Tuesday, June 3, 2014

New Book on Tolkien and Modernism

Even though he lived at the right time for it and went through many of the same experiences that formed the crucible of Modernism, Tolkien has not very often been thought to exemplify the movement. Most critics regard him as already a bit old-fashioned even in his own day, more often thought of as a reincarnation of the Beowulf-poet than as a Great War author, for example (though interestingly, Tom Shippey has made both of the preceding arguments). [1] For my part, I see Tolkien as fitting in various ways into both movements — perhaps a bit less obviously as a Modernist, but the case has been made before and need not be rehearsed here. [2]

Now, a new full-length treatment of this question is on the horizon: Theresa Freda Nicolay’s Tolkien and the Modernists (order it here), coming from McFarland this summer (or sooner — I have a review copy in my hands now). I’m only just beginning to dig into it, so this is not the time for a proper review, but I wanted to make readers aware of the new book — particularly those with an interest in Modernism, as well as those who may feel that critical treatments of Tolkien lean disproportionately to Medievalism.

The book is relatively short at 193 pages. It comprises an introduction, seven chapters, a bibliography, and an index. The latter is pretty short (only about two full pages), and exhibits some idiosyncrasies. For example, there are sub-entries under “Tolkien, J.R.R.” for The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, but each of these also has its own entry in the index, repeating all of the page references. The same process is repeated for C.S. Lewis and his works. At least the page references in these duplicate entries match!

The chapters run as follows:

1. Rekindling an Old Light
2. Industrialism, Instrumentality and “antiquity so appealing”
3. The Lord of the Rings: “Insubstantial dream of an escapist”
4. Modernist Disaffection and Tolkienian Faith
5. The World as Wasteland: The Landscapes of Loss
6. The Wasteland Within: Alienation in Tolkien and the Modernists
7. Postmodern Monsters and Providential Plans

Having so far only read the introduction, some of the conclusion in Chapter 7, skimmed a few passages here and there, and examined the bibliography and index, the book looks to be pretty solid at first glance. But — and again speaking only from a first, cursory look — Nicolay seems to have developed her argument largely in a vacuum: though she cites several of the major Tolkien scholars, it looks like her bibliography omits mention most of the critical work on Tolkien and Modernism that comes readily to my mind (e.g., Mortimer’s essay already mentioned [2]; Modern Fiction Studies 50:4 (a special issue devoted entirely to Tolkien); Jane Chance and Alfred K. Siewers’s Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages; Frank Weinreich and Thomas Honegger’s two volumes of Tolkien and Modernity; Martin Simonson’s The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition; to name a few). I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve read the entire book, but ordinarily, one ought to demonstrate familiarity with and then build on or expand the work already done in the scholarly community.

In any event, an(other) extended treatment of this subject is certainly welcome, and I look forward to reading it straight through. Once I’ve done so, I’ll be back with fuller comments. I’d welcome the same from any of you as well.

[1] See “Tolkien as a Post-War Writer.” Scholarship & Fantasy: Proceedings of the Tolkien Phenomenon (1993), ed. by K. J. Battarbee. Anglicana Turkuensia 12 (1993): 217-36. And “Tolkien and the Beowulf-poet.” Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien. Walking Tree Publishers, 2007.

[2] See, for example, Mortimer, Patchen. “Tolkien and Modernism.” Tolkien Studies 2 (2005): 113–29. Mortimer concludes: “But to be a modernist one does not have to embrace modern era or belong to any specific school. One simply has to faithfully document the modern condition, while operating under certain aesthetic assumptions about the primacy of the artist and the role of language in shaping life. At the very least, Tolkien was, as Flieger terms him, a ‘reluctant modernist,’ […]” (127).


  1. Tolkien actually exemplifies many traits of a post-modern writer, though he is not often thought of in that literary movement either. But postmodernism has a lot in common with medieval-ism. Modernists often used classical or medieval tropes in their poetry/stories (i.e. Achilles in the trenches). Tolkien, faced with the same experiences, did the opposite - he brought modern touches to a story that belonged in an earlier age.

  2. Hi, Benjamin. Thanks for the comment, and I agree. There’s a good collection on this subject too: Sub-creating Middle-earth – Constructions of Authorship and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Judith Klinger (Walking Tree, 2012).