Not having been around for the original moments in which The Lord of the Rings was published, I know very little of what that was like. One of the things this book provides is a glimpse into what it was like. The response at the time ranged from the silly and cultish to learned inquiries shedding light on the intricacies of the work. This book is a collection of the best criticism written before 1968. There is, besides very good criticism, a sense of dialogue in everything I’ve read so far: from mentions and considerations of the phenomenon of fandom (the buttons, the costumes, the babbling enthusiasm), to responses to the dismissive criticism which in that day reached its peak in that orc of remarkable refinement: Edmund Wilson. Edmund Wilson had admirable powers of literary penetration and enjoyed a great reputation as a critic. It is lamentable that in criticizing The Lord of the Rings he resorted to the latter without, apparently, the aid of the former. One may say that if this collection of essays achieves one thing it is to show how wrong Wilson and the highbrow condescension were.
But of course it achieves a great deal more. Auden and Lewis chime in with insight, the tomes are evaluated for literary merit, philology is considered of course, sources and influences, and moral vision. If you have read the trilogy and know and love it, these essays will take you through it again–each one–offering considerations and insights that leave you pondering. I don’t know if these essays will help people who are not entirely positive toward The Lord of the Rings. I think they will, but any position short of positive enthusiasm for the work is so far from my own that I don’t think I am qualified to comment. I do know that what I’ve read so far has deepened the caves of my appreciation like dwarves tunneling in search of more mithril. Why Tolkien was doing what he was doing becomes clearer. The book shows how his art extended to so many levels.
Marion Zimmer Bradley has one of the best essays in the book. It treats heroic love, illuminating it in the ranking of the various kinds of creatures present in middle earth at the end of the third age. What she explains about the characters of Merry and Pippin alone is worth a coat of dwarvish mail, but she also examines Sam and Gollum in tandem, as they should be, and explains the structure of the events in which they figure so that you see why Tolkien is a writer’s hero.
If theology is faith in search of understanding, then perhaps I can say that good criticism is love in search of understanding. It is faithful criticism when the love is deserved and so the understanding is rich and deep. I’m highly of the opinion that this book is right faithful criticism, though to be quite honest I should finish it first.