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Inheriting Tolkien, pt. 4: Edmund Wilson

December 3, 2011

[See this post for introduction to series.]

I’ve been planning a post on the “literary establishment” criticism of Tolkien for a few weeks, but today came across a post by Alan Jacobs that makes it largely unnecessary.

Edmund Wilson, at the time one of the most important literary critics in America, reviewed The Lord of the Rings when it came out and was not impressed. Here’s a link to his review, which for some reason is hosted on a French website. It’s worth reading just for the humor of it; for example, he (intentionally?) misspells Gandalf as “Gandalph.” He does not even attempt to hide his contempt:

But if one goes from these eulogies to the book itself, one is likely to be let down, astonished, baffled. The reviewer has just read the whole thing aloud to his seven-year old daughter, who has been through The Hobbit countless times, beginning it again the moment she has finished, and whose interest has been held by its more prolix successors. One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child.

He goes on to call out Auden in particular, and say why he thinks Auden defends the trilogy, and say where exactly the trilogy’s immaturity lies. He attacks the prose as amateur, the characters and plot as stereotypical and uninteresting, the challenges nonexistent:

That Auden is a master of English verse and a well-equipped critic of verse, no one, as they say, will dispute. It is significant, then, that he comments on the badness of Tolkien’s verse – there is a great deal of poetry in The Lord of the Rings. Mr. Auden is apparently quite insensitive – through lack of interest in the other department.- to the fact that Tolkien’s prose is just as bad. Prose and verse are on the same level of professorial amateurishness. What I believe has misled Mr. Auden is his own special preoccupation with the legendary theme of the Quest. … It is indeed the tale of a Quest, but, to the reviewer, an extremely unrewarding one. The hero has no serious temptations; is lured by no insidious enchantments, perplexed by few problems. What we get is a simple confrontation – in more or less the traditional terms of British melodrama – of the Forces of Evil with the Forces of Good, the remote and alien villain with the plucky little home-grown hero. There are streaks of imagination … For the most part such characterizations as Dr. Tolkien is able to contrive are perfectly stereotyped: Frodo the good little Englishman, Samwise, his dog-like servant, who talks lower-class and respectful, and never deserts his master. These characters who are no characters are involved in interminable adventures the poverty of invention displayed in which is, it seems to me, almost pathetic.

I find his criticism of the ending particularly strange, since it’s just factually incorrect; it completely ignores that once they got to Mount Doom Frodo put on the ring and all would have been lost if Gollum hadn’t jumped in:

NOW, this situation does create interest; it does seem to have possibilities. One looks forward to a queer dilemma, a new kind of hair-breadth escape, in which Frodo, in the Enemy’s kingdom, will find himself half-seduced into taking over the enemy’s point of view, so that the realm of shadows and horrors will come to seem to him, once he is in it, once he is strong in the power of the ring, a plausible and pleasant place, and he will narrowly escape the danger of becoming a monster himself. But these bugaboos are not magnetic; they are feeble and rather blank; one does not feel they have any real power. The Good People simply say « Boo » to them.

So why is it that some people like the book? “The answer is, I believe, that certain people – especially, perhaps, in Britain – have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash.” Harsh. He ends with a recommendation that instead of Tolkien we pick up his preferred fantasy writer, who, predictably, I’ve never heard of.

It’s not fair to pick on Edmund Wilson–the trilogy was very different from what was normally seen as “serious literature,” and I can understand why he reacted with befuddlement at its being taken seriously–but sixty years later, there’s less excuse, and people are still making basically the same arguments.

Now, the attack on the trilogy’s prose style will have to wait for a later post. The claim that the plot is boring I find somewhat hard to take seriously, and I think most people who don’t have an irrational hatred of the books will admit that it is, at least, a fun read. The charge that it has flat characters and simplistic morality is more substantial. The charge that they are stereotypical, as one might expect, can only really be met with the response that they are in fact archetypal, but the only way to answer that is to see if the characters only seem real to the extent that they are expected, or if they seem expected to the extent that they ring true. For most, I think, it’s the latter. Alan Jacobs writes a nice response to the related claim of simplistic morality here. I’ll resist quoting the whole thing. The key is the second paragraph:

It has just become the tale that middle-to-highbrow critics tell — ever since Edmund Wilson was saying his own manifestly untrue things about Tolkien in the New Yorker fifty years ago — that Tolkien’s fictional world is morally simplistic and rigidly Manichaean. It may be true that the story of the Ring is less morally ambiguous than the average realistic novel, but that’s primarily because Tolkien wasn’t especially interested in the problem of knowing right from wrong. His concern was to explore the psychology of the moment when you know right from wrong but aren’t sure whether you have the courage and fortitude to do the right thing.

That does a good job, I think, of describing the sense in which Tolkien is psychologically realistic (which was what I complained previously Auden had failed to do). The rest of the post doesn’t exactly show why that kind of realism is better than the realism of moral ambiguity, though Jacobs obviously thinks it is.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2011 8:34 pm

    Funny. I don’t think I’ve ever come across that Wilson review. If I even remember it a few days from now, I might write a rebuttal.
    Though I did write a post once called Why Tahereh Should Read The Lord of the Rings

  2. IainElliott permalink
    March 1, 2014 3:22 pm

    I have been an old Tolkiener since before the trilogy hit paperback (even before Ace). Just to be fair, I have decided to read something by Edmund Wilson. Wilson says he gets no sense of ‘Gandalph;’ he can’t ‘feel’ him. I can partly sympathize with this view. But on the other hand, Strider is very real to me, as I think he was to Tolkien, who put a lot of himself into the Ranger, and was not unfamiliar with the charge of being a ‘stick-at-nought’. Some of the writing is rather bad (“since men spoke with mouth”), but much is good, and I consier Gandalf’s revival of Theoden among the most moving moments of the work.

  3. IainElliott permalink
    March 1, 2014 3:24 pm

    I have been an old Tolkiener since before the trilogy hit paperback (even before Ace). Just to be fair, I have decided to read something by Edmund Wilson. Wilson says he gets no sense of ‘Gandalph;’ he can’t ‘feel’ him. I can partly sympathize with this view. But on the other hand, Strider is very real to me, as I think he was to Tolkien, who put a lot of himself into the Ranger, and was not unfamiliar with the charge of being a ‘stick-at-nought’. Some of the writing is rather bad (“since men spoke with mouth”), but much is good, and I consider Gandalf’s revival of Theoden among the most moving moments of the work.

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