Sunday 14 February 2021

Review of Tolkien's Modern Reading, by Holly Ordway (2021)

Holly Ordway. Tolkien's modern reading: Middle-earth beyond the Middle Ages. Word on Fire: Park Ridge, Illinois, USA. pp ix, 382. (39 illustrative plates and two full page portrait photos of JRRT.)  

Tolkien's Modern Reading by Holly Ordway is a book which changed the way I think about Tolkien - and in several respects. Which I regard as quite an achievement! - given how much I have read and brooded-on Tolkien over nearly fifty years. 

Ordway solidly proves her core argument; which is that Tolkien read a great deal of 'modern' fiction (defined as post 1850 - but including works right up to the end of his life); that he enjoyed much of it; and took some works seriously enough to affect his own writing: often fundamentally. 

Tolkien's Modern Reading operates at various levels, and its interest for me increased the deeper it went. 

At a surface level, Ordway documents the specific works of modern literature that Tolkien is known to have read, including the evidence that he did indeed know and read each particular book. This sets-out the scope of TMR

Then there are specific incidents and details which are known to have influenced particular aspects of (especially) The Hobbit and/or Lord of the Rings. For instance Tolkien once stated that the fight with Wargs in The Hobbit was based on a scene in a book by SR Crockett - Ordway tracks-down and quotes the specific passage, and its vivid illustration is reproduced. 

In my experience (e.g. my 1988 analysis of the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray), this is how fiction writers generally work - that is, they select and modify elements of their own experience and reading to generate elements in their fiction. 

But more interesting to me is the next layer of depth, which is conceptual. An example I found striking is Ordway's insight into Tolkien's comment that his goblins were influenced by those in George MacDonald's Princess and the Goblin fantasy. 

Ordway clarifies that Princess and the Goblin was the first popular work to depict goblins as essentially underground, tunnel-dwellers - and always malicious by nature. But before MacD's time goblins and hobgoblins were regarded as above-ground, household fairies - some were benign and helpful. 

This is of considerable cultural significance, given the vast proliferation of evil, underground goblins in modern fiction and Dungeons and Dragons-type games; and we can now see that this idea came originally from George MacDonald but crucially via his influence on Tolkien's Hobbit.

(Before The Hobbit was published, but known only to Tolkien's family; nasty, underground, tunneling goblins feature in The Father Christmas Letters).  

Perhaps a deeper form of influence is also illustrated by MacD - which is negative influence. Ordway's idea of negative influence is when, for example, Tolkien regarded a fantasy author or book with some mixture of approval and disapproval, such that he determined to avoid what he regarded as a particular fault. 

The MacDonald example is The Golden Key. Tolkien was writing an introduction to the book which he had loved early in his life; but when he re-read Tolkien found there was much he disliked. The negative influence was that Tolkien then wrote Smith of Wootton Major to do right what he regarded MacD as having done wrong. 

Another example of negative influence suggested by Ordway relates to Charles Williams and CS Lewis's overt usage of Christian material in their work. This seems to have led to Tolkien adopting the opposite strategy of removing nearly all explicit references to Christianity, or any religion; and yet making the work as a whole engage with Christian issues by the nature of its plot, characters, events etc. 

The concept of negative influence is one that I believe will turn-out to have exceptional applicability in understanding Tolkien. I can think of many instances in which an aversion for some aspect of another writer's work, or even Tolkien's own earlier work, served as a structuring lesson in what to avoid from now, and a stimulus to do better in the future.   

Tolkien's early anthologized poem Goblin Feet (with its tiny, delicate, precious, 'Victorian' fairies) is one of the first known examples; the 'silly' Rivendell elves of The Hobbit another - these leading up to the tall, noble, wise, powerful (and not at all 'silly'!) elves of The Lord of the Rings

A further instance of Tolkien being negatively influenced by himself, was the avuncular narrator of The Hobbit who occasionally indulges in asides to the adult reader, above the children's head. He later regretted this; and ensured that The Lord of the Rings was absolutely free from any such condescension or 'archness'. 

The importance of Tolkien's modern reading should have been obvious to everyone, all along - but was not. To the extent that many authors have, with greater or lesser degrees of exaggeration, made vast and sweeping, negative and derogatory assertions regarding Tolkien's ignorance and loathing of such fiction, and denying any significant influence from it. 

And, for this, the main fault lies with Humphrey Carpenter and his authorized 1977 Tolkien biography, the selected letters (1981), and The Inklings group-biography of 1978. 

It was Carpenter who so deeply-planted the idea that Tolkien had read very little modern literature and liked even less. And this has (by a kind of 'Chinese whispers') grown over the years among writers on Tolkien to wild assertions that he had read very little since Chaucer - or even since the Norman Conquest!  

Based on Carpenter's excessively simplified and distorted accounts; this further led onto other false assertions such as that Tolkien tried to impose (or did - somehow impose) his irrational personal preferences and limitations onto the Oxford English syllabus. 

Carpenter - with the status of being (even now!) the only author granted access to a mass of personal and private diary and letter material and allowed to quote from it; and writing with the (apparent) endorsement of the Tolkien Estate - created a set of initial false assumptions that have ever since distorted Tolkien scholarship. 

Explicating and clarifying the malign influences of Carpenter is a recurrent topic throughout Tolkien's Modern Reading; and, although a side-theme, may prove to be Ordway's major achievement - given the many and extreme distortions of understanding for which Carpenter was responsible.  

Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of this book is the long-overdue discrediting of several basic evaluations of Humphrey Carpenter - a necessary process of adjustment which readers of this blog have known that I have been advocating for several years.   

Ordway documents something I had long-since inferred from internal evidence; that Carpenter (by his own account, on public record) did not like Tolkien or his work - nor indeed did he like any of the Inklings; and that his original motivation with the biography was to write a subversive account of Tolkien. 

The significant negative distortions which have been the legacy of Carpenter's Tolkien and Inklings* biographies cannot, therefore, be regarded as an accident, but resulted from a combination of unsympathetic attitudes and egregious intentions. 

(In addition, so HC also said; he was settling some scores with the Christian Oxford of Carpenter's childhood - his father Harry had been Bishop of Oxford and Warden of Keble College - an Anglo-Catholic Anglican foundation. Humphrey rebelled and reacted-against this conservative and religious upbringing; to adopt a mainstream-media-type leftist and counter-cultural ideology and lifestyle.) 

Carpenter's biography was written quickly, leading to significant factual errors (documented by Hammond and Scull, in The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide and elsewhere); although Tolkien (1977) was, and remains, a very deft and readable book, and is a highly-skilled work of compression of a great deal of factual material into a modest length. And, of course, it is mostly accurate!

Yet the biography's first draft was regarded as completely unacceptable by the Tolkien family. It was 'torn to pieces' in detail by Christopher, according to publisher Rayner Unwin. And the version we know was (again hastily - in just a week or two) revised, and the worst passages excised, before being passed for publication. 

Yet, and this is the take-home-message; the basic animus with which Carpenter approached Tolkien of course remained; and in may ways has been perpetuated to this day**. 

It was also Carpenter who seeded the idea that Tolkien had a violent dislike of the Narnia books by CS Lewis. This effect was achieved by picking-up, distorting and exaggerating some much milder comments by Roger Lancelyn Green. This was linked to the - now widespread - idea that this extreme aversion to Narnia was responsible for a cooling in the Lewis-Tolkien friendship. 

What Ordway describes is a much milder dislike, which Tolkien recognised as due to his limited range of sympathy; plus a few specific sharper criticisms of the early draft chapters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. These include the inconsistency at the inclusion of Father Christmas (Christ-mas), and an apparent queasiness at Lewis's use of a mythologically-lecherous faun to befriend Lucy and take her home. 

Yet Tolkien also described the Narnia Chronicles as "deservedly popular" to a correspondent. One decisive fact is that Tolkien handed his granddaughter Joanna the Narnia Chronicles from his own bookshelf, for her to read. 

I was perhaps particularly struck by this re-analysis of Tolkien and Narnia because I had myself absorbed and accepted the idea of Tolkien's extreme hostility to the point of using it as key evidence in understanding the 'cooling' of Tolkien and Lewis's friendship.

Reflecting on the way I came to this idea; I wonder how many other falsely exaggerated and distorted - and negative - assumptions I still hold; which were perhaps insidiously implanted by Carpenter or other authors who had a hidden and hostile agenda towards Tolkien and the Inklings more generally?

It is hard to exaggerate how powerfully assumptions can come to dictate interpretation of evidence; and when these assumptions are based on selection and distortion with a negative intent; the resulting negative attitudes can be surprisingly difficult to detect and to eradicate. So the assumption of Tolkien's ignorance-of and hostility-towards modern literature has become a cherished prejudice that has, so far, survived a vast mass of contradictory evidence.  

At any rate, I am grateful to Holly Ordway's Tolkien's Modern Reading for setting me right on several important aspects of Tolkien - who is someone with great personal significance in my life. 

Those who value Tolkien the man - as I do will certainly want to read this book. 


*The major negatively-influential (oft-repeated) distortion of Carpenter's Inklings biography of 1978 was that the Inklings were nothing more than a convivial group of Jack Lewis's friends who had negligible influence on each other's writing. 

This idea was very thoroughly addressed and decisively refuted by Diana Pavlac Glyer in The Company They Keep (2006). Indeed Tolkien's Modern Reading resembles TCTK in terms of being structured by an overall contra-Carpenter thesis, pursued by exhaustive scholarly documentation.  

**In considering the malign influences of Carpenter; I think the Tolkien Estate must take significant blame. Not only for choosing, or at least allowing, Carpenter to kick-start his career as a professional writer with what was intended to be something of a 'hatchet job' biography. 

(Indeed, HC wrote several of these throughout his career. Colin Wilson - a delightful man, by all accounts, describes HC posing as a well-disposed ally, and accepting Wilson's generous hospitality as a house guest. Then Carpenter comprehensively mocked and rubbished Wilson in his hostile and dismissive 2002 group-biography The Angry Young Men.

After providing the 'authorized' imprimatur for Carpenter to publish misleading quotations, and launch several denigrating distortions; the Tolkien Estate then failed to issue specific explicit corrections. They also failed to do something which would have been better - to break Carpenter's 'monopoly' by allowing later (more sympathetic and honest) biographers to have the same publishing-access to private papers as enjoyed by the careerist and subversive Carpenter. 

So long as Carpenter remains the only person who has been allowed to publish restricted material from journals, letters etc; for so long will the distortions of the 1977/8 biographies be sustained. 

After 43 years it is past-time for more authorized biographies, and further (less distortedly-selected and -quoted) publications

Writers with a track record of scholarly excellence, readability and empathy - such as Holly Ordway, Diana Pavlac Glyer and John Garth - would be much more suitable official biographers; and begin to redress the subtle, chronically-poisoning effects of Humphrey Carpenter. 


José González said...

Hello Bruce,

Thank you, this is very interesting.

Have you found any comprehensive list of Tolkien's personal library? That should also shed some light on the matter (although I imagine Tolkien was borrowing quite a lot from the Oxford library, as it was the case for CS Lewis). There's a book "Tolkien's Library: An Annotated Checklist", have you read it and if so would you recommend it?

Regarding the Oxford English syllabus, the Hooper & Green biography of CS Lewis also mentions it so Carpenter might be right on that one - I haven't managed to find it anywhere so I think I will ask the university about it.

Bruce Charlton said...

I think Ordway mentioned that there was no full list of Tolkien's library and it was broken up after his death.

Ordway gives a fairly detailed discussion of the differences in described syllabus changes in Carpenter compared with what happened pp 279-82. The main thing is that it was all more complicated than Carpenter said, and Carpenter firmly linked Tolkien's syllabus reforms with motivations rooted in his (supposed) ignorance and dislike of post Chaucerian literature.

This is the kind of devious, subtle misdirection from HC which has proved such a disaster in Tolkien's reputation. Ordway cites a BBC documentary from 2016 in which the presenter stated that Tolkien wanted the English School teaching to stop the curriculum with Chaucer, and exclude (among others) Shakespeare!

Wurmbrand said...

To José González -- Here are some passages from my review of Cilli's Tolkien's Library.

The book is an annotated checklist (1) of books that Tolkien is known to have owned -- but also (2) of books with which he was acquainted, without, perhaps, having owned them; and even (3) of books he might have read – or might not have read. The title, then, is certainly misleading. The 2,599 entries of the main list include all three sorts of books.

The selection of John Buchan books is a good example of Cilli’s inclusiveness: nine novels, only one of which (Greenmantle) is actually mentioned anywhere by Tolkien. Cilli’s source for the others is an entry in Michael Drout’s J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia on Buchan, by Tom Shippey. Shippey doesn’t say that Tolkien certainly read these books. We so know from Carpenter’s biography that Tolkien enjoyed Buchan’s fiction.

Likewise, Cilli lists an impressive bunch of books by William Morris. The Victorian fantasist was a great favorite of C. S. Lewis’s, and the list of Morris’s books suggests he was for Tolkien too, but you would need to look in the entry for Clutton-Brock’s 1914 study of Morris to see a key bit of information provided by Christopher Tolkien to Richard Mathews that provides valuable support for that idea. We still cannot say for sure that Tolkien read all four of the long Morris fantasies that Ballantine reprinted in its Adult Fantasy Series of 1969-1974 (The Wood Beyond the World, etc.). It’s likely that he did, sure.

more in a moment

Wurmbrand said...


But readers will need to use Cilli’s book warily.

As soon as I received my copy of Cilli’s checklist, I hastened to see what books by H. Rider Haggard might have been in Tolkien’s collection. I exclaimed with delight when I found several listed, including – aha! -- an obscure one called Heu-Heu or The Monster.
For a moment, I was much gratified because, years ago, I had ventured the hunch that Tolkien might have read this little-known tale of Haggard’s hero Allan Quatermain and that it had left traces in Tolkien’s writing. So here was enhanced support for that possibility – Tolkien had owned a copy! I wanted to tell all the kids on the block.

However, when I looked at the entry again, I took note of Cilli’s source, which I saw was Drout’s J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, page 369. I turned to that page in the Encyclopedia, pretty sure of what I would find; yes, it was my own very long entry on 19th- and 20th-Century Literary Influences on Tolkien.

I wrote there that a thunderstorm episode in Heu-Heu might have contributed to Tolkien’s account of the mountain-storm in The Hobbit. I still think it might have, but I’m no nearer to knowing if Tolkien ever read that Haggard romance. I should have emphasized more strongly, in my Encyclopedia entry, that this is something we do not know.

more in a moment

Wurmbrand said...

The only Haggard romances that, so far as I know, we can be sure Tolkien read are Eric Brighteyes, The Wanderer’s Necklace, and above all She. Almost certainly he also read King Solomon’s Mines. I suspect he read more of these popular novels – perhaps a lot more, and I’m convinced that they might have been very important to him in the writing of The Lord of the Rings; see my article “Tolkien’s Further Indebtedness to Haggard” in Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society #47 (Spring 2009): 38-40.

But there’s a lot we don’t know for sure. We don’t know if Tolkien read Haggard’s Treasure of the Lake, another romance mentioned in my Encyclopedia article, and this time not listed by Cilli – I’m not sure why, since he did list Heu-Heu.

Cilli cites my article “Possible Echoes of Blackwood and Dunsany in Tolkien’s Fantasy” in Tolkien Studies #1 (2004), as well as Jared Lobdell’s England and Always: Tolkien’s World of the Rings, in an entry on Algernon Blackwood’s story “The Wendigo.” Neither Lobdell nor I had any proof that Tolkien had read this famous terror-tale. A user of Cilli’s book who doesn’t look up what we wrote will probably assume that we did have such proof.

Blackwood was well known for weird stories and I’d be surprised if Tolkien had not read this one; certainly he had read something by Blackwood. But unlike Cilli, I doubt very much that “The Wendigo” was the source of Tolkien’s “Crack of Doom.” Tolkien thought that expression might have been derived from Blackwood. Sure – but is it likely it was from a passage in “The Wendigo” describing someone looking through “the crack of the tent door flap”?

In general, Cilli seems to have thought it best to include doubtful items. Notably, if Tolkien cited a given work as a source for an illustrative quotation, when he was working on the New English Dictionary early in his career, Cilli includes it in Tolkien’s Library, although it is highly likely that Tolkien never saw some of those books, but derived his information from what was provided by readers who submitted usage slips for the great lexicon.

Thus, Cilli acknowledges that “the present work doesn’t ‘reconstruct’ a physical library that once existed, but rather an imaginary collection (my italics). But it was the former that I was led to expect from the book’s title. One may wince, when thinking of the errors likely to crop up in future writing on Tolkien by users of the checklist who do not read every word of the front matter to understand just what what it is.

As what it is, though, Tolkien’s Library will lend itself to various good uses. Right off, I think it will suggest to undergraduates and others the great world of learning to which Tolkien belonged, and which, I suppose, in our present period of damage to the learned life, must be, for many such people, unimaginable. ....

There is, then, a lot of information in Tolkien’s Library that is not very easy to use.

Dale Nelson

Anonymous said...

Working on my paper for the Tolkien Among Scholars conference (published with many of the others in Lembas Extra 2016) I learned that in the old days the Bodleian Library recorded every book that every reader called up, and that (I think) all of these records survive, making it possible to see everything every Inkling called up in the Bodleian (though not, of course, showing how much of any work they went on to read). Theoretically, someone could go through all those hand-written records and note what a given Inkling had called up, when but it would be a great labour (for, I presume, a post-Corona easily accessible Library).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I agree that could be the basis for a very interesting study; perhaps especially of CSL's scholarship and methods, since he seemed to use the Bodleian as his main source of books (rather than buying them).