Back to blog feed
Inside Edmund Wilson

Of all the negative reviews that The Lord of the Rings ever received, the most infamous is “Oo, Those Awful Orcs,” by the renowned American critic Edmund Wilson. It was published in the journal The Nation in 1956, and reappeared in Wilson’s collection The Bit Between My Teeth (1965) and various other sources, earning a place in the otherwise laudatory Tolkien Scrapbook edited by Alida Becker (1978).

From misspelling a principal character’s name as “Gandalph” to such declarations as “The hero has no serious temptations; is lured by no insidious enchantments, perplexed by few problems,” or “We never feel Sauron’s power,” Wilson’s review is so staggeringly imperceptive that some have found it hard to believe that Wilson read the book at all, let alone, as he states, aloud in its entirety to his 7-year-old daughter just before writing the review. I’d cut Wilson a little more slack than that.

It’s true that Wilson was a curmudgeon from the point of view of readers who might like authors like Tolkien. Wilson didn’t like H.P. Lovecraft any more than he liked Tolkien. And one of his most famous articles is a root-and-branch denunciation of detective fiction titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Some of the specific accusations in the last – Dorothy L. Sayers “does not write very well,” Margery Allingham is “completely unreadable … wooden and dead” – read a lot like “Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form.”

This suggests to me that what Wilson is suffering from is an allergy: an allergy so intense as to cause him to be unable to absorb, to remember the details of, the book he’s just read aloud long enough to write a review of it. He really doesn’t care who killed Roger Ackroyd, or how Frodo defeated Sauron, and considers himself superior to those who do care. And that explains his inability to get facts straight or perceive the most forthright characteristics of the book.

But what exactly is it he’s allergic to? In part, yes, it’s the clear and straightforward prose. But in Tolkien’s case I think it’s also the fantastic element. Tolkien’s use of this is what Wilson reserves his strongest critique for: “An impotence of imagination seems to me to sap the whole story. The wars are never dynamic; the ordeals give no sense of strain; the fair ladies would not stir a heartbeat; the horrors would not hurt a fly.”

That Wilson dislikes fantasy is disguised by his final paragraph, which begins, “As for me, if we must read about imaginary kingdoms, give me James Branch Cabell’s Poictesme.” This is followed by a couple sentences of praise of Cabell’s depth and perception in contrast to Tolkien’s. See? it seems to say: I do like fantasy when it’s good.

But one reason Wilson might have brought up Cabell is that he’d had Cabell on his mind lately. He’d been reading a considerable amount of Cabell’s work, and was writing a long consideration of it, “The James Branch Cabell Case Reopened,” which was published in The New Yorker a week after his Tolkien review in The Nation. (It’s also reprinted in The Bit Between My Teeth.)

Wilson begins this article by recounting his personal history with reading Cabell, and this is an extremely interesting and telling story. “In the twenties,” he writes, “I went through those new books of his that at the time were attracting attention in order to find out what they were, and what I found seemed for the most part so uncongenial that I did not go on reading him.” This would have been Cabell’s most prominent fantasies, in particular, as he later specifies, Jurgen. What Wilson found uncongenial about them he does not specify: it seems to be a fundamental allergy to their very nature.

What happened then, however, was that about twenty years later, Wilson read – at a friend’s recommendation – Cabell’s then-recent “ethnological history” of his home state of Virginia, Let Me Lie, and was so attracted by it that he turned to Cabell’s essays and memoirs, then to his realistic novels set in contemporary Virginia, and finally “to explore the more fanciful department of his works which I had resolved, after Jurgen, to avoid – the novels that deal with Poictesme, the synthetic imaginary realm to which Cabell became addicted and about which, I must now admit, he has written some of his most successful as well as his most ambitious books.”

Do you see what happened here? From finding Cabell’s fantasy as “uncongenial” as a brick wall, Wilson turned to admitting that it’s much of Cabell’s best work. And how did this happen? He found a way into Cabell. By reading a book, Let Me Lie, which eschewed what Wilson was allergic to, he was able to grasp and appreciate the quality of Cabell’s prose, the nature of his thought. And so, with a new understanding, a meeting of the minds, he proceeded, step by step, through more personal nonfiction, to realistic novels with the same setting, and at last to the fantasy, and now he gets it.

If only Tolkien had published something that Wilson could likewise have used as a stepping-stool into the realm of Tolkien’s mind, he might in the end have come to appreciate The Lord of the Rings as well. I don’t know what such a book might have been. From one of the swipes in the review – “Malory and Spenser … have a charm and a distinction that Tolkien has never touched” – perhaps Wilson would have liked The Fall of Arthur or parts of the Silmarillion papers, had he been able to read them. I don’t know.

But there is another aspect of Wilson’s reaction to Tolkien that is considerably darker than this. Though some now claim that The Lord of the Rings was generally hated when it was new, it in fact received some ecstatic reviews, and Wilson addresses this. How could such a terrible book garner such praise? “The answer is, I believe, that certain people – especially, perhaps, in Britain – have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash.” There, that settles it.

Who are these people? Wilson is referring to an earlier paragraph in which he quotes favorable reviews by four critics, three of them British: Richard Hughes, Naomi Mitchison, C.S. Lewis, and one American, Louis J. Halle. He then turns in more detail to “the most distinguished of Tolkien’s admirers and the most conspicuous of his defenders,” W.H. Auden (British by origin, later residing in the U.S.). Wilson manages to dismiss Auden’s praise by suggesting that Auden’s professional interest in the theme of the Quest, a matter at the forefront of Tolkien’s tale, has short-circuited Auden’s critical judgment. So much for him.

What makes this darker is something not in the review, and this is a bit that I have not seen brought up in Tolkien studies before. (If I’ve missed a reference, let me know.) I owe thanks to my friend Arthur D. Hlavaty for bringing this to my attention; he found it referred to in something by Gore Vidal.

Wilson counted Auden as a personal friend as well as an admired poet, and I guess this sharp dissimilarity in their tastes ate at Wilson. At any rate, it was still gnawing away a decade later, when, in 1967/68, Wilson made a note in his personal journal, which was posthumously published (The Sixties: The Last Journal, 1960-1972, edited by Lewis M. Dabney, 1993, p. 642). In a context of musing on how (hetero)sexual lust (by men) has given rise to a disproportionate amount of “rapture and despair … heroisms and excesses,” he comments: “Yet homosexuals don’t seem to have flowered and borne fruit, don’t seem to have fully matured: Auden with his appetite for Tolkien.”

Here we have hit rock bottom. Auden’s “lifelong appetite for juvenile trash” is because he’s gay, and Auden’s liking for Tolkien is evidence that there’s something immature about gay people in general. As another friend of mine commented on being told this, Wilson was “clearly a terrible human being.”

It’s also absurd even on its face. Need I even point out that not all gay people like Tolkien? And those other three British critics – Hughes, Mitchison, and Lewis (I don’t know anything about Halle) – were sexually straight, and they were just as ecstatic about Tolkien as Auden was. (“They bubble, they squeal, they coo,” says Wilson.) In fact, if the charge of “a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash” has any validity, it’s for Lewis. Lewis had a strong aversion to much modernist literature, and enjoyed tweaking the other English dons by conspicuously reading out-of-fashion authors like Walter Scott in his Oxford common room.

I think this is about as far inside Edmund Wilson as I want to go.

About the Author: David Bratman
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.