Review of Tolkien and Modernity 1 and 2

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The following review appeared in E-fabulations, June 2008
Source: ler.letras.up.pt/uploads/ficheiros/4663.pdf
E-fabulations is an e-journal on children's litearture published by the Faculty of Letters at the University of Porto.

Review of HONEGGER, Thomas, and WEINREICH, Frank (eds.) (2006). Tolkien and Modernity Vols. I-II. Zurich and Berne: Walking Tree Publishers

Raúl Montero Gilete
Tolkien and Modernity 1 Universidad del País Vasco

The editors of this collection of essays state in their introduction that the project "grew out of the wish to further the exploration of Tolkien as a Ďcontemporary writerí, i.e. an author whose literary creations can be seen as a response to the challenges of the modern world." The approach is not new Ė both Tom Shippey (J.R.R Tolkien: Author of the Century) and Brian Rosebury (Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon) have previously written significant studies on the subject Ė but the essays contained in these two volumes show that there is still much to be said about Tolkienís relationship to his own times, and many of them offer substantial advances in the field.

The treatments to the theme vary greatly, ranging from the perspective of comparative literature, as in Thomas Honeggerís analysis ("The Passing of the Elves and the Arrival of Modernity: Tolkienís Mythical Method") of Tolkienís particular version of a well-known stylistic feature of high Modernism, to philosophical issues present in Tolkienís writings that are seen to be inherently modern, perhaps best expressed in Frank Weinreichís succinct "Brief Considerations on Determinism in Reality and Fiction".

One interesting perspective is derived from Tolkien's own theory of fairytales, as explained in his 1937 essay "On Fairy-Stories" (which has come to be considered a cornerstone in the growing corpus of research conducted in the field of fantasy literature). Such an approach is taken by Jessica Burke and Antony Burdge, in their article "The Makerís Will ... fulfilled?". Here, Burke and Burdge examine how the process of "sub-creation" (a term coined by Tolkien to express his underlying assumption that "authentic" fairy story, as he understands the term, articulates a transcendent contact between a higher reality and the earthly reality) colours his works throughout. In comparing Tolkienís literary efforts with other modern sub-creative works, they reach the somewhat hasty conclusion that modern man lacks creative powers. In spite of such sweeping affirmations, the article not only succeeds in explaining Tolkienís creative impulse with reference to his own theoretical framework, it also becomes highly revelatory of the shortcomings of much post-Tolkienian fantasy that centres more on delivering formulaic entertainment than on a conscious aesthetic attempt to establish a profound relationship between the text and our own reality through the art of fairy-story.

Anna Vaninskayaís "Tolkien: A Man of his Time?" provides a valuable overview of Tolkienís historical moment. While some of the analogues have been previously discussed more persuasively and in greater detail, such as Tolkienís place in the fantasy tradition of Rider Haggard, G.K. Chesterton, and William Morris, or in the romantic critique of industrial society, Vaninskaya manages to convincingly put the author in the ground-breaking context of late-Victorian historical reconstructions, and explains in a clear way the relationship between Tolkienís literature and the general framework of nationalist ideas that pervaded in England during the interwar years. These are welcome additions which make the article worth reading.

Bertrand Alliotís essay "J.R.R. Tolkien: A Simplicity Between the ĎTruly Earthlyí and the ĎAbsolutely Moderní" claims that Tolkien strove to recover in his literature a lost, pre-modern simplicity, especially by means of extensive portrayal of the hobbits. He did this not because of an escapist nostalgia, Alliot argues, but in order to integrate it in the modern world, and he lands somewhere between the two poles. Alliot introduces several interesting perspectives, such as the idea that an acceptance of the loss of the Ďtruly earthyí is central to many characters, and a new, nuanced focus on Tolkienís views on the concept of Ďsimplicityí.

The most ambitious essay in the two volumes is without doubt Martin Simonsonís "An Introduction to the Dynamics of the Intertraditional Dialogue in The Lord of the Rings: Aragornís Heroic Evolution". Here, Simonson sets out to explore the different stages in Aragornís evolution as a character with reference to how he internalises the different narrative traditions he encounters on the road to Minas Tirith. The analysis as such becomes a statement on how Tolkienís approach to genre interaction in his most well-known work differs from modernist expressions of what Northrop Frye, in his seminal work "Anatomy of Criticism", termed "ironic myth". Simonson believes that his approach will clear the way for several advances in criticism on Tolkienís work, namely 1) to provide a new approach to several stylistic contradictions in The Lord of the Rings; 2) to produce relevant criticism concerning genre in the tale (an issue which has been marked by contradictory opinions so far); 3) to find a space for a fruitful interaction between source-hunting studies, on the one hand, and the revelation of the storyís contemporaneous character, on the other; and 4) to establish a meaningful relationship between Tolkienís work and modernism. As the title suggests, the article offers only an introduction to the subject, but the conclusions laid out by Simonson are convincing and it will be interesting to read his upcoming full-length study on the issue to get a broader picture of the genre interaction embodied by other characters and episodes.

Taken together, the two volumes of Tolkien and Modernity present the reader with the largest collection of essays on the historical context both for the writing of Tolkienís work that has been published so far. While some essay may seem a bit strained, others are fresh and brilliant, and the books furnish the scholar as well as the general reader with a wide range of perspectives that outline Tolkienís general position in the twentieth century and open up many intriguing new lines of inquiry.

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