Misreading Middle-Earth: Tolkien and the Contemporary Reader
Fantasy is more popular than ever, and this is the direct consequence of Tolkien’s success. But the genre has survived by adapting, and in an age of secularism, that process has involved evaporating the religious themes Tolkien cared about so deeply.
Fifty years ago, on 2 September 1973, J.R.R. Tolkien died of a gastric ulcer at the age of eighty-one. The news received a surprisingly muted response from the press. While the obituaries acknowledged the extraordinary impact that The Hobbit (1937)and The Lord of the Rings (1954) made upon a generation of readers, they implied that their author’s death was likely to bring an end to his literary acclaim. To The New York Times, Tolkien was the man who “cast a spell over tens of thousands of Americans in the nineteen-sixties,” while The Guardian placed him in the ranks of Dennis Wheatley and Harold Robbins, sometime superstars of genre fiction whose flames have long since tapered out.
But Tolkien’s reputation was to follow a different trajectory, reaching a high point at the turn of the millennium—largely thanks to numerous film, TV, and video game adaptations of his oeuvre. The Lord of the Rings plunged an entire genre into the mainstream, characterized by sprawling epics ranging from Terry Brooks' 1970s The Sword of Shannara trilogy to Robert Jordan’s 1990s Wheel of Time series (of which a TV adaptation is currently airing on Amazon Prime) and George R.R. Martin’s mega-bestseller series A Song of Ice and Fire, with its TV spin-offs. All these works of high fantasy bear the mark of Middle-earth in their mock-mediaeval settings, archetypal protagonists, and encyclopedic appendices; even the cartographical style of the maps in their opening pages betrays their debt to Tolkien. It would be an overstatement to proclaim Tolkien the grandfather of fantasy—Lord Dunsany’s magical legends in Fifty-One Tales (1915) predate The Hobbit by more than twenty years, while the battle between man and monster is a tale as old as time. But he was perhaps the most influential fiction writer of the twentieth century.
Tolkien never set out to invent a genre. Conservative to his core, he did not see himself as a pioneer, but as an amateur writer of heroic epics in the tradition of Beowulf or the Norse sagas. The books were passion projects, ancillary to his professional interest in classical languages and cultures as a professor of Anglo-Saxon; The Hobbit began life as a bedtime story for his children. It was only after his retirement in 1959 that Tolkien started to acknowledge his burgeoning fame, about which he felt some ambivalence. “Even the nose of a very modest idol … cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense,” he admitted to a friend in a letter of 1972, though “[b]eing a cult figure in one’s own lifetime is not at all pleasant.”
It wasn’t until after his death—following the consolidation of the fantasy genre and Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (in 2001–03) and The Hobbit (in 2012)—that Tolkien truly transcended cult status as a fantasy writer to become the broader pop culture sensation he remains today. But even the relatively limited success he experienced in his lifetime proved a source of mild embarrassment, given the book’s unexpected reception among his core fanbase, those “tens of thousands of Americans” described in the NYT obituary. Published between 1954 and 1955, The Lord of the Rings trilogy rose to popularity against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, quickly becoming, for pacifist students across the pond, an accidental commentary on the clash between good and evil in Saigon and Con Thien.
And then there were the ecological interpretations. In the era of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962)—the book that kickstarted the modern environmental movement—a generation of eco-warriors drew inspiration from the Fellowship’s quest to defend the natural beauty of Middle-earth against the dark forces of Sauron. Tolkien’s lifelong anxiety over the increasing industrialization of the English countryside did little to dissuade such a reading. “The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten,” he writes in the foreword to the 1966 edition of The Lord of the Rings. (In the 2019 biopic Tolkien, a sunlit scene of the bucolic cottage in which he lived as a boy is followed by a sinister shot of the fuliginous factory towers of Birmingham. The Tolkien family moved there when he was eight.) American readers, unfamiliar perhaps with the books’ Ruritanian basis, as well as the fact that the Shire is little more than a nostalgic facsimile of Little England, resonated with Tolkien’s environmental concerns on a more abstract level. According to the modish exegesis of the 60s and 70s, hobbits, elves, and wizards were not so much stewards of the Earth as standard-bearers for New Age mysticism, with its blend of “free love” and recreational drug use. Bearded men went to Woodstock dressed as wizards and dwarves, while the psychedelic underground magazine Gandalf’s Garden became a bookshelf staple for Tolkien’s “deplorable cultus,” as he derisively called his fandom, according to the 1977 biography by Humphrey Carpenter.
Tolkien paid fastidious attention to developing Middle-earth, spending years laboring over made-up languages and maps and mythological backstories. But he was insistent that the books were not allegory, a genre he professed to despise. They were “high fantasy,” but they were not intended to sit alongside the novels of Tolstoy and Flaubert on the shelves reserved for “high literature.” Still, readers aware of Tolkien’s personal experiences of the First World War tended to interpret the books as, if not an indictment of the Vietnam War specifically, then at least a manifesto against war in general. This hermeneutical approach to his works irked Tolkien, who insisted, in a 1955 letter to W.H. Auden, that the story of Frodo returning the One Ring to Mount Doom was not a “war-product”—why was it so inconceivable that a man who had fought in the trenches of the Somme might prefer the relief of sheer escapism? Tolkien is not overly forthcoming about this question in his private correspondence, but it seems likely that, as The Times’ obituary states:
These things were not devised to reflect any particular situation in the real world. It was the other way round; real events began, horribly, to conform to the pattern he had freely invented. Hence those who heard the growing work read chapter by chapter in the months that followed the fall of France found it as relevant, as stern, and as tonic, as Churchill's promise of blood, sweat and tears.
If Tolkien was irritated by readers seeing things that weren’t there, he was doubly dismayed by their tendency to neglect the things that really were. Chief among these were the books’ Christian dimensions. In 1953, he wrote in a letter to a friend:
‘The Lord of the Rings’ is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism.
The tragic irony, for Tolkien, was that this offshoring of the books’ symbolism made it all the easier for those who would later adapt his work to the screen to ignore the religious elements altogether. The Messianic significance of Gandalf’s resurrection and the baptismal imagery of Galadriel’s mirror are lost on most viewers. Even the lembas bread eaten by the Fellowship was, as Tolkien confided to the producer Forrest J. Ackerman, intended as an analogue to the Eucharist. Ackerman’s decision to replace the lembas bread with a “food concentrate” in his proposed 1957 movie adaptation was just one of many reasons why Tolkien vetoed the film. It would not be until 1978—five years after Tolkien’s death—that the first big-screen adaptation, by Ralph Bakshi, was finally made.
What, then, would Tolkien have made of Rings of Power, the new TV series set thousands of years before The Lord of the Rings, and based loosely on the books’ appendices? If the religious symbolism is subdued in the Jackson and Bakshi adaptations, it is completely absent from the new show. The same is true of the recent video game spin-offs, from the 2014 Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor series to this year’s Gollum. Boiled down to the very basics of what passes for Middle-earth, the content has been rendered suitably neutral for a non-Christian audience.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the original material being written today. From the subtlety of its symbolism to the profoundly Catholic character of the prose, with its pseudo-Biblical narrative and baroque embellishments, many aspects of Tolkien’s style and storytelling would be unpalatable to most modern publishers. Fantasy is more popular than ever, and this is the direct consequence of Tolkien’s success. But the genre has survived by adapting, and in an age of entrenched secularism and globalization, that process has involved evaporating the religious themes Tolkien cared about so deeply, leaving behind only a shallow distillate of generic tropes.
In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, nearly every name has a basis in real history. “Gandalf” means “wand elf man” in Norse. “Saruman” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “cunning” or “skillful.” “Middle-earth” is a translation of the Anglo-Saxon “Middengeard,” a term used to refer to the real world. “Mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world,” Tolkien wrote in a private note in response to W.H. Auden’s 1956 review of The Return of the King, “but an imaginary historical moment on ‘Middle-earth’—which is our habitation.” But the semi-mythological foundations upon which Middle-earth was based have rarely been echoed by fantasy writers—few of whom can boast the same breadth of historical or philological knowledge as Tolkien—and rarely applauded by contemporary readers, who are apt to take offence at anything with a passing resemblance to the cultural essentialism or candid language of the past. Such readers are handily encapsulated by the titular character in Junot Diaz’s best-selling 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, who “Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then [reached] the line ‘and out of Far Harad black men like halftrolls’ and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.”
At the same time, there is increasing pressure on authors to engage with real-world problems. Any fantasy writer hoping to win acclaim these days is expected to address certain political issues—many of which Tolkien would never even have heard of. Ironically, the criteria for what counts as “inclusive” in mediaeval fantasy are determined by standards established within the last decade by a small clique of academics and media types. The faddish obsession with diversity has even found its way into Rings of Power, compromising the integrity and logic of Tolkien’s mythos, as the backlash over racially diverse elves, dwarves, and halflings demonstrates.
Values, customs, and ideas change with time, and have changed especially rapidly over the past fifty years. Tolkien was one of the few creatives who did not embrace change. One of his defining features was a Wordsworthian dread of industrialization and urban sprawl. He was a visionary; but all his visions are confined to an imaginary past. Most of all, he despaired at the decline of Christianity in England. God only knows what he would make of today’s world.
Tolkienism still exists, though its practitioners are few and far between. They include reclusive figures like Paul Kingsnorth, who preaches against “the machine” (a synecdoche for industrialization favored by Tolkien) from the quiet west of Ireland, and a few more prominent figures, like King Charles III, whose spiritual outlook on nature goes against the grain of our hypermodern age. (The “Hobbit King,” as Tom McTague calls him, would be an ideal figurehead for Tolkien’s ideal government: an “unconstitutional” monarchy.) Kingsnorth and the King alike are inspired, as Tolkien was, by an abiding belief in the divine, and a nostalgia for an idyllic, magical, premodern aesthetic, pockets of which can still be found in places like Oxford, city of dreaming spires, where Tolkien lived and worked.
There is many an English village whose residents claim that it was the inspiration for the Shire. A friend of mine lives in one of them, the sleepy village of Hurst Green in Lancashire, in a house that used to belong to Tolkien’s son John. He has covered the walls and ceiling of the room in which Tolkien would stay while working on The Lord of the Rings in heavy metal posters. Outside, the roads are now swollen with cars. The pubs—like Tolkien’s favorite haunt in Oxford, the Eagle and Child—are closing down. And yet the village is expanding, accruing incongruous newbuilds, redbrick carbuncles more reminiscent of Isengard than the Shire.
Tolkien was no fan of allegory. But he would probably have seen the urbanisation of the countryside, the waning popularity of Christianity, and the increasingly secular interpretations of his fiction as symptomatic of a society in decline, a society no longer capable of interpreting his words in the spirit in which he wrote them.