Enduring spell of a trilogy that leaves the critics cold
Monday 20 January 1997
Tolkien has incurred charges of escapism, nostalgia and reactionary politics ever since the trilogy (first published in 1954-55) broke through to cult status among the young a decade later. Yet the distinguished medieval scholar's tales, which started with The Hobbit in 1937, have shifted about 50 million copies, with a recent boost from his centenary in 1992. HarperCollins, his publisher, says they "still sell very vigorously all around the world".
Let's assume that the Waterstones' survey hasn't fallen victim to a Today- style poll hijack by the shadowy ranks of the Tolkien Society, and that the trilogy legitimately heads its list - with a third more votes than Orwell's 1984 in second place. If true, the epic quest - in which the flawed but striving creatures of Middle-earth do battle with forces of Sauron, the Dark Lord - continues to cast its spell almost 30 years after hippie traders first gave names like Gandalf's Garden to their market stalls.
The result is none the less a surprise. Humphrey Carpenter, who wrote in The Inklings about Tolkien's donnish club and who will be talking about him on Channel 4's Book Choice tomorrow, says he "had the impression that the Tolkien culture had dwindled to a hard core of fans", and that a great gulf divides enthusiasts from readers who never succumbed. "There are many people who simply laugh at the mention of Tolkien," says Carpenter, who suspects the Internet culture helped to mobilise his anorak-clad troops.
One critic who doesn't laugh is John Clute, editor of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Fantasy. He describes the trilogy, with its hard-won triumph of good over evil and its "earned happy ending", as "a comprehensive counter- myth to the story of ths 20th century". Clute stresses that Tolkien began to draft it in the First World War, and that it enshrines his sense "that what had happened to life in the 20th century was profoundly inhuman". The idea of escapism meant "not an escape from responsibility but an escape from prison".
Clute suggests that Tolkien's lowly critical reputation derives from the Modernists' aversion to plot - "an aberration that allows Establishment critics not to see what a superb act of storytelling The Lord of the Rings is".
He admits: "I don't find Tolkien's attitude to women pleasant, and I don't find his Catholicism or his belief in social hierarchy attractive. But that's missing the point. A counter-myth is a description of a universe that feels right - another reality that the soul requires in this waste- land century".
Those elves will be stalking the bookshops for a long time to come.
- 1 Bill Clinton portrait features Monica Lewinsky reference, artist admits
- 2 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 3 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 Average penis size revealed: Scientists attempt to find what is 'normal' to reassure concerned men
Bill Clinton portrait features Monica Lewinsky reference, artist admits
Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
The 'sex selfie stick' lets you FaceTime the inside of a vagina
Kanye West gives guest lecture at Oxford University: 'If I, Kanye West, can remove my ego, I think there's hope for everyone'
'This is what Islam tells us to do': A rare glimpse inside a Saudi Arabian prison – where Isis terrorists are showered with perks and privileges
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: As a successful and growing Security Installat...
£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides specialis...
£28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A consultant is required to pro...
£12675 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Assistant is required...