J. R. Tolkein
J. R. Tolkein; drawing by David Levine

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the storymaker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the storymaker proves a successful “subcreator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.

So Tolkien sets out the principles of his art in a lecture “On Fairy-stories,” written after he had finished The Hobbit (1937) and had begun The Lord of the Rings (now reprinted in The Tolkien Reader). He makes an eloquent case for taking the fairy story seriously as an art form, written for adults as well as for children, and offering gifts legitimately demanded by adults, which he calls Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. He thus lays down the terms on which his fiction is to be judged.

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, storymaking in its primary and most potent mode.

Tolkien’s many admirers will claim that this had indeed been accomplished in The Lord of the Rings; and in the dozen years since the first edition appeared the book has been praised extravagantly; others remain outside the Secondary World of Middle-earth, or think that “abortive” is the right word. Although I like reading epics, medieval romances, and folktales, for many years I could not get beyond the barrier of that first all-too-Hobbit sentence: “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” When I forced myself inside I began to read with growing speed and excitement; then went back to The Hobbit (which is a very good children’s book); then read most of the Rings for a second time, at first enjoying Tolkien’s learning and craftsmanship, but ending up disenchanted.

The story is one of a war and a spy adventure connected with this war, literally one of cloak and dagger (both provided by the Elves). The wicked enchanter Sauron, Lord of Mordor, is at war with the good inhabitants of Middle-earth, Men, Hobbits, Dwarves, etc. He wants to get hold of a ring of absolute power which will ensure his victory. This ring, which has come into the possession of Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit, of course corrupts everyone absolutely, and so it is no good to the good: the only thing to do is to take it back to the volcano in the very heart of the enemy’s territory where it was forged and where only it can be destroyed. Frodo and his companions, led by Gandalf the Wizard and Aragorn the King in mufti, have to carry the ring across dangerous territory; finally Frodo and his servant Sam slip inside Mordor just as Sauron launches his final campaign, and after great hardships manage to destroy the ring at the critical moment of the war.

The war episodes and the spy episodes are beautifully synchronized, with a very precise chronology and no loose ends in the narrative. But although the war is presented in a pastiche of Anglo-Saxon and medieval epic and the spy part is a romantic Quest, the basic form is that of a John Buchan thriller. The Black Riders who pursue Frodo out of the cosy land of the Hobbits into the wilderness are in fact an improvement on that sinister Stutz which chased Richard Hannay’s Bentley up the Great North Road, but they come out of the same stable. There is an even closer resemblance to Buchan’s historical romance, Witch Wood, with its descriptions of wicked magic and of the noble Montrose on the run; even the treatment of the heroine Eowyn is rather like Buchan’s gentlemanly raptures. There is perhaps the image of a real spy hero behind Frodo—T. E. Lawrence, the modest scholar called from his books to save the world—but it is an image mediated through the conventional attitudes of Victorian romantic fiction: Tolkien like Buchan stands somewhere in the line of Rider Haggard.


This soft center has a casing of extremely solid detail. Tolkien has invented a wonderfully self-contained system in his Secondary World: Middle-earth has its own geography and history, there are two Elf-languages complete with grammars and Grimm’s Laws, various alphabets and calendars, and so on, all fully documented in the appendices to Part III (The Return of the Ring); and there is more to come, it seems, in a promised companion volume. Every detail is perfectly consistent with the rest, and this gives the cycle its fascination for the initiates. There are undergraduates who cannot, they tell me, remember six facts about English Constitutional History, yet know by heart the chronicles of the Kings of Nùmenor and the family trees of the Dwarves. The illusion is created that the story is only the top of an iceberg, and that the iceberg itself has broken off from an immense glacier of scholarship. This is a feat that could only have been accomplished by a very learned man, working obsessively for many years, to create an even richer world than Barsetshire or Baker Street.

TOLKIEN’S WORLD has several likenesses to the Primary World in which we live. His greatest strength lies in his sensitive descriptions of landscape, like the Old Forest where the Hobbits are caught by the willows and set free by Tom Bombadill. All his other forests, Lorien, Fangorn, and Ithilien, are just as clearly visualized and poetically brought to life; and this is the point where his writing most nearly approaches truly imaginative creation. His feeling for woods explains why the Ents, the giant tree-men, are the most successful inventions of his mythology. The Downs, where the Hobbits are lost in a mist and seized by barrow-wights, are equally real and moving; here Tolkien has caught the spirit of Sussex perfectly. The other landscapes are more dreamlike, but the details are usually sharp and evocative: the mountains of Mordor are painted as industrial slag-heaps, volcanic wastes, and the surface of the moon. But apart from landscape, every object and almost every person is drawn at second hand from art and literature. Minas Tirith, the city of Gondor, is described in terms of the Hours of the Duke de Berri and other medieval illuminations, with much charming detail. The underground passages and halls of Moria, Helm’s Deep, and the entrance to Mordor, are also convincingly real, while the most moving incident for me is when Gandalf in Moria reads out the manuscript account of Balin’s last stand against the Orcs beneath the mountain.

The people who move about in this world are far less convincing: with a few exceptions they are stock types recombined ingeniously in folkloric and literary shapes. The nearest to life are the Hobbits, who closely resemble the English middle classes, partly of the cosy Dickens world (Bilbo is a Pickwick figure and Sam is Sam Weller) and partly of the real world of the English preparatory, public school, and Oxford college. This Edmund Wilson has found irritating but then the old English were or are irritating. The question is whether the Hobbits, pipe-smoking and beer-drinking antiquarians, are real enough, and I think they are. They also look like the young officers who went straight from school and university to the slaughter of the 1914-18 war, and Tolkien hints in his new Foreword to the revised edition that the experience of that war and not of the last one lies behind his story. The faithful Sam is an officer’s servant of World War I (more like my father’s than my own in World War II); and in general the class attitudes of the Hobbits are the traditional English ones, which survived from the pre-Industrial Age until recently. The Men of Gondor, who live in the feudal system, and the Riders of Rohan, who are Dark-Age barbarians, have a far less credible psychology. They are presented in a series of brilliant pastiches of medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature but remain wooden in their nobility or depravity.

Roger Ascham accused Malory of offering “open manslaughter and bold bawdry.” There is of course nothing of the latter in Tolkien, though plenty of the former. But there is nothing of the conflict between love and duty that is a central theme in medieval romance. The nearest approach to the subject of passion is the decorous triangle of Aragorn and the ladies Eowyn and Arwen, but the good man is in no serious danger. He bears a curious resemblance to the virtuous Sir Charles Grandison, torn between Harriet and Clementina, but he has even less difficulty in resisting temptation. The only other temptation in the book is that of power: Boromir falls but instantly repays with his death (as used to happen in Westerns) but for the others this is no great problem. Everything resolves itself into a simple conflict between Good and Evil. Drawing with immense skill on the Iliad, the Edda, Beowulf, the Irish epics of Cuchullin and the Tuatha Dé, the Mabinogion, Chrétien de Troyes, and Malory, Tolkien completely changes the spirit of heroic and romantic literature; there recognizable human beings suffer from some of the confusions and ambiguities of real life, but he brings everything down to the black-and-white of the fairy tales. But he goes even further than the fairy tales, where the opposition is usually not between moral good and evil but between the familiar world of men and the uncanny world of nature and the supernatural. The contrast he expresses perfectly in The Hobbit and in the forest episodes of the Rings, but throughout most of the latter he presents a much more radical opposition, which is in fact a theological one, between God and the Devil. For a parallel in medieval literature we must look to works written under the inspiration of Christian doctrine: to the Chanson de Roland, with its straight conflict between good Christians and bad Saracens, or to the oddest and least secular part of Arthurian romance, the Queste del Saint Graal. Somewhere in the background of the war between Gondor and Mordor is the war in heaven as described in Revelations.


THIS IS NOT TO SAY that the book is an allegory in the strict sense, like Bunyan’s Holy War. Tolkien makes this clear in his Foreword to the new edition:

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse “applicability” with “allegory”; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

We can take his word for it that the characters and actions do not stand for historical people or topical events: Sauron is not Hitler, the Scouring of the Shire is not about present-day England. But isn’t the book really a parable, consciously aimed at putting across the general Christian view that the universe is a battlefield between the forces of good and evil? That Frodo is a Christ-like figure does not seem doubtful to me: his journey about Easter-time across the plain of Gorgoroth (cf. Golgotha) is a Calvary; he is stripped of his garments, flogged by the soldiery, scratched by thorns: he saves the Shire and “dies” for it, finally going west over sea to the Elfish Tir-nan-Og or land of eternal youth. The Hobbits have apparently no formal religion; the men of Gondor only a silent grace before meals and a place called the Hallows. But it is hinted that Aragorn is really a monotheist and that the Quest takes place under divine providence. The Rings has a family likeness to the science fiction of C. S. Lewis and to the detective stories of Charles Williams, who were his friends and eloquent fellow-Christians at Oxford. Lewis and Williams deliberately chose forms of popular fiction to convey a general message about religion, at the least to predispose their readers to accept a supernaturalist view of the universe. Tolkien is a much better writer than either, but he seems, whether wholly consciously or not, to have attempted much the same thing. Charles Williams was, I suspect, a dominant influence on both Lewis and Tolkien. Take his Many Dimensions (1931), which concerns a magic Stone of vast power: “Then by God sir,” says Sir Giles, “you’ve got the transport of the world in your hands.” “I ask you again,” says the Prince, “to restore it to the guardians from whom you stole it.” The Stone kills the wicked Sir Giles, and at the end Chloe gives it back magically by dying. I don’t think the likeness can be coincidental.

This extreme polarization of good and evil, which is so striking in the works of all three, is not only reminiscent of rigid medieval Christianity but is also, surely, rather infantile. The Hobbits are several times described as children, and that is quite acceptable, since the genres of fairy tale and romance rely on the child-like powers of the imagination. But the Hobbit view of life remorselessly divides the world up into Good Fathers (like Gandalf and Aragorn) and Bad, castrating Fathers (like Sauron, Saruman, and the Nazgul on their pterodactyls), while the terrors of the journey and the war read too often like infantile phobias. Carried into adulthood, such a view has been the basis of religious and political intolerance and persecution. One senses behind the author’s tact and modesty a strongly authoritarian personality—as more obviously in C. S. Lewis—which insists on treating us all as children. If this is true, it may explain the astonishing success of the book among the young, who after a permissive upbringing may secretly want to be treated with authority like old-fashioned children. Tolkien appeals to the residual Christianity of our culture (which is probably stronger in America than in Britain) and by posing the problems of life in terms of absolute good and evil, he gives a pseudo-explanation more satisfactory to the imagination than the rational explanations of liberal humanism can ever be. Alas, in this world there are no goblins or orcs, but plenty of real wolves, and in the words of Boromit, “the wolf that one hears is worse than the orc that one fears.”

This Issue

May 4, 1967