Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Magical, Timeless Popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien

The support for all things Tolkien is fascinating not only because of its size but because of its surreal diversity

September 17, 2014

He doesn’t really fit the bill.

J. R. R. Tolkien that is. Novelists these days are supposed to wear their angst on their finely tailored sleeves, to be whirling dervishes of deconstruction, discontent, deviance and the divine right of protest. Yet the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was quintessentially comfortable—in his life as well as in his tweeds. He was also formed, informed, shaped, defined and inspired by his Roman Catholicism.

I write this because yet another movie based—albeit sometimes loosely—on the man’s writings is in the making, and at this rate there will be at least six full-scale feature films. There are two biopics planned about the lives of Tolkien and his friend and fellow Christian, C. S. Lewis. It’s remarkable and welcome, and while purists never welcome publicity or success, the more that is known of Tolkien by a mass audience, the better is has to be for Catholicism.

It’s not only the purists in our camp, of course, who question all this.

When various bookstores, newspapers, magazines and literary societies compiled their lists of all-time greats a few years ago, Tolkien won the contests over and over again. First it was a chain of stores, polling more than 25,000 people. Dickens, Tolstoy, and Jane Austen did well, but the fellow with the pipe and friends in dwarfish places came out top.

This annoyed the chattering classes no end, so the highly prestigious Folio Society polled its 50,000 members. Connoisseurs of fine literature, these good men and women were certain to make a different choice.

They didn’t.

The question was then taken to other countries, other languages, and changed into “Best Book of the Century”, “Best Author of the Century” and even “Greatest Writer of the Millenium.” Like it or not, Tolkien beat Joyce, Proust, and Balzac. It prompted one British critic to say that this was why universal literacy and a publicly funded library system were not so desirable. He was joking. Just.

Because nothing is so unpopular with our elites as, yes, popularity. And Tolkien is as popular as they come. In the summer of 2000 the short trailer of The Lord of the Ringsmovie was put on the film company’s official website, part of an early publicity blitz for the release of the first of the three productions at the end of this year.

On the first day the trailer was available there were 1.5 million downloads. Twice the number for the previous record, held by Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Informed opinion believes that The Lord of the Rings could be the most commercially successful movie ever made.

Why? Or, in the words of those who dislike the Oxford University professor with his tales of wizards, elves, battles and mystery, why does this awful man and his awful readers do so well?

The support for Tolkien is fascinating not only because of its size but because of its diversity. Devotees of science fiction, fans of “Dungeons and Dragons”, traditional Roman Catholics, zealots on the fringes of the political far right, dabblers in the occult, old hippies and, now, a new wave of people opposed to globalisation and free trade.

The reason for the bewildering alliance is the nature of the man himself. He was a serious, orthodox Catholic; he was raised and educated by the Oratorians in Birmingham, England; he was never happy with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council; and he even somewhat sympathetic to the aspirations of Franco and his gang during the Spanish Civil War. Yet this needs context. There were many British and North American Catholics who, whilst totally opposed to Hitler and Nazism, were shocked by the slaughter of priests and nuns by the Republicans in Spain and grudgingly preferred the Generalissimo to a left increasingly dominated by Stalinism and the Kremlin’s thugs.

However, Tolkien was an anti-Nazi before it was altogether respectable, and indeed when many on the political left were still ambivalent. Shortly before The Second World War, a German publisher wrote to him and inquired about buying the rights to his works. They asked if he was an Aryan. He replied that the word made no linguistic or ethnic sense. But, he added, if they were in fact asking him if he had any Jewish blood he regretted that this was not the case, although he would like to have some connection with such a gifted people. He finished by telling the letter writer that he would never be allowed to publish him and that the Nazis were destroying German culture and the beauty of the northern spirit.

Tolkien’s religious conservatism simply did not transfer into political reaction. Indeed, it seldom does. He viewed the industrialisation of his beloved Warwickshire, that country in the middle of England that inspired the characters and locations in The Lord of the Rings, with unrestrained horror. The working people of his youth had, he thought, a certain autonomy, a special dignity. That had been expunged with the advance of the factory, the collective, themultinational.

As for globalisation, Tolkien believed in the small community. He once said that Belgium was the perfect size for a country. Large enough to be distinct, small enough to feel like an extended family. The idea of universal free trade and a one world corporate government terrified him.

His fame and success were in essence an American phenomenon, or at least it began in the United States. Before American university students took up Tolkien’s cause he had been successful on a much smaller scale. World famous in Oxford, so to speak. The new radicalism of the 1960s looked to a most surprising hero. Tolkien’s books sold in quite staggering numbers and graffiti began to appear on college walls. Beneath slogans demanding withdrawal from Vietnam would be written, “Frodo Rules” and “Bilbo for President”.

No surprise then that the man should be read again now by the pierced ranks determined to bring down Starbucks, Nike, and international capitalism.

Science fiction and dungeons and dragons? The appeal is obvious. The issue here is that Tolkien initiated the whole thing. But whereas his emulators fill their books with babes in red leather leotards and muscular chaps in jerkins, Tolkien gave them character and depth and, yes, fundamentally Christian notions of value, virtue, and truth.

So the fan base is a delicious mingling of types who would not normally give each other the time of day. The movie—their movie—will annoy as well as delight. There is none so fanatical as a Tolkien fan. By Gandalf’s beard they better get, well, better get Gandalf’s beard right. And as Tolkien’s triumph is largely within the individual imagination, any interpretation will inevitably displease some. But that is the delight of the man and his work—and it is always Catholic. Tolkien gave us the magnificent Catholic playing field, we play the game. It never stops. It wasn’t supposed to. I will continue to watch the movies; sometimes I will cringe just a little but I will still thank God that even Hollywood has fallen to the charms of Tolkien. Catholic Tolkien.

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