When the Nobel Prize Committee Rejected The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien “Has Not Measured Up to Storytelling of the Highest Quality” (1961)


“When J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books appeared in the mid-1950s, they were met with very mixed reviews, an unsurprising reception given that nothing like them had been written for adult readers since Edmund Spencer’s epic 16th century English poem The Faerie Queene, perhaps. At least, this was the contention of reviewer Richard Hughes, who went on to write that ‘for width of imagination,’ The Lord of the Rings ‘almost beggars parallel.’ Scottish writer Naomi Mitchison did find a comparison: to Sir Thomas Malory, author of the 15th century Le Morte d’Arthur — hardly misplaced, given Tolkien’s day job as an Oxford don of English literature, but not the sort of thing that passed for contemporary writing in the 1950s, notwithstanding the serious appreciation of writers like W.H. Auden for Tolkien’s trilogy. … The note was discovered recently by Swedish journalist Andreas Ekström, who delved into the Nobel archive for 1961 and found that ‘the jury passed over names including Lawrence Durrell, Robert Frost, Graham Green, E.M. Forster, and Tolkien to come up with their eventual winner, Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andrić,’ as Alison Flood reports at The Guardian. (The Nobel archives are sealed until 50 years after the year the award is given.) Ekström has been reading through the archives ‘for the past five years or so,’ he says, ‘and this was the first time I have seen Tolkien’s name among the suggested candidates.’ His name appeared on the list chiefly through the machinations of his closest friend and chief supporter, C.S. Lewis. Lewis, ‘also of Oxford,’ Wilson sneered, ‘is able to top them all’ in praise of Tolkien’s books. From the first appearance of his Middle Earth fantasy in The Hobbit, Lewis promised to ‘do all in my power to secure for Tolkien’s great book the recognition it deserves,’ as he wrote in a 1953 letter to British publisher Stanley Unwin. … Tolkien’s biggest fan also urged readers to spend more time with the books and promised that the rewards would be great. In defense of the second work of the trilogy, he concluded, ‘the book is too original and too opulent for any final judgment on a first reading. But we know at once that it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men. And though we must ration ourselves in our re-readings, I have little doubt that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables.’ And so has all of Tolkien’s work, becoming the literary standard by which high fantasy is measured, with or without a Nobel prize.”
Open Culture

About 1960s: Days of Rage

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