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POV: Lord of Middle

Jul 12, 2023

Fifty years ago this week, a retired literature professor and philologist passed away at the age of 81. The professor was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (Ronald, to his family), known to history as the author of The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings (1954–55), and The Silmarillion (1977)—though he wrote many other works of fiction, poetry, and academic prose, and was also a gifted visual artist.

At a first glance, J.R.R. Tolkien’s legacy speaks for itself. Formerly unpublished writings continue to trickle out of the closely guarded gates of the family estate, while adaptations of his stories have generated countless billions of dollars and brought millions of new fans into the fold. In fact, as Amazon’s TV juggernaut chugs toward a second season [of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power], and Warner Bros. announces a new series of movies, you might be forgiven for feeling some degree of Tolkien fatigue.

What the hype, the glamor, and the frequently eye-watering sums of money associated with the Tolkien name can hide, however, is nothing less than a small miracle: the continued, deep-felt relevance of a handful of stories from the pen of a man born in the reign of Queen Victoria; stories spun from invented languages and legends and tales told to children at bedtime; stories that grew from esoteric jottings made in a university bedroom to bleak poetic stanzas and grand prose romances composed through two world wars.

There are some straightforward explanations for Tolkien’s ongoing popularity. It’s easy to point to universal themes like “adventure” and “the conflict of good and evil.” All too often (for my own taste, at least), the term “epic” is thrown around—as if The Lord of the Rings were simply a bridge between the Iliad and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Certainly, these themes are undeniable—but Tolkien’s thought goes much deeper.

All his works evince a profound reverence and concern for the natural world. The Lord of the Rings in particular is a work of deep, aching nostalgia and melancholy. Middle-earth is a fallen world, littered with the ruins of long-lost greatness—and in its heroic effort to rid itself of evil, it also banishes magic and wonder, setting itself on a path to gray disenchantment.

Though the evil Ring is destroyed, this is despite the actions of the book’s hero, Frodo, who fails his final moral test, claiming the Ring for himself. In an episode left out of the movies, the Hobbits return home to find it enslaved by a new darkness; and though they are victorious in the end, the Shire will never be the same again—much like Frodo, who chooses a kind of exile of the soul rather than live out his days among his loved ones. This is not to discount the work’s biting sense of humor. Though Tolkien’s Shire is a place of comfort and decency, it is also a sharp satire on the “bourgeois smugness” of middle-class rural England.

As many longtime devotees will tell you, Tolkien’s works grow with the reader. I first read The Hobbit when I was seven years old. Enthralled, I rushed onto The Lord of the Rings, and ended up in a race to finish the books before the release of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King (I won).

The books stayed with me as I grew up. As a child, I would pretend to be Aragorn, fighting with Orcs in my back garden. When it came time to apply for college, I chose the same program at the same institution as Tolkien, beginning my studies exactly 102 years after him. I pored over many of the same texts in the same library, including his beloved Anglo-Saxon poetry, upon which he was an authority.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on The Lord of the Rings and, even now at BU, where my specialism is early American literature, I keep Tolkien and his works fondly simmering on the back burner. While I used to gravitate towards the adventure and the battles, I now relish the quieter moments. The Return of the King features one of the most beautiful imaginings of an afterlife I’ve ever read, and there are few writers who bring out the truly spiritual qualities of good food and beer as Tolkien can.

Indeed, this last point is a quiet indicator of the author’s own character. As a pipe-smoking, tweed-clad professor whose first job was researching words beginning with the letter “W,” one might assume him to be a somewhat dry, self-serious figure. On the contrary, he was known for his charm and good humor—both qualities particularly evident in his correspondence.

In his spidery hand, Tolkien, who died on September 2, 1973, wrote beautifully illustrated letters to his children from Father Christmas. When asked about the fame he found late in life, he replied: “It makes me feel extremely small and inadequate. But even the nose of a very modest idol cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense.”

When book sales made him wealthy, his primary form of indulgence was the wearing of colorful waistcoats. In surely one of the greatest understatements of history, he referred to Adolf Hitler as a “ruddy little ignoramus.”

For fellow fans, all of the above will doubtless produce fond nods. For everyone else, don’t let the hype put you off. As Tolkien wrote, “all that is gold does not glitter.” Avoid the glossy adaptations. Seek out a yellowed paperback. You may make a friend for life.

Will Glover is a PhD student in English at Boston University. He specializes in early American nonfiction, with a focus on representations of landscape, land ownership, and natural resources. He is also a long-time fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and has published on The Lord of the Rings and travel writing.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at [email protected]. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

POV: Lord of Middle-Earth—Tolkien’s Legacy 50 Years after His Death