If the Italian aristocrat Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is probably the most controversial writer of the 20th century—largely due to his ‘reactionary’ novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)—J.R.R. Tolkien is a strong contender for the second place. There are few works of fiction that have provoked such violent reactions as those written by the famous creator of hobbits. Despite the passion of millions and millions of readers for the Middle Earth universe, the attacks from his cohorts of critics are relentless. Usually, their negative epithets and comments aimed at Tolkien’s famous works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as the posthumous Silmarillion, do not leave room for much discussion.
For example, Philip Toynbee denies these works any quality, stating that “these books were dull, ill-written, whimsical, and childish,” while Edwin Muir believes that Tolkien’s characters are “boys masquerading as adult heroes,” boys who “will never come to puberty.” With phrases such as “juvenile trash,” “class snobbery,” “indigestible meal,” “weak gloss,” “country-based fantasy” and many others like them, Edmund Wilson, Catherine Stimpson, Francis King, Lawrence James Davis, and Fred Inglis assert, with undisguised disgust, the worthlessness of Tolkien’s stories.
Therefore, it is not by chance that the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia coordinated by Professor Michael Drout and published in 2006 already contains an article “Criticism of Tolkien” signed by the scholar Jared Lobdell. Eight years later, in 2014, in A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Stuart Dermont Lee, a substantial overview of criticism of Tolkien and his literary creations was included. Entitled “The Critical Response to Tolkien’s fiction” and signed by a well-known and respected researcher, Patrick Curry, the article presents and responds to the most significant critical reactions of the last 50 years. From this article, I will mention here only its core: the precise and detailed explanation that the author gives to that “visceral hostility” that “dominates the reception of Tolkien’s fiction.” To provide his readers with a truly insightful reason for such negative reactions, Curry states that “we need to invoke something like a worldview, ideology, or set of values.” Then, in an inspired approach, Curry introduces modernism into the equation after proposing a systematic definition of it:
A belief in the ‘right’ and ability, in principle, at least, of humanity to determine its own fate (rather than, say, God or nature), usually through science and technology.
Secularism and materialism, as opposed to the sacrality of theism (whether mono- or poly-), animism or sacred nontheism (e.g. Buddhism).
Considerable confidence, if not indeed faith, in reason, and relatedly in modern science, both instrumentally and substantively conceived, as the ‘highest’ version of reason, along with efficient administration as its practical expression.
All of which coalesces into a narrative ideology of progress and its enemies (chief among them, ‘superstition,’ a.k.a. ‘tradition’) that bears a significant but unacknowledged debt to Christian eschatology.
Developing his analysis, Curry offers a clear and fully justified diagnosis:
It is my contention that the dominant ideology of the literati, as self-appointed guardians of literature, is modernism; that those most aggrieved by Tolkien are or were, personally as well as professionally, modernists.
So be warned, dear readers! We are confronting the most extensive and inescapable debate of our time: the crisis of modernity and all its consequences. The hostile reactions encountered by the author of the epic The Lord of the Rings are the result of his firm resistance to certain ‘values’ of modernity which he, a true Catholic gentleman, never accepted. This is something that the apostles of modernism can’t forgive in authors who are long-dead, let alone their contemporaries. Confronted immediately after the publication of the first edition of The Lord of the Rings with such vitriolic criticism, the author understood that he was dealing with reactions of ideological hostility towards the message of his works. This is why in the foreword to the second edition he wrote with elegant irony the following:
Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.
Although I recognize without any hesitation the primacy of the aesthetic dimension of literature, I also believe—along with Miguel de Cervantes, John Henry Newman, Alessandro Manzoni, and Joseph Conrad (to name just a few)—that the concept of beauty includes the sphere of ideas in a work of fiction. In other words, the message, the values held by the author, are always present, more or less explicitly, in any notable artistic creation. Consequently, it is clear that Tolkien is a gifted messenger of a constellation of ideas and values that is not accepted by those named by Tolkien commentator Bradley Birzer as “the cliquish literary illuminati.” And the source of Tolkien’s ideas is completely different to that of recent history—that is, that belonging to the epoch following the (in)famous French Revolution. Generically speaking, this source is what we call, vaguely perhaps, the “Medieval World” or the “Middle Ages.” Not just any Middle Ages, though, but that of a Christian, European culture and civilization, hierarchically structured.
The golden Middle Age, leaders with character, and the pseudo-myth of progress
Before adding my own contribution to that of Patrick Curry, I will briefly focus on the last point in his list of attributes of modernism: the ideology of progress. According to this ideology, the history of human civilization and culture develops on an upward trajectory in which what is better is always synonymous with what is newer. According to this perspective, we, the moderns, as well as all our techno-scientific artifacts, are the highest peak of humanity from all ages. In short, we are the best.
The Christian dogma of original sin, the fall of Adam and Eve, the presence of metaphysical evil in the entire history of the post-lapsarian world—none of these traditional Christian teachings are accepted by the followers of the myth of progress. For them, the earlier epochs of history can only be stages of primitive, decayed phases of human history. No fault can be greater than the inability of our ancestors to invent the commodities we enjoy today. The main culprits are the inhabitants of the classical Christian era—especially those who lived in the so-called Dark Ages.
On the contrary, like his friend Clive Staples Lewis, or his precursor, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Tolkien believed exactly the opposite. As professor of Medieval Anglo-Saxon language and literature, he loved the ancient texts and the cultural and religious realities of that world with an unquenchable passion. He knew too well, as we can see in his stories, that in that world lived not only perverted monarchs like Julian the Apostate and Frederik II, but also remarkable saintly kings like Alfred the Great, Edward the Confessor, or Stephen of Hungary. His special sympathy for the old medieval monarchies can also be seen in the closing lecture of his academic career, held at Oxford on the 5th of June, 1959, where, with barely disguised disappointment, he announced to his audience: “There are not now any kings or emperors, nor any patrons giving gifts of gold, such as once there were!”
Inspired by such a personal conviction, how else could the story of Frodo Baggins and the evil ring forged by Sauron end but with the return of the great king, Aragorn son of Arathorn? And how else could the world of Middle-earth look than a world of inimitable beauty but also of strong, unforgettable characters caught in a terrible cosmic conflict between Good and Evil, like that described in the book of Revelation of Saint John the Apostle?
Convinced that superiority of technology necessarily means superiority per se, progressive thinkers cannot accept that a virtuous life based on the law of Moses and Christian teachings is, in fact, the best kind of life. In any case, this was the conviction of Professor Tolkien. Inspired by masterpieces of old literature such as the Kalevala, Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Gesta Danorum, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he developed a literary style that would allow for the communication of the old, medieval chivalric code, and those values that generated it, to modern readers: honor, courage, fidelity, self-sacrifice, and—above all—humility.
Opposed both to the ideology of progress and to Nietzsche’s Übermensch ideology, the faithful representation of the Middle Ages is one of the outstanding merits of Tolkien’s literature. It is this representation that awakens, on the part of progressives, that “visceral hostility” towards the one who dared to challenge the modernism by which they are guided. And yet, this reaction is little compared to the damage done by the creators of films based on Tolkien’s stories, in how they have ‘adapted’ his Legendarium to minimize—or even to eliminate—the original message of the author.
For those who have followed his editing work over the decades, there is no doubt that Christopher Tolkien is the best interpreter of his father’s writings. This is why his views, expressed during an interview with the journalist Raphaëlle Rérolle from the daily newspaper Le Monde, are of great importance. From the whole discussion I retained a single fragment that summarizes Christopher Tolkien’s attitude towards the screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings:
The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.
This statement by the one who was considered by J.R.R. Tolkien his “chief critic and collaborator” is so unequivocal that it requires no further comment.
Good love, bad love
For Tolkien, authentic love necessarily implies what the anthropologist Joseph Daniel Unwin called “absolute monogamy.” As insightful scholars like Stratford Caldecott and Joseph Pearce have often pointed out, the concept of love that Tolkien embraced is a Christian one. Present in stories as The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and Curdie (1882), both by George MacDonald, or in the chivalric legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this type of love is inextricably linked with the virtue of chastity. At the same time, it respects both religious and social responsibility. More concretely, a relationship inspired by it involves several rules that Tolkien himself carefully followed all his life: before marriage, chastity is observed by both the man—the future husband—and the woman—the future wife; sexuality is licit only in the context of marriage; the intimacy of the spouses’ sexual life is never exhibited in public.
Completely opposed to the matrimonial love of those who are married, there is a very different type of love, labeled “passion.” It was extensively depicted and analyzed by Plato in his dialogue Phaedrus. Here, the philosopher describes in detail the manifestations of these two types of love: the first, chaste and self-disciplined, can help the person touched by it to reach the heights of contemplation . The second, wild and egocentric, and almost exclusively carnal, is a dangerous disease of the spirit. It was this type of love that Tolkien opposed. And in his case this was not only a theory but a fact of life.
Orphaned by both parents since childhood, John and his brother, Hilary, were raised by a Catholic priest, Francis Xavier Morgan. This second father used his money to help the young orphans to be admitted into the most famous schools of the time. Only when John lost a scholarship to Oxford did Father Morgan discover the love story that began in 1908. Young Edith Bratt, his friend with fascinating bright eyes, was three years older. In addition to this aspect, not negligible in an era scrupulous with such details, John was only 17 years old and unable to support a family. Under such circumstances, Father Morgan asked them to “suspend” their relationship until the young man finished his studies. The two behaved in an exemplary manner. After some hesitation, they stopped seeing each other for almost four years. Only in 1914 did they get engaged, after which, in 1916, they married. Against the decadent spirit of the flames of passion that is extinguished as quickly as it appears, John and Edith offer us an icon of unwavering fidelity. A testimony of this fact is not only the birth of their four children, but also some of the most significant characters of the stories of Middle Earth. Aragorn and Arwen, like the most famous heroes of Middle Earth, Beren and Lúthien, are representatives of ancient royal traditions. They present to us wonderful stories of a love that overcomes the limits of the carnal, mortal, and evanescent body, to reach eternity. As Plato would have said, their love was “heavenly.”
Failing to understand the absence of carnal “passionate love” from Tolkien’s stories, the filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings included passionate kisses and incandescent embraces of Aragorn and Arwen. This is why the reservations expressed by Christopher Tolkien regarding the adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings could hardly be dismissed. Equally justified are the reactions of scholars such as Bradley Birzer, Thomas Shippey, Joseph Pearce, and Patrick Curry to the criticisms of the modernists. The values of Tolkien’s world are not those of contemporary moral relativism, but those of the traditional Christian conception of courtship and romantic loyalty, in which the intimate and delicate aspects of love are treated with discretion and respect that protects their nobility.