Reception of J. R. R. Tolkien

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The works of J. R. R. Tolkien, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, have become extremely popular, and have exerted considerable influence since their publication. A culture of fandom sprang up in the 1960s, leading to many popular votes in favour of the books, but acceptance by the literary establishment has been slower. Literary hostility to Tolkien developed with The Lord of the rings and continued until the start of the 21st century. Meanwhile, academic studies on Tolkien's works have been appearing at an increasing pace since the mid-1980s, prompting a thorough literary re-evaluation of his work.

Popular reception[edit]


In 1957, The Lord of the Rings was awarded the International Fantasy Award. The publication of the Ace Books and Ballantine paperbacks helped The Lord of the Rings become immensely popular in the 1960s. The book has remained so ever since, ranking as one of the most popular works of fiction of the twentieth century, judged by both sales and reader surveys.[1] In the 2003 "Big Read" survey conducted by the BBC, The Lord of the Rings was found to be the "Nation's best-loved book." In similar 2004 polls both Germany[2] and Australia[3] also found The Lord of the Rings to be their favourite book. In a 1999 poll of customers, The Lord of the Rings was judged to be their favourite "book of the millennium."[4]


Tolkien fandom is an informal international community of fans of Tolkien's Middle-earth works, including The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. The concept of Tolkien fandom as a specific type of fan subculture sprang up in the United States in the 1960s, in the context of the hippie movement, to the dismay of the author, who talked of "my deplorable cultus".[5]


The works of Tolkien have served as the inspiration to many painters, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and game designers, to such an extent that Tolkien is sometimes seen as the "father" of the high fantasy genre.[6] The profusion of interest has led writers such as Robert Foster to produce non-academic guides to Tolkien's works.[7]

Literary reception[edit]

Early reviews of The Lord of the Rings were sharply divided between enthusiastic support and outright rejection.

Enthusiastic literary support[edit]

Some literary figures immediately welcomed the book's publication. W. H. Auden, a former pupil of Tolkien's and an admirer of his writings, regarded The Lord of the Rings as a "masterpiece", further stating that in some cases it outdid the achievement of John Milton's Paradise Lost.[8] Kenneth F. Slater wrote in Nebula Science Fiction, April 1955, "... if you don't read it, you have missed one of the finest books of its type ever to appear".[9][10] Michael Straight described it in The New Republic as " of the few works of genius in modern literature."[11] Iris Murdoch mentioned Middle-earth characters in her novels, and wrote to Tolkien saying she had been "utterly ... delighted, carried away, absorbed by The Lord of the Rings ... I wish I could say it in the fair Elven tongue."[12][13] Richard Hughes wrote that nothing like it had been attempted in English literature since Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, making it hard to compare, but that "For width of imagination it almost beggars parallel, and it is nearly as remarkable for its vividness and the narrative skill which carries the reader on, enthralled, for page after page."[14] Naomi Mitchison, too, was a strong and long-time supporter, corresponding with Tolkien about Lord of the Rings both before and after publication.[15][16] The fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin had a close relationship with Tolkien's writings, and reflected on issues such as whether fantasy is escapist, the subtlety of the character portraits in The Lord of the Rings, and its handling of the nature of evil in her 1979 essay collection The Language of the Night.[17]

Literary hostility[edit]

The literary establishment rejected the work outright; literary figures such as Edmund Wilson[18] and Edwin Muir,[19] and later Michael Moorcock,[20] attacked it as childish and unreadable.[21][22] As late as 2001, The New York Times reviewer Judith Shulevitz[23] and London Review of Books editor Jenny Turner attacked it in similar style.[24] The Tolkien scholar Jared Lobdell concluded in 2006 that "no 'mainstream critic' appreciated The Lord of the Rings", and that they were in no position to criticise it as most of them were "unsure what it was and why readers liked it."[21]

From 1983, Tom Shippey set about systematically rebutting the literary critics' claims.[25] His The Road to Middle-earth, and Verlyn Flieger's 1983 Splintered Light, slowly began to reduce the literary hostility to The Lord of the Rings.[17] Looking for the causes of the establishment's hostility, Brian Rosebury noted that the work was a medieval-inspired heroic romance rather than a novel.[26] [27] Shippey stated that the hostile critics revealed "gross inconsistency between their self-professed critical ideals and their practice when they encounter Tolkien".[17] In 2014, Patrick Curry noted that the slurs against Tolkien were demonstrably and consistently mistaken, suggesting to him "a structural or systematic bias at work".[17] Summing up the attacks, he identified two consistent features: "a visceral hostility and emotional animus, and a plethora of mistakes showing that the books had not been read closely".[17] In his view, these derived from the critics' feeling that Tolkien threatened their "dominant ideology", modernism. Tolkien was, he wrote, modern but not modernist, at least as well-educated as the critics, and not ironic. The Lord of the Rings is equally "a story told by a master story-teller; a story inspired by philology; a story suffused with Catholic values; and a mythic (or mythopoeic) story with a North European pagan inflection". In other words, Tolkien was about as anti-modernist as possible. However, in his view, newer critics like China Miéville were taking a more open attitude.[17]

Within the Inklings[edit]

Even within Tolkien's literary group, The Inklings, reviews were mixed. Hugo Dyson complained loudly at readings of The Lord of the Rings, and Christopher Tolkien records Dyson as "lying on the couch, and lolling and shouting and saying, 'Oh God, no more Elves.'"[28] However, another Inkling, C. S. Lewis, had very different feelings, writing, "here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron." Despite these reviews and its lack of paperback printing until the 1960s, The Lord of the Rings initially sold well in hardback.[29]

Marxist criticism[edit]

Tolkien was strongly opposed to both Nazism and Communism; Hal Colebatch in The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia states that his views can be seen in what he considers to be the somewhat parodic "The Scouring of the Shire". Leftist critics have accordingly attacked Tolkien's social conservatism.[30] E. P. Thompson blames the cold warrior mentality on "too much early reading of The Lord of the Rings".[31] Other Marxist critics, however, have been more positive towards Tolkien. While criticizing the politics embedded in The Lord of the Rings,[32] China Miéville admires Tolkien's creative use of Norse mythology, tragedy, monsters, and subcreation, as well as his criticism of allegory.[33]

Jungian archetypes[edit]

Diagram of Patrick Grant's Jungian View of The Lord of the Rings with hero, anima and other archetypes[34]

Patrick Grant, a scholar of Renaissance literature, perceived similarities between the interactions of the characters in The Lord of the Rings and Jungian archetypes. He states that the Hero appears both in noble and powerful form as Aragorn, and in childlike form as Frodo, whose quest can be interpreted as a personal journey of individuation. They are opposed by the Ringwraiths. Frodo's anima is the Elf-queen Galadriel, who is opposed by the evil giant female spider Shelob. The Old Wise Man archetype is filled by the wizard Gandalf, who is opposed by the corrupted wizard Saruman. Frodo's Shadow is, appropriately in Grant's view, also a male Hobbit, like Frodo. Aragorn has an Ideal Partner in Arwen, but also a Negative Animus in Eowyn, at least until she meets Faramir and chooses a happy union with him instead.[34]

Tolkien research[edit]

Tolkien's fiction began to acquire respectability among academics only at the end of his life, with the publication of Paul H. Kocher's 1972 Master of Middle-Earth.[35] Since then, Tolkien's works have become the subject of a substantial body of academic research, both as fantasy and as an extended exercise in invented languages.[35] Richard C. West compiled an annotated checklist of Tolkien criticism in 1981.[36] Serious study began to reach the broader community with Shippey's 1982 The Road to Middle-earth and Verlyn Flieger's Splintered Light in 1983.[35] To borrow a phrase from Flieger, academia had trouble "taking seriously a subject which had, until he wrote, been dismissed as unworthy of attention."[37]

In 1998, Daniel Timmons wrote in a dedicated issue of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts that scholars still disagreed about Tolkien's place in literature, but that those critical of it were a minority. He noted that Shippey had said that the "literary establishment" did not include Tolkien among the canon of academic texts, whereas Jane Chance "boldly declares that at last Tolkien 'is being studied as important in himself, as one of the world's greatest writers'".[35] Pressure to study Tolkien seriously came initially from fans rather than academics; the scholarly legitimacy of the field was still a subject of debate in 2015.[38][39]

The pace of scholarly publications on Tolkien increased dramatically in the early 2000s. The dedicated journal Tolkien Studies has been appearing since 2004; that same year, the scholar Neil D. Isaacs introduced an anthology of Tolkien criticism with the words "This collection assumes that argument about the value and power of The Lord of the Rings has been settled, certainly to the satisfaction of its vast, growing, persistent audience, but also of a considerable body of critical judgment".[40] The open-access Journal of Tolkien Research has been published since 2014.[41] A bibliographic database of Tolkien criticism is maintained at Wheaton College.[42]

Literary re-evaluation[edit]

The science fiction and fantasy author Ursula Le Guin wrote that she felt it was "a mistake to think of a story as simply moving forward. The rhythmic structure of the narrative is both journey-like and architectural. Great novels offer us not only a series of events but a place (her italics), a landscape of the imagination that we can inhabit and to which we can return."[43] Le Guin added that since The Lord of the Rings is both grounded in place and has movement, its story "goes forward at its steady, human gait".[43]

In 2013, the fantasy author and humorist Terry Pratchett used a mountain theme to praise Tolkien, likening Tolkien to Mount Fuji, and writing that any other fantasy author "either has made a deliberate decision against the mountain, which is interesting in itself, or is in fact standing on [it]."[44]

In 2016, the British literary critic and poet Roz Kaveney reviewed five books about Tolkien in The Times Literary Supplement. She recorded that in 1991 she had said of The Lord of the Rings that it was worth "intelligent reading but not passionate attention",[45] and accepted that she had "underestimated the extent to which it would gain added popularity and cultural lustre from Peter Jackson's film adaptations".[45] As Pratchett had done, she used a mountain metaphor, alluding to Basil Bunting's poem about Ezra Pound's Cantos,[46] with the words "Tolkien's books have become Alps and we will wait in vain for them to crumble."[45] Kaveney called Tolkien's works "Thick Texts", books that are best read with some knowledge of his Middle-earth framework rather than as "single artworks". She accepted that he was a complicated figure, a scholar, a war survivor, a skillful writer of "light verse", a literary theorist, and a member of "a coterie of other influential thinkers". Further, she stated that he had much in common with accepted modernist writers like T. S. Eliot. She suggested that The Lord of the Rings is "a good, intelligent, influential and popular book", but perhaps not, as some of his "idolators" would have it, "a transcendent literary masterpiece".[45]

Andrew Higgins, reviewing the 2014 volume A Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien, welcomed the "eminent line-up" of the authors of its 36 articles (naming in particular Tom Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, Dimitra Fimi, John D. Rateliff and Gergely Nagy). He called it "joyous indeed that after many years of polite (and not so polite) disdain and dismissal by establishment 'academics' and the 'cultural intelligentsia'" that Tolkien had reached the "academic pantheon" of Blackwell Companions. Higgins applauded the volume's editor, Stuart D. Lee, for "the overall thematic structuring of this volume, which offers a progressive profile of Tolkien the man, the student, and scholar, and the mythopoeist".[47]

Reception of non-fiction works[edit]

Tolkien was an accomplished philologist, but he left a comparatively meager output of academic publications. His works on philology which have received the most recognition are Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a 1936 lecture on the interpretation of the Old English poem Beowulf, and his identification of what he termed the "AB language", an early Middle English literary register of the West Midlands. Outside philology, his 1939 lecture On Fairy Stories is of some importance to the literary genres of fantasy or mythopoeia. His 1930 lecture A Secret Vice addressed artistic languages at a time when the topic was of very limited visibility compared to the utilitarian projects of auxiliary languages. His 1955 valedictory lecture English and Welsh expounds upon his philosophy of language, his notion of native language and his views on linguistic aesthetics (such as his liking for the sound of the phrase "cellar door"). Ross Smith published a monograph on Tolkien's philosophy of language.[48]


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