Terry Pratchett, being
an Englishman, had the chance to experience the growing popularity of The
Lord of the Rings firsthand in its native country, as well as the reactions
of the literature elite to the fact. In his essay “Cult Classic” he uses his
particular wit and charm to illustrate both his own original experiences with The
Lord of the Rings trilogy and its effects on others.
First Pratchett defines
“cult” as “‘inexplicably popular but unworthy.’ It’s a word used by the
guardians of the true flame to dismiss anything that is liked by the wrong kind
of people.” Pratchett makes the point that there is such a negative
connotation to “cult classic” that it is a wonder that it still applies to The
Lord of the Rings. He makes it clear through a distinction between
“favorite” and “best.” When people in England were asked what their favorite
books were and The Lord of the Rings was at the top of the list, and
Tolkien was top for favorite author, but Pratchett says that “favorite” is such
a personal word that people choose what they like rather than what they think they
should like. He then shows that a poll was taken of the top 50 masterworks,
including artwork, and The Lord of the Rings showed up again, right
along with the Mona Lisa.
Pratchett says that the
vote for The Lord of the Rings was probably a vote from the heart, where
the Mona Lisa is a “sheer cultural knee-jerk reaction.” He states that if you
ask anyone to name great works of art that the Mona Lisa will be named not
particularly from a personal experience with the work, but because that is what
we as a culture have been told over and over. Which is not necessarily a bad
thing, it is agreeing with so many people who have seen the art and appreciated
it. He also mentions that not everyone can appreciate art, while most people
can read a book.
Pratchett then goes on
to describe his own personal first experience with The Lord of the Rings.
He compares the memory of his first reading of The Lord of the Rings to
the memories that people have when they find out about a world-shaking news,
for example when JFK was shot, or, for this generation, 9/11. But his memory
of reading the book is combined with his memories of the book itself. Pratchett
says that he remembers walking through the Shire and that the light was “green,
coming through trees” as well as a chilly room with a bare, sixties-style
couch. Later in the essay, he says that he used to read The Lord of the
Rings every year in the spring, but no longer has to because he can see
Middle-Earth in his mind more clearly than most places he has actually
physically traveled to.
Pratchett tells of his
venture to the library after reading The Lord of the Rings looking for
more books with the richness he had found, especially the maps and runes. He
came away with Beowulf and a book of Norse myths which led to a full journey
into history and mythology that Pratchett said served him better than any
history class ever did.
Pratchett also says
that what is most important to him in The Lord of the Rings is not the
characters or the plot, but the landscape. Seeing the maps and reading the
book created a landscape that was, to Pratchett, the hero of the book more than
any of the characters.
“I can still
remember the luminous green of the beechwoods, the freezing air of the
mountains, the terrifying darkness of the dwarf mines, the greenery on the
slopes of Ithilien, west of Mordor, still holding out against the encroaching
Pratchett’s essay makes
the reader think about the meaning of “cult” and who is making the judgments
about what makes the best literature. He makes an argument that a book that
could create so much magic and impact on so many people does not deserve to be
looked down upon.