Some "Certainties" in Tolkien and Tolkien Studies

  1. Tolkien's Christianity and Roman Catholicism are an integral element of his fiction and, therefore, a necessary element to account for in any fair and reasonable interpretation of his work.

Of course, how his theistic worldview shapes his corpus differs depending on the work in question. It certainly shapes his overall creation myth, his views on virtues and ethical matters, and at points his politics. It also provides a deep structure for The Lord of the Rings, and I would contend even The Silmarillion, though in the latter's case it functions in much the same way as Tolkien's perceives the Beowulf poet as a Christian standing in relation to an earlier pagan time.

Likewise, the predominant themes of grace, communion, sacrament, veneration, mediation, eschatological vision, a tragic vision of history, pity, and mercy all act as strong Catholic Christian themes and motifs within his fiction. Of course, one must understand how Tolkien meant to both integrate and yet suppress the presence of his Christian faith in his works in response to his convictions.

  1. Source study criticism has, in many ways, been the most successful approach to reading Tolkien so far because of his deep dependence on the medieval works he loved in the Anglo-Saxon/Germanic, Scandinavian, Welsh, and even Celtic traditions.

This is not to say that they have equal importance or that every connection is equally revealing. At points, source studies show us where Tolkien borrowed a name, an idea, or a particular approach. At other points, they identify broader structural patterns that inform his characterization or plot. And then, at times, they simply show us broad cultural trends that might have shaped Tolkien either explicitly or implicitly. Tolkien's own early intent to create a mythology for England makes such approaches imperative, but they also run the danger of identifying a connection without showing us anything new interpretatively about Tolkien's own works.

  1. Tolkien's love of philology clearly shaped the manner in which his world was created, as well as his understanding of its believability.

Tolkien's created languages are at the heart of his history of Middle-Earth. He conceives of cultural history as tied closely to the way words come into existence. One cannot truly understand his large historical subcreation without acknowledging and at least being broadly familiar with this truth. The meanings of character's names, for example, often suggest important elements about them. The nuances of language also form important subtexts that enrich our reading of his corpus.

  1. Equally, Tolkien's attention to particularity and his love of history are elemental matters in understanding his work.

Tolkien refuses to be sloppy with time, geographical space, travel, and political place when creating his works, especially Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings. Indeed, language is tied to place and history in his conception. At the same time, Tolkien's love of "astrick-reality" (to use Shippey's term) creates a palimpsest of unfinished tales that result in a lengendarium-like structure, both as a layer of deep culture in LOR, but also in a particular way in The History of Middle Earth. Tolkien's "unfinished world" is all the more real for the layering and gaps in the record. The same can be said for Tolkien's appendices in LOR--the worlds of annals, cartography, genealogy, and translation exist as part of the power of Tolkien's particular creation, which is at once literary and conceptual.

  1. Tolkien can profitably be understood as a 20th century writer who is a Late Victorian/ Edwardian anti-modernist deeply shaped by World War I, and thus, he functions as a critique of the Modern West's "culture of death."

Tolkien's earliest project clearly arose out of his own experience of WWI, and his letters clearly reveal someone who conceived of LOR as applicable to the circumstances of WWII (though not as an allegory or direct commentary on them). His cultural sensibilities particularly in regards to his politics, ecology, love of medieval literature, and his religion were all conceived in opposition to the trend of the modernity as he saw it, though he must never be conceived reductively as a simple curmudgeon in reaction to his own time; likewise, his literary sensibilities, while decidedly medieval, can also be understood as shaped by Late Victorian conventions of narration and plot. The latter, despite the fruitful work of Douglas Anderson and Jared Lobdell, nonetheless strikes me as a still mostly untapped vein.

  1. Biographical criticism, after source studies, has also been a fruitful way of reading Tolkien's fiction despite his own mistrust of it.

Along with Tolkien's WWI service, his early school experience, his childhood, his courtship and marriage, his family life, and his friendship with the Inklings do suggest ways of reading his treatments of family and friendship, though these can be forced too far. His love of English places, his work with the OED, and his experience in the scholarly world also show fair promise in unpacking important nuances in his fiction. The key to this approach is to carefully contextualize the insights and not speculate too much on what cannot be known.

  1. Tolkien's place in the Inklings is important, but we should be careful not to overstress this participation.

Verlyn Flieger has shown how Tolkien can be read profitably in light of Owen Barfield, yet Barfield's particular linguistic theories were not always shared by Tolkien. The Inklings were not, after all, a tightly united literary school. They were simply a circle of like-minded scholars. This fact is particularly important to keep in mind when comparing Tolkien to C.S. Lewis. Certainly, important attitudes and trends were shared by the two, and one can often find interesting parallels in their works, yet there are equally important differences. Indeed, Tolkien's approaches may be profitably understood at points as a conscious opposition to Lewis or Charles Williams. This is true of certain tastes for story and for general aesthetics, yet also in matters of Christian doctrine and even personal jealousy and rivalry. Approaches like Peter Kreft's that treat Lewis as an easy commentary on Tolkien's worldview aren't always doing justice to the two men.

  1. The 12 volume The History of Middle Earth, along with Unfinished Tales is one-part redaction study, one-part legendarium, and one-part commentary. Therefore, being familiar with its contents is fairly de rigueur for academic Tolkien studies.

Which is not to say that it's all equally valuable. The volumes that mostly examine earlier drafts of LOR, for example, can often be revealing about the process Tolkien went through to achieve his magnum opus, yet they don't necessarily function in quite the same way as The Book of Lost Tales, the incomplete lays, the various annuals, Tolkien's essays, or incomplete works like The Notion Club Papers. These often function as part of a larger world of study from which the edited Silmarillion arises. At times, they can even stand on their own as works within his corpus, e.g. Laws and Customs among the Eldar, the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, or "The Mariner's Wife."

  1. A decided hierarchy of Tolkien's literary works does exist, with some difference of opinion allowed for among readers.

The Lord of the Rings is the work by which Tolkien is finally judged as an author. It is at the center of his corpus; without it, nothing else would have survived excepting The Hobbit as an interesting early 20th-century children's book. After LOR, The Hobbit stands as his other important work, though some may come to it before its later, greater sibling. After these, Tolkien's work can generally divided between The Silmarillion project in all its craggy incompleteness and the shorter works--Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wooton Major, Farmer Giles of Ham. Which ones a reader considers the more important or the more enjoyable has much to do with matters of taste and literary judgment.

The children's works--Father Christmas Letters, Roverrandom, and Mr. Bliss--each have their own particular joys, but don't likely stand without his other works. (Though my daughter at age 5 came first to these, then to The Hobbit.) Equally, his minor poetry, gathered in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil or scattered throughout HoME and other publications is most often more of interest for their relationship to Tolkien's imaginative world than as free standing poetry. Almost no one considers Tolkien a great poet. His poetry has to be appreciated more for its generic quality. I am of the opinion that his poetry (in LOR for example) is best appreciated when sung.

His academic scholarly work stands on a different plane entirely, though the collections of his essays in The Monsters and the Critics contain revealing matters about his literary creations.

  1. Tolkien's views on fantasy, myth, story, and FaŽrie are essential ways of understanding his own fiction, though they are not foolproof or exhaustive.

His concepts of eucatastrophe, subcreation, recovery, consolation, and escape, as well as his broader judgments regarding the purpose of fairy stories and his views on types of magic and allegory versus applicability, are all key concepts that help us understand Tolkien's work. But they cannot be applied in an easy, systematic fashion. Each concept does not always fit easily with a particular story or segment of story. Eucatastrophe, for example, does not explain the particular power of The Children of Hurin, anymore than the principle that myth must never be laughed at can explain the particular humor of Farmer Giles.

Neither can eucatastrophe it be used as a kind of Christian trump card on matters of faŽrie. Tolkien's own Catholic "Christ Above Culture" (to borrow H. Richard Niebuhr's analysis) way of separating nature and grace permits him to have it both ways. The "pagan" world of myth and fairy exists in a realm of nature that is both independent yet strangely interfused with the realm of grace.

Likewise, Tolkien's attitude towards allegories certainly doesn't stop him from using them in his essay "The Monsters and the Critics" or in Leaf by Niggle or perhaps even in aspects of Smith of Wooton Major.

  1. The immense popularity of Tolkien shapes Tolkien studies and academic criticism whether the purists want it to or not.

Perhaps it is inevitable as Tolkien criticism and scholarship finally comes into its own that a certain amount of defensiveness still exists on one hand, while a certain condescension toward popular works on Tolkien also remains on the other. Hopefully, Tolkien studies can move in the next ten years past the naysayers who dismiss Tolkien as mass trash. We really don't need multiple defenses of Tolkien as author of the century. Yet equally, we will likely continue to face a mixed world of responses to Tolkien--some of which functions in an introductory way to Tolkien, some of which is shoddily done, and some of which, while scholarly in nature, functions to reach a mass audience. A certain amount of repetition in studies and books is bound to continue. This is equally true of Christian responses to Tolkien, which may be anywhere along the continuum from informed, theological criticism, to Christian cultural reflection, to popularizations and evangelistic tools. This landscape requires a certain degree of source discernment and the virtue of patience as one winnows the chaff.

  1. The same can then be said for Tolkien's place in both fantasy studies and cultural studies--it will be a mixture of academic engagement and popularizations.

Tolkien's works do not exist in a vacuum, the Peter Jackson films being the most obvious tip of the iceberg. As a result, Tolkien's works can and are studied within the matrix of popular cultural appropriations in film, Internet fandom, toys, games, costumes, Sindarian language courses, etc. The same is true of Tolkien's role as the grandfather of the modern fantasy genre. And these studies and appropriations are at times bound to reveal things about the original, as well as function as necessary in-roads in classroom pedagogy and examination.   Anderson 's Annotated Hobbit is an interesting example of the cross-pollenization of a study of Tolkien's Victorian/ Edwardian sources and of the popular treatment of his novel.

  1. Other forms of criticism, archetypal, feminist, queer studies, etc. each have their place in Tolkien studies, though the success of each is bound to be judged differently.

And this has as much to do with whether one finds the method of critique convincing as whether one judges the findings as worthwhile. Nonetheless, these methods of criticism are absolutely necessary to open up aspects of Tolkien that might otherwise be ignored. For example, I think there is still a lot that remains to be said about betrothal, marriage, family, kin, separation and bereavement in Tolkien's fiction. I may or may not find the most recent claims of feminist or queer critique convincing, but they nonetheless are locating areas of investigation.

  1.  Tolkien's corpus should be treated both systematically and individually. Different literary flavors and methods are used by him.

This is obvious even within the two greatest works. A deepening of tone in The Hobbit, for example, prepares us for LOR, but even then the differences between the former and the later are clear despite their symbiotic relationship. The Gandalf, Elves, goblins, and so on of The Hobbit are not their analogous counterparts in LOR, and yet they are. This can even be said of the Elves of The Silmarillion and the Elves of LOR. They exist in relation to one another, yet they do not function entirely as a continuum.

This is also true of the relationship between The Book of the Lost Tales, the important lays of volume three of HoME, and the later stages of The Silmarillion which gives rise to the edited Silmarillion. They exist both as works in tandem and as works in their own rights.

The same should then be obvious of the shorter works of Tolkien. Not only do Tolkien's reflections in his letters and his conceptual reflections in places like "On Fairy Stories" need to be applied with a sense of nuance, his short work do not need to be treated as addendums or failed versions of LOR. They have different aesthetic sensibilities, even if there are thematic parallels and contrasts to be drawn.

  1. Tolkien's practice of plot, characterization, dialogue, metaphor, genre, etcetera will hold up under close scrutiny and continued examination.

I suppose this goes without saying to the close reader of Tolkien, but it is worth remembering as one of the "certainties" in reading him. Taken on his own terms, these classic literary formal observations reveal much about his fiction's worth. This is true of The Hobbit and LOR, but is also true of the remainder of his works.

  1. Tolkien is unafraid to deal in great, "universal" themes, and this represents part of his appeal.

These include heroism, friendship, sacrifice, loss, good and evil, pity and mercy, love, pride and humility, death, kinship, race, class, ethnicity, free will versus providence, cultural encounter and mixing, home and domesticity, fantasy and awe, freedom and renunciation, time and dreaming, charity, horror, and healing and damnation.

Tolkien's work is unashamedly moral, but is not always two-dimensional. Characters do grow and change, and internal conflict does take place. Yet at the same time, his approach must be judged often by generic standards taken from medieval or late Victorian literature--Tolkien's work is not meant to be the social realism of Euro-American Realism or the ironic pointillism of High Modernity.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding