Via The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes about “The Lord of the Rings,” “Twilight,” and Young-Adult Fantasy Books. Excerpt:
At Oxford in the nineteen-forties, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable.
“Incoherent and often inaudible” was Kingsley Amis’s verdict on his teacher. Tolkien, he reported, would write long lists of words on the blackboard, obscuring them with his body as he droned on, then would absent-mindedly erase them without turning around.
“I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in,” Philip Larkin, another Tolkien student, complained about the old man’s lectures on “Beowulf.” “What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.”
It is still one of the finest jests of the modern muses that this fogged-in English don was going home nights to work on perhaps the most popular adventure story ever written, thereby inventing one of the most successful commercial formulas that publishing possesses, and establishing the foundation of the modern fantasy industry.
Beginning with Terry Brooks’s mid-seventies “The Sword of Shannara”—which is almost a straight retelling, with the objects altered—fantasy fiction, of the sword-and-sorcery kind, has been an annex of Tolkien’s imagination.