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This is Tolkien’s world The Lord of the Rings is more than nostalgic medievalism

Men are turning into orcs (IMDB)


December 10, 2021   6 mins

It’s exactly 20 years since I stood in line to see a film I had dreamed about since I was a little boy. Ever since I had first turned the pages of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I had wondered what it would be like to see it on the big screen: the hobbits, the battles, the sweeping landscapes, the blood and thunder. When I read that the director Peter Jackson was filming a trilogy of Tolkien’s masterpiece in New Zealand, I felt almost sick with anxiety. Would it be terrible? Would they sound like the All Blacks? What were they going to do about Tom Bombadil?

I need not have worried, of course. From the moment the lights dimmed in the Odeon, Leicester Square on 10 December 2001, the Lord of the Rings films were a phenomenal success. And although poor Tom B. never made it onto the screen, Jackson’s trilogy carried all before it, grossing a staggering $3 billion and winning a record-equalling 11 Oscars for the final instalment alone.

Two decades on, the films stand up remarkably well. As for the wider Tolkien industry, the bestselling books just keep on coming: The Fall of Arthur in 2013, Beren and Luthien in 2017, The Fall of Gondolin in 2018. And next autumn sees the release of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel series – at a cool $1 billion over five seasons, the most expensive television project in history. Not bad for a writer who’s been dead since 1973.

To some people, all this could hardly be more infuriating. For as we all know, Tolkien is still associated in the public mind with a sweaty, furtive gang of misfits and weirdos — by which I mean those critics who, for more than half a century, have been sneering at his books and their readers.

As far back as the mid-Fifties, the American modernist Edmund Wilson published a comically wrong-headed review dismissing Tolkien’s work as “juvenile trash”, marked by — of all things! — an “impotence of imagination”. Decades later, Philip Pullman, never happier than when sneering at his Oxford forebears, called Tolkien’s efforts “trivial”, and “not worth arguing with”. And whenever some new survey crowns The Lord of the Rings as the public’s favourite novel, the reaction is always the same.

“Another black day for British culture” was Howard Jacobson’s verdict after a Waterstones poll put Tolkien’s work well clear at the top. “Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964,” agreed Germaine Greer, “it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has been realised.” Yet by her own admission, she had never even read him.

So are Tolkien’s works “trivial”, as Pullman claims? Surely not. Even if you can’t stand them, only a fool would deny that The Lord of the Rings occupies an extraordinary place in the modern imagination. Indeed, in his trenchant defence of Tolkien’s reputation, the literary scholar Tom Shippey suggests that much of the criticism is rooted in pure social and intellectual condescension, not unlike the rank snobbery that Virginia Woolf directed at Tolkien’s fellow Midlander Arnold Bennett. Shippey even argues that in the future, literary historians will rank The Lord of the Rings alongside post-war classics such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies and Slaughterhouse-Five. Who’s to say he’s wrong?

One reason highbrow people dislike The Lord of the Rings is that it is so backward-looking. But it could never have been otherwise. For good personal reasons, Tolkien was a fundamentally backward-looking person. He was born to English parents in the Orange Free State in 1892, but was taken back to the village of Sarehole, north Worcestershire, by his mother when he was three. His father was meant to join them later, but was killed by rheumatic fever before he boarded ship.

For a time, the fatherless Tolkien enjoyed a happy childhood, devouring children’s classics and exploring the local countryside. But in 1904 his mother died of diabetes, leaving the 12-year-old an orphan. Now he and his brother went to live with an aunt in Edgbaston, near what is now Birmingham’s Five Ways roundabout. In effect, he had moved from the city’s rural fringes to its industrial heart: when he looked out of the window, he saw not trees and hills, but “almost unbroken rooftops with the factory chimneys beyond”. No wonder that from the moment he put pen to paper, his fiction was dominated by a heartfelt nostalgia.

Nostalgia was in the air anyway in the 1890s and 1900s, part of a wider reaction against industrial, urban, capitalist modernity. As a boy, Tolkien was addicted to the imperial adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard, and it’s easy to see The Lord of the Rings as a belated Boy’s Own adventure. An even bigger influence, though, was that Victorian one-man industry, William Morris, inspiration for generations of wallpaper salesmen. Tolkien first read him at King Edward’s, the Birmingham boys’ school that had previously educated Morris’s friend Edward Burne-Jones. And what Tolkien and his friends adored in Morris was the same thing you see in Burne-Jones’s paintings: a fantasy of a lost medieval paradise, a world of chivalry and romance that threw the harsh realities of industrial Britain into stark relief.

It was through Morris that Tolkien first encountered the Icelandic sagas, which the Victorian textile-fancier had adapted into an epic poem in 1876. And while other boys grew out of their obsession with the legends of the North, Tolkien’s fascination only deepened. After going up to Oxford in 1911, he began writing his own version of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. When his college, Exeter, awarded him a prize, he spent the money on a pile of Morris books, such as the proto-fantasy novel The House of the Wolfings and his translation of the Icelandic Volsunga Saga. And for the rest of his life, Tolkien wrote in a style heavily influenced by Morris, deliberately imitating the vocabulary and rhythms of the medieval epic.

But there’s more to Tolkien than nostalgic medievalism. The Lord of the Rings is a war book, stamped with an experience of suffering that his modern-day critics can scarcely imagine. In his splendid book Tolkien and the Great War, John Garth opens with a rugby match between the Old Edwardians and the school’s first fifteen, played in December 1913. Tolkien captained the old boys’ team that day. Within five years, four of his teammates had been killed and four more badly wounded. The sense of loss haunted him for the rest of his life. “To be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years,” he wrote in the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”

Tolkien arrived on the Western Front in June 1916 as a signals officer in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, and experienced the agony of the Somme at first hand. In just three and a half months, his battalion lost 600 men. Yet it was now, amid the horror of the trenches, that he began work on his great cycle of Middle-earth stories. As he later told his son Christopher, his first stories were written “in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candlelight in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire”.

But he never saw his work as pure escapism. Quite the opposite. He had begun writing, he explained, “to express [my] feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalise it, and prevent it just festering”. More than ever, he believed that myth and fantasy offered the only salvation from the corruption of industrial society. And far from shaking his faith, the slaughter on the Somme only strengthened his belief that to make sense of this broken, bleeding world, he must look back to the great legends of the North.

Yet The Lord of the Rings is not just a war book. There’s yet another layer, because it’s also very clearly an anti-modern, anti-industrial book, shaped by Tolkien’s memories of Edwardian Birmingham, with its forges, factories and chimneys. As a disciple of the Victorian medievalists, he was always bound to loathe modern industry, since opposition to the machine age came as part of the package. But his antipathy to all things mechanical was all the more intense because he identified them — understandably enough — with killing.

And although Tolkien objected when reviewers drew parallels between the events of The Lord of the Rings and the course of the Second World War, he often did the same himself. Again and again he told his son Christopher that by embracing industrialised warfare, the Allies had chosen the path of evil. “We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring,” he wrote in May 1944. “But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.” Even as the end of the war approached, Tolkien’s mood remained bleak. This, he wrote sadly, had been, “the first War of the Machines 
 leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines”.

“Trivial”, then? Clearly not. Tolkien was at once a war writer and an ecological writer; a product of High Victorianism and also a distant relative of the modernist writers who, like him, were trying to make sense of the shattered world of the Twenties and Thirties. But he wasn’t just a man of his time; he remains a guide for our own.

His portrait of the tortured relationship between Gollum and Frodo — both of whom yield to the temptations of power and knowledge embodied by the Ring — could scarcely be a more powerful vision of man’s inherent weakness and sinfulness. And his themes might have deliberately chosen to appeal to modern readers, anxious about the consequences of science, the environmental costs of industry, the dangers of war and the fate of the individual in the face of the vast forces reshaping Western societies in the early 21st century. To put it simply, then, Tolkien matters. How many writers can you say that about, these days?


Dominic Sandbrook is an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982

dcsandbrook

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Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago

What first struck me about Tolkien’s school is that the boys, craving beauty, admired Morris, Burne Jones and medievalism, and I immediately thought of contemporary boys listening to hip hop (an ugly, primitive genre if ever there was one) and watching porn. In a sea of urban ugliness Tolkien’s friends still clung to one of the three pillars of civilisation, beauty, which as an aspiration is now all but gone. Even our artists are contemptuous of the ideal, as the elites are also contemptuous of the other two pillars, truth and goodness (what is truth? what is the good?). We may have technology but our ‘civilisation’ is rotten to the core.

Last edited 2 years ago by Judy Englander
JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Wonderfully expressed

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

I wouldn’t say the ordinary people have lost their taste for beauty, only the elites, but that’s who politicians and decision-makers listen to. An example from just a couple years back: Trump was quite dismissive of modern, brutalist design in buildings. He signed an executive order that federal buildings should be based on classical designs. This was widely dismissed by architects, Democrats (kinda mandatory for them, I guess), and the media (Democrats who haven’t been elected, in some cases). Surveys actually showed that across the political divide, however, most Americans strongly favored the classical designs for public buildings. Biden rescinded that order very early on. But it isn’t what the people want, it’s just all they can get if they want to allow those who care nothing for their opinions into positions of responsibility.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

I think that fantasy, sci-fi, and myth get a lot less respect than they deserve. And modernist snobs get a lot more respect than they deserve.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago

True, tho as a long term SF reader I have to say there’s more embarrassing tripe in SF & fantasy than in most genres. As to the modernists, I was gratified to discover the other day in the vast correspondence between those two titans of modernism, Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport, that they were both huge Tolkien fans, and as dismissive of the snobs as Sandbrook. Comforting.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

A fine essay. Thank you. And to heck with the literary snobs.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Literary snobs should know their history a bit better. Tolkien, essentially, builds on Old Norse sagas, Chivalric romances, Wagnerian epics and English letters. There’s so much rich history in Tolkien.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Tolkien is to Norse sagas roughly what Simon Scarrow is to Virgil.

R S Foster
R S Foster
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

…bearing in mind his academic credentials, and fluency in various ancient languages…this is a rather curious view of Professor Tolkien. Although Mr Scarrow is no doubt a well-educated fellow…I rather think the Professor has the edge…

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

A fine essay.

The similarities of CS Lewis’s life and Tolkien’s is very strong, the childhood (although Lewis had a life of hell at school) University, and WWI Trenches, and what magnificent books they produced. I would add Alan Garner with them, in evoking that feel of nobility and baseness, good and evil, and ultimately, one’s duty is always primary rather than self – in the similar Scandinavian Folk setting.

When Harry Potter came out I was curious to read it, but it lacked soul to me, and most of all lacking Nobility and Honour and ethics, it made me feel modern children have grown up in a shallower world than us older ones did – and more shallow every year.

– children’s books were one of the greatest influences on my life, I think the reason I hit the road to become some useless drifter for decades was the romance of the remote lands and the societies outside of the mainstream, from those stories. Snufkin from Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll was sort of what I became – the character I felt a very great bond with as a child, I always wanted to see what was beyond the ranges he would cross. I think from his character I learned to deal with great periods of solitude, years, out on my own as a young man, to actually seek out great hardship and remote places and solitude and be able to take it, and even learn to respect tedium as what drives one to think and feel – as activity replaces thought and feel of a place – learning to just be somewhere with nothing but looking out, and thought.

To have grown up without my books, and the great deal of isolation I had as a child where one only had imagination to create an escape from tedium was how I became who I did. As a child we had no TVs, radios, neighborhoods, but lived behind walls with gardens – books, imagination, simple toys, creatures… It was the opposite of childhood today, – – of endless stimulation, phones, people, action, games, Screens, and never The solitude and complete self dependence which were much of my life, and the books having given you this world inside.. Really – it was like these books were my best friends, like another world I lived in.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Have you tried Disenchantment by CF Montague? A wonderful exposé of many modern trends, already visible to a veteran in the years immediately after WW1

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Agreed – i go away on my boat for a week at a time with a big pile of books and virtually no one gets it – ‘dont you get lonely ?”, dont you get bored, you are a bit strange , but your boat is so small , I would feel unsafe, there is no proper bathroom,why do that to your wife, etc etc. It seems that people can now only cope with careful pseudo lives reliant on hourly ? electronic connectedness – as I listen to the 2 pigeons outside -‘ its ok i am other here, its ok i am over here, its ok i am over here, its ok i am over here’ ad nausiem – most of the silly stuff seems to happen on land – thank the god thing that most of the planet is covered in water !!!!!!!

Anna Meanock
Anna Meanock
2 years ago

How can the story of how Power corrupts people, absolute power absolutely, ever be out dated? When greed chases away loving kindness and people act in a base manner, their is always a story to be told. It is an ageless Tale.

Andrew Masterman
Andrew Masterman
2 years ago

Bravo Dominic and thank you. I’ve also thought woven in was a deeply profound (and Christian) observation about society in that only the Hobbits could bear the ring and so defeat Sauron and of the Hobbits, it is Sam who is the true hero rather than Frodo. I wonder how much of this too comes from his experiences in the trenches.

Andrew Masterman
Andrew Masterman
2 years ago

Hi Jon, I’m not sure whether you’ve read the books but this is fairly key to the trilogy. The point is that the Hobbits (based on an admittedly romanticised trench socialist view of the English working man/private soldier) were the ones who defeated evil as personified Sauron because of their courage and loyalty to each other. All of the other members of the Fellowship, as exemplified by Boromir and Galadriel’s vision would be corrupted by the ring. I have read (can’t give a reference, sorry)that Tolkien based Samon his batman and so is making the point about the officer class being dependent on the resilience of their men. Underlying this is a Christian ethic about the meek inheriting the earth. If this makes you queasy, then sorry, but we are talking fantasy here albeit underpinned by myth, faith, neo-romanticism/environmentalism and a degree of sentimentality. If that’s not for you, you might want to give the books a miss. They do feature trolls though…

Terry Davies
Terry Davies
2 years ago

Excellent response! I first came across Tolkien through reading The Hobbit in late 60’s and was hooked. I remember my then ten year old reading LOTR by wood firelight in our rented shepherds cottage in the Scottish hills. Magical stuff!

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
2 years ago

Enjoyed your Parthian shot.

dlongenecker1
dlongenecker1
2 years ago

An excellent essay and I’ll join my voice in the chorus of those booing the modernist snobs. While Dominic’s essay peeled back several layers of Tolkien’s work, sadly he did not penetrate deeply enough. At the heart of LOTR is Tolkien’s Catholic faith and worldview. He wrote in a letter “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” This article by Joseph Pearce unlocks the Catholic elements brilliantly:https://denvercatholic.org/the-catholic-origins-of-the-lord-of-the-rings-and-other-truths-about-j-r-r-tolkien/

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago
Reply to  dlongenecker1

Exactly. We must not forget this aspect.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
2 years ago

Spot on. Thank you. I’d only add that Tolkien is a writer for the future too because, shaped by his friendship with Owen Barfield, he realised that portraying an awareness of life and nature that has past is also seeding the yearning for and inception of a conscious for the future – when we might know “the inside of the whole world” once more, renewed, extended.

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Vernon

And in down moments, I am consoled, enjoying contemplation of the Revenge of the Ents.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

Great article, thank you. But whilst I admire the books tremendously and that world that Tolkien created, I am not nearly so keen on the films; far too much fighting in those huge set pieces. That Tom Bombadil was left out and too much time given to orcs shows how Jackson got it a bit wrong.
Though it can be argued that Jackson was excavating in the deeper underpinnings of the books and making the threat explicit, it might have been better to leave the threat where Tolkien put it. Especially in The Hobbit film, which tends to loose the sense of the journey and the wonder of the outside world, and take up too much time, again, with fighting. It certainly did not need a trilogy of films

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Agree about the Hobbit. I sat through the first instalment of overblown fight/chase sequences but that was enough. It’s a very different, gentler and more childish story than LOTR. Jackson seems to have either not got this, or ignored it.

Sarah H
Sarah H
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

The three Hobbit films desperately need condensing into one longish one and some severe cutting of endless silly CGI slapstick, chases and fights, the queasy elf dwarf lurve interest etc. Indeed, the strangeness of the outside world and the sense of journey are absent. Good points.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Jackson butchered it. Horrible.

Peter Mott
Peter Mott
2 years ago

It’s rather odd that this piece does not mention that Tolkein was a Christian (a friend of C.S. Lewis)

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter Mott

Actually I much prefer C S LEWIS..

T Doyle
T Doyle
2 years ago

Tolkien’s story is heroic and at the same time very human – yes even with elves, dwarves and orcs! The critics are post modernists who despise morals, heroes and beauty. All desperately needed in this world.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  T Doyle

You’ve said it beautifully. I’m an American, not just Christian, but conservative Presbyterian. I don’t know anyone in my church who doesn’t love Tolkien. Recently, in his weekly notes, our pastor referred to himself as a hobbit. All of the young teens in our church’s school throw LOR references about casually. Morals ( and its better, spirituality ), heroes, beauty. Indeed. ( Note in passing: Rod Dreher, who is probably familiar to many readers here, referred to himself as a hobbit the other day. )

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
2 years ago

There’s some great scholarship done by John Garth (mentioned in the article) about Tolkien. I own a beautiful book from Garth about how the ‘real world’ inspired Middle-Earth.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
2 years ago

This is a lovely, well written piece.

David Batlle
David Batlle
2 years ago

I merely chuckle and shake my head at the critics. Tolkien requires no defense.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Batlle
Steve Byrd
Steve Byrd
2 years ago

Thanks, Dominic for that. Synchronicity, too: earlier this morning I was doing an English lesson with an Italian student and he said his favourite book was . . . Lord of the Rings. He seems to have read all Tolkein’s work; I’ve never been able to get through them. But, in my defence, I have read Beowulf ( ‘A Far Light’ by Robert DiNapoli is a great guide) and as a teenager, the Icelandic sagas; Njal’s Saga in particular is a great story of the struggle to do the right thing in violent circumstances. Your analysis is spot on. The ‘sneering classes’ have surrendered to the Machine.

Michelle Johnston
Michelle Johnston
2 years ago

A beautiful piece. Tolkien articulated beauty, in the world in men in women, as well as how it is lost.
Last year I lived on the South Island of New Zealand and apart from a brief period in May, I tramped the deserted coasts of the North of the Island as well as many of the muti day hikes where life is a mixture of hiking, stopping to make camp and conversation into the night under the stars or around a warm fire in the doc huts.
Very few of the absent tourists really get in that deep and the young have their Instagram checklist but out there with strangers who become friends on a multi-day hike there was/is a glimpse of what Tolkien was on about refracting a way of doing things which is fast disappearing.
Just as armageddon was about to break an English Girl died hiking, drowned in a river after becoming disorientated. Tolkiens created world, as it was for him reminds me that death is ever-present and just round the corner and that we should live life in the knowledge there are risks and sometimes that risk increases but we should not stop living.
One could go on about the Mighty Warrior King who went before he died witless, in glory undimmed.
There is much that we have forgotten.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

Am rather planning the same after watching me dad decline with alzeimers

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

I agree that fantasy draws a lot of undeserved condescension from the literati, especially considering the lousy quality of many writers they lionize. Personally, however, the genre never did a thing for me. Nothing snotty here. It’s a bit like Elizabeth Taylor. I acknowledge her beauty, it’s just that she never ignited anything in me. There’s no particular reason that should be, it just happened that it was the case. Same with fantasy.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 years ago

I write at length in my book Ecology, in the 20th Century, A History ()Yale,UP London,1989) about Tolkien and his views and the roots of the Hobbits. Good to see those issue taken up again, and by a distinguished historian.

Nicholas Rowe
Nicholas Rowe
2 years ago

Germaine Greer may not be the only person to not have read Tolkien’s work but nevertheless has an opinion about it. Some considerable number of those who rate the book so highly may have only done so on the strength of seeing the films rather than from a reading of it.
New Line Cinema’s scriptwriters pointed out that they corrected a major error in the original. This is where Faramir refuses to take the ring, even though he has Frodo captive.
The films do the job that an editor should have done on the book. The scriptwriters unsentimentally distil the essence of the story while trimming out the parts that don’t fit, such as Tom Bombadil. They also add the love story between Aragorn and Arwen that Tolkien only put into a short appendix. They also add doses of humour which are absent, rather like they are from Pullman’s turgid epic. Even Lewis managed to put humour into his Narnia stories.
The films have some magnificent monologues, such as Elrond’s eulogy about Aragorn’s passing as a mortal, which, if not exactly as Tolkien wrote them, elevate the story such as to negative the various criticisms of triviality.

David Batlle
David Batlle
2 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Rowe

Faramir holds Frodo captive because he doesn’t know who he is. He thinks Frodo is an orc spy. Once he realizes who Frodo is and what he’s doing, Faramir releases him.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Rowe

We’re probably going to get a lot of criticism, but I’m with you on Tom Bombadil. For the longest I refused to read LOTR because I figured it was for nerds (I was around 20 before I realized I was one). A friend finally talked me into it, after years of effort, and I loved them. The only major exception was Tom B. That part just made me cringe. Whenever I was trying to talk someone else into reading it, I would throw in “There’s one weird part in the first book, but just get past that and it’s all great.”
I loved the films. There are things I wish they had done differently. Some changes I could understand–you could never make the films exactly as the books. Others–like green demon Galadrial or the ghost army intervening at Pelennor Fields–I think were avoidable. But the absolute best change was leaving out Tom B. Especially in a film setting, that would have been the kind of thing to drive away the non-hardcore Tolkien fans. Jackson and New Line weren’t just making these movies to appease hardcore fans, they had to make money too, and throwing in something that would have seemed too embarrassing to watch for people who weren’t already LOTR fans would probably have really hurt the bottom line. And even at least some hardcore fans (like me and everyone I knew back then–only more than a decade later did I learn some people actually wanted him in the movies) were probably grateful. I think some people forget these movies were about the riskiest venture yet in the film making world back then–fronting $300 million to film three movies at once without even one of them having gone to theater, much less made a profit.

David Wildgoose
David Wildgoose
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean Penley

I understand keeping Tom Bombadil out of the films, and Old Man Willow would have caused confusion with the Ents. However, it’s a shame we also lost the Barrow-wight and the significance of the Numenorean blade specifically enchanted to undo the Witch-King’s magical protection, used to such great effect on Pelennor field.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago

Yes, back in the day the barrow-wight in particular was one of those things I really missed when the first movie came out.

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
2 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Rowe

Lewis would have been hard to put to keep humor (however subtle and ironical) out of anything. It was peculiar to his genius.

Patrick Heren
Patrick Heren
2 years ago

Very well expressed. Tolkien was also a devout Catholic, an aspect of his life ignored by most critics, but which informed all of his writing.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Thank you, Dominic.
I have never read any of Tolkien’s books, but my three children read them while they were growing up here in the US, and I saw the movies.
Your literary portrait here was absolutely fascinating to me, because I have done extensive historical reading about the the two World Wars. This research was undertaken mostly for the sake of exploring backstory for my third novel, Smoke, which is about what was happening in Europe in 1937; the story begins in London on the coronation day of King George VI, May 12.
What was especially fascinating about your Tolkien report was your explanation that related his imaginative Tolkien inkings in the infernal trenches of France. The winsome imaginings of a British solder while confined to a 1916 hellhole at the Somme. . . gave birth to JRR’s multi-storied tale of the Shire, Gondor, Mordor and beyond.
Amazing! What a way to retrieve Wonder from the Mordorous hellholes of World War!–writing a series of “children’s books” that go viral in the later 20th-century!

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

Sir, your pun, “mordorous,” sickens me with envy. Why didn’t I think of it?!?! I’m going to tell all of my hobbity pals about it.

Margaret Boult
Margaret Boult
2 years ago

Good – I no longer have to feel embarrassed about having returned to LOTR with Andy Serkis’ new spoken word rendering. I will admit however that I still don’t like the songs and poems that I skipped over when I was 16.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

Question from the anty-podes: what’s with “going up to Oxford” and being “sent down”? Is it on a hill? Do Cambridge students face similar topographic challenges?

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

It’s because Oxford is ‘up’ from London. And most attendees at one time were from there.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

I am not sure how relevant London is.People “go up” to Oxford and get “sent down” regardless of where they come from. Similarly, people traditionally “go up” to London (or “town”) and “down” to the country. I am also not sure most attendees came from London. I am sure a lot did but not necessarily most.

peter barker
peter barker
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

I think this is correct for “up to..” In terms of being “sent down”: my experience may not be typical but I’ve heard this used for any university/ educational institution (not just Oxford) – as a euphemism for “expelled”.

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

No, but the venerable Oxonian professor did plan to leave “by the town drain”…

David Wildgoose
David Wildgoose
2 years ago
Reply to  Liz Walsh

Professor Spooner, for those not aware of what this is referring to; the man who gave his name to “spoonerisms”.

Johanna Edmond
Johanna Edmond
2 years ago

I like to think what (fictional) Dorothea Brooke would have made of LOTR. I think she would have been impressed, and she had high standards. As someone from outside the UK, there is something very English about the books despite the Norse undertones. This is no relation of Kristin Lavransdatter. That’s not a criticism, it’s just a characteristic, but it does matter to the interpretation.

I wonder how Dominic would feel if more characters in LOTR had spoken with the accent of Faramir?

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Morris! Read ‘News from Nowhere’- it’s the most stupid stuff and proto fascist.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

the village of Sarehole

You would have special sympathy for anyone dyslexic growing up somewhere with a name like that.
The critique of Tolkien with which I’m most familiar and sympathetic is that it’s all rather nursery childish.

the tortured relationship between Gollum and Frodo

I mean, really.

anxious about the consequences of science, the environmental costs of industry

The issue is scientism, not science, and the real worry is the cost to industry of environmentalism. He saw none of this coming AFAIK. To mention him in the same breath as Orwell – who foresaw a great deal and with not a Tharg or whatever in sight – is just fanboi laughable.

David Batlle
David Batlle
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

“I mean, really.”

As per formula. With every criticism of Tolkien always comes this very revealing sense of self-superiority. It’s a tell. We aren’t dealing with literary critics, we are dealing with snobs.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  David Batlle

Nope, you’re in fact dealing with people who rightly consider adults who still read children’s books about trolls and fairies to be very, very similar to adults who still build Lego. Both are activities you should really have got past when you were 12 or at a push 14. Kids’ pastimes are for kids.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

You bring to mind C.S. Lewis’ conviction that those who desire joy will certainly find it.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Have to agree – tried to watch the first lotr movie and pretty much fell asleep – same with the book, could not finish. Found C S Lewis very engaging though and way more relevant. Lotr popularity is a complete mystery to me. I have a vague theory that fantasy fans struggle to deal with the real world – pretty dangerous saying that here tho – tho i do look forwards to other comments…..Twould be really weird if most Unherd readers were lolr fans !!!!!

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

Come on- who else out there does not like lotr – lets have some balance here !!

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Thank you for providing a perfect illustration of Dominic Sandbrook’s thesis.

Bob Taylor
Bob Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

The only thing I like about your comment is your pointing out the making of an anagram.