J. R. R. Tolkien Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) (Vol. 8) - Essay

Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

A South African-born British novelist, poet, and Anglo-Saxon scholar, Tolkien is best known for his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Along with C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, Tolkien has been credited with reviving the romance. Certainly his fantasy is many-faceted: history and fairy story, realistic and magical, pessimistic about society and hopeful for the individual. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 45-48; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

[J.R.R. Tolkien's children] received a letter from Father Christmas every year. The first arrived in 1920 when Tolkien's oldest son was 3, and they continued to arrive for 20 years thereafter. In "The Father Christmas Letters" Tolkien's daughter-in-law, Baillie Tolkien, collects and edits them for our enjoyment.

The facsimiles included show a handwriting that is shaky but elegant…. Fortunately age does not prevent the writer from sending richly detailed paintings of his house, his sleigh gliding over Oxford ("Your house is just about where the three little black points stick up out of the shadows at the right"), and the misadventures that make these letters such lively reading….

Nobody, I think, knows more about elves than Tolkien, who never confuses Father Christmas with that old moralist, Santa Claus….

By 1939, even Father Christmas finds the world a chilly home for magic. The Tolkien children are growing up. "The number of children who keep up with me seems to be getting smaller. I expect it is because of this horrible war…." But wars between nations pass. The war between Father Christmas and the Goblins is as old as Good and Evil, and his magic survives our technology. "You need not believe any pictures you see of me in aeroplanes or motors. I cannot drive one, and I don't want to."

Father Christmas lives. And never more merrily than in these pages. (p. 90)

Nancy Willard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 5, 1976.

The sequel to The Lord of the Rings [The Silmarillion] is actually its prologue, both in narrative time and in the mind of the creator. Spanning vast landscapes and thousands of years, the stories in this book tell us what happened in Tolkien's universe from the beginning of time until that eventful period, late in the Third Age of the world, when Frodo Baggins obtained the fateful ring and (with a little help from his friends) finally carried it through numerous perils to its destruction in the Crack of Doom.

There is an enormous Tolkien readership, including some who devour his books and read practically no others…. Unbelievers will scoff because this not-quite-digested mass of material is Tolkien and fantasy; hobbit-fanciers may find their loyalties divided because it is Tolkien but contains not a single hobbit, until the very end when the name of "Frodo the Halfling" appears once and the whole Lord of the Rings cycle is compressed into two pages.

From the viewpoint of the Ring trilogy, what we have in this new volume is a substantial part (one hopes that more can be edited and published from the remaining Tolkien manuscripts) of the Translations from the Elvish to which Bilbo Baggins devoted himself for long years after celebrating his eleventy-first birthday and slipping quietly out of hobbit society. Its central and longest part, from which the entire volume takes its name, is the epic tale of the theft and quest of the silmarils, three jewels of extraordinary powers which were made by the hot-tempered elven king and craftsman Feanor and were stolen by Morgoth, a demigod devoted to darkness and chaos, who wished to make himself master of all Middle-earth.

The slow unfolding of this story covers centuries and all sections of the old creation before the earth was changed (one of the things that happen in the various wars chronicled here is that it becomes round). Titanic forces struggle after building up their strength for centuries to prepare for a gigantic encounter. The central myth, of earthlings banded together under a rash oath to do hopeless battle against a demigod, is one of great power and considerable nobility, with splendidly varied episodes of idyllic love and unearthly joy, wanton destruction and high heroism.

Vast landscapes and towering strongholds are evoked, only to perish in smoke or tidal waves; twisted creatures—orcs and balrogs and firedrakes—lurch blood-maddened through the flames; crabbed dwarves plot small-minded revenge for fancied hurts, and the whole centuries-long, panoramic action works out in massive and intricate variations a single, simple theme: "Love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart."

The Silmarillion is the chief book of the collection, but only one; the volume opens with a creation myth of singular beauty, and continues with a rather scholarly discussion of the varied demigods who are known as "the Valar, the Powers of the Earth." (pp. E1-E2)

To devotees of the more familiar Tolkien (though not so much to those superfans who pore over the appendices) all of this may come as a bit of a shock. The Lord of the Rings is a special kind of fiction, midway between medieval romance and modern novel; The Simarillion and those works which accompany it in this volume are altogether a different kind of writing—primitive in some places, rather dry and scholarly in others, primarily epic in style and vision, dealing with the fate of whole peoples and focusing only momentarily on an occasional key individual. If the Ring trilogy competes for attention mainly with almost-forgotten medieval romances, The Silmarillion demands comparison with Hesiod and The Iliad, Paradise Lost and the Book of Genesis. And although it is unevenly written (the author would surely have revised it before publication had he lived), its best parts stand up well under such comparisons….

Tolkien found an enthusiastic audience for one small corner of his massive vision and no market at all for the greater part of his imaginings. And like a true professional (and a hobbit-fancier himself), he adapted—shrank—his vision to suit the available market. One is reminded of Shakespeare, whose magnificent series of historical plays produced, offhand and almost by accident, a minor character named Falstaff….

The vision of the First and Second Ages was already fully formed (it had been accumulating in notebooks since 1917, 20 years before The Hobbit was published), and although he could not publish it as such—never, in fact, put it into final, publishable form—Tolkien continued to tinker with its details through the rest of his life and crammed much of it into the various appendices to The Lord of the Rings. So the contents of this posthumous volume will not come as a complete surprise to Tolkien-lovers, though its tone, content and style have only a tenuous connection with his more familiar work….

As to its importance in the Tolkien canon, even those (misguided, I believe) who prefer the hobbit books to this newly published material must recognize that the myths of the Elder Days are what make their favorite author unique. These early fantasy writings … are fundamental Tolkien, the underpinning without which he would not have been able to produce his later works in the form that we know. For though the matter of the Ring trilogy is peripheral to what is given here—almost an afterthought—the matter of The Silmarillion pervades Tolkien's other fantasies and gives them a flavor unique in that field of writing.

Looked at objectively, Tolkien is not, in fact, a great writer of pure adventure; others are his equal or better at conveying the concrete detail, the breathless excitement of steel clashing with steel, muscles straining in combat, dangers encountered and overcome—and yet his books are literature while theirs are pastimes, entertainment, something to be read quickly and thrown away. The reason, or at least part of it, is that other writers convey adventure and little else (and after a while, one sword cleaving a helmet begins to look like all the others), while Tolkien's stories take place against a background of measureless depth. Frodo moves in a landscape where others have moved before him through long, busy millennia; he comes at the end of a process that began before the sun and moon were sent aloft; he is a part, small but essential, in a timeless war between the forces of order and disorder, and whether he understands it or not—whether the reader understands it or not—that background is ever-present in the creator's mind and it gives Frodo and company a three-dimensional reality that is seldom found in this kind of writing.

Compared to this historic depth, and the thematic and philosophical unity which it underlies, the other distinctions of the Ring trilogy are relatively insignificant—the richness and variety of invented languages, the intricate geography of Middle-earth, the array of creatures familiar and exotic (orcs and dwarves and elves and hobbits, as well as men and dogs and horses) that enliven its landscapes—though these alone would make Tolkien unique.

In a commercial sense, those who declined to publish this part of his work in the '30s were surely correct. Our time has not been hospitable to cosmogonies and epics unless they are cleverly disguised as something else….

Artistically, we have been deprived by the forces that postponed publication of The Silmarillion until now and decreed that it would be a posthumous work with no final revisions by the author. What we have is imperfect but magnificent in its best moments. Until this volume appeared, I had felt that Tolkien's greatest service to English letters was his translation of the splendid medieval romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He has surpassed that work, and that is no small achievement. (p. E2)

Joseph McLellan, "Frodo and the Cosmos," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 4, 1977, pp. E1-E2.

As background material for much of his published work, The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien's history of the world's creation and its First Age, may be of scholarly interest to those readers who approach him in all seriousness. For many of his admirers, however, this posthumous epic will prove a disappointment: it had neither the charm of The Hobbit nor the magic of The Lord of the Rings….

Some sixty years in the making, The Silmarillion is probably a faithful indication of the scope of Tolkien's imagination. But his attention to detail makes the book rather dull going in the end. What bits of enchantment exist—Morgoth's confederate Ungoliant, a memorably grotesque shespider, or the love story of Beren and Lúthien—are imprisoned in a morass of battles, characters, and places, often with multiple names, so that one rapidly loses track of—and interest in—who has gone where and why. Most people prefer their fantasy a bit frothier than this. (p. 105)

Martha Spaulding, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), October, 1977.

It comes as an enormous letdown to discover that Tolkien spent all those decades laboring over something very much akin to the Book of Mormon [in The Silmarillion]. (p. 39)

[When] you try to play in the same league with Milton and the King James Version, you have to own a hardball or you don't qualify. The book, moreover, is narrated in an elevated style that has the effect of making the action appear to take place at the bottom of an enormous teacup. There is no immediacy about it and still less mystery; all the characters are 37 feet tall and live for a million years and you can rest assured that if things really get out of hand, Daddy in the form of Eru-Iluvatar will put down his pipe and lend an omnipotent hand. I realize that the editor has been forced to choose between many different versions, both in prose and poetry, and difficult compromises have doubtless been made. Nevertheless, the book is little more than a weak gloss on Tolkien's infinitely more mature later work, and so it should be read, if at all; indeed, much of the material is included in the appendices of Lord of the Rings in condensed and more intriguing form. Its publication now, especially when accompanied by such unbridled enthusiasm on the part of the industry, is not only questionable but is bound to lead many of Tolkien's admirers to grave disappointment. Noble intentions do not necessarily produce a noble work. Perhaps the opposite is more often true than otherwise. (pp. 39-40)

L. J. Davis, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 1, 1977.