Tolkien: the Lord of Fantasy

In his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories” J.R.R.Tolkien writes about the reader who enters the enchanted realm of fairy tales:

And while he [the reader] is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates be shut and the keys be lost.

It is easy for the reader who enters the enchanted realm of Tolkien’s own work to be lost in the magic of the Middle-Earth and to forbear to ask questions. Surrounded by elves, hobbits, dragons and orcs, wandering the pristine fields and woods, described with such loving care they seem almost real, it is easy to forget there is another world outside, the world in which John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, an Oxford don, lived and wrote his monumental series of fantasy novels. It is, after all, natural to want to escape humdrum reality.

Literature that offers a simple pleasure of a different time, a different place has nothing to be ashamed of. Tolkien in the same essay describes “escape and consolation” as one of the chief functions of the fairy-tale by which term he understands also what we would call “literary fantasy” today. “Escape and consolation” seem to be self-evident terms. What is there to discuss? Perhaps all that I have to do today is to praise Tolkien’s fertile imagination and to step modestly aside.

But the sentence I just quoted suggests that asking questions about the fairy-tale realm is not so much unnecessary as dangerous. You risk not merely boredom and disenchantment but the actual expulsion from the Fairyland. Why? Is there, perhaps, more to the magic land than meets the eye? What if the “escape” it offers is fake; what if Middle-Earth lies not “in a galaxy long ago and far away”, as Star Wars put it, but much closer to home, right on the border with Tolkien’s war-stricken England of the 1940s and perhaps even not so far from our own turbulent Middle East. What if the further away we travel, the more inevitably we come home? These are the questions I want to discuss today.And if the result of this inquiry will be the loss of the key to the gates of Paradise, I’m willing to take this risk.

Therefore the focus of this talk will be the question that Tolkien himself emphasized as central to our perception of works of fantasy: what is “the effect produced now by these old things in the stories as they are” (32); in other words, how are the elves, orcs, the Dark Lord and the magic ring relevant to the here and now? However, I do not believe that the answer to this question should be sought in the circumstances of the author’s own life. Therefore, despite the title of my talk, I will say little about Tolkien’s biography.

The basic facts are easy: he was born in 1892 in South Africa, both his parents of English origin. When he was still a child, he was brought back to Birmingham whose industrial ugliness made him a sworn enemy of modern civilization for the rest of his life. In 1922 he published his two major scholarly works, A Middle-English Vocabulary and a critical edition of medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

His knowledge of medieval literature stood him in good stead later when he began writing his fantasy novels which are, in many ways, idealized images of the Middle Ages as they never were: the Middle Ages without dirt, ugliness, fear, religious intolerance, leprosy and plague, but with ever-green fields, virtuous knights, marvellous creatures, spectacular magic and easy demarcation between good and evil. On the strength of his research, Tolkien became Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College at Oxford. There he met fellow religious conservatives and fantasy writers C.S.Lewis and Charles Williams. In 1937 he published The Hobbit, essentially a children’s book, and already in 1936 he began working on The Lord of the Rings that was finished in 1949.

The trilogy was originally published in England in 1954, with good reviews but indistinguishible sales. However, once it crossed the ocean, the flower generation of the 1960s made The Lord of the Rings their Bible. And since then, Gandalf and Mordor and Frodo and Bilbo have become household words in every human tongue. Just consider the scope of this phenomenon. The flower children whose lax sexual mores would have horrified Tolkien and whose radical politics would have upset him deeply, trying to master the Elvish language. In contemporary Russia, youngsters brought up in the tenets of Marxism-Leninism living in the world of role-playing games based on The Lord of the Rings. My sabra son being deeply upset when I dared suggesting Tolkien was somewhat inferior to Shakespeare. What is this magic that crossses national, social and cultural barriers, triumphing where religions, ideologies, and greater art have failed?

It is safe to suggest that the two aspects of his work Tolkien himself would single out as most important cannot account for its universal appeal. The first aspect is Christianity. Tolkien, an ardent believer, called the New Testament the greatest story ever written in which “Legend and History have met and fused”. There are obvious Christian elements in The Lord of the Ring, among them, Frodo’s patient and humble self-sacrifice. The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s story of the First Age of Middle-earth, while being heavily indebted to Norse mythology, still has pronounced Christian themes, among them the refusal to grant equal onthological status to good and evil. But however precious Christianity was to Tolkien himself, there are few, if any, contemporary readers who view Lord of the Rings as predominantly a religious allegory.

The second aspect which, to me, accounts for much of the charm of The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s deep and sincere love for the British countryside. I will risk provoking the wrath of my audience by saying that Tokein’s visual imagination is but mediocre. There are other fantasy writers whose ability to create fantastic landscapes far exceeds his, among them his great Victorian predecessor George MacDonald. But when Tolkien describes not the dark splendour of Mordor, but the familiar green woods and gentle hills of England, he has few equals. Middle-earth is at its best when it becomes glorified Midlands. Still, even though strangers, like myself, may share his love for England’s “green and pleasant land”, I doubt it may explain Tolkien’s enormous appeal.

Perhaps we should start at the end: the end-result, that is, of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings. For it has become not just one of the most widely read books in the world, but the progenitor of a new genre. Go to any bookstore, whether in Tel-Aviv, Moscow, or New York, and you will find whole shelves filled with paperbacks labelled “fantasy”. One glance at their jackets – and we are back in Tolkien’s world, with dragons, and elves, and Dark Lords, and enchanted rings and swords, and fake medieval-sounding names, and runes, and magic. This genre, whose popularity far outstrips science fiction’s, has introduced few new elements to the formula created by Tolkien. Instead, it has spread into high-tech media, such as computer games, which Tolkien, who saw automobiles as a dangerous and unnecessary innovation, would, no doubt, regard with abhorrence.

What is peculiar about fantasy as a genre is how little fantasy it actually requires. If imagination is the ability to envision something new and unexpected, the endless fantasy trilogies provide just the opposite: the pleasure of familiarity. A competent reader – whcih is to say, any reader who has finished The Lord of the Rings – will find nothing at all to startle, surprise, or challenge him in any of them. On the contrary, he will be delighted to encounter, once again, the beloved Fellowship of the Ring under slightly different names, to slay the same old dragon, to set on a quest which, no matter how many volumes it will meander through, will end up in the inevitable victory of good over evil.

And the evil itself, though decked out in resplendent titles of the Lord of the Dark and the Ruler of Shadows, is hardly such as to unduly disturb anybody’s slumber. Sauron and Adolf Hitler are contemporaries but the King of Mordor is a babe in arms compared to the Reich Chancellor. When asked whether The Lord of the Rings is an allegory of World War 2, Tolkien strenuously denied it, and I tend to agree: were he to look more attentively at what was happening around while the book was being written, hobbits would end up in concentration camps, and the Black Riders would number in millions.

The chief pleasure of fantasy is the pleasure of nostalgia. It projects not a new world but an old one seen through the sentimental daze of longing for comfort and simplicity. It provides a clear-cut distinction between good and evil, and yet at the same time reduces the stature of evil to a black hat on an arbitrarily chosen player. It offers a complicated action whose outcome is known in advance. It simplifies the post-industrial landscape into a never-never land of green meadows, cosy country inns, and unpolluted rivers. It reduces technology to one-dimensional magic.

And yet the world of fantasy is a complicated world, saturated with information, requiring from the reader a considerable mental effort, just to keep in mind the numerous tribes and peoples populating the Fairy Realm, their long and complicated chronicles, their languages and customs. The nearest equivalent to the contemporary fantasy novel is not the medieval saga but the daily newspaper. Like the latter, fantasy combines glut of information with philosophical and moral shallowness; demands we “keep in touch” on a number of issues but ultimately delivers little of what is genuinely new.

The comparison with the newspaper is all the more apt, since, despite their ephemeral character, the news media rest on the foundation of history. Similarly, The Lord of the Rings is only the tip of the iceberg of the fake history Tolkien created. He single-handedly achieved what previously only nations managed to achieve. The languages he made up, the maps of Middle-earth he lovingly drew, the tangled interactions of elves, dwarves and humans detailed in Silmarrilion, constitute a fictional equivalent of a national culture which many people study with greater devotion than they do their own heritage. And in the age in which culture, nationality and history have become stained with blood, their harmless substitutes are not to be disdained.

Tolkien, and the whole genre of fantasy after him, have given a home to the homeless, a refuge to the exiled, a history to those whom real history has left dazed and bewildered. It is precisely for that reason that Russian boys and girls escape their own mutilated country to live in Middle-earth. And I would not be surprised if this also accounted, at least partially, for Tolkien’s popularity in Israel.

It seems that popular fantasy modelled on Tolkien is, indeed, “escapist” but in a very peculiar sense. It does not, as Tolkien himself hoped for, provide acccess to a deeper reality of universal values. Rather, it offers a “lite” version of history, with all the ambiguities eliminated, all the complexities straightened out, all the uncertainties contained by the predictability of the plot. In this sense, The Lord of the Rings, written in the worst years of the twentieth century, is indeed not so much an allegory as a wish-fulfilling dream of what a conflict of good and evil would have looked like in a better, simpler world.

And yet, whatever we think of Tolkien’s epigones, his own work remains a magnificent achievement simply by virtue of being the first. For all that he was influenced by a number of previous writers of fantasy, nobody had ever had the guts to do what he did: to write a counterfeit epic in a clear, contemporary language, accessible to all; to unite the timeless appeal of the fairy tale with the giddy delight of the adventure story; to create an imaginary world which, no matter how heavily colonized since then, still has the power to evoke the thrill of exploration.

For that achievement no praise is too extravagant; and the love his fans lavish on him is well-deserved. Perhaps we should honor Tolkien not by endlessly rewriting The Lord of the Rings but by emulating the Oxford don’s courage in opening up for ourselves new realms of Fairy which will be as fresh and unexpected as Middle-earth was at the hour of its making.

(C) Elana Gomel, 1998. Published with the permission of the author.