Okay, I’m starting to agree with everyone who said “a month isn’t long enough to talk about Tolkien.” I guess this makes sense; when I go up to level 4 and look at books about him and his work, they take up a few shelves.
But press onward we will, because there’s so much to say. I just have to admit now that I won’t be able to get through nearly as much material as I had planned.
In preparation for talking about Lord of the Rings I want to present another side of the conversation: the negative. Not everyone liked JRR Tolkien’s books. Some very influential critics–although they certainly didn’t negatively influence Tolkien’s sales–them.
Here are two, and then one more essay with some valuable insight.
Wilson wrote an essay called Oo, Those Awful Orcs! that is worth a read. It’s only four pages long and has some pretty funny lines in it. I think the real worth of the essay is that many/most of its claims can be easily refuted with a close reading of LOTR. Many of the claims are more legitimate at first glance, but with each rereading, they lose weight.
If you can’t be bothered to read it, here are a few choice bits, to give you an idea of the tone of the essay:
There is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a 7 year old child.
There are dreadful hovering birds–think of it, horrible birds of prey!
The climax…proves extremely flat.
The ordeals give no sense of strain.
How is it then, that these long-winded volumes of what looks to this reader like balderdash have elicited such tributes as those above? [referencing other glowing reviews in the essay]. The answer is…certain people have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash.
One of the most interesting part of this essay for me is that Wilson does not blame Tolkien for the situation: he refers to LOTR as a “fairy story that got out of hand.” He understands that Tolkien wrote it as an amusement. It is the readers to are to blame for granting it such importance.
For Mr. T. I’ll just give you a block quote from Wikipedia, and then link to the Wiki page. He was an interesting, tormented man, and regardless of what he said about Tolkien, I think his page is worth a read:
“There was a time when the Hobbit fantasies of Professor Tolkien were being taken very seriously indeed by a great many distinguished literary figures. Mr. Auden is even reported to have claimed that these books were as good as “War and Peace”; Edwin Muir and many others were almost equally enthusiastic. I had a sense that one side or the other must be mad, for it seemed to me that these books were dull, ill-written, whimsical and childish. And for me this had a reassuring outcome, for most of his more ardent supporters were soon beginning to sell out their shares in Professor Tolkien, and today those books have passed into a merciful oblivion.”
The most wonderful thing about this quote is that while Toynbee was singing about the looming collapse of all things Tolkien, things were really just getting started.
One more essay, less critical in tone
Is Tolkien Actually Any Good? is my favorite piece of Tolkien criticism, from either the advocates or the antis.
The author, Andrew Rilstone, says that Tolkien does some really bad writing, and some really lovely writing. He says that you really don’t get a whole lot of fantasy for your commitment to LOTR, but he seems compelled to revisit the books and the one ring.
In short, it’s an essay by a man who doesn’t seem to think the books are as deserving of the breathless reviews that their champions bestow on them…and still, he keeps coming back to them and is trying to figure out why.
Highly entertaining, with a couple of hilarious lines that I wish I had written.