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  • “J. R. R. Tolkien Special Issue,” Mfs: Modern Fiction Studies, 50 no. 4 (Winter 2004)
  • Robin Anne Reid
“J. R. R. Tolkien Special Issue,” Mfs: Modern Fiction Studies, 50 no. 4 (Winter 2004), guest edited by Shaun F. D. Hughes . Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press for the Department of English, Purdue University. ISSN 0026-7724.

The Tolkien Issue of Mfs, edited by Shaun F.D. Hughes, opens with his introduction comparing the dismissal of Tolkien's work by modernists with its popularity, shown by sales, translations, and film adaptations. This issue asks whether thesis (popularity) and antithesis (critical dismissal) can be resolved by postmodernism. Hughes overlooks the body of Tolkien scholarship by medievalists whose primary field of study has been ignored by modernists who tend to dismiss the literature and culture of the "Dark Ages." Tolkien struggled with the same disciplinary bias as a university professor in the curriculum debates of his time. Perhaps Hughes intends to criticize modernist criticism rather than imply it is the only, instead of the dominent, field of literary criticism

The first section, "Fairy Tale and Myth," contains two essays: "The Qualities of a Tolkienian Fairy-Story" by Clyde B. Northrup and "Stolen Language, Cosmic Models: Myth and Mythology in Tolkien" by Margaret Hiley. Northrup is concerned with the question of what critical tools should be used in contemporary scholarship on fantastic literature. He calls for applying Tolkien's theory from "On Fairy-stories" to Tolkien's work and to other works that "follow and/or imitate the pattern established by Tolkien in his lecture" (836). Northrup argues that gaps in Todorov's structuralist approach, notably the exclusion of "secondary world" fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings can be solved by use of Tolkien's theory, specifically his concepts of sub-creation, recovery (which Northrup wishes to distinguish from the formalist concept of defamiliarization), escape, and eucatastrophe. Northrup's essay does not make clear how Tolkien's concepts could be applied beyond the formalist methodology of close reading. Hiley's essay considers Tolkien's use of mythology against modernist use of myth, drawing on scholarship by Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, and de Saussure. Hiley argues for the need to move beyond the thematic analysis of myths in literature to consider how Tolkien, in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, creates a new whole from the fragments of earlier work, using linguistic and syntactic methods. Hiley's insistence on referring to mythology/religious beliefs from the Middle Ages as "ancient" and her categorizing of the Christian myth as "true myth" weakens some parts of her argument, but her ambitious move to situate Tolkien's work in the context of the modernist aesthetic opens possibilities for stylistic discussion.

The next section, "The Lord of the Rings and Race," includes two postcolonial essays. "Why is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc? The Dark [End Page 178] Face of Racism Examined in Tolkien's World" by Anderson Rearick III and "Beyond Black and White: Race and Postmodernism in The Lord of the Ring films" by Sue Kim. Rearick's essay engages with charges that Tolkien or his work or both are racist. The analysis of "race" in Tolkien must involve, as Rearick points out, at least the following: distinguishing between the film and the novel; considering the author's beliefs and life carefully rather than assuming all born in certain periods are racists); drawing on appropriate scholarship to analyze the complex range range of historical interactions between cultures in the past and present, and analyzing the narrative's complex constructions of and criticisms of power. Kim's complex essay is an excellent example of just such a postcolonial approach. She begins with a discussion of racial coding in the film but soon moves to embed her analysis of it in the historical context of New Zealand, especially treatment of the Maori, a number of whom worked as stunt players on the set and thus played the Orcs, and in the postmodern realities of global late capitalism, translational labor forces and economic issues, including growing reliance upon nonunion labor for increasingly technological and digitized work such as was involved in the special effects...


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