Kevin Roger Black - Where the Shadows Lie
Introduction: On the Writing and Reception of The Lord of the Rings
This tale grew in the telling.... (Foreword, I: 8)
And they were filled with grief and wonder at the tale that he told. (III: 168)
In the months that have passed since my decision to write a thesis on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, I have been approached by numerous people wanting to share their memories of reading the series, usually as young children. Very few could find words to express their feelings, but it was clear that most had a special affection, and even a reverence, for this work of which Tolkien said, "It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other." As for me, I confess to having spent most of my adolescence reading "adult" fantasy novels, a genre of fiction that Tolkien virtually created, and these books would occasionally move my impressionable young self to awe or tears. But The Lord of the Rings is the only book I can remember that ever caused me to stand up and cheer.
Tolkien, who would eventually become a professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, began writing the first stories about his fantasy world (which he called Middle-earth, after the Old English word Middangeard, which generically refers to the known world "between the seas") in 1917, during the first World War, while he was recovering from the "trench fever" which had rescued him from his battalion, which fought on near the front lines in France. The stories provided a setting for the fruits of an ongoing hobby: the invention of imaginary languages. Like real languages, the languages he invented were constantly evolving from "primitive" forms into newer, more complex strains, and were influenced by his wide-ranging study of ancient philology, especially Finnish and Welsh. The stories, begun as a pastime, swelled into the outline of a comprehensive and coherent mythological history for his new world, ranging from marvelously detailed creation myths to the complex history of the political relations between the created peoples: Men, Elves, and Dwarves, who shared Middle-earth with angelic beings, called the "Valar," who had chosen to dwell in the mortal lands instead of their heavenly birthplace. Tolkien, in his fancy, began to associate the stories he was writing with prehistoric England, and designed his mythological history to fill the void left English culture left by the absence of a purely English mythology, as he expressed retrospectively in a letter from 1951:
Alsoand here I hope I shall not sound absurdI was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up in its own tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought.... I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story... which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. (LOT: 144)
Tolkien called this work The Silmarillion, and revised and rewrote it all his life. It did not see publication until 1977, four years after the author's death. But it did provide a rich, shadowy background for his masterwork, The Lord of the Rings, set in a later age of the same world, which bears the fruit of the grandeur and scope of Tolkien's imagination.
The direct catalyst for the writing of The Lord of the Rings, however, was not The Silmarillion, but a fantasy story called The Hobbit, which Tolkien invented to amuse his children. Hobbits, claimed Tolkien, are little people, half our height, who dwell in comfortable, furnished holes in the countryside, and have very sedentary habits. The subject of his story was a well-to-do hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who is involuntarily swept into an adventure (something respectable hobbits try to avoid) by the wizard Gandalf, which involves accompanying a group of dwarves to rescue their treasure hoard from a fierce dragon named Smaug. Along the way, Bilbo learns courage and resourcefulness. Tolkien set Bilbo's adventures, almost as an afterthought, in Middle-earth, but at a much later time than the events of The Silmarillion, which only enters marginally into the narrative. Tolkien used Middle-earth out of convenience to the storyneither hobbits nor wizards had ever existed in his original conception of the land. After remaining unfinished for many years, The Hobbit was published with the encouragement of a former student in 1937, and it became an immediate success. The first English edition sold out in three months, and in America it won the New York Herald Tribune prize for best juvenile book of the season. Predictably, the publishers began clamoring for a sequel. Tolkien promised to try, but the public would wait seventeen years for the result, which was much more than the publishers had bargained for. Tolkien gave them something completely new: a three-volume epic fantasy, entitled The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien discovered early on that what he was writing was not only going to be of a vastly different size and scope than The Hobbit, but would require a much more sophisticated tone, and he quickly abandoned the idea that it would be for children. From the beginning, he placed The Lord of the Rings firmly in the world of The Silmarillion, and therefore it needed a suitably weighty story, in order to chronicle the momentous events of some previously unconsidered period of Middle-earth's history. Tolkien decided that The Hobbit must have taken place in the Third Age of Middle-Earth (The Silmarillion dealt only with the First and Second Ages), and so Tolkien decided that his new book would tell of the end of the Third Age, including the departure of Elves and Wizards from the world, and the beginning the Fourth Age, the Age of Men. Hence, a hypothetical connection would be established to prehistoric Europe, especially England. The writing went slowly, both due to the daunting scope of his project, and the pressure of Tolkien's teaching duties at Oxford (which he never completely neglected). The already frustrated publishers were downright alarmed to discover that the end product of his labors, complete with extensive appendices, would total over 1500 pages of print. The work was hastily split into three volumes and published from 1954-1955 at what was considered to be a great risk, as it was an entirely unprecedented form of literature. As we know, the publishers need not have worried: the "promising" early sales accelerated with each reprinting for a decade, until the first authorized paperback edition exploded into the United States market in 1965, and the work ceased to be a surprise success and became a genuine phenomenon.
Critical response to the book at first was mixed, ranging from a general complaint about "the lack of human discrimination and depth" to this rhetorical question and statement in the Sunday Times: "Whimsical drivel with a message? No; it sweeps along with a narrative and pictorial force which lifts it above that level." Nearly all agreed that the book "has an undeniable fascination," and overall Tolkien said that "the reviews were a great deal better than I feared" (LOT: 184), though the work frequently had to defend itself against the "whimsical drivel" charge. But no book is ever made by its criticism, though some have been buried by it, and it soon became clear that The Lord of the Rings had struck a chord in its readership. The fan letters soon began to pour in, which Tolkien at first responded to very thoroughly. But after taking off in America, the enthusiasm for the work became global, and Tolkien soon lacked time for all but cursory responses to his ardent fans.
Not content merely to read the books, many of the fans organized themselves into Societies and Clubs, beginning with the Tolkien Society of America, which despite its name quickly sprouted branches in England and other countries as far away as North Borneo. These groups engaged in such diverse activities as publishing "fanzines," which printed some of the work's first scholarly criticism, and organizing trips to the woods to eat wild mushrooms (a favorite hobbit activity). The work also took an especially strong hold in the current generation of disillusioned, rebellious American youths, who, in the heart of the Cold War, were attracted by the unabashed escapism of heroic romance, or perhaps by a different kind of assurance seen in the work by an early critic: "It is comforting, in this troubled day, to be once more assured that the meek shall inherit the earth" (TAB: 222). The trilogy's underdog main character, Frodo Baggins, heir to Bilbo of The Hobbit, was someone that disempowered youth could identify with in their fight against monstrous, impersonal forces such as industrialization, bureaucracy, and the draft. The phrase Frodo Lives! began to appear on walls and subways, along with another popular graffito of the day: God is dead. The work was very visible in "hippie" culture, which sometimes referred to its own members as "hobbits" and published a "psychedelic" magazine called Gandalf's Garden. But the real hot spot for The Lord of the Rings was on college campuses, where its success was unprecedented for a work of fiction, as reported by a major newspaper in 1966: "At Yale the trilogy is selling faster than William Golding's Lord of the Flies at its crest. At Harvard it is outpacing J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye" (TAB: 230). The Tolkien rage in America stimulated sales back in England and in the world market. At the time of the author's death (1973) The Lord of the Rings had already been translated into ten languages, with four more on the way, including Icelandic, which tickled the philologist in Tolkien, and he wrote "[Icelandic is] a language which I think would fit it better than any other I have any adequate knowledge of" (LOT: 430).
Though the boom has ended, the work remains in print, and is quite popular, though it is obscured somewhat by the genre of easier-to-read, mass market fantasy paperback fiction that has proliferated around it. Those that read and enjoy the work today usually encounter it at a much younger age than the original readers, and I believe that this has largely impoverished contemporary understanding and appreciation of the work. Children that are mature enough to handle the work's size and sophisticated prose are easily caught up in the romantic fairy-tale elements of the story, as they should be, but also can easily miss, or forget, the subtleties: the real subject of the work is not heroes but Hobbits, and the overall tone is more elegiac than exuberant. Many critics and adults now assume that since the fantasy elements of The Lord of the Rings appeal strongly to children, the work must be "for" children, and its type is not appropriate for those trapped in the sober, adult world. Tolkien objected strongly to this notion, as we will see later. Suffice it to say for now that this thesis is predicated on the assumption that The Lord of the Rings does have value for those grappling with maturity: for Tolkien's imaginary world and its problems do not hide from, but respond to and expose many of the peculiar evils of being an adult in the modern age, which in many ways has grown as dark and mysterious as any enchanted wood from Middle-earth.
Studying the bogeys and predicaments of Middle-earth can help us identify some of the more subtle foes that have crept into real life in the age of modernitysometimes with our consent, but never with our complete understanding. It can even recommend ways to resist the "evil" that we find there, and recover what we have, in some measure, lost: stability and a sense of sacredness in life.
Tolkien himself, despite what some of his critics have thought, had no hope that evil could ever be isolated or defeated, in truth or in fiction. Nor did he believe in a pure good, except in the imagination. The dominant metaphor for evil in The Lord of the Rings is shadow, not darkness or nightand no being, not even an angel, is immune from having its light shaded. But even though it was written in the shade of two World Wars, his work demonstrates a strong belief in the internal light, or inherent goodness, of all living things. A most appealing quality of his writing, and in my opinion the one most worthy of imitation, is his old-fashioned enthusiasm for the human spirit, without blinking at the horrors it has produced. The object of The Lord of the Rings is the revival of that spirit, in a doomed age. The loss of magic in Middle-earth parallels the loss of a "halo" of sanctity in modern life. The two worlds inform each other.