In early 2021, literary scholar Holly Ordway published a deep dive into J.R.R. Tolkien’s reading habits. The celebrated author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit was a linguist and medievalist at Oxford for decades until his death in 1973. Based on his immersion in ancient literature, people often assume that Tolkien despised all things modern – including modern books. Even C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “No one ever influenced Tolkien–you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch.” Today’s conception of Tolkien stereotypically portrays him as a curmudgeon who refused to engage with modernity.
Ordway, however, pushes back against such an image and lays out a comprehensive case for Tolkien’s interest in contemporary literature, including the sci-fi genre, which was exploding during his lifetime.
Not the Medieval Curmudgeon We Assumed
Ordway devotes a whole chapter to the topic of Tolkien’s love for science fiction. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote here about C.S. Lewis’s respect for sci-fi, and it turns out, his longtime companion and constructive critic shared some of the same sentiments. Science fiction, like fantasy, can displace the reader in a powerful way that renews her imagination.
Ordway dispels a few myths in the book, and in this chapter, dismantles the notion that Tolkien was “anti-technology.” Because science fiction emerged out of the Industrial Revolution, bringing with it profound changes and technological developments, Ordway notes that Tolkien treated technology with nuance and even appreciation. He owned a car, for one, and a typewriter. Lewis, on the other hand, never learned to drive and exclusively used a fountain pen. Ordway also pushes back against the image of Tolkien as a nostalgic pastoralist who spent his days pining for a pre-modern era. The destruction and exploitation of the natural world via machinery, which he did hate, was not unique to his time. For Tolkien, the potential for technology’s abuse shouldn’t preclude its proper use. Ordway writes,
Tolkien objected strenuously to the abuses of technology, but did not find technology to be evil in and of itself. As he reminds the reader in “On Fairy Stories,” when discussing the genre of fantasy, abusus non tollit usum (abuse does not preclude proper use). His opposition to the machine age was qualified, more so than is often supposed. For example, in the BBC interview referenced above, Tolkien offered surprisingly responses to questions about industry (I’ve no objection to that as such”) and factories (“They might be better than they are. It depends on what you mean by a factory, I mean a factory may be a very big or a very large, or very small thing”). Given the opportunity to criticize industry and technology as extravagantly as he liked, he chose a sober response.-Holly Ordway, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages
Tolkien was no alarmist, in other words. He was undoubtedly against the abuse of technology and science but makes a key distinction between the study of the natural world and the possession of the natural world for wicked ends. We see this kind of exploitation everywhere in The Lord of the Rings from Sauron’s decimated Mordor to Saruman’s destruction of Fangorn Forest. I do wonder what he’d make of the AI revolution and the Internet writ large, but alas, we’ll just have to speculate. His openness to technological innovation, in any case, made him hospitable to the emerging science fiction genre.
Lord of the Rings as Science Fiction
Ordway nicely wraps up her chapter by summarizing Tolkien’s views on the relationship between science fiction and fantasy, writing,
Tolkien’s willingness to validate the classifying of The Lord of the Rings as a kind of science fiction reminds us of how he viewed the relations between science fiction and the genre within which his epic work is normally placed – namely, fantasy. Tolkien observed that science fiction “performs the same operation as fantasy – it provides Recovery and Escape … and wonder.” …Writers of science fiction, he said, had “replaced the wizard” with the “legendary laboratory professor.” What if the author of Middle-earth, like the contrarian he was, simply reversed that process?
Whether you’ve read The Lord of the Rings or not, thinking of it as a kind of science fiction may just illuminate and deepen the story. Regardless of how many times you read it, it never fails to bring out newness, reflection, and joy. As Ordway, Lewis, and Tolkien all affirm, that’s what makes this genre so enduring.
For further reading, check out my similar article covering C.S. Lewis and science fiction. Lewis wrote a hard-to-pin-down trilogy that’s kind of a mix between science fiction, fantasy, and spiritual pilgrimage. He and Tolkien were also lifelong friends, literary sparring partners, and mutual members of the “Inklings,” a group of writers and thinkers who met regularly to discuss their work. For more about Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings, I’d highly recommend The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Carol and Philip Zaleski.