Tolkien Criticism Today

By Norbert SchürerNovember 13, 2015

Tolkien Criticism Today

ON THE FACE OF IT, J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are not exactly easy reading. The Hobbit veers between childish asides and grandiose battles; The Lord of the Rings trilogy presents 1,000 pages of unrelenting heroism; The Silmarillion makes the Bible look like easy reading — and this doesn’t even begin to consider The History of Middle-Earth, the 12 volumes of manuscript variants compiled posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher. Furthermore, much of Tolkien’s work is written in an indigestible faux-medieval style; there are long descriptions of imagined countrysides, and he sprinkles in countless obscure references to invented fantastic histories.

Tolkien is nonetheless one of the most popular authors of the 20th century. In poll after poll, readers declare him their favorite writer; his main books remain bestsellers 60 years after their publication, and the recent movies based on his works are box office hits. On a superficial level, Tolkien’s success is easy to explain: He offers timeless stories about hard moral choices, and he creates a marvelous world of magic, including talking eagles, walking trees, and hobbits — invented figures with whom many contemporary readers can easily identify.

Academic literary criticism has long been caught between these two versions of Tolkien — the difficult litterateur and the successful populist. On one hand, critics do not want to be seen as fawning fans, so their writing adopts a scholarly tone. On the other hand, they want to appeal to fans, so they have to cater to popular sentiment. They need to address controversial topics, but they cannot attack the author if they want to find readers among fans, and while they often try to address the entirety of Tolkien’s published imaginary writings (known as the legendarium) they can only rely on readers being familiar with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and often only in cinematic form.

It is perhaps no wonder, then, that the field of Tolkien studies is in a sad state. This is not to say that there aren’t excellent critics (such as Tom Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, and Jane Chance) and outstanding scholarly venues (particularly the venerable journal Mythlore and the more recent annual Tolkien Studies). However, judging by seven recent works of Tolkien scholarship, there are various challenges in the field. Much criticism features weak, underdeveloped arguments or poor writing, and the field is overrun by niche publishers who seem to have little quality control.

Criticism often focuses on comparisons with other writers, pursues linguistic investigations, or examines popular topics, sometimes from poorly-informed points of view. The essay collection Tolkien Among the Moderns, for example, consists almost entirely of comparisons between Tolkien and other writers. ‘Modern’ is defined quite expansively here, from Plato and Cervantes to Joyce and Iris Murdoch, from Nietzsche to Levinas and postmodernism. Most of the essays are well-written and make convincing arguments — but it is not always clear why those arguments are significant. In “The Consolations of Fantasy,” for example, Scott Moore finds similarities between Tolkien’s and Murdoch’s biographies, their views of fantasy and the imagination, and the tension they explore between moral decisions and obedience to a higher power or duty. However, it remains unclear what these similarities add to the interpretation of Tolkien’s work — Moore could have made all of his points about Tolkien without the comparison to Murdoch.

The same goes for two essays that compare Tolkien and Joyce. Here, the authors focus on the differences between the two rather than their similarities. In “Pouring New Wine into Old Bottles: Tolkien, Joyce, and the Modern Epic,” Dominic Manganiello argues that The Lord of the Rings embraces a communal ideal that Ulysses cannot believe in, and that, while Joyce is consistently ironic, Tolkien “offers a countervision based on a providential hope that exists beyond the void and the walls of the world.” For his part, Philip J. Donnelly, in “A Portrait of the Poet as an Old Hobbit: Engaging Modernist Aesthetic Ontology in The Fellowship of the Ring,” compares Stephen Dedalus with Bilbo. Specifically, Donnelly examines three instances in which Bilbo composes songs and interprets these episodes as critiquing three modernist assumptions: that artistic freedom from the community is paramount, that art needs to be separated from ethics, and that art trumps friendship. In both Manganiello’s and Donnelly’s essays, there is once again no compelling reason why the arguments on Tolkien couldn’t be made without the comparisons to Joyce. The authors might respond that the point is to situate Tolkien among the writers and aesthetics of his time, but that shifts the question to how contextualizing Tolkien in early 20th-century literature enhances our understanding of his work.

The collection Tolkien in the New Century: Essays in Honor of Tom Shippey illustrates a related problem in Tolkien studies, which is the excessive examination of cultural, literary, and linguistic influences. Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-Earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century demonstrate that studies of influence can be illuminating, but here his epigones cannot maintain his level of quality. For instance, David Dettman explores the influence of the Kalevala and maintains that it extends not just to Tolkien’s legendarium, but also to The Lord of the Rings — Tom Bombadil is similar to the Kalevala character Väinämöinen. Marjorie Burns argues that Tolkien gives new life to the wolves, trolls, and walking dead of Norse mythology in The Lord of the Rings, and Nancy Martsch asserts that Tolkien’s depictions of Goldberry, Arwen, Galadriel, and Éowyn are not so much medieval as influenced by the ‘lady with simple gown and white arms’ of Victorian illustrations. However, none of these critics demonstrate how recognizing the influence of the Kalevala, Norse mythology, or Victorian illustrations actually changes the way we interpret Tolkien’s works. Instead, they offer long etymologies, lists of examples, and speculation about what Tolkien may or may not have known. If the goal of Tolkien criticism is understanding his works better, these essays — though interesting and entertaining — are not particularly helpful.

Tolkien in the New Century illustrates a further problem in Tolkien criticism: too many of the works on Tolkien are superficial and underdeveloped, both in terms of considering all sides of an argument and providing sufficient supporting evidence. It is curious that the vast majority of Tolkien criticism in the last decade or so consists of collections of short essays rather than scholarly monographs: It is as if critics do not have the patience to explore their topics in sufficient depth — or, as Tolkien detractors such as Harold Bloom might argue, as if there isn’t enough substance to Tolkien to sustain sophisticated and compelling arguments.

Sadly, this seems to be true even for some book-length studies. In Arda Inhabited: Environmental Relationships in The Lord of the Rings, Susan Jeffers tries to present a trendy ecocritical reading of Tolkien’s most famous work, but the book comes off as a decent master’s thesis rather than a piece of scholarship that should have been published by a university press. There are certainly some interesting bits in Arda Inhabited, such as Jeffers’s categorization of relationships between various groups and their environments, but the categorization — by ‘power with,’ ‘power from,’ or ‘power over’ nature — is rather schematic, and the writing is poor. For instance, Jeffers uses the same quotations from critics such as Shippey and Flieger without appearing to recognize the repetition. She discovers connections between Tolkien and the Romantics and Modernists, but — like the critics discussed above — she doesn’t really know what to do with the comparisons. Finally, the summary of ecocriticism is unsophisticated and unnecessary: Any scholar who reads this book will either already understand the basics of that theoretical approach or figure them out from Jeffers’s analysis.

While Jeffers’s book should have been revised significantly before publication, Craig Bernthal in Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision: Discerning the Holy in Middle Earth at least lays out his argument clearly, offering four propositions:

1) The Lord of the Rings is a ‘Catholic Novel,’ written by a Catholic author; 2) The idea of the Logos, as set forth in the prologue of the Gospel of John and developed in patristic and medieval theology, is largely incorporated into Tolkien’s creation myth, The Ainulindalë; 3) Tolkien is influenced by wide biblical understanding and imagery throughout his work, particularly the Gospel of John, letters attributed to John, and Catholic sacramental theology; and 4) Tolkien’s Logos-centric universe in the Ainulindalë becomes the foundation for his portrayal of Arda (Earth) from a sacramental perspective in The Lord of the Rings.

After looking at some of Tolkien’s more theoretical writings (the poem “Mythopoeia,” the essay “On Fairy Stories,” and the short story “Leaf by Niggle”) and exploring the creation story in The Silmarillion (the Ainulindalë), Bernthal follows the narrative of The Lord of the Rings, relating the various stages and episodes of the story to his Christian interpretation. By the end of the book Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision reads more like a sermon: Tolkien (and Bernthal) want us:

to fall in love with a meaningful universe that has a beginning and end, where good and bad are not subjective choices but objective realities, a world which is full of grace, though damaged by sin, in which friendship is the seedbed of the virtues, and hard-earned virtue culminating in self-sacrificing love is recognized as the highest human achievement. […] The world of Tolkien’s secondary creation is God’s story, reinscribed as a history before our records of history, reflecting the Logos as does the universe and all that is in it, including history, myth, fairy-tale, and secondary myth, since everything in existence, even Tolkien’s sub-creation, bears the Primary Artist’s inscription.

In other words, the argument is not really structured to convince non-believers or academics, but rather to show Christians that Tolkien is one of them.

As these two monographs demonstrate, much of Tolkien criticism pursues trendy topics, such as the environment and religion, though not always successfully. Fortunately, the essays in Tolkien: The Forest and the City, a collection of ecocritical studies, is of generally high quality, perhaps because the contributors included the likes of Shippey, Flieger, Dimitra Fimi, and Michael Drout. The ecocriticism here is not Jeffers’s simplistic version, but looks at how nature and the built environment interact in Tolkien’s work. For instance, in “‘The Cedar Is Fallen’: Empire, Deforestation and the Fall of Númenor,” Gerard Hynes argues that Tolkien moved the imperialism of Númenor (one of the early human civilizations in Tolkien’s world) further and further back in history to link it to arboreal disrespect and deforestation. Thus, the story of Númenor speaks to both national chauvinism and environmental degradation. In “The Forest and the City: The Dichotomy of Tolkien’s Istari,” Dominika Nycz demonstrates that the falls of the wizards Saruman and Radagast show the danger of succumbing entirely to either city or nature. Living in the forest, Radagast abandons his mission, and Saruman becomes power-hungry and evil after settling down at the fortress of Isengard, which he mechanizes and industrializes.

Some essays in Tolkien: The Forest and the City still fall into the traps of comparison and influence studies: The architecture of the Shire follows some of the same principles as the architecture of the Arts and Crafts movement; as spaces of transformation, forests in The Lord of the Rings are like forests in folk and fairy tales; Tolkien’s topography is influenced by Dante; the Party Tree at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings may have been influenced by the Guernica Oak. However, there are enough interesting and well-written essays in this collection to show a way forward for Tolkien criticism. Perhaps most compellingly, in “The Tower and the Ruin: The Past in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Works,” Michael Drout shows how these two types of structures are connected with sadness and pain, but also evoke nostalgic and melancholic emotions. Tolkien uses them to make readers learn with the characters and to suggest that there are deep and rich layers to his works. However, the sadness in Tolkien’s work is not bitter, but heartbreaking and blessed.

In contrast to Tolkien: The Forest and the City, the collection Light Beyond All Shadow: Religious Experience in Tolkien’s Work does not offer very much illuminating criticism. The collection smartly tries to avoid the trap of simply showing the obvious, i.e., that Tolkien is a Catholic writer, by exploring religious and spiritual experiences in Tolkien in general. Indeed, the strongest contributions are those that move beyond institutionalized religion to spirituality more generally defined, such as Matthew Dickerson’s argument that in spite of many negative images of water in Tolkien’s universe, water actually has a positive, hopeful symbolism, or Roger Ladd’s exploration of how and when Tolkien construes power as good or bad.

Unfortunately, however, not all of Light Beyond All Shadow lives up to these standards: An investigation of Tolkien’s theology gets caught up in ancient Catholic disputes; a discussion of Tolkien’s poetry tries to bring too many concepts into play; and the history of the Inklings, Tolkien’s group of friends in Oxford, is little more than a brief preview of the author’s book-length version of the same story.

The best of the seven books under review here was published by the most established and mainstream of the presses as well: Wiley Blackwell. This is A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Stuart Lee, which comes in at a hefty 602 pages. The Companion is also an essay collection, but the quality of the writing is much higher than in Tolkien Among the Moderns or Tolkien in the New Century. Some essays are short, but they make up for that in substance. All of the trendy topics are explored — there are articles on nature, religion, women, and film adaptations — but these articles are contextualized among other topics. The least satisfying essays are the one on games and gaming (which is really more of a history of that field), and the two on art and music (because both neglect what Tolkien himself produced in terms of art and music). There is an entire section on context, but those contexts (Old English, Middle English, Old Norse, Finnish, Celtic, the English literary tradition, earlier and later fantasy fiction, and Tolkien’s contemporaries) are both wisely selected and used to illuminate Tolkien’s work rather than just sit beside it.

The Companion actually has five sections: Life, The Academic, The Legendarium, Context, and Critical Approaches. The first three focus simply and effectively on providing information: a short biography, overviews of Tolkien as academic, editor, producer, and user of manuscripts, and sketches of the main parts of his imaginative output. This section is particularly interesting because it puts The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on equal footing with the rest of Tolkien’s writing, implicitly posing the question of whether any substantial critic can speak exclusively about those two texts without considering Tolkien’s entire legendarium. Any readers trying to get an overview of Tolkien’s output will be well-served by this excellent Companion — if they can afford the $200 price tag, wait for the paperback, or find the book in a library.

In the section on approaches, each critic is well-informed and offers a fair assessment of the state of scholarship in one particular area as well as an original argument. For instance, Adam Roberts makes an innovative and sophisticated argument about women in Tolkien: He claims that female characters in The Lord of the Rings challenge the male-female hierarchy because they embrace renunciation. This femininity is at the heart of Tolkien’s ideology: “a complex repudiation of masculine values of ‘agency’ and ‘action’ in favor of what is, at root, a religiously informed concept of passionate passivity.” Also quite interestingly, Janet Brennan Croft examines the place of war in Tolkien’s work and comes to the conclusion that The Lord of the Rings follows a just war doctrine, and that Frodo’s retelling of the story is a kind of therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Croft concludes by suggesting future avenues of research in reading Tolkien next to World War I poets, or investigating the refugees who lived with the Tolkien family during World War II.

With the Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien and Tolkien: The Forest and the City (in parts), the future of Tolkien studies is perhaps not entirely bleak. The Companion in particular is a volume from a well-established publisher, which actually gives Tolkien academic cachet by including him in their Companion series. The essays in this volume and in Tolkien: The Forest and the City make well-developed, well-written, comprehensive, and compelling arguments. Thus, these books show the two requirements for good Tolkien criticism. For one, he should be treated like any other author in being discussed in seriously peer-reviewed journals and established academic presses rather than in essay collections and niche publications. Just as importantly, Tolkien should not be treated with kid gloves because he is a fan favorite with legions to be placated, but as the serious and major author he is.


Norbert Schürer is a professor in the English Department at California State University, Long Beach.

LARB Contributor

Norbert Schürer is a professor in the English Department at California State University, Long Beach. He grew up in Germany and started reading J.R.R. Tolkien as a teenager. He studied English and German literature at the Free University of Berlin and went on to get his Ph.D. from the Graduate Program in Literature at Duke University. Now, Norbert teaches the major author seminar on J.R.R. Tolkien (and classes on literary theory, Jane Austen, and 18th-century British literature) at CSULB. His publications include Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: A Reader’s Guide (2004), Charlotte Lennox: Correspondence and Miscellaneous Documents (2012), and Berlin: A Cultural Guide (2014).


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