An article by John Yatt from the Guardian of December 2, 2002 attacks Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings with amazing hostility. He not only dismisses the book as “a fake, a forgery, a dodgy copy” but he also attacks it as harmful, “The Lord of the Rings is racist.” He ends with this judgement, “Strip away the archaic turns of phrase and you find a set of basic assumptions that are frankly unacceptable in 21st-century Britain.”
This kind of hostile reaction is neither unique to John Yatt nor unique to our time. It’s been going on since The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954—5 in the U.K. and 1965 in the U.S. Tom Shippey writes in Tolkien: Author of the Century that “In 1956 Edmund Wilson, then doyen of American modernist critics, had dismissed The Lord of the Rings as ‘balderdash’, ‘juvenile trash’, a taste which he thought was specifically British (…a prophecy about to crash in flames as the American market conversely took off).” (p. 307) Shippey notes a “general phenomenon of intense critical hostility to Tolkien, the refusal to allow him to be even a part of ‘English literature’, even on the part of those self-professedly committed to ‘widening the canon’.” (p. 305)
I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by Tom Shippey after having read his recent book on Tolkien. He is now a professor at St. Louis University and is also, by the way, an informative and hilarious speaker. During the Q&A, I read out a few phrases from John Yatt’s article and asked Shippey to talk more about why Tolkien continues to get these hostile reactions from the literary establishment.
Shippey’s first response was “They’re bastards!”
There is a historic conflict, he argues, between the literati, products of departments of English literature and philologists like Tolkien and Shippey who used to be from departments of English (Anglo-Saxon) language. Tolkien felt that to understand literature, one ought to understand the language, the roots and history of the words used. His works of fiction derive from this very approach to literature (Shippey’s book discusses this extensively), and he has inspired a whole new genre of literature, “fantasy”. As Shippey points out, in the academic arena the English literature world won and departments of English language are no more to be found. “The misologists [haters of the word] won, in the academic world; as did the realists, the modernists, the post-modernists, the despisers of fantasy.” (p. xvii)
Yet, Tolkien has had the last laugh, “But they lost outside the academic world. It is not long since I heard the commissioning editor of a major publishing house say, ‘Only fantasy is mass-market. Everything else is cult-fiction.’ (Reflective pause.) ‘That includes mainstream.’ He was defending his own buying strategy, and doubtless exaggerating, but there is a good deal of hard evidence to support him. Tolkien cried out to be heard… he found listeners, and they found whatever he was saying worth their while.” (p. xvii)
What is meant by the “literati”, these folks who consider themselves the arbiters of what English literature is? Shippey talks about this in the context of the critical reaction to the polls in the late 1990s that controversially named Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings the greatest book of the century. “These results were routinely and repeatedly derided by professional critics and journalists (the latter group, of course, often the products of university literature departments). Joseph Pearce opens his book [Tolkien: Man and Myth] with Susan Jeffreys, of the Sunday Times, who on 26th January 1997 reported a colleague’s reaction to the news that The Lord of the Rings had won the BBC/Waterstone’s poll as ‘Oh hell! has it? Oh my G-d. Dear oh dear. Dear oh dear oh dear’. This at least sounds sincere, if not deeply thoughtful; but Jeffreys reported also that the reaction ‘was echoed up and down the country wherever one or two literati gathered together’. She meant, surely, ‘two or three literati’, unless the literati talk only to themselves (a thought that does occur); and the term literati is itself interesting. It clearly does not mean ‘the lettered, the literate’, because obviously that group includes the devotees of The Lord of the Rings, the group being complained about (they couldn’t be devotees if they couldn’t read). In Jeffrey’s usage, literati must mean ‘those who know about literature’. And those who know, of course, know what they are supposed to know. The opinion is entirely self-enclosed.” (p. xxi)
The literati are not just humble scholars of English literature. They want to control what is considered English literature, to some degree past literature, but particularly the present and future. The success of Tolkien’s books drives them crazy because it shows that they do not control what literature is. Readers do. Shippey writes, “This is probably at the heart of the critical rage, and fear, which Tolkien immediately and ever after provoked. He threatened the authority of the arbiters of taste, the critics, the educationalists, the literati.” (p. 316)
Tolkien was a literary entrepreneur, breaking many literary conventions, completely flouting the conventional ideas of “what sells”, and yet outselling all the favored sons of the literary establishment. These literati are would-be central planners. No wonder that we often find them rather annoying (or just irrelevant) and find Tolkien and his work to be heroic and inspiring. The metaphor I’m using here for Tolkien of a literary “entrepreneur” isn’t purely metaphor. After all, Shippey estimates that the publisher Stanley Unwin has made about a billion pounds and the Tolkien estate another billion pounds on the Lord of the Rings. Unwin thought that The Lord of the Rings wasn’t going to make any money so he had Tolkien pay for part of the publishing costs and split the profits 50/50. Oops!
There are other reasons that the literati hate Tolkien. Tolkien completely rejected the Modernist movement which has been unquestioned orthodoxy among the literati. Tolkien’s priorities and themes were not that of the literary establishment.
Shippey further argues that the literary establishment, by any objective measure, is failing. He says that if they were a business, they would have gone out of business a long time ago. The number of students going for degrees in English literature is falling drastically relative to the population. I can personally attest to this negative effect of the literary establishment. When starting college, I was torn between majoring in Computer Science and majoring in English literature. I ended up majoring in Computer Science and minoring in writing. Part of the reason is that I had read some modern literary criticism and I thought it was rubbish. I didn’t want to spend 4 years “learning” their politically correct, unperceptive literary theories. If I could have studied under Tolkien or someone like him, I would have gone for it like a shot.
Thus, Tolkien’s ongoing (and, with the films, increasing) popularity contrasts painfully with the increasing irrelevance of the literati and their favored literature.
Why Do We Love Him?
Tolkien stands in stark contrast to the socialist-leaning, Modernist, elitist literati that hate him so much. As Mingardi and Stagnaro have demonstrated, Tolkien understood that socialism was unworkable and made little distinction between “left” and “right” socialism. Shippey notes that the literary coterie that “ruled and defined English literature at least for a time, between the wars and after World War II… were committed modernists, upper class, often Etonians, often professed Communists, often extremely rich, well-entrenched as editors and reviewers in the literary columns.” (p. 316) In another article, Mingardi and Stagnaro show that far from being a statist as so many of the literati were throughout the 20th century, Tolkien identified himself as an anarchist (of the private property sort, not the socialist, bomb-throwing sort).
Furthermore, he commits a cultural/political crime that for our socialist literati is unforgivable. He likes the middle class and writes about them affectionately in the guise of the Hobbits. No sense of alienation! No sense of looking down on the middle class snootily from a lofty vantage point! Unforgivable!
Shippey discusses this particularly in his discussion of The Hobbit, the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, “Bilbo is then defined from the start by time, class, and culture. He is English; middle class; and roughly Victorian to Edwardian. Hobbits in general will prove to be all these things even more definitely than Bilbo, except that some of them will be working class (the Gamgees), though none quite reach the upper class, not even the Tooks and Brandybucks.” (p. 11) The Hobbits, then, in their adventures in the rest of Middle Earth which they really know very little about except through legends stand in for Tolkien’s readers as they join the Hobbits in trying to figure out this odd world where wizards, dragons and orcs are not just legends but real and dangerous. As the films and books make clear, the hobbits in their own, humble way become the heroes of the tale. This demonstrates Tolkien’s affection for his own roots, “Tolkien indeed had nothing against middle-class Englishman, for he was one himself: and, unlike so many of the English-speaking writers of his time, Lawrence, Forster, Woolf, Joyce, he did not feel in any way alienated, nor have any urge to reinvent himself as working-class, non-English, in internal exile, or any other glamorous pose. It is one reason why he has never found any favour with the determinedly cosmopolitan British intelligentsia.” (p. 11)
Another difference with most of the literati of his time is that far from being militantly atheistic or aggressively secular, Tolkien was a staunch Catholic. He played a key role, in fact, in the conversion of C. S. Lewis to Christianity. This, by itself, has created no end of trouble for the literati as Lewis’ fiction and apologetic works continue to offer a reasoned and popular defense of beliefs that the modernists had thought safely dismissed as reactionary, backwards and Medieval a long time ago. Shippey makes clear that The Lord of the Rings is not directly a Christian work. Middle Earth is set in a time long before Christ, though the “pagans” in Tolkien’s world are rather virtuous pagans, not practicing human sacrifice for instance. What Shippey does not say, though, is what isn’t in Tolkien’s work as a result of his very orthodox Christianity and his anti-Modernist stance. Unlike, say, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s torturous feminist retelling of the King Arthur myth, The Mists of Avalon, Tolkien’s work is not a thin veil for modernist, politically correct preoccupations.
In fact, reading The Lord of the Rings, one gets the impression (which I gather is quite correct) that Tolkien was perfectly comfortable with older things and deeply suspicious of the brutal drives toward modernization that characterize the Left and, now, the Neoconservatives with their plans to bomb various peoples into the 20th century. Our modernist elite is obsessed with being modern. There are few curses more lethal from these folks than that you are a reactionary, a throwback, standing in the way of progress. Needless to say, the happy LRC crew must surely be about as “reactionary” as they come… Even gladly using the label “paleo” to distinguish ourselves, which simply means “ancient”.
But to delve deeper into why many of us have responded so deeply to The Lord of the Rings, I must explain Shippey’s brilliant, and I believe original, analysis of 20th century literature. He begins his book with this sentence, “The dominant literary mode of the twentieth century has been the fantastic.” (p. vii) His list of examples already begins to make his case, “when the time comes to look back at the century, it seems very likely that future literary historians, detached from the squabbles of our present, will see as its most representative and distinctive works books like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and also George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot-49 and Gravity’s Rainbow. The list could readily be extended, back to the late nineteenth century with H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau and The War of the Worlds…” (p. vii)
Why has the fantastic as a literary mode been used so many times and produced such popular books? “A ready explanation for this phenomenon is of course that it represents a kind of literary disease, whose sufferers — the millions of readers of fantasy — should be scorned, pitied, or rehabilitated back to correct and proper taste. Commonly the disease is said to be ‘escapism’: readers and writers of fantasy are fleeing from reality. The problem with this is that so many of the originators of the later twentieth-century fantastic mode, including all four of those first mentioned above (Tolkien, Orwell, Golding, Vonnegut) are combat veterans, present at or at least deeply involved in the most traumatically significant events of the century, such as the Battle of the Somme (Tolkien), the bombing of Dresden (Vonnegut), the rise and early victory of fascism (Orwell). Nor can anyone say that they turned their backs on these events. Rather, they had to find some way of communicating and commenting on them. It is strange that this had, for some reason, in so many cases to involve fantasy as well as realism, but that is what has happened.” (p. viii) He later adds C.S. Lewis, T.H. White and Joseph Heller to the list. (p. xxx)
Why have these fantastic books connected so much better than most of the literature in the modernist canon? The modernist novel has a marked tendency to be very inner directed. Tom Wolfe comments on this hilariously in his essay “My Three Stooges” in which he critiques the excessive inwardness in the works of modernist darlings John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving. But Tolkien, and many of these other authors of fantastic novels, are oriented differently, “…although [Tolkien’s] concern and the concern of the authors I mention is not with the private and the personal (the themes of the ‘modernist’ novel), but with the public and the political, it should be obvious that to all but the sheltered classes of this century, the most important events in private lives (and even more, in deaths) have often been public and political.” (p. xxxi)
Shippey is more blunt later in his book about what these “traumatized authors” were all dealing with, “Most of these authors, then, had close or even direct first-hand experience of some of the worst horrors of the twentieth century, horrors which did not and could not exist before it: the Somme, Guernica, Belsen, Dresden, industrialized warfare, genocide. Their very different but related experiences left all of them, one may say, with an underlying problem. They were bone-deep convinced that they had come into contact with something irrevocably evil. They also… felt that the explanations for this which they were given by the official organs of their culture were hopelessly inadequate, out of date, at best irrelevant, at worst part of the evil itself.” (p. xxx)
Thus, bringing our focus back to Tolkien, we find the other meaning of Shippey’s title, “Tolkien: Author of the Century”. Not just might he be the most important author of the century, but he was, despite the fantastic setting of his fiction, very much an author of the 20th century. We respond to Tolkien, in part, because he is wrestling with the horrors of our century in a very deep way. Thus his literary approach is in line with his anarchism that rejected both left and right socialism. Tolkien was not interested in the half measures that went over so well with the literati time and time again: “No, no, it must be Left socialism, not Right socialism”; “No, it must be Democratic socialism, not totalitarian socialism.” Tolkien saw, as many of these other authors saw in their own way, that we were facing radically destructive evil and that we must be radical in our approach to understanding it.
The theme of The Lord of the Rings is that the Ring, the ring of power that is so tempting, must be resisted. If it is not resisted than the individual who gives in becomes a ringwraith. “…people make themselves into wraiths. They accept the gifts of Sauron, quite likely with the intention of using them for some purpose which they identify as good. But then they start to cut corners, to eliminate opponents, to believe in some ’cause’ which justifies everything they do. In the end the ’cause’, or the habits they have acquired while working for the ’cause’, destroys any moral sense and even any remaining humanity. The spectacle of the person ‘eaten up inside’ by devotion to some abstraction has been so familiar throughout the twentieth century as to make the idea of the wraith, and the wraithing-process, horribly recognizable, in a way non-fantastic.” (p. 125)
No wonder we love Tolkien so much! In an extremely original and artistic book, he gives us a vision that we are longing for. Not another variation on the themes that gave us the horrors of the 20th century, but a principled refusal to play the game of power at all. In Tolkien’s moving vision, the good comes not by massive righteous slaughters and crusades to stamp out badness but by the strength of will of “small” people to protect the ordinary, beautiful things of family and home and to resist the temptation to use power to do it.
Seen in this light, Tolkien’s book has a powerful and very relevant message for those of us who are Hobbits in a world controlled by wraiths. No matter how dark it gets, don’t give up hope. Stay true. Have courage. Help may come from unexpected places.