by Julian Dibbell
In 1961, five years after publication of the final volume in John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s three-part fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings, the formidable English literary critic Philip Toynbee announced with great relief that popular enthusiasm for Tolkien was now thoroughly tapped out and his works were finally on their way to “merciful oblivion.” Nice call, Phil: Four years later, the first American paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings appeared, and the modestly bestselling book—the tale of brave little hobbit Frodo Baggins’s quest to destroy the Ring of Power and save Middle Earth from the Dark Lord Sauron—blew up to a youth-cultural legend. Three million copies were sold between 1965 and 1968; the curly-haired Frodo and his white-bearded wizardly protector Gandalf became hippie icons; and merry pranksters decked the walls of college campuses with such graffiti as “J.R.R. Tolkien is hobbit forming” and “Frodo Lives.”
He still does, in case you hadn’t noticed. Even as you read this, the living face of Frodo Baggins is probably shining, 10 feet tall, on a movie screen near you, embodied by teen actor Elijah Wood in a trailer for New Line Cinema‘s upcoming Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in a slavishly faithful three-film rendering of the Ring trilogy. When the movie opens in December, it will land like a mothership in the midst of a global fandom that has by now swelled the sales figure for Tolkien’s masterwork to over 50 million copies (not counting the 40 million sales of its 1938 predecessor, The Hobbit). The Tolkienite hordes have been flooding Web sites for months with gossip and debate about the film. Add in every online discussion about the genealogy of the kings of Gondor, every argument over the syntax of the Elven Quenya dialect, and the monthly textual output of the world’s Tolkien-flavored chat rooms and message boards probably exceeds, kilobyte for kilobyte, the 1400 pages of The Lord of the Rings itself. In short, the year 2001 finds Tolkien’s following bigger and busier than at any other period in the four decades since Philip Toynbee wrote its obituary.
What that amounts to in the greater pop cultural scheme of things, of course, is harder to say than it used to be. Back in the days when Tolkien was still alive and in the habit of referring to his shaggy, puff-sleeved fans as “my deplorable cultus” (he was a straitlaced, archconservative Catholic himself), they were easily mistaken for flower children, or at least fellow travelers on the road to a global transformation of consciousness through drugs, electrified music, and other forms of postindustrial enchantment. But now that the world-historical context has simmered down and a somewhat tamer generation has filled out the hobbit-loving ranks, everyone can see they’re just geeks.
Or something even geekier, arguably: ur-geeks. Keepers of the geek flame. For if The Lord of the Rings is not the sine qua non of geek culture, it’s hard to think what is. After all, the vast genre of fantasy fiction is, along with sci-fi, one of the two great narrative flows feeding the Nerd Nation’s imaginative life, and nobody doubts that Tolkien single-handedly invented it. And that’s not even counting the immense subcultural continent that is Dungeons & Dragons and every role-playing game descended from it—from the complex, online time-suck EverQuest to the Japanimated children’s saga DragonBallZ—all of which testify to the formative influence of the Tolkien mythos. Throw in Star Wars (as Tolkienesque a space opera as ever there was) and the argument is pretty much a lock: Without the lucidly imagined geography of Middle Earth and the archetypal characters Tolkien stocked it with—the grave wizards, stout dwarves, evil orcs, and above all, plucky, permanently adolescent hobbits—geekdom as we know it would simply not exist.
If you feel that’s no particularly meaningful achievement, I understand. But maybe you could indulge me and imagine, just for a moment, that the fact that we live in a world increasingly made by geeks actually makes their collective imagination worth understanding. Think about computers, their evolution shaped by a hacker culture that insisted some of the earliest dot-matrix printers be programmed to produce the elvish Fëanorian script. Think about the Internet, whose founding architects included the D&D fanatic who created the Adventure, the very first, very Tolkienized online role-playing game. Think, for a moment, about these profoundly transformative technologies. And then consider the possibility that the structures of feeling we inherit from them might just have some intimate connection to the dream life of the people who designed them. Consider, in other words, the possibility that The Lord of the Rings, geek culture’s defining literary creation, might just be one of the defining literary creations of our age.
That The Lord of the Rings belongs among the most important works of modern Western literature is not an unheard-of notion, but it’s not exactly a blue-ribbon one either. True, in some of the first reviews of the trilogy, Tolkien’s best friend, C.S. Lewis, did call it a groundbreaking successor to the Odyssey, and W.H. Auden reckoned it was right up there with Milton’s Paradise Lost. But when übercritic Edmund Wilson published a bruising smackdown in The Nation (“Oo, Those Awful Orcs,” April 14, 1956) dismissing the book as “balderdash” and “juvenile trash,” he sent Tolkien’s critical stock into a long, steady tailspin from which it has yet to recover. By late 1996, when a survey of British readers crowned The Lord of the Rings “the greatest book of the 20th century,” the dismay that set in among Britain’s credentialed literati was as predictable as it was over-the-top. Germaine Greer, who arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964, wrote “it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century. The bad dream has materialized.” Nor does the official stance seem to have softened any since. Just a few weeks ago critic Judith Shulevitz went to the trouble of reminding us all, in the pages of The New York Times Book Review, that no modern work of fiction in which people say things like “There lie the woods of Lóthlorien! . . . Let us hasten!” can be anything less than “death to literature itself.”
Shulevitz made these remarks in response to claims very much to the contrary, advanced in T. Shippey’s new critical assessment, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, published by Houghton Mifflin last month. Shippey is a professor of Old English, just as Tolkien was—Shippey even shared teaching duties with Tolkien at Oxford for a brief time—and he seems to take just a tad personally the general critical disdain heaped upon his former colleague. But while his indignation gets a little out of hand, his argument is a sober one, aimed at setting Tolkien alongside such epic poets of the 20th-century condition as Orwell, Joyce, and Pynchon. The Lord of the Rings, he insists, constitutes “a deeply serious response to what will be seen in the end as the major issues of his century: the origin and nature of evil . . . ; human existence . . . without the support of divine revelation; cultural relativity; and the corruptions and continuities of language.” But in fact, deeply serious or not, Tolkien’s actual responses to these issues are so deeply unengaged with the 20th-century cultural mainstream as to seem willfully out of it.
A lovely list of issues indeed. The problem, though, is that, deeply serious or not, Tolkien’s responses to them were those of a man whose head resided in the 20th century but whose heart just wasn’t in it. He was a medievalist in more ways than one, and to read his work as Shippey proposes, with the concerns of modernist literature in mind, is to invite the sort of exasperation you might feel if you were in the mood for Madame Bovary and got handed Beowulf instead. Tolkien’s theory of evil? Well, orcs are, our heroes aren’t, and that about sums it up. Tolkien’s take on “human existence”? A hard gig, certainly, full of danger and tough decisions, but fortunately not enough to threaten the wise Gandalf, the noble Aragorn, the sly Saruman, or any of Tolkien’s other characters with more than the occasional moment of psychological complexity. And as for “cultural relativity,” hoo boy. By the time you have read your third or fourth description of the orcs as “swarthy” and “slant-eyed” you will either have checked your late-modern political sensitivities at the door or thrown the book at the wall.
But ultimately, the real problem with Shippey’s approach is the same one that dogs almost all attempts to wring serious literary meaning out of The Lord of the Rings: It fails to take Tolkien’s literary project as seriously as he took it himself. “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations,” he famously wrote in one foreword to the trilogy, warning readers against the temptation of finding in it “any inner meaning or ‘message.’ ” Nearly every thoughtful piece of Tolkien criticism makes some kind of nod to the letter of that admonition, but very few can resist violating its spirit. For some, the “inner meaning” of The Lord of the Rings has been a bluntly topical allegory of, say, World War II or eco-activism (Sauron is Hitler and the Ring is the atomic bomb; Sauron is the enemy of Gaia and the Ring is industrial technology). For more high-minded exegetes, like Auden and Shippey, the meanings are more abstract (Frodo’s quest is the Quest of Everyman to come to know himself; Frodo’s struggle with the Ring’s corrupting influence is society’s struggle with the burden of power). But either way, these critics’ sense of the worthiness of the trilogy compels them to sniff out its significance, often as not at the expense of any true grasp of what Tolkien’s point and power really are.
So what is his point then? What is his power? Strip away his meaning and what is left? Well, Middle Earth itself. Or rather his invention of it—a powerful, lifelong act that produced at least 12 volumes of background notes on the history and languages of that imaginary world. Some might call this make-believe, others might call it simulation, still others would call it hallucination. All three explain why, as an unnamed British smartass observed in a 1992 edition of Private Eye, Tolkien’s writing appeals less to critics than “to those with the mental age of a child, computer programmers, hippies and most Americans.” There is in America—and anywhere else the engines of postmodernity run at full tilt—a growing cultural fascination with the elasticity of reality, and with it a growing urge to tinker at reality’s stretchiest edges. Literature, as the critics now understand it, doesn’t satisfy this urge. But child’s play has always done the trick. Psychedelics too. And now, more and more, our technologies are at it as well. Already, deep, complex computer games like the Sims and Black and White anticipate an era when critics locate culture’s center of gravity not in books but in elaborate digital simulations. And when they do, a few may recall that it was Tolkien, lord of the geeks, who announced the shift.