From The Blog

Tolkien Criticism Unbound: A response to Norbert Schürer

Here at Mythgard, we like to think that we are helping to train and educate the next generation of great scholars in speculative literature. Many of our students and supporters are particularly interested in Tolkien Studies – so it’s not a surprise that they had something to say about one recent assessment of the field…

 

By Luke Baugher, Tom Hillman & Dominic J. Nardi, Jr.

In a recent article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Norbert Schürer, Professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, deplores the “sad state” of Tolkien scholarship. He argues that the field remains too focused on the cultural, literary, and linguistic influences on Tolkien’s works. He particularly deplores scholarship that simply compares Tolkien’s legendarium with other stories without any deeper analysis.

Schürer seems to approach Tolkien Studies with his heart in the right place. Unlike some in the halls of academia, he does not dismiss the idea of Tolkien Studies, but rather seeks to improve the quality of scholarship. He rightly acknowledges the risk that scholar-fans will treat Tolkien with “kid gloves” so as to the avoid the perception of “Tolkien-bashing.” He also takes the time to praise Tolkien scholars Tom Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, and Jane Chance, whom he finds do a better job providing deeper analytical insights.

Any response to Schürer’s critique risks becoming a debate over whether the Tolkien Studies glass is half full or half empty. According to Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of anything is junk. Given the “publish or perish” mentality, it’s hardly surprising that academia suffers from large amounts of “junk” scholarship. The problem has only become worse in the digital age, when anybody can publish anything in a burgeoning number of venues. In some fields, as few as 2% of journal articles are ever cited (and even citation is no guarantee of quality). So “junk” scholarship is a risk in any academic discipline, including Tolkien Studies. Two of us have even written reviews critical of work in the field.

However, we simply cannot view the state of Tolkien Studies as quite so desperate. As Sam Gamgee would advise, there are several reasons for hope.

First, we should not be so quick to dismiss scholarship that focuses on “comparisons and influences.” There is something to be said for scholars taking the time to formally chronicle these comparisons and influences as a basis for future research. For example, it would be difficult to demonstrate how an understanding of the Kalevala or Norse mythology “actually changes the way we interpret Tolkien’s works” if we have not already convincingly demonstrated that the “comparisons and influences” existed in the first place. In the sciences, this would be equivalent to foundational research and development. Granted, scholarship needs to advance beyond simple “comparisons and influences,” but it cannot simply dismiss them.

It is also worth noting that although Tolkien’s most famous pieces of fiction were published decades ago, Tolkien Studies is dealing with an evolving set of primary documents. Within the past six years, the Tolkien Estate has published Tolkien’s translations of Kullervo, Sigurd and Gudrún, Beowulf, and The Fall of Arthur, as well as a new version of The Children of Húrin. These texts provide fodder for refinement and reevaluation of previous studies on “comparisons and influences.” Indeed, it is hard not to see Tolkien’s works in a new light after reading his commentaries to his translations.

As to the overall quality of Tolkien scholarship, Schürer’s analysis rests on a small sample size of recent works. Despite his call for more monographs, he overlooks two important works, Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth and Tolkien, Race and Cultural History by Dimitra Fimi. Indeed, in his recently concluded Mythgard class Tolkien’s Wars and Middle-earth, Garth presented previously unseen research he has done to extend the themes of his book, and there is likely still much work to do in that area. Robin Reid of Texas A&M University – who taught a cultural studies approach to Tolkien’s work at Mythgard Institute last year – provides a much more comprehensive bibliography of recent peer-reviewed articles and monographs in her own reply to Schürer.

More importantly, Tolkien Studies has been a source of innovation in literary research. Scholar-fans Sparrow Alden and David Kale are independently conducting research using natural language processing tools to study the use of language in The Hobbit. Dominic Nardi recently published an article for Mythlore – one of the journals Schürer praises – using a game theoretic model to explain political institutions in Lord of the Rings. In a development with great potential for future research, Michael Drout’s Lexomics project uses computational analysis of Beowulf and other texts to make inferences about the development of those works. Future research can use these tools to look at questions of “comparisons and influences” from entirely new perspectives.

In assessing the state of Tolkien scholarship, Schürer is implicitly comparing it to the state of other fields of literary scholarship, but never does so explicitly. This is a crucial omission because any assessment requires a baseline. Indeed, when compared to scholarly studies of other speculative fiction authors, Tolkien Studies fares exceptionally well. It’s hard to find another author who has received as much popular and academic attention as Tolkien. Even noted fantasy authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and George R.R. Martin cannot boast of journals and scholars dedicated to their work. The only popular sci-fi author who comes close to receiving that amount of attention is writer/director Joss Whedon. Indeed, there is even a journal, Slayage, dedicate to the study of Whedon’s works.

Part of the reason for the success of Tolkien Studies is that Tolkien left much for future scholars to study. Thanks to Christopher Tolkien, we have the exhaustive History of Middle-earth series, Tolkien’s translations of Anglo-Saxon epic poems, and a collection of Tolkien’s letters, not to mention John Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit. We can study what changes Tolkien made to earlier drafts of his works and why. We also have a large foundation of scholarship to build upon – much of it in the form of “comparisons and influences” – which enables scholars to communicate with a common vocabulary and set of shared understandings. By contrast, although critics often call Dune the sci-fi equivalent to Lord of the Rings, it certainly isn’t when it comes to scholarly attention. Brian Herbert has only released a handful of Frank Herbert’s notes in The Road to Dune, none of which concern Herbet’s proposed sequel to Chapterhouse Dune. The contrast between these two titans of their fields couldn’t be more telling.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Tolkien Studies has succeeded in a way that much of academia has failed – having an impact beyond the ivory tower. Tolkien scholars have managed to engage fans and expose them to critical analysis of literature. Scholars have published their research not just in inaccessible academic journals, but also in books and even blog posts in order to reach a wider audience. As one example, Mythgard Institute offers graduate-level online courses – as well as free Mythgard Academy classes and guest lectures – about Tolkien taught by Tom Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, Corey Olsen, and other top experts. Rather than “dumb down” the academic literature, these initiatives have raised the level of public engagement with Tolkien. Some of these fans have even become scholars in their own right, such as Andrew Higgins, who has become an expert on Tolkien’s invented languages.

Schürer’s article serves as an important and timely reminder that Tolkien scholars must strive to provide additional value in their scholarship. But the field is not in a “sad state.” Far from it. Despite the fact that many English departments at major universities still frown upon the study of popular fantasy authors, scholars and fans have produced an impressive body of scholarly work, both in terms of quality and quantity.

 

Luke Baugher is a Graduate Student at East Tennessee State University and Signum University. His areas of study include J.R.R. Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon Literature.

Born and raised in New York City, Tom Hillman took his undergraduate and graduate degrees at NYU and Fordham University. For some years he had the great pleasure of teaching Latin, Greek, and Ancient History at colleges in the northeast. Currently he is working his way through Beowulf in Old English, and looking forward to Old Norse. He loves baseball and books and the music of the sea.

Dom Nardi is a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published an article about politics in Lord of the Rings for Mythlore. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.

With helpful suggestions from Curtis Weyant, Brandon Young, Katherin Sas, and others.

 

Citations

Alden, Sparrow. Words That You Were Saying: An Adventure Through the Words of The Hobbit. (blog)

Fimi, Dimitra. Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Herbert, Frank and Kevin J. Anderson. The Road to Dune. Tor Books, 2008.

Hillman, Tom. “Book Review: Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War.” Signum Eagle. July 2015.

Nardi, Dominic J., Jr. “Book Review: The Hobbit Party.” Signum Eagle. December 2014.

—— “Political Institutions in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Lack of Democracy.” Mythlore 135 (33.1). Fall/Winter 2014.

Rateliff, John D. The History of The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Reid, Robin Anne. “The question of Tolkien Criticism.” November 14, 2015.

Schürer, Norbert. “Tolkien Criticism Today.” Los Angeles Review of Books.