J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
Bored of the Rings
A review by Richard Jenkyns
J.R.R. Tolkien's is indeed an extraordinary story, delightful in its
improbability. Here was a quiet scholar, conservative, devout, nostalgic
for a bygone rural way of life, old-fashioned even in his own generation,
learned in the exacting but unglamorous fields of Anglo-Saxon poetry and
medieval philology. He was appointed to a professorial chair at Oxford
in his mid-thirties, and published one article of huge importance on the
Old English epic Beowulf but otherwise very little of an academic
kind. Instead he devoted immense industry to writing a vast prose epic
set in lands of his own invention, which he called Middle-earth.
The Lord of the Rings should have been unpublishable; but Stanley
and Rayner Unwin, father-and-son publishers in the London firm George
Allan and Unwin, had the perception and courage to put it into print.
As all the world knows, it was to become one of the best sellers ever,
but it is as remarkable for the diversity as well as the number of the
people who have loved it the tweedy and the hippy, the lookers-back and
the droppers-out. Another extraordinary fact is that to create The
Lord of the Rings Tolkien felt that he had to create much more besides,
most of it glimpsed only occasionally or indirectly in the actual text
of his epic.
He invented nothing less than a whole continent, diverse in geography
and character. He peopled it not only with men I mean human beings but
also with dwarves, elves, orcs or goblins, hobbits, ents, and other powers.
He provided Middle-earth with an entire history across many centuries,
a history of which the tale told in The Lord of the Rings would
be only a tiny part. And he invented languages, credible and consistent
in terms of the technical discipline of philology. So his fiction came
to have some of the characteristics of scholarship; his epic is a work
of fantasy and yet also an exercise in north European medievalism.
In a somewhat disconcerting way, Tolkien seems to have come to live in
the world of his own imagining. The noise and the smell of Oxford's traffic
he described as "Mordor in our midst." When he went to Venice, he found
it "like a dream of Old Gondor, or Pelargir of the Nϊmenorean Ships" a
rather limited response, one might think. Tom Shippey puts it this way:
"However fanciful Tolkien's creation of Middle-earth, he did not think
that he was entirely making it up. He was 'reconstructing,' he
was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts; he was also reaching
back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed,
at least in a collective imagination."
Shippey is himself a medievalist and a philologist, formerly a professor
in the very department of the University of Leeds where Tolkien himself
taught as a young man, and now in a chair at Saint Louis University, Missouri.
He burns with generous indignation at the scorn with which many literary
critics have treated Tolkien, and his subtitle, "Author of the Century,"
is meant to provoke. But provocation is only one of his purposes. His
book has three main strands. His first aim is to bring his professional
expertise as a medievalist and a philologist to bear on The Lord of
the Rings, in order to track down Tolkien's sources and to analyze
the creative processes that brought Middle-earth into being. His second
purpose is to champion the literary quality of Tolkien's work, arguing
for its moral depth, its psychological richness, and its technical skill.
The third element in the book is the knockabout bit: Tolkien's detractors
are hauled into court and convicted of snobbery, elitism, professional
jealousy, and other kinds of bad faith. It is all very lively: a clear,
forceful, engaging, ingenious, sometimes wrongheaded book.
The first part of Shippey's book is the coolest. Here he tries to understand
how the scheme of The Lord of the Rings developed, and much of
his argument is that, for Tolkien, philology was fundamental: words, names,
and linguistic registers came first, and the plot followed later. When
Tolkien started writing his epic, Shippey suggests, he did not at first
know where it was going. This may seem surprising and perhaps a little
disconcerting. It is not how we expect novels to develop, and the control
of a complex plot seems to be one of Tolkien's chief virtues. Yet Shippey's
argument, even though aspects of it are avowedly speculative, seems pretty
convincing, and it is supported by Tolkien's own account. Indeed, one
might compare the conception of The Lord of the Rings to the genesis
of Tolkien's first work of fiction, The Hobbit. A part of Tolkien's
legend is that the earlier book originated when he found himself doodling
the words "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit"; he had no idea
what this meant, and to find out he had to write the book of which it
became the opening sentence.
Tolkien's fans should find this scholarly side of Shippey's book very
interesting. Shippey's own concern is to establish the philological complexity
and consistency of Tolkien's use of names and language. He enjoys tracing
the origins of Tolkien's words; he offers "warg," for example, as a "very
plain case." In Old Norse, he tells us, "vargr" means both "wolf" and
"outlaw." In Old English, "wearh" means "outcast" or "outlaw" (but not
"wolf"), and the verb "awyrgan" means "condemn" but also perhaps "worry,
bite to death." Tolkien's "warg" combines Old Norse and Old English pronunciations
and at the same time joins the idea of wolfishness to a more eerie, less
physical sense of intelligent malevolence. In this area of his book, the
general thrust of his argument seems to me both right and wrong right
to find in Tolkien a solidity and coherence of imagination lacking in
most fantasy fiction, and wrong to think that the "scholarship" of The
Lord of the Rings immunizes it from criticism; and wrong above all
in the assertion that it is an impertinence for literary critics, less
scholarly than Tolkien, to find fault with his prose style.
Shippey argues for the aesthetic and ethical richness of Tolkien with
energy and verve, but not with complete success. The Lord of the Rings
poses a primary question: is it a book for adults or for adolescents?
That is not at least not straightforwardly a question about quality:
there are masterpieces of children's literature, after all, and there
are countless bad literary novels for the grown-up. The Hobbit
is undoubtedly a children's book; Auden, who was a great admirer of Tolkien,
regarded it as one of the best children's books of the century. It obviously
owes a lot to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows: in both
stories the central figure is a dear little timid furry bachelor (the
Mole, Bilbo Baggins) who is carried away from his domestic routine; the
visit to the gruff solitary Beorn in The Hobbit is rather similar
to the visit to the gruff solitary Badger in Grahame's story; and both
books end with heroic combat before the modest hero's return to his quiet,
The reluctant hero of The Hobbit is a charming and original creation,
a portrait drawn with more life perhaps than anything in the magnum opus.
A more unusual merit of the book is Tolkien's feeling for the reality
of exploring and campaigning: the fatigue, the boredom and discouragement,
the constant need to worry about how you will feed yourself. (Compare
this to all those books and films in which the heroes have no need to
eat or to drink, and stay clean-shaven without recourse to a razor.) Shippey
reminds us that Tolkien had fought on the western front in World War I.
There is some inconsistency of tone in The Hobbit. The whimsical
and even facetious style of the opening good fun in a jolly-uncle sort
of way seems designed for rather younger children than the grand and
rather scary adventures that follow. But it does not matter much, mainly
because the conception of the novel's protagonist is of the ordinary,
stuck-in-a-rut chap who finds in himself an unexpected stock of resource
and courage, has his hour of glory, and then returns to a willing obscurity,
like Cincinnatus returning to the plough. An alternative title or subtitle
that Tolkien contemplated for the book was "There and Back Again."
The Hobbit, then, is a children's book with some "adult" characteristics,
but it remains puzzling that The Lord of the Rings should retain
so much of the earlier work's tone and structure. It is odd that the hero
of this vast epic should still be a dear little creature with furry feet
and the comic name Frodo Baggins. The oddity might perhaps be defended
by saying that Tolkien is showing us how even humble common folk may be
called to heroism, though such a defense sits rather awkwardly with the
fact that Frodo is essentially a rentier, while his faithful attendant
Sam Gamgee is all too obviously the gratifyingly loyal, deferential, and
comic servant of Victorian fiction Sam Weller without the panache excluded
by his class from more than a secondary role. More worryingly, the English
cowpat arcadia of Hobbiton and the Shire, tolerable in The Hobbit,
is unbearably twee at the start of The Lord of the Rings. Even
Auden conceded that it was "a little shy-making."
But finally it is what is left out of The Lord of the Rings that
makes one wonder if this is really a book for adults. Tolkien invented
his own mythological world, but it lacks the dignity and the sinew of
a real mythology, for it is without religion and essentially without sex.
Hobbits may have fur at the bottom of their legs, but they have seem to
have no balls at the top; and that pretty much goes for the rest of Middle-earth,
too. The women in The Lord of the Rings are few and pallid, while
The Hobbit has no female characters at all: even the giant spiders
are regarded by Bilbo as male (the narrative voice uses the unsexed pronoun
"it"). The film of The Lord of the Rings seems to have tried to
beef up the female quotient; but it was surely an uphill struggle. If
one is to regard The Lord of the Rings as a book for adults, what
disturbs is not so much the absence of women, perhaps explicable in an
adventure story of this kind, as the absence of desire. In this work that
presents itself as the representation of a whole world, there is hardly
any awareness that we are sexual beings.
And that is not all that is missing. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic
of conservative type, and he was sensitive to the charge that his Middle-earth
was religionless. He replied that The Lord of the Rings was "a
fundamentally religious and Catholic work." But that does not get around
the difficulty: even if it can be shown that The Lord of the Rings
is religious as a book and I doubt whether even this is true in more
than the superficial sense that it concerns a struggle of good against
evil the objection is that the people within the story have no religious
beliefs or practices, and are thus unlike any real human society. Tolkien
always insisted, and rightly, that his work was not an allegory, but the
construction of a self-subsistent world with its own history. The trouble
is that it is an emotionally impoverished world, in which the blood runs
The plot of The Lord of the Rings is centered upon the need to
destroy a ring of corrupting force and immense power by traveling to the
far land of Mordor and casting it into the Cracks of Doom. The ring has
been in the possession of a strange, cringing creature called Gollum,
but it passes into the hands of Frodo the hobbit. Frodo must not only
resist his enemies and reach the Mount of Doom, he must also find the
strength to overcome the spell of the ring and cast it from him. Tolkien's
critics have complained that the moral economy of the work is radically
flawed that there is a confusion between whether the corrupting ring
symbolizes sinful desire (the lust for power, or whatever) or should be
seen as a magical object that acts upon the wearer as an external force.
The complaint, I think, is justified, as can be seen from a comparison
with Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung. (Shippey, surprisingly,
does not mention Wagner at all.)
According to Humphrey Carpenter's biography, Tolkien was irritated when
parallels were drawn between the Nibelungenlied or Wagner's adaptation
of it and his own work. To one such comparison he retorted that both rings
were round and that was the sum of it. But there is a real perplexity
here. If Tolkien really believed that there was no German influence upon
his ring, he is likely to have been self-deceived. If he did examine Wagner
during the years in which he wrote his own epic, how did it affect him?
If he did not examine Wagner, he was oddly incurious. He does seem to
have been a man of intense but very limited interests, sealed off from
the culture of his own time within the imaginary world that he created
The ring in Wagner is a magical object, but it also represents moral choice
and its consequences. Alberich renounces love in order to get hold of
the Rhine gold from which he forges the ring; and Wotan needs the gold
for reasons of power and splendor. Tolkien finds no equivalent to this.
Frodo appears to have no intrinsic lust for power, wealth, or glory, and
the supposedly corrupting effect of the ring upon him seems to be external
to his nature, forcibly and arbitrarily imposed from without. Shippey
battles valiantly and ingeniously to rescue Tolkien from this criticism:
his solution is to propose that the ring's effect should be seen as equivalent
to an addiction. But this does not help much: we say that someone is acting
under the force of an addiction precisely to relieve him of moral responsibility.
Perhaps Frodo's situation is like that of a person who has been given
an injection of heroin and now finds himself in danger of dependency.
But, if so, that is not morally interesting.
Shippey is impressed by the fact that Tolkien does not give The Lord
of the Rings a conventionally happy ending: Frodo returns to the Shire,
his mission accomplished, but he is permanently wounded in spirit. Sadly,
it is hard to share Shippey's belief in the moral and psychological depth
of this outcome. It is here that the relationship to The Hobbit
is perhaps most debilitating. "There and back again" was all right in
a book of more modest scope and ambition, but at the end of so huge an
epic it is not enough. But "there and back again" is basically what we
Tolkien, in sum, was unable to develop his hero. Frodo has learned nothing:
he is essentially the same person that he was when the adventure started,
except that now he is depressed. All that Tolkien can imagine is regress,
a return by the hobbits to the darling little Beatrix Potter world from
which they began. Admittedly, Frodo is no longer at ease in this world,
but Tolkien is unable to convey anything beyond the fact of a psychic
wound no enlargement or transformation of experience, and no philosophy
of grand disillusionment, either. He is merely a person who has had a
terrible time, and of course you cannot expect him not to be a little
queer after all he has endured. As for Sam, the faithful retainer, he
settles back quietly into tubby rusticity and picturesque anecdotage as
though nothing much had happened. Contrast Parsifal, to turn to
Wagner again: the hero of that opera starts as a man without experience,
but he learns and changes. He discovers sexuality and self-mastery, compassion
and understanding. All such growth is beyond Tolkien's range.
More than with most books, I suspect that one's response to The Lord
of the Rings is affected by the age at which one reads it. I read
it in my early twenties, which is to say, I read it late: friends who
loved the work had usually devoured it greedily in their teens. I was
surprised to find it harder going than I expected: it was partly, I think,
a lack of sparkle in the prose, and partly the excess of pointlessly explicit
description, dragged down by what Jane Austen called "too many particulars
of right hand and of left."
It looks as though Middle-earth came to be too real to Tolkien: he writes
about it like a historian, filling in all the details, and not like a
novelist, selecting, implying, and picking out le petit fait signicatif.
It would be easy to quote a flabby passage, but it might be kinder to
take one cited by Shippey himself an example of "one of many brilliant
passages of natural description in The Lord of the Rings":
A golden afternoon of late sunshine lay warm and drowsy
upon the hidden land between. In the midst of it there wound lazily
a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over
with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands
of willow-leaves. The air was thick with them, fluttering yellow from
the branches; for there was a warm and gentle breeze blowing softly
in the valley, and the reeds were rustling, and the willow-boughs were
Well, that may not be bad writing, but it is not distinguished either.
It is merely pleasant in a conventional, sub-Tennysonian manner.
At the back of one's mind lurks the suspicion that Tolkien's eye is not
truly alert, that he is interested not in exploration but escape. Despite
the orcs and the powers of evil, Middle-earth is somehow a nicer world
than ours, in a conservative, cozy sort of way. The Lord of the Rings
is not in the end so much the creation of an alternative world as
of an alternative Europe. In the northwest corner is the Shire, replete
with English names, but an England from which cities, industry, and social
conflict have been purged. (Shippey's notion that Bilbo Baggins and the
Shire stand as an equivalent to our modern world is weirdly awry.) And
like a northern traveler to southern Europe, Frodo and his companions
cross a great range of mountains, and descend into Ithilien, an alternative
Italy (Italien in German), a landscape dotted with tamarisk and
asphodel, olive and bay, and suffused with a pleasing decay: "Ithilien
the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness."
The touch of classical allusion is very rare in Tolkien, but alas, the
wan pre-Raphaelitish language is common.
Tolkien's style has been both loved and loathed. I find it hard to make
up my mind. In small quantities, his prose can seem to have a kind of
timeless dignity and simplicity, sometimes eloquent, sometimes even moving.
But in large quantities it palls: one begins to feel that this writer
is writing, very competently, in a dead language. After many pages, one
starts to find the style oddly bland and characterless; ultimately it
comes to seem, like other things in The Lord of the Rings, anemic,
and lacking in fiber. Such is the standard prose of the book; when he
wants greater elevation, Tolkien tends to resort to archaisms and inversions,
and the result is mere tushery.
And the dialogue is pretty poor. Shippey skillfully analyzes the different
registers of language used by different speakers in the story some speak
more or less in modern English, others more archaically but he seems
to admire the very things that other readers deplore. Proving that Tolkien's
recreations of past speech are philologically pure will do nothing to
save him from the charge that he uses variation of language register as
a substitute for living speech and natural characterization; and weakness
of characterization is one of the work's most conspicuous flaws. I warm
to Shippey's spirited defense of philology as a discipline, but the more's
the pity that he gives ammunition to its enemies by allowing his philological
enthusiasm to swamp his aesthetic sense. Here is an example of dialogue
quoted by Shippey himself with apparent approval:
Mayhap the Sword-that-was-Broken may still stem the
tide if the hand that wields it has inherited not an heirloom only,
but the sinews of the Kings of Men.
Here is another example:
Loth was my father to give me leave.
Does that transport you to a world of romance? It makes me think of Tony
Curtis in The Black Shield of Falworth: "Yonda is the castle of
Here, lastly, is a more extended piece of dialogue, also cited admiringly
"It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there
is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their
"Yet seldom do they fail of their seed," said Legolas.
"And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and
places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli."
"And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens,"
said the Dwarf.
"To that the Elves know not the answer," said Legolas.
This is writing that aspires to be noble and philosophical, but its nobility
seems to me gimcrack.
Author of the century? One of Shippey's declared reasons for making so
grandiose a claim for Tolkien is that "the dominant literary mode of the
twentieth century has been the fantastic," and Tolkien is the dominant
figure in fantasy fiction. But there is a sleight-of-hand here. It is
true that the "great tradition" of the naturalistic literary novel is
not very old: it originated essentially in the eighteenth century, and
it reached its apogee in the nineteenth. (Apuleius, Rabelais, and Swift
were quite different.) And it may be that the naturalist tradition of
the novel is nearing its end though my own guess is that the naturalist
novel will flourish for a good while yet, and that fictional modes such
as magical realism will prove to have the shorter life, rather in the
way that the modernism that produced Ulysses and The Waves
now seems characteristic of a short and specific period.
Shippey cites, as books that come to seem most representative and distinctive
of the twentieth century, The Lord of the Rings, 1984 and Animal
Farm, Lord of the Flies, Slaughterhouse-Five, Gravity's Rainbow, and
several more. It would be easy enough to draw up an alternative list Proust,
Faulkner, Mann, Solzhenitsyn, Greene, whatever; but the greater sleight-of-hand
is in the double use of the term "fantasy." For in an important sense
The Lord of the Rings is not fantastical at all. Tolkien made Middle-earth
consistent with itself even to the point of pedantry. (The Shire was not
really called the Shire, Pippin was not really called Pippin, because
English had not yet been invented; tobacco and postmen, present in The
Hobbit, are written out of the later work as anachronisms.)
No, the only genre of which Tolkien stands as representative is the sword-and-sorcery
novel. Shippey is no doubt right to claim that Tolkien is far superior
to other sword-and-sorcery writers; but this is not, to put it mildly,
a genre that has been central to the literature of the last century. And
hasn't Shippey chosen exactly the wrong tack? Surely Tolkien's remarkable
achievement was not to have ridden the zeitgeist but to have bucked it:
to have been so unrepresentative and yet so popular.
Author of the century? Another part of Shippey's claim is simply the
assertion that Tolkien has been the most popular or most admired author
of the age, and he produces an impressive list of surveys in which Tolkien
has topped the poll as the favorite writer of more people than anyone
else. But he knows, of course, that popularity is a dodgy criterion. By
this standard Danielle Steel is one of the giants of our time. There are
plenty of non-literary qualities and even anti-literary qualities that
make books popular: prurience, snobbery, fantasies of wealth and power.
Books can even have merits that are owed to their lack of literary quality:
Agatha Christie's whodunits display an extraordinary ingenuity in their
plotting, but the beauty of the puzzle requires cardboard characters and
total implausibility in motives and reasons. It is the literary ineptitude
of her books that makes the murderer so hard to detect. In Tolkien's case,
there are some extra-literary qualities that form at least a part of his
appeal to some readers: maps, imaginary languages, the invention of a
full alternative world about which one can learn more outside the book
itself. It is interesting to find some of these features in other best-sellers:
Richard Adams's Watership Down comes with a map, and we are given
items of rabbit language (pretty nonsensically, since these are supposed
to be "real" rabbits, unlike in other animal stories); and there is a
made-up language to be learned at Hogwarts Academy, too.
Shippey's assault on Tolkien's detractors is the most swashbuckling part
of his book: he makes merry mischief and scores some hits. He may well
be right to think that there has been a good deal of intellectual snobbery
behind the disparagement of his hero. Still, I doubt that the literati
have sneered at Tolkien simply for being popular, as Shippey supposes.
Intellectuals have a liking for parts of popular culture: think of the
cartloads of highbrow praise justly heaped upon jazz or Elvis or The
Simpsons. Besides, Shippey appears in part to have misunderstood what
he is attacking. Some of his adversaries may have been strongly hostile
to Tolkien, but what many of them appear to have disliked is not so much
Tolkien's work itself as the exaggerated claims made for it.
There is also a suspicion, fair or not, that Tolkien's most ardent fans
do not care for any literature other than Tolkien. Shippey adduces a journalist's
reaction to the news that The Lord of the Rings had yet again topped
a poll as most popular book ever: "Oh hell! Has it? Oh my God. Dear oh
dear. Dear oh dear oh dear." This is not a brilliant response, but the
sentiment behind it is surely sound. One can admire Tolkien a great deal
and still regret that so many people believe there to be nothing better.
Shippey's "take no prisoners" policy you are either with Middle-earth
or you are with the poncey eggheads polarizes the debate too much. That
is why I have been so hard on Tolkien here: in resisting the claim that
he is a literary titan, it is necessary to point to his large deficiencies.
And yet Tolkien's conception does have a genuine grandeur, particularly
the counterpoint in the later part of the story between the vast sweep
of battle across Middle-earth and what actually matters more, the tiny
group crawling across desolation to the fateful summit of the Mount of
Doom. He is good at conveying the sense of dark, sinister, shapeless threat
(much less good at representing evil itself). And there are some wonderful
passages, such as the visit to the talking trees, the ents, perhaps the
most magical and evocative thing that he wrote. In his way he was unique,
and that cannot be claimed for many writers. But as for the notion that
The Lord of the Rings is just about the twentieth century's supreme
achievement: dear oh dear oh dear.
Richard Jenkyns is a fellow of Lady Margaret Hall,
Oxford and the author, most recently, of Virgil's Experience (Oxford University
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