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Tolkien Studies 2.1 (2005) 113-129

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Tolkien and Modernism

Perhaps no author of the past century has inspired such a contentious debate as the one surrounding J. R. R. Tolkien. Countless readers consider The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion—not to mention the creation of the attendant languages, histories, maps, artwork, and apocrypha—the greatest creative accomplishment of a modern author. His many critics dismiss his work as childish, irrelevant, and worse. If his defenders and detractors have common ground, it is in their shared tendency to consider Tolkien's works escapist and romantic, the work of a man removed from his own time. In doing so, however, they make an appalling oversight. Tolkien's project was as grand and avant-garde as those of Wagner or the Futurists, and his works are as suffused with the spirit of the age as any by Eliot, Joyce, or Hemingway. Thus, it is vital that Tolkien's work be placed in conversation with his contemporaries—that it be regarded not as isolated or anachronistic, but as part of the literary current. By turns a soldier, linguist, and mythographer, Tolkien was a writer fully in touch with his era, and his work reveals modernist attributes—and even ambitions of modernist scope—that deserve to be explored.

Defining modernism is a fraught endeavor, as it was not only a movement in and of itself but also a collection of movements, such as Symbolism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, and Expressionism. Most strict definitions of modernism fall apart upon close examination, and even pinning the movement down chronologically is difficult—when we speak of modernism in theatre we cast as far back as Ibsen, while in painting we might point as late as the Cubists.

Still, some rough generalizations can be made. Modernism largely arose in Europe at the turn of the century, as a vivacious and invigorating movement that took in all aspects of art, from literature to music to sculpture to dance and beyond. Scorning the shackling dictates of art in the service of God, Reason, or a social movement,1 modernism championed the proverbial 'art for art's sake,' and tended to celebrate the primacy of the individual and the canonization of the artist. Modernists deliberately distanced themselves from traditional forms of art and thought in wildly diverse ways, for equally diverse reasons—some out of a bold desire to clear new ground, others as a savage attack on a society and old modes of expression they deemed to have failed them (Williams 43, 5). As Peter Nicholls points out, the relationship of modernism to its era was often [End Page 113] a contentious one—the Italian Futurists especially, embraced it, while those others—such as Pound, Lewis, Eliot, and Joyce, whom Nicholls labels the "Men of 1914"—often decried or even attacked it (166, 251). Whether individual artists were enraptured or appalled by the age, their themes—of reinventing art, of creating new modes of thought and language, of speed, of technological advance, of urban- and suburbanization, of isolation and dislocation (especially ironic within the teeming multitudes of the cities), and of change and transience—remain constant throughout modernism (Williams 78). And though transformed, as was all of Western culture, by the Great War and its aftershocks, the tenets of modernism determined the course of art for much of the twentieth century.

It is naïve, then, to assert that Tolkien, born in 1892 and educated in the first decade of the twentieth century, would have emerged in some kind of aesthetic vacuum. Yet his work is constantly critiqued and cataloged in a fashion that divorces him from his contemporaries. T. A. Shippey, in The Road to Middle-earth, offers a survey, the crown jewel of which comes from Edmund Wilson: "[C]ertain people—especially, perhaps, in Britain—have a life-long appetite for juvenile trash" (1). Sadly, Tolkien's fans often do him little more credit; they merely echo the critics' charges in a positive tone, rather than engage with them. The foreword by Peter S. Beagle found in most...