Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages – It's What We're Reading

2013 A monthly offering from Drexel Library’s staff about the books we’ve read.

11/23/63 Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages
Jane Chance and Alfred K. Siewers, eds.

This December brings the second installment of The Hobbit to theaters. It is timely to look at the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Most scholarship focuses on the internal aspects of Tolkien mythology and his fictional world. Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, however, directs its focus to Tolkien’s often overlooked scholarly works and interests. Though he laid the foundations for Middle Earth in the trenches during the First World War, he continued this side interest while a professor of Old English, Middle English, and philology, where he brought forth lasting translations and studies of core literary and historical works. The essays in Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages look to Tolkien’s fascination with the medieval world, its languages and peoples, and his inclusion of motifs, language, imagery, and cultural values of this period in his literary works.

These studies cover a wide array of topics and questions. Some look to whether Tolkien really continued the tradition of previous and contemporary authors and artists, including Tennyson and Wagner, in utilizing medieval motifs and themes. Some assess the desire of Tolkien to create his own world that opposed the modern by setting it in opposition to the far distant medieval past; the industrial and mechanical world of Mordor and the Orcs threatens the medieval landscape and culture of the Elves and Hobbits. These scholars expand this inquiry to assess Tolkien’s views of ecology and environmentalism that are potentially displayed in the same medieval versus modern debate; the Ents and Elves protect the forests and natural world while the Orcs tear them down to fuel industry for military expansion.

Did Tolkien simply extend upon Victorian era medieval literary and artistic works? Did he create a new appreciation for medieval cultures through violent comparison with the modern world? Did he seek to wage a larger philosophical battle between the two worlds in an attempt to idealize the medieval, or perhaps simply from nostalgic longing? On the other hand, is Tolkien best read as a spearhead in the development of modern fantasy and science fiction?

This work is interesting reading for anyone interested in Tolkien’s works, medievalists looking to assess the treatment of the past by modern literary works and popular culture, and for those curious about the placement of Middle Earth in the development of the fantasy and science fiction genres.

This book can be found on the Second Floor of the Library. The call number is: PR6039.O32 Z6224 2009.