The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive – J.R.R. Tolkien

I introduced this new, intermittent series here at Every Day Should Be Tuesday in this post and attempted to define both “pulp” and “superversive.”  In this post I will try to flesh out what I mean by those terms by applying them to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.  My focus is on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s best known works by a wide margin.

In his own words, Tolkien explained that, in writing The Lord of the Rings, “[t]he prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.”  Thus he had both pulp and superversive aspirations.

In the end, Tolkien wrote stories that are extraordinarily good, extraordinarily superversive, and perhaps more pulp than you may suspect.  In any event, I think they are useful continuing to flesh out just what I mean by pulp.


The Good

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not just SF classics; they are two of the towering works of English literature.  Tolkien was the “author of the century” according to Tom Shippey.

Tolkien has likely sold well in excess of 350 million books.  And he doesn’t show any signs of stopping.  The Deluxe edition of Lord of the Rings is on Barnes & Noble’s hardcover bestseller list for May, and The Hobbit is on the trade and mass market paperback lists.

In 1996 Waterstone’s and the BBC commissioned a poll asking readers which five books they considered the “greatest of the century.”  The Lord of the Rings won easily.  Several other polls (drawing from different pools, although all in Great Britain, I believe) asked the same or a similar question and received the same answer.  Its vanquished rivals all had the advantage of free publicity courtesy of the British school system (Shippey 2001).

Fantasy existed before Tolkien, but Tolkienian fantasy did not.  He effectively invented the epic fantasy subgenre from the adventure-centric pulp fantasy tradition and the less narratively-focused more mythical fantasy (e.g., Lord Dunsany, a major influence on Tolkien).  For good or ill, it massively changed the market going forward.

Tolkien’s work has also provided grist for a raft of nonfiction books and scholarly articles.  13 of the top 50 books in Amazon’s science fiction history & criticism category are on Tolkien and his work.  The International Congress of Medieval Studies devotes an entire track each year to scholarly studies on Tolkien work.  I am covering six nonfiction books on Tolkien’s work as a part of this series.

Tolkien has proven himself in sales, in the public opinion, in influence, and in nonfiction and scholarly interest.


The Pulp

At first blush, Tolkien isn’t very pulp.  The Lord of the Rings Deluxe Edition runs 1200+ pages.  Tolkien decidedly did not work at pulp-speed.  I am approaching this from the perspective of a reader, not a writer, but the story in The Lord of the Rings doesn’t exactly unfold at pulp-speed either.  The Lord of the Rings is the ur-text for epic fantasy, which, as a subgenre, is about as anti-pulp as it gets.  He invented languages, mapped out extensive genealogies, and created a massive history and legendarium for his world, all of which are at the very least in great tension with pulp storytelling.  The pacing would badly hurt The Lord of the Rings had it been serialized; the trilogy packaging allowed Tolkien to lay out a rich world that readers would come to appreciate almost as much as the story itself.

But the story is not so simple as that.

Tolkien was very well read.  He was, of course, a specialist in medieval literature, but he did not read that exclusively.  He was archly critical of the literary pretensions of the day (not all that different from the literary pretensions of this day), but pulp stories are decidedly old-fashioned in many respects.  We do not know if he read any Robert E. Howard before writing The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien reported liking Conan to L. Sprague de Camp after de Camp sent him a collection of Conan stories.  Great Britain had her own pulp magazines, and we know that he read and enjoyed Edgar Rice Burroughs (who had giant spiders of his own in the first Carson of Venus book).

Robert E. Howard would have been proud to write:

  • “A great smoke rose about us, vapour and steam. Ice fell like rain.  I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountain-side where he smote it in his ruin.”

As would any Old Norse poet.  Tolkien had a more important “pulp” influence than the actual pulps.  I mentioned in my intro post that pulp “protagonists are often heroic in the pagan tradition.”  Conan is heroic in the pagan tradition.  Now is a good time to dig into what I mean by that.

Tolkien was deeply aware of the “glorious, solemn, violent, single-handed exploits of ancient Germanic heroes” with their “pagan glory-seeking ethos” full of “swagger and self-absorption” (Zaleski 2015).  Beowulf is a major influence on The Hobbit, probably to a much larger extent than someone unfamiliar with the Germanic tale would suspect.

The Hobbit is much more a work in the pulp vein than The Lord of the Rings.  There are the heroic influences mentioned above.  The Hobbit is tightly written.  It would work in serial form.  Almost every chapter includes three things: some action, another step in Bilbo’s character arc, and an addition to the worldbuilding.  The first, of course, is key to pulp.  The last is more in the pulp tradition than the epic fantasy tradition.  At this point, rather than add to intricate worldbuilding that is greater than the sum of its parts, Tolkien’s worldbuilding is more along the lines of “look at this cool new thing!”  This is more in keeping with the use of worldbuilding in pulp, where the payoff is immediate.

Tolkien was also strongly influenced by the story of Sigurd, who, after slaying the dragon Fafnir, recovers from his hoard “a famous sword, a gold byrnie (mail-coat), and the ægishjálmr or ‘Helm of Awe’—an item famed for its power to make the wearer invisible” (Rateliff 2007).  Aragorn and Bard are very much pulp heroes.  Aragorn on the surface at least has much in common with Conan.  But Aragorn is the third most important character in The Lord of the Rings at best, and Bard a bit player in The Hobbit.

Tolkien was very much interested in subverting the pagan, and, by implication, the pulp, tradition.  But did he subvert it from below or from above?


The Superversive

Tolkien’s work is so superversive it hurts.  He coined a term—eucatastrophe—that is, if not necessary to a superversive work, necessarily superversive.  According to Tolkien, eucatastrophe is “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).”  Eucatastrophe is a “sudden glimpse of truth.  Has a story ever brought you to tears?  The good kind?  That was Tolkien’s goal: “Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.”

If this passage doesn’t bring you to tears of joy every time you read The Lord of the Rings you are doing it wrong:

  • “And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns.  In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed.  Great horns of the North wildly blowing.  Rohan had come at last.”

This, then, is a form of what Lamplighter terms an “element of wonder.”  Tolkien’s work has it in spades.  It exists in a moral universe.  Gollum would not have been present to play his essential role on Mount Doom had he not been Bilbo not stayed his hand under the Misty Mountains (and Sam much later).  It was Aragorn’s decision to pursue the hobbits that immediately needed his help (Pippin and Merry) rather than the hobbits key to the Fellowship’s purpose (Frodo and Sam) that freed him to become the hero.  There is a deep ethos of life that pervades the story:

  • “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”
  • “Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your own death. And only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.”

Is there any more beautiful expression of hope than this sentiment from The Return of the King?

  • “‘Yes, the shadow of doom,’ said Beregond. ‘I fear that Minas Tirith shall fall. Night comes.  The very warmth of my blood seems stolen away.’  For a time they sat together with bowed heads and did not speak.  Then suddenly Pippin looked up and saw that the sun was still shining and the banners still streaming in the breeze.  He shook himself.  ‘It is passed,’ he said.  ‘No, my heart will not yet despair.  Gandalf fell and has returned and is with us.  We may stand, if only on one leg or at least be left still upon our knees.’”

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are an absolute treasure-trove of superversive quotes.  From The Hobbit:

  • “There was the usual dim grey light of the forest-day about him when he came to his senses. The spider lay dead beside him, and his sword-blade was stained black.  Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins.  He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath.”
  • “But there was still a company of archers that held their ground among the burning houses. Their captain was Bard, grim-voiced and grim-faced, whose friends had accused him of prophesying floods and poisoned fish, though they knew his worth and courage.”

From The Lord of the Rings:

  • “Deeds were done which were not wholly in vain.”
  • “‘They come from Mordor,’ said Strider in a low voice. ‘From Mordor, Barliman, if that means anything to you.’  ‘Save us!’ cried Mr. Butterbur turning pale; the name evidently was known to him.  ‘That is the worst news that has come to Bree in my time.’  ‘It is,’ said Frodo.  ‘Are you still willing to help me?’  ‘I am,’ said Mr. Butterbur.  ‘More than ever.’”
  • “And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and he smiled in answer.”
  • “‘How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’ ‘As he ever has judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.’”
  • “‘The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or others,’ said Aragorn. ‘There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.’”
  • “And after all he had never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed.”
  • “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
  • “No more debates disturbed his mind. He knew all the arguments of despair and would not listen to them.  His will was set, and only death would break it.”

Finally, this may be the most perfectly superversive passage in all of English literature:

  • “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him.  For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.  His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself.  Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s ceased to trouble him.  He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”


I hope you would agree, then, that Tolkien’s work is the pinnacle of “good” and “superversive.”  And more pulp perhaps than you thought.  I would love to hear what you think.

I will continue Tolkien 101 next week.  I don’t know when the next The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive post will be, but I doubt that I will do these more than once every month or two.


You can find all of my The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive posts here.

You can find all of my Tolkien 101 posts here.

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction).
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15 Responses to The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive – J.R.R. Tolkien

  1. Pingback: Announcing Summer School: Tolkien 101 – Index | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

  2. Pingback: The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive – Introduction | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

  3. Dude, the arrival of the Riders of Rohan at the Battle of Pelennor Fields is the high point of fantasy literature and quite possibly the most superversive passage in English literature.

    Superb essay, well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Off The TBR says:

    I’m gonna have to read this like three times and soak it all up before commenting more.


  5. John Boyle says:

    Well said. There was a time when I read LOTR every year for more than 20 years; time to dust off my copies and see that magic again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The late Steve Tompkins elucidated the compatibility of Howard and Tolkien in his essay “The shortest Distance Between Two Towers, noting as you do that Tolkien’s heroic bent is not dissimilar to the “pulpier” Howard:

    Tolkien did not confine himself to heroic fantasy of the sort associated with Howard, Fritz Leiber, or now David Gemmell, but his creativity contained a heroic fantasist who sometimes slipped his chains. To put it another way, as an archer he sometimes reached for the blood-red heroic fantasy shaft in his quiver, as here in a passage from 1980’s Unfinished Tales:

    Then Turin laughed. “You will get no ransom from me,” he said, ” an outcast and an outlaw. You may search me when I am dead, but it will cost you dearly to prove my words true. ”

    Nevertheless his death seemed near, for many arrows were notched to the string, waiting for the word of the captain; and none of his enemies stood within reach of a leap with drawn sword. But Turin, seeing some stones at the stream’s edge before his feet, stooped suddenly; and in that instant one of the men, angered by his words, let fly a shaft. But it passed over Turin, and he springing up cast a stone at the bowman with great force and true aim; and he fell to the ground with broken skull.

    “I might be of more service to you alive, in the place of that luckless man,” said Turin, and turning to Forweg he said:”If you are the captain here, you should not allow your men to shoot without command.”

    “I do not,” said Forweg,”but he has been rebuked swiftly enough.”


    Within two pages Forweg is dead (no doubt commiserating with Sergius of Khrosha, Zaporavo of the Wastrel, and at least one hetman of the kozaki) and Turin is inquiring as to what the other wolfsheads plan to do about it: “I will govern this fellowship now, or leave it. But if you wish to kill me, set to! I will fight you all until I am dead-or you.” Howard would have written the scene differently, but it would have been a similar scene written differently. The following tableaus are within spurting distance of each other:

    Last of all Hurin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried:”Aure entuluva! Day shall come again!” Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive, by the command of Morgoth, for the Orcs grappled him with their hands, which clung to him still though he hewed off their arms…(“Of the Fifth Battle: Nirnaeth Arnoediad,” in The Silmarillion)

    The clangor of steel rose deafeningly; the black-mailed figure of the western king loomed among his swarming foes, dealing blows like a butcher wielding a great cleaver. Riderless horses raced down the field; about his iron-clad feet grew a ring of mangled corpses. His attackers drew back from his desperate savagery, panting and livid. (“The Scarlet Citadel”)
    Full essay:

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Terrific essay. I just listened to unabridged audio versions of all four books and every time I reencounter JRRT they dig deeper and deeper into me. Much of that comes from my own deepening knowledge of/desire for/hope for the truths his work is built out of.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. John Boyle says:

    Thank you, Mr. Cornelius!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Barry Reese says:

    Reblogged this on Barry Reese.

    Liked by 1 person

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