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works; across a wide range of media - especially radio, television, movies - particularly interesting in including unpublished and unmade examples.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.


No Longer Reading said...

I agree.

The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit (as well as the other supplementary books such as those by Christopher Tolkien) are the real Tolkien.

Even though the Tolkien phenomenon is bigger in terms of the number of people involved and in terms of its reach, it's also more ephemeral. Things come and go and people don't have any real attachment to any of them; it's just passing entertainment. Even the Rings of Power: it was heavily promoted but now that it's over, it's pretty much forgotten (at least until the next season).

It's kind of like before the paperback came out, when only people who were really interested in the Lord of the Rings read it and then afterwards when it became a mass cultural phenomenon.

And that leads to something else: it's a common idea that something becomes better if more and more people are involved. But that just isn't true: if people who don't really care about something are involved, then that degrades it.

Nathan Wright said...

I fail to see any value whatsoever in movies/television, or at least none that is not massively outweighed by all the negatives, as exemplified here. The only medium that entirely cuts-out imagination and thought in the audience; the quintessential mass-culture medium. If it were banned completely we would be worlds better off.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR and NW - One analogy is between a novel, and a soap-opera/ endless-series. A novel can potentially be a much greater work of art than a soap; because the imperative to keep-it-going creates adverse incentives that are sooner or later irresistible. Also, the soap cannot ever finish, and the ending of a narrative is an indispensable part of its excellence.

The Tolkien Phenomenon is equivalent to the soap opera in this comparison - its imperative is to keep itself going - and (especially in the past few decades) this will sooner or later lead to subversion, inversion - and even self-destruction (when this benefits the agenda of its current producers). Examples abound: Start Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who.

This will and must happen to the Tolkien phenomenon - as the Rings of Power showed clearly. We then find a dichotomous choice - either we validate the original, or else we become perpetual fans of... whatever reboots and sequels the media choose to inflict on us.

Another aspect is what GunnerQ said in a blog post yesterday (

“The reason for Reboot Mania is to seize the residual goodwill and fan investment, and use it like a pill-hiding dog treat to force Wokeness down our throats.”

This is one reason why successful artists like Tolkien exert a magnetic attraction on those who desire to use his work for purposes opposed to those of the original works.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I think I have heard of it, but certainly had not paid attention (yet). I tend to hope adaptations, games, 'merchandising', etc. will lead people to try the books - but also think, if possible, it is better to read the books first - or have them read aloud to you. (Having seen some Jackson film snippet - with the Balrog! - on a big bookstore screen, we read the books aloud en famille before any of us seeing any Jackson film adaptation my wife and I had seen Bakshi, etc., back in the day.) In this context, does Nick Groom attend to (a) professional audiobooks, whether abridged, like Nicol Williamson, or complete, like Rob Inglis and Martin Shaw and now Andy Serkis, and (b) non- or less-professional complete audiobooks, several of which I have encountered - some more 'theatrical' with music and sound effects and even imitation of the Jackson-film actors' voices (Jacksons-as-they-ought-to-have-been, in effect!). The latter seem a particularly '21st-c.' phenomenon (in terms of ease of recording quality and wide distribution). They all have disadvantages/dangers in comparison with reading it oneself, or a live reading-aloud, but in so far as unabridged circumvent various inaesthetic and ideologized dangers to a considerable extent.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David LD - Nick Groom mentions the audiobooks etc - he is very thorough - but doesn't go into detail about them. There isn't really much need to, IMO; for me, a book (or poem) read aloud is essentially The Same Thing as a book read to oneself, although there are of course different emphases and versions.

Abridged versions depend very much on how much abridged, and how well it is done. All but two of the audiobook Hobbits are abridged, and most of them are good - Nicol Williamson's is probably the best, I think. The one read by Martin Shaw is very good and well read, except that it (inexplicably) misses out Thorin's deathbed talk with Bilbo!

One almost inevitable disadvantage with audiobooks, is the need (or felt-need) to distinguish characters clearly in terms of their vocal quality (pitch and accent, especially) - so that listeners don't get confused. This can be a problem when men are imitating women's voices (and vice versa); and can get a bit silly when there is a large cast - as when Andy Serkis gives the Gondor soldier and his son Liverpool accents!:

Also, despite that some accents worked really well in the context of the Jackson movies and their specific actors; it doesn't really make sense in terms of the class and regions of Middle Earth to regard it as right and proper that Boromir should be given a strongly Sean Bean-esque Yorkshire accent, or have Pippin speak in Billy Boyd's working class Glaswegian Scots.

(Boromir is among the most 'aristocratic' of all Men in Middle Earth - heir to the Steward of Gondor, and Pippin is the nearest thing in the Shire to a Prince - heir to the Thain; so both should in general really 'speak posh' - the one royalty-posh, and the other more like a remote and rustic earl.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks - and, indeed!: "the need (or felt-need)", and the question of (imitating) English/Scottish/Welsh/etc. class and regional accents. (I've played Captain Fluellen with a Welsh accent in Henry V, and been turned down for a part in a Strindberg play in translation because I have an American accent...). I've seen a fair bit of discussion one way and another in YouTube comments about the merits of more - or of less - 'dramatic' readings of audiobooks: does it help or enhance, does it distract or annoy - in general or in a particular instance? Trying Andy Serkis lately, I am disappointed with his Tom Bombadil, but think his Goldberry alright, for example - and think I need to try Rob Inglis's for comparison (I cannot immediately remember Ian Hogg and Sorcha Cusack from the 1992 BBC dramatization, or find a copy to re-listen). And there're the questions of singing - and of tunes - in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (I have not gotten far in Martin Shaw's Silmarillion or tried Andy Serkis's yet, and do not remember how likely songs are to turn up, there!)

David Llewellyn Dodds