In response to:
Kicking the Hobbit from the May 4, 1967 issue
To the Editors:
As I read Matthew Hodgart’s review of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and other writings [NYR, May 4], it became clear that most of his criticisms missed the point. It is interesting to know that the themes and characters which appear in Tolkien’s narrative can also be found in various other works. But that is not surprising. Important works have always dealt with universal human themes, often symbolically, and similarities are not hard to find. That such parallels can be found in Tolkien should not detract from the value of his works.
More importantly, I was amazed to find that The Lord of the Rings was attacked on the grounds that the conflict between good and evil portrayed might engender an “infantile” dichotomy between right and wrong which is alleged to have “been the basis of religious and political persecution.” Perhaps the reviewer is thinking of the Russian purges of the Thirties, or of the Spanish Inquisition, and believes that “liberal humanism” has put an end to this sort of thing in the western world. But today, as during the Peloponnesian war, it is liberal humanists who are engaged in persecutions of the most bestial kind, especially overseas. Ethical relativism and liberal humanism may have been the philosophy of those who opposed repression in the Thirties, but it is more often employed in defense of brutality today. It is their opponents who are now saying that there are standards of morality, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. In fact, liberal humanism and absolute morality have both been used in the service of political expediency. They are used to justify Machiavellian policy; they are not the cause of it.
It is also not a valid criticism to protest that Tolkien’s characters are not like flesh-and-blood people, whose motives are partly good and partly bad. Macbeth, for example, was portrayed by Shakespeare in quite a different light from the account given in the chronicles. In Shakespeare’s play, no attempt was made to excuse Macbeth’s crime, nor to make Duncan appear to have faults which might have helped to justify the murder. Would Macbeth have been a better play if this were not so? And the “infantile phobias” to which Mr. Hodgart refers have not been exorcized from the adult mind. On the contrary, the refusal of the liberal humanist to recognize them and deal with them rationally is leading the western world, as Dr. Carl Jung has pointed out, to excesses of destruction which threatens all of us.
Tolkien’s appeal among the young, especially students, is certainly remarkable. But in my observation, the appeal is not to the infantile or the unreflective, but rather to those who are most socially concerned and most intelligent. Perhaps its success is due to the fact that standards of good and evil are recognized, and also to the ability of Tolkien to evoke a consciousness of life and of nature which has become clouded for many of us. The absence of erotic intrigue is no doubt a lack which might well be attributed to a strain of Victorianism in the author, but it is a lack which is easily compensated these days. Whether Tolkien’s works deserve the extravagant praise they have received will in time become clearer. I think that history’s judgment will be less harsh than Mr. Hodgart suggests.
San Jose, California
Matthew Hodgart replies:
I am sorry to be late in replying to Mr. Craig Harrison’s letter, which may represent several protests against my review of Tolkien. One of the reasons for my delay is that I spent the best part of my spare time for a week following on TV a war which seemed as miraculous in its outcome as the one between Gondor and Mordor, and which was as nearly a straight victory of Good over Evil as any war is likely to be. But even in this conflict Right is not all on one side: even though the Arab leaders were insanely set on the destruction of Israel and their armies deserved their fate, there still remain the problems of the Arab peoples, of the refugees and a hundred other issues which will have to be solved by negotiation and by the give and take of diplomacy and politics. The world is like that, and not like the black and white dichotomy which I see in The Lord of the Rings.
If Mr. Harrison thinks that “liberal humanism” (by which he means a relativist view of the world) is just as dangerous in politics as “absolute morality,” then I must disagree (almost) absolutely, for reasons too lengthy to be given here. Liberal humanism can be a sloppy creed and has indeed been used at times to justify political evils including colonial wars. But it is still the best creed we have and has done less damage than the fanatic Crusades and Holy Wars that disfigure history. The reason why I, probably like many other non-Jews, admire the Israelis is not just that they have fought for the existence of their nation, but that they are a humanist, pragmatic, and even contentiously democratic people, whose leaders are well aware of the complexities that lie before them and presumably will not in their triumph imitate the stupid certainties of the Arabs.
But that parenthesis has little to do with Tolkien. The only thing I regret about my review is that I failed to give adequate praise to Tolkien’s poems in the Rings or to The Hobbit. I don’t mean Tolkien’s pastiches of Breton lais in his elve-songs, which seem rather insipid, but his recreation of Anglo-Saxon verse, which is magnificent: the lament for Théoden Kin (Return, p. 124), “We heard of the horns in the hills ringing,” is a small masterpiece. The Hobbit is not only perfect in narrative, scholarship, and humor, but the characterization is wholly right; we know just enough about Gandalf and Bilbo, who exactly fill out the roles they play in the fantasy. But what I object to in the Rings is that great issues and serious themes are proposed by the plot and the characters are inflated to measure up to them. The rebuilding of Gandalf and Bilbo, their transfer from the realm of fantasy to that of symbolism, and the creation of even more serious characters in Frodo and Aragorn do not, in my submission, come off. They are to me empty pseudo-characters, who cannot live up to the domain of the thriller or melodrama. This is a literary judgment and has nothing to do with the question of absolute good-and-evil. Macbeth, cited by Mr. Harrison, is of course an almost wholly bad man; but he is recognizably of our flesh and blood and his character, with its complex motivation, exactly fits the themes of the play.
Finally, that Tolkien awakes “a consciousness of…nature which has become clouded for many of us,” to quote Mr. Harrison, is just what I meant in my review: His landscapes are admirable.
September 28, 1967