HERE’S A NICE bit of character description from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: “The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars.” It works on a few levels: it surrounds the character of Elrond with the same aura of ageless beauty and mystery shared by so many of Middle-Earth’s legendary inhabitants (Gandalf, Galadriel, Treebeard, et cetera); it plays nicely with themes of dusk, night, gathering darkness, and the light of hope shining through, that crop up everywhere in the rest of the book; and, in a way, it works as a metaphor for Tolkien’s writing itself, “ageless” and “written [with] the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful”.
I always surprise myself by remembering just how young The Lord of the Rings really is, so successfully does it create the idea of itself as an ancient myth, an archetype. It also feels like the birth of the fantasy genre, probably just because its high-fantasy descendants have dominated the market in the 60-odd years since its publication from 1954-55.
Nevertheless, there was much fantasy before it, and it bears remembering. Three great pulpy strands predate it by half a century: the heroic fantasy of Robert E. Howard, the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft, and the planetary romance of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the last of which would, of course, inspire the later (but still earlier) Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, and older yet are the scientific romances of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Those are only the major subgenres of pulp fantasy writing, and there’s plenty more outside of pulp fiction that it still feels odd to remember came first.
The entire Golden Age of Science Fiction, for instance, had come and gone. So had many important works of the New Wave of Science Fiction, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon, and Isaac Asimov’s entire Empire and Foundation trilogies. Ayn Rand, the rum old bugger, had already published We the Living, Anthem, and The Fountainhead, and was probably hard at work on Atlas Shrugged.
James Bond had already had three literary adventures and his first film (albeit a telefilm) by the time LotR‘s publication had finished. Rock ‘n’ roll, if we date it from the appearance of Elvis’ “That’s All Right” single, was ten days old when the first volume appeared, and Godzilla would be born between the publications of the first and second volumes. Kong was already an old-timer from over twenty years ago, but American monster movies were getting hot again, with The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them! already released, and It Came from Beneath the Sea shortly to follow.
Superheroes had already dominated comic books for a decade, fallen out of favour, and would in a couple of years be making a comeback. Batman was old hat when The Lord of the Rings came out.
And Tolkien wasn’t the first popular scholar to revive interest in hero-myths, either. That would be Joseph Campbell with his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949. And Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis was on his fifth Narnia book.
So how does it manage to convince us all of its age? Well, it draws a lot on some legitmately ancient, pre-Christian literature and mythology which, even if it remains obscure to most to this day, surely triggers some reflex in our Jungian collective unconscious. Surely. Also, it consciously avoids reflecting the attitudes, concerns, or even language of its contemporary time, and could just as easily fit in amongst the novels of the 1920s or even 1860s. Perhaps more so: Tolkien doesn’t write like Graham Greene or Iris Murdoch, and he certainly doesn’t write like Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck.
He must have seen a lot of himself in his characters, an old-fashioned anchor in a sea of modernism. I bet he’d be pleased with the impression of timelessness his books created, not that he was the first to do so; it gives me pause to think that the King James Bible is younger than most Shakespeare, while most of the Scottish, Irish, and English folk ballads are no older than the 18th century (and sometimes significantly younger).