An Appreciation of Tolkien by William Alan Rieser

I haven’t read everything he’s written, but I have absorbed all of the ring saga from the Hobbit, LOTR, The Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales collated by his son, Christopher. Any fantasy poll I have seen rates him number one, almost without exception, but it is misleading. I say that because it is readily apparent that not all those who swear by his work are devotees of fantasy. In fact, I know many admirers who say they’ve never read anything else because they don’t really care for the genre. What’s really going on is that Tolkien transcends all genres with the ring, so much so that the books have created a cult of afficionados to such an extent that no other author can make that claim. Yet those who are addicted to the genre also claim that the ring defines modern fantasy more than anything else and prescribes its limits, almost a conundrum in itself.

What we have here is a monumental work that commenced as a simple children’s tale and blossomed into a drama of such vast dimensions that it overwhelms most of us with its implications and complex messages. Yet he complained that it was too short for what he really wanted. Some critics claim that WWII influenced the writings tremendously, especially because the man was caught up in it and deeply affected, though he denied it. Clearly he was plagued by his personal war and undoubtedly used man’s most common activity to show his readers that it could be overcome, that there was always hope, regardless of how powerful the forces of evil might seem. That was also the message of Ghandi, if you recall, only Tolkien made it personal, initially for youngsters with the Hobbit and eventually for the rest of us.

I have read a critique that chastised the ring as juvenile because it avoided a confrontation with sexual and other issues that trouble our civilization. That is unfair, because in creating Middle Earth, Tolkien was painting a world where virtue, truth and honor, the key symbols of the best parts of our real Middle Ages, could be realized if only we conquered our darker selves. That was the main message of the Trilogy. To assist him in this glorified vision of what we were and could still be, he peopled his story with magical denizens and demons, all of whom possessed unique powers and characteristics. Yet every upstanding resident had a counterbalancing foe, a perfect representation of the good and evil in all of us. For the elves there were goblins, for the dwarves, wargs and dragons, for men their were Southrons and ringwraiths, for ents there were trolls.

Even Gandalf, the ultimate hero, was opposed by Saruman and Sauron, Shadowfax by the steeds of the Nazgul and Frodo and Bilbo by Gollum, Ungoliant and many others. The whole point of all this confrontation was the war within ourselves to allow good to triumph over bad, to permit ourselves to take the wonderful things given to us by God and allow them to develop as they should without marring their inherent beauty. His message clearly shows us that we must suffer much in order to enjoy the benefits of such fruit, that if we are willing to do that, all is not lost. This, of course, is more than the promise of fantasy and the reason why the ring is so powerful even today. Still, the story is unquestionably couched in fantastic terms, with languages, dialects, vivid descriptions of lands and peoples of such unique traits that we find ourselves dreaming about the place.

He coins words like Dali painted images and crafts visions of places that are unforgattable. For example, the hidden valley of Rivendell, the last home of the High Elves in Middle Earth. And he sanctifies the place with an older, more magical name from a misty, forgotten past, Imladris. Contrast this against the lurking, black, evil sites of Thangorodrim and Mordor or the threatening sound of ancient, dark servants, the Balrogs. His wordsmith talent alone was masterful.

Having created a brilliant scenario, Tolkien then decided to fortify and strengthen the image with mythology and private histories, a chronology of ages. As in The Hobbit, he made full use of poetic interludes and songs to intrigue us with specialized verses, applicable to portions of hidden sagas, mystical elements and fragments of dreams within dreams to tantalize our imaginations. This, even more than the main story, solidifies the drama as a fantasy and elevates it above any other ever written to date. To give that much attention to the minuscule is an extraordinary effort that no other writer is willing to engage, at least so far. He describes other eons and delineates a believable path whereupon we see with clarity how the final war comes about and ends with the utter destruction of Morgoth and the enemies he has fashioned over an incredibly long span of time, beauty and terror, rather reminiscent of Milton’s epic.

To those who say they don’t like the work or cannot get into it, I suspect that they haven’t given it a chance or are being lazy or dishonest about attempting it because of its length. It is a first class mind shaper, one that covers all the emotions, the foibles and strengths of all of us with considerable wit and style. It is couched in easily readable fashion with tons of surprises, twists and turns and a denouement second to none. Read it for true and prove me wrong. I doubt if you can do it.

Tolkien writes with a passion and literacy that few achieve. I got the impression that the man was sorry to let the work end, that he might have been satisfied to continue it forever and even lose himself within its intricacy, so mightily did he craft the world. This is more than mere entertainment, more than just fantasy. It is a genius and a work of art to be held in awe by readers and reverence as authors. To reinforce my opinion, the film makers have been trying desperately to capture the quality of the work, especially LOTR, for many years. A new film approaches even as I write this, one that we Tolkien admirers hope will do the story justice and put its real impact on the screen. I sincerely hope it does that.

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Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 William Alan Rieser, All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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