J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has had a bumpy ride through critical circles, so much so that its critical reception is almost as important as the work itself. When The Lord of the Rings was first published in the 1950s it was panned by most critics, whose taste was founded on high modernism (Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Beckett, and the like). The Lord of the Rings seemed to them profoundly different from those works which were canonised as the great novels of modern literature, that it was dismissed as puerile and irrelevant to the history of “the great tradition”. Nothing could be further from the case. The critics failed to realise that their modernist tastes were themselves determined by a reaction against Victorian literary conventions, and that Tolkien’s work, begun almost half a century earlier, owed much to these conventions. They also failed to account for the fact that Tolkien was an Oxford scholar of philology — medieval language and literature — and that the literary context against which The Lord of the Rings was composed was that of the Middle Ages, a period whose literature they had little time for. The lack of attentiveness to the literary qualities of Tolkien’s writing manifested most obviously in the continual misspellings of the names of his characters, as well as of the author’s own name.
But by the 1960s The Lord of the Rings had become a phenomenon, embraced by the Counter-Culture, especially in America. Sales sky-rocketed, and Tolkien fandom reached proportions which anticipated today’s fans of Star Trek or Harry Potter. This, of course, merely added to the critics’ dislike (and envy) of Tolkien. It made not a jot of difference that Tolkien himself disapproved of such extreme fandom, or that some critics began to defend The Lord of the Rings by arguing that it was also a product of modernism. Academics continued to spurn Tolkien and (probably aided by the length of the work) denied him a place in the university curriculum. Regardless, Tolkien’s popularity continued to grow, and publishers began accepting manuscripts which were obviously derivative of The Lord of the Rings from other writers. By the 1970s an entire genre of ‘fantasy’ literature existed in bookshops. That a new genre should have grown out of the Tolkien phenomenon was surely an argument for the literary significance of The Lord of the Rings, and new critical movements beginning in the last quarter of the 20th century began to make that possible.
Fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings had long known that Tolkien drew on a body of “mythology” had begun as early as the First World War, and, shortly after Tolkien’s death, his son Christopher edited and published these writings as The Silmarillion. This was a work of profoundly different character that allowed readers to examine Tolkien’s world creation in a different literary mode and at a much greater scale. And The Lord of the Rings could now be read with a greater understanding of the “back story” and the insights it provided.
Slowly academics began to look at The Lord of the Rings as something other than a modernist novel (failed or otherwise). During the 80s, academics were heavily influenced by works like Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, and they equated Tolkien’s creation of his own world with the world of mythology. They began to examine Tolkien’s writing as myth, subjecting it to Jungian interpretations or similar analyses which draw on the interplay between psychology and story-telling. This critical fashion began to fade in the late 1980s, and the last decades of the twentieth century saw critics focusing on Tolkien as a scholar, asking how Tolkien’s interest in languages and medieval literature shed light on the art and meaning of The Lord of the Rings. Polls of readers in the 1990s consistently showed that the popular readership judges The Lord of the Rings to be the best book of the twentieth century, and the release of a film version in 2001, suggests that this strange work strikes a chord with the world of today. Perhaps that is why T.A. Shippey declares Tolkien to be the author of the twenty-first century.
But nothing in the fantasy genre has had the same impact on the popular imagination until, arguably, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Tolkien probably would have found both of these series distasteful, but their cultural impact and re-use of medieval source material for a modern audience make have made them a focus for study of “medievalism” (the revival of medieval aesthetics in modern times) and popular culture.
Reading The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion therefore prompts us to ask not only what meanings these works have, but also what they tell us about how we have read literature during the past century. These works blend the ancient with the modern and the scholarly with the popular. It asks us to determine what kind of a work it actually is, and in doing so asks us to define what makes good literature and how our attitudes to literature have changed in the past hundred years.
Students in this course will:
The course will centre around The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, although there will be numerous supplemental readings. Both should be at least the 2nd edition, and, for The Lord of the Rings, preferably at least the 50th Anniversary edition. Every printing of slightly different, which makes citing page numbers especially difficult. But, in general, the later the edition, the more convergence there will be. Some people may already have The Lord of the Rings in three volumes. That is all right, as long as the edition conforms to the guidelines given above.
The class will have meetings on Zoom every Tuesday at 4:30. These meetings will last approximately 45 minutes to an hour and will consist of a combination of lecture and question/discussion time. The remainder of our assigned class time is intended for asynchronous work, especially on the Canvas discussion forum. Attendance at the meetings is not required; however, if you do not attend, you are encouraged to watch the recordings, which will be posted on Canvas shortly after the session. The Zoom link and will be available on the Canvas course site. Attendance at the Zoom meetings constitutes your permission for the meeting to be recorded and made available only through the Canvas course site.
Your grade will consist of the following elements: a journal, posts to an online forum, and two essays.
Throughout the course, you will keep a journal (a simple word processing file) detailing your thoughts and questions about the reading. Journal entries may contain summaries of the text, interpretations, questions, and notes. Full details are given in a separate journal assignment on Canvas.
You will be required to contribute four posts on the Canvas discussion forum in response to prompts I provide or your own topics. The drafts for your posts may be entries in your journal, and they should be well thought out mini essays. You are also required to submit three responses to posts already on the forum. Additional posts (including the introduction of new topics) and responses to earlier posts will count towards your grade for the forum. Full details are given in a separate forum assignment on Canvas.
There will be two research essays, one on The Silmarillion and one on The Lord of the Rings, which will allow you to develop your interpretations in greater depth. The first will be due on Friday, 9 October by 5 pm. The second will be due on Tuesday, 15 December by 5 pm. Essay prompts will be available on Canvas.
By enrolling in this course you agree to be bound for the purposes of this class by the policies below, which serve as a formal legal agreement. You may reject these policies by dropping the class within the time allotted by the University.
Grades are A, B, C, D, or F and can receive a plus or minus. To receive a grade other than a WU, you must have completed more than half the coursework (no exceptions).
Since students in English courses are expected by society at large to be acquiring writing skills, I privilege grammar, spelling, and editing in my grading. Work containing distracting numbers of typos, spelling mistakes, or grammatical errors will be graded primarily on these criteria on a sliding scale which may supersede any percentages given in the Coursework and Grading section above. That is, the more distracting these factors are, the more they are worth (up to 100% of your grade). A rough guide to what is distracting is any sign that might give an employer pause when evaluating a job application.
Journal assignments are due on the dates given on the class schedule. If you have a problem meeting the assignment deadline, please contact me. If you do not contact me, I will not provide as much feedback on the journal, and you may only receive partial credit.
Forum posts should be submitted at least 48 hours prior to our scheduled discussion of the subject matter. If your post is a response to our discussion, it may be submitted up to a week after the discussion begins. Posts submitted on or after the date of the final exam will not be counted.
In some semesters opportunities may arise for non-required activities such as guest lectures, and I will offer extra credit for attendance at or participation in these activities. I will always offer this extra credit to the entire class. Because my time commitments do not allow me grade extra assignments, I do not award extra credit to individual students for any reason. I keep to this policy very strictly.
In order to receive full credit in the course, you must do the readings in advance, be prepared to discuss the texts in our online forum, and complete all assignments. You are not required to attend synchronous Zoom sessions, but, if you do not, it is highly recommended that you watch the recordings, which will be posted on Canvas.
Enrolling in this class requires a commitment to participate in a community of learners in which you agree to contribute to and not to detract from the learning environment. I reserve the right to ask you to leave Zoom sessions, ban you from the forum, and/or impose grade penalties if you cause disruptions of any sort to the learning environment.
To receive a passing grade in this class, you must abide by the terms of the code of conduct outlined below. This code is based on the one produced by Northeastern University’s Feminist Coding Collective, adapted by Ryan Cordell.
See further the statement on Diversity and Inclusion below.
Throughout the class, you are expected to conduct yourself professionally. This means respecting your professor and your classmates by producing work that is well-edited and free from spelling and grammatical errors. My own posts on the forum should be a standard for you to emulate (which is not to say that I will never make mistakes). Putting effort into polishing your writing is a professional courtesy to others; not doing so is insulting.
It is extremely important that all aspects of your work are come by honourably. Efforts to gain an advantage not given to all students are dishonest and regarded as an extremely serious matter by the academic community. Consequences range from probation to expulsion. University policy stipulates that plagiarism, the submission of another person’s work as your own, is a violation of academic honesty, even if it arises out of ignorance or oversight, rather than deliberate cheating. Enrolling in this class means that you agree to abide by my decision regarding the appropriate action to take in cases of academic dishonesty. If you have any questions about plagiarism, paraphrasing, quoting, or collaboration, please consult me.
CSUN values an inclusive learning environment, where we respect the varied perspectives and experiences of a diverse community. Students and faculty each have responsibility for maintaining a respectful space to express their opinions. Professional courtesy and consideration for our classroom community are especially important with respect to topics dealing with differences in race, colour, gender and gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, disability, and age.
As a “responsible employee” at CSUN, I am required by federal and state laws to report incidences of harassment and discrimination to the campus Title IX Coordinator if they are disclosed to me. If you have experienced harassment or discrimination and do not want the Title IX Coordinator notified, instead of disclosing the experience to me, you can speak confidentially with CSUN’s Care Advocate by calling (818) 677-7492. For more information regarding your university rights and options, please visit the University’s Title IX website at http://www.csun.edu/title-ix.
Students should make sure that they follow the university’s add/drop deadlines, outlined in the Schedule of Classes. According to university policy, drops are only allowed after the set date when “a) there is a serious and compelling reason–specifically the student’s emotional or physical health or financial condition is clearly in jeopardy, and b) there is no viable alternative–including repeating the class”. Students will need to provide documentation on official letterhead–a letter, on official stationery, from a doctor or an employer–to support their reasons. No adds will be allowed unless a student can provide documented proof–e.g., a clerical error–for the reason for the tardiness. Please make sure to meet the deadline!
The standard grade if a student fails to complete the work for a class is a “WU”. This is the equivalent of an “F”, but the grade may be changed if you re-take the course at a future time. This grade is also assigned to students who have not attended after the first few classes of the semester but have not officially “withdrawn” from the course.
I may assign an Incomplete (“I”) if and only if you meet all of the following conditions:
Once you take an incomplete, you have a year from the date recorded on the form to complete the requirements of the course and have your grade changed; therefore, you should submit work early enough to allow me to grade your work and fill out the necessary forms to assign you a new grade.
Keep in mind that, after you take an Incomplete, any grading of your work becomes an added burden on my busy timetable during the following year. Therefore you should not expect the normal amount of comments on your work or any extra teaching beyond my normal office hours.
You are responsible for completing the reading by the date for which the reading is assigned. Page numbers for The Lord of the Rings are given by book and chapter number (e.g. I.2 for Book 1, chapter 2). Background readings, if not linked here, can be found in the Files section on Canvas.
Reading: The Silmarillion: Foreword, Preface to the Second Edition, x-xvi, Ainulindalë, Valaquenta, Quenta Silmarillion, chs. 1-9
Background Reading: “On Fairy-Stories”, pp. 3-17; Dwarfs in Scandinavian Mythology (handout), The South English Legendary (handout), Extracts from Sir Orfeo; OED entries for orc, n1 and orc, n2, Extract from Beowulf (handout)
Reading: Quenta Silmarillion, chs. 10-18
Background Reading: “On Fairy-Stories”, pp. 17-34; T.A. Shippey, “Light-elves, Dark-elves, and Others: Tolkien’s Elvish Problem”.
Reading: Quenta Silmarillion, chs. 19-23; Preface to the Second Edition, xvi-xviii
Background Reading: “On Fairy-Stories”, pp. 34-46
Reading: Quenta Silmarillion, ch. 24, Akallabêth; Preface to the Second Edition, x-xviii-xxiv (Feel free to read Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, if you want — contains spoilers.)
Background Reading: “On Fairy-Stories”, pp. 46-55
Reading: The Prologue, Appendix F (pp. 1101-1112), then Appendix E.I (pp. 1087-1091); I.1-I.5
Background Reading: “On Fairy-Stories”, pp. 55-59; Vortigern in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; OED Entries for philology, mathom, smile n.2, smeigh, and hobbit; Letter 178 (“Letters” handout); “A Day in the Life of Tolkien” (handout), The Wanderer (handout); Boethius
Background Reading: Letters 19 and 165 (“Letters” handout); “English and Welsh”; OED entry for wight
Background Reading: Solomon and Saturn II (handout); OED entry for wraith
Reading: III.4-III.11; Appendix A.I.i-A.I.v
Background Reading: The Battle of Maldon and Tolkien’s essay on the poem (handout)
Background Reading: “On Fairy-Stories,” pp. 55-73
Background Reading: “On Fairy-Stories,” pp. 55-73
Extra day. Content TBD.
The following is a list of the most significant publications for the study of The Lord of the Rings. Some works appear in multiple anthologies and reprints, making it hard to cite which edition or year of publication you will find. However, the publication dates given here give some sense of the order and period in which Tolkien produced his works. Many of Tolkien’s essays and minor works can be found in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (Acacia Press, 1997) and A Tolkien Reader, 2nd edn. (Ballantine, 1989).
A considerable amount of Tolkien’s work was published after his death by his son Christopher and others. The most important of these is The Silmarillion (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), which Tolkien was working on at the time of his death, and Humphrey Carpenter’s edition of Tolkien’s Letters (Houghton Mifflin, 1981). In addition, Christopher Tolkien has been steadily publishing his father’s working drafts of all his texts along with considerable editorial commentary:
The History of Middle Earth, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983-; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984-) in twelve volumes. The early drafts of The Lord of the Rings are published as The Return of the Shadow (1988), The Treason of Isengard (1989), The War of the Ring (1990), and Sauron Defeated: The End of the Third Age, the Notion Club Papers and the Drowning of Anadune (1992).
Also relevant are two of Tolkien’s editions on Old English poems, edited for publication after his death, the introductions of which give insight into his literary ideas:
Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
Wayne Hammond and Douglas A. Anderson, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography, Winchester: St Paul’s Bibliographies; New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Books, 1993.
Judith A. Johnson, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien: Six Decades of Criticism (Bibliographies and Indexes in World Literature 6), Westport, Conn., and London: Green, 1986
David Day, The Tolkien Companion.
David Day, Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Simon and Schuster, 1992).
Colin Duriez, The J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to his Life, Writings, and the World of Middle Earth.
Karen Wynn Fonstad, The Atlas of Middle-Earth (Houghton Mifflin).
John and Priscilla Tolkien, The Tolkien Family Album.
Richard West, Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist, 2nd edn. (Kent State, 1981).
Reviews dealing with the reception of The Lord of the Rings can be found at the reviews page.
The most recent scholarship on Tolkien’s work is to be found in the journal Tolkien Studies, which is in the Oviatt Library (PR6039.O32 Z488 or online).
Important books are listed below. Note that this list is somewhat dated.
T.A. Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth (Allen & Unwin, 1982; second edition, Grafton, 1992).
T.A. Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).
Robert Eaglestone, ed., Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien’s Classic (London: Continuum, 2006). I have an essay on Service in The Lord of the Rings in this volume.
Glen Goodknight, ed., Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, 1992.
Randel Helm, Tolkien’s World.
Neil Issacs and Rose Zimbardo, ed., Tolkien: New Critical Perspectives (University of Kentucky Press, 1981).
Rayner Unwin, The Making of the Lord of the Rings.
Jane Chance, The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power, rev. ed. (UPK, 2001).
Jane Chance, Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England, rev. edn. (UPK, 2001)
Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, ed, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (Houghton Mifflin, 1997, rpt. 2000).
Coming up with an exhaustive (or even up-to-date) list of links to material on the web would be a horrendous task. I list only a few useful links here. Remember to beware of anything you see on the web!
This is not an exhaustive list of literary influences on Tolkien but a few of the most influential texts along with other useful reading on early English literature. For a more complete list of Tolkien’s sources, see Appendix A of T.A. Shippey’s The Road to Middle-Earth.
Anglo-Saxon Poetry, ed. S.J. Bradley (London: J.M. Dent, 1982; Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1982, reprinted 1995).
Beowulf. The text is available in multiple translations. Tolkien wrote a preface for the translation by J. R. Clark Hall and C.L. Wrenn. I would recommend avoiding Seamus Heaney’s ‘translation’, which makes the poem sound Irish.
The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
Kalevala, translated by Keith Bosley (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Norse Poems, ed. Paul B. Taylor and W.H. Auden (London: Athlone Press, 1981).
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1975; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975). The translation by Marie Boroff available in most anthologies of British literature is also excellent.
Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes (London: Dent, 1987).
This page contains a series of short essays on various topics related to Tolkien’s life and work.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a staunch Catholic, and his religion heavily influenced his life and career. His mother Mabel was born an Anglican, but after the death of Tolkien’s father, converted to Catholicism in 1900. Many of Tolkien’s father’s family were Baptists, and strongly opposed to Catholicism. Mabel was cut off from both families, who stopped providing the single mother any kind of financial support. In 1902 she moved Tolkien and his brother Hilary to Edgbaston outside Birmingham to be near to the Birmingham Oratory and its associated St Philip’s School. The Oratory had been established in 1849 by Henry Newman, then a recent convert himself. Newman was one of the leaders of what became known as the Oxford Movement which attempted to reform the Church of England by returning to many of the doctrinal and liturgical practices which existed before the Reformation. When the most radical proposals of the Oxford Movement were rejected by the hierarchy of the Church of England, Newman and many of other Anglicans converted to Catholicism. Those who remained within the Church of England became known as Anglo-Catholics. The Oxford Movement remained influential in twentieth-century Oxford, and T.S. Eliot was a notable convert to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927.
At the Oratory, Mabel was befriended by Father Francis Xavier Morgan, who would become Tolkien’s guardian two years later when she died of diabetes. Nine years afterwards Tolkien was to write: ‘My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.’ The quote indicates something of the connexion Tolkien made between his mother’s faith and his own. In some way, Tolkien’s deep devotion to Catholicism reflected his love for his mother.
Tolkien’s Catholicism would again affect his life in 1908, when he was sixteen years old. He met his future wife, Edith Bratt, and by the summer of 1909 they were in love. Father Francis forbade Tolkien from seeing her, ostensibly because she was a distraction from his efforts to gain acceptance to Oxford, but perhaps also because she was an Anglican. Tolkien had to wait until 1913 to contact her when he reached the legal age of majority — twenty-one. They announced their engagement only after Tolkien had convinced Edith to convert to Catholicism, not an easy thing because she had been heavily and publicly active in her local Anglican Church. Tolkien wrote: ‘I do so dearly believe that no half-heartedness and no worldly fear must turn us aside from following the light unflinchingly’. When Edith converted, she was promptly cut off by his family.
Tolkien’s Catholicism also coloured his intellectual life and may have influenced his famous dislike of ‘modern’ literature from Spenser and Shakespeare onwards. These, of course, were the first great authors after the Reformation, when England abandoned the Catholic Church, and Tolkien may have felt that these authors were impoverished or diminished, like the Church of England, which he called ‘a pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs’. But the most famous intellectual application of Tolkien’s Catholicism is to be found in his relationship with C.S. Lewis. Lewis became Fellow and Tutor in English Language and Literature at Magdalen College in 1926. Lewis had been brought up in Ulster in Northern Ireland as a Protestant. In adolescence, he had embraced agnosticism but was gradually leaning back towards religion when he met Tolkien. The two spent a great deal of time discussing Christianity. In an episode in 1931 which Tolkien wrote about in his poem ‘Mythopoeia’ — and which Humphrey Carpenter later dramatised in the chapter entitled ‘Jack’ of his biography of Tolkien — Lewis was persuaded by Tolkien’s arguments and became a Christian. However, Tolkien’s success would later turn to disappointment, for Lewis became, not a Catholic, but an Anglican. Lewis went on to become a public apologist of Christianity in print and on the radio. Tolkien would later write on this: ‘[Lewis] would not re-enter Christianity by a new door, but by the old one: at least in the sense that in taking it up again he would also take up again, or reawaken, the prejudices so sedulously planted in childhood and boyhood. He would become again a Northern Ireland protestant’.
All this does not represent a direct influence of Tolkien’s Christianity on his writing. In fact, Tolkien recognised that much of his early work was incompatible with Christianity, particularly the material in The Silmarillion (The Lord of the Rings he described as consciously planned with religious compatibility in mind). At the time of his death, he was struggling to re-write material from The Silmarillion to make it compatible with Christian philosophy.
One way in which Christianity obviously influenced Tolkien’s writing is in his treatment of the centuries-old debate over the nature of evil. The official Church position was formulated in 410 AD by St Augustine in his De Civitate Dei (The City of God). In Book XII, Augustine asks why the angels who rebelled against God are miserable. He concludes that the condition of blessedness comes from cleaving ‘to Him who supremely is’, which amplifies one’s own being. In turning away from God, the angels therefore diminished their own existence. He then turns to his classic treatment of the nature of evil:
If the further question be asked, ‘What was the efficient cause of their evil will?’ there is none. For what is it which makes the will bad, when it is the will itself which makes the action bad? And consequently a bad will is the cause of bad actions, but nothing is the cause of a bad will. For when the will abandons what is above itself and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil — not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked.
I know likewise that the will could not become evil, were it unwilling to become so; and therefore its failings are justly punished, being not necessary but voluntary. For its defection is not to evil things, that is to say, not towards things that are naturally and in themselves evil, but the defection of the will is evil because it wills contrary to the order of nature, abandoning that which has supreme being for that which has less. For avarice is not a fault inherent in gold, but in the man who inordinately loves gold to the detriment of justice, which ought to be held in incomparably higher regard than gold. Consequently he who inordinately loves the good which any nature possesses, even though he obtain it, himself becomes evil in the good, and wretched because deprived of a greater good.
And thus we are driven to believe that the holy angels never existed without a good will or the love of God. But the angels who, though created good, are nevertheless evil now, became so by their own evil will. And a will cannot be made evil by a good nature, unless there is a voluntary defection from good; for not good, but a defection from good, is the cause of evil. These angels, therefore, either received less of the grace of the divine love than those who persevered in the same; or if both were created equally good, then, while the one fell by their evil will, the others were more abundantly assisted, and attained to that pitch of blessedness at which they became certain they should never fall from it — as we have already shown in the preceding book. We must therefore acknowledge, with the praise due to the Creator, that not only men, but primarily and principally of angels it is true, as it is written, ‘It is good to draw near to God’ (Ps. 73:28).
From: St Augustine, On the Two Cities: Selections from the City of God, ed. F.W. Strothmann (New York: Fredegar Ungar, 1957).
Norman Cantor, who confesses his dislike of The Lord of the Rings, argues in his book The Making of the Middle Ages that Tolkien’s contribution to our understanding of the Middle Ages is in the way that he brings to our attention to horrors of medieval warfare. He could not be more wrong. Whatever Tolkien’s portrayal of warfare may be, it is not a realistic portrayal of war as it occurred in medieval Europe. But Cantor was correct in discerning that Tolkien is an important writer about war.
When The Lord of the Rings became popular in the early 1960s, the baby boom generation naturally connected it with their parents’ experiences in World War II and with the Cold War (starring the Ring as the Atom Bomb). Such equations annoyed Tolkien deeply, as he pointed out in his preface to the second edition. Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings during the war and no doubt perceived the ‘applicability’ (to use his term). It has also been said that the horrors of Mordor and the Scouring of the Shire are reflexions of Nazi Germany or the Communist Soviet Union. However, it is much more likely that they reflect the real presence of both fascism and communism in British (and American) politics before the Second World War. In this Tolkien may be grouped with George Orwell (author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm) who responded to what appeared to be a realistic possibility of the development of totalitarianism in Britain.
Tolkien’s formative experience was in the First World War, when he himself had fought in the trenches. No short summary can give a sense of the horrors of one of the bloodiest wars in history. For good accounts of the war, try the Trenches web site or the BBC History page. The chapter entitled ‘War’ in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien is also good. The First World War had a profound impact on the poetry of the first decades of the twentieth century. It is useful to compare Tolkien’s work to the poems of writers like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke. For more information, see Oxford University’s excellent Virtual Seminar on World War I Poetry.
Tolkien’s own experience of the war was profound in a number of ways. He served as a signal officer for the Lancashire Fusiliers and arrived at the front in France in June of 1916. As an officer, Tolkien would have been assigned a batman, servant to take care of his kit. Soldiers had to endure long periods in close contact under dreadful traditions in the trenches, and the camaraderie of the trench later influenced Tolkien’s writing. As he put it, ‘My “Sam Gamgee” is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself’. The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July, when British soldiers climbed out of the trenches and advanced towards the enemy line. They had been told that the German defences were destroyed by Allied bombing, but they were not, and German machine guns mowed them down. Tolkien was not there for the initial barrage; his company did not go into action until 14 July, and that was well for him since twenty thousand Allied troops were killed on the very first day of the battle. When Tolkien arrived, the trenches and surrounding area were littered with mutilated and decaying corpses. The stench was intolerable. We may recognise these sights in the nightmarish vision of the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings.
The devastation to the landscape made an equal impact. Grass and corn were destroyed, and the earth became a sea of mud. What trees remained were stripped of their leaves and branches. Here too Tolkien may have seen a vision of Mordor. Tolkien saw battle on several occasions but had managed to remain unhurt until the end of October when he contracted ‘trench fever’, a disease carried by lice. He was sent to hospital, and, when the fever did not abate, eventually sent back to Birmingham to convalesce. After he had recovered, he managed to secure a posting in Oxford in order to complete his education. But Tolkien did not escape entirely unscathed. His best friends from his school days, Rob Gilson and G.B. Smith both perished in the war. Their loss was a terrible blow to him, as they were his intellectual comrades in arms. Humphrey Carpenter poignantly titles his chapter on this episode of Tolkien’s life ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’.
A second point may derive from Cantor’s recognition of Tolkien as a war-writer. War was also a topic frequently described by medieval authors, or, more specifically, battle, and the performance of the hero in battle. Anglo-Saxon and early Scandinavian literature embraced a heroic ethic, one which continued in modified form as chivalry in the later Middle Ages. The heroic values of courage and sacrifice are treated extensively in medieval literature, and these values had never seemed more relevant than in the First World War. But that was a modern war, in which men were mown down by the thousands by machine gun fire or asphyxiated by poison gas, rather than dying gloriously in battle. Tolkien’s contribution to our understanding of the Middle Ages may well be in the way he draws attention to the value of medieval notions of heroism in today’s society.
Cultural developments since the end of the Middle Ages had made little impact on the face of the English landscape. The major change was the loss of the great, ancient forests, sacrificed to the building of the largest naval force in the world. But the nineteenth century brought the Industrial Revolution, the building factories, new houses, quarries, and coal mines, as well as new roads and railways cutting through the countryside. Much of the population moved to the urban areas, many which grew as large as London had once been. The changes, encouraged by rapid advances in technology, were not embraced eagerly by everyone. As early as 1812 workers in the textile mills of Leicestershire erupted in violence in protest over their replacement by labour-saving machines. The rioters were called Luddites (named after a farm labourer who had destroyed such machines in the late 1700s), a word which has since become synonymous with opposition to industrial change. Despite such reactions, the pace of change could not be stopped. The English countryside had been largely transformed by the time of Tolkien’s birth in 1892, and, although it was still possible in places to experience England as it had once been, these places were rapidly disappearing.
Tolkien has been called by the Los Angeles Times “a neo-Luddite who never owned a car” (19 December 2001). Of course, only someone from Los Angeles could connect not owning a car with Luddism. In Tolkien’s Oxford, nearly everything was within easy reach by bicycle or bus. To add to the irony, the name of the dragon Smaug in Tolkien’s The Hobbit is frequently mispronounced by readers as ‘smog’ (a word which first came into being in 1905, only about 30 years before Tolkien began the book). But the charge has some truth. Tolkien bitterly resented the effect of industrialism on the countryside, as well as on its traditional way of life. This is nowhere more evident than in his representation of the Shire, the culture of which is deliberately evocative of the England of the late 1800s. The chapter on “The Scouring of the Shire” is Tolkien’s response to the effect of industrialism and its lifestyle. However, Tolkien’s attitude may be detected more subtly in his portrayal of Saruman’s Orthanc (‘cunning mind’). However, the heavily archaic nature of Tolkien’s interests and writing may also be seen as a typically Victorian response to the social and physical changes England underwent as a result of industrialism. For instance, the Gothic style, which represented the high point of medieval art and architecture, was extensively copied during the nineteenth century, including the famous Houses of Parliament in London. Artists and writers turned to medieval stories for their inspiration, notably Tennyson in his poem “Idylls of the King” and Pre-Raphaelites like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones in many of their paintings. The decorative arts were influenced by medieval designs, most notably in the work of William Morris, also a translator of Old Norse sagas. In general, the retreat into archaism typified the arts of the late nineteenth century. The advent of Modernism in the 1920s changed all that, and it is Tolkien’s refusal to jump on the bandwagon which has opened him up to criticism.
Tolkien’s dislike of the effect of industrialisation on the English landscape is particularly worthy of note, evident as it is in his creation of the prehistoric forests of Fangorn, Mirkwood, and the Old Forest. The conflict between the Ents and the Entwives may also be approached from this direction. However, it must be said that the primaeval mountains and forests of Middle-Earth are not representative of the English countryside, either as Tolkien knew it, or as it had once been. These we must attribute to his imagination, though perhaps also to dramatised American landscapes (Tolkien had a boyhood devotion to tales of ‘Red Indians’). It is thus perhaps no accident that even Tolkien’s worst critics have praised him for his description of landscape, and that the makers of the recent film of The Lord of the Rings felt that reproducing it was one of their primary responsibilities. Tolkien has also been embraced by the environmental movement since the sixties; in this, he may connect with our own turning from industrialism and longing for an older, more ‘natural’ existence.
The pictures on this web site are taken from a variety of sources. They are intended only for use by this English 495 class and should not be re-distributed more widely. The original graphics can be found in the following sources.