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Modernism Features In J.R.R. Tolkien Writings

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“Change is a good thing.”, a common idea during the 1930’s and the rest of the modernism era. Due to this idea, many modernists of the time were inspired to bring change to their world through their work and art. For literature, this meant taking on a new point of viewing the world. Therefore, many authors’ work and thoughts of that time did not reflect or compare with previous works of literature. The need for change and rebellious attitude of modernism shifted world views and affected many literary works through themes such as war and quest for discovery.

To begin with, modernism began in the 1900’s and lasted through 1930’s. According to Miami Dade College, the foundation to modernism was “the rejection of European culture for having become too corrupt, complacent and lethargic, ailing because it was bound by the artificialities of a society that was too preoccupied with image and too scared of change.” The yearning desire for change inspired modernist thinkers to think differently and defy tradition. The 1930’s were known as a time of depression for not only Britain but for the whole world. Every industrial country’s economy was in poor condition and poverty, unemployment, and homeless rates were extremely high. Therefore, modernism came forward as a way for artists and writers to bring change to their world and society. Also, mentioned in Miami Dade College, “The modernists believed that for an individual to feel whole and a contributor to the re-vitalization of the social process, he or she needed to be free of all the encumbering baggage of hundreds of years of hypocrisy.” This proves how people’s views shifted and therefore, the modernism era was born.

In addition, the politics of this time also helped flourish modernism. For instance, although the Great Depression affected everyone in different classes, it struck the poor and the middle-class worse. According to History in Context, the situation impacted the lower classes because “jobs were nowhere to be found; many sharecroppers were thrown off their farms; malnutrition and despair were constants”. Also, the British government became corrupt. For example, Britain’s king, George the Fifth, was battling with a life-threatening illness and as a result Ramsay MacDonald became the Prime Minister of Britain. However, MacDonald’s party did not fully support him which lead to him being kicked out and Labour leaders believed it was the king’s fault. Going from traditional monarchy to more of a democracy with a prime minister was a huge change for the British people. While this was a positive change toward modernism, it created a sense of insecurity in Britain. This showed many people of the time that they could not fully rely on the government to fix the situation and therefore helped shape the rebellious attitude which is at the very foundation modernism.

Additionally, the people’s lifestyle of the modernism era also shifted. New technological advances gave shape to a more civilized society. According to MDC Education, technology affected people in two ways: “they created an optimistic aura of a worldly paradise, of a new technology that was to reshape man into moral perfection” and “the new technology quickened the pace through which people experienced life on a day to day basis”. These life-changing innovations also helped change the attitude of people during this era. However, while a shift in society in general was emerging, women and minorities were still treated and seen the same.

According to The Literature Network, “women, minorities, and the poor were marginalized to the point of utter silence and inconsequence.” Nevertheless, it also states that “Women like Hilda Doolittle and Amy Lowell became leaders of the Imagist movement.” The Imagist movement was a literary movement in which clear, precise imagery and language are used (Poetry Foundation). This proves that although women were still not given much credit, they slowly started to get a name for themselves in literature.

Moreover, the art during the modernism period marked the end and the beginning of a new century. According to Gale Literary Sources, artists at the time worked “in direct engagement with … artistic uncertainties.” They struggled with whether to write about ethical demands or to write something using different techniques. Therefore, the artists of the time were experimenting and trying new thing. In fact, a huge inspiration for them during this time was freedom and passion. As mentioned in Miami Dade College, “artist were now beginning to break all of the rules since they were trying to keep pace with all of the theoretical and technological advances that were changing the whole structure of life.” For example, Pablo Picasso experimented by creating a new form of art known as cubism. On that note, writers of that time “believed in poetry’s ability to change society” and established new ways of seeing reality.

Examples of writers in the modernism era are John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Margaret Mitchell, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. According to 1930’s Culture, their work consisted of being straightforward and bringing up the flaws in society. For instance, John Steinbeck wrote about the struggle for the poor and the middle-class to make a decent and honest living for themselves. His most famous novel is called The Grapes of Wrath in which focuses on a poor family during the Great Depression. Henry Miller. Another novel written in by a modernist author is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald which is about a man who becomes wealthy but is never really accepted by the upper class. These novels illustrate how modernist attitude and society helped inspire their themes.

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That said, J.R.R. Tolkien is also an infamous writer of the 1930’s/ modernism era and continues to be an influential writer. As mentioned in Gale Literary Sources, Tolkien’s full name is John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and he was born on January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Because of the heat of South Africa, Tolkien’s family decided to move to England. However, about a year after they moved, when Tolkien was nine years old, his father, Arthur Tolkien, died. Not too long after, Tolkien’s mother also departed. As a result, J.R.R. Tolkien and his brother were forced to live in foster homes until he went to Exeter College in Oxford. As an adult, Tolkien enlisted as a lieutenant during World War I. During the Battle of the Somme, he witnessed the horrors of war and soon after was released from duty because he got sick. While in the military, he married Edith Bratt in 1916. After the war, he became a professor at Oxford University and during that time, he published his most famous books, The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings series. Tolkien then retired as a professor in 1959 and continued writing. Some of his later works included Tree and Leaf and Smith of Wootton Major. J.R.R. Tolkien’s life unfortunately ended on September 2, 1973 at 81 years old. He and his wife, however, had four children so his legacy was carried on. Interestingly, The Hobbit began as a bedtime story for his children.

As mentioned before, most authors of the 1930’s/ modernism period were blunt and focused on the imperfections of society contrary to J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien would write about fantasy. Although the authors of the 1930’s also wrote in the fiction genre, Tolkien would create and write about different worlds entirely. In fact, the entire novel of The Hobbit takes place in middle earth, a place created by Tolkien himself. This is known as escape fantasies. Escape fantasy was created in the 1930’s in order to escape the hardships of the Depression. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien is recognized as the originator of the modern fantasy genre. Therefore, The Hobbit and other of his works are categorized under fantasy.

Furthermore, The Hobbit is an example of literature written during the modernism era having been published on September 21, 1937. This novel was J.R.R. Tolkien’s first children’s book and is about a made-up creature called a hobbit that goes on an adventure. The story is told in the perspective of a content hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. The tone of this novel is mysterious and cautious. Throughout the novel Bilbo Baggins goes on an adventure to help get dwarves their homeland back. However, Bilbo consistently thinks about the comforts of his home and ponders why he decided to go on the adventure in the first place. Because of this, it creates a hesitant tone because the hobbit questions himself every step of the way and since he is discovering places he has never been to before, it creates a mysterious tone because readers do not know what to expect. It is also a reflection of society and how it is easier to stay home, be a good host, and accept the status quo, however, one can not ignore the frustrations that come with following tradition and not challenging what is expected: change is rarely comfortable. The mood of this novel is cautious because while on their journey, there are many encounters with evil and dangerous creatures such as giant spiders and trolls and as a result, they are always keeping an eye on their surroundings. A major theme of this piece of literature is exploring the unknown and war. As mentioned before, although Bilbo was comfortable in his homeland, The

Shire, he decided to go out and help the dwarves and the thought of everything being new to him is constantly repeated throughout the novel. This goes hand in hand with the theme of discovery that is prominent in modernism. Also, since the dwarves and the hobbit regularly run into trouble, they have to fight evil creatures which illustrates the theme of war which is also evident in modernism. At the beginning of the novel, Gandalf, the wizard that introduces the adventure to Bilbo, explains how the dwarves’ home was taken over when a dragon terrorized the city for their gold setting the stage for both themes of modernism; war and discovery.

To continue, there are many aspects that inspired Tolkien to write The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. To start off, his infamous novel began as a simple bed-time story to his children. In other words, his kids are the reason the idea of this novel even began in the first place. As mentioned in Gale Literary Sources, “The Shire is often regarded as an idealized vision of a pre-industrial (and thus, in Tolkien’s eyes, prelapsarian) England. Tolkien himself told his publishers his depiction was ‘more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.”. This shows that his hometown in England inspired the setting of his novel. In this source, it also mentions that The Hobbit was inspired by writings, languages, and fantasies by Icelandic linguistics because he studied this as a student and a professor. Another thing that affected his novel was the situation of the time. Being part of the Depression, as said earlier, people felt the need to escape. This was no exception for Tolkien. In other words, due to the need to escape, he created a novel in which help do so. While many believed The Lord of the Rings was based off World War II, Tolkien rejected these ideas. In fact, he believed that history should be told as it is and his books had no ‘inner meaning or ‘message”.

He said that the way readers interpret his novels may give off the idea of the book having allegory therefore, there is not a lot of symbolism or a deeper meaning in his novels.

Overall, modernism and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit connect because of the attitudes and tone within the era and novel. While the author created his own genre, he still managed to stay true to the main characteristics of modernism such as discovery, war, and the desire for change. In fact, it is seen that by creating fantasy genre, he was experimenting and as said before, this was a huge part of this era. Finally, the theme of the novel was connected to the essence/ ideals of the entire modernism period: discovering something new in oneself and the world. Even though the protagonist is a hairy-footed, made-up creature, his vulnerability and courage embody everything the people of the time were yearning to be. They too were subject to war, inconsistencies of power, and economy, yet, they sought the adventure of change.

In conclusion, modernism was about bringing about a change the change one wants to see in society and experimentation. As shown in many works of the time, from Picasso’s cubism to Tolkien’s Middle Earth, modernism brought forth a sense of reinvention and individualism, a sense of hope for something new and better.

Works Cited

  1. Brain, Jessica. ‘The Great Depression.’ Historic UK,
  2. Clarke, Ben. ‘Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s.’ Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 62, no. 3, Sept. 2016, p. 350+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 3 Apr. 2019.
  3. ‘The Crown and a Great Depression.’ Unofficial Royalty,
  4. ‘History of Modernism.’ Miami Dade College,
  5. ‘The Hobbit.’ Novels for Students, edited by Marie Rose Napierkowski and Deborah A. Stanley, vol. 8, Gale, 2000, pp. 94-113. Gale Literary Sources, Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.
  6. ‘The Hobbit at 80: What were JRR Tolkien’s inspirations behind his first fantasy tale of Middle Earth?’ Independent,
  7. ‘J.R.R. Tolkien.’ LitFinder Contemporary Collection, Detroit, Gale, 2011. LitFinder, Accessed 21 Feb. 2019.
  8. ‘Literature Themes.’ 1930’s Culture,
  9. ‘Modernism.’ The Literature Network,
  10. ‘National Government in 1930s Britain.’ Find My Past,
  11. ‘The 1930s: Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview.’ 1930-1939, edited by Judith S. Baughman et al., Detroit, Gale, 2001. U.S. History in Context, Accessed 21 Feb. 2019.
  12. Sabo, Deborah. ‘Archaeology and the Sense of History in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth (1).’ Mythlore, vol. 26, nos. 1-2, Fall-Winter 2007, p. 91+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.
  13. ‘Tolkien, J.R.R.’ Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol. 4, Detroit, Gale, 2009, pp. 1546-49. Gale Literary Sources, Accessed 28 Feb. 2019.
  14. Williams, Janice. ”The Hobbit’ Anniversary: What Inspired J.R.R. Tolkein’s Iconic Book?’ Newsweek. Newsweek,

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