“I Rarely Remember a Book About Which I Have Had Such Violent Arguments” — W.H. Auden Reviews J.R.R. Tolkien

From the Oh, This Exists? Department — W.H. Auden’s 1956 New York Times review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King. It’s a fantastic review that defends Tolkien’s literary authenticity against his many haters, using Erich Auerbach’s groundbreaking work Mimesis as a central arguing point. Here’s Auden’s intro, but again, I recommend reading the whole review—

In “The Return of the King,” Frodo Baggins fulfills his Quest, the realm of Sauron is ended forever, the Third Age is over and J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” complete. I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte. In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light “escapist” reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.

4 thoughts on ““I Rarely Remember a Book About Which I Have Had Such Violent Arguments” — W.H. Auden Reviews J.R.R. Tolkien”

  1. Wonderful, thanks for this. It’s nice to see smart people backing up Tolkien, even though I frankly wouldn’t care much if smart people were tearing him down. This also serves as a nice little reminder that I need to read Mimesis, even if I am currently trying to avoid buying books.


  2. By any definition reading is ‘escapist’. Even shop manuals for mechanics and cookbooks can be said to be ‘escapist’. Reality is that which is, not that which is inside one’s head. What I noticed about readers of Mr. Tolkien’s stories is that they identified with the stories. That seems more than escapism.


  3. It takes an exquisite collision of cynicism and stunted imagination, fertilized by a heaping lump of grumpiness, to avoid being mesmerized by this story. That it engages me just as deeply as a 49-year-old man as it did when I first discovered it at the tender age of 13 speaks volumes. Of course, back then I skipped over the songs and poetry. No longer.


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