“The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make”
J.R.R. Tolkien is undoubtedly amongst the most popular authors of the last hundred years, with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings never failing to find a new, captive audience in every emerging generation of readers. Furthermore, the literary and increasingly multimedia genre of modern fantasy that he unwittingly created continues to flourish, only becoming more intricately woven into our cultural landscape as time goes on.
But why is this? To some, the key to the singular appeal of his writing lies in his primary passion for philology: the study, particularly through literary texts, of the history and creation of language and how words relate to history and culture. This passion became an unprecedentedly deep grounding and framework for the stories he created. To Tolkien, he was revealing the mythology that the roots and paths of the words of real, modern languages imply once existed, if only in the collective imagination. Simultaneously, he was creating a world and a history for the languages that he loved to create to inhabit (exemplified particularly in The Silmarillion); a necessity, since it was the relationship between culture and language, rather than language in isolation, which so enthralled him.
This foundation, so complex, rooted in reality, and essentially unreliant on plot, surely serves as one of the most unusual and painstakingly detailed bases for an imaginary world that is rarely seen elsewhere, and must surely contributes to Tolkien’s success. After all, as Tolkien said himself in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, “The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make”.
In some ways, Tolkien did not create a genre (fantasy, or, more specifically, heroic or high fantasy), he opened the door to a world – one that was not limited to the pages of his own books. Though they vary in tone, innovation, and quality, the myriad books (as well as films and television series) published every year that owe even the smallest debt to Tolkien invite the reader into a world that she or he already knows the lay of – one of dragons, watchful trees, heroic underdogs, and relics of ancient power. And if Tolkien is to be believed, it is the hidden mythology that can be read between the lines of our own language that makes this world so irresistibly familiar to us, even before we open The Hobbit for the very first time.
To me, the appeal of Tolkien also lies in the purity of fantasy and moral clarity in his world building and writing. This is something Tolkien touches on himself, again in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, arguing that, since fantasy lies separately from the ‘primary world’ and must be entirely created, it is “a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent”. He goes on to describe the heroic overcoming of evils and hardships in fantasy as moments of “joy” and “consolation”, which offer comfort and escape amidst the realities of the primary world. Indeed, many scholars have proposed that Tolkien’s work reveals the processing of his experiences in WWI, and he himself argued against the derision of escapism, asking “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”.
And so, in the extraordinarily well developed and language-anchored world of Arda and the land of Middle-Earth, readers may find both an example of a Very Bad Situation which is eventually, through the hard work of good people, solved logically and fairly; and a much needed escape from reality. It is no wonder then, that every generation, each facing its own Very Bad Situation (be it the wars Tolkien lived through or the political upheaval and instability of the present day), keeps reaching, again and again, for that solution and escape.