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Juvenile Trash! Two Critics That Hated The Lord of the Rings and One Other Essay Worth Reading


Critic Edmund Wilson, author of Oo, Those Awful Orcs!

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.

Edmund Wilson

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.

Philip Toynbee

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.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tim Hinkle September 12, 2011, 2:17 pm

    Another fellow who doesn’t much like Tolkien: Michael Moorcock.

  • Jim Janney September 12, 2011, 5:40 pm

    If you want to put yourself off heroic fantasy for a good long time,
    try reading Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream. It’s his take on what
    a fantasy novel written by Adolf Hitler would have been like. No
    direct references to Tolkien, but some disturbing echoes.

  • Todd September 13, 2011, 6:20 am

    “The climax…proves extremely flat.” Seriously? An epic battle between good and evil… and it “proves extremely flat”?

    How’s that saying go? Those who can, do. Those who can’t, criticize?

    • Josh Hanagarne September 13, 2011, 11:07 am

      Todd, I think it depends. What is the actual climax of the story? When he almost throws the ring in the volcano…and then doesn’t? Think about the book, not the movie. One of the things that makes LOTR unusual for a quest is that it’s not about finding something, it’s about getting rid of something.

      But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re going to take a look soon at who the actual “hero” of the story is, if there is one.

  • cinderkeys September 13, 2011, 11:39 pm

    As somebody who didn’t care for LOTR, I’m curious to know what the die-hard fans are getting out of it.

    There’s action, there are some interesting themes, but not a whole lot of depth to the characters. If I can’t care about the characters, I’m not all that invested in what happens to them.

    Plus, I’m not into the style of writing. It picked up a little in the third book, but for the most part it was a very long slog.

    So, Tolkein-lovers, educate me. What am I missing?

  • pendragon September 17, 2011, 3:08 pm

    I know the style is hard to understand. I had to read the series twice before I did, but the words didnt matter. Who is the real hero? Samwise Gamgee. The hardest thing he faced was watching his best friend struggle against corruption, but even when Frodo was on the very brink of destruction, Sam was there for him, urging him onward. That is a true friend. Who has ever found one more loyal than that?
    In the fight between good and evil, Tolkien taught a very important lesson, using his characters. Their courage was inspiring, even when everything good in the world seemed lost, and the hopes they clung to were frail, they kept fighting. They were ready to die, knowing that they may never return from the battlefield, but they went anyways. Sometimes they were scared to death, and sometimes, we are too in our tribulations, but Tolkien teaches that when we are in our darkest hour, we have to have courage.

    • cinderkeys September 17, 2011, 9:39 pm

      I kind of agree, but will wait to elaborate until Josh writes on the topic.

  • Jeanette September 20, 2011, 1:11 am

    For Cinderkeys and anyone else who felt like the books were a long slog, follow my bro’s advice: Read it again and skip the songs. lol

  • pendragon October 5, 2011, 1:33 pm

    I have read Mr. Wilson’s essay and I would only like to compliment on his concern for Tolkiens lake of characterization. My disagreement, I feel that when a writer doesnt provide characterization, it is more of a freedom of imagery on the readers part. They dont have to picture the character as the writer pictures him/her. Its as if the writer is challenging their minds, asking them, What do YOU think Gandalf should look like? One reader may picture him as a wizened old man with a long white beard that brushes the ground when he walks; another, can see him as a man that appears to be in his late forties with short-cropped jet black hair who never leaves the saddle of his horse. In this way, Tolkien challenges his readers to think. To create their own imagery of characters and settings.

  • mjb February 28, 2012, 9:48 pm

    the concept of moorcock – who of course has published tons of influential stuff, but also tons of trash critiquing anyone makes me smile

    • ellid March 27, 2012, 4:37 pm

      What amuses me about Moorcock’s critique (beyond some questionable punctuation) is that half his published novels simply would not exist without LOTR to clear the way. I mean, come on – would Moorcock have even *thought* of Elric or Count Brass, let alone the Eternal Champion cycle, if JRR Tolkien had been gassed on the Western Front in 1917?