Friday 19 July 2013

The Political Tolkien

I have on occasion in my Transactions dealt with examples of articles or blogs where an author has attempted to use Tolkien's works in order to argue a political viewpoint.

On one hand I find this practice to be highly dubious. They usually involve a highly biased reading of Tolkien (or in some cases of the Jackson films, attributing things from the films to Tolkien), and even in the cases where I sympathize with the political aims of the author, I have found that their reading of Tolkien is most likely incorrect.

From a purely rational viewpoint, it does, of course, not matter whether their reading of Tolkien is correct or not — as long as they are not arguing about matters of Germanic philology, their invocation of Tolkien to support their case is invariably a fallacious appeal to authority, and should be treated as such.

The phenomenon is, however, interesting as an expression of popular adoption of Tolkien, and I think there could be an interesting paper waiting in an investigation of the variations over time and place of what kinds of viewpoints Tolkien is used as a fallacious authority for.

Many of us will know about the twisted readings of some racist / fascist groups as one of the more extreme examples of this, but it is certainly not alone. Other examples include readings that take Tolkien as supporting a modern environmentalist agenda, or readings that make Tolkien appear to promote modern paganism, or make him appear intolerant to all kinds of heathens or heretics (i.e. everybody who is not a Roman Catholic).

Many will doubtlessly also recall the 2011 affair about John McCain's use of ‘Hobbits’ to describe the Tea-party followers, and I think we could go on: the examples are too numerous to recount them all (a list of examples is provided below).

The reason for my writing this is a recent piece that has been received rather more positively than most other, the July 17th article ‘The Eye of Sauron Is the Modern Surveillance State’ by David Rosen and Aaron Santesso at

First off, this article does not attempt to use Tolkien as a false authority to back up an opinion. Instead the authors take a look at the descriptions of the limitations and effects of centralized surveillance as described by Tolkien (the Eye of Sauron) and Orwell (1984) and then try to argue why they believe that Tolkien's description (written at pretty much the same time as Orwell's) is the better match for the limitations and effects of modern centralized surveillance. However, though the authors avoid most of the blunders of others who have used Tolkien in a political context, their article is not without a certain reading bias.

My purpose is, however, not to provide an analysis of the article's claims about Tolkien's portrayal, but rather to comment on this phenomenon generally. I suppose it is unavoidable that a strong popular culture phenomenon will enter into political discourse, and so Tolkien did both in the late sixties and in the new millennium.

From the perspective of a dedicated (I would not protest over-much if anyone should whisper the word ‘obsessed’) Tolkien enthusiast and student such as myself, it is of course interesting in itself as signalling both a shift in the adoption of Tolkien into popular culture, and also as an indication of changing perceptions of Tolkien. I would dearly love to see a study of this aspect of Tolkien's influence in popular culture.

Does anyone know of such a study? Or do we have any takers for such a study? (I know I am not up to it myself)

On the other hand, I am also usually saddened at the way Tolkien's actual thoughts and ideas get twisted and perverted to lend a fallacious support to someone's political agenda — even where I might agree more with the writer than I would with Tolkien, I find it to be disrespectful to the author to corrupt his views in this way.

So, not great conclusions here, but just a few words that I had to get out of my system ...

And finally a very short list of a few examples from the last three years of articles in the genre discussed:
2010-10-31, Drout, Michael D.C.; ‘Dept. of What If: Would hobbits go on strike?’, in Washington Post
2011-07-28, Rateliff, John D.; ’Well, This is Weird’, Sacnoth's Scriptorium
2011-08-05, Marquand, Robert; ‘Tea-party hobbits? Hardly, say indignant Tolkien scholars.’ in The Christian Science Monitor
2012-12-12, Stewart, Keith; ‘Tolkien in the tar sands’,
2012-12-31, Platt, David; ‘Why Do Precious Leftists Loathe Tolkien's Shire?’, in Standpoint
2013-07-17, Rosen, David & Santesso, Aaron; ‘The Eye of Sauron Is the Modern Surveillance State’ at

Thursday 4 July 2013

Tolkien Transactions XXXVIII

June 2013

So, summer time is here — the schools are out in Denmark and the kids are on holiday. Getting there with four children having tests and exams has been a bit hectic, and these transactions have been slightly delayed in part because of this. Another retrettable consequence is that Mythlore, Mallorn and Amon Hen, all of which arrived as early as the eighth of June, lie largely unread in my pile ….

For these reasons it has been easy to follow the somewhat slimmer format for these transactions introduced last month.

Still, summer is here and hopefully I will get a bit more time — unless of course whipping the children to do all the house-work will take all my time ;-)

This month it has suited my purposes to sort the contents under the following headlines:
1: Arthuriana
2: News
3: Essays and Scholarship
4: Commentary
5: Reviews and Book News
6: Tolkienian Artwork
7: Other Stuff
8: Web Sites
9: Blogs
10: Sources

= = = = Arthuriana = = = =

With the publication of Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur on the 23rd of last month, it should be no surprise that the interest has continued into this month with reviews, questions and other comments appearing. I include here a few links to related matters … just for fun :-)

Renée Vink, Tuesday, 4 June 2013, “Lancelot's death in battle in The Fall of Arthur”
Wondering about a cross-reference in The Fall of Arthur, Renée Vink asked on her blog about the meaning. The confusion is cleared up through the kind assistance of Carl Hostetter who forwarded the question to Christopher Tolkien. The discussion itself is, however, not without interest as it pertains to the use of cross-references in such a work (don't necessarily trust the description to tell you what you should be looking for), and of course Renée's further thoughts on The Fall of Arthur also deserve attention.

Marama Whyte, hypable, Thursday, 6 June 2013, “Hypable Book Review: ‘The Fall of Arthur’ by J.R.R. Tolkien”
Short and to the point. I would hope that others might also enjoy the poem itself (in particular the masterful use of the alliterative meter), but Whyte's comment about the price is reasonable (it is an expensive poem if that is all that you are interested in).

BC, Friday, 7 June 2013, “Review of The Fall of Arthur by JRR Tolkien”
Bruce Charlton thinks The Fall of Arthur to be “probably the most important work of Tolkien's to be published since The History of Middle Earth was finished.” With competition from The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, the Kalevala texts (in Tolkien Studies) and some of the stuff brought out in Parma Eldalamberon and Vinyar Tengwar, I think I'd be more hard-pressed to declare a winner :-) Charlton makes two comments at this point, one about Tolkien's obvious intentions to link up his Arthurian work to the legendarium and the other is about Tolkien's portrayal of Guinever, which I agree is rather more negative than we're used to, though I wouldn't go quite as far as Charlton, and I definitely do not think Tolkien portrays Guinever as “evil” — selfish and horribly spoiled, surely, but I cannot agree to cold-hearted or evil.

Andrew O'Hehir, Friday, 21 June 2013, “Legend Retold: ‘The Fall of Arthur,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien”
A good and perceptive review. O'Hehir suggests that the incongruity of writing about Briton Arthur in the language of the peoples that defeated him and transplanted his people contributed to the abandonment of the poem. While I agree that Tolkien would have noticed the irony of this, I am not so sure that it would have made him more likely to abandon the poem at the point when he did. Part of my reluctance to accept this idea is that I think that Tolkien had come to view the language of the Anglo-Saxons, as it had evolved, as the natural language not only for the English, but also for England and for the myths and legends about England.

Mohawk Media & Eco Comics, Friday, 21 June 2013, “Green Knight inspiration to Tolkien Comes to Graphic Novels”
Is this the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a graphic novel? Or is it other, new, stories about the Green Knight made into a graphic novel? I suppose that either could make reasonably good sense — in particular if it helps garner interest in the poem (and, ahem ahem, alliterative translations into modern English, perhaps … ;-) ).

Emily Dangerfield, Wednesday, 26 June 2013, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Threat of Women to Courtly Life”
No mention of Tolkien, but it is about Arthuriana and even about a bit of Arthuriana that Tolkien also dealt with. It might even be interesting to see how this analysis of the role of women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight matches up with the role of Guinever in Tolkien's The Fall of Arthur; Dangerfield's claim that women were included in SG&GK “to serve as a warning to readers of the dangers of women to men's chivalric values, honour, and their status as knights” could easily be expanded to include at least Guinever's role with respect to Sir Lancelot in Tolkien's poem (Dangerfield does mention this case as well, but I think Tolkien plays up this particular aspect of the affair).

Tom Shippey, The Times Literary Supplement, Wednesday, 26 June 2013, “Tolkien's King Arthur”
Tom Shippey's review of The Fall of Arthur in The Times Literary Supplement is, at least at the moment, free to read also for non-subscribers. Shippey discusses (perhaps not surprisingly) Tolkien's use of the medieval sources to that particular part of the Arthur-story that Tolkien deals with, and also touches on Tolkien's possible motivations for this project.

= = = = News = = = =

BBC, Thursday, 13 June 2013, “Audio walk in Tolkien's childhood”
A short video about a audio walk of Moseley Bog and Sarehole Mill that has been created in Birmingham with local people.

= = = = Essays and Scholarship = = = =

Christopher L. Robinson, Tuesday, 11 June 2013, “If the name fits: names in J.R R. Tolkien's fiction”
A summary of an article published in Names: A Journal of Onomastics (linked in this summary article and available free for download until 3 September this year, so hurry!). While the author has unfortunately relied on Ruth Noel's work on Tolkien's languages, the main points about the suitability of Tolkien's names also as descriptions of those that carry them is of course still valid, though it is perhaps not exactly new knowledge to most Tolkienists . . ..
See also, Friday, 14 June 2013

JDR, Wednesday, 12 June 2013, “Did Tolkien Almost Die in 1923?”
In some ways this is a lesson in how we are affected differently by what we see or read. Rateliff has been reading letters by George Gordon (who was very influential in getting Tolkien his posts both in Leeds and later in Oxford), and he came across comments about Tolkien's pneunomia in 1923 of which Scull and Hammond tersely notes that “He is gravely ill, his life in danger.” Reading that succinct note, the idea of Tolkien dying of pneumonia in 1923 was immediately clear to me, but it seems that Rateliff reacted more strongly to the less detached descriptions in George Gordon's letters.

H&S, Sunday, 16 June 2013, “Tolkien Notes 8”
On the new-found Tolkien poem The Shadow-man, an earlier version of the poem that appears in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil as Shadow-bride, but also of a previously unrecorded poem by Tolkien, Noel. Also Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond have been posting new addenda and corrigenda to their website, which they discuss in this posting along with some further comments.

JM, Sunday, 23 June 2013, “Necessity of the Incarnation in Tolkien's Ainulindalë”
Part of McIntosh' premise here is of course in error — the Ainur were not incarnate within Eä except transiently and by choice. I am, however, not sure that this affects the main argument of a parallel between Tolkien's restrictions for the Ainur within Time and St. Anselm's conclusions regarding the incarnation of Christ.

= = = = Commentary = = = =

MB, Sunday, 23 June 2013, “Middle-earth and Modernity. Part 1: Don't deal out death in judgment.”
The first, possibly of several, “Rants from the Wrath Celardain” (I don't know that lampwrights were particularly wrathful, but there you go). In this piece Marcel looks at the modernism of Gandalf's statement about not dealing out death in judgement and shows its applicability to our present day, fearing what we might kill “in the name of justice, fearing for [our] own safety.”

= = = = Reviews and Book News = = = =

Stacey Bartlett, Monday, 3 June 2013, “New illustrated Hobbit for Harper”
This September HarperCollins will be publishing a new edition of The Hobbit illustrated by Jemima Catlin who will also be illustrating the 2014 Tolkien Calendar. For a look at some of her illustrations for The Hobbit, you can use the “look inside” feature at Amazon:

“Shirrif” (edited by Trotter), Wednesday, 19 June 2013, “Sotheby's Auction London 10th July”
Tolkien letters on auction at Sotheby's in London on 10 July. Some pictures and other information is available at the auction (linked).

“garm” (edited by Trotter), Wednesday, 19 June 2013, “Bonhams sale 25th June”
Tolkien books (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) on auction at Bonham's on 25 June. Some pictures and other information is available at the auction (linked). The first edition, first imprint (but not signed or otherwise remarkable) copy of The Hobbit sold for US$ 27,500.- ….

= = = = Tolkienian Artwork = = = =

Joe Gilronan, Wednesday, 19 June 2013, “Lothlorien now finished.”
A picture of Lothlórien. Presumably it is the Company of the Ring that is in the picture, so it will be Lothlórien in winter.

Middle-earth Network, Saturday, 22 June 2013, “Tolkien Inspired Artist Jay Johnstone Paints a Nazgûl”
I found the video of Jay Johnstone (actually of Jay's hands) working on his picture of a Black Rider to be interesting and somehow captivating.

= = = = Other Stuff = = = =

DB, Tuesday, 11 June 2013, “trailer critic: Hobbit part 2”
One of the things that I have always loved about Bratman's reviews is his sharp wit and dry humour, and this review of the recent trailer for the second of Jackson's Hobbit films is no exception — it is hilarious! Of course Bratman's comments still presume that the film is actually telling Tolkien's story … a hypothesis which I think the evidence disfavours … strongly.

Lynn Forest-Hill, Tuesday, 11 June 2013, “June 2013 — First meeting”
The Southampton Tolkien Reading Group has been finishing Egil's Saga in June, and this has occasioned a lot of interesting comments and discussions that are well worth reading. Also look at the minutes for the last meeting in June.

Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir, Monday, 24 June 2013, “Gunnarr and the Snake Pit in Medieval Art and Legend”
A long, though promising looking, piece about Gunnarr Gjúkason, who is of course known from the Völsunga Saga. Not really about Tolkien, but about a work that was certainly dear to his heart. I haven't read all of the article (linked to from the article listed above), but in what I have read, I have felt adequately prepared by the notes given by the Tolkiens (both father and son) in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

Elizabeth Howard, Friday, 28 June 2013, “Beowulf Is Not God Cyning”
Another article with a link to the full article. The full article contains quite a lot of quotation in Old English from the Beowulf poem (though usually with translation). The main argument is that the Beowulf poet is ironic when he calls Beowulf a good king (“god cyning”), and she backs this up with a close examination of the three places the poet uses this praise as well as of the three kings of which it is said. I admit to being biased here … I mean, irony in Beowulf? What more can I ask ;-)

= = = = Web Sites = = = =

Anthony Burdge & Jessica Burke, Undated, “Tolkien Archive”
Nothing yet, but the promise of an on-line archive of the North East Tolkien Society looks very promising.

= = = = Blogs = = = =

These are blogs you really should be following yourself if you're interested in Tolkien ….
Contents from these blogs will only be reported here if there is something that I find particularly interesting, or posts that fit with a monthly theme, but I will here note the number of Tolkien-related posts in the month covered by these transactions (while the number of posts with a vaguer relation — e.g. by being about other Inklings — are given in parentheses).

Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond (S&H), “Too Many Books and Never Enough”
1 Tolkien-related posts in June (Tolkien Notes 8 — see under essays and scholarship above)

Jason Fisher (JF) — “Lingwë — Musings of a Fish”
No Tolkien-related posts in June

Pieter Collier (PC), “The Tolkien Library”
3 Tolkien-related posts in June. A short article about choosing a college if you have a desire for academic studies of Tolkien's works (and how hard it is to find a college that will offer a course on the subject) and the announcement that Pieter Collier can offer original artwork by Inger Edfeldt for sale. Finally the article by Christopher L. Robinson on Tolkien's names referred to above under essays.

Douglas A. Anderson (DAA), “Tolkien and Fantasy”
No posts in June

John D. Rateliff (JDR) — “Sacnoth's Scriptorium”
3 (+2) Tolkien-related posts this month. Apart from the piece on Tolkien's pneumonia in 1923 (see under essays and scholarship above), Rateliff writes more about George S. Gordon and about very early critical comments (positive) about The Hobbit by Helen Haines. In related posts Rateliff discusses other WWI writers.

Marcel Aubron-Bülles (MB), “The Tolkienist”
4 Tolkien-related posts in June. Among these are stories about Tolkien societies in Mexico, Slovenia and the Grey Havens Group in Colorado, USA. See above under “Essays” for the post on “Middle-earth and Modernity”.

David Bratman (DB), “Kalimac”
and the old home:
2 Tolkien-related posts in June. In addition to the review of the Jackson trailer (see “Other Stuff” above), Bratman comments on a neo-nazi extremist who apparently likes Jackson's LotR trilogy …

Jenny Dolfen (JD), “Jenny's Sketchbook”
2 interesting posts in June. First about early inspiration and the pivotal realisation that continual self-improvement is possible (it's been the basis for the scout movement for a century now) and later a curious picture inspired by a Tolkien-related “what-if?”

Holly Rodgers (HR), “Teaching Tolkien”
5 Tolkien-related posts in June, including a round of Tolkien-related questions to the blog readers (many of the questions are, not surprisingly, among those questions that many, many emerging fans have asked before, though there are also some that I haven't seen before). Other posts regards the celebration of the huge achievement of the children in finishing The Lord of the Rings in time.
A huge congratulations to the children!

Various, The Mythopoeic Society
2 posts in June about Mythcon 44, including the papers schedule.

Morgan Thomsen (MT), “Mythoi”
No posts in June

Bruce Charlton (BC), “Tolkien's The Notion Club Papers”
2 Tolkien-related posts in June 2013. In the first, Charlton speculates about the causes for the continued popularity of the Inklings, though this is somewhat tainted by a personal religio-political agenda. Charlton's review of The Fall of Arthur is listed above under Arthuriana.

Michael Martinez (MM), “Middle-earth”
No posts in June

= = = = Sources = = = =

For more, see