When it comes to the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, it is true that critics either love the books or hate them. As the film debut of The Fellowship of the Ring approaches, The American Prospect discuss whether J.R.R. Tolkien is worthy of inclusion in the literary canon.
Here is an excerpt:
In some ways, Tolkien scholarship resembles scholarship on James Joyce, say, or William Faulkner. Critics pore over Tolkien’s correspondence and unpublished papers and sketches–many of which have been posthumously released by his son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien–for clues into the writer’s mind and imagined universe. There are Tolkien biographies and bibliographies; there are Tolkien-studies organizations; there are university-based Tolkienists as well as numerous independent ones.
Not unlike what has happened with Joyce, the line between Tolkien scholarship and Tolkien fandom can get rather blurry. Consider Rice University English professor Jane Chance, who organized the Kalamazoo Tolkien panels, has published two books on Tolkien, and teaches “English 318: J.R.R. Tolkien.” The syllabus sounds like many other college lit classes: “The course will trace the tension between the exile … and the community, otherness and heroism, identity and marginalization, revenge and forgiveness.”
But when I asked Chance what it’s like teaching Tolkien, her response was startling: “I can only speak very personally, from having taught Shakespeare and Tolkien: I don’t see any difference.” Certainly, The Lord of the Rings is a rich and multilayered text; its author was a man of deep learning and imagination who created a mind-bogglingly vast and detailed fictional world, complete with its own history, civilizations, and languages. Touring Middle Earth with Tolkien can be like touring the Mediterranean with Herodotus. Still, when Tolkienists claim “author of the century” honors and swing for the fences by comparing their man to the Bard, it’s small wonder that the likes of Harold Bloom are withholding their seal of approval.
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