PG’s short answer: No.
Taking Tolkien seriously is inevitably complicated by the fact that he has long been associated in the public mind with a sweaty, furtive gang of misfits and weirdoes – by which I mean those critics who for more than half a century have been sneering at his books and their readers. Self-consciously highbrow types often have surprisingly intolerant views about what other people ought to be writing, and when the first volume of The Lord of the Rings was published in the summer of 1954, a few weeks before Lord of the Flies, many were appalled by its nostalgic medievalism.
A prime example was the American modernist Edmund Wilson, who in a hilariously wrong-headed review for The Nation dismissed Tolkien’s book as “juvenile trash”, marked by – of all things! – an “impotence of imagination”. In the New Statesman, meanwhile, Maurice Richardson, himself a writer of surreal fantasy stories, conceded that The Lord of the Rings might appeal to “very leisured boys”, but claimed that it made him want to march through the streets carrying the sign: “Adults of all ages! Unite against the infantilist invasion.”
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Michael Moorcock, likening it to the works of A A Milne, dismissed The Lord of the Rings as “a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle class“, while Philip Pullman, always keen to sneer at those authors from whom he had borrowed so liberally, called it “trivial“, and “not worth arguing with”. Yet none of this, of course, has ever made the slightest dent in Tolkien’s popularity.
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In his trenchant defence of Tolkien, the literary scholar Tom Shippey suggests that much of the criticism is rooted in pure social and intellectual condescension, not unlike the snobbery that upper-class grotesques like Virginia Woolf directed at his fellow Midlander Arnold Bennett in the early part of the century. The difference, though, is that while Bennett’s reputation, tragically and very unfairly, has never quite recovered, Tolkien’s star remains undimmed. Not even Peter Jackson’s shameful Hobbit adaptations have damaged his popularity. Shippey suggests that, in the future, literary historians will rank The Lord of the Rings alongside other 20th Century classics such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. But there is an obvious difference. The Lord of the Rings is much more popular.
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For good private reasons, Tolkien was a fundamentally backward-looking person. He was born to English parents in Bloemfontein, then the capital of the Orange Free State, in 1892, which made him 16 months younger than Agatha Christie. When little Ronald (as he was known) was three, his mother, Mabel, brought him back from South Africa to her native Birmingham. The plan was for his father, Arthur, to join them later. But Arthur was killed by rheumatic fever before he even boarded ship, so Mabel raised her two boys alone in the village of Sarehole, then in north Worcestershire, on the fringes of the great Midlands metropolis.
Tolkien had a very happy middle-class childhood, devouring the great Victorian children’s classics and excitedly exploring the countryside near his home, including Sarehole’s old mill, the bog at nearby Moseley and Worcestershire’s Clent, Lickey and Malvern Hills. But in November 1904 his mother succumbed to diabetes, which was then often fatal.
At the age of 12, Tolkien was an orphan. His mother had entrusted her boys to her Catholic priest, who arranged for them to move in with their aunt in Stirling Road, Edgbaston. But their new home, close to Birmingham’s present-day Five Ways roundabout, felt very different from the sleepy tranquillity they had known in Sarehole. They had moved from the city’s leafy fringes to its grey industrial heart: when Tolkien looked out of the window, he saw not trees and hills, but “almost unbroken rooftops with the factory chimneys beyond”. It was little wonder that, from the first moment he put pen to paper, his fiction was dominated by a heartfelt nostalgia.
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An amateur psychologist could have a field day with the fact that both JRR Tolkien and Agatha Christie lost parents in their childhood and nursed a sense of loss for the rest of their careers. (Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that the only writers of their generation to rival them in terms of sales – Enid Blyton, who was born in 1897; Barbara Cartland, who was born in 1901; and of course Catherine Cookson, born in 1906 – all had similar memories of loss and upheaval. Cookson hated her mother and never knew her father, Blyton’s father walked out when she was 13, and Cartland’s father was killed in Flanders when she was a teenager.)
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On 7 June 1914 Tolkien and his fellow students enjoyed a lavish dinner to celebrate Exeter’s 600th anniversary. Two years later, on 7 June 1916, he awoke in northern France, having just landed on a troop transport from Folkestone. Tolkien was 24 years old, an Oxford graduate with a young wife. He ought to have been establishing a name for himself in his chosen career: academic philology, the study of language. Instead, he was a signals officer in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, commanding miners and weavers from the industrial north-west.
But this was not war as it had been portrayed in the adventure stories he had loved as a boy; this was carnage on an industrial scale. In early July his unit moved to the Somme, and there Tolkien remained until the end of October, when he was invalided home with trench fever. What he experienced there was a chaotic, muddy, bloody nightmare. Tolkien himself might easily have been killed: in the three and a half months he spent on the Somme, his battalion lost almost 600 men. Unpleasant as trench fever might have seemed, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. For the war fell like a scythe on his generation. Among the dead were no fewer than 243 boys from King Edward’s, as well as 141 young men from Exeter College. John Garth opens his book Tolkien and the Great War with a rugby match between the Old Edwardians and the school’s first fifteen, played in December 1913. Tolkien himself captained the old boys’ team. Within five years, four of his teammates had been killed and four more badly wounded. The sense of loss haunted him for the rest of his life. “To be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years,” he wrote in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
There is no doubt that the Great War was one of the genuinely defining moments in Tolkien’s life, as it was for so many other young men. The extraordinary thing, though, is that it was at precisely this point, amid the horror and suffering of war, that he began work on his great cycle of Middle-earth stories. Years later, in a letter to his son Christopher, then serving with the RAF in another world war, Tolkien recalled that he had begun writing “in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire”. And despite the lazy assertions of the Philip Pullman tendency, Tolkien never saw his work as pure escapism: quite the opposite, in fact. He had begun writing, he explained, “to express [my] feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering”.