World of Books by A N Wilson

The way to hang on to a heroic past
It is strange to be reminded, by a recent geological history of Rome, that the volcanic catastrophes which created the seven eternal hills occurred between two million and 500,000 years ago. It reminds us of how recent were the arrival of Aeneas or the foundation of the city in 753 BC.

That there was an old world that has now passed away, a heroic world, snatches of which we hear only in half-comprehended song, is an ever-present awareness in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. He is the only modern writer of what might be termed fantasy-literature who conveys this sense – which we find in Virgil and is also present in the Beowulf poet — of a heroic past that is slipping out of memory.

As a Germanic philologist, he expounded the old Icelandic Eddaic verses that recount the doings and death, for example, of Atli or Attila the Hun: he died in 453, was celebrated in song for 500 years, and immortalised in Atlakvitha some time before the Viking settlement of Iceland in 985. Or those mythic beings, the dwarves, preserved in the Voluspa, a mythology of the North, perhaps written down in the 11th century, but keeping alive much older memories of, among others, "Veigr, Gandalfr, Vindalfr, Thrainn…" – that is, the Potion-elf and the Sprite-elf…

Tolkien soaked up all this stuff through his imaginative pores, just as he made it his pastime to learn the older languages of northern Europe — Irish, Welsh, Norse, Old English, Gothic. The fragmentary nature of these language survivals, especially Gothic, is itself something that, if meditated on intelligently, could only produce a Tolkienian world perspective. You feel all the time that something has been lost — it has been lost partly through the passage of time, partly through human malice and wickedness. Language and poetry alone keep its half-memory echoing.

In time, Tolkien came to invent languages and mythologies, and did so until middle age without forming the whole thing into an entire narrative of the earlier ages of the world; there were many stories and myths kept in desk drawers but no one big Aeneid. Then came The Hobbit, a very simple quest story that incorporates some of the Eddaic thoughts about elves and dwarves. Gandalf, the dwarfish name meaning Sprite-elf, turns up as a wizard. The lost ring that can make the little Hobbit invisible is little more than a magic talisman in this book. But in the figure of Beorn the Bee-man we find heroic echoes, both of Beowulf and of the northern berserks.

In The Lord of the Rings, however, composed largely during the Second World War, we find a narrative of immense seriousness. All the surviving civilisations, of Gondor the city of men, and of the more primitive, "heroic" kingdom of Theoden, with its Heorot-like mead-hall, as well as the worlds of those elves who still survive from an earlier age and of the dogged dwarves, is threatened by the need for the Dark Lord of Mordor to hold the Ring of Power that Bilbo Baggins had heedlessly purloined in the earlier story.

When the Wagner bug bit me, 10 to 15 years ago, I demoted Tolkien in my mind and felt that here was a neutered, ersatz Ring-cycle, devoid of all the things that make Wagner interesting — namely sex and religion. But although it is true that Tolkien does not write about the things that obsessed Richard Wagner, his myth is no less overwhelming.

Is it an allegory of the Second World War? Of course he denied it, for to read it in this way would be to invite all sorts of silly comparisons between the ring and the atomic bomb that do not really bear close analysis.

But Tolkien's experience of war obviously adds gravitas to his story. Just as his experience of soldiering in the trenches surely contributes to the Ringbearer and friends trudging on, cold and hungry, through dark and bad weather, so, too, the experience of the Second World War, in which the homely little race of Captain Mainwarings stood out alone in 1940 against the forces of darkness, surely quickens the appeal of Frodo and Sam Gamgee's remarkable quest.

But The Lord of the Rings itself, great work of art as it is, is devoid of its author's "personality". It is not pastiche; it is heroic literature in its own right, down to the end when, unable to find peace in his old home, Frodo takes off, a tragic parting of friends, to the Grey Havens.

London Daily Telegraph
5th February 2007



Comments to the original article in the ‘Telegraph’:
Surely Beorn was a "Bear Man", not a "Bee Man"
Posted by John Bell on February 5, 2007 4:21 PM

At last- a serious critique and understanding of Tolkien in the mainstream media. His collective work remains the greatest work of the human imagination of the 20th century- bar none. It may be recalled that he unsuccessfully advocated Philip Pullman's godless alternative as our nations's favourite in the recent "Big Read" jamboree. Pullman's overrated oeuvre is a weak response by the literary left to the seductive power of the Professor. The Lord of the Rings will still be as effective (and divisive) 100 years from now as it is today. And it will still win every popular literary competition going ....
Posted by David Platt on February 5, 2007 1:26 PM

Is this article an excerpt of something larger? I'm not quite sure what you are suggesting. I think I agree in that Tolkein's books are clearly inflected by his experiences in both wars, and also that his writing takes place in the gritty reality of a collapsing world, whose systems of belief and order are only half remembered, and whose epic stoneworks are are crumbling and anonymous. But I'm still left wondering if there was a concluding paragraph left off the bottom of this article.
Posted by Douglas Bulloch on February 5, 2007 12:07 PM

Another author in the same genre, who manages to capture a sense of history previous to the current events in his books, is Steven Erikson. His world is a more brutal one than Tolkien's but you are always aware of the vast sweeping past upon which the story is pinned. So much so that you sometimes feel as though you are reading a second set of books and may have missed an entire series of books that would have explained what has gone before.
Posted by Stevo on February 5, 2007 11:47 AM

Yes, good article. It's become trendy for the literary "intellectuals" to dismiss Tolkien, but in many ways he is a modern-day Homer - a story-teller who brought together legends in a digestible way for the masses.
Posted by F Wright on February 5, 2007 11:03 AM

Tolkien would bore the pants off anybody. Like 'A Brief History of Time' I doubt if few people have got beyond the first dozen pages. The films were awful. The message suspect.
Posted by swatantra nandanwar on February 5, 2007 10:01 AM

It has to be said also that the plot of the Lord of the Rings is far more convincing than that of Wagner's Ring (Siegfried falling in love with his aunt, etc.) Pace Brian Lewis, I don't see Aragorn as Jesus, any more than I see Dan Brown as a reincarnation of Mary Magdalene; Tolkien could write about good and evil without feeling it necessary to mention God, which is perhaps why the LOTR appeals to many who are not religious, in a way that C.S. Lewis's (also excellent but more explicit) Narnia books don't.
Posted by Glop on February 5, 2007 9:38 AM

I cannot be alone in being uninspired by the Hobbit / Lord of the Rings. My brother devoured them all but they left me cold. I assume the wheel has turned full circle in that I am today absorbed by Harry Potter which Rings afficionados will be quick to call lightweight and banal alongside the many supposed subtexts in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Posted by simon coulter on February 5, 2007 8:14 AM


It's a thoughtful piece, but not altogether accurate in saying that Tolkien is the only modern writer who achieves the effect described. The late David Gemmell, who tends to be seen predominantly as a hack-and-slash writer, wrote a number of novels evoking very much the same sort of nostalgia, such as his "Echoes of the Great Song". It's difficult for post-Tolkien fantasy writers to avoid the accusation that they are basically repeating Tolkien's formula, as the popular Terry Brooks seems to me to do, but Gemmell has a distinctive flavour of his own.
Posted by Nick Palmer MP on February 5, 2007 8:13 AM

'The Lord of the Rings' has been my inspiration for 40 years as it reflects the folk history of the English and other northern European peoples so marvellously well: Indeed now a wonderfe bible for expressing English independence if we suppose the elves (the Welsh) and the Scots (the Dwarfs) are abandoning us to fight 'Mordor' alone as they sail away to their own misty islands! I never did understand how Tolkien could be a devout Roman-Catholic, but perhaps he saw 'Aragorn' as a reflection of 'Jesus'. I see it far more likely that Tolkien was carried away by his imagination and position as a professor of Anglo-Saxon and forgot his Christian origins as he wrote.
Posted by Brian Lewis on February 5, 2007 2:31 AM

Thank you A.N. Wilson (and I never thought I would write a sentence like that)!
Posted by Roger Rowe on February 6, 2007 7:28 PM

1 comment:

matushkadonna said...

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