Tolkein’s seminal work enabled an entire genre to emerge from the shadows
On his 125th birth anniversary, a look back at J. R. R. Tolkien’s oeuvre
In terms of international literary events, 2016 belonged to Shakespeare, whose 400th death anniversary caused year-long commemorative celebrations the world over. This year began with another literary milestone: January 3, 2017 marked the 125th birth anniversary of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.
Although not perhaps in the same league as Shakespeare, Tolkien is doubtless a rather significant figure of 20th century English literature, one who was responsible for pioneering the great vogue of fantasy in contemporary times and who had a cult status, especially among the youth, for his “mythopoeic” indictments of the aridity of modern industrial culture.
In recognition of the enduring worldwide appeal of his creations, The Times in 2008 ranked him the sixth among the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.
A professor of Old and Middle English literature at Leeds and then Oxford, Tolkien was primarily an academic whose study of the ancient heroic epic Beowulf remains a standard reference to the subject even today (Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, 1936). Much of his creative writing, in fact, emerged as a product of his leisure-time activity — such as the connected series of fantastic tales, poems, and fictional histories that was written over years for the author’s self-amusement. This body of work, which the author called “legendarium”, was published posthumously under various titles, notably, The Book of Lost Tales (1983-84) and Silmarillon (1977). These were preceded in his lifetime by his masterpieces The Hobbit (1937), and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55).
The former novel, the culmination of years of story-telling to his four kids, is a wonderfully entertaining, often humorous children’s tale. It introduced the vividly imagined worlds of Arda and Middle Earth inhabited by hobbits, a race of small human-like beings who are much simpler and more morally courageous than real men. In his expedition to fight the dragon Smaug along with Thorin and his dwarfs, the reluctant hero of the novel, Bilbo Baggins, matures from a comfort-loving little creature to a courageous fighter for the collective good.
The stupendous success of The Hobbit made Tolkien’s publisher demand a sequel. This, however, did not materialise before 1954-55, when the now legendary work of ‘high fantasy’ The Lord of the Rings was published. This novel was tremendously popular the world over and was translated, over the years, to 38 languages. It was awarded the International Fantasy Award in 1957 and was also made into a hugely successful film trilogy by Peter Jackson in 2001-03.
A three-part heroic epic that is part fantasy and part mythology, The Lord of the Rings tells an intricate story based on the archetypal plot-pattern of the conflict of good and evil. A magic ring that makes the wearer invisible and in control of the entire world—discovered by Bilbo in The Hobbit—features prominently in the novel. This powerful ring, which has the potential to corrupt its owner and therefore to destroy all creation, is decimated by a fellowship of hobbits, elves and men under the leadership of the Christ-like hero Frodo Baggins in the teeth of opposition by the devil Sauron and his Black Riders.
The spectacular popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings gave a new impetus to certain mutually-related forms of writing — like fairy-tale, folk-lore, fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction — which have all come to be identified as varieties of ‘the fantastic’. A mode of writing which is basically non-mimetic (not imitative of external reality), ‘the fantastic’ at its best, comments upon the socio-political and/or psychological reality out of which it emerges. This genre of writing, going back through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to the Middle English ‘romances’ like Morte d’ Arthur and old English epics like Beowulf, suddenly became fashionable — both commercially and critically — after the phenomenon of The Lord of the Rings. This is why Tolkien is often regarded as the ‘father of fantasy’ and has been called “the greatest influence within the fantasy genre”.
As fine exemplars of ‘the fantastic’, Tolkien’s tales and novels are often seen as subtle socio-political or religious allegories, although the author himself mostly denied such claims. The Lord of the Rings, for example, has been seen as an anti-Communist fable critical of Joseph Stalin. Rather than seeing his work as veiled socio-political critique, however, Tolkien preferred to perceive it as modern myth-making, myths being to him echoes of fundamental truths about life.
Arguments about social valence apart, Tolkien’s work is immensely valuable in purely literary terms. Its rich inventiveness, including the seamless creation of ‘other worlds’ and of new, “elvish” languages, its delightfully intricate plot patterns, its humour — both dark and light — make for brilliantly entertaining fare paying tribute to the classical theorist Horace’s dictum that the primary purpose of literature is not to instruct but to please.
In a day and age when pretentiousness and gimmickry often win over genuine artistic merit and threaten to corrupt the very frameworks governing artistic evaluations, creators like Tolkien help us keep our faith in art alive. In a milieu much tainted by tackiness and creative destitution, Tolkien’s works abide as gems radiating the brilliance of the god-like creative faculty that the Romantics revered as the ‘imagination’ — the faculty that enables gifted men to create lasting beauty from the stuff of ordinary life.
Suparna Banerjee teaches English at Krishnath College, Berhampore, and is the author of Science, Gender and History: The Fantastic in Mary Shelley and Margaret Atwood.
- The Sunday Magazine, 22 January 2017