A somewhat random thought occurred to me today – “I wonder what the critics thought of Tolkien’s books when they were first published?” A lengthy research dive later, and I’m happy to say, I’ve discovered some interesting answers to that question. Without further ado, we’ll jump into the reviews of his major books – The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I’ll also examine the critical reception to The Silmarillion.
The Hobbit – 21 September 1937, by Allen and Unwin.
At the time The Hobbit was released, Tolkien was not known as an author, at least outside of academia. He was described first as a “Professor of Anglo-Saxon,” (New York Times) which was of course true. Despite being unknown, Tolkien’s first book found high praise from the critics. The Hobbit impressed readers with its originality. The New York Times said, “This is one of the most freshly original and delightfully imaginative books for children that have appeared in many a long day.” Comparisons were made to Alice in Wonderland, and the similarities between Carroll’s “Wonderland” and Tolkien’s “Wilderland” were not lost on the NYT.
Easily the most famous review of The Hobbit, and one of the few still remembered today, came from Tolkien’s good friend C.S. Lewis. Lewis, of course, would prove that he knew something about children’s literature with The Chronicles of Narnia, but in 1937 his own series was about a decade-and-a-half away. Nevertheless, he was a well-known and respected author and speaker, and his word carried some weight.
Lewis’s review of the book reads nearly as wonderfully as The Hobbit itself. Like the New York Times’ reviewer, he grasped the similarities between Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. But C.S. Lewis seemed to instantly understand, unlike the NYT, that while the Hobbit was technically a children’s book, it was something much more than that.
For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone on to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true.
“For that, of course, was the answer,” as the narrator says of Bilbo’s last-second guess to Gollum. C.S. Lewis grasped what eluded many initial readers of the book, and what still escapes some people today. The Hobbit is a children’s book that isn’t. It isn’t really even a book at all – at least, it’s not a story, or not only a story. The Hobbit is a portal; an escape to another world. Lewis described this far better than I ever could:
Both (Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit)belong to a very small class of books which have nothing in common save that each admits us to a world of its own—a world that seems to have been going on long before we stumbled into it but which, once found by the right reader, becomes indispensable to him. Its place is with Alice, Flatland, Phantastes, The Wind in the Willows.
Similarly, the NYT finished its review with a word of high praise, declaring “All those, young or old, who love to find an adventurous tale, beautifully told, will take The Hobbit to their hearts.” Lewis concluded with a more prescient line. “Prediction,” he said, “is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”
The Fellowship of the Ring, 29 July 1954, by Allen and Unwin.
Tolkien intended The Lord of the Rings to be published as a single volume; his publisher, Allen and Unwin, decided pretty quickly to divide the work into three. I like to imagine it took them about 30 seconds to make that call, right after Tolkien dropped about a massive pile of notebooks, sketchbooks, drawings, and various loose papers onto their desk and said, “This is my book!” (Note: I have no idea if this happened or not, but I like the mental image.)
The Fellowship arrived from an author not quite as unknown as when The Hobbit was released. Several reviewers referenced The Hobbit, demonstrating that the earlier work was slowly receiving increased attention. But the reviews for Tolkien’s newest book weren’t quite so universally favourable as for The Hobbit. The strictest opposition came from the American critic Edmund Wilson, who published a scathing review entitled “Oo, those awful Orcs!” Lengthy, detailed, and drawn-out, Wilson’s review left little doubt of his opinions of the matter: “Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form.” Other reviewers also were not impressed, though perhaps less harsh in their assessment. In a more recent article, the New Yorker noted that its own reviewer gave the Fellowship the description of a “whimsical and sententious fairy story… intended for grownups.” Hardly a glowing reception.
Others were much more favourable. The strongest support came from C.S. Lewis, again, but more surprisingly also from W.H. Auden. A well-known poet and critic, Auden wrote of the book “No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Lewis’s review was especially effusive, calling it “lightning from a clear sky.”
In reading over the reviews, good and bad, I think the problem with The Fellowship was its tone. The Hobbit is clearly a children’s book. As Lewis pointed out, it can be and often is read by adults and thoroughly enjoyed; but The Hobbit began as a story for children, and it remains such. The Fellowship still has that kernel of “kid’s-story” to it, but Tolkien’s saga had grown by that point, reaching beyond into something far more similar to the actual sagas of British and Nordic history. There is a bit of tension in The Lord of the Rings, between the serious, epic nature of the conflict and the underlying simplicity of some of the themes. Edmund Wilson took serious issue with the fact that Tolkien’s “good” characters are always good, and his “bad” characters are always bad, with few or any exceptions. To him, that smacked of crudeness and poor writing. To many, many other readers, Tolkien’s style reflected a beautiful simplicity. Yes, we all know there are grey areas in life. There are moral quandaries, which defy a clear “good” or “evil” description. But nevertheless – most people grasp, instinctively, that there are good and evil things, good and evil actions, and even good and evil people. Perhaps, despite any evidence to the contrary, the world truly is a bit more simple than we make it out to be. Certainly, we wish it was that way; Tolkien’s books grant us that wish.