J. R. R. Tolkien Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) (Vol. 12) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

British novelist, poet, editor, critic, short story writer, and Anglo-Saxon scholar. Tolkien created a complete mythology with his works of fantasy, which narrate a timeless cosmic struggle between good and evil and have captured the imaginations of a generation. He is credited with making the fairy tale accessible to adults through his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and essay, "On Fairy Stories." His success made fantasy a popular and acceptable genre for adult writers, many of whom have imitated his example. Tolkien was born in South Africa, and moved to England at the age of four following the death of his father. Perhaps Tolkien's greatest influence was his mother, who introduced him to history, leg-ends, and the fascination of language. At an early age he began composing his own languages and later wrote stories and poems as a framework for them. Tolkien studied linguistics at Oxford, and in 1925 became Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. From 1945 until his retirement he was the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and became an emeritus fellow of Oxford. His scholarly works on philology and literature are considered major contributions to both subjects. While at Oxford he made the acquaintance of novelist and critic C. S. Lewis, who was later to talk a reluctant Tolkien into submitting The Hobbit for publication. The Hobbit, based on Tolkien's private mythology and the bedtime stories he told his children during the 1930s, began the history of Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings continues the saga, having as its theme the corruption of power. The Silmarillion, which was begun in 1916 but published posthumously, forms the prologue to The Lord of the Rings. During the 1960s Tolkien was catapulted to fame as young adults discovered his books. The cult spawned clubs, journals, buttons, and graffiti, as well as societies devoted to the serious study of Tolkien and his works. Tolkien's critical reception has been less wholeheartedly enthusiastic: he has been criticized for characters, especially women, who are one-dimensional and for prose which is flat and lacking in imagery. Although the initial craze surrounding his work has ebbed, young people still respond positively to Tolkien's characters, identifying with their quests towards maturity and self awareness. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 45-48; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Something about the Author, Vol. 2.)

The publishers claim that "The Hobbit," though very unlike "Alice," resembles it in being the work of a professor at play. A more important truth is that both belong to a very small class of books which have nothing in common save that each admits us to a world of its own—a world that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it but which, once found by the right reader, becomes indispensable to him. Its place is with "Alice," "Flatland," "Phantastes," "The Wind in the Willows."

To define the world of "The Hobbit" is, of course, impossible, because it is new. You cannot anticipate it before you go there, as you cannot forget it once you have gone….

[This] is a children's book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. "Alice" is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown-ups; "The Hobbit," on the other hand, will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but "The Hobbit" may well prove a classic.

"A World for Children," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1937; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 2, 1937, p. 714.

C. S. Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Fellowship of the Ring] is like lightning from a clear sky; as sharply different, as unpredictable in our age as [William Blake's] Songs of Innocence were in theirs. To say that in it heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism, is inadequate. To us, who live in that odd period, the return—and the sheer relief of it—is doubtless the important thing. But in the history of Romance itself—a history which stretches back to the Odyssey and beyond—it makes not a return but an advance or revolution: the conquest of new territory.

Nothing quite like it was ever done before…. The utterly new achievement of Professor Tolkien is that he carries a comparable sense of reality unaided. Probably no book yet written in the world is quite such a radical instance of what its author has elsewhere called 'sub-creation'. The direct debt (there are of course subtler kinds of debt) which every author must owe to the actual universe, is here deliberately reduced to the minimum. Not content to create his own story, he creates, with an almost insolent prodigality, the whole world in which it is to move, with its own theology, myths, geography, history, palaeography, languages, and orders of beings—a world 'full of strange creatures beyond count'. The names alone are a feast … [and are] best of all … when they embody that piercing, high, elvish beauty of which no other prose writer has captured so much.

Such a book has of course its predestined readers, even now more numerous and more critical than is always realized. To them a reviewer need say little, except that here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. They will know that this is good news, good beyond hope. To complete their happiness one need only add that it promises to be gloriously long: this volume is only the first of three. But it is too great a book to rule only its natural subjects. Something must be said to 'those without', to the unconverted. At the very least, possible misunderstandings may be got out of the way.

First, we must clearly understand that though The Fellowship in one way continues its author's fairy-tale, The Hobbit, it is in no sense an overgrown 'juvenile'. The truth is the other way round. The Hobbit was merely a fragment torn from the author's huge myth and adapted for children; inevitably losing something by the adaptation. The Fellowship gives us at last the lineaments of that myth 'in their true dimensions like themselves'. (p. 1082)

[The Hobbits] are not an allegory of the English, but they are perhaps a myth that only an Englishman (or, should we add, a Dutchman?) could have created. Almost the central theme of the book is the contrast...

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W. H. Auden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I suppose readers exist who do not enjoy Heroic Quests, but I have never met them. For many of us they are so much the most delicious form of literature that we can devour one even when our critical faculties tell us it is trash. Those who remember The Hobbit as the best children's story written in the last fifty years will open any new work by Professor Tolkien with high hopes, but The Fellowship of the Ring is better than their wildest dreams could have foreseen…. (p. 59)

For a contemporary writer who sets out to create a convincing imaginary world, the task is much more formidable than it was for the authors of the Courtly Romances, since he can neither write nor expect to be read as if the naturalistic novel and scientific historical research did not exist. It may give some indication of Mr. Tolkien's astonishing powers that I can only find two questions of probability to raise, just as the questions themselves may illustrate the difference between a mid-20th-century reader and a contemporary of Spenser. We are told that the Hobbits have lived for many generations immune from war, pestilence, and famine; and that, normally, they have large families and are long-lived. In that case, I do not quite understand why population pressure has not forced them to emigrate from the Shire. Secondly—a minor point—the drying up of the Sirannon river is explained by the fact that it has been dammed; but the lake so formed has been full for years—where is the water going to?

The first problem for the maker of an imaginary world is the same as Adam's in Eden; he has to invent names for everything and everyone, and these names must be both apt and consistent with each other. It is hard enough to find the "right" names in a comic world; in a serious one, success seems almost magical. I can only say that in the nominative gift Mr. Tolkien surpasses any writer known to me, living or dead. (pp. 59-60)

Again, what other creator of imaginary landscapes has possessed so acute a topographical eye? For a journey to seem...

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Maurice Richardson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Two Towers is the second volume of [Tolkien's] mammoth fairy tale, or, as some call it, heroic romance, The Lord of The Rings. It will do quite nicely as an allegorical adventure story for very leisured boys, but as anything else I am convinced it has been wildly overpraised and it is all I can do to restrain myself from shouting: Conspiracy! and slouching through the streets with a sandwichman's board inscribed in jagged paranoid scrawl in violet ink: "Adults of all ages! Unite against the infantilist invasion."

It has been compared by Richard Hughes to Spenser's Faerie Queen; by Naomi Mitchison to Malory; by C. S. Lewis to Ariosto. I can see why these three should have soft...

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Loren Eiseley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beginning with The Hobbit, a tale of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, a small, intelligent representative of a people whose simple underground houses have sometimes led me to suspect that they are remote relatives of rabbits, we pass from a fascinating child's tale to the great orchestra of The Lord of the Rings, in which a whole Secondary World is created and successfully sustained through three large volumes.

These are sure to remain Tolkien's life work; and are certainly destined to outlast our time. They stand as a major creative act, and it is not without significance that Tolkien tells us in Tree and Leaf that his full taste for fairy stories, using the term in its highest...

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Henry Resnik

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In recent months, The Lord of the Rings has been at the top of college best-seller lists across the country, and although the Tolkien people wince at the word "fad" as if it were sheer blasphemy, even they will admit that their enthusiasm has gone—perhaps inevitably—beyond all reason. The Tolkien people may be less noisy than the LSD-heads, but there are more of them, and they give the lie to most of the melodramatic scandal that has emanated from the American campus within the past year. Look into the mirror of their emotion—the world of Tolkien—and you will probably find a clue to what today's students are really about; look into that mirror and you may even find the link that ties you to them…....

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Joseph Mathewson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[At] college bookstores all across the country, students who formerly pounced on The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies are passing them up in favor of a new Lord, The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The king of the campus novels is dead. Long live the king. (p. 130)

The Hobbits and their buddies are almost wholly good and, with one exception, light of skin. And no one has much more psychological depth than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. There seems to be no allegorical meaning to the trilogy. At least the author denies there is, and he also denies that World War II impinged on his plans for the cycle. If The Lord of the Rings has any message at all, it may be...

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Peter S. Beagle

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The real surge of interest in Tolkien's writing has been among high school and college students. Students make strange and varied works their own, and if there is any significance to their adoption of The Lord of the Rings—beyond the fact that it's a good book—the hell with it; one or another of our explainers of the young will take note of it pretty soon. But there is one possible reason for Tolkien's popularity that I would like to put forward, because it concerns the real strength of The Lord of the Rings. Young people in general sense the difference between the real and the phony. They don't know it—when they begin to know that difference, and to try to articulate it, then they are adults and...

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Matthew Hodgart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although I like reading epics, medieval romances, and folktales, for many years I could not get beyond the barrier of that first all-too-Hobbit sentence: "When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton." When I forced myself inside I began to read with growing speed and excitement; then went back to The Hobbit (which is a very good children's book); then read most of the Rings for a second time, at first enjoying Tolkien's learning and craftsmanship, but ending up disenchanted….

The war episodes and the spy episodes [in The Lord of the...

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Robert Sklar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tolkien's trilogy … resembles the Anglo-Saxon chronicles he studied as a scholar. The Lord of the Rings is a work of art but it is also history—even if invented history—and it bears comparison to works of Gibbon or Parkman more readily than it does to other novels. The great historians are equally artists and builders of worlds. Gibbon's Rome and Parkman's French America are worlds as strange and distant from our own as Tolkien's Middle Earth. On the level of great historical narrative it matters little whether the events described can be absolutely verified; what matters far more is the historian's attitude toward his world and his treatment of it.

As a work of history The Lord of...

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William L. Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Lord of the Rings is an extremely valuable pedagogical instrument for heightening students' awareness of concepts and values which are difficult to grasp in the modern environment, but which are essential for full response to literary works we must teach them. (p. 819)

The central values of the book are thoroughly traditional, and the direct, immediate style and tone reinforce the fact that, however applicable they may be to our own age, these are the things that have always been true. It is curious that in an age so bound to "realism" and "verisimilitude" we should find the great truths of human nature so fully embodied in a fantasy. No student who has read it is likely to deride products...

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Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tolkien is a Catholic and an Anglo-Saxon scholar, and the theology of his work is an extraordinary synthesis of heroic northern myth and Christian promise. Tolkien believes in Providence, both in and out of his fiction. He never mentions chance without a pious parenthesis—"if such it be"—yet he also believes, as he suggests the author of Beowulf believed, that within Time the monsters win. "We have fought the long defeat," Tolkien's Elf-Queen says, and the elves effectively leave the earth. God, in other words, is pulling his punches, to see how we make out against Sauron and his ilk. The treats come later, in the islands of the blessed.

This view accounts, I think, for two things in...

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Mary Ellmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eglerio! Praise them! I want to type fast and congratulate American Youth on the (J.R.R.) Tolkien Cult before it is over. Perhaps it ends today and thousands of people, shutting Volume I or II or III of The Lord of the Rings, are now never to know if Gollum came back or Frodo came to. Still, I would hope that no one, even on the West Coast where the time lags, missed the Door Scene in which two necromancers exert two separate spells, one to open a door and the other to shut it. The molecules of the door, flustered by these opposing influences, lose their grip on each other and go off every which way. The door achieves absolute Doorlessness.

The addiction of young people to scenes like that is...

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Donald Davie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Lord of the Rings is one of the most surprising products of British literature since 1945, and one of the most serious. Edmund Wilson's attack on the book [see CLC, Vol. 1], though it hearteningly insisted on the obvious—for instance, that Tolkien's prose is as undistinguished as his verse (someone ought to point out, for example, how much mileage he gets out of the one word "great")—quite fails to account for the seriousness of the undertaking, for the pressure that drove the author through these thousand or more pages, as it has driven many readers (this reader among them) to follow through the same pages eagerly. The avidity with which The Lord of the Rings is read, the appeal of it and...

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Hugh Crago

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Bilbo Baggins chooses to rush out of his hobbit-hole without his handkerchief and accompany some disreputable dwarfs on a dangerous and seemingly impossible venture, Tolkien makes it quite clear that he is choosing rightly. By opting for hardship instead of comfort and (more important still) Romance instead of everyday life, he is, we know, choosing the life of imaginative experience. Wizards, elves, dragons and treasure are, as well as being superbly real in themselves, symbols for various aspects of this life. Bilbo returns a better person for having lived it, and is promptly classed by his fellow-hobbits as "queer." Imagination, then, says Tolkien, is a good thing, but most men do not want it. It involves a...

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Alexis Levitin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Lord of the Rings focuses upon a particular episode in the eternal struggle between Good and Evil. Special emphasis is placed on the central role that Power plays in this conflict. Tolkien demonstrates that Power is the true weapon only of Evil, and that even in the hands of Good it eventually must result in corruption and suffering….

[Louis J. Halle, in a review comparing Tolkien's work to actual historical studies, says] "The two prime facts of Middle-earth … are power and its consequence, suffering…. In the historian's view, power is not a neutral element that can be used for good or evil. It is always evil, for it enables the wicked to dominate the world or, in the...

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C. Stuart Hannabuss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I believe that Tolkien was working out a quasi-Christian morality in pagan terms, using a former culture and literary tradition to furnish the scenario to a quest which incorporated the major issues of Life. His landscape is one of utter contrasts, images of good and evil…. The denizens of Tolkien's world fall into two camps, broadly good and bad; and, with a simplicity due to this moral viewpoint, as well as due to the simple characterization in epic, so we find Gandalf ranged against Sauron, Fangorn against Saruman, Sam against Gollum, and Bard against Smaug…. It is thus a dualistic scheme we see, with the ultimate victory to good (the "eucatastrophe"), and in this sense Christian.

Perhaps the...

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Gerald O'Connor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are [many] explanations for the popularity of [The Lord of the Rings] as anyone who has taught it knows. It's a great story. It has wildly original and interesting characters. It takes place in a delightful world of fantasy. And, finally, it communicates an extraordinary reverence for natural life. Long before ecology became fashionable, the trilogy celebrated the natural wonders of our world: the earth, the water, the trees, the flowers, the other living things that Tolkien lets us commune with…. To me, all of these are good reasons why any young person could enjoy The Lord of the Rings. In fact, so anesthetizing are they that a great many young people have not only willingly suspended their...

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Richard Purtill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One criticism made of Tolkien is that his language is general, unspecific, not evocative of particular images unlike that of D. H. Lawrence, for example. But Tolkien writes in this way on theory and of set purpose. As some scattered remarks make clear, Tolkien distrusts overspecific description in fantasy for the same reason he is wary of pictures in such books: both have the effect of dragooning the imagination, forcing us to see the scene in a certain way. (pp. 40-1)

[Another] accusation is that the language in, for example, the Rings is "derivative," full of echoes of other literature…. Of course, this is a highly relative matter. If you have not read the other literature you will miss...

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Randel Helms

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[We] have in The Hobbit and its sequel what is in fact the same story, told first very simply, and then again, very intricately. Both works have the same theme, a quest on which a most unheroic hobbit achieves heroic stature; they have the same structure, the "there and back again" of the quest romance, and both extend the quest through the cycle of one year, The Hobbit from spring to spring, the Rings from fall to fall.

The episodic structures of the two books are so closely parallel one says without exaggeration that The Lord of the Rings is The Hobbit writ large. (p. 21)

But if The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are in essence...

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C. N. Manlove

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Lord of the Rings] came just when disillusion among the American young at the Vietnam war and the state of their own country was at a peak. Tolkien's fantasy offered an image of the kind of rural conservationist ideal or escape for which they were looking (it also could be seen as describing, through the overthrow of Sauron, the destruction of the U.S.). In this way The Lord of the Rings could be enlisted in support of passive resistance and idealism on the one hand and of draft-dodging and drugs on the other. A second factor may have been the perennial American longing for roots, a long-tradition and a mythology: these things are the fibre of Tolkien's book, where every place and character is...

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Dorothy Matthews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit has received very little serious critical attention other than as the precursor of The Lord of the Rings. It has usually been praised as a good introduction to the trilogy, and as a children's book, but anyone familiar with psychoanalysis cannot avoid being tantalized by recurrent themes and motifs in the three stories. Bilbo's story has surprising depths that can be plumbed by the reader who is receptive to psychoanalytic interpretations.

The central pattern of The Hobbit is, quite obviously, a quest. Like so many heroes before him, Bilbo sets out on a perilous journey, encounters and overcomes many obstacles (including a confrontation with a dragon)...

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Deborah C. Rogers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] hobbits are the race par excellence in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. One can tell this in part because Tolkien uses their point of view, but even more because he obviously likes them very much indeed, and without evading their shortcomings in his portrayal. I can also tell from a letter which Tolkien sent me in 1958, in which he said, "I am in fact a hobbit."

So what are hobbits like, these original and most important creatures of Tolkien's? Their main qualities are apparent: they are small, provincial, and comfort-loving. (p. 71)

[Hobbits] are the aspect of humanity which I have dubbed, for the purposes of this paper, Everyclod—unjustly,...

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John Gardner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If "The Hobbit" is a lesser work than the Ring trilogy because it lacks the trilogy's high seriousness, the collection that makes up "The Silmarillion" stands below the trilogy because much of it contains only high seriousness; that is, here Tolkien cares more about the meaning and coherence of his myth than he does about these glories of the trilogy: rich characterization, imagistic brillance, powerfully imagined and detailed sense of place, and thrilling adventure. Not that those qualities are entirely lacking here. The central tale, "The Silmarillion"—though not the others—has a wealth of vivid and interesting characters, and all the tales are lifted above the ordinary by Tolkien's devil figures, Melkor,...

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Robert M. Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Silmarillion, despite the cuts that have evidently been made in the original materials, the selection and arrangement that have been imposed on them, remains an empty and pompous bore. There are epic elements in it, but they have been smothered by an overgrowth of genealogy.

The narrative is not in itself very sturdy. Oaths, feuds, sword fights, lost cities, doomed lovers, and ill-starred friendships abound; but there is a dearth of characters and an oversupply of stereotypes. The familiar Tolkien division prevails between level-eyed, steely-but-gentle good guys, and snarling, black-minded bad guys; but the action remains exterior and mechanical. Above all, Tolkien has a fascination with...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

Margery Fisher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I feel that Tolkien did not revise and add to [The Silmarillion] over the years as an escape, though it does seem in one way to belong to a deep, almost childlike need to fix and possess for ever a part of the English countryside (and in this sense it could be said to bear the same relation to his practical life as "The Wind in the Willows" bore to Kenneth Grahame's.) The clue to reading it can be found, perhaps, in Leaf by Niggle. The Silmarillion is the creation of what Tolkien called a Secondary World, just as much as Lord of the Rings though in a different style. It is a piece of literary invention which depends on semantics rather than on social morality. It is true that the whole work...

(The entire section is 552 words.)