The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
I read The Lord of the Rings in 1963, when I was eleven, two years before the American paperback edition became a cult book on college campuses. My mother had ordered the book from England—it had an American publisher, Houghton Mifflin, but the American hardcover must have been unavailable, or else we thought it would be classier to own the British—and so I had a superior attitude toward the paperback and toward the Tolkien craze when they came along, like a person who has been summering in the Hamptons since the days when they were mostly potato fields. I felt pleased to have read the book before it was a book everyone read. It’s a feeling one does not necessarily outgrow.
Looking back at the history of the book’s reception now, I can see that my snobbishness was partly due to ignorance. The three volumes of The Lord of the Rings came out in 1954 and 1955, here and in England, and they attracted enough grown-up attention—W.H. Auden was a big enthusiast—to provoke Edmund Wilson to one of his haughtiest dismissals. “It is essentially a children’s book—a children’s book which has somehow got out of hand,” he wrote in 1956, and he called it “balderdash.” I had, obviously, missed all that, and something about owning a British edition (George Allen & Unwin), that came as a boxed set, along with not knowing any other children who had ever heard of it, made the book seem a rare and nearly private treasure.
It also made the book seem distinctly British. I don’t know where my notion of Britishness came from. Maybe from sea stories, of which I was a major consumer (what was that all about?), maybe from having Anglophilic parents, certainly from the King Arthur legends. What I associated with Britishness was the sensation of historical depth, of stories behind stories behind stories, and that was what caught my preadolescent fancy in The Lord of the Rings. “Balderdash” is the wrong word, since it suggests a kind of commercial trashiness that you would have to be as mulishly perverse as Edmund Wilson could sometimes be to attribute to a writer like Tolkien, but let’s face it, a lot of The Lord of the Rings is pretty corny stuff (although a lot of it is original and inventive, too). What gives the book its undeniable appeal—it has appeared at the top of many “century’s best books” polls, Tolkien is the subject of a critical study naming him “author of the century,”* and the book has sold more than fifty million copies—depends on the reader. Auden admired the quest motif, which seems to me nearly the corniest thing about it.
What pulled me in was the “complete world” effect, the illusion of spatial and temporal extension beyond the boundaries of the story proper. The story is about a master ring, a little like the Nibelung’s, that brings its owner power but that also corrupts. The ring has an ancient history;…
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