EDITOR’S NOTE:National Review is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. Throughout the week, NRO will run some pieces from the archives to help take a trip down memory lane. This piece appeared in the September 28, 1973, issue of National Review.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who died a fortnight ago in his 81st year, was as much a writer of his time as the archetypical modern from whom he seemed to differ so radically and so sharply. All the arts of our century have been revivals of forms long abandoned. Joyce was our Homer, Pound our Dante. Tolkien dared to resuscitate romance, a form requiring the genius of a Rabelais or Spenser, a form which was shattered after its brilliant flowering in the hands of Boiardo and Ariosto by the publication of Don Quixote. Thereafter the demon realism ruled the roost.
Tolkien dared the improbable and perhaps the impossible in writing The Lord of the Rings, a three-volume romance of such magnificent design and charm of narration that it has been for almost twenty years now a magic book among the young. For many, it was their sole example of literature, and they took to it with the cultist enthusiasm of young Elizabethans reading Orlando Furioso. Most of its readers had little awareness that they were reading a Christian parable. The book is apparently beyond scholarship and criticism; nothing written about it seems to be about the same book that people begin again as soon as they reach the end, or read for days without sleep, or can allude to like a Puritan quoting Scripture. Who can say why the Orcs have Hittite names? Who has noticed that Gandalf is Sherlock Holmes in a wizard’s hat?
Some years ago, I was talking with Allen Barnett, of Shelbyville, Kentucky. It turned out that he was a classmate of Tolkien’s at Oxford and may have been his only friend to have survived the First World War. Tolkien, he said, loved to hear about the Kentuckians, their contempt for shoes, their fields of tobacco, their countrified ancient English names like Proudfoot and Baggins. It was the rule of Tolkien’s art that he invented nothing cynical. He transmuted into the loveliest vision the world as he knew it. If the Shire is flavored with touches of Kentucky, we need but know that Tolkien was born in South Africa to see what he was remembering in the lacy golden trees of Lothlórien. Not since Spenser has an English writer had so gorgeous an imagination.
Like his own Hobbits, Tolkien was an all but invisible man. He was orphaned at 18, became a philologist after serving in the Lancashire Fusiliers, and spent his life as a university professor. He also spent it as an artist of incomparable power. The Hobbit, published in 1938, was written, like so many splendid books, to read to his children. The Lord of the Rings set out that way; one son remembers receiving chapters of the great book when he was an RAF pilot. Publishers were not interested in the work, and it lay around until 1955.
Of The Lord of the Rings we can say easily that it is the best book of the century though the greatest is Ulysses, and Lewis’ The Human Age is the book we deserve most to be remembered for. Its vision of harmony and simplicity, of honor and heroism, is an articulate symbol of our inarticulate yearning. The dread Orcs, who look like the Chinese army, the Nazis, and our highways and streets, are what humanity looks like when deference has been replaced by power and civilization by efficiency.
Tolkien himself said the one fault of The Lord of the Rings is that it ought to have been longer. Would that it were.