Lord debate: Magnificent art or a cult classic?
by Julia Keller
Chicago Tribune cultural critic
Before there was J.K. Rowling, the most famous initials in the fantasy field doubtless belonged to J.R.R. Tolkien.
The mild-mannered linguistics scholar who died in 1973 was the author of The Lord of the Rings, the doorstop-sized trilogy about hobbits, elves, wizards and an alternately bucolic and terrifying place called Middle-earth. The book has sold more than 100 million copies around the world since its 1954 publication.
When the $90 million movie version of Lord of the Rings opens Dec. 19, the first of three films covering the book’s convoluted tale, the long-simmering debate about Tolkien’s work is sure to intensify.
Was he a major author or a hack whose second-rate scribbles mysteriously became cult favorites? A true colossus in the literary world or a puny figure wobbling on stilts? A Shakespeare of fantasy writing or a lucky fellow who just happened to catch the fancy of a generation?
Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh
The battle over Tolkien (pronounced “toll-keen,” with both syllables equally stressed; the initials stand for John Ronald Reuel) has lasted for decades, a battle that masks even deeper issues involving the definition of literature and the world’s ambivalent attitude toward popular success. The arguments about Frodo Baggins’ adventures with a ring that bestows invisibility — as well as grave danger — always seem to be about more than just the words on the page.
“A children’s book which has somehow gotten out of hand,” was critic Edmund Wilson’s judgment in 1956 of The Lord of the Rings, which he said displayed “a poverty of invention which is almost pathetic.”
Another naysayer was poet John Heath-Stubbs, who dismissed the book as “a combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh.”
The ultimate significance of Tolkien’s work was a sure-fire magnet for controversy, the poet W.H. Auden once wrote. “I rarely remember a book about which I had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it.”
Moderation is rarely in evidence when the subject is The Lord of the Rings — which Tolkien never intended to be a trilogy, instead conceiving of it as a single long book. Readers and critics either adore it or scorn it. They either clasp it to their bosoms and proclaim, “Masterpiece!” or fling it away and sneer, “Trash!” Few are neutral.
A new mythology
That love-hate relationship sparks a certain defensiveness among fans of the book. Eric Lippert, who created one of the first Tolkien Web sites in 1993, sees the anti-Tolkien contingent as little more than literary snobs.
“When [George] Orwell has talking pigs making points about politics [in Animal Farm], it’s great literature,” said Lippert, a Seattle resident who designs programming languages for Microsoft, via e-mail. “When Tolkien has talking trees make points about technological change, it’s `juvenile escapist trash.’ It’s a double standard.
“How dare literature appeal to our sense of fun? How dare fairy stories and myths be considered important culturally? No, if it’s to be called `important’ literature by critics, then it had better be literature that only critics enjoy reading.”
The Lord of the Rings, Lippert believes, is far more ambitious than most critics perceive. “Tolkien’s aim was to write a new mythology for England. Lord of the Rings is about Tolkien’s conception of his own Catholic faith. It’s about the struggle against evil and the self-sacrifice that this struggle requires. It’s about the corruption caused by misuse of power and technology.
“The themes are timeless — that they happened to be told with elves and wizards does not change their meaning.”
Some observers believe that The Lord of the Rings is an elaborate allegory for the wars that wracked the world in the 20th Century. Tolkien was wounded while fighting in World War I and lost many close friends in the conflict; later, he and his Oxford colleagues watched with dismay as World War II engulfed yet another generation.
While Tolkien discouraged the hunt for topical symbols in his work, others find evidence of them irrefutable — yet they come carefully hidden in the fantasy elements that throw some critics off the trail.
Creating words and worlds
Neil Gaiman, author of the fantasy series The Sandman, said Tolkien “exists outside the orthodox canon of literature. You can’t put him in a box.”
Like Lippert, Gaiman believes that Tolkien’s commercial success is what drove his critics to jealous fury. “If the book had never become a huge commercial phenomenon, the book would have remained well-respected. There’s something about fantasy that rubs critics the wrong way — and so does popularity.”
For Gaiman, though, Tolkien’s achievement is inarguable. The Lord of the Rings, he said, “sits like a towering monument among imaginative literature. Tolkien was a philologist who started out creating a language and then ended up creating worlds to put his language in.”
Tolkien, who spent his adult life as a professor of Old and Middle English at Oxford University, from all accounts was bedazzled by languages. As Gaiman noted, many people believe that the chance to create new languages — the dialects and pronunciations of various Elven tongues — were what really drove Tolkien to concoct his mythical world. The story was secondary. And it is the painstaking intricacy of that world — its lists of inhabitants with odd-sounding yet resonant names, its complex weave of legends and songs and dark foreshadowings — that make it enthralling for millions of readers, even those born into a cyber-world of which even Tolkien could not have dreamed.
In its October cover story, Wired magazine called Tolkien’s work “the ultimate virtual world.”
Writer Erik Davis called Lord of the Rings a “portal into Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the most realized imaginary realm in the history of the fantastic . . . [and] the code it runs on is Tolkien’s invented languages.”
But others find The Lord of the Rings tedious, self-important and even childish, with its melodramatic bombast and simplistic emotional range. At times, the dialogue sounds as if it were lifted from a bad high school play: “`Dark is the water of Kheeled-zaram,’ said Gimli, `and cold are the springs of Kibil-nala. My heart trembles at the thought that I may see them soon,'” runs a typical passage.
A compelling tale
Something, however, has kept readers coming to The Lord of the Rings for almost a half a century, and it may be that the whole of Tolkien’s achievement is greater than any individual part. You can point to a mawkish line here and a bit of silliness there, but the cumulative effect is powerfully compelling.
“It’s very well-written, with great descriptive detail,” said Mike Foster, an English professor at Illinois Central College in East Peoria who serves as North American representative to the Tolkien Society.
“The academic community can be snobbish. The author’s great popularity worked against him,” Foster declared.
“The fact that this work has a wizard in it, and hobbits and elves, probably has caused some scholars to look down on it.”
Sebastian Knowles, an English professor at Ohio State University who wrote his Princeton University doctoral dissertation on Tolkien and others in his Oxford circle, including C.S. Lewis, said the author’s literary influence still is visible.
“His most clear contemporary analogue is Philip Pullman, the author of His Dark Materials, a trilogy that follows the Oxford line of alternative worlds. Tolkien connects to all the modernists writing in the Second World War — his writing is a kind of escape, as it was for [T.S.] Eliot in Four Quartets and [Virginia] Woolf in Between the Acts and [Evelyn] Waugh in Put Out More Flags, a way of coming to terms with the real.
“He’s a serious writer,” Knowles added. “There will be a time for him whenever the world breathes down on us, as long as we’re grown up enough to follow him.”