A Streetcar Named Tolkien
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
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,
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
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,