The Guardian view on Tolkien: much more than special effects | Editorial

Bn the dawn of the new millennium, an Oxford don argued, at book length, that fantasy was the most important literature of the 20th century and that the claim lay in the work of JRR Tolkien. Professor Tom Shippey has been duly ridiculed by some for his heresy, with this article describing it as “a fan-magazine argumentative piece of fan-magazine polemic”. Among those whom Professor Shippey cited as influenced by “the master” was a certain Alan Garner, author of a series of beloved child fantasies.

How much safer do the Professor’s claims seem today. Garner, now 87, was just shortlisted for the Booker Prize for a novel called Treacle Walker, which, while more popular than fantastic, certainly displays its fantastic pedigree. Meanwhile, Tolkien delivered more than 25 million global viewers to Amazon Prime on the first day of his dazzling new Lord of the Rings prequel. The show is said to be the most expensive ever, with suggestions that $465m (£400m) was spent on its first season. This sum does not include the $250 million paid to Tolkien’s estate for the rights.

The Rings of Power is a Frankenstein story monster, cobbled together from background notes, and the jury is out on just how good it will turn out across its eight episodes – but the anticipation is telling. Tolkien’s grip was never just on writing: it was mythopoeia, a term that this Old English professor adopted in the 1930s to explain the creation of mythical worlds in which the author was only “the little doer”.

The magical portal for bringing this mythopoeia into the 21st century was opened in 2001 with the release of the first film in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In 2010, Forbes comically declared Tolkien the third highest-earning deceased celebrity, after Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, basing that valuation on movies and half a million book sales the previous year. And so on. In the 2022 What Kids Are Reading report, which brings together information from 6,500 schools across the UK and Ireland, two titles from the trilogy were among the favorites of secondary school pupils of all ages. The same survey found that the most popular book in primary schools was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – the seventh and final title in JK Rowling’s series.

Fantasy suits the age of film and television because it is infinitely grand while avoiding the need to struggle with the effect on the plot of modern technology: Frodo cannot telephone home. However, two decades have passed since the Jackson films arrived, so The Lord of the Rings’ enduring popularity isn’t just feverish.

From the start, Tolkien was caught in the crossfire between those who saw his work as an escape and others who saw it as a moral purpose forged on the killing fields of the Somme. It’s a useless binary. “Fantasy is escape, and that is its glory,” wrote the master himself. “If we value freedom of mind and soul, if we are supporters of freedom, then it is our duty to escape and take as many people with us as possible!”

This commitment to fighting coercion is one of the reasons so many of its writers – from Rowling and Neil Gaiman to Tolkien himself – have appeared on the American Library Association’s List of Banned and Disputed Books over the years. decades. Fantasy, as recent events show, retains its power in our new era and will always defeat those orcs bent on capturing and controlling the imagination.

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