Lovely piece in the New Yorker about J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings, and just in time for the current hubbub about Peter Jackson‘s adaptation of The Hobbit, the movie. I’ve never understood the Tolkien craze – I took an unsuccessful stab at The Hobbit as a teenager, and indulged in a weekend binge of the movies a few years back just to get the hang of it – but Erin Overbey goes some way to explaining the devotion to me:
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.
Apparently, so did W.H. Auden, one of Tolkien’s early champions and defenders. In 1926, he heard Tolkien reading from Beowulf so beautiful that he decided on the spot that Anglo-Saxon was worth pursuing – it shows in Auden’s poetry. He also became a close friend of the Oxford professor. Thirty years later, he wrote in the New York Times about The Return of the King, the third installment of the Lord of the Rings cycle:
I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte. In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light “escapist” reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.
Perhaps the most memorable bit of Overbey’s piece is her description of Auden’s invitation to speak at a Brooklyn Tolkien Society in the 1960s. He looked, according to a witness, remarkably like “a Tolkienish wizard surrounded by a crowd of young and eager Hobbits.” Overbey writes:
He began by talking about his personal relationship with Tolkien and the major influence his former professor had had on his life. Tolkien, he said, had originally fallen in love with the Finnish language, which has affinities with Elvish, because it has “fifteen or sixteen cases.” (“Fifteen!” one of the young attendees exclaimed.) Auden went on to tell the group how Tolkien had often admitted that he really had no idea where The Lord of the Rings was going when he first started the trilogy. In fact, Auden said, he wasn’t even sure how the pivotal character of Strider would develop as the narrative grew. Auden also let his rapt audience in on Tolkien’s fascination with “the whole Northern thing.” For Tolkien, Auden said, north is “a sacred direction.”
The nerdy group of lawyers, students, businessmen and military men snacked on unspiked eggnog and non-alcoholic cider – and also on fresh mushrooms, a preferred Hobbit dish. “The discussion spanned a variety of Tolkien-related topics: the correct method of writing in Elvish, the best way to assemble an accurate cosmological model of Middle-Earth.”