Q) Why do you call Tolkien "author of the century"?
Two reasons: First, he has consistently won what you
might call the popular vote, in readers' polls for their favorite
book or the one they've found most influential. Second, although
he seems on the face of it to be an antiquarian author writing
about an imaginary far past, I am convinced that the reason
he consistently wins the polls is that his work articulates
some of the deepest and most specific concerns of the twentieth
century concerns such as industrialized warfare, the temptations
of power, the origins of evil, the failure of good intentions
and righteous causes.
Q) Why do you think Tolkien has been so popular with readers?
He opened up a new imaginative space he would have
said it was an old imaginative space, which had been walled
off, that of traditional legend and fairy tale, but I would
say that he did something new with it, which was to provide
the world of dwarves and trolls and elves and wizards (and so
on) with a map, with a consistent history and geography, which
feels as if it is infinitely extendable. Thats why there
have been so many successors to Tolkien, writing fantasy trilogies
or sequences of the same type, maps included.
The other and deeper reason is that he answers questions that
have deeply preoccupied ordinary people, but that have not been
answered by the official (or self-elected) speakers for our
culture writers, politicians, philosophers. The most obvious
one is, Why has the twentieth century been so unremittingly
evil? The nineteenth century was looking forward to moral progress
and freedom from want. Where (in Tolkiens lifetime, and
mine) did it all go wrong? I think his images of evil, like
the Ringwraiths, are at the same time completely original, highly
contemporary, and mythically timeless. What they say is that
anyone can turn into a wraith, and you cant be sure when
it will start. Nor can you deal with evil just by being a nice
guy yourself. It may force itself upon you. Tolkiens images
of the good are similarly mixed, complicated, and satisfying.
His work has great emotional depth.
Q) So why has Tolkien been so unpopular with the critics?
They sense a challenge to the dominant literary orthodoxy
of the past century, which has been ironic and self-doubting.
I see this as a legacy of World War I, the Great War, which
destroyed traditional certainties and traditional authorities.
Tolkien was himself a combat veteran of that war, and I would
regard him as one of the rather large group of "traumatized
authors" writing fantasy (Orwell, Golding, Vonnegut, etc.),
but his experience made him want to restate traditional images
rather than throw them away. In particular he wanted to find
a new way to represent heroes and heroism. He knew the old ways
very well, and he knew they wouldn't work anymore, but he did
not want to abandon the effort. This essentially positive and
optimistic view of humanity (and nonhumanity) has been dismissed
as shallow and unthinking, but that is a bad mistake. Tolkien
knew much more about irony than any of his critics, and about
Q) How do these affect ones view of Tolkien the man?
They bring out his inner anxieties. One should remember
that Tolkien did not get his major work into print until he
was sixty-two, and that for most of his working life the chances
were that he was going to remain forever unpublished. He sometimes
imagines his own work surviving into the future as a single
manuscript, never read by anybody, with the name of the author
lost exactly like the poem Beowulf
, in fact. Of course his
work has now sold hundreds of millions of copies, and is set
to do the same again in the next generation, and Beowulf
the end has had more books and articles written about it than
Hamlet. That's ironic, but not all ironies have to be negative
Q) What effect has Tolkien had on modern fantasy?
He created the genre not quite single-handedly, but
very nearly so. I discuss other fantasy traditions in my Oxford
Book of Fantasy Stories
, but the shelves in modern bookstores
would look very different if Tolkien had not written, or if
Stanley Unwin had decided not to publish him after all, back
in the early 1950s. The eagerness with which he was followed
suggests that there was a suppressed desire for the kind of
thing he did, but nobody before him quite knew how to do it,
or thought it was allowed. C. S. Lewis said Tolkien was as hard
to influence as a bandersnatch, and only somebody like that
could have broken with literary convention and established wisdom
in the way that he did.
Q) What remains unique in Tolkiens work?
Two things I'd pick out are the poetry and the sense
of shape. There are a lot of poems in The Lord of the Rings
in many different styles and formats, and not many other fantasy
writers have the confidence or the literary background to go
inventing whole new poetic traditions (or reinventing old ones).
But this gives Tolkiens work a mythic and imaginative
dimension, which has never been duplicated. As for the shape,
The Lord of the Rings
is very tightly controlled, with multiple
plots integrated by a day-to-day chronology, which you really
need to follow. What it does is make each of the characters
feel lonely and isolated, while in the broader view you can
see that everyones story is a part of everyone elses:
much more like reality than the plot of a conventional novel.
It works laterally as well as linearly.
taught at Oxford University at the same time
as J.R.R. Tolkien and with the same syllabus, which gives him
an intimate familiarity with the works that fueled Tolkiens
imagination. He subsequently held the chair of English language
and medieval literature at Leeds University which Tolkien had
previously held. He is Walter J. Ong Chairman of Humanities
at St. Louis University in Missouri.