A Belated Reminiscence on Tolkien’s Twelvetyth Birthday, or the Literary Value of Imaginative Engagement
“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
—C.S. Lewis, On Stories
This is a personal reminiscence, reflecting back on twenty-something years spent reading The Lord of the Rings and related works, and it is put out in hope of giving expression to what I believe forms an essential part of reading these novels and also what I believe accounts for a good measure of their success and literary merit. It is unapologetically approbative, having been written without spell of indigestion and in a mood of wintery nostalgia. Nostalgia is, I believe, a good word for Tolkien, as it is for another work I will here discuss: both of which open in many readers homesickness for a land that never was. At the root of nostalgia is the Greek for homecoming (νόστος), and the Greek for grief or pain (ἄλγος), both of which strike at the heart of the journey of the ring-bearer.
Mike has recently commented here on the general appeal of Tolkien’s novels: “they speak to anyone with a positive teleological position. If you think life is going somewhere, then you resonate with the literary road.” This struck me when I read it, and has stuck with me since. I believe it is true about what one might refer to as the ‘universal appeal’ of Tolkien. Yet I hesitate to elaborate on this. When I first read Tolkien I was aware that we shared a common belief in the Holy Roman Catholic Church and I must admit that even as a child, I was partisan to his work because of it, in much the same way I made friends with children of similar views and interests. But the affinity for those who are like us both forges great friendships and manufactures great bigots. So I was pleased that the enjoyment of Tolkien, and indeed for fantasy literature as a whole, was something that resonated with people of other views.
The Lord of the Rings speaks to a lot of people, albeit not to everyone, yet its resonance is often lost, denigrated or misunderstood by critics. Several lists of best books of the twentieth century have pitted James Joyce and Tolkien against each other, the first championed by the praetorian guard of literary critics, the second championed by the a restless mob of unprofessional (and unprofessorial) bookworms. Jeremiads against popular taste are always fun, and good for a boost of smug superiority, but dismissing Tolkien for his popularity also evades the critical responsibility of accounting for the response his fiction elicits in his readers.
For me there has always been another work of fantasy adventure that warrants comparison with The Lord of the Rings. As was the case with Tolkien, I picked up in elementary school what I have never been able to put down. It is Homer’s Odyssey. I was ten when I first read Homer, first in Cowper’s translation, and from the first few lines I was hooked:
Muse make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed
And genius versatile, who far and wide
A Wand’rer, after Ilium overthrown,
Discover’d various cities, and the mind
And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote.
Odysseus is the father of swords and sorcery heroes. Laden with XP from Troy he desires to get back home as gods, monsters, magic-users and plotters all stand in his way. Although he loses quite a few henchmen, eventually he makes it home to Ithaca, only to have to overcome another plot to retain his kingship. The story starts with Odysseus longing for his wife back home, but still sharing a bed with the nymph Calypso. He is a capable warrior, but prefers to be cunning. He is a trickster, out for himself, not for glory. I especially loved the monsters, the strangely named Laestrygones, Sirens, and Cyclopes.
I still read Homer, almost every day, and still love the elements of adventure though the challenges of an ancient language and the complexities of interpretation have added to the enjoyment. The thrill of fantasy adventure is not displaced, however, it remains: Homer is exciting once or twenty times through. The Odyssey is fantasy and adventure. It is other things, sure, but it does not ever cease to be these two things. Building the whole core of Hellenistic education on Homer never made him less a teller of ripping good yarns. I make the point because I do not think that many would seriously deny the Odyssey is an adventure story, nor that it is a masterpiece of literature, while many deny that The Lord of the Rings could even be literature because it is fantasy adventure. And this is a point I would like to strike down. It is at heart of several points of attack against Tolkien, and as is similar with using the comparative readership of Joyce as a foil, it is rhetoric of condensation that avoids the challenge of answering for Tolkien’s literary appeal in favour of merely dismissing the tastes of anyone to whom Tolkien appeals. I do, however, as a sometimes classicist, reserve the right to lament the popular neglect of Odyssey in favour of Joyce’s derivative Ulysses.
Lest I here prop up a straw man to scare off critical crows, I want to quickly cede that there are other grounds for faulting Tolkien: some readers of The Lord of the Rings find the diction overwrought, some take it as merely a faddish 1960s period piece (though the fad has now outlived many of the 60s longhairs), some believe that Tolkien cheats his readers by offering escapism (these readers seem to labour under the delusion that the trilogy concludes with a happy ending), some critics resent Tolkien’s influence on later fantasy, some think that books about magic or books by Papists are inherently dangerous (when I was younger I was, on more than one occasion, informed that my enthusiasm for fantasy would lead inevitably to devil worship and murder, neither of which I have yet committed), some find Hobbits too bourgeois for their own (typically bourgeois) bohemian tastes, some accuse Tolkien of promoting the divine right of kings, and some readers revel in stirring up controversy about racist or anti-Semitic overtones; never mind that Tolkien was neither racist nor anti-Semite. And not all these critics are dismissive or condescending—one can legitimately dislike Tolkien.
But the popularity of Tolkien is important, as it often spurs otherwise excellent critics into writing some silly things. When confronted with hordes of Tolkien’s adherents obsessed with a series of books they themselves dislike, the naysayers, perhaps inevitably, extend their dislike to the fans. And this is where the rhetoric of condensation comes into play: unable to explain Tolkien’s appeal for themselves, they reject the appeal in others as reactionary, base or juvenile. And the large more obsessed hordes they face the more scorn they pile on. And this I reject, not as a Tolkien fan, but as a literary critic, as it is a form of critical laziness, dismissing as unworthy of comment what one cannot in fact account for. Furthermore, and not particularly surprising if you don’t dismiss it out of hand, it is in this enthusiasm for Tolkien that lurks a key to understanding the literary merit of Tolkien’s works.
Like the Odyssey, I first encountered Tolkien in elementary school, in grade two I recall, which is not surprising given that is where many people’s tastes are formed. At the age of thirty, I find I have a pretty good idea of what books I enjoy and true surprises are few and far between. The books I like best now, I would have liked at the age of seven if I had read them—or in some cases had been able to understand them. As a child all things are new, and one can truly uncover tastes one never knew one had. ‘Try it, you don’t know you if you will like it until you try it’ is good parental advice for books as well as food. Now it is true that Lord of the Rings offers adventure and excitement; I still remember reading late at night, terror in my stomach as the fellowship passed under the Misty Mountains. But adventures were legion and many more simply thrilling adventure stories have passed from memory. The appeal of the Rings is simply not the appeal of a boy’s own adventure story, there are thrills in the trilogy, certainly, but they are not relinquished cheap. There is the appeal of epic fantasy, but like the Odyssey, it sustained its appeal because it is not the only appeal. In the case of Homer, there was the excitement of learning ancient Greek and an obsession with ancient (and later medieval) literature that has led to a career in the subject.
When one finishes Tolkien’s novel, one wants more. Not another epic trilogy (though that would be nice), but more details and background for the story we do have. One wants to know: who are wizards other than Gandalf and Saruman, or what was Aragorn up to before he met Frodo, or how exactly does a Balrog end up under a mountain. We might wonder the same with many works of fantasy, but with Tolkien we not only wonder about these things, but we get answers. We have now over a dozen supplementary volumes, rich in veins of history, maps, language and myth. And we have we have our inspired imaginations to fill in the rest. For Tolkien often awakens imaginative depths that, not only did we not know existed in ourselves, but importantly, we did not know we shared with others, which is the next step, as Tolkien readers through art, music, storytelling and so forth, tend to share the imaginative experiences. And it is a testament to Tolkien’s literary genius that he created a body of work that has inspired and sustained this shared imaginative space, perhaps less to be compared with other writers, but with the muses (I warned that I would be approbative) who create and inspire myths themselves. And without acknowledging this function of Tolkien’s books, one is bound to fall short in one’s assessment. Tolkien brought secondary world building to the literary level. And assessments of his work, should at least take this into account.