Are The Works of J.R.R. Tolkien Aging Poorly and Destined for Mandatory Reading Lists in High School English Classes?
Wait! Before the slings and arrows of the Tolkien faithful strike with full force, please hear me out. I acknowledge that Tolkien is the grandfather of modern fantasy literature. That his works inspired at least two generations of later writers and his impact on the genre will echo through the ages. I am in no way implying that his writing was sub-standard or that I could do better. That said, his writing is very much of the early twentieth century and I fear that once the glow of Peter Jackson’s films fade in a decade or two that Tolkien’s works will enter the literary death spiral ending in that most dreaded of locations; the required reading list in a high school English class. Books are static creations and the world is very much a dynamic place. Customs, tastes and even the language itself evolves and the Internet accelerated this process.
LoTR is a product of the inter-war/World War 2 period when conflicts between the great powers killed millions, evil men led countries down dark paths. and rural villages faded in the shadow of great cities. These themes usually go with any discussion of Tolkien’s works and do not bear repeating here. They do deserve mention because my generation (the 40+ year olds) is acutely aware of the circumstances surrounding World War 1 and World War 2. I am familiar with the culture and basic social structures during this period. I have met men that fought in World War 2. It is not really history so much as the recent past. This informs my reading and enjoyment of LoTR. It gives context. In 50 years, will those students receive the same level of education in a 100-year-old war? Excluding avid history buffs, most Americans are hard pressed to get the dates of the Civil War correct, much less any of the social structures or movements from the era. (Do not get me started on the miserable state of history education in this country, it just makes my blood pressure go up). My point is that the distance between the event (WW2) and the reading LoTR will lessen its impact. These themes will be unknown or unimportant to many readers in 30 years. Rural versus urban is a question answered long ago and urban won. The numbers of people living in large, urban environments continues to grow and future readers will have no first-hand experience with the rural, Hobbit lifestyle Tolkien seems to love so much.
Context aside, Tolkien is very much a man of his age and his treatment of female characters, while more modern than his contemporaries (“I am no man!”–chops off head of flying demon, promptly gives up the sword, gets a man and becomes a healer), still does not come close to what “modern” women might expect in a female fantasy character. George R. R. Martin’s female characters are deeply involved in the plot, fearless, relentless and often morally ambiguous. Cersie Lannister would eat Eowyn for breakfast. I usually loathe gender studies of literature. It always seems forced and a product of some women’s studies group from 1976 at UC Berkeley, but the growing influence of women in the fantasy and sci-fi marketplace cannot be ignored. Shrinking violets do not cut it anymore in the marketplace and unpopular books become the domain of English teacher who force them upon unsuspecting students because they are “important.”
Ah, “important” there is a loaded term in literature as any I have every heard. By some vague magic, certain works of literature become “IMPORTANT.” I believe drunken English professors sit around and try to find the most obscure, unreadable works and foist them on their captive audience as some sort of global practical joke. Tolkien, brilliant, extremely well-read and highly educated writes like an academic. Look, I am not claiming I can do any better but both the Hobbit and LoTR have serious pacing issues. “Fellowship of the Ring” spends far too much time with Hobbits running through forests from Black Riders. I am quite fond of both books, but to my modern tastes they are bloated and in dire need of editing. I understand that they are a product of their era, but that does not keep me from being annoyed by prose that a modern editor would cut in the first revision. Future readers may balk at such a florid and verbose writing style.
All my arguments aside, I truly hope I am wrong in my analysis. I would like to think that Sauron and company threaten Middle Earth for generations to come, but there is a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. A doubt that reminds me that Shakespeare originated in popular culture enjoyed by a wide audience and eventually became a poster child for tedious, White Tower academic analysis. Should this come to pass then I think fantasy literature will be the lesser for it.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer