EESE 2/2011

The Fans, the Warriors, and the Critics;

or, Some Observations on Tolkien Studies

Dirk Vanderbeke (Jena University)

Discussing Tolkien studies poses several serious problems to a scholar who is trying to approach the subject unbiased and without a specific agenda in mind. Of course, there is by now such an enormous amount of books and articles on Tolkien and his works that it has become quite impossible to keep track of even the most momentous contributions to the critical debate – and this, of course, applies even more to an ‘outsider’ whose academic interests are not fully focused on this particular field of enquiry. In consequence, the following remarks are not intended as a comprehensive survey of Tolkien criticism but rather as an investigation into some aspects of books and articles on Tolkien that need to be addressed in the interest of future research.

Tolkien studies tend to be written by Tolkien aficionados. In literary studies it is not uncommon for scholars to work on subjects they enjoy, but it is also understood that individual biases, preferences and tastes should not be foregrounded but, if possible, barred from any influence on the critical assessments. A book or article on an author or work should not praise either but rather explore the relevant properties of the texts to form a coherent argument. In Tolkien studies the line between the scholars and the fans is blurred, and an admiration, frequently bordering on idolatry, is regularly an integral part of the agenda. This has some significant consequences. On the one hand, Tolkien studies take place in a specific atmosphere in which an unconditional devotion to the author may well be more welcome than impeccable but critical research, and every Tolkien scholar will remember a host of conference contributions that offer little more than tales of happy experiences and wonderful encounters with the marvels of the master's works, but are devoid of any academic merit or even informative content. On the other hand, Tolkien studies allow themselves to be far too easily dismissed as a mere expression of fandom by the vast majority of literary critics working in their own respective fields of enquiry. The intellectual exchange between those fields requires productive concepts and theoretical suggestions that may lend themselves to a variety of explorations and possibly influence the most diverse approaches, and while a rigorous quality management is missing in many areas of literary criticism, excessive praise for an author will raise suspicions about the validity of the subsequent arguments.

The topic of academic exchange also leads to another aspect that should be taken into account. Literary critics usually have their field or fields of expertise, but then they also use their specialized knowledge and research to contribute to the larger theoretical developments in literary studies. And while most books and articles are focused on a specific author, work, era or phenomenon, the changes in the field are more often than not in consequence of a larger view that synthesizes the findings of numerous studies into a new and, hopefully, productive concept or theory. For this it is, of course, indispensable to be aware of the developments outside of the chosen field of specialization and to reflect them in one’s current work. Tolkien studies, however, tend to be rather closed off against external developments, and a look at the index of books and essay collections usually demonstrates that the concerns do not really leave the narrow confines of Tolkien's immediate mental environment as marked by his fictional and academic works, letters, interviews and his conversations as reported by friends, colleagues or members of his family. This can be confirmed by a simple count of entries and a comparison with similar studies of other authors – some examples will be given later in this paper. What follows is a more extensive elaboration of the problems encountered in Tolkien criticism, but it should perhaps be pointed out that his actual works are beyond the scope of this approach. It is not the intention of this essay to discuss the specific properties or merits of the author or to criticise his writings or views; to criticise the critics is a quite different kettle of fish – or cauldron of stories.


In 1968, Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo published a collection of essays, some of which went back to the first responses after the publication of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The title of the volume was Tolkien and the Critics, and it is an apt starting point for my own assessment of the critical discussion of Tolkien's works. Indeed, many of the strengths and weaknesses of Tolkien criticism can already be detected in the texts collected by Isaacs and Zimbardo, and the editors were certainly aware of the problems of, as well as of prospective possibilities for, a serious academic and also non-academic investigation into the novels and stories. Isaacs opens his introductory essay with a rather pessimistic view:

This is surely a bad time for Tolkien criticism. Stories in Holiday, Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, Saturday Review, and the Luce(fer) publications, to say nothing of the feverish activities of fanzines, do not produce a climate for serious criticism. Nor does the fact that The Lord of the Rings and the domain of Middle-earth are eminently suitable for faddism and fannism, cultism and clubbism encourage scholarly activity. Tolkien’s enormous current popularity itself acts as a deterrent to critical activity, as it has for other contemporary writers. (Isaacs: 1)

This is a cautionary start for investigations into the works of a highly successful author, and throughout the collection the feeling persists that Tolkien criticism had to struggle in an uphill fight, that the very endeavour to explore a fantasy novel was regarded as slightly unsavoury and at best dismissed as a harmless folly. It would take a few more years and some battles and skirmishes in the canon wars before the strict distinction between 'high' or 'great' literature and the previously condemned trivial genres began to dissolve and the works of various authors, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Boris Vian, Eric Ambler and John LeCarré, to name only a few, gained respectability as serious literature. Leslie Fiedler in his influential article "Cross the Border – Close the Gap" argued in 1969 that the "Culture Religion of Modernism" (64) had reached its end and that the new authors would readily turn to popular forms and genres like the detective novel, science fiction, the Western and even pornography (cf. Fiedler: 69).

Several of the articles in Isaacs' and Zimbardo's collection bear tribute to the climate of transition and the slow movement from a rather elitist to a more democratic perspective within the literary establishment, and Tolkien is discussed with a clear eye for his achievements, but also for some shortcomings. Patricia Meyer Spacks, for example, writes about LotR that "Its linguistic limitations may prevent its assuming a high position in recognized literary canons, but it will surely continue to exercise compelling power over its readers" (Meyer Spacks: 99).

Moreover, some of the suggestions voiced by those early critics could have been used also to pave the way for the acceptance of other genres commonly perceived as escapist or naïve entertainment. Once more Meyer Spacks may serve as a good example:

Tolkien removes his fiction from the realm of ‘real life’ only to be enabled to talk more forcefully about reality. A serious reading of The Lord of the Rings must produce the realization that its issues are profoundly relevant to human problems. (Meyer Spacks: 96)

Quite similarly, Roger Sale insists, even against Tolkien's possible intentions and predilections, on the topicality of Tolkien's creation and the ability of fantastic literature to address relevant issues of our times.

The Ring forces Tolkien to be an author rather than a collector […] It does this, furthermore, by showing Tolkien (almost against his will, it sometimes seems) that the heroism about which he writes best and therefore most cares about is of a distinctively modern cast – a heroism based upon the refusal to yield to despair rather than on any clear sense of goal and achievement: a heroism that accepts the facts of history and yet refuses to give in to the tempting despair that those facts offer. (Sale: 251)

Tolkien is not of Middle-earth any more than he is of the Germanic dark ages that are his special area of scholastic competence. Willy nilly he belongs to our time, and the more he attempts to ignore or escape this fact the worse he becomes as a writer. (Sale: 283-4)

This ability to address real contemporary issues and to offer symbolic solutions to pressing problems, of course, equally holds true for science fiction or horror literature and ultimately for genre literature as such, and Tolkien may serve as a well-chosen example to demonstrate that the evocation of fantastic times and places, the turn to Faërie or to unknown worlds, and the introduction of supernatural elements, does not automatically indicate escapism and a lack of mature concerns.

In some texts a kind of wavering between these mature concerns and the more common classification of LotR as adolescent literature can be felt. Robert J. Reilly suggests that the publication of LotR "accomplished on a modest scale the sort of critical controversy which The Waste Land and Ulysses had occasioned a generation earlier. Like them, it could not be easily reviewed; it was anomalous; it forced examination of critical principles; it demanded a judgment that necessarily became a position to be defended" (128). However, after a brief survey of the topics under critical discussion – genre, symbolism, allegory, fate, free will etc. – he turns to the readers, "not numerous perhaps, but very enthusiastic. They read it to their children, who are delighted by it; but they also talk about it seriously among themselves" (ibid). The gap between a critical controversy akin to that raised by Joyce and Elliot on the one hand and the night time reading to children on the other hand is huge, but then the turn against the establishment, be it political or literary, by the youth culture of the 1960s could have managed to close it.

What is yet missing is a focus on the philological aspects of Tolkien's work, and one of the most frequent topics is the specific form of heroism the reader encounters in LotR – after all, the sixties were also the time when archetypes were an important topic in literary criticism and the mythic hero was discussed in various contexts.
The role of the literary underdog, however, even in this early collection of essays occasionally begins to turn into a kind if critical stubbornness which no longer tries to abandon prevalent hierarchies. Instead, there is a rather conservative insistence on the validity of canons but also a demand for a re-valuation with Tolkien’s work as a new contender for literary greatness. Charles Moorman, for example, opens his contribution with a rather peculiar criterion for literary inventiveness.

A vast compendium of elves, dwarfs, and men, history, saga, and poetry; philosophy, adventure, and sentiment – The Lord of the Rings is unique in modern fiction. No contemporary novel, perhaps no work of prose fiction, in any way rivals its scope and diversity. (Moorman: 201 – first sentence)

A claim like this raises the question whether literary quality can be calculated by the number of alien species that make their appearance and by the variety topics that are addressed; if so, it needs to be emphasized that Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic visions surpass Tolkien's historical scope by several million years and that according to Moorman’s criteria some of the 'lesser' science fiction authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs or Doc E.E. Smith would need to be reassessed for their unmatched creativity.

Similar excessive claims are not exactly rare within Tolkien studies. The very title of Tom Shippey's book, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century indicates a singularity that is not only bewildering but also raises the question of what criteria might possibly support such an assessment.1 The blurb of the study then credits the author of LotR with an "unparalleled level of skill necessary to construct such a rich and compelling story", and in the foreword Shippey claims that "on some subjects Tolkien simply knew more, and had thought more deeply, than anyone else in the world" (ix). Stratford Caldecott turns to a mixture of nationalism and spiritual salvation when he describes the task accomplished in LotR:

That task was to encode within a story the true spirit of the English civilization that had almost been extinguished, for those to rekindle who might. He had led millions of readers to a place in their imagination where they could glimpse the light that shines beyond the world's end, and above every horizon. (Caldecott, 224)

The blurb of this collection of essays, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Sources of Inspiration, claims that LotR "is widely regarded as the greatest book of the 20th century". This kind of praise is also extended to Tolkien's critical work, and according to the editors of new expanded and revised edition of "On Fairy-Tales", Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, this essay "belongs to the same line as Aristotle's Poetics, Sidney's Defence of Poesey, Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge on Imagination in Biographia Literaria and T.S. Eliot's essay on 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' in The Sacred Wood." (20)2

If Isaacs suggested that fannism is an impediment to serious literary criticism, this fannism now resurfaces as part of the critics' agenda, and it has remained a constant issue in a multitude of books and articles, websites, blogs and conference contributions. This can be very much felt in the first paragraphs of Isaacs and Zimbardo's Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism in which various of the papers from the earlier collection were reprinted together with articles from other sources. The cautionary approach has disappeared. Instead, Isaacs in his new introduction forcefully attacks those who dismiss or neglect Tolkien as an "uncomprehending coterie of critics" (2) and the previous collection of articles has retroactively shifted its agenda from the instalment of serious Tolkien criticism to "an announcement of assurance that, in due course, The Lord of the Rings would have to be given its rightful place among the major fictional works of our time" (4). T.S. Eliot wrote in "Religion and Literature": "It is our business as readers of literature to know what we like. It is our business, as Christians, as well as readers of literature, to know what we ought to like." It seems as if Tolkien critics, while certainly in opposition to most of Eliot's evaluations, maintain exactly this point, and what we 'ought to like' is, of course, Tolkien. If a critic does not, he or she is dismissed as 'uncomprehending' or hostile.

Furthermore, Isaacs claims that in the meantime "the attention of serious literary scholarship to The Lord of the Rings reinforced the book's importance and won its canonical recognition" (6) and that "the argument about the value and power of The Lord of the Rings has been settled, certainly to the satisfaction of its vast, growing, persistent audience, but also of a considerable body of critical judgment" (7-8). If we accept this assumption, two striking questions raise their heads immediately: why does it still seem to be necessary to fight the old battles over and over again, and why does this collection of essays openly dismiss one of the most basic requirements of serious academic criticism, that of offering a balanced view on the matter under consideration?

On the first pages, the earliest attacks on Tolkien are dragged out again from the feuilletons and literary reviews of yore only to be summarily rejected once more, among them the rather short review by Edmund Wilson "Oo, those awful orcs" from 1956 and a review by Paul West from 1967, which is extensively ridiculed almost 40 years after its publication. This is not unique to this collection of articles, and works on Tolkien regularly open with a tiresome return to the same old dismissals of Tolkien which are, in return, equally categorically dismissed. One may sense a kind of persistent trauma that still haunts not only the Tolkien community but also the serious critics who turn to Middle-earth, and the old controversies are ritualistically replayed over and over again with hardly any changes to the script and with no indication that indeed the struggle for recognition might be over and won.3

Even more problematic is the openly declared intention not to present an unbiased perspective on Tolkien's works: "There would be no representative of those voices – strident, cynical, sardonic, dismissive, supercilious, condescending – that articulated negative views on the book" (7). In consequence, some of the less laudatory and more balanced views from the previous collection seem to be no longer accepted as 'the best' of Tolkien criticism, among them Roger Sale who, indeed, offered some critical remarks on Tolkien's avowed intentions. Moreover, the list of adjectives suggests that any dislike of Tolkien's work is also indicative of an inherently flawed character.

This is not unique to Isaacs' and Zimbardo's collection of essays. Patrick Curry in his article "Tolkien and his Critics: A Critique" writes about the charges of escapism against Tolkien:

The prison, to encapsulate my theme, is enforced modernity, whose human casualties alone now number in many millions, while for animals and the natural world the holocaust is still continuing. And its intellectual and cultural warders are the "realists" and "rationalists" whom Tolkien has in mind when he says, for example, that "The notion that motor-cars are more 'alive' than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more 'real' than horses is pathetically absurd" (Curry, 18; the quote is from Tolkien, Fairy-Stories, 149).

This argument is hopelessly flawed, as the alternative to escapism is certainly not the acceptance of tyranny or oppression but informed, i.e. realist and rational political action, a possibility that seems to be beyond the scope of Curry’s imagination. But even more worrisome is the ease with which he effectively suggests that those who criticise Tolkien's work as escapist and irrational must also share the responsibility for the atrocities of the 20th century including the holocaust and environmental destruction. Such a response to critical voices is not only highly objectionable but positively obscene.4

Such strategies mark Tolkien studies as an uncommon phenomenon in literary criticism. It is usual for scientists and scholars to view the objects of their analyses and theories dispassionately and to contribute to the academic discussion to the best of their knowledge and not merely according to their tastes. It should be the quality of their arguments that counts rather than their loyalty to a cause or their alacrity in toeing imaginary lines. The forceful rejection of critical voices and the exclusion of sceptical views from 'the best of Tolkien criticism' suggest that Tolkien scholars are required to demonstrate their allegiance to a common cause, the canonisation of the master, rather than to pursue unbiased research into the literary works – a requirement that clashes with the professed attempts to install a serious Tolkien criticism.

Tolkien studies then present themselves simultaneously as highly successful, but nevertheless as still under siege from a so-called literary establishment. This is a strange position to assume at a time when a multitude of symposia and conferences on the most diverse topics and genres, among them, of course, those concerned with Tolkien, are staged and supported by academic institutions; when the canon wars for at least some time left the previous establishment very much in the defensive and favoured research in hitherto neglected and marginalized fields, and when new works of fantasy such as Harry Potter, His Dark Materials as well as the LotR movies have generated a particular interest in this genre and its origins.

This perpetual insistence on an ongoing neglect by the powers that be but shouldn't, an insistence that frequently borders on conspiracy theories, leads to the conclusion that Tolkien critics are less concerned with acceptance of their endeavour as a legitimate academic concern, but rather striving for an unconditional adoration of their chosen idol. Tolkien criticism is riddled with claims that his works are among the greatest, or at least the close seconds, in the canonical hierarchies of all times. Caldecott, for example, gracefully acknowledges that "He will never be in the category of a Shakespeare or a Dante. Maybe he will be closer to War and Peace, or his beloved Beowulf" (Caldecott, 9).

Quite similarly, at the beginning of The Road to Middle Earth, probably the study of Tolkien’s work that would most deserve to be called seminal, Tom Shippey takes issue with a host of critics who condemned the work of Tolkien for its lack of mature concerns, arguing that they refused to accept the impact Tolkien’s work had and still has on a large readership and chiefly projected their own prejudiced perspective and narrow literary tastes onto the larger audience, contrary to all evidence.

In the same passage, however, we are also faced with some rather strong generalizations from Tolkien and from his critic. According to Shippey,

Tolkien thought this instinctive antipathy was an ancient one: people who couldn’t stand his books hadn’t been able to bear Beowulf, or Pearl, or Chaucer, or Sir Orfeo either. For millennia they had been trying to impose their views on a recalcitrant succession of authors, who had fortunately taken no notice. (Shippey, 4)

This is a bold claim in more than one way. On the one hand, is suggests a succession of hostile critics stretching across millennia, even though it may be slightly awkward to speak of literary criticism in the Middle Ages and, ultimately, before the 18th century – and Tolkien must certainly have been familiar with responses to literary works in the era of his expertise.5 On the other hand it indicates that his own work is on par with the works cited, i.e. the great heritage of medieval English literature.6

The frequent comparisons of Tolkien's sub-creation with texts like Beowulf, the Norse sagas, the Arthurian legends and romances, and various myths, of course raise the question of originality and belatedness. Beowulf was written in an age which accepted the monster as part of divine creation (cf. Simak: 87), i.e. the existence of the dragon and other uncommon creatures was a distinct possibility within this world and, contrary to the claims of many critics who discuss myths, legends and even Biblical stories as early equivalents of fantasy (e.g. Weinreich 31),7 it did not signify counter-factuality. In consequence, the status of Tolkien’s work, first as embedded in the form and content of a previous epoch and second as fantastic, is at odds with the legends and myths he admired and used, as they discussed their own time and environment in a mode that was not necessarily considered fantastic or fictitious.

Tolkien wrote in the era of modernism, and, as indicated above, some of the more convincing and sound criticism acknowledges the indebtedness of Tolkien’s work to his own times, whether he liked them or not – quite a few authors did not. But as Tolkien hardly wrote in the modes usually associated with high modernist literature, and quite openly rejected those modes, it seems to be necessary to attribute some specific and, if possible, unique achievements to his oeuvre in order to rank him with or even above the usual champions of the times, e.g. Joyce, Woolf, Proust or Eliot. This objective is regularly pursued with the help of two arguments: the voice of the people and the courage of the lonely poet.

The 'democratic' argument that Tolkien is massively successful is part and parcel of each defence of LotR as a major literary achievement. It is an argument, that needs to be taken carefully into account, but it is also dangerous as 'the masses' may not always be naturally the best judges of complexity, style and literary innovation. If Tolkien devotees venture onto that slippery territory, they will surely find that their idol surpasses the likes of Joyce and Eliot in sales and mass appreciation, but that new contenders appear, among them not only authors like Barbara Cartland or Dan Brown, but also Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye with their Left Behind series – with more than 65 million copies sold in barely fifteen years. It is hardly possible that either Tolkien or his admirers would feel very comfortable in this company. But here the second argument kicks in, and the defence of Tolkien's work against claims that it would deservedly disappear rather sooner than later thus does not rest its case with the evident fact that he is obviously here to stay and thus may be worth of more than passing critical attention, but goes to the opposite extreme, grouping him with the canonical works of English literature and attributing to him not only exceptional but unsurpassed philological and literary abilities. The trick is to classify the avant-garde writers as a modernist mainstream from which Tolkien now distinguishes himself by his adherence to, and revival of, traditional literary formats. If modernist writing was the norm, the return to myth and legend and their poetics marks his fiction as a counter-discourse to the prevailing literary conventions and establishes him as a prophet in the wilderness, resisting the prevailing fashions in a solitary quest for a deeper truth and an original poetic voice. John Garth, for example, writes:

Some critics have tended to dismiss [Tolkien] as an ostrich with head buried in the past; as a pasticheur [paster together] of medieval or mythological literature desperate to shut out the modern world. But for Tolkien the medieval and the mythological were urgently alive. Their narrative structures and symbolic languages were simply the tools most apt to the hand of this most dissident of twentieth-century writers. Unlike most others shocked by the explosion of 1914-1918, he did not discard the old ways of writing, the classicism or medievalism championed by Lord Tennyson and William Morris. In his hands, these traditions were reinvigorated so that they remain powerfully alive for readers today. (Garth, 39-40)8

However, there is a major flaw in this argument. The authors who discarded the 'old ways of writing' were not the norm, but indeed the avant-garde, and their work was frequently met with disapproval if not downright hostility by the literary establishment before they were later accepted. They were the challenge to political, religious and literary orthodoxy, one may even see them as a form of artistic violence against the establishment, and as such they certainly cannot themselves be identified with the establishment or any kind of orthodoxy. In retrospect, literary criticism tends to focus on the innovative, experimental and difficult works that allow for intricate theoretical explorations, and thus these authors receive the greatest attention, but they were a minority, and not particularly admired by the general reading public of the day. Joyce had problems finding publishers for most of his works, Ulysses was banned, and Finnegans Wake was dismissed by almost everyone. New developments are usually scorned before the scholars, the feuilleton, and a larger audience become familiar with the innovations and, somewhat belatedly, recognize the previously shocking experiments as valid and exciting artistic expressions.9 In contrast to the experimental innovations of a relatively small group of authors and the concerns of a literary criticism that celebrates diversion from the norm, the main body of literature is conservative, and in the times of modernism, as well as postmodernism, most texts written and published were decidedly pre-modern. Modernism may have relished the anti-hero, but the bulk of literature, and in particular adventure literature, preferred the straightforward actions of Bulldog Drummond and James Bond, John Carter and Kimball Kinnison, Tarzan and Conan the Cimmerian, i.e. the hero without fear, fault or irony. Paradoxically, the fact that Tolkien remained in many ways firmly within the confines of the mainstream literature of his time is eulogized by his fans and sometimes even by Tolkien critics as an act of courage and a lonely journey into uncharted literary regions. In an essay on Tolkien as the "Lord of Fantasy", Elana Gomel writes:

For all that he was influenced by a number of previous writers of fantasy, nobody had ever had the guts to do what he did: to write a counterfeit epic in a clear, contemporary language, accessible to all; to unite the timeless appeal of the fairy tale with the giddy delight of the adventure story; to create an imaginary world which, no matter how heavily colonized since then, still has the power to evoke the thrill of exploration. For that achievement no praise is too extravagant; and the love his fans lavish on him is well-deserved. Perhaps we should honor Tolkien not by endlessly rewriting The Lord of the Rings but by emulating the Oxford don's courage in opening up for ourselves new realms of Fairy which will be as fresh and unexpected as Middle-earth was at the hour of its making. (Gomel, n.p.)

Of course, this raises the question of what exactly was so enormously courageous about writing a highly successful fantasy novel and what guts it actually took to do so in a language that was accessible to all. It is one of the markers of genre literature that it tries to address a large readership, if possible including a juvenile audience, and thus uses an appealing and easily comprehensible language.


As sufficiently demonstrated, Tolkien criticism is very much concerned, if not obsessed, with the status of the master's work in the larger literary environment and with the desire to be recognized as a valid and possibly indispensable contribution to scholarly research in literature. Recognition, however, works in two ways, and as was pointed out in the introductory section of this paper, requires intellectual exchange in regard to the theoretical and methodological parameters of the field of enquiry. These parameters need not be accepted wholeheartedly, but they ought to be taken into critical consideration and, if necessary, discussed – possibly even refuted – on the basis of qualified and informed arguments.

Tolkien criticism, however, tends to close itself off from the multitude of approaches that mark the present state of the art in literary research.10 In consequence, it has not yet managed to enter the wider circles of literary criticism but rather maintains its status as a discussion within a fairly stable but limited community. A tendency to focus on the thematically and argumentatively restricted output of an in-group for further readings and analyses is easily recognizable in the references and bibliographies of Tolkien studies. Three examples should suffice to demonstrate and elucidate this point.

Tom Shippey in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century quite obviously tries to situate the master within the canon of British, if not World literature. It is not important here whether his point is valid, but a simple look at the references shows that there is hardly any entry beyond the immediate focus on Tolkien. There are the authors who have criticised Tolkien and those who have defended him, but literary criticism, aesthetic theory, poetics, hermeneutics or scholars who address general literary concerns are almost completely absent – literary theory is chiefly represented by the entries on modernism in Margaret Drabble's Oxford Companion to English Literature and Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth's John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, not exactly the perfect sources for an in-depth discussion of all the relevant concerns in 20th century criticism. The index is similarly exclusive. As it would not be appropriate to list all the entries here, I offer those under my own initials as a fairly random selection:11

Dante, Simone D'Ardenne (one of Tolkien's students), Avram Davidson (fantasy author), De Consolatione Philosophiae, Dead Marshes, death, Defending Middle-earth, Denethor, the Denham Tracts, depth, Deutsche Mythologie, Charles Dickens, Don Quixote, Stephen Donaldson (fantasy author), David Doughan (Tolkien scholar), Gavin Douglas (late medieval Scottish bishop and poet), Margaret Drabble (editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, see above), dragons, Dublin Review (asked Tolkien for a story), Alfred Duggan (wrote a hostile review in 1954), Dungeons and Dragons, Lord Dunsany (author of epic fantasy), Dvergatal (Tally of the dwarves), dwarves.

Jack Vance (sf and fantasy author), Vichy France, Virgil, Völuspa, Kurt Vonnegut (American author), The Voyage of Earendel. (Shippey, Author, 338-9 and 347)

The letter V may perhaps be a little tricky, but I expect that any scholar can come up with some important critics or topics beginning with the letters D (from de Beauvoir to Derrida, from defamiliarization to deconstruction) that might have been employed for a discussion of Tolkien's role for 20th century literature, and it is quite inconceivable how the claim that Tolkien is one of the foremost authors of the 20th century can be established on the basis of no more than a few entries in handbooks of literary criticism.12 James Joyce, who is used for a very brief and superficial comparison with Tolkien's work, did not even make it into the bibliography, and indeed, the passage does not indicate any deeper familiarity with his work.13

Quite similarly, the two articles in Tolkien and Modernism investigating Tolkien's presentation of women, Maria Raffaela Benvenuto’s "Against Stereotype: Éowyn and Lúthien as 20th-Century Women" and Laura Michel's "Politically Incorrect: Tolkien, Women, and Feminism", have not a single feminist author in their respective bibliographies, not a single text on women in modernity or in 20th century literature, and actually not a single non-Tolkienesque reference. This renders the results rather unconvincing, and, what is more important, raises the question whether the accusation of "ignorant arrogance" (Curry, 3, see above) could not also be applied to critics who adamantly resist any temptation to look beyond the limited scope of their master's works and his sources.

The last example I want to offer is slightly more complicated. It offers a close look at the annotations in three similar publications: The Annotated Hobbit, The Annotated Alice, and The Annotated Dracula. All three novels are very popular works in the fantastic tradition, and the annotated editions seem to follow a similar concept. The focus here is on the actual content of the annotations, i.e. are they offering external information about the world and environment in which the texts appeared, do they contain background information that is necessary to understand or appreciate the work, or are they rather concerned with the internal relations of the work, i.e. what that author said about it, how it was received and what the characters at some point might or might not have known. Of course, the differences between the books also have to be taken into account – Dracula opens with Jonathan Harker's travels to Transylvania and so geographical annotations are rather dominant and deserve a category of their own. In the case of Alice, Carroll collaborated with John Tenniel and thus the illustrations are of some interest; in The Annotated Hobbit on the other hand we find a lot of later illustrations and book covers from various editions from all over the world, among them French, German, Swedish and Estonian versions, and while they may be interesting, they do not seem to add anything substantial to the understanding of Tolkien's book. Three other categories that have been taken into account where they appear to be relevant are "biographical", "literary" for annotations on specific literary strategies, and "influence", touching upon the influence of the work on later literary texts. I have gone through the annotations of approximately the first hundred pages of each book, i.e. chapters 1-5 of The Hobbit, 1-10 of Alice, and 1-4 of Dracula. It is, of course, not always easy to categorize an annotation, but the outcome is so striking that minor quibbles do not seem to be relevant. Here are the results:

Quite obviously, the annotations for the Hobbit are far more involved with internal issues than those for the other books; textual variants make up a huge batch, references to earlier or later events in this book or in LotR and the Silmarillion are also rather frequent and so are quotations from Tolkien’s letters, interviews or other authorial comments. Among the external references are, for example, the rather unsurprising explanations that "Porter is a dark brown beer, usually stronger that regular beer", that "sweetcake is a sweetened cake flavoured with caraway seeds" or that "Tea-time in England is traditionally around four p.m. It is a light afternoon meal, usually consisting of tea, bread (with butter and jam), and various cakes or biscuits" (all p. 40) – biscuits are then explained more thoroughly two pages later. At various times one can thus sense the desire to find something that might permit itself to be annotated and thus to turn the book into a respectable work that requires scholarly research for its adequate appreciation – a similar desire is apparent in the 88 pages of introduction to the The Annotated Wizard of Oz.

Of particular relevance for the assessment of Tolkien studies is the specific role of his own comments on his works, be it in essays and lectures or in letters and interviews. While such comments are, of course, an important source of information, it is rather uncommon in literary research to accept the author's own views as the final word on controversial issues; however, for Tolkien scholars their master's voice is quite regularly the decisive and authoritative instance beyond any possible doubt. For example, as already mentioned, Tolkien's work has frequently been criticised as escapist, and there are good arguments for as well as against the legitimacy of escapist literature, but the simple assertion that Tolkien defended escapism should by no means close the debate. In Tolkien studies, however, it frequently does (cf. for example Curry, 17-18 or Ryan, 114-115). Moreover, it is not particularly surprising to discover that Tolkien's fictional texts indeed match his concepts about fantasy literature as laid down in "On Fairy-Tales", but numerous papers, some of them counted among 'the best of Tolkien criticism' by Isaacs and Zimbardo, are little more than a reading of the essay leading to the realization that, yes, it fits the world of Middle-earth. Verlyn Flieger, for example, concludes her paper "When is a Fairy Story a Faëry Story? Smith of Wooton Major" with the amazing and exciting solution to a pressing problem: "Smith of Wooton Major is thus a Faëry Story in Tolkien's purest sense of that word. It is 'a tale about Faëry, the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country'" (Flieger, 69, the quote is from Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories", 114; for further examples cf. Reilly and Ryan).


It seems as if the frustration about this unfortunate situation has even reached some members of the Tolkien community. In his introduction to Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, Brian Rosebury expresses his concern about the state of Tolkien criticism.14 He points out that contrary to the persistent accusations of literary enmity and some kind of conspiracy within the literary establishment, "the predominant response to Tolkien in the academic world has not been hostility. It has been a bemused silence, or tacit dismissiveness” (3).15 Moreover he criticizes the politics of Tolkien publishers and editors and suggests that not every word of the master should be treated as a kind of literary gospel, and while some of the "unfinished writings, including not only incomplete fragments but also justifiably discarded or revised drafts," (3) may be of value for scholars, they do contain "a high proportion off rudimentary, immature and mishandled material" (4). He also admits that the perception "that Tolkien’s admirers have mounted too uncritical, and too coordinated, a case on his behalf" is at least partly justified, and that there is an "appearance of industrial production about this steady outpour of favourably disposed commentaries" (ibid). The programmatic list of common elements in Tolkien criticism which he intends to avoid reads almost like a summary of everything that has been critically assessed in this essay, and it deserves to be quoted in full.

At all events, in this book I hope to write about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien without taking leave of a plausible general view of literary aestheticism and literary history. This book will not praise Tolkien by disparaging all, or even many of his contemporaries; it will not suggest that Tolkien is so extraordinary a writer as to be incommensurable with all other writers (although his works do have distinctive features which need to be acknowledged); it will not plead the superiority of 'the mythic mode' to the 'realist mode', or of traditional romance to 'modern' forms of literature; it will not substitute for literary analysis the classification of imaginary beings, places and sacred objects; it will not, I hope, rhapsodise, make coy puns on Tolkien's nomenclature, use metaphors borrowed from his works at every opportunity ('Tolkien's prose flows as boldly as the Great River Anduin' and so on), or play the game of pretending that Middle-earth really exists. And it will not detain the reader with excerpts from the autobiography of the devotee. (5)

Reading the book, one can hardly fail to notice that Rosebury admires Tolkien and tries to find a suitable place for him within the modernist tradition, albeit a critical and partly anti-modernist variety of this. For once, the arguments are not chiefly based in Tolkien criticism, but in literary, aesthetic and cultural history and theory, and while it is not always necessary to agree with each and every point,16 Rosebury offers a conceptual platform for a discussion that could attract non-Tolkien readers and scholars. However, the fact that a Tolkien scholar deems it useful or necessary to emphasize his departure from what seems to be the norm among his peers implies the exceptionality of such a 'neutral' approach and confirms my argument that something is, indeed, amiss in the Tolkien universe.

The question is, of course: why bother? If armies of Tolkien scholars insist on flogging their preferred dead horse and persist in their unwavering claim that their texts of choice rank among the very highest literary achievements or even surpass all other modern and even pre-modern literature, this is hardly more noteworthy than a bag of pipe weed toppling over in Saruman's cellars. Tolkien studies have to some extent become the literary equivalent of a Trekkie convention where the speakers preach passionately to an already converted audience of devotees; and few literary scholars will stray into these peculiar realms and take the time to get involved in a tedious game of my-author-is-greater-than-your-author. Neither will they consult the research if they have to dig through numerous pages of intemperate assaults on the unbelievers and excessive eulogies on the master before they reach the actual arguments and insights, if any there are. If Tolkien scholars actually intend to struggle on for the day when literary critics will unanimously succumb to the spell of Faëry and celebrate Tolkien as the most important, creative, imaginative, accomplished, relevant, knowledgeable, erudite [fill in ad lib.] author of his times, they might as well await his second coming. While doing so they will, however, diminish the very possibility for Tolkien to be taken seriously at all.

But that is a pity, because Tolkien does not deserve to be hailed into scholarly oblivion. No matter whether one actually appreciates his books and enjoys following his heroes through their adventures in Middle-earth, his ear for language and his attention to linguistic intricacies are sufficient cause for a thorough investigation of the poetics and literary features of his work. And it is here, in the field of philology, which Tolkien himself saw as the most momentous aspect of his writings, that some highly interesting and productive research has been done. A good example, one should suffice here, is Peter Gilliver's, Edmund Weiner's and Jeremy Marshall's "Perspectives on Tolkien as Lexicographer and Philologist", an essay that manages in a completely sober style and without any hyperbolic praise to demonstrate "that Tolkien's creative imagination frequently caught fire from apparently dry, dull, and uninspired linguistic items – words or names encountered in a context that most people would have passed by without the arousal of curiosity or excitement, but which launched Tolkien on a journey of exploration" (70). The investigation into the origins of names and places, together with the attention to the etymological roots of linguistic items and to the development particular words underwent in changing contexts indeed may lead readers and scholars on journeys quite as interesting as the one to Gondor or Mordor. Moreover, such enquiries could also show a productive connectivity with similar research on other works and authors – after all, there were quite a few writers with a highly developed sensitivity for the materiality of words together with a special interest in etymologies and the accumulation of meaning over history, among them James Joyce.

It would be a loss both for Tolkien studies and for the larger context of literary criticism if joint ventures were precluded by a simple unawareness of analogous phenomena in widely differing texts and genres. It would be even more regrettable if the ultimate obstacle was the struggle over the question whether Tolkien must be regarded as part of the literary Olympus, Walhalla, or Valinor. This discussion is not only theoretically invalid, but also detrimental to productive work and ultimately terribly boring.


1 The title, of course, is sufficiently vague, and does not indicate whether Tolkien is regarded as 'an' author of the century (xxvi) or as 'the' author of the century (xvii). I consider this to be a rather transparent rhetorical strategy, which implies a strong claim but allows for a return to the weaker version in the face of a serious challenge.

2 This assessment of the essay as akin to the most momentous works of literary criticism from antiquity to the present clashes with the notion, that its explanatory power remains somewhat fuzzy. Milburn points out that "Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson have identified the word 'Faery' as perhaps 'the single most important term in Tolkien's critical lexicon' but it is not always clear what he means by it" (55, the quote is from Flieger and Anderson, 85). Similarly Honegger writes: "Flieger and Anderson's publication of the drafts and early versions show that Tolkien had, at the time of the writing of the lecture, not yet developed a clear concept of Faërie, nor had he reached a definitive conclusion concerning the status of its inhabitants, the elves – nor would he ever come to a fully consistent view in any of the (later) published versions" (Honegger, Sir Orfeo, 126). One would have assumed that a critical work that is counted among the best that has been said and written about literature at least discusses its most important concept with some clarity and precision.

3 A similar situation persists in some other fields of enquiry. Almost all books on comics and graphic novels open with an introduction to the genre’s long history of rejection as sub-literature or downright trash, slowly giving way to the more recent critical perspective on sequential art as an accepted form or artistic expression. However, as no scholar working on comics has yet claimed that these works are in fact equal or even superior to all other art forms, the similarity ends here.

4 Further accusations can be found in various defences of Tolkien's work against evil academicians, modernist and post-modernist "misologists" or other "despisers of fantasy" (Shippey, Author, xvii). Patrick Curry, in addition to the passage already quoted, intends to disturb a "cozy and fraudulent orthodoxy" and contests "ignorant arrogance" (3). Stephen W. Carson in a paper titled "Why do they hate him?" recalls a lecture of Tom Shippey, in the Q&A section of which he asked why Tolkien still got hostile reviews. "Shippey's first response was 'They're bastards!'" It is to be hoped that this is an invention and that even harsh criticism and strong disagreement among scholars is not immediately diagnosed as an unequivocal symptom of depravity.

5 It may seem like cavil to point out that one millennium should suffice to cover the history if not of English literature then certainly of English literary criticism, but the plural serves to extend the hegemony of an unfair and bigoted literary establishment, out of touch with the general readership, to antiquity and those texts from which Tolkien most frequently borrowed his ideas and stories, namely the mythologies of the Germanic peoples.

6 It is necessary here to point out that some readers may well dislike Tolkien because they actually admire Beowulf, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, Chaucer and also the Norse myths and legends, and simply prefer the original to the derivative. After all, Tolkien has freely admitted to having ladled extensively from the cauldron of stories, and there are readers and critics who prefer the flavour of the ingredients before they are thrown together and cooked into a kind of stew. This is, once more, not a critique of Tolkien's work, as the revision and revival of myth and legend has long been a potentially fascinating endeavour in literature. It just suggests that the easy and facile dismissal of critical voices may very well fail to address the relevant points.

7 Shippey indicates that this would also have been Tolkien's view on the matter, and that he would have seen himself as "satisfying a taste – the taste for fairy-tale – which is natural to us, which goes back as far as we have written records of any sort, to the Old Testament and Homer's Odyssey, and which is found in all human societies" (Shippey, Author, xxv). One would have thought that a scholar of Tolkien’s standing could not possibly have seen the Bible and the Greek myths as instances of fairy-tales. In his epilogue to "On Fairy-stories", however, he actually writes, "The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories", and he even adds that they "contain many marvels" (155). It will not be necessary to elaborate on the lack of sensitivity for historical contexts and genre history in this statement.

8 Such laudatory statements have a tendency to spawn further, more extreme or even absurd, eulogies. Garth's already non-sensical evaluation of Tolkien as "the most dissident of twentieth century writers" resurfaced in an abstract for a conference paper by Fabian Geier about Tolkien's dismissal of the modernist Zeitgeist "Einmal kritisiert Tolkien solche Haltungen als den 'Provinzialismus des Zeitgemäßen', und John Garth nennt ihn dafür 'den größten Dissidenten des 20. Jahrhunderts'". (Geier, n.p., "Tolkien criticised such attitudes as the 'parochialism of time', and John Garth accordingly calls him the 'greatest dissident of the 20th century'"). Garth wrote about Tolkien's response to the Great War, the attack on the 'parochialism of time' quoted here, however, is from the draft version of a letter to Hugh Brogan (Letter 171), written in 1955 but ultimately not sent. The quote is thus wilfully misplaced and now appears in the context of Adorno's famed statement that after Auschwitz poetry was no longer possible or acceptable. Moreover, the "most dissident of 20th century writers" suddenly re-materializes as the "greatest dissident of the 20th century". This, of course, is academically unsound, if not fraudulent. It goes without saying, not only among historically and politically concerned scholars and readers, but hopefully also among readers of Tolkien, that such a claim can only be regarded as an insult to all dissident writers and political dissidents who really suffered under totalitarianism, who were imprisoned, isolated, tortured and in some cases killed, among them Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Naguib Mahfouz or Ken Saro-Wiwa, to name but a few.

9 An experiment by the neuro-psychologist James Cutting showed the correlation between the frequency of visual exposure to an innovative piece of art and its acceptance by the audience (cf. Cutting 2003, passim).

10 If the larger developments were taken into account, one might have expected Tolkien scholars to run and join forces with the fairly new field of evolutionary literary studies. Some of its proponents share a severe dislike of everything modern and postmodern; Dennis Dutton for example wrote in The Art Instinct that "the ambiguities and cynicism of modernism have driven literature away from the moral edification seen through most of storytelling history" (129) and diagnoses "the decline of great art in cynical, ironic ages, such as our own" (240). In addition, evolutionary literary studies might contribute greatly to the question of why it is that Tolkien's work manages to appeal to such an enormous audience.

11 Those who consider a selection of only two letter insufficient for a convincing argument are invited to check the rest of the index and in particular the "Works of Reference" (p. 332-336) for confirmation.

12 A different approach to the same subject can be found in Heidi Krueger's "The Shaping of 'Reality' in Tolkien’s Works: An Aspect of Tolkien and Modernity", which discusses its topic on the basis of a sound body of secondary literature on modernism and literary criticism. Krueger, predictably, also comes to the conclusion that "among those who have worked strongly on the development of our culture, we can now see [Tolkien] at the front" (269), and the evidence for this view can surely be contested, but now the claim is backed up by arguments one can reasonably and controversially discuss.

13 For example, the claim that as "the action of Ulysses is confined within a single day, 16th June 1904, and a single city, Dublin, the scope of The Lord of the Rings is both historically and geographically much greater" is hopelessly, indeed painfully, besides any possible point. Does Shippey really fail to realize that it is one of the many important features of Joyce's novel that all of history and all of geography are enfolded within a single day and a single location, or is he just trying to score a point with an intended readership that probably never read Ulysses anyway and so would not notice the blunder? For a more balanced essay that discusses Tolkien, Joyce and Eliot cf. Honegger, Elves, 2006.

14 I should like to express my gratitude to Allan Turner who brought this book to my attention.

15 On the final page of the text, however, he falls back upon the more traditional view of Tolkien's critics and diagnoses an "academic hostility" that "excludes [Tolkien's work] even from the literary canon" (220).

16 My own response is more often than not a "Yes, I agree, but …".


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