Monday 25 September 2023

Review of Twenty-First Century Tolkien by Nick Groom (2023)

Nick Groom. Twenty-first century Tolkien: What Middle Earth means to us today. Atlantic Books: London, 2023. pp xxiii, 451.

Nick Groom, the author of Twenty-first century Tolkien, approaches Tolkien from almost the opposite side to myself; in terms of what we each think is significant about Tolkien the Man, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; and more fundamentally, also, in what we think is good and true in the world!

The core problem for me, is that Groom has an incompatible and, I feel, incoherent understanding of the subject matter itself: i.e. what we mean by "JRR Tolkien", and what "Tolkien" actually should-be. 

Twenty-first century Tolkien is an eclectic brew (including biography, textual analysis, literary history, cultural criticism and much else); but I think mostly about what can be termed "the Tolkien phenomenon", as this developed from publication and up to Amazon TV's Rings of Power in 2022. 

(The gulf between my own aesthetic and moral evaluations, and those of Nick Groom, is evidenced by the fact that he liked Rings of Power, thought it was conceptually interesting, well done, and a valid contribution to Tolkien's legacy; whereas my own evaluations were... rather different!)

Perhaps the main value to the book is its extensive information concerning how other people (not Tolkien himself) have interpreted, adapted, and exploited Tolkien's written works; across a wide range of media - especially radio, television, movies - particularly interesting in including unpublished and unmade examples. 

Groom's accounts of these are interesting and amusing, at a gossipy level - and I found myself reading-out sections to the family, about the astonishing absurdities and excesses of various plans and scripts for adapting The Lord of the Rings.  

But I began to realize what would turn out to be the core problem of this book for someone like myself; which is that Groom seems to like and approve-of - or at least take seriously as valid options - a great deal of what seems to me the most ignorant, incompetent and crass interpretations. 

And indeed this is the main problem I have with Twenty-first century Tolkien, throughout. For Groom; the proper subject matter of discourse is not JRR Tolkien As Such; but the Tolkien phenomenon - which is, in principle, anything and everything people have thought, said, written, depicted - which is (in almost any way) linked-with Tolkien's work. 

Groom goes to the extreme (that is, it seems extreme and indeed absurd to me, although fairly mainstream in Literary Criticism for several decades) of stating that "we" cannot any longer regard Tolkien (his life, his work) as a "purely literary" phenomenon; and that this means that we ought to cease regarding the original text as the subject matter. 

Groom says we "cannot" (I think he means that he believes we "should not") separate Tolkien the Man, his literary works, and the cumulative cultural products of the Tolkien Phenomenon/ Industry. 

Part of this argument is an extensive 'revisionist' reinterpretation of Tolkien's written works; by which Groom ingeniously homes-in upon those elements which contradict the accepted (and, I would say, true!) generalizations concerning Tolkien: such that his 'world-building' in Lord of the Rings was uniquely coherent and detailed. 

Groom highlights instead the inconsistencies, loose ends, and vagueness in the printed text; and emphasizes the zig-zag and exploratory way in which that final text was developed, through sometimes many drafts (as described in The History of Middle Earth). 

On the one hand, Groom's approach does highlight the exceptions behind the generalization; on the other hand, by the time Groom has finished his exposition, the Lord of the Rings has been almost inverted into something almost unrecognizable - to my mind almost an anti-Tolkien! 

But - and I think this is significant - Tolkien thus regarded has become something much more palatable to the institutionally-leftist and reflexly-secular assumptions, convictions and tastes of modern academia. 

I agree with Groom that it is possible to regard "Tolkien" in exactly the way he advocates, and I also agree that this is indeed how many or most people do regard Tolkien. 

As a clear example, the Peter Jackson movies have, as a matter of sheer fact, overwritten some aspects of the books in the memories of many who appreciate both - such that the two cannot be reliably distinguished or kept separate. 

This is, at least partly, because the "virtual reality" power of a movie is something largely passively and uniformly imposed-upon the audience; while by contrast a book's power is much more actively and personally co-created by the reader. This unfortunately means that even a bad movie (and Peter Jackson's movies are superb, greatly amplifying their power to usurp!) can penetrate and distort the impact of a book.

For example, the idiotic depiction of the Ents in Bakshi's 1978 animated Lord of the Rings (the first picture on this page) often jump into mind when I am reading the book; despite or exactly because I so much despise them!

In other words; the Tolkien phenomenon much more often, because so much more easily, degrades more than it enhances what is valuable in the original literary source. Unfortunately, in this world it is facile to mock, subvert, degrade and destroy - but very difficult to make something beautiful, true and virtuous. And what is easy happens more often than what is difficult. 

As Tolkien himself made clear; evil distorts and pollutes, it cannot create - and there have been few phenomena in the history of this world that are more purposively evil (in terms of their inversion of values) than the modern mass media

Insofar as we deliver Tolkien into the "phenomenon", we assimilate his texts into the mass media; and inevitably to that extent will his work be corrupted - and indeed inverted.  

But for me; to redefine Tolkien in this way, and open-endedly - such that "Tolkien" is being continually changed by... well, whatever latest Tolkien-themes cultural product has an impact - is a gross and indeed lethal diminution of what Tolkien and his work can be for us. 

In other words, to regard Tolkien as having disappeared-into, and been assimilated-by, the Tolkien Phenomenon; is merely to regard Tolkien as Just Another evanescent, attention-grabbing aspect of the mainstream mass media. 

Whereas, by contrast (and as this blog is intended to exemplify), to focus upon Tolkien the Man and his Books, can be to live in the presence of an unique and exceptionally valuable individual author - one who I personally would not want to be without.


Tolkien can give us a positively life-transforming, culturally challenging, deep perspective; but only if we are prepared to separate him sufficiently to discover his particular nature and contribution.