There and Back Again Through Tolkien’s Library

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

In her new book, Holly Ordway takes a look at what J.R.R. Tolkien read.
In her new book, Holly Ordway takes a look at what J.R.R. Tolkien read. (photo: Word on Fire cropped book cover)

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

By Holly Ordway

Word on Fire Academic, 2021

392 pages, hardcover; $29.95

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University professor, author and Word on Fire academic fellow Holly Ordway has been fascinated by The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien since her teen years. Indeed, her doctoral thesis was on the subject of modern fantasy literature, which naturally included an in-depth analysis of Tolkien and his influence on the genre.

But what of Tolkien’s influences? After all, he didn’t invent fantasy literature. Such works existed before Tolkien, and he was known to have read and studied ancient ones, including Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Norse mythology, and so on. But how much modern and contemporary fantasy had Tolkien read, and did it influence his groundbreaking contribution to the genre? 

Ordway’s curiosity about this question was the jumping-off point for her newest book, Tolkien’s Modern Reading, a deep dive into the sources and inspirations of Tolkien’s creative imagination outside the Medieval scholarship that was his professional expertise. 

During the course of her investigations, Ordway discovered that Tolkien’s official biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, had provided the “definitive” answer: “the major names in twentieth-century writing meant little or nothing to [Tolkien],” wrote Carpenter. “He read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it.” 

That biography was published in 1977, and, since then, every account of Tolkien has dutifully and uncritically transmitted these magisterial “facts” about him: that he was “fundamentally backward-looking, happily living in total rejection of the modern world” and that he scoffed at contemporary literature as not worth his time or attention.

However, Ordway’s exhaustive research and meticulous scholarship has proven that this widely accepted view of Tolkien is totally false. Not only did Tolkien read modern fantasy; he read widely in many genres: science fiction, children’s stories, detective fiction, poetry and general fiction. Ordway has thoroughly debunked Carpenter’s “one Rule to rule them all.” 

Her criteria for what constitutes Tolkien’s “modern reading” is quite specific. First, the work in question must be a work of fiction, poetry or drama published in English from 1850 or later. Second, demonstrable evidence must exist that Tolkien had read it or that he was at least familiar with it. Ordway examined archival interviews, letters, talks and recorded statements of friends, family members, correspondents, colleagues and others. Even photographs of Tolkien provided visual proof that he at least owned a book: A photo of Tolkien in his study reveals many modern titles on the bookshelf behind him, such as Arthur Ransome’s Secret Water (1939) and Mary Norton’s Borrowers series (1952-1961). The findings are winsomely discussed throughout the text of the book and cleverly distilled into a handy chart showing that Tolkien “interacted with … a total of 148 [modern] authors and more than 200 titles.”

Even a diehard Tolkien devotee may rightly ask, “Why does this even matter? Can’t I enjoy The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings without knowing that Tolkien read Dune and that he was a fan of the detective novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers?” 

Yes, one could. Nevertheless, this book is important because it opens up a whole new avenue of scholarship and, if you will, “reputation management” for Tolkien. What else did Humphrey Carpenter get wrong? Ordway presents evidence that Carpenter may have deliberately distorted his subject, painting a picture of Tolkien as brusque, dismissive and curmudgeonly. This image has persisted for decades.

Is it time to revise it with a new biography? How about a new, more complete edition of Tolkien’s letters? 

Ordway’s book — 10 years in the making — is a worthy addition to the myriad books and articles about Tolkien and his Middle-earth legendarium. And while it is a work of scholarship, it is also readable, entertaining and illuminating. 

Highly recommended. 



Presentations about the book:

Virtual book launch hosted by the Wade Center

Word on Fire interview with Holly Ordway






Clare Walker writes from Westmont, Illinois.