The Book of the Century -

Although its popularity is unparalleled, intellectuals dismiss The Lord of the Rings as boyish fantasy. Now one scholar defends J.R.R. Tolkien's "true myth" as a modern masterpiece.

Here is an excerpt of the first of two parts by Andrew O'Hehir.

| In January 1997, reporter Susan Jeffreys of the (London) Sunday Times informed a colleague that J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings had been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a readers' poll conducted by Britain's Channel 4 and the Waterstone's bookstore chain. Her colleague responded: "Oh hell! Has it? Oh my God. Dear oh dear. Dear oh dear oh dear."

Attitudes on this side of the Atlantic are arguably more relaxed about this kind of thing. No one from the educated classes expressed much dismay when a 1999 poll of customers chose The Lord of the Rings as the greatest book not merely of the century but of the millennium. Tolkien's magnum opus is so deeply ingrained in popular culture, after all, that a great many of today's American academics and journalists probably spent time in eighth grade passing homeroom notes written in Elvish rune-script, and still have those dogeared Ballantine paperbacks, with their hallucinatory mid-1970s cover art (which the author despised), stashed somewhere in the attic.

Furthermore, members of the U.S. intelligentsia, confined to their Northeast Corridor reservation or scattered across the continent in a handful of college towns, fully expect to have their tastes ignored, if not openly derided, by the public at large. To some intellectual types (to me, for example) it seems gratifying, even touching, that so many millions of American readers will happily devour a work as abstruse and complicated as The Lord of the Rings. Whatever one may make of it, it's a more challenging read than Gone With the Wind (runner-up in the Amazon survey), not to mention Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (fifth place).

With the first film of director Peter Jackson's bazillion-dollar Lord of the Rings trilogy arriving this December, no one in the Western world, highbrow, lowbrow or anywhere in between, will be immune to the renewed onslaught of Tolkieniana, from Balrog action figures to arcana like Karen Wynn Fonstad's exhaustively detailed Atlas of Middle-earth. (Contrary to what some critics have suggested, Tolkien's letters make clear that he was eager to do business with the Lidless Eye of Hollywood, and had few illusions about the compromises that might be required.)

Yet the dear-oh-dear attitude lingers on in the land, a little concealed maybe, a little under the surface. What's more, it's there for a good reason. Hugely ambitious in scope yet seemingly antique in sensibility, The Lord of the Rings occupies an anomalous and uncomfortable position in 20th century literature. Considered on its own terms, Tolkien's epic -- he never intended it as a trilogy, although it was first published and absorbed into public consciousness in three volumes -- poses a stern challenge to the very concept of modernity, and perhaps especially to modern literature and its defenders. (Tolkien on his critics: "Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.")

The massive and enduring popularity of Lord of the Rings -- it has been 40 years since critic Philip Toynbee hopefully predicted that the Tolkien "craze" or "cult" would soon pass into "merciful oblivion" -- only raises the stakes. It would seem that Tolkien's work, which reinvented a moribund literary genre and created a new publishing market vaster than the empire of the Dark Lord Sauron himself, supplied something that was missing amid the shifting subjectivities and formal innovations of 20th century fiction, something for which readers were ravenous. But what was it, and why was it important? Or, to put the question in terms familiar to Tolkien readers, what has it got in its pocketses?

Answering this question properly would require a book rather than an article, of course. If T.A. Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century is not quite that book, it is nonetheless a delightful exploration of the relationship between Tolkien's fiction and his scholarly work and of the mythical, linguistic and philosophical history underlying both. It is also a crusade in a supremely Tolkienian spirit, on behalf of the dying academic discipline of philology, or the anatomy and history of languages.

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