“Over the years, Tolkien scholarship has become more, albeit not completely, accepted on college campuses.”
Lord of Literature
by Mary McNamara
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
It began, as many things do, in a bar. An Oxford pub, circa 1940, called the Eagle and Child, or the Bird and the Baby to the locals. At Tuesday luncheons, one table was occupied by an odd assortment of men–a couple of middle-aged dons, a writer or two or three–who smoked and drank and read to each other from scratched-out, scrawled-down pages. The Inklings they called themselves.
Beery meetings of would-be writers are neither rare nor famously productive–it has been said that many fine books have been lost in bars, talked into oblivion. But this was not the case at the Bird and the Baby, where, through a fug of pipe smoke and stout, J.R.R. Tolkien worked his way through the early drafts of The Lord of the Rings. Begun as a sequel to his children’s book The Hobbit, it became instead the ber fantasy, the epic tale of another hobbit (a pint-sized humanish creature) who, aided and thwarted by men, dwarves, elves and wizards, seeks to destroy the Ring of Doom and save Middle-earth from the evil Dark Lord.
As a group, the Inklings were remarkably prolific — core members included Charles Williams and Tolkien’s college-mate C.S. Lewis — but no other novel produced by anyone in the group, or, some argue, by any other writer of the time, has had the impact and influence of The Lord of the Rings. The product of 17 years of writing and a lifetime of scholarship and thought — Tolkien was 60 when it was published — the trilogy defined fantasy as a genre and left a legacy Homeric in its catalog. From Dungeons and Dragons to Dune, from the computer game Myst and all its knockoffs to the Star Wars series, the influence of Tolkien’s themes, characters and devices continues to resonate. Without Tolkien, some believe, there might be no Ursula Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut or even Thomas Pynchon. Without his hero, Frodo Baggins, there would probably have been no Harry Potter.
But more important, The Lord of the Rings inflamed the imaginations of readers everywhere. Since its publication, 50 million copies of the trilogy — and 40 million copies of its precursor, The Hobbit — have been sold in 35 languages, which puts the Tolkien oeuvre somewhere between the Bible, Mao’s “Little Red Book” and that boy wizard. (The first four books of J.K. Rowling’s Potter series together have sold close to 100 million copies.)
Often read by those in their late teens and early 20s, The Lord of the Rings has a timeliness that appears eternal, the hobbit an unlikely but enduring hero. Diminutive and more desirous of comfort and safety than adventure and acclaim, hobbits, and Frodo in particular, are Everyman. Frodo and his fellow hobbits ground the tale, which wanders through many disparate lands and describes numerous fantastic creatures, by giving it protagonists with whom most people can identify.
Readers in the 1950s found in the work’s pages support for the disenfranchised masses. In the 1960s, it stood as an antiwar manifesto and an endorsement of environmentalism. In later decades it has been interpreted as a plea for racial tolerance and a condemnation of the Industrial Age.
Now its epic themes of good versus evil and the importance of individual choice resonate powerfully as the world again faces war.
For many, it is a book like no other, to be read and reread, discussed and treasured. A 1996 poll by the elite British bookstore Waterstone’s declared it “The Book of the Century,” and not even Star Trek can match the breadth and endurance of the Middle-earth subculture. The Tolkien Society is more than 30 years old and has branches and spinoff clubs all over the world. Dozens of journals and magazines, with names like Mythprint and Mythlore, are devoted to Tolkien and the Inklings, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar Web sites range from the scholarly to the fanatic.
“The easy answer is that it’s just a very, very good book,” said Mike Foster, the North American representative of the Tolkien Society. “It is a rich and varied work, with themes of friendship, difficult choices, temptation, good and evil. And it works on so many levels–a child can understand the basic story line, but for the adult reader there is always something new, some level that you haven’t explored.”
And now, New Line Cinema has bet $300 million that it will be the film, or films, of the century. The first installation of Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated trilogy opens in theaters in December, and for Tolkien fans, it’s the biggest thing to happen since Christopher Tolkien published his father’s early drafts in The History of the Lord of the Rings in the late 1980s.
All over the world, fans are downloading trailers and going through them frame by frame, exchanging thoughts and rumors via the Internet and collectively crossing their fingers. A 14-minute trailer has drawn mostly positive response, but the official statement from the Tolkien Society is simply “wait and see.”
“A lot of us are cringing at the idea of Burger King putting out little hobbit toys,” says Ted Sherman, a member of the Mythopoeic Society and editor of Mythlore, its journal. “Most lovers of Tolkien regard the creation so highly, he was such a perfectionist and Middle-earth is so real, they don’t want to see his works trivialized. But … we all want to see what [Jackson’s] interpretation is. But you have to keep in mind, that’s all it is, one person’s interpretation onto film. It isn’t the work itself.”
No one is more aware of this than Jackson himself. He has said repeatedly that anyone expecting to see a scene-by-scene replay of the work is going to be very disappointed. A film is, by its very nature, different from a book.
“We have tried to honor as many aspects of the work as we could,” he said. “We all hold the book in complete reverence, and I really believe that shows in the film.”
Sherman and other fans hope the movie will draw even more readers to Tolkien. Already, annual sales have almost tripled, and Houghton Mifflin is releasing several new editions of the trilogy, as well as a single volume.
Tolkien wrote Rings as a single, continuous novel, but it was published as a trilogy because of the postwar paper shortage —The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in 1954, followed by The Two Towers in 1955 and The Return of the King in 1956.
The books follow the adventures of a group made up of hobbits, elves, dwarves, men and a wizard as they attempt to destroy a magical ring with which the nefarious Sauron, a force of true evil, would enslave Middle-earth. At the end of the first book, the fellowship divides and as many as five storylines proceed as alliances are forged, secondary villains battled, and many are rescued from the brink of corruption and despair. Although victory is at last achieved in the final volume, it comes with a price–many of those who fought to save the world now must leave it, as the age of magic gives way to the age of man.
Simple Themes of Friendship and Resolve
A noted medievalist and philologist, Tolkien illuminated his work with a variety of languages, many based on Old English and Celtic, and the strongest and most enduring elements of archetype and myth. There is magic, good and bad, in Middle-earth, trolls and dragons, wizards and wicked goblin-like Orcs, trees that talk and mirrors that show the future. But there are also the simple themes of friendship, endurance and resolve.
Critical reaction to the work upon its release was united only in its passion. While in the New York Times W.H. Auden compared it to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Nation’s Edmund Wilson called it “balderdash” and “juvenile trash.”
When a bootlegged paperback version was released in the United States in the early ’60s, antiwar protestors gloried in the premise that such a thing as a ring of supreme power could only corrupt and enslave, and so should be destroyed. Soon, other participants of alternative culture were sporting T-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming “Frodo Lives” and “I Brake for Hobbits.”
Tolkien was baffled by the predilections of such an audience — near the end of his life he was often awakened at 3 in the morning by some American calling to ask the significance of some bit of dialogue, some passing character. The literati shivered at the thought of such fans and pointed to them as proof that Rings was not serious literature.
When Waterstone’s handed Rings the book-of-the-century title, Germaine Greer took to the chain’s own magazine to declare that “ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964 and encountered a tribe of full-grown women wearing puffed sleeves, clutching teddies and babbling excitedly about the doings of hobbits, it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has been realized.”
That attitude both typifies many academic opinions of the work and explains the zeal of those who don’t share it.
“I have taught Shakespeare; I have taught Milton and Chaucer; I am a discerning reader and scholar, and this is a serious work,” says Jane Chance, an associate professor of English literature at Rice University in Houston. “If you define canon as a multilevel work, one which has a depth you never exhaust when you teach it, then this is a canonical work.”
Over the years, Tolkien scholarship has become more, albeit not completely, accepted on college campuses; Rings is on hundreds of university-approved “recommended reading” lists, and a handful of American universities offer accredited courses on “The Lord of the Rings” alone. Chance, who did not read the book until she was well into her 20s, has been teaching “Rings” in seminars and as part of literature overviews for more than 15 years. But it wasn’t until 1997 that she was able to list a fully accredited class in the work. In a department in which the average class size is nine, she said, her Rings class drew 83.
“This is a quest story, but also an anti-quest,” she said. “Frodo is a little guy who is called upon to do heroic work against enormous evil. It speaks to us because we’re all little guys, we’re all hobbits. We imagine that we’re just doing these little jobs, and then suddenly we’re tapped to fight these enormous dark powers. And how Frodo wins is not the normal power definition, not by some superhero power or might or even magic. Step by step, Frodo learns to be a hero.”
Over the years, she has seen her students change. They are less inclined than their 1960s counterparts, she says, to equate Sauron with the U.S. government or read his enslavement of Middle-earth denizens as the draft. Instead, they are more interested in watching the individual choices the characters make, how they eschew temptation or face what is often a grindingly miserable journey.
Chance’s reading of the work also has changed. Where she used to stress the actions and choices that allow Frodo to transcend fear and become a hero, she now also stresses the help he has in doing so, and from whom he receives it.
“I have taught it several ways, but lately I see it as a multicultural work,” she said. “As Frodo moves along, he encounters different species and needs to embrace them, to create an international world.” In the book, she added, there are many examples of age-old prejudices being set aside for the common good–among the fellowship, an elf and a dwarf, traditional enemies, form an unlikely friendship.
As she sees it, this theme also explains the active involvement many fans seek through gatherings and scholarship. What brings such people together, she said, is a desire to save Tolkien from literary pigeonholing. “It’s a desire to be heroic. Don’t forget, the first book is about a fellowship and none of the actions, not even at the end, happen to only one individual. One of the book’s biggest draws is the idea that you’re not alone in this bewildering universe.”
A Trail Through an Alternative Universe
Like Chance, Foster, who is an English professor at the University of Southern Illinois, didn’t read Rings all the way through until he was in his 20s. And when he did, “I literally didn’t eat or sleep,” he said. “I was late for appointments. I was completely lost in it.”
He remembered that Tolkien had sold his papers to Marquette University for the princely sum of $2,000 shortly after the book was published. Soon, Foster was making trips back to his alma mater to read through the then-uncataloged collection. Since then, the drafts and letters have been organized and, when combined with others found by Tolkien’s son, form a fascinating and painstaking paper trail through the creation of an alternate universe.
Originally, Rings was to be a sequel to The Hobbit, the author’s wildly successful adaptation of a tale he used to tell his four children.
“[C.S.] Lewis urged him to write it down,” said Foster. “When you think of what came out of those gatherings … Lewis transformed children’s fiction and Tolkien adult fiction. It is hard to imagine a more significant creative friendship in the 20th century.”
Yet, he added, the Inklings were a sedate group, and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien the very model of a perfectly ordinary British academic. At 27, he married Edith Bratt, a woman he had courted since he was 16, and stayed married to her until her death in 1971. Just after their marriage, he was sent to the Western Front and served in the Somme offensive, where he became seriously ill. After the war, he became an associate professor at Leeds University and, eventually, an Oxford don, whose critical essay on Beowulf is still considered one of the best.
When the public and his editor demanded more hobbit tales, Tolkien complied, beginning the book again and again and again before it became clear that what he wanted to write, what indeed he was writing, was no child’s book but an epic saga. He continued to work on it after its publication, making revisions in subsequent editions and writing what he considered his masterwork, The Silmarillion, a dense creation myth that describes the forces and characters leading to the action in Rings.
It was this comprehensiveness that made Tolkien both turning point and benchmark within the fantasy genre. He is the author who, according to the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, “gave final definitive legitimacy to the use of an internally coherent and autonomous land of faerie as a venue for the play of the human imagination.” Previously, fantasy writers had to diminish their alternative worlds by connecting them in some way to the “real” world, or, even worse, explaining them away as a dream or a hallucination. After Tolkien, there were no limits save those imposed by the genre itself–that the worlds must remain consistent within their own logic.
The term “fairy story,” although unapologetically embraced by Tolkien and his followers, is one of the first pejoratives lobbed by those who, like Greer, do not consider Rings to be real literature. Wizards, dragons, elves and magic rings are often the stuff of children’s stories, but many, including Tolkien, argue that there was a very good reason for this.
Fantasy, he wrote in an essay titled “On Fairy Stories,” should offer the reader escape, yes, but also, and more important, recovery and consolation. Many fantasy tales are about salvation and heroism in a world gone very wrong, where large forces do battle but the individual makes the difference. These criteria, said Tom Shippey, author of J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, challenged the tenets of modern literature that focused instead on realism, private relationships and individual journeys.
“I call it the novel of genteel adultery,” said Shippey, a former Oxford don who now holds the Walter J. Ong Chair of Humanities at St. Louis University in Missouri. “The characters are elaborate and sensitive; there was not the emphasis on plot. Very Bloomsbury, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster. But then during the mid-20th century, it turned out that people were concerned with public matters, specifically warfare. It didn’t much matter if you’re sensitive or what your marriage is like if you’re being herded into a concentration camp. Try to figure out what the Bloomsbury group thought about war, and the answer is ‘nothing.”‘
Tolkien, he said, and other authors who saw combat — George Orwell, William Golding, Vonnegut — found themselves criticized because they tried to find new ways to deal with large issues. Tolkien in particular, Shippey said, has been derided for “having a positive attitude. Irony, after all, is canonical.”
But the fans of the genre, and the book, tend to be anything but simpletons. The poll that anointed the work book of the century was conducted among readers who are classified as “serial readers.” (The second most popular author listed was Orwell.) Many who devote themselves to the study of Tolkien’s languages and characters are scholars in their own right–Shippey, like his subject, is a well-known medievalist and, in fact, held the same positions at the University of Leeds and Oxford that Tolkien did. “The work is 1,000 pages long,” Shippey said. “It is not for the faint of heart.”
Nor was it written as such. Much of it is a reaction to the author’s horrifying experience in the trenches of World War I, and to his general despair that the idyllic England of his youth was disappearing into the maw of the post-Industrial Age. To some, Tolkien’s obvious belief that there are clearly demarcated forces of good and evil, and that even the least formidable among us may have the most important task, seem less than modern. To others, these are the very notions that will make the work just as resonant in this century as it was in the last.
“I remember at a Tolkien conference watching a Polish woman reach out to shake [daughter] Priscilla Tolkien’s hand,” said Foster. “This was in the dark days before Communism fell, and she said, ‘You have no idea what your father’s books have meant to us. They kept us believing that the Orcs would not always win.’
“The Lord of the Rings is the story of a long and difficult battle against great evil, taken on by the humblest,” he added.
“If that doesn’t have any meaning now, I don’t know when it would.”
Thanks to NiennaSorrowing for bringing this article to our attention!