J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has sold around 150 million copies worldwide, which makes it one of the bestselling fiction novels of all time. Some even claim it is the greatest book of the twentieth century. While Tolkien’s Middle-earth novels continue to grow in popularity, many scholars still refuse to take them seriously. Most critics not only disregard, but despise them with a fiery passion. Critics of the younger generation focus on the supposed social problems in Middle-earth, such as racism or sexism. But the most astounding criticisms come mostly from the older generation of literary critics, who claim that Tolkien’s writing is just awful. Edmund Wilson argues in “Oo, Those Awful Orcs” that The Lord of the Rings is nothing but “juvenile trash.” In the introduction to Bloom’s Critical Modern Interpretations: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Harold Bloom claims that Tolkien’s writing style is “stiff, false archaic, and overwrought.” Bloom is “not able to understand how a skilled and mature reader can absorb about fifteen hundred pages of this quaint stuff.” These criticisms are as absurd are they are comical. If anything, The Lord of the Rings is anti-racist and anti-sexist and beautifully written. Of course, the merit of any work is, in essence, subjective and tastes differ. But what is the cause of both the contemptuous criticisms and unwarranted indifference toward The Lord of the Rings?
Realism has taken over literature; fantasy—and other genres—have been deemed childish garbage. Ursula K. Le Guin blames the modernists for this. In her article “The Critics, the Monsters and the Fantasists,” she writes,
The modernists are largely to blame. Edmund Wilson and his generation left a tradition of criticism that is, in its way, quite a little monster. In this school for anti-wizards, no fiction is to be taken seriously except various forms of realism, which are labelled ‘serious.’ Universities have taught generations of students to shun genres, including fantasy (unless it was written before 1900, wasn’t written in English, and/ or can be labelled magic realism).
But realism is a very recent movement. Before the eighteenth century, genre fiction was literature. What makes genre writing after 1900 any less significant than its predecessors? There isn’t any lost, secret knowledge on how to write fantastical literature. There isn’t anything about English that changes the literary merit of genre writing. Perhaps, as Le Guin asserts, these critics simply don’t understand how to read fantasy. And, if they don’t understand how to read genre literature, by what authority can they criticize The Lord of the Rings?
Critics’ obsession with allegory may be one of the obvious pitfalls, since fantasy literature—at least according to Tolkien—should never be read in this way. In the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
Of course, as Tolkien states, there’s nothing wrong with finding parts of faerie stories applicable to our own individual lives: that’s one of the greatest things about them. But Harold Bloom’s claim that The Lord of the Rings is a “giant Period Piece” about World War II is nonsense. Simply put, it is a story of a hobbit and his companions and their quest to destroy a ring. Tolkien did not write allegory. Anything more you get from the story is on you. Of course, living through both world wars influenced Tolkien’s ideology, and that ideology made its way into his fiction—but, in writing the books, Tolkien had no political agenda. He only wanted to create a faerie story.
But what is it about The Lord of the Rings specifically that provokes such strong objections from the critics? Possibly, the question is too specific. Perhaps it’s the genre of faerie story that critics detest, not The Lord of the Rings itself. Critics raise the same objections to other modern fantasy works that receive acclaim. In a review of Harry Potter, Bloom writes, “Taking arms against Harry Potter, at this moment, is to emulate Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles. By opposing the sea, you won’t end it. The Harry Potter epiphenomenon will go on, doubtless for some time, as J. R. R. Tolkien did, and then wane.” This is from a review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the series, and was written in 2007, while the novel itself was written ten years previously. Yet, twenty-one years after publication, Harry Potter is still as big as ever, if not bigger. It makes one wonder what Bloom thinks of Amazon’s plans for a new Lord of the Rings series (65 years after publication, The Lord of the Rings is still going strong). These faerie stories aren’t going anywhere.
They aren’t going anywhere because we need them. It’s no coincidence that the fantasy genre can be traced back to some of the earliest forms of writing. We need the warriors, the adventure, the monsters, the magic. Exploring these aspects of fantasy is a great way of gaining insight into what it means to be human. Critics love to attack fantasy for not being serious literature: realism is the human experience. But not only does fantasy encompass the human experience, it does so better than realism. In his essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” T. S. Eliot outlines his theory of the objective correlative:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
Don’t tell us how you feel—show us how you feel. This is one reason storytelling is so important. It’s not that realism can’t incorporate the objective correlative in beautiful ways, but what better way to show our fear of the deep than Tolkien’s Watcher in the Water, our fear of death than Ringwraiths, or our fear of the forest than Mirkwood? These images are so much stronger than those realism can produce. Realism is forced by its own limitations, in many instances, to deal in abstracts, while fantasy gives us concrete images of emotions that couldn’t be as vividly portrayed otherwise. Fantasy also allows us to lower our guard, which makes it easier to understand otherwise difficult subject matter, and helps us see things from new perspectives. Maybe the new insights into ourselves that we gain from fantasy literature are too difficult for critics to accept. People usually don’t like to admit they’re wrong. And maybe, whether they’re aware of it or not, that’s why critics shun fantasy literature: they’re afraid of what they’ll discover about themselves by studying it. The anthropocentric nature of realism makes us out to be both the victims and heroes of our reality, while fantasy forces us to confront the monsters within ourselves. I bet the critics don’t like accepting that. I doubt anyone does. But the truth is important.
Not only does fantasy remind us of what we are, it reminds us of what we once were. The industrialization of our current world has severed us from the connection we used to have with nature. In “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” Ursula K. Le Guin expresses this beautifully:
The fields and forests, the villages and byroads, once did belong to us, when we belonged to them. That is the truth of the non-industrial setting of so much fantasy. It reminds us of what we have denied, what we have exiled ourselves from.
Animals were once more to us than meat, pests, or pets: they were fellow-creatures, colleagues, dangerous equals … what fantasy generally does that the realistic novel generally cannot do is include the nonhuman as essential.
That’s possibly another reason critics discredit fantasy literature. Fantasy, at its foundation, is anti-anthropocentric. But news flash, critics: we’re not in charge. We don’t run the world: nature does. We enjoy pretending we’re in control—and fantasy challenges that. Progressivism is certainly at least partially to blame for the shunning of the fantasy genre. The idea of progress assumes that it is imperative to the betterment of the human condition, but it may be just the opposite. The repercussions of such a philosophy are a narcissistic, materialistic and ruthless humanity, which is becoming more and more distanced from its roots in the natural world. It’s no coincidence that realism took over as the primary literary mode during the Industrial Revolution. Maybe we’ve become too sophisticated to find meaning in childish fairy tales. But, as we run away from these childish themes of hope, heroism, magic and divinity, we become less inclined to care for anyone or anything but ourselves. We’ve become selfish. We build ourselves up just to tear others down; we pollute our oceans and destroy our forests. We are disconnecting ourselves from nature, with which we should be in harmony. So maybe it’s society’s fault that critics shun The Lord of the Rings and other fantastical literature. We don’t need magic; we have science. We’re our own heroes, in it for ourselves. But we don’t seem to be getting anywhere worthwhile in our industrial progressiveness: we live in a world of greed, hatred and constant war. Possibly, one of the reasons is our abandonment and complete disregard of the faerie story and its significance. This may seem like a giant leap, but maybe we can only learn morality through storytelling and from the magic embraced by fantastical literature.
In the Boston Globe article “Dumbing Down American Readers,” Bloom claims that the fantasy genre is dumbing down America. But perhaps it’s our flight from fantasy that is dumbing us down. Bloom says that the reasons are “very complex … there’s very little authentic study of the humanities remaining.” But maybe we’re tired of being told what is and isn’t relevant. Maybe we’re ready to accept that fantasy is an important aspect of the human experience and will continue to be. The twenty-first century is a century of the strange and magical, of the fantastical. It’s a century of wizards, faeries and dragons, and the critics will eventually have to accept that. The fantasy genre is back, ready to reclaim the rightful place in the world of literature that realism unjustly stole from it.