Tolkien and the Classics

By Travis Copeland

Tolkien's thoughtful criticism of the Western canon starkly contrasts with the fashionable attacks on it in our own day.

In a 2014 study by Parade Magazine, which surveyed twenty-three hundred adults on their favorite books of all-time, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy soared easily into the top three. Since its publication in 1954, his mythological narrative with its wide appeal, timeless virtue, and engaging plot has secured a place as a classic Western work. As a classic, Tolkien’s place among the great writers and thinkers was solidified, and his influence endures in modern fantasy literature and gaming. Despite securing a place in modern pop-culture and classic literature, Tolkien’s own influences were principally Medieval. C. S. Lewis famously said that he, Tolkien, “lived inside of language.” Latin, Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and their respective literatures consumed his time and affections. As an orphaned teen, the Medieval tradition played a parental role to his intellect. 

In 1925, Tolkien arrived at Oxford to take his place as a professor of literature and linguistics, and he found the faculty split in loyalty between the two studies. Linguistics was Medieval, British, and old-fashioned, at least to the sectarians of literature. The literary group (which included C. S. Lewis for a time) was modern and cosmopolitan, covering Milton, Shakespeare, and almost exclusively post-Medieval works. They were, according to the linguists, overly concerned with present things.

While Tolkien initially sided with the linguists, he later stated that he detested the “separation of language and literature.” Their kinship was essential to him, his life, work and deepest intellectual interest. Eventually—remarkably—Tolkien won over the faculty. Linguistics and literature would be paired together, so that Anglo-Saxon was taught with its literary works. The syllabus for the department became heavily Medieval, but maintained a secondary focus on the more modern literature. Oxford was changed by Tolkien’s critique and the subsequent unification of the faculty of his department.

Tolkien’s critique of his discipline is highly significant for “cancel culture” today, even if it is nearly forgotten in our time. Although painted in broad strokes, the unification of the faculty under one general course of study was hotly contested in the 1920s and ’30s; peace among the professors was only made after the literary war had concluded. What is most remarkable is that Tolkien, a professor at Oxford, had attacked or undermined an element of Oxford’s tradition, albeit one of imbalance. At the noticeably young age of 33, he had gone toe-to-toe with the whole department. Tolkien was essentially contending with the emphasis and value of specific aspects and time periods of the Western tradition, yet he was doing it from within the tradition itself.

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

J. R. R. Tolkien

During the intra-faculty dispute, Tolkien remarked that Shakespeare had received too much credit. This was not to say that Shakespeare was not worthy of respect, but that his semi-religious acclaim was too extreme. What is noteworthy about the dispute, which provides a unique and helpful case study for the cause of classical education today, is that Tolkien was able to critique the canon from within, as it were. He had read Shakespeare, he had read Milton and Virgil, he knew Homer exceedingly well. He did not stand out beyond the walls, making pronouncements without knowledge. He lived intimately in them and around them, and was able to assess their true worth and depth. Although he chose his own path of study, the literary traditions he was contending with, and to a degree dissenting against, were not alien to him.

Furthermore, he was not disrespectful. There was no raucous tone or flamboyant air cast against the modernists at Oxford. He dissented against particular views and categories of thought, but he never totally disregarded the magnificence of Western tradition as a whole. He saw the value in entertaining something that preceded the modern world.

Recent attacks on Homer and Shakespeare have looked massively different from this historical intra-departmental dispute. Some reasons should be set aside; the size and acumen of the faculty at Oxford in the 1920s and ’30s is unique. However, Tolkien’s contending with ideas he was familiar with is important. In his educational years, he had read the works that he insisted should be reduced or removed. He was not unfamiliar, and this is important. Modern culture, and recent cancel culture, attack literary arts while refusing to dwell on subject matter itself. Connotation is the defining characteristic: Shakespeare and Homer and their likes are seen solely in terms of perception, not true form. Certainly some classic works need heavy critique, but this does not exclude them from their place in the canon. Every work esteemed or forgotten should be examined from the inside, like Tolkien. Before Shakespeare can be attacked, one should crawl inside the great books in general, seriously considering their entirety and Shakespeare’s place in them. And the same should be done of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets themselves. C. S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism says it another way: “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.” Modern twenty-first century attacks on great books and ideas do put themselves in the way.

What does this mean for classical education and the tradition of the great books today? It does not mean you must have a doctorate to critique the tradition; but it also does not mean that we should stand at a great distance with preconceived notions, casting stones from the outside. This tradition is built on evaluation, critical thinking, and logic. It is essentially slow, patient, and thoughtful. It digs deep into the subject matter before making general—still more, dismissive—evaluations of what is there. The true, the good, and the beautiful, which are brought up so continually in classical education, come about slowly. Like archæology, this deep delving for wisdom must be handled with care and patience. Only the insignificant is quick. Schools, teachers, parents, and the whole educational community must be very deliberate in their approach to these treasures. Although much of what is under attack has been woefully misrepresented and degraded, we must remain willing to consider every aspect of this magnificent gift. A classical education is more precious than gold.

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If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this author profile of Mary Wollstonecraft, this “Great Conversation” post on the idea of honor, or this student essay on the black hole information paradox. You might also enjoy our podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate sits down with leading intellectuals to discuss issues of education and culture.

Travis Copeland teaches Trivium at Thales Academy, a community of classical schools in North Carolina. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in History and Humanities and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in History from Missouri State University.

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