The New York Times Book Review, that bastion of East Coast US literary snobbery,
has deigned to make a rare notice of Tolkien, with a back page column "Hobbits in Hollywood," by one Judith Shulevitz, in the April 22, 2001 issue.
The article is not quite as bad as one might expect, for between the sneers there are occasional acknowledgments that Tolkien did something good. But on the whole, the piece is a conglomeration of irrelevancies, mixed with selective half-truths, and it is clearly the result of a disordered mind.
Shulevitz apparently liked The Hobbit as a child, for she states, "It is heady to know that a book you loved as a child conforms to such meticulous standards of mythical realism." But one wonders if she made it through The Lord of the Rings, for she complains that "by the time you get to The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkiens tone has grown somber, even leaden." And she goes further to claim that "The Lord of the Rings was written for adults, but unless youre a child its difficult to accept its mounting portentousness without protest, as the price of entry into the longed-for past."
The longed-for past? If that is why Shulevitz thinks people read Tolkien, shes dead wrong. Her other conclusions are equally silly. "One of the best things about growing up is realizing that grandeur doesnt have to be grandiose, nor does historical dialogue have to bristle with fusty archaisms." Why cant grandeur be occasionally grandiose, even for adults? And her argument about "fusty archaisms" when applied to Tolkien shows a distinct insensitivity to language. Tolkiens high-style is, on one level, a distancing technique, a way of contrasting his various peoples and cultures, with the hobbits, who, in a complementary low-style, are there to mediate the emotive responses of people as strident as Shulevitz.
Her closing paragraph is almost beyond ridicule for its senselessness. "Tolkien dominates fantasy today because he gave his imaginings the aura of inevitability." Inevitability? No, rather depth, or verisimilitude, but not inevitability. "As a storyteller, he was betrayed by the very pedantry that made his creations memorable." How? What does this sentence mean? That his art was betrayed by his inspiration? I think not.
"He wandered over to the dark side, like an Elf-Lord gone bad." Ignoring the metaphor from Star Wars, again, this means nothing. It is merely a snide opinion framed in jargon.
And finally, Tolkien "formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself." Which is patent nonsense. Shulevitz makes it sound like Tolkien, whom she patronizingly qualifies as "a conservative Roman Catholic" and "the tweediest and most persnickety of Oxford philologists," set out on a mission to preserve the fourteenth century status quo, at least as regards literature. Never mind that Tolkien was clearly an author of the twentieth century (as T.A. Shippeys new book demonstrates very well), obsessed with a number of the same concerns as his contemporaries.
No, Tolkien had no such mission. He wrote what he likedwhat he wanted to write. An enormous number of readers have found pleasure and enrichment in his works. Shulevitz, and others of her ilk, want to draw lines around literature, saying whats inside this box (that we like) is literature, and it is good, but whats outside this box (Tolkien included), is not. Its a very small-minded approach, and one that, given enough time, will fade away. Meanwhile, from their diminishing pulpits, these nay-sayers will continue to whine. Their arguments are tired, and their shrill cries are beginning, happily, to have an unforeseen effect, focusing the publics attention not on their pronouncements, but on their own inadequacies as critics.