Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tolkien's "Rambling Juvenilia" and "Dorky Minutiae"

In a recent New Yorker article, Erin Overbey talks about the criticism that J. R. R. Tolkien's work received at the hands of its initial reviewers.
  • Edmund Wilson: "The Fellowship of the Ring [is a] children’s book which has somehow gotten out of hand."
  • The New Yorker, 1954: "The Fellowship of the Ring [has] the air of having been written as a hobby by a man with a ferreting imagination and a capacity for industry that will not allow him to stop inventing long after all the facts are down and the picture is clear."
Overbey notes that W. H. Auden was one of the first to defend Tolkien's stories as formidable works of literature.
Auden repeatedly challenged the idea that Tolkien’s work was only suitable for children. Tolkien’s world may not be the same as our own, Auden wrote in a 1956 review of the author’s work for the New York Times, but it’s a world “of intelligible law, not mere wish,” that represents our own reality. Moreover, Auden wrote, Tolkien’s moral sensibility was profoundly grownup, especially when it came to theological questions. “The Lord of the Rings,” he wrote, aimed to reconcile “two incompatible notions” we have about God. On the one hand, we envision “a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love”; on the other, we picture “a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand.” It’s a story about how, as we gain power, we lose freedom. “Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton,” Auden conceded, “but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed.”
Overbey ends by summarizing Auden's perspective and also describing one of the central literary elements of Tolkien's stories:
In his reviews, Auden argued that Tolkien’s work wasn’t just rambling juvenilia; it was part of a literary tradition of reinterpreting ancient archetypes to create a modern mythology. Yet the rambling nature of Tolkien’s universe is part of what drew those nerdy Brooklyn students to his work. We love to think about the dorky minutiae: how Hobbits invented the art of smoking pipe-weed, why trolls speak with Cockney accents, whether Middle-Earth is spherical. These elements aren’t distractions; they’re the magical details that elevate Tolkien’s books. People may come to Tolkien for the Milton-esque struggle between good and evil, but they stay for the fresh mushrooms and the Elvish.
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