Tolkien and History

Unless you’ve been lost in Moria, you know that Amazon’s streaming series The Rings of Power has been the most-watched show in America (and much of the rest of the world) the last few months. What does this have to do with history? Well, J.R.R. Tolkien himself said that his world–whence came The HobbitThe Lord of the RingsThe Silmarillion and several other volumes of fiction–may not entirely, well, fictional. “This history is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 220); also “Mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world, but an imaginary historical moment….” (Ibid., p. 244). He even posits Middle-earth as the precursor to the actual history of places like Troy, Babylon, Nineveh and Rome.

RoP has come in for quite a bit of criticism, on a number of levels. Many of us who love Tolkien’s books and know them well have taken issue, in particular, with the egregious departures from the creator’s canon. I did so, a few weeks ago. But a much more in-depth critique of Amazon’s show hit yesterday. Ben Reinhard, an English professor at Steubenville University (OH), published “There and Back Again: A Rings of Power Postmortem” at Crisis Magazine. Read it yourself. It’s trenchant.

What’s particularly striking, for anyone enamored of history as well as Tolkien, is the following from Reinhard’s piece: “There is Tolkien in the show, to be sure–but only because the writers treat Tolkien’s work like the emperor Constantine treated classical Roman monuments. When he sought to erect a triumphal arch to rival those of his forebears, the great emperor found that he lacked workmen skilled enough to the task. the solution? To strip reliefs and figures from earlier monuments and use them to adorn his own: thus, the earlier monuments served not a a model for an inspiration but merely a quarry. The Rings of Power writers do precisely the same thing…. The result is, as Gibbon said of Constantine’s Arch, “a melancholy proofof the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony the meanest vanity.”

Dr. Jones, I Presume?

Finally, a fall 2022 Reinhardt history blogpost! Forgive me, but I’ve been busier than a one-armed Rings of Power forger. But herewith an overview, in his own words, of Reinhardt University’s new History Post-Doc–the first in recent memory: Dr. Andrew Jones!

“I’m a jack of all fields, master of Scottish Religious History. I received my PhD from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2018. My research for the last eight years has focused on religion, identity, and race in modern Scotland the Scottish Diaspora communities of the Atlantic World. I’ve published articles in Scottish Church History, International Journal of Bahamian Studies, and elsewhere and in 2022 published my first book – The Revival of Evangelicalism: Mission and Piety in the Victorian Church of Scotland – with Edinburgh University Press. Along with the postdoc project (see below), I’m also continuing to research the life and legacy of a famous 20th century Scottish-American Presbyterian pastor (and U.S. Senate Chaplain) named Peter Marshall. An article on his views on race and religion in the American South will be published in the Journal of Presbyterian History in 2023 and I hope to ultimately publish the first scholarly biography of Marshall to date.

While I love my research, I’m most at home in the history classroom. I’ve had the privilege to teach undergraduate and graduate courses in U.S. History, World History, Modern European History, History of Christianity, and African History. Along with readings and lectures, I love to use podcasts to complement and accentuate different assignments and – perhaps above all – highly prize group analysis and discussion of primary source documents. My students have typically reviewed me as “tough but fair.” My philosophy is that it should be hard to ace my class but also hard to fail it. You’ve got to work hard for the “A” but you’ve also got to pretty much check out and miss several major assignments to fail.

The Postdoc Situation: The NEH Postdoctoral Research Fellowship focuses on the Cherokee Voices Project, which seeks to re-center Cherokee narratives by transcribing and digitizing a set of Cherokee claims against the U.S. Government from the early 1840s. I’ll be working under the leadership of W. Jeff Bishop, the Director of the Funk Heritage Center and the former president of the Georgia chapter of the Trail of Tears Association. The “on the ground” work will primarily involve a) Hiring a team of undergraduate student researchers, b) Educating, leading, and managing those researchers in the transcription and digitization of the claims documents, and c) Interpreting the narratives/data we encounter in order to reach both general and scholarly audiences.”

“I Am No Man!” Women Rulers in History

Women’s History Month is almost over and I remiss in just now posting on it. In my defense, we were on spring break, and then I came down with bronchitis. In any event, according to “Big Think,” the 15 most powerful women in history were:

15. Zenobia

14. Cleopatra [VII]

13. Lakshmibai

12. Joan of Arc

11. Borte Ujin

10. Indira Gandhi

9. Margaret Thatcher

8. Theodora


6. Cixi

5. Maria Theresa

4. Hatshepsut

3. Catherine the Great

2. We Zetian

1.  Elizabeth I.

Many of these were warrior queens who, if they didn’t engage in battle themselves, led their states into warfare. Which tracks with historical data, at least for early modern and modern Europe, that female rulers are more likely than the men to let slip the dogs of war. Even if they are less likely to cry havoc.

This post’s title derives from the battle cry of Tolkien’s perhaps most famous female warrior.

Is Ukraine History?

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of neighboring Ukraine. It’s the most serious conflict in Europe since the 1990s Bosnian War (not, as some commentators have claimed, since World War II). So far the death toll is in the hundreds, and has a way to go to reach the 80,000+ killed in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia. But if Russia continues pouring in troops, and begins attacking civilian population centers, the casualties will mount quickly.

St. Michael’s Cathedral and Monastery, Kyiv, Ukraine. (Public Domain, Wiki.)

Why is Putin doing this? No one knows for sure. Among proffered reasons: he considers Ukraine part of Russia; he wants to re-create the USSR and/or Tsarist Russia; the Russians fear NATO extension into Ukraine; Putin’s a “madman.”  Short of a Vulcan mind-meld of the Russian leader, it’s impossible to ascertain. But Russian tanks, troops and warplanes are in Ukraine, that’s for certain. Here’s the military situation as of March 1, 2022.

Unlike many on social media (particularly Twitter), some of us are prudent enough to refrain from claiming expert knowledge of this horrible conflict. However, it doesn’t hurt to garner background information. In that regard, take a look at these articles:

The latter also has this very useful “Ethno-linguistic map of Ukraine.” (Blues shades are majority Russian speaking areas; orange/tan are Ukrainian speakers.)

Let us inform ourselves about the situation, support our leaders in their policies (and try to guide them if we think those amiss)–and pray, for the people and the leaders of both Ukraine and Russia that this war would end soon, and that, God forbid, it not widen either geographically or bring nuclear weapons into play.

Hail to the Chiefs

Today is Presidents’ Day, 2022. Previously this holiday, which now commemorates all of America’s Chief Executives, marked the birthday of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or both. It remains a national holiday, with banks and federal offices closed–although many schools (and universities, like this one) no longer take the day off.

Presidents’ Day is the perfect time to take stock of our POTUS ranks. Perhaps the best ranking thereof was the one done by political scientists Brandon Rottinghaus (University of Houston) and Justin S. Vaughn (Boise State University). They asked 320 fellow political scientists to rate all the Presidents from worst to best, and 170 responded. (Here’s the actual study; here’s an article about it, with a handy graph part of which is reproduced below.)

The top top:

There are differences between how Democrat and Republican respondents ranked many of them. And the data is a bit skewed because 57.2% of professors that responded were Democrats, 27.1% Independents, and only 12.7% Republicans. (According to the latest Gallup data, as of the first week of January 2022 the party identifications for Americans overall were 46% Independent, 28% Democrat and 24% Republican.)

Still, it’s nice to know that both sides of the aisle can agree that Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves, and George Washington, the man who led the Revolutionary War, are our greatest Chief Executives. Personally, I think Ulysses S. Grant (#21) should be a lot higher; ditto for Grover Cleveland (#24)–the only man with the chutzpah to win the office twice, non-consecutively!

Addendum: Right after I first posted this, “Newsweek” ran a brief story about which Presidents since World War II have had the highest and lowest approval ratings while in office. George W. Bush can claim both. He hit 92% approval a few weeks after 9/11. But he also cratered at 19% his final year in office.

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More…?

I teach two separate military history courses here at Reinhardt University. In them, the first thing we look at is the state of the field within academia. This term I assigned for initial discussion an article by the British military historian/journalist Max Hastings, entitled “American Universities Declare War on Military History.” He points out that history majors now account for only 2% of male undergrad degrees, and 1% of those for females. And that within that small universe, students who take any military history classes are miniscule. Most American colleges and universities teach no courses on the the topic at all. (Hastings did not provide precise data on this. But I did look up, at the Society for Military History site, a list of US and Canadian universities that offer the MA/PhD in military history. There are 19 in this country, and three in our northern neighbor. This is out of 3,982 universities in America, and 97 in Canada.)

Why? Military history is popular with the public, with students, and with alumni. Hastings, based on his own experience and a number of conversations with prominent military historians, says it’s because (too) many academics detest the subject as “warnography.” That studying war somehow equates to approving it. And that it’s also racist. He quotes Tami Davis Biddle (PhD, Yale), former U.S. Army War College professor, that “many in the academic community assume that military history is simply about powerful men–mainly white men–fighting each other and/or oppressing vulnerable groups.” That would, of course, be news to the Chinese, Ottoman, Persian, Egyptian, Aztec and Arab armies of the past.

Mamluk Egyptian Warrior, c. 1500 AD. No doubt amused at the idea that only Europeans fight wars.

Hastings also points out that “our respective presidents and prime ministers might less readily adopt kinetic solutions–start shooting–if they possessed a better understanding of the implications.” Did no one in the Bush Administration bother to remember Vietnam before invading Iraq? (Or learn anything about Arab v. Persian and Sunni v. Shi`i, I might add?) Ditto for Britain leading the charge against Muammar al-Qadhafi. Yes, NATO bombing help overthrow him. But now Libya is a failed state, with several regional governments and an entrenched ISIS presence. “David Cameron….might have made less of a mess…had he accepted the advice of some people who understood both war and the Muslim world better than his ill-informed Downing Street clique.”

Hastings does admit that “it would be absurd to pretend that the study of the past is a guarantee against repeating its mistakes.” But we should be glad that JFK had read Barbara Tuchman’s WWI book The Guns of August not long before the Cuban Missile Crisis flared up. Kennedy was thus well aware that “a local flare-up…could precipitate a global catastrophe.”

Hastings opens and closes his article by invoking the coronavirus pandemic. No one thinks studying the effects of diseases on human history is “pro-disease.” Studying war should be just as important–and just as unobjectionable.

[The  title of this blogpost comes from one of the lyrics in the great African-American spiritual “Down by the Riverside,” which dates back to the Civil War.]

Admit Me, Chorus, to This History… Blog

Finally, First Floor Tarpley is active again. Dr. Jonathan Good passed the site baton to me–and after a litany of log-in misadventures, I finally have access. I will be making some changes to the site’s appearance in the coming weeks, but for now it will suffice to provide a quick update.

The department currently has 40 majors, and two full-time faculty: Theresa Ast and Kenneth Wheeler. Dr. Ast got her doctorate from Emory, and is a renowned specialist on the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps. Dr. Wheeler is a Buckeye PhD (like me), getting his PhD from Ohio State, and a leader in the American history field in the South. Currently, Reinhardt’s two history faculty adjunct professors are Timothy Lumley and myself. Mr. Lumley has a MA from University of West Georgia. Yours truly (Timothy Furnish) obtained his doctorate from Ohio State, specializing in Islamic eschatology (end of world beliefs) and Mahdism (messianism).

The upper-division courses being offered by history faculty this term are:

HIS 498, Ancient & Medieval Military: Furnish

H336, History of the Holocaust, Ast

H356, American from 1900-1945: Lumley

H354, Civil War & Reconstruction: Wheeler

Several non-history, full-time faculty also teach in this department. Graham Johnson is an English PhD from Saint Louis University and teaches IDS (Interdisciplinary Studies)/History 314, a class on the Vikings. William Jeff Bishop, director of the Funk Heritage Center, is teaching IDS 332, Exhibits & Programs Design, in Museum Studies. And acclaimed author and writing professor William Walsh is covering Irish Literature and Culture in IDS 498. As a huge U2 fan, I hope he covers them!

Finally, I leave you with this fascinating article–which we discussed in my H120 World History classes, on how DNA evidence shows that wooly mammoths survived into the Bronze Age. Much later than formerly thought!

Ancient DNA Suggests Woolly Mammoths Roamed the Earth More Recently Than Thought

Timothy R. Furnish

P.S. Any student of mine who can identify the source of the title of this blog and tell me will receive extra credit!