Banned Books Week: Professor Raber’s Take on Lord of the Rings

Dr. Karen Raber has taken the time to explain the reasoning behind the banning of The Lord of the Rings and the supposed danger that fantasy literature featuring magic poses upon the minds of American youth.

Written by Oxford don, J. R.R.Tolkein, this book has been challenged (not outright banned in most cases) in school libraries and reading programs, but in 2001 the Alamagordo, New Mexico Christ Community Church ended up burning the book (along with copies of the Harry Potter novels) after its pastor preached a hellfire sermon about the dangers of fantasy literature featuring magic. Tolkein, an Anglo-Saxonist, a philologist and a poet, composed the trilogy as a children’s tale, something similar to The Hobbit, which he wrote for his own children and which had become a popular book in England by the 1930s; however, the sequels grew darker and more complex as Tolkein used the opportunity to elaborate a cataclysmic confrontation between good and evil. All his fantasy books provided a platform for Tolkein’s love of language—they are filled with poems, prayers, proverbs, and a rich compilation of the mythological literature Tolkein studied and taught. Fantasy literature owes a huge debt to Tolkein’s imagination. The practice of creating alternate worlds with their own geography, races and ethnicities, and languages, that were populated by imaginary creatures who might wield magic or use supernatural objects, reaches back to the earliest epics like Gilgamesh; fantasy literature also had a vogue in the nineteenth century and very early twentieth century with novels by Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.M. Barrie and Frank L Baum finding a large readership. But Tolkein and his friend C.S. Lewis re-energized the genre, while Tolkein should especially be credited with establishing the practice of extended “world-building,” elaborating a fully concrete and complete cosmos in which multiple storylines can occur. Current fantasy from writers ranging from Robert Jordan, to Steven Erickson, to George R. R. Martin would likely not exist without Tolkein’s influence. And ironically, given the books’ fate in New Mexico, Tolkein came to understand his trilogy as a Christian work: he was a devout Catholic, and as he revised his children’s books, incorporated not just the overall Christian themes of good vs. evil, but elements of Christian heroism, the paradigm of the difficult journey to enlightenment, meditations on the nature of innocence, and the soul’s longing for friendship and community with others.

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