A Feature Review of
Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages
Hardback: Word on Fire Academics, 2021.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Erin Feldman
Holly Ordway’s Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages largely operates on a principle of “yes, but.” Yes, Tolkien cherished philology, but he also enjoyed Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical verses. Yes, Tolkien studied vicious Viking and Nordic tales, but he adored Beatrix Potter’s rabbits—particularly their waistcoats. Yes, Tolkien abhorred some of modernity’s effects on society, but he drove a car and relied on typewriters. Yes, but.
At the same time, Ordway counters false impressions of Tolkien, most of them stemming from early biographers who either misrepresented Tolkien or missed his penchant for hyperbole and understatement (10–17, 282–286). She indicates Humphrey Carpenter as one of the biographers largely culpable for the errors, especially in relation to Tolkien’s reading. Her perspective would seem skewed, even slanderous, if it weren’t for some damning evidence: Carpenter’s recorded words about his “creative” approach to Tolkien’s life and letters. Ordway quotes Carpenter in full in an early chapter of her book:
The first biography I did in book form was the life of Tolkien, and I thought, here is this rather comic Oxford academic — the stereotype absentminded professor — who would be lecturing on Beowulf with a parcel of fish from the fishmongers sticking out of his pocket. And the first draft of the book was written very much in that mode, treating him as slightly slapstick. At least it began that way. But as the book went on, I realized he wasn’t like this at all. He had had a very strange childhood. His mother died early (his father was already dead) and he was brought up by a Roman Catholic priest — an unlikely parent figure. Consequently he acquired certain uptight Pauline moral values. And my caricature of the Oxford academic clashed with his [sic], and I never resolved it properly. (10)
And later, Ordway says:
There was a mischievous and irresponsible streak in Carpenter, and Tolkien was not the only figure to have suffered from it: Robert Runcie and Joseph Lyne were among his other victims. But there seems to have been a particular reason for his animus toward Tolkien. Carpenter admitted: “With Tolkien, the personal agenda was my own childhood. I’d lived in the same culture as him, in an Oxford academic family. I wanted to portray that milieu, about which I had very mixed feelings.” (277–278)
Whole books could be devoted to decrying Carpenter and other Tolkien biographers, but that isn’t Ordway’s aim. At least, it’s not her primary one. Her principal emphases rest on two elements: the “leaf-mould” of Tolkien’s imagination and his role as interpreter. Ordway spends less time on the second facet, perhaps with reason. One, her goal is a study of Tolkien’s reading, not his ability to interpret medieval texts for modern audiences (20). And two, she indicates her intentions at the outset: to rediscover Tolkien’s modern reading and its influence upon his body of work (24–26).
Ordway begins her study, however, with the problematic biographies so that Tolkien — the man and writer — can be reconsidered. She then pauses, as any professor would do, to define her terms. The pause serves as a moment of humor; Ordway wryly notes, “The focus of this study is Tolkien’s modern reading, but as Treebeard would caution us, we should not be hasty!” (27) She then “maps out the journey” (27), telling readers they can “advance immediately to the exploration of Tolkien’s reading” (27) if they prefer. But “for those with a more Entish approach” (27), Ordway provides precise definitions and a self-limiting scope for the subsequent chapters.
Those chapters consider Tolkien’s modern reading, which Ordway defines as anything published after 1850 that Tolkien mentioned in a letter or other writing, discussed in an interview, gave as a gift, or owned. Some of her other evidence relies on personal testimony, that is, people close to Tolkien who reported he had read one author or another. Her limitations made her study more challenging; Ordway notes how Tolkien’s library was never catalogued, as well as how easy it would be to “assume” Tolkien read certain works. Ordway guards against such suppositions throughout the book, leaving her imagining to the footnotes. Those notes are worth reading in and of themselves; they provide extra details about Tolkien’s life, producing a richer portrait of the man and the writer. The footnotes also correct some of the famous stories about Tolkien, such as his distaste for C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Finally, the footnotes include humorous incidents and revealing anecdotes about his relationships with friends and family. One footnote, for instance, tells how Tolkien wrote a story to comfort his son Michael on the loss of a toy dog (42). Another mentions his sizable tab — approximately $8,000 today — at Blackwell’s Bookshop (22).
Even with Ordway’s self-imposed limitations, she produces a staggering list of more than two hundred authors. The list includes figures like E. Nesbit and Graham Greene, Isaac Asimov and James Joyce, and Olaf Stapledon and Lord Tennyson Alfred. Tolkien, Ordway gently and regularly reminds the reader, was more well-read and aware of modern authors and current events than commonly assumed. She presents her research in an accessible manner, not only in the language and structure she uses — each chapter includes an introduction to the topic and a succinct summary at the conclusion — but also the chapter categories she devises. Ordway organizes her research by either author, as in the case of William Morris, George MacDonald, and Rider Haggard, or genre.
Such organization aids the reader. A person can read the book as a whole, following the path Ordway sets. Or the reader can peruse the book at their leisure, choosing to read the chapters that accord with their particular interests. As an example, one reader could begin with the two chapters devoted to children’s literature. Another might prefer the chapter concerning science fiction or Tolkien’s catholic — that is, universal — sensibilities. Ordway gives attention to this particular capacity. She convincingly argues Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs allowed him to engage humbly and charitably with authors and works with whom he disagreed morally or philosophically.
Ordway never belabors the influence of an author or a genre; that is not her intention. Rather, as she states in the conclusion, “I hope this study will prompt other scholars to research these matters further” (275). Ordway hopes to develop a new image of Tolkien, one that allows “us to consign that so-called rule — that Tolkien was seriously interested in nothing later than Chaucer — to the critical junk-heap where it belongs” (287). She continues:
Once we have done so, our approach to his work will be liberated. We will be able to roam freely back and forth across the centuries, as he did, in order to consult all the leaves of all the trees that dropped down into the mulch of his creativity. Many, probably most, of those leaves are ancient or medieval, but not a few, as we have seen, are modern. (287)
Ordway succeeds in her endeavor. She also succeeds, however, in stimulating the reader’s wonder and appreciation for Tolkien. One does not need to be a scholar to enjoy Ordway’s book. Rather, in reading it, a reader is drawn to again begin the journey to there and back again.