In August 1955 L. Sprague de Camp reviewed new Conan books and The Fellowship of the Ring, in Science Fiction Quarterly, August 1955.
Worth reading right across the spread, as it’s ‘all of a piece’. For those who have somehow not yet enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, note that his review has plot spoilers for the first volume. At that time the second of the three volumes was not yet published.
Camp must surely have here been the first to draw the comparison between the modus operandi of the ring in the Conan novelette “The Phoenix on the Sword” (1932) and The Lord of the Rings. Had he had the other two volumes, he might also have compared other aspects of LoTR with the Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon. But at that time de Camp was set for a tantalising wait to read the third volume, The Return of the King, which appeared in 1956.
Another interesting bit of historical trivia is that de Camp remarks that “Conan the Conquerer has been published by Boardman” in the UK in 1954, and of course the first volume of The Lord of the Rings appeared in July 1954. I can’t discover exactly when in 1954 the British Conan book was published, but it was obviously a good year to be a young British fantasy reader — if one was savvy enough to avoid the juvenile disaster of confusing 1954’s The Lord of the Flies with The Lord of the Rings.
Less than a year later de Camp went on to note the second volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, in the Science Fiction Quarterly for May 1956. Complete with what must have been a very annoying salvo of massive plot-spoilers for the unwary reader…
It appears that de Camp never similarly reviewed The Return of the King, and thus the entire epic. Which is curious. I can’t find even a brief mention of it from him, which one might have expected after all the build-up he’d given it. But according to The Lord of the Rings, 1954-2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder (2006)…
L. Sprague de Camp, in Science Fiction Quarterly, reviewed only the first two volumes.
A dastardly plot by the commies of the time, to suppress the book? Something like that happened to some extent and informally over the following decade, but no… it’s more likely that de Camp just quit reviewing for the magazine circa 1957. Because the magazine’s distributor went bust in 1957, and less copies on the news-stands meant that the magazine was only able to struggle on until February 1958. There were no more issues after that.
L. Sprague de Camp does, however, mention the final volume of LoTR in his book Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: the Makers of Heroic Fantasy (1976), where he has a chapter on Tolkien. By then the mood of the times had changed very radically, and 1976 was certainly not 1956. A version of the book’s chapter appeared in Fantastic: Sword & Sorcery and Fantasy Stories for November 1976 (Vol. 25, No. 5), under the title “White Wizard in Tweeds”. This wastes about half the article, first in a tedious defence against the ever-tedious Edmund Wilson (he hated Tolkien, as well as Lovecraft — for him The Lord of the Rings was “juvenile trash”). Then in explaining hobbits to the Fantastic reader who had somehow not heard of them by that time, and giving creaky plot-summaries of each volume. After some potted biography and a too-short account of his one-off meeting with Tolkien, he picks like an antsy fanboy at apparent logic-holes in LoTR. We don’t get any real sense of the “lascivious” passion that de Camp had evidently felt 20 years earlier, on first reading most of LoTR. Perhaps his 1976 article’s comment that “one can find flaws on re-reading” explains his lack of personal sentiment, in all but his obligatory-laudatory final line of the essay (“Few have equalled…” etc). Personally I find that The Lord of the Rings improves and deepens like a coastal shelf on re-reading, if one is paying close attention, but I get the feeling that in his old age de Camp kept getting hung up on what he perceived as niggling surface “flaws”.