Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Keep Your Mercedes-Benz - I Only Travel by Pram

Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians that when he was a child he thought as a child, he spake as a child, he understood as a child; but, when he became a man he put away childish things. If the good doctor were to return today, he would be a very unhappy man.

The infantilisation of society continues apace, with the result of the BBC's nine-month search to find the best book ever written throwing up (and I choose my words carefully) The Lord of the Rings. This is staggering - that a society of adults, after what we presume years of reading, learning and maturing, still returns a book that is written for children. And I'm not the only one staggered - Zoe Williams gives the Big Read a good shoeing in today's Guardian.

It is voguish at the moment to praise children's literature. An Spailpín can make no claim for authority in that field, but surely to God one of the definitions of a children's book is that it's aimed at the mind of children, that it operates at a child's level of understanding. If it's any more complex than this, then the child doesn't get it and the book isn't read.

All very well, but what if you're old enough to shave or (and/or, considering the way our society seems to be going) wear make-up, your brain should surely demand greater stimulation that what rang your childhood bell. As a child, I considered Battlestar Galactica to be the finest program on television. I saw the pilot again a few months ago, and I was forced to review my opinion. I have also discovered that stout is superior to fizzy orange, that children should indeed be seen and not heard, and, the greatest revolution in my childish world of all, Girls are People Too.

I like to think that my reading tastes have matured also. But what I don't understand is how, after people are grown to adulthood, they can find a book like The Lord of the Rings stimulating. In fact, I am rather surprised that children find its thousand plus pages stimulating.

The book itself commits the sin that no Work of Art can be allowed get away it - it's painfully, wretchedly, eye-wateringly, stength-to-live sappingly boring. Tolkien himself described it as "a tale that grew in the telling"; is there a better definition of bad writing than a tale that grows in the telling? It was either Steinbeck or Faulkner that said a good writer must "murder his babies"; what he meant was that a writer must go back over what he or she has written, and cut the thing to ribbons until all that's left is on the money. This is something that Tolkien manifestly fails to do in Lord of the Rings.

I call as the first witness for the prosecution, Tom Bombadil, the Ned Flanders of Middle-Earth. Come in Tom, sit down, take a load off. How can any writer, once the effects of last night's fun wore off, read Tom Bombadil and not tear up the pages in burning shame? Tom did not make the movie, currently running forever at a cinema near you, and I haven't heard one peep of complaint from the Tolkenistas. Something tells me that they too know that old Tommy is a bit of an ass, but they're too chicken to admit it.

And as you go through the book, you wade through page after page of turgid prose to look back over 1000 pages to see - nothing. There is nothing memorable in those thousand pages whatsoever. We remember Behometh the Cat from The Master and Margarita; Remedios the Beauty from One Hundred Years of Solitude; Cathy, the monster born to human parents in East of Eden; Marlowe, the man in the mean streets who is not himself afraid in anything by Chandler, but in Lord of the Rings we can see nothing. And this is the greatest book of all time?

Pass the Liga.