Kicking the Hobbit

When it comes to the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, it is a truism that critics either love the books or hate them: Concerning Middle Earth, there is no middle ground. Such has been the case ever since Tolkien, an Oxford philologist, first published his epic novel The Lord of the Rings in three volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) between 1954 and 1955. In 1956 W.H. Auden wrote in The New York Times that, in some respects, Tolkien's story of the hobbit Frodo's quest to destroy the Dark Lord Sauron's "One Ring" of power surpassed even Milton's Paradise Lost. But that same year, Edmund Wilson, at the time America's pre-eminent man of letters, dismissed The Lord of the Rings as "balderdash" in a review for The Nation titled "Ooh, Those Awful Orcs." Wilson also swatted at Tolkien defenders like Auden and C.S. Lewis, observing that "certain people--especially, perhaps, in Britain--have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash."

Wilson's derisive review inaugurated an estimable tradition of hobbit bashing, but the enduring success of Tolkien's fiction has bedeviled his literary detractors. In 1961 Philip Toynbee wrote optimistically in The Observer of London that Tolkien's works had "passed into a merciful oblivion." Forty years later, The Lord of the Rings has sold 50 million copies in numerous languages, influencing everything from Star Wars to Led Zeppelin and single-handedly spawning the genre of fantasy fiction in the process. (Tolkien's 1937 novel The Hobbit has sold almost as many copies.) These days, Tolkien fans are counting down the weeks until December, when The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of New Line Cinema's three projected Tolkien blockbusters, is to appear in theaters.

In Britain, Tolkien's literary merits have been the subject of very public debate. In 1996 a poll of 26,000 readers by Waterstone's bookstore crowned The Lord of the Rings "book of the century." Writing in W: The Waterstone's Magazine, Germaine Greer expressed her displeasure at the poll results.

Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964 and encountered a tribe of full-grown women wearing puffed sleeves, clutching teddies and babbling excitedly about the doings of hobbits, it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century. The bad dream has materialised.

In his curt introduction to last year's Chelsea House critical edition J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," Harold Bloom--the famously Falstaffian Yale English prof who has designated himself the gatekeeper of the Western literary canon--calls Tolkien's romance "inflated, over-written, tendentious, and moralistic in the extreme." Bloom concludes: "Whether [Tolkien] is an author for the coming century seems to me open to some doubt."

Yet the very fact that Harold Bloom has edited two books of Tolkien criticism suggests that The Lord of the Rings may be on the verge of some form of canonicity. There's certainly enough Tolkien scholarship out there to sustain that. Tolkien's phalanx of adoring literary defenders insist that his story of hobbits and Middle Earth is an outstanding, original, and, above all, thoroughly modern literary work that has been unjustly maligned by snobbish literati.

Though still marginal in the academy, the Tolkienists may be gaining ground. In May Houghton Mifflin published J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, a comprehensive defense of Tolkien's fiction by St. Louis University professor T.A. Shippey. Shippey is a serious scholar, and in fact has held the very chair of English language and medieval literature at Leeds University that Tolkien vacated in 1925. Shippey's book was released a year ago in the United Kingdom and sparked some typically vituperative debate: One reviewer dismissed it as "a belligerently argued piece of fan-magazine polemic."

Earlier in the month, the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo--whose annual meeting is ground zero for professional medievalists--devoted three full sessions to Tolkien for the first time. Tolkien's scholarship has long appealed to medievalists; his famous 1936 essay "Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics" was recently anointed by Harvard University poet (and Beowulf translator) Seamus Heaney as the "one publication that stands out" in Beowulf criticism. "People are starting to take Tolkien seriously," says University of Maryland English professor Verlyn Flieger, a presenter in Kalamazoo who has published two books on Tolkien. "He's been dead long enough."

In some ways, Tolkien scholarship resembles scholarship on James Joyce, say, or William Faulkner. Critics pore over Tolkien's correspondence and unpublished papers and sketches--many of which have been posthumously released by his son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien--for clues into the writer's mind and imagined universe. There are Tolkien biographies and bibliographies; there are Tolkien-studies organizations; there are university-based Tolkienists as well as numerous independent ones.

Not unlike what has happened with Joyce, the line between Tolkien scholarship and Tolkien fandom can get rather blurry. Consider Rice University English professor Jane Chance, who organized the Kalamazoo Tolkien panels, has published two books on Tolkien, and teaches "English 318: J.R.R. Tolkien." The syllabus sounds like many other college lit classes: "The course will trace the tension between the exile ... and the community, otherness and heroism, identity and marginalization, revenge and forgiveness."

But when I asked Chance what it's like teaching Tolkien, her response was startling: "I can only speak very personally, from having taught Shakespeare and Tolkien: I don't see any difference." Certainly, The Lord of the Rings is a rich and multilayered text; its author was a man of deep learning and imagination who created a mind-bogglingly vast and detailed fictional world, complete with its own history, civilizations, and languages. Touring Middle Earth with Tolkien can be like touring the Mediterranean with Herodotus. Still, when Tolkienists claim "author of the century" honors and swing for the fences by comparing their man to the Bard, it's small wonder that the likes of Harold Bloom are withholding their seal of approval.

Moreover, part of the trouble for some of Tolkien's more jaundiced critics is the political culture that surrounds him. Certain detractors, like Greer, cannot forget the 1960s, when "Frodo Lives!" graffiti and T-shirts abounded. Despite Tolkien's conservative--some would say reactionary--Catholic politics, The Lord of the Rings became required reading for counterculturists during the Vietnam era. In the wizard Gandalf's counsel that the powerful but corrupting Ring be destroyed, rather than used as a weapon against Sauron, antiwar activists saw a clear allusion to the scourge of nuclear weapons. Environmentalists, meanwhile, pointed to Tolkien's beloved Ents, the ruminative tree-creatures who are "roused" to protect their forest of Fangorn from the ax-loving wizard Saruman--who, with his "mind of metal and wheels ... does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment." And then there are the hobbits' frequent time-outs to enjoy mushrooms and "pipe weed." Pot smokers felt they knew exactly what Tolkien was driving at.

Tolkien himself was no fan of these fans, some of whom to this day take his famous comment "I am in fact a hobbit" as an invitation to get together and dress up as characters from the novel. David Bratman, former editor of the Tolkien studies newsletter Mythprints, says Tolkien's "deplorable cultus" (in the author's own words) should not be held against him. "Artists should not be blamed for attracting a following of fools," concurred another British critic in 1992, "--or if they should, we should downgrade Blake, Byron, and D.H. Lawrence."

Elf-besotted fans aside, why shouldn't Tolkien be granted admission to the literary pantheon? Well, for one thing, his detractors argue, his prose is unbearably archaic. "Sometimes, reading Tolkien, I am reminded of the Book of Mormon," writes Bloom. Tolkien's verse--which litters the text of The Lord of the Rings--is generally accepted to be even worse.

But the critical objections to The Lord of the Rings aren't merely stylistic; many find Tolkien's sensibilities to be premodernist, even retrograde. Tolkien's worldview was hardly forward-looking. On the contrary, his youthful traumas in World War I left him reclusive and devoutly antimodern for the rest of his life. "One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel its oppression," wrote Tolkien. "By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead." And so Tolkien buried himself in the study of ancient languages and the construction of a theory of fantasy--expounded in his influential essay "On Fairy Stories"--emphasizing its power to access profound and perhaps mythic realities beneath the surface of everyday life.

Again and again, this theory--and the literature that is supposed to embody it--has been derided as escapist. Thus, the burden has tended to rest with Tolkienists to show that despite his archaisms, Tolkien was nevertheless a modern author. Shippey, for example, sees The Lord of the Rings as an unfailingly modern work in its attempt, through the fantasy mode, to grapple with the greatest trauma of the twentieth century: the evidence of radical human evil presented by the two world wars. During the siege of the city of Minas Tirith by the forces of Mordor in The Return of the King, Tolkien presents this scene of a catapult volley:

All about the streets and lanes behind the Gate it tumbled down, small round shot that did not burn. But when men ran to learn what it might be, they cried aloud or wept. For the enemy was flinging into the City all the heads of those who had fallen fighting... . They were grim to look on; for though some were crushed and shapeless, and some had been cruelly hewn, yet many had features that could be told, and it seemed that they had died in pain.

Though this rain of heads takes place in a fantasy world, the sense of the brutally horrific conveys Tolkien's experience as a World War I trench veteran. Indeed, Shippey groups Tolkien with George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and William Golding as authors who turned to fantasy or imagined worlds in order to grapple with traumatic war experiences. Neither 1984 nor Animal Farm--which occupied second and third place, respectively, behind The Lord of the Rings in the Waterstone poll--could be described as works of literary "realism." Yet we accept both as deeply serious and political responses to Orwell's experiences of fascism and communism.

Tolkien claimed that he never stooped to allegory in his writings, but he did not deny "applicability." Thus, The Lord of the Rings can be read as his response to modernity, to the world of catastrophic wars, terrible weapons, and industrialization that Tolkien felt was destroying his beloved rural, Edwardian England (represented in his books by the hobbits' peaceful, if parochial, homeland of "the Shire"). And if Tolkien's One Ring represents technology, or humanity's hubristic capacity to tamper with nature, then the message is: Destroy it forever.

Some scholars see in Tolkien's strongly anti-technology views a powerful enviro-Luddite strain. In his 1997 book Defending Middle Earth: Tolkien, Myth, and Modernity, Patrick Curry treats Tolkien as a kind of Green movement precursor--a literary Lorax. "In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies," Tolkien wrote in 1972. But there's more than just an admiration of nature in Tolkien; there's the converse, a deep distrust of all things "unnatural." When the wizard Saruman presumes to tinker with nature, the Ent Treebeard reacts by saying, "That would be a black evil!" The Jeremy Rifkins and Kirkpatrick Sales of the world--along with other opponents of human-genome research, cloning, and biotechnology--would find a kindred spirit in Tolkien. So, for that matter, would the Unabomber.

But probably the main reason Tolkien has not been accepted by most critics is that his writings do not conform to the tenets of literary modernism. Tolkien's language largely eschews irony, his imagery tends to be generic, and, with some exceptions, his characters go unexplored. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster's blueprint of modernist literary theory, story and plot are gently derided. But in The Lord of the Rings, plot is probably the most compelling literary element. Readers steeped in modernist literature simply don't know how to respond to Tolkien's prose.

They also have trouble understanding Tolkien's philological approach: He studied literature and the history of languages with equal emphasis. Tolkien once wrote of his novels that "the invention of languages is the foundation... . To me a name comes first and the story follows." Reading this, critics have understandably accused Tolkien of swapping word games for the composition of literature. Shippey observes sadly that this is simply because in the battle for ascendancy among competing literary paradigms within the academy, philology lost out.

It is now very hard to pursue a course of philology of the kind Tolkien would have approved in any British or American university. The misologists won, in the academic world; as did the realists, the modernists, the post-modernists, the despisers of fantasy.

    But they lost outside the academic world... .

And this is what Tolkienists cling to. In celebrating Tolkien's enduring bestsellerdom, they implicitly claim a popular mandate to retrieve from the past the values, academic modes, and literary tastes that would allow us to better appreciate his writings. And yet given his sweeping attack on modernity, it may be that the case for Tolkien as a writer for this century must inevitably fail.

Still, Tolkienists have the staggering popularity of The Lord of the Rings on their side--a key factor in the literary reputation of Charles Dickens, for example. Some Tolkienists observe knowingly that the upcoming films will no doubt hook the Harry Potter generation on The Lord of the Rings (though purists may secretly be a bit nervous about Hobbit Happy Meals). Meanwhile, Tolkien criticism is already a substantial body of work, much of which cannot be dismissed outright as fan pamphleteering. When it comes to Tolkien, says Jane Chance, "the popular has become canonical"--or at any rate, it is becoming more and more so. Ultimately, Tolkien's literary stature may be assured by sheer momentum.