Summary and Info
Professional critics have been the enemy of "Lord of the Rings" ever since that epic fantasy came out, decades ago. And while the old guard has passed away, many of their essays still live on. "J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: Modern Critical Interpretations" dredges up many of their strained, sneering writings on J.R.R. Tolkien.
There are a few decent essays in here, where the writers seem to have genuine affection or appreciation for Tolkien and his works. Jane Chance Nitzche turns out a decent essay studying such aspects like Tolkien's "Christian king," and the capable Humphrey Carpenter turns out a mini-bio of Tolkien, which seems to show where his characters and invented world came from..
Unfortunately, the bad outnumber the good: We have Jared Lobdell scrabbling rather pitifully for books that bear a passing resemblance to "Lord of the Rings," as does Randel Helms as he tries frantically to find a non-original source for Tolkien's orcs. Helms also claims that "Lord of the Rings" is "a political fantasy expressed in covert sexual symbols, but gives no solid explanation beyond prim hints at "caverns" and "darkness."
The sexual preoccupation continues in the first and worst of the essays, Hugh Keenan's laughable "Appeal To Lord of the Rings." He sneers that the "Lord of the Rings" is only fit for children or the childlike, clings to increasingly absurd sexual symbols. Just wait for the part where he claims that Frodo's attachment to the Ring is not an all-consuming addiction, but a sexual symbolism. He even gets basic facts wrong -- a line of the ent Treebeard's is attributed to "Fangorn," the name of a forest.
Nor do things improve with Burton Raffel's obnoxious work. Though he claims "it would be foolish to claim that Tolkien does not write well," he then proceeds to tear apart virtually every aspect of Tolkien's writing -- insisting rather snobbily that Tolkien doesn't use enough description, and whining about his formal poetry. Evidently Raffel doesn't read enough pre-20th-century literature.
Perhaps the worst sign is the foreword, in which the editor talks about his own dislike of "Lord of the Rings" -- in only about one page, the narrow-minded Harold Bloom manages to insult Tolkien and every person who has enjoyed his work. If Mr. Bloom cannot handle "stiff," archaic style, then he should avoid most of the literature up to the last few hundred years. To paraphrase what he has said, it might be too much for his sixty-nine-year-old self to handle -- especially since he is such a "skilled and mature" reader, while "Lord of the Rings" fans, by implication, are not.
It's always a bad idea to have people write critically about something they despise; it's certain to bring out all sorts of insignificant pet peeves that nobody except the writer cares about. Certainly it doesn't help that many of these writers communicate with all the vivacity of a dead fish.
While there are a small number of good essays -- only a few, actually -- the heavy load of self-important sneering is only for people who already hated "Lord of the Rings." Not worth the time it takes to read, or the paper it's printed on.
More About the Author
Harold Bloom (born July 11, 1930) is an American literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University.