The Most Influential Author of the Millennium. Not.
By David Dalton

This morning my Inbox grabbed me by my lapels and thrust this urgent message at me:

FINALLY! A comprehensive look at the millennium’s most influential author and his magical creations! Own the Most Important Book of the 20th Century!

Eagerly, eagerly I scrolled down the leaping lines to see who might this be. Dante? Shakespeare? Dickens? Proust? Joyce? Kafka? Darwin? Nietzsche? Freud? Marx? No, silly, it’s that jolly old elf, J.R.R. Tolkein. The frumpy old fabulator, by God, has beaten them all out.

Sez who? What deluded dodo could conceivably declare Tolkien the greatest author of the last thousand years? I want names! Clearly the burbling blurber of this infoclaim is no more familiar with Lord of the Rings than he is with The Inferno. But he does have statistics. Incredibly enough, Lord of the Rings was voted "The Book of the Millennium" by an reader’s poll, and "Most Important Book of the 20th Century" in a UK National Poll.

All that this proves is what moronic imbeciles the crowd are. It’s as if they did the survey at Burger King or something. And the entire United Kingdom voted Lord of the Rings most important book of the 20th century? God help us.

The thing about Tolkienism is that even the great T’s fiercest fans have a hard time explaining what it is that captivates them. "Even now I find the book silly and boring and rather noisome (to use a word from Tolkien’s special vocabulary)," Jenny Turner writes in her massive article "Reasons for Liking Tolkien" in a recent London Review of Books: "[But] it still locks with my psyche in a most alarming way. There is suction, something fundamental passes between us, like when a spaceship docks."

At some point while thinking about things Tolkien, I realized that out of snobbishness and a reluctance to commit myself to thousands and thousands of pages of fustian allegory, I hadn’t given the old duffer a chance. Like other addictions—heroin, stamp-collecting, cigarettes, and afternoon soaps—I’d assiduously avoided the Hobbit habit. Had I ever actually read him? How could you avoid him in the late ’60s? He was on the bedside reading of the girl dowsed in patchouli, he was in the bog, he was on the table in your doctor’s office, and your acid-eating auntie gave it to you for your birthday.

Flight 476 to L.A. Ideal occasion to take another stab at Tolkien. How unfair I’d been to the old geezer! Very affable Brit ratty and moley stuff, a sort of medieval Wind in the Willows. Right through the appearance of the campy old Gollum who talks like some music-hall drag queen ("Praps ye sits here and chats with it a bitsy, my preciousss"), it’s utterly charming.

Had it gone on in this whimsical all-mimsy-were-the-borograves vein, who could have had a discouraging word to say about it? The first half of The Hobbit is a children’s book in the classic manner of George McDonald, William Morris, J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan), Kenneth Grahame (Wind in the Willows), Beatrix Potter, et al. Except that in Tolkien the characters talk and behave the way the talking animals usually do in nouveau fairy tales. But—as you who have pressed on further into the Mountains of Bafflement well know—it does not stop there. Alas, the book willfully decides to jump from this lawn-Tennyson whimsy straight into a Manichean Sturm-und-Drang epic quest for the Soul of the World.

From old Gollum on, it’s all about this dopey ring. What is it exactly when it’s at home? Tolkien tells us the ring contains an evil wizard’s "cruelty, his malice and his will to dominate all life"—unless, of course, destroyed in the fire Pits of Mordor. Oh, and we’re expected to just take your word for this, professor? Tolkien warns us not to take his books as allegories of anything, but it’s hard not to. So for what might the ring be a metaphor? Given Tolkien’s Luddite tendencies (he considered the automobile a veritable hell on wheels) the most obvious allegory would be that it represents the whole darn, clangy, ugly, rapacious mechanized modern world itself. Or the bomb? Or addiction? Or is the ring (Latin, anus) some Freudian symbol?

Given Tolkien’s portentous apocalyptic quest, few have missed the obvious connection to Wagner. "A combination of Wagner and Winnie-the Pooh," snorted the poet John Heath-Stubbs. Or—as Grouchus Magnus Literatus, Edmund Wilson, put it in "Oh Those Awful Orcs!"—"Hypertrophic... A children’s book which has somehow got out of hand."

Well I too have a few bones to pick with the good professor. The principle one being the book’s endemic tweeness, a sort of self-conscious cutesy, cloying whimsy. Among the things I find "noisome" are the queasy archaisms ("fell," "wains," and "wights"), the fustian, faux-poetic Prince Valiant diction ("Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me" or "Saruman is a wizard… more than that I cannot say"), the clunking allegory and the papier-mâché dragons—and what Jenny Turner calls the "don’t-forget-your-galoshes world" of childbook fantasy.

More serious are the following sweeping statements: "Silmaril’s three jewels were made by Fëanor before the destruction of the Two Trees of Valinor," "Palantíri, the seven Seeing Stones were brought by Elendil and his sons from Númenor," "With Manwë dwells Varda, Lady of the Stars, who knows all the regions of Eä." Now, wait a minute, these are pretty darn large claims, mister. Are we to accept all this stuff just on your say so? I’d like a little corroboration, if you don’t mind.

And those outlandish names! Aragorn, Galadriel, Gimli, Elrond, Treebeard, Skinbark, Quickbeam—thank god they haven’t caught on among parents. Yet. Which brings us to the subject of our seminar: "Infantilism and Regression in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien." "It’s tit in some way," Jenny Turner admits of her T-obsession. "…it’s an infantile comfort. It’s an infantile comfort that is also a black pit." To some degree Tolkien is symptomatic of the Cult of the Child that began with Blake and Wordsworth, developed into a quasi-philosophical theme by Dickens and a form of domestic theology with Dr. Spock and his progeny. The hero of Lord of the Rings is the childlike Frodo Baggins, a sixty-year-old child—which in and of itself is significant because of the inability of many of my generation to become adults. And, Lord knows, I’m one.

Alison Lurie in a recent review of the Harry Potter Books in The New York Review of Books asks why so many of the best-known children’s books are British or American:

One explanation may be that in Britain and America more people never grow up.... Because childhood is seen as a superior condition, many Americans and Britons are naturally reluctant to give it up. They tend to think of themselves as young much longer, and cling to childhood attitudes and amusements. On vacation, and in the privacy of their homes, they readily revert to an earlier age: they wear childish clothes and play childish games and sometimes read children’s books.

The most notorious instance of this phenomenon being the sixties: the self-styled children’s crusade whose hordes elevated The Lord of the Rings to quasi-religious cult status. The self-mythologizing of the hippies fused effortlessly with Tolkien’s apocalyptic vision, his pollyannaish idyll blended with Flower Power, his simple life in the Shire appealed to the counter-culture’s rustic fantasies, and his simplistic good-guys-versus-bad-guys plot synched with the baby-boom generation’s cartoon theology. And, of course, a good deal of what I have against Tolkien comes from a cringing recollection of my own naïve and fervent subscription to many of these delusions.

Tolkien went to a great deal of trouble to make his texts sound authentic—incorporating the names, the mythology, the themes and landscapes of tribal legends into his books—but they sound nothing like the savage, mysterious tales of the ancient Celts and the Norsemen from which he drew his characters and stories. Take, for example, "Culhwch and Olwen" from the eleventh century collection of Welsh tales known as The Mabinogion. Here we see an ancient, enigmatic, cosmic drama acted out—the bawdy and rowdy King Arthur, the incandescent Olwen (trefoil lilies grow up where she treads), her father the fantastic and poignant giant Ysbaddaden with his mythic list of feats for the suitor Culhwch to perform: "Get me the harp of Teirtu which plays by itself… the Birds of Rhiannon, who wake the dead and lull the living," the monstrous wild boar king Twrch Trywth, the Interpreter of Tongues who can speak the language of animals, and the cosmogonic magician Mabon son of Modron. In comparison to the fabulous creatures in this tale, the people in The Hobbit seem like repertory actors in Gilbert and Sullivan, the landscape they roam a pasteboard set. The Lord of the Rings is self-referential, a fairy-tale which, lacking the subtexts of genuine folk tales or the Grimm marchen, becomes a sort of giant (and empty) confection of Celtic and Norse mythology peopled with cute and symbolic types who have no substance or meaning.

In his rejection of the modern world, Tolkien ironically replaced its terrifying realities with just the sort of fangless folk tales that would become the staple product of Disney and DreamWorks. In attempting to return to the ur-mythologies of pre-history he unwittingly meandered into the realm of folksy kitsch. "[It’s] a sort of anti-book… a work of paraliterature," Jenny Turner writes, "the Franklin Mint collectible of English writing. Look at it as it sits there, massive, hollow and a little sinister, like one of those hand-tooled leatherette book-a-likes you can hide your videos in." According to W.H. Auden (a big fan), the man himself had no taste. "He lives in a hideous house," Auden wrote. "I can’t tell you how awful it is—with hideous pictures on the walls."

The twentieth century was the era of modernism and one of modernism’s projects was the invention of original mythologies. Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Kafka, Proust, Lawrence, Burroughs, Kerouac, all created new myths. Tolkien’s anti-modernism doomed him to a pantomime mythology peopled with two-dimensional dwarfs and elves with no more substance than garden ornaments. He created fictional languages but failed to see that mythology always involves transformation and that the true cosmographer of the age was James Joyce, who transmuted language into something new and strange and re-imagined mythology into the universal language of the dream.

One of Tolkien’s more endearing qualities, it must be said, is his luxuriant eccentricity, his "matchstick-cathedral labor of madness" in attempting such a batty thing to begin with, and his philological nuttiness. As you must know, Tolkien was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and ancient Norse languages and in him the pedantic took a fantastically antic and nutty turn. Consider this glossary in the back of The Silmarillion: "Elements in Quenya and Sindarin names for those who have an interest in Eldarin languges." At this my hand shot up and I hope yours did too. "Quenya," he goes on to explain, is "the ancient tongue, common to all the Elves, in the form that it took in Valinor; brought to Middle-earth by the Noldorin exiles, but abandoned by them as a daily speech, especially after the edict of King Thingol against its use." Sindarin is described as: "the Elvish tongue of Belerind derived from common Elvish speech but greatly changed through long ages from Quenya of Valinor." This is certifiable pottiness, an academic quirkiness that at its best—as in the following entry from the selfsame glossary—approaches the hallucinatory poetry of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear:

Êl, elen "Star" According to Elvish legend, ele was the primitive exclamation of the Elves when they first saw the stars.

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