We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.
Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk
Saturday, March 9, 2013
Coming Home to Middle Earth
It doesn't really matter that Lord of the Rings has been widely and roundly criticized by critics who sometimes seem to have an almost visceral distate for Tolkien and his books. It doesn't matter whether or not his stories are "good literature" or not. Both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are a good read.
Now, if I'm asked why they are a "good read," the best I can do is to say that for me, at least, they are good stories set in a world of make-believe that is entirely believable once you accept the premise that such a world exists, if only in the imagination. Middle Earth is a fascinating place populated by peoples who are revelations of what it is like to live in a fascinating place. Beyond that, it is a tale in which the little people (literally the little people, the hobbits) prove to be as heroic as the greatest heroes. Lord of the Rings celebrates country folk. It celebrates nature. It celebrates risk for the sake of others. And while it is true that Tolkien's three volumes portray a dualistic world in which Good is Very Good and Evil is Entirely Evil, still the boundaries between good and evil are as porous in Middle Earth as they are on the "real" Earth. Both good and evil inhabit Gollum, for example, who is one of my candidates for the real Lord of the Ring (Frodo, obviously, is another). Tolkien also promotes multiculturalism, which is a good thing to promote in this day and age. But that and most of the rest of this is beside the point. The point is that Lord of the Rings tells an interesting, winsome tale. It is escape reading and doesn't have to do anything more than that.
That being said, it is hard to understand why the book has elicited so much passionate criticism. Edmund Wilson was one of its earliest and most disdainful critics. His 1956 review, published in The Nation (here), is almost embarrassingly highbrow and condescending. He brands Lord of the Rings as "balderdash," and says in so many words that it is popular only because "certain people - especially, perhaps, in Britain - have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash." Maybe so. It is still a good read.