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:

Hobbits . . . are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. . . . There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large folk like you and me come blundering along. . . . They are inclined to be fat in the stomach . . . and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it).

The hobbit hero, Bilbo Baggins, lives a comfortable life in a well-furnished, well-provisioned hobbit-hole called simply "Bag End." He enjoys smoking a pipe, and regularly takes his afternoon tea at four o'clock (as ought to be guessed by his surname, which according to the "Oxford English Dictionary" means anything eaten between meals in substantial form, especially afternoon tea).

In short, he lives the best life a middle-class Englishman could expect in the countryside of the early twentieth century--minus machinery based on anything other than a rudimentary technology. And this bourgeois, unadventuresome hobbit, barely distinguishable from a character in one of Trollope's Barchester novels except in stature, is promptly introduced to a cast of characters--thirteen dwarves and an old wizard named Gandalf--straight out of the Norse "Elder Edda."

IN THE NEWLY REVISED and expanded version of "The Road to Middle-earth," Tom Shippey, a colleague of Tolkien at Oxford, has delved deep into Middle-earth's Northern roots. What Tolkien set out to do in "The Hobbit," Shippey suggests, was recreate the forgotten literatures of ancient northern Europe. The dwarves to which Bilbo is introduced in the first chapter--Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Fili, Kili, Bombur, Bifur, Bofur, Dwalin, Balin, and Thorin--have names taken directly from "a section of the Eddic poem "Völuspá," often known as the "Dvergatal" or 'Dwarves' Roster,'" which scholars have typically regarded as a meaningless list. Tolkien, however, saw in the "Dvergatal" and other such scraps not a rigmarole, but "the last faded memento of something once great and important, an Odyssey of the dwarves."

But, particularly in "The Hobbit," Tolkien found it impossible simply to tell a story from the heroic world of the North. The narrative itself required the irony of Bilbo Baggins, a bourgeois hobbit, if only to connect the modern reader to the lost world. With prodding from the wizard Gandalf, Thorin Oakenshield and the dwarves agree to employ Bilbo as a "burglar" to accompany them in a journey to reclaim their far-off, ancestral home, the Lonely Mountain, from the depredations of the dragon Smaug.

For Bilbo, discretion in battle is often the only part of valor, and his ineptitude at "burglarious proceedings" more than once threatens to throw the whole company into ruin. The strong comic vein of "The Hobbit" owes much to the clash between Bilbo's modern anachronisms--the jacket he wears, his handkerchiefs, his talk of "profit" and "contracts"--and the archaic world in which Thorin Oakenshield and the others live. The dwarves are on a high and noble quest, straight out of the age of ancient epic. Bilbo is on an adventure, straight out of the age of the Victorian novel. All the comedy in the book comes from this contrast--but in the end, the comic vein gives way, as Thorin, on his deathbed, exchanges with Bilbo parting words indicating a newfound mutual understanding and tolerance of their respective worlds:

"I am glad that I have shared in your perils--that has been more than any Baggins deserves."

"No!" said Thorin. "There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

Perhaps what Tolkien hoped is that through the comic and ironic contrast of a modern hobbit let loose in a heroic world, present-day readers would come to some appreciation of the past. Or perhaps he simply caught hold of the tail of a fantastic children's story, that day when he scribbled in an exam book, and all he did was hold on while it bucked and galloped its way to the end of the book. Maybe he meant it, in other words, or maybe he didn't, but either way he was clearly on to something, for Middle-earth proved a thicker, richer place than was necessary for the story.

Praise for "The Hobbit" was largely glowing--the New York Herald-Tribune named it best children's story of the year in 1938--and sales were brisk. Thus it was no surprise when his publisher, Allen & Unwin, asked Tolkien to write a sequel. Neither his publishers nor Tolkien himself would have guessed that this "New Hobbit" would morph over time into the sprawling, half million-word epic trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings."

Tolkien's earliest manuscripts demonstrate the vast departures from the sequel he initially set out to write. Bilbo was originally to be the hero of the new tale. The ring of invisibility he obtained in "The Hobbit" was to be somehow important to the plot of "The Lord of the Rings," but a far cry from the overwhelming presence the Ruling Ring later became. Aragorn, the tall, grim-faced Dunedain ranger and heir to the throne of Gondor, began his life as Trotter, "a queer-looking, brown-faced hobbit" who wears wooden shoes.

LIKE SCAFFOLDING left behind after a construction project, some "Hobbit"-like elements survived the process of revision to retain a place in "The Fellowship of the Ring." One such passage is a scene in which a fox comes across Frodo, Sam, and Pippin camping in the Shire at the outset of their journey: "'Hobbits!' he thought. 'Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There's something mighty queer behind this.' He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it." Tolkien no doubt recognized such passages as failures in tone, but he could be very tenacious in holding on to ideas he privately treasured throughout the slash-and-burn process of revision.

The unexpected appearance of the black-clad Ringwraiths who menace the hobbits throughout the first book of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "The Fellowship of the Ring," came as a surprise to the author--or so, at least, he claimed--and it established that the story would have a much darker tone and a more developed understanding of evil than its predecessor. Thus, for example, the dragon Smaug in "The Hobbit" exhibits greed, vanity, and wrath on a gargantuan scale, to be sure, but those vices dwindle to peccadilloes when compared with the evil in "The Lord of the Rings": the wizard Saruman's tragic descent into the depths of pride or Sauron's unrestrained will to power.

BUT THAT CREATES its own literary troubles for Tolkien. You can almost taste his problem. Can the same narrative world that contains the comedy of "The Hobbit" be made to bear the seriousness of "The Lord of the Rings"? Fairies and ghosts are both supernatural beings, no doubt, but even Shakespeare would have shied away from the prospect of introducing Hamlet's father to Titania, or setting "Midsummer Night's Dream" in Denmark.

Part of Tolkien's solution is a change of diction. In "The Hobbit" the enemy soldiers are called "goblins," a name connoting a mischievousness that "The Lord of the Rings" cannot stand--which is why Tolkien slides into calling them "orcs," a word deriving directly from the Old English orcnéas, or the "demon-corpses" of the Beowulf-poet.

Most of the books recently published to cash in on the success of the feature films concern evil in "The Lord of the Rings"--as, indeed, they must. It is the dominant feature of the book, compelling Tolkien to abandon the successful formula of "The Hobbit" and to write a book set entirely in the heroic world, even if its hobbit heroes are not the traditional stuff of heroism.

John Garth's biographical sketch, "Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth," sheds light on the unique way in which Tolkien's experiences in World War I and the Battle of the Somme shaped his literary endeavors. But among all these new books, Ralph Wood's "The Gospel According to Tolkien" stands out for its discussion of the Christian theology that informs the depictions of evil in "The Lord of the Rings."

Other writers--notably Joseph Pearce and Bradley Birzer--have written on the orthodox Christian character of the trilogy, but many of these authors tend to overplay the superficial Christian elements like the eucharistic symbolism of the elven waybread lembas, or the Marian imagery behind the depiction of the elven Lady Galadriel. By taking a less overt, less defensive, and more meditational approach to the work's Christian character, Wood ends up presenting a more complete and convincing discussion of the Catholicity of Tolkien's work. Far from being home to cartoonish villains or black-and-white representations of evil, "The Lord of the Rings," Wood argues convincingly, depicts "malign magic as the product of panicked despair."

The vision of evil in "The Lord of the Rings" is so developed, its presentation of sin and fallenness so painful, and its conclusion mixed so strongly with grief and joy, hope and despair, that one would be justified in asking why anyone would think that reading such a novel is an escape from reality.

Which is why, perhaps, the final film of Peter Jackson's movie trilogy, "The Return of the King," falls short of Tolkien's vision of evil. Fans of the books will likely bristle at many of the innovations Jackson and company employ in the conclusion. Denethor, the steward of Gondor, who in the book immolates himself and his dying son on a funeral pyre out of "panicked despair," is all but drop-kicked into the flames by an action-hero Gandalf in the film. Revisions, like the presence of Aragorn's ghostly army at the Battle of the Pelennor Field, undo Tolkien's meticulous plot structure. And far too much of the responsibility of visual interpretation is surrendered to fantasy illustrators such as Alan Lee and John Howe. Thus the film depicts Sauron as a marble-shaped cat's eye, wreathed in flame, scouring the land like a fluorescent-orange spotlight from the top of the tower of Barad-dur.

Then again, this is Hollywood. The formula for a film's commercial success (if not for Oscars) has always been its ability to make the audience forget the problems of their own lives for a few, short hours. At this task, "The Return of the King" will no doubt succeed, to the delight of moviegoers. Tolkien, however, would likely have called the films a "Flight of the Deserter" rather than an "Escape of the Prisoner."

AS ROUSING an adventure tale as they are, perhaps Jackson's films would have risen above the level of mere fancy if he had been able to translate a few of the book's subtler scenes into film. In one such scene, the ring-bearer Frodo Baggins and his simple hobbit companion Samwise Gamgee have a poignant exchange on the outskirts of Mordor, one of the darkest moments in their journey:

"I used to think that [adventures] were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for . . . a kind of a sport as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folks seemed to have been just landed in them, usually--their paths were laid that way, as you put it. . . . I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?"

"I wonder," said Frodo. "But I don't know. And that's the way of a real tale. . . . You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don't know. And you don't want them to."

The readers of "The Lord of the Rings" know, of course, "what kind of a tale" they're reading. As in all fairy tales, good must triumph over evil: Sauron will be vanquished and the Ruling Ring destroyed. Frodo and Sam cannot know this outcome, and from this ignorance derives their temptation to despair about their own particular endings. But from their ignorance comes as well their almost Christian hope in the providential order of the world--which is what creates and allows their resolve to continue the quest.

Daniel Kennelly is senior editor of The American Enterprise magazine.