Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity, Patrick Curry. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Summary: A study of the enduring power of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, tracing it to both its counter to modernity and its genius as modern myth.
Many in the critical community have puzzled over the public acceptance and staying power of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Patrick Curry notes that Tolkien has been described as “paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic and…irrelevant.” Curry believes the nature of the books account for their success. It is a myth about an earlier age of the earth drawn from both Norse and Anglo-Saxon material, fashioned into a truly unique place, not to be read allegorically, yet one that speaks into late modernity, a project more or less exhausted.
He describes the work as centered around three domains. The first is the social, centered around the Shire, where community, local government, and love of place dominate. There are many such places throughout Middle-Earth from Lothlorien to Fangorn forest to Gondor, all standing in contrast to the soulless industrial wasteland of Mordor. The social domain is nested within a second domain, an ecological or natural one of Middle-Earth. Everything, from the mountains and rivers to Tolkien’s beloved trees, pulses with life and the peoples of Middle-Earth live harmoniously within these domains–Elves in the forests, dwarves in the mountains and hobbits in the Shire, and the Ents shepherding their trees. Surrounding Middle-Earth is the Sea representing the spiritual–the ethical, the questions of death and life, the ultimate.
Curry’s exploration of the latter notes how Tolkien did not impose Christian theology by another name on his story, unlike the Narnia Chronicles of C. S. Lewis. Oddly enough, Curry notes that Tolkien combines a polytheistic pantheon at war with evil with a kind of animism, that resacralizes nature. All this combines with Christian virtues of humility, courage, hospitality, and compassion drawing together a fellowship of the “differents.”
Curry proposes that a Middle-Earth with this character, these domains, speaks powerfully to modernity-weary readers, tired of big and bureaucratic states, alarmed by the exploitation of the planet, and groping for a spirituality that embraces all of life. But he believes it is also powerful, certainly in the English speaking world because Tolkien succeeded in his project of fashioning a contemporary myth, a story neither true nor false, but one that explains something of the origins and place and future of not only those in the story but that of the reader as well.
Curry’s discussion rings true for me in many ways. The Shire of the hobbits is the local membership of Wendell Berry’s Port William, calling us away from identity-less exurbia. The love of all nature, and especially the forests speaks into a land stripped of trees, seemingly destined for a Mordor-like wasteland. Then there is the surrounding sea, the reminder of lives answerable to something greater, destined for something beyond, longing for God knows what.
Finally the mythopoeic elements helps explain the power of this story for me, that only grows as I age–not merely the adventure but the hope and loss of which life consists. And there is the power of traveling with the Fellowship, the Nine who faced wonder and danger and sorry and strove to overcome. Having traveled so far, and through so many readings, we each face the question of what then shall we be and “what to do with the time that is given us.”