SEVEN SURPRISES IN HOLLY ORDWAY’S NEW BOOK, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages — by David Downing

Dr. Holly Ordway is a dragon-slayer. Among scholars, one of the fabled beasts most dangerous to challenge is the one called Conventional Wisdom. And the conventional wisdom about Tolkien is that he didn’t read much literature beyond the Middle Ages, the generation of Chaucer and the Gawain poet. With her thorough research and careful analysis, Ordway explodes this myth and creates a much more expansive and accurate picture of Tolkien’s reading habits and how they may have influenced his creative works.

  1. The first surprise in this book is the title itself. The phrase “Tolkien’s modern reading” will sound like an oxymoron to many readers of Tolkien, as it is generally thought that he took little interest in fiction or poetry composed after the 15th century. But Ordway lists dozens of authors after 1850 who Tolkien read and sometimes admired greatly. In Tolkien studies, one expects to hear about the influence of Beowulf, the Eddas, or the Kalevala. But who expects to learn that Tolkien also knew Mark Twain, T. S. Eliot, and Ray Bradbury?
  2. The conventional wisdom is that Lewis was a prodigious letter-writer, while Tolkien seemed to have other things to do. Lewis’s published letters fill three thick volumes with 3,500 total pages, while Tolkien has exactly 354 published letters in one volume. But actually Tolkien’s editor, Humphrey Carpenter, culled through “thousands and thousands of letters,” and even then he often abridged the letters that he selected, sometimes making Tolkien sound abrupt or brusque in his letters to correspondents.
  3. Tolkien got tired about being asked if his Lord of the Rings epic was beholden to the Wagnerian cycle of operas about the Ring of the Nibelungs. Tolkien stated that the only similarity between the two rings was that they were both round. But Tolkien also knew the stories of Andrew Lang, including one in The Green Fairy Book called “The Enchanted Ring,” about a ring that could make one invisible, but which seemed to bring ill fortune more than good fortune to its bearers.
  4. It is commonly assumed that Tolkien ignored most English literature after Chaucer and that he absolutely abhorred twentieth-century fiction or poetry, especially the Modernists. Yet Tolkien read and took notes on sections of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, often considered the pinnacle of High Modernism, and he even transliterated some of the character names into Elvish. Equally surprising is the fact that Tolkien nominated the English realistic novelist E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tolkien also studied T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and Tolkien’s letters express his genuine grief when he learned of T. S. Eliot’s death.
  5. Tolkien’s Treebeard and the other Ents seem to have been influenced by two other Wade authors, George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis. Tolkien said that though he didn’t care much for MacDonald’s Phantastes, he did recall the living trees, good and evil, such as the gentle Beech and the lovely but dangerous Alder-Maid. In his notes for Lord of the Rings, Tolkien asked himself if the Ents were hnau, rational souls, a term that Tolkien found in Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. Dr. Ordway points out a number of surprising but specific similarities between Augray the Sorn in Lewis’s first interplanetary story and Treebeard in Lord of the Rings.
  6. Tolkien was well versed in popular adventure stories, including Rider Haggard’s She, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books, and Frank Herbert’s Dune. Tolkien revealed that his scenes involving wargs were influenced by S. R. Crockett’s The Black Douglas (1899), the chapter in which the heroes are surrounded by fiendish wolves. Rather than simply pointing to possible sources and influences, Ordway persuasively shows how Tolkien was able to improve on his sources, creating even more vivid scenes portrayed in more evocative prose. (The book also contains marvelous illustrations, letting readers see for themselves the kinds of visual images that Tolkien had stored in his imagination.)
  7. Sometimes a survey of Tolkien’s reading may also uncover some possible creative sources for his good friend C. S. Lewis. Just as Lewis was beginning to write the Narnia Chronicles, he wrote to his friend Chad Walsh that he wanted to write a series of children’s stories “in the tradition of Edith Nesbit.” In one of Nesbit’s stories that Lewis knew, The Story of the Amulet, some English children accidentally transport the Queen of Babylon back to London, a plot device that can’t help but make one think of The Magician’s Nephew.

I will stop this list at Seven, partly to allow readers to discover more surprises for themselves and partly to preserve the alliteration in my title. Suffice to say, Dr. Ordway’s new book is a major contribution to Tolkien studies–meticulously researched, carefully organized, and written in clear, pleasing prose. Sometimes readers of Tolkien scholarship may begin to feel “there is nothing new under the sun.” But Holly’s book is indeed new, as well as refreshing, and insightful. She may justly raise her shimmering sword over that scaly serpent known as Scholarly Consensus.

The Marion E. Wade Center will be hosting a virtual book launch with author Holly Ordway on Thursday, February 25, at 7:00 pm CST to discuss her new book, Tolkien’s Modern Reading. We welcome you to register in advance for this event on Zoom.

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