Admiring Tolkien


J. R. R. Tolkien

From The New Yorker:

At Oxford in the nineteen-forties, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable. “Incoherent and often inaudible” was Kingsley Amis’s verdict on his teacher. Tolkien, he reported, would write long lists of words on the blackboard, obscuring them with his body as he droned on, then would absent-mindedly erase them without turning around. “I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in,” Philip Larkin, another Tolkien student, complained about the old man’s lectures on “Beowulf.” “What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.”

It is still one of the finest jests of the modern muses that this fogged-in English don was going home nights to work on perhaps the most popular adventure story ever written, thereby inventing one of the most successful commercial formulas that publishing possesses, and establishing the foundation of the modern fantasy industry. Beginning with Terry Brooks’s mid-seventies “The Sword of Shannara”—which is almost a straight retelling, with the objects altered—fantasy fiction, of the sword-and-sorcery kind, has been an annex of Tolkien’s imagination. A vaguely medieval world populated by dwarfs, elves, trolls; an evil lord out to enslave the good creatures; and, almost always, a weird magic thing that will let him do it, if the hero doesn’t find or destroy it first—that is the Tolkien formula. Each element certainly has an earlier template and a source, but they enter the bookstore, and the best-seller list, through Tolkien’s peculiar treatment of them. Of all the unexpected things in contemporary literature, this is among the oddest: that kids have an inordinate appetite for very long, very tricky, very strange books about places that don’t exist, fights that never happened, all set against the sort of medieval background that Mark Twain thought he had discredited with “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

What did Tolkien do to this stale stuff to make it so potent? Another British don, Christopher Ricks, once dismissed Tolkien as “our Ossian,” referring to a third-century Irish bard, supposed to be the author of “Fingal” and other Gaelic epics, and wildly popular in the eighteenth century, whose works were actually written by his supposed “translator,” James Macpherson. Dr. Johnson knew it was a fraud, and when asked if any modern man could possibly have written such poetry replied, “Many men, many women, and many children.” Ricks meant the comparison to Ossian as a putdown—that there is something fraudulent and faddish about Tolkien’s ginned-up medievalism.

But the remark helps bring out Tolkien’s real achievement. When you actually read the Ossian epics, you find that they are shaped entirely to neoclassical tastes. The work is heavily Homeric, remote and noble, full of gloomy gray seas and doomy gray mountains, and ribboned with bardlike epithets. “The Lord of the Rings,” by contrast, begins in lovable local detail, birthday parties and fireworks and family squabbles.

“The Dragon’s Egg”, Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker