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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 July, 2004, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
How Tolkien triumphed over the critics
By Victoria Lindrea
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Elijah Wood as Frodo
The Fellowship of the Ring film adaptation was a box office triumph

The Fellowship of the Ring, the first instalment of JRR Tolkien's fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, was published 50 years ago. But what did critics of the day make of the book?

One of the most popular books in literary history it is also a regular winner of recent polls to find the nation's favourite novel - last year it topped the BBC's Big Read survey.

But Tolkien's public did not alway look so favourably upon this epic work.

The Spectator's Richard Hughes, writing in October 1954, opened his review praising the pleasures of reading Tolkien's The Hobbit - published 17 years earlier - to his children.

"This is not a work which many adults will read through more than once," said the anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement, while American critic Edmund Wilson, dismissed the entire trilogy in 1956 as "juvenile trash".

Harry Potter books
Harry Potter books enjoy success in both the children and adult market

It seems Tolkien could not escape the sniffy literary attitudes to the fantasy genre. The Fellowship of the Ring remained, in the eyes of the critics, a children's novel.

These days, of course, the dividing line between children and adult audiences has blurred.

The fantasy genre, in particular, has found cross-generational success, with JK Rowling and Philip Pullman both making top five in the BBC's Big Read.

More recently, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - winner of the Whitbread prize - has been published in both adult and children's versions.

Fiction facts
The Lord of the Rings took 11 years to complete
Only 3,500 books were printed for the first print run
In the US in 1965, 100,000 pirate trilogies were sold
Tolkien sold the film rights to the books in 1969 for £10,000
Tolkien created 37 new languages for 34 books

It is true to say most critics of the time admired JRR Tolkien's inventiveness, commending the scope of detail that the author brought to Middle Earth, its character and its traditions.

Writing in the Guardian in August 1954, shortly after the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring on 29 July, Herbert Dingle praised Tolkien's "largess".

"To have created so enthralling an epic-romance, with its own mythology, with such diversity of scene and character, such imaginative largess in invention and description, and such supernatural meaning underlying the wealth of incident is a most remarkable feat."

Similiarly, JW Lambert writing in the Sunday Times on August 8, 1954 celebrated the writer's extraordinary imagination.

"In carrying out this Wagnerian project, he has distilled elements of Norse, Teutonic and Celtic myth to make a strange but coherent world of his own."

"However one may look at it The Fellowship of the Ring is an extraordinary book," wrote Edwin Muir in the Observer on 22 August, 1954.

"If Mr Tolkien's imagination had been equal to his invention, and his style equal to both, this book might have been a masterpiece."

JRR Tolkien
JRR Tolkien is credited with establishing the fantasy genre

There is praise too for Tolkien's story-telling prowess; his ability to bring pace and humour to his narrative.

"The story of the pilgramage... is followed with verve and humour and cunning variations of pace and style," wrote the Sunday Times' JW Lambert.

"Mr Tolkien is one of those born story-tellers who makes his readers as eager as wide-eyed children for more," wrote the Guardian's Herbert Dingle.

But Mr Dingle raised the nub of many early critics' ambivalence towards the novel - the child-like simplicity of Tolkien's themes.

"Mr Tolkien describes a tremendous conflict between good and evil... but his good people are consistently good, his evil figures immovably evil," wrote the Observer's Mr Muir.

The author was not helped by the publication of CS Lewis' fulsome review to market The Fellowship of the Ring, which drew scorn from fellow critics.

"No imaginary world has been projected which is at once as multifarious and so true to its inner laws," wrote CS Lewis, Tolkien's friend and Oxford contemporary.

Orc archer
The Return of the King won best film at this year's Oscars

"If Ariosto rivalled it in invention (which in fact he does not), he would still lack its heroic seriousness."

His review was hailed a "buffonery" by reviewers and it served to undermine the book's evident achievements.

"Nothing but a great masterpiece could survive the bombardment of praise directed at it from the blurb, " wrote the Observer's Edwin Muir.

"On the jacket Ariosto, Malory and Spenser are evoked: skirting these peaks... it may be more helpful to suggest that those who enjoyed, say, the Brothers Grimm... The Wind in the Willows or TH White's Sword in the Stone will find this bizarre enterprise very much to their taste," ran Mr Lambert's review in the Sunday Times.

"The conflict is real; the means are the most suitable possible. Mr Tolkien deals with elves and dwarfs [sic], hobbits and orcs as if he knew them," wrote Mr Muir, somewhat belittlingly, in the Observer.

"Yet for myself, I could not resist feeling a certain disappointment. Perhaps this was partly due to the style, which is quite unequal to the theme, alternating between the popular novel and the boy's adventure story."

Perhaps, like Peter Jackson's film adaptation which finally clinched the best film Oscar earlier this year, Tolkien's epic was only fully appreciated in its entirety. Certainly that is the view of the Spectator's Mr Hughes.

"I think we should be well advised to remember that what we have before us now is the first volume of a larger work... and be willing to suspend judgement... until we have seen the whole."

But summing up, he adds: "The pleasure to be derived from this first volume is a pleasure not to be missed."


SEE ALSO:
Rings triumphs in Big Read vote
14 Dec 03 |  Entertainment
The phenomenon of the Rings
01 Mar 04 |  Entertainment
Tolkien trilogy sold at auction
01 Apr 04 |  Entertainment


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