Letting the Catholic Out of the Baggins

“Poetry requires not an examining but a believing frame of mind.”

 —T.B. Macaulay 

In the United Kingdom, back in 1997, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was voted “the greatest book of the twentieth century” in several major polls, emerging as a runaway winner ahead of its nearest rival, Orwell’s 1984.  Tolkien was also voted the 20th century’s greatest author, ahead of Orwell and Evelyn Waugh.

Tolkien’s triumph was greeted with anger and contempt by many literary “experts.”  Writer Howard Jacobson reacted with splenetic scorn, dismissing Tolkien as being “for children . . . or the adult slow.”  The poll merely demonstrated “the folly of teaching people to read . . . It’s another black day for British culture.”  Susan Jeffreys wrote in the Sunday Times that it was “depressing . . . that the votes for the world’s best 20th-century book should have come from those burrowing an escape into a nonexistent world.”  The Times Literary Supplement described the results of the poll as “horrifying,” while a writer in the Guardian complained that The Lord of the Rings “must be by any reckoning one of the worst books ever written.”


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