The Magazine

Making Middle Earth

From "The Hobbit" to "The Lord of the Rings."

Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By DANIEL KENNELLY
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Tolkien and the Great War

The Threshold of Middle-earth

by John Garth

Houghton Mifflin, 400 pp., $26

The Road to Middle-earth

How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology

by Tom Shippey

Houghton Mifflin, 416 pp., $13

The Gospel According to Tolkien

Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth

by Ralph Wood

Westminster John Knox, 169 pp., $14.95

WHEN THE FIRST VOLUME of the Lord of the Rings appeared in 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien's epic was not received with anything resembling the acclaim it enjoys today. That's an easy fact to forget--given the way the hippie adoration for the book in the 1960s made it a bestseller of the counterculture, then the Catholic reclaiming of Tolkien in the 1980s made it a staple of religious reading lists, and how the stunning box-office success of Peter Jackson's screen versions in the early 2000s have introduced the story to new generations.

The reviews that first greeted the Lord of the Rings can only be described as mixed, with reviewers tending to wild extremes. In a dust-jacket blurb for The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien's friend and colleague C.S. Lewis compared the author to Ariosto, and said of the entire work after publication of the final volume, The Return of the King, in 1955, "I hardly dared hope it would have the success which I was sure it deserved. Happily I am proved wrong." W.H. Auden (a former student of Tolkien's) solemnly declared, "If someone dislikes it, I shall never trust their literary judgment about anything again."

Meanwhile, writing in the Daily Telegraph in 1954, Peter Green dismissed the first book as a "shapeless work" that "veers from Pre-Raphaelite to Boy's Own Paper." In a 1956 review in the Nation, Edmund Wilson declared that praise for Tolkien is explicable only by the fact that "certain people, especially, perhaps, in Britain, have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash." In a 1955 Observer essay entitled "A Boy's World," Edwin Muir wrote: "The astonishing thing is that all the characters are boys masquerading as adult heroes. The hobbits . . . are ordinary boys; the fully human heroes have reached the fifth form; but hardly one of them knows anything about women, except by hearsay."

Such reviews cut Tolkien to the bone. "Blast Edwin Muir and his delayed adolescence," Tolkien lashed out in a letter to his publisher. "He ought to know better." The literary furor even prompted Tolkien to write a short poem to mock the critics: "The Lord of the Rings" / is one of those things: / if you like you do; / if you don't, then you boo!

But perhaps the criticism cut deep because Tolkien, to a certain extent, agreed with it. What unites the opprobrium directed at the Lord of the Rings is a complaint about the book's juvenile character. And what the critics meant by juvenilism was, essentially, that the books involved what came to be called "escapism." The world of young-adult fiction, then as now, was rife with stories that took flight from reality into realms of fairy tale and fantasy.

Shortly after he published The Hobbit, but before he began the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien set out to reclaim the idea of escapism in literature. First delivered as the 1938 Andrew Lang Address at Oxford, his essay "On Fairy-stories" explains:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used. . . . Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing . . . the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.

The Hobbit itself began as an exercise in escape, as Humphrey Carpenter recounts in his biography of Tolkien. A teacher at the time, Tolkien maintained a heavy course-load and took on extra work grading exam papers to make ends meet. In the midst of doing this dull work one day, he came upon a page left blank--"a boon to all exam markers," he told an interviewer in 1972. "I turned it over and wrote on the back, 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'" It was a word he did not recall ever hearing or using before--and thus, for a philologist, an irresistible opportunity to whittle away time in an effort to discover what the word really meant.

The result became part of the opening of The Hobbit, readers' introduction to the fantasy world of Middle-earth, which Tolkien published in 1937: