So, while Mackenzie’s off looking for the Victrola – yeah, we’ve really got a Victrola in here, as well as a 21st century sound system that’s practically sentient – I’ll sign you in. I’m one of the Several Annies, and the Library desk is my post this afternoon.
Oh my yes, Professor Tolkien is a hero to a great lot of us here in the Green Man. Especially the younger Library staff, like me – I’m not quite past my seven-year apprenticeship (Mackenzie is quite old fashioned) and Tolkien was one of the storytellers I got with Mother Goose and Brothers Grimm when I still wore pajamas with feet. Mackenzie wrinkles his autocratic nose over The Lord of the Rings, (and Liath says the Elvish sociology is shocking) but we Juniors all think it’s one of the best fantasies of the 20th century.
Why do we love Tolkien? Well, he’s unique. He himself based the structure of his stories on classic quest tales — but Professor T., being a real scholar, went to the original sources to study the method and art. His style has since been copied over and over ad nauseam, to the point where Middle-earth and all his creations are treated like public domain. A lot of fantasy readers scorn his works because of the flood of imitations, good and bad, that followed him. And that is a great loss to the scorners, because he’s an original.
Professor Tolkien was an heroic bard, a man very much of the Twentieth century who nonetheless brought the style and voice of a skald into modern literature. A lot has been written about whether or not his WWI experiences influenced the plot of his trilogy — I think that’s like asking if he deliberately breathed while he wrote it. Of course he drew on those experiences! And whether or not it was conscious really doesn’t matter at this distance – he took the formative horror of his generation, focused it through the prism of scholarship, and created a story of enduring beauty out of blood, mud and despair.
I think he’s matched only by Mervyn Peake (Gormanghast, Titus Groan, Titus Alone) for sheer enormity of creation. And in fact, there is a school of fantasy – China Mieville epitomizes it, I feel – that has drawn its epic roots from Gormanghast rather than Middle-earth. The difference between Peake’s and Tolkien’s magnum opii, though, is that Peake tragically went mad while he wrote his – Tolkien took what should have driven him mad, and made a coherent tale out of hideous chaos.
And that’s just the trilogy! His body of work is huge, and hasn’t been plumbed to its depths yet, luckily for all us readers. There are all the highways and byways of Middle-earth, which far too many folks don’t explore. Take a look at Farmer Giles of Ham and Unfinished Tales; there’s more than one world in there. Don’t scorn the ‘non-hobbit’ works like The Silmarillion, either; the elves were a lot livelier in the youth of the world, and their adventures and misdeeds are amazing. I’ve liked the Lady Galadriel a lot more since discovering what a wild bad girl she was when she was young.
Some of older Library staff really do say Professor Tolkien visited here in the Thirties, and oh, how I wish I had been here to listen! They say he was both a perfect researcher and a perfect guest; always handled the books to Mackenzie’s satisfaction, and could usually be persuaded to sing a bit in the pub of an evening. Though he did have a tendency to sing his own stuff – and back in the Thirties, no one knew how familiar those would get someday, and how fond of them most of us would be.
Still, an Oxford don with an extra pint or two under his waistcoat is almost required to recite his own work, don’t you think? And as Mackenzie himself reminds us all when he reads aloud from the Professor’s books — Tolkien read all this out loud to his friends to test it first. It was drawn from a verbal heritage of saga and ode, and it’s still damned good when read aloud. And since Mackenzie does quite a job even on the middle bits he claims to abhor – well, I think he likes the old Professor’s stuff a bit better than he lets on … don’t tell him I said that, though!