Holly Ordway’s Tolkien’s Modern Readings: Middle-Earth Beyond the Middle Ages is a wonderful new entry in Tolkien studies. Going somewhat against the grain, Ordway spends the pages not only arguing, but providing meticulous proof that the long passed author and academic was well read and clearly influenced by the work of his day.
It is a fascinating volume at times, veering from works still known to current readers all the way to quiet, esoteric works that have largely passed into oblivion. The book focuses on works likely to have influenced the creation of middle earth related works (specifically The Hobbit, Lord of The Rings, and the Silmarillion) and proving Tolkien read them.
The book opens with a reference to Tolkien’s mother showing him the house of a local, and currently famous, author. We get reactions and considerations on this before the book moves to the meat of the issue. A robust set of examples wherein critics, historians, other authors, and the press have depicted J.R.R. Tolkien as so thoroughly a medievalist that he rejected modern works altogether. Ordway then proceeds to carefully deconstruct this assumption, even using careful citations to note past scholars who had observed this flaw in scholarship. She eviscerates Humphrey Carpenter for his juvenile treatment of Tolkien and a biography she points out was insufficient at best. Indeed one of the first real things some readers will learn from this text is just how much damage his work has done to Tolkien studies.
Some chapters discuss specific authors, others entire genres. Time is given, repeatedly, to Gene Wolfe and his correspondence with Tolkien. This is an interesting choice as it represents one of those comparatively rare examples of one celebrated fantasy author given a chance to have a detailed discussion with another, and as a result discovering exactly what he might be more willing to reveal to a fellow craftsman. Tolkien’s contradictory statements on influence are discussed, as are his somewhat disparate statements made about single authors. Indeed a whole chapter is given to George MacDonald, whom Tolkien clearly loathed depending upon the work.
Ordway is even good enough to illustrate the greatest flaw in her work, that of limited sourcing. She was given access to no unreleased letters or papers from the Tolkien family, making it clear that there is still much material missing. The fact she managed to produce so many comfortable readings and potential influences from the current day is truly astounding, particularly since so many publically available letters were butchered into shredded material by Carpenter.
In addition to an expected index, there is a wonderful section charting the various works Tolkien read, citing the evidence for this and going alphabetically by author, although the decision to list Arthur Conan Doyle under C will bother a few. To fellow researchers this section would be worth more than the entire cost of the book, giving easy reference to prove potential influence.
Overall, this is a very well written, extremely well researched book. The Tolkien scholar should definitely pick it up, and even the idly curious might find pieces of interest. It also reminds readers to avoid Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien like the plague, and to be at best extremely suspicious of any related volume by Carpenter.
(Word on Fire Press 2021)