How Great a Writer was JRR Tolkien?

It was very big when I was in high school in the late 60s. It was OK, but a real slog to finish and the only reason I did was to be able to get the jokes in Bored of the Rings. I never like series novels – finish everything up in one book or I’m not interested.

The Ace editions were extremely popular even before the Ballentine editions came out (I have a set of both). Tolkien was certainly a first-class writer, though and really expected the books to have literary weight.

The Lord of the Rings is my pick for greatest novel/book of the 20th century, so I’d rank his ability very high. His voice may not be the best writing voice in literature, but the details of his imagination and his capability to organize and convey those ideas are unmatched.

The Hobbit is a lot funnier and he has a great voice in that book, far more accessible than Rings.

Anyway, while he may not have produced tons of great literature, the work he put out was incredible.

LotR isn’t really a series novel though, even if that is how it was released. The omnibus edition was the one I got in about 1975 and although it’s subdivided into six books, it still reads just fine as a single thousand-page work.

I don’t think it was quite so stark as you describe; they made animated movies of the Hobbit, Fellowship/Two Towers and Return of the King at some point in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and I suspect that jumpstarted plenty of people into picking the books up.

I knew plenty of smart young students of my acquaintance who read LOTR when I was a kid (I’m 43, so the 80s encompassed most of my education), and I even knew a girl named Arwen from middle school, so clearly there were a few fans in the early 1970s.

I think it may have always had a certain popularity in intellectual circles, but wasn’t ever a popular best seller except around the movies’ debuts (animated and live-action).

Let me join the pile-on of those saying that this is off by about 180 degrees.

It was not the English majors reading LOTR; LOTR was pretty much disdained by literary types in those days (as was most popular or “genre” fiction). See this long thread for a discussion of the literary critics’ responses to Tolkien.

Paperbacks of his works were ubiquitous: it was when I was in high school in the early 80s that I bought and read the paperbacks of LOTR and followed up my reading of them by exploring the many other fantasy paperbacks that were readily available in those days, many of which were strongly influenced by, if not outright clones of, LOTR.

It’s true that Peter Jackson’s films exposed Tolkien to a wider audience, but back in the 80’s we still had animated versions of Tolkien by Rankin-Bass and Ralph Bakshi.

For someone whose ambitions were not conventionally literary — LOTR was conceived as a work of imagined history/philology and shows no influence of other contemporary fiction — Tolkien acquits himself damn well. As Trinopus says, he has a good ear for the right word at the right time, and he does a pretty good job of maintaining suspense while keeping an enormous plot in motion. Parts of the book are genuinely scary and much of it is very moving in a melancholy way. He makes you feel that history is passing away in front of you and that it matters, and that’s not a bad achievement for a rather reclusive Oxford don with no real plans to ever become a writer.

As I argued at length in an earlier thread I’m too lazy to link to, Tolkien is largely ignored by the academy not (only) because his work concerns elves, goblins and ents, but because it’s so anti-modern, an essentialist vision rooted in an idealized past, heavy on archetype and thin on psychology. There’s not a lot for a literary critic to sink his teeth into in Lord of the Rings, and much of what there is is pretty retrograde. Most notably, there are virtually no women in the story, and a pall of Victorian chasteness hangs over the entirety of Middle Earth. Technology is seen as inherently pernicious and “progress” only means the further despoiling of the natural order. The Lord of the Rings became an escape for Tolkien from a world he saw as getting increasingly ugly and dehumanized; the book doesn’t address the problems plaguing the modern world so much as turn its back on them.

You might be thinking of the thread I linked to in the post directly above yours. :slight_smile:

When the original books were published in England in the 1950s, they were reviewed as serious literature because they were written by an Oxford don with serious credentials and published by George Allen & Unwin, a serious firm. That it was fantasy was not a barrier at the time. Fantasy was considered to be a literary genre quite separate from science fiction, which was a pulp magazine illiteracy. Serious writers, like those in the Inklings, encouraged fantasy reading and writing.

Therefore LotR was received as serious literature and treated appropriately, i.e. reviewers praised and belittled it as they would any other novel set before them. In broad terms, the book was looked at more favorably in England than in America, where fantasy did not have the same literary tradition and science fiction had suddenly gained some respectability. (The New York Times Book Review set up a semi-regular science fiction review column starting in 1950, something it doesn’t have today.)

The hardback edition made Tolkien money but wasn’t in any sense a bestseller. Both fantasy and science fiction lost their luster by the end of the 1950s. Unexpectedly, a new generation of writers were met by the rise of paperback firms willing to publish original f&sf novels instead of only reprints and the field rose as suddenly as it had in 1950. Ace Books in early 1965 tried to use a loophole to reprint LotR and drew so much opposition that it withdrew the books. Ballantine negotiated for the official edition and put it out in late 1965. That edition had the iconic covers which fit together and made one larger scene, printed as a poster for every dorm room. It was that Ballantine edition that sold so many millions that Henry Beard and Doug Kenney of the Harvard Lampoon could parody it as Bored of the Rings in 1969 and sell a million copies on its own. When a parody sells a million, the original has to be omnipresent. This publication history page for the first book alone is mindboggling, and it’s just the U.S., U.K., and Canda.

The current literary assessment is very much like the original one in 1954. You either worship Tolkien and think that he wrote one of the great novels of the 20th century or you don’t get what they see in him and trot out a long litany of faults.

I received the trilogy as a Christmas gift in 1965. Our neighbor had just returned from a sabbatical in England and brought them back for me. He told me they were all the rage there. No one I knew had heard of them then, but within a year they were everywhere.

That’d be the one. :slight_smile:

Reminded me of this exchange:

Alice Payne Hackett of Publisher’s Weekly put out a series of books summarizing best sellers over the years. By that she meant hardbacks, but she also included some separate lists of paperbacks. In 80 Years of Best Sellers 1895-1975, Tolkien is not included on any list at all. His only mention is in an intro to Children’s Books with sales of a million or over:

I’m not sure why they didn’t make the cut. Everything I’ve read since indicates that those books sold millions.

There might be some systemic bias. Nothing that would be considered category f&sf appears anywhere except for Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s odd.

Perhaps notably, when C. S. Lewis, another of the Inklings, wrote his Space Trilogy, he described it not as “science fiction”, but as “Wellsian fantasy”.

Back to the question of Tolkien’s skill, I have to wonder just how much of his quality was due to skill per se, versus persistence. When you work on one work for fifty years, constantly improving it, it’s bound to turn out pretty good. There are probably many other authors who could accomplish the same, if they made that their focus. But most authors, on getting a book to a certain point, will publish it and move on to the next.

I’d say the opposite is just as likely: you end up with something overbaked and dead on the page, with all the idiosyncrasies flattened out.

Tolkien started Lord of the Rings with no idea how it would end, and in his introduction, said that the story had to be “rewritten backwards” after the first draft to reconcile where he ended up with where he started. He also says that he laid the book aside several times, often not touching it for years.

Yes, it works out to a rate of125 words per day!

the_diego writes:

> . . . among the current fantasy novels, I think only the Shannara series tried to
> copycat him . . .

It’s getting less common for fantasy novelists to directly copy Tolkien, since they have quite a lot of other prominent examples of fantasy novels to model their works after, but from the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, Tolkien’s works were obviously the model for much of what was sold as fantasy at that time. Nowdays writers are more modeling their writings after works influenced by Tolkien or on works influenced by works influenced by Tolkien. Tolkien created the genre of fantasy. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t lots of books before his were published which we can now look back on and classify as fantasy, but those sections of bookstores labeled as fantasy only exist because of Tolkien. Similarly, there were lots of books written before Hugo Gernsback started publishing the magazine Amazing Science Fiction which we can now call science fiction, but the genre and the section in bookstores only exists because of Gernback.

Also, not only is The Lord of the Rings now probably the best-selling novel of all time, but it may have been the best-selling one before the Jackson movies came out.