Tolkien's Modern Reading
By Holly Ordway

Tolkien’s Modern Reading addresses the claim that Tolkien “read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it.” This claim, made by one of his first biographers, has led to the widely accepted view that Tolkien was dismissive of modern culture, and that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are fundamentally medieval and nostalgic in their inspiration. 

In fact, as Holly Ordway demonstrates in this major corrective, Tolkien enjoyed a broad range of contemporary works, engaged with them in detail and depth, and even named specific titles as sources for and influences upon his creation of Middle-earth. 

Drawing on meticulous archival research, Ordway shows how Tolkien appreciated authors as diverse as James Joyce and Beatrix Potter, Rider Haggard and Edith Nesbit, William Morris and Kenneth Grahame. She surveys the work of figures such as S.R. Crockett and J.H. Shorthouse, who are forgotten now but made a significant impression on Tolkien. He even read Americans like Longfellow and Sinclair Lewis, assimilating what he read in characteristically complex ways, both as positive example and as influence-by-opposition.

Tolkien’s Modern Reading not only enables a clearer understanding of Tolkien’s epic, it also illuminates his views on topics such as technology, women, empire, and race. For Tolkien’s genius was not simply backward-looking: it was intimately connected with the literature of his own time and concerned with the issues and crises of modernity. Ordway’s ground-breaking study reveals that Tolkien brought to the workings of his fantastic imagination a deep knowledge of both the facts and the fictions of the modern world.


Author: Holly Ordway
ISBN: 9781943243723
Binding: Hardcover
Page Count: 392
Publisher: Word on Fire Academic
Dimensions: 6" x 9" x 1.4"
Language: English
Release Date: 2021-01-25



Chapter 1 - Tolkien the Medievalist: Turning Over a New Leaf

Chapter 2 - The Scope of This Study: Beating the Bounds

Chapter 3 - Victorian Children's Literature: A Professor at Play

Chapter 4 - Post-Victorian Children's Literature: Snergs, Rabbits, and the Problem of Narnia

Chapter 5 - George MacDonald: The Tarnished Key

Chapter 6 - Boys' Own Adventure: Coming of Age

Chapter 7 - William Morris: Fellowship with the Brotherhood

Chapter 8 - Rider Haggard: Fresh Ore from Old Mines 

Chapter 9 - Science Fiction: From Asimov to Zimiamvia

Chapter 10 - Fine Fabling: Beyond the Walls of the World

Chapter 11 - Tolkien's Catholic Taste: Here Comes Everybody

Chapter 12 - Tolkien's Modern Reading 

A Comprehensive List of Tolkien's Modern Reading 





A distinguished work of detailed literary scholarship that is enjoyable and accessible for all readers. Ordway has undertaken a careful, sometimes combative, psycho-bibliography that shatters any sense that Tolkien was simply a clueless and nostalgic curmudgeon. Rather, she gives us a portrait of a nuanced thinker and reader who was generous and aware, Catholic and conscientious, creatively engaged with, but not bound by, his own culture.”

— Michael Tomko

Professor of Humanities at Villanova University and author of Beyond the Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Poetic Faith from Coleridge to Tolkien

In this important book, Ordway enhances our notions of influence and enriches our understanding of Tolkien’s life and work. Supple prose; a strong, clear voice; inspiring breadth; genuine insight. Tolkien’s Modern Reading addresses and corrects a multitude of misguided and outdated notions. It is a welcome, even remarkable, achievement.

— Diana Pavlac Glyer

Professor of English at Azusa Pacific University and author of The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community

As a medievalist myself, I am well aware of how crucial Tolkien’s own primary field of the Middle Ages was to him as both scholar and artist. But he was also well and widely read outside that area and this has long seemed to me insufficiently appreciated. Holly Ordway in this well-researched study focuses on another important area, the modern era in which Tolkien himself lived, and shows how he engaged with the fiction, poetry, and drama in English of his contemporaries which he can be shown to have read. This is a valuable addition to Tolkien scholarship covering much little-known material and showing how the modern authors under consideration contributed to the artistic development of one of the major authors of the twentieth century.

— Richard C. West

Author of Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist