The film version of The Two Towers is upon us. We will see two forces drawn up against each other, looking down from their fortified positions, braced to repel their foes, gathering their forces to mount an attack. No, I’m not talking about the armies of Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul. I’m looking on the one hand, at the die-hard Tolkien fans, who can write their names in Elvish, who would force their cult on every reader, brooking no opposition. Arrayed against them I see the critics incensed by Tolkien’s enduring popularity, earnestly dismantling his work in the manner of someone taking an instrument to bits, determined to prove there’s nothing there to see, hold and label as “the music”. I meet representatives of each camp in my life as a fantasy writer and generally make mild, consolatory noises, since there’s something I agree with in what both are saying. But there’s always plenty to disagree with and I think the time has come for me to raise my own standard.
The argument invariably focuses on The Lord of the Rings, repeatedly voted most popular, most influential, or simply the greatest of books. The die-hard fans triumphantly flaunt such polls. I find such verdicts interesting, as a reflection of popular taste, but do not accept they should have any influence on me. I happily acceptThe Lord of the Rings is a popular and influential book for many people but I have read others I enjoy more and others that have had a more lasting impact. I certainly wouldn’t argue that it is the epitome of the English story. As a writer, I can find flaws in it. The Fellowship of the Ring in particular lacks pace in several places and becomes quite repetitious. The hobbits have to be hauled out of a series of comfortable houses before they get going on their quest and there is a marked lack of urgency before they reach Rivendell, ring wraiths notwithstanding. Early on, the cosy rusticity of the hobbits sits oddly with the lofty themes of the struggle against immanent evil. There’s also the howling plot tangle of Sam’s role as spy for the other hobbits, which just doesn’t make sense chronologically.
I found the Tom Bombadil interlude confusing on first reading the book as a child and as an adult re-reading, I find his inclusion tedious and detrimental to the overall focus of the opening section. I don’t find the episode with the barrow wights either helpful to the overall narrative or particularly well integrated with it. As a kid, it just gave me the creeps. It came as no surprise, when asking all and sundry for their opinions, by way of preparation for this article, that so many shamefacedly admitted they had tried and failed to read the book, often giving up around the Tom Bombadil point. I think it speaks volumes that this episode has been cut from both radio and film adaptations. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the Ents and wait with considerable interest to see what Peter Jackson has made of those.
Other reasons for giving up focus on the language. There is comparatively little dialogue for long stretches, certainly compared to contemporary literature. The many descriptions are detailed and lavishly decorated with adverb and adjective. Much of the action is given as narrative summary. All this flies in the face of the modern writer’s mantra ‘don’t tell, show!’ A great deal of the book is told in flashback, through exposition by characters such as Gandalf, again something we are urged to avoid. It is interesting to note how these plot lines have been reintegrated in the Peter Jackson film adaptation, considerably ratcheting up the pace.
I’ll acknowledge all of these comments on the language and I’m happy to allow people to dislike such a writing style, as long as they will allow me to revel in it. I love the depth and richness of the language and the vivid pictures it paints in my mind. It says as much for Tolkien’s writing as it does for the artists (in all senses) responsible for the Peter Jackson films, that so many people are saying “Yes, it’s just how I imagined it.’ The rhythm of Tolkien’s language is a delight. I know I’m not the only parent to discover it’s splendid stuff for reading aloud, something you cannot say for a great many books. I like the way the book is a long haul, with explorations of subordinate characters and diversions into narrative byways (Tom Bombadil and Barrow wights notwithstanding), rather than a sprint to a dramatic finish. Many of the perceived flaws in Tolkien’s language and writing style were not seen as flaws by his contemporaries. Stylistically, it is very much a book of its time, of the 30’s and 40’s. It deserves to be seen in that context, not condemned for lacking a modern touch. Judgements on style and language are also highly subjective. It’s fundamentally unsound for critics to move seamlessly from saying “I don’t like this book” to saying “this is a bad book”.
It is not a book without flaws but those perceived flaws also deserve to be seen in the wider context of the book. The bucolic simplicity of the Shire and the hobbits may jar at times, but through the course of the book, the early scenes dramatically highlight the very different personal journeys of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. The humour that so often surrounds the hobbits also frequently serves a valid purpose in writing terms, to highlight the drama through contrast, to undercut pomposity and to give a point of contact for the reader. With our daily concerns over home, family and food, we have far more in common with the hobbits than we ever will with elves, wizards and dark lords. Cogent argument can be made for Tom Bombadil as counterpoint to Gandalf, as an example of wisdom and power without responsibility. His world has a brightness lacking in the melancholy of Lorien but only because it is isolated and Tom does not concern itself with the fate of the rest of the world. The barrow wights can be linked to the dead army raised by Aragorn, as part of the eerie concept of the lightly sleeping dead, which ties into the way the past inevitably intrudes on the present. The way this episode arms the hobbits with weapons of Westernesse further reflects such concepts.
On balance, for me, those virtues still don’t outweigh what I set in the balance against Tom and the wights but that is of course, an entirely personal opinion. Tolkien evidently thought otherwise and it ill-behoves me, in the face of the book’s enduring popularity and particularly as a writer in the genre that Tolkien arguably defined by the force of his imagination and scholarship, to arrogantly say he got it wrong. The most I can say is that these two episodes do not work so well, for me. I must also say that as the momentum of the story gathers pace through the second and third volumes, the work as a whole leaves me awestruck on many levels, as reader and writer. We have the tense drama of the Council of Elrond, the ominous, atmospheric journey through Moria and the paralysing shock of Gandalf’s fall. The tragic death of Boromir and the breaking of the fellowship always leaves me reaching for the next volume where Gandalf’s return, especially on first reading, is astounding. Treebeard may strike the occasional false note for me personally but the ominous power of the huorns at Helm’s Deep cannot be denied and the scenes of the defence of the Hornburg are awesome. The broad sweep of this drama contrasts most effectively with the personal intensity of Sam and Frodo’s journey through the Dead Marshes, their dealings with Gollum, the creeping horror of Shelob’s lair and the choices forced on Sam. Throughout the drama of Aragorn raising the forces to relieve the siege of Gondor, we have the undercurrent of worry that all may be betrayed by Denethor’s weary despair. Once that peril is past, all Sam and Frodo’s trial may prove in vain, if they do not succeed before all their friends die in the battle before the Black Gate. Even at the last, when it looks as if everything has turned out for the best, the hobbits return to find their own tranquil corner of the world polluted by the evil they have been fighting elsewhere.
But contemporary readers demand realism, the critics cry. How can a story about magic rings, elves and wizards be real? Setting aside the fact that the most “realistic” contemporary fiction is as subjective as the wildest fantasy, I find The Lord of the Rings rings true time and again, in the characterisations, in the settings, in the relationships, hopes and fears of the characters. But no, the critics frown, modern sensibilities demand stories that shun all or nothing scenarios where the One Ring must be destroyed or Evil will conquer the world. We want tales that acknowledge the gritty reality of existence and highlight the moral ambiguities of life. Such stories certainly have their place in the broad scope of writing. That does not mean The Lord of the Rings isn’t entitled to its own niche, where the heroic, the chivalric and the quest are all encompassing. It’s unacceptably narrow-minded to condemn The Lord of the Rings for failing to measure up to modern literary yardsticks. I certainly have no patience with those basing their attitudes on what self-appointed arbiters of literary taste writing in the Sunday broadsheets tell them they may approve, who dare not think outside that box.
The book itself however, is most certainly not all encompassing. I’ll join in defending it against the critics but I part company with the enthusiasts when they elevate it to the status of a guide for life. Tolkien himself said very firmly The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory and I for one, will do the author the courtesy of believing him. Besides, compare it with other acknowledged allegories, such as Brave New World or Animal Farm and CS Lewis’s Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet. It doesn’t look anything like them, even allowing for differences in subject matter. They have a unity of purpose and a singularity of vision that The Lord of the Rings comprehensively lacks. None of the allegorical interpretations can point to more than a few carefully selected aspects or incidents in support of their theory and it’s all too easy to find counter arguments. Those who try reading it as a reflection on the Second World War, with Sauron as Hitler and the Ring as the atom bomb, with Tolkien supporting the justice of the allies’ cause, inevitably fail to explain away the fact that it isn’t force of arms that wins through in the end, but two (or arguably three) individuals and their personal courage. They also clash with those who want the book to be about the Cold War, keen to see Gondor as Nato, Sauron as Stalin and the lands of the west as the blessed US of A. The glaring anachronism of that notwithstanding, the lands of the west have far more in common with Tir Nan Og of Celtic tradition and even such myths as Atlantis. Nor does salvation come from the lands of the west, whereas American resources were key to the end of World War II. Any attempt to shoehorn the book into a strict allegorical framework inevitably fails.
But people still dig determinedly for subtext. There are the socio-political interpretations. The hobbits and the elves are seen as living a life of rustic harmony with nature. The foul polluting mill is seen as an embodiment of industrialisation and the rape of the planet. Interestingly enough, both the pro and anti camps cite these elements in support of their own argument. This immediately makes me suspicious that their starting point is their own preoccupations rather than the text. On the one hand, we have those arguing that Tolkien is backing some back-to-nature movement. On the other, that he’s a blinkered fool, hankering after a lost Elysium and opposed to progress. Neither argument addresses the recurring theme that the age of elves is past and the future will belong to the race of men. There had always been a mill in Hobbiton, as well as farms, malthouses and leaf plantations. This is in no sense an untouched landscape. The trouble that befalls the Shire stems from evil men and the return of the king will bring protection against them. The wild lands between Bree and Rivendell are dangerous and decayed, not some untouched ideal. The Ents are treeherds and the Entwives are gardeners, with their lovingly tended orchards and fields of golden corn. It was the Ents’ love of wild woods and high hills that forced them apart, to Treebeard’s regret. The disaster that left the Entwives’ land a burned and uprooted desert was not industrialisation but war.
Arming for war is the driving force behind Saruman’s despoiling of Isengard with his furnaces, forges and machines. Mordor is an armed camp of forts and towers and watchfires, mines and deep armouries. The orcs take advantage of Mount Doom’s fires for their furnaces but it should be noted that the smoke and ash choking the land comes principally from the volcano, rather than industrial pollution. The other evil blighting Mordor is, well, evil, with its sterility and venom. That’s an entirely different kind of pollution. Re-reading the descriptions of ruined Isengard and ash-choked Mordor I am vividly reminded of pictures from Flanders and the utter destruction of the Western Front in World War One. I don’t think that is coincidence; Tolkien, like every writer, was an individual formed by his experiences. I can quite accept that Tolkien saw the futility of industrialised arms race that helped start that war. We can also legitimately see in the fate of the Shire, a reflection of Tolkien’s own dismay, as recorded in his papers, at the impact of industrialisation on Sarehole where he grew up. However, these passages still play their part in the overall drama of the book, without any need for justification or explanation and are far from dominant. This is all a far cry from a blanket condemnation of all industrialisation. Tolkien claimed to be writing a myth for England, not a manifesto.Pro and anti camps clash over the same ground time and again and repeatedly fail to acknowledge those passages in the book that undercut their arguments. The rallying of Rohan and Gondor for battle is cited as evidence of Tolkien’s longing for lost chivalry or if you prefer, his outmoded warmongering. But what of the dead marshes, the trials and grief of warfare so vividly evoked elsewhere? Tolkien shows us both sides of the coin. He had served in the trenches of World War One after all, an experience few of us can imagine and one unlikely leave a man blasé about the human costs of war. I think it’s entirely likely that there was a personally therapeutic aspect to the writing for Tolkien but that doesn’t invalidate the literary value of the work, any more than it did for Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Own.
With the plethora of kings, Tolkien is accused of forelock tugging subservience to the hereditary principle. But his kings and their proxies are in no sense idealised. Theoden succumbs to evil counsel, Denethor to despair. Aragorn’s merits are personal, not by virtue of inherited status. Frodo and Sam begin the book as master and servant but by the end, it is Sam who is taking charge, making decisions and ultimately saving the world, not out of feudal duty but out of love for his friend. What of the hobbits and their lack of government, bar a few Shirrifs, which works perfectly well for them? The story ends with the scouring of the Shire. Is the whole of The Lord of the Rings in fact leading up to a clarion call for workers to overthrow the bosses and seize the means of production? Even with evidence that Tolkien read such impeccable socialist authors as Sinclair Lewis, I really don’t think so.
This is an heroic tale and heroic tales have kings. Why must the politics of the story be more complicated than that? Heroic tales have heroes as well, rather than heroines, in general. That’s the first thing I will say when Tolkien is accused of misogyny. Again, it’s unreasonable to accuse him of failing to match up to modern political correctness. As an Oxford don of his era, in a men’s college, he would have had very few dealings with women, so I find it hardly surprising there are few in his books. This was an age when lecturers routinely addressed their audiences as ‘gentlemen’ and one, faced with a single male student and three women, began with ‘Sir,’. Besides, there are women in the narrative, strong women, powerful in their own right, such as Galadriel. There is Eowyn, her talents constrained by her sex, something I find Tolkien sympathetic to, speaking as a working mother. We have Rosie Cotton, to represent the domestic virtues. She is no mere cipher to hint women belong barefoot (hairy or otherwise) and pregnant in the kitchen. It’s Rosie who speaks up and prompts Sam into marriage, after waiting patiently for his return. These are all minor threads, granted, The Lord of the Rings is certainly no feminist tract but women are there and cannot be ignored. What I find wholly lacking is any active denigration of women to support the picture of Tolkien as male chauvinist.
I find the same lack when people accuse Tolkien of racism. Granted, the orcs being evil and also dark skinned, sits uncomfortably with modern sensibilities and rightly so. However, the identification of good with the clean and fair and evil with the dark and dirty is a pervasive theme in literature long predating Tolkien and persisting long after. The fact that orcs are dark skinned seems to be the main case against him, with the references to black Haradrim from the South allied with Mordor sometimes cited in support. Does the colour of the southrons have to be racism? They are a desert people from a hot climate. Couldn’t their skin colour just be geography? In Tolkien’s favour, I would point to the relationship between Gimli and Legolas, where both discard learned prejudices in the face of their own experience. Ah yes, the nay-sayers point out, but Tolkien was born in South Africa, home of apartheid. True, but he left in his fourth year and well before the systemisation of such prejudice. In his favour again, it’s a fact that he vehemently opposed any Aryan certification of his works by the Nazi regime.
Unthinking, unconscious racism was endemic in Tolkien’s day; we see it time and again across 30’s and 40’s fiction. Golden Age detective writers frequently refer to suspicious looking dagos and shifty orientals. Heroes such as Biggles rescue Englishmen first and then good colonial chaps like Aussies and Canadians and everyone else has to fend for themselves. I cannot agree that Tolkien is guilty of anything more than a sin of omission rather than commission and personally I find that a stretch. He was certainly not writing a commentary on race and fascism in his day, so why should he be condemned for not doing so? Absence of evidence to the contrary is certainly no proof of an argument.
There is however one important point to make here. I can excuse Tolkien for writing as a man of his era with the unconscious prejudices that entails. I cannot excuse contemporary fantasy writers for an unthinking absence of women, for implicit misogyny or homophobia, for racial stereotyping that slips perilously easily into prejudice. We must write as authors of our own day, not shackled by impossible political correctness but certainly with sensitivity to our own cultural and societal issues.
Talk of sins of omission brings us to the question of religion. I’ve said we should do Tolkien the courtesy of believing his own words and it’s a fact that he wrote
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously at first but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults and practises in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
I find this statement peculiarly self-contradicting. If it is a religious work, surely there should be overtly religious elements, such as we see in CS Lewis’s Narnia tales, with their overt proselytising. There is no God or Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings(attempts to cast Frodo in that role fall apart as easily as any other supposed allegorical framework). Burial practises are pagan in origin and Denethor commits suicide, an abhorrent sin to Catholics of Tolkien’s time. Ideas of life after death and any kind of resurrection are vague in the extreme and while travel to the West could be seen as some kind of translation to heaven, it could just as well be ascension to a Buddhist nirvana. Either way, this is not the natural reward of virtue. There are plenty of worthy characters who do not go west, such as Merry and Pippin and most notably Aragorn who lives and dies in Minas Tirith. Widowed, Arwen does not head for the Grey Havens but for Cerin Amroth and dies there, buried and forgotten. I agree that it is not the role of fantasy literature to offer some quasi-religious future bliss as cosy consolation for this vale of tears. I would argue most forcefully that The Lord of the Rings does nothing of the kind. Frodo remains wounded, weary and unconsoled up to his departure for the west. Sam finds his fulfilment in family and service to his community, not some hope of idealised bliss to come. Merry and Pippin do not meekly accept their sufferings in a facile oversimplification of a supposedly Christian ethic. They fight back at every opportunity.
In my opinion and that of catechism-card carrying Catholic friends, the religious element is not so much absorbed as submerged. In contrast, other pals find plenty to accord with Catholic ideas of the battle between good and evil beginning with the self and the way that personal evil can be exploited by external evil to the detriment of the wider world. If you’re so inclined, you can identify the key character flaws of individuals such as Gollum, Saruman, Denethor and Boromir with the deadly sins of pride, envy and despair, while the heroes demonstrate cardinal virtues of faith, hope and mercy. If you’re not so inclined, you need not. While concepts of personal responsibility as both burden and empowerment are found in Catholic teaching, they are not exclusive to it. Crucially for me, the book can be read and enjoyed by people of religious, moral and humanist convictions and of none that they could articulate. There is simply too little in the book to support an argument condemning it as an overtly religious tract. For me, a more telling quote from Tolkien is “ applicability … resides in the freedom of the reader,” not “the purposed domination of the author”.
All of this is not to say there is no sub-text. There are many themes that can be identified by the dedicated deconstructionist. The value of friendship recurs time and again, as does personal integrity and the importance of hope fighting against despair for character after character. The ambiguity of evil is explored, ranging from its seemingly overwhelming power in Mordor to the insidious banality of Lotho Sackville Baggins and the disaster he brings on the Shire. We see the temptations of evil on good men and the dangers of arrogance in the fate of Boromir, contrasting with the self-knowledge of Faramir. The nature of intelligence as opposed to wisdom is explored through Gandalf and Saruman while the hobbit values of common sense contrast both with the unlettered energy of the Rohirrim and the sterile scholarship of Gondor. The nature of personal loss and personal growth are explored through the way none of the hobbits returns home unchanged, for good and ill. As I reread the book as an adult, I see Frodo’s fate as more and more of a failure while it is Sam who survives as the only ring bearer truly unmarked by its evil. The tragedy of Gollum is a complex puzzle of guilt and innocence.
Such themes recur in legend from all ages and all cultures and in that sense, I would say Tolkien succeeded in his mythologizing aim, far more so than in any religious intent. The Lord of the Rings is no allegory but that does not mean it has no relevance to the human condition. It can hold up a mirror to our own lives, in the same way as all great literature. What we see will inevitably be coloured by our own preconceptions, just as Tolkien’s writing was undeniably influenced by his own life, his experiences and the times in which he lived. That is the case with every writer.
It’s frequently at this point that the nay sayers shift their ground from attacks on The Lord of the Rings itself to a wider assault on the fantasy genre as a whole. Tolkien’s legacy provokes at least as much antagonism as his own works. There’s his personal legacy in The Silmarillion and the successive volumes of material published posthumously. I’ll join the nay sayers in questioning the value of much of that, other than as working papers for the dedicated Tolkien scholar to pore over. I found The Silmarillion all but unreadable, lacking both the narrative and the accessibility that are such strengths of The Lord of the Rings. The dedicated fan’s position that everything the master wrote is marvellous is frankly untenable.
Then there’s his legacy in the wider fantasy genre. However, I won’t condemn Tolkien for what has been done in his name, without his consent. Nor it is his fault, when fantasy writers looking at the Lost Tales material, think all they need do is reproduce a pastiche of mythic figures, stock plots, nattily drawn maps and pretentious psuedo-language to write a good fantasy. They are entirely missing the whole point of all this material. Tolkien gathered elements from northern European folk myth, linguistics and the earliest literature to forge something entirely new, an original creation entirely different to what has gone before. The nay sayers are entirely justified in criticizing writers who are too lazy to do their own reading and come up with their own ideas. There’s plenty of blame to share around when looking at the tawdry end of the fantasy genre; some for the editors who sign off on stories that are as debased as an nth generation photocopy of Tolkien and a generous helping for the readers who don’t demand more of their beloved genre. Tolkien himself deserves none of it.
The nay sayers dislike the dominance of Tolkien over fantasy and I’ll agree that the way The Lord of the Rings is seen as the tap root text does the genre no favours, certainly hampering its development. The problem is, the nay sayers don’t advance their cause with their negativity. Rather than trying to convince those who enjoyed it that The Lord of the Rings isn’t such a great book after all, why can’t they let that lie and instead suggest the Tolkien lovers broaden their horizons? There’s a wealth of marvellous fantasy writing from Tolkien’s contemporaries to the present day. Mervyn Peake, Poul Anderson, Alan Garner, Fritz Lieber, Ursula Le Guin and Mary Gentle are only a few of the names that spring to mind, of writers who, in their very different ways, have brought new depth and breadth to the whole field of speculative fiction. Rather than trying to cut Tolkien down to size, the nay sayers’ energies could be far more productively spent arguing for other books of equal merit.
The fanatical pro-Tolkienists could join them and do themselves some favours, by showing why they believe The Lord of the Rings is a great book in the wider context of speculative fiction. Then the campaign can move into the wider realm of English literature as a whole. Tolkien’s scholarship in such seminal texts as The Kalevala, Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be stressed. The Lord of the Rings can be seen as part of a fantastic but for no readily apparent reason, far more respectable tradition shared by Jules Verne, H G Wells, E Nesbit, T H White and Kurt Vonnegut. Common themes with such varied authors as Herman Melville, H Rider Haggard and James Fennimore Cooper can even be explored. If the obstinately defensive walls around the Tolkien edifice can be broken down, it actually becomes far harder for the literary snobs to ignore The Lord of the Rings as an Oxford don’s one-off eccentricity and to dismiss its enduring popularity as a recurrent adolescent aberration.
So that’s my position; standard firmly planted in the middle ground, colours nailed courageously to the fence. I’ll happily share a drink with pals who rhapsodise about Westernesse with mithril stars in their eyes as well as those who just don’t see the appeal of little people with furry feet and a preoccupation with costume jewellery. I won’t accept Tolkien as either saint or sinner but will gladly acknowledge his achievements in the fantasy genre and in the wider field of English literature. But there is still part of me that resents having to marshal my arguments like this. For me, The Lord of the Rings is first and foremost a splendid story and the purpose of a story is to be read and enjoyed. It can be discussed and analysed but beyond a certain point, deconstruction becomes, to paraphrase Roger Lancelyn Green, as pointless as cutting open a tennis ball in search of the bounce.
This article has been a long time in the making and while the argument above is entirely my own and should not be taken as representing anyone else’s views, I have solicited opinions from all and sundry. Name checking as I wrote would have made for very disjointed reading and in any case, contributions often overlapped with each other and with my own thoughts. I have to settle for thanking the following, most sincerely for their often very different contributions (and in alphabetical order rather than anything else);
Simon Bisson, Caroline Bott, Chaz Brenchley, Mary Branscombe, Liz Elliot, Diana Gill, Mike McLean, Angus McNicholl, Padraig O Mealoid, Lisa Rogers, Michael Scott Rohan, Sue Rumfitt and John Whitbourn.
I’d also like to acknowledge the indirect contribution of China Miéville and everyone taking part in a lively discussion at Octocon 2002.
This article could also have been ten times as long if I’d pursued every argument in depth. For those who are interested in such things, I can suggest the following as further reading, most particularly recommending Tom Shippey’s book to which this article owes a great deal.
JRR Tolkien, Author of the Century by Tom Shippey
Publisher Harper Collins
JRR Tolkien, A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
Publisher Harper Collins
Date 2 January, 2002
Meditations on Middle-Earth edited by Karen Haber
The World of the Rings The Unauthorised Guide to the Work of JRR Tolkien by Iain Lowson, Keith Marshall and Daniel O’Brien
Publisher Reynolds and Hearn
(This article first appeared in The Alien Online)