25/03/05, The Times
The secret affair between Lancelot and Guinevere that corrodes the order of the Round Table from the inside, the sheer electricity of the forbidden love of Tristan and Isolde, the purity of Galahad’s heart that will ultimately lead him to the end of the greatest quest of all – the search for the Holy Grail; with all this mystery, power and poetry ranged on one side, would you choose a rewriting that substitutes these inimitable, towering heroes of medieval romances with wittering creatures called hobbits who have hairy toes and a borderline eating disorder, live in round houses, and break into unbearable faux-minstrelsy at the first sign of a rune? (Surely that name itself, ‘hobbits’, is evidence enough of the movement from the sublime to the ridiculous in one sub-imaginative stroke). Oh, and instead of the Green Knight, who inspires real fear, we get orcs and trolls. Wampa Ice Creature and Jar Jar Binks are not far away.
Tolkien’s decision to rewrite the medieval romance narrative, with its central quest motif and all the journeys that proliferate like tributaries from the central path, counts as one of the great wrong turnings in English writing. All he manages to imitate is the length of the medieval romances: we get an endlessly plod-plod-plodding epic, overlong, repetitive and exhausting. This is the textual equivalent of Seconal. For those who persist in thinking that this is the acme of fantasy fiction, they’d be better off looking at Stanislav Lem’s Solaris or the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, where unimaginably different new worlds are set down on the pages, not shires with waterfalls, mountains, round houses and naff tree-dwellers. This is Warwickshire Exoticised, with Anglo-Saxon and Celtic inflected names, not a new heaven, new earth.
Then, take Tolkien’s breathtakingly condescending portrayal of the ‘servant classes’ in the figure of Sam Gamgee. Of course, he displays traditional and expected qualities of the class: blind, unquestioning loyalty (read ‘servility’), unswerving desire to serve the master, and ‘working class’ speech (‘I don’t want to see no more magic’). I can almost see the Oxford don’s hand itching to write words such as ‘nuffink’ in order to give verisimilitude to his work.
What is with all the eating going on? As if the compulsive Picnic in the Woods motif is not enough, Tolkien bookends even events of great danger and import with munching and nibbling. What do Merry and Pippin do the minute they manage to escape from the orcs in The Two Towers? They eat elf-biscuits. How bathetic is that? The whole work is shot through with this peculiarly English type of diminution, a kind of provincialism that constantly chafes against the romance mode and lowers the tone. The Enid Blytonisation of the heroic romance is complete.
Where are the ladies? What is this unmitigated Boys’ Own fantasy? Just as you begin asking these questions, you realise that Tolkien was writing in the toxic 50s, where ideal women were all cupcakes, kitchen, nappy-changing, nurseries, stove. It is of a piece with the rest of his provincialism that he cannot imagine roles for girls and women in his adventure.