Unsurprisingly, Tolkien and I Do Not Share Many Fans

Last night, I saw that my review of The Lord of the Rings on Punchnel’s* had a new-ish comment. A long comment. A MEAN comment (kind of). Since my LOTR review, here and elsewhere, has always provoked more arguments and mean comments than anything else I’ve written, I was not surprised. I went from slightly hurt (how dare he disparage those of us who snark for the sake of it!) to slightly confused (why not go to, say, the New York Times, instead of a rowdy entertainment webzine, if he’s looking for a diplomatic and consensus-driven book review?) and on to slightly amused (I reread my review and rediscovered the LOTR memes. Bless them, oh Lord) as the evening wore on.

I took the time to write out a response today and decided to share it here. I really enjoy discussions over differences in opinion, even if they are mostly pointless. We are, after all, entitled to our thoughts—and no one could ever convince me that those 1000+ pages of Tolkien were anything but miserable.

Here’s his comment:

The past few years, I’ve noticed that young writers on the Internet seem to think snark is a substitute for thoughtful critique. It’s not.

To be fair, Jamie, you did make some valid points. I counted three:

1) Pacing. Yes, it’s a slow-moving tale, especially in the beginning, and a very long book overall. (Note, though, that Tolkien wanted the work split into five books, not three volumes. So blame the publisher for that.)

I especially found the part with Tom Bombadil to be a drag. Was glad they left him out of the movie (except, if I recall, for a possible glimpse toward the end). (In general, whenever the movies left something out, it was a good decision; whenever they added something, it was hackneyed, sometimes ridiculous, and often plain bad writing.)

2) Narrative priority. The long, long descriptive passages could’ve been both more compact, and better integrated into the narrative. Though here, I think Tolkien was just writing the book the way he wanted; it’s as much a descriptive travelogue (in the tradition of great travel stories) about the world he was creating, as it is a narrative of events.

3) The songs and poems. Readers should feel no shame in just skipping over those. Tolkien, although a respected scholar of languages and folklore, wasn’t a great poet.

I’ll address some of the other points here (speaking as someone who’s enjoyed the book but is not a rabid Tolkien fan):

Claim: Gandalf “does precisely nothing”.

Well, he does provide invaluable knowledge, and save the entire party from a Balrog, and save Helm’s Deep, and defeat Saruman, and lead the forces of Gondor to hold the White City. And so on, and so forth.

Claim: Eowyn does nothing but “become a punchline”.

Well, she does kill the Witch King, the most dangerous of those nine undead Nazgul things. And, no, she doesn’t become a punchline. Here you seem to be blaming the novel for one of the many poor artistic choices in the movies.

Claim: Female characters are under-represented and underwritten.

True. But, given that Tolkien (a conservative Catholic academic born in the 19th century) was writing in the 1950s, what do you expect? You could apply the same complaint to the vast majority of literature published before the past few decades (and a lot of current literature, for that matter).

Claim: Long-winded style.

True; but that’s not good or bad; it’s simply a matter of taste. De gustibus non est disputandum. And, again, the style is not atypical of most fiction written before the mid-20th century. I don’t write like that; hardly anyone does anymore. But it has its charms, among them the sense of receiving words from a different time; this works with the presumed gulf of time since the events described. (Tolkien always said he meant Middle Earth to be taken as an ancient age of our own Earth, not as a wholly imaginary world.)

Note that your specific example (“many times half an hour”) is a poor choice. I don’t recall the specifics, but I know the phrase was a deliberate choice, intended to resonate either with an earlier reference in the book, or with the general assumption that half an hour would be a normal conversation, and many times that would therefore be a talk of length and (presumably) import. Once again, this is part of a traditional story-telling style that will of course seem old-fashioned to modern ears.

Well, you see what I’m getting at. Please continue to write reviews; but do put a little more thought into it if you don’t want long-winded, tedious responses from pedantic middle-aged bastards like me.

And here’s my response:

Aww, come on now, where would we be without snark? No Chandler Bing, no Veronica Mars… I wouldn’t want to live in that kind of world.

In all seriousness, I don’t believe snark and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive—but it seems humor and Tolkien often are. I am always intrigued to see Tolkien fans, both casual (like yourself) and rabid (hehe, I love that word), take up arms against every attack on him, no matter how playful. Every time this review has appeared somewhere new online, and every time I discuss Tolkien with an acquaintance, I get the same response: “We can agree to disagree on every other book… but your opinions and impressions of Tolkien are WRONG.”

Why do we rush to his defense quicker than any other author’s? Why do we treat him with kid gloves—as an idol and a genius instead of what he was: a gifted linguist; a pioneer, perhaps; but an average writer? I have faith that Tolkien’s millions of fans can one day cope with the occasional bout of criticism. He certainly doesn’t seem bothered.

To address a few of your points specifically:

My dispute over the volumes is that Tolkien viewed LOTR not as a series (of 3, 5, or 100 books; I’m not picky) but as a single novel. I think the publisher had the right idea, and I interpret Tolkien’s insistence on viewing the work as one novel as snobbish. What’s wrong with a series, if the material lends itself well to this? The real point, of course, is that IF Tolkien was going to demand that LOTR remain a single work, he needed to edit it. As a series, the length is more acceptable.

You’re right about Gandalf (you’ll have to pardon the embellishment; sometimes I get carried away with my boredom) but not, I think, about Eowyn. The “no living man” line DID appear in the novel and reeks of careful foresight. Based on Tolkien’s general disregard for women, I believe it’s safe to say that he “allowed” Eowyn to kill the Witch-king ONLY because it made for a clever (?) punchline. Otherwise one of his maaaaaaany male characters would have done it, and Eowyn would have officially accomplished squat.

On that note, I’m tired of hearing excuses for writers who “wrote what was typical at the time” (in other words, “were sexist/racist/homophobic/etc.”) as if progressive thought were a 21st century invention. Tolstoy, and Flaubert, and Thackeray all apparently thought the most ordinary of women could make for fascinating protagonists (and, obviously, supporting characters), and they came long before Tolkien. There’s nothing wrong with a cast of predominantly male characters unless, as with Tolkien, it validates an exclusively male-centric perspective. It’s hardly a coincidence that most of Tolkien’s rabid fans are boys and men. And, for the record, I absolutely do make this same complaint of literature both old and new—and it’s because I give authors, most of whom have brains, more credit, and I expect more from them rather than making excuses.

Oops… I’ve now also committed Tolkien’s foremost sin with this long-winded response. In any case, I’ve genuinely enjoyed this discussion and want to thank you for commenting. You’ve given me food for thought (my favorite kind!).

*Update: Unfortunately, when Punchnel’s launched their new website design in 2016, none of the shares/comments from the previous version were carried over. It’s lucky, then, that I copied this conversation here, right? (Except, of course, that it’s not lucky at all, because I am a mature and responsible adult who spends her free time backing up her every keystroke.)

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3 thoughts on “Unsurprisingly, Tolkien and I Do Not Share Many Fans

  1. I wonder if you got any comment back to yours?
    I actually like LOTR despite the fact that I am agreeing with your critique. I think the main reason I liked it so very much is that I was (and am still) impressed with the world he had created in his head (which is not exclusive to Tolkien but to many fantasy authors). People tend to get defensive when you talk “bad” about something they like, because it might cause them to rethink it. And sometimes, if you think too much about something, it loses its ability to be an unwavering focus point in your life, which can be very frightening.

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