Tolkien among the Moderns,
edited by Ralph C. Wood.
University of Notre Dame Press, 2015.
Paperback, 303 pages, $32.
I was first assigned to read J. R. R. Tolkien in 1968 when I was in the seventh grade. In that time of rage, rebellion, anxiety, and experimentation, young people embraced The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as part of a new literary canon that included the brilliant Catch-22, the overrated poetry of the Beats, the unsettling novels of Kurt Vonnegut, and works now deservedly almost forgotten, such as the excruciatingly bad poetry of Richard Brautigan.
It took me decades to realize how strange it was for Tolkien, a devout Catholic imagining a world where goodness had meaning, to be included in that largely nihilistic group. Tolkien’s work has endured as an important part of our popular culture, and in the past two decades academics, led primarily by Tom Shippey, have accepted Tolkien’s fiction as a subject for academic study. The heroic efforts of Tolkien’s son, Christopher, to edit the legendarium—the notes and prose that Tolkien wrote as the “back story” for his fiction—have stimulated much of this Tolkien scholarship.
The first essay in Tolkien among the Moderns, Germaine Paulo Walsh’s “Philosophic Poet: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Modern Response to an Ancient Quarrel,” is unfortunately representative of most of the essays in this collection. It is thoughtful, reasoned, and well-written—and yet disappointing. It insists on trying to read Tolkien as responding to Plato in complex ways when the truth is that Tolkien ignored most classical elements of the Greco-Roman tradition in favor of Celtic languages and traditions; there is no evidence in Walsh’s essay that Tolkien was responding to Plato at all.
Despite the faulty premise of her essay, Walsh does make some important points about Tolkien’s philosophical thought when she diverts from her focus on Plato. She has several worthwhile pages on the importance of wonder in Tolkien and the inability of his evil characters to experience wonder. There is also the start of a valuable discussion of Tolkien’s political theories, and in particular our desire for tyranny.
Walsh’s essay is a template for much of what follows. Michael Thomas’ essay on Tolkien and Cervantes never advances beyond “these two authors … share some remarkable similarities.” Any reader would concede his points, but at the end of the day we are left with something that is as unsatisfying as the articles about the odd coincidences between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations.
Peter Candler’s essay on “Tolkien or Nietzsche: Philology and Nihilism” is the most frustrating contribution because one cannot help but feel that he tacked on just enough Tolkien to be included in this book. Similarly, Dominic Manganello’s focus on James Joyce, Joseph’s Tadie’s focus on Emmanuel Levinas, and Scott Moore’s focus on Iris Murdoch prevent them from advancing our understanding of Tolkien’s art and thought.
The editor, Ralph C. Wood, made an admirably humble but regrettable editorial decision in placing his own essay at the end of the collection instead of at the beginning. In the opening paragraph of his “Tolkien and Postmodernism,” Wood frames the topic of the book with precision and provides a useful context for thinking about Tolkien:
It may seem manifest madness to suggest that J. R. R. Tolkien has any real engagement with postmodern concerns, especially when we recall the many reasons for describing him as a premodern and antiquarian writer. Tolkien regarded nearly everything worthy of praise in English culture to have ended in 1066. He scorned the imposition of a Norman ethos on a vibrant English tradition that had flourished for more than 500 years; he looked upon the Arthurian legends as an alien French import, and thus as no fit basis for a national mythology … Neither was he happy that his dear friend and companion C. S. Lewis, remained, for the entirety of his life, what Tolkien derisively called “an Ulster Protestant.”
Wood also only starts to consider a topic that could consume a worthwhile book: the tensions between Tolkien’s Celtic affinities and his Christianity.
Philip Donnelly’s “A Portrait of the Poet as an Old Hobbit: Engaging Modernist Aesthetic Ontology in The Fellowship of the Ring” starts with an irrelevant long discussion of Joyce, but then turns to a close reading of Bilbo’s poems. Once he sidesteps the need to tie Tolkien to modernism, he makes observations that enhance our understanding of The Fellowship of the Ring, particularly the complex scene in which Bilbo falls to the floor and disappears while reciting a poem at a gathering.
The highlight of Tolkien among the Moderns is its contribution by an independent scholar, Helen Lasseter Freeh. In “On Fate, Providence, and Free Will in The Silmarillion,” Freeh begins by placing Tolkien in the context of his painful World War I experiences and asking “What is the principle of order defining a world in which radical evil and suffering continue to flourish?”—a question still disturbingly contemporary a century after Tolkien began constructing his universe in order to answer that question.
Freeh’s scholarship is top-notch. She is intimately familiar with all of Tolkien’s writings, and she uses his essay on Beowulf to bolster her analysis of The Silmarillion. Instead of specious comparisons to authors Tolkien probably did not read, she fluently discusses Anglo-Saxon concepts that were part of the architecture of Tolkien’s mind, such aswyrd (roughly “fate”), lof (roughly “posthumous fame”), and ofermod (roughly “hubris”). She also cites connections to texts that are keys to Tolkien’s thinking, such as the Finnish Kalevala.
Freeh’s close readings match her scholarship; I particularly admired this observation:
The narrator expresses this sense of cooperation by repeatedly using the passive voice, implying that characters are as much acted upon as acting, a technique Tolkien uses throughout The Lord of the Rings. For instance, the narrator describes Beren’s quest for the realm of Doriath in passive terms; “It was put into his heart that he would go down into the Hidden Kingdom, where no mortal foot had yet trodden.” This unstated force could be the “doom”—a word having, in Tolkien’s work, the triple significance of judgment, decree, and destiny …
In a clear, analytic tone Freeh helps us to understand how in Tolkien “[t]he ability to love and to accept love is directly related to the ability to embrace the world as fated or providential” and that “[t]he opening creation myth depicts evil as the domination of others.” With these and other insights, Freeh enhances our understanding of Tolkien’s metaphysics.
The theme of this book clearly hamstrung the majority of the authors it included—how do you talk about modernism and Tolkien when Tolkien was so divorced from the modernist enterprise that one cannot plausibly argue that he was “reacting” to it? Nonetheless, two of the nine essays are outstanding, and many of the others have sections that make them worthwhile.