A Streetcar Named Tolkien

by Varda
Someone wanting to know where they could get information on Tolkien's works was last night directed to the library. I am not so sure that is the best place to experience Tolkien.....

Long long ago I did English at uni. It was all literary criticism, under a very strict regime of New Criticism. I was already hooked on Tolkien, so I did a few forays into what criticism was available then on The Lord of The Rings.

It was very discouraging; no eminent critics took Tolkien seriously. Many rubbished him outright. I left the criticism alone and just enjoyed the books. But the nagging thought remained; I love it, but is it any good?

Over the years, Tolkien criticism has grown from those depressing early days, until now there is a respectable body of critical works illustrating Tolkien's genius. Yet when The Lord of The Rings was voted best book of the millenium in two polls, the critical establishment reacted with horror. Germaine Greer said it was a scandal that a book with such little literary merit could win. So to many leading critics, Tolkien has still not been accepted as a master.

And it does still bother me. I respect Greer and value her opinion.

Among the many excellent critical works on Tolkien are books such as that by Garth which traces how Tolkien's wartime experience influenced his writing. There are also many academic papers, such as those published in The Tolkien Society's Mallorn. One, Marples' The Hamletian Hobbit presented a thesis which revealed layers of meaning, literary, theological and aesthetic in Tolkien's work, and compared it to Shakespeare.

And yet....the school of criticism I trained in fiercely objected to any critique that made reference to anything outside the book. In a way I see their point, for if you say the book is formed by something in the author's life, where do you stop? Did the death of his goldfish ruin chapter nine? And the fact is that most Tolkien criticism approaches the books from some angle *outside* the books; the author's religious beliefs; his wartime experience; his knowledge of myth, his immersion in Anglo-Saxon studies. Can no-one just talk about the book, per se?

Actually Tolkien's best literary critics, like Tom Shippey and Brian Sibley, make good defences of Tolkien by admitting up front that his book is flawed. It is not going too far to say it is a great book, but not great literature. Shippey even says that Tolkien was not really a writer, as professional writers are, but more a creator, an enabler of myth and story.

Although I do not entirely share the New Critics' fanatical refusal to admit material from outside the book, I feel that any book, or even piece of writing, creates its own world, its own microcosm, within which is a unique atmosphere, logic, ethos and style. The 'voice' of the Hobbit is different from that of The Lord of The Rings, and both are different to the Silmarillon. The Hobbit is written in a fey, whimsical tone in keeping with a children's book. The hero is a crafty survivor, a bit like Ulysses, getting by, and getting rich, on his wits. There is little tragedy and what there is is far away even if it is nasty.

The Lord of The Rings begins like the hobbit, with the same tone describing the party. But it soon changes, and the 'voice' Tolkien uses for this his best work is dignified but often humorous and ironic, poetic, dramatic, colloquial, oblique, discursive, digressive, restrained and economical. It perfectly suits a long narrative with many changes of mood and scene.

The Silmarillon is completely diffferent in voice again; it is oratorical, oracular, grand even pretentious, stylised, idealised and dense. It is aimed at creating an effect of mystery and awe rather then conveying the details of everyday life.

So with such vast differences in tone and theme and style, it is not wise to use one of Tolkien's works to criticise another; they might be set in the same Middle Earth, but really they are worlds apart.

In short, the Lord of The Rings is best experienced by taking it down and reading it on its own! The critical works, although they enrich the reading, are not necessary at all. Nor are Tolkien's other works. What can compare to the wonder, the utter sense of adventure, of reading The Lord of The Rings for the first time, unbiassed, unbothered, just letting this master storyteller do his thing.

We come to it at last, the great battle of our time; the fight to read The Lord of The Rings and make up our own mind about it!

Tolkien was not a great writer; he was a great creator of worlds, of myth, of languages. Of races, of cities and forests and mountains and rivers and bogs and deep caves lapped in ancient fire and inhabited by ancient demons; of vales secluded since the start of time and inhabited by ancient beings of wisdom and grace who will be gone by next winter.

What Tolkien gives us is not in the end literature, but a passport to a world of beauty and sadness and longing. Tír na Nóg, Camelot, Shangri-la. A streetcar called Tolkien to a world just visible to our imagination......

Thanks for reading,