Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) (Vol. 1)
Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) 1892–
Tolkien, an Oxford don, is the author of the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, set in Middle-Earth, a region populated with Hobbits, wizards, and orcs. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
[The Lord of the Rings] is spun out in a masterly way. It is plotted with an astonishing prodigality of invention that never fails in the approximate 600,000 words of the whole. Tolkien can evoke hideousness, terror, horror, and dreadful suspense, as well as beauty, laughter, nobility and joy. The style is always graceful, often highly eloquent, occasionally lyrical with descriptive passages of much loveliness and color. Tolkien is an adept painter of scenes and evoker of images, who can orchestrate his narrative and descriptive effects with flexibility and variety, from pianissimo to forte, while keeping his themes or motifs tightly interwoven and steadily developing. Also he is a poet of much skill in the special veins appropriate to the work. He creates runic rhymes and bardic songs in a wide range of moods and meters, from comic to heroic to elegiac, in the modes of those that characterize Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian literature….
I think it safe to say that whatever anyone might hold to be the flaws, idiosyncrasies, or excesses of the hobbit story, this extraordinary imaginative feat in the making of an Other-world, meaningfully related to our own, is likely to be one of the most tenacious works of fiction in this present age of Middle-earth. It gives joy, excitement, a lift of spirits, and it contains the kind of wisdom and insight which, if applied to the world we inhabit, might help our sore-beset race to hang on through the present shadows of modern Mordor into yet another age.
Edmund Fuller, in his Books With Men Behind Them (© 1959, 1961, 1962 by Edmund Fuller; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1962, pp. 174-75, 196.
The Lord of the Rings is a twentieth century Beowulf. It too "glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts." But the epic tradition was no longer open to Tolkien. The epic, for all its magnitude, moves within realms of the possible and expected. We sense that even Grendel and the Dragon have for the Beowulf poet and his audience a certain inherent probability. (If this judgment is unacceptable, the reader may follow Tolkien's lead and exclude Beowulf from the epic canon.) For precisely the same reason, and for others as well, the chronicle was not suited to Tolkien's purposes. The chronicle depends on a substantial core of historically probable events which then enable it to absorb a host of improbabilities, both real and fictitious. However, Tolkien's pretense that The Lord of the Rings is based on ancient chronicles is not entirely unfounded. As the Appendices which round out Volume III show, Tolkien himself has written the chronicles of Middle Earth, and The Lord of the Rings is an elaborate exposition of certain events in the chronicles relating to the end of the Third Age. The substantiality and magnitude of Tolkien's book is sufficient proof that epic and chronicle were within the reach of his technical and creative ability; but they were not suited to his purposes. Only the romance tradition, with its radical displacement of probable reality, could accommodate the many wonders of Tolkien's imagined world and so allow us to glimpse the cosmic and the thought of all men.
George H. Thomson, "The Lord of the Rings: The Novel as Traditional Romance," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1967 (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 43-59.
Although Tolkien must be believed when he denies that the book is in any sense allegorical, The Lord of the Rings definitely presents an ethos which is as significant for the contemporary world as it would be for any other. It is not simply an attenuated sequel to The Hobbit…. Perhaps the issues explicit in The Lord of the Rings are not original, but the vehicle used to present these issues is. This vehicle is the product of a powerful imagination; it deserves critical attention and imaginative readers, Edmund Wilson to the contrary notwithstanding. Moreover, few really important issues are altogether new. Have we never as a species experienced anything similar or even analogous? Few of those writers read today outside of scholarly work, trade in topical subjects, and we may be forgiven for presuming to say that the same will be true of our contemporaries. Although each age and each writer may say something different about them, the same problems seem to arise in different forms.
Noreen Hayes and Robert Renshaw, "Of Hobbits: The Lord of the Rings," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1967, pp. 58-66.
I take it [that] one of the main things [Tolkien] wants to say is that the real life of men is of [a] mythical and heroic quality. One can see the principle at work in his characterization. Much that in a realistic work would be done by "character delineation" is here done simply by making the character an elf, a dwarf, or a hobbit. The imagined beings have their insides on the outside; they are visible souls. And Man as a whole, Man pitted against the universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy-tale?…
[The Lord of the Rings] is too original and too opulent for any final judgment on a first reading. But we know at once that it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men. And though we must ration ourselves in our rereadings, I have little doubt that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables.
C. S. Lewis, "The Dethronement of Power," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 12-16.
Tolkien sets his story neither in a dream world nor in the actual world but in an imaginary world. An imaginary world can be so constructed as to make credible any landscape, inhabitants, and events which its maker wishes to introduce, and since he himself has invented its history, there can be only one correct interpretation of events, his own. What takes place and why is, necessarily, what he says it is….
"And so they lived happily ever after" is a conventional formula for concluding a fairy tale. Alas, it is false and we know it, for it suggests that, once Good has triumphed over Evil, man is translated out of his historical existence into eternity. Tolkien is much too honest to end with such a pious fiction. Good has triumphed over Evil so far as the Third Age of Middle-earth is concerned, but there is no certainty that this triumph is final…. Victory does not mean the restoration of the Earthly Paradise or the advent of the New Jerusalem. In our historical existence even the best solution involves loss as well as gain….
If there is any Quest Tale which, while primarily concerned with the subjective life of the individual person as all such stories must be, manages to do more justice to our experience of social-historical realities than The Lord of the Rings, I should be glad to hear of it.
W. H. Auden, "The Quest Hero," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 40-61.
By looking deeply into The Lord of the Rings, we see our world and something beyond. The hero, the other characters, and the structure of the trilogy appeal to us not rationally but emotionally. Its characters are caught up in the decay theme of the novel, the eternal struggle of life against death, just as we are. We recognize that the hobbits are emblematic of naturalness, of childhood, and of a life which will yield to the Age of Men with its technology, its rational adulthood, and death. This recognition strikes a sympathetic chord in the human heart. The reiteration of the decay theme and the recognition of the temporary triumph of the forces of life over the forces of death as the Third Age ends—both of these give the book a bitter-sweet tone. This truth of vision makes the book appealing to readers who acknowledge that of them also, at the last, not a shadow of their stopping forms will be seen.
Hugh T. Keenan, "The Appeal of The Lord of the Rings: A Struggle for Life," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 62-80.
[Although] The Lord of the Rings is by no means allegorical, it gains much of its force from its symbolic concentration on the most basic human concerns: the problems of man's relation to his universe. The fact that Tolkien's cosmos seems at first totally alien to our own might mislead us into thinking that his trilogy has no more right than ordinary science fiction to be considered as serious literature, that it is really the "juvenile trash" that [Edmund] Wilson thinks it. Yet Tolkien removes his fiction from the realm of "real life" only to be enabled to talk more forcefully about reality. A serious reading of The Lord of the Rings must produce the realization that its issues are profoundly relevant to human problems…. Although Tolkien's achievement is far outside the central modes of twentieth-century fiction, it is none the less significant. It demonstrates how even a framework of fantasy can provide a context for the exploration of serious concerns, how moral energy can animate farfetched fiction, how a tale of other worlds than ours can incorporate and be enriched by a complex ethical structure. Its linguistic limitations may prevent its assuming a high position in recognized literary canons, but it will surely continue to exercise compelling power over its readers.
Patricia Meyer Spacks, "Power and Meaning in The Lord of the Rings," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 81-99.
When J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, appeared some seven years ago, it accomplished on a modest scale the sort of critical controversy which The Waste Land and Ulysses had occasioned a generation earlier. Like them, it could not be easily reviewed; it was anomalous; it forced examination of critical principles; it demanded a judgment that necessarily became a position to be defended. Before the quarrel subsided, the trilogy had been compared to the Iliad, Beowulf, Le Morte d'Arthur, and the work of Ariosto and James Branch Cabell. Critics reexamined the genres of epic, romance, novel, defended their views of such techniques as symbolism and allegory, went beyond the techniques and found themselves talking of fate and free will, essential human nature, natural law. But when the dust had settled, the trilogy remained an anomaly heartily liked or disliked not so much on literary grounds as on fundamental religious or ideological ones. It demanded extraliterary value judgments, and it got them….
The trilogy is at least partly an attempt to restore the hero to modern fiction….
Now The Lord of the Rings is certainly not a realistic novel, not a symbolic novel, perhaps not a novel at all as we usually understand the term. It would seem closest to "myth," except that we generally think of myth as some sort of adumbration of what was once either fact, or felt to be fact, or desired to be fact. But here there is no question of fact at all. It is clearly sheer invention, and that is the sharp edge of the razor which both friendly and hostile estimators have had to get over. The trilogy poses the question of the value of invention in our time. It follows, of course, that to ask the value of invention is to assume a knowledge of, and a judgment of, "reality," and to ask how far, and in what way, and for what reason this invention departs from reality—and whether this invention is justifiable. Most of the essential criticisms of the work resolve themselves to this question.
Robert J. Reilly, "Tolkien and the Fairy Story," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 128-50.
Tolkien … makes effective use of two kinds of tradition: first, that which is the common heritage of the whole culture, such as the elves and dwarfs, and his main adaptation of this is in his ordering of the tradition, his creation of a credible and organic system on which to structure his story. Second, he has adapted certain flexible traditions, like the wild man, to his own thematic pattern of good and evil, and to this extent he creates a tradition. Where his creations fail, they are outside the organic traditional pattern of Tolkien's world, not simply because they do not belong there but because they seem to be in another plane of existence, as out of place as a time machine. But when he succeeds, he does so beautifully, and his creatures are as real as a next-door neighbor.
Thomas J. Gasque, "Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critters," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 151-63.
A vast compendium of elves, dwarves, and men; history, saga, and poetry; philosophy, adventure, and sentiment—the Lord of the Rings is unique in modern fiction. No contemporary novel, perhaps no work of prose fiction, in any way rivals its scope and diversity. For while The Lord of the Rings has much in common with and derives a great deal of its technique from the tradition of the English novel, its ultimate forebears must be sought elsewhere, in the forests and mountains of the Nordic lands and in the sagas, lays, eddas, and fairy tales which the inhabitants of those lands sang and passed on to their progeny. The Lord of the Rings is essentially a Nordic myth and its distinctive qualities become clear only when it is approached as a myth rather than as a novel or as a children's book or even as a fantasy. In a sense, it defines its own genre, just as Moby Dick does, and like Moby Dick, it is as bewildering in its variety as it is convincing in its unity.
Charles Moorman, "The Shire, Mordor, and Minas Tirith," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 201-17.
My position is this: The Lord of the Rings is a magnificent performance, full of charm, excitement, and affection, but it is not—at least as I am here using the term—literature. Tolkien's three volumes tell an entrancing "good and evil story" and tell it with power and wisdom; he has succeeded in constructing a self-contained world of extraordinary reality—and grace…. Yet I contend that making stories, even wonderful stories, is not the same thing as making literature….
The Lord of the Rings is a genuine epic, with all the vast sweep and complex dovetailing necessary to sustain a large and powerful tale. Narrative art is … Tolkien's primary concern; it is also and quite obviously his forte. The trilogy almost never flags. Tolkien's inventiveness carries off variation after variation; his story-telling virtuosity is wonderful, and I do not want to deny this talent its worth. All the same, there is a certain amount of what comes close to the trickery, the mechanical plot manipulation of the lesser tale-teller.
Burton Raffel, "The Lord of the Rings as Literature," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 218-46.
[The Lord of the Rings is] epic and romance and novel by turns, held together by a central myth that manages to partake of all the myths of all the heroes of the past without ever ceasing to be a myth of Tolkien's own devising. Those who start but do not finish The Lord of the Rings complain of its literariness, its air of deriving from countless earlier works, but this quality, though apparent in very sentence and often indeed embarrassing, is also the source of its greatest strength. Just why this should be so must be the central concern for those for whom the work is both a marvel and a curse, the masterpiece of a crank and also a central document in modern literature….
[Frodo] is saved from the worst ravages of the Ring because he binds himself to the others rather than to love of power, and that is his heroism. That is what most profoundly arouses Tolkien's imagination and sympathy too—it may not be what The Lord of the Rings is all about and it certainly is not all that it is good for, but it is the cornerstone of its greatness. Over and over in the trilogy we are told of the prices that must be paid when one is called upon to pay them…. But these are ancient heroisms, ancient prices and payments, known and felt to be old and therefore always a trifle artificial, derived, and decorative.
But this very artificiality is our guide to the genuineness of Frodo's heroism and to our understanding that Tolkien is an historian of heroic acts. For in his Middle-earth, as all the other "great deeds" are chronicled, we respond to that which is most like ourselves because our author so responds too. We see, without in the least needing to make the seeing into a formulation, what the heroism of our time is and can be….
Roger Sale, "Tolkien and Frodo Baggins," in Tolkien and the Critics, edited by Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 247-88.
Generously Tolkien wishes to preserve old myths and literary forms, magic swords and battle cries, for the hapless present. A kindly man, he also makes himself accessible to anyone without real knowledge of his sources and allusions. Ironically; many may safely wander through Tolkien in blissful, sleepy ignorance of all he so conscientiously is trying to transmit. It is also unfortunate for Tolkien that wonderful, but outworn, sources fail to ensure excellence. A writer's energy alone forges borrowed elements together to make his work transcendent. James Joyce had such energy. Tolkien, despite erratic originality and perpetual persistence, does not. As a result, his earnest vision seems syncretic, his structure a collage, and his feeling antiquarian. Properly he praises the mythical mode of the imagination: the ability to feel the prophetic meaning of material, including the supernatural. Yet Tolkien's exercise of the imagination has brought forth a hollow, inscribed monument, with many, many echoes. (p. 9)
Many find Tolkien's moral vision serious and impeccable. Surely men ought to be both courageous and charitable. Surely men ought not to be haughty and selfish. Of course, the good is creative. Of course, evil is corroding, then corrupting, and finally canceling. However, Tolkien seems rigid. He admits that men, elves, and dwarfs are a collection of good, bad, and indifferent beings, but he more consistently divides the ambiguous world into two unambiguous halves: good and evil, nice and nasty. Any writer has the right to dramatize, not to argue, his morality. However, Tolkien's dialogue, plot, and symbols are terribly simplistic…. Readily explicable, they also seem to conceal intellectual fuzziness and opaque axioms. Moreover, Tolkien gives way to a lust for miracles. Wizards, weapons, and thaumaturges, leaping in and out of the action at Tolkien's will, are as sophisticated as last-minute cavalry charges in the more old-fashioned Westerns. (p. 18)
Tolkien generally ignores the rich medieval theme of the conflict between love and duty. Nor is it startling that the most delicate and tender feelings in Tolkien's writing exist between men, the members of holy fellowships and companies. Fathers and sons, or their surrogate figures, also receive attentive notice. When Tolkien does sidle up to genuine romantic love, sensuality, or sexuality, his style becomes coy and infantile, or else it burgeons into a mass of irrelevant, surface, descriptive detail. (pp. 19-20)
To give Tolkien the credit he deserves, his work is still incomplete. He has not yet published The Silmarillion, begun even before The Hobbit…. Perhaps The Silmarillion will strengthen Tolkien's moral vision and sense of emotional realities. (p. 20)
He writes, not for children, but for adults. He concentrates, not on character, but on narrative. (Tolkien never regrets his thin, neo-Aristotelian sacrifice of person to action. His own fiction, of course, suffers accordingly.) (pp. 22-3)
Tolkien vows that the purpose of his Perilous Realm is to amuse, to delight, to evoke emotion. Both he and his friends vow that he despises simple allegory, in which characters and plot signify one thing other than themselves. Bluntly, The Lord of the Rings is not about the hydrogen bomb. Tolkien sets his readers free to find what they want and to take him as seriously as they need. Yet even genuine mythologies, which have the shape of art and the endless resonance of truth, embody themes. Tolkien's pastiche, wittingly or unwittingly, also makes explicit statements. Condemning selfishness and greed, it praises sacrifice and generosity. Ridiculing complacency, it magnifies sensitivity. Fearing evil, it exalts good. Most obviously, Tolkien, eloquently, rightly, lambasts power…. Yet his attack is oddly flawed. Both more and less than a symbol, the ring itself becomes a transferable band of active ill will. Tolkien's prose takes on a rollicking glee when the home team wins, surely an exercise of power. (p. 29)
In form and content [Tolkien's poetry] combines the lesser virtues of an Old Father Goose and a pale and chaste Algernon Charles Swinburne. Usually narratives, the poems are about courage and cowardice, friendship and isolation, conflict of obligations, and the supernatural and the natural…. The manipulation of the hackneyed symbols of cloud, mountain, tree, and star; plastic religiosity; and wistful romanticism are its most notable features. (p. 41)
Tolkien is bogus: bogus, prolix, and sentimental. His popularization of the past is a comic strip for grownups. The Lord of the Rings is almost as colorful and easy as Captain Marvel. That easiness is perhaps the source of Tolkien's appeal. His intellectual, emotional, and imaginative energies are timid and jejune. Yet to those who have puzzled over the ambiguous texts of twentieth-century literature in the classroom, he offers a digest of modern despair: The Waste Land, with notes, without tears. To those who pride themselves on cynicism, an adolescent failure, he spews forth a reductive, yet redemptive, allegory of the human urge to fail. For those who actually long for security, he previews a solid moral and emotional structure. His authoritarianism is small price for the comfort of the commands: Love thy Aragorn; fear the Nâzgul…. (p. 43)
Oddly, though Tolkien, Hermann Hesse, and William Golding are three very different writers, they have two suggestive common denominators. First, they caused student literary fads, which the adult world then acclaimed. Next, they offered the seductive charm of moral didacticism, cloaked in remote and exotic settings. (p. 44)
Tolkien ought to be what he wants to be. His audience is free to be what it wants to be. Yet readers might cultivate some critical awareness. If they do, they might find, not only midnight rides and unfurled banners, but weak prose and pernicious thought. They might begin by asking just one simple question. What does it mean that Tolkien so blandly, so complacently, so consistently, uses the symbol of light and of white to signify the good and the symbol of dark and of black to signify evil? He is, of course, following an enormously complex literary tradition. No arbitrary decision, but the physical heritage of Northern and Western Europe has shaped that tradition…. Like all alchemists, he appeals to us. His very ambition is attractive. Like all alchemists, he has his deceptive triumphs. But history has made alchemy remote. Science has fulfilled its more marvelous predictions. One might wish that history will make much of Tolkien remote. We need genuine myth and rich fantasy to minister to the profound needs he now is thought to gratify. (pp. 44-5)
Catharine R. Stimpson, J. R. R. Tolkien, Columbia University Press, 1969.
The Lord of the Rings has most often, I would say, been compared to Spenser. That is, to Spenser's masterpiece, a very long poem called The Faerie Queene, which is both a poetic romance and an allegory. But the trilogy is not in any way either a satire or an allegory, but a romance pure and simple. Equating Tolkien with the great masters of allegorical romance is an easy and logical notion because there are certain points of similarity in depth and richness and complexity of style and background detail; but these are superficial. Tolkien is merely telling a story, and it has no overtones of symbolic meaning at all. LOTR [The Lord of the Rings] is, quite simply, a fantasy novel. (p. 80)
How well, then, does his own trilogy match [Tolkien's] stated requirements for a successful fantasy? For one thing, keeping in mind his thesis that a fantasy "must be presented as true," we can see how he has lived up to this criterion. The Lord of the Rings is presented as a true history, and the author has buttressed his contention by surrounding the tale with an elaborate machinery of appendices, containing factual data on his world not given in the narrative. His Middle-earth languages are equipped with copious vocabularies and alphabets. He has worked out a chronology of the previous ages which gives a historical summary, complete with dates, for many centuries. Lists of kings and genealogies support the major characters of his story and supply background history. This, of course, is completely in line with his belief that the subcreator of a Secondary World must make his fabricated cosmos complete, realistic, and self-consistent in every detail…. What about his final contention—that the vital quality he calls "joy" should be present through sudden glimpses of underlying truth? It is a little difficult to make out quite what he means, but I have arrived at a satisfactory interpretation—at least for myself…. By underlying realities he probably alludes to the eternal verities of human nature. While the trilogy is, on the surface at least, an entertaining narrative of fantastic adventure, the moral element is plainly obvious. The jealous, the greedy, the proud, the power-hungry, all receive commensurate punishments. The humble, the unselfish, the hard-working, the honest, and the noble are rewarded beyond their own estimates of their due. (pp. 92-3)
The trilogy is most obviously cognate with epic poetry. It is truly Homeric in size, in concept, in the sweep and grandeur of the narrative, in the fact that the heroes are painted larger than life. Thus it would be no misnomer to class LOTR as "epic fantasy."… But this definition is not quite sufficient. Tolkien draws from other bodies of literature as well as the tradition of the classical epic. He has absorbed much of the tradition and form of the Norse saga, much from Germanic folktale and legend, much from medieval romance, Grail quest, and heroic tale, and to a certain extent from other fantasy novélists. (p. 95)
Lin Carter, in his Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings (© 1969 by Lin Carter; used by permission of the author and Henry Morrison, Inc., his agents), Ballantine, 1969.
J. R. R. Tolkien seems to [want] to make his art serve the cause of religion…. Forty years [after the fin de siecle decadents in England,] the tide had turned sufficiently for a group of new Christian humanists to emerge. Among scholars, the poets Eliot and Auden are possibly the best known of this group, though the reputations of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien are rising. Not until the latter part of the 1950's and the early 1960's did Tolkien's reputation as a creative writer (as distinct from that as an Anglo-Saxon scholar) become established. Yet it was in the latter part of the 1930's that his imaginative world and aesthetic theories took shape, just when the excitement of the new movement was running strongest. Tolkien's ideas are generally unfamiliar to scholars, but for the generation that has grown up on Eliot and Auden, a plunge into Tolkien is akin to the happy shock of recognition that would come if one found a new manuscript by a much loved and familiar author—the same ideas, but seen from a wholly fresh perspective….
Tolkien tells us that even as a child he had an almost compulsive desire to recreate Norse and Greek myths in his own words. Later his serious scholarly work convinced him that many of these legends were sketchy, had gaps, and (as in the poem of Beowulf) were weak in details though strong in structure. So Tolkien set out to improve on mythology by making it "credible." His name for his imaginary world of Middle-earth is, as he explained, "only an old-fashioned word for world," it being the middangeard of Anglo-Saxon myths. Tolkien has populated Middle-earth with men, hobbits, elves, trolls, Orcs, dwarves, Ents, and spirits drawn from European folklore, medieval literature, and his own imagination….
In Tolkien's imaginative world, all nature is animate, helping or hindering human (or nonhuman) will for good or ill. Eagles and birds can talk, forests crowd travelers with fell intent…. Only where evil dwells—in the dragon's mountain or in Mordor—is nature sterile, for evil is in its very being noncreative. Utilizing in The Hobbit a variation of the fisher-king legend, Tolkien describes the land of the King Under the Mountain as having a curse upon it—the dragon. Or to be more specific, the curse on the land is actually the "dragon sickness," the immoderate greed for material property…. As in T. S. Eliot's "Wasteland," so here in The Hobbit we have a story about the lifting of the curse from a stricken land and the new life which enters in….
One might be tempted to say that because Tolkien's use of symbols is so complex he, like Joyce, is a Symbolist, his aim being to produce an epiphany through concentrated meditation on symbols which do not symbolize any exact thing, but rather are meant to produce such moments of insight. There is a similarity: the question of just precisely what Tolkien's ring symbolizes, for example, will always elude simple definition; indeed, to ask such a question at all betrays a certain naïveté….
But Tolkien's Introduction, although warning us against allegory, also puts us on our guard against seeing The Lord of the Rings as a Symbolist work. His emphasis upon "history, true or feigned," together with his insistence in Beowulf that myth must be incarnated in history, points towards an emphasis upon the temporal process which is alien to the thought of Symbolism….
Tolkien's affirmation of primary reality came at a crucial moment in the history of British culture. The industrial cities of Birmingham and Sheffield, which in the nineteenth century turned not only the face but also the soul of England black, gave way in the twentieth to a World War which completed the desacralization and fragmentation of natural and spiritual reality. The way of aestheticists and Symbolists was to flee to the subjectivity of a vision of beauty alien to this cultural wasteland. Unlike them, however, Tolkien, in company with the Christian humanists of his generation, chose to affirm the images of this world, seeing the rich thicket of nature as a potent reality in itself. As a Christian he could do little else, for the Incarnation had redeemed the temporal process, bestowing value on even the humblest objects. But although the original curse on the wasteland has already been lifted, the healing of the schism between fact and fantasy has not yet been wholly worked out in time. The quest, the web of story, will go on until all histories, true and feigned, will exist as an eternally complete whole.
Gerald Monsman, "The Imaginative World of J. R. R. Tolkien" (© 1970 by the Duke University Press; reprinted by permission of the Publisher), in South Atlantic Quarterly, Spring, 1970, pp. 264-78.
By presenting the situation mainly from the limited perspective of the characters in the story Tolkien makes the forces of evil appear at first glance equal to or even greater than the forces of good; but this is only from a limited perspective. The world of Tolkien is not a dualistic world; it is the Biblical world of the good creation. Evil is presented as a corruption of the good. Even Sauron, the preeminently evil figure in the novel, we are told, had once been good….
Tolkien also reveals, and this, too, pervades the book, that the proper response to the good creation is to enjoy it. From the hobbits and their beer to the wonders of Lothlorien, this is a major factor in the novel's charm….
Tolkien's tale may be read as a parable of the need to adapt means to ends and of the difficulty of abiding by this when the end seems of very great importance. The end must justify the means if the means are to be justified at all; but one is aware in Tolkien's story that there is a meaning and a plot transcending and including the struggle in which we may be immediately involved and that action is not defensible which contradicts the overarching purpose in which our own historical setting is but an episode. We are aware of such a purpose, but it remains a mystery: we do not know explicitly the future or the ultimate goal; we know the larger purpose primarily as a certain moral quality which is authoritative and regulative….
The Christian intellectual tradition, which is reflected to so considerable a degree in Tolkien's novel, is a tradition of remarkable richness and power. To think of Western culture without its influence is simply to imagine some basically different culture. The contradictions and malaise of our contemporary age must be, in part at least, due to a loss of the integrating function it performed when it was the expression of a commonly shared faith. It follows that a better understanding of this tradition might be expected to shed significant light on our present cultural situation. The Lord of the Rings may help us to such an understanding; but it is not a treatise, and readers of it ought not to fret themselves unduly with meanings and interpretations. Although the novel is well worth our analysis and serious criticism, its excellence as literature is seen in the fact that it speaks for itself without burdening us with explanations or the need of them. Many find the Ring books to be very effective escape literature, and there is nothing wrong with reading them for that purpose. But the reader may find himself escaping, not from reality to illusion, but from the illusions generated by our current confusions to the realities revealed by Tolkien's art.
Willis B. Glover, "The Christian Character of Tolkien's Invented World," in Criticism, Winter, 1971, pp. 39-54.
That a three-volume novel by a distinguished medievalist should be as popular as J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings may be a little odd. That it should be popular with people who paint "Frodo lives!" on walls and wear pins that say "Go! Go! Gandalf" in elf script; with people who have never seen an English pub or walked more than two miles consecutively; with artists of the stature of W. H. Auden; and with respected critics who compare it to Malory, Spenser and Ariosto; and that it should achieve this with six appendixes and no sex is an event Aristotle would banish from any plot as an "improbable possible." That the trilogy should be a novel at least in being "a piece of prose fiction of a certain length" and yet show itself so different in kind from the literature on which our current tools for understanding and evaluating aesthetic experiences work best, makes the riddle one of real concern to the critic of fiction….
What Tolkien has done is to attempt a story concerned with language in the communal sense, yet which is as different from epic as it is from the novel. The Lord of the Rings enacts the nature of language. Tolkien has created an entire world in its spatial and chronological dimensions, peopling it with languages which have, in a necessarily stylized and simplified version, all the basic features of language, from writing systems and sound changes through diction and syntax to style. By playing them against one another, he has created a "model" (in the scientific sense of the term) for the relationship of language to action, to values and to civilization.
Elizabeth D. Kirk, "'I Would Rather Have Written in Elvish': Language, Fiction and The Lord of the Rings," in Novel, Fall, 1971, pp. 5-18.