Thursday, November 12, 2015

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Reviewed by C.S. Lewis and Illustrated

What do you say if you are asked to write a scholarly review about a book that a close friend wrote when you honestly believe it is one of the best things you have ever read? Would you feel like you should tone down your enthusiasm so people will take you seriously? If you are C.S. Lewis, that friend is J.R.R. Tolkien, and the book is The Lord of the Rings you tell the whole truth as best you can, as Lewis did in Time and Tide in two reviews: "The Gods Return to Earth" (14 August 1954) and "The Dethronement of Power" (22 October 1955). Both appear in one chapter of C.S. Lewis: On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, edited by Walter Hooper. I summarize and illustrate it here with this preface: I sometimes have the rare privilege of interacting with people who appreciate the unique genius of both Tolkien and Lewis. What is much more common, however, is hearing people go on about their Boy Tolkien or Lewis, usually showing some disdain toward the other, as if they had to choose sides. In the worst cases I hear Lewis misrepresented as an academic who promulgated religious platitudes and Tolkien as a silly scholar preoccupied with faeries. Do yourself a favor and set aside such stereotypes. Instead, drink in this sincere, mind- and heart-felt compliment to a true friend's brilliance.

"This book is like lightning from a clear sky...sharply different, [its] heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed.... In the history of Romance itselfa history that stretches back to the Odyssey and beyondit makes not a return but an advance or revolution: the conquest of new territory.

"Nothing quite like it was ever done before.... The ineluctable sense of reality we feel in the Morte d'Arthur comes largely from the great weight of other men's work built up century by century.... The utterly new achievement of Professor Tolkien is that he carries a comparable sense of reality unaided. Probably no book yet written in the world is quite such a radical instance of what its author has elsewhere called 'sub-creation' [in his famous lecture On Fairy-stories].... Not content to create his own story, he creates, with an almost insolent prodigality, the whole world in which it is to move, with its own theology, myths, geography, history, paleography, languages, and orders of beings'a world full of strange creatures beyond count,'" to quote from Tolkien's prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring. "The names alone are a feast, whether redolent of quiet countryside (Michel Delving, South Farthing), tall and kingly (Boromir, Faramir, Elendil), loathsome like Sméagol, who is also Gollum, or frowning in the evil strength of Barad-dûr or Gorgoroth; yet best of all (Lothlórien, Gilthoniel, Galadriel) when they embody that piercing, high elvish beauty of which no prose writer has captured so much.
"Such a book has of course its predestined readers, even now more numerous and more critical than is always realized. To them a reviewer need say little, except that here are beauties that pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. They will know that this is good news, good beyond hope. To complete their happiness one need only add that it [is] gloriously long...but it is too great a book to rule only its natural subjects. Something must be said to 'those without,' to the unconverted. At the very least, possible misunderstandings may be got out of the way.

"First, we must clearly understand that though The Fellowship in one way continues its author's fairy tale, The Hobbit, it is in no sense an overgrown 'juvenile.' The truth is the other way round. The Hobbit was merely a fragment torn from the author's huge myth.... The Fellowship gives us at last the lineaments of that myth in their true dimensions." C.S. Lewis admits that LOTR's first chapter is deceptively simple, yet asserts "there were good reasons for such an opening; still more for the Prologue (wholly admirable, this) that precedes it. It is essential that we should first be well steeped in the 'homeliness,' the frivolity, even (in its best sense) the vulgarity of the creatures called Hobbits; these unambitious folk, peaceable yet almost anarchic, with faces 'good-natured rather than beautiful' and 'mouths apt to laughter and eating' [to quote the Prologue], who treat smoking as an art and like books that tell them what they already know. They are not an allegory of the English, but they are perhaps a myth that only an Englishman ...could have created. Almost the central theme of the book is the contrast between the Hobbits (or 'the Shire') and the appalling destiny to which some of them are called, the terrifying discovery that the humdrum happiness of the Shire, which they had taken for granted as something normal, is in reality a sort of local and temporary accident, that its existence depends on being protected by powers the Hobbits dare not imagine, that any Hobbit may find himself forced out of the Shire and caught up into that high conflict. More strangely still, the event of that conflict between the strongest things may come to depend on him who is almost the weakest.

"What shows we are reading myth, not allegory, is that there are no pointers to a specifically theological, or political, or psychological application. A myth points, for each reader, to the realm he lives in most. It is a master key...and there are other themes in The Fellowship equally serious." This is not escapism, nostalgia, or dreaming but "is sane and vigilant invention, revealing at point after point the integration of the author's mind. What is the use of calling 'private' a world we can all walk into and test and in which we find such a balance? As for escapism, what we chiefly escape is the illusions of our ordinary life. We certainly do not escape anguish [in LOTR]. Despite many a snug fireside and many an hour of good cheer to gratify the Hobbit in each of us, anguish is, for me, almost the prevailing note. But not, as in the literature most typical of our age, the anguish of abnormal or contorted souls: rather that anguish of those who were happy before a certain darkness came up and will be happy if they live to see it gone.

"Nostalgia does indeed come in; not ours nor the author's, but that of the characters. It is closely connected with one of Professor Tolkien's greatest achievements.... In the Tolkienian world you can hardly put your foot down anywhere from Esgaroth to Forlindon or between Ered Mithrin and Khand without stirring the dust of history. Our own world, except at certain rare moments, hardly seems so heavy with its past. This is one element in the anguish the characters bear. But with the anguish comes also a strange exaltation. They are at once stricken and upheld by the memory of vanished civilizations and lost splendor. They have outlived the Second and Third Ages; the wine of life was drawn long since. As we read we find ourselves sharing their burden; when we have finished, we return to our own life not relaxed but fortified.

"But there is more in the book still. Every now and then, risen from sources we can only conjecture...figures meet us so brimming with life...that they make our sort of anguish and ... exaltation seem unimportant. Such is Tom Bombadil, such the unforgettable Ents. This is surely the utmost reach of invention, when an author produces what seems to be not even his own, much less anyone else's.... Even now I have left out almost everythingthe silvan leafiness, the passions, the high virtues, the remote horizons. Even if I had space I could hardly convey them. And after all the most obvious appeal of the book is perhaps also its deepest: 'there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valor, and great deeds that were not wholly vain' [The Fellowship, chapter 2]. Not wholly vainit is the cool middle point between illusion and disillusionment."
"How Shall a Man Judge?"
C.S. Lewis tells us that when he wrote his first review after The Fellowship of the Ring was published, "I hardly dared to hope it would have the success I was sure it deserved. Happily I am proved wrong. There is, however, one piece of false criticism that had better be answered: the complaint that the characters are all either black or white. Since the climax of Volume 1 was mainly concerned with the struggle between good and evil in the mind of Boromir, it is not easy to see how anyone could have said this. I will hazard a guess. 'How shall a man judge what to do in such times?' asks the Lord Éomer in Volume 2, Chapter 2. "'As he has ever judged,' comes the reply [from Lord Aragorn]. 'Good and ill have not changed ... nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.' This is the basis of the whole Tolkienian world. I think some readers, seeing (and disliking) this rigid demarcation of black and white, imagine they have seen a rigid demarcation between" bad and good people. 

Looking at squares on a chessboard, "they assume (in defiance of the facts) that all the pieces must be making bishop's move that confine them to one color. But even such readers will hardly brazen it out through the two last volumes. Motives, even on the right side, are mixed. Those who are now traitors usually began with comparatively innocent intentions. Heroic Rohan and imperial Gondor are partly diseased. Even the wretched Sméagol...has [some] good impulses; and (by a tragic paradox) what finally pushes him over the brink" to betrayal and attempted murder are well-deserved yet harsh words by Samwise, "the most selfless character of all."

"There are two Books in each Volume and now that all six are before us the very high architectural quality of the romance is revealed. Book 1 builds up the main theme. In Book 2 that theme, enriched with much retrospective material, continues. Then comes the change. In 3 and 5 the fate of the company, now divided, becomes entangled with a huge complex of forces that are grouping and regrouping themselves in relation to Mordor. The main theme, isolated from this, occupies 4 and the early part of 6 (the latter part of course giving all the resolutions). But we are never allowed to forget the intimate connection between it and the rest. On the one hand, the whole world is going to war; the story rings with galloping hoofs, trumpets, steel on steel. On the other, very far away, miserable figures creep (like mice on a slag heap) through the twilight of Mordor. And all the time we know the fate of the world depends far more on the small movement than on the great. This is a structural invention of the highest order: it adds immensely to the pathos, irony, and grandeur of the tale.

Tolkien's Unit: The 11th Lancashire Fusiliers
"Yet those Books are not in the least inferior. Of picking out great moments (such as the cock-crow at the Siege of Gondor) there would be no end; I will mention two general (and totally different) excellencies. One, surprisingly, is realisms. This war has the very quality of the war my generation knew [World War 1]. It is all here: the endless, unintelligible movement, the sinister quiet of the front when 'everything is now ready,' the flying civilians, the lively, vivid friendships, the background of something like despair and the merry foreground, and such heaven-sent windfalls as a cache of choice tobacco 'salvaged' from a ruin. The author has told us elsewhere [in On Fairy-stories] that his taste for fairy tale was wakened into maturity by active service [Tolkien and Lewis both served as WW1 lieutenants]; that, no doubt, is why we can say of his war scenes (quoting Gimli the Dwarf), 'There is good rock here. This country has tough bones' [The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter 7].

"The other excellence is that no individual, and no species, seems to exist only for the sake of the plot. All exist in their own right and would have been worth creating for their mere flavor even if they had been irrelevant. Treebeard would have served any other author (if any other could have conceived him) for a whole book. His eyes are 'filled up with ages of memory and long, slow steady thinking' [The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter 4]. Through those ages his name has grown with him so that he cannot now tell it; it would, by now, take too long to pronounce. When he learns that the thing they are standing on is a hill, he complains that this is but 'a hasty word' for that which has so much history in it.

Perennial Public Enemy Number One
"How far Treebeard can be regarded as a 'portrait of the artist' must remain doubtful; but when he hears that some people want to identify the Ring with the hydrogen bomb, and Mordor with Russia, I think he might call it a 'hasty' word. How long do people think a world like his takes to grow? Do they think it can be done as quickly as a modern nation changes its Public Enemy Number One or as modern scientists invent new weapons? When Professor Tolkien began [writing his first tales during WW1], there was probably no nuclear fission and the contemporary incarnation of Mordor was a good deal nearer our shores. But the text itself teaches us that Sauron is eternal; the war of the Ring is only one of a thousand wars against him. Every time we shall be wise to fear his ultimate victory, after which there will be 'no more songs.' Every time we win we shall know that our victory is impermanent. If we insist on asking for the moral of the story, that is its moral: a recall from facile optimism and wailing pessimism alike; to that hard, yet not quite desperate, insight into Man's unchanging predicament by which heroic ages have lived. It is here that the Norse affinity is strongest; hammer-strokes, but with compassion.

"'But why,' some ask, 'if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men must you do it by talking about a phantasmagorical ... land of your own?' Because, I take it, one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is of that mythical and heroic quality. One can see the principle at work in his characters .... The imagined beings [Elves, Dwarves, Ents, Hobbits] have their insides on the outside; they are visible souls. And Man as a whole, Man pitted against the universe, have we seen him at all till we see that he is like a hero in a fairy tale? In the book Éomer rashly contrasts 'the green earth' with 'legends.' Aragorn replies that the green earth itself is 'a mighty matter of legend' [The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter 2]. 

"The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance that has been hidden by the veil of familiarity. The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story.... By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our minds, the real things are more themselves. This book applies the treatment not only to bread or apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly. I do not think he could have done it in any other way. This book is too original and too opulent for any final judgment on a first reading. But we know at once that it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men.... We must ration [or re-evaluate] ourselves in our re-readings. I have little doubt that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables."
Thus concludes C.S. Lewis's glowing review of The Lord of the Rings, a book Tolkien often confessed he probably never would have finished without Lewis's continual prodding and encouragement. When Tolkien finally handed Lewis his first completed manuscript, Lewis dropped everything and essentially devoured it. When he finished, he at once wrote a letter to Tolkien (constituting his first review). I close by quoting from it:

My dear Tollers—
I have drained the rich cup and satisfied a long thirst. Once it really gets under weigh the steady upward slope of grandeur and terror (not unrelieved by green dells, without which it would indeed be intolerable) is almost unequalled in the whole range of narrative art known to me. In two virtues I think it excels: sheer sub-creation—Bombadil, Barrow Wights, Elves, Ents—as if from inexhaustible resources, and construction.... Also, in gravitas. No romance can repel the charge of ‘escapism’ with such confidence. If it errs, it errs precisely in the opposite direction: the sickness of hope deferred and the merciless piling up of odds against the heroes are near to being too painful. And the long coda after the eucatastrophe, whether you intended  it or no, has the effect of reminding us that victory is as transitory as conflict ... and so leaving a final impression of profound melancholy.
No doubt this is increased for me by the circumstances in which I heard most of it for the first time: when there was great danger around us but, in me at any rate, a happier heart than now. But that only accounts for a small part of my total impression. I am sure it is in itself a great and hard and bitter book which, though I love it, I shall never open without a certain shrinking. It will rank, along with the Aeneid as one of what I call my ‘immediately sub-religious’ books.
Indeed (unexpectedly) the general aroma seems to me more like the Aeneid than anything else, in spite of your Northernness. This is partly because both (a.) Are so often sylvan (b.) Have strategy, as distinct from mere combat, (c.) Suggest an enormous past behind the action....
I congratulate you. All the long years you have spent on it are justified....
I miss you very much.
Jack Lewis


  1. A wonderful review. Perhaps the best I've ever read! Thank you!

    1. You are most heartily welcome, Ann, and I completely agree. I felt so refreshed by C.S. Lewis's mental grasp of Tolkien's brilliance, his ability to explain it clearly, and his obvious love and affection for his friend.