The Burning Eye of Tolkien

So, yet another list of favourite books has come out topped by The Lord of the Rings. (This one from NPR.) It got me wondering: Why?

Now, I read the trilogy at least eight times, in the paperback single-volume edition that my grandmother gave me sometime in my early teens or thereabouts. (I will say I haven't had the urge to read it lately.) I love the movies, too, with the inevitable few carps. And yet...

LOTR has significant flaws. The overly-massive backstory (which Tolkien's son is still publishing in umpteen volumes) is probably not one of them, but it doesn't make it an easy book to pick up and immediately understand. The prose is... old-fashioned, at best, exactly the kind of thing you'd expect from an Oxford don who'd been in World War I.

There's Tom Bombadil, rightly cut from the movies (I don't think I've heard anyone express anything other than relief at that decision), and the songs, likewise. The story is slow to get moving. There are only three female characters to speak of, only one actually does things (Eowyn), and she does things by disguising herself as a man.

The politics belong to the 1930s, when an educated person could say "lesser races" with a straight face (not that Tolkien uses the phrase, as far as I remember, but he doesn't need to - it's implied clearly enough). I could go on.

So why is this consistently the most beloved book, getting onto list after list - and not only on the lists, but usually at the top?

Let's speculate.

It could be its iconic status as what you might call a "genre fount". Epic fantasy owes its genesis to LOTR, after all - though I suspect that epic fantasy is, otherwise, a minority taste, so it can't just be that. I would have expected its pulpy sword-and-sorcery predecessors to have more status, if that was so. Of course, sword-and-sorcery is a genre with multiple defining books, whereas LOTR founded epic fantasy all by itself.

It could be its nobility and high-mindedness. I'm actually serious. Sword-and-sorcery is down and dirty, urban (mostly) and gritty. It's not aspirational literature. Epic fantasy gives us a myth of striving to preserve what is left of our noble origins in a degenerate age, which is, after all, an appealing theme, even if it's also an elitist and reactionary one. It also romanticises rural life, feudalism and chivalry, and as westerners we're suckers for that, apparently.

It could be, of course, that Tolkien, a philologist who loved the Kalevala and the Elder Edda and Beowulf and all those other obscure classics that only get read by students these days, was getting his mythopoea first-hand rather than, like his imitators, second-hand and diluted. I suspect that the feel of mythic power in LOTR is a big factor in its popularity, and a factor that's a lot harder to reproduce than the externals of epic fantasy which we're all so tired of. (Clash of great nations, quest, Chosen One, Dark Lord, McGuffin, mixed group of companions, swords and horses, nobility, mysterious old wizard, twilight of the elves/gods/empire, yadda yadda yadda.)

(For anyone wanting to write better epic fantasy, by the way, I'd suggest reading the obscure, wonderful Well at the World's End by the multi-talented William Morris. The link is to the free text at Project Gutenberg. Both Tolkien and Lewis knew and loved it, which is why I read it, and I'm glad I did.)

Perhaps, having attained the status of a "classic" because of its freshness when originally published, its mythic depth and its many imitators, LOTR continues to be cited out of reflex when people think "great fiction" or "great F & SF". Maybe it's one of those "I fell in love with the genre through this book when I was young" things. I don't know.

What I do know is that I want to bring down the burning eye of Tolkien by casting the quest-epic into Mount Doom, because even though he does it so well, many other people do it so, so badly. This happens in every genre, of course, particularly ones that start selling well. Publishers will shove out any old dreck in a popular genre once a breakout hit has made it popular, while overlooking, in general, the next breakout hit because "it's not what's selling currently". So goes the world. Need I say more than "vampire"?

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