Praising or Burying Tolkien

Editor’s Introduction: These thoughts, left this morning as a comment, struck me as so substantial they ought to be shared in a guest post as well. (The author chose the byline, I made up the title.) Author Reid would like to note: “I did not realize on first writing it that it was a reprint of an earlier Le Guin piece.” Although Le Guin’s essay appeared online November 2, it was originally given as a talk in 2000.

By Robin Anne Reid:

Le Guin: American critics and academics have been trying for forty years to bury one of the great works of twentieth-century fiction, The Lord of the Rings. They ignore it, they condescend to it, they stand in large groups with their backs to it, because they’re afraid of it. They’re afraid of dragons. They know if they acknowledge Tolkien they’ll have to admit that fantasy can be literature, and that therefore they’ll have to redefine what literature is.

Do some “American critics and academics” try to bury Tolkien?


I’m defining “critics” as a huge group of writers who publish reviews and commentary in a range of periodicals from the New York Times Review of Science Fiction (ahem started by Gerald Jonas who strikes me as an American critics to the sff magazines to internet commentary at blogs (Natalie Luhrs being one of my FAVORITE bloggers).

Note that forty years ago, “critics” would have been a much smaller, much maler, much straighter, much whiter, much more “professional” (in the sense of gatekeeping) group that now.

That is, “critics” means everybody who publishes commentary on Tolkien and sff (I’m extending my points to sff because I think that it’s all part of one major paradigm shift in U.S. culture and academia) who isn’t an academic publishing in a peer-reviewed journal or through a university press. Thus, academics are a sub-set of “critics.”

News flash: they failed.

Secondary news flash: critics and academics tried even harder in the United Kingdom to bury Tolkien but even there, they failed.

It didn’t matter how AWFUL Edmund Wilson found Tolkien’s Orcs.

They failed in every possible way.

Not only is Tolkien’s popularity greater than ever (and we’re talking a global popularity fueled by translations in numerous languages and by Peter Jackson’s live-action film adaptation (no matter how horrendous some critics and academics find the films — and a lot of their language ironically mirrors the anti-Tolkien criticism of the 1950s in dismissing them as “boys’ adventure/action stories”), the films have expanded Tolkien’s readership, led directly to Tolkien’s work being taught in more schools and universities, and to more scholarship being written on Tolkien by academics.

The numbers I’m going to give below are from the Modern Languages International Bibliography. The Modern Languages Association is the oldest and largest professional organization of literature and languages academics in the English-speaking world (I suspect world-wide, but I don’t know for sure!).

It is certainly a good example, overall, to support LeGuin’s claims about academic marginalizing of genre literature (science fiction, Tolkien, romance, westerns, mysteries, etc.). But the Bibliography is one of the most comprehensive of scholarship published in academic journals (and in recent years non-academic journals are included as well), so it’s a good place to mine for data showing changes.

So. “Tolkien” subject search done November 4, 2015.

Results: 2,419 (meaning books, anthology chapters, articles, and dissertations).

The first three articles published in 1952 and 1953 talk about his work on Beowulf. Tolkien’s essay “The Monsters and the Critics” was the foundation of entire literary sub-field of Beowulf studies, as opposed to it being solely a focus for philological scholarship on Anglo Saxon language issues. (And I would argue as well from a lot of years hanging out with medievalists, who were the majority of academics to write about Tolkien’s novels, his arguments about the poem as a LITERARY work are also strongly connected to the foundation of Tolkien studies).

But of course that was before LotR was published. Douglas Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit covers a lot of the celebratory critical commentary and articles when the book was first published.

Arguably, TH was less controversial than LotR because it was presented as a “children’s story” which fit the cultural stereotypes of the time, i.e. “fantasy” was OK for children, because children. Tolkien tackled those stereotypes in his essay “On Fairy Stories” which has been much studies and used by (wait for it) academics writing on Tolkien’s work. The negative criticisms of LotR, exemplified by Wilson, seemed mostly incensed by the idea that actual adults, including people like C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden were taking this “childish” story by this weird Oxford don *seriously* as adult literature. Le Guin isn’t wrong that a lot of critics and academics want to dismiss Tolkien: what leaves me frustrated by her comments is that she completely glosses over and ignores the forty or more years during which *some* academics and critics have been resisting that tendency.

The first article published on Tolkien’s work is not necessarily a positive one. thus it is part of the “let’s bury him” strategy.

Although I will note that publishing essays on an author is not exactly the best way to “bury” his work not in academia which has a lot of people who read an essay they disagree with and voila WRITE an essay arguing with it!

The text below is copied from the MLA Bibliography and is in the format they give (true for all the entries taken from that source):

Ethical Pattern in The Lord of the Rings By: Spacks, Patricia Meyer; Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 1959; 3 (1): 30-42. (journal article)

The most recent publication indexed in the MLA Bibliography is: A Song for J. R. R. Tolkien Full Text Available By: Parman, Sue; Antioch Review, 2015 Winter; 73 (1): 34-44. (journal article) Subjects: letters; memoir

Let’s do a quick chronological breakdown, speaking of “40 years” of ignoring Tolkien.

If I limit the search for publications on Tolkien’s work to only those publications appearing during the years 1950-1975 (the final date being chosen because it was 40 years ago) on Tolkien, I get:

177 publications during those in 25 years

I’ve read quite a few of them, and there are some interesting patterns to discuss, including the fact that the earliest academic anthologies on Tolkien’s work tended to try to “dismiss the fans,” and explain how Tolkien’s work was really GOOD despite its popularity, and to hope that the popularity diminished so “real” scholarship could be done.

So clearly those early academics’ hopes that popularity would diminish have failed miserably!

A subject search on Tolkien criticism and scholarship from 1976-2015:

2,242 results (these include periodical articles, peer-reviewed articles, anthology chapters, books by single authors, and dissertations in the United States at least).

I’d say the last forty years shows a spirited attempt by scholars and critics in multiple disciplinary areas to *bring Tolkien into the canon of literary works.*

By canon, I mean those works that are discussed by academics and critics, in a variety of cultural spaces, including peer-reviewed journals, and those works that are taught in schools.

And my focus here excludes the immense amount of fan scholarship that exists on Tolkien, a fan scholarship that is still pretty much ignored by academic scholars.

However, since a number of the “second generation” of Tolkien scholars, including myself identify as fans, at least we’re not all still routinely dissing fans. I say “second generation” because the “first generation” consists of those academics that created Tolkien Studies by publishing, teaching, and organizing sessions at conferences.

The biggest names of the first generation are: Jane Chance, Verlyn Flieger, and Tom Shippey, all academics. All still alive (though all recently retired). And the fact that two of the three biggest academic names in the field are women is fairly unique (outside fields such as feminist studies and women’s literature!)

And collections of scholarship in honor of their work on Tolkien are published/being published.

And the teaching issue (often ignored by many who aren’t, well, teachers) is important as well. Tolkien’s work was first taught in U. S. colleges as part of the changes during the 1970s (not because of a great sea-change in which everyone realized that omg it’s LITERATURE, but because it attracted students into classes). The process of canonization includes teaching of the works, especialkly at the college and graduate level (and warning: the “canon” changes constantly).

[There was a huge drop-off of students majoring in humanities courses during the 1970s which has been debated for years. George Will and Harold Bloom and Allen Bloom and all their Puppy Ilk have attributed this drop-off to the fact that the hippies and marxists who failed during the 1960s to overthrow the white Amerikan Western Civilization took over the universities to indoctrinate the young by throwing out Shakespeare and teaching Alice Walker, aka THEORY and SJWs. In fact, recent intriguing research shows that one reason that the numbers changed was the impact of the feminist movement that opened up degrees in male-dominated programs to women in the United States: The changing majors of women. Certainly it’s true that the progressive and activist movements had an impact on academia during the 1970s, with the growth of women’s studies, Afro-American studies, multicultural and ethnic studies, etc., that continued to the present day. In any case, the first courses on Tolkien were taught during the 1970s, though some research I was doing in the Marquette Tolkien Archive indicates there were some earlier English faculty in the U.S. involved in a variety of Tolkien courses and publications that aren’t always known about today.]

Tolkien still won’t be found routinely in most “canonical” courses such as “British surveys” necessarily, or in “Modern British Literature” necessarily, and is still often taught under special topic rubrics (meaning not official courses), but even that is changing.

The Modern Languages Association itself has just published (about eight years in the making, sigh) a book on teaching Tolkien in its “Approaches to Teaching World Literature: edited by Leslie Donovan.

Leslie has also set up an online journal for teachers (at all grade levels and in all disciplines) to post about how they teach Tolkien.

Short message: there’s a whole lot of people teaching Tolkien all over the U. S. educational system from grade school to graduate school. And the more we teach it, the more it will be taught. (I teach Tolkien under the special topics number in my department, though I can occasionally sneak his work in, or Pratchett’s in a couple of memorable summer terms under a regular course titled “Major British Writers” that allows for a wide range of topics to be taught.)

And “Tolkien Studies” is growing as an academic sub-field: it’s still challenged by many, still controversial, but it’s growing.

I wish that Le Guin could acknowledge that because her points, while absolutely accurate when The Language of the Night was published in 1978, are part of the change I’m talking about here.

Doing subject searches on “Le Guin” in the MLA Bibliography shows 521 results (articles, peer-reviewed articles, books, anthologies, and dissertations).

The earliest one appeared in 1972:

‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ and the Charge of Escapism Detail Only Available By: Jago, Wendy; Children’s Literature in Education: An International Quarterly, 1972 July; 3 (2): 21-29. (journal article) Subjects: children; naming; choice; morality

Yes, it was in the children’s literature area (but let’s think a moment about how people still dismiss “children’s literature” — and nowadays “YA literature” as not real literature even though both these areas are ones that have been most welcoming to sff related works — probably because of their own marginal status — and it’s not completely coincidental that these academic fields are dominated by women and have been since the start — since women (primarily white because of institutional racism in the U. S. academy) don’t have any major cultural capital or status, what the hell, we can do all the weird stuff if we want), but it was there.

And the newest publications: the most recent three, all appearing in 2015, are dissertations. The fact that they’re dissertations is a major thing: one usually publishes from one’s dissertation in the first few years of academic employment, and if these topics are approved, it means that graduate academics are “approving” topics in the marginalized areas. Also note the topics related to the dissertations and the universities:

Spectacles of Faith: Technology, Religion, and Modern American Fictions Detail Only Available By: Hamner, Everett Lance; Dissertation Abstracts International, 2015 Nov; 76 (5). U of Iowa, 2008 (dissertation abstract) Subjects: Ellison, Ralph; Percy, Walker; Le Guin, Ursula K.; film; technology; religion

Let’s Just Steal the Rockets: 1970s Feminist Science Fiction as Radical Rhetorical Revisioning Detail Only Available By: Belk, Patrick Nolan; Dissertation Abstracts International, 2015 Aug; 76 (2). U of North Carolina, Greensboro, 2014 (dissertation abstract) Subjects: 1970-1979; utopia; social justice; feminism

Balancing Flux and Stability: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed Detail Only Available By: Jones, Hillary A.; Dissertation Abstracts International, 2015 Feb; 75 (8). Pennsylvania State U, 2011 (dissertation abstract) Subjects: paradox; rhetoric; anarchism

Besides the work on Le Guin’s fiction, there are 30 articles by Le Guin herself as a critic and author and editor!

Just as Tolkien wrote fiction AND criticism AND theory, so too does Le Guin.

That’s why I say she’s part of the solution to the problem she is writing about!

And as I noted above, I also strongly associated the status of Tolkien’s work in criticism and the academy with “science fiction” (though arguably at the start, during the 1970s, there was a bit more credibility given to “hard” science fiction over fantasy — but of course the field of “science fiction,” or “speculative fiction” as I prefer has changed as well!). Certainly when I was in fandom during the 1970s, we didn’t distinguish that much between the genres.

(And when I was active in fandom, I was also an English major in a department where there was ONE “Science Fiction as Literature course,” and then going on to my graduate work, and eventually getting my doctorate with a dissertation that incorporated feminist theory and Foucault and science fiction — I was an SF fan before I became an English major, and I got a Ph.D. so I could bring sf — by women! — into the academy. A lot of us did. THINGS CHANGED.)

“Science fiction” subject search in MLA: 11,673 hits

Lunar Characters in Science and Fiction By: Parsons, Coleman O.; Notes and Queries, 1933; 164: 346-348. (journal article)

  1. *ahem*

Remembering and Restoring the Republic: Star Wars and Rome Full Text Available By: Charles, Michael B.; Classical World, 2015 Winter; 108 (2): 281-298. (journal article) Subjects: science fiction film; Star Wars film series; freedom; oppression; Roman Empire

What a lot of book fans/academics didn’t predict was the growth of “science fiction” as a mainstream cultural product through films and games (and having hung out at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts where some of the founders of science fiction literary studies do, I’m say to say a lot of them are grumpy about it and complain about young people these days not reading the classics….)

It’s a bit harder to track “fantasy” scholarship because the term “fantasy” refers to a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with “genre fantasy” (darn psychology!). But a few searches of related terms:

Genre fantasy 605 Fantastic literature 261 Dystopias 1,016 Utopia 5,707

A lot of “fantasy” might get subsumed under “science fiction” tags in databases. There are entire academic journals dedicated entirely to science fiction and fantasy:

And, finally, TWO journals dedicated to Tolkien’s work alone:

And, finally, one of the reasons that Le Guin’s ongoing dismissal of “academics and critics” bugs me the most is because it wipes out all the work done by women sff fans, critics, and academics (of which she is one! And she knows about WisCon, and Broad Universe, and The Tiptree Award, who are all full of critics and academics working to build awareness of sff.

Laura Quilter has been doing amazing work on the internet for years, and there are so many others, writing criticism in many different internet publications and spaces.

There’s even an Encyclopedia of Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy!

And let’s not forget three major intellectual/cultural histories on women and sff that I have to recommend All. The. Time.

It’s good to keep calling out the sad dinosaurs that are resisting the changes of the past fifty plus years, but it would be nice if Le Guin, with the size of her audience, spent a little time focusing on all the critics and academics, especially the women, who are creating the changes she is calling for.

Her ongoing unawareness of the critical and academic efforts (if she has spent time writing about these efforts, I apologize for not having seen it and would love the links doing) is getting increasingly frustrating.

12 thoughts on “Praising or Burying Tolkien

  1. Indeed a perplexing question, since Le Guin has appeared regularly at academic conferences, workshops on university campuses, and interacted or collaborated with established literary academics. I have seen her speak and had the chance to chat at several academic conferences in Portland, and she SEEMED perfectly aware that many scholars write about and teach not only Tolkien but her work and do so with great love.

    Believe it or not, while I had always heard that the lit world looked down on SFF and have over the years seen atrocities perpetrated on behalf of that viewpoint (see NYT reviews of Game of Thrones), I have never experienced it directly. My experience with academia and SFF goes back to my undergrad days at the University of Nebraska, and it suggests that from the 1970’s onward, SF had at least a place at the academic table. Our SFF circle included Christopher Stasheff (then a Ph.D. student in Theater), Locus nominee Cynthia Bunn (Morgan), and L. David Allen, whose Cliff’s Note SF textbook (1972) was republished as an actual scholarly book in 1973 and was followed by a number of other academic publications. He taught an undergrad SF class that many of us took. Professors in my other department (philosophy) also accepted SF at least as a way to put UG students in seats, as they offered Philosophy of Star Trek, Philosophy of Tolkien, and (the one I actually took), Philosophy of Anarchism where our textbook was The Dispossessed, a text I still use in my own Philosophy and Culture course.

    When I went off to grad school at Purdue to pursue Ph.D.s in English and Philosophy later that decade, I found that SF was just as accepted there. My own dissertation included a chapter on Tolkien (expanding on a paper I wrote for Poe magus G. R. Thompson’s seminar on The Double in Romantic Fiction), and I then team-taught UG courses in Tolkien and Science Fiction as well as using Delany’s Babel-17 in my honors seminar focusing on language theory. The only question ever raised about SF as lit was by my colleague in the Science Fiction course who really did NOT want to use a novel that would stoop to the pun “The fit hit the Shan” (Zelazny’s Lord of Light).
    Later, at the University of Maryland, I got to teach not only Modern SF but also Modern Fantasy, Arthurian Literature, Utopian Literature, and (with a physicist friend) Science Fact and Science Fiction.

    When I moved to my current post as chair at a small private university with a non-traditional student body in the 90s, I stopped teaching SF (except for Le Guin) for a decade, thinking that our students would be more interested in other literatures and genres. However, when we opened our grad program a dozen years back and I started using SFF examples from my own critical work on Tolkien, Le Guin, etc. in classes like Lit Theory, the students started asking for classes in the lit I talked about. So I brought back my Tolkien class and am slowly adding more. Over the last decade, my students have written four Tolkien M.A. theses, three on YA dystopias, two on post-apocalyptic fiction, and one each on zombies and vampires. Two others wrote SF works themselves. And they have had papers on these topics accepted at conferences and by journals and actually gotten and kept jobs themselves. The latest–a paper by one of my students on the role of clothing in Station Eleven (“Dressing for the Apocalypse”) for the upcoming PCA meetings in New Mexico. Go figure.

    tl;dr. Shorter Old Buddy: Heck, even in the good ol’ days, there were some professors and some universities and some professional meetings that liked Tolkien and Le Guin, but they probably became easier sells after PJ’s LOTR movie. And some of the rejection may be in our own heads.

    P.S. Somebody on the last scroll indicated that U Oregon is in Portland. Nope, Eugene, which is quite a ways south, past Salem (“O melaS” in the rear view mirror).

  2. Yes, I noticed that geographic detail also. There is a University of Portland, (and Reed College on the other side of the river) but it’s quite a bit smaller, and isn’t associated with the U of O, or at least wasn’t when I attended the U of O.

  3. Everything that Robin says is true, but it just means the charge wasn’t correctly phrased. There’s always been Tolkien scholarship, and very good scholarship, but its absence from the leading academies, especially in the US, has been striking for such an important author. Few of the leading Tolkien scholars have been from major institutions, up until very recently. Flieger, Shippey, and Chance are just about the only exceptions, and the first two, at least (I haven’t talked with Chance about this) had a struggle getting him accepted as a course subject.

    Most of the Tolkien scholarship has been going on in smaller colleges, like Robin Reid herself (Texas A&M-Commerce), and as Michael Drout (himself at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, a very small school) has pointed out, much of the best work in Tolkien has been done by people who aren’t “accredited” scholars in the traditional sense at all, often independent scholars.

    The authors whose purely scholarly books on Tolkien are essential to any researcher’s shelf include ones by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (academic librarians, without PhDs), Douglas A. Anderson (bookstore manager and freelance editor, also without a PhD), and John D. Rateliff (who has a PhD in English, but has never held an academic post, spending most of his career working for TSR). John’s is an interesting story: he got his PhD at Marquette, where Tolkien’s papers are held, but the English Department wouldn’t let him write a dissertation on Tolkien [despite the many that appear every year from other colleges], so he wrote on Dunsany instead. That was apparently OK. That was a while ago now, and maybe it’s no longer so bad, but the denigration of Tolkien was real and long-lasting.

  4. Cat: Also Portland State, where Team Le Guin taught and Old Buddy’s eldest studied Computer Science and was “forced” to take a course on Science and Science Fiction as a “mandatory UL elective” (nice oxymoron, CS Dept.!)

  5. Almost totally unrelated: Using A Clockwork Orange in the Maryland “Science Fact and Science Fiction” course taught Young Buddy about the need for something we didn’t have a name for thirty years ago and Assorted Young Canines like to make fun of–trigger warnings. One of our students had a strong reaction to the book/movie rape scenes. The AYC of course would scoff at this as “PC,” “weak,” or “soft,” but the student in question was a tough-on-the-surface active-duty marine who had in fact been violently raped. Young Buddy learned a lesson but wishes it hadn’t been at the cost of harming a student.

  6. David: Yes, the big name universities disdain Tolkien, but is that any reason to ignore the work being done by scholars at smaller schools or the independent scholars? Presumably only for the big name academics who ignore/disdain independent scholars in the same way.

    Re: Marquette. Yes, a great deal has changed there. For one thing, Amy Amendt-Raduegue did her dissertation on Tolkien (and has a job).

    There are new people in the English department and the archives; Gerry Canavan is a new faculty member (he’s published on environmental issues in science fiction), and he’s teaching his first Tolkien course there. I know he and Bill Fliss (now the Tolkien specialist at the archives) are working together.

    So, my point continues to be, things are changing, and people who don’t know the changes who are still thinking that things are the same as twenty, thirty, and forty years ago are mistaken.

    With an increasing number of graduate students taking Tolkien (in all countries–I was recently on a dissertation committee for a student getting his doctorate from a South African university and writing on Tolkien) and writing an increasing number of dissertations in the U.S. and elsewhere, things are likely to continue to change as well. To keep restating the problem as if nothing has changed seems a poor strategy to me.

  7. Hal: I noted the University of Oregon’s (flagship) friendliness toward SF: I didn’t mean to imply it was in Portland, just that I presume people living in Portland know their state’s flagship university!

  8. Thanks for the clarification, Robin. UO is indeed SF-friendly (better be given the papers they’re archiving now!), which you rightly note is the more important point. Portland on the other hand has a strong writing community–and Powell’s!

  9. Gary Farber: Mythlore is mentioned.

    And Mythprint was/is mainly Mythopoeic Society news and book reviews, not a a scholarly journal.

    I’m all in favor of praising Niekas and The Tolkien Journal, however.

  10. @Gary: I know _Mythlore_ best in its current incarnation as an academic journal (and as the source of some of the best early scholarship on Tolkien). I’m afraid I don’t know the others, but then my active fandom ‘zine days were in the late 70s/early 80s, and I don’t current study fanzines. I did some preliminary research at the Marquette Archive on some of the 60s Tolkien fanzines for a grant I was doing (unsuccessful since the NEH is one of the bastions of anti-Tolkien feeling!), and I have one friend, Cait Coker, who does a good deal of work on fanzines of earlier decades which is fascinating stuff.

    But since the topic was how academics and critics (as opposed to fan scholars) treat Tolkien, I’m not quite sure how the extensive fan commentary on Tolkien really applies. I do some work on fan studies, but on contemporary internet fan productions (primarily slash fiction, and some more recent stuff on Racefail since there’s been very little work on race in fan studies).

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