Tuesday 30 September 1997
Teasing Tolkien and his disciples is not nearly such fun as it must have been 40 years ago when Hugo Dyson, during one of the master's Oxford readings to fellow Inklings, was heard to mutter "Not another fucking elf". However popular The Lord of the Rings turned out to be, other critics at the time were also sceptical about this intensely backward-looking, patriarchal vision of a society where filial loyalty was everything and mechanical progress beyond a horse and cart seen as a disaster.
This was the 1960s, after all, when progress was measured largely in terms of how fast any person or institution could break away from the past. Celebrating rural, semi-feudal values might be OK for country weekends, but had no place in any political philosophy, left or right.
Succeeding generations read classic texts in the light of what has happened since. This means that Tolkien today can no longer be accused of nostalgic sentimentality. His depictions of blighted landscapes where individuals are cowed and nature defiled by an impersonal superpower are now too close for comfort. The point is made many times in Patrick Curry's sombre study. Yet Tolkien's practical message has not become any clearer: in a world bereft of helpful wizards, it is not easy to know exactly what to do given the seriousness of our current environmental concerns.
One answer might be to join the ecological activists, and the book's cover carries a photograph of a Swampy-Hobbit look-alike chained to a tree and playing a penny whistle. But it is hard to think of an old Tory like Tolkien getting rid of his car and joining in. He may turn out to be a prophet, but he never pretended to be a political or economic analyst.
He was, however, a superb storyteller, even though his language is sometimes overblown, his heroes too heroic and his heroines largely invisible. Curry spends time attacking Tolkien's critics for complaining about such things, but they never even dented his continuing popularity. The essence of mythopoeic literature is that it means different things to different readers.
Curry draws stimulating analogies with Tolkien and today's Green movement; his book deserves to be read. The irony is that those who find such doomsday messages too uncomfortable can and do turn to Tolkien again - but this time for the imaginative escape from threatening realities offered by his well-crafted epic, in which characters walk so tall and evil is finally defeated.
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