Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Uncrowned King: Why Must Tolkien Forever be the Best?

Like many readers of fantasy, I grew up on Tolkien. My father read The Hobbit to me out loud before I learned to read. He read The Lord of the Rings to the whole family when I wasn't yet a teenager. I've read it myself all the way through twice and a few other times I've read long sections to re-familiarize myself with them. I'm sure I'll read it all the way through again, possibly more than once. I've not read the History of Middle-Earth books or The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales, though I do plan to some day, and in lieu of those I have read through many Tolkien encyclopedias, compendiums and the like. 

I say all this to say that I am very familiar with JRR Tolkien's world of Arda, or Middle-Earth, if you prefer, and the two primary novels set therein. I was raised by an ardent Tolkienite who is a walking example of how people can almost worship Tolkien. 

Recently I've come upon the site, where the creator of the site (and apparently some others) group and rank fantasy books as a way of giving people a definitive guide on what types of fantasy books they'd enjoy, what type they'd be wise to have a look at, which to avoid, etc. There are numerous groupings, and within each group, the novels (and series) contained within are ranked. Be it urban fantasy, grimdark fantasy, military fantasy, epic fantasy, high fantasy, low fantasy, steampunk fantasy, literary fantasy, young adult fantasy, sword-and-sorcery fantasy, you name it, there's a separate list for it. He also has some broader lists, including "Best fantasy you've never read", "Best stand alone fantasy", "Best fantasy series", and even, naturally, "Worst fantasy books". 
But at the top of the lists is the list "Top 25 Best Fantasy Books", which is meant to be a grouping of the best fantasy works of all time, regardless of subgenre. He makes sure to let you know that this is a list that includes old, new, obscure, mainstream, and across the broad spectrum of that umbrella description of "fantasy". Now, this list is clearly just an opinion list, but he does defend his choices quite well, and while I wouldn’t myself list certain series/books in the same order, it's hard to argue that he hasn't grouped together some of the greatest fantasy literature of all time. 

Where people tend to disagree with him is his rankings. You see, George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series is presently at number one (though he warns that it could drop if the series continues to lag with its more recent volumes). Number two is Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle, perhaps most widely known as The Name of the Wind (which is actually just the name of the first volume). Joe Abercrombie's First Law series is number three. 

The Lord of the Rings is number four. 

Chances are pretty good that a number of fantasy fans who just read that last sentence are boiling with rage and ready to head over to that site to give the writer a piece of their mind. Many already have. Just a few select choices from the comment section are as follows: 

  • "The Lord of the Rings will always be best. A Song of Ice and Fire is barely in the top ten." 
  • "I disagree with putting LotR at #4... Is Hamlet still one of the best plays ever written, some hundred years after it was written? Tolkien not only created a genre, but wrote something that is basically the Hamlet of the 20th century... A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly not better. Soiaf should be at #5/#6" 
  • "Tolkien is the best fantasy author he basically started the genre and every new fantasy series has elements of his work in it." 
  • "I don't understand how Tolkien's books are not number 1... Everybody on this list is writing in his shadow. It seems like a decent list otherwise, but I dislike seeing Game of Thrones as number 1 just because of its popularity. While I can appreciate the intricacy of the plot and characters, I don't think he's the greatest writer, I don't think he imagined any completely original ideas, I don't think he changed the fantasy genre (people were already doing the realism thing before him), and I don't think his story is the most memorable one. Just because anybody could die next, doesn't make it any better of a book either. My opinion I guess." 

And these were just the ones that were intelligible. There were plenty more that were just screeches of "TOLKIEN CAN NEVER BE ANYTHING BUT NUMBER ONE!!!" And "The fact that Tolkien isn't at number one is an insult!", and other fits of screaming. 

By the way, I can't let this go without comment; Tolkien did not "create" the genre of fantasy. He just wrote the book that is often cited (correctly) as the most influential work in the genre. Tolkien is often given far more credit than he's actually due. He didn't create the concept of "secondary worlds", or "fantasy worlds", or even writing a book that took place exclusively inside one. He also isn't the one who originated his presentation of elves, though he did popularize it. The first "fantasy world"
It's the first fantasy world to have a map...even if technically it's actually Earth.
in novelized form was Phantastes by George MacDonald, and the first book to take place entirely within a fantasy world was William Morris's The Well at World's End. The inventor of elves as depicted in The Lord of the Rings was Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland's Daughter. His depiction of dwarves as a race of miners comes from numerous classic faerie tales, Snow White being the most obvious. He's often accused of taking the concept of a magic ring from Wagner's The Ring of the Nibulung, which he's on record as denying, but it's hard to take his denial at face value. He also plucked elements from British mythology. Probably the only aspects from The Lord of the Rings, apart from the story itself, that originated solely through Tolkien were hobbits, orcs and balrogs. Call Tolkien the man who changed the way we think of fantasy literature, or even the first world-builder, but don't attribute ideas to him that he didn't come up with, and don't call him the inventor of the genre. 

Getting back to the comments section, there were, of course, almost as many, possibly more, comments attacking Tolkien and using words like "overrated" and "no longer relevant". For what it's worth, that's not my opinion, or the opinion of the man who made the list (although based on the comments, it also sounds like this list was made by a small committee). 

The author of the list has this to say:  

"Without a doubt, Lord of the Rings is a transcended (sic) work of art. It's a trilogy born from years of hard research, channeling everything from Tolkien's linguistics background, to his years in the muddy trenches of World War I, to his love of English mythology all forged into an indelible modern myth that's spawned an entire literary genre. 
If we look at the sheer contribution these books have made to the genre, the series would rank #1. If you have not yet read this series, it's time to get it over with. And no, the movies are NOT the books. 
Why Lord of the Rings is NOT ranked number one on this list is the most often asked question left in the comments. The reason? While Tolkien has influenced the genre, his books are also more than 50 years old and the genre has radically evolved since Lord of the Rings was first written. You are firmly stuck in the past if you don't yet realize this.  
Tolkien's works are classic and are rightly regarded as masterworks, but are they the best in light of 2015?  
I firmly state they are not and will vehemently argue the genre has evolved quite a bit since the 1950's. You simply just have to look at how characterization (in the genre) has evolved, how women are not mere pretty perfect window dressings but actually real (and flawed) characters now, how heroes are flawed creatures with a bit of villain in them and villains are not all bad who may even have a bit of the heroic about them too. 
Fantasy has grown up folks and become more nuanced -- far more complicated than Tolkien's simple dichotomy of good and evil.  
And, for f--k's sake, let some other writers have a chance at some glory dammit you selfish people :p -- where's the fun if Lord of the Rings is always at the top spot?  
Because of Tolkien influence on the genre, I've put him at #4. Is he the best in the genre? I say no. Is he one of them most influential -- even up to the present -- I say definitely yes! But, the genre has moved on since then so give him the recognition but not get fixated on past glories and instead look to the future." 

Hardly a dismissal of Tolkien, his work, his influence, etc. In fact, he acknowledges the greatness of all of that. But he argues that really, by itself, The Lord of the Rings is hardly the best fantasy novel in existence. Oldest (which it isn't) or most influential (which it really is) doesn't necessarily mean best. 
Let's clear something up right away before the Tolkien detractors leap on it; the reason we call Tolkien the "father of modern fantasy" isn't because he was "first" or because nothing that came before him is remembered. Yes, I know Robert E. Howard's Conan stories are older than anything in the Middle-Earth saga, as are Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, not to mention the works of men like Morris, Dunsany, L. Sprague DeCamp, William Makepeace Thackeray, CS Lewis, and ER Eddison, just to name a few. 

The problem was, prior to the 1960's, fantasy literature was considered primarily to be meant for children, or was tucked away outside of polite society in pulp magazines like Weird Tales or at best were considered "prose romances" or "faerie stories" and, while many were admired, few were widely circulated, and none were considered inspirational or even anything to be taken seriously. If you think fantasy is a genre of ill repute today, you haven't seen anything. If you were to walk into a book seller's shop in any time period up until probably 1979 or probably even later and ask where the fantasy section was, you'd likely get a quizzical look from the proprietor. Fantasy was being written, yes, but those who wrote it also wrote more "serious" realistic fiction and even non-fiction. There was no such thing as a "fantasy writer", though there were plenty of "writers for children" who marketed their work exclusively to the younger set. Even in the 60's, fantasy literature was embraced by "counter-culture" types, and not at all by the "serious literature" crowd.

If you were a Howard, or a Leiber who tried to market your fantasy fiction to an older crowd, you were generally mocked by the so-called "literati" and good luck trying to get a full novel published. You may wonder why most Conan or Lankhmar books are collections of short stories. Well, the reason was, that's the only way they could be published. Pulp magazines, which were primarily read by collectors of the salacious and scandalous, were among the only places they could see print. 

It was Tolkien who set the tone and changed it all. But it didn't happen right away. In fact, he didn't live to see any but the earliest fruits of the revolution that began with his work. 

See, it wasn't until part way through the sixties that The Lord of the Rings truly caught on. The Hobbit had been a huge, immediate hit but when it became clear that its sequel wasn't exactly a children's novel, the public lost interest and the books didn't make much money. There was a war on at the time anyway, and who had time for "frivolous nonsense" anymore? But in the sixties, when idealism replaced the cynicism of its previous decade, Tolkien's book caught fire. Among those who grew up reading it, first reading it perhaps as teens or young adults, were such names as Terry Brooks, Stephen R. Donaldson, Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Raymond E. Feist, David Gemmell and David Eddings, among numerous others. All those names I just mentioned have stated that they decided they wanted to be writers thanks to Tolkien, and they followed their dreams and did just that, creating the fantasy boom of the late 70's and early 80's, proving that there was a market for it and making it a genre one could actually make money writing in exclusively. 

This simply had never happened before. And we can thank Tolkien for it. 

But just being the most influential...should that, and that alone, be the qualifier for whether or not you're the best? Some would argue yes. I don't. 

Again, I have the utmost respect for Prof. Tolkien and his work. He has unquestionably earned his place in history. With no hesitation I call him the father of modern fantasy. No one before or since has put more thought into his or her world-building including world's and people's history, language, cosmology, etc. Tolkien really did invent the concept of world-building, and believe me, I'll have more to say about that in future posts.

But is The Lord of the Rings purely as a novel the unqualified absolute best that this genre has to offer? 

Simply put, no, it isn't. Not when taken just on its own merits. 

I know, heresy, right? I certainly know there's a ton of people who would pronounce doom upon my head for even suggesting that The Lord of the Rings isn't a work of towering genius, or that anything written since could ever come close to matching this masterpiece. Just look at the comments I selected above: claims that "every new fantasy series has elements of his work in it" or that "everybody on this list is writing in his shadow". 

Really. Everybody. All fantasy writers for the past sixty-plus years have been writing in Tolkien's shadow, without exception. I see. Even those, a growing number, who don't consider Tolkien their primary influence, have written works that are literally nothing like anything Tolkien wrote, in some cases even don't think much of Tolkien at all? Would you like to tell China Meiville to his face that he's writing in Tolkien's shadow? 

For those of you who don't know who I mean, China Meiville is a British speculative fiction author whose work has been classified as part of the "new weird", incorporating numerous elements of various genres, including science fiction, horror and steampunk, and creating a setting and ideas that are so far removed from anything Tolkien ever dreamed about that one could barely imagine they're considered by anyone to fall even remotely within the same genre. Also, Meiville is no Tolkien fan, and believes the professor actually did more harm than good to speculative fiction. I don't agree, but it just shows that not all fantasy writers can be said to be writing exclusively in "Tolkien's shadow." 
For that matter, it's almost an offensive statement to make, even if the author in question is a Tolkien fan. What you're saying, in effect, is that no matter how good your writing is, you will always be ranked below Tolkien, because you're writing in his genre, and thus, even suggesting another work is better is like saying that someone wrote a better Bible than God. 

These people don't even consider Tolkien to be in the same playing field as other fantasy writers. It's not that Martin, Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Sanderson, et al, are incapable of competing with Tolkien in the final rankings, it's that Tolkien's not even one of the players; he's the inventor of the game. It's not whether or not someone will one day produce something better than he did. It's how close anyone else will ever come to even matching what he did. In order to be considered even so much as Tolkien's equal, they would have to do something like more or less re-invent the genre. And no matter how close they come to doing so, they will still be well short of the mark. Because there's only one JRR Tolkien, and he is fantasy. 

I mean, forget that some of the writers out there beneath the broad umbrella of fantasy have left Tolkien's playing field in their dust and have started games of their own. You remember all those subgenres I listed earlier? Some of them are so far removed from anything even vaguely Tolkienesque that they're hardly even the same genre at all. When I read Chris Wooding's Ketty Jay series, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, Alan Campbell's Deepgate Codex, or Stephen Hunt's Court of the Air, not only do I not think of them as shadows of Tolkien, I don't think of Tolkien at all. They literally have nothing in common with his works. How can you be in the shadow of man if you're not even writing anything akin to what he wrote? 

That's sort of like saying that all crime writers are in the shadow of Raymond Chandler, all horror writers are in the shadow of HP Lovecraft, or that all period dramatists are in the shadow of Jane Austin, or every writer of military thrillers is in the shadow of Tom Clancy, or every writer of legal dramas is in the shadow of John Grisham. 

See what I mean? Those statements sound ludicrous, even though the names I just mentioned are among the biggest in their genre. Other genres don't even have a Tolkien, so why must fantasy?

Or, how about this; is every rock and roll group from the 70's until today just in the shadow of the Beatles? Let's really delve into this, because the Beatles did not invent the genre of rock, and the term when invented wasn't even being applied to them. They weren't even the first popular rock and roll band. Numerous bands from that era were just as ground-breaking as they were and I think one can argue that bands from the 70's and 80's, by and large, didn't even try to sound like them. Some did, but certainly not all, or even most. How can you compare the Beatles and, say, Led Zeppelin, and state conclusively that the Beatles must be better? The two are nothing alike. What objective measure could you use to claim one "better" than the other, rather than just "different"? You can say which one you enjoy better, but that's hardly objective. I'm willing to bet that if I took 100 classic rock fans and asked each one which group is better, I might even have more people voting Led Zeppelin. 
Are they wrong? What if they name other groups as the best? Groups that are--gasp!--even newer than Led Zepp? What if they think Metallica is the best? Or Nirvana? 

This is sort of how I feel when I listen to Tolkienites who get hot under the collar at the mere mention that Tolkien may not be the best of the best of the best from now until infinity. They react as if such a thing is impossible; that objectively nothing that has been put out since Tolkien even comes close to being as good, nor will it ever. Of course, they tend to defend their arguments by touting the sheer number of people influenced by Tolkien, many of whom have written books of their own examining Tolkien's work. All this really proves is that Tolkien is the most influential, which no one is arguing against. 

They speak of the esteemed professor in the sort of glowing tones usually reserved for deities. I heard one person describe him as "the gateway to fantasy." I suggested he was a gateway, and was told "No, the gateway." I'm still not sure exactly what they meant, but I think I can guess. 

See, to a Tolkienite, doing anything that Tolkien would not do, or even might disapprove of, or perhaps just anything that offends them as followers of Tolkien, is by itself a wrong, or at least, makes you something less than him. Something that isn't "pure" fantasy. I have heard Tolkienites dismiss some pretty amazing works of fantasy lit simply because it contains too much in the way of violence, profanity or sexual content. If a decision is made by the author that they feel goes against the spirit of Tolkien, it was a wrong decision. 

Or, alternatively, if your work is a thinly disguised re-working of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, it's automatically garbage. I would agree with that, as some works like The Sword of Shannara or The Iron Tower pretty much are just The Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off. But I've seen some works classified as "Tolkien rip-offs" that make me wonder how anyone could believe that of them, including the A Song of Ice and Fire series or R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing series. If a series has any of the following: a young or otherwise small hero, a wizard, a quest, a magical artifact, a motley company of adventurers, elves, dwarves, a dark lord, a map at the
beginning, etc. It immediately gets accused of ripping off Tolkien, despite all of these elements existing before, in some cases long before, anything Tolkien wrote. Well, except for the maps. 

But really, it goes deeper than that. My father, a devout Tolkienite, has repeatedly slammed A Song of Ice and Fire for the simple reason that he does not understand how the series hoped to continue once they killed off Eddard Stark. To him, Eddard was the central protagonist, and one without whom, the story cannot continue. Because, you see, Eddard was the pure, noble, honorable hero. In a Tolkienesque story (heck; in almost any story), he would be the one you know will ultimately be victorious no matter what. Without him, what have you got? A bunch of kids and a bunch of adults who are one and all various shades of grey 

Recently I finished a re-read of the First Law series. Fair warning; spoilers are about to come in spades. 

I love how this series manages to present, then subvert, almost every fantasy trope in existence. All the elements you might want are there; a young hero destined for greatness, a barbarian warrior, a cantankerous wizard who guides our heroes along, a quest for a powerful artifact, the motley company of adventurers, etc. It's all there. And it's all turned on its ear. 

The young hero is a pompous, spoiled, rich snot who looks down on everyone that he feels doesn't have the same "good breeding" that he does, which is more or less everyone. The barbarian warrior would love to put down his sword forever, but he's got a split personality that knows nothing but killing, and it takes over at the worst times. The company of adventurers doesn't get along with each other at all and the quest actually fails, at least, initially. But the biggest reveal of all concerns the
wizard, Bayaz, the First of the Magi. 

Throughout the story, Bayaz plays the role of the Gandalf, or Merlin. There are hints that he's a darker man than either, but ultimately, you can't help but think of him as the wise one, the character all the other characters would do well to listen to. Until... 

...Until he finally gets his hands on that aforementioned artifact, and begins wholesale slaughter of his enemies, while cackling madly that he is greater than his masters. He's no Gandalf. He's Saruman. 

The "first law" of the title, you see, is that man is forbidden to meddle with "the seals" and make contact with the "other side", which is to say the Underworld, or Hell. Bayaz uses the artifact to do that very thing. 

The kicker comes in a speech he gives another character once he gets called out on his committing genocide. Says Ferro to Bayaz: 

“You tampered with the seals. You put the world at risk. The Tellers of Secrets…” 
“The First Law is a paradox. Whenever you change a thing you borrow from the world below, and there are always risks. If I have crossed a line it is a line of scale only. The world is safe, is it not? I make no apologies for the ambition of my vision.” 
“They are burying men, and women, and children, in pits for a hundred. Just as they did in Aulcus. This sickness… it is because of what we did. Is that ambition, then? The size of the graves?” 
Bayaz gave a dismissive toss of his head. “An unexpected side-effect. The price of victory, I fear, is the same now as it was in the Old Time, and always will be.” He fixed her with his eye, and there was a threat in it. A challenge. “But if I broke the First Law, what then? In what court will you have me judged? By what jury? Will you release Tolomei from the darkness to give evidence? Will you seek out Zacharus to read the charge? Will you drag Cawneil from the edge of the World to deliver the verdict? Will you bring great Juvens from the land of the dead to pronounce the sentence? I think not. I am First of the Magi. I am the last authority and I say… I am righteous.” 
“You? No.” 
“Yes, Ferro. Power makes all things right. That is my first law, and my last. That is the only law that I acknowledge.” 

I showed that part to my father and he agreed it was "chilling stuff", but said "I suppose in the end he'll get his, though." 

I laughed at that one. "That's not the kind of story Abercrombie writes," I said. "In his approach,
you're never sure if good will triumph but one thing is for certain; it's never without a price. There are no 100% happy endings in his world. Think of it less like a fantasy novel and more like an alternate history. And how many times in history have things always worked out for the best in every way?" 
All he could do was nod and agree: "Not many." 

But therein lies the problem. "True" fantasy, according to a Tolkienite, comes from a certain set of values, and among them is the idea that evil, by its very nature, cannot win. That a good man will always make the right choice. That he cannot make a wrong choice without paying for it, possibly with death or with becoming evil. That once the "Dark Lord" is defeated, all will be well. The idea that a Saruman-like character could actually win goes against everything they consider "proper". Remember what the compiler of the lists said about Tolkien's dichotomy of good vs. evil. In the mind of the Tolkienite, in fantasy, that dichotomy must exist. Bad guys are bad, good guys are good, and the good guys always win, preferably with as few deaths of major characters as possible. 

Forget the idea that some might actually like to have their expectations challenged. Forget that going beyond the bounds of where Tolkien would have gone allows for a more visceral, realistic world to come to life before you. Forget that you often sympathize a good deal more with characters that are allowed to have more than token flaws, or who are allowed to make the wrong decisions without it being their "start of darkness", or perhaps even make what looks like the better choice only for it to turn out to be the worse. Forget the idea that if you know the good guys will ultimately win, it can make a story take an all-too-predictable track. This is fantasy, and fantasy heroes are supposed to be pure, and good is always supposed to win. 

I've read that book. Many times. Forgive me for saying that it doesn't inspire the way it used to. 
The Lord of the Rings as a novel tells a story that follows a set morality. However, it does allow more room for grey, I suppose, than is often attributed to it. After all, the ending has our "incorruptible" hero, Frodo, giving in to the One Ring's influence and claiming it for himself. If it were not for Gollum, a villainous character, attempting one last time to steal the Ring for himself (and ultimately succeeding, if not the way he dreamed), the quest would have failed and Frodo would have been lost. A lesser writer than Tolkien probably would have had Frodo consider taking the Ring for himself, only to finally come to his senses and toss it in. Tolkien understood the corruptible nature of mortal beings, and despite showing that Hobbits were among the few species to be able to resist the Ring's effects long term, ultimately Frodo was just as ensnared as Gollum was, if for only a few moments until the Ring's destruction. 

But that does not negate the over-arcing morality of the book, in which all "good" characters follow the same moral code and all evil characters are irredeemable, with the possible exception of Gollum but even he chooses to remain corrupted. There is still the idea that this "dark lord" is the source of all that's wrong, and with his defeat everyone can live in peace. There's a clear right and wrong choice, and characters cannot make bad choices without paying for it, so most characters don't make the wrong choice at all. 

Peter Jackson's film versions of the books definitely took a different track when it came to certain characters and their motivations. Aragorn, for example, has no desire to rule anything and has become a ranger mostly to run away from his royal destiny. In the novel, his status as a ranger is basically just a part of his being of the line of the Kings of Numenor, and he knows very much what his destiny is, and seeks it. He never for one moment considers running away and having a happy life with Arwen away from his responsibilities and in fact, it is considered kingly of him that he desires the throne of Gondor. To allow himself to be anything less would be dishonorable. 

Then there's Faramir. In the movies, you might recall, Faramir has spent his entire life in the shadow of his elder brother, their father hardly noticing his contributions to the kingdom, and when he realizes he now has the One Ring in his grasp, decides to take it back to Gondor and prove his worth to his father. Much later, he realizes that the Ring is not a weapon he or any mortal can hope to use, and lets Frodo, and the Ring, go. 

In the books, however, Faramir is good and thus cannot be allowed to commit what could be thought of as a "bad" action. If Tolkien had written Faramir the way he is portrayed in the film, Faramir would have to pay for his initial actions, either by becoming a new Boromir (or Denethor) or by being killed. Since that wasn't what he wanted for the character, he decided to write him as being incorruptible, despite the fact that every word of the story, up to that point, had shown that no one is totally resistant to the Ring's influence. Not even Gandalf, or Aragorn, the most noble human character in the story. Hobbits can apparently hold out longer than most, but even they succumb, and humans can succumb even just by being near it for a few days. Yes, I understand that the Ring uses whatever darkness is already in your heart to corrupt you quicker, explaining why Boromir fell to its influence so fast, but even Gandalf refused to touch it without need because he knew that if he had it in his possession, he would use it out of a desire to do good, and thus become corrupted. So here's Faramir, who still has the "ignored younger brother" complex, instantly realizing that the Ring is evil and that he would not even pick it up if he found it laying in a gutter. 

This last part is also inconsistent. The Ring's corrupting influence is not widely known. In fact, when Boromir suggests using it against Sauron, he and others present are shocked to have Elrond tell them that it cannot be used by anyone without that person becoming corrupted. Boromir doesn't even believe it. For Faramir to somehow instinctively know that the Ring is evil and to be so free of corruption that he has not the slightest desire to keep it for himself rings false. (see what I did there?) 
Tolkien's overall morality insists that if Faramir is good, he cannot be shown even being tempted to do wrong, even if it means sacrificing consistency. This is what the list-maker meant by his "simple dichotomy of good and evil." I won't call it "simple" as that implies Tolkien is a simpleton, but there's no question it's very black and white. This sort of sensibility simple has not aged well in a world where we now widely acknowledge that it's entirely possible for good people to do bad things, bad people to do good things, people in general to do good things for the wrong reasons, people in general to do bad things despite good intentions, etc. 

You can tell he's the bad guy because of his advocating of pragmatic, but ultimately barbaric, ideas
The flip side of that is that evil is evil because it is evil. Bringing down Sauron is the ultimate good, and it doesn't matter if destabilizing Mordor will put millions of Orcs and giant spiders out of work and homeless because Orcs and giant spiders, and anything else that might be in Mordor, are irredeemably evil. There isn't even any discussion on whether or not Orcs can be redeemed; we just know that they cannot. Same can be said for men who willingly side with evil; Saruman, the Mouth of Sauron (who is described as a "living man"). Even the Ringwraiths, initially men, are apparently corrupted beyond hope. It's easy to just not care what happens after Sauron is defeated because Sauron and everyone associated with him is completely, one hundred percent evil. Now, I know there are some who will tell me about Sauron's backstory, how he was corrupted by Morgoth, etc., and that's all well and good, but if anything it just makes it worse. We're never given real motivation other than a desire for power that turned Sauron evil, but then, a desire for power is innate in all creatures, according to Tolkien, so really, why was that enough to corrupt Sauron? 

Further complicating things is Tolkien's writing style. He writes a large portion of this book in a sort of High Tone that is quasi-Shakespearean at times but much easier to understand. While it may be easy to understand, what it often is not is accessible. It seems to keep the reader at arm's length, and has the added effect of making the world seem less real. 

I once heard an apologist describe this as "feeling like you're hearing this tale as told by a bard from Middle-Earth, while other fantasy just sounds like it was written by a fantasy writer." So, yes, this writing style can be a selling point, if you're the kind of reader who relishes the feeling of reading "classic literature". However, to modern readers, and I have to believe even to some readers at the time, such a style sounds less like the adventure is unfolding before your eyes and more like it's being related to you by proxy. I have a hard time believing that the sort of "purple prose" style Tolkien wrote in is actually how all the characters truly spoke to each other; it's just the tone the "bard" chooses to relate it in. It also lends the effect of them all sort of talking alike with few of them having anything unique about their tone or wording. There are exceptions, of course. Tom Bombadil, Gollum and Treebeard all have very unique manners of speech, although in Treebeard's case, we later learn that all Ents talk like that, so it's a bit of a cheat. Hobbits speak in a more earthy, less artistic manner, with the exception of Frodo and, at times, Bilbo. But Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Boromir (for the most part), Elrond, Galadriel, Theoden, Faramir, Denethor, etc., all speak in very much the same voice, sometimes making it hard to remember who's talking if there's a scene with several of them together. If a novel like that was released in the last decade, I'd definitely call that poorly written, so why shouldn't it be poorly written just because Tolkien did it? 

And for those who appreciate the sort of high tone I'm referring to, well. I sometimes think you're all guilty of  the same thing some Christian sects are when they hold the King James Version of the Bible in much higher esteem than other translations, mainly because it just sounds more authoritative. Using words like "brethren" instead of "brothers", or "verily" instead of "truly" can automatically make a relatively simple sentence sound like a grand pronouncement. However, for an increasing majority of readers, so many characters speaking in similar-sounding grand pronouncements gets a bit repetitive after a while. 

It can also be a bit silly. For example, do you remember the scene in the film version of The Return of the King where Eowyn confronts the Witch King? In the movie, he laughs at her, says that it's known that no man can kill him, whereupon Eowyn whips off her helmet and says "I am no man!" Stab! Bye, bye, Witch King. Now, read the following exchange and have someone else shout "stab him!" repeatedly and see how many times they can say it before the moment finally comes: 

“Then out of the blackness in his mind he thought that he heard Dernhelm speaking; yet now the voice seemed strange, recalling some other voice that he had known. 
'Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!' 
A cold voice answered: 'Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all
darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.' 
A sword rang as it was drawn. 'Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.' 
'Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!' 
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”  

See what I'm talking about? Both Eowyn and the Witch King speak in the same grand style, and they talk so damn much that you wonder if they plan on killing each other with words. Is it time for speech-making or is it time to make with the stabbity-stab? In a real scenario like that, Eowyn either would have stabbed him while he was speechifying about "houses of lamentation" and the "Lidless Eye". Or, if she failed to do that, he would have made short work of her before she got as far as "You look upon a--hrk!" Stab! 

This is a great example of how, indeed, the genre has changed over the years and in many cases has left some elements of this story having not aged all that well. One thing Peter Jackson's movies did is give each character a unique voice that made it possible to see differing personalities in each of them. It wasn't always a roaring success; many have been justifiably critical of how Jackson turned Gimli into comic relief, but still, different characters with different personalities need to have distinct voices, and with only a handful of exceptions, Tolkien fails here. 

Also, much has been said about Tolkien's penchant for endless description of travel over hills, woods, streams, etc., which often can paint a vivid word picture but can also be pretty needless since it's not difficult to imagine a wooded area without the writer telling us what the various trees, stones, etc., look like. It's one thing to tell us about the majestic Mallorns of Lothlorien, but to describe Frodo, Sam and Pippin's journey from Hobbiton to Buckland in such detail? Do we really need that? 
Seriously, there are three chapters of this
There's also the inclusion of many, I mean many of Tolkien's songs and poems, only a few of which are relevant to the plot. In The Hobbit it was cute, which was okay as the story was meant for children. In The Lord of the Rings it's often just weird, particularly when the song is just about traveling or having a bath. I'm not kidding. There's a song about having a bath. Such cuteness doesn't really have a place in a story for adults. And yes, I'm aware that Tolkien started the story thinking he would be making another children's book but the tale, as he put it, "grew in the telling." But that's when you go back and edit out all the cutesy stuff intended for younger audiences. As an adult, it takes me right out of the story when Sam starts singing about stone trolls just after they come across the statues of the trolls Bilbo encountered. As a kid, it amused me. 

On that note, let's talk about a major irritant of mine, and that is Tolkien's shoe-horning of Tom Bombadil into this book. This is probably the largest crime Tolkien commits, and one that would be the first to go if I were the editor of this book. Maybe you aren't familiar with the character, especially if you only saw the movies and didn't read the book, but Tolkien had a character that he wrote poem upon poem about. Good old Tom was based on a memory of his childrens' dutch doll, and beginning in 1934 with The Adventures of Tom Bombadil Tolkien wrote many a fanciful poem about the spritely "merry fellow" that is Tom Bombadil. Naturally, he wanted to include him in his next book, and did so...where he serves no useful purpose whatsoever. 

"Ring-ding-a-dillo! Come now, merry-dol and.." SHUT THE FUCK UP!
I'm serious. The three chapters in which he appears can be excised from the books almost in their entirety and we would lose nothing. The only part of those chapters which has any bearing at all on the remainder of the book is that Sam, Merry and Pippin get their swords from a barrow that Tom rescues them from. In the movie, Aragorn gives the swords to them, which is just as useful. 
Now, some fans really like Tom, and it's not just because they approve of anything Tolkien writes. They argue that Tom, who is shown to be immune to the Ring's effects due to a sort of otherworldly nature in which he seems completely unaffected by anything outside his valley, is a symbol of the idea that some parts of the world will go on, and continue to thrive even in the times of Shadow. Tom himself is implied to be the oldest living thing in Middle-Earth, and might very well be a physical manifestation of the power of the earth itself. Okay. But what does that have to do with advancing the narrative, or even developing our main characters? Nothing at all. He's even discounted as a potential "safe keeper" for the Ring, because to Tom, nearly everything from outside his valley is merely ephemeral, and therefore unimportant, and he might therefore misplace it. 

I bring all this up not to dismiss Tolkien as a hack, but to show that it's possible that on its own, stripped of the history and myth surrounding its name and author, The Lord of the Rings is not really without flaws at all. In fact, it is guilty of some things that I would suggest cannot be written off as mere "products of their time". 

Now, some other criticisms of this work, and Tolkien himself, can. Tolkien is often called a sexist since the women in his story tend to just "sit around at home" while the men accomplish things. The exception here is Eowyn, who modern feminists also aren't kind to, since they claim that Eowyn's desire to "rise beyond her expected gender role" is portrayed as a bad thing, even though she's the one who kills the Witch King, and in the end she's content to go back to "playing housewife" with a man she just met because "a woman needs a man". This is an unfair interpretation of her, as it's pretty clear that when introduced, she has a bit of a death wish, brought on by her uncle's condition, her brother's exile, her cousin's death and a feeling of being completely powerless to change any of it. What Aragorn and others try to teach her is to embrace life as it is rather than seek death, even a glorious death on the battlefield. Her romance with Faramir is meant to show that she finally understands that life goes on, and she has chosen to go on with it. 

That said, it is true that modern sensitivities to race and gender roles can cause The Lord of the Rings to not sit very well among modern readers, and this can't be just dismissed. If such a book were written today, it wouldn't be allowed, and that's not a bad thing. This is a large part of why, if you're looking at a wide spectrum of "all time greatest", you can't start making allowances for anybody. If we're talking about an "all-time" look at the genre, you can't say "well, this book is the greatest if you overlook the blatant sexism and racism. After all, it was the times." 

No, I don’t think Tolkien was a racist or a sexist, and yes, I understand that from his perspective, making all his heroes white was just a product of his own world. However, in today's world, it can cause people to be uncomfortable, which can't simply be written off by a desire to say "but it's still the best." 

Of course, some might reply by saying "Yes, but the level of violence, language and depravity used by Martin, Lawrence, Morgan, etc. makes me twelve times as uncomfortable as the unintentional racism and sexism of Tolkien! I can't stand reading books that are so graphic!" Okay, but you miss my point. 

A modern author will often include graphic content like violence, depravity, sexual violence, harsh
Probably the most evil protagonist you're likely to meet
language, gore, etc. But they don't put it in there for thrills or because they're desensitized to it. Quite the opposite; such inclusions were intend
ed to shock, to appall, to upset, and often, to make a point. George RR Martin once talked about how strange it is that people who read his books have frequently told him how disgusted they were with the sexual content, but nowhere near as many people complain about the far more prevalent level of violence. And in this case, he's not even being hypocritical, because often the sexual content is of the repelling kind. None of it's intended to get you off. But for some reason, a reader who is offended to the point of wanting to put the book down because a character is raped is somehow less likely to have the same reaction if a character is beheaded. 

But in the case of Tolkien, he doesn't mean for you to feel the discomfort of noticing that the only dark-skinned characters are bad guys and the only thing women do is sit at home while the men go out and get stuff done. He isn't trying to illustrate a point or shake up our worldview. He just didn't know how to write any other way, and while I can overlook it and still enjoy the story, and still call it the most influential work of fantasy to exist, I have to take it into account while judging him against the remainder of the genre throughout history. I don't think it's a subjective thing to say that if an author's work begins to accidentally rub people the wrong way over time, that it's a mark against him. Even Shakespeare depicted his times well, but left it to his audience to judge the propriety of it. He even gave us a black hero well before that sort of thing was acceptable in western society. Well before Tolkien's time, or George MacDonald's, for that matter. 

Now, maybe you prefer books that feel more wholesome. Maybe a high level of adult content is by itself a dealbreaker for you. But to suggest that this alone makes one book objectively better or worse than another is nonsense. Any list intended to be objective has to take more into account than just how "offensive" a book is. One qualifier would have to be whether or not the book reads as well as it once did a hundred years later, and I mean in total, not just in language. Shakespearean language aside, it's astonishing how well Shakespeare's plays hold up centuries later. Tolkien's work isn't even a century old yet, but already has shown signs of age. 

(By the way, if it sounds like I'm making an allowance for Shakespeare, I'm actually not, or at least not overall. I am saying that if you translate Shakespeare's language into more modern dialects, which has been done many times, it all, at least mostly, still holds up. But as Peter Jackson proved, if you try that with Tolkien, it becomes a tad necessary to change more than just the language.) 

Finally, I want to talk about the supposed allegorical aspects of The Lord of the Rings. I firmly believe that one of the reasons it remains so popular is that people were able to read so many allegorical themes into it and even spend a lot of time arguing about which allegory is the "real" one. 
The two biggest allegories, and I know there are others out there, that get argued about are whether Tolkien meant this story as an allusion to WWII, or whether the entire thing is a Christian metaphor. 
The first one I can say without reservation is purely an invention of readers. Tolkien himself was asked if the story contained any WWII metaphors, such as the Ring being the atomic bomb, and Tolkien laughed this off, saying that if that had been what he intended, he definitely would have had the Fellowship use the Ring against Sauron. 

The second one is something of a sticking point. Tolkien himself was a devout Roman Catholic, and although Tolkien went to his grave insisting that he hated allegory and that at no time did he intend for The Lord of the Rings to be an allegorical tale, there are those who insist his beliefs shone through in his work. This is not all that hard to believe, as this might explain Tolkien's conviction, shared by Sam Gamgee, that good would always triumph in the end. However, some take it way too far, assigning Christ Allegory roles to Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn and perhaps Sam, or even insisting that nearly everything, every event, every race, every character, is analogous to some Biblical person, place, thing or idea. This also isn't all that far off from truth; Arda has a God, who in turn has angels, and there is also a devil. But Gandalf is not God, or even God made flesh, and Sauron is not Satan. Tolkien would vehemently deny that he intended the story to be a work of overt Christian overtones, but that hasn't stopped quite a few Christians from believing he did, nor has it stopped some churches from stocking the book in their library. I think a large number of the Tolkienites who will never see The Lord of the Rings as anything other than the greatest fantasy story of all time are people who have attached a spiritual component to it that Tolkien himself did not intend. It's not just that Tolkien is better than everyone, it's that he's the only one on the list doing God's work, even if unintentionally. In all fairness, there are plenty of atheists who hate The Lord of the Rings as much as Christian Tolkienites love it, and for precisely the same reason. 

However, even Christians don't benefit from pretending there is no such thing as lasting harm in the world, and could use a bit of challenge in what they read. A lot of confirmed Christians like to stay away from anything that seems too "unchristian", such as works that don't shy away from a lot of harsh realities. They prefer to read material that doesn't seem offensive to them, and thus, the less offensive the more they approve. They're certainly free to keep to that track if that's what they prefer, but to suggest that anything containing material they deem "offensive" is automatically of lesser quality than what doesn't offend them is...well, at best it's far from objective. 

I've also encountered an attitude that age is a factor in how much you appreciate The Lord of the Rings vs. Some of the more modern works. I don't think that's true at all, because it seems to suggest that the more mature you are, or at least the longer you live, the more you come to appreciate Tolkien's work whereas the younger you are, the more his writing style, black-and-white morality, etc., might grate on you. I think age is irrelevant. For one thing, it was my childhood, teen years and 20's where I unreservedly loved The Lord of the Rings and believed whole-heartedly that anything else was at best a distant second. It was only in my 30's that I began to have issues calling Tolkien and his work the very best ever with no qualifications. In fact, the closer I came to 40, and the wider read I became in the genre and many subgenres of fantasy, the harder it was to love Tolkien without reservation. 

For that matter, I have encountered Tolkien fanatics who put my father to shame who are significantly younger than him, or me, for that matter, as well as people who appreciate the more modern take who are well over 60. The reverse is also true, naturally. I don't think age has anything to do with the approach. In today's world, you either grew up reading Tolkien or you discovered him as an adult. There aren't many people alive today who were adult fantasy readers when The Lord of the Rings hit shelves, so it's really not, and never has been, "new" fantasy to anyone in this era. Everyone who sits down to read it understands that they're not just reading fiction but a real piece of history. A landmark that will always be there. It's just that some people think it's the only landmark on the terrain, and that's how it should be, whereas others are willing to see that in fact, there are many landmarks out there now, and some are much older, some aren't anywhere near as old, some look far different and some look similar, but their age and appearance doesn't change the fact that they will be remembered among the greats. 

Yeah, there's little doubt that in a hundred years fantasy readers will still be calling Tolkien the father of modern fantasy, and he will still be the one considered the most influential. There likely won't be books written about the world, characters and themes of Robert Jordan or Mercedes Lackey or Robin Hobb or Patrick Rothfuss. But fantasy as a genre has grown. It is far more inclusive today than it ever has been. New ideas, new presentations of older ideas, new genres entirely have sprung up in the 60-plus years since The Lord of the Rings hit shelves, and the idea that nothing written since then can even be held up to Tolkien for comparison, or that being younger or less influential automatically makes everything that isn't from Tolkien's just wrong. 

Again, yes, no question Tolkien is the most influential, but even that achievement, to paraphrase Boromir, isn't Tolkien's save by happy chance. Had Terry Brooks not decided to write The Sword of Shannara, we might have ended up with a writer inspired by Howard or Leiber instead kick-starting the genre. Tolkien has earned his place among the greats, but it is important to understand that, in pure terms of writing style, characterization and storytelling, yes, not only can Tolkien be matched, but he can even be surpassed.