Tolkien’s undiscovered previously discovered laundry list with new annotations

A laundry list “from the darker side of JRR Tolkien’s washing basket,” which hints at an early version of the orc clothing that Sam and Frodo wore on the last stage of their journey in The Lord of the Rings, is due to be published for the first time in more than 70 days this November.

The Professor, possibly describing a sock he once washed.

The Professor, possibly describing a sock he once washed.

Tolkien’s laundry list, which is of no interest to anyone in their right mind, is a lengthy list of laundry items, possibly written in a novel form of alliterative verse in which each word is given its own distinct line on the page. It has previously been published in 29 different editions but has been out of print for the last week.

HarpyCollumnns, which will publish the laundry list along with Tolkien’s other writings about his collection of Cardigans on 3 November, called it “an important non Middle-earth work to set alongside his various shopping lists.”

But the laundry list has generated controversy among scholars, some of whom claim that it was in fact written by Tolkien’s wife, Edith. The consensus among Tolkieniests, however, is that, contrary to first, second, and third impressions, Tolkien wrote marvellous female characters and therefore must have written the laundry list.

The eagerly anticipated new volume includes a 55 page introduction and 324 pages of annotated commentary. The original laundry list is half a page.

A spokesperson for HarpyCollumnns said: “Tolkien fought in the Great War and this is another reason to buy a hardback collector’s edition of our new publication.”


Scholarship as a Vocation

The modern university in 1917

The ‘modern university,’ as Keith Tribe has pointed out, arose by way of a misapprehension. In the 1870s and 1880s many American students attended university in Germany:

Returning graduate students brought back to the United States the ideal of the ‘modern research university’, an institution driven by academic research, its goals set by the senior professoriate, and combining the advancement of knowledge with its diffusion by teaching. Johns Hopkins was explicitly founded upon this model; Chicago later followed suit.

Many internationally recognized professors were employed in the nineteenth-century German universities. Nevertheless, these institutions were not prototypes of Johns Hopkins and Chicago, but state institutes essentially concerned with the vocational training of students. Max Weber in 1917, delivering the lecture now known as ‘Science as a Vocation,’ was clear that German universities needed to ‘develop in the direction of the American system.’

Weber’s 1917 talk has long been regarded as a classic statement of the nature of ‘intellectualization’ in the modern world. Intellectual production is equated by Weber with ‘science’ (Wissenschaft), by which he means all that we might separate into the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Science, he insists, cannot reveal ultimate values, but it does dispel traditional faith in ‘mysterious incalculable forces,’ thereby disenchanting the world. Modern science, he argues, can only be carried out within the modern university.

Science today is a ‘vocation’ organized in special disciplines in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts… This, to be sure, is the inescapable condition of our historical situation.

Weber presents modern science as a form of industrial activity, characterized by the division of labour, massive capital investment, and managerial supervision. His fundamental claim is that scientific advance is premised upon specialization.

A really definitive and good accomplishment is today always a specialized accomplishment. And whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders… may as well stay away from science.

As with all industrial activity, the logic of economic development dictates that specialized work is co-ordinated and supported within the framework of a larger organization. The modern university is a knowledge factory, established by state capital, owning the means of intellectual production, and hiring academic wage labourers who work under the supervision of departmental managers.

Weber acknowledges that career advancement becomes a primary concern within this system, which often rewards mediocrity over merit; but he holds the ‘predominance of mediocrity’ a cost worth paying for intellectual progress.

The postmodern university in 2016

A glance at the state of universities today, nearly a century after Weber’s talk, reveals some shortcomings in his analysis. Universities are beset by a chronic shortage of funds. Changing demographics and the expansion of higher education have accentuated the problem. But it was built into the very idea of an institution that combines teaching and research. Tribe points out:

The creation in the United States just over a century ago of the ‘modern university’ embodying the ideal of the teaching of students by specialized scholars was possible because of the massive fortunes made during the extraordinary period of economic expansion in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, coupled with a desire on the part of the newly rich – Johns Hopkins, Rockefeller, also Brown, Firestone and even Stetson among many others – to plough their wealth into educational foundations.

Such endowments were not available elsewhere, nor was this level of private donation sustainable within America. Consequently, the modern university has everywhere come to rely upon very large amounts of government funding; becoming in effect, as Weber called them in 1917, ‘state capitalist enterprises.’

In a nutshell, the problem faced by universities today is that taxpayers and politicians are not prepared to fund the extremely expensive ideal of education to which they pay lip service.

One major casualty of financial pressure is teaching, always regarded as a sort of secondary bonus component of the modern university. While more and more students have entered the universities, responsibility for teaching them is increasingly farmed out to graduates and adjuncts, leaving tenured faculty free to compete for research grants and prestigious positions. As Jillian Powers points out, 75% of university instruction in North American universities is now performed by contingent faculty.

Yet this freeing up of faculty time to concentrate on research, while generating an explosion of publications, has not fostered any obvious intellectual advance. The root problem here is that, if the modern university is a factory of scientific research, it is a factory that does not produce a marketable product. Political administrators, concerned with securing results for taxpayers’ money, therefore turn to artificial measures of performance that, at least to date, have been deeply corrosive to the culture of research.

Ranking of departments and journals, assessments of research impact, and the linking of career advancement with publication – what do these add up to beyond a recipe for a massive explosion of second-rate research? What is the real value of a hasty project, conceived with an eye on grant applications, and worked through only to the minimum level required for peer-review acceptance and consequent publication? Administrative regulation of the research factory has boosted quantity at the cost of quality.

The situation resulting from the combination of the downgrading of teaching and the administrative regulation of research is well captured by Tribe:

Today’s university teachers necessarily rely upon textbooks in their teaching rather than their own understanding of the discipline, while the formal retention of the ‘research’ culture in the mass university has massively increased the number of books and journals published.

In other words, university researchers are producing more and more publications that nobody reads because students are directed to textbooks while their peers are too busy writing grant applications and working on their next publication.

Artisan scholarship

Lack of marketable product is not the only problem with Weber’s economic vision of the modern university. One may also take serious issue with his conviction that specialization is the warp and woof of intellectual advance. Certainly there is a place for specialization. But, as Weber says, specialization requires blinders, and as I have suggested elsewhere, the disciplinary divisions of the modern university mean that these blinders are rarely if ever removed. And Weber’s idea of a disenchanted world is curiously un-self-reflexive, passing over the inherent mystery that is the self-conscious mind engaged in genuine scholarly inquiry. As Patrick Curry has cogently argued, the experience of enchantment is a characteristic of genuine learning; although the modern university has done wonders in banishing this experience from its lecture halls and examination rooms.

But I want here to single out another weak point in Weber’s vision of the modernization of research, namely his assumption that a single developmental trajectory applies across the board. That the natural sciences require substantial capital investment and consequent management of collectively worked resources seems obvious. But Weber also insists:

This development, I am convinced, will engulf those disciplines in which the craftsman personally owns the tools, essentially the library, as is still the case to a large extent in my own field. This development corresponds entirely to what happened to the artisan of the past and it is now fully under way.

Whether or not this made sense in 1917, it most certainly does not today. Resources such as the Internet Archive allow free access to just about all books and journals published before around 1905. In theory, online databases could supply open access to all later publications as well; that these libraries are closed off by paywalls is an artificial barrier to entry, providing the universities with a temporary and unjustifiable monopoly on research – temporary, because it is increasingly recognized that the move to open access is but a question of time.

The advent of the internet turns a significant portion of academic wage-labourers into potential artisans. And this undermines the basic rationale behind Weber’s conviction that ‘the inescapable condition of our historical situation’ is that intellectual production must be ‘organized in special disciplines’ within the modern university.


Those who are committed to life within the university may find in these reflections some clues for reform. And, clearly, fundamental reform is needed. But those called to the humanities and the social sciences, who understand their vocation in terms of scholarship as opposed to career advancement and status, might do well to consider whether they have any place in the universities at all.

Artisan scholarship requires a financial basis, and independent scholars need to find ways to support their studies. That this is possible has been demonstrated by a number of independent scholars, one of whom has provided the core research on which this post has drawn (Keith Tribe runs his own translation company). A loose organization of independent scholars could, in theory, secure patronage from private corporations, and even make a bid for state funding, as do other arts. But the most exciting way forward at this moment in time is surely to explore the possibilities opened up by crowd-funding initiatives. Such grass-roots support of scholarship would inevitably entail a welcome shift of audience, compelling scholars to address interested laypeople as opposed to a handful of fellow specialists. Those who regard scholarship as their vocation have been let down by the modern university but may find a solution online.


In addition to the sources linked within the text, this post has made ample use of Keith Tribe’s ‘Educational Economies’, published in Economy and Society, 2006, and available on Keith’s page, and Max Weber’s ‘Wissenschaft als Beruf’, for which I used the translation by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, of which several versions can be found online.

Header image: Ekin Arabacioglu, ‘Cogs‘. Creative commons license.


Some reflections on the modern university

I’ve been studying English intellectual history for nearly three decades, focusing on the years between 1865 and 1925. At the beginning of this period intellectual life in England took place largely outside the universities; by the end of it the modern university had emerged, replete with its professional journals and division of faculties, and has claimed a monopoly over serious scholarship ever since.

And yet a decade ago I resolved to pursue my own research as an independent scholar, without any university affiliation. In this short essay I offer some reflections on how my work has shaped my attitude toward the modern university.

A child of Thatcher, my early research explored the origins of neoclassical economics. Specifically, I looked at the reformation of classical economics at the hands of Alfred Marshall, the founder of modern university economics. Marshall established economics as an independent discipline in Cambridge in 1903, but his intellectual innovations occurred in the early 1870s, when political economy formed part of the ‘moral sciences’ faculty and his university was in the midst of wholesale overhaul.

Oxford and Cambridge are medieval institutions, but the Elizabethan settlement had established them as bastions of the English Reformation. The first part of the nineteenth century saw sustained agitation from religious dissenters to end the Anglican monopoly and ‘nationalize’ the ancient universities. By the 1870s, an alliance of progressive Anglicans and secular reformers had gained a secure foothold within these institutions and non-Anglicans, and also for the first time women students, entered the colleges. At the same time, a number of liberal Oxbridge dons became the vanguard of the ‘extension movement’ that led to the establishment of new colleges and universities throughout the country. The extension movement was the liberal elite’s response to the 1867 franchise extension, in which anxiety about democracy fostered a resolve to educate citizens so they might cast their vote responsibly.

My core discovery was that the reform of Oxbridge and the establishment of new national institutions of higher education was the unstated premise upon which Marshall’s neoclassical economics was built. Classical economics envisages a homogenous labour force paid from past profits. The young Marshall broke the straitjacket of this model by reasoning that an injection of education changed all the relationships: the educated worker was more productive but demanded higher wages, but firms could borrow to cover their higher wage bill. Moving away from a single model, in which two classes of capitalists and workers contest division of a fixed fund, Marshall envisaged a multitude of labour markets in which wages correspond to productivity. Essentially, Marshall was saying that universal higher education would not only train citizens but also usher in a new kind of economy.

In England, then, neoclassical economics was born from the progressive liberal push that established many of our current institutions of higher education. But between Marshall’s 1873 dream of a competitive, classless society, and Tony Blair’s Marshallian election platform 124 years later, something untoward occurred.

In 1873 economics was one of several Cambridge moral sciences, of which philosophy was queen. Marshall subscribed to the Idealist conviction that the human personality is not mechanical and therefore accepted that education cannot be entirely reduced to system. Consequently, he envisaged the university, the foundation of the new economy, as standing in part outside it. But by 1903 Marshall had established economics as an independent discipline. Freed from humanistic constraints, a newly autonomous neoclassical discourse gradually extended itself into all spheres of public policy debate. Today, Frankenstein’s monster has consumed its parent and the result is called the neoliberal university.

Now, the obvious moral of this story is that we have lost today any sure framework of values that can hold the economizing mind at bay. Yet this loss seems built into the modernization of the English universities. Academic specialization is just Adam Smith’s principle of the division of labour applied to institutions of research. But such division is merely fragmentation unless some kind of co-ordination and overall supervision is in place. Hence, university government and administrators. Traditionally, the university has been an independent and self-governing institution, its decision-making body the university senate, composed of the professors of the various disciplines. But self-government requires some consensus on the mission and purpose of the institution as a whole, not simply its various faculties.

In early Victorian Cambridge, the governing supervision was clerical, and theology exercised an invisible yet omniscient check on all academic ventures. In the last decades of the nineteenth century some aspects of this central ideology were taken over by philosophy. But once the various faculties of the humanities and social sciences became autonomous the intellectual center was lost. Vague, undeveloped, and increasingly outdated notions of Max Weber’s vision of science as a vocation held things together for several decades. But when in the 1980s vice-chancellors who knew which way the political wind was blowing began to take control from the university senates, they met no effective internal resistance. Today university self-government has given way to rule by professional administrators, who enforce their own discipline of efficient resource allocation and quality control on a disgruntled academic workforce.

Yet those who today rail against the neoliberal university usually ignore, and perhaps fail to even see, a related yet more profound problem. For if disciplinary autonomy undermined the ideal of scholarship as a vocation, it has also undermined scholarship itself.

Whatever you might feel about neoclassical economics, I think there can be no doubt about Marshall’s intellectual creativity. And what is striking here is that his innovations were carried out in an environment in which political economy was not hermetically isolated from other disciplines. Indeed, my research revealed that his achievement rested upon substantial borrowings from philosophy, psychology, and contemporary historical scholarship. Contrast this ‘multi-disciplinary’ reformation of political economy in the face of a changing social reality with the revelation of imperial nakedness that marked the response of professional economists to the 2009 financial crisis. Since Marshall, neoclassical economics has been thoroughly mathematicised and an array of techniques have been added to the professional economist’s toolbox; but any progress in dealing with real world problems on any level beyond the ideological may be seriously doubted.

Subsequent research has reinforced my suspicions. Back in 2004 I discovered in the archive a long essay that the young Marshall had written on the history of the world. Historians of economics had ignored it because they assumed that an essay on history could have no connection to Marshall’s economic thought. The essay became a vital part of my reconstruction of Marshall’s early economic work; but I also became fascinated with the historical vision it embodied and have since dedicated several years to tracing its origins and subsequent fate.

This investigation has led to the unearthing of an entirely forgotten episode in early twentieth-century English intellectual history. Between around 1910 and 1924, a newly established faculty of Anthropology at Cambridge saw the coming together of field anthropologists (recently returned from the Torres Straits), experimental psychologists, Classical archaeologists and Anglo-Saxonists, who together began to develop a new social theory founded upon the idea that the contact of peoples had been (and remained) the key driving force of human history. This truly ‘inter-disciplinary’ research project floundered with the death in 1922 of one of its key figures, W.H.R. Rivers, and sank into the sand in the wake of Bronisław Malinowski’s success in establishing anthropology as an autonomous discipline.

Whether or not the theories of the Cambridge ‘anthropologists’ were correct is not the point here. What matters is that their passing marked the end of a remarkable period of university life, in which the foundations of the modern research institute were laid but academic specialization had not yet limited researchers to communicating with a handful of fellow-specialists and a captive-audience of students.

What I take from these two episodes of Cambridge history is that a university can be a site of astonishingly creative cross-disciplinary work, but that once disciplinary boundaries have ossified, it usually is not.

Let me jump from the early twentieth century to the present day. As an independent scholar I earn my living as a freelance academic editor. I have a busy period in the autumn when I receive floods of grant applications to edit. A good number of these propose ‘inter-disciplinary’ conferences and longer-term projects on various themes. They always explain how the proposed meeting of minds from different disciplines will enrich our understanding and generate new paradigms, and so on. Then, at other times of the year, I’m occasionally asked to edit a collected volume that has emerged from an earlier such project. And what I am invariably confronted with is a series of chapters by distinguished scholars, each writing from his or her own discipline, with no one essay having any relationship whatsoever with the other essays in the volume.

Within my own admittedly obscure field of intellectual history, disciplinary specialization does not simply stultify, it generates fundamentally flawed scholarship. Both my work on Marshall and my discovery of the ‘contact of peoples’ anthropologists break new ground. Nobody has noticed these things before. But this is less testimony to my research abilities than indictment of the disciplinary histories that inform conventional understandings of the intellectual past. A disciplinary history is the work of a practitioner of a discipline who projects that discipline back into history and so discovers a past populated by modern university professionals avant la lettre. The past might be a foreign country, but to the disciplinary historian in an age of globalization all countries look the same.

On becoming an independent scholar my research and writing improved substantially. After a while I realized that this was because I no longer had ready access to reams of secondary literature via JSTOR and the like and had to focus my attention pretty much exclusively on the primary literature (much of which I could access free through the wonderful Internet Archive. In my own field most of the secondary literature is tripe and reading it harmful to genuine illumination of the past.

I recognize that my research shines a light upon only a very limited world, and that my own experiences as an intellectual historian are narrow in relation to the wider world of research and learning. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to forget that the monopolization of scholarship by the universities is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of the canonical authors – who were named as such in the early periods of disciplinary formation – worked outside established institutions. And while the likes of Coleridge and J.S. Mill laboured as ‘independent scholars’ avant la lettre, their Oxbridge contemporaries were charged with instilling correct Anglican doctrines in the ‘rising generation’. A good part of the knowledge produced and taught by today’s academics strikes me as no less safe, vapid, and moribund as that disseminated by their counterparts a century and a half ago.


Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before 

‘Under Which Lyre’, W.H. Auden. 1946.



You can read most of the research on which I draw on my page. The research on Marshall is set out in my 2009 book, but some of the relevant arguments are summarized in the second part of my essay on ‘Culture and Political Economy’. For a sustained polemic on modern disciplinary histories see my ‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology’.

For detailed accounts of the emergence of the neoliberal university in Britain from the 1980s on see Keith Tribe’s ‘Educational Economies’ (2006) and his working paper ‘The “Form” of “Reform”: The Postwar University in Britain, 1945-1992’, both available on Keith’s page.

These reflections as a whole were inspired by my reading of an early draft of Gregory C. G. Moore’s forthcoming Rounded Globe eBook, Leslie Stephen and the Clubbable Men of Radical London.


Simon J. Cook

CC BY-SA. 4.0 license: you are free to share and adapt this text for any purpose.


I’ve been doing this blog for a few years now, and use it mainly as a means of playing around with ideas as a preliminary stage of research. Beyond my ideas, I’m careful to avoid exposing much about myself. But the other day my cousin sent me some old family photos, and I felt a strange need to post this photograph below, which was taken on the day of my parents’ wedding. This is where I come from.



So who you see, from left to right, is my maternal grandfather, Jack Rosenberg, his wife Rene (Bubba, to me), my mother, my father, my paternal grandmother, Enid Cook (née Robertson), and her youngest son, another Cook.

To be honest, I’m not certain what year my parents got married, but based on the date of my own birthday and my mum’s hairstyle, I’d guess this is 1965 or 1966.

Socially, what you see here is the encounter of two widely different groups within the English society of that time. The Rosenbergs and the Gabels (the maiden name of my Bubba) were Jews whose parents had come over from the vicinity of Lodz in Poland around 1917. Growing up in the East End they had encountered Mosely’s blackshirts and (perhaps in part as a result) had become ardent communists. My grandfather was a baker, a Trade Unionist, and a (very) active member of the Communist Party.

On the right hand side of the photograph are the Cooks – upper-middle class academics, Cambridge educated and, a generation further back, members of the clergy – the Cook who was my grandfather’s father was a vicar in Lancashire in the 1910s and 1920s, while the Robertson who was my grandmother’s father was a minister in the Scottish Kirk.

And my parents? Well, obviously, they were both resolved on rebellion from their respective families and social classes.

After this one occasion, I doubt the wider families of Cooks and Rosenbergs ever met again (and where was my paternal grandfather? Did he not even attend the wedding?) The Rosenbergs harangued my mother, reportedly throwing her out of the house and accusing her of doing Hitler’s work for him. The Cooks looked down their noses at my mother, because she was working class, and also because she was a Jewess (I’d say the Cooks were not especially antisemitic for their class, but this is to weigh their prejudices in the scales of J.M. Keynes’ definition of an antisemite as ‘someone who dislikes Jews more than he ought’).

The sad thing is, after around five years or so of marriage both my parents seem to have come to the conclusion that their respective families had been correct. They went through an acrimonious divorce and the fruit of their bold social experiment, namely my brother and myself, were brought up by our mother.

Standing back from the social commentary, its salutary to look at this photo now and reflect that only two members of the group are alive today – my father and his brother. My grandfather and my mother both fell victim to Huntingdon’s Chorea, a hereditary degenerative disease, from which they both escaped by taking their own lives. My father’s mother died of cancer before my parents had divorced. And my mother’s mother died about a decade ago, for many years no longer speaking to most of the rest of her family, and I am ashamed to record that I do not know of what she died.



Rounded Globe

We now have a brand new website for Rounded Globe.

Have a look: feed your mind! All our ebooks can be read online, downloaded (Kindle, tablet) for free, and legally shared with others. And all our ebooks embody scholarly excellence.

The original site went up just over a year ago and for some months contained only two ebooks – my essay on Tolkien and Donald Winch’s Carlyle lectures on the history of political economy.  Over last summer we began to receive more essays and proposals. Today we have seven ebooks for (free) download and another seven forthcoming over the next few months. As the content of our library grew it became clear that we needed a better way of organizing and displaying its contents. I’m very pleased with the result, which embodies the aesthetic and design philosophy of my co-founder Andrew Holgate.

Over the last year I’ve occasionally asked myself why I’m putting so much time and effort into a venture that can make no money. Sometimes my answers are negative. For example, the intense irritation I feel every time a paywall prevents me from accessing some scholarly article I need for my own research.

Other answers are of a mixed nature. Five years of teaching at a university convinced me that such an environment is corrosive to learning and scholarship. A genuine thirst for knowledge is corrupted by obsession with grades (students) and publication numbers and career promotion (professors). My life today is an attempt to engage with what I love on my own terms, without the bullshit and without the egos. Rounded Globe arises naturally out of this choice.

And this, I have come to think, leads to the bottom line: Rounded Globe is worth doing because it is a good thing.

  • It is a good thing to make high quality scholarly essays accessible – filtering out all the jargon and overblown theoretical nonsense, and offering them online to anyone who wants to read them.

It is as simple as that. After a lot of previous turbulence my life has become relatively stable. I now have a permanent home and my editing work brings in sufficient income to pay the bills. So with the time that I have left to me I’d like to do some good things.


Journal of Tolkien Research

I just received an automatic email from the Journal of Tolkien Research (JTR) saying my new Tolkien article – ‘Fantasy Incarnate: Of Elves and Men’ – has been published.  JTR is an open access journal, so you can read the article here. This post is not about the article, however, but the journal it has just appeared in.

This is my second peer reviewed Tolkien paper. The first, ‘The Peace of Frodo’, appeared in  the last volume of Tolkien Studies (TS). Consider the following comparisons.

TS is a traditional scholarly journal, which appears in print and electronic form. You can purchase the printed volume for $60.00. You can purchase an electronic form of my article (I do not know how much this costs), but cannot access it for free unless you are a member of a subscribing institution.

JTR is an open access electronic journal. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can read all content for free.

I submitted my TS article in January of 2014. It was accepted without a demand for revisions but did not appear until December 2015.

I submitted my JTR article in late January of this year. In late February I received three peer reviews and an editorial letter requesting revisions, which I completed on Saturday (March 12). This Monday morning (March 14) I received the email informing me that the article is now published online.

Note also the following. Having written my TS paper I worked up the ideas into a small electronic book that I published on Amazon (it is now available for free on Rounded Globe). In this ebook I not only clarified my ideas but also developed them further in light of the recent publication of Tolkien’s Beowulf (which had not yet appeared when the TS article was submitted). This electronic ebook was thus a development of the TS paper, yet appeared over a year earlier! Consequently, when the TS paper finally appeared it was seen by many as a development of my ebook.

And note also this: on Friday I communicated with a fellow author who, like myself, is an independent scholar, and therefore without access to traditional scholarly journals, and like myself has an article in the recent volume of TS. In the course of our communication I discovered that she was unaware of the fact that her article has finally been published! Neither of us has yet received a complimentary copy of our article, even in electronic form, which means that we, the authors, have no access to our own published work!

Of course, there are costs to the JTR model. Basically, the journal cuts its own costs to a minimum by leaving all copy-editing to the authors of the articles. This is no bad thing. But this is something scholars will have to get used to, and at present the articles hosted on JTR can look a little scrappy. Yet if academics mastered the computer, they can certainly master basic copy-editing skills.

Bradford Lee Eden, the editor of  JTR, is Dean of Library Services at Valparaiso University. I infer (perhaps incorrectly) that JTR was born from some hard thinking about the new digital age and the place within it of modern universities coming out of library studies (if that is the correct name for this discipline). Whether or not that is the case (and I’d like to know), Brad deserves some hearty thanks and congratulations. I’d urge anyone considering submitting a Tolkien-related article to consider JTR as their first port of call.


Faërie as Nature

We have got too hung up on the idea of Tolkien’s fantasy as an escape into a world of make believe. Tolkien believed that humans, as mortal souls, are part strangers here on earth. From this perspective Faërie, rather than some ‘other world’, is simply the natural world as experienced by those who truly belong to it.

We can begin to understand this thought by turning to the first adventure into which the hobbits fall in The Lord of the Rings.


‘Three is Company’

Leaving Bag End in Hobbiton, Frodo, Sam, and Pippin walk much of the night. Still in land that Sam knows well, they sleep curled up against the roots of a great fir tree. A fox, ‘passing through the wood on business of his own’, pauses in wonderment:

‘Hobbits!’ he thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer about this.’

The next night, following two near encounters with a black rider and having passed the limits of Sam’s geographical knowledge, the hobbits meet a company of Elves, who echo out loud the silent thoughts of the fox:

‘This is indeed wonderful!’ they said. ‘Three hobbits in a wood at night! We have not seen such a thing since Bilbo went away. What is the meaning of it?’

Our hobbits join the Elves, who walk without sound or footfall, following an almost unseen path through the trees. They come out upon a space of grass upon a hill, looking down over the village of Woodhall. At first the Elves sit and speak only softly. But when the twinkling lights from the village go out, and the stars come out above them, a fire springs up, a song bursts out, and the Elves declare it time for speech and merriment. His mind filled with light and Elvish voices, Pippin feels he is in a waking dream.



In this very first adventure Tolkien takes us into nature and shows us what may be happening in the woods just beyond our homes. Beginning in one village, Hobbiton, our travellers end with a view of another, the lights of which they see twinkling in the valley below. The hobbits of Woodhall are preparing for bed, and only when they extinguish their lights does the Elf fire blaze and the woodland merriment begin.

In this journey from hobbit hole to Faërie the thinking fox marks a transitional point. A natural creature, with business of his own, it is strange for us to read his thoughts. Yet from the perspective of the fox what is queer is that domestic creatures like us are asleep beneath the stars. When we encounter Elves, who give voice to the same thought, we know that the transition from snug home to sylvan magic is complete.

Mortal participation in such a woodland scene is a rare occurrence, as the words of one of the Elves to Frodo makes clear:

‘The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creature upon earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose.’

A statement that echoes Tolkien’s observation in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’:

Elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways. (OFS 32)

Yet such an encounter is no meeting with aliens. Like the fox of the previous night, the Elves met in the woods of the Shire are denizens of the natural world. In contrast to Man, Tolkien notes in ‘On Fairy Stories’, Elves “are natural, far more natural than he is” (OFS 28). Tolkien’s story is thus no exercise in science fiction, no account of an imaginary meeting with creatures from another planet. Rather, we are taken into the heart of the natural world that surrounds our scattered human settlements.

Of course, the Elves appear more magical than the fox, for they can not only talk but also enchant us. This is why nature, when fully entered into, is called Faërie. And nature, so conceived, is a perilous place. Black riders hunt in it (although they may ride up to our very doorstep), and beyond the Brandywine our hobbits will soon be caught by the song of Old Man Willow and fall under the evil spell of a wight who haunts a now desolate landscape. Pippin’s waking dream in the Shire will soon give way to waking nightmare in the less gentle countryside beyond it.

Faërie is perilous for humans. Yet the perils it contains arise, perhaps, because we do not fully belong in nature. Elves are more natural than humans because their souls, like their bodies, remain always within this world. Human bodies are part of this world, but our souls – at least for the Christian Tolkien – are not. Man is “but a guest here in Arda and not here at home” (Morgoth 317). Part strangers in this world, we can only imagine what it would be like to fully belong to nature. When we do so imagine we conjure up the creatures of Faërie. Such fully natural creatures cannot but appear strange to us, their enchantment perilous.

Cf. Hillman December 6, 2014.

References and credit

OFS: Tolkien On Fairy-stories, edited by Verlyn Flieger & Douglas Anderson, HarperCollins, 2008.

Morgoth: Morgoth’s Ring: The Later Silmarillion. Part One, edited by Christopher Tolkien, London: HarperCollins, 1993.

Image credit: ‘Deep in the Golden Forest’, Tommy Clark. Creative Commons license.


War of the Ghosts

The following post was written as a guest post for Tom Hillman’s blog, Alas, not me.

At the March 1920 meeting of the Folk-Lore Society, all three papers were delivered by Cambridge men. A.C. Haddon gave the presidential address, W.H.R. Rivers discussed the conception of ‘soul-substance’ in New Guinea and Melanesia, and F.C. Bartlett reported on ‘Some Experiments in the Reproduction of Folk-Stories’.

Does this have anything to do with Tolkien?

It depends how you look at things; which is really what I want to talk about in this post. Tolkien studies are full of ‘influences’ – as highlighted in the recent flurry of discussion over the state of Tolkien scholarship. Personally, I don’t get ‘influence’, a seemingly occultist notion of action at a distance. No doubt the confusion is subjective.

Another perspective draws upon notions like context and conversation. These are my preferred terms of art, reflecting my training as an intellectual historian. I’ll illustrate how they work by first discussing Bartlett and his 1920 paper, and then pointing to its possible significance for how we think about Tolkien.

Anthropology at Cambridge was established in the wake of a university expedition to Torres Straits in 1898. Returning from the expedition, Haddon and Rivers joined forces with more traditional scholars, notably the classical archaeologist William Ridgeway and the Anglo-Saxonist H.M. Chadwick, to establish a new faculty of anthropology. Ridgeway and Chadwick were working on a novel approach to early European history, which combined archaeology with the study of old literature, such as the Iliad and Beowulf. Haddon and Rivers introduced to this approach the folktales of contemporary ‘primitives’. Bartlett’s 1920 paper was a contribution to an emerging account of the relationship between story and society in history.

Bartlett was a psychologist. His paper on the reproduction of Folk Stories discussed an experiment in which members of his university read a Chinook folk tale, ‘The War of the Ghosts’, and, after varying intervals of time, reproduced it. Reproduction, Bartlett showed, was actually reconstruction: over successive retellings familiar elements were substituted for unfamiliar and the plot structure changed to remove (seemingly) inexplicable connections. As such, Bartlett’s paper contributed to the study of cultural diffusion by way of a psychological experiment on memory.

So what does this tell us? If we approach Bartlett’s paper in terms of influence, pretty much nothing. Tolkien may possibly have read the paper, but probably did not; and even if he did, any direct connection we might establish would probably sit all too easily between the trivial and the vacuous.

Approaching Bartlett’s paper in terms of context is another matter. To begin with, we see immediately that disciplinary divisions were not then what they are now. Under the broad umbrella of ‘anthropology’ we find a sustained interaction between students of Classical and Old English literature, archaeologists, experimental psychologists, and practitioners of a new participant-observer method of ethnological fieldwork. This was not an exercise in what today is called ‘inter-disciplinary studies’; rather, it reflects the fact that before the 1930s the borders between scholarly disciplines had not yet ossified.

Subsequent closing of the borders between academic disciplines has fostered a distorted image of the recent intellectual past. If you search for Bartlett’s ‘War of the Ghosts’ on the internet you will find many accounts by modern psychologists of a celebrated chapter in the history of their discipline. Unless you open up the original report of the experiment in Folk-Lore, however, you would never guess that this psychological experiment was designed to illuminate the processes of cultural diffusion.

Something similar has happened to Tolkien, whose intellectual context is very largely missing from modern Tolkien studies. Verlyn Flieger is better than most, and has correctly identified the discussions of the Folk-Lore Society as important background to Tolkien’s 1939 lecture on ‘Fairy Stories’. Yet even Flieger presents these discussions as focused simply on explaining the unpalatable elements of ancient stories. This is to project the concerns of a modern discipline (English) onto a past in which such narrow and restricted focus would have seemed an inexplicable voluntary myopia. The Folk-Lore Society brought to the table a wide range of interconnected contemporary debates, ranging over issues of comparative religion, racial ethnology, social history, and much else besides.

The context of intellectual debate was different back then. Disciplinary divisions counted for less, and the scholarly mind roamed over a much larger intellectual terrain. Scholars from a wide variety of specialized fields were engaged in the same or similar conversations.

Reading Bartlett can tell us something about the nature of these conversations, which form a vital (yet passed over) context of Tolkien’s thought. Of course, Tolkien was not part of this Cambridge project, nor were his methods, interests, or conclusions aligned with theirs. Yet his were responses to similar questions, and it is easy to locate ground shared by Cambridge psychologist and Oxford philologist.

Consider the ‘Origins’ section in ‘On Fairy Stories’, where Tolkien introduces his notion of individual sub-creation, alludes to the debate over diffusion, and then introduces his metaphor of the Cauldron of Story. The Cauldron presents an image of diffusion at work, with invented elements of fantasy blending with elements of stories significant parts of which have been forgotten. It is the fact that we forget elements of the old stories that allows invented elements of fantasy to be blended into them to make fairy stories.

Whether or not Tolkien was ‘influenced’ by Bartlett is largely irrelevant. The point is that the two men were both participants in a wide-ranging and ongoing conversation. Their work, or at least parts of it, emerged from a shared intellectual context. Bartlett was particularly arrested by the distortions introduced by memory, Tolkien was concerned especially with forgetting. But reading their texts together reveals a wider scholarly community grappling with the relationship of memory and story in history.

One could go further (much further), had we but world enough and time. Suffice it here to point out that while Bartlett’s most famous book was entitled Remembering (1932), Tolkien’s Elves, with their immortal memories and seemingly perfect recall, can be viewed (in addition to many other things) as an intensive and prolonged thought-experiment on what human memory might aspire to, yet palpably is not.

Again, I suggest no influence of Bartlett’s psychology of memory upon Tolkien’s Elves. What I do suggest is that reading Tolkien in context reveals much about the kind of questions that stand behind his writing, just as Tolkien’s highly idiosyncratic answers illuminate the intellectual and cultural concerns of the twentieth century far more than is usually suspected.

Whatever the present state of Tolkien studies might be, it leaves much to be desired from the point of view of the intellectual historian. I submit that, alongside established methods, the cultivation of a contextualist reading of the history of ideas has the potential to transform our understanding of what Tolkien was about.


Some bibliographical references

On the recent ‘state of Tolkien studies’ debates, my favourite contribution, which contains links to others, is ‘Tolkien Criticism Unbound’.

Bartlett’s 1920 paper (as also those of Haddon and Rivers) can be accessed here, via the (wonderful) (make sure to turn to the second half of the volume).

Flieger has written about the Folk-Lore Society in several places. See for example the first chapter of her Interrupted Music (Kent State University Press, 2005).

You can no doubt access Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy Stories’ without need of biographical reference from me.

Those who wish to read more on Bartlett and Cambridge anthropology in the first decades of the twentieth century can soon turn to two papers available on my page : ‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology’, forthcoming in History of European Ideas, and (with Tiziana Foresti) ‘War of the Ghosts: Marshall, Veblen, and Bartlett’, forthcoming in History of Political Economy.

Photo credit: ‘Photomarathon 18: Memories’, Joyce Kaes. Creative commons license.