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

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2,764 words.)