To quote Treebeard ‘… the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth and I smell it in the air.’ It always surprises me when I hear other fantasy writers and readers say that they find Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast and many of the other masterworks of fantasy hard going. When I first came across these books they held me spellbound for weeks on end – I’d never read anything like them and everything else in the world at large (let alone in the world of books) seemed to just fade away while I was under their spell. In one sense, though, it should perhaps not be so difficult to understand. These days it is more likely than not that someone who reads fantasy will only come to Tolkien after having read other, more modern books, most likely in the growing field of young adult fantasy, which is spearheaded by the likes of J K Rowling and Philip Pullman. Written in an up-to-date, engaging and above all understandable manner, Harry Potter and its ilk are in stark contrast to what must to many people seem the dessicated writings of an out of touch Oxford Don sitting in his ivory tower over half a century ago. It should also be noted that very many people will now only come to Tolkien’s book in light of the (well-deserved) critical and commercial success of Peter Jackson’s film versions. Anyone who came out of the cinema thinking ‘Cool, a book about lots of vikings and elves killing trolls and scary-looking guys in cloaks!’ might well be left feeling bewildered and annoyed by Tolkien’s dense, plodding prose and old-fashioned language. Even back in the 1950s when it was first published, Lord of the Rings must have presented a conundrum to its publishers, let alone the book-buying public. Here was a novel that was over one thousand pages long, with over a hundred pages of additional appendices, filled with hundreds of characters (very many of whom only appear for a handful of pages, if that) and poems in invented languages that in many cases the author did not even bother to translate! Despite all of this Lord of the Rings is to this day often voted the most popular novel in all of English Literature and Tolkien the most popular author. His influence on the field of epic fantasy remains palpable in the form of his many imitators and his work has more devotees and fan clubs all over the world than almost any other writer. Why do people read and re-read Tolkien’s books? What makes them so powerful and enduring?
There is one explanation for his success that I can give – I think it may have something to do with language. An epic tale needs an epic, poetic voice, a voice with a hint of the ancient world, an understanding that the storyteller is dealing with a heroic age. The key here is to get just the right amount of archaism into your writing and Tolkien, as a professor of language and a connoisseur of words, was qualified to do this in a way that few others have ever been. He turned to the ancient Finnish, Norse, Welsh and Anglo-Saxon epics like The Elder Eddas, The Kalevala, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf as examples when he wrote, and it shows:
‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’ – The Fellowship of the Ring
“Dotard! What is the House of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs? Too long have they escaped the gibbet themselves. But the noose comes, slow in the drawing, tight and hard in the end. Hang if you will!” – The Two Towers
“Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.” – The Return of the King
If none of that makes you shiver, you might just be dead inside…
My other explanation for Tolkien’s continuing popularity is that, in some way, we all need mythology. Not just because myths and legends are entertaining stories, or because some of them come attached with a handy moral. We need them, the way we require vitamins or sunlight. This need for myth became especially acute after the First World War, when all the certainties of the old values were swept away and also when, not coincidentally, Tolkien first began writing his tales. Part of his genius was that he realized this hunger still existed, despite all the marvels of the modern world. He knew that people desired epic stories of quests, dragons, treasure, magic, wonders, terrors, loss and redemption, of heroes stretched nearly beyond their capacity for endurance. But Tolkien’s genius also showed itself in the way that he was able to satisfy that hunger. He revived an old form and somehow made it speak to the present. He spent literally decades constructing his world, making it consistent, giving it languages, poetry, history and art, making it so real that we might almost believe that he had discovered it rather than invented it. He gave it characters of stature – metaphorical if not literal – and he set in motion a story that the public read again and again. Tolkien’s gift for storytelling, his solidly constructed world and his flair for language all make him a true myth-maker and we have had precious few of those in our time. This may well be reason enough to celebrate Tolkien’s work and to hope that he continues to be read well into the 21st century and beyond.
Of all of the authors that I’ve encountered since reading Tolkien, the only ones who really seem to have understood the importance of language and mythic resonance in their fantasy novels have been Ursula Le Guin in the lyrical, captivating Earthsea series and Robert Holdstock in the brooding, powerful Mythago sequence. The best modern example that I can think of is Robin Hobb, although her books do tend to be a little too padded for my tastes sometimes. Nonetheless, all of these authors seem to appreciate, as Tolkien did, that fantasy fiction is not just about ‘hack and slash’ and can handle universal human themes as well as any other genre. One final point I should make is that my view of Tolkien is in some respects coloured by the way in which I first came across his books. I read The Hobbit when I was very young, loved it, and only read Lord of the Rings in my early teens. At my local library (I borrowed almost everything I read back in those happy days) there were no copies of The Fellowship of the Ring available for years on end, so eventually I got fed up waiting and actually read The Two Towers first. Later, I was glad that I did this because in the second part of the Rings trilogy you are thrust straight into the action of what is by that stage in many ways a darker, more urgent and more intense story. Even at the time I didn’t feel that I had particularly missed out on anything because I was already pretty clued up on the background and setting from having read The Hobbit first. I can well appreciate, however, that the leisurely manner in which the story unfolds in Fellowship may well put off many first time readers, especially if they have not come across The Hobbit at a younger age, as I did. I’ll therefore end this post with a recommendation – if you’ve never read Rings before or have been put off by the first few chapters of Fellowship, it might be worth giving the trilogy one last go, but this time starting with Towers. Don’t worry, Tolkien also wrote a handy synopsis to fill the reader in on the first part of the story (that’s if you need it given that there’s also a film and cartoon version of Fellowship to watch!)