Brian Rosebury’s Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon

IMG_8491Liz Milner penned this stellar review.

In Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, Brian Rosebury presents a critical assessment of the entire body of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. He also attempts to locate Tolkien within Literature and the History of Ideas and to examine the “afterlife” of Tolkien’s works in today’s popular culture. He sees the book as both a complete introduction to Tolkien and his works for general readers, and as a critical analysis for fans and scholars.

A shorter version of this book appeared in 1992. This new extended edition was written in the light of new scholarship and two new developments: the publication of Tolkien’s unpublished manuscripts by his son Christopher, and the release of Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings.

Rosebury begins by presenting a defense of Tolkien’s works. He refutes many of the same hostile critics as Thomas Shippey did in his Author Of the Century. As I read Rosebury’s argument, I found myself muttering “Oh, get over it.” A refutation of Germaine Greer, Edmund Wilson and their cronies may have been needed in 1992, but it’s been done many times since — many many times — and has gotten a bit stale.

Rosebury is at his best when he’s explaining the subtleties of Tolkien’s literary techniques. Rosebury argues that Tolkien’s greatest literary achievement is the creation of Middle-earth itself. The presentation of Middle-earth in such loving detail gives it a high level of authenticity. Moreover, readers tend to fall in love with this imagined world, and the book’s aesthetic power comes from the threat of its destruction. “In this way,” he writes, “the two aesthetic structures — the dynamic structure of the plot and the comprehensive structure of the invented world–are integrally related: our desire for Middle-earth is the keynote, so to speak, of our desire for the fulfillment of Frodo’s errand. The Lord of the Rings is a consummate work of art because it co-ordinates these desires into a compelling unity.”

Rosebury discusses the ways Tolkien used language to intensify the depiction of Middle-earth as dynamic, and “sensuously alert;” and identifies Middle-earth itself as the real “hero” of the story.

One of the most interesting sections of the book is Rosebury’s examination of the areas where Tolkien’s mythology diverges from Christian Doctrine. He contrasts Milton’s God in Paradise Lost with Tolkien’s Ilúvatar in The Silmarillion.

Milton’s Judeo-Christian God is a God of unlimited power, while Ilúvatar’s essence is in endless creativity. Judeo-Christian heaven is organized along the lines of a hierarchy or military camp; while Tolkien’s heaven is more democratic; it is like a school or an arts camp. Melkor, Tolkien’s soon-to-be fallen angel, cannot “make war against God — for how can he know that there is such a thing as war? Milton’s Satan can do so, and can speak in metaphors of warfare, because Milton’s heaven is militarized…Milton’s Satan can plausibly conceive God as a tyrant; Melkor cannot.”

Judeo-Christian God creates the world by fiat and the emphasis of the creation story is on his limitless, unknowable power. Tolkien’s Ilúvatar leads his angels, the Ainur, in creating the world as a performance of choral music. The emphasis of the creation story is on their delight in their own creativity.

The choral performance also introduces chance and freedom into the universe. It is virtually impossible for a composer of a complex polyphonic work to imagine every chord created through the interaction of melody lines before the piece is performed. In the same way, the involvement of so many minds in the creation of Tolkien’s universe introduced unintended and unexpected results that include snow, mist, and hobbits. Thus, the universe is, from its very inception, full of serendipity, surprises and wonders. And, like a polyphonic composition, there is an underlying order; the music always resolves itself into something greater than the sum of its parts.

General readers will probably be most interested the final chapter, “The Cultural Phenomenon.” In this chapter Rosebury examines the “afterlife” of Tolkien’s works and attempts to bring Tolkien criticism up to the present moment by considering the “cultural afterlife” of The Lord of the Rings in popular culture. He discusses the impact of The Lord of the Rings on popular literature, video games, toys and other artifacts, radio plays, and, most importantly, the films of Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson.

When Rosebury’s book was published, The Return of the King film hadn’t yet been released, so Rosebury’s analysis is based on an incomplete knowledge of the film trilogy. (This, no doubt, gives Rosebury a rationale for releasing yet another updated version of this book.)

Rosebury rates Peter Jackson’s film trilogy as “a qualified success.” Jackson, he says succeeded in the one area that seemed unachievable: “the realisation of Middle-earth as a diverse and expansive world of lands and cultures under threat, a world we need to fall in love with in order to care sufficiently about the outcome of the plot.”

Rosebury goes onto explain that he rated Jackson’s work a “qualified success,” because the dramatic necessities of film storytelling made it impossible to preserve some of the book’s greatest virtues. “There is a move away from that (very English) understatement which is, again inseparable from the geniality of the book, its emotional tact and spaciousness….Gandalf’s cure of Théoden, which in the book is as much an achievement of rhetoric and force of personality as of magic, is virtually reduced in the film of The Two Towers to a return match between two staff-wielding wizards, coupled with a spectacular dissolution of Théoden’s make-up. It is a weakness of the film version…that it is too reluctant to dramatise rhetorical conflict when physical conflict can be substituted, or to allow a major character to influence events by dignity of presence or force of intellect.”

The film also dilutes the themes of free will and individual responsibility that were so important to the book. Jackson, Rosebury writes, tends “to present the Ring almost exclusively as a brute magical force afflicting innocent victims, rather than as an insidious seducer of all-too-fallible wills. The danger of an overemphasis on the “external” aspect of the ring is that will erode the moral realism of the story, its perception that everyone, however initially virtuous is susceptible to corruption.”

On the book’s back cover, Tom Shippey writes, “Rosebury also deftly exposes Tolkien’s often disregarded skills in narrative and description, and he does it, like Tolkien, in plain English.”

I don’t know what book Shippey thought he was reading, but the one I have is hardly in plain English. Here are some examples of Rosebury’s overly academic writing style:

“The aesthetic dynamic of a plot-based structure is, in general and stating the point somewhat crudely, the creation in the reader’s mind of certain hopes and fears, the resolution of which, in one way or another, forms the terminal objective of the plot…the structure of the narrative or drama is correlated to the process of their arousal, quickening, gratification or denial. Individual scenes or episodes serve not only to display events, engendering and resolving suspense, but to arouse those attractions and aversions towards particular conceptions (often, but not exclusively, characters) which motivate the reader to take an interest in the sequence of events.”

In other words, suspense is important.

This prose is certainly understandable, but it’s so turgid and clotted that I find my eye sliding right off the page. Here’s another example of what I mean:

“…the represented conflict between good and evil is schematic only to an extent which is constant with the internal authenticity of the invented world. Granted the initial ‘mythical’ premises, of which the most significant is the incarnation (in the literal sense) of formidable immortal spirits upon the surface of a great continent inhabited by mortal creatures, the manifestations of good and evil in the Lord of the Rings have a complexity more familiar from the realistic novel than from fairy tale, and invisible only to the most cursory reading.”

Rosebury also uses terms of art that may not be familiar to general readers. He sent me right to the dictionary, when he praised “…the robust spondees, and sprightly trochees and dactyls, of Bombadil’s song-speech,” and described another of Tolkien’s poems as “a fluid mix of end-stopping and enjambment with caesuras…”

Brian Rosebury’s Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon is definitely a worthwhile book. Though academic jargon makes it a bit hard to follow at times, it contains some wonderful insights. If you can only read one critical work on Tolkien, make it Thomas Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth, if you’ve got time for more, definitely add Brian Rosebury’s book to your reading list.

(Palgrave-Macmillan 2003)

Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

More Posts