The book of the century

Although its popularity is unparalleled, intellectuals dismiss "The Lord of the Rings" as boyish fantasy. Now one scholar defends J.R.R. Tolkien's "true myth" as a modern masterpiece. First of two parts.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 4, 2001 11:29PM (EDT)

In January 1997, reporter Susan Jeffreys of the (London) Sunday Times informed a colleague that J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy "The Lord of the Rings" had been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a readers' poll conducted by Britain's Channel 4 and the Waterstone's bookstore chain. Her colleague responded: "Oh hell! Has it? Oh my God. Dear oh dear. Dear oh dear oh dear."

Attitudes on this side of the Atlantic are arguably more relaxed about this kind of thing. No one from the educated classes expressed much dismay when a 1999 poll of customers chose "The Lord of the Rings" as the greatest book not merely of the century but of the millennium. Tolkien's magnum opus is so deeply ingrained in popular culture, after all, that a great many of today's American academics and journalists probably spent time in eighth grade passing homeroom notes written in Elvish rune-script, and still have those dogeared Ballantine paperbacks, with their hallucinatory mid-1970s cover art (which the author despised), stashed somewhere in the attic.

Furthermore, members of the U.S. intelligentsia, confined to their Northeast Corridor reservation or scattered across the continent in a handful of college towns, fully expect to have their tastes ignored, if not openly derided, by the public at large. To some intellectual types (to me, for example) it seems gratifying, even touching, that so many millions of American readers will happily devour a work as abstruse and complicated as "The Lord of the Rings." Whatever one may make of it, it's a more challenging read than "Gone With the Wind" (runner-up in the Amazon survey), not to mention "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (fifth place).

With the first film of director Peter Jackson's bazillion-dollar "Lord of the Rings" trilogy arriving this December, no one in the Western world, highbrow, lowbrow or anywhere in between, will be immune to the renewed onslaught of Tolkieniana, from Balrog action figures to arcana like Karen Wynn Fonstad's exhaustively detailed "Atlas of Middle-Earth." (Contrary to what some critics have suggested, Tolkien's letters make clear that he was eager to do business with the Lidless Eye of Hollywood, and had few illusions about the compromises that might be required.)

Yet the dear-oh-dear attitude lingers on in the land, a little concealed maybe, a little under the surface. What's more, it's there for a good reason. Hugely ambitious in scope yet seemingly antique in sensibility, "The Lord of the Rings" occupies an anomalous and uncomfortable position in 20th century literature. Considered on its own terms, Tolkien's epic -- he never intended it as a trilogy, although it was first published and absorbed into public consciousness in three volumes -- poses a stern challenge to the very concept of modernity, and perhaps especially to modern literature and its defenders. (Tolkien on his critics: "Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.")

The massive and enduring popularity of "Lord of the Rings" -- it has been 40 years since critic Philip Toynbee hopefully predicted that the Tolkien "craze" or "cult" would soon pass into "merciful oblivion" -- only raises the stakes. It would seem that Tolkien's work, which reinvented a moribund literary genre and created a new publishing market vaster than the empire of the Dark Lord Sauron himself, supplied something that was missing amid the shifting subjectivities and formal innovations of 20th century fiction, something for which readers were ravenous. But what was it, and why was it important? Or, to put the question in terms familiar to Tolkien readers, what has it got in its pocketses?

Answering this question properly would require a book rather than an article, of course. If T.A. Shippey's "J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century" is not quite that book, it is nonetheless a delightful exploration of the relationship between Tolkien's fiction and his scholarly work and of the mythical, linguistic and philosophical history underlying both. It is also a crusade in a supremely Tolkienian spirit, on behalf of the dying academic discipline of philology, or the anatomy and history of languages.

Like Tolkien, Shippey is a professor of Old English and medieval literature, and even taught the same philological syllabus at Oxford during the author's latter years, although his acquaintance with Tolkien was apparently slight. (Shippey now holds a chair at St. Louis University.) If Tolkien, as Shippey argues, probably knew more about Anglo-Saxon myth and language than any living person of his time, so Shippey may be uniquely qualified to explicate Tolkien's worldview to the rest of us.

Shippey doesn't quite put it this way, but his book, especially read in conjunction with Humphrey Carpenter's admirable 1977 biography and the Carpenter-edited volume of Tolkien's letters, suggests that Tolkien's immense popularity, and the animosity he continues to engender in some quarters, stem from some essential contradictions in the man and his work. First of all, the Tolkien "legendarium" (his word, of course) is a work of reconstructive myth and romance, closer in many respects to Chrétien de Troyes or Edmund Spenser than to the modern novel. Yet its moral point of reference is inescapably the 20th century world.

"The Lord of the Rings" is conventionally called fantasy, yet Tolkien in some ways considered it to be true, or at least to be "true myth." It is a work by a devout Christian that never mentions God and has only one reference to religious practice (and that is entirely nonsectarian). In terms of conscious intention, at least, it is a profoundly conservative work, an elegy for lost tales, lost eras and lost hierarchies tinged (it must be said) by xenophobia, troubling racial attitudes and a confused sexuality. Yet it became a central text of the 1960s counterculture and a source of inspiration to the radical environmental movement.

I could go on: Despite the quintessential Englishness of his work and his own anti-Americanism -- or perhaps because of it -- Tolkien found his largest audience and warmest critical reception in the United States. As Shippey demonstrates, Tolkien's presentation of evil, which often seems depressingly simplistic (Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, does not appear directly in "The Lord of the Rings," but we get the impression that he is sadistic, sarcastic, headstrong and none too bright), is at other times quite sophisticated. In his handling of Sauron's chief creation, the One Ring of Power, for example, Tolkien can be said to have anticipated the contemporary concept of addiction.

But the crux of the matter, it seems to me, lies in Tolkien's wholehearted rejection of modernity and modernism. This is what so powerfully attracts some readers, and just as powerfully repels others. The division has existed since "The Lord of the Rings" was first published, and was deftly summarized by no less august a figure than W.H. Auden, in his 1956 New York Times review of "The Return of the King," the final volume of Tolkien's published trilogy.

"I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments," Auden wrote. "Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect ... I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light 'escapist' reading."

The principle Auden was struggling to define, by which certain readers reject Tolkien's universe out of hand, still exists, although its terms have shifted since his day. To many literary-minded readers, Tolkien seems simultaneously too earnest and too gay (in the old-fashioned sense, although we'll get to other connotations in due course), insufficiently misanthropic, excessively popular yet lacking the delicious tang of trashiness.

His narrative tone ranges from the tragic and elegiac to the heroic and even comic (in a pipe-smoking, tweedy sort of way), but it is never ironic or cynical, a failure of taste and discrimination that some find embarrassing. Also, although he was trying to write a plausible reconstruction of ancient myth, not a modern novel, those forms frequently share a frankness about human sexuality and bodily functions that his work never has. (Consider the ancient Irish warrior-goddess Queen Medb, who fertilized the fields with her menstrual flow.) If there is one word that characterizes "The Lord of the Rings," with its high-flown poesy, its fatal heroism, its intensively worked-out systems of history and language and its Edwardian prudery, the word is boyish.

But boyishness is not the same thing as childishness, and I'm not trying to denigrate the scope of Tolkien's peculiar achievement. Boys can have access to a nobility and moral clarity, an uncloudedness of motive, that disappears with the arrival of devious and lustful manhood. (Female readers, forgive me for the gendered nouns; we are in Tolkien's world now.) Furthermore, as vigorously as Tolkien resisted biographical or psychological readings of his work, he also suggested, in typical self-contradictory fashion, that its key was to be found in his own boyhood.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892 -- he viewed this detail as irrelevant, calling it a "fallacious fact" -- but came to England with his mother at age 3 and never saw his father or Africa again. He was a boy in the West Midlands as that region was being transformed from an agrarian village society to a suburban and industrial one, and that transformation and loss (privately associated, almost certainly, with the early deaths of both his parents) lie at the heart of his worldview. Tolkien's entire career, scholarly and literary, was consumed by trying to recover lost things, and what had been lost to him, on the most intimate and personal level, was his own little piece of the English countryside.

By all accounts he spent the happiest years of a poor and peripatetic childhood in the tiny hamlet of Sarehole, just outside Birmingham in rural Warwickshire. When he was 8, his beloved mother moved the family into Birmingham proper, whose grimy industrial landscape young Ronald Tolkien found hideous, so he could go to school. When he was 12, she grew desperately ill with diabetes and died, consigning Ronald and his brother, Hilary, to a dreary adolescence in boardinghouses and the homes of maiden aunts.

Of course it is overly reductive to see these sad but ordinary events as the sole source of what Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis called the "profound melancholy" that suffuses "The Lord of the Rings." Tolkien's later experiences at the gruesome and pointless World War I battle of the Somme, for example, where two of his closest friends died, certainly cast a long shadow across the rest of his life. Still, long before the carnage in the fields of Picardy -- where 20,000 Allied soldiers died in the first day -- Tolkien felt a connection to an idyllic past that was now lost, as well as a sense that whatever beauty and wonder remained in the present was likely to pass away. (As a schoolboy in Birmingham he already had a reputation as an eccentric; he once gave a debating-society speech opposing the Norman Conquest.)

As Tolkien repeatedly made clear, the Shire, the comfortable homeland from which his hobbit heroes Bilbo and Frodo Baggins set out on their quests, is nothing more nor less than the woods and hills around Sarehole, in Warwickshire and nearby Worcestershire (where his mother's family originated). Much later, he wrote that he himself grew up "in 'the Shire' in a pre-mechanical age."

This may tell us something about how Tolkien saw himself, but it isn't literally true. The Industrial Revolution was well advanced by the time he was born, and places like Sarehole, which lay after all on the fringes of a major city, were changing rapidly. One of Tolkien's earliest memories of the area involved an old willow being chopped down, for no reason he could understand. The village mill, where wheat had been ground for more than 300 years, already ran on steam power, and had been converted to the grisly purpose of grinding bones into fertilizer.

When Tolkien returned to Sarehole with his own children, more than 30 years after leaving it, he was predictably horrified by what he found. The cottage he had lived in was lost "in the midst of a sea of new red-brick," and the lane of bluebells he remembered was "a dangerous crossing alive with motors and red lights."

It's unwise to read "The Lord of the Rings" as allegory in any strict sense, but this commonplace personal odyssey, one shared by millions in the modern age, is strikingly echoed in its plot. Frodo, the child-size hero, must leave his beloved Shire and travel into Sauron's domain of Mordor, with its slag heaps, its permanent pall of smoke, its slave-driven industries. When he returns after much danger and difficulty, he discovers that the malicious wizard Saruman -- as Shippey points out, a techno-Utopian who began with good intentions -- has industrialized the Shire itself, cutting down its trees, replacing its hobbit-holes with brick slums and factories and poisoning its rivers.

In this regard, then, "The Lord of the Rings" belongs to the literature of the Industrial Revolution, a lament for the destruction of England's "green and pleasant land" that belongs somewhere on the same shelf with Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence and William Blake. But Tolkien saw something wilder and stranger in the Sarehole of his childhood, and in himself: a fading but still tangible connection to the distant, mythic past. If his Shire hobbits are the West Midlands rural bourgeoisie of 1895 or so, they have been catapulted backward into a world where they themselves are the anachronisms, a realm of elves, dwarves (Tolkien insisted on this nonstandard but ancient plural, although he would have preferred "dwarrows"), wizards, dragons, goblins and black sorcerers.

Shippey's argument, which is both marvelous and convincing, is that Tolkien saw his realm of Middle-earth not as a fiction or invention but as the recovery of something genuine that had become buried beneath fragments of fairy tale and nursery rhyme. In short, it was a work of philology, which itself is a broader, braver and more full-blooded enterprise than we are likely to realize.

In Tolkien's view (and Shippey's), philology can never be reduced to dry questions of linguistics alone, but must encompass literary and cultural awareness as well. So the discovery that all Germanic languages, including English, share a word for "dwarf" -- in modern German it is "Zwerg," and in Old Norse "dvergr" -- raises the question of what original concept or creature the word reflects.

"However fanciful Tolkien's creation of Middle-earth was," Shippey writes, "he did not think that he was entirely making it up. He was 'reconstructing,' he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination: and for this he had a very great deal of admittedly scattered evidence."

In his moments of greatest pride and ambition -- which were not frequent -- Tolkien wanted to weave existing folk beliefs into a body of legend that would be specifically English (the Arthurian legends being Celtic rather than Anglo-Saxon in origin). In populating the unexplored wilderness around the Shire with sinister Barrow-wights and Black Riders, great treelike Ents (the word exists in Old English, although its meaning is not clear), ancient woodland spirits like Tom Bombadil and of course the beautiful, vanishing race of Elves with their silvery singing, Tolkien was, in Shippey's phrase, trying to take the English countryside, perhaps the tamest in the world, and make it haunted.

In all this Tolkien was clearly inspired by 19th century Finnish scholar Elias Lönnrot, who "reconstructed" the "Kalevala," Finland's national epic, from fragments of traditional songs and poems. (Tom Bombadil, who was one of Tolkien's earliest creations and whose role in the "Lord of the Rings" universe is never explained, may be derived from the singing wizards of the "Kalevala.") As Shippey wryly notes, latter-day philologists have grown suspicious of Lönnrot and no longer believe that his work reliably reflects any ancient original. Yet the Finnish public does not seem to care; the publication date of the "Kalevala" remains a national holiday, and a new generation of schoolchildren reads it every year.

If the reconstructive mythmaking of "The Lord of the Rings" is itself a kind of philology, the book is also deeply grounded in Tolkien's linguistic expertise. Sometimes he became so absorbed in the creation of languages and lineages, in fact, that he put the story itself aside for months or years at a time, believing he could not continue until some quandary or inconsistency in his invented realm had been resolved.

I suppose not every reader of Shippey's book will be as interested as I was in Tolkien's borrowings from "Beowulf" (who, in Tolkien's reading, is a sort of were-bear, akin to the character Beorn in "The Hobbit"). Or where in Old Norse poetry he found the name Gandalf and decided it might belong to a wizard. Or the suggestive connections between the words "hobbit" and "rabbit" (here Shippey is making Tolkien's ghost very angry), which is itself a relatively recent coinage of unknown origin. Or what use Tolkien makes of the mysterious Middle English word wodwos, which appears in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and has never been adequately translated. (OK, I'll tell you: He thought it meant "wild men of the woods," and it's the source of the Woses, who appear briefly in Book Five of "Lord of the Rings" to aid the Rohirrim on their ride to Gondor.)

But then, I share Shippey and Tolkien's belief that people respond to the rightness (or wrongness) of words and names without knowing why they do or what they're reacting to. I belong to the tribe of philologists by blood, if not by training, and I can only smile when I read in Carpenter's biography that Tolkien once wrote an essay on "The Lengthening of Vowels in Old and Middle English Times." Among the writings of my own father, Brendan O Hehir of the University of California, is a paper entitled, "Is 'O' a Graph for 'W' in Older Welsh?" (If you want to know the answer you'll just have to look it up.)

Tolkien's immense erudition is not, of course, the source of his success; without his storytelling gift, or his introduction of the hobbits as modern, modest, sturdily English heroes against his grand mythic landscape, "The Lord of the Rings" would be little more than a curiosity. But it is no accident, nor is it tiresome pedantry, that he invented the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin (loosely modeled on Finnish and Welsh, respectively) first, and then built around them the world they required.

Because Tolkien's details have the weight and density of reality, linguistic and otherwise, his great sweep of story feels real as well; you might say that his imaginary castles are built with a certain amount of genuine stone. Besides, if anything is clear about the contemporary world it is that elves, wizards, goblins and dragons are still among us (sometimes bearing new names, sometimes not). Other writers' fantasy worlds are made up. Tolkien's is inherited.

Tolkien himself often spoke of his work in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," as well as the great legendary backdrop of "The Silmarillion," as something found or discovered whose existence was independent of him. It's wise to tread lightly in this sort of interpretation, but Tolkien was a devout Catholic who believed profoundly in revelation, and it seems clear that on this deeper and broader level he believed his legendarium to be something given, something revealed, which contained a kind of truth beyond measure.

Carpenter's account of the semi-legendary 1931 conversation between Tolkien and Lewis, in which the former begins to sway his then-agnostic friend toward Christianity, is worth considering here for many reasons. It begins with Lewis insisting that myths are lies, "even though lies breathed through silver." No, answered Tolkien, they are not:

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming a "sub-creator" and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic "progress" leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.

As Carpenter observes, this is the central doctrine of Tolkien's philosophy, and it has countless echoes in his work. For one thing, this is pretty much the cosmological back story found in "The Silmarillion" (which he had already begun, even at this early stage): The Two Trees that illuminated the creation of the world are killed, but their light is captured in three jewels, or Silmarils, which are set in the Iron Crown of Morgoth, the Great Enemy (for whom Sauron is merely a toady). The Silmarils are lost in turn and their light splintered, so that only memories and fragments of it remain in Middle-earth at the time of "The Lord of the Rings."

Tuesday: Part 2 of Andrew O'Hehir's essay on J.R.R. Tolkien.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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