From "Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon" (2003) by Brian Rosebury
This text is reproduced exclusively for the purposes of discussion on The One Ring.net. Home - Chapter 1
[page 1] Introduction
When a shorter version
of this book appeared in 1992, I began by saying that most people likely to read
it would be familiar with
The Lord of the
Rings and The Hobbit, but that there would be two minorities: enthusiasts with an already wide knowledge of Tolkien’s work, and newcomers in
search of an introduction and a guide. The book, I explained, was intended to be of value to all of these types of reader: it would attempt to assess
critically the whole of Tolkien’s creative work, and to say at least some new things about it; to identify its most rewarding elements, and to explain
what makes them effective. These are still among the main purposes of this new edition: its revised subtitle (‘A Cultural Phenomenon’) reflects the
extension of its scope by the addition of two new, or mainly new, chapters.
I went on in 1992 to say that
virtually all readers would know something of Tolkien’s reputation, even if they
had not actually read his work. It was
essentially the reputation of a best-seller, not, as I believed it should be, that of a significant literary figure of the twentieth century, someone of
comparable stature to, say, Poe or Peacock among nineteenth-century writers. A secondary purpose of my book, then, was (and is) to try to free
Tolkien from the extremes of fan-club enthusiasm and critical disdain that often accompany best-seller status, and to locate him within literature and
within the history of ideas.
We are now in the
twenty-first century, and popular awareness of Tolkien has risen to
unprecedented heights, thanks to the appearance of the
remarkable film version of The Lord of the Rings, directed by Peter Jackson for New Line Cinema. In consequence, the number
[page 2] of casual newcomers to Tolkien’s writing is likely to increase, while the dedicated admirers find themselves, with possibly mixed feelings,
in a relatively smaller (though still absolutely large) minority. Jackson’s creation is of great interest in itself, and its release brings to a head the cultural
ferment that has been gathering around Tolkien’s work for decades. At the same time, there have been significant advances in Tolkien scholarship
since 1992. This revised and expanded edition of the present book is designed to take account of the most important of these developments.
meanwhile, has increasingly become a battlefield. A series of opinion polls in
the late 1990s showed The Lord of the Rings to
be the ‘greatest’ book of the twentieth century according to the votes - in the tens of thousands - of several categories of British readers, including
Channel 4 viewers, shoppers at Waterstone's bookshops, and members of the upmarket book club, the Folio Society. The tale of these polls and
the indignant reaction to them among metropolitan and academic critics has been too often told to bear repeating. But one noteworthy feature of
the reaction is the belief that the results had somehow been rigged by Tolkien’s fans (supposedly a small and idiosyncratic group): that without their
intervention the outcome would somehow have been quite different. As late as 2000, one reviewer was still asserting that almost no one accepts
Tolkien as one of the greatest writers of the last century, ‘except the hard-core Tolkien addicts who’ve elevated his books to the status of a cult’.
The release of the first instalment of Jackson’s adaptation in 2001 put the view that Tolkien is a minority obsession under further pressure, but
triggered new - or rather, resurrected old - hostile responses. Germaine Greer, for example, claimed that the film, and by implication the book,
sided with ‘a leisured class’ against those who ‘actually do the work’; or again, that it expressed the hostility of people like ourselves in the West
towards people who look different from us - which she suggested, was a motive behind the military action which had recently overthrown the
Taliban in Afghanistan.
I will look at some of
these criticisms later, but two points should be added right away. The first is
if we set aside the efforts of Greer, John
Carey, Valentine Cunningham and one or two others, which express themselves mainly in brief reviews and broadcasts
[page 3] rather than full-blown academic texts - the predominant response to Tolkien in the academic world has not been hostility. It has been
bemused silence, or tacit dismissiveness. At best, there has been a willingness to accept Tolkien’s membership of one or other marginalised genre.
When I introduced an undergraduate module on Tolkien at my own university recently, one colleague complained that it was ‘all Tolkien’: which I
took to mean that it would have been acceptable if I had smuggled Tolkien in as part of some wider field - ’children’s literature’, perhaps, or
‘fantasy fiction’ - into which any presupposition of his importance could safely be dissolved. Every academic who has worked on Tolkien will, I
believe, have similar anecdotes of discouragement. In the discourse of literary critics, Tolkien’s generally received significance remains that of a
best-seller: oddly unlike other best-sellers, at least since Macpherson’s pseudo- ‘Ossian’ two centuries earlier, but, rather like ‘Ossian’, a matter for
cultural historians interested in the transient phenomena of popular taste, not for critics pursuing questions of aesthetic quality. ‘I suspect that The
Lord of the Rings is fated to become only an intricate Period Piece’, remarks Harold Bloom, in his decidedly brief ‘Introduction’, to a recent
collection of Critical Views.
The second point that
needs to be admitted is that aspects of the posthumous management, marketing and
celebration of Tolkien’s work since his
death in 1973 have inevitably invited scepticism and irritation, much of it unfair but some of it at least understandable. The vast commercial value of
the Tolkien account to the various publishers who have acquired it is well known, and the prominence in the bookshops of HarperCollins’s
seemingly inexhaustible output of reprints and spin-offs (audiotapes, calendars, diaries, art books, postcards and the like) would tempt many people
to lob a rhetorical grenade or two in its direction. Moreover, much of the actual newly published work by Tolkien could not be expected to get, and
did not get, favourable reviews - or before long, reviews at all, except from the most dedicated enthusiasts. The period 1983-96 saw the
posthumous publication, under the devoted and persuasive editorship of Christopher Tolkien, of volume after volume of unfinished writings, including
not only incomplete fragments but also justifiably discarded or revised drafts. These volumes (especially the series called The History of
Middle-earth) are of value to scholars
[page 4] interested in Tolkien’s creative development, to whom they represent, in effect, uniquely well-transcribed and well-presented manuscript
sources; and they include works, or passages, of considerable interest and beauty. But in view of the high proportion of rudimentary, immature and
mishandled material they also contain, it is difficult to feel sure that their commercial publication at such exhaustive length has been wise (I accept
that there would have been practical and evaluative difficulties attached to selective publication), and I take leave to doubt the thoroughness with
which they are usually read. No author’s reputation could escape a certain risk from the publication of such materials on such a scale - certainly not
that of Tolkien, who was, as I shall argue later, a slow developer who took many years to free himself from compositional misconceptions and
At the same time, there
is a partly justified perception that Tolkien’s admirers have mounted too
uncritical, and too coordinated, a case on his
behalf. This perception goes back to Edmund Wilson’s sceptical essay of 1956, and often amounts to little more than incredulity at hearing
Tolkien taken seriously at all, but there are some grams of truth in it. It seems churlish for example, to criticise HarperCollins and Tolkien’s earlier
publishers - Houghton Mifflin, Allen & Unwin and the rest - for publishing critical works in praise of Tolkien, especially since these include most of
the really good ones, but there is an appearance of industrial production about this steady output of favourably disposed commentaries. Similarly,
the admirable Tolkien Society hosts a good deal of decent scholarship around Tolkien’s works, but can hardly be in the business of probing his
weaknesses. The very range and intensity of Tolkien’s appeal to readers means that a high proportion of them will not, at least when initially
challenged, be equipped to give a sophisticated explanation of the grounds of their pleasure, and it is easy to find naďve expressions of it and be
irritated by them. Sometimes they surface even in published commentaries.
That Tolkien has
attracted such an indifferent secondary literature (with some distinguished
exceptions) might be taken by dismissive critics as a
reflection on the quality of his own work - and perhaps it is, though not in the sense the dismissers intend. The truth is that it is difficult to write well
about Tolkien because of the distinctive
[page 5] nature of his merits, not because he has no merits; yet if he is to be praised effectively, the praise must be justified in terms which bear an
intelligible relation to the work of other writers. Many of his admirers have preferred to wrestling with this problem the easier option of isolating his
work from the rest of literature. Analysis and evaluation are always comparative: it is no use declaring an anathema on modern literature and then
worshipping Tolkien in a temple in which he is the solitary idol.
At all events, in this book I
hope to write about the works of J. R. R. Tolkien without taking leave of a
plausible general view of literary aesthetics
and literary history. This book will not praise Tolkien by disparaging all, or even many of his contemporaries; it will not suggest that Tolkien is so
extraordinary a writer as to be incommensurable with all other writers (though his works do have distinctive features which need to be
acknowledged); it will not plead the superiority of ‘the mythic mode’ to ‘the realist mode’, or of traditional romance to ‘modern’ forms of literature;
it will not substitute for literary analysis the classification of imaginary beings, places and sacred objects; it will not, I hope, rhapsodise, make coy
puns on Tolkien’s nomenclature, use metaphors borrowed from his works at every opportunity (‘Tolkien’s prose flows as boldly as the Great River
Anduin’, and so on), or play the game of pretending that Middle-earth really exists. And it will not detain the reader with excerpts from the
autobiography of a devotee. What the book will aim to do is to understand and evaluate Tolkien’s works as compositions, that is, as products of
literary art which are for readers aesthetic experiences; to make sense of Tolkien’s thought about art, religion, morality and politics; and to discuss
the reception of his work and some of the cultural phenomena which have arisen in response to it.
In The Road to
Middle-earth, the best of all critical studies of Tolkien, Tom Shippey
observes the ‘culture-gap’ that yawns between this author and
most of his critics, the sympathetic as well as the hostile. He attributes it in part to disparities - in age, in temperament, in intellectual training, in
religious and moral values - between the author and his commentators (especially professors in American universities). But these types of disparity
might occur between any writer and the majority of his critics. Something more specifically
[page 6] concerned with the relationship between Tolkien’s work and the routine practices of literary criticism itself seems, as Shippey himself
suggests, to be at issue in this case.
Several writers have suggested recently that the toolkit of the professional critic at this time is too small: it does not work at
all on whole genres of fiction (especially fantasy and science fiction, but including also the bulk of ‘entertainment’ fiction, i.e.
what people most commonly read). Furthermore it has a strong tendency to falsify much of what it does attempt to explain by
assimilating it, often unconsciously, to familiar models. Tolkien may be a peripheral writer for the theory of fiction. However it
seems time to pay more attention to the peripheries, and less to the well-trodden centre.
I agree with much of
that. My own view is that weaknesses in the basic methods of literary criticism
weaknesses which the developments in
literary theory of the last forty years have done nothing to remove - have harmed understanding of Tolkien’s work. In particular, it has suffered from
the projection upon it of meanings which it does not contain: sometimes reductive, tendentious, or historically impossible meanings. The main cause
of this phenomenon (which has afflicted plenty of writers besides Tolkien) is the submergence, for much of the twentieth century, of the principle that
a literary work, like any other product of complex human action, needs to be interpreted more or less correctly before it can be reasonably
analysed, evaluated, applied or freely-associated about.
Still, it is arguable
that Shippey places the blame too unforgivingly on the critical practices: for
there is something about Tolkien’s art which eludes
the conventional strategies of contemporary criticism, even when these are deployed with sympathy and patience. It is precisely this elusiveness, in
fact, which proves the freshness of Tolkien’s invention. His most important work, The Lord of the Rings, diverges in certain crucial respects from
the various models against which it has seemed plausible to judge it: from medieval romance, notwithstanding Tolkien’s professional interest in that
genre; from the mainstream tradition of the English novel, though it owes more to this tradition than is often believed; from most fantasy and science
fiction, especially the superficial imitations
[page 7] which its commercial success
has encouraged; even from Tolkien’s lesser works
have, moreover, peculiarities of their own. The
descriptive and analytical assumptions appropriate to most modern literature do, as Shippey suggests, need to be augmented if it is to be
adequately explained. But this augmentation must be harmonised with a coherent overall view of literature, and of literary history, which holds good
for Tolkien’s contemporaries as well as himself. Tolkien belongs to the same century as Proust, Joyce and EIiot, and is read with pleasure by many
of the same readers. Criticism needs to confront this fact and make sense of it.
Even Tolkien’s ablest
critics have had imperfect success in formulating a satisfactory critical
language for discussing his work. The Road to
Middle-earth, as its title suggests, is preoccupied with the sources - that is, the exterior, discoverable sources - of Tolkien’s invention. It
displays with exceptional knowledge and penetration the relation of Tolkien’s creativity to his learning, a relation which extended beyond a mere
‘borrowing’ from sources to an idiosyncratic rethinking of the nature of narrative art and of literary language: Shippey comes surprisingly close to
vindicating his hyperbolic-sounding claim that Tolkien’s mind (creative as well as scholarly) was one of ‘unmatchable subtlety’. He shows that
Tolkien’s reflections on language and on pre-modern literary modes yielded resources of expression, and of moral, political and psychological
insight, which enabled him to speak powerfully to a twentieth-century readership: an emphasis he has greatly developed in his more recent, but in
many ways similar, book, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. If there are limitations to Shippey’s achievement they are the natural
consequence of the brief he set himself. His defence of Tolkien is sometimes open to the objection that, while it demonstrates the ingenuity of
Tolkien’s creative workshop, that does not in itself demonstrate that the works produced are of high quality: certain preconceptions which might
form obstacles to a sympathetic reading of Tolkien are superbly swept aside, but the strictly aesthetic defence is not always quite clinched. An
impression is sometimes given, or might maliciously be taken that instruction in Tolkien’s (and Shippey’s) philological interests is actually a
prerequisite for a full recognition of Tolkien’s literary merit - from which it is only a short step to that gibe about
[page 8] ‘don’s whimsy’ which, with minor variations, has done such sterling service for three decades of literary opinion-formers and
potted-historians. Tolkien’s 1938 Andrew Lang lecture ‘On Fairy Stories’, a complex essay in implicit self-analysis and self-exhortation from
the most fruitful phase of his career, shows his awareness of the need for a strictly aesthetic vindication.
It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with
life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count. Shakespeare’s King Lear is not the same as Layamon’s story in his Brut. ... In
Dasent’s words I would say, ‘We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which
it has been boiled’ .... By ‘the soup’ I mean the story as it is served up by its author or teller, and by ‘the bones’ its sources or material -
even when (by rare luck) these can be with certainty discovered. But I do not, of course, forbid criticism of the soup as soup.
Shippey’s book does not, on
the whole, deserve the application of these strictures, for its account of each
of Tolkien’s major works is attentive both
to the unique force of individual details and its general purport. But it leaves a good deal, favourable and unfavourable, to be said about ‘the soup
as soup’. What I hope to do in this book is to arrive at a view of Tolkien which places him in the same frame as other twentieth-century writers,
explores his originality and his modernity, and evaluates each of his individual works (except his strictly scholarly writings) without special pleading
or hyperbole. I will say straight away that his reputation must, in my view, very largely rest on The Lord of the Rings, and the first two chapters will
be devoted to analysing it at length. I hope through that analysis to establish, if not a definitive, at any rate a challengingly comprehensive, assessment
of the work and explanation of its aesthetic basis. The third chapter will examine and evaluate Tolkien’s other literary works, both for their individual
qualities and for the light they shed on his creative development. The final three chapters are essays which aim to situate Tolkien’s work and thought
in various wider fields of knowledge. The fourth discusses the significance of his life and career within the literary
[page 9] and cultural history of the twentieth century, while the fifth suggests his distinctiveness as a thinker, and evaluates some attempts to construe
and apply his vision from different ideological standpoints. The final chapter offers an analysis of the cultural ‘after-life’ of The Lord of the Rings,
ending with a discussion of film versions of the work by Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson.
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This text is reproduced exclusively for the purposes of discussion on The One Ring.net.
Notes to the Introduction
For an analysis of the polls and the reaction to them, see Joseph
Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth (London: HarperCollins, 1999), pp.
and Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London: HarperCollins, 2000), pp. xx-xxiv.
 Andrew Rissik, Review of Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, in the Guardian (London), 2 September 2000.
BBC's Newsnight Review, 14 December 2001. I discuss the political issues
raised by Greer in chapter 5: see especially pages 160-7 and
178-86. See also chapter 1, pp. 35-47.
W. W. Robson remarks that the success of The Lord of the Rings
‘has affinities with that of Ossian, and the more posthumous Tolkien
material is published, the more it looks like Ossian' (A Prologue to English Literature (Batsford, 1986) p. 234). But (as this formulation
implicitly concedes), The Lord of the Rings at any rate does not look much like Ossian: if it is set alongside the posthumously published but earlier
written material, it is evident that an escape from what might be called 'Ossianic' style has taken place.
 H. Bloom (ed.), J.R. R. Tolkien (Chelsea House, 2000), p. 2.
rather hear, for example, John Carey's comments on the BBC audiotape
J. R. R. Tolkien; An Audio Portrait, presented by Brian Sibley,
BBC Worldwide Ltd 2001.
 E. Wilson, 'Oo, those Awful Orcs!', Nation 182 (1956), pp. 312-13.
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth (Allen & Unwin, 1982) p. 215.
believe the best arguments in favour of interpretation as the recovery
of a determinate and historically created meaning are those of E. D.
(see Validity in Interpretation, Yale University Press, 1967, and 'Past Intentions and Present Meanings', Essays in Criticism, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2,
1983) and Quentin Skinner (see 'Motives, Intentions and Interpretation' and 'Interpretation and the Understanding of Speech Acts' in his collection
Visions of Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2002). I focus on Skinner's view in B. Rosebury, 'Irrecoverable Intentions and Literary Interpretation',
British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 37, No. 1, January 1997, pp. 15-30.
Especially to anyone familiar with the title of John Livingston Lowes'
book on the sources of Coleridge's inspiration, The Road to Xanadu
Shippey acknowledges his borrowing of the formula with a delicate joke (p. 219).
 Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 4.
 HarperCollins, 2000.
 Bryan Appleyard achieves a certain variation with 'tweedy academic whimsy', in The Pleasures of Peace (Faber, 1989) p. 13.
 'On Fairy Stories', Tree and Leaf (Unwin Hyman, 1988), pp. 21-3.