Nazgûl taller than night: Tolkien and speculative realism

— Nick Groom, Professor of Literature in English, University of Macau

Paper given 13 February 2021 at Tolkien Society 2021 Winter Seminar

This paper is an introduction to recent developments in philosophy and critical theory through the work of Tolkien that comprise a new in the reception of his work. The aim is fourfold. First, to provide a readily accessible and straightforward introduction to this new area, often called Speculative Realism’ – beginning with Eugene Thacker’s The Horror of Philosophy (2011−15) to Graham Harman’s Weird Realism (2012). Secondly, to show how twenty-first-century approaches such these as can provide startling new readings of Tolkien. Thirdly, to show how Tolkien’s own writing has influenced these new critical approaches, and to suggest why this may be. Fourthly, and in conclusion, to widen the focus and explain how Tolkien’s writing provides a perspective on the bigger conceptual and environmental concerns of the Anthropocene’.

It would of course be impossible to provide a definitive reading in an individual paper, so I will take a single example as a way of illustrating these approaches and, I hope, stimulating ensuing thought. My case study will be a close reading of the representation and significance of darkness in the opening chapters of The Lord of the Rings. The nature of darkness, while (as I have argued elsewhere) draws on earlier depictions of darkness influenced by John Milton and Edmund Burke, is also part of the spectrum of the weird and the eerie — terms suggestively revived by recent thinkers. There is effectively a spectrum’ of philosophical darkness, from the early and medieval Christian theology of Pseudo-Dionysius and The Cloud of Unknowing (with which Tolkien was familiar) to Thacker’s contemporary Black Illumination’. Tolkien’s uses of darkness both draws on the earlier tradition and influences present-day thought, making his work potentially a key text for the twenty-first century.

Authoritative information may be found here.

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date recorded 📅2022-01-24
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