Is the Lord of the Rings any good?

In 2004, the Lord of the Rings topped the BBC poll as the best book of the 20th century. On the other hand, it was sharply (and endlessly) criticised by intellectuals, campaigners, other fantasy writers and, above all, by the literary elite for the majority of that century. Saying “I like the Lord of the Rings” may gain an indulgent smile at a university English literature entrance interview, but attempting to get it taken seriously while you are on the course is almost certain to get you written off as a lightweight. In a century where all things which could not previously be written about became common-place, a passion for Tolkien was very much the love that dared not speak its name.

At the Greenbelt arts festival a couple of years ago I tried to engage a young university lecturer in a conversation about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As a bridge between that and his seminar, which had been about Philip Pullman, I raised the notion of the popularity of Tolkien. The disdain in his voice as he turned away and told me he was too busy to talk to me was almost palpable. Ah well, his loss.

On the other hand, talking to many young people who have graduated from Harry Potter and been bitten by the Tolkien bug, you might imagine that there really were only two kinds of books: The Lord of the Rings, and ‘other books’. To some extent I can sympathise with that – I remember feeling something like it myself once. Actually, I suspect that many of the disdainful literati went through something of the same. The embarrassment is somewhat akin to the embarrassment of remembering believing Keats the greatest of all poets.

Part of the problem of trying to have an intelligent discussion about Tolkien is that serious academics will often say little more than ‘it’s all rather silly’. This is singularly unhelpful, particularly as part of the point of universities is to learn that there is no such thing as a stupid question.

Let me put my cards on the table straight away, by saying that I do think that the Lord of the Rings is a great book, but not necessarily a great novel.

First, then, why do I think it’s a great book?

Very simply, its effect on those who read it is profound and (except for those who train themselves to loathe it as an entrance criterion into the literary elite) enduring. If our theory of art, whatever that theory may be, fails to account for the profound response of a vast number of people to a work of creation, then it is our theory which is wrong. Ravel, in commenting on his ‘Bolero’, once said that his great sadness was that in his career he had only composed one masterpiece, and it (in his words) ‘contains no music’. His insight was correct: Bolero is a perennial delight to concert goers, but it lacks most of the qualities considered to be essential in classical music.

Some works, of course, are enormously popular for a while: very few of the books on the bestseller list will be much remembered ten years later, unless someone makes a film of them. The M6 toll road, I am reliably informed, rests on a layer of pulped Edwardian novels. Pulped novel is evidently an essential substance for the modern motorway, and such books are available in abundance from the bookshops at Hay on Wye, as fuel for your furnace (you buy them by the sack-full), or, if you are more ambitious, in quantities sufficient for building your own stretch of tarmac.

Perhaps the criticisms at the time of publication were fair comment: contemporaries at Oxford and in London clearly regarded its early popularity as no more than the popularity of so many of the novels which now go to make the M6 toll a safe (albeit expensive) place to drive. But almost fifty years have now gone by, and the popularity of the books has grown not diminished.

We can spend many hours describing the merits of the Lord of the Rings, but we risk falling into the trap of undifferentiated gushing. Without something to compare them to, we have little productive to say. We could, of course, compare with the Narnia books, the original Earthsea trilogy and perhaps one or two others, but these are also in the category of despised fiction, and the comparison is therefore not a beneficial one.

It is more productive – I think – to look at the reasons why critics have chosen to dismiss the books. There are essentially two groups of reasons, one legitimate, and the other (in my view) little more than a sign of small-mindedness. I will deal with the second first.

The most passionate criticism of the Lord of the Rings is that the subject of the imaginary adventures of imaginary creatures in an imaginary world in pursuit of all-consuming goals of imaginary importance is, to put it tritely, too silly to justify the length of the books and their vocabulary. Whereas the Hobbit is written for children, and is fairly short, the Lord of the Rings is beyond Dickensian in its size, and makes use of a vocabulary which is not merely adult but, in fact, entirely alien in places. Orcs, hobbits, Khazad Dum, Balrogs, Eldar, Palantir, Wargs and many other terms have to be learned as one reads. Some, of course, are old words refreshed: warg is Old Norse for wolf, and the Riders of Rohan greet the travellers in fluent Old English. But other languages are entirely made up. It is clearly acceptable for Tolstoy to write in a mixture of Russian and French, but the occasional phrase of Elvish in Tolkien is regarded as mere affectation.

Is this legitimate criticism? One would have to say, emphatically, not. Rather, it is a critical perspective which, like the Edwardian novel, is suitable only for the lining of motorways. CS Lewis bemoaned the ‘grip of realism’ (by which he meant naturalism) which held the literary world enthralled during the twentieth century. Somewhat later, Umberto Eco in the introduction to The Name of the Rose, explains that he would not have been allowed to write a novel purely for its enjoyment in the decades that preceded. Like Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, which appears to account for a large number of the visits to this website, this critical perspective grows from the supremely arrogant position that there is just one true purpose of literature, and this, despite the evidence of preceding centuries, has been discovered by the critic and his cadre. It is ironic (at least, ironic in the blank, post-modern sense) that the growth of the critical perspective that only naturalistic writing was valuable was paralleled by the opposite tendency in the visual arts and in music, where artists moved from 19th century romanticism with its photo-realistic depictions of allegedly historical classical scenes to the experimentalism of the impressionists, the cubists and the surrealists, and musicians moved from the easy tunes of Schubert through the poly-rhythms of Stravinsky and to tone-rows, atonal music, and the 3:23 of John Cage. Probably the modernist novellists and critics believed they were actually on the same path as the modernist painters and composers – going from the easy and popular to the difficult and sophisticated. It is a common mistake to believe that one is on the same journey merely because one shares the same time and space.

Perhaps a more compelling point is that the obsession with naturalism and the denigration of fantasy put criticism on a contrary path to the fall of prescriptivism and rise of descriptivism in linguistics and the social sciences.

But what of the criticism itself? Did Tolkien’s imagination run riot, resulting in the creation of something which was little more than a vast, endlessly reflective echo chamber of the subconscious? This is clearly a danger in writing which is purely imaginative, and this is evidenced by the endless catalogue of genre and fan-fiction which followed the publication of the Lord of the Rings, and will doubtless be making our motorways safe in the later decades of the 21st century. If delight in the Lord of the Rings leads you to read other works uncritically, then your literary tastes will suffer. A few years ago I picked up a collection of stories written by other authors in honour of the 20th anniversary of Tolkien’s death. They had all the literary merits of treacle mixed with a particularly unpleasant kind of tar – a combination which no doubt improves their qualities for their eventual destination in road construction.

However, this cannot be said of the Lord of the Rings itself. Whatever we can say about the structure of the books – and I will come to that in a moment – the structure of the world which Tolkien created was as perfect and complete as Conrad’s Sulaco. Where others – notably Lewis and LeGuin – have succeeded in similar endeavours, it is at least partly because of a similar or even greater attention to the detail of imagination. This is not imagination run riot, but imagination carefully channelled, and constructed into a cathedral in the mind.

But what of the criticism of triviality? Early defenders of Tolkien tried to see Lord of the Rings as an allegory of modern Europe (and, by extension, something making legitimate comment, as a sort of Roman à clef), but Tolkien himself vehemently denied this. This is perhaps as well: growing up in the Cold War, I was never able to see the spectre of Nazi Germany in the way my parents had, and the generation which followed mine no doubt sees Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, the Hunt for Red October and the original James Bond films in the same light that I saw the old war films. Twenty years from now, the current crop of books and movies featuring Islamic terrorism will (I hope) seem equally archaic.

The continued response of the public to the books suggests that, whether literary critics and academics can see it or not, there is a strong tide of profound content in the Lord of the Rings. Actually, though, I don’t believe that triviality ever was the root of the complaint. Rather, Tolkien was writing about grand concepts of good, evil, destiny and courage in an age where these were despised. The twentieth century world-view largely rejected the concept of evil as a thing, and maintained that there were only actions with poor consequences. At most, it accepted that there were evil men, not that evil itself was at work in the world. Other metaphysical notions had no place in the twentieth century university: they were regarded as things to be left behind at school, and opposed whenever they reared their heads in public life. This is something which was strengthened by the rise of the post-modern consensus, rather than weakened. (In fact, just as there was nothing more medieval than the renaissance, which attempted so strongly to deny its links to the middle-ages, there could be nothing more modernist than post-modernism, for all it denies it). Glory, honour, destiny, fate, good, evil and courage are all linked with the great ideologies of the twentieth century – the communism, capitalism and fascism which between them caused more deaths than all the wars and massacres of the centuries which preceded them.

The paradox, of course, is that Shakespeare, who is still set firmly at the pinnacle of all literary studies, is full of these ideals, and also full of magic, imagination, ghosts, the supernatural, and the complex interplay of the moral universe. It would be a brave critic indeed who tried to make the case that Tolkien was on the same level as Shakespeare, and I have no intention of making this case. But the truth is that the things for which Tolkien is most criticised are things which are less present in modernist literature, but more present in Shakespeare.

There is a second group of criticisms which is linked to this. It is alleged that Tolkien perpetuates a world-view which is hierarchical, undemocratic, patriarchal, perhaps even racist (despite the strongly integrationist views that the book puts forward). It is a world in which difference of religion, belief, philosophy, sexuality and even disability is unaccounted for.

I am not suggesting that these issues are unimportant – see the rest of this website if you think that this is an apologetic for neo-conservatism! But to ask for them to be spelled out is to fundamentally misunderstand what art is. Wagner was a racist and a proto-fascist, and Hitler admired him and drew on his music for inspiration. But this does not diminish his ring cycle as one of the greatest works of music in any century. Emile Zola, on the other hand, was a social campaigner whose famous J’accuse letter rekindled the Dreyfus affair and was instrumental in combating anti-semitism in early 20th century France – but his books, written as works of naturalism, are almost unreadable! Lermontov’s hero Pechorin is amoral and completely unadmirable, but he is a compelling character, as are Heathcliff and Macbeth. Although the world Tolkien is writing of is imaginary, it is rooted firmly in a dark-ages cultural and technological milieu which is, to some extent, shared by anyone who has grown up with some knowledge of English history. It is (unsurprisingly, given who Tolkien was) the world of Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon, more Chaucerian in the Shire, more Roman in Gondor. Middle Earth is the Middengeard of the Anglo-Saxons and the Midgard of the Norse. If Tolkien had written with the most liberal cultural values of his time, of course, it would already seem old-fashioned and rather unenlightened to us today. But to have done so would have completely jarred with the world he was creating. There have been attempts to write politically correct fantasy. They are almost always unreadable. For an interesting discussion of this, it’s worth considering the introduction to Ursula LeGuin’s Tales from Earthsea, which appeared shortly before The Other Wind, in which she bemoans the fact that, as a feminist writer, she created an entirely patriarchal society. Perhaps it requires the far lighter touch of JK Rowling to deal with these things appropriately.

We may as well criticise war films for incorporating violence, and, while we are at it, have another go at Shakespeare. On one occasion my tutorial partner at Oxford suggested she would write a feminist critique of DH Lawrence. Our tutor, Julia Briggs, one of the pioneers of English feminist literary theory, immediately responded “I think you’ll find that Lawrence doesn’t show up very well under feminist critique” – which was as much of an outright rejection as she ever made. The purpose of literary criticism is not to find the flaws in literature and expose them, but to come to a complete understanding of the books as they exist, and of the imaginative journey the author is able to lead the reader through as they experience it.

I promised to deal with the first group of criticisms second. These are to do with the technical literary merits of the books. At this point we must recognise that, as a novel, the Lord of the Rings has substantial flaws. Essentially a novel is not so much an adventure story as a story about how character grows and changes as it responds to events and the world around it. Robinson Crusoe is not a foundational novel because of the desert island, but because of the exploration of Crusoe’s character and how it changes. War and Peace is not a great novel because of its sweep of history, which is merely the backdrop, but because of its profound analysis of the character of Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Bolkonsky.

We need to recognise that there is no real character development in the Lord of the Rings. The situations of characters change – unassuming Frodo becomes a figure of legendary proportions, despised Strider becomes King Aragorn, care-worn Gandalf achieves his long quest, Bilbo leaves behind the power of the ring, and Arwen becomes mortal – but the characters themselves do not. It is precisely their un-stoical stability that makes hobbits such attractive figures, and it is Aragorn’s humility when in glory or in shame that enables him to represent a Beowulfian ideal as the Germanic hero. Aragorn’s people are vast shadows across the landscape, but, for all that, they are figures not characters. This, of course, is only a flaw if we assume that the Lord of the Rings is supposed to be a novel. It almost certainly is not, at least, not in the sense of the evolution of the novel as but forward by Leavis and others. Tolkien described it as a ‘tale’. In medieval terms we would describe it as a Romance. One might be tempted with the word ‘Epic’, but the writing is too detailed and too human for it to be epic. We might reach back to Old Norse, and compare it with the Burgundian cycle which is often referred to as the Volsungasaga, though the Volsungasaga is only one retelling. In the Burgundian cycle – which is strongly echoed in tone and some of its incidents by Tolkien’s ‘Tale of Turin’ in the Silmarillion – we never gain any particular insights into the character of Sigurd, or even any particular closeness or affection for him. He is a shadow on the cave wall, and we are transfixed as long as the shadow continues to move.

As a tale, though, there are also some substantial issues, of which the most important one is structure. There is of course no real point in analysing structure for its own sake. The real question is – does it work? In the case of the Lord of the Rings, the structure and the plot work against it rather than for it. I will briefly separate the two, although this is not normally a profitable exercise. The Lord of the Rings is structured into six books, which are bound in three volumes, two in each book. The narrative runs straight through the first volume, the Fellowship of the Ring, and it makes a very satisfying read, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It would be an entirely suitable first volume in a trilogy: structurally complete, though devastating in its plot. The structure unravels rapidly in The Two Towers, though. The first part, the adventures of the majority of the company in Rohan, is compelling and magical adventure fiction. In its own terms, it is as good as or better than anything in the Fellowship of the Ring. However, as we read, we are aware that this is merely a side-show. The main story, the overriding need to destroy the ring, is taking place at the same time but elsewhere. This is the subject of the second part of the Two Towers. However, this part is unremittingly bitter, grim and unpleasant. It has none of the bright adventure of books I-III, and even its moral dilemma is painful and uncomfortable. It could be argued that this is essential to the overall conception of the cycle, but the choice to write book IV at the same length as book III simply does not work as fiction. Under close questioning, most re-readers admit that they tend to ‘hurry through’ (ie, skip-read) book IV, in order to get on to the Return of the King as quickly as possible. Tolkien continues this uncomfortable arrangement in the Return of the King, although it is less unsuccessful because fewer pages are devoted to the journey through Mordor, we are left in suspense as to what the outcome of the battle will be, and there is genuine plot interest in struggle on Mount Doom. Nonetheless, in terms of the conscious structural strait-jacket thrust on it, the Lord of the Rings must be regarded as flawed.

One does not normally separate plot from structure in this way, but I think I have demonstrated that it is justified here. The plot, however, is also problematic – something which became more than apparent when Peter Jackson produced his film trilogy. Even leaving aside the structural straitjacket, which he was able to circumvent, the story does not have a beginning, a middle and an end. Parts of it, such as the Tom Bombadil sequence, can be left out entirely, and hark back to the entirely successful episodic approach of The Hobbit. More seriously, it is not clear where the plot finishes. In one sense we would like to finish with the coronation of Aragorn, with only the briefest mention of the return to the Shire. But we have been promised unfinished business there, and, for once, the ‘point’ of the story impinges on what is otherwise mercifully bereft of having a ‘point’. Tolkien alludes to this in the introduction to the second edition. However, the adventure in the Shire at the end is really not very adventurous by comparison with what we have seen before. As soon as the hobbits arrive, they take control, defeat the inferior enemy, who are doubtless wishing they had brought along trolls, balrogs, ringwraiths, and all the other paraphernalia which have previously troubled the heroes, and save the day, justifying all the good feelings we have ever had about hobbits, and even leaving us with a tear for Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Sam gets the girl, Pippin becomes the Thane, and Merry becomes the Master of Brandybuck Hall. And all ends happily ever after. Except, of course, it doesn’t. Frodo doesn’t seem to have got anything out of the adventure, and so we are then treated to the ‘real’ end, where he, Bilbo, Gandalf, and other heroes take the ship to the undying lands. However, we are then left with the trite and unsatisfying end ‘Well, I’m back’. Most readers, at least once, go on to read the appendices, perhaps spending only a little time on the vagaries of Elvish, but devouring the continuation of the story, since we are now caught in the Aristotelian dilemma of ‘What happens next’.

There is a reason why most sagas end with the death of the hero, or, as in Brennu Njallssaga, with the consequences of his death: it is a logical and satisfying place to stop. In the Burgundian cycle, the ‘saga’ only closes with the final extinction of Gudrun’s children, at the end of Ham?ismal. The Lord of the Rings has no place to finish which is both logical and satisfying. The question could be legitimately asked: how could it? However, this is a matter for the author to decide, not the critic. All the critic can do is observe (ruefully), that a book which has some of the finest plot and thematic movement during its course, and which has enormous moments of triumph, disaster and relief, does not finish in any way which is remotely satisfying. For all its strengths, the Harry Potter sequence never has turning points as powerful as the death of Gandalf, the victory at Helm’s Deep, the battle of Minas Tirith, the destruction of the ring or the crowning of Aragorn. And yet, JK Rowling manages to bring all of the complex elements of seven books together to finish in a satisfying fashion at the end of the final book. In quite a different way, Tolstoy brings us to a satisfying end, despite the loss of one of the major characters a few chapters earlier.

Tolkien fans may consider this to be heresy, but it seems to me there is little point in defending the Lord of the Rings by denying the self-evident flaws. The simple answer to the question at the beginning is: yes, the Lord of the Rings is superb. Anyone who can’t see that has a flawed aesthetic. Anyone who can see it, but has been taught or learned theoretically that it is a bad book, and therefore has persuaded themselves that they did not, in fact, enjoy it, has seriously damaged their critical faculties. On the other hand, the Lord of the Rings is not a novel, in the technical sense, at all. It is a tale, a romance, a cycle, a work of major creation, perhaps something unique. It is the inspiration for a generation of video games, a cultural phenomenon, the beginning, and perhaps the end, of a literary genre. Is the genre itself valid? Perhaps. So far it has thrown up a handful of great works, and a mountain of dross. But so did every other new literary movement. We could say that we stand on the bones of previous generations of literary endeavours. Or, more exactly, we can say that, for the mere payment of a few pounds toll-fee, we drive on their pulp, if we wish to save a half hour going from north to south or south to north.

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