“Tolkien’s Modern Reading”: Interview with Holly Ordway

by Giuseppe Scattolini


Leggi questo articolo in italiano nella pagina precedente

I have just finished reading the new and very interesting book Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages by Holly Ordway. Rather than presenting it to the readers with a review of the text, I preferred to contact the author herself. This, perhaps, will intrigue the native readers, or those who are able to read the book in its original language.


Dear Professor Ordway, thank you for accepting my invitation to interview you on behalf of Tolkien Italia and our entire group of Tolkieniani Italiani.

It’s my pleasure – thank you for the invitation! 

The usual question I always ask the people I interview, because I love to share personal experiences, is this: how did you meet J.R.R. Tolkien and under what circumstances did you realize that this author was one of the greats?

Middle-earth has been part of my imaginative landscape for most of my life. I can’t remember when I first read The Hobbit, but it must have been around age nine or so, with The Lord of the Rings soon thereafter. I remember being slightly disappointed at first that Frodo, and not my beloved Bilbo, was the protagonist. My awareness of Tolkien as ‘one of the greats’ developed gradually – at first, I rather took it for granted! I did my doctoral dissertation on the development of the modern fantasy novel. In the process, I realized how much The Lord of the Rings had shaped the genre, and also began consciously to appreciate the magnificence of his achievement. Not only did Tolkien’s work stand out in terms of its literary and thematic power and sophistication, but only he and C.S. Lewis survived the personal test of ‘research saturation’ – when I was sick of reading all other fantasy, I still loved Middle-earth and Narnia! 

Why, after reading one of the Professor’s works, did you not simply put it away, or perhaps limit yourself to being an occasional reader? What prompted you to become a Tolkien scholar, despite the fact that the panorama of studies and scholars is already very dense?

When I was about fourteen, I read Tolkien’s great essay On  Fairy-stories, in a battered paperback copy of The Tolkien Reader that I bought secondhand, and it’s not an overstatement to say that it changed my life. It was completely unlike the ‘murder by dissection’ of my school English classes, which had always left me cold; rather, Tolkien offered a wide-ranging, appreciative, insightful, discerning look at how my favorite literary genre functioned. Until then, I’d had no idea that one could approach literature that way. It’s fair to say that On Fairy-stories made me a literary critic. I originally intended to become a medievalist. But although I did study Old English and Middle English in graduate school, I soon realized that I wanted to work with contemporary literature, and specifically fantasy. In hindsight, I think that Tolkien’s modeling of engagement with modern authors in On Fairy-stories helped me to see this as a viable path: I would still be emulating him but in new territory. 

I didn’t jump straight into Tolkien studies. After I’d earned my Ph.D., begun teaching literature, and ventured into literary criticism, I started with the Inklings as a whole, writing about C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams as well as Tolkien. At that point, I had become a Christian, and a few years later, a Catholic, and other aspects of my work involved imaginative and literary approaches to Christian apologetics. I also began to teach the work of both Lewis and Tolkien to my undergraduate students and, later, and graduate students, in both secular and Christian settings. From early on, then, I’ve engaged with Tolkien’s work from different perspectives (literary-critical, theological, biographical), for different audiences, and in the larger context of both the fantasy genre and interdisciplinary work on the Inklings (I am a subject editor for the Journal of Inklings Studies.) I think this varied background has given me confidence that I have something to contribute to the field. 

Does your recently published book, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages, stem from an intuition that required lengthy research to be proved, or does it rather originate from research you did for private purposes, which then resulted in a text as broad and articulate as the one you published?

It began with my own curiosity! In my doctoral research, I’d examined the place of The Lord of the Rings in the development of the modern fantasy novel. Ten years after I’d finished my Ph.D., I found myself with a still-unanswered question. The Lord of the Rings had had a profound impact on the genre, and I was struck by its enduring popularity and how powerfully it spoke to modern-day concerns. This seemed highly unusual for a book that, as I thought at the time, was mainly medieval in its inspiration (at that time, I took at face value Humphrey Carpenter’s statement in his group biography The Inklings that Tolkien «read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it.») I had accepted the general view that Tolkien was backward-looking, preferring the past and disliking anything modern. This seemed puzzling: how could a man who lived in the past write a book that spoke so profoundly to modern readers? I had also read a lot of 19th and early 20th century fantasy, and I knew from the Letters and On Fairy-stories that Tolkien had read at least some authors of this era, such as William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and E.R. Eddison. I began wondering what else he had read of modern fantasy, and what he thought about it. These two questions seemed possibly related, so I made up my mind to find out as much as I could about what Tolkien had, in fact, read of modern literature, and what he had thought about it.  I didn’t expect to find more than a handful of authors whose work he knew. Little did I know what was ahead! It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t realize how much research was ahead of me, or I might not have dared to begin! 

Your book is based on a considerable amount of research: how many places have you visited and how many people have you spoken to? Can you tell us something, some anecdote, some episode, some story about a place or a person that particularly struck you and that has remained in your heart?

My lengthy Acknowledgements section gives a glimpse of how many people have been of assistance in my research – many, I am grateful to say. I’ve made in-person visits to archives in Illinois, Wisconsin, London, Oxford, and Durham, not to mention all the research I’ve done online. Two episodes stand out in my memory. The first is my discovery of further details of Tolkien’s involvement with the Newman Association. It was known that Tolkien had once co-signed a letter to the Times as an Honorary Vice-President of the Association, as Douglas A. Anderson had discovered. But was that the end of the trail? I traveled to Durham, in the north of England, to consult the archives of the Newman Association, now held in the Palace Green Library of the University of Durham. The holdings weren’t digitized, or even catalogued with any detail, so I spent many hours going page by page through decades’ worth of committee meeting notes and reports for the Association – looking through a haystack for a needle that might not even exist! But it paid off – I discovered that Tolkien had in fact served repeatedly as a Vice-President and even participated in an event in the local Oxford Circle of the Association. Silence is the rule in research libraries, but I admit that I exclaimed aloud when, after hours of sifting through documents, I saw his name! It may seem like a small detail, but this is information that was previously unknown, and it fills out our picture of Tolkien, showing him as actively involved from an early stage in a newly created national organization for Catholics in academia.  

The second was speaking with the late Walter Hooper, who had known Tolkien. One day I asked Walter if he recalled anything of Tolkien’s reading of modern fiction. His recollection about visiting Tolkien in the hospital and finding him reading an Agatha Christie novel made its way into the book (page 260), but the conversation itself made a deep impression on me. He and I were standing outside the Oxford Oratory, the parish church of St. Aloysius, after Mass. It came vividly to mind that Walter had known Tolkien as a personal friend, and that Tolkien himself had often worshipped at this very church. I felt a vivid sense of personal connection and continuity. This perception of Tolkien as more than a research subject, as a human being I had come to know and admire, grew even stronger as I finished my work on the book.

Let’s talk a little about your book specifically. You choose to talk about Tolkien’s readings in terms of post-1850 fiction only, sticking to those texts that we know for sure Tolkien had read. This is the extreme summary of your chosen method. I understand that you had to narrow the field: perhaps not all of us would have made the same choices. Precisely for this reason, can you explain why you made this precise choice and what was the objective you had set yourself? From the book, it seems that Carpenter is the only polemical target, but in my opinion, it goes far beyond him: what you are trying to do is to renew the general picture we have in our minds of Tolkien as a man. Am I right?

I chose to discuss only the ‘certains’ – the books or authors for which we have evidence that Tolkien knew them – because this provided focus and clarity to my analysis, and was an approach that hasn’t been done before. There’s a lot of good Tolkien scholarship on books that he probably read or that were part of his cultural milieu, and when this is done well, it’s is a valuable part of literary criticism. But I wanted to be able to ground all of my interpretations in the solid fact that Tolkien knew the book or author in question. The 1850 cut-off date, and the exclusion of non-fiction, is more arbitrary. I had to draw the line somewhere, or else I’d never finish the book! 1850 marked a reasonable line for ‘modern’ in Tolkien’s own context. My ultimate goal, as you note, is a constructive one: to contribute to a more accurate picture of Tolkien himself, a picture that is more three-dimensional, nuanced, detailed, and better supported by the evidence. One of the things that I realized in my work on this book is that Tolkien had an extremely complex personality, as well as remarkably diverse interests, and a wider circle of friends and acquaintances, both men and women than is often recognized. As one example, his long connection with the Inklings is a significant part of his life and work, but too often he is seen only as ‘one of the Inklings’, which limits our understanding of him. That’s one of the reasons why the Inklings don’t have a chapter of their own in Tolkien’s Modern Reading: the various figures in the group (Lewis, Barfield, Williams, and others) are discussed in various chapters based on the genre of their writings. I deliberately wanted to provide a fresh way of seeing Tolkien’s interactions with their work.

A sneak peek at some of the titles that are mentioned and covered in the book. We have made a review of all the titles in the picture in this post.

As far as I could understand the book, she achieved her goal. But in your opinion, was your goal achieved? Did your goal change during the writing process, or did your outlook have to change? Were there discoveries you made during the writing process that forced you to revise some of your theses that you thought were well established?

As I mentioned above, I set out to answer the questions, «Where did The Lord of the Rings come from?» and «What had Tolkien read of modern literature?» About six years into the project, I realized that I had to answer another question. By now, it had become clear that Carpenter’s statement that Tolkien «read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it» was simply factually incorrect. Tolkien had read a great deal of modern literature, and he had taken a great deal of note of it. Some critics had realized that this picture of Tolkien was incomplete – I was greatly encouraged, for instance, by Jason Fisher’s edited volume Tolkien and the Study of His Sources – but most accepted, as I had in the beginning, that Tolkien was almost exclusively interested in medieval and linguistic materials. Certainly the popular image was of Tolkien as a complete anti-modern Luddite who rejected anything newer than Chaucer. I realized that I needed to research a new question: How had this inaccuracy taken such hold, and why had it persisted in the teeth of the evidence?

That meant several more years of work, in which I learned a great deal about the reception history of The Lord of the Rings, the impact of Tolkien’s unauthorized biographers, the details of the controversy over the Oxford English Syllabus, and – most intriguingly – about Tolkien’s personality. Many elements of this mistaken perception about Tolkien can be traced back to Carpenter’s unsympathetic and faulty presentation of him in the Biography and The Inklings, but not all of them. I realized that Tolkien himself had added to the confusion; his complex and subtle personality, and his very English habits of expressing himself with both hyperbole and understatement, make him remarkably difficult for American readers, in particular, to understand. One of the important first-hand research elements of Tolkien’s Modern Reading is the time I’ve spent there, in my annual visits to Oxford for more than a decade now. Getting to know the English people and Oxford culture first-hand over many years that helped me fit some of the final pieces into the puzzle. 

How many things in your book are already known to the critics and how many new things did you discover? How much did you simply have to tidy up and comment on and how much is totally new and unknown to the reader?

Tolkien’s Modern Reading has relatively little that is completely new, but a very great deal that will be new to most readers! Much of what I draw on for source material had been neglected or overlooked. There had been an over-reliance on the Letters which, though valuable, is limited, and a tendency to return to the same few interviews for the same quotes, reinforcing the same points. I scoured everything from newspaper archives to Tolkien fan magazines to out-of-print academic studies, to get materials that were less familiar or even largely forgotten. What is certainly new in Tolkien’s Modern Reading is that I pull all these materials together to make a complete picture. The resulting picture is, I believe, something we haven’t seen before. I was very pleased when the late Richard C. West, a highly regarded Tolkien scholar, read my book before publication and called it «well-researched», noting that «This is a valuable addition to Tolkien scholarship covering much little-known material». Another new thing in my study is that I set out to read the books that Tolkien knew – not just to mention their titles and move on, but to read them for myself, and insofar as it was possible, to read them in editions of Tolkien’s day. For some of these titles, long-forgotten, it took time and effort to track down copies, but the result was worth it: I gained a much deeper and richer perspective on his literary context, which I’ve tried to share with my readers. 

Who was J.R.R. Tolkien in your opinion? And compared to the Tolkien we knew before your book, how different is the “new” Tolkien you present to us?

He was a great man and also a thoroughly good man – a creative genius and also a man of deep personal integrity. This quality is evident in what we already knew of him; I would venture to say that my book helps to bring out some of the richness and depth of this portrait, adding more details to it. For instance, seeing the extent of his modern reading and the varied ways in which he made use of it, shows the power and range of his creative imagination even more fully. I think that perhaps the “new” insight from this book is that Tolkien is a much more complex person, with many more levels and much more depth, than the popular view of him, at any rate, has hitherto recognized. His own friends and family saw this in him. His friend and former student Simonne D’Ardenne remarked that «Tolkien’s personality was so rich, so diverse, so vast and so elusive, that I was quite at a loss to choose which aspect of it to study». Clyde Kilby described Tolkien as «like an iceberg, something to be reckoned with above water in both its brilliance and mass and yet with much more below the surface».

What do you think we still need to discover about Tolkien? What is the future of Tolkien studies?

In research terms, I think there is much still to be learned about his life and the context of his life. He lived through a period of cultural change and global trauma unlike any other, and managed to engage with these experiences and transform them in his art, while also living a life that is, in hindsight, extraordinary in its ordinariness, as a husband, father, grandfather, friend, teacher, and colleague. John Garth’s magisterial Tolkien and the Great War and José Manuel Ferrández Bru’s Uncle Curro: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Spanish Connection are examples of the kind of research that we need more of. 

Overall, I think we need to gain a more integrated and well-rounded picture of him, because the very greatness of his achievement in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, combined with certain persistent stereotypes of him (especially in the popular media), has, I believe, narrowed our view of his creative genius and of his dynamic and complex personality. Tolkien was the creator of Middle-earth, but also the author of works in a remarkably diverse range of tones, forms, and styles: the satiric Farmer Giles of Ham, the elegiac Smith of Wotton Major, the playful Roverandom and Mr. Bliss, the bleak Kullervo, and the intriguing Lay of Aoutru and Itroun. His work on Beowulf is well known, but he was also the translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Orfeo, and Pearl. His invented languages are a whole field of their own, in need of a scholar who can help make more connections to his other creative work. He is beginning to be recognized as a visual artist of significant merit, and his professional work as a Professor at Oxford is of great interest. We have plenty to keep us busy! 

You are part of the Catholic group Word on Fire. What is it about? Do you think there is room to talk catholically about Tolkien or is it a subject that has already been covered or about which there is nothing to say? Can we reasonably expect new discoveries on this front?

Word on Fire is the Catholic ministry founded by Bishop Robert Barron, which has as its mission the proclaiming of Christ in the culture: helping people to come into the Catholic Church or return to it, and to grow in their faith. In particular, I’m the Fellow of Faith and Culture at the Word on Fire Institute, which is the educational and formational branch of the ministry. Some of my work is directly related to apologetics and evangelization, and some indirectly, in the sense that my literary-critical writing focuses on authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, whose Christian faith was an integral part of their lives. 

There’s need for much more study of Tolkien’s Catholic faith! Certainly, there are some excellent books on the topic (for instance, by Bradley Birzer, Stratford Caldecott, and Paul Kerry), but overall, this topic is not covered well at all. On the one hand, it’s common for Tolkien’s Catholicism to be sidelined, downplayed, or practically ignored (as in the recent biopic Tolkien). On the other hand, some Christian readers treat The Lord of the Rings as if it were a Gospel tract, oversimplifying his work to make an evangelistic point. Neither approach does justice to the depth, complexity, and importance of his faith in his life and work. Part of the difficulty is that even many well-intentioned critics and thoughtful readers simply don’t know much about what Tolkien believed as a Catholic, or what the Catholic experience was like for him in 20th century England.  

I believe that yes, we can expect new discoveries in this area, and indeed my work in progress is on this very subject! My current project is titled Tolkien’s Christian Faith: What He Believed and Why It Matters; it is a biographical as well as a literary-critical study, in which I hope to enable all readers of Tolkien (of any religious tradition, or none) to gain new insight into his life and writings.

As most people don’t know, the unpublished Tolkien material held by the Tolkien Estate is vast. What does it consist of? Will it be important to continue to discover Tolkien and to understand better who he was and to go beyond the stereotyped vision against which his book, with the material already available, vehemently rails?

I don’t know the scope of the unpublished materials, though we do know that there are thousands more letters that Tolkien wrote, as well as his diary, his verse translation of Beowulf (the prose translation has been published), and more of his academic papers and notes. Yes, I believe this material will be very important for the continued development of a more complete, accurate understanding of Tolkien and his work. But even as I wish for more biographical material to be published, we should give abundant credit to the Tolkien Estate for the release of a tremendous amount of invaluable material over the last few years. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the late Christopher Tolkien for the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth and other works such as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún; and to other scholars for their work in bringing out unpublished or unfinished work, such as Michael D.C. Drout (Beowulf and the Critics), Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins (A Secret Vice), Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson (Tolkien On Fairy-stories), Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull (J.R.R. Tolkien: A Companion and Guide and their editions of his artwork), Carl Hostetter (the forthcoming The Nature of Middle-earth), and John Rateliff (The History of The Hobbit), among others. 

In your opinion, if and when will this material be published? Do you hope so?

I don’t know, but I sincerely hope so! I especially hope that one day, we will have a full Collected Letters or at least a significantly expanded selection. Tolkien’s great friend C.S. Lewis has had his legacy tremendously enriched by the publication of his Collected Letters in three volumes, edited by Walter Hooper, as well as his diary (as All My Road Before Me). I am certain that Tolkien’s reputation, legacy, and impact would only be enhanced and deepened by a more complete view of his correspondence.

With many thanks for taking part in this long interview, I ask you one last question: what do you expect from the Amazon Prime TV series? Do you think it will create new stereotypes about Tolkien that critics will have to dismantle through slow and patient research and scientific dissemination? Will it be useful to introduce Tolkien to new generations? Are the Tolkien societies you know ready to welcome the new fans who will come to them without losing their compass and constant reference to Tolkien’s texts?

I have deliberately not followed the news of the Amazon Prime series; I don’t have high hopes for it. I do think that having people develop his world in other media fits within Tolkien’s creative vision; my concern is that they will do so without understanding or caring about the moral and theological vision that is fundamental to Tolkien’s entire legendarium. There’s also the danger that the series will further entrench interpretations of Tolkien’s world that are based more on Peter Jackson’s films than on Tolkien’s writings. As one example, Tolkien himself described Sam as having brown skin, and noted that the most numerous branch of the hobbits was «browner of skin» than the others – yet in Jackson’s films, Sam and the other hobbits are distinctly white-skinned. (Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film portrayed a brown-skinned Sam.) People who have their first or primary exposure to Tolkien through film or television may end up with unrecognized assumptions about Tolkien that are based more on others’ interpretations than on the Professor’s own work. It’s a genuine challenge to help people who have only encountered Tolkien’s work through film or television adaptations to engage with his original writings. Still, I get the sense that the various Tolkien societies find it a worthwhile challenge – it provides an entry point for more people to read Tolkien’s work! 

 I also take the long view. I would put Tolkien alongside Shakespeare as one of the ‘greats’ of English literature – this may seem bold, but keep in mind that Shakespeare was, in his day, a popular entertainer! 400 years on, Shakespeare’s plays have had so many versions (in theater, film, television, and visual art) that no single adaptation determines the interpretation of his writings. Thus, different people are drawn to Shakespeare by various routes (for me, it was Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V), and have the opportunity to discover the Bard’s genius for themselves. I firmly believe that it will be the same for Tolkien, and that in the year 2421, Tolkien’s work will still be delighting new generations of readers and inspiring scholars to study his writings! Perhaps by then, there will be a Complete Collected Works… in 50 volumes?

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