|The New York Times
April 27, 2001
If ever you need an image to illustrate the phrase "victim of one's own success," try this: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the tweediest and most persnickety of Oxford philologists, a translator and annotator of Old English, Old Norse and Welsh poetry, being forced to sit through a screening of the soon-to-be-released movie version of The Lord of the Rings. Imagine: A teenage actor playing Frodo Baggins, a hobbit 50 years old! New Zealand as a location for Middle Earth, whose geography was explicitly modeled on the hills and forests of Tolkien's beloved England! Tolkien, besides being a patriot, was a conservative Roman Catholic who never quite approved of his fans -- many of them American hippies, at least in his day -- let alone the industry of ancillary products that mushroomed around his work. He once despairingly described his own following as a "deplorable cultus."
Tolkien's deplorable cultus is now woven so deeply into mass culture that you can hardly imagine what life looked like before ''The Hobbit'' and the ''Lord of the Rings'' trilogy became four of the most popular books of the 20th century. Go into any bookstore; the extensive fantasy section you'll find there is a direct result of Tolkien's works having become a staple of early adolescence. So are the runic typefaces, the paperbacks festooned with magicians and omens of doom and the Welsh-sounding titles, all of which can be traced back in one way or another to Tolkien. His wizards and dwarfs and dark forces have as firm a grip on our imaginations as the stock characters of commedia dell'arte or vaudeville once did. The roles we play in Dungeons & Dragons are based on Tolkien heroes and villains. The Harry Potter juggernaut is inconceivable without Tolkien. J. K. Rowling's evil narcissist, Lord Voldemort, is a descendant of Tolkien's prideful Sauron; her uncanniest characters, the dementors -- guards who terrorize prisoners by feeding off their happy thoughts, leaving them prey to their grimmest imaginings -- are close cousins of Tolkien's Black Riders, ominous wraiths who prevail over their victims by inducing in them paralyzing fear.
Isn't influence like this a sign of greatness? T. A. Shippey thinks it is. Shippey is a Tolkienist who is also a professor of Old English philology and literature, and once taught at Oxford alongside Tolkien. In his book scheduled to be published next month, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (the subtitle is not ironic), Shippey offers up a bouquet of explanations for his subject's enduring popularity. They range from what you could call the theopolitical -- that Tolkien's Christian-inspired views of good and evil are relevant to a world still reeling from Hitler and Stalin -- to the allegorical, in which Frodo is featured as a savior not unlike Christ. Shippey's more persuasive argument, though, is philological. The reason Tolkien's work resonates so deeply, he says, is that it rings true to the ear of the English speaker.
Tolkien wasn't just a scholar of dead languages; he appears to have been possessed by them. When he was a student at Oxford, his hobby was creating new ones out of Gothic and Finnish grammar and roots (some of these authentic-sounding languages later appeared in his books). He did the same thing with the names of his characters, basing them on actual ancient English and Norse words. He viewed storytelling as a form of textual archaeology. His job as author was to resurrect names, personalities, events and, most of all, creatures -- elves, dwarfs, dragons, goblins, orcs, Wargs -- buried deep within the strata of linguistic prehistory.
Take Wargs, preternaturally intelligent and malevolent wolves who live past the Edge of the Wild. Shippey believes Tolkien came up with them by reflecting on two words, the Old English "wearh," which means "outcast," and the Old Norse "vargr," which means both "wolf" and "outlaw." Vargr is a philological puzzle: Why would Old Norse have needed another word for "wolf" when it had the common word "ulfr"? Tolkien's creation implies an answer: There must have been an animal similar to a wolf, only outcast and evil.
Or Gandalf, the wizard who watches over hobbits and dwarfs like an anxious lesser deity. His name and those of most of the dwarfs in The Hobbit can be found in a section of an Old Norse poem that consists of a list of dwarfs' names; the passage is called "Dvergatal," or "Tally of the Dwarfs." Gandalf's name, though, is another philological problem. It contains the word for "elf" -- alfr." But what's an elf doing in the "Tally of the Dwarfs," when ancient tradition made a clear distinction between the two creatures? Given that the first syllable of Gandalf could be interpreted as "wand," Shippey writes, Tolkien "seems to have concluded at some point that 'Gandalfr' meant 'staff-elf,' and that this must be a name for a wizard." Shippey speculates that Tolkien viewed the "Dvergatal" as "the last fading record of something that had once happened," and wrote The Hobbit as a gloss on that long-forgotten incident.
It is heady to know that a book you loved as a child conforms to such meticulous standards of mythical realism. Now I know why I felt that Tolkien ushered me into a world that had palpable existence, and why, when I visited Wales as a teenager, the street signs and village names felt so familiar. By basing Middle Earth on the shards of recovered languages and stories, he rooted it in something very like a collective preconscious. The question remains, however, whether this accomplishment is tantamount to literary greatness, as Shippey claims it is.
If you asked me, I'd say no. The Hobbit, which was written for children, came out almost 20 years before the trilogy. It's a light and charming book, and hobbits are refreshingly sane, middle-class creatures, especially compared with the powermongers and extremists they fall in among. But by the time you get to The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's tone has grown somber, even leaden. The villain of The Hobbit was a sarcastic and flirtatious dragon. The villain of The Lord of the Rings is absolute evil, which is distinctly less amusing. The farther into the trilogy you read, the less playful it gets. "There lie the woods of Lothlorien!" is the sort of thing characters say to one another a lot. To which the response is likely to be, "Let us hasten!"
The Lord of the Rings was written for adults, but unless you're a child it's difficult to accept its mounting portentousness without protest, as the price of entry into the longed-for past. One of the best things about growing up is realizing that grandeur doesn't have to be grandiose, nor does historical dialogue have to bristle with fusty archaisms. Tolkien dominates fantasy today because he gave his imaginings the aura of inevitability. But as a storyteller, he was betrayed by the very pedantry that made his creations memorable. He wandered over to the dark side, like an Elf-Lord gone bad. He formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself.