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No more Tolkien gestures
The Scotsman - December 15, 2003
The Lord of the Rings must be one of the most comprehensively dismissed trilogies ever written. Critics have queued up since its publication nearly 50 years ago to denounce it. But JRR Tolkien's story has outlived one generation of critics, and will certainly outlive another.
This week sees it doubly celebrated. Not only does The Return of the King open at cinemas on Wednesday, completing Peter Jackson's movie version, but Tolkien's work took the crown of the BBC's Big Read vote to decide the nation's most popular book.
Of all the novels written in the last century, it now seems one of the most likely to be read for both entertainment and enlightenment in centuries to come. Like Homer's Odyssey, it is for all time.
Why is it such a great and lasting work? Because Tolkien's story bestrides the chasm between the ancient world and ourselves. His Middle Earth and the modern world are twins, born at the same time, in the First World War.
Modernism, with its experiments with form and its contemporary social focus, emerged then as the dominant literary mode of the 20th century. Modernists such as TS Eliot and James Joyce, and war poets Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen with their accounts of incapacitated suffering, set the tone for what was subsequently considered to be valuable writing.
Originally rejected as an outsider in this literary world, Tolkien has suffered the fate ever since of being deemed beneath consideration.
The author only acquired a wide audience nearly two decades after the Great War, with The Hobbit, a deceptively simple children's adventure yarn. And nearly two decades later again came The Lord of the Rings, and its summary dismissal by critics such as Edmund Wilson, who called it "juvenile trash".
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