Why do Tolkien fans get so touchy when people refer to Lord of the Rings as a children's book? There's no shame in sharing a shelf with Through the Looking Glass or Le Petit Prince, even if LOTR is a notch or three down in quality. And most Tolkien fanboys first read the book as children, so why are they complaining? I too first read it as a child, and I too wanted to believe I was reading a serious adult book -- a big, weighty, thousand-page, dense-print tome. But then I read some more books.
It's hard to imagine a mature reader getting through the first few chapters of Lord of the Rings without difficulty. It begins with the same condescending style and awkward, stop-start gait as its prequel. I've never liked The Hobbit: it's an episodic, repetitive little story that never gets going, written by that boring old uncle who sits you on his knee at Christmas. Tolkien was a good children's writer, but not when he thought he was writing for children. The early parts of LOTR are almost unreadable.
Even after Tolkien ditches the condescension sometime around chapter 10, and starts writing Lord of the Rings: the Revised Standard (Catholic) Version, the book doesn't take a leap in maturity. Instead, it stops being a bad children's book and becomes a good one. From here on, it's a hell of a story, with lots of sweep and momentum, and a writing skill that's often underrated, even by the fanboys. But at the same time, I couldn't make any claims for its sophistication. From beginning to end, LOTR projects a simplistic Sunday-school good vs. evil worldview. Despite the barest suggestions of moral ambiguity here and there, there's never any doubt who the good and bad guys are. There's no allure in Tolkien's evil: the ring, Sauron, Saruman and their armies are all unambiguously bad, as any child could tell. The Jesuits and the Nazis could get them when they were young, but the voice of Saruman couldn't convince a three-year-old.
An early critic was right when he said Tolkien's characters were boys pretending to be men. As a child, I was impressed by the 'wisdom' of characters like Gandalf and Aragorn, but it's easy to be wise in such a black-and-white moral climate. The ambitions, desires and passions of LOTR characters, such as they are, are those of an eight-year-old and his toy soldiers. It's a curiously emasculated, preadolescent, presexual, libido-free world. In 40s Hollywood movies, the sex scenes happened off-screen; in Lord of the Rings, everything to do with sexual love and sexuality happens off-screen.
One would have to go through Freudian contortions to find anything related to sexuality in LOTR, and in this respect it suffers in comparison to the other Ring saga (from which Tolkien borrowed the 'Ring of Power' idea). Der Ring des Nibelungen has its own severe problems, but it's clearly a work of much greater depth and maturity than Tolkien's Ring, with much more interesting things to say about sexuality. Take the scene where the teenage hero Siegfried, who has tamed bears, forged a sword, slain a dragon, killed his stepfather -- the scene where the fearless Siegfried first encounters a woman, first beholds the female form, and for the first time in his life feels fear. Wagner (or the writer of the Saga of the Volsungs) touches on something fairly profound here. Swords, dragons, magic rings, warriors, battles -- to which one might add orcs, elves, wizards and kings -- they're all kids' stuff, easy stuff. But entering the world of love and adult sexuality -- that's real white-hot terror, that's what separates the men from the boys. It's a ring of fire Tolkien's fiction is too timid to cross.
There's something cowardly about Tolkien's artistry, and immature about his responses to his critics. Look at his petulant introduction to LOTR, where he lamely denies there is anything allegorical about the tale, or his oft-cited 'only jailers could discourage escapism' line. (As Michael Moorcock rightly pointed out, jailers don't mind escapism at all. What they don't like is escape.) Tolkien was a conservative Catholic deeply ill at ease with the modern world -- and for the latter, who could blame him? He fought in the horror of World War I, in which most of his close friends were killed; he saw the countryside he grew up in destroyed; and he lived through the politics of the 30s and 40s, during which it looked like the world would succumb to totalitarianism. But while the more courageous writers of his era, like George Orwell, confronted these issues head-on, Tolkien's response was to retreat into a little-England fantasy. A fantasy in which industrialisation, capitalism, socialism, secularism -- in short, everything that had happened to England since medieval times -- could be lumped together as one great evil. A fantasy in which this evil was contrasted with a sexless Victorian ideal of feudal England -- where benevolent lords held sway and servants contentedly knew their place -- an ideal which Tolkien must have known was a lie.
Which is not to say that a writer must engage the issues of his day, or that Lord of the Rings does not succeed within its own fairly limited parameters. But let's not pretend the result is anything other than kids' stuff.