Tolkien Criticism

    The Literary Problem

    There are Those Who Know Better. Other commentators (particularly [Shippey]1 for his description of their reactions to the book polls) have already noted the curious hatred the literati have for Tolkien. It amounts to a dismissal of Tolkien as amateurish and Tolkien fans as childish. This reaction was already in force in Tolkien's day, but that it persists in a void of serious examination and investigation is amazing compared to the massive work still done on Eliot, Joyce and other giants of the 20th century. Tolkien appears to be such an exception to the rules by which modern criticism lives that it's altogether unapproachable. Does that mean it's too difficult?

    It must also be said from the outset that Tolkien had a long and stormy relationship with literary critics over myth itself. He refused to discount folk tales as insignificant or merely repetitive, but sought to understand the cultural relationships behind them, especially in their choice of words. He was also antagonistic to their methodology, regarding it as cleverness for its own sake, or for power, to which he seemed very sensitive. Witness this particularly revealing passage in LOTR between Gandalf and Saruman:

    "White!" he sneered. "It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken." "In which case it is no longer white," said I. "And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."


    What Shippey's book has achieved is a new nadir in Tolkien criticism: in conjunction with the movie releases, a new generation of establishment apologists have rushed to dismiss such a pro-Tolkien stance. The Shippey reviews in themselves should worry more careful critics. But they went further and tried to link their position as cultural guardians by using the movies as the logical extension to the "obvious" conclusions they draw about mainstream literary culture.

    A point that Shippey makes in his book, is that critics misrepresent LOTR according to their own prejudices (Shippey is guilty of Anglocentrism when he ascribes this chiefly to class-distinctions). He might also have noted this is true even of the sympathetic ones. What is one to make of the insinuations by Andrew O'Hehir's [OHehir]2 otherwise Shippey-like analysis of a "Tolkienian Fascism", with supposedly revealing remarks suggesting Tolkien wasn't entirely anti-Nazi? It's certainly a biased and out-of-context reading of the letters, in which Tolkien speaks as an onlooker with a philological interest (cf. the "Germanic ideal"), and as someone uncomfortably familiar with the games of power, and suspicious of the simplistic good vs. evil propaganda of WWII. Indeed, to paraphrase the words of LOTR …the victor has emerged, stronger than either, and free of doubt. O'Hehir oddly changes tack and excuses Tolkien later on the grounds that he disliked the rational forms of government. What Tolkien was actually saying about feudalism is that there was actually a bond of moral obligation between villein and lord that no longer exists in the rational forms, a bond that existed as far as the British officer-batman relationship in WWI, and a bond described by Frodo and Samwise's friendship. That we still actually understand this relationship is to be wondered at, since the idea has been culturally dead for a century.

    What makes O'Hehir's analysis (which has its good points) even odder is that it is a review of Shippey's book, not Tolkien's. Rather than examine Shippey's claim that Tolkien's work is in line with other important former combatant novelists (Orwell, Golding and Vonnegut) in that it tries to find a new language for describing evil, he practically dismisses them all in the time-honoured literati style of dubbing them Great Weird Boy Books, in which the distinguishing characteristics are big, difficult, and mix realism and fantasy. This conveniently ignores the point Shippey made that none of these authors were concerned with "realism" or "fantasy" as defined by the literati, or at all concerned with their difficulty. Shippey has no illusions about his qualifications as a critic, but he is at least giving a useful critical perspective. It is revealing, as Shippey notes, that many of Tolkien's contemporaries are read as school texts, but he is not. Perhaps because they can be "explained away" better than Tolkien.

    Julith Shulevitz [Shulevitz]3 takes the movies as a starting-point to slag Tolkien off in a variety of self-contradictory ways: as a comeuppance for the tweedy philogist (surely calling the kettle black here), and most conspicuously, lumping him together with J.K Rowling as a children's writer. Admitting she loved the books as a child, she still sees them in categorical terms: like Rowling, Tolkien wasn't writing for a demographic, but contemporary criticism like Shulevitz's depends on it, so obviously LOTR is the progenitor of all modern fantasy - perhaps not so far from the truth - which is, of course, a Bad Thing.

    Now it gets odd. A literary geek gets into the act, but Julian Dibble [Dibble]4 in his eagerness to prove anti-Shulevitz and pro-geek, gets horribly confused and ends up echoing her very arguments: starting on the premise that Tolkien has always been important to geek culture, which is reasonable, he literally drew a line and began to dismiss Tolkien on literary grounds: ..Tolkien's theory of evil? Well, orcs are, our heroes aren't, and that about sums it up. He then goes on to characterize Tolkien as a sort of SF mind-expander that explores ..reality's stretchiest edges Like computer games. He really wrote that.

    And speaking of weird, I only recently came across Jenny Turner's [Turner]5 analysis in the web version of her Times Literary Supplement article Reasons for Liking Tolkien. If that sounds suspiciously like an excuse, you're correct. Turner is another critic who has weaned herself off the evil Tolkien drug, but rather than write from her own perspective, she regurgitates O'Hehir and Shippey to attempt an absolution from lit.crit. hell. Her essay has obsequious lit .crit written all over it, which she derides in Shippey and general Tolkien criticism, most ironically when she is doing her best to distance her perspective from lit. crit. itself! To quote: Obviously there is a problem with the elves and so on. Obviously there is a problem with the prose. Obviously there are problems to do with women, and race and racism, and the general matchstick-cathedral labour-of-madness nature of the project. But if it's really that bad, why do so very many people like it so enormously? That word obviously crops up a lot. Even Magic Realism gets a look-in. But here is the unpalatable truth: Even now, even as I find the book silly and boring and rather noisome (to use a word from J.R.R.'s special vocabulary), it still locks with my psyche in a most alarming way.

    Strangely, she doesn't account for this in any intelligible way. She instead looks for psycho-social explanations (the classic post-modernist pseudo-analysis): Tolkien secretly believed in elves! Sex is necessary for reality! But the classic statement is actually in a footnote, explaining her dislike for Rowling's Harry Potter books. She didn't like the description of Dumbledore as a 'supreme mugwump', calling it 'uneuphonious', sounding like 'muggles', being an Algonquin word (from which the word's usage in English is actually derived, but I'm certain she's ignorant of that), and for being in Burrough's Naked Lunch. To which the disinterested bystander will say So what?, and go back to reading Tolkien and Rowling for the very good reason that they prefer brownies, not brownie-points.

    I sense a position here: any popular book that doesn't play with reality in the manner prescribed by modern critical law must therefore be obscurantist or childish or both. It follows that no serious critical value can be obtained and is a trap for the novice analyst. There's one question I would like cleared up: why do literary critics think in terms of Freud and not Jung when they analyse Tolkien? Can't they have courses in contemporary psychology like the rest of us?

    The Geek Perspective

    A cynic might comment that literary worth is in inverse proportion to public acceptance, but what is being dismissed is possibly one of the major cultural influences of our time. The Geek = LOTR fan equation proposed by some is not so far-fetched as you might think, given that so-called "geeks" are more than the one-dimensional gnomes of code that the media describe.

    I feel I may fairly comment, for I can be classed as geek (note that there is a holy war over whether geeks are a class of nerd or vice-versa and if that matters to you, then you're probably a nerd). I write programs, maintain web-sites and pretty much a net addict when I can get my fix, but I am also deeply interested in books and culture and have been a musician for decades. In short, I am a creative person, and appreciate creativity in many forms. Joyce and Tolkien may be worlds apart, but I can appreciate each on their own terms. To me, Joyce is a deconstructionalist, while Tolkien is interested in the power of myth. Why do the critics elevate one over the other? Because one is unreadable, and the other mythical? By the same token, Tolkien's examination of evil has no less force because it is grounded in myth, than Golding's examination because it is grounded in a "what if" scenario. Both have the pertinent point: evil is basic to mankind (and womankind, as O'Hehir should have said), whether you clothe it in realism or medievalism.

    For those who don't know the academic history, Tolkien was a philologist. That is, one who studies language on all fronts: linguistic, semantic, etymological, etc. It was philologists who reconstructed the dead language Gothic and provided much of the reconstruction of Anglo Saxon and Middle English, of which Tolkien was master. Philology didn't shy from using myth as an aid, and it was this aspect particularly that brought it down in the eyes of the establishment; it was then broken down into the above-mentioned categories, and by the 1950s, when LOTR was published, it was regarded as a dead and discredited discipline. There are still many who regard themselves as philologists in response to increasingly obscure rationalisations of language, which they feel ignores its wider socio-historical context. All this may seem to be merely side issues, but when critics of Tolkien dismiss his books as "fake myth", one suspects it may be due in part from an anti-philological literary background. I have yet to see an intelligent appraisal of his invented languages by a critic; they seem only able to regard them as possibly racist trivia. This is a great mistake.

    Central to Tolkien's art is the belief that people react emotionally to the written and spoken word, either individually or within a specific style. This is a linguistic insight: that different peoples have preferences for different groups of sounds; Tolkien's books are carefully written to take advantage of that idea. Indeed Tolkien himself declared that the myths were written to support the languages, not the other way around. Modern critics have no problem associating others with this kind of craft, but don't equally apply it to Tolkien, yet Tolkien was by far the more knowledgeable about the roots of the English language and the way it evolved and demonstrated it particularly in LOTR. In an age before the word processor, he rewrote and retyped LOTR to hone the language for specific effects. What you get is something unique in English literature: the sense of how different races and cultures interact through a lingua fraca (the Common Speech), and the implications of that. I don't know that critics such as Shippey have really got this important point across. In an increasingly multi-cultural age, we have a novel that expresses that sense of interracial, inter-cultural exchange, and it was written 50 years ago by an English professor!

    Of course, I am part of a culture that Tolkien himself would likely reject. Yet my culture loves words, is highly creative, and is surprisingly aware of its past. LOTR is the book that launched a thousand fantasy authors, and is still the leading fantasy title. When book polls reveal massive public approval, it belies the notion that Tolkien enjoys only cult status.

    Post-Modernist Maze

    A general question comes up if we consider what an objective post-modern analysis should turn up. A very quick brush-up on post-modern criticism for the hasty:

    What is really bizarre about contemporary criticism of Tolkien is how they break their own postmodern rules to condemn him. It is as if they are afraid to meet the implications of a postmodern reading, or perhaps, they are more annoyed that they cannot apply any criticism without looking foolish. Consider some of the criticisms above: Tolkien is slammed for predating postmodernism, or being reduced to boredom via feminist or Marxian or other readings. You can see the problem: it would mean since most literature predates postmodernism, it's not much of an objective criticism.

    And despite all this post-modernist pretension, they still have a few favourite tests that they apply to Tolkien specifically which should not even matter according to their own dogma.

    A Few Tests


    As an example of one such failed test, I'd like to address an issue about which most critics swing between outright dithering and wild fancy: sex in Tolkien novels. Apparently there's not enough of it, or it's weirdly sublimated. The idea that Sam's encounter with Shelob are a mythic representation of sex (O'Hehir again) is to me completely distasteful, and smacks of the worst Freudianism. Turner is one critic who opens up on their obsession - sex in books means adult themes (duh). If you have adult themes, you can't have fantasy apparently (Magic Realism is an exception, cough). This charge is repeated by [Jenkyns]6, who went so far as to declaim that Hobbits had apparently no balls (he says nothing about Sam's many children or perhaps he never go that far).

    So LOTR is again repressed, this time from a sneakier, less honest angle. The view that Tolkien is latently homosexual or homophobic, or somehow sexually immature I can only put down to the obsessive desire we have in this current culture to put sex at the centre of all motives. Tolkien himself put it this way: "…the story was like a terrible expedition to the North Pole", in other words, not at all concerned with the private lives of its characters but of the central journey. To do otherwise might satisfy the desires of critics, but would totally ruin the mythology Tolkien had been creating for over half a century. People also forget Tolkien's Catholicism which would also rather preclude such "digressions". But that's also a stylistic choice, not a tragic personality flaw that must be sought out and paraded to explain an irrational dislike. Again, none of this seems to bother Tolkien fans, so why are the critics obsessive about it? Why are they not looking for the real reasons for Tolkien's popularity?

    From a purely postmodernist angle this already fails because sex wasn't a major concern in literature before the 20th century; as an alternate reading, fine but it hardly invalidates anything. And once again, it fails the death of the author test anyway.


    The excuse, "well if it's so much about myth, and myth has sex in it therefore it's broken" simply doesn't wash. This is lit. crits. other way of trying to get its cake and eat it; when cornered it declaims that it alone defines the argument. There is more to myth than sex or indeed religiosity, and far more than the typical critics exposure to European myth, and this is a recurring theme in Tolkien criticism: the academic immaturity of its critics. Jenkyns is a good example of this: having ticked off his favourite comparisons, he goes on to "prove" that Tolkien fails them. He finds it impossible that Tolkien did not reference Wagner, or an explicit Catholicism, completely misunderstands Frodo's character development because it doesn't fit his preconceptions of the Hero, demonstrates his anathema of medieval prose (virtually all lit. critics are), and you can read the rest of the list if you can be bothered finding it.

    Again, from the postmodernist angle, you can play with all the readings you like, but you can't prove anything. It is actually incorrect to make such connections, remember?

    Another example of this blindness is racism. Once again forgetting that Tolkien's aims are oblivious to modernist/post-modernist mores, critics decry his portrayals of orcs as irredeemably racist, a …northern European's paranoid caricature. This is missing the point so obviously that it makes plain their ignorance of European myth, and exposes their desire to have literature remade in their own image. Like Frodo, one might wish to have an invasion of orcs just to wake them up from their easy relativism and hypocritical political correctness. How is Zoroastrian dualism so rife in the Near Eastern origins of much of Western ethical/religious thought, uncomfortably dovetailing with Western logic, supposed to be inappropriate here? What Western myth is without it? Arguing that it seems simplistic is simplistic itself, an excuse to dislike the work without really examining it. Without any continuum, how does one distinguish the grey character from the black and white?

    Modern critics react with fear and loathing to such symbolism but the books were never written for them.


    One especially failed test is in the critical comparison of Tolkien with his contemporaries. Shippey noticed it particularly in relation to James Joyce They on the one hand, applaud Joyce for his use of Vico's medieval use of time, and abhor Tolkien for his medieval use of interlace plot is nonsensical. They serve the same purpose in different ways. And how different were his other contemporaries? Ezra Pound, in his Cantos, reeled off Venetian ledgers, Eliot wholesale plundered his favourite bits of Western poetry (particularly Dante, because he wrote in his own tongue and not Latin) throughout his entire career as a poet. Is it a coincidence that Pound and Eliot inaugurated the New Criticism, consigning Those Who Did Not Fit to God Knows Where? One big difference according to Shippey is that Tolkien actually fought a war, and Pound, Joyce and Eliot avoided it. Shippey goes on to make an interesting case for "war novelists" as a group trying to make sense of 20th century warfare through fantasy. This was immediately jumped-upon and discounted but I suspect if it had been some non-professors Honours paper it wouldn't have attracted such derision.

    A postmodernist should properly make a bored noise and do something else, but lit. crit. cannot stand to have its heroes compared to, and therefore refuses Tolkien any concurrency or context because that would be bad, and this obviously fails the postmodern test too.


    John Ralston Saul, in Voltaire's Bastards, makes the assertion that the critic is totally dominated by technique and obscurity for its own sake. What "important" writers are really read by the public, he asks. One has the feeling that most critics think that fantasy has been "done" and is no longer important. Yet the academic Tolkien himself who almost single-handedly brought to critical attention the importance of Beowulf as literature, a living document of the Anglo-Saxon world colliding head-on with Christianity. And LOTR (in fact most of his work) is all about collisions: that between races, cultures, languages and ethos. But apparently this isn't obscure enough, interesting enough, or just plain too popular enough.

    Post-modernism has been an excuse for bad criticism for too long, because the critics are not held to account enough for not applying it rigorously. If Tolkien is to be fairly critiqued, where is the postmodernist to do it?

    There are lots of books to enjoy without requiring the permission of literary critics, and their function as guides to the underlying intentions of literary creativity seems to be trapped in a cul-de-sac as a result. Or perhaps there just isn't anything concrete to grasp underneath all that sexy realism, which is why readers flock to an author like Tolkien. How ironic to demand that Tolkien match up to a old anti-Semite fantasy opera-writer like Wagner, or regurgitate the same dot-points over and over. What a bore.

    1. Shippey J. R. R. Tolkien Author of the Century. paperback.Thomas A. Shippey. Copyright © 2001. 

    2. OHehir "The Book of the Century". Andrew O'Hehir. Salon Inc. Copyright © 2001 

    3. Shulevitz "Hobbits in Hollywood". Judith Shulevitz. New York Times Book Review Copyright © 2001 

    4. Dibble "The Lord of the Geeks". Julian Dibble. Village Voice Media, Inc. Copyright © 2003 

    5. Turner "Reasons for Liking Tolkien". Jenny Turner. LRB Ltd. Copyright © 2002 

    6. Jenkyns "Bored of the Rings". Richard Jenkyns. Copyright © 2002. 

    Last updated: 2019-11-11

    Back to Random