June 7, 2001

The Book of the Century
Andrew O'Hehir

Although its popularity is unparalleled, intellectuals dismiss "The Lord of the Rings" as boyish fantasy. Now one scholar defends J.R.R. Tolkien's "true myth" as a modern masterpiece. First of two parts.

In January 1997, reporter Susan Jeffreys of the (London) Sunday Times informed a colleague that J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy "The Lord of the Rings" had been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a readers' poll conducted by Britain's Channel 4 and the Waterstone's bookstore chain. Her colleague responded: "Oh hell! Has it? Oh my God. Dear oh dear. Dear oh dear oh dear."

Attitudes on this side of the Atlantic are arguably more relaxed about this kind of thing. No one from the educated classes expressed much dismay when a 1999 poll of customers chose "The Lord of the Rings" as the greatest book not merely of the century but of the millennium. Tolkien's magnum opus is so deeply ingrained in popular culture, after all, that a great many of today's American academics and journalists probably spent time in eighth grade passing homeroom notes written in Elvish rune-script, and still have those dogeared Ballantine paperbacks, with their hallucinatory mid-1970s cover art (which the author despised), stashed somewhere in the attic.

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