Celebrating Middle-earth: The Lord of the Rings as a Defense of Western Civilization



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Celebrating Middle-earth: The Lord of the Rings as a Defense of Western Civilization
edited by John G. West, Jr.
107 pp., trade paperback, 2002, Inkling Books

This is a somewhat unusual little book, as it's a collection of six lectures from the "Celebrating Middle Earth [sic] Conference" held  at Seattle Pacific University, November 9-10, 2001. A couple of the contributors are well known in Tolkien/Inkling circles (Peter Kreeft, Joseph Pearce), and the rest are faculty members at the sponsoring university.  One reviewer at amazon.com said the title was misleading, and that's somewhat true because it's simply the title of the first lecture in the book, although all of them do have something to say about the connection between LotR and the Western civilization which Tolkien studied and in which he lived. But the title begs the questions: How do you define Western civilization?  Why does it need defending?  What makes it more worthy of defense than any other civilization? Most of the time, the speakers/authors assume the reader has the same answers to those questions as they do, and that's not completely valid, especially in these days of global communication and worldwide appreciation of Tolkien's writings. In my opinion, the most misleading thing about the title is that it reads as if Tolkien wrote LotR specifically as a defense of Western civilization, an idea I think is pretty... well... indefensible. He certainly included elements of Western civilization in the story, but that doesn't make it a "defense" even of those elements, much less of the entire culture.

Personally, I wouldn't recommend this book for someone who's still trying to sort out his or her own reactions to Tolkien - as an author or as a person. The lecturers have some very strong opinions, and tend to state a lot of them as facts. If I believed that to be true, I'd have come away from this book with some negative baggage toward JRRT that, thankfully, I don't have, because I've been exposed to enough other opinions about him and his writing.  (Of course, the authors don't mean to be negative, but think they're giving him high praise; I just don't always agree.)  

I have this problem mostly with the first two lectures and the final one. Numbers four and five don't bother me as much, but that may be simply because I tend to agree with those authors more - it's kind of hard to sort out those reactions.  

Essay number three, in my opinion, is the exception in this group, as the lecturer/author gives a well-balanced (as far as I can tell) discussion of various elements of Old English and Middle English literature that are seen in Tolkien's writing. It's very clear on exactly what aspects of "Western civilization" it's addressing, something the others seem to assume we already know and accept. I also appreciate that this author is an "and/also" person rather than an "either/or" when it comes to Tolkien's literary influences. Too many Tolkien scholars spend too much time trying to show that he followed the influence they're "pushing" to the exclusion of others, which IMHO makes him - and his writing - much more simplistic than they really are.  

One final note: If you look at the dates the conference was held, you won't be surprised that there are a lot of references to September 11, 2001, in the more opinionated pieces. It's possible that if these lectures had been given today, some of those statements might have been made in a somewhat less opinionated manner.




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