Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics

24 Sep

“This is not a work that many adults will read right through more than once.” With these words the anonymous reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (25 November 1955) summed up his judgment of J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It must have seemed a pretty safe prophecy at the time, for of course in those days very few adults (or children) read anything right through more than once, still less anything as long as The Lord of the Rings. However, it could not have been more wrong: of all popular best-sellers, The Lord of the Rings is the one most likely to be read over and over again by readers eager to immerse themselves in Middle Earth. This did not stop critics continuing to say the same thing. Six years later, after the three separate volumes had gone through eight or nine hardback impressions each, Philip Toynbee in the Observer (6 August 1961) voiced delight at the way sales, he thought, were dropping. Most of Professor Tolkien’s more ardent supporters, he declared, were beginning to “sell out their shares” in him, so that “today these books have passed into merciful oblivion.” Five years afterwards the authorised American paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings was moving rapidly past its first million copies, starting a wave which never receded and has in the 21st century reached levels Toynbee could not have dreamed of. This general phenomenon of intense critical hostility to Tolkien in the face of his undeniable popularity is open enough; however, the reasons for it often remain unexpressed, hints and sneers rather than statements. Several attempts have been made to explain this deep and seemingly compulsive antipathy. This is the first of two linked posts that deal, firstly, with Tolkien’s critics and, secondly, with his legacy in the form of his many admirers and emulators.

Why was this ‘balderdash’ so popular, Edmund Wilson asked himself, in the Nation (14 April 1956). Well, he concluded, it was because “certain people – especially, perhaps, in Britain – have a life-long appetite for juvenile trash.” C N Manlove also thought that the whole thing might be mere national aberration, though he preferred to blame “the perennial American longing for roots.” For all the veneer of scholarly reflection this was, just like the comments from Messrs Toynbee and Wilson and the TLS Reviewer (whom we now know to be the historical novelist Alfred Duggan), once more the criticism of blank denial. Some people may like reading Tolkien – after sixty years and hundreds of millions of readers the point is nowadays usually conceded grudgingly – but they are wrong to do so, and whoever they are, they are not ‘us’. Tolkien’s “mission as a literary preservationist”, declared Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times Book Review (22 April 2001) has turned out to be “death to literature itself”! In an exasperated kind of way, Tolkien took a peculiar delight in essays like those of Dr Manlove and reviews such as Ms Shulevitz’s. In the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, for example, Tolkien wrote: “Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”

There is an element of truth to what Tolkien says here. It is a surprising fact that Edmund Wilson, who declared that he had not only read the book but had read the whole thousand pages out loud to his seven-year-old daughter, nevertheless managed consistently to spell the name of a central character wrong: ‘Gandalph’ for ‘Gandalf’. Edwin Muir in the Observer preferred ‘Gandolf’. This may seem purely trivial, but Tolkien would not have looked at it that way. He knew that ‘ph’ for ‘f’ was a learned spelling, introduced sporadically into English from Latin from about the fourteenth century, mostly in words of Greek origin like ‘physics’ or ‘philosophy’. It is not used for native words like ‘foot’ or ‘fire’. ‘Gandalph’ would accordingly have seemed to Tolkien as intrinsically ludicrous as ‘phat’ or ‘phool’. He could hardly have conceived of a state of mind that would regard such variations as meaningless, or beneath notice. As for ‘Gandolf’, that is an Italian miscomprehension, familiar from Browing’s poem The Bishop Orders His Tomb, but wildly inappropriate to a work which does its best to avoid Latinisms.

No compromise is possible between what one might call ‘the Gandalph mentality’ and Tolkien’s. Perhaps this is why The Lord of the Rings (and to a lesser extent Tolkien’s other writings as well) makes so many literary critics avert their eyes, get names wrong, write about things that aren’t there and miss the most obvious points of success. Tolkien thought this instinctive antipathy was an ancient one: people who couldn’t stand his books hadn’t been able to bear Beowulf, or Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight either. For millennia they had been trying to impose their views on a recalcitrant succession of authors, who had fortunately taken no notice. Doing the same job for Tolkien ought to be easier, since he is so much more our contemporary than those ancient forebears. However, nothing is to be gained by applying to Tolkien’s works the criteria of ‘correct and sober taste’, of the great but one-sided traditions of later English literature, of those ‘higher literary aspirations’ so haughtily opposed by Anthony Burgess to “allegories with animals or fairies” (Observer, 26 November 1978). These lead only to the conclusion that there is nothing to be said and no phenomenon to consider. Still, despite his critics, something made Tolkien different, gave him the power so markedly to provoke these twin reactions of popular appeal and critical rage and this will be considered further in next month’s post.

3 Responses to “Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics”

  1. J August 22, 2019 at 12:59 am #

    “of course in those days very few adults (or children) read anything right through more than once, still less anything as long as The Lord of the Rings.”

    Where did you get that strange idea? People, including children, read a lot more in the mid-20th century than they do now (books having much less competition from visual media), and those who loved to read reread their favourite books – right through – many times.

    • ashsilverlock August 22, 2019 at 7:02 am #

      Lots of factors – fewer books being printed (there was a severe paper shortage after WW2), fewer books being printed that were as long as LOTR (for the same reason), fewer people buying books (because paper and books were relatively speaking much more expensive then in comparison with today), less leisure time for reading, far more people borrowing rather than owning books and so on. Also, whilst there may be more media around today, in fact far more people are buying and reading many times more books today than at any point in history – and that’s not even taking into account ebooks, audiobooks, graphic novels etc.


  1. Scurte #553 | Assassin CG - September 28, 2017

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