|The American Prospect
May 22, 2001
Kicking the Hobbit
When it comes to the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, it is a truism that critics either love the books or hate them: Concerning Middle Earth, there is no middle ground. Such has been the case ever since Tolkien, an Oxford philologist, first published his epic novel The Lord of the Rings in three volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) between 1954 and 1955. In 1956 W.H. Auden wrote in The New York Times that, in some respects, Tolkien's story of the hobbit Frodo's quest to destroy the Dark Lord Sauron's "One Ring" of power surpassed even Milton's Paradise Lost. But that same year, Edmund Wilson, at the time America's pre-eminent man of letters, dismissed The Lord of the Rings as "balderdash" in a review for The Nation titled "Ooh, Those Awful Orcs." Wilson also swatted at Tolkien defenders like Auden and C.S. Lewis, observing that "certain people--especially, perhaps, in Britain--have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash."
Wilson's derisive review inaugurated an estimable tradition of hobbit bashing, but the enduring success of Tolkien's fiction has bedeviled his literary detractors. In 1961 Philip Toynbee wrote optimistically in The Observer of London that Tolkien's works had "passed into a merciful oblivion." Forty years later, The Lord of the Rings has sold 50 million copies in numerous languages, influencing everything from Star Wars to Led Zeppelin and single-handedly spawning the genre of fantasy fiction in the process. (Tolkien's 1937 novel The Hobbit has sold almost as many copies.) These days, Tolkien fans are counting down the weeks until December, when The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of New Line Cinema's three projected Tolkien blockbusters, is to appear in theaters.