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


grodog said...

Hi John---

I wasn't aware that JRRT had read ERB at all, so this was an interesting piece of information to learn, thank you!

FWIW, I've not read any Tarzan yet, although I did read the first 6 Mars novels and the first Venus novel too. After the characters' focus in Barsoom switched away from John Carter and Carthoris with book 6, I grew less interested (but even by then the series had become more forumlaic). The first Venus novel has much more of a Jules Verne feel to it, which I enjoyed.

Also FWIW, Richard Lupoff wrote two books on ERB---_Master of Adventure: Edgar Rice Burroughs_and _Barsoom: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian Vision_. (I haven't read either yet, either ;) ).


Paul W said...

Gondolin reminds me a bit of the City of Gold and the City of Ivory from _Tarzan and the City of Gold_, but ERB didn't publish it until 1932 so definitely just coincidence.

David Bratman said...

I'd seen Ryan at an early stage. Stanford had a copy (and still does). I'm sorry I never made a point of mentioning this back then.