Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) (Vol. 3)
Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) 1892–1973
A South-African-born British novelist, poet, and Anglo-Saxon scholar, Tolkien was a masterful storyteller, beloved for his trilogy The Lord of the Rings, the eucatastophic tale of Middle Earth. Somewhat to his chagrin, Tolkien became an American youth cult figure. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
The Lord of the Rings gives literary form to a coherent myth which, because of the work's totally imagined universe, is without inherited traditional associations, though it contains and is based upon an ordered moral world. The Quest-myth, the Journey to the Other World which is the basis of Frodo's journey There and Back Again, is clearly in its outlines the myth of the Dying God, the Seasonal Myth: the tale of Proserpine's Winter residence in Hades is the clearest analogue. The significance of this myth, and its relevance to our generation, lies however in the fact that the Dying God revives, the traveler to the Other World returns: it is the human paradox of individual death and racial survival. And its existence as myth implies a universe which is finally coherent, which can be understood; a universe in which the acts of an individual, despite his natural impermanence, have some kind of permanent significance.
Thus to a society in which the key word of the college student (and of others) is commitment, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings presents an imagined world where there are absolute values, no matter what their theological basis and no matter how imperfectly we may realize them. Tolkien shows us a world where each man must choose the way he will take, not once but constantly, for each moment of life in Middle-Earth involves deliberate choice. Fate, or God, or Augustinian predestination, is at work (the trilogy is basically Christian, in spite of the lack of overt symbols), but it is not the crucial factor. A person may choose wrongly, but even a poor choice is better than none at all; in Tolkien's world and ours, the capital sins are indecision and indifference. And, most important, in this world each choice matters, each has somehow an effect on future events.
Bruce A. Beatie, "The Tolkien Phenomenon: 1954–1968," in Journal of Popular Culture, Spring, 1970, pp. 689-703.
The emergence of J. R. R. Tolkien as a public literary figure is surely one of the oddities of our times. In the 1930s and 1940s, beyond the relatively small professional world of philology and medieval scholarship, he was known only as the author of a children's story, The Hobbit, published in 1938. As late as 1946, he was still a shadowy figure whom Lewis referred to in his preface to That Hideous Strength: "Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that still exists only in the mss. of my friend, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien." This anonymity remained until 1954 when the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings were published in a hardback edition, followed by the third volume in 1955. The trilogy was reviewed by such distinguished writers as Auden and Edmund Wilson, and Tolkien's public career began. For about a decade the trilogy attracted fit audience though few, and Tolkien acquired a kind of underground reputation. It was possible in those years to find passionate admirers of the trilogy—usually in the universities—but it was also possible to find very knowledgeable literary people who had never heard of it or could not abide it.
Then in 1965 the explosion occurred. Two paperback editions of the trilogy were published in this country: one by Ace Books (an edition not authorized by Tolkien), and one (the authorized version) by Ballantine Books. Suddenly Tolkien was famous. In ten months, according to a writer for the Saturday Evening Post, the trilogy sold more than a quarter of a million copies, and it has continued to sell at a remarkable rate. For about two years Tolkien became a campus craze, replacing Golding, who had replaced Salinger. There is a Tolkien Society of America, "800 at last count," and at least one journal devoted largely to his work. I believe we have lived through the phenomenon now and are coming out the other side, but it is hard to be sure. Most of the collegiate interest in Tolkien occurred in the eastern universities and in a few in California. It is possible that there will be further demonstrations of interest in midwestern colleges, if there really is any truth to the theory that there is a kind of cultural lag in many midwestern institutions. Elvish signs may appear on store fronts in Nebraska (as they did on subway walls near Columbia University), and lapel buttons asserting that Frodo lives may spring up in Kansas. But in any case, serious critical consideration of Tolkien's work has never been limited to either the east or west coast….
From the very beginning, the defenders of the trilogy have been denied one potentially very forceful argument: they have been unable to say that the book is relevant to life on the grounds that it is an allegory. Tolkien himself has denied that the work is allegorical, and critics such as [Edmund] Wilson have not let other critics forget it….
Tolkien's distinctions may perhaps be re-worded to say something like this: the trilogy is not allegorical; Tolkien had no distinct and settled "point" to make about the human condition or anything else, no argument—and an allegory is an argument. The trilogy is "feigned history"—by which he must mean simply "fiction," or "fiction carrying with it the illusion of historical reality," narrative which the reader accepts as "real" while he reads it. (I do not see that "feigned history" differs essentially from the created reality of James or Conrad, or even any poor realistic novelist, but that may not be relevant to the distinction.) "Feigned history," like "true history," is open to "application" by the reader; he may see the history as relevant to his own time, his own particular situation, and so on. What Tolkien has done is to bring up the old critical question, Where does the meaning of a literary work reside?, and answer it quite simply by saying, "In the mind, or freedom, of the reader." In one of the notes at the end of his essay on fairy stories, he makes the distinction clearer by contrasting the ways of pictorial art with those of fiction; the contrast is almost the reverse of the famous Jamesian dictum that fiction is analogous to both painting and drama, and that fiction succeeds best when it approaches closest to these other arts. Tolkien argues that "The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular."…
The fairy story, then, of which the trilogy is a partial example, uses Fantasy, and so far as it is successful is "storymaking in its primary and most potent mode." That is to say, in dealing with fantastic things rather than with real ones it attempts the purest form of narrative art, and succeeds to the extent that it induces in the reader the state of mind called Secondary Belief. In short, invented or created stories, if successful, are better than, on a higher level than, stories which merely manipulate the materials of the Primary World. Now this is so not only because such invented stories are harder to make but because they offer certain things to the reader which realistic stories do not offer, or do not offer to the same degree. These things Tolkien calls Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.
R. J. Reilly, "J. R. R. Tolkien and" The Lord of the Rings," in his Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien, University of Georgia Press, 1971, pp. 190-211.
Unlike writers of science fiction, Tolkien relies upon the literary traditions of the past as well as upon his imagination as sources for his fantasy. He does not wish to break with Western culture or with the Romantic tradition that knowledge gives us power to change the world for the better. The imagination has enriched us in the past; it can continue to do so, not by throwing out our inheritance but by building upon it, and especially upon its familiar and eternally meaningful myths, symbols and dreams. Furthermore, imagination is a power for good and for action in the real world, not just a tool for escaping reality. In Tolkien's understanding, the fantasist is a storyteller and historian who makes our past valuable by manifesting its power in the present. (p. 20)
Tolkien is a Renaissance man whose essentially Christian vision of the universe finds it ordered and purposive with places for all created beings whose relationships in the community of being provide their lives with moral and spiritual meaning. In this vision such ideas as individual responsibility, exercise of human will in choosing between good and evil, fellow-feeling for other creatures, have a positive function. And exactly because Tolkien can define the world as one organized by laws and purposes, he can show that action, too, is possible; men can choose to do good or evil and to make gestures which shape events and the lives of others, for better or worse….
Tolkien's emphasis falls upon "function" in defining moral necessities. Furthermore, his vision includes the creative artist as a moral being who orders the world in his imaginative work and thereby expresses that Truth which lies at the source of lives and actions. In this sense the imagination takes on creative power and religious implications…. Words have power, and, finally, it is power with which Tolkien is concerned. He wishes to show how the imagination gives man power over his life, a life in which he may fight evil and defend good. A life in which the past, history, may be used to change the future and so affect the course of Time. A life in which, as Tolkien writes, man may realize "imagined wonder." This is the value to us of Tolkien's fiction: it suggests how we may use our imaginative power, our ability to "make" fantasy, paradoxically in order to know truth. (pp. 23-4)
Tolkien distinguishes between two worlds: the Primary and the Secondary. The Primary World concerns the spatial and temporal existence we know through our senses, through the routines of living…. It is the universe of observed fact in which we are imprisoned without our consent. But the power of the imagination enables man to enter a Secondary World created by the storyteller or wordsmith. This world is free of the Primary World, even though it must draw much of its imagery from events in time and space. By creating this other existence, the artist becomes a "sub-creator."… [His] creation must seem consistent within itself…. Furthermore, such a world is implicit in the Primary World, and fulfills it, often provides it with meaning….
Tolkien locates the sources for imagined reality in the feelings and wishes of human beings. He calls them "primal desires" that "lie near the heart of Faerie." Among these desires is the wish to "hold communion with other living things," that is, to talk with animals or trees. Another is the desire to live forever. These wishes are human and arise from man's life in the Primary World. And in this world man's wishes operate: an "essential power of Faerie," Tolkien tells us, is to make the visions of fantasy "immediately effective by the will." In this manner "natural objects" obtain their meaning, their "significance and glory" as a "gift" from man. Such opportunity may seem unimaginable to us if we are accustomed to see only "partial meanings" in experience, and to feel that effort in a meaningless universe is vain. But to say that man wishes to make his visions "effective" is to argue that he is active and constructive, that he has a will, and that he can shape his life according to his vision of the great truths which, Tolkien believes, exist for us. The invisible world, the Supernatural, is manifest through man, and in this view, he regains his significance in the world which much contemporary thought and writing seem to deny him. (pp. 27-8)
The making of words …, their "saying," provides an analogy for the way in which the imagination operates. Furthermore, they give man power over Nature because they express reality, the inner meaning of things and events. In this sense, the creation of fantasy, the world of Faerie, is not a flight from reality, an escape from the responsibility which power demands. It is an act which serves certain positive purposes in the Primary World. By making words, the sub-creator is in touch with the basic truths of life, and therefore presents us with a vision which is liberating at the same time that it explains and inspires.
Fantasy does not mean a dream world without roots in human reality, nor does "fairy story" mean a light tale involving small human figures with wings. Instead, Tolkien thinks of the Fairy-story or Fantasy as a high form of art, "the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation." In fantasy, man finds equivalents for his primal desires and for his visions of reality in created beings, the images of his imagination. In this way fantasy is an equivalent of imagination in its suggestion of "freedom from the domination of observed 'fact', in short of the fantastic." (pp. 31-2)
[One] explanation for the appeal to many readers of The Lord of the Rings or any other fantasy is that it is essentially a religious experience to read such works. Faith in the imagined world is vital to fantasy, and to us. For it cannot exist if we do not believe in it, and if we cannot have faith in a meaningful world, then we must live in alienation and despair. Put another way, the task of the sub-creator is to create a world in which we can believe through his art. He must make a consistent, wonderful vision in which all that takes place there is "true," and we must be able to accept his vision as genuine. This gift which we as readers make to the artist if he paints or writes well is what Tolkien calls "Secondary Belief." The great fantasies are those in which the enchanter's art most successfully serves its purpose….
In the first place, the realization of "imagined wonder" invites us to free ourselves from the Primary World through vision. We can become too accustomed to life; we tend to take for granted leaves on the trees, the color of the sky, the face of someone we love, worst of all, ourselves, prisoners in the world of habit which dulls and petrifies. With "creative fantasy" we can achieve what Tolkien calls "recovery"…. (pp. 35-6)
By seeing things newly, by putting the familiar objects from the Primary World into unfamiliar stories and exotic contexts, we can re-experience the world outside ourselves, and with that sense of wonder which occurs when we find the world different from our expectations. In fantasy the life of the imagination and the life of the everyday world touch and illuminate each other…. [In] Tolkien's fantasies we find the unexpected in the expected: hobbits on their journeys encounter talking trees, for instance, altering their preconceived notions about trees. (pp. 37-8)
The wonder we feel at a Happy Ending is the manifestation of our delight in our freedom from observed fact and our discovery, necessarily to be repeated over and over, of our own recreation. But Tolkien suggests that the vision of this truth is more than a wish: it is an act of freedom in itself which repeats in each man the truth of his own nature: not imprisoned and in despair, but immortal and joyous. Joy, for Tolkien, has finally a Christian character, for it is deliverance of the soul, that Joy known when the soul is reunited with God. Fantasy provides us with heroes like Frodo and heroines like Cinderella who achieve redemption, and therefore can promise this final joy to us. Tolkien's use of terms like "grace" and "deliverance" should suggest that for him fantasy is allegorical, taking its ultimate meaning from what he calls "the Christian Story." The truth "glimpsed" in a fairy-story is heavenly, that Joy which the Christian soul seeks to know as a Happy End. (p. 40)
Tolkien denies that he has written an allegory—that is, a fictional story with specific moral meaning connected to each character and event. But the general lines of allegory are everywhere evident in The Lord of the Rings, and a Christian reading of fantasy and man's history must ultimately be moral and hence allegorical. The fairy-story or fantasy is almost always based upon a struggle between good and evil. It tells of the recovery of man to spiritual health, in depicting a Happy Ending which prefigures the promised redemptive Happy Ending, the triumph of good over evil, of Christian theology. (pp. 41-2)
[We] can say that Tolkien is writing myth, not only in the sense of an imagined story, but in the sense of something larger. Myth also refers to a story of cosmic importance in which heroes defy the gods or perhaps, act like gods; in any event myth suggests the presentation of the supernatural in our own world. Myths of gods and heroes give us images of archetypal human experience which have an imaginative and emotional effect upon us, and so convince us of their ultimate Truth. The most universal of these myths is that of the hero who sets off to gain knowledge for his people on a Quest…. [Myth] in its appeal, whether to primitive or sophisticated audiences, demands a religious response: we must believe in the quester and his search; we must have faith that he will succeed. Our emotional response to mythic journeys suggests that we can realize our own particular vision through such images. Thus myth or fantasy satisfies man's need to find more in life than that which he sees before him in the Primary World. (p. 43)
[In The Lord of the Rings], with the destruction of the One Ring, Sauron's world is destroyed. By extension, the Ring is the Dark Lord's power, even though, in another way, it is only the symbol of his power. In creative fantasy, the symbol and the "thing" are identified; the part of a thing stands for the whole. And so, just as Sauron attempted to reduce life to the simplistic level of his own being, the destruction of the Ring of Power reduces his empire to a voice wailing away on the wind. The simplicity of Tolkien's device is like the conclusion of fairy-stories. Tolkien is relying, as does the teller of fairy-stories, upon our faith, our "Secondary Belief," in this instant transformation of the world. And our faith is supported by the complex nature of the Quest seeking this end; by our faith in the characters who make this journey; by our confidence in the values of an imagined world beyond this real one. The Ring, paradoxically, is its own destruction, and that this is so is expressive of an ultimately religious vision of reality which has its source, finally, in Tolkien's confidence in words and their power. For, structurally, the Ring is also a "word," an image, a metaphor for its evil maker, and the creator of a successful Secondary World. (p. 56)
[It] must be emphasized that our response to The Hobbit or the Trilogy is not to words for themselves. We respond to the felt presence of the Secondary World they create. Our search for "moral and emotional Truth" is immediate; in Tolkien's writing we believe in the world he makes because he offers us an "escape" (in his sense) into imagination by making us "feel" the details of that world and know the characters and the landscape intimately. If we were set down by a broad, rather slowly moving, grey-green river flowing south toward a distant range of mountains, we would know without being told by any of the strange inhabitants along its banks that it was the Entwash, so successfully has Tolkien sketched in its nature and location with a few brief words. And behind those words, or images of the Entwash, lies the myth which gives them purpose in The Lord of the Rings and which they support and advertise, in turn. (p. 57)
[Myth] can take the place of religion in that it creates belief in the world's ultimate value. It may be for this reason that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is read so widely today: the Secondary Belief which his creative ability inspires shares the organizational power of religious faith. And finally we must add that the great myths are communal in their meaning, believed in by a society, a community of like-minded beings who organize their lives around a common image. This aspect of myth must appeal to the members of contemporary society who feel alienated and alone in a culture seemingly without values upon which all its members can agree. And we find this element of myth reflected, in turn, in the myths or fantasies themselves. (pp. 59-60)
[The] principle mythic element to which all the others are related is the Heroic Journey or Quest. This central image in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings provides the moral and structural framework for both fantasies. More fully and complexly developed in the latter work, the Quest is a journey to the "center of life," to the interior of the world where the ultimate meaning of existence lies hidden from mortal men. In this sense, the journey the hero of a quest makes is from ignorance to understanding, or from imperfection to perfection, or from innocence to experience (or even from experience to innocence). It can be seen as a search, perhaps for an object precious to the society from which the searcher comes. Perhaps for the chance to destroy an evil enemy. Perhaps for enlightenment, that "regaining of a clear view," of which Tolkien speaks. But in any mythic Quest, the adventures the hero experiences quickly take on moral and spiritual significance: the Journey becomes a metaphor for man's inner life. (p. 63)
[He] is writing in a form which uses the historical past for richness and depth in the creation of the Secondary World. He is representing present actions, whether of hobbits or men, which have grown up out of the past, and are continually influenced by it, indeed, often repeat it. And finally, the literary forms Tolkien uses have come from the past of our civilization, for better or worse, and we need to know what he has done with them to create his own Secondary World and make us believe in it. How the imagination has achieved freedom in the past is important to those who wish to find it now. Tolkien is read, in part, because The Lord of the Rings argues that freedom can be found, not through rejection of power, but through acceptance of the challenge which it offers to the Primary World. (p. 90)
Man is constantly in the process of freeing himself from possessiveness. The regaining of "a clear view" of other beings "as things apart from ourselves" is never permanent, never final…. A halt at some point in the struggle would be impossible, for Tolkien's view of life is one of constant process and perception, and is therefore opposed to the purpose of the One Ring which is to "bind" life, enclose it within its circle forever. Consequently, the record of history, and the basic pattern of fantasy as Tolkien presents it, is a dialectic between the past and the imagination. The past has many weapons. It has time, which is gradually unrolling toward the end of the world and the death of civilization. Time repeats itself over and over so that men become accustomed to its possessive and destructive presence. The past contains acts of dead beings who at some time set in motion events or ideas affecting future generations. The past is not absurd, as the Existentialists maintain, beginning only a moment ago. It lives for all of us in the shapes our civilization takes now; in our ability to think about the present….
But the imagination is a weapon too, and if rightly used, can counter and manipulate the past. The love of life which the imagination fosters; the respect for other living things, an imaginative act; the belief in ultimate good and the will to realize it—these are weapons in the inevitable conflict…. [The] imagination, which can show us the reality behind appearances, can also take time and the days and events of the past, and counter the threat to our freedom they portend…. Man does not escape the demands of the past through fantasy. On the contrary, he chooses (or does not choose) to accept the responsibility of being free which his birth in time imposes on him, and to live or die as freely as he can. It is the congruence of history and imagination that makes The Lord of the Rings the effective work it is. (pp. 92-4)
Tolkien has taken archetypal images of trees and jewels, light and darkness, heroic warrior and malevolent enemy, and placed them in a time out of history when Nature was more than we know it to be now, when it glowed with light of the spirit, unfallen, heavenly. We thus have a "history" which is similar to that in our familiar catalogue of myths, and yet demands that our imagination and our sense of great deeds done in civilization's infant past award belief to this mythic history of Middle-earth, which is both like and unlike what we have always believed. (p. 97)
Evil is not, in Tolkien's reading, original with the creation of the world. But it must inevitably arise in a world where created beings are free to make choices, to exercise their free wills in a series of decisions which will either enlarge their imaginative life or narrow and pervert it. This is the ancient paradox of freedom, in that men (or in Tolkien's version, all created beings) must be free to choose the good on their own: they cannot be directed against their will. And so, of course, they may choose to do evil…. Those who choose to do evil, as we have said, keep cutting down their freedom until they can be said to have no will left for choosing. (pp. 152-53)
[The] wide-ranging selection of characters, representative of different races, of the past and the present, of different imaginative capacity and point of view is designed by Tolkien to show the wide variety of life in Middle-earth. Such variety must be respected, not reduced to conform to a dominant will. Furthermore, each race and each member of that race must assume the responsibility for the support of civilization in Middle-earth to the extent of his power. The figures like elves and dwarves drawn from the history of the Third Age, and figures like ents and hobbits imagined by Tolkien, cover the spectrum of imaginative life in the world and also make history meaningful by their participation in it. A struggle for power is inevitable, as time runs downward to its end, but individual beings participate in the decisions which direct the historical struggle this way or that. History is not just the inevitable working out of time in ways beyond the imagination's power. What we also see in this range of characters is a hierarchical ranking depending upon what they can do with the particular abilities at their disposal. And heroism is in turn a complex element in a world determined by choice. (pp. 163-64)
If we compare Tolkien to other contemporary writers, we see major differences. Unlike such writers of fantasy as Kurt Vonnegut, Tolkien is never crudely satiric; gentleness and love pervade his work and soften the criticism of modern society implicit in it. Where other authors present a bleak picture of the wasteland in which the soul struggles to survive alone, Tolkien gives us the Fellowship of the Ring as a happier alternative, a small society of loving creatures who are not alone in the universe. Tolkien argues that there is much of value in Western culture which should be saved, which will be saved, by the imaginative beings who have power to believe in themselves. Tolkien is a conservative in this sense; for all the elements of the fantastic in his work, the preservation of traditional values is most important to him. The fantastic affirms those values rather than attempting to substitute something else for them. Tolkien's writing style, too, is not meant to surprise or shock us; it is always subordinate to the story being told. It is his retelling of our most deeply believed myths about ourselves that makes The Lord of the Rings so moving.
Tolkien is read because he tells a good story; his power to command Secondary Belief in his readers is real. History comes alive in the characters and events of The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien creates speeches and actions which have the "inner consistency of reality" and are not absolutely and destructively rooted in the "observed fact" of the Primary World. He has chosen to tell a story, rather than write a philosophic discourse, and this decision was important because a narrative presents "inner" reality in a way a discursive essay does not: imagined beings who take their life from the hands of their creator touch our emotions, our imaginations, our religious sense of wonder, in ways words addressed to the intellect alone cannot….
Behind Tolkien's choice of form lies an assumption about the nature of man which shines through his work: that men can love, admire good deeds, can seek truth because it is good. They are not "bad"; they are imperceptive, they are weak insofar as excessive self-pride makes them misuse their particular powers; they are available, however, to correction, to change, to the Power, used only for good, of the Enchanter. Words and literary forms are not things apart from human beings. They come up from the body and the feelings attached to the Primary World, as they are, and they share in that reality. And much more. They "Joy" of which Tolkien writes in "On Fairy-Stories" is "heavenly" all right, but it underlies the events in The Lord of the Rings, too, in the "turn" of the happy ending, and in the life of the narration itself. (pp. 195-97)
[The] general respect for all created life in The Lord of the Rings speaks to those among us who fear the disappearance of redwoods and whales, mountain wilderness and hidden seashores to serve society's destructive needs. If we try to turn every mountain valley into a national park with camping areas, general stores and play grounds, we have remade it in our image, and so extended a step further "the drab blur of triteness or familiarity" which must ultimately threaten our own necessary sense of wonder at other forms of life. And under our heavy hand, such unique life can be extinguished. Care for the world, might be the theme of Tolkien's Trilogy. (pp. 198-99)
We should also remember that Frodo's self-sacrifice is not only for the defeat of evil; it is also for the good of society, for the whole Community of created beings. This suggests, in turn, that in the mind of the fantasist, society is worth saving. It is not a mechanical horror designed to grind the individual down. Instead, personal commitment—service—is honored by the citizens of Middle-earth. The individual finds a responsible place for himself in his society; those who live outside society are identified with tyranny and self-destruction. A major reason for Tolkien's popularity among students and the "rebellious young" may be his classic insistence that the individual finds true freedom in the service of good, and that good can be social, providing security and purpose for others without being destructive of singularity and wilfullness. (p. 201)
Robley Evans, in his J. R. R. Tolkien, Warner Paperback Library, 1972.
Knowing that an imaginary world must be realistically equipped down to the last whisker of the last monster, Tolkien put close to 20 years into the creation of Middle-earth, the three-volume Lord of the Rings and its predecessor, The Hobbit (1938). He also equipped readers with 157 pages of history, appendixes, indexes, tables of consanguinity, and philologically impeccable notes on all the languages, including Elvish and Sindarin, spoken on Middleearth. In the years between 1954, when the book came out, and the present, Tolkien saw his readership spread from a handful of literate Anglophiles who savored The Lord of the Rings much as they do Grahame's The Wind in the Willows or T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone, to hundreds of thousands of U.S. college kids who made Frodo a national figure and turned the lore of Middle-earth into a way of life….
Scholars and critics had at first admired his books, while tracing down literary influences that ranged from Buchan (the chases, the praise of friendship) to Beowulf. Then, with such popularity, the story was denounced as escapist fantasy, its success owlishly attributed to "irrational adulation" and "nonliterary cultural and social phenomena." Attempts to straitjacket Tolkien's story as contemporary allegory were updated too. In the '50s, critics averred, Sauron was really Joseph Stalin and fumbling, heroic Frodo was the West.
A genial man with a large pipe who liked to gather with friends and translate Icelandic sagas, Tolkien bore all this stoically. He worked away at other books (Silmarillion and Akallabêth, tales about the creation and early history of Middle-earth, to be published posthumously). But he did point out that literal-minded folk who object to fairy stories as escapist mistake the wartime escape of the deserter (bad) for the wartime escape of the prisoner (necessary and good). Fairy tales represent the latter, Tolkien continued, and correspond to the primordial human desire—in a world of poverty, injustice and death—for the "consolation of the happy ending." Tolkien even coined a word—Eucatastrophe—for this happy quality. Eucatastrophe gives the reader "a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, a piercing glimpse of joy and heart's desire."
The Lord of the Rings is often pokey and perfervid. But it provides a kind of joy, and will do so as long as men read and Hobbits live in holes.
"Eucatastrophe," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1973 by Time Inc.), September 17, 1973, p. 101.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who died a fortnight ago in his 81st year, was as much a writer of his time as the archetypal modern from whom he seemed to differ so radically and so sharply. All the arts of our century have been revivals of forms long abandoned. Joyce was our Homer, Pound our Dante. Tolkien dared to resuscitate the romance, a form requiring the genius of a Rabelais or Spenser, a form which was shattered after its brilliant flowering in the hands of Boiardo and Ariosto by the publication of Don Quixote. Thereafter the demon realism ruled the roost.
Tolkien dared the improbable and perhaps the impossible in writing The Lord of the Rings, a three-volume romance of such magnificent design and charm of narration that it has been for almost twenty years now a magic book among the young. For many, it was their sole example of literature, and they took to it with the cultist enthusiasm of young Elizabethans reading Orlando Furioso. Most of its readers had little awareness that they were reading a Christian parable. The book is apparently beyond scholarship and criticism; nothing written about it seems to be about the same book that people begin again as soon as they reach the end, or read for days without sleep, or can allude to like a Puritan quoting Scripture. Who can say why the Orcs have Hittite names? Who has noticed that Gandalf is Sherlock Holmes in a wizard's hat?…
Allen Barnett, of Shelbyville, Kentucky … was a classmate of Tolkien's at Oxford and may have been his only friend to have survived the First World War. Tolkien, he said, loved to hear about the Kentuckians, their contempt for shoes, their fields of tobacco, their countrified ancient English names like Proudfoot and Baggins. It was the rule of Tolkien's art that he invented nothing cynical. He transmuted into the loveliest vision the world as he knew it. If the Shire is flavored with touches of Kentucky, we need but know that Tolkien was born in South Africa to see what he was remembering in the lacy golden trees of Lothlórien. Not since Spenser has an English writer had so gorgeous an imagination…. Of The Lord of the Rings we can say easily that it is the best book of the century, though the greatest is Ulysses, and Lewis' The Human Age is the book we deserve most to be remembered for. Its vision of harmony and simplicity, of honor and heroism, is an articulate symbol of our inarticulate yearning. The dread Orcs, who look like the Chinese army, the Nazis, and our highways and streets, are what humanity looks like when deference has been replaced by power and civilization by efficiency.
Tolkien himself said the one fault of The Lord of the Rings is that it ought to have been longer. Would that it were.
G. Davenport, "J. R. R. Tolkien, RIP," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), September 28, 1973, pp. 1042-43.
The possible objections to Tolkien's fiction as a romantic epic and myth for our time are twofold. The first is to have no objection (whether one knows it or not) to the form itself but to object to the content. As one of the undergraduate contributors to the BBC 2 tribute to Tolkien correctly implied, it makes no contribution to the Revolution. The objection, in other words, is not to the mythical, epic and legendary—it may well be a tacit endorsement of them—but to Tolkien's version: one prefers, presumably, The Class Struggles in France or Ten Days that Shook the World. There is a slightly different, though ultimately similar, kind of objection which is more interesting. It also rests on a particular view (or perhaps several) of what constitutes modernity and of the proper relation of literature to it, but it is less obviously parochial. I do not mean precisely (if one can mean precisely) what is called 'Modernism' as a period in literature, but rather the notion that certain modes of being and experiencing are somehow 'ours', and are now the proper subject of fictional exploration. This assumption that one has got the zeitgeist by the short hairs and that this in some way licenses one to distinguish confidently between literary seriousness and escapist frivolity has always seemed to me, as a historian, an odd one. I can see that the reader who goes to Tolkien for an exploration of the inner conflicts and complex emotional interactions of plausible yet highly individualised characters will be disappointed: for that matter, he won't get much out of quite a lot of the world's acknowledged great literature either. The only reasons I can think of for regarding this kind of fiction as mandatory are either a rather excessive preoccupation with the mutations of the Protestant conscience, or a sort of unacknowledged literary positivism, as though because fiction now can do these things it must—on pain of condemnation for the sort of frivolity exhibited by an Astronomer Royal caught listening for the Music of the Spheres.
But in neither case, of course, has the objection now got much to do with modernity, and more sophisticated objections from this point of view will, again, tend to focus on content rather than form. It is not the use of romance—much less myth—as a framework that is seen as objectionable, but Tolkien's fidelity to the imaginative worlds which produced them. It is not that Tolkien's world is fantastic—modern literature and criticism can accommodate that easily enough—but that, instead of being grotesque, satirical or straightforwardly allegorical, it is presented in high, heroic earnestness, though not without irony. The learned epic has sometimes been successful in other times—Virgil and Milton are the obvious examples—but, though a conscious revival, it has always rested heavily on some still unbroken consensus, patriotic or religious. Tolkien can count on no such consensus, yet the vision of despair is opposed to a notion of authentic nobility and order: what is excluded is not stoicism but desperation seen as a kind of norm….
The Lord of the Rings has been called 'literature for those who dislike literature'. I suggest that a more illuminating, though not comprehensive judgment would be that it is history for those who dislike history, at least history as it is now written…. Tolkien's trilogy … is, after all, a drama not just of people but of peoples. Consider the plot in its simplest sense. It is, of course, a struggle against personified evil, but it is also the narrative of a journey. One reads it in part as one might read Prescott on the Conquistadores, or Parkman or Hakluyt. Were they only redeemed from triviality because they wrote of what was true? Of course, a journey is also the classic narrative form for allegory, but Tolkien's narrative is only partially like that. Each episode can, as in allegory proper, be seen as a kind of test or temptation, but it is also an encounter with a culture, the evocation of whose distinctive ethos and milieu is more emphasised than the test. Tolkien is the Herodotus of an imaginary world, and as in Herodotus the focus is a gathering of races for a decisive confrontation of East and West (Tolkien's moral geography is decidedly European). There are major differences, of course. Tolkien is a moral absolutist, more partisan and strict in judgment. Above all, perhaps, his cultures are enriched by, even dependent on, their linguistic dimension. The relative success or failure with which these cultures are presented depends overwhelmingly on diction and tone and nomenclature.
The same applies to individual characters…. The dwarfs escape the shadow of Disney to achieve a sombre dignity helped by their nomenclature, whose booming vowels and heavy rhythms suggest a world of clanging metal and echoing tunnels beneath the mountains. With this they have a medium in which they can express themselves, as well as merely be described. Conversely, while Tolkien gives his most fully rendered imaginary language to the elves, it has too few reverberations in English to establish them properly, and he finds only a perfunctory use of epic convention with which to suggest them…. The elves seem to me Tolkien's chief failure: an attempt to conjure up an effect of pure, shining light and silvery enchantment which merely twinkles and tinkles, referred to but not presented. It is a pardonable failure. We just do not know what songs the sirens sang, nor the site of Paradise. Nor, for all the richness of his philological and topographical imagination, did Tolkien.
J. W. Burrow, "Tolkien Lives?," in The Listener, November 8, 1973, pp. 634-36.
Tolkien was the inventor of a new world, even a new language; he made Middle Earth. But his invention was not just the play of fancy; it was also the projection of a serious moral vision. I do not mean that the The Lord of the Rings is allegory, a story at one level, a sermon at another. It is a story first and last, and yet a story in which the teller formulates—for himself perhaps as well as others—what he has made of good and evil.
Good and evil are ontological categories and psychological ones. Ontologically, what Tolkien makes of them is summed up in an old scholastic tag: evil is not something positive, but only the absence of good. He rejects the Manichean view that evil is of the same status and seniority as good. In his imagery evil is defined negatively, and by contrast: it is Mordor versus Lorien, that which lacks life and health, light and colour, sweetness of sound and smell. In the beginning all things were good—even Sauron, the dark Lord, and his many servants….
With his ontology Tolkien is bound to provide a psychological explanation of how evil originates—and is opposed by good. There are three desires to which evil has been traditionally traced—the desires for prestige (status, recognition), possession and power. In Tolkien's scheme the first two desires are relatively harmless: the humility of the hobbits is praised, the avarice of the dwarves criticised, but neither character is made a matter of great consequence. The desire for power is the source of real evil in Middle Earth, this alone can warp the will.
We see its work in Sauron, who is consumed by the desire. But 'consumed' is not the right word. It is a feature of the desire for power that it strengthens, demonically, those it enslaves. Sauron is no weakling, his will has fed on the desire and he can bend other beings to him. Those who oppose this evil must learn to do battle with this will.
Here we have the central problem of The Lord of the Rings. What are the psychological resources from which a force for good might spring that would match Sauron's evil? The natural answer is, the desire for a salvific power to combat Sauron's satanic power. Tolkien blocks the answer by a paradox to which he has Gandalf the wizard draw attention, again and again. You cannot seek power, in particular the power of the Ring, in order to challenge evil; you simply become evil yourself….
Tolkien's world is a Christian heroic one. Evil is unambiguous and it has an unambiguous source in the desire for power. Good is equally unambiguous but not so easily harnessed; it comes, not uninvited, but without prompting. In this fantasy it may be difficult to recognise the ordinary world. But then the world only exists in the experience of it. And Tolkien's was no ordinary experience.
Philip Pettit, "Tolkien's Good and Evil," in Cambridge Review, November 23, 1973, p. 34.