To my recollection, I read and re-read The Lord of The Rings series of books with some frequency after that initial foray into the land of the written word. I am certain I read it when met a new cohort of boys in fifth and sixth grade; I probably read it in the same copies as I had when a tot, the four-volume Ballantine paperbacks featuring Professor Tolkien’s own art on the covers.
The period between my initial run at the books and this later reading marks the highest water of the grand seventies Tolkien marketing spree that culminated in the 1979 publication of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien’s posthumous publication of the most coherent of his father’s notes and legends of Middle Earth. The Silmarillion stands to the characters of the events in Middle Earth as the Old Testament stands to the peoples of cultures influenced by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam: it’s the creation story and formative events in the early days of Middle Earth, and of the events that lead to the first great war, depicted in the prologue to Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring.
Since it’s biblical in import, James Ronald Ruel must have reasoned, let it be biblical in tone, and so it is. Abandoning the plot and character driven narrative that he employed for The Hobbit and for The Lord of The Rings, The Silmarillion is, um, turgid.
It represents my introduction to the betrayal of marketing. I had the highest hopes for the book, having awaited it, really, nearly as long as I had a memory; I found it utterly unreadable.
In Tolkien’s defense, the book was prepared for publication posthumously, and generated criticism at the time of his son’s decision to publish it; since then, Christopher has gone on to edit many, many volumes of his father’s stories and notes, and shows no sign of slacking off. Make of it what you will.
At any rate, the gift-buying decision for my father until around 1982 was always simple: go to the bookstore and find the latest Tolkien gimcrack, calendar, book, or whatnot. The Silmarillion came out in 1977; in 1978, Bakshi’s ill-fated animated adaptation was released to poor reviews and low attendance; and the First Age of Tolkien was coming to a close.
In 1982 my family moved to Switzerland for a year or so; I reread the books there, amid castles and mountains and adolescence. I enjoyed them, but they seemed both dated and childish; furthermore, I detected a certain, oh – how should one put this – anti-industrial ideology, which surely did not fit so well with my fancied teenage Marxism. Not to mention the romantic depictions of royalty and feudal political systems.
Additionally, by then, I had read widely in the larger realms of fantasy, and Tolkien’s fairly gelded sense of the world was sorely tested when compared to the charms of Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and other more conventionally literary or pulpy fantasy authors.
At about this time I had my first discussions with my dad about what lay behind Tolkien’s book. I’d read fellow-Inkling C. S. Lewis’s juvenile Christian fantasy series, The Narnia Chronicles, several times by then as well, as well as a survey of the social milieu at Oxford that these gents smoked their briars in (The Inklings). So I was well aware that Lewis was deeply involved in prodding Tolkien to complete the books and was largely inspired to experiment with the fantastic (in the forms of Narnia and the Perelandra trilogy) due to Tolkien’s example.
Yet while Lewis freely acknowledged allegory and pedantic intent with regard to these works, Tolkien was legendarily touchy about the facile mapping of observable events into his invented mythos. The War of the Ring is not World War Two, even as he borrows the very language of Allied propaganda (“the free peoples of Middle-Earth”), Sauron is not Hitler, and the Shire is not England.
So the good don claimed, with varying degrees of disingenuousness. The Shire, actually, really is a kind of specific myth about England that most people who grow up speaking English absorb, sometimes in part from The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was written partly as a direct response to Tolkien’s experience in the trenches of World War I, and it’s easy to recognize that The Hobbit is a kind of literary foreshadowing for The Lord of The Rings.
My father, an engineer and systems analyst with no background in literary criticism or art history, was only able to help me along with the barest of introductions to the idea of allusion, mimesis, and authorial theme as we discussed the books. But it was enough. Rather than seeking a literalist, one-to-one interpretation of the events, places and characters I was reading, or accepting them as a kind of alternate reality, I began to understand writing as a kind of scrim between a work’s author and the reader, the perspective of the reader changing each time the work is read, and therefore a fruitful and multiplying field of meaning unique and specific to each reader.
The Lord of the Rings may not be a retelling of World War Two, but it is certainly a reaction to the events of the past century and a half. Tolkien’s starting point is the Arts-and-Crafts movement of the late 1800s, which championed neo-medieval methods of creation and eschewed mass production in favor of the careful work of individual craftsmen, a salutary programme offered in place of the factory’s awful gilded fripperies – all of which is great if you happen to be landed gentry, like, oh, Bilbo Baggins of Bag-End, Hobbiton, The Shire, Middle Earth.
Tolkien’s response to the industrial revolution and the social upheavals it engendered is to wish longingly for a feudal past that never was. If there’s no heavy industry, how can there be sin, to paraphrase the Sex Pistols, and of course the Anabaptists.
Yet, I loved the books, and indeed still do.
Could it be possible to deeply love a work of art, be aware of formative debts to it, and yet completely stand at odds with the underlying ideologies of the work? It was such an uncomfortable question, like realizing a favorite relative is an unreconstructed racist, that I put the books away for a long, long time.
Other fantasy authors, Moorcock in particular, were much more in tune with the questions and ideologies that interested and involved me for the next few years, and I continued to read, still in great quantity, but not very deeply as yet. I had the tools but didn’t fully know how to use them. It would take Samuel R. Delany’s masterwork Dhalgren to truly teach me to read through a book. That book liberated me from the SF and fantasy ghetto and taught me to read books and writing without concern for plot or narrative or character or setting. I still prefer the fantastic, but I can appreciate the more conventionally accepted works of the modern era and earlier now as well.
Unfortunately, so much of Tolkien’s creative energy went into constructing his monumental backstory – The Silmarillion, the languages, and so forth – that it set an unfortunate template for the marketing and development of fantasy. Multi-volume opii, padded with reams of nonsense about ancestors, grammars, and political histories replaced both old-fashioned plot-driven adventure and rarefied literary formalism in fantasy. By the late seventies and early eighties, the flood of such works reinforced my interest in SF and fact-based reading.
SF is another genre in which literary approaches were often shouted down in favor of precisely machined works with an engineer’s eye to problem, story, and character. Yet by this time the approaches of the authors termed New Wave (interestingly, often having worked with Michael Moorcock at New Worlds magazine) were really becoming widely available, Brian Aldiss blended worldbuilding, historical novels, and literary fiction in his Helliconia books; Phil Dick was not quite the icon he is today, but he was available. There was a plethora of fascinating literary SF published between 1969 and 1984 n the shelves of my local library.