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I suppose I respond so antipathetically to Lewis and Tolkien because I find
this sort of consolatory orthodoxy as distasteful as any other self-serving
misanthropic doctrine. One should perhaps feel some sympathy for the nervousness
occasionally revealed beneath their thick layers of stuffy self-satisfaction,
typical of the second-rate schoolmaster so cheerfully mocked by Peake and Rowling,
but sympathy is hard to sustain in the teeth of their hidden aggression which
is so often accompanied by a deep-rooted hypocrisy. Their theories dignify the
mood of a disenchanted and thoroughly discredited section of the repressed English
middle-class too afraid, even as it falls, to make any sort of direct complaint
("They kicked us out of Rhodesia, you know"), least of all to the
Higher Authority, their Tory God who has evidently failed them.
It was best-selling novelists, like Warwick Deeping (Sorrell and Son),
who, after the First World War, adapted the sentimental myths (particularly
the myth of Sacrifice) which had made war bearable (and helped ensure that we
should be able to bear further wars), providing us with the wretched ethic of
passive "decency" and self-sacrifice, by means of which we British
were able to console ourselves in our moral apathy (even Buchan paused in his
anti-Semitic diatribes to provide a few of these). Moderation was the rule and
it is moderation which ruins Tolkien's fantasy and causes it to fail as a genuine
romance, let alone an epic. The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the
mind, the Shire, are "safe", but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond
the Shire are "dangerous". Experience of life itself is dangerous.
The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a
declining nation with a morally bankrupt class whose cowardly self-protection
is primarily responsible for the problems England answered with the ruthless
logic of Thatcherism. Humanity was derided and marginalised. Sentimentality
became the acceptable subsitute. So few people seem to be able to tell the difference.
The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than
a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh
posing as an epic. If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen
are that old bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob - mindless football supporters throwing
their beer-bottles over the fence the worst aspects of modern urban society
represented as the whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom "good
taste" is synonymous with "restraint" (pastel colours, murmured
protest) and "civilized" behaviour means "conventional behaviour
in all circumstances". This is not to deny that courageous characters are
found in The Lord of the Rings, or a willingness to fight Evil (never
really defined), but somehow those courageous characters take on the aspect
of retired colonels at last driven to write a letter to The Times and
we are not sure - because Tolkien cannot really bring himself to get close to
his proles and their satanic leaders - if Sauron and Co. are quite as evil as
we're told. After all, anyone who hates hobbits can't be all bad.
The appeal of the Shire has certain similarities with the appeal of the "Greenwood"
which is, unquestionably, rooted in most of us:
In summer when the sheves be shene
And leaves be large and long,
It is full merry in fair forest
In hear the fowle's song;
To see the deer draw to the dale,
And leave the Hilles hee,
And shadow them in levès green,
Under the greenwood tree.
A Tale of Robin Hood
(quoted in Ancient Metrical Tales, 1829)
There is no happy ending to the Romance of Robin Hood, however, whereas Tolkien,
going against the grain of his subject matter, forces one on us - as a matter
And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the
Escape from Death. Fairy stories provide many examples and modes of this -
which might be called the genuine escapist, or (I would say) fugitive spirit.
But so do other stories (notably those of scientific inspiration), and so
do other studies... But the "consolation" of fairy-tales has another
aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. For more important
is the Consolation of the Happy Ending.
J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories"
The great epics dignified death, but they did not ignore it, and it is one
of the reasons why they are superior to the artificial romances of which Lord
of the Rings is merely one of the most recent.
Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, at least, people have been
yearning for an ideal rural world they believe to have vanished - yearning for
a mythical state of innocence (as Morris did) as heartily as the Israelites
yearned for the Garden of Eden. This refusal to face or derive any pleasure
from the realities of urban industrial life, this longing to possess, again,
the infant's eye view of the countryside, is a fundamental theme in popular
English literature. Novels set in the countryside probably always outsell novels
set in the city, perhaps because most people now live in cities.
If I find this nostalgia for a "vanished" landscape a bit strange
it is probably because as I write I can look from my window over twenty miles
of superb countryside to the sea and a sparsely populated coast. This county,
like many others, has seemingly limitless landscapes of great beauty and variety,
unspoiled by excessive tourism or the uglier forms of industry. Elsewhere big
cities have certainly destroyed the surrounding countryside but rapid transport
now makes it possible for a Londoner to spend the time they would have needed
to get to Box Hill forty years ago in getting to Northumberland. I think it
is simple neophobia which makes people hate the modern world and its changing
society; it is xenophobia which makes them unable to imagine what rural beauty
might lie beyond the boundaries of their particular Shire. They would rather
read Miss Read and The Horse Whisperer and share a miserable complaint
or two on the commuter train while planning to take their holidays in Bournemouth,
as usual, because they can't afford to go to Spain this year. They don't want
rural beauty anyway; they want a sunny day, a pretty view.
Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent
tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding
you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go
down; they haven't got the approval yet to put a new one in.