In 1997, the Lord of the Rings was voted the greatest book of the twentieth century in a poll run by a major British bookstore chain. The results were greeted with chagrin by some critics and writers who felt this vote slighted serious literature. Their reaction was a reprise of many of the initial reviews. Tolkien criticism has been deeply divided in the nearly half century since the Wilson and Auden reviews at the time of its publication. Their reviews, it seems, set the agenda for Tolkien criticism. Writer after writer has chased sources, refuted the accusation of ethical flatness, lack of character development, and escapism. Writer after writer has struggled with their revulsion of a work that has a cult following, which belongs supposedly to a minor and marginal genre (fantasy), that superficially at least seems entirely outside the mainstream of twentieth-century literature.
Wilson, in his famous (or infamous) 1956 review "Oo, Those Awful Orcs," would not give serious consideration to a work that was both generically and stylistically mixed. He rejected the sense of relativism and irony, which for many contemporary critics was the only possible stance for a serious writer and an intelligent audience, and would only be rejected out of escapism. Faced with a major literary figure, Auden (a former student of Tolkien's), who not only took the work seriously, but praised it, Wilson felt it necessary to politely excuse the poet's taste. To be fair,...
(The entire section is 933 words.)
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