Philip Hensher: Awful, humourless, naive - and a modern masterpiece

'At some point, the critics and literati have to admit that they were just wrong'
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There is so much to be said against The Lord Of The Rings that it shouldn't be worth the effort. A book that, judged by conventional standards, contains so many appalling lapses of taste and so much coarse vulgarity really ought, by now, to have faded from sight.

From many points of view, it has dated badly, and its aesthetics and politics are now so odd that you might be forgiven for thinking, as Peter Jackson's new trilogy of movies rapidly approaches, that its appeal, after all, is one of a delicious period piece.

But all judgements have always been confounded by this extraordinary book. It ought to be too long, and too pointlessly abstruse, to command wide popularity; it is not a book for children, and yet not a book for adults either; its style is too elevated for popular literature, but too coarse for "high" literature. There is no reason on earth for anyone to like it, and there are plenty of readers who still think that the judgement of JRR Tolkien's first publisher – who was surprised when it started to look as if the book might make as much as £1,000 – was much sounder than the people who, in the past 50 years, have bought more than 100 million copies of the book.

However, by now, The Lord Of The Rings is unarguably a part of English literature. Contrary to popular belief, 100 million readers can perfectly well be wrong; but the continuing life of the book cannot just be ignored. It is just there, massively.

But, in many ways, it is just awful. It is amazingly humourless, and Tolkien knows it – over and over again, he writes " 'Come, master Pippin!' Gandalf laughed" – a very bad sign, all those laughing wizards. You don't have to be politically correct to be mildly alarmed by some aspects of it. Apart from Eowyn, the women in it are not madly significant, or allowed to do anything much. There is Galadriel, who stays at home being Wise; there are Goldberry or Rose, who stay at home being Patient Helpmeets; there are Lobelia Sackville Baggins and Shelob, who stay at home being completely ghastly.

It is an appallingly naïve fantasy of good and evil races; mostly, the good people are tall and blond and speak Nordic or Celtic languages, and the bad ones are dark and hairy and talk a sort of Persian – those guttural dwarves are allowed a sort of virtue, but it is rather grudging in tone. Sam Gamgee is a loyal retainer of the most frightful variety, still "Mr Frodo-ing" away and knowing his place 1,000 pages in; basically, he is Dickens's Sam Weller, and Tolkien couldn't even be bothered to change his name.

Tolkien probably knew as much about language as anyone, but it would be fair to say that his interest stopped at grammatical inflection. The Lord of the Rings, by ordinary standards, is just badly written. Great swathes of it are in a sort of Ben-Hur biblical: "And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them... until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords..."

There are endless mock subtleties of the "It seemed to Sam that he saw..." variety. And there is, too, that infallible sign of a really bad writer, the overuse of the word "suddenly". Everything in The Lord of the Rings happens suddenly, dozens of times a chapter. And yet it is one of those very rare books that confounds all objections, all standards, and which in the end may make its own standards. Nobody, I think, has ever produced anything with the imaginative density and intricacy of the book. The reviewer's cliché is, for once, apt here; he really created a world.

The power and resonance of the book come in part from an ethical debate that is much more adult than one remembers – it is haunted by the cruelty of its age, and is not, in fact, just about the alternative of Good and Evil, the elves and the orcs, but largely about the possibility of becoming evil through the best intentions. It is really about slow corruption, and is at its finest in the portraits of Saruman and Denethor, characters who it is not difficult to parallel in 20th-century history.

But its claim on real greatness comes from the sense of huge, half-glimpsed vistas of history and language, the illusion (which may not be an illusion) that its author knew exactly the languages each of its characters would have spoken and understood the events of ancient history that lead all of them to act as they do.

In a realistic novelist, writing about a real war, this would be a remarkable feat of intelligence; when you consider that Tolkien invented absolutely everything – the backstory, the languages, the geography – it quickly becomes almost incredible. At some point, the critics and the literati have to admit that they were just wrong, and, by now, it is probably time to start considering his extraordinary flight of imagination as one of the key works of modern literature.