December 10, 2021

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?

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