Why is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings considered to be such a classic?
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- Aug 8
- I have read the LOTR and I really enjoyed it. At points I thought it pandered on far too much in terms of description and backstory, but that's just a personal opinion. I partly understand the literary achievement of what Tolkien accomplished, that he created a setting of good vs evil involving multiple races that have been ripped off to high heaven by every subsequent fantasy author and his invention of multiple languages and scripts. Also, how his LOTR reflected the changing, evolving world that he saw around him, but I would love for someone with a literary background to answer this question detailing exactly why Tolkien is considered such a superstar in academic circles.
- Hans-Georg Lundahl
- Fan of Tolkien as well as of his novels.
- Answered just now
- "Why is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings considered to be such a classic?"
Because it is enjoyed by so many and this, by now, in the third generation of readers. (I think, before third generation, it is too soon to decide between “Classic” and “one generation hit”).
"I have read the LOTR and I really enjoyed it."
Then you can understand why it is a Classic - unless by Classic you means sth other than what is universally enjoyed, which it should not mean. You can understand it in the most relevant way.
"At points I thought it pandered on far too much in terms of description and backstory, but that's just a personal opinion."
First, an aside. Take a look at another Classic to check what "pander" means. In Troilus and Cressida or Troilus and Criseide (Shakespear and Chaucer share the writing honour with Boccaccio, where the title is Il Filostrato - there are three versions) there is a character known as Pandar or Pandarus. Acting like him is to "pander". If “pander” is used in any other way, it is more or less misused.
To the point, now. Many Classics (I nearly said all) have a lot of depth and many sides and not all sides are enjoyed by all readers, including those who otherwise enjoy it.
For my part, I thought "a long expected party" boring, laid the book aside and then later started rereading chapter 1 (with some effort, I am now more familiar with what hobbits have as social relations and enjoy the chapter more than then).
Perhaps you just loved chapter 1. Many people do, and in Peter Jackson chapter 1 becomes a masterpiece of half rural festivity. On the other hand, Peter Jackson seems to either have missed what is special about the Tom Bombadil chapters, or at least to have
"I partly understand the literary achievement of what Tolkien accomplished,"
As said, Classics are books universally enjoyable, therefore universally enjoyed. If not by all readers, at least to readers of a similar and often recurring type independent of age, sex, profession and the time they live in (among those available since first publication, or many of them).
They are NOT defined by how "great" the literary "achievement" is.
"that he created a setting of good vs evil involving multiple races"
He was very much not the first.
"that have been ripped off to high heaven by every subsequent fantasy author"
Not more than he "ripped off" some others. But “ripping off” such general setting features is not “ripoff” in legal terms, I don’t approve of using it so in critical ones.
"and his invention of multiple languages and scripts."
Enjoyable as it is, the achievement is in this case not purely literary.
The literary effect of "elen síla lumenn'omentielvo" (a star shines on the hour of our meeting) and "Tarzan ko-korak" (Tarzan/White-skin great-killer) is similar, and that the language of the great apes is without a script and much nearer to Syldavian in sketchiness than to Quenya in elaboration is without literary importance.
As a phrase is given in the novel, the phrase gives an impression of strangeness.
Different kinds of exotism, different kinds of strangeness. As different from each other as Karl May giving a phrase in Arabic in one Orient cycle novel and a phrase in Apatche or Shoshone in a Wild West novel. The literary effect is similar in so far as we know the main person (Frodo, Jane, Sharli/Kara ben Nemsi) is hearing a language not his or her own or even using one not his or her own, and one beyond the ken of the usual reader too.
The different talents in conlanging are as irrelevant to this effect as the fact that Karl May was not a conlanger, but used dictionaries or language experts.
So Tolkien inventing many languages makes him a great conlanger, but not in and of itself a great novelist. Or romance writer.
Tolkien using mellifluous Quenya for good elves, and harsh Black Speech for Uruk hai (the language of Pal ul Don seems to fall between them in sound type) is of course making Middle-earth a bit a "planet of the hats" - a place where moral allegiance can be seen from the outside, before specific good or evil acts occur, due to something worn or used in speech.
In general realistic-novelistic terms, this would be a fault - but all Classics are not "novels" (of the Jane Austen type), some are, like Tarzan and Lord of the Rings, romances. And in romance, neither exotism nor "planet of the hats" is a faulty thing.
What is more speaking of his "literary achievement" is that the hobbit parts of the human/near-human characters are probably as good novel writing as Trollope (never did look into Trollope, can't tell for sure), while the romance, totally alien to Trollope (I suppose) is also there, and the two do not fall apart.
At the same time darker types of novel writing (like Dostoyevsky) enter into Tolkien's descriptions of certain key characters. If you know how successful the recent "ponerogenesis" of an originally good Anakin Skywalker is, you might appreciate that Tolkien has more than one example of ponerogenesis and in diverse degrees of evil achieved, redeemable vs non-redeemable, great mage vs "addict and nest robber", failed/flawed statesman vs despicable traitor (OK, in Gríma, the ponerogenesis is unsubtle, he loved gold and desired a gal who despised him).
I have on one occasion compared Tolkien to Dostoyevsky by saying Dostoyevsky is too dark to be enjoyable (except to a more exceptional and élite type of reader than the usual Tolkien one), and Tolkien says the same things (on certain, not all subjects), but in a setting where this darkness does not exclude touches of light.
Imagine you had someone facing Dostoyevsky, Dracula and Little House on the Prairie. He wanted to preach about how people either become evil, or stay good (perhaps not so much of how they become good again, unlike Dostoyevsky who is directly confronting us with Grace - like Karl May in places), he wanted to make moral evil, the dark thoughts of the heart as eerie as ... Lucy Westenra removing the garlic after opening the window. He also wanted it to be not too dark, not too horror as Dracula, not too morally depressive as Dostyevsky, and so he wanted to include several dashes of Little House of the Prairie or Li'l Abner. Imagine that guy opens Tolkien ... "oh, someone already did that"!
But a literary achievement does not confer enjoyability, let alone universal enjoyability on a work.
This means, there is not much "understanding" involved. A book becomes a Classic by a mystery. If Apollonius Rhodus could analyse what Homer did, in great detail, and try to emulate it, there are probable reasons why a Homer fan need not be too excited to lay his hands on Argonautica. Especially if he doesn't like hints about exactly what Hercules felt for Iolaus. Hints which would probably have made Oscar Wilde blush. I have not read the work, but I was renting a room with a guy who made a thesis on it.
Then in comes Virgil, some centuries after Apollonius, and his Aeneid is a super masterpiece even better than Homer in some ways (which Tolkien analysed en passant in his discussion of Beowulf poem).
"Also, how his LOTR reflected the changing, evolving world that he saw around him,"
*Tolkien peacefully smoking chokes on the pipe ...*
"Darn, does it now? I tried to avoid exactly that!"
Back to your concerns:
"but I would love for someone with a literary background to answer this question detailing exactly why Tolkien is considered such a superstar in academic circles."
My "literary background" is, as you may see, a more Tolkien centred and Edgar Rice Burrough's centred than a Dostoyevsky centred one.
As to why he is considered a superstar "in academic circles," it depends on where you are and when you study it. I don't know where you are, but my guess is, whereever it is, Tolkien was considered as a huge no no back in the 70's. And he's a hero now, because of a new generation being tired of that rigmarole. In some places that anti-Tolkien rigmarole is still in place.