Author's Note: 'Epic Pooh' was originally published as an essay by
the BSFA, revised for its
inclusion in the 1989 book Wizardry and Wild Romance, A Study of Epic Fantasy,
and slightly revised again for this publication. It was written long before the publication and much-deserved success of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy which, in my view, merits all the optimism I have expressed here. The essay did not attempt to deal with all fantasy, such as Alice in Wonderland or other children's fantasy,
but only epic fantasy from its origins in romance poetry to the present day.
Certain highlighted phrases indicate additional
comments from the author: mouse over the phrase to read the note.
Why is the Rings being widely read today? At a time when perhaps the
world was never more in need of authentic experience, this story seems to
provide a pattern of it. A businessman in Oxford told me that when tired or
out of sorts he went to the Rings for restoration. Lewis and various
other critics believe that no book is more relevant to the human situation.
W. H. Auden says that it "holds up the mirror to the only nature we know,
our own." As for myself I was rereading the Rings at the time
of Winston Churchill's funeral and I felt a distinct parallel between the
two. For a few short hours the trivia which normally absorbs us was suspended
and people experienced in common the meaning of leadership, greatness, valor,
time redolent of timelessness, and common traits. Men became temporarily human
and felt the life within them and about. Their corporate life lived for a
little and made possible the sign of renewal alter a realisation such as occurs
only once or twice in a lifetime.
For a century at least the world has been increasingly demythologized. But
such a condition is apparently alien to the real nature of men. Now comes
a writer such as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and, as remythologizer, strangely
warms our souls.
Clyde S. Kilby: "Meaning in the Lord of the Rings",
Shadows of Imagination, 1969
I have sometimes wondered how much the advent of steam influenced Victorian
ballad poetry and romantic prose. Reading Dunsany, for instance, it often occurs
to me that his early stories were all written during train journeys:
Up from the platform and onto the train
Got Welleran, Rollory and young Iraine.
Forgetful of sex and income tax
Were Sooranard, Mammolek, Akanax:
And in their dreams Dunsany's lord
Mislaid the communication cord.
The sort of prose most often identified with "high" fantasy is the
prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console.
It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its
lack of tensions. It coddles; it makes friends with you; it tells you comforting
lies. It is soft:
One day when the sun had come back over the forest, bringing with it the
scent of May, and all the streams of the Forest were tinkling happily to find
themselves their own pretty shape again, and the little pools lay dreaming
of the life they had seen and the big things they had done, and in the warmth
and quiet of the Forest the cuckoo was trying over his voice carefully and
listening to see if he liked it, and wood-pigeons were complaining gently
to themselves in their lazy comfortable way that it was the other fellow's
fault, but it didn't matter very much; on such a day as this Christopher Robin
whistled in a special way he had, and Owl came flying out of the Hundred Acre
Wood to see what was wanted.
It is the predominant tone of The Lord of the Rings and Watership
Down and it is the main reason why these books, like many similar ones in
the past, are successful. It is the tone of many forgotten British and American
bestsellers, well-remembered children's books, like The Wind in the Willows,
you often hear it in regional fiction addressed to a local audience, or, in
a more sophisticated form, James Barrie (Dear Brutus, Mary Rose and,
of course, Peter Pan). Unlike the tone of E.Nesbit (Five Children
and It etc.), Richmal Crompton (the 'William' books) Terry Pratchett or
the redoubtable J.K.Rowling, it is sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful,
a trifle retrospective; it contains little wit and much whimsy. The humour is
often unconscious because, as with Tolkien, the authors take
words seriously but without pleasure:
One summer's evening an astonishing piece of news reached the Ivy Bush and
Green Dragon. Giants and other portents on the borders of the Shire were forgotten
for more important matters; Mr. Frodo was selling Bag End, indeed he had already
sold it-to the Sackville-Bagginses!
"For a nice bit, too," said some. "At a bargain price,"
said others, "and that's more likely when Mistress Lobelia's the buyer."
(Otho had died some years before, at the ripe but disappointed age of 102.)
Just why Mr. Frodo was selling his beautiful hole was even more debatable
than the price...
The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954
I have been told it is not fair to quote from the earlier parts of The
Lord of the Rings, that I should look elsewhere to find much better stuff
so, opening it entirely at random, I find some improvement in substance and
writing, but that tone is still there:
Pippin became drowsy again and paid little attention to Gandalf telling him
of the customs of Gondor, and how the Lord of the City had beacons built on
the tops of outlying hills along both borders of the great range, and maintained
posts at these points where fresh horses were always in readiness to bear
his errand-riders to Rohan in the North, or to Belfalas in the South. "It
is long since the beacons of the North were lit," he said; "and
in the ancient days of Gondor they were not needed, for they had the Seven
Pippin stirred uneasily.
The Return of the King, 1955
Tolkien does, admittedly, rise above this sort of thing on occasions, in some
key scenes, but often such a scene will be ruined by ghastly verse and it is
remarkable how frequently he will draw back from the implications of the subject
matter. Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted
faith for artistic rigour he sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans
and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized
in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain
about any deficiencies in the social status quo. They are a type familiar to
anyone who ever watched an English film of the thirties and forties, particularly
a war-film, where they represented solid good sense opposed to a perverted intellectualism.
In many ways The Lord of the Rings is, if not exactly anti-romantic,
an anti-romance. Tolkien, and his fellow "Inklings" (the dons who
met in Lewis's Oxford rooms to read their work in progress to one another),
had extraordinarily ambiguous attitudes towards Romance (and just about everything
else), which is doubtless why his trilogy has so many confused moments when
the tension flags completely. But he could, at his best, produce prose much
better than that of his Oxford contemporaries who perhaps lacked his respect
for middle-English poetry. He claimed that his work was primarily linguistic
in its original conception, that there were no symbols or allegories to be found
in it, but his beliefs permeate the book as thoroughly as
they do the books of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, who, consciously or unconsciously,
promoted their orthodox Toryism in everything they wrote. While there is an
argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply
conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate
them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don't think these books are 'fascist',
but they certainly don't exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism
with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times.
They don't ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have
a handle on what's best for us.