Defending Middle-Earth - Tolkien: Myth & Modernity
- Patrick Curry
Tolkien: Man and Myth. A Literary Life - Joseph Pearce
Floris books, Edinburgh, 1997
£15.99. (Hardback now out of print.)
£7.99 Paperback HarperCollins 1998
Review by Sarah Wells
This review originally appeared in Mallorn 35, 1997
Defending Middle-Earth started life as a paper for the 1992 Tolkien Centenary Conference, but (as with all the best books) once Curry had started he found he couldn't stop. Each thought provoked more questions, paragraphs lengthened into chapters and eventually this book emerged.
Curry seeks to answer the riddle of why a book that consistently sells well around the world, is amongst the most popular borrowed from libraries and has repeatedly been voted "best book of the century" or indeed "of all time", should be so slated by critics? What are the readers getting out of it?
Many of the literary critics may be written off as literary snobs, who have written off all stories as being for children and the emotionally immature, lack the imagination to understand speculative fiction, or are simply obsessed with being, as one is described here, the Adult in the room. Dismissing the shallower critics, however, is easy, and no real answer. What is it about The Lord of the Rings that has led the book not merely to stand the test of time, but to grow steadily in popularity?
One of the commonest criticisms of The Lord of the Rings is that it is reactionary. Curry argues that it is instead anti-modernist, anticipating the modern Green movement rather than looking back to the Luddites. He is perhaps oversimplifying the case when he suggests that modern scientific rationalism was invented by Descartes and had few detractors until first Ruskin, and then Tolkien came along to herald the rise in our own generation of ecological awareness. In his definition of Modernity, Curry also lumps centralised government together with capitalist finance and heavy industry, neglecting to consider the ways that differing forms of power and greed have always been aligned.
He is on safer ground when suggesting that Tolkien was helping to restore a sense of Wonder, which is all too frequently lost in the bustle and confusion of everyday city-dwelling life. Curry compares the way the Shire is embedded in the wider world to differing levels of awareness of the world around us. The Shire to him represents the social realm, embedded in the natural world of Middle-earth, which is in turn surrounded by the Sea (Spirituality). As we move from the Shire towards the sea, so we grow in awareness of our surroundings, at first physical, later spiritual. The happier and more moral of the races of Middle-earth are firmly rooted in their environment - consider the elves of Caras Galadhon or the Ents of Fangorn Forest.
Conversely, evil is shown as springing from a love of power and a callous disregard of life for its own sake. The level of destruction of our countryside that Curry describes is deeply disturbing. He cites one example, no doubt dear to all our hearts, that of mushrooms. 70 European species are now extinct, and a further 600 are now getting scarce. There are no easy solutions to our problems, but Tolkien's books at least give us hope that an answer exists, and remind us of the importance of striving to find it.
Curry also considers responses to Tolkien's depiction of good and evil, and the conflict between them. Many of the critics who have been most strident in accusing Tolkien of oversimplification have, Curry shows, themselves demonstrated an extreme inability to accept the existence of evil. He cites one example of a critic who cannot use the word Evil, even when talking of the Dunblane massacre or the Holocaust. As with the destruction of the environment, there is no simple solution to the problem of evil, but The Lord of the Rings at least gives us reason to hope.
This book is essential reading as a counterblast to Tolkien's critics, and effectively demolishes their weaker and ill thought-out arguments. In his description of the modern Green movement, Curry is much weaker, depending on an overly shallow summary of its history and occasional woolly thinking.
However, this is not a political tract and wisely does not attempt to be. What Curry does, and does extremely well, is demonstrate why environmental activists have adopted Tolkien as their own, and give us at least some understanding of why The Lord of the Rings has been so repeatedly voted Book of the Century.
HarperCollins 1998 ISBN 0-00-274018-4
£16.99 Hardback £7.99 Paperback
Reviewed by Michael Tolkien
This review originally appeared in Mallorn 37, 1999
Dust jacket browsers might wonder whether this 'original', 'major new study' of Tolkien's life, character and work, launched in the wake of Book of the Century controversies, is a reconstruction of well-worn materials on the relatively safe territory of 'traditional religious faith' to assure us that myth is 'real'.
For Pearce the ullulations of establishment literati and 'educational' axe-grinders are more than an incentive: they make for a structural tactic to juxtapose assumptions and prejudice with analysis, and to suggest that the modes and means of attack have changed little since the first appearance of The Lord of the Rings, while positive criticism has matured into the open-minded and scholarly standards he emulates. These are qualities evident where the biographical narrative or the discussion of intellectual influences follows or admits Carpenter on the life and The Inklings, weighing this 'established' authority against later, subtler interpretations from a surprising range of sources and his own quietly interposed perceptions.
Carpenter's gloss on the tenacity of Tolkien's faith and allegiance to the
Catholic Church in relation to Mabel Tolkien's death is incisively quelled,
and Tolkien's approach to his own Mount Doom in the 1970s, in contrast to
the 'official' biography, penetrates the joys, conflicts and bereavements
in terms of the writer's imaginative and spiritual aptitudes. The relationship
with Edith for example has been throughout a carefully considered thread and
foil, and citing a letter reflecting on her role and influence after her death,
Pearce comments illuminatingly that it is written
in the way he had always
expressed himself when he had something to say beyond the power of mere facts.
He reverted to the language of myth and more specifically to the language
of myth she had inspired...
These are instances among many where new perspectives, including a shrewd
reappraisal of Tolkien/Lewis relations, signal the need for a more comprehensive
biography beyond the purpose but on the lines of this book.
If one is
to understand the man behind the myth, it contends, challenging its
one must first avoid turning the man into myth. No facile maxim but
an irony aimed at those who reject myth as unreal or escapist while inventing
of what they have set out to discover. Eulogisers and debunkers alike should
not look for pseudo-psychological or ethical keys in the man, his formative
influences, and for good measure in the works.
Typically in one of several balanced and contextually appropriate surveys
of Tolkien's marriage and family life there's well-documented discussion
extremes like John Cary's schematic sexual decoding of the life and work.
Here again the eloquent but practical wisdom of Tolkien's letters quiets
the storm. Pearce clearly appreciates how these articulate, in response to
queries or anxieties, nuances of feeling and belief subconsciously implied
rather than imposed in the fictional and even the academic writing, though
these are scavenged
for tantalising titbits, a rapacity demonstrated
in a well-placed chapter about misconceptions that stem from attitudes
This examines, among other critical ingenuities, Brenda Partridge's Freudian
fantasy over the hobbits' encounter with Shelob. From this it is refreshing
to return to Pearce's own cogent account of an episode whose controversial
aspects Tolkien took very seriously, namely the struggles of Frodo and
on Mount Doom seen in terms of sublimated orthodox Christian preoccupations
with sacrifice, free will, the conflict of good and evil and what they
in the light of eternity or a greater reality beyond the hints and shadows
of this perplexing world.
The central thesis of the book is that such moral and 'mystical' concerns
at the core of all (Tolkien's) work. Showing how and suggesting
that these are integral with the inspiration responsible for the quality
of the work, evokes an imaginative and far-reaching reappraisal of the creation
myth in The Silmarillion, to demonstrate that Tolkien
not consider his sub-created myth as fiction, as popularly understood,
but as a figment
of truth. And to substantiate the argument that
if Tolkien was the
man behind the myth, its sub-creator, The Silmarillion was
also the myth behind the man, moulding his creative vision. A letter
recounting a mystical experience of angelic orders is compellingly aligned
with the principles of world-fashioning
in the legends.
Pearce is adept at this kind of fusing and parallelling of primary secondary materials, and it adds conviction to an adjacent chapter illustrating the paradox that while it is possible to enjoy the work without sharing the beliefs, one cannot ignore the positive and aesthetic effects of Christian orthodoxy and the appropriateness of Tolkien's coherent myth for expressing these. Moreover, the complex matter and significance of there being no sub-created theology for the creation and destinies of creatures other than humankind, is deftly explored with regard to how it both facilitates and debilitates the machinations of evil.
My enthusiasm for Pearce's lucid presentation was tempered by a chapter that sets out to show the indispensable Englishness of the hobbitical Tolkien behind the myth, returns to materials in Tolkien's shorter experiments with Faërie vital to an earlier chapter on The Truth behind the Myth, then expatiates on Chestertonian analogues not all clearly related to the purpose of a chapter belatedly orientated by reflections on English ale.
A more serious matter, though, for a book subtitled 'A Literary Life', is
Pearce's deference to the availability of specialised studies by Shippey and
Flieger which preclude direct examination of Tolkien's academic and philological
career in an account of his Christianity and its connection with the
of myth that underpins his sub-creation. But since the formative linguistic
and literary interests are part of the equation, the general reader, at whom
the book is aimed and whom I don't want to deter, suffers a certain loss of
Even if On Fairy Stories, the minor fiction, and many enlightened
commentaries are correlated and examined fruitfully to show the nature of
Tolkien's myth-making, one cannot ignore Shippey's concern that OFS is equivocal
and 'circular', and how he attributes this to
its lack of a philological
core or kernel, a reminder of Tolkien's recollection that he
invented legends of the same taste. So it is worth noting
by way of extension to the book's coverage of adverse responses that Tolkien's
professional immersion in pre-Reformation English and its cultural and literary
antecedents, as the lectures of the 1930s indicate, nurtured a penchant for
kinds of narrative and ambience (beyond the scope of Grimm, Andersen, Lang
or even Macdonald) and predating the rationalist subdivision of 'real' and
'imaginary' that gave rise to fiction where the journey of the soul becomes
the struggle of the psyche.
Therefore much misapprehension and even conscientious criticism like Auden's
published doubts over quest derives not only from failure to appreciate Christianised
myth-making but from the way the familiar and perhaps delusive trappings of
the novel (dialogue, character conflict, careful chronology, geographical
consistency) are blended with a now unpalatable wholeness of vision. To this
the Ego is ultimately subject, implying, as Pearce aptly says, that
... is ultimately metaphysical in nature; the physical universe ... a reflection
of some greater metaphysical purpose...
H. Carpenter. J.R.R.T.: A Biography and The Inklings (Allen & Unwin, 1977 & 1978).
J.Cary. Review of Carpenter's Biography in The Listener (12 May 1977).
B. Partridge.' No Sex, Please-We're Hobbits'. The construction of female sexuality in The Lord of the Rings (from J.R.R.Tolkien: ... In This Far Land, Ed. R. Giddings: Vision, Barnes & Noble, 1983).
V. Flieger. Splintered Light. Logic and Language in Tolkien's World (Eerdmans, 1983).
T.Shippey. The Road to Middle-earth (A.& U., 1981 ) p38
J.R.R.Tolkien. On Fairy Stories (in The Monsters and The Critics and Other Essays, Ed. C.Tolkien (A.& U.. 1983)
J.R.R.Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien., Ed. Carpenter with C. Tolkien, (A.& U. 1981.) p231. New re-indexed edition 2000.
W.H. Auden. New York Times Book Review, 22 January 1956.
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