Lord of the Geeks

J.R.R. Tolkien Still Feeds the Nerd Nation’s Imagination

Shulevitz made these remarks in response to claims very much to the contrary, advanced in T. Shippey's new critical assessment, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, published by Houghton Mifflin last month. Shippey is a professor of Old English, just as Tolkien was—Shippey even shared teaching duties with Tolkien at Oxford for a brief time—and he seems to take just a tad personally the general critical disdain heaped upon his former colleague. But while his indignation gets a little out of hand, his argument is a sober one, aimed at setting Tolkien alongside such epic poets of the 20th-century condition as Orwell, Joyce, and Pynchon. The Lord of the Rings, he insists, constitutes "a deeply serious response to what will be seen in the end as the major issues of his century: the origin and nature of evil . . . ; human existence . . . without the support of divine revelation; cultural relativity; and the corruptions and continuities of language." But in fact, deeply serious or not, Tolkien's actual responses to these issues are so deeply unengaged with the 20th-century cultural mainstream as to seem willfully out of it.

A lovely list of issues indeed. The problem, though, is that, deeply serious or not, Tolkien's responses to them were those of a man whose head resided in the 20th century but whose heart just wasn't in it. He was a medievalist in more ways than one, and to read his work as Shippey proposes, with the concerns of modernist literature in mind, is to invite the sort of exasperation you might feel if you were in the mood for Madame Bovary and got handed Beowulf instead. Tolkien's theory of evil? Well, orcs are, our heroes aren't, and that about sums it up. Tolkien's take on "human existence"? A hard gig, certainly, full of danger and tough decisions, but fortunately not enough to threaten the wise Gandalf, the noble Aragorn, the sly Saruman, or any of Tolkien's other characters with more than the occasional moment of psychological complexity. And as for "cultural relativity," hoo boy. By the time you have read your third or fourth description of the orcs as "swarthy" and "slant-eyed" you will either have checked your late-modern political sensitivities at the door or thrown the book at the wall.

But ultimately, the real problem with Shippey's approach is the same one that dogs almost all attempts to wring serious literary meaning out of The Lord of the Rings: It fails to take Tolkien's literary project as seriously as he took it himself. "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations," he famously wrote in one foreword to the trilogy, warning readers against the temptation of finding in it "any inner meaning or 'message.' " Nearly every thoughtful piece of Tolkien criticism makes some kind of nod to the letter of that admonition, but very few can resist violating its spirit. For some, the "inner meaning" of The Lord of the Rings has been a bluntly topical allegory of, say, World War II or eco-activism (Sauron is Hitler and the Ring is the atomic bomb; Sauron is the enemy of Gaia and the Ring is industrial technology). For more high-minded exegetes, like Auden and Shippey, the meanings are more abstract (Frodo's quest is the Quest of Everyman to come to know himself; Frodo's struggle with the Ring's corrupting influence is society's struggle with the burden of power). But either way, these critics' sense of the worthiness of the trilogy compels them to sniff out its significance, often as not at the expense of any true grasp of what Tolkien's point and power really are.

Ian McKellen as Gandalf
photo: © 2001 New Line Cinema (2)
Ian McKellen as Gandalf

So what is his point then? What is his power? Strip away his meaning and what is left? Well, Middle Earth itself. Or rather his invention of it—a powerful, lifelong act that produced at least 12 volumes of background notes on the history and languages of that imaginary world. Some might call this make-believe, others might call it simulation, still others would call it hallucination. All three explain why, as an unnamed British smartass observed in a 1992 edition of Private Eye, Tolkien's writing appeals less to critics than "to those with the mental age of a child, computer programmers, hippies and most Americans." There is in America—and anywhere else the engines of postmodernity run at full tilt—a growing cultural fascination with the elasticity of reality, and with it a growing urge to tinker at reality's stretchiest edges. Literature, as the critics now understand it, doesn't satisfy this urge. But child's play has always done the trick. Psychedelics too. And now, more and more, our technologies are at it as well. Already, deep, complex computer games like the Sims and Black and White anticipate an era when critics locate culture's center of gravity not in books but in elaborate digital simulations. And when they do, a few may recall that it was Tolkien, lord of the geeks, who announced the shift.

Related Tolkien story in this issue:

Hobbit Forming by Michael Atkinson
Fanboys Line Up for ‘Ring’-Side Seats

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