Book Review: Defending Middle Earth by Patrick Curry (Two Stars)


Book Review: Defending Middle Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity by Patrick Curry

(Two Stars)

“The costs [of modernity] have been horrendous, and are, unlike the benefits, increasing.”

Curry opens defending J. R. R. Tolkien against wrong-minded critics, then shifts to weaponizing Tolkien to beat his own ideological foes. That his foes are mostly English only obscures his bias to American readers. Disappointing. Since he makes several glaring errors on topics I know a little about, I suspect more lurk within.

“It has been asserted … that The Hobbit represents an alliance of the lower-middle class (Bilbo) and skilled workers, especially working class miners (the dwarves), in order to overcome a parasitic capitalist exploiter who ‘lives off the hard work of small people and accumulates wealth without being able to appreciate its value’ (the dragon). This is genuinely interesting … but it says at least as much about Marxism as a fairy [tale] as it does about The Hobbit.”

Tolkien was not a postmodern. If anything he was pre-modern, even pre-Enlightenment, because he believed that good and evil were real. He believed in God, and while there’s no church in Middle Earth, Tolkien based his entire mythos on an all-knowing, all-sufficient God. Those who claim Middle Earth was polytheistic do so from ignorance or guile.

“Modern profit-driven and state-protected science [is] a powerful counter-enchantment, much of whose power stems from being a spell that denies that it is one: a secular religion, literally a bad faith.”

Curry casually tosses Tolkien’s religion aside as irrelevant. Curry admits he judges Christianity by the externals he has witnessed, not from inside as Tolkien experienced it. Curry uses Lord of the Rings (LOTR) the way some atheists use the Bible, as a weapon against those who believe it. Despite Tolkien’s claims to the contrary, Curry asserts that LOTR is fundamentally a “pagan” work with Christianity included. A counter argument is that Tolkien meant for all the pagan myths to be included in the greater Christian mythos, which unlike the rest of them happens also to be true.

“I have been accused of using Tolkien to advance an ecological agenda. But nothing in this book about defending nature does not draw its warrant from the contents of Tolkien’s own work … I believe he himself would have thoroughly approved.”

Apparently others called him on his bias because in his Afterword, published seven years after the original work, Curry claims, “I nowhere argue that Tolkien was himself a postmodernist, nor that ecology is the only or even the most important key to his work.” His original work argues otherwise.

“As Max Weber saw long ago, religion itself becomes an enemy of enchantment when it asserts it [sic] own sole universal truth, and thus becomes entangled in aspirations to complete control and ultimate power.” Curry asserts, “So his defence of Middle-earth is fully as spiritual as it is ecological and cultural. But it is not a journey away from our lives and our home here on Earth; ultimately, and critically, it is a return.”

Does Curry admire Tolkien’s work as much as he says or has just taken them up as a cudgel in his own battles?

“There are no havens in a world where evil is a reality. If you think you live in one, you are probably naïve like the early Frodo, and certainly vulnerable.” J. R. R. Tolkien

Book Review: The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Five stars)

Book Review: The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien

Five stars out of five.

“It is a curse having an epic temperament in an overcrowded age [1944] devoted to sappy bits!”

A treasure trove of insightful material into the life and writings of Tolkien, but not for everyone. Readers uninterested in Tolkien’s writings need not waste their time.

Where to start? With the negatives, since they’re so few. J. R. R. Tolkien is opinionated, peevish and pedantic. He hated the appellation “professor.”

Among these letters covering most of his adult life, we learn how he viewed his world, his writings, his friends, his religion and his invented languages and history. That is how he saw Middle Earth as history he had discovered as much as created—or, as he would say, sub-created. The letters begin just after publication of The Hobbit and cover the production of Lord of the Rings and the aftermath of its unexpected popularity, and his futile struggle to complete and publish The Silmarillion, which his son Christopher succeeded in publishing five years after his father died.

For those, like myself, who count Tolkein’s works as the gold standard of epic fantasy, these letters give insights only alluded to elsewhere. It’s slow and difficult reading in some cases, partly because context is missing. But the payoff is deeper appreciation of Tolkien’s life and world (real and imagined). We learn the origin of the world, names and characters of the fantasy, and his struggle to keep others from reading alien ideas into the works. Though he admitted (in 1939), “The darkness of the present days has had some effect on it.”

“A most amusing and highly contentious evening, on which (had an outsider eavesdropped) he would have thought it (the Inklings) a meeting of fell enemies hurling deadly insults before drawing their guns.” Sounds like fun.

Now I’ll the only logical thing: re-read The Lord of the Rings. Again.

Book Review: J.R.R. Tolkien by Wyatt North (Two Stars)

Book Review: J.R.R. Tolkien: A life Inspired by Wyatt North

Two stars out of five.

Modern authors have the idea that biographies must be at least seven hundred pages long, even if they don’t have seven hundred pages of material. often resulting in a bloated mess of myth and rumor.

Therefore, a tight, well-written biography of barely one hundred pages is refreshing. This work is the perfect companion to Tolkien’s works, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

That said, there must be more fruitful information which modern readers would enjoy knowing about the professor who birthed modern epic fantasy. This volume only refers to fellow Inklings C. S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson in a literary context, while Tolkien and Dyson played decisive roles in the re-conversion of Lewis to Christianity.

Can you imagine, reader, having read the two mentioned volumes when the Professor still lived, and feel as I did the hope of more? It was not to be, but I have re-read those volumes once a decade since. They are the gold standard for all light and epic fantasy since.

North seems to specialize in hagiographies of Roman Catholic persons, of which this is definitely one.

Pre-review: J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf”

Never done a “pre-review” before, but …

The Tolkien family has published the Professor’s 1926 translation and later commentary of “Beowulf.” Within the last year I read Tolkien’s 1936 paper “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics” and the 1940 “On Translating Beowulf,” both of which awoke a new appreciation for and understanding of that classic. I’ve backed off buying “new” Tolkien fiction as they often have not the quality of the material he actually published. But this was Tolkien’s day job.

Of the controversy over publishing Tolkien’s unfinished work, New York Times “Beowulf authority” Kevin Kiernan wrote, “It’s like Gandalf says, ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’ He decided he didn’t want to waste it on a translation. He worked on ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord the Rings’ instead.”

For a professional reviews, see the Wall Street Journal or New York Times.

Looking forward to this one.