This is quite a review… full of unabashed love and laud for the work. Of course, it was with Lewis’s continuous encouragement that Tolkien was able to finish The Lord of the Rings, so I think it’s with the pride of a literary grandfather that Lewis reviews this work…
The Gods Return to Earth
by C. S. Lewis
[The Fellowship of the Ring] is like lightning from a clear sky; as sharply different, as unpredictable in our age as [William Blake’s] Songs of Innocence were in theirs. To say that in it heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism, is inadequate. To us, who live in that odd period, the return and the sheer relief of it is doubtless the important thing. But in the history of Romance itself–a history which stretches back to the Odyssey and beyond–it makes not a return but an advance or revolution: the conquest of new territory.
Nothing quite like it was ever done before…. The utterly new achievement of Professor Tolkien is that he carries a comparable sense of reality unaided. Probably no book yet written in the world is quite such a radical instance of what its author has elsewhere called “sub-creation”. The direct debt (there are of course subtler kinds of debt) which every author must owe to the actual universe, is here deliberately reduced to the minimum. Not content to create his own story, he creates, with an almost insolent prodigality, the whole world in which it is to move, with its own theology, myths, geography, history, palaeography, languages, and orders of beings–a world “full of strange creatures beyond count”. The names alone are a feast … [and are] best of all … when they embody that piercing, high, elvish beauty of which no other prose writer has captured so much.
Such a book has of course its predestined readers, even now more numerous and more critical than is always realized. To them a reviewer need say little, except that here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. They will know that this is good news, good beyond hope. To complete their happiness one need only add that it promises to be gloriously long: this volume is only the first of three. But it is too great a book to rule only its natural subjects. Something must be said to “those without”, to the unconverted. At the very least, possible misunderstandings may be got out of the way.
First, we must clearly understand that though The Fellowship in one way continues its author’s fairy-tale, The Hobbit, is in no sense an overgrown “juvenile”. The truth is the other way round. The Hobbit was merely a fragment torn from the author’s huge myth and adapted for children; inevitably losing something by the adaptation. The Fellowship gives us at last the lineaments of that myth “in their true dimensions like themselves.” (p. 1082)
[The Hobbits] are not an allegory of the English, but they are perhaps a myth that only an Englishman (or, should we add, a Dutchman?) could have created. Almost the central theme of the book is the contrast between the Hobbits (or “the Shire”) and the appalling destiny to which some of them recalled, the terrifying discovery that the humdrum happiness of the Shire, which they had taken for granted as something normal, is in reality a sort of local and temporary accident, that its existence depends on being protected by the powers which Hobbits forget against powers which Hobbits dare not imagine, that any Hobbit may find himself forced out of the Shire and caught up into that high conflict. More strangely still, the event of that conflict between the strongest things may come to depend on him, who is almost the weakest.
What shows that we are reading myth, not allegory, is that there are no pointers to a specifically theological, or political, or psychological application. A myth points, for each reader, to the realm he lives in most. It is a master key; use it on what door you like. And there are other themes in The Fellowship equally serious.
That is why no catchwords about “escapism” or “nostalgia” and no distrust of “private worlds”, are in court. This is no Angria, no dreaming; it is sane and vigilant invention, revealing at point after point the integration of the author’s mind. What is the use of calling “private” a world we can all walk into and test and in which we find such a balance? As for escapism, what we chiefly escape is the illusions of our ordinary life. We certainly do not escape anguish. Despite many a snug fireside and many an hour of good cheer to gratify the Hobbit in each of us, anguish is, for me, almost the prevailing note. But not, as in the literature most typical of our age, the anguish of abnormal or contorted souls; rather that anguish of those who were happy before a certain darkness came up and will be happy if they live to see it gone.
Nostalgia does indeed come in; not ours nor the author’s, but that of the characters. It is closely connected with one of Professor Tolkien’s greatest achievements. One would have supposed that diuturnity was the quality least likely to be found in an invented world. And one has, in fact, an uneasy feeling that the worlds of Furioso or The Water of the Wondrous Isles weren’t there at all before the curtain rose. But in the Tolkinian world you can hardly put your foot down anywhere from Esgaroth to Forlindon or between Ered Mithrinnd Khand, without stirring the dust of history. Our own world, except at certain rare moments, hardly seems so heavy with its past. This is one element in the anguish which the characters bear. But with the anguish comes also a strange exaltation. They are at once stricken and upheld by the memory of vanished civilizations and lost splendour. They have outlived the second and third Ages; the wire of life was drawn long since. As we read we find ourselves sharing their burden; when we have finished, we return to our own life not relaxed but fortified.
But there is more in the book still. Every now and then, risen from sources we can only conjecture and almost alien (one would think) to the author’s habitual imagination, figures meet us so brimming with life (not human life) that they make our sort of anguish and our sort of exaltation seem unimportant. Such is Tom Bombadil, such the unforgettable Ents. This is surely the utmost reach of invention, when an author produces what seems to be not even his own, much less anyone else’s. Is mythopoeia, after all, not the most, but the least, subjective of activities?
Even now I have left out almost everything–the silvan leafiness, the passions, the high virtues, the remote horizons. Even if I had space I could hardly convey them. And after all the most obvious appeal of the book is perhaps also its deepest: “there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly vain”. Not wholly vain–it is the cool middle point between illusion and disillusionment. (p. 1083)