Remembering J.R.R. Tolkien 40 Years On

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien died forty years ago today, at the age of eighty-one.  Philologist, scholar of Anglo-Saxon, Merton Professor of English at Oxford University and almost certainly the single most important fantasy writer of all time.

It has become fashionable of late – almost de rigueur in some circles – to belittle Tolkien. He is accused variously of racism, sexism, class snobbery, poor characterisation, being consolatory (which is, apparently, a terrible thing to be) and all manner of other heinous crimes against literature in general and fantasy literature in particular. His books are dismissed as ‘children’s books’ outside the genre and imperialist tracts inside.  I’m interested in remembering Tolkien in this post, not defending him, so I won’t go into point-by-point rebuttals – but I will say that in my view none of these things is true. Except for the penultimate.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are children’s books – in the same way that all good books are: they are children’s books when you are a child and remain so until you become an adult, whereupon you discover that they seem to have become adult books, now, too. In much the same way that children can watch Toy Story 3 (for instance) and laugh their way to the end, unaware that their parents are choking back tears, it is possible to read The Lord of the Rings (in particular) and enjoy it purely as a magnificent adventure story without considering themes of loss, the passing of eras, the propensity of power to corrupt, etc.

 Still, some people don’t like The Lord of the Rings and that’s fine; I wouldn’t seek to belittle anyone’s taste, but I think it’s a masterpiece. I’ve read it about a dozen times over the years – but the last time was long ago; I’m well overdue for a re-read – and each time I’ve found something new, something beyond nostalgia that made the re-read worth the time and effort. Never have I encountered – before or since – a book built upon such rich foundations. Its impossible not to feel the weight of history behind each chapter, impossible not to believe that, somewhere off the page, the people of Middle Earth are going about their business, as real in their way as anyone who ever lived in our past.

But the real test of Tolkien’s importance can be seen in the work he has influenced – both the entire industry of modern commercial epic fantasy, which is built upon his works, and the counter-revolution of hugely talented writers who have set out to write ABT Fantasy** and have, as a result, given us some of the finest, most subversive literature ever produced. Whether it’s city-based Fantasy, rebelling against Tolkien’s perceived rural ideal, or morally-grey Fantasy, rebelling against Tolkien’s alleged Manichean morality, our genre is not only so much richer for Tolkien’s presence, it could be argued that, without him, it would not exist at all.

So, love him or loath him, I’d like to invite you all to join me in raising a glass to John Ronald Reuel Tolkien: the most important writer in the history of Fantasy.

** Anything But Tolkien