Why “The Lord of the Rings” coming in at no. 26 with the latest BBC Culture poll is a good thing

BBC Culture - Dec 7, 2015 - 100 Greatest British Novels (c) BBC
BBC Culture - Dec 7, 2015 - 100 Greatest British Novels (c) BBC

Polls on any topic are useful for any medium to address an audience which may take an interest in said topic – a commonplace one would expect from any website, magazine or a cultural heavyweight such as the BBC. December 7, 2015, saw another of those polls with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings taking 26th place. 5 Reasons why I think this is a good thing.

  1. “BBC Culture polled book critics outside the UK, to give an outsider’s perspective on the best in British literature.”

    Tolkien’s works, particularly The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, have taken top spots in readers’ polls in the last fifteen years. On many occasions the argument would have been that this is an Anglo-American centric point of view, that is, that particularly British and American readers and critics would prefer Anglo-American titles when it comes to “best novels of all times.” This poll, however, has asked critics from outside the UK to give their best novels so a UK “bonus” didn’t factor in.

  2. “The critics named 228 novels in all.”

    For The Lord of the Rings to come in at the 26th in a list compiled by literary critics at the beginning of the 21st century out of those 228 novels is no mean feat. In fact, it is an outstanding achievement by an academic often viewed as a writer of escapist (and therefore irrelevant) fiction.

  3. “(…) The crafty Tolkien Society must have suborned 81 distinguished foreign critics choosing the 100 greatest British novels of all time, because there it is, in no. 26, not an undistinguished place.”

    As David Bratman so rightly states with the Tolkien Society website whenever Tolkien came out on top of polls in recent years the argument was that somehow the nerdy millions of fans, followers, addicts and occult believers in and from Middle-earth must have rigged the poll. In this case I would think it highly unlikely the unfettered enthusiasm of international Tolkien fandom to have swayed an individual critic’s opinion when we didn’t even know that this poll was being put together.  (P.S. The website claims it to have been 82 critics.)

  4. 26th place means we have been saved having to listen to an attempt at overexplaining the literary worth of Tolkien’s writings.

    The BBC has a special article for the Top 25 entries where is shown “what some [critics] had to say about the top choices.” Judging from some of the statements made, for example about George Orwell’s 1984 – which is an amazing book, remaining essential and influential to this very day -, we have been lucky not to be with the Top 25.

  5. I am amazed and glad to see that great literature seems to be a given all over the world.

    Some time ago I published my reading list for the first two years of my English Literature and Linguistic Studies from the beginning of the 90s. And if you have a look at that list and compare it to the Top 100 British  Novels of this poll you’ll see a remarkable closeness in names and titles – 25 years after I got those photocopied pages at the English Seminar at the University of Cologne. Tolkien wasn’t on it then. He now is (as he well should be.)

P.S.: I have read all top ten titles. I very much appreciate all of them and some I actually like – and would read again – but I wouldn’t have minded Tolkien to be a bit closer to them. 🙂

Picture credit: (c) BBC Culture poll, Dec 7, 2015, The 100 Greatest British Novels.
Further reading:
David Bratman: ah, the crafty Tolkien Society is at it again.

TheTolkienist

A Tolkien fan for twenty-five years (and more to come...) Founding chairman of the German Tolkien Society, Co-Founder of Ring*Con, Co-Founder of the ITF, host, presenter and fantasy expert

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  • TroelsForchhammer

    I think that the point with The Lord of the Rings in Anglo-centric polls is not so much the obvious Anglo-centric bias in such polls (you also, unsurprisingly, get more Danish books in a Danish poll …), but rather the idea that there should be some special “Englishness” to Tolkien’s works that could only (or at least especially) be appreciated by English readers (or at least English-speaking readers).

    While such an ‘Englishness’ is not in itself refuted by the present poll (and I think it is a real thing in both The Lord of the Rings and in The Hobbit), the allegation that it can only be appreciated by English-speaking readers can, at least, be refuted.

    PS – as someone with a bit of knowledge of statistics and scientific method, I am not sure that I can agree entirely to your opening claim that “Polls on any topic are useful for any medium to address an audience which may take an interest in said topic” 😉 – at least if you are also concerned with a degree of academic honesty and integrity …