Why Tolkien is Crap

Yes, you heard me…crap!

 John Ronald Reuel Tolkien – purveyor of elves, goblins, and those irritating trichopods he called hobbits – became a publishing phenomenon in the middle of the C20, when he might more usefully have devoted himself to the study of extinct languages.

 The Lord of the Rings is frequently held up as a shining example of a brilliantly conceived ‘world’ complete with its own history and mythology. Well how brilliantly conceived was it really?

 People often debate as to exactly when Tolkien’s world was set (comparative to our own history). The general rustic flavour, the Shire Reckoning, the technology, the currency and various other tropes and themes all point to a milieu akin to the High Middle Ages, but he completely dispels that sense by flooding the narrative with anachronisms. For example, the regular use of a post office by all hobbits, the social mobility (Sam going from gardener to gentleman within two years), but worst of all – the reference to an express train in Chapter 1!

       “The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion.”

 We are asked to believe that a culture which had developed gunpowder for fireworks, but not for weaponry (there are no guns or cannon in the text), still knew enough about heavy industry to reference express trains! Granted, this might have been some kind of fantastical express train conceived by the pyrotechnical magic of Gandalf, however the magic in The Lord of the Rings generally suffers by being quite unrealistic.  

 But if the ‘world’ he cobbled together is a blatantly unconvincing patchwork of tropes and anachronisms, it is at least far superior to the internal logic of the plot.

 Frodo (the alpha trichopod) makes it all the way to the Cracks of Doom to chuck the ring into the fire but then is too spent to save himself. His great victory, sadly, must be of the Pyrrhic variety because the destruction of the ring, when he and Sam are at hand, surely means their own destruction.

 But JRR is not to be thwarted, instead of permitting his heroes to die horribly in molten lava, as they should have, he introduces a deux ex machina in the form of Gwaihir the Windlord who flies in to pluck them from certain death. Which rather begs the question: why didn’t they give the ring to Gwaihir in the first place? Or at least get him to fly Frodo to the Cracks of Doom?

 Some of you will say: because the Nazgul would have prevented such an obvious and unsubtle approach. But they couldn’t, I respond. Gwaihir himself boasts that he can outfly the Nazgul, so basically, the chapter after the Council of Elrond should have been called The Ring Flies South and the whole thing could have ended 500 pages earlier and without so many people being killed, or maimed, or forced to read all that drivelling hobbit banter.

 It really is a mystery to me how so many millions of readers have been blind to these fatal flaws of logic and craft and contributed to the Tolkien phenomenon by buying and reading and talking about his work.

 I myself have bought the LOTR at least five times and read it nearly 60 times…just to make sure it was as crap as I thought the first time.

 

Do you agree that Tolkien is crap and that The Lord of the Rings is the worst book ever written? Which other books ought to be slagged off by The Book Hammer?

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5 Comments

  1. I think the point about the destruction of the ring was that everybody who possessed it was corrupted by it and nobody could destroy it on purpose, (I can’t face reading it again just to find the reference). Had it been given to Gwaihir he would have been unable to drop it into Mount Doom.

    • Hi Peter

      The ring took a long time time to win over Frodo. If Gwaihir had flown straight from Rivendell (possibly bearing the ringbearer) it wouldn’t have had time to work its evil.

  2. Hmmm …

    I seem to remember debating this with you about fifteen years ago. You had to threaten me with a character from one of your own books …

    So I win! I think. Er …

    Can I nominate a book for you to bash? How’s about … Dune? Not because I hate it, but because I love it.

    Cheers

    Matt

  3. You know…the unrealistic magic line was the one that really had me laughing as I wrote it.

  4. I’m always curious as to why anti-Tolkienists get so worked up about the fact that his works remain as popular as ever. Relax!

    I also fail to understand why an author would criticise a fellow author for writing and publishing a novel instead of, in this case, ‘studying extinct languages’. (Clearly, the writer here is ignorant of Tolkien’s Old Norse and Old English translation, and his famous essay on Beowulf).

    Tolkien’s works are not perfect, but that’s hardly a surprise since I would argue no book is; we live in a flawed world and thank God for that. However, for the sake of argument let me reply to some of the rather superficial criticisms (you forgot to mention the lack of females and sex).

    There’s no question that The Hobbits and The Shire are very much anachronistic (although ‘flooding the narrative’ is an exaggeration at best) but this is deliberate. Tom Shippey explains it best in his book “Tolkien, author of the century” (save that debate for another day!)

    “The fact is that hobbits are, and always remain, highly anachronistic in the ancient world of Middle-earth. That indeed is their main function, for one might note that by their anachronism they engage a problem faced and solved in not dissimilar ways by several writers of historical novels. In setting a work in some distant time, an author may well find that the gap between that time and the reader’s modern awareness is too wide to be easily bridged; and accordingly a figure essentially modern in attitudes and sentiment is imported into the historical world, to guide the reader’s reactions, to help the reader feel “what it would be like” to be there” Tom Shippey.

    “….the magic in The Lord of the Rings generally suffers by being quite unrealistic. “

    Oh dear – do you hear yourself? ‘Unrealistic magic! By its very definition ‘magic’ is unrealistic. Actually, so-called ‘magic’ (or stuff we just can’t explain) is used relatively sparingly in LotR, and even then it’s difficult to discern the difference between craft and magic. Harry Potter must keep you awake at night.

    “Which rather begs the question: why didn’t they give the ring to Gwaihir in the first place?”

    That old winged chestnut. Anti-Tolkienists cling to the talons of eagles in desperation because once they let go they have nowhere to go but down. It’s true that this idea was not discussed, or at least recorded (Tolkien saw himself as a chronicler of Middle-earth after all), at the Council of Elrond. The fact is, the Eagles weren’t used, so it’s entirely left up to the reader to speculate on why. Was Mordor too well defended (by the way the Nazgul don’t fly – their winged steeds do, and we don’t know how many of them were residing on Mount Doom), were they forbidden by the Valar to intervene directly in this matter, or were they just too busy? The reader is free to imagine. Real history is also unpredictable and perplexing at times.

    “I myself have bought the LOTR at least five times and read it nearly 60 times.”

    I feel as if I’ve taken the bait with the lure of defending Tolkien, when the angler has been an ardent fan all along.


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