Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wilson's "Oo, Those Awful Orcs"

John Wright has posted some comments about Edmund Wilson's notorious review of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in 1956. All worth reading. Edmund Wilson was one of the most influential -- some would say the most influential -- literary critics of the twentieth century; he is also usually considered a bit uneven. Colm Toibin says somewhere that he succeeded through the habit of being right some of the time. But he was very popular with the "I read The New Yorker" set. In many ways he was the fashion-setter for that set.

The review gives a good example of what a reviewer should not do -- lots of examples of things reviewers should not do, actually, but especially of the most important: Wilson puts his own private tastes in place of a critical taste considering the general tastes of enthusiastic readers. There's no doubt Wilson was being sincere, and not merely out for a sneer and snide comment; he certainly wasn't out to write what will likely become his single most famous review due to people repeatedly taking it out and laughing at it. But he doesn't do himself any favors, from his repeated misspelling of Gandalf's name to failing to recognize the merits of the book despite explicitly recognizing a bevy of competent critics who were already insisting on them to the cases where he is clearly going more for something clever than something accurate to say (and thus instead comes across like the old comedy buffoonery of trying to frighten off bad guys by pretending to know karate). Some of Wilson's more awful comments:

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.

[One is perhaps more puzzled at the strangeness of a book so pedantic it holds the interest of a seven-year-old child. --ed.]
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.
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.
At the end of this long romance, I had still no conception of the wizard Gandalph, who is a cardinal figure, had never been able to visualize him at all.
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.
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.


  1. John Farrell8:04 AM

    Adding to the irony is the fact that years before, discussing a book I cannot remember, Wilson argued that one should not be quick to dismiss any book simply on the grounds it does not appeal to your literary tastes.

  2. branemrys8:14 AM

    I don't think I've ever read it, but I know I've seen it mentioned -- James Joyce, or someone of the kind.


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