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Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings…

Reading The Lord of the Rings: New Writings on Tolkien's Classic

by Robert Eaglestone (Editor)

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This anthology of writings about The Lord of the Rings has an agenda: to bring literary criticism of LotR more in line with the kinds of criticism done on other twentieth century literature. I don't have a problem with that agenda; LotR has languished unjustly on the edges of the canon for far too long. (I once pitched a paper on LotR for a PhD seminar in literary modernism and was met with a kind of sneering dismissal from my professor (who was, in all other matters, as far as I could see, unfailingly brilliant and just).) And I'd agree that much LotR criticism fails to engage with the theory and literary lenses that scholars turn on other literature almost as a matter of course and that a good deal of it remains too entrenched in Middle Earth, failing to see past the end of its nose and make connections to the outside (literary and scholarly) world. So an anthology of this sort really seems just the thing.

While any anthology will be a mixed bag with some pieces standing out and others trying their best not to stink up the place, Reading LotR has more than its share of essays which demonstrate why even those of us who have been trained in this literary criticism stuff will back away slowly when anyone suggests applying Foucault (or Hegel or Butler or Marx or whomever) to our favorite stories. What is it that Gandalf says? "He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom"? It would be to betray a misunderstanding of literary criticism to define it with that quote, but this kind of breaking things sure seems to define a number of the essays in this volume. Some of these writers, in their (right-thinking) desire to bring LotR criticism into the scholarly mainstream, seem to have forgotten that theory is a lens through which one ought to see a literary text differently and more clearly. Many of the essays here either entirely miss out on illuminating the text of LotR or do manage to point up something new about the text but in a way which seems utterly divorced from the theory they purported to be using to do so. This kind of thing makes me more cross than people who ought to know better poo-pooing the relevance of Tolkien and his work. They may be missing out on something important and lovely, but at least they're leaving it unbroken on the shelf for others to find intact.

Tellingly, the best essays in this collection (and there are some quite good ones here), are those which spend (a little) less time on theory and more time with the text of LotR. Give me an entire anthology of LotR criticism like that found in Part III of this volume ("Gender, sexuality and class"), and both my inner Tolkien fan and my inner PhD-level trained literary scholar will be content. Reading LotR does puzzle me, though. There will always be the odd piece of literary criticism that just doesn't hit the mark, but with so many of the essays in this book missing the balance between theory and text that makes for an illuminating piece, one has to wonder what is going on here. Perhaps scholars interested in Tolkien now sometimes try too hard to bring LotR criticism into the litcrit fold? While Robert Eaglestone's introduction to the anthology and Michael D.C. Drout's first chapter ("Towards a better Tolkien criticism") are both quite good on where Tolkien criticism has stood in the past and what makes it stand apart (not stand out) from other literary criticism, it seems that maybe we still don't understand fully why it is often so difficult to write about Tolkien in the ways we write about his contemporaries. We needed Reading The Lord of the Rings, but we needed it to do better. ( )
1 vote lycomayflower | Jan 12, 2014 |
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The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular books of the twentieth century and the recent film adaptations have made box office records. This book provides a comprehensive critical and theoretical analysis of both the book and films. Beginning with an introduction to the critical history of Tolkien's work, the book offers different ways of reading the works through key critical approaches like philosophical, postcolonial and gender criticism.
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