Beyond epic – how Tolkien broke the rules and wrote a winner

I’ve been posting about why J R R Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings broke all the rules – yet, ten years after publication, took off commercially to become a defining icon of twentieth century fantasy literature.

Rohan. No - central Otago. No, Rohan...oh, I give up...
Rohan. No – central Otago. No, Rohan…oh, I give up…

As a huge Tolkien fan who used to read The Lord Of The Rings multiple times a year, as a kid, I can see the appeal. And yet the fact remains that Tolkien broke the rules of plot, structure and literature. So what was happening? Why did the book take off?

I think a large part of it came about because – partly by coincidence – Tolkien’s themes and setting meshed with the values of the counter-culture that rose during the mid-1960s, and in general with the values of the ‘baby boomer’ generation. It was this meshing that gave the book such impetus and appeal to a new – and very large – generation.

Tolkien himself apparently declared the fandom and much of the hippie sub-culture enthusiasm for his work a ‘deplorable cultus’. Still, the reasons for that meshing seem clear enough. Tolkien’s Shire imagery and culture – with its deliberate evocation of a lost English rural paradise – keyed closely with counter-culture fantasies of a lost and spiritually superior pre-industrial world, largely because the origins of both philosophies were much the same; Tolkien echoed the Arts and Crafts movement, which had pursued much the same thinking in the nineteenth century. He also wrote jokes into his hobbit world that were lost on others – apparently Hobbiton society was a specific satire on Midlands village life from the 1890s.

Still, the broader themes of a ‘lost Merrie England’ coincided with counter-culture priorities. Add to this Tom Bombadil, to Tolkien a faerie sprite; but to the hippies an archetypal drop-out (nicely lampooned in Bored Of The Rings as ‘Tim Benzedrine’), and the groundwork was set.

This was not the only appeal The Lord Of The Rings had. Tolkien deliberately set out to present a clear morality: good versus evil. There was little that was complex about this world – few shades of grey. People were good; they were tempted; they fell.  Evil often appeared as good, as a device for deceit. His world also portrayed many of the trappings of industrial society – the pollution, the scale – as dark, aligning it with evil in ways that had immediate appeal to a generation who were trying to shuck off the legacy of the world-engulfing wars that had dominated the first half of the twentieth century.

Tolkien had drawn much of this implicit anti-war, anti-industry sentiment from his First World War experience – reflecting the ‘war poets’ of the 1920s – but it was appropriated by a new generation in a new context. And everything took off from there. The appeal broadened as time went on; the book enviegled itself into mainstream culture – becoming, along with Star Trek and Star Wars, one of the vehicles by which fantasy and science fiction were mainstreamed. There was no looking back after that.

Which brings me to the next part of this series – why, despite all the rule-breaking, The Lord Of The Rings was such a wonderful, fantastic and utterly amazing work. Why it was, in fact, a structural work of genius – and why has such genuine and timeless appeal. Next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


3 thoughts on “Beyond epic – how Tolkien broke the rules and wrote a winner

  1. BRILLIANT post, Matthew. As Toni said, you make several excellent points — especially about the clearly defined boundaries between good and evil. I hadn’t thought before about how appealing this black-and-white thinking must have been in an era of tremendous social transformation and upheaval, and during a time when authority figures (police, politicians) were starting to lose their long-held luster. So … a huge THANK YOU for this thought-provoking post.

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