Defending Middle-Earth by Patrick Curry

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!


Goodreads: Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1997

Official Summary

What are millions of readers all over the world getting out of reading The Lord of the Rings? Newly reissued with a new afterword, Patrick Curry’s Defending Middle-earth argues, in part, that Tolkien has found a way to provide something close to spirit in a secular age. His focus is on three main aspects of Tolkien’s fiction: the social and political structure of Middle-earth and how the varying cultures within it find common cause in the face of a shared threat; the nature and ecology of Middle-earth and how what we think of as the natural world joins the battle against mindless, mechanized destruction; and the spirituality and ethics of Middle-earth, for which Curry provides a particularly insightful and resonant examination that will deepen the understanding of the millions of fans who have taken The Lord of the Rings to heart. 

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Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity by Patrick Curry is a classic in the world of Tolkien scholarship, so I find it somewhat surprising I haven’t read it before now.  Perhaps on some level I don’t feel that Middle-earth needs defending; I love The Lord of the Rings and have ideas about why I do and why other people do.  However, finally reading Defending Middle-Earth has sparked some more reflection in me about why other people love Tolkien’s work and why it continues to resonate with readers year after year.

To be fair, the book was published in 1997 and revised in 2004, so it can feel a bit dated at times (I think some of the disgruntled Goodreads reviews are a reaction to this).  This is both in regards to the real-world examples Curry gives about how Tolkien’s work can be applicable to our own lives and to the positioning of the scholarship.  For instance, although there certainly are still academics today who disdain genre fiction, fantasy, and Tolkien’s work in particular, I think the tide has generally changed and the idea that “scholars don’t take fantasy seriously” is today a bit overblown.  University students can take classes on everything from zombie books to children’s literature.  PhD students can specialize in science fiction.  An incredible amount of serious work has been published on Tolkien alone.  So while Middle-earth might need defending to certain people, I think some of the contempt that Curry was responding to at the time of original publication is much less of an issue today.

Nonetheless, the general scope of Curry’s analysis of what makes Tolkien’s work popular and beloved feels timeless.  He focuses on three main categories: the social, the natural, and the spiritual.  One might reductively say this is about the sense of community in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s obvious love of nature, and the clear sense that there is some spiritual meaning in the world of Middle-earth, even as Tolkien’s books rarely overtly mention anything resembling religion.  Curry, of course, goes much more in-depth on these topics, drawing on scholarship and literary theory and even touching on broad topics like why fantasy or myth might resonate with readers in general.  The result is thought-provoking, even if a reader does not agree with all of Curry’s points.

If you’re a Tolkien fan who wants to think more about The Lord of the Rings and the general question of “why people like this stuff,” Defending Middle-Earth is worth a read.


9 thoughts on “Defending Middle-Earth by Patrick Curry

  1. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    It’s hard for me to imagine a world where people don’t respect Tolkien’s contribution to literature. Growing up in the 80s, it was “nerdy” to love The Lord of the Rings, but as a child I didn’t hear much against reading Tolkien. Does Curry discuss the specific criticism he is defending Tolkien from?


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I actually read the book a while ago, so I’d have to go through it for specific quotes from scholars and reviewers, but the disdain for fantasy in general (and maybe sometimes Tolkien in particular) as something worthy of serious study was definitely there! I do think academia has gotten way more accepting of basically EVERY genre (you can study fantasy, science fiction, children’s books, erotica, whatever), but there are always a few crotchety people who think X genre isn’t worthwhile. I just don’t think there are *enough* of such crotchety people to generally complain anymore that “scholars hate fantasy” or “scholars hate young adult books.” People DO claim this, but I feel like they actually mean, “This one professor I had hates fantasy,” not that scholars in general think fantasy is stupid and you can’t write serious articles about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

        Fair enough — I know I’d struggle to recall such details if I had read the book a while ago, even if I had it readily available to reference!

        I’m glad to hear that academia has gotten more accepting of fiction genres. It’s important to study the fiction people are reading in each generation, particularly if it’s as popular as Tolkien’s! This tells us multitudes about who the people of the world are, their interests, priorities, and preferences.

        I’d love to read some academic articles on fantasy and science fiction. I wonder what people would explore?


  2. Greg says:

    I like the sound of this. It does seem like there is less need to “defend” Tolkien and Middle-earth these days, as you point out, but still… delving into those areas you mention (social, natural, spiritual) can always provide new insights. I’ll have to look for this one.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I’d really love to see an updated version of this, even though it was still interesting in parts. Sure, there are crotchety hold-outs in academia and the general public who think fantasy (or -insert other genre-) isn’t worth talking about, but obviously Tolkien scholarship is thriving right now.


  3. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    Hmm, I didn’t have this one my TBR, likely because of those middling Goodreads reviews, haha. There are so many books nowadays about Tolkien and his writing. But since you think it’s still worth a read, I’ll add it to my ‘maybe’ list 😛


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