Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933

In 1997, the Lord of the Rings was voted the greatest book of the twentieth century in a poll run by a major British bookstore chain. The results were greeted with chagrin by some critics and writers who felt this vote slighted serious literature. Their reaction was a reprise of many of the initial reviews. Tolkien criticism has been deeply divided in the nearly half century since the Wilson and Auden reviews at the time of its publication. Their reviews, it seems, set the agenda for Tolkien criticism. Writer after writer has chased sources, refuted the accusation of ethical flatness, lack of character development, and escapism. Writer after writer has struggled with their revulsion of a work that has a cult following, which belongs supposedly to a minor and marginal genre (fantasy), that superficially at least seems entirely outside the mainstream of twentieth-century literature.

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Wilson, in his famous (or infamous) 1956 review "Oo, Those Awful Orcs," would not give serious consideration to a work that was both generically and stylistically mixed. He rejected the sense of relativism and irony, which for many contemporary critics was the only possible stance for a serious writer and an intelligent audience, and would only be rejected out of escapism. Faced with a major literary figure, Auden (a former student of Tolkien's), who not only took the work seriously, but praised it, Wilson felt it necessary to politely excuse the poet's taste. To be fair, it cannot be denied that escapism is part of the lure of Lord of the Rings when one looks at the thousands of fantasy novels its success has spawned in the last thirty years. It is equally fair to say that the critics that have found Tolkien's normative ethics congenial, particularly those approaching him as a Catholic author, have seldom produced anything much above the trite. A full study of late nineteenth-century and twentieth-century Catholic theology and Tolkien's understanding and reaction to it has yet to be written.

It has been suggested this lack of critical sympathy is the result of a lack of sympathy with or knowledge of the early medieval literature behind Tolkien's work. But most readers of Lord of the Rings are not specialists in early medieval literature, although many present day members of departments of Old and Middle English literature came to the subject from Lord of the Rings. Despite Isaacs' request for analytical and formalist approaches in 1968, the reader will still find, as Rosebury did, too much substitution of classification for analysis. Rosebury unerringly put his finger on perhaps the central problem of Tolkien criticism: "The truth is that it is difficult to write well about Tolkien because of the distinctive nature of his merits... yet if he is to be praised effectively, the praise must be justified in terms of which bear an intelligible relation to other writers. ... Analysis and evaluation are always comparative." Tolkien criticism still seems to be too much in the hands of, as Carpenter says, the "deplorable cultus" of which Tolkien himself complained. Numerous books and articles appear to be written by authors who have not really digested their research, who do not seem to realize that the one thing a Tolkien critic does not need to do is to retell the story for the reader. Too many books and articles have been written by critics who feel it their duty to insist Lord of the Rings is not literature, and if it is, it certainly is not good literature, often making sweeping pronouncements on style or characterization, which cannot be defended in the light of close reading.

There has been good Tolkien criticism. Purtill handles myth, morality, and religion in Lord of the Rings. He makes a beginning on the question of the essential nature of modern fantasy, linking it appropriately with science fiction. He is one of the very few critics to even advert to the often overlooked theme of immortality in Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, he is capable of simple mistakes of facts and leaves the reader with the feeling they have experienced a good beginning, but that there is much more to be done.

Rosebury and Shippey, however, have easily produced the two best critical studies of Lord of the Rings, both appropriately published in the centenary year of the author's birth. Shippey's work will probably be the standard work on the northern European sources of Tolkien, as well on the particularly unfortunate animus that existed and so often continues to exist between the critics and scholars working on either side of the great watershed of the Renaissance. Rosebury's study, besides its technical excellence, commends itself in that it is perhaps the first written by a critic who, while clearly appreciating Tolkien both on an emotional and aesthetic level, makes no grandiose claims for high position in English literature. Even for a reader who would rank Tolkien a good deal higher than Poe, Rosebury's choice of comparison, such relative balance is reassuring. Rosebury, unlike so many enthusiastic admirers of Tolkien, takes the trouble to apply the sort of close reading Tolkien the scholar applied to texts. He gives a detailed and satisfying account of the methods Tolkien used in creating the fullness of his world in words. He moves then from method to the aesthetic as well as philosophical meaning of this fullness of breadth and detail. Continuing his pattern of close reading, he discusses the prose style and the infinite pains in word choice and sentence structure in Lord of the Rings. No author who can command the interests of two such critics can possibly be dismissed as minor.

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