Review: ‘Tolkien’s Legacy’

The term “legacy” is not one that is easily applied. It requires leaving behind, long after the creator is done, a kind of cultural, historical or social imprint, one that eventually becomes so embedded in the fabric of society that it is no longer possible to remove. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has such a legacy: the series has sold over 150 million copies since the first publication (The Hobbit) was released on 21 September 1937; an average of approximately 2.5 million books sold each year. It has been translated into over 70 languages, a first edition copy of the original trilogy has a current value of over £28,000, and the film franchise (including The Hobbit) has earned almost £1.9 billion at the box office. It was Tolkien’s legacy which was the subject of the three short talks given last Thursday, October 29th, at the Weston Library, run by the University of Oxford’s Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH).

Held almost sixty years after the first publication of The Return of the King (October 20th 1955), and chaired by Stuart Lee, co-author of the recently published The Keys of Middle-Earththe purpose of this “micro-lecture” was to bring together Tolkien specialists from a range of academic backgrounds and disciplines to discuss what Tolkien’s legacy means now. The first speaker was Patrick Curry, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Wales, who specialises in History, the Philosophy of Science, and Middle Earth. Addressing the question: “Is the Lord of the Rings a good book?”, Curry began by noting that Tolkien was a counter-culturalist (a reputation he and his work have retained to the present day) who focused on the “primacy of storytelling”. He observed that what sets Tolkien’s works apart from his contemporaries are the concepts that he addresses. Across the series, Tolkien deals with what Curry termed “three fundamental issues”, namely our relationship with our “Middle Earth” (i.e. the earth), the nature of power and technology, and mortality. Quoting David Foster Wallace, Curry concluded by noting that it is Tolkien’s ability to both raise these issues (which are as applicable outside of the world of Middle Earth as much as in it), and allow the reader to return to them within his texts, which has assisted in cementing the Lord of the Rings as the very definition of “good art” which provides light in “dark times”.

Next to speak was Dr Dimitra Fimi, a lecturer in English at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Dr Fimi spoke on the subject of “Teaching Tolkien”. Credited with creating the genre of fantasy fiction, Dr Fimi noted Tolkien, despite being an essential text for courses such as her “Gothic, Fantasy and Science Fiction” class, is inherently difficult to teach – that same depth of detail Curry accredited Tolkien’s legacy to was also observed by Dr Fimi as being the very reason his work cannot be taught in restricted time periods. Despite these complexities, Dr Fimi concluded with the observation that Tolkien’s “legendarium”, his extended mythology, allows the reader, student or teacher to return to his texts countless times, each time finding a new “layer” to digest and analyse.

The lecture concluded with a short talk by Professor Andrew Orchard, holder of the post of Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford (Pembroke College), the very same chair J.R.R. Tolkien held from 1925 – 1945. Drawing upon Tolkien’s extensive lecture list, Professor Orchard discussed “Tolkien and his Legacy: Academic Perspectives”. While the Lord of the Rings is an irrevocable part of Tolkien’s reputation, Professor Orchard noted that the latter extends beyond this. Tolkien was an esteemed academic, who taught widely on subjects ranging from Norse, Old English, Saxon, Germanic Philology and History. His contributions to academia rival his contributions to fiction, and among his impressive list of achievements is his translation of Beowulf, noted for the particularly illuminating commentary which accompanies this. Tolkien’s legacy, Professor Orchard noted, thus includes an intellectual heritage, an ongoing contribution to both the world of academia, and society at large.

For most in the audience, I suspect that the day’s discussion hadn’t changed their perceptions of Tolkien much; if anything, we each left with an even greater respect for the man who single-handedly managed to alter what it means to epitomise the term “legacy”. 

Ashlee Beazley

For information about upcoming TORCH events, please visit their website.

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