50 years ago, J.R.R Tolkien left this world much changed for his having been in it. The anniversary is being celebrated with a requiem mass in Birmingham Oratory, where he once served as an altar boy, and by celebrations and gatherings around the world. There is even, improbably, an ongoing attempt to make the poor man a saint, which one can only hope goes nowhere.
A romantic Edwardian, steeped in Northern European folklore and Victorian literature, Tolkien was and is despised by large parts of the fashionable literary establishment. I have known very few neutral reactions to his work. People either love or loathe Lord of the Rings, which seems doomed to eternally inspire adoration or ire, and nothing much in between.
Tolkien’s moralism is not the product of schoolboy simplicity
The often ferocious response of many critics perhaps stemmed from the apparent anachronism of the book, combined with its massive popularity. It was published in 1954, at a time when literary modernism was dominant and pervading the academy. Modernist writers were obsessed with interiority, broke with prior literary convention, and traded in irony, ambiguity and convoluted psychology. Literary critics of the time were taking up the “New Criticism”, which dispensed not only with the previous generation’s fascination with historical context in favour of close reading, but also with the traditionalist concerns for beauty and moral improvement, which were regarded as subjective and emotionally driven. Spare, complex prose, focused on the darker side of society, was in vogue. Into this context dropped 1,200 pages of dwarves, elves and hobbits in a grand battle of good and evil. They were greeted with the sort of enthusiasm one can imagine.
Edmund Wilson called the books “balderdash”, a battle between “Good people and Goblins”. The book’s morality was a sticking point even for the most sympathetic critics, with Edwin Muir lamenting that “his good people are consistently good, his evil figures immovably evil”. As his work travelled into the 60s, political problems cropped up, with one feminist critic writing a book-length attack on the series to denounce it as “irritatingly, blandly, traditionally masculine”.
The mystery of how a book can so sharply divide opinion is answered perhaps by how profoundly original and unusual The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s wider legendarium are. They are shamelessly moralistic, written on the basis of exhaustive literary theory, linguistics, geography and world-building, and quite devoid of social commentary or Empsonian irony. Yet they are as much a radical departure from prior literary forms as modernist literature itself is, making the book doubly at odds with prevailing style and doubly original.
The moralism of Tolkien’s work is not, as some critics seem to suppose, the product of schoolboy simplicity. It is far too rigorous for that. So morally charged and orchestrated is the novel, that it would be numbered amongst the small number of works that might have passed Plato’s test for literature. Not only is this in respect of its exacting honouring of good characters and depreciation of wicked ones within its narrative framework, but equally in Tolkien’s utter refusal of allegory, thus meeting Plato’s challenge that poets are dangerous imitators of the world.
Tolkien differed greatly from the disciplines of modernist authors of the time, with Borges describing himself as “disconcerted” by Tolkien, whom he accuses of “rambling on and on”. Well might the master of the short story feel about the master of the fantastic epic. Borges wrote a story, written in the first person and featuring the author himself, entitled Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, about an encyclopaedia depicting an imaginary world, whose inhabitants believe in an extreme version of subjective idealism. So compelling is the imaginary world, that many people set out to imitate it. Objects apparently from Tlön start appearing. By the end of the story, the entire world is starting to transform into Tlön.
Something very much of that nature has taken place when it comes to Tolkien. His exclusion of distantiating irony and moral confusion from his works was not a naive choice, but a bold and experimental one, carried through with steely discipline. Tolkien’s world is the product of a lifetime of imaginative work. He writes of it, “I do not remember a time when I was not building it.” It is consciously escapist; indeed, it was this escapist fantasy that sustained Tolkien through life in the trenches of the Somme. Where many modernists greeted the Great War as a moment of disenchantment and disillusionment, a young Tolkien, who fought in it, took it as a spur to a mission of re-enchantment for a world desperately in need of myth.
His project, which he sketches out in a letter in 1951, was quite simply to create a mythos for a culture that he felt lacked one:
I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalised, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its “faerie” is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive.
This mythology, he felt, must “reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth” but must lack all explicit reference to the Christian religion or the “real” world as we know it. What Tolkien has invented, or one might say started, is what his critics wail of and his followers delight in: high fantasy.
Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story — the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths — which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our “air” (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, whilst possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be “high”, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.
Tolkien’s contribution is doubly unique. On the one hand, he conceived the idea of giving to the English-speaking world a mythic cycle of its own, as Homer was to the Greeks, yet one that was fully the invention of modern literature. His second move, no less radical, was to apply to this world an exacting, almost Victorian moral and aesthetic discipline. Whilst historical folklore is full of absurd, grotesque and obscene scenes, Tolkien’s work is suffused with ethereal beauty, tragic heroism and a spirit of nobility.
The effect of the book on its readers can only be called edifying
Far from being snobby or otherworldly, his writing radiates the enchantment of the ordinary, the desperate simple longings of mortals for hearth and home. Adventures are not romanticised, but exhaustively transcribed. Every weary league across Middle-earth is wrung out of the pages, yet each step rings with significance. It is enlivened by an utter sincerity; yet literary and linguistic playfulness is everywhere, like the steps of a country dance, merry and solemn at once, done without a thought to the cynical gaze of the world. With its appendixes and encyclopaedias, its invented languages, its interpenetration of varied myths, tonalities and imagined cultures, it has many of the elements of the most sophisticated modernist game-playing. It yet entirely lacks the wink to the audience, the knowing nod that reassures the reader who spots it of their cleverness. There is no stitch or seam for the world to enter, or for the imagined world to escape. Equally, its plot has an extraordinary cohesion, with the parallel narrative arcs and events drawn apart and together again in near perfect harmony.
For those who are looking for that authorial wink, Lord of the Rings is bound to baffle and infuriate. Though it is a book intended for adults, it so often grips younger minds because it demands of its reader a sincerity equal to its own. As wrongly as many of its critics interpret the book, Wilson was not altogether incorrect in saying “It is not ‘about’ anything but itself.” As with Tlön, its deep, idealistic self-reference makes it almost infinitely compelling and gives it a timeless appeal many once-feted novels lack.
For all that he has inspired many a mediocre imitator, the power and legacy of Tolkien, and the high fantasy he invented, cannot be understated. The effect of the book itself on its readers can only be called edifying. In a world where many story-tellers glory in the sophistication of not having a moral, Tolkien invented an entire literary genre premised on having one. This moral sense is just as strongly aesthetic, with nobility of language and conduct a unified feature in true works of high fantasy.
More than anything else Lord of the Rings communicates a sensibility utterly at odds with the spirit of the age in which it was written. It is one of profound, tragic loss, of the vulnerability of irretrievable, ancient beauty, that must desperately be conserved and defended. It is of the inherent heroism of standing against destructive change, of hope beyond all reason, amidst the logic of history, which Tolkien named “the long defeat”.
Little wonder that his writing has delighted conservatives and horrified many progressives. In Italy, where national populism has swept to power, Tolkien has long been an icon of the Italian right — from the “Hobbit Camps” of the neo-fascist movement of the 1970s, to the current Prime Minister’s reverence for the books. Despite the association of Tolkien with the right, left wing Italian fans of the book are not hard to find, such as Italian author Michela Murgia, who used to enjoy singing in Elvish and read the books once a year.
The sheer pervasiveness of Tolkien, and still more the high fantasy of which he is the inventor, is so great it is almost hard to define. To grow up as a young man, especially a nerdy one, is more or less to grow up in Tolkien’s shadow, albeit one often distorted by commercial imperatives and crude imitations. He’s in the video games you play in your room, the films you watch in the cinema, the paperbacks you get from the library, the board games you play with your friends. Without your ever having to actually read his work, Tolkien has already annexed a substantial part of your fantasy life.
Romantics often don’t find the romance they seek, but cynics never find it
Tolkien would, of course, have hated a lot of consumeristic modern day “nerd culture”. At the same time, there is no question that even the worst elements derive their power from the sense of wonder and nobility that Tolkien imparted. It is these emotions, these sensibilities, that are most lacking in the modern world. Fantasy has become big business, because, in true Marxist sense, it is the “heart of a heartless world”. For young men starved of purpose, meaning and identity, the ultra-teleological world of high fantasy is a powerful, if dangerously seductive tonic.
Escapism and romanticism are much denounced, especially if they focus on beauty and moral idealism, usually by people living out their own fantasies of power, glamour or superiority. Yet escapism is just what keeps the souls of prisoners alive, inspiring the hope of escape itself. Romantics often don’t find the romance they seek, but cynics never find it. Even as “high culture” has waded hip deep into ugliness and relativism, unashamed moralism and idealism live on in popular culture, in no small part thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien envisaged his work as a kind of myth for an England that lacked one. As English-speaking culture has become a kind of world culture, so too has fantasy become a kind of world mythos. European fairy tales, not modernist novels, have been the basis of Disney’s global reach. Famed Japanese animators Studio Ghibli, under the direction of director Hayao Miyazaki, have built their success on fusing English literature, fantasy and Japanese folklore, adapting children’s stories such as The Borrowers and Howl’s Moving Castle, and producing iconic films like Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro about the Japanese Kami, the animistic spirits of Shinto practice and mythology. Miyazaki is a critic of globalisation and technological modernity, but like Tolkien he has been part of shaping a new global popular culture, replete with its own mythology.
For every disenchantment, there is always a countervailing force of re-enchantment. As Tolkien himself argued, language perforce is in perpetual dialogue with mythology and the human quest for meaning. Where meaning is denied, or inadequate, it will spring up somewhere, borne from the longings of the human heart. Or as Tolkien put it:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
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