Applicability and Truth in the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion: Readers, Fantasy, and Canonicity

By Upstone, Sara | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Applicability and Truth in the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion: Readers, Fantasy, and Canonicity


Upstone, Sara, Mythlore


"Tolkien's critics, not his readers, are our of touch with reality. Never has the intellectual establishment so richly deserved defiance."(1)

A 1997 Waterstone's poll proclaimed Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings "the best book of the century": contrary to generally held opinion, Tolkien's popularity has not waned since the cult followings of the 1960s; sales of his three major works now total an estimated 92 million copies world-wide. Yet the academic, and in particular the wider literary community, react to proclamations of his genius with despair; the idea that Tolkien's works have significant literary worth is still dismissed by many in positions of literary importance and Tolkien himself is rejected as a possible entrant into the modern literary canon: an invisible institution that dominates our reading tastes, influences what our children are taught, and determines which works we privilege in academic institutions. This study aims to illustrate how the writings of Tolkien, and much fantasy writing, are excluded by traditional definitions of canonicity because of the critical criteria on which such decisions are often based. Shifting our focus to wards "ordinary" readers and postmodernist and reader-response centred theories and away from the realms of practical criticism, we can approach texts in a way that allows re-appraisal of their literary significance. This will reveal in Tolkien's texts key elements of what Tolkien refers to as "applicability" and what will be defined as "truth," literature that is based on "a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it,"(2) leading to universals that are revealed yet at the same time allowing the work to be re-defined, and to a large extent re-created, by each reader. In addition, it may also lead us to more generally question whether concepts of canonicity are either helpful or relevant for literary studies in the twenty-first century.

Criticism

The Lord of the Rings
Is one of those things:
If you like it you do:
If you don't, then you bool" (3)

Tolkien has been a victim of his own phenomenal success that leads many literary critics to approach him with pre-existing distrust. Germaine Greer's reminiscence of "full grown women wearing puffed sleeves [...] babbling excitedly about the doings of hobbits" serves to illustrate why some react so violently. (4) Yet it also leads to attacks based on personal reactions without the analytic processes normally pursued. Personal statement--"I won't keep the thing in the house" (5); the books are "juvenile trash" (6)--are frequently substituted for serious criticism. Key critics such as Rosemary Jackson, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Tzvetan Todorov all see Tolkien as beyond their parameters. (7) Jackson's work is largely concerned with fantasy elements within realist literature, while Todorov and Brooke-Rose see Tolkien as a creator of secondary worlds, no longer a fantasy writer, but a creator of the marvellous, placing him outside their studies. (8) Therefore for Tolkien, genre has played a part in criticism of h is texts, while hindering efforts to dispel such criticism. Inclusion in the fantasy genre appears reserved for writers considered "outside the power structure of the academy," (9) recognised as a literature of the "other," outside the dominant literary discourse; like women's writing and nonwestern literature in its need to infiltrate the canon from the outside, and to forge new definitions of "canonicity" in order to find inclusion in concepts of "great literature."

Ultimately, criticism of Tolkien can be separated into four main categories: juvenility, nostalgia, escapism, and irrelevancy. The case of juvenility is represented by early writers on Tolkien: Edmund Wilson, Muir's comments that The Lord of the Rings is all about "boys masquerading as adult heroes," (10) and Burton Raffel. (11) The criteria applied to Tolkien in such cases is an anachronism for today's English Studies, but Tolkien has found it difficult to escape new incarnations such as Brian Moorcock's defining The Lord of the Rings as "the prose of the nursery room [. …

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