"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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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