How to Like J.R.R. Tolkien

I’ve just heard the first word breathed against the lordly mythologist. I’m sure plenty have failed to appreciate his particular brand of fantasy; I’ve just never met them. Today, however, right on my phone, someone appeared who claimed to be “allergic to Tolkien,” and then, and then (!) someone agreed, saying he just didn’t get him, as though encountering greatness were something one trained for, like developing a taste for modern orchestral compositions or post-bop jazz.

Anyway, it seems to me that if one wants to develop such a taste, wants to see, actually, what all the hype is about, it helps to know what one is looking for. I mean, if one opens up Wodehouse looking for plot, one is bound to be disappointed, though she will be rewarded in literally every other regard. So, if one wants to like Tolkien, here are some tips.

  1. Abandon any appreciation for or dependence on sentences. Whatever else he is good at—making whole worlds, for one—Tolkien is a workman-like writer. Crack the formidable tomes looking either for beauty of the Dickension, Proustian, of Beuchnerian sort, all filigree and twist, and the flatness will astonish you. On the other hand, look for concision and wit a la Austen or C.S. Lewis and you are just as likely to grieve. In Tolkien, words are a medium for telling the big story, not music themselves. A key to appreciating Tolkien is to get over it.

  2. Similarly, lose your expectations regarding structure. Some writers will spend more time on more important parts of the story, giving detail where it is wanted and slides gracefully over it when it would disrupt the flow of the narrative. Tolkien will dash off 30 pages about the history of tobacco like nothing, and he’ll do it, not as an aside once we have established some trust, but right at the beginning of the book , when we don’t know who is smoking it or why. Sometimes the characters will just walk for the length of 2 or 3 Chekov short stories. Doze off for a few hundred pages and they’re just still walking. So, these books are great, but they’re so great that they establish their own genre. If you think you’re going to get a novelist’s care and temper, no.

  3. Finally—and this is a trait Tolkien shares with his friend Lewis—you’ll need to look past the names. Master of many languages, Tolkien must simply have lost touch with the tones, nuances, and implications of phonemes in English. “Sauran” and “Saruman” are the names of two different characters in this book. Who could possibly think that a wise move, making the reader hunt out a single letter to differentiate characters who are, in addition to sharing, practically, a name, also share, practically, all their characteristics. There are dozens of examples. Some names are hard to pronounce like “Eowyn,” some simply ugly, like “Took,” and others silly, like “Merry.” It is difficult to get behind these adventures for some people because so many of them suffer from the “Boy Named Sue” syndrome. Lewis does it too: one of the most fierce-some battle chargers in Narnia—one specifically obsessed with dignity—is called “Bree.” Ugh. Behold the powerful demon-seed, wrecker of cities, Molly!! Eventually, the names wear into the consciousness and you begin to take Strider simply as Strider, but for those just starting out, these absurdities are likely to get in the way. Press on!

It may seem from the previous that I’m not a Tolkien fan. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think he’s a great magician, and the first time I read through the books, I began planning when I could do so again. I think the movies are hideous, but then, I think that about all movies. The Lord of the Rings is a miracle of talent and imagination, but that doesn’t mean I need to accept uncritically all parts thereof.

So what are you looking for, if we take the caveats above? When people say things like they’re allergic to Tolkien, I sense that one of Tolkien’s manifest weaknesses has set the reader off. That would be a shame though because that reader would then miss the goods that reading Tolkien really offers, the first of which is dignity. There’s something colossal, almost Wagnerian, about these stories. Reading them feels like reading The Iliad; the roots of culture are exposed and the statuesque otherness calls one up into a rarefied air. But also: joy. The Lord of the Rings is one of those books--are three of those books?--where the empathetic risk really pays off. One manages to care about all these absurd characters and all these invented realms. Something happened with a dude and a sword in a forest at one point and I literally cried real tears. I just couldn't believe it was happening. Of course, it wasn't happening, but the artist had made the world so compelling--if not so real--that my emotional register didn't care about “really.” There's more to say about Tolkien of course and his relative achievements in these and other books, but these notes are offered for that Twitter fellow and others like him who see all these tome-totting travelers and wonder how so many can spent so long in middle-earth: it's not perfect, but 1) there is enough there there to make a world and 2) they’re ripping good fun.