By Michael Grossberg
J.R.R. Tolkien, widely hailed as the father of the resurgent “high fantasy” of the modern era, died 50 years ago today.
Tolkien, who passed at 81 on Sept. 2, 1973, is remembered by Ed West, who writes about Tolkien’s legacy and increasing influence today in his timely Substack column Wrong Side of History.
With Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings having been inducted in 2009 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction, LFS members certainly remember and admire Tolkien.
But in his striking and thought-provoking column, West praises Tolkien in extraordinary ways – perhaps even more highly than do libertarians, who admire the British author for the mythic world-building, rich storytelling and poignant themes of his cautionary libertarian fable about the inevitable temptations and corruptions of absolute power.
West goes so far as to call Tolkien “the most important creative mind of the modern age.”
(* That is, with one possible exception.)
Here’s how West boldly begins “How Tolkien created an English national myth for the world,” his Sept. 2, 2023 Wrong Side of History column:
“Fifty years ago today perhaps the most important creative mind of the modern age passed from this earth. The works of JRR Tolkien, widely derided by so many cultural critics at the time, have grown to such enormous cultural importance that no other author, with the possible exception of JK Rowling, has more shaped the modern imagination.”
(Editor’s note: Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was a 2004 Prometheus finalist for Best Novel.)
Much of West’s essay makes it case for Tolkien’s growing cultural significance in the 21st century through biography, sharing telling details of Tolkien’s childhood and transplanted rural upbringing after his father died, orphaning him at 12.
Tolkien became a “brilliantly gifted linguist” who became obsessed with the folklore and languages of early medieval northern Europe, “doodling fantasy worlds and inventing languages based on Old Gothic,” West writes.
While some of West’s column is pay-walled and limited to paid subscribers, anyone (including visitors or free subscribers to his Substack page) should be able to get some idea of the direction of West’s case for Tolkien being among the greatest artists shaping the culture and moral vision of our era.
“The Lord of the Rings films, which first appeared during those significant last four months of 2001, sparked a revival in medievalism on the screen, and Tolkien’s work continues to inspire new creations, the latest being Amazon’s The Rings of Power. It was a world very much based on an idea of England, both the country of his youth and its deep ancestral past.”
(That paragraph contains a telling link to an earlier West column from 2021, which begins this way: “It was the day in 2001 that changed everything, the day after which nothing would be the same again, the day when the century really began and the end of history…”
(And perhaps the horrible realities of 9/11 did to some extent impel Hollywood and other American influencers to retreat from reality and highlight fantasy and comic-book superhero movies and TV series, as West may be implying here in part, as I read it.)
But the 21st century is still young, with multiple and conflicting cultural and political trends, so who knows how events and the shifting contours of history, human action and human choices – for we do have the power to make meaningful choices – will affect the world, including future generations views of Tolkien.
Yet, for valuable reference points, Tolkien fans could do much worse than catch up with several review-essays and articles about the author and his magnum opus “The Lord of the Rings” that rank high (imo) among the best and most insightful posts to appear on the Prometheus Blog.
* Read the Prometheus Blog Appreciation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
* Read William H. Stoddard’s seminal essay “What do you mean ‘Libertarian’? (and why Tolkien’s trilogy deserved its Prometheus)”
* Read “Lord of the Rings: Economist uses Prometheus Hall of Fame classic to expose false complaints about capitalism – and about Tolkien’s underappreciated Eagles
* Read “Remembering Tolkien – and his cautionary theme about the lure of power – as Rings of Power series debuts opposite House of Dragons”
* Read “Reason highlights fresh aspects of Tolkien’s anti-statism reflected in new TV series “The Rings of Power”
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE:
* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant elements of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.
* Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt), Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.
* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.
Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.
Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, end slavery, reduce the threat of war, repeal or constrain other abuses of coercive power and achieve universal liberty, respect for human rights and a better world for all.