Paper given 13 February 2021 at Tolkien Society 2021 Winter Seminar
This paper briefly sketches a taxonomy of Tolkien’s reception since the 1950s, before arguing that the twenty-first century saw the emergence of “post-pop” Tolkien.
- literary: attention on the novels in the literary marketplace and cognate art forms (e.g. the song cycle The Road Goes Ever On)
- cult: (references and images borrowed as markers of recognition in counter-cultural discourses (e.g. “Gandalf for President” badges)
- pop: works interpreted within dominant discourses of popular culture (e.g. the meme “When a Legolas girl becomes an Aragorn woman”) post-pop: works historicized in terms of traditions which shaped them, and as contributing to those traditions (e.g. the prayer “O Elbereth, gracious mother…”)
This “post-pop” Tolkien is articulated in two strands: medieval studies and Catholic Christianity. The recent new publications of Tolkien’s own works have moved from elaborating his fictional world to disseminating his medieval scholarship: e.g. his Beowulf and Gawain. Though essays like “The Monsters and the Critics” were always influential in academe, this marks a development in the popular image of Tolkien.
At the same time, increased attention to the theological aspects of Tolkien’s novels has positioned him as not only a Catholic novelist — contemporary with, but very different to, Greene, Waugh and Lodge — but as one whose ideas have shaped people’s experiences of Catholic Christianity. At least one priest I know includes “Elbereth” in the titles by which they address the Virgin Mary, as the image originated from the Catholic tradition and can reverently be used within it. Post-pop Tolkien is a distinctive mode of reception, and identifying it can clarify his role in contemporary culture and controversy.