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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