Tolkien's Hobbling Habit
A warning for those about to read TheLord of the Rings.
As the December release of the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring approaches, a full-fledged J.R.R. Tolkien literary revival is in the works. Numerous British polls have crowned Tolkien "Author of the Century." In the United States, sales of Tolkien's always popular 1953-54 novel The Lord of the Rings (of which Fellowship is the first volume) are four times what they were in 1999, partly thanks to a new movie tie-in edition released by Houghton Mifflin in June. The Tolkien phenomenon appears to be cross-generational: While professors who wore "Gandalf for President" buttons in the 1960s scribble literary defenses of Tolkien, Harry Potter readers are discovering the novel that created modern fantasy.
The Lord of the Rings has its virtues, of course: a compelling plot, a vast imaginative scope. But it's also full of poetry that is—and there's no nice way to say this—simply awful. A typical example comes from the hobbit Pippin, as he's taking a bath (seriously) in The Fellowship of the Ring:
Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
that washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!
Tolkien is a master of generic imagery. Grass is always green in The Lord of the Rings; raiments always glimmer, and stars always shimmer. If there's a breeze, it's bound to be a "cool" or "crisp" one. His verse also suffers from an almost comedic lack of restraint. Take the character Tom Bombadil, who for almost two chapters does virtually nothing but burst into song. Bombadil is introduced by his "deep glad voice":
Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!
At the risk of fan backlash, director Peter Jackson has reportedly cut Tom Bombadil entirely from the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring—a hopeful sign that he may get tough on the rest of Tolkien's verse, too.
There's a pretty innocent explanation for all this criminally bad verse. Tolkien, a scholar of Beowulf, a translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was striving to re-create ancient, folkloric literary modes. Take this war chant from the Ents (Tolkien's walking trees) in The Two Towers:
To Isengard! Though Isengard be ringed and barred with doors of stone;
Though Isengard be strong and hard, as cold as stone and bare as bone,
We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door;
For bole and bough are burning now, the furnace roars—we go to war!
As you can see, the results have none of the genuine article's grandeur. And the collateral damage of the faux-epic verse is high: The poems often put the novel's plot on hold, as characters pause to blow smoke rings and sing songs of yore.
So before the Tolkien revival leads to any children being named "Frodo," Tolkien idolaters should slow down and maybe re-watch the "Stonehenge" scene from Spinal Tap.
Chris Mooney is a Knight fellow in science journalism at MIT. He is the author of The Republican War on Science and, with Sheril Kirshenbaum, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.