Is J.R.R. Tolkien a canonical writer? This depends, of course, on how we define canonical status -- or indeed who we acknowledge as our arbiter of canonicity. I will begin by noting the whiff of sanctimony in the very idea of a "canon." The idea of a "canon" is, in itself, originally a term derived from religion: as the Christian religion underwent a centuries-long process of defining its own orthodoxy, extant Christian writings were arranged into a canon by religious authorities, separating the essential sacred texts from the inessential. It was these same religious authorities who, in the process of debating which works to include and which to exclude, chose to include the four canonical Gospels that can be found today in any copy of the New Testament, but who did not include the non-canonical or "apocryphal" gospel of Thomas, let alone the gospel of Judas, which was not even translated into English until 2006. By analogy, the literary canon-making process suggested itself to those secular authorities -- literary critics inside and outside the academy -- who were interested in drawing up lists of those non-sacred texts that might be regarded as essential. I think the case of Tolkien can provide us with an interesting glimpse into the canon-making enterprise and how it proceeds. My contention is that Tolkien clearly is a canonical writer -- or should be -- but the issue of how his status has become established among arbiters of literary taste is an interesting question in and of itself, and I hope to address those critics who denigrate Tolkien's status as well as make a case for Tolkien as a canonical writer in himself.
To some degree any literary canon is always, at best, an interim affair. New works are being written all the time, and it is possible that a new canonical work might indeed be written at any moment: none but the most hidebound conservative would believe the canon itself to be closed to new entries (although, as we shall note later, Tolkien himself was just such a hidebound conservative). The important thing is to establish what the criteria for entry into the canon are. As an example of a recent and influential canon-making enterprise which wrongly excludes Tolkien, I would adduce the work of Harold Bloom. Bloom's 1994 critical study The Western Canon ends with a list of essential reading of literary works which (in his opinion) will withstand the test of time. Bloom acknowledges that the idea of a canon is, in itself, an academic invention from the first: "originally the Canon meant the choice of books in our teaching institutions…and the Canon's true question remains: What shall the individual who desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?" (Bloom, 15). And at the outset he claims that it is originality which is the criterion for inclusion into the canon: as he state "one mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies" (Bloom, 4).
But by the end of Bloom's study, when he comes around to drawing up a list of canonical works, he has changed his terminology. Bloom's own criterion for judging a work's canonicity for his own list is, he claims, an aesthetic one: "since the literary canon is at issue here, I include only those religious, philosophical, historical, and scientific writings that are themselves of great aesthetic interest" (Bloom, 531). Bloom then proceeds to list just over 1,500 literary works from the cuneiform tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh right on down to Tony Kushner's Angels in America (which was still entertaining audiences on Broadway as Bloom's hefty tome hit the bookshops). The example of Kushner proves that just because something was written at the time that Bloom was drawing up his canon is not reason enough to exclude it -- for Bloom, there must apparently be sufficient aesthetic merit in the work of Tony Kushner that he is willing to include him in this canon. And yet Bloom's list fails to include J.R.R. Tolkien among 20th century British authors. Tolkien's omission is not one that Bloom deigns to clarify, so we can only assume that he considers Tolkien's work to lack "great aesthetic interest." By means of comparison, we may note that Bloom's list also fails to include Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe for its list of 19th century American authors: here is a work which was not merely an enormous best-seller in its own day but was also of serious historical and social importance -- no less an authority than Abraham Lincoln would give Stowe's novel credit for prompting the American Civil War -- and thus if Bloom is excluding Stowe from his canon, it cannot be on any grounds other than the aesthetic. But in this case, it is hard to see how Bloom derives his aesthetic criteria, or can justify them as being anything other than hopelessly subjective, if a work of the imagination which is undeniably important, and which does not fail to move a significantly large number of readers, can somehow be excluded on the basis of its lack of aesthetic distinction. Bloom's own criteria are ultimately whimsical and so elastic as to be utterly meaningless, and I am tempted to agree with the estimation of Peter Morris, who writes in an essay included in The Salt Companion to Harold Bloom, that Bloom's idea of a canon is -- despite the inclusion of over 1,500 works -- in itself "small and protective, designed to keep things out" (Morris, 473). And if aesthetics is really all it comes down to, why should we trust the aesthetic sense of Harold Bloom over the aesthetic sense of the vast and devoted readership that Tolkien has inspired -- let alone Tolkien himself? I think Bloom's approach to excluding Tolkien from the canon may be safely disregarded.
It is important to note of Tolkien that, even from the start, he was underestimated. Anthony Lane's re-evalution of Tolkien's fiction in The New Yorker -- occasioned by the enormously popular Hollywood film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- offers an enlightening anecdote in this regard. Lane notes:
When "The Fellowship of the Ring" came out, in 1954, Tolkien's publisher, Allen & Unwin, gambled on selling as many as thirty-five hundred copies, falling to thirty-two hundred and fifty for "The Two Towers," and so down to three thousand for "The Return of the King," the following year. In the event, this estimate proved a little cautious. By the end of 1968, total readership of the trilogy was thought to stand at around fifty million. (Lane, 62.)
Now obviously sales figures are no automatic guarantee of a work's canonical status: if that were so, then forgotten bestsellers of yesteryear such as The Sorrows of Satan by Marie Corelli or The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann would have earned a canonical status purely by the numbers. But I include these facts from Tolkien's publication history to point out that, while Tolkien's immense popularity may, in fact, work against him in the estimation of academic critics, it was by no means foreseen in advance by Tolkien's publishers, who would have stood most to benefit from attaining the status of a bestseller. In point of fact, Tolkien's publishers probably regarded the work as an academic jeu d'esprit, as befits the way in which Tolkien himself saw it. For Tolkien was not, by profession, a writer of fiction: he was an Oxford don who specialized in Anglo-Saxon, and who professed that writing the books proceeded largely as a sort of linguistic experiment. As Tolkien himself put it, "there is a great deal of linguistic matter... included or mythologically expressed in the book. It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in 'linguistic esthetic,' as I sometimes say to people who ask me 'what it is all about.'... It is not 'about' anything but itself. Certainly it has no allegorical intentions, general, particular or topical, moral, religious or political" (Wilson, 328). This is probably accurate in terms of Tolkien's own experience of writing the work, but there seems to be a certain anxiety on the part of someone who has written a work purely for the sake of its own aesthetic value, and is therefore anxious not to see the work judged for its deeper "meaning."
And yet I think the ultimate arguments on behalf of Tolkien's canonicity will actually depend on this deeper meaning. Although Tolkien disavowed any allegorical intent -- and indeed claims in the "Foreword" to Fellowship of the Ring that "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence" (Tolkien, 7) -- more recent critics have begun to read the work not so much allegorically as within the historical…