Why do some critics hate, others love Tolkien?


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Why do some critics hate, others love Tolkien?

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Jan 16, 2007, 4:09am

I just finished The Tolkien Scrapbook. Among other things, there are some essays included by various critics, some contemporary, others not.
W. H. Auden loved his works.
Edmund Wilson despised them, to the point of saying: "...certain people-especially, perhaps, in Britain-have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash." Of course I looked up Edmund Wilson, of whom I have never heard, and found out he was a critic with what I call a terrible life full of broken relationships with wives and friends. I am sorry to say I felt a little...righteous...about that. I know, for shame.
There was also an essay on The Evolution of Tolkien Fandom, by Philip W. Helms. This was very interesting, about the way the trilogy affected and was received by different generations, up through the '70's. Made me wonder what he would say about this new film generation of fans.

Any thoughts out there? I know there are lots of readers who can't stand LOTR, it's not just "literary critics".

Jan 16, 2007, 4:20am

I do love LoTR but many people can't get into the writing style which is very slow. Of course there also a lot of people who can't cope with the whole fantasy this is not a real world thing. SO I'm not at all suprised to learn he has recieved some harsh criticism

Modifié : Jan 16, 2007, 10:08pm

It's worse than that, Mrs. Lee. The reason that many of Wilson's affairs were brief was that his conquests found him less than, shall we say, satisfying when it came to the physical and emotional parts. The lovely Edna St. Vincent Millay jilted him. (He was devastated, of course). Elizabeth Waugh gave him a backhanded compliment, after the fact, writing “if you were just prose, I’d be mad about you.” And he achieved fame, of a sort, for being an excruciatingly bad kisser. But of course, not to be theologically presumptuous, but if he is in Purgatory, it is for his shallow, cowardly and herdlike views on Tolkien. For an antidote to this sort of thing, see Shippey's Tolkien: Author of the Century. The Catalog function seems to be broken, for the moment, so I cannot see whether you own it. Cheers!

Jan 16, 2007, 6:47pm

Thanks oaksspalding.
I was trying to be discreet and charitable...but your post is much more satisfactory >;D
Thanks also for the recommendation, it isn't something I have yet, but is sounds like something I would like.

Fév 7, 2007, 1:08pm

I've heard some people complain about the long battle scenes, esp. in The Two Towers.

There's a strong moral, Christian element at work in Tolkien. Some people might not like that. Much of the fantasy lit. that followed claims to be inspired by Tolkien but rarely retains this moral element of his work.

I imagine this is true of Lewis as well, who was even more explicitly Christian in his mythology.

Fév 8, 2007, 6:18pm

I think the chivalric and heroic values of Lord of the Rings are not so much Christian (an overtly Christian element is hard to spot) as just plain old-fashioned, pre-modern values, and so unpalatable to post-romantic, modern or post-modern critics.

Fév 8, 2007, 9:18pm

Agree. I first read LOTR shortly after college, and have read the trilogy numerous times over the (too many) years since. I see nothing explicitly Christian or Judaeo-Christian about the books. (Can't say the same for the Silmarillion, parts of which read like warmed-over bible.)

Moral? Yes, of course. Much of the appeal is the struggle between good and evil, and the struggles of some characters to chose between them. But that does not mean "Christian" to the rest of us. Many if not most of the people I've known who love and regularly re-read the trilogy, including the cousin who urged me to read it, were atheists.

Back to Edmund Wilson. While there may be comfort to be derived in finding reasons to look down upon people with whom one disagrees, I suggest that it is false comfort. :-) What if a critic who is a faithful
husband, expert lover, and great "snogger" dismisses LOTR and its admirers as juvenile? Do we run a check to see if that chap has ever had a parking ticket? What if another critic who has been an unsatisfactory husband to many, and is said to have been a poor performer in bed, thinks LOTR the greatest work in the history of literature? How can such a person be correct? If anyone wants to "explain" Wilson's opinion, I think an explanation is more likely to be found in his agenda and prejudices than in his bedroom. If anyone wants to judge his opinion on its own merits and say "Poppycock," I'll join in.

Here's a URL for the review itself:
I believe that Wilson said that no two people ever read the same book. Clearly he and I didn't read the same book in this case. :-) I wonder how much of it he really did read --- he has some details wrong, and never picked up the correct spelling of Gandalf.

Fév 8, 2007, 9:53pm

I think the Christian influence of Tolkien's work has been made clear in numerous places, which a little digging and reading would prove.

Sure, atheists can enjoy the books. But they might not know why they are enjoying it. And perhaps they are not perceiving it at the same depth as a Christian would, who is more in tune with Tolkien's purpose.

I mentioned in another Group: The desire to hold onto the mythopoeic suggests a lingering religiosity, whether atheists recognize it or not. Atheists who read fantasy lit are simply seeking a substitute mythology for the Christianity they find inadequate.

Coleridge, a great mythologizer in his time, said that everyone has a world view, whether he recognizes it or not. His metaphor was that we live like bats in twilight, unaware of why we think the way we do. We like or dislike something, but we don't know why. Often we have not been exposed to superior work, so we have no norms or standards by which to judge.

Anyway...Tolkien was a medievalist who drew on a number of mythologies. Clearly Christianity was one of them.

If we could go back and sit in on some of those Inklings meetings, with Lewis and MacDonald and the others, much would be revealed.

Fév 9, 2007, 1:49am

Ce message a été supprimé par son auteur(e).

Modifié : Fév 9, 2007, 1:53am

Messed up the in try #9. :(

I think the Christian influence of Tolkien's work has been made clear in numerous places, which a little digging and reading would prove.

That's not very clear. Do you mean "of" his work or "on" his work?

Taking the latter first, I'm certainly aware of Tolkien's religion. (If I hadn't been, I'd probably have managed to figure it out when visiting his grave in a Roman Catholic cemetery.) I'm also aware that Tolkien repeatedly and vehemently said that his books were not to be regarded as allegory, and wrote in the foreword: "As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none." He specifically said that no character in LOTR "represented Christ," and that the Third Age was not a Christian one. His faith certainly informed his world view, but anyone who has done any digging and reading in the area of world religions knows that the themes in LOTR claimed for Christianity are far from exclusive to Christianity, and in fact predate it.

Christian influence of Tolkien's work? It has influenced Christianity, or Christians? I do know that many Christian polemicists have seized unto LOTR and claimed it as representing their views. It is amusing to read all of the back and forth argument about whether LOTR is an evil book about wizards and elves, or a good book in which Frodo (or Gandalf) obviously represents Christ.

Sure, atheists can enjoy the books. But they might not know why they are enjoying it.

LOL. It has been a long time since I've encountered that form of Chutzpah. The tactic of trying to psychoanalyze away another person's opinions has whiskers. If you want to debate religion (rather than the presence or absence of explicitly Christian themes in LOTR), pop over to the "Outside" group, start a topic, define your terms and have at it.

And perhaps they are not perceiving it at the same depth as a Christian would, who is more in tune with Tolkien's purpose.

Or perhaps those who have done enough digging and reading to be cognizant of the universality of the themes are finding yet more depth.

The desire to hold onto the mythopoeic suggests a lingering religiosity, whether atheists recognize it or not. Atheists who read fantasy lit are simply seeking a substitute mythology for the Christianity they find inadequate.

LOL. There you go again, to steal a line from Reagan. If they are to enjoy a drama or book, people practice what Aristotle termed "suspension of disbelief." While some people may seek to carry over their suspension of disbelief to daily life, others prefer to draw the line between fantasy and reality.

Coleridge, a great mythologizer in his time, said that everyone has a world view, whether he recognizes it or not. His metaphor was that we live like bats in twilight, unaware of why we think the way we do. We like or dislike something, but we don't know why. Often we have not been exposed to superior work, so we have no norms or standards by which to judge.

Oh dear. If you are describing your own condition, you have my sympathy.

Anyway...Tolkien was a medievalist who drew on a number of mythologies. Clearly Christianity was one of them.

Indeed. I wouldn't be surprised if he pictured Elbereth as having some attributes of the Virgin Mary. But he wrote nothing that requires the non-Catholic reader to draw the comparison. The Christianity is hardly explicit, especially as Christianity drew on many other mythologies. Is there an example of something in LOTR that could not have been drawn from an older mythology?

Modifié : Fév 9, 2007, 2:21am

I'm not sure any of us meant to "explain" Wilson's opinions on LOTR by referencing his lack of skill as a lover. (Then again, inadequacy is often a good explanation for various forms of intellectual foolishness.) But Wilson was a pompous bore and his opinions on Marx and Lenin (expressed in To The Finland Station) were stupid and pernicious. So I, for one, find much comfort in making fun of him and take positive pleasure in hearing tales of his failed snogging. :)

Fév 9, 2007, 2:41am


I don't like him much either. Enjoy. :-)

Fév 9, 2007, 4:26am

O.K. For one, there's that word again, snogging. Just looked it up so I finally know what it means. It's funny to me that I had never heard it before, and suddenly it pops up in every thread I read. Well, that's an exaggeration.

#7 Sorry myshelves. I know better, and I would never judge his writing because of his personal life, though I think knowing an author's personal life can give insights into their writing. I also know I should never ever take satisfaction in someone else's misfortune. But sometimes...well, my immature side wins out. Actually, I'm just taking pleasure in oaksspalding's forth write speaking ;) It didn't seem to me that Wilson hesitated to judge one's intellect either.

a quote from Tolkien: "...I much prefer history (to allegory), true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the domination of the author."

This is why I love LOTR. I am free to see all the associations I want. So is anyone. Some see WWII, others environmental issues, I see Christ in every member of the fellowship, and oh so many more inspirations. What I see doesn't have to limit what others see, and it was written that way. It is very rare to find a work so flexible. C. S. Lewis was much more limiting and that is probably one of the reasons he is not as popular today. I think he had his reasons for being so and he and Tolkien probably had many discussions about that. I've yet to read any of the other Inklings works.

Modifié : Fév 9, 2007, 9:31am

#8 The desire to hold onto the mythopoeic suggests a lingering religiosity... Atheists who read fantasy lit are simply seeking a substitute mythology for the Christianity they find inadequate.

Actually I am inclined to agree. Those who reject religious faith (as inadequate, or irrational, or whatever) may well have a lingering desire for mythic ideas, which fantasy helps to meet. Lewis and Tolkien would have argued that this is because mythic ideas reflect a more profound spiritual reality, but this is their personal conviction, not a logical argument. It's logically possible that atheists seek myth through fantasy not because they have found Christianity inadequate, but because Christianity is inadequate.

PS An Inklings meeting with Lewis and MacDonald would indeed be a treat: George MacDonald died in 1905 when C. S. Lewis was 7 years old! :-)

Fév 9, 2007, 12:57pm

There's room for disagreement.

Some interesting articles are to be found if you google Tolkien and Christianity.

Modifié : Fév 9, 2007, 2:11pm

I'd like to know the derivation of snogging. Or maybe I wouldn't. :-)

You did make it clear that your attitude towards Wilson was a "guilty pleasure." :-) Human nature. I reckon this is a case of "Ah that mine enemy's ex-wife would write a book!" (grin) I was just pointing out that his personal failings didn't make him wrong about Tolkien. The reasons that Oakes gave for taking comfort in his er . . . discomfiture. . . probably do have some bearing. The man once "gave a bad review" to Spain and everything about it, saying that he never could get through Don Quixote. I have to wonder if he was holding a grudge against Cervantes because of Franco.

The question of the personal lives of authors is a tricky one. One of my favorite writers of murder mysteries, whose books I find unusual in their strong emphasis on murder as moral violation, was "outed" as having served time in prison as a teenager for a shocking and senseless murder. Some people find that a reason to boycott the books. Arguments on the subject grow heated.

I agree about LOTR. When Tolkien said that no character in the books represents Christ, I'm sure that he didn't mean that no one should see anything Christlike in some of them. But his story doesn't require that mindset.

Churning out undergrad & grad school papers & exam answers discussing the symbolism in X book, and what author Y didn't know he meant, left me wary of too much interpretation. It keeps academics busy warring over the latest fads in lit crit, and helps them to advance their careers, but it is too easy to interpret almost anything as a symbol, and to find anything you want to look for in just about any book. I once attended a luncheon at which the guest speaker, a scholar, explained to us that a mention of food in children's lit has sexual connotations. We were soon eying our plates askance, and I'll never read The Wind in the Willows again with the old innocence. :-)

I was just looking at the group description. Chesterton wasn't a member of the Inklings. And Dorothy L . Sayers, who is usually considered as connected to the group, isn't mentioned. Odd. Have you read Sayers's books? I liked the Peter Wimsey novels so much that I went to the library and checked out whatever they had by her. I found some of her religious essays interesting.

Fév 9, 2007, 5:26pm

#16 I think Chesterton might come under the heading of influencing Inklings and Sayers as influenced by.

I did not attend college for long, and so was not tormented by that kind of literary analysis. I too, dislike it. Please do NOT enlighten me on "The Wind in the Willows", it's one of my favorites. Though I personally do seek the underlying message in fiction works, I think author's world views must come through, I don't pin them down as meaning only that. Fortunately, my lack of formal education has spared me the chicken to sex comparison. Though my husband loves to eat chicken...

I have found profound truths in works of atheists as well as Christians and all those in between. Whether the author meant them to be the truth which I saw or not is another matter. I prefer the phrase, "In this work I saw..." as opposed to "In this work the author was trying to say..." Unless there are writings from the author which say exactly what he was trying to say.

Dorothy L. Sayers is my favorite all-time mystery author because she makes one think so much about moral issues in life. Sadly, I've yet to put my hands on her other writings, except the essay on the Trivium education. One of these days...

deniro - I have heard that it was Tolkien who led Lewis to accept Christ as his Saviour, but since then I've heard contradictory evidence. Haven't read a good biography on either man yet. Do you know anything about this?

Fév 9, 2007, 9:15pm

I wrote a few papers myself, years ago, and for whatever reason found it necessary to do so long enough to receive some letters after my name -- admittedly, not all that impressive an honor.

The fact that overinterpretation and false interpretation exist does not mean per se that Christians are engaging in it when they see Christian symbolism in Tolkien's work. If they can back up their claims with evidence from the text, then their claims ought to carry some weight. In fact, given Tolkien's own beliefs it would be surprising if his Christianity did not influence his work. This is not to say atheists can't enjoy it. But for the Christian there are depths and meanings in the stories which cannot be avoided. It is perhaps incumbent upon the atheists to ask themselves why they enjoy these books and whether they are grasping their true meaning.

Brad Birzer has an interesting book called J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth which addresses some of the issues raised here.

According to Birzer, "Tolkien wrote in an oft-quoted letter to a close friend in 1953 that "The Lord of the Rings" is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." This is not to say he wrote an allegory. He did not intend to be that didactic. Nor was his intent evangelization or conversion. At least, not as far as I know.

The title of this thread asks why various readers and critics hate Tolkien. Probably the best thing to do is to ask them.

Let me suggest, however, that one of the reasons for their hostility is that Tolkien drew a clear line between good and evil which many people today find uncomfortable and simplistic.

Having met my share of witches and dragons, I am inclined to side with Tolkien.

Fév 9, 2007, 9:20pm

It's true that Dorothy Sayers was not a member, though she seemed to be on the same wavelength.

I haven't read the often cited work The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter.

Fév 10, 2007, 1:17pm

Sayers, Chesterton, conversion:
Sayers was a friend of Lewis and Williams. But the Inklings was a "boys only" club. Chesterton was not a member. And in answer to MrsLee's question, Tolkien and Dyson took a long walk with Lewis, during which they engaged in debate on religion. Lewis (by then a deist, according to what I've read) loved myth, and Tolkien persuaded him that Christianity was the myth which all of the others had foreshadowed, and had the additional merit of being true.

And when writing some of the papers, did you ever find yourself thinking "this is nonsense"? Or did you take it all dead seriously?

Agreed. Though the letters can be useful when replying to a letter or e-mail with a signature to which a string of letters is attached. They make a handy substitute for saying "So I'm supposed to be impressed?" :-)

I'm reminded of a chat with one of my grad school professors. "Why," I asked, (pointing to a 19th century novel we were reading) "is that 'great' but" (holding up a modern Pulitzer-prize novel I was reading) "this not?" "Well," he said of the latter, "there's no symbolism." I thought for a moment, said: "Of course there is", and started inventing & rattling off examples. He replied: "Now you're catching on." Oy vey!

I've never felt that it is incumbent upon me to ask myself why I enjoy a novel. The reasons why I do or don't enjoy a novel usually seem pretty clear to me. It's something I would ponder if I saw reasons why I might not have enjoyed it. (For instance, I've read books in which I was unimpressed with the plot and the characters, sometimes with the underlying ideas, but in which the style and use of language was so good that I liked them anyway.) If someone asks why I enjoy LOTR, I'm perfectly willing to answer - - - if the questioner has an hour or so to spare. :-) As for "grasping their true meaning," I repeat that the themes in LOTR are universal, and that neither Catholics nor Christians invented them or have any copyright on them. Those who read the books while wearing their sectarian blinkers are, IMO, the ones missing the depth.

The friend to whom Tolkien wrote the letter you cite was a Jesuit. I've wondered if he was responding to some question or criticism, perhaps contrasting his work to that of Lewis.

I'd agree that some, now and 50 years ago, wouldn't have approved of "simplistic" notions of good and evil.
They'd also have preferred anti-heroes, who were "coming into their own" around the time LOTR was published. Heroism was not "in." Others probably just shared the contempt often shown for "sci fi" and fantasy as inferior and "juvenile" literature.

Modifié : Fév 10, 2007, 4:53pm

No, I didn't write nonsense. I took my work seriously. I was proud of it then and I still am. I have a clear, logical mind, excessively logical at times, and had little patience for overimaginative interpretations of fiction.

It sounds like your professor was a fraud. Mine were not. Until graduate school. And even then they were not frauds. They were motivated by something other than the truth of a text.

What I found nonsensical was recent literary theory, fashioned largely by French intellectuals, which most professors had adopted. I didn't follow their lead. I read books and wrote about what they meant. I didn't leave the text to look for far-out meanings.

A long story.

Theory's Empire
Literature Lost

Fév 10, 2007, 4:45pm

I was 13 when I read Tolkien. A long time ago. I was pleasantly surprised at the movies, both at how faithful they were and how popular they became. It seems there still is a place for heroic fantasy.

Modifié : Fév 11, 2007, 2:59pm

I don't think that the professor was a fraud. I'd say that he was aware that the methods of lit crit he taught weren't "final absolute truth," had the lack of pomposity to admit it, and had enough sense of humor to do so in the way he did.

He was very fond of Rabbie Burns, and a minister, so perhaps he had prayed: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us."

Edited to correct error pointed out by jargoneer. Sorry! :-)

Fév 11, 2007, 8:35am

Bringing it back to the original question - why do some critics dislike Tolkien?

Michael Moorcock argues in his book Wizardry and Wild Romance that Tolkien's writing was driven by an obsessive fear that the south of England, aka the Shire, with its idealised countryside and countryfolk, was about to be over-run by rough northern blokes (orcs) led by nasty Bolshy intellectuals (evil wizards) and supported by ungrateful natives in other parts of the Empire.

The second, more damning, reason is the quality of the writing. Moorcock called it Winnie the Pooh as epic; A. N. Wilson, a British novelist who has written sympathetically on Tolkien and his beliefs, said that he now found LOTR unreadable.

#23, it's Rabbie Burns.:-)

Fév 11, 2007, 6:53pm

Wasn't Tolkien upset about industrialization and the "citification"of villages (including his childhood home)around Birmingham? I don't know that that was being done by rough northern blokes though; plenty of locals had been at it for a long time. :-)

I think much of the distaste may spring from a dislike for the structure of the society of Middle Earth. "Master" Frodo would certainly have grated upon the sensibilities of critics such as Edmund Wilson, even if they'd been able to stick the idea of kings as heroes. Suspension of disbelief, and also suspension of political, religious, cultural, and other mindsets, is a stumbling block for some. Insertion of the modern is part of what makes Monty Python and the Holy Grail so funny, but if you read Mallory and object that Arthur's kingdom didn't have "one man, one vote" you might as well not bother. Look at all of the people, some of them with doctorates, who can't get past the "n word" in Huck Finn, and want to ban the book, even when Jim is arguably the most admirable character, and Huck ready to go to hell rather than turn him in.

As for the quality of the writing. . . . Well, I tried reading the Elric novels, but was bored. :-) I can't make out what's up with A. N. Wilson. There's a 5 Feb 2007 Daily Telegraph piece with unqualified praise for LOTR, and a bit of a retraction of his negative comparison whilst bitten by the "Wagner bug." Is that a reprint, or his latest word?

P.S. I picked up "Robbie Burns" from a Glaswegian (whose name happened to be Robert.) What do I know? :-)

Mar 29, 2007, 3:07pm

Well, the answer to the question is quite easy...they're just jealous. ;)

Mar 24, 2010, 8:35am

Mrs Lee - good biographies include

The Inklings Humphrey Carpenter

The Inklings Handbook: a comprehensive guide to the lives, thought and writings of C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield and their friends Duriez, Colin; Porter, David

J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis: the story of their friendship Duriez, Colin

The Narnian: the life and imagination of C S Lewis Jacobs, Alan
A thematically organised biography; more than a listing of events, it concentrates on Lewis’ writings and draws out his recurrent ideas.

I've just finished compiling a guide to information (books, articles, websites) about the Inklings, so please ask if you want any more sugestions!


Mar 29, 2010, 6:32am

I have heard that it was Tolkien who led Lewis to accept Christ as his Saviour

That seems an exaggeration. Tolkien was instrumental in getting Lewis to accept that the mythic nature of the Christian story did not mean that it must be untrue. This allowed Lewis to make progress towards his own Christian recommitment. (I don't think Lewis was the kind of man to be "led" anywhere by anybody.)

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