A Letter to Private Eye Defending Tolkien

If ‘Bookworm’ wants to pursue a vendetta against Tolkienians, let him at least be accurate. ‘Mental age’ is a technical term, referring to adults whose IQ scores are so low that they can only be compared to those of young children. It has nothing to do with childish attitudes, which is what ‘Bookworm’ is accusing us of.

Nor does The Worm know the real history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It began with the Fall of Gondolin, written while he was serving as a soldier in World War One. Combining it with the imaginary languages that he had previously devised, Tolkien evolved his own system of mythology. He tried to get parts of this work published, but none of it was seen as commercially viable. Not until he wrote The Hobbit, a children’s story loosely associated with Middle Earth. When this proved popular, he went on to write The Lord of the Rings, a more serious work that was set some thousands of years after the original myths (at that time still unpublished and unpublishable).

All this while, a genre of ‘sword and sorcery’ tales was developing in the United States. It had points in common with Tolkien’s work, since it drew on many of the same source materials, but was essentially separate and unconnected. The tales of Conan the Barbarian are typical of this genre as it was in the 1930s. Much later – from the 1960s onwards – some ‘sword and sorcery’ writers began borrowing from Tolkien. Eddings is a recent and highly popular example of this trend. But if Tolkien had never lived, we would still have ‘sword and sorcery’, since it existed well before his works got into print or influenced anyone.

‘Bookworm’ the worm-tongued chooses to sneer at us for our detailed interest in Tolkien. Does he also sneer at people who make a detailed study of cricket statistics, or chess problems, or abstruse questions of higher mathematics? Or is he really upset because Tolkien’s work hint as something too high and subtle for his understanding, even though ‘Bookworm’ and the other literati consider themselves to be the crowning glory of modern civilisation? Is The Worm unable to bear the light that Tolkien seems to have seen? (And I’m not talking about religion – I am an atheist, but I find in Tolkien something that just cannot be defined in ordinary language.)

Tolkien is one of the most remarkable phenomena of 20th century literature – totally separate from everything else that was happening, and yet vastly influential. He was virtually a one-man literary movement (C. S. Lewis is not particularly similar). Naturally, he has been hated by literati who would very much have liked to have the same success, but who get nowhere because they have nothing new to say. Stories about ‘incest and infidelity, the boozing and buggery’ have been churned out by the hundredweight, and the public are less and less interested. If ‘Bookworm’ wants literary studies to be an up-market version of the News of the World, that’s a worm’s privilege. But don’t be surprised if an increasing number of the literate public prefer something that isn’t sleazy or cynical.

Dare you publish this letter? Probably not – but at least you’ll have to read it, which makes it worth the sending.

This was sent in November 2000, and was indeed not published.

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