“Oh hell!” yelled journalist Susan Jeffreys upon first hearing the news on January 26th, 1997. “Oh my God. Dear oh dear. Dear oh dear oh dear.”
She was not alone in her shock, reporting similar reactions could be heard up and down the country. Germaine Greer — author of ‘The Female Eunuch’ — was equally horror struck at the news, believing it to be “my nightmare since 1964 … [and now] the bad dream has materialized.” Judith Schulevitz, author of ‘The Sabbath World’ and newspaper columnist was equally hit hard by the news, believing it to be “death to literature itself.” Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson also reacted violently, stating “it’s another black day for British culture.” Perhaps the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ best captured all these feelings with a one-word headline: “Horrifying.”
What was this news which shook the above with a mixture of terror and disbelief? It was the announcement that J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ had been named ‘Book of the Century.’ This was the results of 105 separate polls around the globe. After many people cried foul, both the “Daily Telegraph’ and the ‘Folio Society’ conducted their own polls, only to receive (much to their dismay) the same results. The disbelievers had their hopes up when Ipso Mori, England’s largest marketing firm, conducted their own massive survey. This resulted in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ coming in only second, with the ‘Bible’ taking first spot. These hopes were soon smashed, when the ‘Bible’ was disqualified, not having been written in the 20th century.
Of course literary tastes are entirely subjective, and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ is not going to be for everyone. But why did its status as the number one book of the 20th century create such a violent, hostile, and irrational reaction to those mentioned above?
Tolkien — who died in 1971 — would not have been surprised by this indignation, as similar comments were made as far back as 1954 — the year the ‘Lord of the Rings’ first appeared. Critics found his work to be “Juvenile trash,” “shapeless,” “lacks balance,” “childish,” “balderdash,” “thin and pale,” and “widely overpraised.” Edmund Wilson felt there was “little in the book over the head of a seven-year-old child,” and that Tolkien suffered from “a poverty of imagination.” Philip Toynbee found the ‘Lord of the Rings’ to be “dull, ill-written, whimsical and childish,” and couldn’t wait for the day when the book would “pass into merciful oblivion.”
“Tolkien was childish; his readers retarded” appeared to be the stance of most of these reviewers, who continually failed to mention the book’s plot, characters, and / or themes.
The most interesting review came from historical novelist Alfred Duggan, who said “This is not a work which many adults will read through more than once.” (ha ha ha).
Yet even these examples fail to explain the astonishing lack of insight and critical rage expressed by these reviewers. What was really happening here?
The answer can be found in an offhand remark made by the writer Humphrey Carpenter, who called fans of Tolkien “anorak-clad.” To Carpenter, this distinguished them from “those who habitually carry umbrellas.” The critical reaction to the “Lord of the Rings” has little to do with literary merit, and is sadly based on class.
From the 1920s, English literature has been dominated by the ‘Sonnerkinder’ (Children of the Sun). This group, which included Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connelly, and Virginia Woolf, were upper-class, wealthy, privately educated, professed cultivated tastes, and highly elitist. Not shy about their class prejudices, Woolf (after reading Ulysses) called James Joyce “illiterate and underbred.”
Underbred is exactly what this group felt Tolkien’s work to be. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ didn’t fit their modernist and self-conscious views of literature. It wasn’t about incest, or making money, and didn’t contain any of the “correct and sober” steam of consciousness self-pity this group approved of. Tolkien had the nerve to write 1,137 pages “about the nature and origin of evil.”
The popularity of the book challenged the authority of these mediators of taste, and they could not forgive him for that. Thus Tolkien was childish; his readers retarded.
Which is an odd thing to say about one of the most beloved and influential books of the 20th century.
Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library