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Literary Context, Twentieth Century

Writers and critics of twentieth century British literature have typically relegated Tolkien to a minor footnote, with LR "fated to become only an intricate Period Piece," according to critic Harold Bloom in 2000. W.H. Auden's early championing of both LR and Tolkien's poetry was unusual and much appreciated by Tolkien, who wrote Robert H. Boyer on 25th August, 1971 that Auden "was, in fact, sneered at for it." More characteristic were the attacks on LR by central figures within the post-1945 English literary world like Edwin Muir, Philip Toynbee, and Anthony Burgess, although it is important to recognize that other notable novelists such as Iris Murdoch and Naomi Mitchison admired the book. Criticism of Tolkien's fantasy literature tends to hinge on the belief that it is peripheral to the literary movements and cultural trends of the twentieth century, and thereby pre-modern. Even his early biographer Carpenter argues, "he could scarcely be called a modern writer" (Carpenter, 1977: 157). As a result, serious Tolkien scholars like Tom Shippey and Brian Rosebury argue for his modernity, but in doing so they often find themselves enmeshed in definitions of the modern produced by the very writers and critics to whom Tolkien seemed a peripheral figure.

A revisionist approach to twentieth century English culture and to the history of modernism in recent years offers new possibilities for Tolkien scholarship. Recent scholarship has rid us of a number of myths about how we understand literary modernism and its influence during the first half of the twentieth century. Modernists such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis were themselves effective publicists for their aesthetic priorities. Blast, Egoist, The Criterion, and other literary magazines, directly produced or indirectly controlled by the major names of Anglo-American high modernism, consciously worked to redefine the forms and subject matter of quality literature during the teens and twenties. An anti-realist formal aesthetic, the refusal to separate the domains of art and life, and the focus on a "subjective" reality became hallmarks of mainstream modernist writing. By the 1950's, when LR appeared, these criteria for literary value dominated the academy in both Britain and the United States thanks to a generation of critics whose interests, tastes, and procedures had been formed by high modernism. In the United States in particular, modernism's dominance rested on the triumph of New Criticism. Alan Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and John Crowe Ransom had successfully grounded critical practice in a radical formalism, with poetic language as its object of analysis. Their aim was to defend high culture against the profound transformation of literature in the context of new forms of mass culture, such as Hollywood film. The dismissal of LR as "juvenile taste" by the late modernist novelist and critic Edmund Wilson belongs within such a framework.

The seventies and eighties saw challenges to a modernism exclusively defined by the practice of a small group of Anglo-American writers termed high modernists. Research into modernism's close engagement with both popular culture and the literary marketplace has dislodged the emphasis on a self-referential and autonomous domain for modernist aesthetics. An emphasis on modernism's connections to the fin-de-siecle Victorian moment has likewise brought into question the central claim of modernists like Pound and Wyndham Lewis to break with the past. Feminist critics in particular have sought to understand "a turn-of-the-twentieth-century cultural landscape" in terms that emphasize a various and lively debate over aesthetic values that had not yet been resolved in favor of modernism. Most significant for any consideration of Tolkien must be the way in which "thick" descriptions of early twentieth century literature bring to the center a significantly expanded range of genres and thematic concerns, both within the practices of modernists and in the writing of modernism's so-called "others," middlebrow writers such as H.G. Wells, John Buchan, Radclyffe Hall, Ivy Compton Burnett, and John Galsworthy, whose thematic, generic, and stylistic preferences fell outside traditional definitions of modernism.

Tolkien critics have been quick to point to the continuity between many of his central interests and those of his modernist contemporaries, principal amongst which would have to be that of language. Tolkien's invention of the middle-earth languages, and his polyglot linguistic world in LR and The Simillarion has rightly been compared to modernist writing by Shippey and other critics. And although alienation and decentering are not part of Tolkien's design, his incorporation of fragments of dwarvish and elvish scripts, etymologies, and other textual traces of linguistic materiality are consonant with major modernist texts like The Wasteland, Ulysses, and Trilogy as well as less often cited examples such as David Jones' In Parenthesis. Cultural materialist critic Raymond Williams, in "Language and the Avant-Garde," teaches us to understand Tolkien alongside a broad set of avant-garde European aesthetic movements in a context of twentieth century theories of literary language. Williams criticizes the tendency to conflate approaches as diametrically opposed as the Formalist "resurrection of the word", characteristic of Joyce, and the Symbolist "poetic word" found throughout W.B. Yeats' verse. Vastly different aesthetic theories and practices are lumped together with modernism, and treated as unprecedented. The emphasis on the materiality of language, for example, is as much a feature of the rules of earlier poetics, "from the Welsh cynghanedd to medieval alliterative verse" as it is of Modernism. Tolkien only appears peripheral to the twentieth century interest in language when high Modernism is used as the starting point.

A shared preoccupation with temporality also links Tolkien to Modernist writers, although this has most often been used to differentiate them. Well known modernists such as Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, Rebecca West, and D.H. Lawrence emphasized the distinctive modernity and newness of the moment in which they wrote, whilst acknowledging that moment's entanglement in the past. This may be apocalyptic and dystopian, as in Eliot's "The Wasteland," or euphoric, as in Woolf's aesthetic layering of past and present in the consciousness of Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway. These interests are indebted to major trends in nineteenth century thought, whether to Hegel's dialectical model of history; to Darwinian theories of evolutionary development in the natural sciences; to anthropological and sociological applications of Darwin's ideas to human society; or to the emergence of a psychology of human perception and consciousness.

By the beginning of the twentieth century these earlier paradigms were being recast in ways that stressed "uneven or competing temporalities" over a single unfolding development. Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, William James's and Henri Bergson's interest in the perception of time, and Sigmund Freud's theory of a psychic reality which constantly interrupts the rationally organized chronology of daily life, are all obvious examples of this recasting. These larger trends translated into such thematic interests as cultural fragmentation, consciousness as a mode of apprehension in time, and art as a form of consciousness, as well as the formal experimentation associated with literary Modernism. More recently modernist studies has added the reconsideration of historical time to the list.

In this context, Tolkien's extraordinary epic vision, with his invention of an entire history of Middle-earth, seems at odds with Modernism only because of the over-exclusive emphasis on Pound's call to break with a moribund past and "make it new." In fact, Modernists persistently grappled with how to represent the present in relationship to the past, within an understanding of history as discontinuous rather than progressive and linear. The work of thirties writers like Rebecca West, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and xxx are particularly important here, and closer than might at first appear to Tolkien who also offers an alternative model to the evolutionary narratives of nineteenth century realist fiction. His narratives of Middle-earth are mythically, linguistically, and historically layered in ways that re-conceptualize time and history just as much as an Eliot or a Joyce.

Other of Tolkien's themes have less to do with modernism, but are nonetheless shared with many of his contemporaries. His portrait of the Shire in LR has often been judged as a conservative recourse to a nostalgic paradigm of idealized rural Englishness. The Shire, and elements like Tom Bombadil and the Ents, find a context in the continuation of a tradition of English rural writing in the twentieth century. The predominantly urban and cosmopolitan profile of modernism has tended to obscure the importance of this tradition, even within English modernism, with the exception of course of Lawrence's detailed evocation of rural Nottinghamshire in Sons of Lovers and The Rainbow. The largely middlebrow status of rural and regional fiction in the twentieth century has not helped the reputation of ruralists; neither has its characteristic reliance on an elegiac image of a vanished or vanishing English countryside. In recent years, a more nuanced account has emerged that pays attention to the multiple forms and purposes of writers in this tradition. Thanks to postcolonial theory and cultural geography, writing about localized rural communities does not have to be seen as inherently collusive with British imperialism. Tolkien's careful delineation of the Shire as having its own history and lore can be seen to defend "place against placelessness, home against empire, the local and particular against bland megalopolitan uniformity" (Ludwig, 1995 :74).

The rural novel in the twentieth century took a variety of forms: documentary realism, fictional naturalism, fable, romance, and fantasy. John Cowper Powys borrows Hardy's Wessex focus in novels like Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1932) and Maiden Castle (1936), but makes religion and the supernatural important as well as the relationship between human and natural worlds. Some writers, like Eden Phillpotts and T.F. Powys, create isolated and distinct localities emphasizing a primitivist vision of the rural Englander. Others like Henry Williamson and Llewelyn Powys treat nature and the countryside as a source of expressive intensity dependent on a Wordsworthian spiritual affinity between man and nature. Their writing tends necessarily towards nostalgia. Mary Webb, whose novel Precious Bane won the Femina Vie Heureuse in 1924, represents a kind of nature-mysticism, defining the natural world as holding "Life -- the unknown quantity, the guarded secret" (134). By contrast, other novelists explore the human social world through naturalism, whether as outsiders like Sheila Kaye Smith and Constance Holme, or as documentary realists in the case of the farmer novelists of the nineteen thirties, such as H. W. Freeman and A.G. Street, whose writing replaces the picturesque with an intimate absorption in the purpose and function of the landscape.

The rural life of Tolkien's hobbits may perhaps be linked most fruitfully to the range of writing which uses the countryside as an occasion rather than an object for fantasy (Cavaliero, 1977: 35). The children's novel Wind in the Willows (1908) is an obvious and well known Edwardian example, but the tradition is fully alive in writing for both children and adults in the nineteen twenties and thirties, and even later in Richard Adams' Watership Down (1972). Sylvia Townsend Warner combines the rural novel with fantasy as a way of avoiding both the sentimental and the primitivistic, to spectacular effect in her portrait of an urban spinster turned witch in Lolly Willows (1926). T.H. White directly addressed the changing nature of rural experience in his early novel Farewell Victoria (1933) and the autobiographical England Have my Bones (1936). But, he when he turns to fantasy in his most enduringly successful work, Sword in the Stone (1939) he grounds the Arthur stories in a carefully particularized natural world, most famously in Arthur's transformations into fish, hawk, snake, and badger. Fantasy, as Cavaliero, notes is not about making "an idyllic world" of the countryside, "but also a gateway into worlds greater than itself" (34-5). In the context of the twentieth century English rural tradition in literature, Tolkien's insistence on the hobbits' attachment to the rural Shire may be a mechanism well suited to the exploration of major questions of the century.

In the early twentieth century, poets had to contend with rural England's place in the later moment of British imperialism, as an emblem for the pure heart of England and its empire, enduring, unchanging, and innocent of colonial rapaciousness. In the context of late Victorian militarism and jingoism, Thomas Hardy's poetry best registers the pressures on a literary tradition in which relationship to place is central. Always skeptical of nostalgic idealizations of rural life, Hardy's poetry explores the countryside of rural Wessex as a changing and often haunted landscape, layered with human existence and imaginings that contrive to alienate rather than root the speakers. Hardy's poetry was incorporated into the Georgian movement, the group of writers who aimed to modernize English verse in the pre-war years, combining established forms with naturalism, in for example the poems of Edward Thomas, and W.H. Davies.

The pastoral became a pervasive motif in First World War poetry by combatants and civilians alike. Many well-known soldier poets—Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Blunden, Charles Sorley, Ivor Gurney, and Thomas—were also associated with the Georgians. In Brooke's work the pastoral famously continued the Victorian tradition of domestic patriotism, in which the soldier's death in a foreign land makes affective and organic links between the English homeland and the "foreign field[s]" of empire where "a dust whom England bore" transforms the alien soil into an eternal England. For Thomas, who died in 1917, two years after Brooke, war deaths and rural life are entwined, with minutely observed details of the countryside providing a measure of what is of value, and what is irretrievably damaged. Yet it would be hard to argue that Thomas' rural world is emblematic of a larger Englishness; if anything the precisely localized world resists such patriotic simplifications, as does Ivor Gurney who brings unobtrusive life to the soldier's link to locale, in for example the "infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent," silenced by death, except in the poet's memory. Most characteristic of war poetry is the evocation of natural images to highlight the unnatural horror of the War, in, for example, Owen's anti-elegy "Anthem for Doomed Youth," which revises Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard": "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" or Edmund Blunden's twist to Keats's line ""And all her silken flanks with garlands drest" - / But we are coming to the sacrifice" in "Vlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau, July, 1917." Blunden brings a painful conclusion to the anti-pastoral strand in War poetry in his post-war poem "1916 seen from 1921", where the speaker finds himself permanently separated from the English countryside by the memories of the war-dead. Blunden's post-war elegy helps us to understand how the elegiac and pacifist strand in LR entitles Tolkien to a central place in the twentieth century tradition of war writing, even though his poems and fiction are outside the typical genres of war writing: memoirs rooted in combatant experience, first-person, quasi-autobiographical fiction, and the soldier-poet's lyric verse.

LR's publication in 1954 linked it in critical and popular thought to World War Two and the writers of the '40s and 50's who confronted a half century of war, the rise of modern totalitarianism, the massive genocide of the Holocaust, and the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan. Despite Tolkien's resistance to simplistic allegorical readings of his work, LR compares with works by writers who grapple with the relationship between political power, state aggression, and violence. This work begins in the thirties, when Tolkien was already working on LR, with writers such as George Orwell, Stevie Smith, Auden, Rebecca West, and Christopher Isherwood, as well as those who are more concerned, like the Catholic Tolkien, with the religious and moral dimensions of good and evil, for example C.S. Lewis and Graham Greene. During the forties and fifties the events of the war era and the emergent nuclear age inevitably fuelled the vision of a dystopian century. Allegory and fantasy provided useful vehicles for engagement with post-war issues for pre-War writers such as Orwell, C.S. Lewis, and Wyndham Lewis, as well as a new generation, notably William Golding, Doris Lessing, and Mervyn Peake.

Many writers, such as Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Bowen, L.P. Hartley, Joyce Carey, and Evelyn Waugh, chose to look back to the early years of the century, as well as their main characters' youth, in an effort to understand the history of events. This was an era too of major novel sequences tracking the histories of families, individuals, and English society, among them C.P. Snow's eleven-volume Strangers and Brothers (1940-70), Henry Williamson's fifteen-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (1951-69), Anthony Powell's twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75), and Olivia Manning's six-novel sequence The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy (1960-1980). These so-called sagas parallel in naturalistic form Tolkien's urge toward historical writing.

At the end of the century, critics understand the effects of England's decline as an empire in the nation's self-imagining as essential features of English literature from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in 1902 to the rich output of novels and poetry produced by postcolonial writers living in post-war Britain, such as John Agard, Grace Nichols, V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, and Samuel Selvon. Whether or not Tolkien aimed to produce a new national mythology for England, as is sometimes claimed, is a matter of critical dispute. However, there are important ways in which his work can be seen as part of an effort to grapple with the condition of modern British society evident in writers as different as modernists such as Lawrence, Woolf, and Warner, post-1945 poets such as Ted Hughes, Basil Bunting, Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, and Tony Harrison, and the generation of novelists who have flourished since Tolkien's death, such as Monica Ali, Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, A.S. Byatt, Ian McEwen, Sadie Smith, Graham Swift, and Rose Tremain, who all investigate and re-imagine contemporary Englishness.

Tolkien's relationship to the twentieth century, as Shippey convincingly argues, is best understood through his invention of the heroic fantasy trilogy. At the century's end Tolkien appears as an innovator whose grasp on the potential of the fantastic as a medium for fiction compares with twentieth century writers, both British and American, whose centrality is already assured. Yet Tolkien's claim to be a modern writer is not just a result of his influence on a whole genre: it rests on the degree to which his fiction and poetry stands amidst rather than apart from the main preoccupations of English literature in the last century.

Claire Buck

Further Reading

Ann L. Ardis (2002) Modernism and Cultural Conflict 1880-1922, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tim Armstrong (2005) Modernism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cavaliero, Glen (1977) The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900-1939. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

Hans-Werner Ludwig and Lothar Fietz eds. (1995) Poetry in the British Isles: Non-Metropolitan Perspectives Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Stevenson, Randall (1993) A Reader's Guide to the Twentieth-Century Novel in Britain, Lexington: Kentucky UP.

Williams, Raymond (1989) The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformism, ed. Tony Pinkney, London, Verso.

See also Auden, W.H.; World War I; World War II; Lord of the Rings: Reviews of; Joyce, James

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