Oo, Those Awful Orcs !

It is with the same disquiet that one might feel stepping into a cold morgue, where a body killed after continuous pain from some deadly nerve gas he inhaled on purpose might be seen laying on a steel slab, to reread the words of the dismissive review by Edmund Wilson on what history has since decreed unambiguously to be the best novel of the modern era.

The kind reader may well wonder why any time or effort should be spent on dissecting a review over half a century old, worthy of no attention and no memory. That we must answer only after reading the review itself.

From The Nation, April 14, 1956.

            Oo, THOSE AWFUL ORCS !
By Edmund Wilson

            J. R. R. Tolkien: The Fellowship of the Ring.
            Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings, Allen and Unwin. 21s.

            In 1937, Dr. J. R. R. Tolkien, an Oxford don, published a children’s book called The Hobbit, which had an immense success. The Hobbits are a not quite human race who inhabit an imaginary country called the Shire and who combine the characteristics of certain English animals – they live in burrows like rabbits and badgers – with the traits of English country-dwellers, ranging from rustic to tweedy (the name seems a telescoping of rabbit and Hobbs.) They have Elves, Trolls and Dwarfs as neighbours, and they are associated with a magician called Gandalph [sic] and a slimy water-creature called Gollum. Dr. Tolkien became interested in his fairy-tale country and has gone on from this little story to elaborate a long romance, which has appeared, under the general title, The Lord of the Rings, in three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. All volumes are accompanied with maps, and Dr. Tolkien, who is a philologist, professor at Merton College of English Language and Literature, has equipped the last volume with a scholarly apparatus of appendices, explaining the alphabets and grammars of the various tongues spoken by his characters, and giving full genealogies and tables of historical chronology. Dr. Tolkien has announced that this series – the hypertrophic sequel to The Hobbit – is intended for adults rather than children, and it has had a resounding reception at the hands of a number of critics who are certainly grown-up in years.

Mr. Richard Hughes, for example, has written of it that nothing of the kind on such a scale has been attempted since The Faerie Queen, and that “for width of imagination it almost beggars parallel.”

            “It’s odd, you know,” says Miss Naomi Mitchison, “one takes it as seriously as Malory.” And Mr. C. S. Lewis, also of Oxford, is able to top them all: “If Ariosto,” he ringingly writes, “rivalled it in invention (in fact, he does not), he would still lack its heroic seriousness.” Nor has America been behind. In The Saturday Review of Literature, a Mr. Louis J. Halle, author of a book on Civilization and Foreign Policy, answers as follows a lady who – “lowering,” he says, “her pince-nez” -has inquired what he finds in Tolkien: “What, dear lady, does this invented world have to do with our own? You ask for its meaning – as you ask for the meaning of the Odyssey, of Genesis, of Faust – in a word? In a word, then, its meaning is ‘heroism.’ It makes our own world, once more, heroic. What higher meaning than this is to be found in any literature?”

            But if one goes from these eulogies to the book itself, one is likely to be let down, astonished, baffled. The reviewer has just read the whole thing aloud to his seven-year old daughter, who has been through The Hobbit countless times, beginning it again the moment she has finished, and whose interest has been held by its more prolix successors. One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child. It is essentially a children’s book – a children’s book which has somehow got out of hand, since, instead of directing it at the “juvenile” market, the author has indulged himself in developing the fantasy for its own sake; and it ought to be said at this point, before emphasizing its inadequacies as literature, that Dr. Tolkien makes few claims for his fairy romance. In a statement prepared for his publishers, he has explained that he began it to amuse himself, as a philological game: the invention of languages is the foundation. “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish’.” He has omitted, he says, in the printed book, a good deal of the philological part; “but there is a great deal of linguistic matter… included or mythologically expressed in the book. It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in ‘linguistic esthetic,’ as I sometimes say to people who ask me ‘what it is all about.’… It is not ‘about’ anything but itself. Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular or topical, moral, religious or political.” An overgrown fairy story, a philological curiosity – that is, then, what The Lord of The Rings really is. The pretentiousness is all on the part of Dr. Tolkien’s infatuated admirers, and it is these pretensions that I would here assail.

            The most distinguished of Tolkien’s admirers and the most conspicuous of his defenders has been Mr. W. H. Auden. That Auden is a master of English verse and a well-equipped critic of verse, no one, as they say, will dispute. It is significant, then, that he comments on the badness of Tolkien’s verse – there is a great deal of poetry in The Lord of the Rings. Mr. Auden is apparently quite insensitive – through lack of interest in the other department.- to the fact that Tolkien’s prose is just as bad. Prose and verse are on the same level of professorial amateurishness. What I believe has misled Mr. Auden is his own special preoccupation with the legendary theme of the Quest. He has written a book about the literature of the Quest; he has experimented with the theme himself in a remarkable sequence of sonnets; and it is to be hoped that he will do something with it on an even larger scale. In the meantime – as sometimes happens with works that fall in with one’s interests – he no doubt so overrates The Lord of the Rings because he reads into it something that he means to write himself. It is indeed the tale of a Quest, but, to the reviewer, an extremely unrewarding one. The hero has no serious temptations; is lured by no insidious enchantments, perplexed by few problems. What we get is a simple confrontation – in more or less the traditional terms of British melodrama – of the Forces of Evil with the Forces of Good, the remote and alien villain with the plucky little home-grown hero. There are streaks of imagination: the ancient tree-spirits, the Ents, with their deep eyes, twiggy beards, rumbly voices; the Elves, whose nobility and beauty is elusive and not quite human. But even these are rather clumsily handled. There is never much development in the episodes; you simply go on getting more of the same thing. Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form. The characters talk a story-book language that might have come out of Howard Pyle, and as personalities they do not impose themselves. At the end of this long romance, I had still no conception of the wizard Gandalph [sic], who is a cardinal figure, had never been able to visualize him at all. For the most part such characterizations as Dr. Tolkien is able to contrive are perfectly stereotyped: Frodo the good little Englishman, Samwise, his dog-like servant, who talks lower-class and respectful, and never deserts his master. These characters who are no characters are involved in interminable adventures the poverty of invention displayed in which is, it seems to me, almost pathetic. On the country in which the Hobbits, the Elves, the Ents and the other Good People live, the Forces of Evil are closing in, and they have to band together to save it. The hero is the Hobbit called Frodo who has become possessed of a ring that Sauron, the King of the Enemy, wants (that learned reptilian suggestion – doesn’t it give you a goosefleshy feeling?). In spite of the author’s disclaimer, the struggle for the ring does seem to have some larger significance. This ring, if one continues to carry it, confers upon one special powers, but it is felt to become heavier and heavier; it exerts on one a sinister influence that one has to brace oneself to resist. The problem is for Frodo to get rid of it before he can succumb to this influence.

            NOW, this situation does create interest; it does seem to have possibilities. One looks forward to a queer dilemma, a new kind of hair-breadth escape, in which Frodo, in the Enemy’s kingdom, will find himself half-seduced into taking over the enemy’s point of view, so that the realm of shadows and horrors will come to seem to him, once he is in it, once he is strong in the power of the ring, a plausible and pleasant place, and he will narrowly escape the danger of becoming a monster himself. But these bugaboos are not magnetic; they are feeble and rather blank; one does not feel they have any real power. The Good People simply say “Boo” to them. There are Black Riders, of whom everyone is terrified but who never seem anything but specters. There are dreadful hovering birds-think of it, horrible birds of prey! There are ogreish disgusting Orcs, who, however, rarely get to the point of committing any overt acts. There is a giant female spider – a dreadful creepy-crawly spider! – who lives in a dark cave and eats people. What one misses in all these terrors is any trace of concrete reality. The preternatural, to be effective, should be given some sort of solidity, a real presence, recognizable features – like Gulliver, like Gogol, like Poe; not like those phantom horrors of Algernon Blackwood which prove so disappointing after the travel-book substantiality of the landscapes in which he evokes them. Tolkien’s horrors resemble these in their lack of real contact with their victims, who dispose of them as we do of the horrors in dreams by simply pushing them or puffing them away. As for Sauron, the ruler of Mordor (doesn’t the very name have a shuddery sound.) who concentrates in his person everything that is threatening the Shire, the build-up for him goes on through three volumes. He makes his first, rather promising, appearance as a terrible fire-rimmed yellow eye seen in a water-mirror. But this is as far as we ever get. Once Sauron’s realm is invaded, we think we are going to meet him; but he still remains nothing but a burning eye scrutinizing all that occurs from the window of a remote dark tower. This might, of course, be made effective; but actually it is not; we never feel Sauron’s power. And the climax, to which we have been working up through exactly nine hundred and ninety-nine large close-printed pages, when it comes, proves extremely flat. The ring is at last got rid of by being dropped into a fiery crater, and the kingdom of Sauron “topples ” in a brief and banal earthquake that sets fire to everything and burns it up, and so releases the author from the necessity of telling the reader what exactly was so terrible there. Frodo has come to the end of his Quest, but the reader has remained untouched by the wounds and fatigues of his journey. An impotence of imagination seems to me to sap the whole story. The wars are never dynamic; the ordeals give no sense of strain; the fair ladies would not stir a heartbeat; the horrors would not hurt a fly.

            Now, how is it that these long-winded volumes of what looks to this reviewer like balderdash have elicited such tributes as those above? The answer is, I believe, that certain people – especially, perhaps, in Britain – have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. They would not accept adult trash, but, confronted with the pre-teen-age article, they revert to the mental phase which delighted in Elsie Dinsmore and Little Lord Fauntleroy and which seems to have made of Billy Bunter, in England, almost a national figure. You can see it in the tone they fall into when they talk about Tolkien in print: they bubble, they squeal, they coo; they go on about Malory and Spenser – both of whom have a charm and a distinction that Tolkien has never touched.

            As for me, if we must read about imaginary kingdoms, give me James Branch Cabell’s Poictesme. He at least writes for grown-up people, and he does not present the drama of life as a showdown between Good People and Goblins. He can cover more ground in an episode that lasts only three pages than Tolkien is able to in one of this twenty-page chapters, and he can create a more disquieting impression by a reference to something that is never described than Tolkien through his whole demonology.

My comment:

The reason why this mocking and forgotten review should be remembered and held up to mockery in turn is because the animating spirit behind it is alive and well, if not increased in size and reach and insolence.

Ray Bradbury described this spirit, as is his wont to describe anything he describes, with the insight of a poet and the wisdom of a sage:

“For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, trembles – breaks. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.”


Elsewhere, he describes their homeland:

“That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.”

If this sound deliciously like the dreary rainscape of the microscopic yet immeasurable Hell portrayed in THE GREAT DIVORCE by C.S. Lewis, where the houses are imaginary and do not keep out the cold and wet, it is no coincidence. The two writers both had met the Autumn People from the cold lands deep in October.

They are among us today, the Autumn People, and in greater numbers, and for the most part they have dispensed with the delicacy of expression of Mr. Wilson, as with his culture and his learning. His spiritual grandchildren are among us, and turned against his learning the same scorn he turned against Tolkien’s, so they cannot express themselves as well, or, indeed, coherently.


Edmund Wilson in the 1920’s

From the point of view of an autopsy then, one wonders what is wrong with such people as Mr. Wilson? What ails the Autumn People?

One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child.

The problem here is Mr Wilson’s opinion as to what constitutes adults. Mr. Louis J. Halle, who is quoted in the previous paragraph, answered that in a word: adults are concerned with heroism.

A hero is one who stands ready to fall in battle for a cause greater than himself. The prime virtue of heroism is fortitude, and fortitude is the prime example of virtue, the one virtue without which the others, prudence and temperance and justice, have no ability to act. Virtue is the ability to chain the appetites by means of a passion for some higher and nobler good than mere appetite serves. The soldier who has an appetite for life, a survival instinct, chains that instinct to his passion for honor, for obedience, for service to his flag and love for his brothers in arms, so that when the trumpet sounds the charge, rather than, as appetite would have it, running away, instead he runs forward. The ability to chain the appetites and domesticate the passions is the touchstone of maturity.

Maturity is the ability to think in the long term, to win without vaunting and lose without grieving, to bear wounds manfully, to face the ordeal (for men) of combat or competition without loss of self control, or to face the ordeal (for women) of childbirth without fear, and childrearing without selfishness.

So while the tenderness of children indeed make them unable to comprehend complex or technical pedantries, and our tenderness for them makes us unwilling to expose them to images or reports of the mysteries of erotic love or the horrors of war and violent crime, this incapacity is not the prime definition of adulthood. Adulthood means not education in erotic and violent matter, nor education in technical and abstract matter, but education in heroism. Because heroism is the one thing children must learn, it is the one thing that occupies the center of their nursery tales.

If it is objected that little boys like heroic tales and little girls attend to other kinds of stories, perhaps involving horses, I say only that the typical stories for little girls concern the matter which is central to their future lives as maidens and mothers. They are still tales about friendship and love, stories concerned with self command and self sacrifice.

Modern stories which teach little girls to be selfish monsters are, of course, penned by authors and sold by publishers whose business it is to eliminate girlishness from society. They indeed are not heroic in the sense described here; but in the final analysis, they are not really stories but anti-stories. We can define a story as a lie told in the service of the truth, which presents to the imagination by means of figure or living example some truth that cannot be told literally. An anti-story is a lie told for in the service of lying. An anti-story is propaganda, and it carries a distinctive odor which betrays that there is no life in it.

Childhood is not about incompetence, as Mr Wilson would have it, but about squires and novices learning how to be heroes, heroines and saints. All stories properly so called are part of this imaginative exploration of the realities of life to come.

Now, the great matter of heroism is that it comes in three stages, a childish stage, a pagan stage, and a final stage.

The heroism of children, as in STAR WARS, is concerned with the plain and straightforward heroism of bravery and camaraderie; the heroism of pagans, as in Homer, is more mature yet, for it deals with the bright moments of glory and the dark, melancholy sorrow of inescapable fate that follows; the heroism that is more mature yet deals with the dark melancholy of free will and of fates that are freely chosen, albeit that they lead through dark and drear lands, but with the promise, in the end, of a bright harbor at the end of suffering, and a ship to carry the weary traveler away to a home he never knew, somewhere beyond the walls of the world.

Han Solo is an example of the first, as is John Carter the Warlord of Mars, or Robin Hood, or any number of action heroes or superheroes; Achilles is an example of the second, as is nearly every major figure in the matter of Troy; and of the third there are too few to list as examples, but that short list includes humble Frodo Baggins.

Children understand childish heroism, but a skilled poet can introduce them to the noble sorrows of pagan heroism, and the mysterious mysticism of the heroism of the saints.

But for Mr Wilson, adulthood consists of the unpleasant things children cannot face, and pedantic matters over their heads, which means, beyond their experience or understanding. Now, every child can understand heroism, but Mr Wilson cannot.

He also cannot understand the process of corruption.

One looks forward to a queer dilemma, a new kind of hair-breadth escape, in which Frodo, in the Enemy’s kingdom, will find himself half-seduced into taking over the enemy’s point of view, so that the realm of shadows and horrors will come to seem to him, once he is in it, once he is strong in the power of the ring, a plausible and pleasant place, and he will narrowly escape the danger of becoming a monster himself.

This is a description of what a typical intellectual of the radical bent imagines the process by which someone becomes a conservative, or an adult, to be. To them it is a fundamentally mysterious process by which the friends they knew in youth, in love with the same theories and ideals as they are, having no grip on reality, inexplicably, after exposure to experience, modify or abandon theory, adopt reality, and become monsters.

The typical intellectual hence is like the youngest in a group of teens, staring in disbelief as other members of his gang become interested in girls and stop playing with mud pies. It is not a description of what real corruption is like.

I assume I need not describe real corruption to anyone: it is a pressure to yield to a base desire. Once a surrender is made, future surrenders become ever easier, and plausible excuses become less plausible while becoming less needed. The corrupt man fixes on a certain set of excuses used more to silence his conscience than to convince his reason. It is not a question of taking on an enemy point of view. Taking on the enemy point of view convinces the reason, but not the conscience.

In any case, the scene where Sam dons the ring and sees a vision of using its power to turn Mordor into a garden would seem to be precisely what is being described. Sam’s natural humility laughs the vision away, and so he is saved by what Mr Wilson calls his doglike quality, but which humans call loyalty and innocence.

One wonders how Mr Wilson could mistake corruption for an intellectual rather than a passionate process, or how he could not recognize heroism when he sees it.

Here I indulge in speculation, knowing nothing of the man himself, but honestly I see no other explanation.I am merely assuming Mr Wilson is not different from others of his generation and class and time. Why does he think heroism childish, when it is the essential feature of maturity and wisdom?

This is not due to a defect of his reason, but to a defect of his passions.

The medieval and ancient picture of man divided the soul into thirds; the appetites, which we share with beasts, the reason, which we share with angels, and the passions, which is the mediation between the two.

Since this terminology has long fallen out of fashion, it needs a word of explanation, or even a digression.  I beg the kind indulgence of the patient reader.

Passions are those higher emotions unknown to beasts which incline a man to aim at abstract things. It is the emotional reaction to ideals apprehended by the reason.

Examples may make this clear: No lower animal is concerned with matters of reputation or honor or with an ambition to achieve glory, or with a love of the city which calls a man to self sacrifice, to defend the ashes of his fathers and the altars of his gods. Animals cannot conceive a passion for art or natural beauty. Animals have venereal but not erotic love, by which I mean, they have the appetite for copulation when in heat, but they have no romantic passion which inclines a man to idolize, to pine, to pen bad poetry, or to die for his beloved. Love of God, the passion that animates Nuns to become brides of Christ and lave the tormented limbs of lepers, is likewise unknown to beasts. Pious tales to the contrary, no beast in a stall ever knelt on Christmas Eve and prayed.

Honor, glory, patriotism, aesthetic rapture, romance, piety — all these are passions.

Passions can be distinguished from mere appetite by these signs; first, the object of the passion is an ideal or at least an idol; second, passions are unselfcentered, and when strongly felt incline a man to sacrifice and self-sacrifice;  third, they are not sated as appetites are by some simple good like food or drink, but instead seem deepened or inflamed by their object, as a patriot loves his city more when called to serve it, or a romantic more deeply drowns in romance at the approach of his beloved.

Now, an odd suspicion should be growing in the mind of the reader at this point, having heard this list of passions. These are all matters the modern men, especially men of the Left, the cynics and nihilists, have taken particular pains to mock and deride.

Lust and fornication, the moderns certainly admire and support, but lust and romance are opposites, even as fornication and marriage are opposites. The idea of a bride and bridegroom both coming to the marriage bower as virgins and cleaving to each other in tender yet fierce mutual adoration, worshiping each other with their bodies, and forswearing all other partners, this is an image the moderns find repellant, if not incomprehensible. It reminds them of the suburbs, or white picket fences, or Ozzie and Harriet. To them it is saccharine and nauseating. The only marriages they favor are gay marriages.

As for glory and honor and patriotism, love of chivalry and love of nation, the modern mind regard these things with distaste or disgust or even horror. They are regarded as machismo, as sinister attempts to oppress the weak, or to glorify violence and aggression. Patriotism to the modern man is bigotry, and vile; love of God they dismiss as superstition. The moderns have an insolent double standard: The superstition is harmless or even admirable, in an avuncular and condescending way, when practiced by Mohammedans or Buddhists or Animists, but it is an appalling enemy of enlightenment and progress when practiced by Christians.

The mere fact that a matter so basic as the difference between the emotions called appetites and the emotions called passions needs here to be introduced is itself a symptom of the disease that afflicts the modern mind, and hence part of this autopsy.

The ancients, particularly Plato, picture the soul like a city, ruled by a philosopher king, whose rule was by wisdom and due proportion, which was golden; the cities peasants and workingmen were sturdy and solid, unimaginative and leaden; and between the two were the high-spirited and noble warrior class, which was silver.

Or, again, the medieval pictured the reason as if lodged in the head, the appetites as if lodged in the loins and belly, and mediating between the two, in the broad chest of the hero, beat the heart where the passions lodged. C.S. Lewis, in his famous ABOLITION OF MAN, refers to the absence of passions in modern philosophy, and in modern culture, as the victory of ‘Men Without Chests’, that is, creatures of inhuman reason and ungoverned appetites with no sense of honor or passion to moderate between the two.

It should be obvious enough that Bilbo Baggins is a child story hero. He overcomes evil spiders in Mirkwood, for example, by means of a magic ring, and none of the thirteen dwarves perish or even come away wounded.

Equally, it should be obvious that Lord of the Rings is filled, nay, drenched in the sternness and sorrow of pagan heroism, a heroism as iron-bitter as Beowulf facing the last dragon: every victory in Lord of the Rings comes at a terrible price. The magic ring turns out to be a wearisome burden and a hellish curse that eats the soul of the ringbearer; the downfall of the Lord of the Rings entails the passing away of the elves to the uttermost West; Theoden faces the unclean spirit of the dead Witch King from the ancient days of darkness, and dies; Eowyn faces the same spirit, seeking death, and is poisoned by his breath, and almost dies; Aragorn as the hidden heir to the united kingdom must travel in secret until his heritage be known, but the deaths of the noble Denethor and Boromir, both overcome by darkness, proceeds him. Those who cannot see the parallel between all this and the matter of Norse epic and saga must be unfamiliar with those sources.

Finally, there is a particular Christian note that enters the Third Age which is foreign to pagan epics. It is the glorification of the small and unwanted things of the earth, and the discovery of hope beyond sorrow. Frodo accomplishes the quest when the quest has utterly failed, and not because of his own strength but by a coincidence that is clearly providence: he succeeds, but can never return in comfort to his home, tormented by wounds both physical and spiritual, but must be carried away to the paradise of the elves for his final rest, like King Arthur carried to Avalon.

So why does Mr Wilson sneer that this is matter fit only for children? As I said, I suspect it is because his passions are corrupted with modern pollution, and in him they do not mediate between the appetites and the reason. He is not capable of having the proper, apt and fitting stock response to high and noble matter, and so he must react like Gollum tasting the mystic waybread of the elves, and spit it out as ashes with a curse.  He is one of C.S. Lewis’ ‘Men Without Chests.’

The modern, once he has abandoned the idea of honor and self command, has removed the passions from any moral calculation, and indeed, removed any thought about passions as such at all.

All internal things are merely appetites, and all external things are merely raw materials to exploit to slake the appetites, and reason is merely the slave and the tool of the appetites; it is reduced from a sovereign ruler and pilot of the soul to the status of an accountant or a schemer, whose only task is to render the acts which slake the appetites more efficient.

Lest the reader think I exaggerate, allow me a single example from myriads. Readers will forgive me if I provide no links and proffer no exhibits: the matter is too disgusting. There is a porn star who at the time of this writing is a Duke University freshman who appeared on a ‘rough sex’ website which portrayed her being choked, spat upon, and insulted during the sex act.

To justify herself in the face of criticism, she has publicly and defiantly stated that true feminism, true liberty and happiness, consists of her ‘ownership’ of her body, which ownership renders her immune from criticism, and hence allows her to do whatever degrading acts she wishes to herself for her own pleasure. She absurdly assumes a moralistic stance to blame the decent people who are disgusted by her acts. She is also a homosexual, and suffers from a crippling self-loathing. People who like themselves don’t act out fantasies of sexual degradation.

Reading the words of this poor, young morally crippled fool is a chore I will spare the reader. I am sure you can find her words through a thousand references on the Internet. I will provide no additional links or pingbacks or clicks-through to such sites. I will, nonetheless, mention the clear absurdity the words convey. She objects in the strongest and most morally elevated language, in fiery tones worthy of Tom Paine and Nathan Hale, that anyone should say demeaning things about her choice of playacting in scenes where she is demeaned. In other words, she enjoys being demeaned, but does not want anyone else to demean her. She is a masochist who does not want to be slapped.

This public spectacle should drive home the point, beyond any denial, that the modern philosophy which the poor brainwashed child innocently repeats is nothing but nihilism.

Nihilism is the philosophy saying that the external world is void of innate meaning or truth. Instead, the external world exists only to slake the appetites, which are themselves the sole and final judge of their own fitness. Since there is no truth, there is no standard by which appetites can be good or bad, wholesome or not, virtuous or vicious. Hence, appetites are absolutely sovereign and nowise open to question, judgment, prudence, or self restraint.

It must be noted that the nihilist worldview is fundamentally, nay, deliberately dishonest. The nihilists lie, and they know that they are lying, and they want to lie and to rejoice in lies. The only thing they do not want is to be criticized for lying.

In the nihilist world, there are allegedly no sin, and hence we are allegedly set free from all the suffocating oppression of moral codes. Despite this, the nihilist world view proposes that there is one sin, and that one is unforgivable: the sin of being ‘judgmental’, that is, the sin of believing sin exists.

How it is that sinning is forgivable, whereas naming the nature of the act and calling it sin is unforgivable remains a mystery of this particular religion as deep as the mystery of the Incarnation.

Because the one sin for Nihilists is the use of reason, and the faculty of judgment which calls some things good or noble and others base or bad, the eternal instinct of the nihilist is to elevate the base and bad and denigrate the good and noble.

They are by nature iconoclasts, but only of fine and holy icons and images of heaven, never of ugly and degrading idols from hell; likewise, they are by nature romantics and idealists, but only of what is inhuman and loathsome. They hate happy marriages or heroism, but grow misty-eyed with deep emotion at the sight of Che or Mao lolling atop a mountain of corpses, and when they see the hill of smaller corpses of infants killed in the womb, they laugh and cheer and skylark, bright-faced and starry-eyed with rapture. So they have the same emotions as human beings, but merely reversed like a photographic negative.

For this reason, the main business of Mr Wilson’s article is not to give evidence about the book he has read and explain his judgment. No, his main business is to demean the standards by which the book, if judged correctly, is judged highly. He says as much:

An overgrown fairy story [is] what The Lord of The Rings really is. The pretentiousness is all on the part of Dr. Tolkien’s infatuated admirers, and it is these pretensions that I would here assail”.

Pretension here means ‘standards.’

Again I venture into speculation, by assuming Mr Wilson is characteristic of his type. If it should happen he has another reason for his words, then I am wrong. But I can only speak of the pattern I see.

I see that for the Autumnal Man, any claim that there is a standard of beautiful and ugly, a standard of vicious and virtuous, a standard of right and wrong, is and must be mere pretension, an impudent claim to something that by hypothesis cannot exist. A conscience, to him, is merely disguised self interest or class interest; an unselfish passion such as honor or patriotism is merely disguised appetite. The whole of nihilist writing consists of little more than ‘seeing through’ the masks.

Here, Mr Wilson does not disappoint. Perhaps he is not an Autumn Man, but if so, he mimics their mood and actions. His method of assailing the pretensions of Tolkien’s admirers is to make an unsupported accusation about motives.

He notes that W.H. Auden writes on the material of quests, and then speculates that Auden does not really admire Tolkien’s adroit handling of this theme, but is merely suffering from an unaccountable psychological difficulty, technically called projection, where he reads into Tolkien’s material the material he himself wishes to write. If you are reminded, dear reader, of Marxists claiming that workingmen who support the idea of free enterprise are brainwashed into a false consciousness, the parallel is not accidental. In both cases, the accuser does not address the evidence, which is public, but attacks the subconscious motive, which is not only private, it is unknown even to the accused person himself.

One wonders how it is that Mr Wilson knows Mr Auden’s hidden and buried motives when Mr Auden (who lives in the near proximity of Mr Auden) does not.

One wonders how it is that Mr Auden is incapable of rendering a sound judgment of the work, indeed, or even able to tell the difference between his own writings and Professor Tolkien’s, whereas Mr Wilson, by his own account, is perfectly capable. (Although not capable of spelling the names correctly, or identifying the characters, or, indeed, understanding the point of the book).

One wonders why Mr Auden did not seek out Mr Wilson and punch him handsomely in the nose and break it.

That is the whole of Mr. Wilson’s alleged attempt to assail pretensions. One assumes that those of us who have not written on Quest themes are not open to the accusation of psychological malfunction: and yet we seem to have no inability to admire the work.

The review then turns to the meat of his criticism, which is that Mr Wilson is unable to imagine the strain and pain suffered by the heroes. He dismisses the temptation to use the Ring as one that does not touch the hero, even though Boromir is killed by it and Frodo at the last moment succumbs to it. He refers to the volcanic eruption, earthquake, and fall of the Dark Tower as ‘banal.’ I assume to a dead soul, the ending of a Wagner opera would seem banal.

He dismisses Gandalph, the only character whose physical appearance is actually described, and surely one of the most vivid and three-dimensional in fantasy literature, as making no impression, as giving his imagination no picture. Others can see this picture just fine. The wizard’s sharp tongue and merry wit, his cares, his sorrows, his sudden flashes of anger — I challenge fans of Mallory and Spencer and Ariosto to compare the characters found there, Merlin or Archimago or Marfisa, and say who is more clearly delineated.

There is no analysis, no evidence, no argument, no nothing given in the review, just a list of adjectives, each showing a type of emotional deadness which says more about the reviewer than about the work reviewed.

I do not wish to be unfair to Mr Wilson — well, I wish to be unfair with reasonable limits, to the degree that it is funny — but I am left with no other theory of the case. If he cannot react emotionally in the proper way to something that everyone else, American and British alike, finds not only vivid but profoundly so, as vivid as Tolstoy, then I conclude the fault is not in the depiction, but instead in the reaction.

Had he written a real review, I would have other options. I would be able to see his point of view had he given it. You might think he has. He has not. All he has done is list the reactions of his appetites, not his judgment, not his reason.

What is most surprising is that Mr Wilson’s main complaint is that the dangers are insubstantial, that they evaporate when the heroes say ‘Boo’, and that they can be puffed or pushed away. I am unable to imagine to what scene or event this refers.

In the trilogy, the whole theme is of an oppressive and overwhelming evil which cannot be fought except in vain, without hope. Nothing is ever merely scared away by a shout, but is instead contested with great sorrow and sacrifice. The trilogy is about all the fine things of the First and Second Age passing away.  It is about the end of the age.

I do not know what he means by saying the orcs do not do anything overt. Does that mean Mr Wilson wished to see scenes of looting and pillaging? The abduction of Meriadoc and Peregrin was insufficient to show what these creatures are like up close?

Tolkien, if anything, has the opposite problem from portraying things in a too unsubstantial way: his world is too real and too substantial and too complex.

The “impotence of imagination” Mr Wilson decries in Tolkien is, I am afraid I must conclude, his own. I cannot fathom how Tolkien, who created a secondary world in richness and depth that is matched by nothing before or since, can be called unimaginative. No figure in all literature, in genre or out of it, has ever displayed such a superhuman breadth and persistence of imagination.

Other writers invent stories. Professor Tolkien invented a world.

Middle Earth is not a setting but a character. His world rejoices in all the richness, depth, layered complexity and strata of myth and history of a real world.

I assume what Mr Wilson means by this accusation of imaginative impotence is that he misses the one thing that engages his emotional nature.

The theory which naturally presents itself to explain this is not flattering to Mr Wilson. At the risk of doing him more injustice, I will share my thought:

I think stories about goodness and heroism speak to the passions, not the appetites.

The kind of book the lead-souled appetitive man likes is one and one kind only: the kind that tells the man who knows himself wrong and weak that he is right and strong.

The Autumn People admire autumnal books. The Autumn Man is a man who has collapsed into temptation. The disease has eaten into his bones so that he can no longer stand. What he wants to hear is stories that mock the standing people, that trip them up, that bring things down to his level.

Above all, the Autumn People like sly, sarcastic books, books that mock and shock, books that sneer. Sneering is the only emotion they know, aside from dull resentment and petulant hatred.

The Autumn Man therefore wants to hear a story that says he is in the right when he knows he is deeply wrong. Nay, more, he wants a story that will tell him his transgression makes him a bold and experimental soul willing to step beyond the narrow bounds of right and wrong to experience life beyond what the bourgeoisie know!

The appetitive man likes, I say again, one thing only: to be flattered. His conscience irks him, and flattery silences that irritation. It is a scratch he likes to itch, even though scratching only exacerbates the itch all the more.

Mr Wilson contrasts Tolkien unfavorably with James Branch Cabell, a fantasy writer at one time well known, now known only to specialists in the obscure or to particular fans of early fantasy.

For those of you not familiar with the Poictesme stories to which Mr Wilson refers, FIGURES OF THE EARTH stars a lying scoundrel named Manual who conquers a realm based on his loyalty to the motto Mundus Vult Decipi, “the World Wishes to be Deceived” and acts accordingly. He uses what people want to hear to win. In the sequel, SILVER STALLION, his legend is whitewashed to make Manual into an infallible knight, despite the living memory of some of his knights, who try to reconcile the truth with the mythology, to the detriment of the truth.

We can perhaps glimpse Mr Cabell’s viewpoint in this quote:

The comedy is always the same. In the first act the hero imagines a place where happiness exists. In the second he strives towards that goal. In the third he comes up short or what amounts to the same thing he achieves his goal only to find that happiness lies a little further down the road.” (The High Place : A Comedy of Disenchantment (1923)).

While I have no complaint about any warning against the vanity of pursuing of worldly pleasure, I notice the dry, detached and ironic tone in the choice of words. It is the quintessential cynic’s motto.

The one thing of which Tolkien displayed not the slightest hint or overtone was the enemy of all faith and all fantasy, namely, cynicism. We call this the deadly sin of despair, or, to use the technical term, sloth. Sloth is not laziness; it is the state of mind that says one’s own salvation is not worth seeking, one’s own soul not worth saving.

Cabell achieved brief fame among the literati in the most humiliating fashion possible, by having a book banned for being obscene. Charges of obscenity, deserved or not, lures the intelligentsia like flies to manure.

Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken all thought highly of him. These are men noted for a certain note in their writing, that of the cynic, the sneer. Perhaps someone is shocked that I pin the name cynic on the great Mr. Mark Twain. That someone should read Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven. I assume no one is shocked, or even doubts, that Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken are cynical men. It is their claim to fame.

I mention this merely to give the reader notice of the tone and flavor of Cabell’s work: cynical, ironic, detached, sneering. It is the one note deadly to the air and atmosphere of elfland.

Cabell, of all folk, is what Mr Wilson holds up as an exemplar of someone who writes for grown up people. Mr Wilson means, I assume, grown up Autumn People, whose business is to find weaknesses in windows and roofs and let the rain drops and mud-colored dead leaves in.

The most astonishing thing about Mr Wilson’s review is the smug and self satisfied tone of it all, the complete and juvenile arrogance betrayed.

At no point does he admit the possibility that there is a real phenomenon to be discussed. There is no hint that he regards the fans of Tolkien as real people, much less men as learned and equipped with good taste and good judgment as himself.

At no point does he act like a man animated by real curiosity to discover what the real reason is that admirers admire the work. He does not want to know. He wants to demean.

At no point does he seem to realize his danger, that he will betray himself to be someone unable to understand and appreciate a work which men of genius (Mr Lewis, even by his detractors, certainly must be called that) and which children can equally appreciate, scholars as well as stoners, the juvenile as well as the venerable.

A man who has a normal, non-inflated view of himself, an honest view, is humble enough to realize that if he does not understand something, it may be indeed be because the thing is too jumbled and worthless to understand — but it also may be that he suffers a defect in his understanding. Such a man delivers his judgments and criticisms with deference, not knowing when what seems juvenile to him is in truth possessed of towering genius, and seems small to him merely because his ego is gigantic. He looks down his nose at what is below his feet, and never realizes he is in the absurd position of standing on his head the whole time.

In short, at no point does Mr Wilson stop talking about himself and actually talk about Tolkien.

The review ends with Mr Wilson calling the work juvenile trash, and he explains its popularity by spitting in the teeth of the reading public, including you and including me: We who admire Tolkien evidently bubble and giggle and coo.

Does such a comment strike you as something which belongs in a real book review?

(Strange. I somehow do not feel like giggling. The feeling is much more akin to that which propels a man to smite another man handsomely in the nose and break it.)

Insulting the admirers of a book has nothing to do with rendering a careful artistic judgment of the merits or demerits of a book. It is propaganda, something said to show loyalty to a party, or to a worldview, or to a cynical philosophy of life.

Eh, well. Mr Wilson evidently is not a man who admires the common man, the common taste, or the eternal things, and who does not realize when he is the presence of men who know and love the deep things of the world, men more mature, wiser, and more sober than he.

I know nothing of him save this, his one review. But I suspect he is of the gray hordes of the Autumn People. Perhaps I judge hastily. But perhaps one can discern a man’s loyalty even in so short a space as a few paragraphs, if they contain his pledge of allegiance to what he holds dear.  This insulting dismissal of Elfland is as loud and clear an anthem praising the October Country as any of us is likely to hear. I think Mr Wilson is an Autumn Man merely because he says as much.

The Autumn People each live in a gray and tiny cosmos of their own making. They are often called narcissists. I suspect the matter is worse. I suspect that on an emotional level, they are solipsists.

They do not know how to stop shooting off their mouths. They do not know when they are making fools of themselves. It is not intelligence that they lack: it is wisdom, a sense of justice, of prudence, of proper proportion, a sense of shame. The Autumn People are not stupid. Indeed, they overrun the commonwealth of letters, and flock to academic and artistic subjects. But they are fools.

And every Tom O’Bedlam who stands on his head and sneers at stars and mountains as small things underfoot or praises for his heaven mud puddles and pools of hog spew, he is a serious and even pompous fool, who does not realize what a deep fool he makes himself.