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Old 09-18-2022, 04:44 PM   #1
Bęthberry
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Tolkien Twentieth Century Tolkien

This thread is brought to you courtesy of the following two comments from Boro and Lal

Quote:
Originally Posted by Boromir88
Please correct me if this is wrong, because I did not study literary criticism, and don't know the lingo. One point you seem to be making is Tolkien was a product of his time. I don't mean that as a negative, but he was still a 20th century author. Yes, he was inspired by historical literary works, classics and mythologies. But to me, he was also clearly a 20th century writer, and also incorporated modern ideas of his time.

Quote:
An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambigious.~Foreward to Lord of the Rings end quote.

Tolkien definitely deals with modern topics such as industrialism, the destruction of nature, colonialism, the horrors of war (Frodo's post traumatic stress). Again this isn't a criticism, but it's the product of being a 20th century author. You can't remain wholly unaffected by the period you're writing in. It's not surprising to me that Rings of Power is distinctly a product of 21st century writers. I agree that it is more than baggage.
And

Quote:
Originally Posted by Lalwendë
Anyway, I'm now waiting for Bethberry to elaborate on that comment about Tolkien being a 20th century writer and make a thread. It's been a bugbear of mine for, oh, decades now that some people see him as a pastiche medieval writer when he really is not. His work is thoroughly modern, the product of a man who saw some of the worst of the 20th century, and filled with that same sense of loss that his contemporaries also filled their writing, music, art, and architecture with.
I think it will be interesting to see where these two comments lead us. Have at it!
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Old 09-19-2022, 06:28 PM   #2
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18th, 19th and 20th century anachronisms are rife in the Shire. I'm not sure how anyone can consider the Hobbits "medieval," save perhaps for their weaponry. I am far too lazy currently to research, but the impression I get of the Hobbits is that of pre-WWI rural English farmers, more apt to doff the cap or tug the forelock to a local squire (like the Tooks or Brandbucks) than to know the first thing about distant kings, or to care about outlandish doings further than a few miles from where they were born.

WWI creeps in with Samwise being the loyal batsman to Frodo, or the Dead Marshes, of course; but really all the anachronisms I can recall: tea-time, pocket-handkerchiefs, "drawing-room sofas", golf, weskits (and waistcoat buttons), clarinets, clocks, mention of an "express train", the Satanic Mills of Sharkey, pipes and tobacco, the public post (home service and not the more military and administrative system of the Romans, or of business with the merchants and bankers of the Renaissance), etc., can all be traced to 18th or 19th century England. Maybe the 17th century with mentions of telescopes in the hands of regular folk.

Tolkien was a 20th century writer with a 19th century set of morals and proprieties -- he even despised the internal combustion engine.
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Old 09-19-2022, 09:14 PM   #3
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Thanks for creating this thread, Bethberry. I only have time for a short comment, or question really, and hopefully can post more at a later date.

I haven't read John Garth's "Tolkien and the Great War," but from all accounts of what I remember hearing others say, it's a must read for those interested in Tolkien studies.

As a casual book reader, the works of Tolkien scholars were never a primary interest for me, but Garth's book has 2 of my interests. So, for anyone who has read it. Would you suggest it for someone interested in history and Tolkien? On the subject of Garth, has anyone read (and recommend) his newer book "The Worlds of JRR Tolkien?"

Thanks.
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Old 09-20-2022, 02:06 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Boromir88 View Post
Thanks for creating this thread, Bethberry. I only have time for a short comment, or question really, and hopefully can post more at a later date.

I haven't read John Garth's "Tolkien and the Great War," but from all accounts of what I remember hearing others say, it's a must read for those interested in Tolkien studies.

As a casual book reader, the works of Tolkien scholars were never a primary interest for me, but Garth's book has 2 of my interests. So, for anyone who has read it. Would you suggest it for someone interested in history and Tolkien? On the subject of Garth, has anyone read (and recommend) his newer book "The Worlds of JRR Tolkien?"

Thanks.
Garth's Tolkien and the Great War is very much worthy of a read, Boro. It is both history and biography and adds substantially to Humphrey Carpenter's biography. It is less a history of WWI and much more a biography of what happened to Tolkien in the War and how that experience influenced his writing. Also of real interest, I think, is Garth's exploration of the profound friendships Tolkien made at King Edward's School with the TCBS, the Tea Club, Barrovian Society. Two of those close friends died fighting in WWI and that grief stayed with Tolkien all his life for they were all involved in plans to write a literature that would profoundly influence (they hoped) modern readers. The aspirations and aims of the schoolboys is of great interest to Tolkien readers. I also think that reading about the kind of schooling Tolkien had is rewarding--an old style pedagogy that many readers nowadays would not be familiar with. I know you trained in education so you might already be aware of how Tolkien's education differs from that common today in North America.

I haven't read Garth's other book about places and geographies that might have influenced Tolkien. My guess is that Garth wrote it to counter the unfortunate contemporary trend to appropriate Middle-earth for the tourist industry--there are so many places in the UK that attempt to put themselves on the Tolkien map, whether there really is adequate evidence or not. Garth does not simplistically equate specific places with definite sites in Middle-earth but rather shows how Tolkien wove various aspects of the real world into his created world, including botany, geography. Apparently it is a beautiful book with marvellous illustrations, maps, etc.

Garth was trained in journalism and worked for many years as a journalist before becoming a writer, so his style is very readable. He has a profound respect for Tolkien's writing and is very approachable. I was able to acquire his booklet on Tolkien's experiences as a student at Exeter College by writing to him and one other time I contacted him via FB he willingly and gladly shared his expertise.
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Old 09-20-2022, 02:43 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Morthoron View Post
18th, 19th and 20th century anachronisms are rife in the Shire. I'm not sure how anyone can consider the Hobbits "medieval," save perhaps for their weaponry. I am far too lazy currently to research, but the impression I get of the Hobbits is that of pre-WWI rural English farmers, more apt to doff the cap or tug the forelock to a local squire (like the Tooks or Brandbucks) than to know the first thing about distant kings, or to care about outlandish doings further than a few miles from where they were born.

WWI creeps in with Samwise being the loyal batsman to Frodo, or the Dead Marshes, of course; but really all the anachronisms I can recall: tea-time, pocket-handkerchiefs, "drawing-room sofas", golf, weskits (and waistcoat buttons), clarinets, clocks, mention of an "express train", the Satanic Mills of Sharkey, pipes and tobacco, the public post (home service and not the more military and administrative system of the Romans, or of business with the merchants and bankers of the Renaissance), etc., can all be traced to 18th or 19th century England. Maybe the 17th century with mentions of telescopes in the hands of regular folk.

Tolkien was a 20th century writer with a 19th century set of morals and proprieties -- he even despised the internal combustion engine.
I wasn't thinking of the anachronisms, Morthoron, when I posted this thread, so thanks for bringing them up. What could be their purpose?

The Shire definitely is a parochial pastoral fabular world with not much interest in "progress" or science. Sharkey brings in the destruction of industrialism and authoritarianism which must be removed in the Scouring of the Shire.

So why is the Shire so full of the anachronisms you mention? Was Tolkien harkening back to an imagined past but wanted to signal its relationship to his readers in the mid-twentieth century? Was it a nostalgia he wanted to invite his readers into through items he knew they would recognise? Did he expect his readers to identify them as anachronisms or was he simply creating a vision of a community with things that he enjoyed like waistcoats and pipe smoking? I don't think it is clear in that first chapter that this is a "third age" community for readers of a "seventh age".
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Old 09-20-2022, 06:04 PM   #6
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I will second the Garth recommendations (with my own evaluation that Tolkien and the Great War is the masterpiece of the two).

The anachronisms are an interesting case, because they're quite important for any analysis of what Tolkien is doing or desiring--there is SO much grist for the "literature is biography" mill in Sarehole and the Edwardian Age, etc--while also being largely the result of happenstance: i.e. Tolkien invents a new fantasy creature, the Hobbit, which really has a limited amount of lore in their self-titled novel: just enough to establish that, basically, they're Tolkien's default ideal of comfortable homebodies (i.e. his childhood personified). It's much more deliberate in The Lord of the Rings, of course--and much expanded--but it does stem from what feels like a much more happenstance decision in The Hobbit.

Although I generally agree with Tolkien's own, prickly, opinion that The Lord of the Rings really isn't about World War II in any obvious, content-based way (that I take his rejection of allegory quite seriously, because I think it doesn't work), there is still a reason that readers and critics were so quick to point to it, namely that the LotR is a work that could really only have been written in the 20th Century: Garth is very good on the ways that the LotR is very much part of the "WWI Poets" genre: a response to the horrors of that first war from someone who lived through it and digested it, and WWII does have its hand on the scales thematically: it's a book about the recurrence and inevitability of combating evil--an obvious theme to work into a book by a WWI vet during the second great war of his lifetime.

And that's without mentioning his environmentalism. Honestly, I sometimes think this is the TINIEST bit over-emphasised in discussions of Tolkien when he's mentioned in, say, media analysis, but it certainly is a major theme of the LotR: the destruction of Isengard's greenery, the would-be destruction of Fangorn, the desolation of Mordor, and the creeping desolation around it. This concern with the effects on the natural world by the works of Man (or Ork) is not exclusive to the 20th century, but it's certainly of a piece with it.
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Old 09-21-2022, 03:28 AM   #7
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I think this is a very interesting thread and a good reminder in general about the nature of Tolkien's work - or Tolkien himself, as it were.

Even though the mention of anachronisms may not have been the primary intention of the thread, I'd like to pick up on what Morth said because it is an important.

To me one major issue - aside from all those already mentioned by others - one VERY important issue - is that having the starting point as familiar allows the entire trick of self-identifying the reader with the point A (the Shire) as the familiar home we all know (and it works - or at least it worked for me still even in late 20th century; I imagine the Shire as a basic rural - in my case Czech - countryside) and the point B, basically everything beyond the borders, the "wide world", with the unknown, unfamiliar, or to use Tolkien's own vocabulary, the land of Faerie.

It is of course the classic story trope - "a hero leaves their home" - moving out from the familiar into the unknown (and coming back to the known, changed by the experience outside). In this case it is capitalised by the fact that not only there are no Dragons in the Shire, but also that in the Shire you have the pipe-smoking jacket-wearing common folk you are familiar with from your surroundings.

Think about the Hobbit now outside everything you know about the geography of Middle-Earth. It could very well be on a different planet, or in the way of, say, Harry Potter, you step through a gate on platform 9ľ and you're outside the Shire in a world that suddenly has trolls, goblins and dragons.

I do not know to which point was this intentional, but I am fairly certain that it was at least subconsciously intentional (if you can say that) from Tolkien, but having the hero start in a world that has tobacco, golf and public post would certainly be a move to introduce his audience to the new unfamiliar world of Middle-Earth.

Nonetheless, even if this were originally just a way of expressing oneself in familiar terms for the modern reader (frightened Bilbo making a sound "like an express train" rather than, say, "like a fallen Vala in Lammoth", which would be more appropriate), it subsequently became part of Middle-Earth and it may be the one thing that visibly betrays the author's true nature and circumstances that he was writing in. All the other things - which I assume was the original idea behind this thread - may not be so obvious on first sight.

But I would be interested to think about what else besides the thousand-times-repeated echoes of WW I experiences in Dead Marshes etc. and the environmental topics or the industrialisation of the Shire are the themes where Tolkien's early 20th century setting shows.
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Old 10-03-2022, 05:18 AM   #8
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Setting aside the time-period and tech tree of the fictional world, the broader point -one made by Garth and especially by Shippey in Author of the Century, is that Tolkien was part of a generation of "traumatized authors" from WW1- but unlike his contemporaries (including the young Lewis) he translated his trauma not into grimly fatalistic modernism, but rather to envisioning a world where the Machine and its industrialized slaughter wasn't there- or, at least, was the Enemy of all that was good (especially blatant in the early Fall of Gondolin with its tank-like dragons).

Nonetheless, the very 20th century trauma is there, above all probably in the permanently scarred Frodo. PTSD is not a thing in mediaeval literature!
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Old 10-13-2022, 09:28 AM   #9
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I am very late to reply here and for that I apologise. Events beyond the barrow and outside Middle-earth have limited my ability to write a thoughtful response.

It is very difficult to define exactly what modern is or means: do we use historical dates or do we use literature? There have been those who want to call anything after 1850 modern, which results in a mammoth hodge podge of very contradictory styles of writing dumped into one soup. Then there have been those who define modernism by the styles and literature of the high priests of literature in early twentieth century, Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, to take but two. Then there are those of a biographical bent who want to consider the life events Tolkien lived through. Each approach skews things towards its own point of view.

Initially it was the talking heads of high modernism who dissed Tolkien for not writing like a modernist. Men like Edmund Wilson who called LotR something like juvenile trash (if I am recalling correctly) that lacked narrative form. (This is not to overlook the enthusiastic responses of writers like WH Auden, Iris Murdoch, Tolkien's fellow Inklings, Ursula Le Guin. It seems that writers recognised Tolkien's imaginative depth if academics could not.) It was in part a response to this hostility that those who valued Tolkien sought out the very strong elements of medieval literature in his work, to demonstrate that Tolkien had an excellent command of language and of literary form. Pointing out his medieval affinities was a way of demonstrating that Tolkien had literary and academic expertise. The literary scholars Tom Shippey and Verlyn Flieger did much to redeem critical evaluation of Tolkien.

Ironically this valuable work probably further isolated Tolkien from comparison with the modernist movement in English lit, at least for some time. But the wheels of evaluation do move, even if somewhat slowly. Garth's book on Tolkien in WWI did much to establish what were Tolkien's literary aims by examining the event that Tolkien said put him on the road to developing his own aims in writing and the early aims of Tolkien's own coterie.

But a writer's claim about his intentions and motivations should never be taken as the unconditional authority and so in fact scholars and readers have begun to examine Tolkien's relation to the literature of his time. Prominent have been Dimitra Fimi's examination of Tolkien's relationship to radical linguistic experimentation of the time ( https://scholar.valpo.edu/journaloft...h/vol5/iss1/2/), to argue that Tolkien navigates his own position between two different ways of thought, between language as communication and language as art. Also the two volume studies from Walking Tree Press, Tolkien and Modernity (http://www.walking-tree.org/cormareB...o.php?number=9) Then there's also Theresa Nicolay's Tolkien and the Modernists and Ralph C. Wood's, Tolkien among the Moderns , for those who might be interested. (I am of course omitting others.)

Clearly Tolkien was not interested in modernist irony or modernist theories of consciousness. But high modernism was not ironclad and by the 1930s writers like Woolf and Eliot were in fact examining something Tolkien was, how to write an English literature in the decline of empire, how to establish a core vision of what the communal experience is. Eliot himself wrote The Idea of a Christian Societywhich argued against materialism and the destruction of the natural world and Woolf's final novel, Between the Acts uses the popular trope of a public, rural pageant. So did E.M Forster (another modernist, who Tolkien had nominated for a Nobel prize in literature) and J. C. Powys (A Glastonbury Romance). Tolkien's fellow Inkling, Charles Williams, also wrote two books about re-enchanting English landscape and rural life. There was in fact in the 1930s a common anthropological effort in English writers to reclaim England's cultural authenticity by considering its past roots in the rural community. The public pageant was a popular form of entertainment which did just that, presenting an historical English past before that past was ruined by empire and materialism. And not only writers--Vaughan Williams' music fits with this effort to discover a new organic culture.

We have learnt that Tolkien's interest in creating a mythology for England was inspired by his love for the Finnish Kalevala--and that no doubt is true--but his writing during the 1930s can in fact also be understood within a common anthropological concern for what might be called, for want of a better term, "Englishness".
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