Reasons for Liking Tolkien - London Review of Books
A writer, born around 1890, is famous for three novels. The first is short, elegant, an instant classic. The second, the masterpiece, has the same characters in it, is much longer and more complicated, and increasingly interested in myth and language games. The third is enormous, mad, unreadable. One answer is Joyce, of course. Another - The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings (1955), The Silmarillion (1977) - is J.R.R. Tolkien.
A writer, born around 1890, raged against 'mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic' and 'the rawness and ugliness of modern European life'. Instead he loved the trees and hedgerows of the English Midlands he had known as a boy, and the tales of 'little, ultimate creatures' he came across in the legends of the North. Clue: it wasn't D.H. Lawrence.
A writer, born around 1890, worked bits of ancient writings into his own massive masterwork, magnificently misprising them as he went. Clue: it wasn't Pound.
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) spent his working life as a philologist. He was Reader then Professor of English Language at Leeds, then Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford from 1925 until 1945, then Professor of English Language at Oxford from 1945 until his retirement in 1959. In his time, he was recognised as the world's leading expert on Beowulf, and in his time, he probably knew more about the Old Norse languages than anyone else alive. For Tolkien, philology was a passion. It was to do with recovering lost worlds from the fragments left to us, and critics may well be right to link this passion to the early deaths of both his parents. It can be life's greatest blessing to stumble on a vocation whose rhythm fits so nicely with one's most secret preoccupations. It can also be a curse.
Even in Tolkien's time, philology was seen as a dusty, irrelevant subject, especially in comparison to the 20th-century vigour of English literature under I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis. Who cares about roots and origins when you could be debating the Great Tradition? Tolkien returned the compliment. His Letters, published in 1981, betray no interest at all in the stuff most people think of as modern writing, and a loathing of newfangled phenomena as various as Concorde, Shakespeare and municipal swimming-baths.
A writer, born around 1890, declared himself a monarchist and a Catholic; and no, it wasn't Eliot. In form, in content, in everything about it, The Lord of the Rings is the most anti-Modernist of novels. It is really very funny to think about how similar it is in so many ways to the works of the great Modernists.
Unlike Joyce, Lawrence and Pound, however, Tolkien was a writer with a block. He was over 60 by the time The Lord of the Rings was published, and the work he cared about most deeply, some of which is collected in The Silmarillion, did not appear in his lifetime. This explains why a body of writing largely published in the second half of the 20th century turns out to be so strikingly first-half in its concerns. It's all there, the usual slurry of the 1920s and 1930s: the fear of the masses, the retreat into archaism, the confusion about race and phylogenesis and so on. On the evidence of his published papers, Tolkien does not appear to have been half as crackers on these topics as many others were. He sublimated the anxieties, perhaps, in his books.
Except that here comes the first odd reversal. In The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), his influential study of elitism in 20th-century literature, John Carey writes about the 'duplicity' of Joyce's Ulysses, a novel supposedly about love for the common man, but written in such a forbidding way that the common man is unlikely to read it. Well, The Lord of the Rings is the opposite. It is a work written to keep the modern world at bay that the modern world adores. In the late 1990s, Best Book polls conducted for Waterstone's and Channel Four, the Daily Telegraph, the Folio Society and Amazon all had it coming first by a mile.
And it all gets stranger. Next month, The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in a three-part movie adaptation of Tolkien's masterwork, will have a worldwide release. Unlike the last attempt, Ralph Bakshi's peculiar semi-animated version of 1978, this new production is a proper live-action global-Hollywood movie, with spectacular digital effects like Gladiator's, only more so. It has a proper cast, with proper stars in it: Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Liv Tyler as Arwen Undómiel (the women's parts have been beefed up somewhat). An acquaintance e-mailed to say he'd seen an early trailer in a cinema. He was so moved by the glorious sight, he cried.
On the one hand, the prospect of Tolkien as a major motion-picture event suggests that the man and his oeuvre are about to be turned inside out. This most backward-looking and fustily word-bound of popular novels is about to become merely a marginal, rather literary-looking advert for a multimedia franchise a bit like Star Wars, only bigger. The footnotes, languages, scripts, maps and appendices that are so much a part of the Lord of the Rings experience are about to be replaced with fast-food tie-ins (a deal with Burger King has been announced), a hit pop record, trading cards, furry backpacks. It is a strange reversal. Except that in a way it is not.
Take a look at the Fellowship trailers, different versions of which can be downloaded from the Official Site. The landscapes - what they are prepared to let you see of them - have that digitally enhanced hyper-real quality more sumptuous than Technicolor, more magical than cartoons: super-icy mountains, mega-scary forests, stormier than the stormiest of skies. The effect, in current parlance, is usually called 'achingly beautiful': a deep, mysterious mixture of pain and pleasure, a yearning towards the impossible, with something delirious in it and something sublime. A deep, mysterious feeling which yet can be commodified and evoked with great efficiency by the entertainment industry, like a confection of pink sugar, like a drug.
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