Peter Jackson’s film The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers opened last year to rapturous reviews and long lines at the box office. Customers have begun snap up John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings and the novel (often packaged as three volumes) regularly lands near the top on surveys asking Americans about their favorite books. Clearly, Tolkien created a popular classic. While Jackson’s action-packed films have obvious appeal, the novel’s popularity is harder to understand. Tolkien’s book moves at a deliberate pace and features a hero (Frodo Baggins) who eventually loses the sympathy of most readers.
Tolkien’s objective, made clear in his letters, was to create an epic for modern age: The titanic conflict between good and evil Tolkien describes, speaks across time, and, in many places, echoes the medieval and pre-medieval literature Tolkien studied.
While many Tolkien fans point to his elaborate back-story in explaining the works’ greatness, other fantastical universes like Star Trek and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation universe have as much detail. But Tolkien’s world creation outdoes others because of his deep understanding of the roots of Western culture: his comprehension of myth, epic, and language touches everything in the novels from the magical but familiar Elvish language to his descriptions of Earth-shaking battles. Without his academic training and position, Tolkien probably could not have written a novel nearly as good. (Nearly every medievalist I know under 40 considers LOTR a major influence.)
It’s sad, therefore, that Tolkien wouldn’t have made it in a university today. To begin with, Tolkien ignored the “publish or perish” rule that guides today’s academics. He published only a few papers, although one of them, “Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics,” ranks among the most influential papers ever written about the Anglo-Saxon epic. Tolkien’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, still in use today, stands as his most enduring scholarly legacy. But he didn’t write enough by modern standards and never even wrote a full-fledged scholarly book.
So why don’t today’s universities have room for men like Tolkien? At a glance, blaming the Left seems tempting: some hardened leftists would have certainly wanted him out of the English department. Tolkien studied mostly dead white European males (although he did edit The Ancre Wisse—a manual for female mystics); and wrote clearly enough that any well-educated person can easily comprehend most of his papers. But this is, at best, a partial explanation. While LOTR isn’t overtly political it does contain a rather harsh critique of modern technology: the heroes return home to find that cruel, polluting industry has ruined everything. Tolkien’s own politics, in any case, were mostly left-of-center.
In fact, some on the Right deserve just as much blame for the disappearance of populist academics like Tolkien. While the Left has worked hard to make the academy opaque and complex, conservatives who want to end to tenure have accelerated this trend. Rumblings about the death of tenure make academic work harder to prove their expertise (mostly to leftist colleagues) without paying attention to accessibility of their work or its pertinence to society. While no research university has ever abolished tenure, it has become harder to get almost everywhere. And low producers like Tolkien don’t get it (unless, perhaps, they combine properly Left-wing politics with claims of personal oppression). Tenure doesn’t protect academic freedom: plenty of places without tenure, including my own employer, do a fine job protecting academic freedom. But it does encourage scholars to engage in innovative and interesting work like, say, writing a novel which, it’s fair to say, has done more to improve medieval studies than anything else written since the 14th century.