Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages

Reviewed by:

Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.


Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages


Holly Ordway


Word on Fire Academic

Publication Date:

January 25, 2021




392 pages


It’s often said that J.R.R. Tolkien was stuck in the past. The image popularized by his first biographer, Humphrey Carpenter was of a man most comfortable with the medieval period, or anything before the modern age and its messy machines. Due to that image, it’s become popular to assume Tolkien didn’t read many modern books. Holly Ordway shows that much of that idea is actually incorrect. Tolkien may not have followed every 20th-century literary fiction trend, but he did read many modern writers, from Arthur C. Clarke to James Joyce. Ordway focuses on literature from 1850 onward that Tolkien read and that influenced his Middle-Earth writings – using letters, interviews, photographs and other evidence to prove that Tolkien read those books. These include Victorian fantasy writers like George McDonald and William Morris, adventure writers like John Buchan and H. Rider Haggard, and science fiction writers like H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. Throughout the book, Ordway works to correct misconceptions about Tolkien’s attitude to technology and modernism, showing how these views developed.

Anytime a scholar is bucking against a trend, it’s important to really defend the thesis. Fortunately, Ordway does a magnificent job of doing that. She carefully considers exactly what image Carpenter created of Tolkien in his authorized biography, pointing out the flaws and where Carpenter’s personal bias led to him creating the “stuck in the past” image of Tolkien. Every point she makes is backed up with primary sources or multiple secondary sources, meticulous footnotes and carefully explaining whether Tolkien simply owned the book or we know that he also read it.

Her chapter on how adventure writers like Haggard and Buchan influenced Tolkien is particularly interesting, because it opens new vistas into how we view his work. Fantasy and adventure fiction have often influenced each other, particularly in the 20th-century American pulp market (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Ray Bradbury, etc.). It’s easy to dismiss this side of the fantasy genre as juvenile, something that affected Tolkien’s American contemporaries like Lin Carter and L. Sprague De Camp but never the Inklings. The fact that so much has been said about how Norse mythology influenced Tolkien can strengthen this idea, make him and the Inklings look like “the grown up side of fantasy.” By showing how adventure fiction influenced Tolkien, Ordway connects him to an ongoing discussion about how eclectic fantasy can be. Fantasy can borrow from both juvenile sources and literary sources, “high art” and “low art,” and still produce engaging and excellent work.

Ordway also makes some perceptive points about a tendency among American academics to conflate Tolkien with C.S. Lewis. She particularly notes that it’s important to take what Tolkien said in context of him being English, using that self-deprecating and deflecting attitude that the English often have. This means in many interviews, Tolkien downplayed his own importance or who influenced him, rather than boldly say exactly what he thought. This attitude was very different from Lewis’s direct Irish manner, which is closer to the classic American approach to conversation. Since Lewis studies have tended to be an American enterprise, it’s easy for Lewis scholars to approach Tolkien without appreciating cultural differences, misinterpreting his attitude based on their own biases. Ordway pushes scholars to consider how important cultural context is studying a figure, recognizing the time and the place that the figure lived in.

All told, this is an excellent book which advances Tolkien studies in a vital way.


Rating (1 to 5 stars)

5 stars

Suggested Audience

Tolkien scholars, or scholars interested in differences between Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, with a particular emphasis on Tolkien’s influences and analyzing his influences in context.

Christian Impact

One chapter looks particularly at Catholic writers that influenced Tolkien. There are also discussions about Tolkien’s moral code, such as his stance against apartheid and antisemitism. Without lionizing him, Ordway routinely shows how Tolkien’s work analyzed questions like race relations, war, colonialism, and humanity in general from a Christian perspective.

Tolkien's Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages


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