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Tolkien as a gateway author

In a series of posts inspired by his reading of the new biography of Terry Pratchett – whose teenage fan letter to Tolkien was on display at the 2018 Bodleian exhibit – John D. Rateliff compares what he and Pratchett read next as a result of their reading Tolkien.

I had some similar experiences.

The most problematic, but most educational, encounters I had were in fantasy literature. Aged only 11 when I read The Lord of the Rings, I’d had no knowledge of fantasy literature for adults (though plenty for children). In those pre-Brooks, pre-Donaldson days of the early and mid 1970s, when I asked around for other stories a Tolkien fan might like, I was most often put on to “sword & sorcery” by the likes of Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber.

I didn’t care for it at all. I’m not saying it was bad, but it was not for me. The superficial resemblance to LR was obvious, but superficial is all it was. It lacked in particular Tolkien’s epic scope and his moral structure, which are what made traversing his imaginary landscapes and adventures meaningful. This gave me a lasting sense that Tolkien and sword & sorcery were profoundly different, however often they were lumped together. And when I read more recent work like George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire praised for its lack of morality, I conclude that labeling him “the American Tolkien” could not possibly be less apropos, regardless of his scope, his invention, or his popularity.

The other work that finally made me say “Yes, this is like Tolkien” was Ursula K. Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy. I can’t remember where I first learned of these books. I’m sure I’d seen at least A Wizard of Earthsea before, but I read them when the first paperback edition of the three books appeared in 1975. Superficially they weren’t as much like LR, but in their depth and sense of morality I found them very satisfying. Le Guin’s moral code was non-Christian and different from Tolkien’s: the point was that she had one and it was palpable. I found similar enrichment in her other works.

For other existing fantasy, I’m not ashamed that my gateway was Lin Carter’s study Imaginary Worlds. Clumsy and awkward as it is, it introduced me to a passel of authors of whom Lord Dunsany and Mervyn Peake have become my lasting favorites. That’s also where I learned of The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs, an obscure cult classic in those days before it became more widely known.

Other newer authors came from recommendations when I joined the Mythopoeic Society. Patricia A. McKillip, whose extraordinary The Forgotten Beasts of Eld had just come out. Diana Wynne Jones, whose masterwork Fire and Hemlock appeared a few more years down the road. Somewhere in there I also found Watership Down by Richard Adams, which earned the place of the most like LR, in the good ways and the superficial resemblance ways combined, of any other book I’ve ever read.

Joining the Mythopoeic Society also introduced me to their two other featured authors, Tolkien’s Inklings friends C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. In Lewis in particular I found a mind with which I could really engage, sometimes in agreement and sometimes very much not, while the quest to find Williams’s Masques of Amen House, mentioned in his biography, led to a scholarly edition of them becoming my first book. I also grew interested in the other Inklings, for their works and their personalities, and they, and the history of the group as a group, become my peculiar scholarly specialty.

Like John Rateliff, I found that reading Tolkien sent me to mythology and medieval literature. I read as many translated texts and scholarly studies, particularly of Germanic and Celtic mythology, as I could find, and I took several classes in the field at university. These were great days for the publication of new editions: both Thomas Kinsella’s Tain and Patrick K. Ford’s Mabinogi, for instance, were spanking new books at the time. But except for Beowulf, which is part of my cultural furniture – besides Inkling C.L. Wrenn’s edition of the original, I own maybe 6 translations of it, and I’ve read a few more – I find I haven’t much kept up on mythological studies in later years.

An interest in science fiction became a tangential result of Tolkien when I wandered into my high school’s SF club to tell them about the Mythopoeic Society. It’s relevant here, though, even to Pratchett: though we think of him as a pure fantasy author, the essays in his collection A Slip of the Keyboard show a strong familiarity with genre SF.

I enjoyed the company at the club enough that, though my previous encounters with SF had been minimal, I hung around and started reading what they suggested. The obvious SF book for a LR comparison is Dune by Frank Herbert. Tolkien detested it, and I wasn’t that wild about it either. I find that my tastes in SF, from Asimov to Zelazny, appeal to a different part of my brain than my Tolkien-reading part. Unlike with fantasy, I wouldn’t attempt to make SF recommendations to someone based on Tolkien readership alone.

One other non-literary benefit provided by this club, and the Mythopoeic Society, and the Tolkien Society when I joined that a few years later, was the social network of like-reading friends, and that’s been rewarding beyond all ability to convey.

About the Author: David Bratman
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.