“The Argonath” by John Howe. A mountain with character… so to speak.
The Washington Post – June 18, 2000
Summertime, and the reading is easy! For this special bestsellers issue Book World asked 11 novelists and critics to reflect on a classic work of popular fiction–or, in one case, of nonfiction. Not surprisingly, the resulting mini-essays are, by turns, satirical, wistful, appreciative and nearly always deeply personal. What, in fact, did millions of readers find in these apparently outrageous swashbucklers and kitschy love stories? Simple: the fulfillment of their dreams, the representation of unspoken desires. We hope you enjoy these remembrances of books past.
The Lord of the Rings
Chosen by Terry Pratchett, author of The Fifth Elephant and many other Discworld novels.
When J.R.R. Tolkien topped a readers’ poll organized by the Waterstone’s book chain in the UK a couple of years ago, there was screeching from the literary critics. They felt they were dealing with the dark side of democracy.
Only those ineligible for early release over the past 30 years will fail to be aware that the renowned Oxford language scholar innocently wrote The Lord of the Rings, a three-volume fantasy that could be called a “cult classic” only if you are prepared to define “cult” as “100,000,000 readers.”
How could apparent adults do this? the critics complained. It’s not even a proper novel!
Certainly Tolkien’s mountains had more character than his characters–indeed, part of the attraction of TLOTR is that the fictional Middle Earth itself is practically alive; storms are vindictive, mountains cruel. Elsewhere, there are problems for the modern reader. Whole races are labeled Good or Bad. Women barely figure in the plot. There is not a great deal of agonizing about the nature of morality. The “heroic” language often plods. There is much involvement with courage and loyalty, attributes usually dismissed by those who possess neither.
But most of us, I suspect, read it when we were around 13. I did. I devoured all three volumes in 23 hours. I’d never read anything like it. When I couldn’t find anything else like it in a small local library, I started reading mythology and ancient history, which seemed to offer something of the flavor. One book led to another. My real education got a kick-start.
Returning to the trilogy now, I can still see the attraction. For a time, the world makes sense. Evil has a map reference and, importantly, an antidote. The Good, if Brave, will Triumph, though at Great Loss. It’s a message that has kept Arthur and Merlin in business for centuries, so of course it will work for Aragorn and Gandalf.
Because of Tolkien, the bookstores in the ’80s were filled with more bad fantasy than you could shake a magic sword at. Because of Tolkien, there are adults walking around with names like Bilbo and Galadriel. But there are also a lot of people who found new doorways opening and, at worst, spent some time in a world that is better ordered. The people who object to escapism are, mostly, jailers. But Tolkien was, in the truest sense of the word, an enchanter.