Monday, July 25, 2016

Tolkien Definitely Read Burroughs

So, after I posted my previous piece on Tolkien's familiarity with Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar work, I've been reminded by several people* that there's much more direct evidence than that of JRRT reading ERB: Tolkien himself says so in a letter about a decade before his death.

Ironically enough, this turns out to be something that I once knew and had since forgotten; following from those reminders I found, by way of Tolkien Gateway, that the relevant information is included in Richard West's TOLKIEN CRITICISM: AN ANNOTATED CHECKLIST [1970], one of the very first Tolkien books I ever read** and for years my bible for tracking down other stuff (pieces by and about Tolkien). Under entry B109, page 34, RW gives Tolkien's reply to a query regarding whether he'd been influenced by Burroughs in his own writing:

"Source hunting is a great entertainment but I do not
 myself think it is particularly useful. I did read many
 of Edgar Rice Burroughs' earlier works, but I developed
 a distaste for his Tarzan even greater than my distaste 
for spiders. Spiders I had met long before Burroughs 
began to write, and I do not think he is in any way 
responsible for Shelob. At any rate I retain no memory
 of the Siths or the Apt."

I haven't read Lupoff's book,*** but Doug points out that the Siths and Apt appear in the third of the John Carter books, which I also have not read (PRINCESS OF MARS being the only one I've read of that series).

So the evidence seems to be that Tolkien read a good deal of Burroughs' works but that like many readers gave up on the various series as they became increasingly formulaic. He definitely read a number of the Tarzan books and some of the Pellucidar books; there doesn't seem to be enough evidence to say whether he read any of the Mars books -- he might have read some and just happened to miss that one volume or he might have given them a pass altogether.

From what I have read of Burroughs' work, I have to agree with Tolkien that I don't see any influence on the Middle-earth stories, but admittedly there's a lot of Burroughs I haven't read so I may be missing something. Still it's nice to be able to confirm another bit of Tolkien's reading and his awareness of his contemporaries.

--John R.

*thanks to Doug for pointing this out, and to both Doug and Charles for providing me with the quote.

**this is back in the day when there were only five books out about JRRT: Isaacs & Zimbardo, Ready, Carter, West, and Kocher, with a sixth (Ryan) reported to be out there but which none of us had ever seen.

***though I have read Fenton's 1967 biography of ERB

Sunday, July 24, 2016


So, I've never made it to 'free comic book day' or 'free rpg day'. But I was sorely tempted this year by the news that Chaosium would be giving away a special one-shot CALL OF CTHULHU adventure, created just for the event and written by Sandy Petersen, the legended creator of the game.*  Accordingly, I was very glad when Chaosium announced after the fact a limited time offer whereby those who hadn't been able to get a copy on free rpg day could order one on-line for the cost of printing.  I did, and it's now arrived and I've had a chance to read through it.

Knowing that the adventure was called THE DERELICT, I wondered if it might have been inspired by one of two famous templates: the Wm Hope Hodgson story of the same name (one of WHH's very
best, if not the best), or the old Jonny Quest episode (in fact, the last one they made.)

Slight  spoiler space here

It turns out they went the latter route, combining inspiration from "The Sea Haunt" (episode #26) with another, more famous, episode: #20 "The Invisible Monster". The result should make a pretty good one-shot Cthulhu night as written. Yet interestingly enough, I can see how this same set-up could easily be adjusted to accommodate the Hodgson option instead, particularly if combined with a theme from "The Voice in the Night", Hodgson's  other best story.

So, a thumb's up on this one: short but focused, and I think it'll be pretty creepy (in a good way) in actual play.  I do plan to throw out the pregen characters (who take up half the text) and let the players come up with their own Investigators and explanation why he or she is aboard that yacht when the scenario begins.

--John R.
current reading: Nevil Shute's last novel
current music: The Jayhawks, "Isobel's Daughter"

*the fact I was getting together with Tolkien friends down in Palo Alto that day certainly more than reconciled me to my choice

Friday, July 22, 2016

Did Tolkien Read Burroughs?

So, as is so often the case,  I was looking something up in one of Tolkien's works (the extended edition of SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR) when I noticed something interesting in its relevance to another of his works (the Flieger/Anderson edition of OFS). And in specific to the latter's listing of fantasy authors Tolkien is known to have read.

In a passage in Tolkien's essay on SWM, he's discussing works that place Faerie underground, as opposed to his own preference, which is to associate it with The Forest.*  In the course of his discussion, he alludes to such tales being "no more credible and no more interesting than Edgar Rice Burroughs['] tales dealing with a vast subterranean world" (SWM, exp.ed., page 86).

The reference here is clearly not to TARZAN or the JOHN CARTER series but to the PELLUCIDAR
series that began with AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1914), the first of six novels sharing the same setting:  a Hollow Earth filled with dinosaurs, humans, and monsters of various kinds.

While Tolkien does not explicitly say he's read the E.R.B. books, I think that'd be the natural interpretation of his being able to pass judgment on them in what sounds like a well-informed personal opinion. It's easy to forget that in addition to being literary men the Inklings, especially Tolkien and Warnie Lewis, were very fond of the pulp science fiction stories of their day. I don't think I've come across Burroughs before as an author whose work Tolkien knew, but it's not surprising.  So, another one to add to the list.

--John R.
--soon-to-be current reading: AT THE EARTH'S CORE, as soon as I have time to download a copy. I know I started to read this once years ago but don't think I made it more than a few pages in. We'll see if I have better luck this time.

*this despite "Ides AElfscyce", which clearly places the elven-lady's abode in a subterranean world lit by a green jewel overhead, and the hidden underground cities that populate Tolkien's SILMARILLION mythos.

Thursday, July 21, 2016


So, Thursday (a week ago today) I learned* of the next new Tolkien book on its way: a new edition of Tolkien's Breton Lay, THE LAY OF AOTROU AND ITROUN, edited by Verlyn Flieger (who's already done editions of SWM, OFS,** KULLERVO). And by the next day I'd already preordered a copy (due out in England on November 3rd).

Given how short this piece is -- only about five hundred lines -- and that the new book is listed as being 120 pages, I assume the volume will probably come with some extras -- introduction, notes, possibly commentary, perhaps printing the earlier (1930) draft for the first time. Since this is Tolkien's re-working of a Breton Ballad, I wouldn't be surprised if his faux-medieval source was reprinted as well, esp. given that it's quite short.  And in any case, the listing on promise a Prefatory Note by Christopher Tolkien.

All in all, a nice chance to have a piece currently available only through interlibrary loan and the like accessible in a format that fits easily on the shelf with Tolkien's other short pieces; something to be able to look forward to. It's a piece I've been interested in for a long time (cf. the section on it in my contribution to the Shippey festschrift), even having organized a dramatic reading of it at Kalamazoo several years ago.

Here's a link with a few details:

Nor is it the only short new book by Tolkien announced as forthcoming: also lists a stand-alone printing of Tolkien's little parable LEAF BY NIGGLE .. Just 64-pages long, it's apparently being released in conjunction with the dramatization of the story, which is currently on tour in the UK.  I'll be pre-ordering this one too -- though I'll have to hurry about it, since it's due out in just a week.

This little book's release means that just about all Tolkien's shorter pieces have now been released, or soon will be.

Again, here's a link for a little more information.

--John R.
--current reading: THE DERELICT by Sandy Petersen
--current music: PAGING M. PROUST by the Jayhawks (a group whose existence I just learned about on Tuesday)

*thanks to friend Andrew (Thanks Andrew).

** (w. Doug Anderson),

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Of Corbins and Corbyns

So, when is a Corbin not a Corbin?  Answer: when he's a Corbyn.

Apologies to all for getting the name wrong in my previous post, and thanks to friend Charles (thanks Charles) for pointing this out to me.

--John R.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Hobbit in Lancaster (and a one man LEAF BY NIGGLE show)

So, for those who can't afford a trip to New Zealand to visit HOBBIT sites, here's something closer at hand -- if you live in England, that is.

In short, someone's putting on a three-hour outdoors performance of Tolkien's story, apparently in the round and in the woods. The setting sounds great, and the whole production something I'd like to know more about, though it's clear they've taken liberties with the story --cf. the picture of wood-elves with Williams the troll (I wonder if he speaks cockney) and Gandalf the Grey in green. Pity they don't include an image of Bilbo, THE hobbit.

THE GUARDIAN give it four stars (out of a possible five). Here's the link:

Also, for those who can get to Scotland, here's a more modest but perhaps more Tolkienesque adaptation of Tolkien's little parable: LEAF BY NIGGLE (a one man show, which THE GUARDIAN also gives four stars out of five):

The production has now gone on the road; for those who might be able catch it, here's the schedule.

It's rather nice to see that their previous production was THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES, which was a major influence on Owen Barfield's final story (EAGER SPRING). I hope both these come over here sometime: I'd like to see either or, better yet, both.

I think these are at the vanguard of what I expect to be a lot of adaptation of Tolkien pieces, and soon of 'an evening with JRRT' type one man shows as well.

--John R.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

A good day for progressives

So, the day before yesterday brought two good bits of political news for those of progressive convictions.  First, Bernie Sanders endorsed Hilary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, bringing his aspirational movement into the main fold of the Democratic party and helping to bring said party back from drifting towards neocon territory.  And second, across the water, Jeremy Corbin survived a coup to displace him as the head of the Labour party (a.k.a. 'the Shadow prime minister').  Like Sanders, Corbin is someone who's been fighting the good fight as a voice in the wilderness for a long time who suddenly rose to prominence in the last year or so. In Corbin's case, a suitable analogy would be something like the superdelegates (his fellow MPs) hate Corbin: it's the voters who love him and support his change of direction for the party.

As for the home front, yesterday the latest Voter's Pamphlet arrived in the mailbox (what, ANOTHER primary? Aren't we due a Secondary by now?). More on this when I've had a chance to look through it.  

--John R.
current this, that, & the other: ibid.