Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Reinventing the Wheel? (Tolkien's sources)

So, while I was at Marquette on my most recent research trip, the name Holly Ordway came up as someone who had what looks to be an interesting book in the works: TOLKIEN'S MODERN SOURCES. I wasn't able to find out too much about it, other than this brief description:

"My current project is a literary-critical study, 
Tolkien’s Modern Sources: Middle-earth 
Beyond the Middle Ages, to be published 
by Kent State University Press."

Her goal seems to be to counter the argument that Tolkien wasn't influenced by modern authors (as stated, indeed overstated, by Carpenter in his authorized biography):

"Morris was not the only modern author
 with an influence on Tolkien – I’m also
 tracing connections between Tolkien’s work
 and that of authors such as MacDonald,
 Haggard, Dunsany, and Chesterton, as well 
as others who are almost forgotten today . . . 
[such as] Tolkien’s friend Wilfred Childe"

When it comes to Morris, I think she's entirely on the right track. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's difficult to overstate Morris's influence on the early Tolkien, especially works like THE EARTHLY PARADISE, which I've long believed inspired the frame story for THE BOOK OF LOST TALES. And of course I've argued the Tolkien/Haggard connection myself, as well as stressed the importance of Dunsany on the early SILMARILLION.

But I'm puzzled by Ordway's statements about this being a new idea at odds with the mainstream of Tolkien criticism. One of the earliest books on Tolkien, Lin Carter's little TOLKIEN: A LOOK BEHIND 'THE LORD OF THE RINGS' (1969, before even Carpenter) argues that Tolkien belongs to a tradition, the major figures of which were (1) Wm Morris, (2) Lord Dunsany, (3) E. R. Eddison, and (4) Tolkien himself. A few years later the same literary pantheon, with additions, was evoked and explored in more depth by de Camp in his LITERARY SWORDSMEN AND SORCERERS (1976). More specific borrowings, such as MacDonald's goblins and Chesterton's Mooreeffoc and Haggard's Kor, are well documented and have been widely accepted. In fact, since about 1981-82 there has been a general recognition that Tolkien was influenced on the one hand by the medieval literature he knew and loved so well, and on the other by authors he found congenial from the period of roughly a century or so before the publication of THE LORD OF THE RINGS onward.

That said, it'd be nice to see someone go back and present the case for those influences in a more scholarly fashion than Carter & de Camp did, especially given how much more Tolkien we have to work with now than we did forty-plus years ago.

--John R.
current reading: GNOMES by Huygen & Poortvliet.
today's song: "Brainiac's Daughter"

P.S.:  Here's a link to a piece giving one specific example of the her treatment of the Morris/Tolkien connection:

And here's a brief profile of Dr. Ordway from her website:

"Holly Ordway is professor of English and director of the MA in apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imaginative apologetics and on the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams."

So, definitely one to keep an eye out for.


Jason Fisher said...

And to add to your query, I wonder whether Holly Ordway has read my book. In it, you, John, argue a case for Haggard, and Mark Hooker does so for John Buchan. Dale Nelson also summarizes a lot more in "Literary Influences, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" in the Drout Tolkien Encyclopedia. Perhaps this is just an editorial overstatement designed to disambiguate the book in a crowded field, but it's regrettable just the same.

John D. Rateliff said...

Actually, Jason, I shd have specified that I'm a great believer in 'reinventing the wheel' -- by which I mean that it's good to go back and examine the basis of 'conventional wisdom' from time to time to see if we all got it right or if we need to rethink some things in the light of new evidence. But such efforts work best when they take into account what's been done along those lines before.