Eve Garrard is a moral philosopher. She is currently Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. She has published philosophical articles in moral theory and applied ethics, with a particular focus on the idea of evil and the idea of forgiveness. With Geoffrey Scarre Eve co-edited Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust; and she and David McNaughton have recently published a non-technical book on forgiveness. In this post she comes to the defence of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
Eve Garrard on The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Many of my friends, particularly the ones whose literary judgement I really respect, look on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings with a kind of cheerful contempt. 'Fairy stories are for children,' they say, and 'Elves, for heaven's sake - you cannot be serious!' (Or as one of Tolkien's more academic friends put it, 'Oh no, not another fucking Elf!') Further complaints which are often made are that the characterization in Lord of the Rings is wooden; the central conflict between Good and Evil is morally crude and simple-minded; the writing style is cod-medieval and clunky; and the poetry is terrible.
Rather to my surprise, I find myself completely and permanently unmoved by these remarks. I don't read a great deal of fiction myself, and normally I'm very ready to have my judgement of novels corrected by those who know more and better than I do. But in this case I'm certain that the overall verdict of these critics - that Tolkien's trilogy is worthless as literature - is entirely wrong. This isn't to say that the specific criticisms are all mistaken; rather, it's to assert that something of great value is created in the book, and the criticisms, even where they're true, generally fail to engage with it, mainly because they fail to notice its presence.
First of all, many of the critics object to the whole genre of fantasy fiction. Some of the people who despise Lord of the Rings dislike and deplore the genre it belongs to - they can't see anything good in it. If they're wrong about this, if there is indeed some good which is special to the fantasy genre, then they've debarred themselves from having opinions of any value about members of that genre. I myself thoroughly dislike horror stories and films, and I can't see any value in them. But this means that my opinion on any single horror story is quite worthless: I can't see the good, whatever it is, that is characteristic of the whole genre, and hence I can't pass any worthwhile judgement on individual members of it. Now, I may well be wrong about the horror story genre: quite possibly there's something of value which I'm just failing to see. So it is with fantasy: the critics often simply can't see the good which it aims at. (However, if anyone really doubts whether works of fantasy can have literary worth, they might like to consider Shakespeare's Tempest or Spenser's Faerie Queene. These are not works which would be greatly improved by removing the element of fantasy from them.)
Secondly, the specific criticisms. Some of them are just wrong: books that are written for children needn't be valueless for adults, and in any case Lord of the Rings wasn't written for children, though its predecessor The Hobbit was; and to assume that it somehow must be for children because it has elves in it is to beg the question at issue. But some of the criticisms are legitimate: the characterization in Lord of the Rings is often very sketchy and even wooden; some of the poetry is poor (though some of it isn't); the writing is sometimes rather ploddingly archaic - pillars are 'carven' a lot more often than they ought to be. These complaints aren't unique to fantasy fiction: people who enjoy the related genre of science fiction will also be accustomed to complaints that the characters in some of its greatest works are a bit two- (or even one–) dimensional. But even where this is true, it simply doesn't matter, because the focus of the writer's (and also the reader's) attention is elsewhere. And in Lord of the Rings, these things don't really matter either. Tolkien is far less interested in his individual characters than in creating whole new species: it's more important that an individual Elf or Dwarf or Ent should give the reader a sense of what it's like to belong to that imagined species than that he should display his unique individuality.
Of course, not everyone likes this exercise of highly speculative imagination, and those who don't often can't see why anyone at all would enjoy it. But the incomprehension runs in both directions: myself, I'm at a loss to understand why people are so dismissive of Tolkien's creations. With the Elves, Tolkien set out to imagine a race of people rather like us, but older, wiser, and more powerful; of supernatural beauty, and themselves absorbed in the creation and appreciation of beauty in landscape and in art. They're also immortal, and filled with sadness at the mutability and transience of the world around them which they love. What's not to like about that? How can anyone not be interested in such creatures simply because they're not actually actual, so to speak? It's a bit like not being interested in fiction because none of the characters in it are real.
But in any case, all this is somewhat beside the point. It's important for the impact of the work that the creatures which populate it are of interest to us, and that the struggle between evil and good depicted in it is convincing enough to engage our sympathies, but the heart of the book doesn't in fact lie with such things, nor does it lie in the Quest which is the surface line of the plot. These things matter and need to be present, but behind and around them are two things of far greater importance. First, there's the sense of a high, remote and glowing past, the reverberating source of the distant causal forces whose remnants and traces shape the fictional present. And second, there's the landscape across which the characters move, and in which the quest and the struggle are played out.
Much could be said about the first of these themes, and also about how the two themes interact, but I'm going to confine myself to the second one here. The tone of Tolkien's writing may sometimes wobble when describing kings or battles or (especially) women; but when he's treating the landscape he never falters, he never misses a beat. He can of course do rich florid set-pieces, such as sunset and moonrise over the waterfalls, or dawn over the wide grasslands; but even more impressive is his handling of the smaller incidentals of the environment: the hills that stalk away into the eastern night; the tall mountains climbing into the fading sky; the westering sun turning all the rolling fields to a golden haze; the grey ruins falling into darkness. In each of these phrases, and in countless others, he summons up a fully-realized landscape, and infuses it with significance.
The real magic in Lord of the Rings doesn't lie with the Elves or the Sea-Kings or any of their strange and powerful devices; it lies in the natural world within which the action takes place. People differ in their response to natural beauty as they do to that of art: famously, in music some people hear only stirring melodies and exciting rhythms, whereas others feel that they've been given a vision of a perfect universe. (Oddly enough, this experience is just as available to those who have no belief in the existence of a perfect world as to those who do.) And so it is with landscape: those who are already in thrall to the beauty of landscape, and for whom it's not so much a source of satisfying aesthetic experience but more an intimation of an ideal world, can find that numinous quality replicated in Tolkien's descriptions of the world of Middle-Earth.
The Quest in Lord of the Rings is carried out by nine characters, the heroes of the story. All well and good; without the quest there would be no story. But there's another hero silently present throughout the whole book, and it isn't the king or the wizard or the elf: it's the landscape itself, in all its fully-imagined, varied, resonant, haunting beauty.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]