Just how good is J.R.R. Tolkien, master of Middle-earth? Eileen Battersby assesses the enduringly popular author, described as an allegorical seer but whose sole ambition was to tell stories.
Lord of the Hobbits
by Eileen Battersby
The Irish Times
In a place named Middle-earth practical English common sense meets the mythic with an imaginative genius and epic grandeur as found nowhere else. More than 60 years since he first dismissed adventures as “nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.” Bilbo Baggins, the food-loving hobbit remains a hero, albeit an unlikely one, while his creator J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) has consistently emerged from popular polls as the author of the century. Tolkien’s masterwork, the three-volume epic, The Lord of the Rings, has been hailed as the novel of the 20th-century, ahead of works by Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon and everyone else.
Critics resent his standing and deride his fiction as mere fantasy. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, too many of them have failed to read his books, or even grasped what he is doing, to offer valid criticism. So it is impossible to take their attacks seriously. Throughout the coming year, Middle-earth will be acquiring new followers as the slow build-up for the release of the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, due to open next Christmas, begins. More grief for the critics, more readers for Tolkien.
Of the many splendid ironies surrounding Tolkien’s achievement is the fact he was a distinguished scholar of AngloSaxon and Middle English, a career academic who never disputed he was an amateur novelist. He refused to accept his work with its theme of the nature of evil was allegorical. First and last, Tolkien was a storyteller who never concealed his objective was to test his ability to sustain a tale. And, with another Christmas, the proof of his faith in the story and his desire to tell one – which he did with rare imaginative force – is, as ever, reiterated. Most bookshops have their Tolkien corners and many stock copies of The Hobbit in both adult fiction and children’s sections.
Long before today’s children amazed their parents by standing outside bookstores queuing for the latest Harry Potter, previous generations encountered Tolkien and became seduced for life. Earlier this week in the scrum of a Dublin bookshop it was exciting to watch 10- and 12-year-olds pointing out to their parents exactly why they were ready for The Lord of the Rings, would prefer the three-volume to the single-volume editions, examined the other Tolkien titles, while adding “I’d also like to read The Hobbit again”.
Therein lies the secret allure of The Hobbit. Once you read it, you continue to re-read it. It possesses enormous humour and daring, invention and brisk pathos. Above all it is a colourfully-written adventure and in Bilbo, the jaunty little hobbit, Tolkien has created a three dimensional character, likeable and no saint. This blustering, conventional domesticated stay-athome and reluctant burglar slowly becomes aware in himself of the awakening of the spirit of adventure. Quite against his nature, he is recruited by Gandalf the wizard to accompany a group of disgruntled dwarves (Tolkien’s preferred spelling of the plural as outlined in his note on the text) in an ambitious quest – the recapture of stolen dwarf treasure long in the possession of Smaug the Magnificent, an ancient dragon who sleeps on it.
Even as early as this book, written for his children and first published in 1937, Tolkien had hit upon the formula which would later underline the dense fabric of The Lord of the Rings, published in three volumes between 1954 and 1955. This was the juxtasposing of the recognisably English society of The Shire, a rural world, including some aspiring middle-class suburban elements such as Bilbo, with strongly heroic elements of the distant past and darker traces of the European fairy tale such as trolls, goblins and dragons as well as the grace and beauty of Elrond’s generous Elven kingdom of Rivendell. The episodic narrative of attack and escape dashes along supported by Gandalf’s logical irony, Bilbo’s middle-class values and the suspicious exasperation of Thorin Oakenshield leader of the dwarves. Nothing could be more English than the witty riddle game Bilbo engages in with the strange watery creature Gollum, who will later play quite a role in The Lord of the Rings.
Considering that The Hobbit is an action-packed adventure, it is interesting to note the care with which Tolkien concentrated on characterisation and dialogue, his characters speak true to themselves. Tolkien’s ear was ever astute. Throughout his work he is constantly placing elves, dwarves, Men, hobbits and others in contact with each other. Bilbo bumbles along mainly by the grace of great good luck until “suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it.” As a narrative device, the ring is an inspired touch. It repeatedly saves Bilbo and assists him on his way to becoming a hero. But it has its price. In the light of what is to happen in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien shows immense foresight in allowing his readers to know the ring has a mind, or at least, a power, of its own. It certainly has an agenda and as we will learn, the ability to corrupt.
Yet the the ring is not central to The Hobbit. The disputed treasure is and the various ordeals experienced by Thorin’s party in pursuit of it eventually leads dwarves and hobbit to a scene which diminishes their previous dangers: “They had barely time to fly back to the tunnel pulling and dragging in their bundles, when Smaug came hurtling from the North, licking the mountain-sides with flame, beating his great wings with a noise like a roaring wind. His hot breath shrivelled the grass before the door, and drove in through the crack they had left and scorched them as they lay hid. Flickering fires leaped up and black rock-shadows danced. Then darkness fell as he passed again. The ponies screamed with terror, burst their ropes and galloped wildly off. The dragon swooped and turned to pursue them, and was gone”.
Though the vanity of pursuing great wealth is obvious by the close of the story, as the dying Thorin announces: “I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed”, Tolkien is not writing a morality play. Aside from being an adventure, The Hobbit is primarily a study of the development of a character, Bilbo’s. Tolkien was duly and immediately celebrated for The Hobbit. When it came to writing a sequel, however, he encountered many problems. It may seem difficult to believe, but it took a frustrating struggle before Tolkien saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King published.
Long before he began writing it, he had been at work at his Book of Genesis, The Silmarillion. This core chronicle of Middle-earth had begun to preoccupy him as early as 1913. Tolkien could spin a good yarn. But little was left to chance. He built his world upon a solid bedrock of cultures, languages, folklore, mythology, complex histories, ancient racial tensions, the hierarchy of wizards, detailed Middle-earth geography, the joys, fears and tragedies of his many characters and also their extensive genealogies. Hobbits love hearing about their family trees but the awesome density of detail brought to his work by Tolkien has not even been approached, never mind matched, by any other fiction writer. This April, a deluxe, single-volume, 1,700-page edition of the 12-volume The History of Middle-earth compiled by Tolkien’s son Christopher, will be published. The text of The Lord of the Rings runs to 1,112 pages, including appendices, but there are also further scenes, dazzling digressions and additional maps which are not included in the final version of the novel.
Who was John Ronal Reuel Tolkien, Merton professor of English language and literature at Oxford (1945-1959) and gifted illustrator? As his biographer reveals, Tolkien’s life was a quiet one lived in imagination and he and his wife, whom he survived by two years, raised four children. He was born on January 3rd, 1892 in South Africa of English parents. The family returned to England when Tolkien was three. His father died the following year. When he was 12, his mother’s death caused him to be raised by relatives in and around Birmingham. Despite his foreign birth and German-derived name, Tolkien saw himself as deep rooted in the English West Midlands.
At 16, he met his future wife, who was three years his senior. Forbidden by his guardian to see or even write to her until he was 21, Tolkien, in his quiet, determined way, obeyed and wrote to her, proposing marriage, on his 21st birthday. They married while he was at Oxford. In 1915, he took up a commission and served at the first World War front.
DURING his three months on the Somme in 1916, he saw two of his closest friends and many others die. He was later invalided out. It is not far-fetched to describe Tolkien, so often viewed as a cosy fantasy writer, as a member of that war generation. His fiction could be seen as much a response to war as is Heller’s or Vonnegut’s. Nor is it difficult to understand how he brings such power to the many war scenes and violent episodes in his work. He never forgot the war. It is important to note that the Lord of the Ring, refers not to Frodo but to the evil Sauron. Having received a Readership and then a chair at Leeds University, Tolkien was appointed to the Anglo-Saxon chair at Oxford University in 1925. He was then 33 years old.
Often described wrongly as a religious writer, Tolkien’s faith is not as overtly reflected in his work as it is in that of his friend C.S. Lewis. Yet Tolkien was a Christian and a Catholic, the religion his mother had converted to. His feel for humanity is obvious in the subtle characterisation. Some critics have seen Frodo, Bilbo’s nephew and the ring bearer in The Lord of the Rings, as a Christ figure – but this was not Tolkien’s intention.
While the world of Middle-earth, its wealth of character, complex cultures and histories were taking shape in his imagination, he was also engaged in intense scholarship. He co-edited, with E.V. Gordon, an edition of the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 1925, while his 1936 British Academy lecture on Beowulf remains the most important single essay on the poem. The enduring appeal of his two major works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, has tended to overshadow his other imaginative writings, such as Farmer Giles of Ham and Leaf By Niggle. Also forgotten outside academic circles is his pioneering scholarly work on the Finn and Hengest fragment, featuring two fifth-century heroes, who appear in Beowulf.
There is an engaging candour about The Hobbit and some sure comic touches. Small wonder that so many readers move directly on to The Lord of the Rings. My involvement began when I was 10. The Lord of the Rings is a commitment. Each volume leads on to the next as the narrative never slackens. As a child I was gripped by the story, I loved the characters, particularly Frodo and Sam Gamgee, the tensely heroic Aragorn, Elrond and the elves, Treebeard and the Ents but from early in the first volume sensed there was something else at work that I couldn’t quite identify. Studying Anglo-Saxon at university fully opened the door into Tolkien’s dense, multi-layered world, complete with the menace of the Dark Riders.
Tolkien’s handling of the contrasting characters, several of whom represent rival races, is one of the most intriguing aspects of the saga. Into this tense atmosphere of impending conflict wander The Hobbits, Merry and Pippin. Frodo has no choice. For him becoming the Ring bearer is a duty imposed by kinship, and his duty to his uncle.
In The Hobbit, Bilbo’s chance discovery of the ring is but part of the story. In The Lord of the Rings, the ring, or at least its destruction, becomes the story. The dwarves’ pursuit of their lost treasure is a quest. Frodo’s story becomes a hazardous mission. Accompanied by his faithful gardener Sam Gamgee, Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote, the gentle Frodo endures the trials of hell and at times almost succumbs to the ring’s evil. Sam, it could be argued is the true hero, but Frodo is the novel’s heart.
From the beauty of Lothlorien to the horror of Mordor, this is no simple yarn. There are echoes of Macbeth, Miltonic flourishes. In a chapter such as the Council of Elrond in which the narrative is brought forward by a series of speeches, Tolkien leaves no doubt as to his technical skills. Evil and danger exist on many levels. Several of the characters, including Gandalf, Elrond and the Lady Galadriel admit fearing what possession of the ring could do to them.
The first time I read The Lord of the Rings, I reached the final line of The Return of the King at 5 a.m., having read all night. For me, this was daring so I decided I should do something dramatic. I stared at the moon and started to weep for Bilbo and Frodo gone to the Gray Havens. This time, years later and many thousands of books later, I again read through the night and shortly after 5 a.m., again stared at the moon and again wept for Bilbo and Frodo.
Nostalgia aside, The Lord of the Rings is remarkable. It may not be the novel of the century – I think The Tin Drum is – but it is vivid, atmospheric, beautiful, unsentimental, well-served by Tolkien’s clever tone shifts and ultimately tragic. Tolkien who died on September 2nd, 1973, honours the art of story by looking to the past. He remains the master story-teller equally alert to the panoramic sweep and the tiniest gesture.