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December 15, 2011 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Many ages ago, before some had yet to hear of The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings or the collectible LOTR glasses sold at Burger King, critics did their initial reviews. Here's the original review by the New York Times of The Hobbit in 1938. Then came The Fellowship of the Ring, followed by The Two Towers, and of course The Return of the King. Here's a 1967 interview with Tolkien after the influence of his work was starting to be felt. One interesting detail noted is that Tolkien typed the entire 1200+ page manuscript of TLOTR with two fingers. Of course, not everyone viewed the books so favorably. The BBC has detailed some initial criticism against the books, but this seems to have been the minority response within a generally broad and warm literary reception.
posted by SpacemanStix (44 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow. W.H. Auden frickin' loved The Lord of the Rings.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:34 PM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah--not mentioning that the reviews of TFOTR and TROTK are by Auden really seems like burying the lede. Great FPP though.
posted by yoink at 12:37 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm particularly interested by the Auden reviews because I seem to have often stumbled across the general characterization of TLOTR that it was, on publication, seen as nothing more than a Young Adult adventure and that it reveals something degenerate about our era that Actual Grown People take it seriously. When you have W.H. fricking Auden reviewing it for the NY Times in glowing terms as a novel for grownups, there's clearly something seriously awry with that narrative.
posted by yoink at 12:40 PM on December 15, 2011 [10 favorites]


At the End of the Quest, Victory

SPOILERS!!@#@3223@#@!!!
posted by nathancaswell at 12:41 PM on December 15, 2011


My favorite story about the relatively early reception of LOTR is that they were a huge inspiration to civil rights leader Bob Moses, who apparently talked about Frodo all the time during the struggle.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:41 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


And Donald Barr, who wrote the Two Towers review, is the father of former Attorney General William P. Barr, who wrote advisory opinions justifying the U.S. invasion of Panama and arrest of Manuel Noriega, PERHAPS INSPIRED BY FRODO.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:41 PM on December 15, 2011


I read LOTR first when I was in high school 30+ years ago, and after the first hundred or so pages it was RIVETING. Then I read The Hobbit, and was kind of disappointed in it. He really grew as a writer and storyteller between the two projects. What other great works of art have we missed out on because the creators were killed in WW1 before they were able to give them life? I'm glad Tolkien dodged the bullets.
posted by Daddy-O at 12:43 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


nothing more than a Young Adult adventure

The genre of high fantasy did not exist at that time, nor was there a distinct "young adult" demographic in publishing, so I fail to see how this could be anything other than a modern gloss on things. I would say, if anything, that it was the cult-like passion of his fans, and the later popularity of derivative work of varying quality, that forced a negative reappraisal. The backlash was well in effect by the time Harvard Lampoon put together Bored of the Rings, for example.

At the same time, I think it's clear that not even Auden recognized what cultural touchstones they would become.
posted by dhartung at 12:50 PM on December 15, 2011


Those Auden reviews are fantastic. "For anyone who likes the genre to which it belongs, the Heroic Quest, I cannot imagine a more wonderful Christmas present."
posted by epersonae at 12:52 PM on December 15, 2011


Frodo lives!
posted by Sailormom at 12:55 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thanks for this.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:56 PM on December 15, 2011


That Mr Auden was the author of several volumes of verse, apparently!

Liked Tolkein's comment about children being human beings at a different stage of maturation.
posted by Abiezer at 12:56 PM on December 15, 2011


It does occasionally boggle my mind that works which are now considered classics came out recently enough to have contemporary reviews easily accessed. (See also: less than 70 years elapsed between Kitty Hawk and Apollo 11.) I remember once looking through reviews of Casablanca on IMDB, and as expected most were retrospectives (like Ebert's excellent Great Movies entry) or DVD reviews. Then as I read the NYT review (warning: some rather archaic racial language) I had to quickly switch contexts as it became obvious that it was a review of a movie that was just opening.

Can you imagine if modern newspapers existed during, say, Shakespeare's time?
Hamlet
Performed by Lord Chamberlain's Men at the Globe
3 out of 4 stars

Summary: Superb story and side characters dragged down by nonsensical supernatural subplot and whiny protagonist.
posted by kmz at 12:57 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can't believe this isn't a double (which should be taken as a complement...something that seems so perfect for Metafilter that you can't believe it hasn't been here already.) And as I've said too many times probably, I love living in the now -- back when I was a wee kid, I spent many hours in the public library looking up old New York Times and other magazines on microfiche on subjects I was interested in. Now it's like the world does it for me.

Auden's review is so full of joy it almost convinces me to pick up the book again. I suppose that's what a review should do when its author liked the book so much. But still I can't believe what a joy the review was to read.

My favorite story about the relatively early reception of LOTR is that they were a huge inspiration to civil rights leader Bob Moses, who apparently talked about Frodo all the time during the struggle.

I'm not even that big of a LOTR fan, but something about this makes me very happy. If someone ever finds out that this isn't true, please don't tell me.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:59 PM on December 15, 2011


I suspect most people who got turned on to the series via Peter Jackson have little inkling of LOTR's popularity in the late 60s/early 70s. Between the rather psychedelic-looking Bakshi cartoons and this seemingly ubiquitous poster, I started out thinking of the series as a very "hippie" thing indeed.
posted by stinkycheese at 12:59 PM on December 15, 2011


Having read the NYT interview from 1967, a visit to the Trip to Jerusalem pub in Nottingham is now on my bucket list, if it still exists. Does it?

Oh, and I first read the LOTR somewhere around 1972 and have probably re-read it at least a dozen times since then. I never get tired of them.
posted by lordrunningclam at 1:00 PM on December 15, 2011


Google is your friend... Yes it is.
posted by lordrunningclam at 1:02 PM on December 15, 2011


Having read the NYT interview from 1967, a visit to the Trip to Jerusalem pub in Nottingham is now on my bucket list, if it still exists. Does it?

Yes. And if you're going all the way to Nottingham for a drink, don't forget the Bell and the Old Salutation either.
posted by Jehan at 1:03 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think that in 1938 reading for pleasure Was probably still a pastime for the elite, who had the free time and the money to purchase expensive books. Almost anything published, especially written by scholars like Tolkien was probably taken seriously was it not? I think it was most likely not until the invention of the paper back and western society had reached the point that the idle rich were not the only ones with the free time to read that we started looking down on people for not reading the right things.

This is just my impression though.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:07 PM on December 15, 2011


nor was there a distinct "young adult" demographic in publishing

In the 1950s? There were books been written for teenage readers well before that. The term "Young Adult" may or may not have been widely used at the time, but the notion that there was a market for books aimed neither at children nor at adults was very well established.
posted by yoink at 1:08 PM on December 15, 2011


I suspect most people who got turned on to the series via Peter Jackson have little inkling of LOTR's popularity in the late 60s/early 70s.

I remember an old interview with Kurt Vonnegut where he was all ironical about fashionable "counterculture" people who you would recognize by the fact that they had Slaughterhouse 5 and LOTR books (that they had never actually read) lying around on the floor. I guess today you would call them hipsters.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:09 PM on December 15, 2011


I think that in 1938 reading for pleasure Was probably still a pastime for the elite, who had the free time and the money to purchase expensive books. Almost anything published, especially written by scholars like Tolkien was probably taken seriously was it not?

If you look at the NYT review of The Hobbit the reviewer identifies it as a book "for children" in the first sentence. So she is "taking it seriously" in the sense that she thinks it a seriously good book for children, but not in the sense that she thinks it is great literature in itself.

Auden's review of TLOTR, on the other hand, tells us that while The Hobbit was a children's book, this is something different: "suited to adults, to those, that is, between the ages of 12 and 70." I other words, he recognizes that YA readers will like it, but he wants to insist that it is suitable fare for grown-ups too.
posted by yoink at 1:12 PM on December 15, 2011


Also Auden was a student of Tolkien's and corresponded with him for years after.

I don't know how I first read Tolkien but I first started reading Hesse due to a line in a Stephen King short story about a bookshelf "filled with Tolkien and Hesse" so I figured I better check this Hesse guy out.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:13 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Auden's review of TLOTR, on the other hand, tells us that while The Hobbit was a children's book, this is something different: "suited to adults, to those, that is, between the ages of 12 and 70."

Right, I was more taking about why the NYT would be reviewing children's books and books about magic rings at all.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:18 PM on December 15, 2011


Almost anything published, especially written by scholars like Tolkien was probably taken seriously was it not?

Well, Tolkien himself certainly took his stuff very seriously. Especially the dragons. He says that real dragons are "essential to the ideas of a poem or a tale". He praises the minstrel who wrote the Beowulf because "He esteemed dragons, as rare as they are dire, as some do still. He liked them—as a poet, not as a sober zoologist", and belittles the modern critics who fail to understand them.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:20 PM on December 15, 2011


Right, Tolkien was famous for his lectures on Beowulf, years after attending one Auden the same one who wrote the reviews, wrote Tolkien regarding how much he enjoyed his lectures on Beowulf.

I may have convinced myself that Auden just dug Tolkien and nobody else particularly cared.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:25 PM on December 15, 2011


Growing up in the 70s, there were still remnants of the hippie affection for the Lord of the Rings everywhere, from "Tolkein may be hobbit-forming" bathroom graffiti to countercultural bookstores well-stocked with his work, as well as what was functionally fan-art, from books of maps to sheet music of songs base don his poems. And this was Minneapolis. Tolkein was impossible to avoid in my childhood, and even my father, a college professor, took pleasure in bringing me in front of groups at parties and having me recite the opening paragraphs of The Hobbit, which I had memorized.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:41 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I actually find the hippie take on Tolkien more engaging than the movie take. There's a lot of poetry made prose in the films.
posted by JHarris at 1:54 PM on December 15, 2011


The Return of the King review reads like a philosophical treatise on the fantasy genre and existence itself. Why don't newspapers write stuff like that anymore?
posted by Glibpaxman at 2:01 PM on December 15, 2011


Auden wrote lots of great essays like that. Check out this one, Notes on the Detective Novel.

A sampling:

For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol. The symptoms of this are: Firstly, the intensity of the craving–if I have any work to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it. Secondly, its specificity–the story must conform to certain formulas ...

The detective story requires: (1) A closed society so that the possibility of an outside murderer (and hence of the society being totally innocent) is excluded; and a closely related society so that all its members are potentially suspect (cf. the thriller, which requires an open society in which any stranger may be a friend or enemy in disguise) ...

(2) It must appear to be an innocent society in a state of grace, i.e., a society where there is no need of the law, no contradiction between the aesthetic individual and the ethical universal, and where murder, therefore, is the unheard-of act which precipitates a crisis (for it reveals that some member has fallen and is no longer in a state of grace) ...

The victim has to try to satisfy two contradictory requirements. He has to involve everyone in suspicion, which requires that he be a bad character; and he has to make everyone feel guilty, which requires that he be a good character. He cannot be a criminal because he could then be dealt with by the law and murder would be unnecessary. (Blackmail is the only exception.) The more general the temptation to murder he arouses, the better; e.g., the desire for freedom is a better motive than money alone or sex alone. On the whole, the best victim is the negative Father or Mother Image.

posted by straight at 2:14 PM on December 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


"In this we are aided by the admirable maps provided by the author, which in their detail and imaginative consistency, suggest Bernard Sleigh's "Mappe of Fairyland.""

(Brought to you by the Library of Congress's Geography and Map Division, subject category "Fairyland -- Aerial Views")
posted by ormondsacker at 3:42 PM on December 15, 2011


The BBC has detailed some initial criticism against the books, but this seems to have been the minority response within a generally broad and warm literary reception.

That wasn't Tolkien's impression. He later wrote that Auden had been one of the few critics to support him. 'He gave me very good reviews, notices and letters from the beginning when it was by no means a popular thing to do. He was, in fact, sneered at for it.' Tolkien was probably thinking of this review by Edmund Wilson, which poked fun at Auden for his praise of LOTR:
The most distinguished of Tolkien's admirers and the most conspicuous of his defenders has been Mr. W. H. Auden. That Auden is a master of English verse and a well-equipped critic of verse, no one, as they say, will dispute. It is significant, then, that he comments on the badness of Tolkien's verse -- there is a great deal of poetry in The Lord of the Rings. Mr. Auden is apparently quite insensitive -- through lack of interest in the other department -- to the fact that Tolkien's prose is just as bad. Prose and verse are on the same level of professorial amateurishness. What I believe has misled Mr. Auden is his own special preoccupation with the legendary theme of the Quest. He has written a book about the literature of the Quest; he has experimented with the theme himself in a remarkable sequence of sonnets; and it is to be hoped that he will do something with it on an even larger scale. In the meantime -- as sometimes happens with works that fall in with one's interests -- he no doubt so overrates The Lord of the Rings because he reads into it something that he means to write himself. It is indeed the tale of a Quest, but, to the reviewer, an extremely unrewarding one .. Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form.
Tolkien's friendship with Auden was strained in later years, after Auden gave a lecture to the Tolkien Society in which he said, or was reported to have said, that Tolkien 'lived in a hideous house with hideous pictures on the walls'. Tolkien was deeply offended, as who wouldn't be? though out of politeness he pretended to believe that Auden had been misquoted.
posted by verstegan at 4:02 PM on December 15, 2011


A friend of mine swears that within the counterculture there were two camps: Stranger In a Strange Land vs. Lord of the Rings.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:14 PM on December 15, 2011


I can't find a link to the text, but one of my favorite inclusions in a book of Borges non-fiction that I've got is his review of King Kong, written around the time of it's release.

(He was not a fan. And his thoughts read not unlike those of someone panning the latest mindless CGI-encrusted action fest from this year.)
posted by sparkletone at 4:14 PM on December 15, 2011


Oops. Should've previewed: After the first sentence in my previous comment, I meant to add that I really like finding stuff like this, and I hadn't read any of these. Thanks!
posted by sparkletone at 4:15 PM on December 15, 2011


I saw that the interview with Tolkien is by Philip Norman. Would this be the same Philip Norman who wrote what many consider to be the definitive Beatles biography?
posted by mgrichmond at 5:00 PM on December 15, 2011


"Not another fucking elf!"
posted by Wolof at 5:21 PM on December 15, 2011


Prose and verse are on the same level of professorial amateurishness.

Can't argue with that. Tolkein's prose is utterly leaden. What he's good at is world-building and plot--and, more variably, character. He badly needed a good editor. A lot of readers must have given up on "The Fellowship of the Ring" when the first 80 pages or so seem so utterly dire.
posted by yoink at 5:53 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I was in university in 1971 - 1975, I pretty much wore out the Ballantine paperback editions through multiple readings. It wsa only after several months that a friend showed how all three covers lined up to form a single panoramic image. Then I found the panorama poster and it hung on my wall lo those many years.
posted by Mike D at 6:01 PM on December 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I would like to recommend 2 books to those who deeply enjoy The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: 'The Silmarillion' by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by his son Christopher; and professor Tom Shippey's book 'J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.' The latter is a book of literary criticism and gave me a vastly deeper understanding and appreciation of Tolkien literature. The depth of Tolkien's knowledge and of his love for the ancient surviving literature of northern Europe astounded me.

I enjoyed The Silmarillion even more than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I wouldn't have thought that was even possible, before I read it! Check it out from your public library, and see what you think!

Dr. Shippey explains that Tolkien has been dismissed by various British literary critics because of his very humble, working-class family origins. In recent multiple polls involving vast numbers of British readers, LoTR has been repeatedly voted the #1 most-loved book of English literature. This is something that the aristocratic snobs who dismiss his work find maddening. Ashamed to admit their class-snobbery, they have proffered all sorts of bogus objections to Tolkien literature. They have fooled few, however!
posted by Galadhwen at 6:57 PM on December 15, 2011


"I think that in 1938 reading for pleasure Was probably still a pastime for the elite, who had the free time and the money to purchase expensive books. Almost anything published, especially written by scholars like Tolkien was probably taken seriously was it not? I think it was most likely not until the invention of the paper back and western society had reached the point that the idle rich were not the only ones with the free time to read that we started looking down on people for not reading the right things."

Oh no, there was a tremendous amount of pop fiction, but most of it was in pulp magazines and newspapers. Flimsy stuff. There were several generations of kids who could read because they'd attended public schools, and a whole publishing industry devoted to the capture of their dimes and nickels. I think there were cheapo hardcovers too, like those flimsy red books that are so ubiquitous in second-hand book stores.

Tolkien was a professor from Oxford, so anything he wrote was classed as literature, whatever the merits of it may have been. But if he lived in a cold water flat in New York and banged out his novels for serialization in Amazing Stories, the NYT would most likely have ignored him.
posted by Kevin Street at 7:09 PM on December 15, 2011


Dr. Shippey explains that Tolkien has been dismissed by various British literary critics because of his very humble, working-class family origins.

I doubt the vast majority are aware of those origins. Tolkein's rep. is as an Oxford don. We don't generally think of them as working-class boys made good. Your average literary critic would be more inclined to regard the working class origin as a positive than a negative.
posted by yoink at 10:04 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Return of the King review reads like a philosophical treatise on the fantasy genre and existence itself. Why don't newspapers write stuff like that anymore?

The London Review of Books and New York Review of Books do.
posted by Francis at 3:39 AM on December 16, 2011


What other great works of art have we missed out on because the creators were killed in WW1 before they were able to give them life? I'm glad Tolkien dodged the bullets.

That's the sort of staggering thing about WWI. An entire generation just ... disappeared. Claude Levi-Strauss was literally the only French Ph.D in anthropology from his cohort to survive World War One. Tolkien was one of how many to make it back? It left a lot of scars on Europe in particular, and it's kind of awful to think about what could have been.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:45 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


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