Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity

Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity

by Patrick Curry

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A scholar explores the ideas within The Lord of the Rings and the world created by J. R. R. Tolkien: “A most valuable and timely book” (Ursula K. Le Guin, Los Angeles Times–bestselling author of Changing Planes).
What are millions of readers all over the world getting out of reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy? Defending Middle-earth argues, in part, that the appeal for fans goes far deeper than just quests and magic rings and hobbits. In fact, through this epic, Tolkien found a way to provide something close to spirit in a secular age.
This thoughtful book focuses 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 the author provides a particularly insightful and resonant examination.
Includes a new afterword

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544106567
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/21/2004
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 126,567
File size: 228 KB

About the Author

Patrick Curry, a Canadian-born writer and scholar, is a Tolkien expert featured on the extendedThe Lord of the Rings DVDs. He holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science and is the author of Introducing Machiavelli as well as several books and essays of social history.

Read an Excerpt


Introduction: Radical Nostalgia

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 Sir Gawain 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 'Loth-lóriens' 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 re-covers 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 unconscious.

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 sympathetic 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 benefitted 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 story-teller. 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.


Excerpted from "Defending Middle Earth"
by .
Copyright © 2004 Patrick Curry.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents Preface vii

1. Introduction: Radical Nostalgia 1 The Story 3; Readers vs. Critics 5; Postmodernity in Middle-earth 10; Middle-earth in Postmodernity 13; Three Worlds in One 16; A Mythology for England? 20; A Great Book? 23

2. The Shire: Culture, Society and Politics 24 Englishness 26; Country Folk 27; Nation and Class 29; A Pastoral Fantasy? 33; Fascist? 36; Politics in Middle-earth 37; Radical Nostalgia 42; Activism 43; ‘Escapism’45

3. Middle-Earth: Nature and Ecology 48 Place 49; Nature in Middle-Earth 50; Forests, Woods and Trees 51; The War on Trees 53; The Tree of Life 55; Tolkien and Trees 58; The Ring 60; Magic vs. Enchantment 61; The Ring as Megamachine 65; Mordor on Earth 69; The War on Life 72; Selling Ourselves 74; On ‘Sentimentality’ 76; Life’s a Beech 78; Save Us from the Experts 83

4. The Sea: Spirituality and Ethics 87 The ‘Problem’ of Evil 88; Death 91; Luck, Fate, Providence 94; A Christian Work? 86; A Pagan Work? 98; Wizards and Stars 101; All and None 103; Post-Christian/Neo-Pagan/New Times 106; From Religion to Myth to Fantasy 110

5. Fantasy, Literature and the Mythopoeic Imagination 112 Loss and Consolation 114; Myth 118; Local Mythology 119; Universal Myth 121; Back to Myth 123; Other Approaches to Myth 125; Story 127; Fantasy 129; The Lord of the Rings as Fantasy 131; Disney World 133; Angela Carter 135; Discworld 137; Tolkien’s True Company 137

6. Conclusion: Hope without Guarantees 139 The Elements 141; Place 143; Wonder 146; Hope 148

Afterword 151 References 161 Bibliography 191 Index 193

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