Tolkien Society 2024 Seminar Paper Abstracts
6 July 2024
Back to event page HIlton Leeds City and Online
HIlton Leeds City and Online

Timothy Morton (Keynote) – The Grey-Rain Curtain Turned All to Silver Glass: Heavenly Tolkien

As the author of Hell: In Search of a Christian Ecology, making a turn to theology, I am thinking about one Tolkien paradox the most. A deep part of Tolkien’s magic is the fact of a Christian taking on European “pagan” mythology, as part of an explicitly Christian mission (The Inklings). If I was going to choose one crucial focal point of this paradox, it would be the lack of an afterlife in Middle-earth. There is no Heaven. There is the heaven-like life-after-the-novel for Frodo, Bilbo and the Elves in the Grey Havens. In the movie, Gandalf speaks these lines to a terrified Pippin to assure him that death is not the end: if I was going to isolate one point in the film trilogy that always moved me to tears, that would be it.

There is an ancestral realm for denizens of Rohan, there is the ghostly undead army, but other than that, even if you can live forever, you can be killed, and death is final. Your life can be “stretched” (Bilbo, Gollum), but at some point it will snap, and that’s it.

Yet Tolkien’s worlds are suffused with “heavenly” things that seem to happen outside of time, or evoke impossibly deep time: the descriptions of “nature,” Tom Bombadil, not to mention all the silver and starlight, the magic of a fantasy world as such, yet there is no obvious Heaven, nor indeed is there an “earthly paradise” such as a communist utopia (the Orcs form a revolutionary army with the Elves to defeat Sauron themselves and so on), always possible (at least) given Tolkien’s borrowings from William Morris. There is the start of the Fourth Age and the departure of the Elves and that’s it. It’s a Kingdom, but it’s not Heaven.

Something is going on here, something deliberate (I assume Tolkien is a genius) and something profoundly in conversation with theological and philosophical ideas of this world and what “the other world.” What is that?

I’ll argue that the lack of a Christian Heaven overlaps with another crucial lack: Tolkien forbids us from reading his work as an allegory of any kind.
And that this overlap is weirdly Christian, in a way that ought to affect how we think about art, politics and ecology.


Cami Agan – “Fled is that Music:” Elvish Art as Romantic Portal

British Romantic poets from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Keats and P. Shelley frequently represented the poet’s creative impulse, or the state necessary to access the imagination, using images of intoxication, dream, delirium, madness, vision, and (near) death. Whether the conduit to access these states be Natural, as in the skylark, the nightingale, a thunder storm; spatial, as in an open casement, a lifted veil, an exotic locale; or psychic, as with a mind-altering substance, a dream-state, or madness, these Romantics images of semi-altered-consciousness align magic and enchantment with inspired poetic creation.

While we tend to characterize similar metaphors of uncanny/enchanted experience in Tolkien’s works as aligned primarily with a medieval-coded sense of “Faerie,” a re-examination of Elven creative power as aligned with Romantic images of dream, reverie, vision, intoxication reveals even more powerfully Elven effects on craft, on Story, and on other Peoples in the legendarium. Consistently, Elven Art evokes what the Romantic poets consistently sought: a portal through which one might access the sacred power of creativity and transformation. Further, Tolkien’s work stages other People’s (and readers’) experience with Elvish creativity using Romantic images of the liminal and uncanny: a threshold to the beyond, an alteration in time, an intoxicating beauty. Analyzing particular instances of Elven enchantment in landscape, art, and crafted objects suggests that while the Firstborn of Ilúvatar embody medieval/folkloric notions of enchantment associated with the Faerie space, the texts also employ familiar Romantic metaphors to detail Elven artistic production and to cast Elvish Art as itself a portal to further poetic creation. Experience with the Elven can alter reality, alter one’s vision, and, however fleetingly, open a passageway to creativity, to transformation, and to one’s own sub-creation.


Sara Brown – ‘The Passion of Fear’ or ‘The Passion of Love’? Aesthetics, Gender, and Tolkien’s ‘Man-maiden’

As an aesthetic trend setter for many of the Romantics, Edmund Burke’s ideas on the nature of ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the sublime’ were highly influential. For Burke, there were fundamental differences between the two concepts, with the beautiful being that which is well-formed and aesthetically pleasing, encompassing the female form, nature, art, and poetry, and the sublime being that which has the power to compel and destroy us, having its roots in terror and awe. A reading of Galadriel, one of the most compelling of Tolkien’s characters, through the optic of the sublime and the beautiful invites a challenge to the Burkean understanding of these concepts, as a striking feature is Burke’s use of descriptive terms associated with contemporary gender stereotypes that serve to gender the sublime as specifically masculine and the beautiful as specifically feminine. Beauty, he states, “where it is highest in the female sex, almost always carries with it an idea of weakness and imperfection…Beauty in distress is the most affecting beauty.” The sublime, in contrast, is to be found in “the authority of a father”, or “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror” (Enquiry, 1757). In his legendarium, Tolkien offers descriptions of Galadriel that invite an understanding of her character via more fluid concepts of gender, as discussed by theorists such as Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam, in which her performance of a masculine femininity is revealed. A close reading of this character underscores the complexity of Tolkien’s gender aesthetics, with beauty and the sublime appearing to blend in this figure who invites both awe of her power, and wonder at her beauty


Bethany Cole – “The Footsteps of Nature”: How Shelley’s Philosophy of Poetic Language is Revived in Middle-earth

It is well known that J.R.R. Tolkien’s philology was influenced by Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction. However, the ideas in Barfield can be traced further back to the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, particularly his essay titled “A Defense of Poetry.” In this paper, I wish to explore how Berkeleian echoes in Shelley’s philosophy of language reemerge in Tolkien’s mythology, particularly in regard to the function of both music and poetry in the “Ainulindalë” and in the character of Tom Bombadil. In doing so, my intent is to show that Tolkien continues the Romantic response to the Enlightenment, but in a different “key;” ultimately, he responded to the modernist period by returning to poetry and myth as more “true” vehicles for knowledge than those espoused by a materialist secular age.


Lea Grosen Jørgensen – A Scandinavian Legend in Old English Letters: Tracing the Echo of the Romantic Poet in Tolkien’s ‘Beowulf’

Both scholars and fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s authorship generally agree that the medieval poem ‘Beowulf’ was essential for his studies in Old English literature and his creation of Middle-earth. Today, his famous essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936) is considered a milestone within ‘Beowulf’ studies. Yet not many scholars have examined whether Tolkien’s ‘Beowulf’ criticism carries over any of the Romanticism that fueled the initial reception of the poem at the turn of the 19th century. This paper will explore this aspect of Tolkien by first presenting the key differences and similarities between his ‘Beowulf’ studies and those from the first full translations of the poem by G.J. Thorkelin (1815), N.F.S. Grundtvig (1820), and J.M. Kemble (1837). To enhance its focus, the paper will trace Tolkien’s possible Romanticism through a Danish lens as many of the first studies of ‘Beowulf’ were initiated by Danish antiquarians due to the poem’s Scandinavian subject matter. One of the biggest pioneers was the pastor, historian, and poet Grundtvig. His ‘Beowulf’ studies will be thoroughly compared to Tolkien’s in the paper’s analysis, as both authors partly respected and partly rejected certain aspects of Romanticism. Building on studies from Kemp Malone (1941), Andreas Haarder (1965, 1998), Tom Shippey (1998), S.A.J. Bradley (2004), and M.B. Busbee (2010), among others, the paper will argue that: 1) Grundtvig and Tolkien share an empathic self-identification with the unknown ‘Beowulf’-poet and; 2) that their identifications can be read as individual responses to the concept of the original and spontaneous genius within Romantic aestheticism. With this comparative perspective, the paper aims to discuss Tolkien’s ‘Beowulf’ scholarship in a Romantic, Anglo-Danish context.


Kristine Larsen – “Enslav’d, the Daughters of Albion weep”: Rape, Enslavement, and Objectification of Tolkien’s Aredhel and Blake’s Oothoon

One of Tolkien’s most problematic tales is Eöl’s “taking to wife” of Aredhel. Scholars, some raising charges of widespread misogyny in Tolkien’s subcreation, debate whether this episode constitutes rape (acknowledging Aredhel’s description as “not unwilling”). The analysis is complicated by Aredhel’s seemingly impulsive decision to leave the safety of her brother’s stronghold of Gondolin to travel alone seeking her male friends, the sons of Fëanor. Brendan Anderson argues that this is a classic tale of the “over-curious maiden” who strays from home into a strange land (a metaphor for sexual awakening, as Lynn Whitaker reflects). The result, as Melanie Rawls notes, is that Aredhel is ultimately “powerless to achieve any of her desires or to protect those she loves.” What Clare Moore describes as Aredhel’s enslavement at the hand of Eöl is just one further parallel aligning Aredhel with one of the most complex characters in William Blake’s poetry, Oothoon (Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 1793). Like Aredhel, Oothoon’s failed attempt to rise above the role of victim – to regain her initial agency as a willful maiden and throw off the chains of objectification – is complicated by her manipulation and continued abuse by the two men in her life: a metaphorical slaveowner (Bromion/Eöl) and a victimized and victimizing beloved who is caught in his own destructive cycle of manipulation and abuse (Theotormon/Maeglin). Aredhel and Oothoon pay for their atypical initial agency by what Małgorzata Łuczyńska-Hołdys terms “the regulatory practices of correction and coercion” at the hands of the patriarchy. A close parallel reading of the misfortunes of Aredhel and Oothoon underscores the complex usage of rape in these works (including what Lucy Cogan notes is the “far-reaching consequences both for the victim and for those around her”) and highlights these works’ objectifying depictions of female sexuality (including motherhood).


Katie Lund – “Not a novel, but an heroic romance”: Novel Anxieties and the Legacy of Gothic and Romantic Fiction in The Lord of the Rings

In a letter draft of 1971, Tolkien declares that he has “very little interest in serial literary history and no interest at all in the history or present situation of the English ‘novel.’ My work is not a ‘novel,’ but an ‘heroic romance’ a much older and quite different variety of literature” (Letters 1482-3). Despite this assertion, his insistence upon referring to The Lord of the Rings as a “romance” betrays his link to the “serial literary history” of the novel. Like Tolkien, writers of Romantic-era gothic novels frequently referred to their works as “romances” to “declare themselves anachronisms (throwbacks) in both literary history and the history of belief” (Lynch 63). In addition to this conscious experimentation with form, history, and genre, Romantic novelists were maneuvering around the literary, cultural, and even gendered baggage attached to the novel, as theorized by scholars such as Paula Backscheider (2009). My paper will consider how the generic anxieties and artistic goals of gothic novelists such as Ann Radcliffe can shed light on Tolkien’s own complex relationship with genre. Central to both Tolkien and the gothic writers’ usage of the term “romance” is an explicit temporal dislocation from the era in which they were writing. My paper will therefore also examine the echoes of the Romantic “historical novel” – a form linked to both gothic revivalism as well as the works of Sir Walter Scott – in The Lord of the Rings, focusing on the depiction of the Shire and the Hobbits. Tolkien’s creation of the in-universe text The Red Book of Westmarch as a narrative framing device has been connected to the “found manuscript” conceit popular in eighteenth-century epistolary fiction (Thompson 1988). However, its relationship to the Romantic-era historical novel – including the gothic – has been neglected. I will consider these resonances alongside the wistful reference to the world of Jane Austen in Tolkien’s published correspondence in my reading of The Lord of the Rings as a kind of double historical novel – in which Tolkien re-envisions England’s past while the Hobbits recount theirs. Ultimately, my paper seeks to determine how the historical turn of Romantic and gothic prose fiction may be brought to bear on Tolkien’s imaginative repositioning of the novel and the pervasive sense of nostalgia, threaded throughout his Middle-earth Legendarium, for his own mythical history.


Mariana Rios Maldonado & Andoni Cossio – Re-enchantment in the Romantic Imagination of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and J.R.R. Tolkien

Studies on the presence of Romantic elements in J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary production have steadily risen to prominence, especially since the publication of Julian Eilmann’s landmark monograph J.R.R. Tolkien: Romanticist and Poet (2017) and, more recently, the edited collection The Romantic Spirit in the Works of J.R.R Tolkien (2024). Our paper seeks to contribute to this scholarly upsurge by presenting a comparative analysis of Tolkien’s works and those penned by one of the most prominent authors of Spanish Romanticism, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870). Akin to the Kunstmärchen of German Romanticism and Tolkien’s Fairy-stories, Bécquer’s Leyendas—e. g. “El Monte de las Ánimas” (1861), “Los ojos verdes” (1861), “El rayo de luna” (1862), and “El Miserere” (1862)—retell or (re)invent Spanish legends via an authorial figure who acts as a mediator between the past (historical or feigned) and the present. Like Tolkien’s, Bécquer’s prose works reference an idea of the past in order to romanticize the world within the text—through which Bécquer recreates a fantastic vision of Spain. This romanticization is conjured in Bécquer’s storytelling through the depiction of a perilous realm inhabited by ghosts of medieval knights, spectral monks, spirits of good and evil, the author, and ourselves as readers; it is our world, with its beliefs and landscapes, re-enchanted. Whilst the notion of re-enchantment has been readily addressed in Tolkien scholarship, our paper will deploy Eilmann’s reframing of re-enchantment via Tolkien’s concept of “recovery” as a Romantic venture. This helps us explore the points of convergence and uniqueness between Bécquer’s writing and specific episodes of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the wider legendarium. We therefore seek to establish a connection that transcends barriers in time, language, and space by interpreting these authors’ oeuvres as the expression of a shared Romantic practice where reality and Faërie coalesce.


Annise Rogers – Word and Image: Tolkien, Blake, and the Idea of the Romantic manuscript

Defining Tolkien in the context of European Romanticism can be a complicated task. Eilmann states that ‘Tolkien’s work does not exhibit all characteristics typical for Romanticism [but] this is not a criterion for exclusion’ (2017, p.48). Nonetheless, while this is due in part to the difficulties of defining Romanticism more generally, not least for Blake himself, I suggest that in examining how each artist engages with the manuscript (the mix of image and text in a single piece of art), we can see that Tolkien was using Romantic techniques about borrowing from the past to engage with the present/future.

By comparing Tolkien with Blake, we might be able to see the development of Tolkien’s Romantic medievalism by engaging with how each artist explores the correlation between word and image. Neither rely entirely upon one form of art, but instead they have their own response to the ideas of manuscripts; developing a personal relationship between their textual and visual art to create a fully immersive experience for their audiences. MacLeod and Smol state that Tolkien ‘prefers a balance of image and word’ (2017, p.136) although they also suggest that ‘he understood very well the power of visual art to dominate the canvas of the mind’s eye’ (2017, p.136), so Tolkien predominantly focuses on the importance of the textual over the visual. By contrast, Blake’s engagement with manuscripts is much more associated with the visual, but it is this combination that is important.

If we simply connect Tolkien’s work with the medieval, we may forget to consider how his own medieval ideas will have been filtered through the Romantic Gothic and Antiquarianism, and in so doing we risk imposing a static view on all his art: a highly un-Romantic objective.


Will Sherwood – “We’re in the same tale still!” Mapping British Romantic Transformations in Tolkien

Studies on British Romanticism’s legacies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Harris 2010, Sandy 2013, Ahmed 2019) have examined dialectical tensions between Romanticism, contemporary authors, and media but excluded J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973). Consequentially, scholarship has overlooked Tolkien’s legacies through adaptations of Middle-earth and his lasting influence on Anglophone Fantasy literature. These are despite evidence that Fantasy authors have engaged deeply with Romantic stylistics, aesthetics, and ideals (Sherwood 2020, Groom 2022, Sangster 2023). However, these points of contention raise the question how Tolkien’s encounters with Romantic texts and evolving Romanticist scholarship at the turn of the twentieth century informed his repurposing of Romantic aesthetics, stylistics, and ideals within his Middle-earth corpus.

This paper will explore Tolkien’s negotiations with British Romanticism by tracing three threads of Romanticism’s legacies through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By considering Romantic remediations by the second-generation Pre-Raphaelites, Oxford Movement, and Christians like George MacDonald, a rich and diverse tapestry of Victorian (re)constructed Romanticism begins to emanate from which Tolkien picked which colours and shades to reject, remould, and reframe in ‘The Book of Lost Tales’, the earliest iteration of his Middle-earth mythology (1910s-1930s).

Focusing on Tolkien’s first Middle-earth-centred creative project fruitfully illustrates the cross-fertilisations between his exposure to Romantic texts and scholarship during his undergraduate years (1911-1915) and his contemporaneous creative outpourings. I have previously unearthed primary evidence that Tolkien was educated on the Romantic projects of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in 1913, arguing that he continued to harness and adapt their methods for transmitting history and culture between the 1910s and the 1960s (2020). Building on this and previous scholarship on Romanticism’s legacies, this paper showcases Romanticism’s appeal to twentieth-century worldbuilders and Tolkien’s indebtedness to British Romanticism during the construction of Middle-earth, situating his mythology as a product of twentieth-century Romanticism.


Robert Tally – “Fiery the Angels rose”: The Romantic Prometheanism of Tolkien’s Enemies

Milton’s Satan in the seventeenth century was hardly viewed as heroic, yet in his resistance to supreme authority and bold transvaluation of values (“Evil, be thou my Good”) he emerges as a sort of tragic hero for many Romantics such as William Blake or later Herman Melville. Like Prometheus, whom Percy Bysshe Shelley freed from his classical bonds, Satan is a figure of noble rebellion against omnipotent force. Tolkien’s more “satanic” characters, such as Melkor, Sauron, and perhaps even Saruman, do not often strike readers as heroes, yet there is a sort of Prometheanism in each of them. Viewed from this more Romantic perspective—by reading them against the grain of the texts—the tragic heroism of Melkor and especially Sauron comes through in their efforts to reshape and to heal the world for “the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth,” as Tolkien put it in a letter. This is, of course, not to say that they become “good,” but rather, like the reevaluation of Milton’s Satan, they become more complex figures whose eventual “fall” can be seen as all the more tragic. In this presentation, I will discuss the Romantic Prometheanism of Tolkien’s key “Enemy” figures, and examine how this reading might affect our understanding of Middle-earth and of the legendarium more broadly.