In The Tragedy of Arthur–Arthur Phillips’ brilliant novel about the finding, or forgery, of a supposedly lost Shakespearean play–Phillips boldly questions the genius of ol’ Billy Shakes. Specifically, he argues that Shakespeare has been attributed too much credit by his critics, who have, in large part, done a great deal of work for him.
Here, Phillips explains it best:
“Look, look: you have a weak spot where Will’s not thinking very clearly, and the character rambles on, and Will sticks in a joke that he likes about flowers that look like wieners. It plainly doesn’t belong there. Any editor would cut it. It breaks the rhythm and the logic of the scene. And your sweet old Gertrude noticed it and rightly points out the weak spot. Anybody else, we’d say, ‘Whoops. Not buying it, Will.’ If I wrote it, they’d send me home to rework it. Instead, what do you all do? You all talk it out until you make it make sense for him. He wrote it, so it must be right. You six very intelligent people form a committee to offer him your help, and when you’ve done the best you can, consulting old books of other would-be helpers, when you actually come up with some very clever solutions, you marvel at him for composing such a subtle moment.”
Similarly, I’ve always thought The Hobbit benefited from a bit of revisionist history. In the 80 years since its publication, Tolkien has, almost without exaggeration, been deified. The brilliance of The Lord of the Rings has penetrated everything he ever touched, any speech he ever delivered, any piddling little riddle he ever concocted. Thus, to quote Phillips, “he wrote it, so it must be right.”
But is it, really? The Hobbit is, at times, so childlike it’s difficult to call it art. Its poetry is so simple it’s hard to give it much credit.
At least, that’s what I used to think.