Is Tolkien Actually Any Good?


I've just been re-reading Lord of the Rings. It's ten years or more since I read it; but when I was a teenager, I must have read it four or five times. I was therefore rather distressed to discover that I remembered almost nothing about it.

I became interested in Tolkien because it was the sort of book that boys like me became interested in. I don't know if I actually liked it, but I liked the idea of it. English teachers still had a nasty habit of giving out 'class reading books' which you went through orally at the rate of three sentences per lesson. Some time in the first year, Miss O'Farrell selected The Hobbit as that term's instrument of torture. I started reading the Lord of the Rings before we had finished it, possibly in order to prove a point.

The Hobbit is in many ways a rotten book. But its two central themes hugely appealed to me: the idea of Adventure, and the idea of Fantasy. 'Adventure' in Tolkein's sense doesn't mean 'Indiana Jones chained up in a pit-trap'; it means 'a wizard inviting himself to breakfast and announcing that you are going on a long journey to strange lands.' It is a synonym for journey, expedition, travel. 'Fantasy' is more complicated. It doesn't mean 'far-fetched series of events'. It is closer to C.S. Lewis's 'northerness': 'a world of caves, forests, dwarves, dragons and mountains', or perhaps more generally 'a world in which the exotic, the ancient, the far-away and legendary is still solid and immanent, a fact of life.'

The other fantasy book which English teachers approved of is Ursula Le Guin's difficult but brilliant Wizard of Earthsea. It is hard to imagine a book more different from The Hobbit. It's much better written and much more original. Everything about Le Guin--diction, language, plot, metaphysics--conspire to make Earthsea seem far away, alien, other. We are fascinated and moved by it; but we are outsiders, observers. Everything about Tolkien--including the embarrassingly fatherly asides--conspires to make Middle-earth seem ordinary, real, solid. When he introduces something strange, Tolkien goes out of his way to down-play it, to talk as if he expects you to know exactly what he is talking about. 'If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch, you will know…', 'I'm afraid trolls do talk like that, even the sort with only one head each'. Earthsea never stops feeling strange; we feel at home in Middle-earth almost from page 1. As a result, Middle-earth lodges in our imagination in a way that Earthsea never does; we feel home-sick when we leave. All Tolkien readers want desperately to visit Minas Tirith; no Le Guin reader has ever wanted to visit Roke.

The dwarves who turn up on Bilbo's doorstep are, to us as well as to him, reassuringly familiar: they have beards and silly names and mine jewels, and there is just a moment where we half expect them to start singing 'Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go.' But Tolkien immediately knocks us off balance: these aren't fairy tale dwarves, but real dwarves; uncouth and dangerous. It's more like having your house taken over by New Age Travellers than being visited by pixies or flower fairies. There is a bad tradition of post-Dungeons & Dragons fantasy which leaves it there and says 'Well then: Dwarves are perfectly mundane; simply an ethnic group.' Tolkien, on the other hand, pulls the rug away a second time: while we and Bilbo are pre-occupied with the banal (is there enough seed-cake to go round?), he hits us in the face with un-diluted Wagner:

'The dwarves of yore made mighty spells
As hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep where dark things sleep
In hollow halls beneath the fells.'

Dwarves drink your beer and mess up your kitchen, but they are also connected with something inaccessibly far away and romantic. And into that inaccessibly far-away and romantic world, Bilbo is carried off; and the book bombards us with dragons, giants, dwarves, wizards, goblins, eagles, trolls, elves, giant spiders, a were-bear, a necromancer and the mother of all battles, all accepted in a similarly matter-of-fact way.

I think it was this atmosphere--Dwarves are here and now but connected to something hugely remote--which awakened the Tookish side of me when I first read the Hobbit. Whatever it was, I wanted more of it, and Lord of the Rings seemed the obvious place to get it. Since I went back and read it again and again, it must have satisfied this desire. Re-reading, it is hard to see why.

I suppose that, at fourteen, I was prepared to forgive Tolkien for not being able to write. Coming back to the book now, I am surprised by the awfulness of much of the prose. Certainly, Tolkien can turn a good sentence when he tries. The famous battle with the Balrog in book two is a case in point:

'From out of the shadow, a red sword leaped flaming.

Glamdring glittered white in answer.

There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The balrog flew back and its sword flew up in molten fragments.'

This is good writing because it actually tells you what is happening; the short sentences mirror the urgency of the battle, and the metaphors convey things about the characters. Gandalf, the goody has words like 'white' and 'glittering' associated with him. The Balrog, the badie, is dark and firey. And I knew what every piece of vocabulary meant.

But over and over again, he descends into this sort of thing:

'Here, spring was already busy about them; fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilean, garden of Gondor now desolate kept still dishevelled dryad loveliness.'

This is bad writing because of its use of clichés ('green-fingered' larches, for goodness sake); because of the way it lists facts ('birds were singing') with out really building up a picture, and because of its ham-fisted archaisms. It's one thing to use Latinate reversals when you describing a firey demon on a bridge ('a red sword leaped flaming'); but merely irritating to do so when you are describing the pretty countryside. And what the heck is 'dryad loveliness', anyway?

Sometimes, one gets the feeling that Tolkien is simply substituting geography for writing. He knows where his characters are going; he has a very detailed map of his imaginary world. So he works out who lived where and what the terrain was like, and churns out the requisite 1,000 words on how his characters got from A to B. When the route takes them somewhere interesting, like Lothlorien, it can be glorious. At other times, it simply descends into lists of trees:

'Beyond it were slopes covered with sombre trees like dark clouds, but all about them lay a tumbled heathland, grown with ling and broom and corney, and other shrubs that they did not know. Here and there they saw knots of tall pine trees.'

And Tolkien shares with Dickens the bad habit of making characters repeat the same phrase over and over again ('one thing pushes out another', 'as my old gaffer used to say', 'hasty folk' 'my precious') in lieu of characterisation.

At the age of 13 I could put up with the bad writing--I was, after all, reading Edgar Rice Burroughs at about the same time--but I am surprised that I put up with the pacing. The Lord of the Rings gives you very little fantasy for your money. The Hobbit is breathlessly fast-moving; Bilbo is perpetually finding that the only way to escape from man-eating-spiders is to get imprisoned in the elf-king's dungeon. But we are 400 pages into the Lord of the Rings before we get our first really dramatic fantasy sequence: Gandalf fighting the Balrog on the bridge of Khazadum. In order to get there, we have had to follow, in remorseless day by day detail the Hobbits' walking holiday from the Shire to Rivendell, the highlight of which is the monumentally irritating Tom Bombadil, who communicates entirely in jingles. Later in the book, to be sure, we get a giant spider-goddess. We get orcs, who turn out to be a species of Home Guard, two almighty battles, a wraith riding a winged beast; vast swathes of mythology, Treebeard, and elves. Lots of elves. According to A.N Wilson, Hugo Dyson used to sit in the corner during Tolkien's readings saying 'Oh fuck, not another elf.' In certain moods, one sees his point.

But still, there is surprisingly little on-stage pyrotechnics. The publicity for the new Lord of the Rings movie (I'll believe it when I see it) keeps saying that cinema special effects have only just become capable of re-creating the book. In fact, if you had been prepared to keep the battles off-stage, then the BBC could have comfortably made a costume drama out of it in 1976. It would work very nicely as a stage play, in fact:

Scene 4--Merry and Pippen enter stage left. Treebeard discovered stage centre. Long dialogue. Exeunt omnes.

Scene 5---Enter Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, stage left. Gandalf the White discovered stage centre. Long dialogue. Exeunt omnes.

Scene 6--Enter Gandalf et al stage left. Theoden and Wormtongue discovered stage centre. Long dialogue. Exit Gandalf stage right.

Much of this is admirable. The Elves of Lothlorien are memorable precisely because we see so little of them; the Balrog is terrible just because he comes at the climax of a long wander through dark tunnels in which not much happens. But I can see why people weaned on the Belgariad and the Dragonlance saga find Tolkien boring and diluted. Perhaps there was just a lot less schlock fantasy available when I was growing up.

Having come to grips with Tolkien's slow pace, we now have to come to grips with his unbelievably dense structure. As a teenager, I am fairly sure that I did not tolerate this; I skipped, or read passively, waiting for a 'good bit'. At the beginning of book two, all the characters get together in a council chamber to have a jolly good exposit. Some of what we hear is stirring stuff--legendary narratives about great battles and Isildur cutting the ring from Sauron's finger as a 'weregild' for his father. But we also get this sort of thing:

In the South the realm of Gondor long endured, and for a while its splendour grew, recalling somewhat of the might of Numenor, ere it fell.…Their chief city was Osgilliath, Citadel of the Stars, through the midst of which the River flowed. And Minas Ithil they built, Tower of the Rising Moon, eastward upon a shoulder of the Mountains of Shadow, and westward at the feet of the White Mountains Minas Arnor they made, tower of the Setting Sun….And in time evil thing came forth and they took Minas Ithil and abode in it, and they made it into a place of dread, and it is called Minas Morgul, the Tower of Sorcery, then Minas Anor was named anew Minis Tirith, the tower of guard.'

If this were only a piece of evocative scene setting, vaguely archaic words rolling gently through the air to create a sense of history, it would be a nice enough piece of writing. Only a professor of philology could have come up with a name as beautiful as 'Osgilliath'. But Tolkien means it. If he refers to Minas Arnor again, you are expected to jolly well remember that it is the same place as Minas Tirith.

What's more, he does it all the time. I wonder if he knows he's doing it, or if he simply forgets that you-the-reader have just bought volume one and therefore can't look things up in the appendices even if you want to. So, Gondor 'recalls the glory of Numenor ere it fell', does it? And what would that glory be? Gandalf has begun his narrative by speaking of Numenor, 'its glory and its fall'; a hundred pages earlier, Aragorn has narrated a story concluding 'And of Earendel came the kings of Numenor' but that is all we have to go on. Several times in the book, the elves recite a poem beginning 'A Elbereth! Githoniel!'. In Mordor, Sam pretty much uses the couplet as a cross to repel a vampire, or in this case a spider. Frodo expresses surprise that the first set of elves he meets 'spoke the name of Elbereth'. Who is Elbereth? According to the Simarillion she is one of the Valar, the demi-goddess of the stars, with special executive responsibility for elves. I suppose the fact that the elves say things like 'May Elbereth protect you' might clue us in. But we aren't told explicitly.

Does it matter? Are we happy to read the book and file Numenor under 'old splendid place; fell a long time ago' and Elbereth as 'important person, something to do with stars, reverenced by elves'? In a way, this adds to the solidity of the book, to the sense that Middle-earth exists outside of the confines of one novel. But it also turns the book into a sort of puzzle, a complicated thread of back and forward reference which the dedicated enthusiast can attempt to solve. (The Silmarillion is the solution, but the Simarillion is so unbelievably dense that merely reading it can be treated as a puzzle in its own right.) Where a normal, sane novel expects you to interpret metaphors, follow the author as he delineates character and create a little day dream in your mind, Tolkien expects you to remember facts, check things on maps, and maybe even jot down data on the back of an envelope. The better you do this, the more you get out of it, I wonder if this is why it is so popular with people who don't like books?

If you do follow all the references then, of course, it all hangs together beautifully. Everyone acknowledges Tolkien's cleverness as a world builder; but I feel that they often miss the point of what he was doing. According to the blurb for the Complete Guide to Middle Earth

'A belief in perfection, the fun of sub-creation and the desire to create something so totally convincing that the reader could believe in it as actual history involved (Tolkien) in map-making, endless charts of data and events and the development of many invented languages'.

This is, of course, complete rubbish.

Surely everybody knows that Tolkien's primary interest was in creating imaginary languages; he created an imaginary world because he needed somewhere for the languages to 'live'. It is nonsense to talk about what he did or didn't want the reader to believe in: he didn't have any readers in mind, he never expected anyone to read his books. He says all this quite explicitly in the foreword to Lord of the Rings:

'I desired to do this for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of 'history' for Elvish tongues.'

Tolkien was not a 'perfectionist', inventing history because Middle-earth demanded it. Inventing history was a little game, a 'secret vice'; Middle-earth grew out of the game. And it is clear that he did not take the game half as seriously as some of his fans.

I don't mean that he wasn't consistent. Neither do I mean that he did not intend the literary bits of his work to be powerful and moving. He chose the single word 'Luthien' for his wife's epitaph; the name 'Beren' was added when he died. That is a mark, in one sense, of how seriously he took his art. But I cannot help thinking that when Tolkien's friends heard him read the latest chapter of his Hobbit sequel in the 'Eagle and Child', pub and found the style suddenly switching to a pure pastiche of Thomas Malory--

'And she answered: 'All you words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more'

and then to Beowulf:

'Hard fighting and long labour they had still; for the Southrons were bold men and grim, and fierce in despair; and Easterlings were strong and war-hardened and asked for no quarter.'

--I can't help thinking that it raised at least a chuckle. A serious chuckle, certainly: a scholarly jape.

If we press on and read the appendices, we hear this sort of thing:

In Numenor…the deficit caused by deducting 1 day from the last year of a century was not adjusted until the last year of a millennium, leaving a millennial deficit of 4 hours, 46 minutes and 40 seconds'

Can anyone doubt that Tolkien is taking the piss; making a joke at the expense of over-zealous scholars who put crazy footnotes into scholarly texts? At any rate, he certainly didn't think that we needed to know about Numenorian leap years in order for his epic fiction to have authenticity. There is a section in the Unfinished Tales about Numenorian linear measurements, which I am happy to say I have never read.

Some people are terribly impressed by the fact that Tolkien knows the name of all the kings and queens of the Rohan. Others protest; why the hell would someone's private background notes be of interest to us? Both views are fallacious. The genealogical sections of Lord of the Rings are neither banks of factual information nor private background notes; they are delightful, tongue in cheek literary miniatures, written for the sheer joy of pastiching the genealogical sections of Genesis or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Folca: He was a great hunter but he vowed to chase no wild beast while there was an orc left in Rohan.

Folciwne: When he became king, the Rohirrim recovered their strength.

The genealogies, charts, maps, languages, and deliberately convoluted historical notes do not exist in order to lend verisimilitude to Middle-earth. Middle-earth exists because Tolkien wanted an imaginary kingdom that linked his charts, maps and histories together.

At the age of 14, of course, all this was perfectly intelligible to me. Tolkien was fun precisely because he was not a writer; he was the grand-daddy of all Dungeons & Dragons referees. In a sense, Tolkien's world-building does have a great deal in common with the fantasy games he inspired.

Have you never wondered why Gandalf wears a pointy hat? Is there something deeply embedded in Tolkien's sub-creation which says that the head-dress of the Istari must be pointy? Does Malory tell us what hat Merlin wears? Does Faust wear a hat? Doubtless someone clever could tell me that wizards wear hats because Hermeticus Trimegesticus refers to the sacred skull cap of the alchemist; but the reason that Tolkien gives Gandalf a hat is that that is how wizards look--in fancy dress parties and comic strips and paintings and everyone's imagination. Dragons sit on piles of gold and fume. Dwarves live down mines and dig things. Goblins live in the depths of the earth and are cannibalistic. This is even true of the Elves. Tolkien, we know, had created vast amounts of mythology about the semi-angelic Eldar, Sindar and Noldor, made lists of the sunderings of their tribes and who may or may not have seen the Tree of Valinor. But in both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, the first we see of actual elves is strange woodland festivals which would not be out of place in the Midsummer Nights Dream. Again, the difference between his approach and that of Ursula Le Guin is very striking. The point of Gandalf is that he is exactly what we expect a wizard to be; the point of Ged is that he isn't.

This is the key to why Tolkien became so very important to me. It wasn't his bad writing, odd pacing, strange characterisation or over-complex history which appealed to me. What I wanted was it was the idea-of-elves, the idea-of-orcs, the idea-of-caves and the idea-of-dwarves. I read Tolkien because it was the only place I knew where I could get them. Tolkien says in his grumpy introduction that he wishes he had written a longer book. What seems pretty clear is that his readers want more. Not more fantasy. Good writers like Le Guin or Frank Herbert do not hit the spot. More of the exact same: more dwarves with beards who live in mines and sing songs about gold; more slightly sarcastic wizards with tall hats and pipes, more dark lords on dark thrones in the land of mordor where the shadows lie. If you could find a way of separating the archetypes from the boring business of having to read then that would do the trick. This may be why Magic the Gathering has made so much money.

And the embarassing thing is, it still seems to work. While I was re-reading the book, it worked it's way into the texture of my life: this was the lunch time I read the Minas Tirith chapter; that was the train journey where I got up to Shelob; that was the Saturday afternoon when I went through book three without stopping. We can see why people who read Tolkien often read nothing else; we can see why people who read real books hate Tolkien like a phobia. As a child any characters I happened to be reading about--Tarzan or Paddington Bear or Spiderman--became solidly real, part of my mental baggage to carry around for as long as I was reading the book. Tolkien is the only author ever to do this to me as an adult. Although come to think of it, Victor Hugo came close.

Coming to the end of the book at 14, I felt that there was no other book in the world, that I didn't want to do anything apart from read and re-read it. Coming to the end of it at thirty-something, I had a vague sense that I fancied having another skim through David Eddings and maybe it was time to give Stephen Donaldson another try. Instead, I have decided that I have probably reached the point in my life when I should tackle Christopher Tolkien's Twelve Volume History of Middle Earth.

Is Tolkien actually any good? I honestly couldn't say.