There was and is a popular tendency to bash Tolkien as being too influential in the fantasy genre. It’s what all the cool kids do. Tolkien, after all, is that most dreaded of individuals: an old, white male. Can there be anyone less worthy of respect in today’s popular culture?
However, in terms of the arguments I’ve read about Tolkien-and these critiques are decades old-they’ve always struck me as being strawman arguments (this doesn’t touch on criticisms of his writing itself, which is a far different matter).
One critique of Tolkien’s work often rips him for his lack of diversity. Everyone is a white Anglo-Saxon male. Ok. Fine. But for me, diversity is about more than check-a-box of white character, female character, gay character, brown character, or whatever different looking character someone thinks they need to click off on having diversity in their writing. It should be about the characters themselves having diversity of opinion because that’s ultimately what is truly diverse: thought. And Tolkien most certainly does that. There’s the wisdom of Gandalf, the uncertainty of Aragorn, and the longing of Boromir. None of them approach the Ring in the same way. None of them approach Mordor in the same way. And this doesn’t even touch on the other members of the Fellowship, such as Gimli and Legolas or the Hobbits themselves, all of whom approach danger and the quest from different perspectives. They may all be white, but they aren’t all the same. They don’t come from the same backgrounds or cultures.
Then comes another criticism that Lord of the Rings is really about a bunch of white dudes on a sausage-fest quest to go kill some Dark Lord. Everything is black and white. To a point, that’s true, but then what about Saruman? What about Boromir’s fall? There is so much more going on then just a quest to kill a evil guy. The deeper reading reveals so much more that is worthy of emulation. There are ideals that have stayed with me from the first time I read LotR decades ago. Things such as the longing for quiet lives; of simple heroes who are heroic because they do what they think is right and ordinary; of the desire for forgiveness, to want to forgive; and the entrapment of greed and lust.
I understand that for some people, such stories are still too simplistic. Even with that more poignant reading, LotR still comes across as simply good vs. evil. That’s fine. Opinions and all that. I know many people today prefer flawed characters with a deep shade of gray, or even better, black. And the market agrees with them. These days, anti-heroes are all the rage. Witness the thunderous success of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire with it’s plethora of detestable people (BTW, A Song of Ice and Fire was influenced by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and that was very obviously influenced by Tolkien and I love Martin’s work). So I imagine those who don’t like Tolkien’s work will be glad to note that his influence and his style of story has waxed away, but for those of us who love him, I imagine it will come around again.