Lord of the Rings a good tale – for Wagner lite
By A.N. Wilson
The Daily Telegraph – November 28, 2001
LONDON – The story is told of C.S. Lewis, in his college rooms at Oxford, listening to J.R.R. Tolkien reading aloud from The Lord of the Rings, and interrupting with: “Oh no! Not another f—— elf!”
This story is not true, though it is a garbled version of a truth. Lewis, Tolkien and a number of like-minded dons, from the late ’30s to the mid-’50s, would meet regularly to discuss literature. Sometimes they would read aloud to one another from work-in-progress.
The high point of these meetings of the Inklings, as the friends called themselves, were the readings from The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was not an eloquent man. He mumbled and muttered. His lectures on old Germanic philology, when they were not cancelled because of his frequent colds and bouts of bronchitis and laryngitis, were only semi-audible to the small, intelligent band who followed this, the primary area of his professional concern.
When Lewis and friends could bear old Tolkien’s mumblings no longer, they enlisted Christopher Tolkien, the professor’s youngest son, to read from the great book. Christopher is a man of extraordinary eloquence. His lectures at Oxford on Norse mythology were always packed out. I wish I had heard him read from The Lord of the Rings. I have heard him read from the Edda, from the sagas and from the Anglo-Saxon poems that were the chief inspirations for his father’s work.
The “f—— elf” story came from Christopher himself, and I put it in my biography of Lewis. It was not C.S. Lewis who made this unmannerly interruption, but Hugo Dyson, a noisy veteran of the First World War who taught English at Merton college.
Lewis had far too much generosity of spirit and far too much admiration for Tolkien’s narrative skills to have been capable of uttering such a sentiment. He was always greedy for more Lord of the Rings, and it was largely through Lewis’s encouragement that the great tale ever came to be finished.
Lewis was the first Tolkien addict, and there have been many since, ranging from the stoned hippies of the ’60s who wore T-shirts with “Gandalf lives!” on their chests to the members of the Tolkien societies, who meet at “moots” and dress as characters in the story, to millions of enthralled readers, held by the sheer power of the narrative.
It is the archetypical story of homely, virtue-loving creatures contending against great odds. Moreover, though a devout Catholic, Tolkien deliberately excluded religion from The Lord of the Rings. There is just a strange moment when the hobbits are about to settle down to a meal with the elves, and the older, more dignified elves turn silently in prayer toward the east. The hobbits, being earthly creatures, do not understand what is going on. For the rest of the tale, it is good versus evil, and good magic versus bad magic.
Iris Murdoch, interestingly, was a tremendous fan and loved talking to the old professor about the more abstruse points of elvish lore. When her husband, John Bayley, exclaimed that The Lord of the Rings was “fantastically badly written,” she would look astounded and say that she did not know what he meant.
Actually, Murdoch and Tolkien had this in common, though they could hardly be more different in other respects: Like Murdoch, Tolkien did not worry about “style” at all, simply charging on, where The Lord of the Rings was in question, with his sub-William Morris prose.
There are occasions — I shall speak of these in a minute — where Tolkien’s use of the old language and lore of the North, and of Wales, is shimmeringly brilliant. All storytellers take over older material, as this medieval professor would have been the first to tell us. But it is his use of “other men’s flowers” (as Montaigne called them) that sometimes grates.
J.R.R. Tolkien was not a great opera-goer, but he pored over the text of Wagner’s Ring cycle as a young man. It goes without saying that his own great myth about the Ring of Power, The Lord of the Rings, was first suggested by the music dramas of the German composer. The Ring in Tolkien is lost, like Wagner’s Ring, in water. Like Alberich, Gollum is a base figure of pure cupidity. The possession by a low creature of this instrument of power creates reverberations among the higher creatures — in Wagner among the giants and the gods, in Tolkien among the elves and in the heart of Sauron, the Dark Lord himself, who sends out his emissaries, the Dark Riders, to reclaim the Ring when, by accident or providence, it falls into the hands of the homely little hobbits of the Shire.
Compared with Wagner, The Lord of the Rings is weak stuff. It is Wagner for kiddies, Wagner without angst, Wagner without a brooding sense of spiritual catastrophe.
The Hobbit had been a story written to amuse children, and very little of Tolkien’s imagined mythology had intruded into it, beyond the Ring of Power having fallen into the hands first of Gollum and then of Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit himself. Even The Lord of the Rings did no more than lift a corner of the tapestry into the buried world of lost tales and languages that had been their creator’s preoccupation for most of a long life.
Only after the old professor died, and his son Christopher withdrew to the South of France to edit the manuscripts, was the full extent — one might even use the word enormity — of the Tolkien universe revealed.
The first book to be published was The Silmarillion, which Private Eye satirized as The Sell-A-Million. Those accustomed to think that the name J.R.R. Tolkien on the spine of a book would guarantee an unputdownable narrative were amazed to discover that The Silmarillion was something completely different.
Here, I think, one finds something much deeper and more interesting than the rattling yarn of The Lord of the Rings. In his imaginative reworking of Welsh and Germanic languages, in his evocation of how myth grows out of language, and how language is sustained by myth, he is saying something truly interesting. Its originality has not really been plumbed, I fancy.
For this reason, I found The Silmarillion, with its creation myths and its elvish grammar, more impressive than The Lord of the Rings. And I realized, as I turned the pages of The Silmarillion, why, during a recent re-reading, I had given up on The Lord of the Rings: I saw that J.R.R. Tolkien was not really a writer at all.
Take the example of the Ents, the talking trees. It seemed obvious to me on this reading that the Ents in The Lord of the Rings have partly been suggested by the talking apple trees in the film of The Wizard of Oz and more by the suicides who have turned into trees in Dante’s Inferno. Beside both originals, Tolkien’s imitation seemed feeble. The Ents seem wonderful when you first read the story as a child. In the forthcoming film adaptation they will be wonderful again — you won’t be thinking about their literary analogues.
Yet two things remain hauntingly good about The Lord of the Rings, even for the reader who fears he will never enjoy it as he once did. One is the sheer power of the narrative. The second is the elvish mythology and the language. I found myself turning back to a volume called The Lost Road and Other Writings: Language and Legend Before The Lord of the Rings, edited by Christopher Tolkien and which contains 60 pages of “the etymologies of the old tongues” — Danian, Eldarin, Noldorin, Old Noldorin, Primitive Quendian and Telerin.
You might ask what is the point of reading the etymologies of a fake language when you might be learning Old Norse, Old English or Greek. The same sensible habit of mind might ask why one should read ersatz mythology by Tolkien rather than reading Homer.
In Tolkien’s own case, the psychological reasons for, not merely creating, but, as far as one can tell, almost completely inhabiting his mythological world are fascinating, if impenetrable. They perhaps explain why, for so many years of the 20th century, Tolkien made fans among dopeheads and fantasists.
He deserves better than this, however. If not exactly a writer, he was a serious craftsman. It is possible that the film will win him new generations of rapt admirers, caught up in his hypnotizing skill as a storyteller.