A COMMENTARY ON TOLKIEN´S WORKS
The Lord of the Rings has become one of the key books which teachers and librarians recommend to young adults to lead them towards adult literature; but it was not always so. The making of the book was a series of accidents, and, once published, young people insisted on reading it despite the hostility of literary critics and some educationalists, and the then difficulty of obtaining all three instalments in the right order.
Professor J.R.R. Tolkien made up the story of The Hobbit for his children, without intending to publish it. While Tolkien was advising the publishers George Allen and Unwin on a translation of the Old English poem Beowulf, an editor read The Hobbit in manuscript and recommended it for publication. Tolkien had not even writ`ten the final chapters. After The Hobbit was successfully published in 1937, Stanley Unwin, Tolkien´s publisher, asked him for a sequel.
After beginning a supposed companion piece for children, Tolkien´s creativity led him on an unexpected journey.
In composing The Hobbit, Tolkien drew on this mythology, and set the story in the same Secondary World of Middle-earth in a later era; thus, as he developed the sequel, he began to make connections withThe Silmarillion. He had already said that Bilbo´s sword was made in Gondolin (an Elven city at war with Morgoth); now he discovered that Bilbo´s magic ring had been made by Sauron; it was the Ruling Ring which governed all the others; and Sauron was also Necromancer. the sorcerer whom Gandalf had defeated in The Hobbit.
Over twelve years The Lord of the Rings developed into a massive typescript, not the children´s book his publishers had requested, and initially they rejected it, for Tolkien wanted The Silmarillion published as well. Several years later, owing to the enthusiasm of Stanley Unwin´s son Rayner, Unwin and Tolkien reconsidered, and over 1954 - 1955 The Lord of the Rings was published in three instalments, with the cliff-hanger at the end of Volume Two causing tremendous frustration to many devoted readers.
Among them was Elizabeth Cook, who wrote: "The inherent greatness of myth and fairy tale is a poetic greatness. Childhood reading of symbolic and fantastic tales contributes something irreplaceable to any later experience of literature...The whole world of epic, romance, and allegory is open to a reader who has always taken fantasy for granted, and the way into it may be hard for one who never heard fairy tales as a child." (The Ordinary and the Fabulous, Cambridge University Press, 1969, 1976).
Tolkien´s reception in the USA was more whole-hearted. Independently of Tolkien, a popular style of heroic fantasy had developed, entitled "Sword-and-sorcery," usually written by science-fiction authors as recreation from stories of space-ships and aliens. Barbarians, sorcerers, seductive princesses, and treasure hoards were common features of yarns set amid a mix of fantasy cultures and periods, from Viking saga to the Arabian Nights. So, although Tolkien saw himself in a literary tradition running from the Volsung Saga and Celtic legend through Rider Haggard, William Morris, Dunsany, and Eddison, there was another "pulp" tradition from legend, Haggard, Dunsany, E.R. Burroughs, Cabell, H.E. Howard´s Conan the Barbarian, Fritz Leiber and L. Sprague de Camp. Typical of this American style is an anti-heroic, tongue-in-cheek attitude to great deeds which invites the reader to bridge the gulf between "real life" and fantasy: Tolkien does employ this anachronistic approach in The Hobbit, in the person of Bilbo and in the authorial comments, but in The Lord of the Rings this self-consciousness disappears, replaced by a pervading down-to-earth quality in the four hobbits´ response to the heroic world, to accustom readers to heroic attitudes and archaic language, without inviting ridicule.
Since then youngsters have continued to fall in love with the Middle-Earth sagas, overwhelmed by the suspense, joy, beauty, and poignancy of this unique reading experience. In fairness, Tolkien´s work should be judged by the conventions of its genre, not by criteria devised for contemporary fiction. I will now propose reasons for asserting its literary value and attempt to counter some anti-Tolkien views.
First, the book´s readability throughout its epic length helps novice readers to progress, giving them confidence and a sense of achievement so that they may tackle other long works. A series of cliff-hangers and surprise confrontations maintain the suspense, the whole epic being intricately patterned so that characters separate and reunite, and all tends towards the climaxes of Volume three, when the reader is thrilled by first, the arrival of the Riders of Rohan to relieve the Siege of Gondor, then Eowyn´s challenge to the Lord of the Nazgul and his death, which fulfils the prophecy that "no living man" would slay him, and finally Aragorn´s arrival in the fleet of corsairs´ ships.
In recalling features of myth and legend, The Lord of the Ringsinspires its readers to search the past: Norse and Welsh legend, and Old English poetry. Teachers might encourage this, and also recommend fantasy authors who owe Tolkien a debt: he created the appetite for fantasy by which they have profited: published for children are C.S. Lewis, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and Ursula K. Le Guin for adults and young adults, Jane Yolen, Robin McKinley, David Eddings, Terry Pratchett, and Stephen Donaldson.
Tolkien has been criticised for flat characterisation: but in genre literature the reader must identify with the main character (or his partner, e.g. Dr. Watson), who must be an ordinary individual facing extraordinary pressures. Tolkien´s main characters are drawn to three patterns: they have individual qualities; archetypal qualities; and they represent their species. All the main characters are well differentiated: the five hobbits, of course, and also the four heroes, Aragorn, Boromir, Eomer, and Faramir. Gimli and Legolas represent their races, and in the experiences of Gimli, Tolkien includes a plea for racial tolerance. Wherever the Company goes, Gimli meets hostility because he is a Dwarf, but the Company stands by him and he wins the esteem of Elves and Men.
Tolkien´s view of Evil has also been criticised. However, it is appropriate for supernatural genres to depict creatures of ultimate evil, like aliens and monsters, whereas fictions set in the real world cannot do this. So we need fantasy to experience the extremes of Good and Evil, testing real life against the fantasy. Sauron, in his desire to conquer and control the world, is not very different from a real-world dictator: it is his methods which count. Do not real-life soldiers deport and even massacre civilians? Consider the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, taking place at the time when Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings. Issues in the real world may date: Shakespeare´s play Richard III is a timeless portrait of a tyrant, but the real Richard III was probably not guilty of all the murders he commits or orders in the play.
Tolkien urges his readers to choose Good over Evil; but as a Roman Catholic believing the doctrine of original sin, he feared for the world´s future. He was particularly concerned about ultimate war, which he predicted before the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima: "Shall there be two cities of Minas Morgul, grinning at each other across a dead land filled with rottenness?" In his hatred of industrial pollution and his portrayal of the Ents, he was also ahead of his time. Meanwhile the contemporary novel of personal relationships may ignore wider issues which Tolkien pondered throughout his life.
Of Tolkien´s works, the YA library should have The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and also Unfinished Tales - with further material from The Silmarillion and an adult love story, "Aldarion and Erendis." Tolkien´s son Christopher has edited Tolkien´s early versions of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings; under the overall title The History of Middle-earth the series totals twelve volumes; the YA library could acquire these in paperback if there is demand, and also Tolkien´s Letters and Biography. Tolkien´s work is not only enjoyable, but also relevant to contemporary life: we should recommend it to young people and rejoice when they become enthusiastic for tales of Middle-earth.
Work by work :