Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity

Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity

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by Patrick Curry

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What are millions of readers all over the world getting out of reading The Lord of the Rings? Newly reissued with a new afterword, Patrick Curry's Defending Middle-earth argues, in part, that Tolkien has found a way to provide something close to spirit in a secular age. His focus is on three main aspects of Tolkien's fiction: the social and political structure of… See more details below


What are millions of readers all over the world getting out of reading The Lord of the Rings? Newly reissued with a new afterword, Patrick Curry's Defending Middle-earth argues, in part, that Tolkien has found a way to provide something close to spirit in a secular age. His focus is on three main aspects of Tolkien's fiction: the social and political structure of Middle-earth and how the varying cultures within it find common cause in the face of a shared threat; the nature and ecology of Middle-earth and how what we think of as the natural world joins the battle against mindless, mechanized destruction; and the spirituality and ethics of Middle-earth, for which Curry provides a particularly insightful and resonant examination that will deepen the understanding of the millions of fans who have taken The Lord of the Rings to heart.

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People who like this sort of thing
will find this the sort of thing they like.

It could be a literary fairy-story. A reclusive Oxford don, best-known for his
scholarly work on Anglo-Saxon, unexpectedly produces a popular children's
story. Seventeen years later, he follows this up with a very long story,
published in three volumes. Set entirely in an imaginary world, it centres on a
quest involving a magic ring and some members of a three-and-a-half-foot-tall
rustic race called 'hobbits.' His book is variously described as romantic epic
or juvenile fantasy; but whatever it is, it is certainly not a modern novel, and
the critics are divided between bafflement and visceral dislike. The general
opinion in the academic and critical neighbourhood is that, rather like one of
his characters, its author, 'who had always been rather cracked, had at last
gone quite mad . . .' Yet just over ten years later, his books become runaway
bestsellers; and after forty years, they count among the most widely read in
the global history of publishing.

The author is, of course, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892– 1973).
Born in South Africa to English parents, he moved back to England, just
outside Birmingham, at the age of three-and-a-half. He developed a childhood
passion for languages into a lifelong academic career, interrupted by service
in the war of 1914–18. He became Professor first of Anglo-Saxon, then of
English Language and Literature, at Oxford, where he remained for the rest of
his life. Despite co-editing a respected edition of SirGawain and the Green
Knight, and writing a paper on Beowulf acclaimed for its brilliance, it was an
unremarkable life by many standards . . . except for those books.
Reliable figures are hard to come by, but as far as I can tell, total
worldwide sales of Tolkien's books are as follows. The Lord of the Rings
(1954–55), at about 50 million copies, is probably the biggest-selling single
work of fiction this century. The Hobbit (1937) is not far behind, at between 35
and 40 million copies. And one could add the considerable sales, now
perhaps over 2 million, of his dark and difficult posthumously published epic
The Silmarillion (1977). The grand total is thus well on its way to 100 million.
Tolkien's books have been translated into more than thirty languages,
including Japanese, Catalan, Estonian, Greek, Hebrew, Finnish, Indonesian
and Vietnamese. (This last, unofficial translation appeared in 1967,
whereupon the South Vietnamese II Corps was rather perceptively fêted by
tribesmen with shields bearing the Eye of Sauron.)
Furthermore, this is no flash-in-the-pan phenomenon, riding on the
heels of the 1960s; Tolkien has outlived the counter-culture in which he first
flourished. No longer fashionable, he nonetheless still sells steadily. That
was undoubtedly the main reason for the purchase in 1990 of his publisher,
Unwin Hyman (originally George Allen and Unwin), by HarperCollins.
Every other index points to the same conclusion. In England, for
example, since figures began to be kept in 1991, Tolkien's books have been
taken out of public libraries around 200,000 times a year; he is one of only
four 'classic authors' whose annual lending totals have exceeded 300,000
(well ahead of Austen, Dickens and Shakespeare). The Hobbit spent fifteen
years as the biggest-selling American paperback, and The Lord of the Rings
is still the most valuable first edition published in the second half of the
twentieth century. Indeed, the latter — laboriously typed out on a bed in
suburban war-time Oxford, and expected by its first publisher to lose
money — is now universally acknowledged as largely responsible for the
subsequent money-spinning genre of 'fantasy literature.' Then there are the
extra-literary phenomena. In the 1960s and 70s, buttons and graffiti
proclaiming 'Frodo Lives!' sprouted (in Quebec, it was 'Middle-earth Libre').
The title of The Silmarillion provided the name of an early heavy-metal band,
while on the more establishment side, 'hobbit' is now entrenched in the
Oxford English Dictionary, and a thousand 'Lothlóriens' and 'Rivendells' can
be found on house-signs in suburban lanes. There is now even an area of
submarine features off the southwest coast of Ireland named after Tolkien
characters: hence, 'Gollum's Channel,' and so on.
In other words, we are talking about a massively popular and
successful publishing phenomenon; all the more so when one of the books in
question is half-a-million words long, and neither involves any big money or
sex, explicit or otherwise — two ingredients now normally considered
essential for bestsellers — let alone cannibalism, serial murder, sado-
masochism or lawyers. (And how many such books will still be in print half a
century after publication? The fate of Jackie Collins beckons.)

The Story

This book will undoubtedly make more sense if you have already read The
Lord of the Rings; but if you have not, or need reminding, here is a very brief
synopsis. It takes place in the Third Age of Middle-earth — our Earth, but in
an imaginary period a very long time ago. Frodo Baggins of the Shire, where
the hobbits live, inherits a magic ring from his uncle Bilbo, who had acquired
it from a fallen hobbit, Gollum, in the course of adventures recounted in The
Hobbit. Gandalf the Grey, a wizard, realizes that it is the One Ring, eagerly
sought by its maker Sauron, the ruler of Mordor and the greatest power in
Middle-earth. With the Ring, Sauron would be invincible. The only hope is to
try to smuggle the Ring into Mordor and cast it into the furnace of Mount
Doom where it was forged; for it cannot be destroyed in any other way, and
anyone who tries to use it against Sauron would simply become another
Dark Lord.
Frodo and his devoted companion Sam therefore begin the quest
to return the Ring to its source. Initially, they are accompanied by the
Company, including and representing the 'free peoples' of Men, Elves and
Dwarves, as well as Gandalf and two other hobbits, Pippin and Merry. But the
Company is soon dispersed, and from then on (most of the book), the reader
follows two parallel stories: the adventures of its remaining members in the
War of the Ring, as they struggle to keep Sauron occupied and distracted,
and the agonizing journey of Frodo and Sam, accompanied by the
treacherous Gollum.
Although Gandalf has always been its chief strategist, the war
against Sauron is increasingly led by Aragorn, the hitherto unknown heir to
the thrones of Arnor (now vanished) and Gondor (still the chief kingdom of
resistance among Men). In its course, followed principally through the
fortunes of Merry and Pippin, we meet some extraordinary places and
people, both human and otherwise — including Lothlórien, the last remaining
stronghold of pure Elvish 'magic,' where the powerful elven lady Galadriel
lives; the fierce feudal Riders of Rohan; the Ents, sentient, talking and moving
trees; Shelob, a malevolent spider-being; the nine Ringwraiths, Sauron's
lieutenants; and Saruman, a corrupted wizard.
When Frodo does arrive, he is mastered at the last moment by
the Ring, and claims it; but Gollum bites it off his finger, loses his balance,
and falls into the Crack of Doom holding it. The works of Sauron come to a
cataclysmic end, and Frodo and Sam are just saved from the wreck.
Eventually, after Aragorn's coronation and wedding, and together with Pippin
and Merry, they return to the Shire to find their struggles not yet over. But
order is finally restored, and after a few years Frodo (who never really
recovers from his ordeals) is allowed to pass over the Sea to within sight of
Elvenhome, together with some of the last and greatest Elves and Gandalf.
Sam remains in the Shire with his wife and family.
The Lord of the Rings is not really a trilogy, that being merely the
publisher's device for breaking it up into manageable-sized volumes; it is
written in six 'books,' largely following the two parallel stories. Middle-earth's
languages (both written and spoken), the histories of its various peoples,
calendrical systems, and some family trees are discussed in detailed
appendices — all too briefly for those readers who have fallen in love with the
book en route. (Those who haven't won't have gotten that far.)

Readers vs. Critics

The first and chief riddle I want to try to unravel is therefore this: how could
such a remarkably unlikely book, written by someone so removed from (and
indeed hostile to) mainstream cultural and intellectual life, achieve such a
huge and lasting popular success? Or, to put it another way, what are
millions of readers from all over the world getting out of reading these books?
Meanwhile, the critical incomprehension continues. Among
professors of English literature and readers in cultural studies, sociologists of
popular culture, literary critics, and editors both journalistic and
commissioning — in short, all the class of professional literary explainers —
Tolkien and his readers are a no-go zone. There are a very few honourable
and excellent exceptions (which, incidentally, my own work is intended not to
replace but to complement). They have, however, been largely ignored within
the literary community, whose silence on Tolkien — even among those
whose chosen subject is fairy-tales or fantasy — is broken only by an
occasional snort of derision which seems to pass for analysis.
The pattern was set by an extended sneer about
Tolkien's 'juvenile trash' in 1956 by Edmund Wilson, the champion of
modernism; pompously obsessed, as a contemporary put it, 'with being the
Adult in the room,' Wilson is a good example of what Ursula K. Le Guin
called 'a deep puritanical distrust of fantasy.' He was joined by others,
notably Philip Toynbee, who in 1961 celebrated the fact that
Tolkien's 'childish' books 'have passed into a merciful oblivion.' Rarely has a
death been so exaggerated. But Tolkien is still routinely accused of being
variously 'paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic and,
perhaps worst of all in contemporary terms, irrelevant' by people who, upon
examination, have made so many mistakes that one cannot but wonder if
they have read the books at all. Other 'experts' expend themselves in fatuous
witticisms like 'Faërie-land's answer to Conan the Barbarian,' and 'Winnie-the-
Pooh posing as an epic.' This, then, is the second riddle.
My principal intention in this book is to tackle the first question,
and explore the nature of Tolkien's books and their success. However, I think
I can also explain, by the same token, why his critics have failed so
miserably to do so. I have not taken on The Silmarillion here, by the way. The
reason is simple: my priority is Tolkien's meaning and impact in the
contemporary world, and there is no doubting that that stems almost entirely
from The Lord of the Rings and, as a kind of introduction, The Hobbit. These
are his works to which the public has responded, and still does.
My goal means addressing contemporary conditions — cultural,
social and political — and readers; and, as far as seems relevant, Tolkien's
own character and intentions. But I try to do so while respecting the books'
internal integrity; that is, without the single-minded reductionism that sees
everything in such a story as 'representing' something else, in line with a
predetermined interpretive program around class, or gender, or the
The kind of literature which might be said to describe an important
part of Tolkien's work, fairy-tales, has been subjected to Freudian, feminist,
structuralist, Jungian, anthroposophical and Marxist interpretations in just
this way. And they have frequently resulted in some real insights. But too
often, the price is a depressing nothing-buttery. Every other dimension of the
story is ignored, while the meaning of the whole is tacitly assumed to be
exhausted. The spirit-to-letter ratio of these accounts is so low that unlike the
stories themselves, they are difficult and dispiriting to read. And behind it all
lies a woeful blindness to the power, here and now, of the myths and folk-
and fairy-tales themselves.
One tiny example, out of a multitude: it has been asserted (with a
degree of seriousness which is hard to determine) that The Hobbit represents
an alliance between the lower-middle class (Bilbo) and skilled workers,
especially working-class miners (the dwarves), in order to overcome a
parasitic capitalist exploiter who 'lives off the hard work of small people and
accumulates wealth without being able to appreciate its value' (the dragon).
This is genuinely interesting, as well as enjoyable; but it says at least as
much about Marxism as a fairy-tale as it does about The Hobbit, and hardly
exhausts either.
I have tried hard to avoid such a practice. It seems to me that
every meaningful human discourse has a subjective side as well as an
objective one. Relations between the two are complex — for example,
the 'inside' can be larger than the 'outside' — and neither (usually the former)
can be reduced to or derived from the other without doing irreparable harm to
the whole.
For example, seen from the outside, Tolkien's Middle-earth
derives from the pagan Norse world-view, plus his knowledge and love of
Anglo-Saxon history (Rohan) and medievalism (Gondor), and of trees (all the
various forests). One can add to this Tolkien's memories of pre-war rural
middle England (the Shire), and of the trenches of World War I, and so on.
The result is a complex but ultimately tightly determined and defined place.
But for the sym- pathetic reader, it is not like that at all. He or she stands in
an endless dark, damp forest with the light failing; or in a village pub in
multiracial company which ranges from the oddly familiar to the distinctly
odd; or at the foot of mountains which rear ever higher until stretching out of
sight in the unguessable distance. It is effectively unbounded, either in extent
or variety.
Any analysis which recognizes only the first world as important,
and dismisses or belittles the second, commits the violence of reductionism.
And there is another reason for caution. That is Tolkien's own warning
against an allegorical or purely topical reading of his story, in which elements
receive a literal or one-to-one interpretation. As he explains in the Foreword
to The Lord of the Rings, 'I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations,
and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its
presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to
the thought and experience of readers.' Quite so; not only is allegory
unattractively didactic (at best) and bullying (at worst), but Tolkien is trying
here to protect what he had worked so hard to create, namely a book that is
non-allegorical. And wisely so, as that is one of the reasons it has lasted,
and continues to find new generations of readers with their own concerns. For
as Tolkien also noted, 'That there is no allegory does not, of course, say
there is no applicability. There always is.' My book precisely concerns the
applicability of his work; it is not really about how it came to be written, or
about the man who wrote it.
In any case, I have too much respect for Tolkien's work, in all its
richness, to sacrifice it on the altar of theory. And I have benefited from some
excellent warnings whenever tempted. There is Gandalf's, of course: 'he that
breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.' But also T.
A. Shippey's: 'Adventure in Middle-earth embodies a modern meaning, but
does not exist to propagate it.' This seems to me to put the matter perfectly,
along with the shrewd words of Max Luthi: 'Everything external, not just in
literature but also in reality, can be or become a symbol. It is, however, still
itself as well, not only in reality but also in literature.'
So The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are first and foremost, as
Tolkien claimed, stories; and ones written by a master storyteller. This is
already important for understanding both Tolkien's popular success and his
critical slating. Philip Pullman, upon winning the Carnegie Medal for
children's fiction in July 1996, put it perfectly: 'in adult literary fiction, stories
are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique,
style, literary knowingness. Adult readers who do deal in straightforward
stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such as crime or science
fiction, where no-one expects literary craftsmanship.' Or children's books,
which The Lord of the Rings is frequently misrepresented as being; or fairy-
tales, one of its principal inspirations. 'But,' Pullman continued, 'stories are
vital. Stories never fail us because, as Isaac Bashevis Singer says, "events
never grow stale." There's more wisdom in a story than in volumes of
philosophy.' Most present-day writers, however, are highly anxious to be
seen as Grown-Ups. They therefore 'take up their stories as if with a pair of
tongs. They're embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without
stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.' Thus the hunger for stories
that's there in young and adult alike is unmet, and goes by default to Disney,
Hollywood and schlock TV, who are happy to oblige.
As stories, Tolkien's language and style are therefore important.
But these have already been tackled in a way I could not better. And
imponderables abound. The single greatest obstacle to appreciating Tolkien's
work is sheer literary snobbery. But almost equally important is a capacity
and liking for imagination, as opposed to a doctrinaire cast of mind. (It may
be something like a musical sense.)
Personally, like Hugh Brogan, I find Tolkien's writing 'capable of
humour, irony, tragedy, and fast narrative, with only occasional lapses into
cardboard grandiloquence.' But even if everyone else agreed, this alone would
not suffice to explain his appeal. To do so we must turn to their content, and
ask: why these particular and apparently rather peculiar stories? For
example, how many other world bestsellers are almost entirely devoid of
sex? (Except possibly the Bible — a debatable point.) Here, of course, some
theory becomes indispensable. So my critical practice, however
unsatisfactory it may be (in theory), is to bounce back and forth between the
inside and outside of Middle-earth, looking for relations, connections and
patterns. In so doing, I have used anything that seems to help, including my
own personal and 'subjective' reactions.
My chief concern, as I've said, is the meaning of the work rather
than its author. Of course, there is a relationship between the two. But this
too is highly complex, and the one does not follow simply from the other. The
significance of the work is neither entirely determined nor limited by the life
and times that produced it. And as Tolkien himself reminds us of fairy-
stories, 'when we have done all that research . . . can do . . . there remains
still a point too often forgotten: that is the effect produced now by these old
things in the stories as they are.' That effect — and only in so far as they are
significant for it, Tolkien's sources, influences and so on — is what interests
It is boring and pointless to spill ink on whether Tolkien
was 'reactionary' or not. Nor can the work itself be pigeonholed in such a
ridiculously simplistic way; its meaning is not forever fixed, but rather
whatever it presents itself as, in ways that cannot be pre-determined. Indeed,
I am going to argue that The Lord of the Rings has a life of its own to an
extent far exceeding what Tolkien himself expected or could have anticipated.
That life is integral to understanding its enduring appeal.

Postmodernity in Middle-earth

I have derived aid and support from postmodernist theories of meaning and
reading that probably would have inspired mixed feelings in Tolkien himself.
These offer the starting-point that meaning is tied to shared linguistic and
cultural understandings, on the one hand — so that not anything goes — yet
meanings are always open, in principle, to re-interpretation along new and
different lines, including ones unsuspected by the author. Tolkien can hardly
have known when he was writing, for example, that the 1960s were around
the corner, and would take up his books with such enthusiasm.
In a way, I myself am another example in this context. Tolkien
was a deeply conservative (with a small c) English Roman Catholic with a
highly specialized scholarly interest in the early Middle Ages. The best label
for me, on the other hand, might be 'Radical Eclectic'; I grew up many
generations later in mid-Western Canada and the United States, and was
deeply influenced by the intellectual, left-libertarian and mystical aspects of
the 1960s . . . including The Lord of the Rings. Without the relative
independence of the text, my abiding love of it would be impossible to
Postmodernism also holds that while every discipline will have its
own set of critical standards for assessing good and bad work, such
standards cannot be grounded in any kind of indisputable foundations or
ultimate objectivity. They 'are' whatever it is agreed that they are, which of
course changes and is never unanimous. So although I have tried to be
rigorous and coherent, I make no apology for occasionally explicitly including
myself. That is better than pretending to have a total overview from a
standpoint that is wholly outside its subject-matter, and therefore supposedly
comprehensive and impartial. The contents of books cannot be separated
from the sense that particular readers make of them.
Finally, postmodernism has also influenced my account in
another important respect. It suggests that we are now living in a time when
the project of modernity is approaching exhaustion. What do I mean by
modernity? Basically, a 'world-view' that began in late seventeenth-century
Europe, became self-conscious in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and
was exported all over the world, with supreme self-confidence, in the
nineteenth. It culminated in the massive attempts at material and social
engineering of our own day. Modernity is thus characterized by the
combination of modern science, a global capitalist economy, and the political
power of the nation-state.
All of these things are now controversial. They used to be justified
by the 'grand narratives' of modernity — secularized versions of divine
revelation, which were supposed to supply essentially complete accounts of
our progress towards the realization of the truth (as laid down by Marx, or
Freud, or Darwin). But these no longer command widespread respect or
assent. There have been too many broken promises, and too many
terrible 'successes': the gulags of universal liberation through class struggle,
modern science's showcases at Hiroshima and Chernobyl, and the ongoing
holocaust of the natural world at the behest of rational economic
development. And while I amas grateful as anyone for the benefits of
modernity, and wish to throw out no babies with the bathwater, it is
impossible now to avoid the fact that the costs have been horrendous, and
are, unlike the benefits, increasing.
Modernity carries on, of course. The power of the state still
extends to doing whatever it likes to its (willing or unwilling) citizens,
restrained here and there only by the fragile conventions of representative
democracy. The development of a superstate ideal in Europe has added
further to the load. The highly mixed blessings of 'free' trade are forced on to
weaker countries by stronger through GATT and other menacing acronyms.
Scientists, following the logic of 'pure knowledge' but backed by big
business, are careering ahead with genetic engineering and biotechnology.
And when state, science and capital all get together, the result is what Lewis
Mumford called 'the Megamachine.' Thus, the same people who brought you
nuclear energy, agribusiness and the drug and chemical industries are now
pursuing the fantastic corporate profits promised by patenting and selling life
itself, under the protection of international law. What price a 'life-form'?
What has changed, with postmodernity, is simply the widespread
appearance of questions about the legitimacy and desirability of all this —
together with unsettling new reasons and theories for such questions. And
people do have questions — more people, with more and deeper fears and
worries, than perhaps ever before. Only a fool (or convert, or perhaps
employee) would say they are groundless. And one of the things being
questioned — not a moment too soon — is the value of the kind of deranged,
totalizing rationality, epitomized but by no means restricted to modern
science, that produces disenchantment. To quote Zygmunt Bauman,
postmodernity, above all,

can be seen as restoring to the world what modernity, presumptuously, had
taken away; as a re-enchantment of the world that modernity had tried hard
to disenchant. . . . The war against mystery and magic was for modernity the
war of liberation leading to the declaration of reason's independence . . .
world had to be de-spiritualized, de-animated: denied the capacity of
subject. . . . It is against such a disenchanted world that the postmodern re-
enchantment is aimed.

Middle-earth in Postmodernity

I believe Tolkien's books speak to precisely these conditions. Drawing on the
power of ancient Indo-European myth, they invite the reader into a compelling
and remarkably complete premodern world, saturated with corresponding
earlier values, which therefore feels something like a lost home — and by the
same token, offers hope for its recovery. They are just the values whose
jeopardy we most now feel: relationships with each other, and nature, and (for
want of a better word) the spirit, which have not been stripped of personal
integrity and responsibility and decanted into a soulless calculus of profit-and-
loss; and practicalethical wisdom, which no amount of economic or
technological 'progress' will ever be able to replace. As John Ruskin
wonderfully asserted, in the face of Victorian materialist triumphalism in full

To watch the corn grow, and the blossoms set; to draw hard breath over
ploughshare or spade; to read, to think, to love, to hope, to pray—these are
the things that make men happy; they have always had the power of doing
these, they never will have the power to do more. The world's prosperity or
adversity depends upon our knowing and teaching these few things: but upon
iron, or glass, or electricity, or steam, in no wise.

But as we begin The Lord of the Rings, this is exactly the world
that is under severe threat from those who worship pure power, and are its
slaves: the technological and instrumental power embodied in Sauron (after
whom the book itself is named, after all), and the epitome of modernism gone
mad. We thus find ourselves reading a story about ourselves, about our own
world. That is one reason why so many readers have taken it so to heart.
This analysis has recently found remarkable confirmation. As
Bauman also observed, 'people who celebrate the collapse of communism,
as I do, celebrate more than that without always knowing it. They celebrate
the end of modernity actually, because what collapsed was the most decisive
attempt to make modernity work; and it failed. It failed as blatantly as the
attempt was blatant.' Now, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were
already underground 'cult' classics in the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland
and Hungary before 1989. Since then they have boomed there in a way
reminiscent of the late 1960s in the West. But the exhilaration of liberation is
already fast succumbing to the discovery that 'free market' capitalism, as
such, is simply a more efficient version of the same economic logic as its
former state form. I fear Tolkien will have no shortage of newly disillusioned
readers there.
Tolkien himself, of course, was deeply hostile to modernity, root
and branch — capitalism (especially industrialism), unrestrained science,
and state power alike. For him, they were idols whose worship had resulted,
in our century, in the most efficient ever devastation of both nature and
humanity alike. He once remarked that 'I would arrest anybody who uses the
word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its
inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind) . . .' And he
described the detonation of the atom bomb in 1945 as 'the utter folly of these
lunatic physicists.' But that is not a very original observation, and neither so
interesting nor significant as what has become of his anti-modernism, lovingly
and skilfully embodied in a literary artefact, in postmodern times. As he
himself put it, 'it is the particular use in a particular situation of any motive
whether invented, deliberately borrowed, or unconsciously remembered, that
is the most interesting thing to consider.'
Now, it is perfectly possible to imagine Tolkien's books 'being'
truly reactionary: racist, nationalist, etc. I contend, however, that as it
happens — as things have actually turned out — his implicit diagnosis of
modernity was prescient; and his version of an alternative, progressive. That
is, in the context of global modernization and the resistance to it, his stories
have become an animating and inspiring new myth. It joins up with a growing
contemporary sense, represented in postmodernism, of history's sheer
contingency: a liberating perception that things might have been different, and
therefore could be different now. It suggests that just as there was life before
modernity, so there can be after it.
In short, Tolkien's books are certainly nostalgic, but it is an
emotionally empowering nostalgia, not a crippling one. (The word itself
means just 'homesickness.') One contemporary writer, Fraser Harrison, goes
straight to the heart of the matter: 'While it is easy to scoff at the
whimsicality and commercialism of rural nostalgia, it is also vital to
acknowledge that this reaching-out to the countryside is an expression,
however distorted, of a healthy desire to find some sense of meaning and
relief in a world that seems increasingly bent on mindless annihilation.'
Accordingly, says Harrison, 'it becomes meaningful to talk of "radical
Only those who cling to the modernist myth of a singular universal
truth (as opposed to myth and story and indeed interpretation as such) which
is somehow directly accessible to those with the 'correct' understanding —
only such people will look at Tolkien's glorious tree and see, to use an apt
image of William Blake's, nothing more than 'a Green thing that stands in the
way.' To the modernist, the choice is between truth and myth (or falsehood),
whereas the postmodernist, giving up the pretence of a direct line to the
Truth, sees the choice as between different truths; or to put it another way,
between myths and stories that are creative and liberating, and those that are
destructive and debilitating. As Tolkien put it, 'History often
resembles "Myth," because they are both ultimately of the same stuff.'
Ironically, therefore, it is Tolkien's critics who have been overtaken
by events. Behind their instinctive antagonism lies an uncomfortable sense
that here is a coherent fictional critique and an alternative, in every major
respect, to the exhausted myth of modernity which has so far underwritten
their own professional status; and worse, it is a popular one! Not for the first
time, those who claim to know better than and even speak for 'the people' are
lagging behind them.

Three Worlds in One

I have said that Tolkien's literary creation presents a remarkably complete
alternative world, or rather, alternative version of our world. I myself only
realized its depth and complexity when I tackled it in a spirit of determined
but non-reductionist analysis. There are almost no threads that can be
tugged without them leading on to others, almost indefinitely. But I found I
could make sense of most of it in terms of three domains, each one nesting
within a larger: the social ('the Shire'), the natural ('Middleearth'), and the
spiritual ('the Sea'). I was encouraged in this by Tolkien's own remark in his
superb essay on the subject, that 'fairy-stories as a whole have three faces:
the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical towards Nature; and the
Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man.'
Thus, The Lord of the Rings begins and ends with the hobbits, in
the Shire. This is the social, cultural and political world. It includes such
things as the hobbits' strong sense of community, their decentralized parish
or municipal democracy, their bioregionalism (living within an area defined by
its natural characteristics, and within its limits), and their enduring love of,
and feeling for, place. In all these respects, the ultimate contrast is with the
brutal universalism and centralized efficiency of totalitarian Mordor.
Now this sphere is indeed crucial, but it nests within a larger and
weightier world, just as the Shire itself does: namely the extraordinarily varied
and detailed natural world of Middle-earth. Note that this therefore includes
the human world. Tolkien plainly had a profound feeling for nature, and
perhaps especially its flora; his love of trees shines through everywhere. The
sense in The Lord of the Rings of a tragically endangered natural world,
savaged by human greed and stupidity in every corner of the globe, is
confirmed for us in every daily newspaper. But this 'nature' is neither
romantic nor abstract. There are plenty of dangerous wild places in Middle-
earth; but they are all, like their blessed counterparts, very specific places.
Indeed, Tolkien's attention to 'local distinctiveness' is one of the most striking
things about his books. It contributes greatly to the uncanny feeling, shared
by many of his readers, of actually having been there, and knowing it from the
inside, rather than simply having read about it — the sensation, as one put it,
of 'actually walking, running, fighting and breathing in Middle-earth.'
Above all, Tolkien's is no add-on environmentalism. It suggests
rather that whatever their differences, humans share with other living beings a
profound common interest in life, and whatever aids life. Thus Middle-earth's
most distinctive places defy the separation, so beloved of modernist scientific
reason, into 'human or social and therefore conscious subjects' and 'natural
and therefore inert objects.' They are both: the places themselves are
animate subjects with distinct personalities, while the peoples are
inextricably in and of their natural and geographical locales: the Elves
and 'their' woods and forests, the Dwarves and mountains, hobbits and the
domesticated nature of field and garden. And some of the most beautiful
places in Middle-earth are so, in large part, because they are loved by the
people who share them. Tolkien's prescient ecologism is therefore radical, in
the modern sense as well as the old one of a return to roots. It anticipates, in
many ways, both 'social' and 'deep' ecology, and retraces a premodern way
of understanding the world which is still that of surviving indigenous tribal
peoples. Time is running out for the rest of us to re-learn it.
Following this up, I then found myself at the edge of the second
circle too. In Tolkien's terms, I had been brought up short by the Sea. This
third sphere proved to be the most encompassing of all: an ethics rooted, so
to speak, in spiritual values as symbolized by the Sea. Here we shall
discover the way Tolkien deals with the problem of spirit in a secular age; a
problem with, as Salman Rushdie once put it, a God-shaped hole in it, but
equally, with some very good reasons to resist any simple re-insertion of
God. Indeed, despite his personal religious convictions, Tolkien was acutely
aware of writing in and for a divided post-Christian audience — just as one of
his heroes, the author of Beowulf, had been at the beginning of the same era.
His book therefore makes no explicit references to any organized religion at
all, and (unlike those of his sometime friend C. S. Lewis) offers no hostages
to a religiously allegorical interpretation.
As we shall see, the spiritual world of Middle-earth is a rich and
complex one. It contains both a polytheist-cum-animist cosmology of 'natural
magic' and a Christian (but non-sectarian) ethic of humility and compassion.
Tolkien clearly felt that both are now needed. The 'war against mystery and
magic' by modernity urgently requires a re-enchantment of the world, which a
sense of Earth-mysteries is much better-placed to offer than a single
transcendent deity. (As Gregory Bateson once remarked, when the loss of a
sense of divine immanence in nature is combined with an advanced
technology, 'your chance of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.') But the
Christian dimension of humility and ultimate dependency, exemplified by
Frodo, is the best answer to modernity's savage pride in the efficiency, and
self-sufficiency, of its own reason. Rising above the dogmas of his own
religious upbringing, Tolkien has thus made it possible for his readers to
unselfconsciously combine Christian ethics and a neo-pagan reverence for
nature, together with (no less important) a liberal humanist respect for the
small, precarious and apparently mundane. This is a fusion that couldn't be
more relevant to resisting the immense and impersonal forces of runaway
In what follows, I shall be looking at the social, natural and
spiritual aspects of Tolkien's world in turn, and their crucial overlap. That is
where their heart is to be found, and any meaning found in or derived from his
work must embody all three concerns to be considered essential. Taken
together, they comprise the whole implicit project of his literary mythology,
and a remedy for pathological modernity in a nutshell: namely, the
resacralization (or re-enchantment) of experienced and living nature, including
human nature, in the local cultural idiom. I am not at all suggesting, of
course, that were everyone to read Tolkien everything would be fine; just that
his books have something, however small, to contribute to a collective
healing process.
More modestly still, critical recognition of this project and
contributions to it like Tolkien's might help restore a pathologically, almost
terminally jaded critical community. To quote Ihab Hassan, 'I do not know
how to give literature or theory or criticism a new hold on the world, except to
remythify the imagination, at least locally, and bring back the reign of wonder
into our lives.' Such a response to modernity is no mere escapist
sentimentality. In fact, as we ought to know at the end of this bloody century,
it is not the sleep of reason that produces monsters, but sleepless reason.
Tolkien realized this, with implications I shall discuss in relation
to 'mythopoeic' literature:

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even
insult Reason . . . On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason,
the better fantasy it will make. If men were ever in a state in which they did
not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy
would languish. . . . For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard
recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a
recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.

A Mythology for England?

For Tolkien himself, of course, and for English readers, the native cultural
idiom happens to be an English one. Part of Tolkien's ambition was 'to
restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of
their own' — something that he felt was lacking in their national literature.
(The Arthurian mythcycle was, he felt, powerful but 'imperfectly naturalized':
more British, that is, Celtic, than English, with its faërie 'too lavish,' and in
addition — what struck Tolkien, for reasons we shall explore, as 'fatal' — it
explicitly contains Christianity.) Tolkien was not the only one to feel such a
lack. In 1910, E. M. Forster wrote: 'Why has not England a great mythology?
Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies
about our countryside have all issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and
true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has
stopped with the witches and fairies . . .'
Tolkien blamed this on the brutality of the Norman occupation
beginning in 1066, and not without reason. It was a savage assault on a
relatively peaceful land, which eventually left one person in ten there dead
from war or starvation. It also imposed a new phenomenon on the British
Isles: a foreign and highly centralized ruling class, including secular,
ecclesiastical and educational élites. The new Norman archbishop, bishops
and abbots regarded their Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical predecessors as rudes
et idiotas (uncouth and illiterate), dropped the worship of many pre-conquest
saints and even destroyed some of their shrines. Education now demanded
Latin, and 'culture,' as well as power, French; for as long as two hundred
years later, the nobility still did not speak the native tongue. And Tolkien's
modern critics today are the heirs of precisely the same caste, almost as
divorced now from the common reader as their forebears were from the
common people, and no less lofty in attitude.
For our purposes here, however, the point is the way biography
can transmute, through art, into contemporary relevance. For Tolkien's deep
dislike of the Norman virtues of bureaucracy, efficiency and rationalization, as
it manifests itself in The Lord of the Rings, provides the contemporary reader
with an instant 'recognition' of the global modernization which the Normans,
as it happens, anticipated in these important respects. But Englishness is
not inscribed in the text. This is something I finally realized after talking to
Russian and Irish and Italian readers, and discovering that each one had
found in the hobbits an accessible native tradition, centred on a 'small,'
simple and rural people — and self — with which to begin, and end renewed.
I am not just talking about long-vanished peasants, either. I know
one man living within a few minutes of both the diabolical London motorway
ring-road and Heathrow Airport whom Farmer Maggot could have been
modelled on: 'There's earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers;
wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.' Of course, he was living
there before these monstrosities appeared; but they haven't driven him out.
Such people in such places may have gone to ground, but they're still
around, and there are even some younger ones coming up. As the
Donga 'tribe' (named after the ancient trackways on Twyford Down,
Hampshire) sing, 'We are the old people, we are the new people, we are the
same people, stronger than before.'
Nor are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings ethnocentrically
limited to northwestern Europe — even though the qualities of their peoples,
lands, seasons, the very air belong to that part of the world. The reason is
another of Tolkien's master-strokes. The anthropologist Virginia Luling has
pointed out that he presents us with a northwestern Europe, the home and
heartland of the industrial revolution, as a place where it has never happened;
and by the same token, with the birthplace of colonialism and imperialism as
an unstained 'FourthWorld' of indigenous tribes. Accordingly, the cultures of
Middle-earth's peoples are pre-modern or 'traditional,' and indeed pre-
Christian, while their religions and mythologies are animist, polytheist and
shamanist. But Tolkien's choice of a 'Norse' mythology for his tale as a
whole, over the usual Graeco-Roman one, situates his story still more
precisely. (It also effectively bypasses all the élite critical apparatus of Greek
and Latin references which many ordinary readers might find either boring or
In fact, the only place in Middle-earth which is industrial,
imperialistic, and possessed of an all-powerful state is Mordor — admittedly
the most powerful force of all, as such, but essentially an alien invader (as
Sauron originally was) rather than a native. Tolkien's Middle-earth is thus a
Europe, as Luling puts it, that has never been 'Europeanized,' or, what
amounts to the same thing, 'modernized.' And the story of The Lord of the
Rings — as reflected in its very title — is about the resistance to just that.
The potential relevance of these books consequently opens out not only to
anyone living in 'the West,' but to anyone affected by it; which is to say,
nearly everyone anywhere.

A Great Book?

We shall also consider The Lord of the Rings as literature. That involves
considering why Tolkien chose 'fantasy,' with its affinities with fairy-tale and
myth, as the appropriate form and strategy; and why the wisdom of that
choice has been so roundly confirmed by readers, although ignored or
condemned by critics. There is also the question of comparable books. I
shall suggest that there are indeed a few other works of literary myth,
or 'mythopoeic' fiction, which also reveal its true power, feed the soul, and
escape the modernist critical compass. There are others, also
apparently 'fantasy,' which are completely different. Here I am obliged to be
unkind to some sacred cows: from the pernicious productions of The Walt
Disney Company, and pseudo-fairy-tales like The Wizard of Oz, to some of
the authors and critics now canonized by literary feminism.
Given how unavoidably subjective and personal it must be,
compiling lists of 'great' books is a game we can all play. I have no doubt
that The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest works of twentieth-century
literature, even if not always for purely 'literary' reasons. But I am not too
concerned to persuade the reader to agree; just to realize that it is fully
deserving of affection and respect, and even some passionate attention.
Written with love, learning, skill and sacrifice, it is a cry (as someone once
said of religion) from 'the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless
conditions,' but also something more. It offers not an 'escape' from our world,
this world, but hope for its future.

Copyright © 1997, 2004 by Patrick Curry. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.

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