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 Spenser’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. “No pre­vi­ous writer,” the poet remarked in a New York Times review, “has, to my knowl­edge, cre­at­ed an imag­i­nary world and a feigned his­to­ry in such detail.”

Auden did find fault with Tolkien’s poet­ry, a fact upon which crit­ic Edmund Wil­son seized in his scathing 1956 Lord of the Rings review. “Mr. Auden is appar­ent­ly quite insen­si­tive — through lack of inter­est in the oth­er depart­ment,” wrote Wil­son, “to the fact that Tolkien’s prose is just as bad. Prose and verse are on the same lev­el of pro­fes­so­r­i­al ama­teur­ish­ness.” Five years lat­er, the Nobel prize jury would make the same judge­ment when they exclud­ed Tolkien’s books from con­sid­er­a­tion. Tolkien’s prose, wrote jury mem­ber Anders Öster­ling, “has not in any way mea­sured up to sto­ry­telling of the high­est qual­i­ty.”

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. In what might be con­sid­ered an uneth­i­cal pro­mo­tion of his friend’s work today, Lewis respond­ed tire­less­ly to crit­ics of the tril­o­gy, going so far, after the pub­li­ca­tion of The Two Tow­ers, to pen an essay on the sub­ject titled “The Dethrone­ment of Pow­er.” Here, Lewis explains the pro­lix qual­i­ty of Tolkien’s prose — that which crit­ics called “tedious” — as a nar­ra­tive neces­si­ty: “I do not think he could have done it any oth­er way.”

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 reread­ings, 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Largest J.R.R. Tolkien Exhib­it in Gen­er­a­tions Is Com­ing to the U.S.: Orig­i­nal Draw­ings, Man­u­scripts, Maps & More

Hear J.R.R. Tolkien Read from The Lord of the Rings and The Hob­bit in Vin­tage Record­ings from the Ear­ly 1950s

Dis­cov­er J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lit­tle-Known and Hand-Illus­trat­ed Children’s Book, Mr. Bliss

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (33)
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  • Matt says:

    Just goes to show how COMPLETELY out of touch most crit­ics have always been.

  • Gandalf the white says:

    It is not the place of this com­mit­tee to deny the return of the King!

  • Sam T says:

    I have to say I can’t real­ly dis­agree with them on the prose. I feel like if you were to insist on includ­ing high qual­i­ty prose and poet­ry as nec­es­sary com­po­nents for the prize, LOTR can’t mea­sure up to oth­er prize win­ners, despite extra­or­di­nary inven­tive­ness, com­plex­i­ty, and the­mat­ic devel­op­ment

  • David says:

    It’s not real­ly sur­pris­ing. The thing that’s great about LotR is the sto­ry itself, not so much the tech­nique of its telling.

  • Joseph says:

    It’s become poplar to admire Tolkien’s sto­ry but to find fault in his writ­ing style. Mod­ern read­ers are weak; their atten­tion spans are gnat-like, and their supe­ri­or­i­ty com­plex as high as Barad-Dûr itself. Ding­bats, don’t you real­ize that Tolkien KNEW WHAT HE WAS DOING?! He wrote inten­tion­al­ly against the short, swift, and direct style of the time on pur­pose. He sought to meld the myth­ic qual­i­ty of Mal­lo­ry with the ethe­re­al tone of Dun­sany.

    If LotR was writ­ten in a dif­fer­ent way, you would not have been pulled into Mid­dle Earth the same way and the Fan­ta­sy genre would nev­er have been start­ed. There’s a rea­son LotR stands above all oth­er genre works and it’s not just the sto­ry; it’s the utter mas­tery of lan­guage used to trans­port you to a world entire­ly cre­at­ed by it’s author.

    If you cri­tique Tolkien’s style, you reveal your­self to either be a novice or a fool.

  • Ron says:

    C.S. is that you?

    I kid, I kid. I mean the prose is easy enough to read that thou­sands of kids get through it every year, it can’t be that tedious. There must be some amaz­ing qual­i­ty to it that dri­ves even chil­dren to get through 400 page books.

  • Ed says:

    Mate you had such a good oppor­tu­ni­ty for a LoTR and star wars cross ref­er­ence there.

  • AlbericM says:

    Edmund Wil­son thought he was the doyen of all lit­er­ary crit­i­cism for the 20th cen­tu­ry. His opin­ions, how­ev­er inad­e­quate, are pre­sent­ed in the belief that they are the final judg­ment. He relied a great deal on his asso­ci­a­tion with Vladimir Nabokov, but it is amus­ing to read the rather open con­tempt with with Nabokov treat­ed his views on lit­er­a­ture, espe­cial­ly in Russ­ian.

  • Gerold says:

    The lev­el of mis­un­der­stand­ing for LotR is only matched by the love and rev­er­ence it receives. Catholics and Chris­tians try to claim it for exam­ple, despite the fact that it’s a com­plete­ly pagan work based on the old Ger­man­ic and Celtic mythol­o­gy.

  • James Thayer says:

    Tolkien explic­it­ly called it a Catholic work. Yes the char­ac­ters were pagan-inspired, but the themes were Catholic through and through.

    And no, I’m not a Catholic myself. Just hon­est.

  • Arwen in NJ says:

    Argh. LOTR. Is. Not. A. Tril­o­gy. It is one nov­el that was pub­lished in three vol­umes due to a paper short­age in post-war Britain.

  • Nicole says:

    I’m just here to say I have these exact paper­backs from 1965. Got them from my mom, who bought them for my dad. That’s all lolol.

  • David S Goza says:

    Final­ly! He nev­er intend­ed for a tril­o­gy, but the paper short­age and greed­i­ness of Bal­lan­tine books made it so. I man­aged to get a copy as a sin­gle nov­el and much pre­fer it this way.

  • Diogene says:

    60 years lat­er the analy­sis is exact­ly the same. If you are not a fan­ta­sy fan boy LoDR is not a very inter­est­ing book. The sto­ry line is cheap and not excit­ing, the char­ac­ters are too sim­ple with only one dimen­sion. The good vs bad is bor­ing with zero philo­soph­i­cal lay­er.
    Is a mas­ter­piece for fan­ta­sy fans because the world and the his­to­ry (and the lan­guage) that Tolkien cre­ate are amaz­ing and you can spend years search­ing infor­ma­tion hid­den in the text. But the main sto­ry line is weak.

  • Ryan says:

    Edmund Spenser, not Spencer.

  • Ryan says:

    Huh? The short, swift and direct style of the Mod­ernists? The short, swift and direct style of the Post-Mod­ernists? Tolkien wrote on either side of these lit­er­ary move­ments. If you aim to speak about lit­er­a­ture, you’re bad­ly mis­tak­en. Tolkien was a fine writer, but his style was not a response to your imag­i­nary idea about short atten­tion spans in the ear­ly to mid twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.

  • Victoria says:

    That’s not what Tolkien said: he wrote, ” The Lord of the Rings is of course a fun­da­men­tal­ly reli­gious and Catholic work; uncon­scious­ly so at first, but con­scious­ly in the revi­sion.”

  • John Bergstrom says:

    It seems pop­u­lar to read LOTR as a sim­ple sto­ry of good ver­sus bad. But, one of the curi­ous things about it is that the bad guy actu­al­ly nev­er appears direct­ly. Ordi­nary peo­ple are cor­rupt­ed, bad is reflect­ed to some extent in the behav­ior of good peo­ple, orcs are imi­ta­tions of elves etc etc: but most of the sto­ry itself is about decent peo­ple fig­ur­ing out how to work togeth­er… issues of loy­al­ty, mak­ing deci­sions with insuf­fi­cient information,that sort of thing. I sup­pose there is some absolute evil in the back­ground, although not so much absolute good… so OK, it’s not just about peo­ple get­ting mar­ried. Although peo­ple do get mar­ried at the end.

  • Paul Ratte says:

    No one can dis­pute the inven­tive­ness of Tolkien’s world build­ing. The rea­son the tril­o­gy was not influ­en­tial enough to gar­ner the Nobel was because of the over­writ­ing. As won­der­ful as the books are, they suf­fer from an appalling lack of edit­ing. The influ­ence of the tril­o­gy on the genre of fan­ta­sy is indis­putable, regret­tably the qual­i­ty of the writ­ing does not adhere to the stan­dard of great­ness but mere­ly ade­quate sto­ry­telling.

  • Jan Vaněk jr. says:

    The not was not “dis­cov­ered recent­ly”, but almost 10 years ago; you’re rehash­ing a decade-old arti­cle.

  • David says:

    Would this be the same com­mit­tee that award­ed Barack Oba­ma a prize for get­ting elect­ed while being black?

  • Cheiron says:

    Who the hell cares about some sil­ly Nobel when just any one of Tolkien’s books has prob­a­bly sur­passed all the read­er­ship of all the Nobel win­ners com­bined

  • Lathe Snyder says:

    Tolkien has no Pulitzer. Tolkien needs no Pulitzer.

    And Edmond Wil­son can go straight to… Mor­dor.

  • Jens says:

    Since when have crit­ics been actu­al­ly right about any­thing? Crit­ics also think the movie jok­er is a stu­pid movie.

  • Joan says:

    And they were right. He wrote sto­ries like the ones before Cer­vantes. He had a for­mu­la and he filled pages with it. Great writ­ers know the tra­di­tion, have read what oth­ers wrote before and then cre­ate some­thing new that over­comes all that in some sense. Joyce, Proust, Kaf­ka, Mann,.. to name some from the XX cen­tu­ry. Tolkien just belongs to anoth­er club, a minor league.

  • Carlos toro says:

    La ver­dad de por que lo rec­haz­aron en el comité del Nobel, fue porque Tolkien era un hom­bre pro­fun­da­mente Católi­co. Y los pre­mios nobel de lit­er­atu­ra están hechos por y para ateos, social­is­tas frustra­dos e ide­ol­o­gis­tas baratos.

  • David says:

    Anoth­er con­ceit is that none of it is in the “orig­i­nal” com­mon tongue– it is a trans­la­tion from that lan­guage into Eng­lish.

    To some degree, it would be expect­ed to fail to cap­ture the full sto­ry as record­ed by Bil­bo and Fro­do.

    To what extent this is Tolkien ret­con­ning away clunk­i­ness & how much is him want­i­ng it to sound like a work inter­pret­ed using his philo­log­i­cal train­ing I’ll leave for oth­ers to debate.

  • Maughan says:

    It’s a dat­ed book. It needs no award as it no longer stands in the world of mod­ern Eng­lish. No “Clas­sic” should be spo­ken of unless it’s in an aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suit to wit­ness the effect such writ­ing has upon lit­er­a­ture.

  • JoeSnow says:

    Today,absolutely every­body has heard of Tolkien. The same can’t be said for the per­son who went on to win the prize that year. The Nobel com­mit­tee has zero cred­i­bil­i­ty.

  • JoeSnow says:

    Jok­er actu­al­ly was a stu­pid movie.

  • There’ssumboresndishouz says:

    Haters be hatin

  • Alex Mena says:

    Have you ever had those books val­ued? I would think rare copies like these would be worth a great deal of mon­ey.

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