I just finished (re-)reading The Hobbit, out loud to my kids (this is their second reading of it, and they know the Rankin/Bass film well). We’ve been reading out of the big hardback illustrated by Alan Lee, which is just amazing.
Our finishing the book coincides with the publication of this utterly silly review of the most recent George R.R. Martin book. Now, I’m not going to defend Tolkien. The legion of his fans will find it unnecessary, and the bien-pensants who have always sniffed will continue to sniff. But I feel compelled to say three things.
1. Tolkien wrote with a moral vision that is powerful and should be taken seriously. This is not accidental. He fought at the Somme, where good friends of his from school also fought and died. Then he wrote a book about mass warfare and mechanized evil, and the need for free peoples to set aside their differences and band together to fight, both against the subtle personal blandishments of evil and against its marching hordes. Is it any wonder that millions have found his vision urgent and persuasive?
2. Tolkien created a more believable fantasy world than anyone had before or has since. This has to do with his skill as a poet and writer, but also with his close observation of nature and of human beings, and perhaps most of all with his expertise as a philologist. Tolkien uncovered old words and names (the Mark, wargs) and unfolded in narrative form the meanings already implicit in them, and therefore already built into the way we think and speak. In doing so, he sometimes changed the way English is written today. Quick, what’s the plural of dwarf?
3. Tolkien wrote gorgeous English. Read aloud for instance chapter five of The Hobbit, “Riddles in the Dark”, in which Bilbo Baggins and Gollum match wits in the world’s most famous riddle game. Compare it to anything ever written by George R.R. Martin, or anything written by any of Tolkien’s occasional author-critics (Michael Moorcock, for instance, or China Mieville), or anything ever published in the New York Times. Tolkien wins. Tolkien kills them. And this was his children’s book.
Bonus: character stills from the upcoming film version of The Hobbit!