things are possible, but not necessarily so.

In the course of her book, besides her chapters on Morris and Haggard, Ordway explores children’s literature in Tolkien’s youth (fairy-tale collections such as Knatchbull-Hugessen’s Stories for My Children, Lewis Carroll, Andrew Lang) and later (Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, Kenneth Grahame, et al.); George MacDonald; ‘boys’ adventures’ such as Crockett’s The Black Douglas, the works of John Buchan, and Barrie’s Peter Pan; science fiction, in which Ordway classifies E.R. Eddison’s ‘Zimiamvia’ stories; ‘fine fabling’, a category which includes Dunsany and Thompson, Algernon Blackwood and J.H. Shorthouse; and a very miscellaneous group with Sinclair Lewis (Babbit), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Hiawatha), T.S. Eliot, and G.K. Chesterton, among others.

She pays particular, and particularly lengthy, attention to Shorthouse’s John Inglesant (1881). Ordway declares that Tolkien took ‘an abiding interest’ in this curious romance. She even imagines him in 1904 standing with his mother in Duchess Road, Birmingham, as she points out ‘the house where John Inglesant was written’ (p. 1), though it seems more likely that when Mabel Tolkien left hospital in late June 1904, after treatment for diabetes, she went directly to Rednal to recuperate. Ordway cites Tolkien’s remark to Christopher Bretherton that John Inglesant was ‘queer, exciting, and debatable’ (Letters, 16 July 1964, p. 348), and she draws upon two 1975 articles by Canon Norman Power, in the Tolkien Society journal Mallorn and the Roman Catholic publication The Tablet.‡ In each of these, Power relates Tolkien’s mention, in a letter to Power, of a house in Duchess Road ‘of supreme importance in my personal history’ to his gift to Power, with the same letter, of a spare copy of the annual Essays by Divers Hands with an essay on Shorthouse and John Inglesant. (Shorthouse had been a Churchwarden at Ladywood, Birmingham, where much later Power was Vicar.) The implication of the gift, Power reckoned, is that the Duchess Road house was in sight of the Inglesant house, and John Inglesant – with its battle between Good and Evil, its strange creatures, and its scenes of pity and forgiveness – was an unknown early influence on The Lord of the Rings, one ‘unnoticed by the critics, but of which the great man was himself aware’ (quoted in Ordway, p. 239).

Ordway admits that Power ‘does little to substantiate this claim, but I agree with his basic thrust, for it seems improbable that Tolkien would have been so interested in a man whose writings were of no particular account with him’ (p. 239). She believes that John Inglesant, which in its time was admired and provoked discussion, attracted Tolkien who was interested not only in matters of Catholicism, but also ‘in books that imaginatively presented, or appeared to present, an Anglican point of view and provoked theological debate’ (p. 241). She declares, on the strength of Tolkien’s letter to Christopher Bretherton and his late correspondence with Norman Power, that John Inglesant ‘stayed in Tolkien’s memory throughout his life’ and influenced him at various points, especially in its theme of Pity which is echoed repeatedly in The Lord of the Rings.

Ordway’s argument is forceful, but her proof is tenuous. Pity, of course, is by no means unique to Shorthouse’s story, if one wanted to search for an external influence, and was an element of Tolkien’s personal faith. When he wrote about John Inglesant to Christopher Bretherton in 1964, only ten years after The Lord of the Rings began to be published in three volumes and to the puzzlement of some reviewers, it was by no means complimentary. Shorthouse was ‘a mere amateur (like myself)’ when he ‘suddenly produced a long book’ which ‘few now find it possible to read. . . . I think he never wrote any more, but wasted the rest of his time trying to explain what he had and what he had not meant in John Inglesant. . . . I have always tried to take him as a melancholy warning . . .’ (Letters, p. 348). He certainly does not look back on the experience of reading Shorthouse’s book with anything like nostalgia or gratitude.

More telling is a third, post-Biography account by Norman Power not cited in Ordway’s bibliography. Published in 1993 in Mythlore, it shows that Power now knew that the importance to Tolkien of the house in Duchess Road was not due to any relationship it had with John Inglesant, but because it was there (in the Faulkner home, at 37 Duchess Road) he met Edith, his future wife. Power still had the impression, from the book Tolkien sent him, that John Inglesant could have been a literary influence, but he does nothing more than comment on parallels of renunciation in The Hobbit (Bilbo giving up the Arkenstone) and The Lord of the Rings (Frodo renouncing the Ring, though in the end he cannot). It may be that Tolkien sent Power Essays by Divers Hands only because of the connection of Power’s church with Shorthouse, and because Tolkien happened to have an extra copy at hand, presumably from his membership in the Royal Society of Literature (publisher of the Essays).

As we read Ordway’s book, each of us in turn, we took many pages of notes. Word on Fire, the publisher of Tolkien’s Modern Reading, kindly sent us a copy for review, and we felt obliged to be thorough. Here are a few of our shorter comments:

— It is probably an overstatement to say that ‘Tolkien maintained a watching brief over developments in children’s literature well beyond the youth of his four children’ (p. 62, italics ours) simply because the first of Mary Norton’s ‘Borrowers’ books (1952–61) were in the Tolkien household.

— The 1962 volume The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book, as published with more than one poem at Rayner Unwin’s suggestion, is by no means ‘physically similar to the [Beatrix] Potter books’ (p. 65), but in a much larger format. Ordway was presumably thinking of Tolkien’s original conception for publishing his ‘Bombadil’ poem by itself.

— Ordway suggests (p. 220) that Tolkien’s ‘concept of the Ban of the Valar and the fall of Númenor was shaped in part by his admiration for Perelandra’ by C.S. Lewis, which reimagines the Fall of Man. But the ban against the Númenóreans sailing west is present in the earliest version of The Fall of Númenor, circa 1936–7, predating Perelandra by a few years.

— In her discussion of Tolkien’s awareness of the works of Lord Dunsany, and referring to ‘a 1919 review essay [in the New York Times] on Dunsany [which] includes praise of The Gods of Pegāna’, Ordway comments that ‘Tolkien followed the news and so saw many reviews that would have escaped his newspaper-averse friend C.S. Lewis. Since Dunsany’s fantastic cosmology was taken seriously by readers and reviewers, how much more – Tolkien perhaps thought to himself – would readers appreciate a world with a far richer linguistic and literary foundation, such as Middle-earth? It would not have been an unreasonable conclusion for him to draw’ (p. 230). We have long read newspapers, too, but no one could reasonably assume that we’ve noticed everything that passed before our eyes. In any event, was Tolkien following the news as closely in 1916–17, when he began The Book of Lost Tales, or earlier when elements of his mythology appeared in his poetry, as he did in the later years for which we know his habits best? And was he thinking of publication, and a readership, when he began his legendarium? Tolkien kept ‘The Silmarillion’ private, or within a small circle of friends, until The Hobbit became an unlooked-for success. In our Companion and Guide article ‘Reading’ we suggest that if Tolkien had not read any works by Lord Dunsany earlier, ‘he might have been inspired to do so by a review in the June 1920 issue of the Stapeldon Magazine describing The Fall of Gondolin, which he had read to the Exeter [College] Essay Club in March that year, as being in the manner of Dunsany’ (2017 edn., p. 1058).

— ‘[Francis] Thompson’s highly sentimental and ornate style has not aged well, and he is now out of print and out of fashion’ (pp. 230–1). Whatever else may be true, Thompson is by no means out of print, and probably never has been. Indeed, since he is out of copyright, there are many reprint editions available.

— Tolkien’s personal library was indeed dispersed after his death (p. 275). It was also dispersed, in various senses, at other times during Tolkien’s life, as he changed his living and working arrangements, and thus the space available for books.

If Tolkien’s Modern Reading offers so many debatable points, it is only because it contains so much of note in its lengthy text. Holly Ordway’s book deserves a place on any shelf of Tolkien studies, and we will be making grateful use of it to improve our Tolkien Companion and Guide.


*  John Magoun has suggested (on the Tolkien Society’s Facebook page), and we would agree, that Humphrey Carpenter had in mind Modern literature, with a capital M, ‘referring to the minimalist, ironic, and arch style of the early 20th century’s avant-garde art movements. Tolkien’s extensive reading of 20th-century works focuses on genre fiction and light pop fiction, the kind that doesn’t win prizes and isn’t taught in modern literature courses.’ Ordway’s subject, on the other hand, is modern literature in a chronological sense. It’s clear that Tolkien read widely, including authors of his own day, and probably not excluding some who would be considered Modern. Ordway has certainly kept an eye out, as when she wonders about possible contact between Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh at a 1939 Newman Society (i.e. Roman Catholic) dinner, at which Waugh was among the guests. ‘Humphrey Carpenter,’ she writes, ‘with his unfriendly, or at least uninterested, attitude toward Tolkien’s Catholicism, is likely to have underplayed the importance of [such] interactions’ (p. 262). One could also imagine that Tolkien and Waugh were both there but didn’t meet.

† Rayner Unwin once told us that ‘letters don’t sell’, that is, as a category of books. And it’s true that sales of the first edition of Letters were disappointing. There was no need for a reprint until the Unwin Paperbacks edition of 1990. Reportedly 92% of the original American edition copies were remaindered; it then had to be brought back in 1991, on the eve of the Tolkien centenary year. Letters now sells consistently in paperback, augmented since 2000 with our new index.

‡  More fully, Norman Power’s three articles were ‘Tolkien’s Walk’, Mallorn 9 (1975), pp. 16–17, 19; ‘Ring of Doom’, The Tablet, 20/27 December 1975, pp. 1247–8; and ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’, Mythlore 19, no. 1, whole no. 71 (Winter 1993), pp. 40–1.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Thomas permalink
    May 25, 2021 8:42 am

    Christina and Wayne –

    Good stuff below on the Ordway book: thanks very much for writing such a careful and painstaking review. Your discussion of JRRT’s letters makes me hope that there will be another volume of additional letters that had to be omitted from the first one. Is that a project you are undertaking with the estate? I certainly hope so!


    • May 25, 2021 8:53 am

      Hi, Paul. This is a perennial question. We’ve offered to produce a new, much enlarged edition of Tolkien’s letters several times over the years, and would still be glad to do so. But there’s nothing under discussion that we know of. At least now, as opposed to 1981, one sees more multi-volume collections of letters: those by C.S. Lewis, William Morris, and T.S. Eliot come right to mind.

  2. Jeff Scott permalink
    May 25, 2021 9:47 am

    Wonderful discussion/review. No mention in your discussion (and I presume of Ordway’s book itself) of P. G. Wodehouse. So many of the hobbit first names (particularly rejected names in The Return of the Shadow) sound like those of Wodehouse’s characters. And then there’s Tolkien’s comment, somewhere or other, that Smith of Wooten Major was titled thus to sound like the title of a Wodehouse book, a reference to Wodehouse’s Psmith stories. My familiarity with Tolkien scholarship is limited, but I’ve never seen any reference to Wodehouse.

    • May 25, 2021 8:02 pm

      Ordway does have a few references to Wodehouse, and to the Psmith novels. We couldn’t mention everything in our review.

  3. Bill Hicklin permalink
    May 25, 2021 9:58 am

    “Reportedly 92% of the original American edition copies were remaindered”

    If I had known this, I probably would have treated my now jacketless, battered, dog-eared, written-in copy with more care!

    • May 25, 2021 8:09 pm

      Copies of the 1981 Houghton Mifflin edition can be found for reasonable sums; buy one to keep clean, and use your old copy for reference. The American edition was 100,000 copies, between 8,000 sold and 92,000 remaindered (not pulped), so a large number of likely survivals even forty years later.

  4. May 25, 2021 1:51 pm

    Thank you so much for this extensive review. I had been put off by the marketing blurb and the thematical thrust it provided, and was close to not getting the book as it seemed to have missed quite a bit of research of the last decades but you have put this into context and I am glad you did.

  5. Grace permalink
    May 26, 2021 10:06 am

    About the great newspaper debate – whether Tolkien read them c. 1916-17 – wouldn’t it be fair to say that he did read perhaps a fair amount of newspapers during the Great War? Especially when he was recovering in hospitals in 1917 (and 1918)? Because of the time in history, even people who didn’t read the paper much probably read it more to keep up with world events. What do you think?

    Thanks for the detailed review!

    • May 27, 2021 7:26 am

      One can speculate about this, and certainly many people did read newspapers then (as almost the only source of news), but there’s no evidence that Tolkien read papers then as much as he did in later years. That’s our point, or one of them: did he read the papers, and if so, did he see reviews for Dunsany’s books, and if so again, did he think as Ordway suggests he might have thought? Many ifs.

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