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New book demonstrates J.R.R. Tolkien was more than a Carpenter cartoon

Holly Ordway’s Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages is a welcome and impressive corrective to the influential caricatures produced by Humphrey Carpenter.

Left: Bust of J.R.R. Tolkien in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford (Julian Nyča/Wikipedia); right: artwork from the cover of Holly Ordway's book "Tolkien's Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages" (Word on Fire)

Like me, if you know anything about Tolkien’s life, it is probably owing to the work of Humphrey Carpenter, who cornered the market in Tolkien scholarship in its early years, producing both the first major biography and what is still the only edition of Tolkien’s letters.

It is Carpenter who popularized the idea that Tolkien was a reactionary old medievalist, uninterested in contemporary literature: “The major names in twentieth-century writing meant little or nothing to [Tolkien]. He read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it.”

Carpenter’s caricature of Tolkien as someone staring fixedly into the rear-view mirror, has, as we would now say, gone viral; people take it for granted. In the BBC radio drama Tolkien in Love (2017), the Tolkien character says that “everything after 1066 should be excised from schools” and his wife, Edith, labels him a “Luddite”.

Likewise, broadcaster Andrew Marr, in his documentary about fantasy writers, asserts that Tolkien marinated himself “in everything from the early sagas to the magical romances”, the “old stories” which gave him the tools for his own fiction.

I must confess that I too drank the Carpenter kool-aid. In my monograph on C.S. Lewis, I emphasized “that Tolkien’s literary tastes were quite extraordinarily narrow (he read little in English literature after Chaucer)”.

Having read Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages, I have revised my view. I was wrong. Full disclosure: Holly Ordway is a friend and colleague, who has even seen fit to dedicate this book to me. But I trust that my mea culpa will somewhat insulate me against charges of being simply a cheerleader for her work. At any rate, if I’m leading the cheers, I’m also leading the confessional line at the same time. Indeed, Ordway even quotes in the pages of her book the email I wrote to her after seeing a draft of her work, in which I say, “I repent in dust and ashes. Though I know Lewis like the back of my hand, I’m no specialist on Tolkien, and I trusted that Carpenter knew what he was talking about. Clearly, he didn’t!”

It is a pleasure to be so thoroughly disabused. As Ordway demonstrates beyond peradventure, Tolkien actually read a great deal of modern literature (works written after 1850) and took very serious notice of it. She identifies about 150 authors and at least 200 titles of modern works that he knew. These include several that Tolkien himself explicitly named as sources for or influences upon his own imaginative writings.

He said that E.A. Wyke-Smith’s The Marvellous Land of Snergs may have been an unconscious source-book for his own hobbits. He points to a story by George Dasent as a fount of the term “Moria”, the mines where Gandalf battles the Balrog. He indicates that he took the term “Crack of Doom” from a work by Algernon Blackwood.

The list goes on. The fight with the wargs in The Hobbit owed a debt, Tolkien said, to a similar scene in The Black Douglas by S.R. Crockett. He admitted that his goblins derived some of their features from the tales of George MacDonald. He even conceded that hobbit “might have been associated with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt”.

Tolkien said that he read “all” of Sinclair Lewis, author of over twenty novels and winner of the 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature. Tolkien nominated E.M. Forster for the same prize in 1954.

He also read James Joyce with care, translating the name of one of Joyce’s characters into Qenya, his invented language. He was familiar with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and complained about John Masefield’s poetic tribute to Eliot upon his death in 1965 almost as if he had a cautiously positive view of the works of Old Possum.

A major literary figure in Tolkien’s day was the Birmingham author, J.H. Shorthouse, whose John Inglesant: A Romance was a smash hit; Lord Acton called it the most thoughtful novel since Middlemarch. As a boy, Tolkien passed Shorthouse’s front-door every morning on his way to Mass. Few people today have read John Inglesant, but Ordway has, and she points out that its preoccupation with the virtue of pity may well have affected Tolkien’s development of that very theme in The Lord of the Rings.

Not that Ordway is woodenly source-hunting. She draws her parallels tentatively, more interested in accumulating evidence of Tolkien’s modern reading than in proving any particular debts he incurred. One exception, perhaps, is her comparison of Tolkien’s Ents (Treebeard and co.) to the sorns of C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet. Here she mines such a rich vein that it is hard to doubt she has made a real find. And the same goes for her observations about Éowyn’s literary forebears in the work of William Morris; about the Book of Mazarbul’s link to the extra-textual artefacts of Rider Haggard; about Bilbo’s affinity with (remarkably, but persuasively) Peter Rabbit!

Ordway ventures beyond literature at times to assess how modern-minded Tolkien was with regard to technology, race, women, colonialism, even liturgical reform, again puncturing the accepted view that Tolkien was simply a die-hard traditionalist. She points out that he approved of the new liturgy “in the abstract,” while admitting to being saddened by it personally:

Given both the extent and the abruptness of the shift from the Tridentine Mass to the Novus Ordo, it would be startling if Tolkien had not felt disconcerted by the change; what is most notable is that he distinguishes his own emotional reaction from his approval of the reform in principle.

This outstanding work is a major corrective and a significant addition to Tolkien scholarship. It is also the premiere title of Word on Fire Academic, a new imprint, and is beautifully designed and produced, with a photo gallery in full color, showing many of the authors and books Tolkien read.

Written with wit, flair, and feeling, it concludes on a story about Tolkien’s painting of Rivendell which I challenge you to read without welling up.

Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages
By Holly Ordway
Word on Fire Academic; January 25, 2021
Hardcover, 392 pages

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About Michael Ward 1 Article
Michael Ward is a Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press).


  1. That Tolkien was interested in modern literature seems obvious, at least to me. In my opinion (which I have no way of verifying), Lord of the Rings was consciously modeled on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword, the first volume of The Trilogy . . . which (again in my opinion) was why Tolkien insisted LOTR was NOT a trilogy.

    • Sorry, but if one looks at the long and tortured gestation of LOTR, this suggestion can’t be right. Tolkien did think of LOTR as one continuous work–in six volumes initially–but splittling it into three books was far more feasible.

  2. The few quotes I have read on Tolkien about faith made him seem quite ‘relevant.’ And Word on FIre’s Bible is of outstanding physical aesthetic quality. So am eager to check this one out. The sort of piece that makes me love reading CWR.

  3. I greatly admire Michael Ward’s groundbreaking PLANET NARNIA but I fear his lack of familiarity with Tolkien scholarship hampers his review. (Obviously, I cannot speak to the book under examination because I haven’t read it.) Given that Humphrey Carter’s biography(1977) was “authorized” and his edition of JRRT’s letters (1981)was assisted by Christopher Tolkien, the family cannot have had significant objections to their contents. American academics, professionals, and fans started writing about Tolkien in the 1960s, producing a broad spectrum of works from good (ex: Paul Kocher, Randell Helms, Richard Purtill, Neil issacs & Rose Zimbardo, Peter Beagle) to dreadful (Lin Carter). My own small efforts commenced in 1968. Links to THE MARVELOUS LAND OF SNERGS, Morris, and Haggard have been known for years. Some of the issues discussed in the review as new, such as Tolkien and Shakespeare, have already attracted critical attention, for instance by Tom Shippey. One must take care in using personal quotes from JRRT as proof texts because he liked to change his mind and sometimes trimmed his answers to the perceived expectations of his questioners.

  4. Fortunately, I never drank the Carpenter Kool-Aid. I went to Portland High School in Portland, Maine. One of our English teachers studied under Tolkien at Oxford. He stated multiple times that Tolkien was well versed in modern literature and spoke well of it. There were many modern works that were recommended in the tutorials he led.

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