Monday, April 15, 2024

not recommended

Nick Groom, Tolkien in the Twenty-First Century: The Meaning of Middle-Earth Today (Pegasus, 2023)

I read the foreword of this book on Amazon last fall and denounced it then. Basically, Groom says that "Tolkien ... is not simply an author and a body of work, but a vast and growing field of cultural activity and products" (xviii), i.e. (though he doesn't put it that way) a lot of marketing kitsch and crappy adaptations. Specifically - and this was the main point of my critique - that you can't defend the smear of adaptations by saying that "the book is still on the shelf" because you can't read the book any more without the context of the adaptations. Also he has to insult and sneer at the existing Tolkien scholarly literature by unfairly caricaturizing it. On top of which, he says he's going to write "Middle-Earth" instead of Tolkien's preferred "Middle-earth" because you wouldn't write "Sackville-baggins" (xv), would you? which is a stunningly inept comparison.

So, having already annoyed the intelligent reader three different ways, Groom says he's going to write about "the Tolkien phenomenon today" without "get[ting] rapidly bogged down in the minutiae" (xvii-xviii). But that's not what he does. Chapter one is an extremely clotted biography which begins by getting immediately bogged down in the minutiae of listing twenty-three different names, nicknames, pseudonyms, literary incarnations, or terms of address which Tolkien used or by which he was known, some of them of extreme obscurity (2). It doesn't get better from here, going on to describe Tolkien's complex early life in the kind of detail of a full biography but not of much use to someone who just wants to understand the works, before getting into an abstruse academic bibliographically-oriented description of Tolkien's earlier work. Chapter two is on The Hobbit and chapters three and four on the writing of The Lord of the Rings, going into a lot of detail on how the drafts were developed, and on obscure and difficult points of interest to those abstruse and boring Tolkien minutiae scholars who were bashed in the foreword (like, is the shadowy figure in the eaves of Fangorn Gandalf or Saruman?), but that still have no connection with Tolkien in the 21st Century.

Finally we begin to approach the precursor of the supposed topic in chapter five, which is essentially a history of film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, running lightly through music inspired by it and mentioning earlier attempts before plunging into detail on the Boorman script, the Bakshi movie, the Sibley-Bakewell radio version, and the Jackson movies. These are fairly astute analyses, particularly noting the thrust of the changes these versions made in the story, but again the focus on detail seems inappropriate for the broad canvas this book's premise promises. I started to cheer at an incidental rebuttal to Michael Moorcock's critique of Tolkien, but swallowed it when Groom implies Moorcock was just jealous at Tolkien's success (214).

So then chapter six does the same thing with adaptations of The Hobbit, offering a weak justification for the disaster that Peter Jackson made of it by claiming that he haaaaad to make it stylistically congruent with The Lord of the Rings. Groom is learned enough to know that Tolkien once tried to do the same thing (257), but he is clueless as to why it failed, and failed again when Jackson tried it.

That's not enough to make a chapter, so Groom then turns to a discussion of the morality of war, mixing up descriptions of Tolkien's book and Jackson's movies so thoroughly that the untutored reader may be forgiven for not being able to distinguish them, and thus going away thinking that Tolkien is to blame for some of the atrocities committed only by Jackson's characters. There are also bits on gender roles and ecocriticism. Groom is again fairly good, if not particularly original, when he sticks to Tolkien, but feels rapidly off when he takes a wider focus, as with declaring that Hobbiton is no longer English but in New Zealand (293), which was not the impression Jackson wanted the viewer to leave with either.

Chapter seven is labeled "Conclusion" (what? is that as far as we get?), which is again focused on detail in Tolkien (religion, the Silmarillion, racial and nationalist issues, dreams in the stories, the element of horror, words and language) before touching at the end on Amazon's Rings of Power. The point seems to be - or would be if Groom approached this from a wider perspective - that the meaning of the story depends on who's reading it, or who (in the adaptations) is retelling it. That would be the beginning, not the end, of a book really about Tolkien in the 21st Century.

Then there's a brief afterword on the first season of Rings of Power, which must have been added at the last minute because we already had a bit on Rings of Power. This mostly discusses what the series did and didn't pick up from Tolkien or from Jackson, which are treated equally as source material, lord save us.

And that's it. I found this in the public library new books shelf, which is not a place I normally expect to see scholarly new books about Tolkien. I hope that casual readers who pick this up will get more out of this book than I think they will.


  1. "I hope that casual readers who pick this up will get more out of this book than I think they will." — Given what you've said of it, I hope they get less.

    1. You know the old saying, "Your work is both good and original, but what is good is not original and what is original is not good"? Something like that applies here. There's some useful if retreaded material specifically on Tolkien in here, which the casual reader is not likely to have come across elsewhere, and I hope they can dig it out from beneath the author's expressed disdain for his own scholarly impulses.