J. R. R. Tolkien

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Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7,753 words.)