I CAME to Tolkien comparatively late in life, on the insistent recommendation of a young woman who was an ardent disciple of Wagner. I was 20 and already deeply familiar with Jane Austen and much of Dickens. In the late 1950s, The Lord of the Rings had yet to acquire the almost sacred cult status that it has today. It's hard to believe that, to my ears and eyes at any rate, this leaden fable is now the subject of a third blockbuster movie and looks set to become the overall winner in the BBC's cretinous Big Read contest.
In my teens I had read, and loved, Stevenson's Treasure Island and the now virtually forgotten Moonfleet by J Meade Falkner, a tale of smuggling on the Dorset coast written in exquisitely clear English. Both books are dextrously plotted adventure stories, but they offer something more than excitement and surprise - they provide glimpses of the complications and disappointments of the adult world. They may be yarns, but they are yarns that grown-ups can relish.
I hoped that I could share the Wagnerite's enthusiasm. I began with The Hobbit and found it mildly amusing, though I was also resistant to the jauntiness of its narrative tone. Bilbo Baggins, the amiable gnome, and Frodo and his faithful servant Sam make pleasant enough company for a while, but it's with the arrival of the Orcs, the dangerous goblins, that trouble began for me. The Orcs are simply evil, and I have problems with writers who deal in - rather than with - that concept. Shakespeare doesn't since Iago, the nastiest of his characters, is depicted as a man who has chosen wrong-doing as his modus vivendi. The Orcs are an abstraction, a dark force, repulsive in every way. We know from everyday life that the physically unprepossessing are often imbued with goodness, and that the handsome and beautiful can be spiritually bankrupt. But in the world of fantasy the evil are, of necessity, an eyesore - especially in the fantasies of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the noted professor of philology and expert in the early forms of English, the language that was sent packing by Chaucer and finally dispatched by Shakespeare.
Tolkien was a scholar, who had read deeply in the old sagas and legends and despised the Frenchification of the Norse-influenced English he made his lifetime's passion. …