"A Curiously Very Great Book" and "The Darker Side of Muhammad Ali"

Readers respond to Andrew O'Hehir on the greatness of "The Lord of the Rings" and Larry Platt on reconsidering Muhammad Ali.

Published June 8, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

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Andrew O'Hehir's article, on the whole, makes me happy as a Tolkien fan. It's good to see someone seriously critique "The Lord of the Rings." It is certainly time for its virtues and failings to be appreciated. But much of this happiness was lost when, like too many journalists today, O'Hehir makes a point by quoting the author out of context, in this case completely reversing what should be a clear conclusion: that Tolkien was not even remotely supportive of fascist or Nazi ideals (of any kind), and in fact passionately hated all that Hitler stood for. Here is the quote in full (nearly) from Tolkien's letter:

But I suppose the major English vice is sloth. And it is to sloth, as much as or more than to natural virtue, that we owe our escape from the overt violence in other countries. ... People in this land seem not even yet to realize that in the Germans we have enemies whose virtues (and they are virtues) of obedience and patriotism are greater than ours in the mass. Whose brave men are just about as brave as ours. Whose industry is about 10 times greater. And who are -- under the curse of God -- now led by a man inspired by a mad, whirlwind, devil: a typhoon, a passion: that makes the poor old Kaiser look like an old woman knitting.

I have spent most of my life, since I was your age, studying Germanic matters (in the general sense that includes England and Scandinavia). There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people imagine in the 'Germanic' ideal. ... You have to understand the good in things, to detect the real evil. ... Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge -- which would probably have made me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolph Hitler.... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."

To simply quote "There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people imagine in the 'Germanic' ideal," without the rest, especially "You have to understand the good in things, to detect the real evil," is disingenuous at best. It unfortunately casts doubt on all O'Hehir's subsequent conclusions, such as the absurdity of sexualizing the encounter between Shelob and Sam. Likely it says more about O'Hehir than Tolkien.

-- Charles Stebbins

As someone who first read "Lord of the Rings" 33 years ago at the age of 14, and who has lost count of the number of times that I have re-read it, I have to say that I found this article both accurate and respectful of the book and author. However, I found the attitude toward readers like me to be slightly condescending. Readers, even avid readers, of these books are not all pubescent nerds, grad school nerds or refugees from the 60s.

We are a diverse group. Too often we are treated dismissively or we are trivialized. Please be more respectful!

-- Jerry Aurand

Thank God Tolkien's book wasn't as boring as this two-part essay.

Illuminating me on the how the industrial revolution affected his work and why all of his exceedingly stuffy critics were wrong has very little to do with why anyone appreciates Tolkien. I certainly am not concerned with how great the literature is when the Goblin army attacks, or the hobbits narrowly escape, or when Gandalf does his magic.

Tolkien wrote a well-researched story. It will last for all time because it is well-crafted. Is it classic literature? Who cares!

It is memorable storytelling with great heroes. I do not want to think about Tolkien's childhood when I am reading "Rings" anymore than I want to think about Lucas' hot rods when watching "Star Wars," or Swift's insanity when reading "Gulliver's Travels."

-- Gary Gunter

While I read Mr. O'Hehir's recent article on "The Lord of the Rings" with some interest, I can't help but find the final analysis lacking. Despite bandying about literary and academic phrases -- "philology," "modernism," and "Hegelian narratives of progress" -- O'Hehir never really burrows into these topics deeply enough to bring the accidental trilogy into the same den as Joyce or Nabokov.

Hastily tacked-on discussions of capital-R Race and sexuality aside, there are serious flaws in O'Hehir's assertion of Tolkien's inherent "modernity." Granted, attempts to specify too narrowly the meaning of "modernity" in literature lead nowhere, but O'Hehir's contention that "[Tolkien's] modernity lies most clearly in his anti-modernism" and his "thoroughgoing rejection ... of the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress," goes too far.

Not to assault with -isms, but if we are to include German expressionists, late naturalists, as well as Joyce, Hemingway and even Marinetti and his futurists within the overarching category of the modern, we have to see that the early 20th-century European and American literary modernity lies less in the thorough rejection of material and political notions of progress, and rather in the protagonists' inherent "doubts" about their validity, and their subsequent attempts to shore up the foundations of belief. And these modernists try to shore up the foundations with, and here is the crux, a new world with a forward view, and not a backward glance.

-- Christian Buss

Andrew O'Hehir's fine look at the literary reputation of Tolkien's "Lord Of The Rings," "A Curiously Very Great Book," comes just in time. In a few more months, when the hype for the forthcoming film trilogy really cranks up, it will be impossible (for a while, at least) to separate the appeal of the book from the appeal of the film -- which promises dazzling special-effects escapism of the "Star Wars" variety. The confusion has already begun: at the recent BookExpo America in Chicago -- a trade convention for the book industry -- logos, merchandising tie-ins and video units promoting the films were all over the show floor. A reporter there even asked someone from Houghton Mifflin, Tolkien's U.S. publisher, if they would publish a "novelization" to go along with the film! (The answer was that they already had a book.)

As much as I look forward to a decent film adaptation after suffering through several idiotic animated treatments of Tolkien, I doubt that any movie can convey the quality that Mr. O'Hehir puts his finger on -- the novel's somber evocation of a world that never quite was, but that, seen from our modern perspective, maybe ought to have been. The whole story of Middle Earth that Tolkien tells is one of loss and decline, beginning with the creation myth in the Silmarillion and ending in the fine print in the appendices of the trilogy itself; but if it's a fallen world, it only demonstrates that our own is further fallen.

Tolkien's literary achievement isn't in the surfaces--such as his sometimes stilted prose, which a New York Times article hooted at last month in yet another example of the sort of blinkered reading that Mr. O'Hehir talks about -- but in the myth-making and the understanding of language that form a structure over which the story is stretched and that make it resonate like a drum.

The comparison to Joyce is intriguing, but perhaps a better comparison might be to another Irishman, W.B. Yeats, whose interest in myth-making and in some rather dubious spiritual business invited similar hooting from the peanut gallery. Like Tolkien's "Silmarillion," Yeats' "A Vision" delves into the details of the substructure and is tough going for the fan of the poetry. Unlike Tolkien, though, Yeats was a majestic stylist; the spell of his language is such that as readers we are willing to forgive him for the strange underlying myths and look instead at the many facets of the modern predicament that his poems express. Surely, we say, he didn't take that myth stuff seriously! But a poem like "Sailing to Byzantium" is not all that different in its yearnings for a past that never was than the one Mr. O'Hehir writes about in Tolkien's work.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that W.H. Auden wrote admiringly of both men.

-- Robert Rubin

Andrew O'Hehir's article is a wonderful re-evaluation of Tolkien, and reminds me of some of the refutations to Edmund Wilson's "Oohh, those awful Orcs" review in the fifties. I'd only add one thing, a point that O'Hehir only makes in passing in the last paragraphs: J.R.R. Tolkien wrote some of the most beautifully evocative prose in the English language. Not only the words, but the pace, rhythm and alliterativeness of some of his paragraphs call up the images he describes and the emotions of their experience. If only more writers understood.

-- Eric Jaeger

Terrific piece by Andrew O'Hehir in defense of "The Lord of the Rings." It was a refreshing break from the tiresome scandals and political and journalistic infighting.

Popularity seems to invalidate an artist almost immediately (look at Stephen King), which is funny when you think of it. Most reviewers fashion themselves to be "power to the people" liberals, yet they show a marked disdain for "the people's" tastes.

-- Greg Scobe

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America's presence in Vietnam was still popular in February 1966? Maybe in some figurative state of Middle America. Maybe in Walter Cronkite's mind. Like many college students, I signed my first "Get out of Vietnam" petition in 1964 and the groundswell against the war was of persistent concern in the Black community. Since Ali also received guidance from the particularly eloquent and informed Malcolm X, it is hard to believe that he wasn't aware of the issues for and against participating in the war at the time he opted out.

As for Frazier, why is the fact that many members of the Black community held him in contempt attributed to Ali? African-Americans didn't embrace Frazier because, in the middle of the civil rights movement, they didn't like his status quo politics. Just like they didn't appreciate Sammy Davis Jr. when he hugged Richard Nixon. Just like I won't buy a George Foreman grill because of his actions during the 1968 Olympics. One more thing: I still can't find Vietnam on a map.

-- Bonnie Allen

Larry Platt mischaracterizes the Vietnam War as "the sending off of poor black boys to kill and be killed by other dark-skinned boys, all at the behest of a privileged white elite." This will probably cause dismay to the 85 percent of Vietnam veterans who are white; also to the 65 percent of Vietnam veterans who volunteered.

-- Anson Lang

I thought your article would at least mention that Ali used those big powerful fists of his to pummel his wife's face.

For me as a former battered wife, that fact, more than political dissent and ideologies, is the strongest measure of who is, and isn't, to be considered a "hero."

Why are the private atrocities Ali committed on a "mere" woman glossed over in an examination of Ali's character? Why is the real face-breaking pain of one woman less important than the never-happened pain he might have inflicted on the Vietnamese had he gone there?

-- Eve Salisbury

I just want to send out kudos to Larry Platt. In limited space, he presented a very balanced, well-argued piece touching on a number of ideas that could be major essays (or even books) in and of themselves: the political history of black athletes in America; race and the military; and the "new" sports journalism (Gumbel, Costas, etc.). Good read!

-- Brian King

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