May 1, 1955
BOOK REVIEW | 'THE TWO TOWERS'
In 1937 J. R. R. Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit," intended for a children's book but touched here and there with terrors which had the darker involvements of myth, and at times even with that "clang and groan of great iron" which Chesterton heard in the medieval chansons de geste.
Now, in a trilogy called "The Lord of the Rings," Mr. Tolkien continues somewhat differently his story of the third age of Middle Earth, a world inhabited by wizards, men, hobbits (courteous little oddities, like English householders three feet high with long hairy feet), elves and dwarves; and by the gorging orcs and blind Black Riders and their lord. It is a scrubbed morning world, and a ringing nightmare world. It seems, as any very distant age does, to be especially sunlit, and to be shadowed by perils very fundamental, of a peculiarly uncompounded darkness.
"The Two Towers" is the second part. The Dark Lord of Mordor has begun his assault on the sanity and grace of the world. The Fellowship of the Ring, the tiny band on whom rests all the hope of the resistance, is scattered; the hobbit Frodo plunges toward the frontiers of Mordor itself, carrying the fatal Ring that must be unmade in the fires of the Enemy domain. This, whatever that summary may sound like, is not for children; nor is it for whimsy-lovers and Alice quoters. Neither is it a dead moral apparatus festooned with poesy, like "The Faerie Queen." It is an extraordinary work-pure excitement, unencumbered narrative, moral warmth, barefaced rejoicing in beauty, but excitement most of all; yet a serious and scrupulous fiction, nothing cozy, no little visits to one's childhood.
This work is much admired by certain critics who have always practiced a highly conscious and proud intellectualism. Mr. Tolkien's fantasy is not metaphysical like E. R. Eddison's, nor theological like George MacDonald's; his appeal to the intellectuals is therefore interesting. After the first World War serious fiction tended toward literary Platonism or Berkeleyism. With a kind of brilliant tedium (called "sensitivity") novels refined on mental states. The authors assumed that the thought was the real act, of which the action was only a dubious copy. Plots gave way to insights. The clashing of multifarious big rhetorics, which had made Dickens and Scott, was replaced by the inner voice, very small but not still. Never had the distance between the popular appetite and serious art been so great as it then inevitably became. Many people, of what we might call the middle taste, turned to detective stories, which at least had plot; recently they have been reading science fiction, which has strong action. That "The Lord of the Rings" should appeal to readers of the most austere tastes suggests that they too now long for the old, forthright, virile kind of narrative.
Mr. Tolkien is a distinguished British philologist, and the language of his narrative reminds us that a philologist is a man who loves language. His names are brilliantly appropriate; the tongues he has devised for the elves and orcs perfectly express, just by their rhythms and phonemic systems, the natures of these races; his style is full of joy, the joy that follows the making of a perfect gesture. But more than this, the author has had intimate access to an epic tradition stretching back and back and disappearing in the mists of Germanic history, so that his story has a kind of echoing depth behind it, wherein we hear Snorri Sturluson and Beowulf, the sagas and the Nibelungenlied, but civilized by the gentler genius of modern England.
Mr. Barr teaches English at Columbia University.