"Adults of all ages! Unite against the infantilist invasion."

The New Statesman's original reviews of The Hobbit and The Two Towers.

With the launch of the film version of The Hobbit on the horizon, here, for your nostalgic pleasure, are the New Statesman's original reviews of The Hobbit, and our later - infamous - review of The Two Towers.

Books For Pre-Adults

Richard Hughes

The Hobbit. By J. R. R. Tolkein. Allen and Unwin. 7s 6d.

It is an even harder matter to recommend books for children than books for grown-ups; since children differ rather more widely from each other than grown-ups do. They differ in two dimensions, as it were. First, there is as much difference between one eight-year-old and another eight-year-old as there is between one forty-year-old and another forty-year-old; and reviewers who say “all children of six to eight will enjoy so-and-so,” might as well say “all adults of thirty-five to forty will enjoy thingummy-bob.” But, in addition to the difference between children of the age, there is the enormous difference between the same child at one age and another. What Uncle George approves at forty, he is unlikely to reject as wholly unpalatable at fifty; but Georgie gobbles at seven may be anathema to him at eight. Yet we conveniently label all the pre-adult ages “childhood,” as if they were all the same as each other! It is convenient, of course, to distinguish between “town” and “country”: but suppose a traveller on the Great Western Railway found all stations but Paddington simply labelled “Country,” and was expected not to mind in the least which he was dumped at! 

This prefatory admonition is really directed as much as myself as to the reader: because I am tempted to say that all children will enjoy The Hobbit. That of course would be nonsense. But a very great many will; and though the ages for which it is written range roughly from six to nine years, you may expect very considerable extensions at both ends of that period. I myself have tried it on a four-year-old with marked success; and I have tried it on myself with market success also. The author is a professor of Anglo-Saxon; and because the author of “Alice” was also a professor the publishers are tempted to compare the two books. Actually, they are wholly dissimilar. There is no philosophical fantasy in The Hobbit. But they are alike in this, that in both cases the author is so saturated in his life-study that it waters his imagination with living springs. Professor Tolkein is saturated in Nordic mythology: so saturated that he does not rehash this mythology and serve it up at second-hand, rather he contributes to it at first hand: and thus his wholly original story of adventure among goblins, elves and dragons, instead of being a tour-de-force, a separate creation of his own, gives rather the impression of a well-informed glimpse into the life of a wide other-world; a world wholly real, and with a quite matter-of-fact, supernatural natural-history of its own. It is a triumph that the genus Hobbit, which he himself has invented, rings just as real as the timehallowed genera of Goblin, Troll and Elf.

One word of warning, though. Some adults may think parts of this book rather terrifying for bedside reading (although, however fearful the adventure, things always turn out right in the end). I myself think this caution is a mistaken one. For a child has a natural capacity for terror which it is next to impossible to curtail; and if you withhold from his such proper objects of terror as goblins, trolls and dragons, he will work himself just as frantic over an odd-shaped bed-post – or the over-hearing of such a frightful piece of news as that there is a barrister pleading in the court.

December 4, 1937

The Two Towers

Maurice Richardson

First, let me get Professor Tolkien out of my delusional system. The Two Towers is the second volume of his mammoth fairy tale, or, as some call it, heroic romance, The Lord of The Rings. It will do quite nicely as an allegorical adventure story for very leisured boys, but as anything else I am convinced it has been wildly overpraised and it is all I can do to restrain myself from shouting: Conspiracy! and slouching through the streets with a sandwichman's board inscribed in jagged paranoid scrawl in violet ink: “Adults of all ages! Unite against the infantilist invasion." 

It has been compared by Richard Hughes to Spenser's Faerie Queen; by Naomi Mitchison to Malory; by C. S. Lewis to Ariosto. I can see why these three should have soft spots for its Norse and Celtic and mystical trappings. Mr. Auden has also gone into raptures over it. This, too, is not unexpected, because he has always been captivated by the pubescent worlds of the saga and the classroom. There are passages in The Orators which are not unlike bits of Tolkien's hobbitry.

Of course one must be fair. It is not Professor Tolkien's fault if he has been overpraised. Also, coming in half-way, it is difficult to judge his story as a whole. Still, one third (200,000 words, about as long as Anna Karenina) should be a representative sample. My first impression is that it is all far too long and blown up. What began as a charming children's book has proliferated into an endless worm. My second that, although a great deal of imagination has been at work, it is imagination of low potential. The various creatures, hobbits, elves, dwarfs, orcs, ents (tree-wardens who seem at times to be almost walking vegetables) are nicely differentiated. Their ecology is described with scholarly detail and consistency. But not one of them has any real individuality; not one is a character. And though their dialogue is carefully varied, from colloquial-historical for men and wizards to prep school slang for hobbits and orcs, they all speak with the same flat, castrated voice.

I also find the story-telling (true, this is particularly difficult to judge in an isolated volume, and I should warn new readers who are going to begin here that they will find the synopsis barely adequate) confusing. Interest is diffused between too many characters and groups. In this volume the hobbits, Pippin and Merry, steal too much of the picture from the chief hobbit, Frodo, the original possessor of the Ring which all the fuss is about. 

Naturally there are points in favour. The battle scenes are well done; the atmosphere of doom and danger and perilous night-riding often effective. The traditional mystical confusion attaching to a quest, and a struggle between good and evil (cf. Emerson's “They reckon ill who leave me out. When me they fly I am the wings”) is neatly worked into the plot. And the allegorical aspect rouses interesting peculations. How much relation is there between the world—ruined, note—of the story and our own past, present and future? To what extent, if any, does the Ring tie up with the atomic nucleus, as well as symbolising whatever rings do symbolise? Are the orcs at all equated with materialist scientists? Nevertheless, the fantasy remains in my opinion thin and pale. And the writing is not at all fresh. Here is a sample—one of the rare descriptions of a female person in a story most of whose characters appear to be sexless: 

…Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Eowyn, lady of Rohan, and thought her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood… 

Observe the strange effect of pre-Renaissance literature on a distinguished scholar's style; this might almost be Michael Arlen.

18 December, 1954

The review of the Hobbit, from a 1937 edition of the New Statesman.
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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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