Yet I believe that my hestitation, my instinctive distrust of these three volumes in the university library, was well-founded. To put it in the book’s own terms: Something of great inherent power, even if wholly good in itself, may work destruction if used in ignorance, or at the wrong time. One must be ready; one must be strong enough.
I envy those who, born later than I, read Tolkien as children — my own children among them. I certainly have had no scruples about exposing them to it at a tender age, when their resistance is minimal. To have known, at age ten or thirteen, of the existence of Ents, and of Lothlorian — what luck!
But very few children (fortunately) are going to grow up to write fantastic novels; and despite my envy, I count it lucky that I, personally, did not, and could not have, read Tolkien before I was twenty-five. Because I really wonder if I could have handled it.
From the age of nine, I was writing fantasy, and I never wrote anything else. It wasn’t in the least like anybody else’s fantasy. I read whatever imaginative fiction I could get hold of then — Astounding Stories, and this and that: Dunsany was the master, the man with the keys to the gates of horn and ivory, so far as I knew. But I read everything else too, and by twenty-five, if I had any admitted masters or models in the art of fiction, in the craft of writing, they were Tolstoy and Dickens. But my immodesty was equalled by my evasiveness, for I had kept my imagination quite to myself. I had no models there. I never tried to write like Dunsany, nor even like Astounding, once I was older than twelve. I had somewhere to go and, as I saw it, I had to get there by myself.
If I had known that one was there before me, one very much greater than myself, I wonder if I would have had the witless courage to go on.
But the time I read Tolkien, however, though I had not yet written anything of merit, I was old enough, and had worked long and hard enough at my craft, to be set in my ways: to know my own way. even the sweep and force of that incredible imagination could not dislodge me from my own little rut and carry me, like Gollum, scuttling and whimpering along behind. — So far as writing is concerned, I mean. When it comes to reading, there’s a different matter. I open the book, the great wind blows, the Quest begins, I follow. . . .
It is no matter of wonder that so many people are bored by, or detest, The Lord of the Rings. For one thing, there was the faddism of a few years ago — Go Go Gandalf — enough to turn anybody against it. Judged by any of the Seven Types of Ambiguity that haunt the groves of Academe, it is totally inadequate. For those who seek allegory, it must be maddening. (It must be an allegory! Of course Frodo is Christ! — Or is Gollum Christ?) For those whose grasp on reality is so tenuous that they crave ever-increasing doses of ‘realism’ in their reading, it offers nothing — unless, perhaps, a shortcut to the looney bin. And there are many subtler reasons for disliking it; for instance the peculiar rhythm of the book, its continual alternation of distress and relief, threat and reassurance, tension and relaxation: this rocking-horse gait (which is precisely what makes the huge book readable to a child of nine or ten) may well not suit a jet-age adult. And there’s Aragon, who is a stuffed shirt; and Sam, who keeps saying ‘sir’ to Frodo until one begins to have mad visions of founding a Hobbit Socialist Party; and there isn’t any sex. And there is the Problem of Evil, which some people think Tolkien muffs completely. Their arguments are superficially very good. They are the same arguments which Tolkien completely exploded, thereby freeing Beowulf forever from the dead hands of the pedants, in his brilliant 1934 article, “The Monsters and the Critics” — an article which anyone who sees Tolkien as a Sweet Old Dear, by the way, would do well to read.
Those who fault Tolkien on the Problem of Evil are usually those who have an answer to the Problem of Evil — which he did not. What kind of answer, after all, is it to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano? No ideologues, not even religious ones, are going to be happy with Tolkien, unless they manage it by misreading him. For like all great artists he escapes ideology by being too quick for its nets, too complex for its grand simplicities, too fantastic for its rationality, too real for its generalisations. They will no more keep Tolkien labelled and pickled in a bottle than they will Beowulf, or the Elder Edda, or the Odyssey.
It does not seem right to grieve at the end of so fulfilled a life. Only, when we get to the end of the book, I know I will have to put on a stiff frown so that little Ted will not notice that I am in tears when I read the last lines:
“…. He went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Home drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
“He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”Ursula Le Guin
A comment or two on Brian Aldiss’ excellent essay on H.G. Wells ((in V65)). I wouldn’t agree that William Golding’s The Inheritors is the first masterpiece dealing with prehistoric man. There are at least two earlier, one French — La Guerre du Feu by H-H. Rosny Aîné, first published in 1908 — and one Danish, the earlier sections of Den Lange Rejse by Johannes V. Jensen, which appeared not many years later. A fairly good English translation of the latter exists under the title The Longest Journey. I don’t know about English versions of the Rosny (except for its not quite so good sequel) but a handsome reissue of it was published in 1956 and may still be in print. Both deserve the highest recommendation.
Then elsewhere Brian declares: “A mass audience expects to be pandered to. Wells never pandered.” But he had a mass audience — as did Shakespeare, Conrad, Kipling, and any number of others — which seems to deny the first sentence. It isn’t only hucksters who underrate the public taste; the intelligentsia do it even more.Poul Anderson
I hate being pushed into the position of defending Causes but somebody’s got to. I am a coward at this, but I’m also offended. On p.6 ((of VECTOR 64) I got to a joke in Phil Dick’s article about rape — which is about as funny as lynching — and wondered why female sexuality is such a tittery subject. It isn’t for women (although we sometimes laugh at men’s jokes about rape, usually nervously), and women never tell such jokes among themselves/ourselves, nor do we find rape funny at all when talking among ourselves. “Let us hope it is a female sewing machine” — the obligatory nervous/macho assurance that he isn’t queer, by God! (although many of the readers of VECTOR must be, by simple statistics) […]Joanna Russ
[…] Honest to God, the blasted inanity of it! “Regrettably” past the menopause. Tee hee again. What on earth is regrettable about it or magical about it or so utterly embarrassing about it that grown men revert back to nine-year-olds? I am tempted to say, rather savagely, that if Dick (or Lem) had any idea of what it means to live in a society which has no reliable (or until recently legal) method of allowing you to control your fertility and all sorts of exquisitely awful ways of punishing you for it (from botched abortions to illegitimacy to losing your job to sole care of any and all children for 18 or more years after birth to viciously enforced guilt over not keeping a baby) they would not make these jokes. But if they had any idea of the above they would, of course, be feminists like me & would be writing letters like this to other idiots.Joanna Russ