1. i was surprised at how fresh The Lord of the Rings (hereafter LoTR) was for me on this last re-reading, given that i’ve seen the shite films, and on the last reading (2008) i found i could remember vast sections almost word for word. It took about 10 days this time, a goodly length for a 1000-page book that’s too big to take on trains. As ever, it is a joy and consolation, to use a Yard/Scrutonword.

2. In my teens, i read Fantasy voraciously and LoTR was always among my favourites; as i aged & became cruel & bookish many and indeed most of these books fell by the wayside, though i have re-read some with pleasure – but in general my standards for prose and characterisation are higher, and so well-made Fantasy books, designed for 14-year-old pre-internet boys would no longer appeal to me. The only books of my teenage years i would still regard as worthwhile are LoTR, Ursula le Guin’s first 3 Earthsea works, Stephen Donaldson’s first six Thomas Covenant books, and Katherine Kerr’s original Deverry quartet. i did re -read Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance series in 2001, and found them still enjoyable, with some good characters and many striking moments – for example, the weird desolation of the elf wood, after the king unwisely uses a dragonorb; no doubt borrowed from Tolkien’s palantir, but with a strangeness of its own. i’ve also recently re-read some David Gemmell books with pleasure – his Jon Shannow and Waylander series are excellent. Here’s a sample of his dialogue – the killer known as Waylander has saved a priest from being tortured to death, then burns the priest’s soiled robes and lends him some garments, and they make camp for the night:

‘What are you thinking?’ asked Waylander.

‘I was wondering why you burned my robes,’ said Dardalion, suddenly aware that the question had been nagging at him throughout the long day.

‘I did it on a whim, there is nothing more to it. I have been long without company and I yearned for it.’

Dardalion nodded and added two sticks to the fire.

‘Is that all? asked the warrior. ‘No more questions?’

‘Are you disappointed?’

‘I suppose that I am,’ admitted Waylander. ‘I wonder why?’

‘Shall I tell you?

‘No, I like mysteries. What will you do now?’

‘I shall find others of my order and return to my duties.’

‘In other words you will die.’

‘Perhaps.’

‘It makes no sense to me,’ said Waylander, ‘but then life itself makes no sense. So it becomes reasonable.’

‘Did life ever make sense to you, Waylander?’

‘Yes. A long time ago, before I learned about eagles.’

‘I do not understand you.’

‘That pleases me,’ said the warrior, pillowing his head on his saddle and closing his eyes.

‘Please explain,’ urged Dardalion. Waylander rolled to his back and opened his eyes, staring out beyond the stars.

‘Once I loved life and the sun was a golden joy. But joy is sometimes short-lived, priest. And when it dies a man will seek inside himself and ask: Why? Why is hate so much stronger than love? Why do the wicked reap such rich rewards? Why does strength and speed count for more than morality and kindness? And then the man realises…there are no answers. None. And for the sake of his sanity the man must change perceptions. Once I was a lamb, playing in a green field. Then the wolves came. Now I am an eagle and I fly in a different universe.’

‘And now you kill the lambs,’ whispered Dardalion.

Waylander chuckled and turned over. ‘No priest. No one pay for lambs.’

3. The Fantasy genre, indeed the concept ‘genre’ is curious. Within a genre, you understand that certain things will occur and certain things are excluded. If you like a genre, you will tolerate even the not-so-well written; if you dislike the genre, even the best will likely repel you. A reader’s preferences seem to indicate something of his character. i only really like Fantasy and spy thrillers.

i find Crime almost totally boring; i can read a well-written crime thriller but with the exception of Donna Leon’s Venice books, and Norbert Davis, i feel no desire to re-read them. i think i like Leon because i like Venice, but even there i was most interested by one (i forget the title) which edged more into spy thriller territory. Davis is really special – i only tried him because Wittgenstein liked him – the books are witty and appeal to my sense of absurdity, with a huge dog to boot.

Germans are crazy about crime books (Krimis) and their favourite TV show, Tatort, is a long-running crime series. i fail to appreciate Crime, but i think Germans like it because such stories are always about society and its mores, and treat of a violation to the law, and its punishment; and Germans are naturally bourgeois, and hence obsessed by social order.

i like spy thrillers because, i think, they are essentially Gnostic parables about the secret knowledge and secret power which order the world. The actors are always limited and at the mercy of these vast, impersonal forces, but able to manoeuvre slightly by cunning and craft and will. i like almost all spy thrillers i’ve read, since they seem a much smaller genre than others, and so what is published is usually good – with a larger proportion of informed authors like le Carre, McCarry, Alan Judd, who were intelligence officers, or at least connected.

4. Fantasy, i suppose, is about magic and the world before technology (and hence the genre has flourished as technology has taken over our lives). One could say that the pervasive and all-comprehending world of the manmade, of technology & science, is the exact opposite to magic, so i find almost all Science Fiction off-putting and somehow incomprehensible – because for me, this is merely a deception and trumpery. It is notable that the only Sci-Fi i’ve liked is Frank Herbert’s Dune series, which take place in a world where science has limited itself (so force fields necessitate hand to hand combat) and are more like bizarre Alchemical parables about the ascension of man to a higher being.

Fantasy had its heyday in the 80s, i guess from those who grew up reading Tolkien. After that, there are authors like David Gemmell, who repeated his themes & interests, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, but very little that is new. Fantasy written over the last 20 years or so seems to me tedious, with a lot of swearing and sex to compensate. i don’t think it would now be possible to write in this genre without just repeating what others have done.

5. The Fantasy genre, and Tolkien, have attracted contempt and bile from the start. Edmund Wilson dismissed LoTR as “juvenile trash”. i have yet to read an attack on Tolkien which wasn’t either full of inaccuracies or based on total ignorance, like one of my tutors who dismissed Tolkien as “crap”, then admitted he hadn’t, of course, read anything by Tolkien (because, after all, why would you read crap?). Though Wilson claimed to have read the book to his daughter, judging from his review i think he was lying; i suspect he rather skimread parts or asked her what it was about and based his article on such evidences.

It’s not that i think anyone who read LoTR would like it, but all the attacks are so wrong-headed and inaccurate that it is perhaps a book you could only finish – given its girth – if you had some sympathies for Tolkien’s worldview; and naturally most journalists and men-of-letters – hard-drinking, womanizing, atheist, materialist, amoral, cowardly – would feel an extreme aversion to a heroic, moral, traditionalist, Catholic-infused work. That it is, on some level, appealing to children would only prove its childish crapness to those who have made a career on talking and writing authoritatively about Finnegans Wake et al., and think real literature is only comprehensible to PhDs; or – the other prong – angry drunks in bars who know about Real Life and die in their 40s, choking on their own vomit in a prostitute’s rancid bed. The latter, which seems the norm now, is i suppose the worldview of those who live without enchantments – religion, magic, any kind of reality beyond the human and the humanly-comprehensible. Incidentally, Tolkien inserted two such characters into LoTR: Boromir, and Ted Sandyman. Such folk are naturally incapable of understanding Tolkien, or Völuspá, or Isaiah, or Dante; though they would not dare to dismiss e.g. Dante as “Catholic trash”.

The difference between Dante and Tolkien, in this respect, is that Tolkien wrote against the grain of his time, against the world – so there is always something unnatural and mannered, and i would never suppose LoTR could have been written before about 1800. If you have a sympathy for the older, more human world – more human because turned to that which creates humanity, rather than that which humanity has created (the machine)  – then i dare say you will enjoy Tolkien; if you are a thoroughly modern man, a city-dweller, as was Wilson, in love with the machine, then it will seem merely trite and childish, “juvenile trash”.

6. i do suppose there is such a thing as genius, and talent, and that some books are crap and others good, but i don’t think there is any way of decisively sorting the two – so some attacks on Tolkien seem so insanely wrong-headed, yet i suppose the authors would simply dismiss any objections a lowly blogger like myself could make, and there is no end to argument. Within our mortal life, the only criterion which i think everyone could agree on is longevity – so the Beatles were routinely outsold by e.g. the Bay City Rollers and other novelty acts, but things seem clearer over a 40 or 50-year timespan. Likewise with literature, i don’t think anyone today would think Marie Corelli is any good, but she was once famous indeed. That Tolkien is still widely-read, 60 years after he published, suggests i’m not merely foolishly infatuated, and i think if the human race survives and can maintain literacy for another thousand years, that LoTR will always have some readers, with occasional peaks of popularity. And Tolkien, who wrote for himself and his friends (as i do), seemed intensely relaxed about the vitriol poured on his works by the machine man and city-dweller. For the machine and the machine man, and that which drives them both, will pass in time, and humanity, rightly understood, will endure:

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.


From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.

tolkien2

And there will surely be pipe-smoking and fine ales.

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