The Danger of Canonizing Tolkien

In an interview after the release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films, his son Christopher–his literary executor and one of those most responsible for cultivating his father’s posthumous legacy–expressed a fair amount of skepticism about whether it was truly possible to translate his father’s work into the popular medium of film. Something, he seems to suggest, always gets lost.

This attitude on Chistopher’s part shouldn’t surprise us. After all, this is a man who has devoted much of his adult life to, first, ensuring that his father’s literary legacy was created and then, subsequently, burnishing until it shines as brightly as it ever has. To someone a bit old-fashioned in his tastes, the medium of film no doubt appears more than a little frivolous directed primarily, as he puts it, at young people.

To be fair to Christopher, however, this is hardly unique to him. Indeed, part of the effort to canonize Tolkien in literature has been based on extracting him from the grasp of his juvenile fans. This was recently brought home to me while I was reading a critical volume on Tolkien, for in the entire collection, there wasn’t a single piece about the influence of Tolkien’s work on its fans, nor indeed any essays dealing with the robust fan culture at all. Instead, the works were primarily geared, it was pretty clear, toward solidifying Tolkien’s bona fides as a literary figure and The Lord of the Rings as a work of literature in the most conservative sense.

There is much to appreciate about volumes like this, and I don’t mean to suggest that Tolkien and his work isn’t deserving of serious and perceptive literary criticism. It most definitely is. And I don’t mind to suggest that Tolkien doesn’t deserve a place in the literature canon, alongside the other giants of 20th Century literature, because I believe he does (after all, if we are to have a canon, which arguably is a good thing, then it should at least be a diverse one, both in terms of identity and in terms of fiction being allowed. Too long have “popular” fiction writers been denied their due in this regard).

However, it does seem to me that there is a possible downside to the canonization of Tolkien, and this has to do with his fandom.

Ever since the Lord of the Rings started its ascent into popularity there have been those who saw its fans as somewhat ridiculous if not outright worthy of ridicule. Tolkien, lovely old curmudgeon that he was, was not overly fond of his fans tramping through his gardens (one can hardly blame him for that) although, on the flip side, he was very generous with his time in responding to the mountains of mail that he received. To the critics, on the other hand, there has always been something vaguely embarrassing about the level of fervour with which Tolkien’s fans engage with his work.

It shouldn’t really surprise us that there is so much hostility to Tolkien fandom. Indeed, fandom of any kind–whether for film franchises of fantasy series–is always ripe for opprobrium. For many literary critics trained in English departments in a certain period of time, the popular is dangerous because it is so fleeting. Only those texts that have passed the test of time should be granted the honor of being taken seriously.

This is especially germane for Tolkien’s status as an author for, of course, the very thing that has been most responsible for Tolkien’s success also threatens to undo his literary legacy, at least if we hold to a rather limited sense of what a legacy should look like. Any time that the appreciation of a text or an author passes out of the hands of the professoriate or the creator himself, it inevitably enters into the public consciousness. The literati have always (and probably always will have) a distaste and distrust of the popular. Anything that appeals to the masses must be suspicious, if for no other reason than that it must be unserious. Serious art, many contend, should be difficult.

Unfortunately, whether they know it or not, those who have set out to cement Tolkien’s place in the literary firmament replicate the very systems of power and privilege that have defined both literature and literary study for far too long. What’s more, they tend to overlook (or deliberately denigrate) the sorts of ingenious ways in which fans engage with their chosen object. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Ringers, you know that there truly is no limit to what Tolkien fans are able to accomplish when they set their mind to it. While some might look at this with sneering dismissal, I prefer instead to see it is as a key part of what makes Tolkien’s work such a wonderful part of the 20th Century literary landscape. Rather than attempting to rescue Tolkien from the grasp of fans so that he can occupy some vaunted pedestal, we should instead be using that very fan adulation to show how influential his work was and remains.

This skepticism toward fandom at least in part explains the ambivalence of many Tolkienists-including Christopher himself, obviously–toward the film adaptations. For film has always struggled to gain appreciation as a form of art rather than vulgar entertainment, and this is especially true of fantasy film. To be fair, there are some serious flaws in all of the adaptations that have gained any measure of currency–Rankin/Bass, Bakshi, and Jackson–but they are nevertheless important interpretations of Tolkien’s work and, for many, an important gateway into the written works themselves. Literary critics would do well to remember this fact, rather than simply reverting to their tried and true methods of dealing with literature and attempting to isolate Tolkien’s works from the very people that have done so much to ensure his legacy.

As important and necessary as it may be to elevate Tolkien into the canon, we must also be wary of how we do so.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close