Tolkien Biographies and Biographers

All about J.R.R.Tolkien's life, his beliefs and philosophies, and his interests
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Riv Res
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Post by Riv Res » Thu Jul 22, 2010 5:25 pm

Merry wrote:Pearce's biography has a great collection of criticisms. I can report on them tomorrow, but the main one, from many sources, is that LOTR is not realistic.
Tolkien's work is myth, with mythological characters. Why on earth (middle-earth?) should it be criticized for not being realistic?

I went to the movies last weekend ... saw Inception. Good movie. Non-realism is the top theme of the day. SO MANY movies (some of them good movies) are permiated with fantasy and myth and things unreal.

Again, why would these critics get so hung up on the fact that LOTR is not realistic?

Merry
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Post by Merry » Thu Jul 22, 2010 5:33 pm

RR, most of these reviews of LOTR came out after the books were published. So was fantasy (which I guess is the opposite of realism?) as accepted or embraced then?
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

Riv Res
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Post by Riv Res » Thu Jul 22, 2010 5:49 pm

LOL ... so, leave it to the Professor to be WAY ahead of his time. :wink:

Merry
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Post by Merry » Sun Jul 25, 2010 11:44 pm

Well, as promised, here are some of the comments from critics of LOTR, as copied in Pearce's biography. Most of the following are from 1997, when a widespread poll in England revealed LOTR to be the considered the best book of the century.

Susan Jeffreys: "Personally, I won't keep the thing in the house, but I have borrowed a boxed set for the purpose of this piece. It sits on the table like a horrible artifiact, giving off a stale bedsitterish aroma. With its awful runes and maps and tedious indexes, the sight of it filled me with depression . . . A depressing thought that the votes for the world's best 20th-century book should have come from those burrowing an escape into a nonexistent world."

Howard Jacobson: "Tolkien--that's for children, isn't it? Or the adult slow . . . It just shows the folly of these polls, the folly of teaching people to read. Close all the libraries. Use the money for something else. It's another black day for British culture."

Nigel Planer, an actor, complained that those who voted for LOTR were "the same lot who phoned in to make John Major Man of the Year and to keep the royal family."

Griff Rhys Jones said that LOTR went no deeper than the "comforts and rituals of childhood."

An unnamed writer from Guardian: LOTR "must be by any reckoning one of the worst books ever written."

Humphrey Carpenter said that the Internet culture had helped mobilize Tolkien's 'anorak-clad troups' to vote in the poll, saying that he 'had the impression that the Tolkien culture had dwindled to a hard core of fans.'

Ann Barnes, who was head of the National Association for the Teaching of English: "It is not just that out of the first fifty titles only six are written by women; it is that in the list as a whole, the emphasis is on the sort of fantasy or horror fiction which particularly appeals to adolescent boys."

Germaine Greer: As a fifty-seven-year-old lifelong teacher of English, I might be expected to regard this particular list of books of the century with dismay. I do. Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964 and encountered a tribe of full-grown women wearing puffed sleeves, clutching teddies and babbling excitely about the doings of hobbits, it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century. The bad dream has materialized. . . Most novels are set in a recognisable place at a recognisable time; Tolkien invents the era, the place, and a race of fictitious beings to inhabit it. The books that come in Tolkien's train are more or less what you would expect; flight from reality is their dominating characteristic."

The next criticism came after LOTR was published in the 1950s.

Edwin Muir: "The astonishing thing is that all the characters are boys masquerading as adult heroes. The hobbits, or halflings, are ordinary boys; the fully human heroes have reached the fifth form; but hardly one of them knows anything about women, except by hearsay. Even the elves and the dwarfs and the ents are boys, irretrievably, and will never come to puberty."

John Goldthwaite: "Faerie-land's answer to Conan the Barbarian."

John Heath-Stubbs: LOTR is "a combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh".

Patrick Curry collected the following list of descriptions from review: "paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic and, perhaps worst of all in contemporary terms, irrelevant."

{Remember Patrick Curry, Iolanthe? He had the room next to mine at Exeter and, if I remember correctly, did a paper on the meaning of 'enchantment'.}

Okay: enough typing for today!
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

Lindariel
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Post by Lindariel » Mon Jul 26, 2010 2:07 am

Have any of them acknowledged since then that they are narrow-minded, blithering idiots? Have they taken a GOOD look at the broad range of demographics that read, re-read, study, and unequivocally love this book? Honestly, they all sound like a bunch of stuck-up twits.
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“Therefore I say: Eä! Let these things Be! And I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be.”

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Post by Merry » Mon Jul 26, 2010 2:40 am

:lol: Perfect response, Lindariel!

I do notice some rather classist edges to these criticisms. There wouldn't be any classism at work in England, would there? 8)
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

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Post by Iolanthe » Mon Jul 26, 2010 10:36 am

Well - those are not only insulting to Tolkien but insulting to everybody that loves his books too! Throughout most of human history, stories about mythical beings, other worlds and the heroes that ventured into them was the ONLY literature. This is what enthralled the hearts and minds of humanity around the entire globe from the moment men first sat around campfires and told the tales of their ancestors, up until just a few years ago when a bunch of self-appointed culture guardians decided that they knew what we were supposed to like.

In the long history of human story-telling they are a little blip at the end of it, but Tolkien knew what stirred the human heart (and always has done). These critics are out of step with the real culture of storytelling, not us, and the way people responded later to the films (and went back to the books) proves it. As a nerdy minority who think their opinions are Holy Writ, I'm happy to lend them my anorak!

Merry - I do remember Patrick Curry! I gave a brief account of his talk here. It seems I couldn't make much sense of my notes, which may have been down to exhaustion after so many intense talks!
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather...

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Post by Iolanthe » Mon Jul 26, 2010 10:43 am

Me again!

I've just been reading down the page I linked to above and found Father Guglielmo Spirito's wonderful talk below Curry's.

I've pulled this out of my report where he had the perfect answer to the critics:
Father Guglielmo coined a wonderful phrase for us: ‘Tolkien is a misunderstood man because he is a myth-understood man'. I think, if my memory serves as my notes are poor here, that he was saying that many critics miss the whole point of Tolkien’s myth. That Tolkien was bringing us back to the enjoyment of reality, the real light that illuminates all things, even the prosaic, not leading us away from it to fantasy.
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather...

Riv Res
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Post by Riv Res » Mon Jul 26, 2010 11:43 am

Those critics do sound like a BIG bunch of sour grapes and it appears to be a case (as Fr G says) of they just don't get it. Is it not enough that they could just say that they don't like the book, after all ... beauty is truly in the the eye of the beholder? I can't understand why they are so bent of degrading the Professor and those of us who love the books.

Lindariel
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Post by Lindariel » Mon Jul 26, 2010 1:56 pm

I hereby amend my earlier statement: They all sound like a bunch of JEALOUS stuck-up twits.
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“Therefore I say: Eä! Let these things Be! And I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be.”

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Post by Merry » Mon Jul 26, 2010 2:23 pm

Yes! What strikes me about these criticisms is how mean-spirited and personal they are. Must have touched a nerve.
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

marbretherese
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Post by marbretherese » Mon Jul 26, 2010 4:35 pm

Merry wrote:Yes! What strikes me about these criticisms is how mean-spirited and personal they are. Must have touched a nerve.
I think you've hit the nail on the head, Merry - they are mean-spirited - and what's touched a nerve is the fact that they are so popular.

It's not just class at work here - although that's part of it: the literati - the self-styled literary elite who think that anything worthwhile cannot be understood or admired by ordinary folk; and therefore anything popular is by definition not worthwhile. The kind of attitude that had the music elite reeling in horror when Pavarotti & co staged concerts - free of charge - for the general public. The kind of attitude that rubbishes an artist like Jack Vettriano because he comes from a mining background in Kircaldy and - horror of horrors - taught himself to paint and people like his paintings and hang them on their walls at home.

Shippey puts at least some of it down to the old literature vs language rivalries: Tolkien, as a philologer, was not supposed to write literature (told you he was a revolutionary). But he wouldn't stay in his box, so instead they claim it isn't literature, and that's where it becomes personal. Shippey also points out that Tolkien's work took a different viewpoint to the prevailing fashion at the time for modernism. And of course there's (literally) too much of the Spirit in Tolkien's work for the critics to take.

Enough ranting. Off now to check out my anorak. :lol:
"Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back.
But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy."


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Iolanthe
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Post by Iolanthe » Mon Jul 26, 2010 5:00 pm

That's all spot on. As you say, it's the attitude that if most people easily understand a work of art or literature and like it, then it can't really be 'art'. For the literati and the elite of the art world 'Art' is supposed to be so intellectually challenging that only those who've had the right training understand why it's good. Then they can all congratulate each other on being in the know. Or it has to be gritty and 'relevant' (for that read irrelevant for most people's ordinary lives). Everything else just gets laughed at.

What really annoys me is that the worst critics have never taken Tolkien seriously enough to find out that there is a huge amount of intellectual depth to be enjoyed and that he had both the wits and the humanity to be both popular and clever at one and the same time. The literati like to make ordinary people feel small and Tolkien liked to make small people heroes.
Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
Of sun, stars, moon and mist, rain and cloudy weather...

Lindariel
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Post by Lindariel » Mon Jul 26, 2010 6:01 pm

I also note that they sneeringly refer to Tolkien's work as "Isn't this a children's book?" They tend to forget that some of the most profoundly moving and truthful pieces of literature were written for children.

Just for example, I would refer ANYONE to the Skin Horse's beautiful "What is Real?" scene in The Velveteen Rabbit. I want that piece read at my memorial service along with some Wordsworth (those fabulous lines about "splendour in the grass, glory in the flower"), some brief lines from Dr. Martin Luther King's March 25, 1965, address on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol (" ... the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."), and the following piece from ROTK:
At last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Last edited by Lindariel on Mon Jul 26, 2010 6:09 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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“Therefore I say: Eä! Let these things Be! And I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be.”

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Post by Merry » Mon Jul 26, 2010 6:06 pm

Beautiful!

That 'bedsitter' line is really what I found insulting. I wonder if the person that loaned the books to her found it that way, too.

I'm not really sure what an anorak is, but I suppose I ought to buy one if I don't already have one!
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

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