Allure of the Rings

Why the greatest folk fantasy series of the 20th century has everyone talkin’ Tolkien


Tolkien himself would rankle at the allusion: The hour is approaching, and the shadow of Mordor once again lies heavy on the land.

The day of reckoning is Dec. 19, the international release date for a frenziedly-hyped, very expensive live action version of the first installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If we interpose Hollywood as Mordor, then its agents are abroad in the form of an advertising onslaught that pounces from every boob tube, tantalizing fans and antagonizing foes with sparkling scenelets of wizards and elves and the charged drama of a Carmina Burana-style soundtrack. Tidings of Tolkien revisited, reconsidered, avenged and anointed crowd our parchments. The gracile filigrees of the Tengwar spiral out of fantasy sections pulsing with orc-black and spell-yellow and wizard’s-cloak-indigo along prominent stretches of shelf space in area bookstores.

And now the movie is about to come to Missoula. A lot of people have a lot invested in it, not least the Tolkien fans whose legions are now entering a Third Age of their own. Grandchildren of baby boomers who first took to the trilogy in the late 1960s are now awakening in saucer-eyed, Hogwarts-stoked wonderment to all the magical possibilities of Middle Earth. While three generations of fans wait with bated breath, read on as the Independent goes on a quest of its own to put flesh on the Tolkienian ethos creeping like a mist from the hollows of this valley, in our own quiet corner of the Shire.

The Genesis of Middle Earth

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (the surname is properly pronounced Tol-keen, with equal stress on both syllables) was born to English parents in 1892 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa. His father, Arthur Reuel Tolkien, was a bank clerk who had migrated to South Africa in the early 1890s in search of better financial prospects for himself and his wife, Mabel Suffield Tolkien. When he died in 1896, Tolkien, his mother and younger brother returned to the West Midlands region near Birmingham, England.

According to the Tolkien Society’s Web biography, a family life that was “generally lived on the genteel side of poverty” took a turn for the worse when Mabel Tolkien died of diabetes in 1904, leaving Tolkien and his brother to be shunted through a series of church-appointed guardians and indifferent relatives. Eventually, they settled in a boardinghouse run by a Mrs. Faulkner, where Tolkien would meet his future wife, Edith Mary Bratt.

After matriculating from King Edward’s School in Birmingham, Tolkien went on to immerse himself in classics, philology, Old English studies and the Germanic languages at Exeter College, Oxford, where he was accepted in 1911. Having mastered the Greek and Latin of his classical education, Tolkien again turned his attention to the language that “pierced [his] linguistic heart:” Welsh, whose exotic and curiously undervoweled words he had first seen as a child on coal trucks and station names. The Exeter faculty was scandalized when, in 1914, Tolkien spent his stipend money from the prestigious Skeat Prize for English on a weighty new Welsh grammar. While studying for his Honour Mods—a kind of halfway exam taken after two years of study—Tolkien also became fascinated with Finnish, a language with a complicated case structure that would later serve as the blueprint for Quenya, one of the many “invented languages” spoken in Middle Earth.

By the time he matriculated from Oxford, World War I had been raging in Europe for nearly a year. Only after finishing his studies did Tolkien enlist, in the Lancashire Fusiliers, and even then it was several months before his regiment was deployed to France. He shipped out in the spring of 1916, shortly after marrying Edith Bratt, and was sent into active duty on the Western Front, where British forces were preparing to mount the disastrous Somme offensive.

Four months on, all but one of Tolkien’s closest friends had been killed in action and Tolkien himself was sent back to England with “trench fever,” a typhus-like disease whose recurrent symptoms kept him out of the war for good but allowed him, in brief periods of remission, to do home service work and earn him a promotion to lieutenant. When the armistice was signed and the remnants of his unit demobilized, Tolkien went to work as an assistant lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary for about a year before receiving an appointment in the English department at the University of Leeds. In 1925, he applied for a vacant chair in Anglo-Saxon studies at Oxford and was accepted. Tolkien remained at Oxford until his retirement in 1959.

One of Tolkien’s students during his 35-year tenure was Donald Guthrie, former rector of the Holy Spirit Episcopal Parish in Missoula. Guthrie took a course taught by the author and tutored by his son, Christopher, in the early ’50s as a requirement of his Oxford English studies.

“Well, I have to say that it wasn’t a fascinating class,” Guthrie recalls. “It was Anglo-Saxon grammar. When the English school was created in the early 1900s at Oxford, the university authorities didn’t feel that English literature was a suitably testing university subject, so they insisted on a language component, which meant that not only did we have to pass an exam in Latin, but we also had to study Old and Middle English. And that was Tolkien’s subject—he was the great expert on Beowulf.

“He wasn’t famous at the time,” Guthrie continues. “Or if he was, it wasn’t for his books. The Hobbit had come out, but at the time he was known mostly as a Beowulf scholar.”

How does Guthrie remember Tolkien the lector? Was he briskly magisterial, as some have claimed?

“No, not at all,” Guthrie counters. “I hate to say this, but I found the subject very boring. It was a small class, about 12 of us. He would lecture most of the time looking down at his notes on the desk in front of him. And then every so often, I remember this clearly, he would lift his face and smile. And he did have a really glorious smile. He’d sort of smile in this glorious way at this small class and then he’d drop his head again and keep going.”

A sidelong shot of this smile, Guthrie confirms, is the one that graces the back cover of numerous editions of Tolkien’s books. It’s the same photo, in fact, Guthrie adds, that can be seen in a mosaic above the urinal in the men’s room at Perugia—positioned, oddly enough, as though smiling at an adjacent photo of Perugia owner Ray Risho.

“I can hardly say that I knew J.R.R.,” concludes Guthrie (who, by the way, also had a course with Tolkien’s close friend C.S. Lewis, whom he remembers as “a very fine lecturer, a big burly man who looked like a farmer.”). “Because I just went in once a week for a class. And professors were not necessarily on very companionable terms with students in those days. I don’t remember him in any way making warm contact with the students, other than with that smile. But this was 50 years ago, and it was England.”

It was also during his Oxford tenure that Tolkien first began codifying the mythology and languages he’d begun to develop during his student days into the deep, dense and richly imagined lore of Middle Earth. The Hobbit came first, in 1933, its genesis a distracted scribble made onto a page left blank in a student examination book. The story of Bilbo Baggins, already a favorite among the younger of the four Tolkien children, was so successful upon its 1937 British publication that the publishers, Unwin-Allen, began pressing Tolkien for similar material.

The story of the 16-year interval between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, published in three volumes during 1954 and 1955, is one best left to Tolkien’s biographers. For our foray into the Tolkienian ethos, though, this is really where the story begins.

Monsters and Critics

To say that The Lord of the Rings was met with mixed reviews on its publication decidedly understates the point. More accurately, Tolkien’s trilogy polarized literary critics into mutually hostile camps of effusive supporters on one hand and attackers on the other, whose tenor ranges from the archly dismissive to the downright venomous. In some cases, the gushing enthusiasm of the supporters themselves drove the attackers to new heights in vituperation. Of the former, poet W.H. Auden didn’t get things off on the proper foot by declaring, in a 1956 article for The New York Times, that Tolkien’s saga had in many respects surpassed Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Among Tolkien’s detractors, American Edmund Wilson is probably best remembered for disparaging The Lord of the Rings as “balderdash” in a derisive review for The Nation, the title of which practically says it all: “Ooh, Those Awful Orcs.” Wilson also laid into Tolkien supporters like Auden and Lewis with no mean force, observing sourly that “certain people—especially, perhaps, in Britain—have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash.”

If it comes as a surprise to modern fans of Tolkien—those fans who, as one detractor describes them, “have hobbits and wizards and orcs hard-wired into their psyches”—that early critics would reserve such harsh words for the architect of Middle Earth, what’s perhaps even more surprising is the malarial resurgence of Tolkien-bashing that comes around once every decade or so. When a British bookstore, Waterstone’s, announced in 1996 that a poll of 26,000 readers had conferred upon the trilogy the honor of “book of the century,” Germaine Greer was moved to write the following in W: The Waterstone’s Magazine: “Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964 and encountered a tribe of full-grown women wearing puffed sleeves, clutching teddies and babbling excitedly about the doings of hobbits, it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century. The bad dream has materialised.” Toward a postmodern Tolkien

Broadly speaking, the most literary criticisms of The Lord of the Rings are those attacking Tolkien’s often awkward and undeniably antiquarian prose. Close behind are the ones that rank Tolkien’s sensibilities as an author on a scale of opprobrium from premodernist to antimodernist to downright reactionary. In one sense, they’re the same critiques that an unsympathetic bystander might level at Society for Creative Anachronism members gleefully bashing each other with maces and broadswords on a summer night in the University of Montana Oval. Juvenile. Absurdly escapist, and perhaps smugly so.

For many academics, Tolkien is something to be pinched between thumb and forefinger and held at arm’s length, like a smelly sock. And yet, with more than 50 million copies of his books sold, Tolkien continues to be read for credit and for pleasure, dissected and scrutinized at length, even by academics who profess no particular loyalty to the author.

“I read The Lord of the Rings in high school,” says John Glendening, “which would have been in the late 1960s. People were reading Tolkien like mad, along with Steppenwolf and a number of other novels that were seen as either countercultural or offering alternative views of culture at that time.”

Glendening, a UM professor specializing in 19th century literature, is among the many faculty members I plied for an academic assessment of Tolkien’s place in 20th century letters. In writing his Middle Earth books, Glendening says, one of the first things Tolkien succeeded in doing was antagonizing his Oxford colleagues.

“There’s an idea in the world of academia that scholars are involved in specialized and rigorous activity and that maybe there shouldn’t be any overlap between that and popular literature,” he says. “Not among all scholars and professors, but among some, there is that sense of high culture and low culture, and anybody who crosses that divide is in trouble.

“I don’t think people maintain that divide like they used to,” Glendening continues. “Which of course is one of the ideas behind postmodernism: that there’s no longer a basis for making those distinctions.”

As for Tolkien’s retrograde tendencies, it seems natural to Glendening that the apparent naïveté of Tolkien’s trilogy would be at loggerheads with modernism.

“It does seem naive. It’s realistic in many ways, in terms of giving details of situations and surroundings, although obviously when you’re writing about hobbits and dragons, it’s going to be unrealistic in some ways, too. But it does seem naïve when read in the context of James Joyce and Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot.”

In fact, Tolkien’s worldview was anything but naïve. Having barely survived the horrors of industrialized warfare in the trenches of the Somme, Tolkien labored under few misapprehensions about mankind’s bottomless capacity for inflicting misery upon itself, or about high-minded distinctions between good and evil. Too often, Glendening says, Tolkien readers have scoured The Lord of the Rings for allegorical signposts pointing to everything from Nazism to a nascent environmentalism to the use of modern weaponry against peasants in Vietnam. Tolkien himself vigorously denied any use of allegory or overt symbolism, although he did leave room for what he termed “applicability.”

“Allegory implies something firmer and more entrenched than what’s going on in Tolkien’s books,” Glendening asserts. “You know how it is, though. An enthusiast can take any complex phenomenon and read it symbolically and find this, that and the other. I would use the term resonance instead. We don’t know, really, what was on Tolkien’s mind, but you can imagine how the world situation somehow infiltrated its way into the novel without his trying to do some kind of one-to-one correspondence between world events and events in his story.”

Glendening’s colleague, Professor Michael McClintock, who specializes in early modernism, agrees.

“I don’t think it’s legitimate to find the atomic bomb or carpet bombing or something like that in Lord of the Rings,” he ventures. “But we can certainly recognize Tolkien’s deep skepticism of the value of modern power.”

McClintock cites the example of Lord Acton, a British nobleman and, like Tolkien, a staunch Roman Catholic. Acton, writing to protest the notion of Papal infallibility defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870, coined the aphorism: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

“I don’t know that Tolkien ever paid all that much attention to Lord Acton, but he certainly would have known about him, because he was only a few generations younger than Acton was,” says McClintock. “And you see this going on in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo, in particular, can’t resist using the ring if necessary. Power tends to corrupt. The thing that comes closest to absolute power in Middle Earth is Sauron, who rules Mordor with a steel or iron or metaphorical hand. Sauron is very close to absolute power, and Mordor he has made close to absolutely corrupted.”

McClintock also addresses the tenuous ties between the very conservative Tolkien, who disliked practically every aspect of modern life, and the late ’60s counterculture that would come to adore him.

“One of the rallying points of the counterculture was the rejection of established ways of doing things,” McClintock says. “I think it’s a case of two essentially different ways of thinking converging on a common rejection. I don’t think there was ever a positive commonality between Tolkien and the late ’60s counterculture, but the common rejection brought them together. They certainly didn’t have much else in common. The only drug in The Lord of the Rings is tobacco—or pipe-weed, as Tolkien calls it—which he enjoyed very much himself.”

J.R.R. Tokin’: Countercultural hero

Ironically, the members of what Tolkien himself called his “deplorable cultus” of acid-gobbling counterculturalists were chief among the readers who made him, to his great surprise, a very rich man. The Lord of the Rings first appeared in the United States in 1965, first in an unauthorized Ace paperback edition and immediately afterward in the Ballantine edition authorized by Tolkien’s UK publisher and revised by Tolkien himself. Sales of the books skyrocketed almost overnight as a mushrooming counterculture seized upon the trilogy as a touchstone text for its anti-establishment, anti-war, pro-environment stance.

Or so it would seem. George Toles didn’t buy it then, and he doesn’t buy it now. Chair of film studies and a professor of English at the University of Manitoba, Toles parries my request for the reading list he sardonically terms “the late ’60s countercultural rucksack” with a foaming attack on the counterculture itself and its beloved literary patron saint.

“The Tolkienian ethos, as you say, can be whittled down to one word: marijuana,” Toles tells me, rattling off a canon of required countercultural reading that includes Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Siddartha, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and “your choice of three” novels by Kurt Vonnegut.

“But, as bong-books, The Lord of the Rings led by a considerable distance. I didn’t know a person who recommended it who wasn’t so into the weed that I never saw them straight. I doubt you’ll find one Tolkien-pushing parent from that generation who didn’t have a mound of grass and about a dozen tabs of acid by the bedside table.”

When I mention that Tolkien was mortified by the idea of people taking drugs and immersing themselves in Middle Earth, Toles only redirects his assault:

“He was never mortified by the one thing he should have been mortified by, and that was his incurably dreadful prose. I’ll give that it counts in other ways that matter, but can you find a sentence in all three books that isn’t completely horrible? This must be said. It’s not a literary classic in any traditional sense. It’s got a completely articulated world and a literary command of mythic patterns, but it’s also animated by a deep conviction born of an abhorrence of contemporary life. Tolkien made his world so palpable because he needed a completely solid alternative in which to sink himself. It’s got as many antibodies to the England of the time as he could muster.”

“It’s very Catholic,” Toles continues, invoking the Chronicles of Narnia series for comparison. “You can avoid God in The Lord of the Rings to an extent that you can’t in the Narnia books, but in the Narnia books, at least, the prose pieces are better. Lewis on his worst day could out-write Tolkien on his best day, and Tolkien knew it. They were best friends, and they both knew it. That’s why Lewis could heap praise on Tolkien’s work with a clear conscience.”

Toles’s caustic critique also goes a ways toward explaining why an earlier filmed version of the Ring saga, the partially-realized 1978 rotoscope version by Ralph Bakshi, failed to catch on with the baby boomers who should have leapt to embrace it. The war had ended, but even the counterculture couldn’t escape the moral hangover of Vietnam and Watergate. Tolkien, it should be added, died in 1973.

“People couldn’t see themselves in terms of this great good force,” says Toles, an American. “Too many whispers. It needed to be simplified to the degree that Star Wars was, the terms of childhood and fun, and the rebirth of the western in outer space. Saturday Night Fever gave us a reason to go outside again and celebrate. The Bee Gees and Star Wars gave America its get-up-and-go.”

Toles adds, and it seems to pain him slightly, that his 10-year old son, Thomas, is currently reading the books to get ready for the movie.

Lord of cha-ching!

Thomas Toles isn’t the only one. Our quest ends where it ultimately began, at the bookstore, where Fact & Fiction owner Barbara Theroux shows me sales figures for Tolkien books that have more than tripled in the past year. Part of it is seasonal (“They always sell at holiday time,” Theroux says. “There’s always someone who wants to give The Lord of the Rings.”), but holiday buying trends only go so far in explaining why the books are flying from shelves in record numbers. It seems clear enough: In Missoula, just like everywhere else, people are either reacquainting themselves with The Lord of the Rings or reading the books for the first time to get ready for the first installment of the $270 million film trilogy.

New Line Cinema, the studio behind the films, is prepared to bank on the hype. In fact, earlier this year the Los Angeles Times reported that New Line had earmarked $150 million for marketing costs alone to drum up hype for the film, needing to recoup losses incurred by the $100-million dud, Lost in Space, and Warren Beatty’s $90-million dog, Town and Country.

It seems to be working, or at least a number of circumstances have conspired to make it look like it’s working. Three hundred fifty million viewers watched the 90-second preview in the month after its release on the film’s Web site. Cloaks and staffs and peaked hats and all the other runic raiments of mass-produced wizardry bedeck the youth. Germaine Greer is probably still sulking. It can’t be long before the rallying cry goes up again: “Frodo lives!”

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