Thursday, September 29, 2011

Is The Lord of the Rings literature?

Part 2 of a 2-part series

Part 1 of this article set the stage for the question, Is The Lord of the Rings literature? Part II examines six criteria commonly used to define works of high literary quality and applies them to The Lord of the Rings.

1. Popular appeal

The argument against: The Lord of the Rings might be popular, but that doesn’t make it literature.

The counterargument: There’s popular, and then there’s an omnipresent, mammoth, overshadowing level of popularity.

How popular is The Lord of the Rings? At last count, it has been translated into 57 languages and is the second best-selling novel ever written, with over 150 million copies sold. Its also a repeat winner of multiple international contests for favorite novel (note the broad term novel, not just fantasy novel). For example:

In 1997 it topped a Waterstone’s poll for Top 100 Books of the Century.

In 2003 a survey (The Big Read) was conducted in the United Kingdom to determine the nation’s best-loved novel of all time. More than three quarters of a million votes were received, and the winner was The Lord of the Rings.

A 1999 Amazon poll administered to its customers yielded the same result.

In short, readers of all stripes, from all around the world, adore this book more than just about any other.

All that said, I will fully admit that this is the least convincing argument, because mass appeal is not necessarily a good indicator of quality. See Justin Bieber. So let’s look at some other criteria.

To view the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website .


anarchist said...

'Literature' is either used as a synonym for 'fiction', or as a synonym for 'stuff I like'.

Brian Murphy said...

'Literature' is either used as a synonym for 'fiction', or as a synonym for 'stuff I like'.

While it's certainly a problematic term, I don't agree.

Anonymous said...

The Lord of the Rings is a great work that has had significant impact on many lives. It does not need validation as "literature."

The meditation on the nature of Power and its tendency to corrupt even those with the best of intention is by itself evidence of the work's "seriousness" and it certainly is relevant to the 20th Century world in which it was written. Shippey deals with this well.

Determination of what is "literature" is often pretty arbitrary anyway. Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" is regarded as a literary masterpiece, yet it is fantastical (though historically deeply rooted) and I defy anyone to show me character development. McCarthy's work is mythic and weird and yet it's hip in literary circles. Whatever. I don't hold it against him. And I don't think he's too interested in being part of the club.

I piss from a great height on "literature." I don't want my beloved well-wrought tales associated in any way with the likes of Jonathan Franzen for instance. "Sprawling, satirical family drama" my ass. For family drama, I'll take a season of "Sons of Anarchy," please. Heard a story and interview on NPR yesterday about Franzen's brilliant examination of the soul of the middle class and it made my skin crawl. I had to listen to Waylon Jennings' Lonesome On'ry and Mean cranked to vehicle-shaking levels to make it go away. It worked.

Thanks for indulging my low-brow pride rant. I feel in touchwith the spirit of Painbrush for some reason...

Jim Cornelius

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Jim, thanks for stopping by.

Just to clarify, my purpose with this article was not to elevate The Lord of the Rings into some stuffy, academic class of fiction, but rather to demonstrate that the criteria critics and academics commonly use to identify "great works" are characteristics of The Lord of the Rings. That's why I wrote it the way I did.

As I noted in the intro, I believe it is possible to talk about the quality of a piece of art, and what makes it such, even if the borders are hazy and ill-defined.

I also wrote the piece to combat the oft-cited claim that works have to be realistic and concern real events in order to be taken seriously (the notion of any type of fiction being "real" is also of course an inherent contradiction).

Anonymous said...


Oh, I know. Wasn't jumping your case at all. It's just a hot button issue for me and after hearing that Franzen piece yesterday, I was primed to go off.

Your endeavors are always interesting and well worth reading.

Sorry (well, not really)to act like the drunk uncle at the party, but somebody has to do it! :)

Jim Cornelius

Alexander said...

Great post – I’m going to Tweet about your blog.

Brian Murphy said...

Sorry (well, not really)to act like the drunk uncle at the party, but somebody has to do it! :)

I appreciate your honesty, myself (and your sense of humor!)

Barad the Gnome said...

Let me settle this once and for all, LoTR is a great piece of literature, a great work of our time, a delicious dessert, and an easy to use floor wax.


All other arguments to the contrary are now obsolete.

All that aside, you provide a well thought out response to the question - if one must use thoughtful logic and examples to convince others of your view point.