Timeless elves?

February 27th, 2007

I subscribe to the (London) Times Literary Supplement, and in the 16 February issue there was an amazing statement made about JRR Tolkien’s work.   A review of a book called IN SEARCH OF THE HOLY GRAIL: the quest for the Middle Ages, is titled “Away with the elves.”  The book looks like a pretty standard work of “reception studies” – ie, a book about how our culture and others have viewed and reacted to a particular book, artwork, culture, whatever – focused on various views of the European Middle Ages.   The reviewer (Alex Burghart) makes an amazing mistake, one apparently shared by the author, Veronica Orgenberg.   I say apparently in her case because I’ve not read the book, and the reviewer may well have got it wrong.

Anyway, the gaffe: they think that Tolkien’s works are set in the Middle Ages.  Haven’t they read LotR?  Or even THE HOBBIT?  Burghart even says that those who “buy into” Tolkien’s stories “rarely go on to read medieval history.”   Why would they?  I can only assume that Burghart (and perhaps Otenberg as well) have never read Tolkien, or if they have, they’ve done so very badly.

Tolkien’s work takes place in that great Never-When of mythology, of course.  If those who read “go on” to any field of study, it would be mythology, folklore, or linguistics.  If we had to assign it a time period from “real” history, it would have to be Iron Age, I suppose — long before the Roman Empire, long long LONG before the Christianity that marked the European Medieval world.  But it doesn’t fit in the Iron Age, either — in fact, one could pick the world apart and assign different cultures to different points in time.  One could, but the exercise would be meaningless.

I do wish that people who criticize Tolkien would read the books first.  If nothing else, good scholarship demands it.

16 Responses to “Timeless elves?”

  1. Lois Tiltonon 27 Feb 2007 at 7:44 pm

    Middle Earth = Middle Ages

    All things Middle are the same.

  2. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 27 Feb 2007 at 8:04 pm

    And as everyone knows, in the Middle Ages, everyone was Middle Aged.

  3. […] Shameful Scholarship By Lenneth Katherine Kerr at DeepGenre points out yet another slap in the face of fantasy fans administered by intellectuals who should supposedly know better. Apparently London Times reviewer Alex Burghart and author Veronica Orgenberg are under the mistaken impression Lord of the Rings takes place in the Middle Ages, and that its fans think medieval times were really like that, or some similarly ridiculous notion. […]

  4. Farahon 27 Feb 2007 at 8:47 pm

    Burghart even says that those who “buy into” Tolkien’s stories “rarely go on to read medieval history.”

    But that’s utter bollocks. To name two of the most senior Tolkien scholars…

    Professor Tom Shippey, who occupied Tolkien’s own chair of medieval history at Leeds


    Professor Edward James who is chair of medieval history at University College Dublin.

    Scratch a medievalist (particularly an early medievalist) and you almost always find a Tolkien fan. I spent years sitting around with medievalists at York wishing they would take the Prof just a little less seriously.

  5. Marie Brennanon 28 Feb 2007 at 12:14 am

    Ah, but you see, to some people, Tolkien is not worthy of good scholarship. When I was taking a graduate seminar in fantasy lit and the professor was out of town, the guy who sat in for him kept making little deprecating comments every five minutes about how strange it was for us to be discussing things like racial depiction of orcs. He liked LotR — that was why he was there — but god, was he insecure about it.

  6. Mark Tiedemannon 28 Feb 2007 at 9:51 am

    Some of this misconception may be due to the almost iconic art work of the Brothers Hildebrandt, who gave Middle Earth a distinctly Medieval look. Naturally, this would be arm chair critique, the same as judging a book by the movie version, but the “timeless” quality of Tolkein’s work allows for an overlay like that for the “casual” reader.

    But then a lot of people–some otherwise quite bright and well educated–in my experience lump the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Age of Arthur, and the Middle Ages together in one messy amalgam of misapprehended historical anachronism.

  7. Laura J. Mixonon 01 Mar 2007 at 4:19 pm

    Well said, Kit.

  8. Katharine Kerron 01 Mar 2007 at 4:39 pm

    An even worse example — last year sometime in the NYRB, Jasper Griffin, professor emeritus from some prestigious university and an extremely intelligent fellow most of the time, announced that LotR was inferior to real heroic literature because it ends with “no sense of loss” and sadness. Obviously the man knows the books only from his grandchildren’s video games. How could anyone who actually read the thing think that it ends Happily Ever After??? and !!!, too.

    Tom Shippey wrote a splendid rebuttal to that article, in fact. I have hopes that he’s already fired off a letter to the TLS about this one, as he’s a regular contributor there and has doubtless read it. I thought about writing myself, but he’s got the eloquence and the authority I lack.

    Another common slur against LotR is that it’s “children’s literature.” Yeah, sure, if you don’t mind your children having strange nightmares about the Dead Marshes and Mordor. Those who say this may have read THE HOBBIT, of course, and the first few pages of FELLOWSHIP, which, let’s face it, give no real hint of the tone to follow.

  9. kateelliotton 01 Mar 2007 at 7:55 pm

    Although academics are unlikely to be familiar with the works of the Brothers Hildebrandt.

    As for the other, what can one really say? People will pass judgement on things they haven’t, well, read.

  10. Alex Burgharton 05 Mar 2007 at 8:43 am

    I do apologise to everyone for not having made myself clear in the review, perhaps I might now. Firstly, nowhere do I suggest that Tolkein’s works are set in the Middle Ages, but I’m sure we all understand that they were inspired by the author’s extensive study of the Middle Ages. (Veronica O. doesn’t make this mistake either.) Secondly, (to Farah) I wish it were utter bollocks that most people who read JRR also read medieval history. Of course some people do, but over the past twenty years I’ve met many hundreds of Tolkein fans; *very* few of them have ever looked into medieval history. And I’ve met many people who’ve found the patchy source material of the Middle Ages frustrating after the rich tapestry of JRRT’s work. (I also think Tolkein is worthy of serious literary scholarship.) P.S. I did not choose the title for my review – I never do.

  11. Katharine Kerron 05 Mar 2007 at 3:31 pm

    Alex, welcome to the madhouse . . .

    I’m sorry, but if you weren’t implying that Tolkien’s work is set in the Middle Ages, why drag him in at all? The book under review was discussing the reception and the treatment of the European Middle Ages in modern culture. Tolkien appeared to be your chosen example of a particular case of same.

    There’s no doubt that Tolkien’s life as a professional medievalist helped him flesh out his world, but he started writing the stuff early in his life, long before he went to university, even. His main inspiration was philological, not historical — have you read Prof. Shippey’s THE ROAD TO MIDDLE EARTH? The thesis there: above all Tolkien wanted to “recover” the lost mythology of Gothic peoples, including the Anglo-Saxons, which Christianity had suppressed — an odd motivation for a practicing Catholic, perhaps, but one that grabbed Tolkien early and never let him go.

    An example: One of his techniques was an almost mystical attempt to decipher the “true” meanings of certain words, such as vargr, as keys to lost concepts. Why are there 2 words for “wolf”, in the case of vargr, in many N. European languages? He came to the conclusion that one has to be a non-ordinary wolf, and the wargs were born. This method is historical, yes, but it’s certainly not the methodical analysis of historical data as practised by the modern historian . . .

    We are definitely in the land of Folklore, in other words, not history. Hence my contention that there’s no reason that Tolkien should somehow inspire a serious study of medieval history. The people who’s heroic literature he was longing for are in no way shape or form medieval Europeans, as witness his Rohirrim.

    I’m glad to hear that you’re innocent of that title, but I assumed an editor supplied it. The TLS has a habit of taking pot-shots at Tolkien’s work even when they’re not appropriate to the subject under discussion.

    A digression: at about the same time as Tolkien was digging at the ancient language mines, a number of fringe figures in European culture were working the same vein, particularly Laura (Riding) Jackson, not that she and Tolkien would have been able to converse civillly on any subject, most likely.

    You know, I should have said “philology,” not linguistics in my original post.

    — Kit

  12. lyvisaron 07 May 2007 at 3:34 am

    I am not sure if this is the place or if any one will notice but I have gone away and come back to Katharine Kerr’s writing and have not been able to stomach LotR or Robert Jordan. When ordering in one of her books I was disgusted to find on the front cover the audacity of ‘Interzone’ to be quoted and have the nerve to compare her work to LotR. If they dislike comparing things to it (LotR) why on earth is it on the cover of her book. I feel like sending it back and getting a copy without this quote which incidently is covering up some of the great artwork.

  13. Katharine Kerron 07 May 2007 at 4:34 pm

    Lyvisar, I’m not sure which author you think was insulted — me or Tolkien. :-)

    Interzone didn’t put that quote there — my editor saw it in a review, took it as a compliment, and put it on the cover to help sell the book. All those cover quotes you see on various books — they’re called blurbs — are selected by the publisher. They’re not adverts for the people making them.

  14. lyvisaron 08 May 2007 at 4:33 am

    It was I who was possibly insulted. I would not talk about yourself and tolkien in the same sentence. In future I may purchase online so I can decide on what cover I am getting instead of purchasing un-sited from a retail book store, since it was ordered in for me, The Red Wyvern I am referring to. I would not even compare, it was you who I think would be insulted. Every author I thought would want to be seen in there own right. Anyhow thanks for commenting, I only thought I would air this for some reason it stirred me up :)

  15. Patrick Smithon 27 Jul 2007 at 3:41 am

    I personally think that the Lord of the Rings has many elements of the Middle Ages in terms of the apparent technology used by the characters. However, it is definitely not set in the Middle Ages.

    A quick glance at Wikipedia (which I know has its faults) gives the term Middle Ages a broad definition, with it stretching from the 5th century to the 15th century AD. I think it is more likely that the early Middle Ages (post-Roman Empire) was inspirational for Tolkien rather than later centuries, certainly when one considers some of the descriptions of Minas Tirith, Gondor and Rohan. However, the knights of Dol Amroth have always given me the impression of the Crusader era and Samwise’s mention of potatoes (in Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit) suggests an even later period. In the end, it is clear to me that Middle Earth combines a number of inspirations from different historical periods and Tolkien’s main creative impulse came from providing a setting for his languages and reasons for the changes that occurred in them. Personally, after my last reading of Lord of the Rings I started reading about Proto-Indo-European. (After my first reading I started reading Narnia.)

  16. Katharine Kerron 27 Jul 2007 at 3:58 pm

    Samwise’s mention of potatoes (in Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit) suggests an even later period. In the end, it is clear to me that Middle Earth combines a number of inspirations from different historical periods

    That was my point, yes. The nobbits apparently live in 18th England, if you look at the food surplus they’ve managed to produce as well as a number of details of their daily lives.

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