Fw: Shot From the Canon
- From the current Chronicle of Higher Education.
Dr. Theodore J. Sherman, Editor
Mythlore: A Journal of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and
Associate Professor of English
Box X041, Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, TN 37132
615 898-5836 Office
615 898-5098 FAX
> From the issue dated September 7, 2001
> Shot From the Canon
> J.R.R. Tolkien may be the "author of the century," according
> to a poll done by Waterstone's bookstores, but you won't find
> him in the literary canon. Despite their legion of enthusiasts
> worldwide, Tolkien's novels have been dismissed by critics as
> juvenile, moralistic, and escapist (not to mention, badly
> written). With fans eagerly awaiting the movie The Fellowship
> of the Ring in December, we asked several experts to analyze
> why the Oxford philologist gets no academic respect.
> Tom A. Shippey, professor of English at Saint Louis University
> and author of J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Houghton
> Mifflin, 2001):
> For the last 60 years at least, British departments of English
> language and literature have been engaged in internal warfare
> between the language and the literature sides. The literature
> side definitely won and has suppressed the philological
> tradition of teaching English. In that sense, the popularity
> of books like The Lord of the Rings, which were so
> traditionally based on philology and Old English, didn't seem
> to be fair somehow. It was an appeal to the popular vote over
> the heads of the electoral college, and the electoral college
> very much didn't like it.
> It's always been perfectly okay for British professors to do
> well by writing detective stories. For some reason detective
> stories are not felt to be threatening. In fact, in a way,
> they continue to operate within the norms of British culture
> and the class system, and they also tend to reassert
> rationality. Tolkien is threatening largely because he
> addresses issues of social upheaval and wartime, which say
> that you can't go back to where you were, that things are
> going to change, that things are going to disappear.
> Another way of looking at Tolkien is to say that in some
> respects, he's seen as a threat to modernism and is felt to be
> an antiquarian. But in other ways, actually, he seems to
> fulfill many of the tenets of modernism, whereas many of the
> proponents of modernism were operating on what we would call
> radical chic. They say they're radical, they make radical
> noises, but underneath -- not very far underneath -- there's a
> kind of reluctance to move very far. I would say that Tolkien
> was a surface conservative and a buried radical, and that many
> of his critics were surface radicals and buried conservatives.
> That kind of surface conservatism obviously upsets many people
> who see it as a kind of bourgeois reaction. But class feelings
> are much more complicated than that. The hostile reaction to
> The Lord of the Rings has often been the haute bourgeoisie
> saying very angrily that we and we alone are the only people
> who will decide what is literature and what is not. And we
> will not have lower-middle-class people like Tolkien -- and
> you couldn't get much lower middle class than Tolkien, he was
> very nearly underclass -- telling us what to think.
> Jane Chance, professor of English at Rice University and
> author of The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power and
> Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England (University Press of
> Kentucky, 2001):
> Tolkien is the Walt Whitman of his generation -- he speaks to
> and for the common man. Academics don't like Tolkien because
> they haven't read him, and the conservative ones suspect
> fantasy and anything popular. Critics in England don't like
> him because he was never part of the literary establishment
> and never tried to be. And an academic who is successful
> threatens all those critics and academics who secretly believe
> if you can't write, you teach. Critics, because if an academic
> like Tolkien can write and teach, then have the critics made a
> mistake? Academics, because if an academic is writing for
> children and young adults and making money, there must be
> something wrong with his values and his scholarship
> (academics, remember, belong to an institution that hearkens
> back to the medieval monastic schools and monasteries where
> monks took vows of poverty).
> The academic/critical reaction against Tolkien is in part a
> backlash against a male writer's lack of (Victorian)
> manliness. Tolkien privileged children over adults, little
> people over big, important ones, imagination over rationality,
> writing fantasy over writing scholarly books. How other! How
> feminine of him! He's writing against the grain of academic
> virility, so to speak -- he's writing like a woman.
> Obviously, the British academics don't value contemporary
> fantasy as much as do American academics. Differences in
> cultural values relating to class and national history make
> Tolkien very special here, less so in Great Britain. Great
> Britain is a great ossified feudal system that continues
> today, in which the striations of class still limit mobility
> and advancement. America is the country of Puritan and Quaker
> protesters and criminals, where large mixes of diverse
> cultures have succeeded, for the most part, at sorting out
> differences. The Lord of the Rings critiques the hegemonies of
> class and power: The major hero is the little hobbit, totally
> ordinary in his pedestrian and petty appetites -- not the
> powerful wizard who knows everything.
> Verlyn Flieger, professor of English at the University of
> Maryland at College Park and author of A Question of Time:
> J.R.R. Tolkien's Road to Faerie (Kent State University Press,
> The Lord of the Rings is a literary phenomenon whose
> popularity has persisted for nearly half a century, which has
> been officially translated into more than 20 languages and
> bootlegged into several others. Nevertheless, Tolkien's epic
> romance occupies at best a marginal place in the modern
> literary canon. Several circumstances account for this.
> First, the opinion persists among his peers that he wasted his
> time on fiction when he should have been producing
> scholarship. (He did. His essay on Beowulf and the monsters,
> and his article on Chaucer as a philologist, are scholarly
> landmarks.) Second, there is a sense in the academy and the
> larger world that a thing enjoyed by the masses cannot be
> worth study.
> Third, the tendency of some readers to superimpose
> Middle-Earth on the actual world is seen as a retrograde and
> childish phenomenon. People who name themselves or their
> children after favorite characters, wear cloaks and tunics,
> and enact scenes from the story in local parks and playgrounds
> and scrawl "Frodo lives" on walls and sidewalks -- all this
> leads to a confusion of the enthusiasts with the book. The
> erroneous sense has grown that if not actually a pernicious
> influence, it must be at least whimsical and overimaginative,
> not to be taken seriously by serious readers.
> Whether the film succeeds or fails, the book will live.
> Tolkien is coming more and more to be seen as one who spoke to
> and for his troubled time. The Lord of the Rings is a mirror.
> A Middle-Earth threatened with annihilation, a Shire corrupted
> by industry, a little man carrying the instrument of his
> world's and his own destruction saved by his nemesis, Gollum,
> at the Cracks of Doom -- these images reflect the 20th
> century, its terrible wars and hopeful attempts to salvage
> There has been already a slight but perceptible shift in
> academic attitudes toward Tolkien and his work. A full day of
> panels and papers at a recent major academic conference, four
> projected discussion sessions at next year's conference, three
> scholarly books on Tolkien's work published last year -- these
> are signs of the times, overdue and to be welcomed.
> Brian John Rosebury, principal lecturer in English literature
> at the University of Central Lancashire and author of Tolkien:
> A Critical Assessment (St. Martin's Press, 1992):
> There are several reasons for Tolkien's unpopularity, which
> incidentally I think is gradually lessening. The first,
> realism: the strength, especially in the '50s and '60s, of the
> view that literature should directly or indirectly represent
> "contemporary social and political realities." Tolkien's work,
> especially The Lord of the Rings, did not appear to do this at
> all, unless read as just the kind of crass allegory on
> contemporary events that it isn't.
> Recently it has become clearer that Tolkien's work has a
> complex relation to 20th-century experience. His
> near-anarchist distrust of political power and his "green"
> attitudes of hostility to industrialism and pollution also now
> look much less idiosyncratic than was the case from 1950 to
> 1970. I think it will also become clearer that Tolkien's
> criticism of "the machine" puts him in a long tradition to
> which late-19th-century writers such as Ruskin and perhaps
> even Tolstoy belong.
> Modernism: The other main strand in 20th-century literary
> criticism until recently was the influence of modernism and
> its norms. I argue in my book that Tolkien has many
> "modernist" qualities -- not least his use of myth and his
> willingness to redeploy and transform premodern literary
> symbols and devices -- but he entirely lacks the modernist
> irony about value and narrative. As modernism recedes further
> into history, Tolkien's nonconformity will look more like a
> welcome variation and less like a culpable failure to do the
> bidding of the Zeitgeist.
> Ideological hostility: Tolkien's actual religious, social, and
> political views are much more subtle than are sometimes
> supposed, but as a Roman Catholic with a skeptical view of
> "progress" and the modern world, and a deep aversion to
> secular ideologies including communism and feminism, he did
> not qualify as "one of us" in the eyes of most
> late-20th-century academics.
> The fans: Though Tolkien's admirers included W.H. Auden and
> Iris Murdoch, it was, and is, easy to find naive enthusiasts
> and be irritated by them. The very range and intensity of
> Tolkien's appeal to readers means that a high proportion of
> them will not, at least at first, be equipped to give a
> "sophisticated" explanation of the grounds of their pleasure.
> And the fact that his work cuts across the norms of literary
> and cultural criticism makes this more difficult -- there is
> not a standard discourse to invoke. The forthcoming movie is
> likely to renew this effect, unfortunately.
- --- In mythsoc@y..., "Ted Sherman" <tedsherman@h...> wrote:
> From the current Chronicle of Higher Education.I know many academics. A lot of them are aware of Tolkien and love
him. I don't know of any who fall into the category of anti-
Tolkienists that these familiar (and well-respected) names refer to
in the generic sense.
For once, I'd like to see a roundup article of the other side. We
have people like Chris Mooney running around pretending Tolkien is
worth beating up on, but why can't the media find the academics who
turn their noses up at Tolkien?
Can anyone suggest a recent article from the last 4-5 years where
several of the anti-Tolkienists are cited?
Preferably one online, but I need to find out where Houston hides its
- One thing that I would like to see addressed is this charge:
> (not to mention, badly written)Granted, I don't read much literary criticism, let alone Tolkien
criticism, but I would like to see this charge expanded and refuted. Any
tips on where to look?
- In a message dated 9/7/01 3:24:21 PM Central Daylight Time,
>Shippey, JRR TOLKIEN: WRITER OF THE CENTURY addresses the charge that LOTR is
> Granted, I don't read much literary criticism, let alone Tolkien
> criticism, but I would like to see this charge expanded and refuted. Any
> tips on where to look?
An excellent book overall (winner of the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, this year,
for Inklings Scholarship).
- I was checking out a database today and found a dissertation that
might answer this question -- it's an overview of Tolkien criticism
by Dan Timmons, who was at Mythcon and interviewed several of us for
his forthcoming documentary:
Title: MIRROR ON MIDDLE-EARTH: J. R. R. TOLKIEN AND THE CRITICAL
PERSPECTIVES (TOLKIEN, J. R. R. )
Author(s): TIMMONS, DANIEL PATRICK
Institution: UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO (CANADA); 0779
Advisor: Adviser: JOANNA DUTKA
Source: DAI, 60, no. 01A, (1998): 0143
Standard No: ISBN: 0-612-35342-7
Abstract: This dissertation evaluates the commentary on J. R. R.
Tolkien, which includes the author's self-criticism. Commonly-held
views of Tolkien reception, such as that there is a large body
of "hostile" criticism or that relatively few "serious" studies
exist, are misinformed. Rather than being concerned about the
presence of negative or adulatory views of Tolkien, scholars should
acknowledge the potential problems in adopting Tolkien's comments on
his own works, especially since many of these remarks are slippery or
possibly disingenuous. Still, as the varied and numerous critical
perspectives on Tolkien indicate, for sixty years scholars have
recognized the literary depths and merits of the author's writings.
The first part of the dissertation examines the elusive literary
concept "fantasy" and the premises of "Tolkienian fantasy;" this
analysis sets the context for the discussion of the scholarship on
Middle-earth. Next, the study evaluates the first major period in
Tolkien criticism, which starts with reviews of The Hobbit in 1937
and ends at the publication of the second edition of The Lord of the
Rings in 1965. In the years following the publication of the Middle-
earth tales, Tolkien provided commentaries on the creative
inspirations behind them. The dissertation assesses the initial block
of Tolkien's self-criticism, such as his article "Tolkien on Tolkien."
The next major period of commentary comprises studies published
between 1966 and 1976 (the year before the initial publication of The
Silmarillion ). The dissertation then examines another significant
block of Tolkien's self-criticism, which includes the collection of
his letters. The last chapter provides an assessment of the current
state of the extensive and diverse commentary on Tolkien.
Therefore, the customary labels for Tolkien criticism, such
as "hostile" vs. "laudatory" or "popular" vs. "serious," are more
misleading than representative. While there may be starkly differing
views of Tolkien and uncertainty as to whether he is considered
a "canonical" author, his writings remain among the most widely read
and consistently admired works of literature of the twentieth century.
--- In mythsoc@y..., "Michael Martinez" <michael@x> wrote:
> --- In mythsoc@y..., "Ted Sherman" <tedsherman@h...> wrote:
> > From the current Chronicle of Higher Education.
> I know many academics. A lot of them are aware of Tolkien and love
> him. I don't know of any who fall into the category of anti-
> Tolkienists that these familiar (and well-respected) names refer to
> in the generic sense.
> For once, I'd like to see a roundup article of the other side. We
> have people like Chris Mooney running around pretending Tolkien is
> worth beating up on, but why can't the media find the academics who
> turn their noses up at Tolkien?
> Can anyone suggest a recent article from the last 4-5 years where
> several of the anti-Tolkienists are cited?
> Preferably one online, but I need to find out where Houston hides
> libraries anyway.
- --- In mythsoc@y..., "Janet Croft" <jbcroft@o...> wrote:
> I was checking out a database today and found a dissertation thatfor
> might answer this question -- it's an overview of Tolkien criticism
> by Dan Timmons, who was at Mythcon and interviewed several of us
> his forthcoming documentary:Very interesting. I suppose that will ignite some hearths. :)