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Aaron Belz

Tolkien Canonized

Should the creator of the Lord of the Rings be acknowledged as the foremost author of the twentieth century?

Growing up in the Middle-earth of American evangelicalism, I received the full Tolkien treatment. My parents read The Hobbit to me before bedtime, and I read it again many times on my own. I ventured through The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a teenager, studied it in college, and read it again as an adult. I made a handful of abortive efforts to read the saga's dense prequel, The Silmarillion. A similar tale is told by multitudes of American Christians who grew up in the seventies and eighties, as it is by millions of British readers who are as hooked on Tolkien as they are on The Archers. But Tolkienism cuts an even wider swath. The trilogy has sold over 50 million copies worldwide, putting it well beyond the designation "cult classic," and the first installment of the movie version is introducing Middle-earth to an even wider circle.

Until recently it hadn't dawned on me that Tolkien's books are not considered literature in the academic sense. I shouldn't have been surprised, not only because they're "fantasy" and suspiciously popular fantasy at that, but because none of the Inkling authors are much studied academically. Although they are cornerstones of my personal canon, they merit all of a single mention in Harold Bloom's The Western Canon (on page 77, in connection with Dante). A Google web search for "20th Century British Novel," the generic and historical classification in which we'd have to put Tolkien, yields college syllabi full of familiar names: Forster, Joyce, Beckett, Orwell, Woolf, Huxley. Recent additions include Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day) and the newly Nobel-christened V.S. Naipaul. Tolkien is never listed.

In J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Saint Louis University professor Tom Shippey aims to change that, and he is well qualified to try. His credits include among other things an excellent work of Tolkien criticism, The Road to Middle-Earth (1983), and editorship of The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories (1994) and Magill's Guide to Science ...

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