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Literary reception of The Lord of the Rings

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J. R. R. Tolkien's bestselling fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings had an initial mixed literary reception. Despite some enthusiastic early reviews from supporters such as W. H. Auden, Iris Murdoch, and C. S. Lewis, literary hostility to Tolkien quickly became acute and continued until the start of the 21st century.

From the 1980s, academic studies began to defend Tolkien; since then, the pace has steadily increased, resulting in a thorough literary re-evaluation of his work. Interpretations of The Lord of the Rings have included Marxist criticism, sometimes at odds with Tolkien's social conservatism; the psychological reading of heroes, their partners, and their opponents as Jungian archetypes; and comparison of Tolkien with modernist writers.

Enthusiastic early support[edit]

Early reviews of The Lord of the Rings were sharply divided between enthusiastic support and outright rejection. Some literary figures immediately welcomed the book's publication. The poet W. H. Auden, a former pupil of Tolkien's and an admirer of his writings, regarded The Lord of the Rings as a "masterpiece", further stating that in some cases it outdid the achievement of John Milton's Paradise Lost.[1] Kenneth F. Slater wrote in Nebula Science Fiction, April 1955, "... if you don't read it, you have missed one of the finest books of its type ever to appear".[2] Michael Straight described it in The New Republic as " of the few works of genius in modern literature."[3] The novelist Iris Murdoch mentioned Middle-earth characters in her novels, and wrote to Tolkien saying she had been "utterly ... delighted, carried away, absorbed by The Lord of the Rings ... I wish I could say it in the fair Elven tongue."[4][5] Richard Hughes wrote that nothing like it had been attempted in English literature since Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, making it hard to compare, but that "For width of imagination it almost beggars parallel, and it is nearly as remarkable for its vividness and the narrative skill which carries the reader on, enthralled, for page after page."[6] The Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison, too, was a strong and long-time supporter, corresponding with Tolkien about Lord of the Rings both before and after publication.[7][8] Tolkien's friend and fellow member of the literary group The Inklings, C. S. Lewis, wrote "here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron."[9] The fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin had a close relationship with Tolkien's writings, and reflected on issues such as whether fantasy is escapist, the subtlety of the character portraits in The Lord of the Rings, its narrative structure, and its handling of the nature of evil in her 1979 essay collection The Language of the Night.[10][11]

Literary hostility[edit]

Much of the literary establishment rejected the work outright as outdated in style; literary figures attacked it as childish and unreadable. In 1955, Edwin Muir wrote that "All the characters are boys masquerading as adult heroes ... and will never come to puberty ... Hardly one of them knows anything about women", causing Tolkien to complain angrily to his publisher.[12] In 1956, in a review entitled "Oo, Those Awful Orcs!", Edmund Wilson called Tolkien's work "juvenile trash", stating that "Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form".[13] Michael Moorcock, in his 1978 essay, "Epic Pooh", compared Tolkien's work to the children's book Winnie-the-Pooh. He asserted, citing the third chapter of The Lord of the Rings, that its "predominant tone" was "the prose of the nursery-room .. a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console."[14][12][15] In 2001, The New York Times reviewer Judith Shulevitz called it pedantic and full of "fusty archaisms",[16] while the London Review of Books editor Jenny Turner attacked it as a comforting read for the immature.[17] The Inkling Hugo Dyson complained loudly at readings of The Lord of the Rings; Christopher Tolkien records Dyson as "lying on the couch, and lolling and shouting and saying, 'Oh God, no more Elves.'"[18] Tolkien scholar Jared Lobdell concluded in 2006 that "no 'mainstream critic' appreciated The Lord of the Rings", and that they were in no position to criticise it as most of them were "unsure what it was and why readers liked it."[12]

From 1983, Tom Shippey set about systematically rebutting the literary critics' claims.[19] His The Road to Middle-earth, and Verlyn Flieger's 1983 Splintered Light, slowly began to reduce the literary hostility to The Lord of the Rings.[10] Looking for the causes of the establishment's hostility, Brian Rosebury described the work as owing something to medieval romance, though also "more than is often believed" to the mainstream tradition of the English novel.[20][21] Shippey stated that many writers revealed "gross inconsistency between their self-professed critical ideals and their practice when they encounter Tolkien".[10] In 2014, Patrick Curry wrote that Tolkien's critics were demonstrably and consistently mistaken, suggesting to him "a structural or systematic bias at work".[10] Summing up the complaints, he identified two consistent features: "a visceral hostility and emotional animus, and a plethora of mistakes showing that the books had not been read closely".[10] In his view, these derived from the critics' feeling that Tolkien threatened their "dominant ideology", modernism. Tolkien was, he wrote, modern but not modernist, at least as well-educated as the critics, and not ironic. The Lord of the Rings is equally "a story told by a master story-teller; a story inspired by philology; a story suffused with Catholic values; and a mythic (or mythopoeic) story with a North European pagan inflection". In other words, Tolkien was about as anti-modernist as possible. However, Curry believes that more recent critics like China Miéville have been taking a more open attitude.[10]


Tolkien studies[edit]

Diagram of Patrick Grant's Jungian View of The Lord of the Rings with hero, anima and other archetypes[22]

Tolkien's fiction began to acquire respectability in academia only at the end of his life, with the publication of Paul H. Kocher's 1972 Master of Middle-Earth.[23] In 1973, Patrick Grant, a scholar of Renaissance literature, offered a psychological interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, identifying similarities between the interactions of the characters and Jungian archetypes. He states that the Hero appears both in noble and powerful form as Aragorn, and in childlike form as Frodo, whose quest can be interpreted as a personal journey of individuation. They are opposed by the Ringwraiths. Frodo's anima is the Elf-queen Galadriel, who is opposed by the evil giant female spider Shelob. The Old Wise Man archetype is filled by the wizard Gandalf, who is opposed by the corrupted wizard Saruman. Frodo's Shadow is, appropriately in Grant's view, also a male Hobbit, like Frodo. Aragorn has an Ideal Partner in Arwen, but also a Negative Animus in Eowyn, at least until she meets Faramir and chooses a happy union with him instead.[22]

Richard C. West compiled an annotated checklist of Tolkien criticism in 1981.[24] Serious study began to reach the broader community with Shippey's 1982 The Road to Middle-earth and Verlyn Flieger's Splintered Light in 1983.[23] To borrow a phrase from Flieger, academia had trouble "taking seriously a subject which had, until he wrote, been dismissed as unworthy of attention."[25]

Tolkien's works have since become the subject of a substantial body of academic research, both as fantasy fiction and as an extended exercise in invented languages.[23] In 1998, Daniel Timmons wrote in a dedicated issue of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts that scholars still disagreed about Tolkien's place in literature, but that those critical of it were a minority. He noted that Shippey had said that the "literary establishment" did not include Tolkien among the canon of academic texts, whereas Jane Chance "boldly declares that at last Tolkien 'is being studied as important in himself, as one of the world's greatest writers'".[23]

The pace of scholarly publications on Tolkien increased dramatically in the early 2000s. The dedicated journal Tolkien Studies was founded in 2004; that same year, the scholar Neil D. Isaacs introduced an anthology of Tolkien criticism with the words "This collection assumes that argument about the value and power of The Lord of the Rings has been settled, certainly to the satisfaction of its vast, growing, persistent audience, but also of a considerable body of critical judgment".[26] The open-access Journal of Tolkien Research began publication in 2014.[27] A bibliographic database of Tolkien criticism is maintained at Wheaton College.[28] Pressure to study Tolkien seriously came initially from fans rather than academics; the scholarly legitimacy of the field was still a subject of debate in 2015.[29][30]

Marxist criticism[edit]

Tolkien was strongly opposed to both Nazism and Communism; Hal Colebatch in The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia states that his views can be seen in what he considers to be the somewhat parodic "The Scouring of the Shire". Leftist critics have accordingly attacked Tolkien's social conservatism.[31] E. P. Thompson blames the cold warrior mentality on "too much early reading of The Lord of the Rings".[32] Other Marxist critics, however, have been more positive towards Tolkien. While criticizing the politics embedded in The Lord of the Rings,[33] China Miéville admires Tolkien's creative use of Norse mythology, tragedy, monsters, and subcreation, as well as his criticism of allegory.[34]

Literary re-evaluation[edit]

Diagram of Brian Rosebury's analysis of The Lord of the Rings as a combined quest (to destroy the Ring) and journey (as a series of Tableaux of places in Middle-earth); the two support each other, and must interlock tightly to do so.[20]

With the understanding that Tolkien was worth studying, scholars, authors, and critics began to re-evaluate his Middle-earth writings as literature. The humanities scholar Brian Rosebury has stated that The Lord of the Rings is both a quest – a story with a goal, to destroy the Ring – and a journey, an expansive tour of Middle-earth through a series of tableaux that filled readers with delight; and the two supported each other.[20] In 2013, the fantasy author and humorist Terry Pratchett used a mountain theme to praise Tolkien, likening Tolkien to Mount Fuji, and writing that any other fantasy author "either has made a deliberate decision against the mountain, which is interesting in itself, or is in fact standing on [it]."[35]

In 2016, the British literary critic and poet Roz Kaveney reviewed five books about Tolkien in The Times Literary Supplement. She recorded that in 1991 she had said of The Lord of the Rings that it was worth "intelligent reading but not passionate attention",[36] and accepted that she had "underestimated the extent to which it would gain added popularity and cultural lustre from Peter Jackson's film adaptations".[36] As Pratchett had done, she used a mountain metaphor, alluding to Basil Bunting's poem about Ezra Pound's Cantos,[37] with the words "Tolkien's books have become Alps and we will wait in vain for them to crumble."[36] Kaveney called Tolkien's works "Thick Texts", books that are best read with some knowledge of his Middle-earth framework rather than as "single artworks". She accepted that he was a complicated figure, a scholar, a war survivor, a skilful writer of "light verse", a literary theorist, and a member of "a coterie of other influential thinkers". Further, she stated that he had much in common with modernist writers like T. S. Eliot. She suggested that The Lord of the Rings is "a good, intelligent, influential and popular book", but perhaps not, as some of his "idolators" would have it, "a transcendent literary masterpiece".[36]

Andrew Higgins, reviewing the 2014 volume A Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien, welcomed the "eminent line-up" of the authors of its 36 articles (naming in particular Tom Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, Dimitra Fimi, John D. Rateliff and Gergely Nagy). He called it "joyous indeed that after many years of polite (and not so polite) disdain and dismissal by establishment 'academics' and the 'cultural intelligentsia'" that Tolkien had reached the "academic pantheon" of Blackwell Companions. Higgins applauded the volume's editor, Stuart D. Lee, for "the overall thematic structuring of this volume, which offers a progressive profile of Tolkien the man, the student, and scholar, and the mythopoeist".[38]


  1. ^ Auden, W. H. (22 January 1956). "At the End of the Quest, Victory". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 20 February 2011. Retrieved 4 December 2010.
  2. ^ "Something to Read NSF 12". Retrieved 19 November 2019.
  3. ^ "The Fantastic World of Professor Tolkien", Michael Straight, January 17, 1956, New republic
  4. ^ Wood, Ralph C. (2015). Introduction: Tolkien among the Moderns. University of Notre Dame Press. pp. 1–6. doi:10.2307/j.ctvpj75hk. ISBN 978-0-268-15854-5. What is less well known is that Murdoch had a deep and abiding affection for the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien. She read and reread The Lord of the Rings. She refers to Tolkien's achievement in her philosophical works and alludes to his characters and his fiction in her own novels.
  5. ^ Cowles, Gregory (9 June 2017). "Book Review: A Return to Middle-Earth, 44 Years After Tolkien's Death". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 August 2020. Iris Murdoch, who sent Tolkien an admiring letter toward the end of his life. 'I have been meaning for a long time to write to you to say how utterly I have been delighted, carried away, absorbed by The Lord of the Rings', she wrote. 'I wish I could say it in the fair Elven tongue.'
  6. ^ Wegierski, Mark (27 April 2013). "Middle Earth v. Duniverse – the different worlds of Tolkien and Herbert". The Quarterly Review. Retrieved 7 August 2020. Something which has scarcely been attempted on this scale since Spenser's Faerie Queene, so one can't praise the book by comparisons – there's nothing to compare it with. What can I say then?… For width of imagination it almost beggars parallel, and it is nearly as remarkable for its vividness and the narrative skill which carries the reader on, enthralled, for page after page.
  7. ^ Mitchison, Naomi (18 September 1954). "Review: One Ring to Bind Them". New Statesman and Nation.
  8. ^ Letters #122, #144, #154, #164, #176, #220 to Naomi Mitchison (dates in 1949, 1954–5, 1959)
  9. ^ Ebert, Roger (2006). Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2007. Andrews McMeel Publishing. p. 897. ISBN 978-0-7407-6157-7.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Curry, Patrick (2020) [2014]. "The Critical Response to Tolkien's Fiction". In Lee, Stuart D. (ed.). A Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien (PDF). Wiley Blackwell. pp. 369–388. ISBN 978-1-11965-602-9.
  11. ^ Le Guin, Ursula (2002). "Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings". In Haber, Karen (ed.). Meditations on Middle-earth: New Writing on the Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien by Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others. St Martin's Press. cited in Duriez, Colin (2003). "Journal Article Review: Survey of Tolkien Literature". VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center. 20: 105–114. JSTOR 45296990.
  12. ^ a b c Lobdell, Jared (2013) [2007]. "Criticism of Tolkien, Twentieth Century". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 109–110. ISBN 978-0-415-96942-0.
  13. ^ Wilson, Edmund (14 April 1956). "Oo, Those Awful Orcs! A review of The Fellowship of the Ring". The Nation. JRRVF. Retrieved 1 September 2012.
  14. ^ Moorcock, Michael (1987). "RevolutionSF – Epic Pooh". RevolutionSF. Archived from the original on 24 March 2008. Retrieved 7 August 2020.
  15. ^ Letters, #177 to Rayner Unwin, 8 December 1955
  16. ^ Shulevitz, Judith (22 April 2001). "Hobbits in Hollywood". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 February 2011.
  17. ^ Turner, Jenny (15 November 2001). "Reasons for Liking Tolkien". London Review of Books. 23 (22).
  18. ^ A Film Portrait of J. R. R. Tolkien (Television documentary). Visual Corporation. 1992.
  19. ^ Shippey, Tom (2005) [1982]. The Road to Middle-earth (Third ed.). HarperCollins. pp. 175, 201–203, 363–364. ISBN 978-0261102750.
  20. ^ a b c Rosebury, Brian (2003) [1992]. Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 1–3, 12–13, 25–34, 41, 57. ISBN 978-1403-91263-3.
  21. ^ Shippey, Tom (2005) [1982]. The Road to Middle-Earth (Third ed.). HarperCollins. pp. 237–249. ISBN 978-0261102750.
  22. ^ a b Grant, Patrick (1973). "Tolkien: Archetype and Word". Cross-Currents (Winter 1973): 365–380.
  23. ^ a b c d Timmons, Daniel (1998). "J.R.R. Tolkien: The "Monstrous" in the Mirror". Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. 9 (3 (35) The Tolkien Issue): 229–246. JSTOR 43308359.
  24. ^ West, Richard C. (1981). Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press. ISBN 978-0873382564.
  25. ^ Flieger, Verlyn (2002). Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World (2 ed.). Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-87338-744-6.
  26. ^ Isaacs, Neil D. (2004). Isaacs, Neil D.; Zimbardo, Rose A. (eds.). On the Pleasures of Tolkien Criticism. Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 7–8. ISBN 0-618-42253-6.
  27. ^ "Journal of Tolkien Research". Journal of Tolkien Research. Valparaiso University. Retrieved 8 January 2016.
  28. ^ "Tolkien Database". Wheaton College. Retrieved 8 January 2016.
  29. ^ Schürer, Norbert (13 November 2015). "Tolkien Criticism Today". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 7 August 2020.
  30. ^ Baugher, Luke; Hillman, Tom; Nardi, Dominic J. "Tolkien Criticism Unbound". Mythgard Institute. Retrieved 8 January 2016.
  31. ^ Colebatch, Hal (2013) [2007]. "Communism". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 108–109. ISBN 978-0-415-86511-1.
  32. ^ Thompson, E. P. (24 January 1981). "America's Europe: A Hobbit among Gandalfs". The Nation: 68–72.
  33. ^ Mieville, China. "Tolkien - Middle Earth Meets Middle England". Socialist Review (January 2002).
  34. ^ Mieville, China (15 June 2009). "There and Back Again: Five Reasons Tolkien Rocks". Omnivoracious. Archived from the original on 18 June 2009.
  35. ^ Pratchett, Terry (2013). A Slip of the Keyboard : Collected Non-fiction. Doubleday. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-85752-122-4. OCLC 856191939.
  36. ^ a b c d Kaveney, Roz (24 February 2016). "An English mythology". The Times Literary Supplement. Retrieved 6 August 2020.
  37. ^ Pound, Ezra. "On The Fly-Leaf Of Pound's Cantos". Retrieved 8 August 2020.
  38. ^ Higgins, Andrew (2015). "[Review:] A Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Stuart D. Lee". Journal of Tolkien Research. 2 (1). Article 2.