J. R. R. Tolkien Essay - Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) (Vol. 2)

Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) (Vol. 2)

Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) 1892–1973

Tolkien, an Oxford don, is the author of the popular fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children's book, but except when [Tolkien] is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child. It is essentially a children's book—a children's book which has somehow got out of hand, since, instead of directing it at the "juvenile" market, the author has indulged himself in developing the fantasy for its own sake; and it ought to be said at this point, before emphasizing its inadequacies as literature, that Dr. Tolkien is not at all pretentious in regard to his fairy romance….

Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form. The characters talk a story-book language that might have come out of Howard Pyle, and as personalities they do not impose themselves. At the end of this long romance, I had still no conception of the wizard Gandalph [sic], who is made to play a cardinal role. I had never been able to visualize him at all. For the most part such characterizations as Dr. Tolkien is able to contrive are perfectly stereotyped: Frodo the good little Englishman; Samwise, his dog-like servant, who talks lower-class and respectful, and never deserts his master. These characters who are no characters are involved in interminable adventures the poverty of invention displayed in which is, it seems to me, almost pathetic…. An impotence of imagination seems to me to sap the whole story. The wars are never dynamic; the ordeals give no sense of strain; the fair ladies would not stir a heartbeat; the horrors would not hurt a fly.

Edmund. Wilson, "Oo, Those Awful Orcs!" (1956), in his The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle 1950–1965 (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1939, 1940, 1947, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Edmund Wilson), Farrar, Straus, 1965.

The Lord of the Rings, that gigantic romance, hangs in the mind like a huge mural in which all creation is locked in cosmic war, good against evil. By contrast Smith of Wootton Major may be compared to the most delicate miniature, but it is one of a rare kind: the more closely it is examined, the more it reveals the grandeur of its conception….

[Let] me just say that this is a book for anyone over the age of eight. And whoever reads it at eight, will no doubt still be going back to it at eighty.

David Wade, "Mighty Midget," in New Statesman, December 29, 1967.

[The] academics find themselves on the wrong foot, thrown off balance by the fact that (unlike Tolkien's earlier work) [The Lord of the Rings] is a large scale undertaking by one of their own colleagues of great distinction, which has been commended by other colleagues of great distinction, such as C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden …; yet finding, as they examine it, that the work is a fairy-story and surprisingly resistant to modern critical techniques. Above all, there is the question of its awful popularity, the great fear … that nothing so widely liked can really be good, that the poster people and the badge wearers on the campuses are taking us all for a ride.

J. P. Watson, "The Hobbits and the Critics," in Critical Quarterly, Autumn, 1971, pp. 252-58.

For J. R. R. Tolkien, fantasy is the art of creating an "other world." It is an "elvish craft," and the "secondary world" thus produced is a realm of enchantment. As a multitude of readers can now testify, to enter the "other world" called Middle-earth is to encounter both the strange and the familiar and, emanating from them, an extraordinary power.

To one reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, that power may be felt simply as a sense of depths, of rich implications. But depth and richness, considered analytically, become levels or dimensions…. On reading Tolkien's work we find ourselves first in a dimension of wonder, the effect of authentic fantasy. On further reading we sense also a dimension of import or meaningfulness, the allegorical thrust of the fantasy. Finally, we may discover a dimension of incipient belief, a function of the "rhetoric" of this fiction, of what I have dared to call its "strategy."…

In such a fairy-tale world [as Tolkien has created], actions beyond "nature" are taken for granted. The possibility of such supernatural action is conceived of because of the form of our active existence. We are aware of ourselves as active beings in interaction with an environment of other agents. We can vary the form or intensity of our activities; in other words, within our nature we are free. But that sense of freedom leads us to dream of passing through to supernatural deeds. When we attribute such action to trees and mountains and to more-than-human creatures, we have created the realm of faërie….

What lifts [The Lord of the Rings] above mere popular fantasy fiction, what elicits a response beyond simple excitement and closer to authentic wonder, is a certain tone and a certain aura of significance which are felt to surround the fantastic figures and their adventures. Professor Frye and his disciples have taught us to account for much of this sense of import by identifying such figures as archetypal and such stories as mythic. And it is clear that Tolkien does draw his material from sources close to their roots in ritual and myth.

One notices, for example, that many of the names for the Dwarves are taken from the Eddas. Tolkien's conception of the Elves, furthermore, is obviously close to that of the northern myths and legends; his are the Elves of Light, exceedingly fair, lovers of light, kindly disposed toward mankind. The story itself parallels in many ways Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung (Northrop Frye once described Tolkien's work as a "High Anglican version of Wagner's Ring-cycle").

We detect a more generalized archetypal resonance in certain images which take on a function reminiscent of motifs in primitive religions. Light at times is more than just the diffused glow that emanates from good or desirable things. It becomes the concentrated light, in a blaze or a shining surface, which communicates a sense of glory and splendor…. Evil [in The Lord of the Rings] is presented … as a perversion of good. Often it is even a parody…. Evil represents, further, a privation of being. It is always the Dark Shadow; its blackness is the privation of light, its shadowiness the privation of substance. Its most fearful emissaries are the winged Nazgûl, wraiths whose black robes cover nothingness. Nevertheless, although it is not "real," evil is powerful. Its power lies in the evil will, and it is manifested in the several "falls" which are narrated or dramatized in The Lord of the Rings or in the appendixes….

"Inside" the tale, with Frodo or Sam, the reader feels their anxiety about the outcome, sees the signs, and hears the exhortations and reproofs. But from his higher point of vantage, "outside," he discerns heartening patterns, as well. Now, it must be understood at this point that the reader is to receive Tolkien's work imaginatively as a kind of analogy to history. The reference to "sources" such as the "Red Book of Westmarch" and the "Book of the Kings" of Gondor, the supplementary chronicles and genealogies in the various appendixes, and other comparable devices strengthen this impression. The patterning I have alluded to constitutes, then, something like a conceptual model for understanding history—not a philosophy, however, as it turns out, but a theology of history….

Biblical eschatology, first of all, is continuous with the doctrine of Providence; that is, faith in the ultimate divine control over the whole of history issues in hope also for the consummation of all things. Both beliefs presuppose, furthermore, certain notions about time. The fact that in The Lord of the Rings we hear of three "ages" makes it clear that time, in this analogical world, does not mean mere chronological succession or inevitable evolutionary progression. On the other hand, these "ages" are not "cycles," either. There is no mythological pattern of eternal recurrence; at the most there are typological patterns. For each age constitutes a kairos, a time of opportunity and fulfillment. It is a time-with-a content, sent for a purpose and demanding an appropriate response. Thus history as a whole is not an impersonal process but a matter involving personal will and freedom; and it consists of a continuum of "times," each with its own specific character and significance….

The Lord of the Rings, considered allegorically, speaks not only of the nature of the struggle against evil, the inescapability of involvement, the fact of freedom, the qualities of heroism, and the possibility for real loss. It also declares the viability of hope. It has a "happy ending." Frodo and Sam, their Quest achieved, wake in the sweet air of Ithilien. They see Gandalf again, and their other friends. They hear themselves acclaimed: "Long live the Halflings! Praise them with great praise!" They are seated in exaltation upon the throne of Aragorn. A minstrel of Gondor begins to sing the lay of Frodo and the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom. And then Sam, we are told, "laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried: 'O great glory and splendor! And all my wishes have come true!' And then he wept."… This is the happy ending, indeed, what Tolkien has termed the eucatastrophe. And such a "sudden, joyous 'turn'" gives a fleeting glimpse of a joy which goes beyond the sense of wonder aroused by successful fantasy. It is analogous to the joy in the birth of Christ, which is the eucatastrophe of man's history, or in the resurrection, which is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation. "It may be," says Tolkien, "a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world."…

The Lord of the Rings, although it contains no "God," no "Christ," and no "Christians," embodies much of Tolkien's "real religion" and is a profoundly Christian work. Tolkien requires no "God" in this story; it is enough that he suggests in it the kind of pattern in history which the Christian tradition has ascribed to the providence of God. Aragorn and Gandalf need not turn our thoughts specifically to the Christ of Christian faith; but they persuade us that if we are to have hope in our lives and in our history, it must be hope for the kind of power and authority revealed in Aragorn the king and on the basis of the kind of power revealed in Gandalf's "miracles" and in his return from the dead. Frodo is not a "Christian"; but what Frodo does and undergoes speaks to us of what a man's responsibility, according to the Christian faith, must always be—to renounce the kind of power which would enslave others and ourselves and to submit to that power which frees us to be all that we are capable of being….

[If] the Christology implied in the figure of Gandalf is "classical," such a Christ liberates man by defeating death and the devil, he does not woo man's heart through moral goodness and suffering love. Man's moral agency, furthermore, tends to become moral passivity; the power is not within but without, and one submits rather than initiates. Hope arises not so much on the basis of certain qualities in a relationship as on the basis of arbitrary supernatural acts. Grace—to put it even more abstractly—is imaged not as persuasive personal relationship but as quasi-physical force, a concept which is always in danger of dissolving away the moral character of God….

[Instead of faultfinding, it] is better to recall and be grateful for what Tolkien has given us in The Lord of the Rings. He has taken us, first, into the enchanted world of Middle-earth and its inhabitants. That world lingers, as sights and sounds, in the memory. One remembers the radiance and the fresh, poignant colors of Lothlórien; the penetrating brown-and-green eyes of Treebeard; the Dead—"shapes of Men and of horses, and pale banners like shreds of cloud, and spears like winter-thickets on a misty night" …—following Aragorn; and the snow-white hair, gleaming robes, and bright piercing eyes of the risen Gandalf. One continues to hear the muffled doom, doom of the mysterious drumbeats in Moria, the mad muttering of Gollum, the great horns of Rohan "wildly blowing," and "the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth" which Sam heard and which "sank deep into his heart."…

[What] Tolkien has created is not the rigid one-to-one allegory which this summary may suggest. It yields a much "freer" experience of meaning, not easily formulable propositions but haunting hints of significance. Meaning and belief are included in the reception of the vivid image which has been presented to the imagination.

Gunnar Urang, "J. R. R. Tolkien: Fantasy and the Phenomenology of Hope," in his Shadows of Heaven: Religion and Fantasy in the Writing of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien, United Church Press, 1971, pp. 93-130.

The Hobbit, first published in 1937, was avowedly a children's book: the tale of Bilbo, who went on an adventure with dwarves and a wizard and came back with a ring and a load of treasure. (Hobbits are shown as pretty much like humans, but half the size, and nicer—keen on food and with deep fruity laughs.) The tone of the story is confidential and friendly, very much like that of The Wind in the Willows: a grownup unfolding marvels to a child, sometimes stopping to explain or comment ("It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations"), often sharing a joke.

The prime joke of course is the contrast between commonsensical, home-loving hobbit Bilbo and the awful happenings he is involved in….

The tale begins with Bilbo smoking his pipe and ends with him reaching for his tobacco jar. Food and tobacco can be used and enjoyed; but owning things for owning's sake is the sickness of the dragon who sits on his mound of treasure. So Tolkien in his children's book introduces one of the main themes of his Rings….

Frodo's enemy [in the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings] is far worse than a dragon sitting on a pile of treasure, it is Evil itself…. In this larger world of the Rings, possessiveness is the great evil: the wish to have power over others. The free people in the book "belong to themselves"—a phrase that often recurs. They do not wish for domination; they wish to use things properly, and not exploit them….

Tolkien's Sauron and Saruman and Gollum embody perennial forces of greed, cruelty, and aggression; readers will tend to pick out the manifestations of these forces which are most in their own minds….

Tolkien's own beneficent ring of power is that he is a master of language…. [He] can command a host of styles, though not all with equal ease. He suits the language to the scene—tough Anglo-Saxon and saga words and rhythms for battles and forays, softer romantic ones for enchanted Lórien and Rivendell. He cherishes words that have fallen out of use, and he brings stale figures of speech to life….

Tolkien's attitude to language is part of his attitude to history (here, if we like, we can find parallels with Eliot and Pound and David Jones of the Anathemata): to recapture and reanimate the words of the past is to recapture something of ourselves; for we carry the past in us, and our existence, like Frodo's quest, is only an episode in an age-long and continuing drama. To name things rightly is to have strength….

In days like ours when help can still mean ruin and saving mean slaying, when evil and horrible acts can be given wrong names—"redevelopment" for people losing their homes, "defoliation" for forests and fields blasted with poison—a book which sharpens a sense of words, their power and proper meaning, is to be praised. For all the excesses of the Tolkien cult, there could be many a worse one.

Janet Adam Smith, "Does Frodo Live?," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), December 14, 1972, pp. 19-21.