NewsWire: Tolkien - Wizard of Words - Ongoing Respect for the Master

Tolkien - Wizard of Words
Canoe - March 24, 2001

Let's be quite honest here. This is a blatant attempt to plug my new book, J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created The Lord of the Rings. Lavishly illustrated and not badly written, it's a steal at $27.95 from Stoddart, the best publishers in the country. Which is not to say you should steal a copy, because I have four children to feed and, frankly, I need the money.

Okay, shameless self-promotion completed. The point is, however, that Tolkien and his books are quite remarkable. So much so that The Lord of the Rings has been turned into three major movies, number one to be released this year. The very first day a brief video clip of the movie was placed on the official Web site, there were more than 1.7 million downloads. That was twice the number of the previous record, held by Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Last year various polls were taken to find the most popular writer of the century, and then of all time. Much to the frustration of the chattering classes, the author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit won every one.

So angry were the critics that one of them claimed this was why universal literacy and the public library system were bad things. Tolkien had committed that terrible sin of being popular with people who read books because they enjoy them, not because they want to deconstruct them.

Not that he was an uneducated man. Tolkien was a professor who taught at Britain's Oxford University and was one of the finest minds of his generation. His works on language and on ancient legends still hold a position of great respect.


He was also married, had children, led a fairly normal life. He was a religious man, a faithful Roman Catholic - something that does not endear him to modern literary types. He smoked a pipe, drank beer, liked good jokes, wore stylish vests. Oh, and created the genre that we now call sword and sorcery or mythological fantasy.

There are legions of books and shows based on alternative worlds where good and evil fight for power. All of them are pale imitations of Tolkien's work, in which he gave readers an entirely believable universe, with its own languages and histories.

It is almost impossible to try to describe what The Lord of the Rings is about. A trilogy of large volumes, telling the story of entire civilizations. There are rings that go missing and have to be found, there is a magnificent wizard called Gandalf and superbly drawn characters such as Pippin, Boromir, Frodo and Aragorn.

But there is something much deeper and, thus, more appealing than authentically described battles and a storyteller's craft in depicting darkness and light. Other fantasy writers write about fantasy. Tolkien wrote about life, transformed into fantasy. His people might take on an outlandish shape and have a wildly original life, but they are all quite recognizable and possess essentially human qualities.

There is also in Tolkien a quintessential knowledge of right and wrong. Again, in an age where moral ambivalence is so cherished, a firm grasp of ethics and values is, to say the least, unfashionable. As such, Tolkien is partly of the old school. But the old school, at least in literary terms, was usually the best school. And to extend the analogy, many of the more modern classrooms are actually empty.

I conclude my book as follows: "As the small group of people who had just been invited to the gravesite were leaving, some of then, just some, said they heard a sound in the bushes in front of the trees. There was nothing there, at least to most eyes. 'Be quiet,' says Frodo, `you almost gave us away. Be quiet!' And behind him is a line of humans and other creatures, stretching mile after mile. The creatures are Tolkien's creations, of course. The humans? There are millions of them. They are the happy, smiling faces of his readers - past, present, and yes, yet to come. The story never ends. He always knew that."

If you haven't read the man, please do. I envy you encountering Tolkien for the first time. It just might change your life. It did mine.

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