I remember staggering back from the library at the age of 13 with all three
volumes of the saga. I read them in 23 hours, with a brief break for
sleeping. I had never come across anything like it before. It had maps, it
had runic alphabets, it had its own internal history, it was a real
fictional place. In the afterglow I would have been quite happy to vote
Tolkien as the greatest writer ever. I wouldn't do so now, but this is
because I suspect such a poll would be as sensible as The All-Time Greatest
Piece of Jigsaw Puzzle.
The style is ponderous at times, although Tolkien handles it better than
many of his imitators. True, sometimes the scenery has more character than
the characters, to the extent that the true hero of The Lord of the Rings is
Middle Earth itself. True, there are practically no women, no sex and, by
the standards we're used to today, no violence. But the book has a huge
appeal in this complex century. It unfolds a world more genially ordered
than this one. It runs on the rules we hope and wish are true - that the
small but good can beat the big but bad, that the universe is tough but
ultimately benign towards those prepared to make the heroic gamble, that
Evil has a map reference.
The Lord of the Rings possesses...magic, of the same sort that is possessed
by a great painting or sculpture. It's open to critical analysis, but not
to critical control. Literature, it reminds us, is not a matter of
prescription, but of acclaim over time.
(excerpted from The London Sunday Times, August 8, 1999)