Deborah’s post today gave me the idea for this one. The idea is that it’s 63 years since the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, and 100 years since Tolkien started work on it, so a celebration of some kind is in order. I was going to write something, but I wasn’t sure what. Where would I even start?
You all know already that I read The Hobbit when I was four, and The Silmarillion when I was nine. And if you know me at all well, you’ll know that I consider The Lord of the Rings one book in three volumes, and not a series of books. And that it was because of Tolkien that I started writing. I could write about the Silmarillion, because not nearly enough people have read it, or the Lost Tales, or the Gest of Beren and Luthien, or Leaf By Niggle, or Smith of Wootton Major, or. . . and I re-read Mythopoeia and remembered why I love it so much.
But when I read Deborah’s post, I thought I might do something similar. The Hobbit is one of the first books I remember reading, outside of Dr Seuss and the like.
I didn’t discover till much later how fortunate I was to be raised in a family that reads fantasy. Outside of our church, which was very large and didn’t approve of children being in the service, which my sister and I sat through all the time, we kids didn’t have much social interaction. We didn’t go to the age-segregated Sunday Schools after a certain age (when we were still considered too young to be in with the grown-ups). Other grown-ups from the seminary got together with our grown-ups for “bashes”, discussions on goodness, truth, beauty, literature, and all kinds of things up to and including education. We knew a very few other home-schooling families but didn’t have a co-op. Mostly we talked to people with several degrees after their names. So one year, when we were doing standardized testing with another family, I said something about Tolkien.
“Oh,” the kids said, “we don’t read those books.”
“Why not?” I said.
“There’s a wizard in them.”
I wondered why that was a bad thing, but I said, “But you read Narnia, don’t you?”
“No,” they said. “There’s magic and Santa Claus in them.”
(We went to their house later and I found one of their books, called something like “The Sugar Creek Gang”, which was terribly boring and preachy. For some reason we talked even less after that. The story has a happy ending, though, as now that family does read Narnia and Tolkien.)
I read Narnia almost as much as I did our store of Tolkien, but not quite as much. I forget exactly why. I did read our one copy of The Lord of the Rings so often that now, years later, with a different edition, I can still mostly-remember the differences from the first one in where the words are — places where chapters end higher on the page than in the first copy, or where I remember a certain line being on the left-hand page and not the right.
I don’t have that copy any more. I gave it to my friend when he moved, years ago (the highest gift I could give at the time, and one of which he wasn’t worthy). I remember the cover illustration of The Fellowship of the Ring the best: it was the scene at the Ford of Bruinen, with the waves shaped like horses, and Frodo on the farther bank with the Ringwraiths in the middle. The lettering was raised, and it was a paperback. That one had a blue colour scheme. I think The Two Towers had Frodo and Sam looking out over Mordor, and I know the front of The Return of the King had Shadowfax and Gandalf, with Minas Tirith in the middle ground.
We found another copy at Half Price Books (perhaps on the same trip that we got the Silmarillion and The Lost Road and Other Stories?), which was older, also paperbacks, but with cover illustrations by Tolkien (I do like the way those ones smell).
We have a fancy hardcover set on the bookshelf by the kitchen, which no one ever reads, and another paperback set downstairs with rather lousy cover pictures.
Tolkien was a master of fantasy because he wasn’t setting out to write fantasy. People who try to write fantasy, these days, often imitate him and therefore fail to come close to his quality. He was imitating myth-makers and nameless poets, and sort of accidentally came up with a new idea.
But that’s not to say that anyone who owns his influence is going to be writing poor pastiches of Middle-earth with the same races thinly disguised. I think someone as great as he is will influence anyone who writes fantasy, or anyone who reads him and writes anything at all, for that matter. Like Tom Bombadil, he doesn’t own Faerie, but he is the Master.
For example, Pendragon’s Heir. There’s a riddling scene in it, which, of course, has parallels to The Hobbit. Its genre is historical fantasy, the plot is not a quest in the same style, it deals with actual historical figures, without Hobbits or Dwarves, but the style and tone of such a work would be hard to achieve without Tolkien coming before. I think it’s safe to say reading Tolkien prepared Rowntree to write it, and me to read it.
Because of Tolkien I started making my own stories, and seeing adventure in everything, especially places with trees. He taught me the power of stories to express lasting ideas, and that small ordinary people can change the world along with the Wise — sometimes even when the Wise can’t do anything. His heroes, from Mr Bilbo, who rose to the occasion even when dumped into an occupation as burglar; to the faithful Sam; to Frodo who bore a burden that most Men or Elves or even wizards couldn’t bear (see its effects on Boromir, who saw it once, and Saruman, who never saw it, and imagine either of them carrying it as long as he did); to Beren, who dared the blackness of Thangorodrim for Luthien and for honour; to all those who fell in the long wars against Morgoth and Sauron, the Noldor who suffered in the last days of Numenor, many of whose names we don’t even know: when you read about them your own troubles shrink in perspective, and more than that, their stories give you hope to fight on.
My post of quotes should give you an idea, in a small way, of how fantasy is neither inherently evil nor merely mindless entertainment. It wasn’t only Tolkien. Lewis, for example, taught me that “If you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.”
I’ve harped on this spring’s writing workshop long enough you’re probably tired of it. Anyway, the teacher of it said that stories don’t necessarily teach anything, nor should they. People are reading for entertainment, to see that other people have it worse than they do, to escape from the troubles of the “real world”, not to gain courage to fight back. Therefore we need harsh and gritty “realism”, showing the worst side of life, not heroes, not eucatastrophe, not hope at the end of things. I know this is a post mainly about Tolkien, but Lewis said it well: “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” (I forget where this comes from, sorry. I’m pretty sure it’s Lewis.)
It’s this kind of thing that makes Tolkien so worthy of reading and re-reading and telling other people about: not because of some subjective “he influenced me” thing, but because he writes the truth about things, and does it better than most other people. Romance with a capital R; absolute morality; good always winning no matter how powerful the evil is; hope even after you get back to the Shire and find out that your work isn’t done as you thought; courage in the faith of overwhelming Shadow (Faramir!); real heroes who don’t have to be full of doubt, real heroes who can inspire us to try to reach their level. And, may I say, romance, of the lovey sort, that even I don’t mind — I’ll take The Gest of Beren and Luthien over Romeo and Juliet any day (sorry, Romeo and Juliet directors).
The Teaching Company’s course on Great Books says that the three marks of a great book are: being about great ideas; being written in noble language; and standing the test of time. If the “realistic” gritty hopeless crime fiction of today, which is not about great ideas except to present them falsely, and steers away from noble language on principle (since that would undermine their point), were by some chance to stand the test of time, it would be as an example of what not to do. Tolkien has not yet had a chance to stand the test of time, though I believe he will, but he has the other two marks.