- Introduction:Postmodern Tolkien
In April 2004 I was on a train between Hanover and Braunschweig in Germany. It was a pleasant afternoon for the journey and the train was not particularly crowded. There were two young children who had obviously been on the train much longer than we had and for whom the pleasant rural countryside slipping by the windows held no particular attraction. They started running up and down the corridor and letting off their surplus energy until their father called out to them and asked them if they wanted to hear more of their story. This invitation was well taken and the children returned to their seats. Quietness reigned except for the sounds of the wheels on the rails. The father was sitting a couple of rows behind us on the opposite side of the carriage, and I happened to have the aisle seat so that I could hear his voice if I cared to pay attention to it. He was reading a story in German to his children, and that was something of no interest to me. And then I thought I heard the words "Fili und Kili." Could that be? Now I started to pay attention. And then I thought I heard "Drachen," and could that be "Balin," and when I once again heard "Fili und Kili," there could be no mistake. He was reading to them from the German translation of The Hobbit, chapter 12, "On the Doorstep," where Bilbo and the dwarves are on the Lonely Mountain looking for the doorway that will lead them down to Smaug's lair. The language may have been strange, but the story was not. I looked back and caught a glimpse of the two children listening spellbound, entranced by the story their father was [End Page 807] telling them. When we arrived at our destination and made ready to leave, I said to the father that Tolkien read very well in German. He replied that surely it was better in English, but I said each version has its own special qualities.
And so another generation is being introduced to the world of Middle-earth. By some reckonings, The Hobbit is the most successful children's book ever, selling tens of millions of copies and being translated into more than forty languages. If anything, The Lord of the Rings, despite its three-volume bulk, has been even more popular, with a reading public that is not constrained by considerations of gender, class, or ethnic background. But The Lord of the Rings is also a work that has provoked from the very beginning, especially from among sections of the intelligentsia, an almost irrational hostility. Tom Shippey in J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century has documented some of the outrage that greeted the revelation that Tolkien came out on top in various polls conducted to find out who in the English-speaking world should have the honor of being titled "author of the century" (xvii-xxiv).
F. R. Leavis was convinced that he was able to determine who the great English novelists were. In The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, first published in 1948, he came up with five whom he considered to be "all distinguished by a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity" (17). Leavis's great novelists were also very much concerned with "'form'" since they were "all very original technically" (16). This way of evaluating novelists, of course, is too general to be helpful because such a definition would, for example, be an apt description of Tolkien's novelistic achievements. Leavis, therefore, had to spend some time in eliminating whole classes of novelists from his consideration. At this time of his career, for example, Leavis did not have much time for Dickens, for while Dickens may have been a genius, his "genius was that of a great entertainer, and he had for the most part no profounder responsibility as a creative artist" (29). Conrad may be influenced by Dickensian melodrama, but according to Leavis, the end result "is a total significance of a profoundly serious kind" (29...