Reasons for Liking Tolkien

Jenny Turner

A writer, born around 1890, is famous for three novels. The first is short, elegant, an instant classic. The second, the masterpiece, has the same characters in it, is much longer and more complicated, and increasingly interested in myth and language games. The third is enormous, mad, unreadable. One answer is Joyce, of course. Another – The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings (1955), The Silmarillion (1977) – is J.R.R. Tolkien.

A writer, born around 1890, raged against ‘mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic’ and ‘the rawness and ugliness of modern European life’. Instead he loved the trees and hedgerows of the English Midlands he had known as a boy, and the tales of ‘little, ultimate creatures’ he came across in the legends of the North. Clue: it wasn’t D.H. Lawrence.

A writer, born around 1890, worked bits of ancient writings into his own massive masterwork, magnificently misprising them as he went. Clue: it wasn’t Pound.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) spent his working life as a philologist. He was Reader then Professor of English Language at Leeds, then Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford from 1925 until 1945, then Professor of English Language at Oxford from 1945 until his retirement in 1959. In his time, he was recognised as the world’s leading expert on Beowulf, and in his time, he probably knew more about the Old Norse languages than anyone else alive. For Tolkien, philology was a passion. It was to do with recovering lost worlds from the fragments left to us, and critics may well be right to link this passion to the early deaths of both his parents. It can be life’s greatest blessing to stumble on a vocation whose rhythm fits so nicely with one’s most secret preoccupations. It can also be a curse.

Even in Tolkien’s time, philology was seen as a dusty, irrelevant subject, especially in comparison to the 20th-century vigour of English literature under I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis. Who cares about roots and origins when you could be debating the Great Tradition? Tolkien returned the compliment. His Letters, published in 1981, betray no interest at all in the stuff most people think of as modern writing, and a loathing of newfangled phenomena as various as Concorde, Shakespeare and municipal swimming-baths.

A writer, born around 1890, declared himself a monarchist and a Catholic; and no, it wasn’t Eliot. In form, in content, in everything about it, The Lord of the Rings is the most anti-Modernist of novels. It is really very funny to think about how similar it is in so many ways to the works of the great Modernists.

Unlike Joyce, Lawrence and Pound, however, Tolkien was a writer with a block. He was over 60 by the time The Lord of the Rings was published, and the work he cared about most deeply, some of which is collected in The Silmarillion, did not appear in his lifetime. This explains why a body of writing largely published in the second half of the 20th century turns out to be so strikingly first-half in its concerns. It’s all there, the usual slurry of the 1920s and 1930s: the fear of the masses, the retreat into archaism, the confusion about race and phylogenesis and so on. On the evidence of his published papers, Tolkien does not appear to have been half as crackers on these topics as many others were. He sublimated the anxieties, perhaps, in his books.

Except that here comes the first odd reversal. In The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), his influential study of elitism in 20th-century literature, John Carey writes about the ‘duplicity’ of Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel supposedly about love for the common man, but written in such a forbidding way that the common man is unlikely to read it. Well, The Lord of the Rings is the opposite. It is a work written to keep the modern world at bay that the modern world adores. In the late 1990s, Best Book polls conducted for Waterstone’s and Channel Four, the Daily Telegraph, the Folio Society and Amazon all had it coming first by a mile.

And it all gets stranger. Next month, The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in a three-part movie adaptation of Tolkien’s masterwork, will have a worldwide release. Unlike the last attempt, Ralph Bakshi’s peculiar semi-animated version of 1978, this new production is a proper live-action global-Hollywood movie, with spectacular digital effects like Gladiator’s, only more so. It has a proper cast, with proper stars in it: Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Liv Tyler as Arwen Undómiel (the women’s parts have been beefed up somewhat). An acquaintance e-mailed to say he’d seen an early trailer in a cinema. He was so moved by the glorious sight, he cried.

On the one hand, the prospect of Tolkien as a major motion-picture event suggests that the man and his oeuvre are about to be turned inside out. This most backward-looking and fustily word-bound of popular novels is about to become merely a marginal, rather literary-looking advert for a multimedia franchise a bit like Star Wars, only bigger. The footnotes, languages, scripts, maps and appendices that are so much a part of the Lord of the Rings experience are about to be replaced with fast-food tie-ins (a deal with Burger King has been announced), a hit pop record, trading cards, furry backpacks. It is a strange reversal. Except that in a way it is not.

Take a look at the Fellowship trailers, different versions of which can be downloaded from www.lordoftherings.net. The landscapes – what they are prepared to let you see of them – have that digitally enhanced hyper-real quality more sumptuous than Technicolor, more magical than cartoons: super-icy mountains, mega-scary forests, stormier than the stormiest of skies. The effect, in current parlance, is usually called ‘achingly beautiful’: a deep, mysterious mixture of pain and pleasure, a yearning towards the impossible, with something delirious in it and something sublime. A deep, mysterious feeling which yet can be commodified and evoked with great efficiency by the entertainment industry, like a confection of pink sugar, like a drug.

This is familiar theory-of-Postmodernism territory, but with another curious turn. For this strange emotion – what Douglas Adams might have called ‘the long toothache of the soul’ – isn’t a late 20th-century Hollywood add-on, but Tolkien himself, through and through. He theorised it in his 1938 lecture ‘On Fairy-Stories’ as ‘a fleeting glimpse of Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’. He allegorised it in his 1947 short story, ‘Leaf by Niggle’, in which the hero paints ‘the only really beautiful picture in the world’, and then gets to walk about inside it. ‘As you walked, new distances opened out; so that you now had double, treble and quadruple distances, doubly, trebly and quadruply enchanting. You could go on and on, and have a whole country in a garden.’ Has Niggle died and gone to heaven? Is he playing a game on his PC?

On the voice-over to the first Fellowship trailer, Peter Jackson, who directed the movie, portends: ‘The technology has caught up with the incredible imagination that Tolkien injected into that story of his. And so, this is the time.’ Of the many strange things there are to observe about Tolkien, the way his ideas about his writing converge with contemporary conceptions of virtual reality is one of the most odd.

Like so many people, I spent a lot of time when I was younger lolling about and dreaming in the world to which Tolkien was demiurge in The Lord of the Rings. Far too much time, and with an intensity I now find scary. That book is fused with my being in a way that happens only with things encountered when one is young and growing like one of our hero’s magic trees. Even now, even as I find the book silly and boring and rather noisome (to use a word from J.R.R.’s special vocabulary), it still locks with my psyche in a most alarming way. There is suction, something fundamental passes between us, like when a spaceship docks. It’s tit in some way, it’s an infantile comfort. It’s an infantile comfort that is also a black pit.

In its time, the book has had its admirers – my battered 1970s paperback carries endorsements from Richard Hughes, Naomi Mitchison and C.S. Lewis, and Auden was an early fan. (Auden was a patron saint of lost causes. He was also the only major writer to stand up for Laura Riding.) But mostly, the sort of people who get their opinions published have lashed it with contempt. ‘Hypertrophic . . . A children’s book which has somehow got out of hand . . . A poverty of invention which is almost pathetic,’ Edmund Wilson wrote in 1956. ‘A combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh,’ the poet John Heath-Stubbs joshed at around the same time. ‘My nightmare,’ added Germaine Greer.

The quite funny one-liners abound, but it’s much harder to find someone writing sensibly at length about what exactly is wrong with Tolkien’s novel. Obviously there is a problem with the elves and so on. Obviously there is a problem with the prose. Obviously there are problems to do with women, and race and racism, and the general matchstick-cathedral labour-of-madness nature of the project. But if it’s really that bad, why do so very many people like it so enormously? Are the intellectuals just flinging up their hands and saying that it is in the nature of things liked by lots of people that they will be no good?

Tolkien’s popularity, Tolkien’s anathematisation: the dominant strain in Tolkien criticism structures itself around these poles. The pro-Tolkien school takes it upon itself to defend his opus from the snobby literati, but organises its defence according to traditional lit. crit. categories, which produces some odd effects. There’s a lot of philological sourcework – Smaug the dragon is compared to Grendel in Beowulf, the blessed land of Lothlórien is compared to the blessed land in the Middle English poem Pearl. And tremendously interesting all this is, too, if you know your Tolkien as well as fans tend to do. Interesting, but tinged with madness. It is like confusing the voyage of the Beagle with an easter egg hunt. You aren’t uncovering new knowledge about the universe, just a trail another human dropped there only half an hour before. But then, that’s always true to some extent of literary criticism. For Tolkien fans, as for fans of Joyce or Beckett, the sterility of the exercise is surely part of the appeal.[1]

The big man of Tolkien criticism is Tom Shippey, who has now written two books on the topic. Like Tolkien, he is English and a philologist by background – ‘ideally suited to write about his predecessor’, as the jacket-flap of his latest book says. He held Tolkien’s Chair at Leeds for a while and now teaches at the University of St Louis. The first of Shippey’s studies, The Road to Middle Earth (1982), focuses on the philological background, and is fascinating. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century is less successful, being more a conventional work of lit. crit.[2] But both books proselytise for Tolkien to be taken seriously as a novelist of quality, and for philology to be treated as a living subject. In Author of the Century Shippey is particularly interested in The Lord of the Rings as a study of modern evil, a recurring theme among fans. ‘Tolkien not only poses questions about evil, he also provides answers and solutions – one of the things which has made him unpopular with the professionally gloomy or fashionably nihilist.’ We shall see about that.

Most Tolkien criticism seems intended not to challenge but to support its subject in every way. This is not a proper position for a serious study of anyone, and when the figure is as curious as Tolkien it seems especially disappointing. It doesn’t help that so much of the easily available material comes from Tolkien’s own publisher. Shippey’s books, like Joseph Pearce’s Tolkien: Man and Myth (1998), are published by Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins, which has published the Tolkien oeuvre since taking over Allen and Unwin in 1990. Humphrey Carpenter’s 1977 authorised biography and his 1981 edition of the Letters were also originally published by Allen and Unwin and are now with HarperCollins.

I don’t want to defend Tolkien or to attack him, but to describe how the strange power of his book casts a spell over readers, as children, as pubescents, as adolescents, as adults, a spell some of them grow out of and others don’t. Except that ‘spell’ is far too neat and unembarrassing a metaphor, really, for a process as alarming as the locking-on of the hungry imagination. It is possible for readers to live their whole lives through Tolkien’s universe, for weeks and months and even longer. This suggests that among the novel’s other attractions, it has cubby-holes for all sorts of urges to hide in, like Star Trek or Star Wars.

I am not interested in slumming, in showing off about my naughty hobbit habit. The idea of slumming is an attempt to negotiate a deal between the secret shameful self who just wants to gobble, gobble, gobble and an acceptable adult dinner-party persona. All of us were children once, and that should be enough.

So where to begin? Well, one place might be a study in Oxford in 1930, when a 38-year-old professor of Anglo-Saxon and father of four small children sat down to mark some exam scripts. On a blank page he found himself writing this: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ This is still the first sentence of the children’s classic we know.

He always said he had no idea where the sentence came from, or what a hobbit might be. But without this word, there would have been no Lord of the Rings. The hobbit was the precondition for everything that followed. It was the synthesis, the catalyst, the keyhole and the key. Hobbits were a brilliant bridge between the ancient, heroic world Tolkien had already formed in his imagination and the petit bourgeois suburb in which he spent his waking life. Tolkien was not a man who admired much that had been written after Chaucer, but he did like Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908). The Hobbit, and the hobbit, fit easily into that gentle, don’t-forget-your-galoshes world.

The hobbit was Bilbo Baggins, a member of a small, sturdy, rather conventional species of humanoid, with furry feet, a liking for seedcakes and a fondness for a pipe. The Hobbit, the novel that tells of Bilbo’s journey into the Wilderland of the East to rescue dwarf treasure from a dragon’s lair, was published in 1937. ‘I am in fact a hobbit,’ Tolkien wrote once,

in all but size. I like gardens, trees and unmechanised farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.

The Hobbit was a great success, and its publisher, Stanley Unwin, wanted a sequel. He didn’t get it until nearly twenty years later, and when he did, it was a novel of a very different sort. The Lord of the Rings is an epic sword-and-sorcery novel, more than a thousand pages long, and was published in three parts: one and two in 1954, three in 1955. The story is set in an imaginary world, early medieval in feel – horses and swords and arrows and chain-mail. The landscapes seem to be northern European and are marvellously rendered: forests, mountains, plains, caves, great cities. Different peoples inhabit this world – humans, dwarfs, elves, hobbits, orcs, trolls, ents – some of whom are basically human (hobbits, dwarfs, the men of Gondor and Rohan), some superhuman in both powers and goodness (elves, wizards, men of royal blood), some superhuman but evil (ringwraiths), some subhuman but sturdy with it (orcs, trolls). There are no monks or monasteries; in fact there is no religious activity on Middle Earth at all.

The story begins in the cosy Little Englander world of The Hobbit – village life, seedcakes, awful relatives called the Sackville-Bagginses, with Gandalf the crotchety wizard providing the fireworks. But then, from Chapter 2 onwards, it deepens and widens in the most alarming way. Gandalf, it seems, is a great soldier and moral leader – an angel, perhaps even an archangel – who has been sent from his own blessed land far in the West to save Middle Earth from perdition. The golden ring that Bilbo Baggins tricked away from Gollum, the wretched creature he met in The Hobbit, is the Ring of Power that will settle the fight. Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, has inherited the ring and so inherits the terrible journey east that must be taken to destroy it. The prose, which started out quite dry and comic, starts clogging with archaic words and faux-noble cadences; ‘noisome’, ‘fell’, ‘fair and foul’, ‘wains’ and ‘wights’ and ‘wroth’. ‘Well, bless my beard!’ That’s Gandalf in Chapter 2 of Volume I. ‘Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.’ That’s how he’s talking by the end.

But The Lord of the Rings isn’t just a novel, with a plot and a dreadful prose style. It’s a whole world, with its own half-hidden structure and shifting layers. All the peoples have their own language – and the elves have two. Snatches of these languages come up unexplained in the dialogue: hobbits, for example, are called ‘hobbits’ in the Common Speech, which is also called Westron, and are also ‘halflings’, ‘holbytla’, ‘periannath’. Characters, similarly, have different names in different traditions. Aragorn son of Arathorn is also Strider, is also Elessar. There are folk songs, learned sayings, passages from ancient documents: Dwarvish, Númenórean, the Black Speech, Entish, Quenya, Sindarin.

Each language looks different from the others and appears to be internally consistent. Dwarvish has all the vowel endings, and the Kh- sounds and the circumflexes. The two Elvish languages, Quenya and Sindarin, look like Finnish and Welsh respectively. The Black Speech looks a bit like Turkish. And Entish looks remarkably like the Thunder refrain in Finnegans Wake. You can’t be a Tolkien fan without liking the look of these fake languages, and I still find them aesthetically pleasing, even now. There is something wonderful about looking at a new language, noticing something of its structure, sensing its power to communicate and hold things. And certainly, the un-Tolkien-like tweeness of J.K. Rowling’s coinages doesn’t help with Harry Potter.[3] But both Ursula le Guin (in her great Earthsea trilogy, 1968-73) and Philip Pullman (in his trilogy, His Dark Materials, 1995-2000) developed evocative and consistent naming systems for their imagined worlds without going on and on about it. Of course Iorek Byrnison, one of the armoured bears in Pullman, is linguistically Nordic. So would you be, if you lived that far north.

But the languages are only the start of it in Tolkien. The past is forever piercing the surface of the narrative, in much the same way as druid elements poke through into the pieties of modern Christmas. It is hinted strongly, darkly and repeatedly, that even if the struggle between the bad folks of Mordor and the good people of Gondor is settled, along with the struggle for supremacy between the Dark Lord Sauron and the elves, older forces, more powerful powers, are awaiting their turn. There are mysterious, apparently freelance chthonic forces, such as Tom Bombadil, Old Man Willow, Shelob the spider, the Balrog. Traces of lost kingdoms – Númenor, Arnor, Angmar – remain in ruins, wraithing, curses. There are the forgotten lays of long-lost lovers. There is the happy land across the water where elves and elf-friends go when they have given up for ever the joys of Middle Earth.

The best parts of both of Tom Shippey’s books are those that detail the ways in which the works of Tolkien’s imagination connect with his scholarly activities. Tolkien, Shippey writes in The Road to Middle Earth, loved above all things in literature a quality he calls ‘glamour’, ‘that shimmer of suggestion that never became clear sight but always hints at something deeper further on’, a quality he found in Beowulf in particular. While composing his fiction he would deliberately pile up fragmented layers to give the appearance of age, depth, variant versions, mystery, that he so loved in the broken texts he studied by day. You can imagine him, like someone on Changing Rooms, antiquing a chest of drawers, painting on a layer then scraping it off with a nit-comb, then painting on another one, then distressing it with a sponge.

Then there is the scholarly apparatus. Volume III, The Return of the King, has 110 pages of appendices, and another 23 of separate indexes for songs and verses, first lines, persons, beasts and monsters, places, things. The Lord of the Rings was the first book I ever read which had anything like this at the back, the first book I ever read in which the scholarly rituals were observed; in which you flipped from index to text to appendix, cross-referring to maps. I remember how impressed I was with the word ‘passim’, used especially often of Frodo, the hero, in the index. I remember how impressed I was with myself as I studied the chronologies and family trees.

And I remember feeling the ground had opened up in front of me when I got to Appendix F/ii, ‘On Translation’, only to learn that the Common Speech is not in fact identical with English. The relationship of all the new languages to the language of the narrative was not, as I had thought, of strange to familiar. It was strange to doubly strange. The Shire isn’t really called the Shire, but Sûza. Merry’s name is really Kalimac. And hobbits were neither hobbits nor halflings, strictly speaking: ‘In the Westron the word used, when this people was referred to at all, was banakil, “halfling”. But at this date the folk of the Shire and of Bree used the word kuduk, which was not found elsewhere.’ It was perhaps my first experience of the adult condition. Things that start out looking simple always turn out to be much more complicated.

Studying and researching – the everyday activities of the scholar – are deeply pleasurable. They’re fun and they’re more than fun. All sorts of visceral needs and desires are involved, with all the obvious psychosexual analogues: controlling the material; penetrating appearances; consuming the primary sources, and so on. Tolkien, I think, felt all these things acutely, whether or not he was aware of it. And so, in his fiction, he created a machine for the evocation of scholarly frisson. The thrills are the thrills of knowledge hidden, knowledge uncovered, knowledge that slips away.

This or something like it is what Freud called the Unheimlich, ‘the uncanny’: ‘the over-accentuation of psychical reality in comparison with material reality’.[4] Isn’t that what being a bookish adolescent is all about? Children, Tolkien wrote, don’t know enough about the world to be able always to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Their boundaries are blurred. And Tolkien played those boundaries like a master. The kicks I used to get from The Lord of the Rings were sensual, textural, almost sexual, a feeling of my mind being rubbed by the rough edges of the different layers. And the elegiac, valedictory aspect of the novel perhaps speaks with particular power to the swotty teenager, sorry to be leaving the figments of childhood, but itching to get to a university library. All those lists and footnotes. All those lovely books.

In Tolkien’s fiction, one trick in particular is used over and over again. Suddenly, eerily, the world inside the book and the world outside seem momentarily, like planets aligning, to slide together and form a magical new whole. One of these instants comes early in The Hobbit, when it is said that Bullroarer Took invented the game of golf when he knocked a goblin’s head down a hole. There is another in The Lord of the Rings, when the hobbits sing a song that seems to be an earlier, fuller version of the nursery rhyme ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’. When I was young, these moments disconcerted and delighted me beyond expression. I really did believe that the world inside the book had taken over the world outside. Later, I would get the same feeling more violently, more dirtily, as befitted the scruffy student I had become, from the Trystero conspiracy in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. One gets it less, though, as one gets older. You know too much about how the world works to be so easily taken in.

The way the books are marketed only confuses the boundaries further. My own three-volume paperback has the author’s watercolours on the covers and a simple runic frieze on the inside. But what I coveted was the three-volume hardback. In my day the jackets were plain, dark violet, classy-looking, with simple typography and a single fiery Ring. They looked like proper scholarly publications, like something austere and multi-volumed from a university press. This is true of the way Tolkien is packaged to this very day. Earlier this year, the HarperCollins Lord of the Rings paperback came in only two liveries, the trippy sci-fi one for bumpkins, the matt black one for epicures. Now, there’s also a movie tie-in edition, the same still thriftily reproduced with a different background colour on each of the three volumes. And there’s an elegant navy-blue Voyager Classics edition with proper jacket flaps. This premium edition comes at an extra one pound per volume.

Secondary literature comes and goes according to fashion, but there always seems to be an awful lot of it, and a lot of what there is plays on the reader’s desire to believe that the world Tolkien is writing about is in some way real. There are maps, guidebooks, concordances, gift packs, de luxe editions. In 1967, the composer Donald Swann (‘Have Some Madeira, M’Dear’) wrote settings for Tolkien’s lyrics in a huge, austere-looking volume called The Road Goes Ever On. (The elvish chants were in plainsong, the entish number was a bit like Hanns Eisler. I can still sing them now.) Critics, of course, do not pretend that Middle Earth has a literal reality. But they do seem to be kidding themselves that Tolkien is a respectable, canonical author about whom one produces sober traditional academic writing. Author of the Century has much the same dowdy sepia covering, much the same sort of blurb, as if it were indeed about some Edwardian Englishman. And yes, in some ways that is exactly what he was. But it wasn’t as simple as that.

The Lord of the Rings looks like one of the great intellectual undertakings. It has the apparatus of the great intellectual undertakings. In some ways, it has the complexity, the thoroughness, the passion, of the great intellectual undertakings. And yet it also has an occult presence: it is not just anti-intellectual, but a sort of anti-book. It’s a curiosity, a work of paraliterature, the Franklin Mint collectible of English writing. Look at it as it sits there, massive, hollow and a little sinister, like one of those hand-tooled leatherette book-a-likes you can hide your videos in.

But it was also the life’s work, laboured over for decades, of a respectable Oxford don. Was he doing it for the money? He didn’t think there would be any money in it. Was he doing it out of malice? No. Obviously, he did it because he felt he had to. Why?

For Tolkien, the appendices did not come second. For Tolkien, the appendices came first. He devised the languages, then legends and lays to give them body. The foundations of Middle Earth, Tolkien’s imaginary universe, were laid by 1920, long before The Hobbit was a flicker. The elves came before the hobbits. Quenya and Sindarin, the two branches of the Elvish language, came before the elves.

Languages; clubs; religion: these are the great themes of Tolkien’s life. The languages: he started inventing his own when he was a boy, and fell in love with Old Gothic as a teenager. Discovering Finnish, he said, was ‘like discovering a wine-cellar filled with bottles of amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before’ (cf the magic properties of elf-bread and river-water in his fiction). He started working on Finnish in 1912, and seems to have begun inventing Quenya in tandem. By 1917 he had Sindarin also, and was positing a common origin for both tongues in Primitive Eldarin.

Clubs: the young John Ronald formed TCBS (Tea Club, Barovian Society – a reference to Barrow’s Stores in Birmingham, the tea rooms of which were used as a meeting place), the first of many chaps’ societies, when he was at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, the setting most recently of Jonathan Coe’s novel The Rotters’ Club.[5] The last, and most famous, was the Inklings, with C.S. Lewis (‘Jack’) and Charles Williams, at Oxford in the 1930s. On this subject, Humphrey Carpenter’s 1978 study, The Inklings, last revised in 1997, is the place to start.

Religion: Mabel, his widowed mother, was a Roman Catholic convert, and Tolkien at least believed that her Low Church relatives had cut her off for sectarian reasons, precipitating her death from diabetes in 1904. Tolkien and Hilary, his younger brother, were placed in the guardianship of Mabel’s priest and spent their teenage years lodging with aunts and landladies. ‘My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith,’ he wrote in 1913.

Languages, religion, the love of comrades: in such a life women come as a bit of an afterthought, as they do, indeed, in the books. Tolkien met Edith Bratt in 1909, and was forbidden from pursuing the relationship by his priestly guardian. Despite this, they married in 1916 and went on to have four children. From Carpenter’s account in the authorised biography, the relationship seems to have been idealised to begin with, and then became routine and rather dreary. But when Edith died in 1971, Tolkien had the name Lúthien, the first and greatest romantic heroine of his elvish story-cycle, carved on her gravestone. When he followed her a couple of years later, the name of Beren, Lúthien’s lover, was carved on his.

And as for the love of comrades: ‘By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead,’ Tolkien writes in the 1966 foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. Two members of TCBS were killed on the Western Front: Rob Gilson on the first day of the Somme, G.B. Smith from shell wounds a few months after. ‘My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight . . . there will still be left a member of the great TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon,’ Smith had written to Tolkien shortly before.

Tolkien himself arrived at the Front with the Lancashire Fusiliers in July 1916, and was sent home that November with trench fever. While he was convalescing he bought a notebook, and labelled it ‘The Book of Lost Tales’. He completed his first story in it, ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, in 1917. A version of ‘The Fall of Gondolin’ would eventually be published as part of The Silmarillion in 1977, four years after his death.

Throughout 1917, Tolkien’s disease recurred every time he seemed ready to go back. In spring 1918 he was about to return to active service when he heard that everyone in his battalion had been killed or taken prisoner at the Chemin des Dames. He went straight back to hospital and was finally discharged in October 1918. ‘He was not malingering,’ Humphrey Carpenter writes in his biography. But imagine Tolkien’s guilt, the terror, the shame.

After the Armistice, Tolkien worked for a short time on the Oxford English Dictionary, then in Leeds as an academic from 1920 to 1925. Then he returned to Oxford, and after that, as Carpenter puts it, ‘nothing else really happened.’ Apart from his work on Gawain and Beowulf, Tolkien published little. There were murmurs and rumours about his lack of productivity, and Shippey has turned up this, from a campus novel called A Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart:

‘A sad case,’ [the Regius Professor] concluded unexpectedly.

‘Timbermill’s, you mean?’

‘Yes, indeed. A notable scholar, it seems. Unchallenged in his field. But he ran off the rails somehow, and produced a long mad book – a kind of apocalyptic romance.’

Look at him as he sits there in photographs, with his pipe and his tweedy jacket. What shattering sorrows that figure is struggling to contain. He lost his father, his mother, his childhood really. The war took from him his friends, his idealism, a good proportion of his self-belief. And yet, he kept on going. His letters show a man of loyalty, generosity and lovely manners[6] (though not much irony or sense of the ridiculous, and he does complain a lot about being ill). The letters he wrote to his sons are demonstrative and tender. ‘God bless you, my dear son. I pray for you constantly,’ he writes to his first-born, Michael, in 1941. ‘My dearest,’ he addresses his younger son, Christopher, in 1944.

What else can we learn from Tolkien’s letters? Well, he loved trees and the English countryside, and hated cars and machinery. He hated France and the French, although he did like Venice: ‘elvishly lovely’, he said. He loathed ‘that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler’, which will come as a relief to readers worried about the Nordic connection. And this is what he wrote to Stanley Unwin after a German publisher asked him to make a declaration of Aryan extraction in 1938: ‘I do not regard the (probable) absence of Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribe to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine’. Tolkien continues that he has drafted two possible replies to the Germans. The one on Allen and Unwin’s files is sarcastic and pro-semitic, but does make the demanded declaration (‘I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people’). There seems to be no copy of the draft that was actually sent, but Carpenter, who edited the Letters, writes: ‘It is clear that in that letter Tolkien refused to make any declaration of “arisch” origin.’

‘At the level of conscious intention,’ as Andrew O’Hehir summarises the matter in an article on Tolkien for Salon.com, ‘he was not a racist or an anti-semite.’ He was, however, an Englishman of his time. Inescapably, the goodies have the pale skin, the great height, the associations with northern and western countries. The men of Rhûn and Harad, the mysterious lands to the south and east, ally themselves with Mordor: is this because of their dark skin and the little gold rings in their ears? And the orcs, as O’Hehir puts it, are ‘by design and intention a northern European’s paranoid caricature of the races he has dimly heard about’. ‘As a representation of the Other . . . they could hardly be more revealing.’ All of this is true, and part of the whole picture. And yet, it is not as big or as telling an aspect as one might think. Those fears, those resentments, that particular sort of paranoia, were not a driving force in Tolkien’s personality. He just wasn’t much of a blame-it-all-on-the-Other bloke.

This is not to say that Tolkien was not a great paranoiac in his way. His letters, particularly from the 1950s on, show him endlessly elaborating his system, adding and refining, adding and refining, with a terrifying compulsiveness. A fan might send a short note through his publisher, with one small, pedantic query about hobbits, as A.C. Nunn did in 1958. The draft reply in Tolkien’s papers is thousands of words long. Mrs Meriel Thurston wrote in 1972, requesting permission to use the name ‘Rivendell’ as a herd-prefix for her cattle. It was granted, though Tolkien chastised her for wanting to call her bulls Elrond and Glorfindel: ‘Personally I am rather against giving strictly human and noble names to animals; and in any case . . . names which meant 1) “The vault of stars” and 2) “golden hair” seem inapt.’ The letter goes on to make suggestions that are more etymologically fitting: ‘Aramund (“;Kingly bull”), Tarmund (“;Chief of bulls”) etc. I wonder what you think of these?’

Tolkien wrote many letters to his Catholic correspondents, Robert Murray, a Jesuit priest, and Peter Hastings, who owned a religious bookshop in Oxford, attempting to prove that this fake universe he had constructed was neither heretical nor blasphemous but entirely harmonious with orthodox theology. Where had orcs come from if this was not a Manichaean set-up? (They are ‘pre-existing real beings on whom the Dark Lord has exerted the fullness of his power in remodelling and corrupting them’.) Did Gandalf really die in the pit of Moria? (He ‘sacrificed himself, was accepted, and enhanced, and returned’.)

One of the main struts of Shippey’s argument that Tolkien was a writer of the 20th century is that, like other novelists of his time, he was traumatised in battle and transformed the experience in his writing. But did he? Among Shippey’s examples is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (1969). Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombardment of 1945. In Slaughterhouse 5, Billy Pilgrim is a POW at Dresden, and goes on to live an externally uneventful life as an optometrist in the American Midwest. Just before his daughter’s wedding, Billy is abducted by aliens and taken to the planet of Tralfamadore, where he is put in a zoo and encouraged to mate with a Hollywood starlet. It is a delicate, tactful, enchanting novel. Images of womb-like comfort and moments of explosive sexual excitement are used to counterpoint Vonnegut’s gentle, sad portrait of boredom, pointlessness and isolation in the American veteran’s postwar life. Shippey is right to see similarities between Vonnegut’s experience and Tolkien’s. But there is one big difference. In Slaughterhouse 5, Vonnegut demonstrates that he understands the different relationships to reality experienced by his suffering hero, and can exquisitely modulate them. With Tolkien, however, one is never quite so sure.

In 1938, shortly after The Hobbit was finally published, Tolkien delivered a lecture ‘On Fairy-Stories’, which was later expanded and published, along with ‘Leaf by Niggle’, in a volume called Tree and Leaf (1964). ‘On Fairy-Stories’ is a manifesto for Middle Earth. It is also Tolkien’s apologia for his hitherto secret life. ‘The notion that motor-cars are more “alive” than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious,’ he says at one point; ‘that they are more “real” than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive, is a factory chimney compared with an elm-tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of an escapist.’ The tone is whimsical and donnish. The anger, the vitalism, the anti-modernism are real.

It is in this essay that Tolkien formulates the idea of fiction – his fiction, at any rate – as a ‘secondary world’ brought into being by a ‘sub-creator’. Anyone, Tolkien argues, can use language to think of something like a ‘green sun’. But it takes a lot more effort to build up a whole world in which such a thing will seem credible and consistent: ‘When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power upon one plane, and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our mind awakes . . . In such “fantasy”, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.’

His theory of ‘sub-creation’ was the bridge, the syncretism, the fudge which allowed Tolkien, the devout Roman Catholic, to spend so much of his time in a fantasy world with no God, no Christ, no church in it. ‘The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally a religious and Catholic work,’ Tolkien wrote to Robert Murray in 1953. ‘That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults and practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’ The letter drifts onto the subject of ‘my mother’ and her ‘hardships of poverty’. Was Tolkien’s religion a way for him to honour the memory of his mother? Is this why he laboured so tirelessly to make religion and fantasy match up?

The argument of ‘On Fairy-Stories’ is slippery and frustrating. It centres on a strange twist, like one of those topological puzzles: ‘sub-creation’, supposedly its central critical category, is both inside and outside the frame at once. On the one hand, ‘sub-creation’ is something humans do, a definition of art, a process inherent in God’s gift of language. A man may sub-create a corner of 19th-century London, like Dickens did. Or he may sub-create a whole universe. Hence the beginning of Ainulindalë, the first part of The Silmarillion: ‘There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought.’ You can see how this could be harmonised with Genesis, and indeed with St John, if it was felt necessary. Peter Hastings had written to him in 1954, asking if God had meant humans to tell each other stories about immortal, reincarnated beings called elves or whatever, wouldn’t he have created some himself to start off with, in the world or at least in His Book? ‘I should have thought it a curious metaphysic,’ Tolkien replied, ‘that declared the channels known (in such a finite corner as we have any inkling of) to have been used, are the only possible ones, or efficacious, or possibly acceptable to and by Him!’

‘Sub-creation’ is also the activity that constitutes elvish nature: ‘the elvish craft, Enchantment’, is ‘living, realised sub-creative art’. When a human tries his hand at sub-creation, he is aspiring to the condition of elvishness:

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

And here we have the central problem. You would expect elves to figure in Tolkien’s theory – if they had to figure at all – as creatures within a sub-creation, characters in a story, fictions inside a frame. But actually, they are given much more credence, more constitutive importance, more ontological weight. In ‘On Fairy-Stories’, in other words, Tolkien writes about elves as though he believes they have an independent existence: as concepts at least, if not as actual sprites. ‘The history of fairy-stories is . . . now beyond all skill but that of the elves to unravel it,’ he writes at one point. He also refers to ‘those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men’. And further remarks: ‘For if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them.’ (‘This is true also, even if they are only creations of Man’s mind,’ he adds in a footnote. He has the sense to hedge his bets.)

In The Road to Middle Earth, Tom Shippey says that all this elf stuff is just a rhetorical ‘trick’, ‘perilously close to whimsy’. But then he adds: ‘There is a strong sense of circularity in all these statements, as if Tolkien were hovering around some central point on which he dared not and could not land.’ And there we have it. It is not that Tolkien seems to have ‘believed in’ elves exactly, in the sense that Peter Pan means when he asks us to clap our hands. It is more that he seems to have loved the idea of them so much that he wanted to talk about them all the time, as if by talking about them, he could almost bring them into existence. Like a teenager with a crush on someone, like a sentimentalist with a grand ideal.

Elves, like people, were created by God, and are like people in most ways, only immortal, more or less, and generally better. Elves make things in the world, ‘their “magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete.’ They don’t like change, and have a strong, though finally temporary, power to resist it. When in The Lord of the Rings the evil power is vanquished, the elves’ power also ‘dwindles’, and they start drifting away. We are left with the image of a slender, lovely, sexless creature, cleverer than people, purer, more creative, always looking backwards in an attitude of sadness, its place in the world always in decline, like Benjamin’s Angel of History. The elf is the hobbit’s anima, the thin blue flame that burns inside the furry feet. (Tolkien nowhere says elves have no hair on their bodies, but I think we can assume they don’t.) The elf is the thin blue flame that animates the author’s secret soul.

The other key term Tolkien introduces in this essay is ‘eucatastrophe’, the ‘Consolation of the Happy Ending’, ‘the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn”’. According to Tolkien, fairytales have four main purposes: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation. The greatest of these, he says, is ‘the Escape from Death’, and this is where eucatastrophe – his own coinage – comes in:

In its fairytale or other-world setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

The ‘eucatastrophic’ moment in The Lord of the Rings, as you may have twigged, comes when the great eagle, Gwahir the Windlord, appears on the slopes of Mount Doom to save Frodo and Sam from the incipient crack-up of Mordor. You may even remember that he sings a song: ‘Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor, for the Realm of Sauron is over for ever.’ It is an overwhelming moment, if you are susceptible to that sort of thing. It’s like the bit in Casablanca when the people in Rick’s Café sing the ‘Marseillaise’. For a short time, the Labour landslide of 1997 felt a little like another. As you can see, eucatastrophe could also be defined as the shamelessly orchestrated sentimental bit.

The reason Tolkien needed the concept of eucatastrophe is hinted at by the word evangelium:

But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of Sub-Creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation . . . This story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

Here we see another explanation for these moments in Tolkien’s fiction in which the world outside the book and the world inside join up. They happen because it is in the nature of storytelling itself to prove the Greatest Story – i.e. the Gospel – only this time with added elf-power. And it doesn’t hurt to help it along a little: and so the great eagle rescue of The Lord of the Rings deliberately echoes the great eagle rescue of The Hobbit. And Tolkien, Shippey discovers, hid some appallingly anagogic dates in his book. In Appendix B, he specifies that the Quest leaves Rivendell on 25 December. The day on which the Ring is destroyed, 25 March, was according to English tradition the day of the Fall, and the Annunciation, and the Crucifixion as well. ‘The Lord of the Rings is fundamentally a religious and Catholic work,’ Tolkien wrote to Robert Murray. ‘The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’ This, presumably, is what he meant.

And here, finally, is Tolkien describing how the ‘elvish craft’ of sub-creation works. It reads like a piece of drug writing, or 1980s cyberpunk redone in a sentimental key:

If you are present at a Faerian drama you yourself are, or think you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded by it. But in Faerian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong.

You find yourself thirsting for some nice sensible wipe-down concepts like ‘metaphor’ or ‘fiction’. But instead we have this curious murk, clouded with mystical Christianity and lit with spectral shapes, like fairies captured on early photographic plates. The logos as ectoplasm. In a strange way that makes sense.

Mortality, sex, mutability, Genesis and Revelation are intimately connected in the three great works of modern English fantasy: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books and Philip Pullman’s magnificent His Dark Materials, the third and final volume of which, The Amber Spyglass, came out last year.[7] In Lewis and Tolkien, the scope for sexual activity is stunted by the authors’ Christian beliefs, and/or conservatism, and/or psycho-sexual hang-ups. In Pullman, on the other hand, sex is allowed to happen, and shown to bring with it enormous losses. It is also made clear, however, that it has to happen, and that it is good that it does. ‘We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard, all of us, in our different worlds.’

When, as in Pullman, sex is permitted, it is impossible to feel that soggy, yearny nostalgia you feel at the end of The Lord of the Rings, with Frodo and pals passing through the curtain of rain, or at the end of Lewis’s The Last Battle, with poor old Narnia dark and broken and Susan, with her disgusting lipstick and her nylons, shut out. Sex happens because it has to happen: there wouldn’t be much of a human race without it. And the existence of sex acts like a sentry – like Milton’s cherubim at the gates of Eden – preventing you from indulging that favourite fantasy that maybe what has been done can be undone. Thomas Harris does something similar in Hannibal (1999), the third and surely the last of his marvellous Hannibal Lecter books. There are some gates sex shuts more firmly even than death does.

As Jacqueline Rose suggested in The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984), children’s books tend to display anxieties about sex in much the same proportion as they try to pretend it doesn’t exist. Hence, perhaps, the fashion for clothed animals – like Kenneth Grahame’s Rat and Mole, sitting by the fire in their dressing-gowns and their cosy slippers. Tolkien cites Mole in ‘On Fairy-Stories’ as an example of a thoroughly successful sub-creation. One element of this success is those dressing-gowns, which silently lay to rest any worries we might have about the animals’ sex lives. (Another is the way Grahame allows the riverbank chums to have proper non-human instincts about other things: the Mole’s behaviour in springtime, the Wild Wood, the extraordinary episode with the piper at the gates of dawn.)

In Tolkien, however, ‘all the characters are boys masquerading as adult heroes,’ Edwin Muir wrote in the Observer in 1955. ‘The hobbits, or halflings, are ordinary boys; the fully human heroes have reached the fifth form; but hardly one of them knows anything about women, except by hearsay. Even the elves and the dwarfs and the ents are boys, irretrievably, and will never come to puberty.’ We can sympathise with Muir’s irritation while acknowledging that he has not got it quite right. The hobbits are far too well-behaved to be ‘ordinary’ (Lord of the Flies came out in 1954). There isn’t even any ‘hearsay’ about women: it would waste time better spent singing ancient lays. The nearest Tolkien gets to romance are two extraordinarily long betrothals, each to a female of a suitable species and social standing: Aragorn and Arwen, Sam and Rose. (Not unlike what Tolkien endured with his own wife, as Shippey points out.) Apart from Faramir and Éowyn, these are the only characters in the epic to embark on adult romantic relationships. Though one always wonders about Merry and Pippin, and Legolas the wood-elf’s prejudice-busting closeness to Gimli the dwarf.

The hobbits themselves are a remarkable compromise between the desired state of childhood and the miserable adult actuality. They cannot be mistaken for children because they have body hair (the furry feet), smoke tobacco (‘pipeweed’) and drink beer. Also, because the hobbit lifespan is much longer than the human one, the hobbits are comfortably middle-aged when they set out on their great journey. Frodo is 50, the same age that Bilbo was at the beginning of The Hobbit. Merry and Pippin are in their thirties, just out of that delayed adolescence the hobbits call the ‘tweens’. Elves and men are known to mate occasionally, and to produce ‘half-elven’ offspring. But what of men and hobbits, elves and hobbits? Are they just too small and furry? Questions of ‘biology’ are dealt with in Tolkien’s letters, but I don’t think this one is addressed.

Hobbits are tremendously useful for fudging violence, too. They are small, so at a physical disadvantage in battle. They carry daggers instead of full-length swords, and are forever jabbing them heroically into evil-doers from underneath. You can’t expect hobbits to function like warriors, and if they will insist on sneaking along to a battle and doing something courageous, that is exceptional, remarkable, a bonus. In times of hand-to-hand warfare, hobbits, unlike officers or conscripts, have the most splendid moral luck. ‘What one misses in all these terrors is any trace of concrete reality,’ Edmund Wilson wrote in his 1956 review. ‘Real contact’ between villain and hero is very seldom made. What gore there is is stylised and blurry: ‘A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clove asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone.’ And no battle lasts terribly long before giving way to deliverance and a hot bath. (‘Nearly all of human life has always taken place far from hot baths,’ Simone Weil said in her essay on the Iliad.) Unlike most writers of this sort of nonsense, Tolkien had experienced real fear, real chaos, the real squalor of trench warfare. And yet, in his battle scenes, he seems to use language to obscure the realities of combat.

In Author of the Century, Shippey notes how often the great quest repeats itself. A fearful dart across the Shire ends with a roaring fire and mushroom casserole at Farmer Maggot’s. The Old Man Willow adventure ends with baths and thick mattresses at Tom Bombadil’s. A brush with Black Riders is resolved by a good dinner at the Prancing Pony. And so on, through Rivendell, Lothlórien, Fangorn, to the very gates of Mordor. Shippey links this difficulty of structure to Tolkien’s real difficulty in getting into the swing of the narrative, but that’s not all that’s going on. The Dead Marshes, then stewed rabbit in Ithilien. Pippin’s flight through war-torn Gondor, then cheese and wrinkly apples in the buttery at Minas Tirith. A stripe of hardship, flight, terror, is always followed by one of safety, plenty, hospitality. To read The Lord of the Rings is to find oneself gently rocked between bleakness and luxury, the sublime and the cosy. Scary, safe again. Scary, safe again. Scary, safe again. This is the compulsively repetitive rhythm Freud writes about in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), and which he links to the ‘death instinct’, the desire to be free of all tension for ever (cf the ‘And they lived happily ever after’ of the traditional fairytale). This rhythm was fundamental to Tolkien’s imagination: the subtitle of The Hobbit was ‘There and Back Again’.

Scary, safe again. Scary, safe again. Scary, safe again. And so to sleep. This rhythm is also fundamental to the pleasures of adventure stories – explorers’ tragedies, Westerns, space operas like Star Trek – in which it is amplified by the pleasures of Schadenfreude. There they are freezing on the ice, dying of thirst, infested by aliens in their leaky spaceship; here I am on my cosy sofa, about to have my snooze. ‘One is there in imagination as one reads,’ as Francis Spufford puts it in I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (1996). ‘But with the possibility of instant withdrawal; one feels for the human figures at the centre of the scene, but one is not exactly in sympathy with them, though it is through their eyes that one is seeing.’ But none of Tolkien’s protagonists ever gets hypothermia or even a broken leg. They are speedily withdrawn, and brought provender (which is often magic and wipes away all stain) and fresh raiment. It’s less Scott of the Antarctic, more a contemporary cookbook, with that sickly, narcissistic over-emphasis on eating for ‘comfort’ and ‘shutting out the world’.

In Author of the Century, Shippey quotes a remark Robert Graves made in Goodbye to All That (1929), his First World War memoir: ‘Beowulf lying wrapped in a blanket among his platoon of drunken thanes in the Gothland billet; Judith going for a promenade to Holofernes’ staff-tent; and Brunanburgh with its bayonet-and-cosh fighting – all this came far closer to most of us than the drawing-room and deer-park atmosphere of the 18th century.’ It’s a fair point, but it doesn’t defend Tolkien in the way Shippey thinks it does. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t have any drunken thanes in it, or bayonet-and-cosh fighting either. But the landscape writing is marvellous, the dinners and baths most vividly rendered. It’s one of the great books to read on a hiking holiday. You can pretend that you are a hobbit as you tramp. Perhaps Tolkien pretended he was on a hiking holiday as he marched through Normandy. Perhaps he hummed an elvish ditty to shut the horror out.

This of course is the great paradox of The Lord of the Rings. Though ostensibly a book of action, it is largely concerned with passive states. The hobbits are almost by definition a passive people, dedicated to living their unchangingly simple and jolly lives in the Shire. The elves are frozen in their sorrowful attitude. There are some terrible images which are drawn perhaps from memories of the Western Front: the corpse-filled Dead Marshes, the plain in front of the Morannon, where ‘great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows’. But there is very little actual fighting, injury or dying. The horror, the suffering, is done in still-life.

By the end it is passivity that defines Frodo, the Ring-Bearer, broken by his quest, wracked by melancholy, unable to forget. Every March – the anniversary of his sojourn in Mordor – he is ill: ‘It is gone for ever,’ he says, ‘and now all is dark and empty.’ Every October, the anniversary of his stabbing by the Lord of the Ringwraiths: ‘I am wounded, wounded; it will never really heal.’ Sam, more robust, has children, plants trees, becomes a mayor. But Frodo just lies there, Fisher King style. He is war-wounded, unmanned, like Jake in The Sun Also Rises. According to Joseph Pearce, the most religiose of Tolkien’s cheerleaders, ‘the parallels with Christ’s carrying of the Cross are obvious. Furthermore, such is the potency of the prose and the nature of Tolkien’s mysticism that the parallel of Frodo’s burden may even lead the reader to a greater understanding of Christ’s burden.’ I think there’s a simpler explanation. Isn’t Frodo just depressed?

Frodo’s sufferings are wonderfully evocative of the self-pity and self-mythologisation that tend to come with depression. One always does feel that life is a struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. (Guess which side poor little me is on?) One always does feel oneself to be labouring like an insect across a blasted plain. One always does remember the great wrongs done to one, and feel so hurt by them that one will never heal. How much more gratifying to feel one has been wounded by a Morgul-knife instead of merely stabbed in the back by someone nasty. How much more satisfactory to think one has been defeated, not by ordinary slings and arrows, but in one’s heroic struggle to save the world. ‘I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me’: these are Frodo’s words, just before he sails away into oblivion. It’s the ‘hope, but not for us’ of Kafka. The real War of the Ring has nothing to do with how many trolls and orcs Mordor can muster. It’s a struggle with despair.

The critics adore this aspect of Tolkien’s work. It is proof, they say, that The Lord of the Rings is a serious 20th-century novel. Proof that it is properly grown-up. The relationship of Bearer to Ring is said to be a strikingly modern portrait of addiction: ‘It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else’s care and that only at an early stage, when it first begins to grip.’ Denethor’s despair, Saruman’s corruption, Gollum’s wasting away, the state of wraithing: Shippey’s Author of the Century devotes its central chapter to such ‘concepts of evil’. And it’s such a vale of tears. Look at the state poor Frodo is left in. Look at the condition of the elves.

Or look at what Q.D. Leavis said in Fiction and the Reading Public (1932), her magnificently puritanical, enduringly acute study of popular reading tastes in the first decades of the 20th century. The novels popular at the time, she wrote,

will all be found to make play with the key words of the emotional vocabulary which provoke the vague warm surges of feeling associated with religion and religion substitutes – for example, life, death, love, good, evil, sin, home, mother, noble, gallant, purity, honour. These responses can be touched off with a dangerous ease – every self-aware person finds that he has to train himself from adolescence in withstanding them – and there is evidently a vast public that derives a great pleasure from reacting in this way. This vocabulary is not quite the everyday one; it is analogous to a suit of Sunday clothes, carrying with it a sense of larger issues; it gives the reader a feeling of being helped, of being in touch with ideals.

Leavis’s harsh, snobbish critical vocabulary – in her day, of course, depression had barely been invented – works like an abrasive cleaning agent on poor Frodo and his friends. ‘There is precious little evidence,’ Joseph Pearce writes, ‘that Tolkien ever despaired. He accepted the sorrows of life with patient forbearance, and his distressed disapproval of the way society was “progressing” was tempered by sincere hope in the grace of God.’ One imagines the noble Queenie tapping her foot and snapping her duster. What Tolkien did or did not do in his outer life is irrelevant. The Lord of the Rings reads like a panoramic portrait of the depressive state.

Depressed people report feelings of powerlessness to be an index of their condition; and just look at how power is distributed on Middle Earth. Aragorn has it, Gandalf has it, Galadriel has it, because of what they are (a king, a wizard, an elf-queen) rather than what they do. To hold power is to be good-looking: ‘great and beautiful’ (Galadriel), ‘in the flower of manhood’ (Aragorn). There isn’t a lot of magic on Middle Earth: rabbits don’t come out of hats, no one gets turned into a stone or a poodle. Its place is taken by something more plausible-seeming and refined. Political power (being a king, a wizard, a queen) is elided with willpower, an ability to make things happen. Powerful people run faster and have stronger characters (which, as we know, is why they cannot bear the Ring). They have and make use of televisual devices (the palantírs of Orthanc and Gondor, the mirror of Galadriel), bending them to their bidding. They build sanctuaries – Rivendell, Lórien – in which they can protect the beautiful and the good. ‘An essential power of Faerië is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of “fantasy”,’ as Tolkien says in ‘On Fairy-Stories’.

In a politics like this, hobbits are in a subordinate position, always slightly left out. They don’t have any special powers or dispensations, unless they can cadge some from the big guys: hospitality and amulets and potions from Elrond, Galadriel, Treebeard. They offer themselves as pageboys, they hitch a ride on Gandalf’s horse. They bow deep to Théoden, Denethor, Faramir, Aragorn. They are ‘flotsam and jetsam’, ‘small ragtag’. Once or twice, they even get mistaken for orcs. In the movie trailer Cate Blanchett murmurs some placatory nonsense about how even the smallest person can change the world, but that is the same tokenism that allows a hobbit to stab at an evil ankle. Gandalf says at one point that the Shire has a sort of magic, but it is just small-town volkischness, sentimental and slightly sinister. This is especially evident when they arm themselves with hammers and axes in ‘The Scouring of the Shire’. In the end, hobbits are small and weak and furry-footed, and Tolkien has given tallness and strength and glinting grey eyes far too much weight in his world for this not to count.

The politics of The Lord of the Rings, in short, comprises a familiar mixture of infatuation with power with an awareness of one’s own helplessness beside it. One’s best hope, really, is to suck up to the big people, in the hope they will see you all right. It’s the perennial fantasy of the powerless. Things would indeed be hopeless were it not for your secret friend the Big Bad Elf-Queen, who will come along when you finally call for her and wreak revenge for you on all the nasty kids at school.

Tolkien loved maps, and drew his own ones for his end-papers (In The Rotters’ Club, the young hero has the poster-map up in his bedroom, and knows the geography of Middle Earth ‘far more intimately than that of the British Isles’.) They are strangely anthropomorphic-looking, or so I used to think. The sea, the goodies, the elves, are in the West (of course), a face in profile. The unknown regions and the land of shadow are at the back of the head, in the East.

Thinking about those maps makes you realise how spatial and spreading The Lord of the Rings is – it’s not temporal and plot-driven like most junk fiction. There’s a whole little world in there, simplified and protected, like in the role-playing games to come. It is its own university, its own library, its own structure of branching knowledge. To enter it is to become a simulacrum student in a crucible of simulacrum knowledge. A simulacrum student at the simulacrum university of simulacrum life.

In his Salon.com essay, Andrew O’Hehir observes that The Lord of the Rings is part of a genre he calls Great Weird Boy Books, ‘weighty tomes that mix realism and fantasy along with various forms of language and discourse, much of it technical or abstruse, while aspiring to a mythic dimension’. Other Great Weird Boy Book authors that O’Hehir mentions are Pynchon, Joyce, DeLillo, Nabokov. We know pretty much what he means. It has to do with this spatial quality, this sense of the book as a fake whole world. Also, to like these authors involves the reader in something territorial, some major investment of self. To say ‘I’m a Tolkien fan,’ ‘I’m a Joycean,’ is to say something about yourself in a way that professing a fondness for F. Scott Fitzgerald (‘I’m an F. Scott Fitzgeraldian’?) is not.

But there is a big difference, isn’t there? For Pynchon, Joyce, DeLillo, Nabokov, are considered respectable, serious, important, in a way that Tolkien is not. Fashion, Shippey says, the fashion for Modernist irony and bleakness. And envy, he adds, that Tolkien was immediately and enduringly popular, unlike the writers of Oulipo or the Black Mountain school. And there’s social snobbery. What exactly did Humphrey Carpenter mean when he let slip on the radio that Tolkien readers are ‘anorak-clad’? ‘The reference to anoraks is easily understood, is intended to be understood, as class hostility from those who habitually carry umbrellas,’ Shippey chippily rejoinders. (See, this is what philologists are good for. I always thought people were called ‘anoraks’ in reference to their supposed fondness for the ends of platforms at railway stations and for all those pocketses to keep their maps and things in.)

In a way, Shippey is right. The widespread disdain for Tolkien does indeed have an association with the perceived social class of his readers, but the association is not straightforward, and the disdain is not entirely social: anorakery, trainspotting, dweeberie and being ‘sad’ are complicated psychosocial phenomena, and it is both inaccurate and shallow to tie them too tightly to individual people. Shippey attempts to summarise his position in a disappointing bit of rabble-rousing bluster about how Tolkien ‘threatened the authority of the arbiters of taste’ by showing an ‘improper ambition’, as if his work ‘had ideas above the proper station of popular trash’. Threatening authority; improper ambition; ideas above the proper station. The guaranteed button-pushers do not have their usual purchase here.

Here is a list of some of the things you learn about when you read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: LA punk, Jacobean revenge tragedy, early computers, radical politics of the 1960s, the Pony Express. Out your mind darts, searching the world for information. In it comes again, digging back with its goodies into the text. Here are some of the things you learn about while reading The Lord of the Rings: hobbit-lore, the two branches of Elvish, the annals of the Númenórean kings. Spot the difference? That’s right: the second lot is entirely fictional, and doesn’t involve even the shortest trip from your chair. The lore is self-referential, centripetal, an occult system. As astrology is to physics or conspiracy theory to history, so Middle Earth is to literature and learning. It’s a closed space, finite and self-supporting, fixated on its own nostalgia, quietly running down.

Another characteristic shared by the authors of Great Weird Boy Books is that their novels, with their silly names, their silly self-contained systems, their silly self-regarding theories, hover on the edge of kitsch. Poor Tolkien wouldn’t know how to hover if you told him. He simply sits there, stoic to the end, in the middle of his very own snowdome, surrounded by the dwindling elf-dust.

There are compensations, of course. Occult systems always look impressively difficult from the outside: that Elvish script, those runes. This is one reason people find them so attractive. Something different, some special form of knowledge, just for me. But the system turns out to be tremendously easy to get to grips with. Every bit joins up with every other bit, which is of course not surprising, given that these are artificial creations, and this is exactly what they were designed to do. This is why occult systems appeal to vulnerable people. You can feel secure inside them, no matter what is going on in the nasty world outside. The merest weakling can be master of this cosy little universe. Even a silly furry little hobbit can see his dreams come true.

There is a terrible coda to this argument. Fans of The Lord of the Rings will remember the greatest of the ratcheted shocks in Chapter 2, ‘The Shadow of the Past’:

Long ago, there lived by the banks of the Great River on the edge of Wilderland a clever-handed and quiet-footed little people. I guess they were of hobbit-kind . . . The most inquisitive and curious-minded of that family was called Sméagol. He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.

One fine day, Sméagol and his friend Déagol are out fishing when Déagol finds on the riverbed a beautiful golden ring; Sméagol kills him and takes the ring for himself. The ring makes him invisible: ‘he used it to find out secrets, and he put his knowledge to crooked and malicious purposes . . . The ring had given him power according to his stature.’ Sméagol’s family rejects him; he takes to sneaking, and thieving, and muttering Gollum in the back of his throat. His grandmother turns him out of her hole and he takes refuge in the caves: ‘The roots of these mountains must be roots indeed; there must be great secrets buried there which have not been discovered since the beginning.’

The curious-minded little creature, burrowing down to the roots of the mountains in search of the origin of all things. Who does this remind you of? What was he trying to recover? Was Tolkien, as O’Hehir suggests in his essay, trying to recover his lost parents, his lost childhood, an impossibly prelapsarian sense of peace? When he discovered he could not have it in this world, did he turn his energy to building a new universe in which he might?[8] What this does not explain is what readers are looking for as they burrow through the novel, and the appendices, and the 12 volumes of the Lost Tales.

According to M. Scott Peck, the American self-help/personal spirituality writer, ‘the character of the Gollum . . . is perhaps the finest depiction of evil ever written.’ Peck’s first book, The Road Less Travelled, more or less gave birth to the self-help movement. The remark about ‘the Gollum’ comes from his second book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (1983). The Third Reich, the gulags, Srebrenica, ‘the Gollum’. What would Sméagol’s grandmother have thought of that?

Imagine Tolkien had not been an Oxford scholar. Imagine he hadn’t had the historically contingent good fortune to live at a time when there was still a cubby-hole in that venerable institution. He might have had a garage to work in, or a corner of his bedroom. It might have been a model railway, or a record collection, or military history, or maps. Imagine his passion had not accidentally made him millions. What would his children have said to each other then about Dad’s mad hobbies, Dad’s cranky politics, Dad’s fuddy-duddy insistence that they dress for church? Imagine him there, like Basil Fawlty, not thinking about the war, or about his mother, or about the miserable childhood that seems so present, but always beyond his grasp. Imagine him, looking out of the window at one of his beloved trees.

He stares at the tree, and ‘a fleeting glimpse of Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief’ bursts out. He sits on, at his desk in his little study, puffing on his pipe. All around him, great dark pits open, with elves and orcs and hobbits emerging, ready to fight the great fight.

[1] I was thrilled to learn that Harold Bloom has edited a book of Tolkien criticism: J.R.R. Tolkien: Modern Critical Views (Chelsea House, 174 pp., £27.95, 24 February 2000, 0 7910 5660 0). I imagined swags, gargoyles, groaning pediments of mad theory. But, sadly, all he has done is write his signature over the top of a bunch of the usual stuff. Bloom prefers The Hobbit (‘Children’s Literature’) to The Lord of the Rings – ‘fated to become only an intricate Period Piece’ (the capitalisations are his). ‘I am rather grateful to Tolkien,’ he adds, ‘that sometimes I want to be there with Bilbo, even though I know only a few trolls and no goblins whatsoever.’

[2] HarperCollins, 347 pp., £16.99, 4 September 2000, 0 261 10400 4.

[3] I gave up on Harry after reading that Dumbledore, as well as being headmaster of Hogwarts, is also a ‘supreme mugwump’. One, this is uneuphonious. Two, it is clearly related in sound while completely unrelated in meaning to ‘muggles’, that annoying word the wizards use for ordinary humans. Three, ‘mugwump’ is actually Algonquin for something like ‘top leader’. But the word’s most prominent use is in William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), in which mugwumps are horrible see-through creatures who ‘have no liver and nourish themselves exclusively on sweets’. So J.K. Rowling hasn’t read Burroughs. But surely someone at her publisher has?

[4] Freud would also have enjoyed the many holes and bags in Tolkien’s imagery. Not to mention ‘What has it got in its pocketses?’ and so on.

[5] ‘Old Edwardians’ such as the ‘distinguished trio of 20th-century intellects, J.R.R. Tolkien, Enoch Powell and the Nobel Prizewinner, Sir John Vane (Medicine), offer perhaps our best known examples of true academic distinction,’ the KES website says. And in Coe’s excellent tale of 1970s Brummie life, published earlier this year, we read this: ‘Birmingham, Doug maintained, had produced two notable racist thinkers in the last few decades: Enoch Powell and J.R.R. Tolkien.’

[6] There is a particularly nice example in 1966, written to W.H. Auden after the poet had made fun of the Tolkiens’ décor (‘He lives in a hideous house – I can’t tell you how awful it is – with hideous pictures on the walls’). ‘I cannot say that the (I imagine garbled) notices of your remarks gave me much pleasure . . . I do not pretend that in me (a less generous-minded man than you) your writing arouses the same immediate response.’

[7] Scholastic, 560 pp., £14.99, 1 November 2000, 0 590 54244 3.

[8] If you have read the last Hannibal Lecter book, this may sound eerily familiar. Thomas Harris is a clever man.