by Tom Shippey
AFTER almost 50 years, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is headed back into the best-seller lists. It is true that it is propelled by the Peter Jackson film, but then what caused the film if not the grateful memory of millions of readers?
What has given Tolkien’s work its lasting success – a success achieved in defiance of every commercial consideration (too long, too strange, too hard), and in the teeth of bitter resistance from academic and critical establishments?
Could it be its failure to fit any literary category? It is a long prose narrative, which makes it a novel by some counts, and the adventures of those quintessentially bourgeois creatures, the hobbits, are told throughout in standard middle-class novelistic style.
The hobbits are surrounded, though, by the personnel of fairy-tale, elves and dwarves, trolls and goblins. And the fairy-tale creatures are acting out an epic theme, that of translatio imperii, the shift of power, this time not from Troy to Rome, as in the Aeneid, but from the non-humans to their short-lived successors: the Age of Men begins, sadly and regretfully, as the book closes.
So The Lord of the Rings is a fairy-tale epic told in the form of a novel – with, one has to add, a strong dose of quest-romance and more than a dash of Macbeth, walking woods, magic mirrors and misleading prophecies all included.
This variety of genre is reflected in a marked variety of styles, all the way from hobbitic banter up to quasi-medieval and quasi-Biblical, something that has infuriated critics who expect books to stay on the same decent middle-class level all the way through, like proper novels.
Yet there is a further and more ambitious level in Tolkien, which is stylistically neutral: the level of myth.
Tolkien, as is well known, was a devout Roman Catholic, and insisted that his work was inspired by his belief. You could be forgiven for wondering. Not only are none of the characters Christians, they aren’t even pagans – no gods, temples, priests, sacrifices.
Middle-earth is a well-mapped Limbo, seemingly scrubbed of religious belief. Yet it contains a ruling myth based on traditionally Christian and even more traditionally English images, and one that speaks even to its present and largely post-Christian audience.
The myth may be called, for short, “the myth of stars and shadows”. For much of The Lord of the Rings, its central characters are quite literally “bewildered”.
They are lost in the wild, in fact in Wilderland, and they often have no idea where they are or what to do. Pursue the orcs, or follow the Ring? Hide the Ring, or send it into danger? Scenes of agonised doubt and indecision, like “The Council of Elrond”, stud The Lord of the Rings.
The bewilderment is at its worst inside the book’s repeated forests, not Mirkwood this time, but the Old Forest, the Enchanted Wood of Lothlorien, most of all inside Fangorn Forest.
There one set of travellers meets the resurrected Gandalf, but they think he’s Saruman, and the last time they thought they saw him he was Saruman. Meanwhile Fangorn himself knew Gandalf was there, but did not let on to the hobbits, who continue to know that Gandalf is dead.
Tolkien’s forest is similar to, but much more threatening than, Shakespeare’s wood in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the lovers wander constantly, pixie-led by Puck. It has a hint about it of Spenser’s allegorical Wood of Error, and more than a hint of the wood in Milton’s Comus, where the enchanter rules and the rescuers cannot see their way.
Woods are like that, of course. They cut off your lines of sight, and make you lose your bearings. That is what makes them a powerful metaphoric image, even into modern times. Tolkien’s wanderers are awfully like us, but pre-Christian as most of England is now post-Christian.
With their bearings lost, they cannot “trust in the Lord”, because they have only the barest inkling of Him. They can “trust to luck”, and they do, and Tolkien has a theory about that, but it is a deliberately non-reassuring one. Through the trees, however, and from the depths of their bewilderment, they can see the stars, Tolkien’s image of hope.
The hobbits sing songs about this, even in the Old Forest. So do the elves, singing their quasi-hymns to Elbereth “Star-Lighter” from galadhremmin ennorath, “tree-tangled Middle-earth”.
The elves see themselves as exiles in Middle-earth, shut out from their true home in the Undying Lands. Quite like Christians, one might say, but not quite.
The traditional image of the Christian is that of the pilgrim, only passing through the world, eyes fixed on the next one. The elves, and the hobbits, and Tolkien, are all deeply attached to this one, to Middle-earth itself, and indeed to its woods. Forests may be dark, dangerous and deceitful, but Tolkien was all for trees as against chain-saws.
Leaving the world, even for Heaven, is not a perfect solution for him, or for his characters, or for us. We’d rather stay here, most of us, make this world a better one, re-establish England’s green and pleasant land as the Shire. But we can’t. Death prevents us, and the passage of time, and the shifts of power and politics.
Tolkien speaks to that sense of loss and rather surprisingly he speaks not just to English people, but to people across the world. His images are universal, his myth is timeless.
Up there are the stars, unaffected but unreachable; down here the wanderers, lost in shadow. But in the Wood of the World, one might say, there are three things to remember.
First, decisions cost: if Gandalf saves Faramir, he loses Theoden. Second, you’re not alone, even if it feels like it: Frodo and Sam stumbling through Mordor are sheltered unbeknownst by Aragorn looking in the palantir. Third, the one thing definitely wrong is giving up, losing hope.
All this is true of Middle-earth and of our own bewilderments as well. That is why Tolkien remains alive for so many, and why his book should be accepted as a classic, in spite of its defiance of so many literary conventions.
*Tom Shippey is Walter J. Ong Professor of Humanities at St Louis University. His book, JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, is published by HarperCollins