Saturday, January 7, 2023

Tolkien is a Gateway Author

So, one more point Pratchett made, as recounted by his biographer, is the experience so many readers of Tolkien find in THE LORD OF THE RINGS  not as an end in itself but as leading them on to other books and kind of books. 


"Terry was, of course, by no means alone in spending some of his young years regarding The Lord of the Rings as right up there among the greatest achievements of humanity. But for Terry it seems to have been not just about what the book itself was, but also about what that book opened up beyond itself, the way it sent him to whole other thus far untravelled regions of the library: the mythology section, the ancient history shelves, the history shelves, the archaeology shelves . . . It was an earthquake that sent cracks running off across the surface in multiple directions." 

Different folk's experiences differ,* but to move from discovering Tolkien into searching for 'more like this' is another hallmark of JRRT's impact of his audience.  It was certainly my experience. I read Alexander and Le Guin and Eddison as I shifted from science fiction to fantasy because I was looking for 'more books like Tolkien'.  Tolkien also lead me to BEOWULF and SIR GAWAIN and THE FAERIE QUEENE, Grahame  and Carroll, and so much more (my reading list is well over four thousand books in the last forty-seven years, and counting).

I also read his fellow inklings: Christopher (the first book I read by Christopher being THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREK THE WISE) and CSL and Barfield and Ch Wms.  Not to mention books about these authors and their works, starting with Ready and Carter and Kocher.

Perhaps we shd look more into Tolkien's extraordinary grip on those of his readers he captures.

 --John R.

--current reading: Pratchett biography (nearing the end)

*see for example Paul W's comment on my preceding post


Matt Fisher said...

It was the summer of 1973, and I was attending a concert at the Temple University Music Festival and Institute held at the university’s Ambler campus near my home. There was a small outdoor bookshop on the festival grounds and one of the racks had copies of the Ballantine paperback edition of the Lord of the Rings, the ones with the Barbara Remington covers. One thing those covers did well was catch the eye of a 13 year old who liked to read science fiction and fantasy (I think I had read Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain by that point)

I bought a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, started reading that, and immediately realized that there was a precursor book…The Hobbit. It turned out that my father (a HS English teacher) had a copy of The Hobbit although I don’t remember if he had read it at that point. I read his copy and then returned to The Fellowship of the Ring. While I enjoyed The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring was the book that just blew me away. It was like nothing I had read up to that point. In fact, I remember finishing that one night and, rather than racing to start The Two Towers, just sitting in my room thinking that I had never read anything with the depth and humor and heartbreak that I found in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Many years later, a group of us - Doug Anderson, Bijee, Verlyn, some others that I'm not remembering at the moment - were talking one night at the 1992 Tolkien Centenary Conference in Oxford about the books that had the biggest impact on us as young adult readers, and for me it was, hands down, the Lord of the Rings. Doug said essentially the same thing. The interesting thing was that both of us encountered Tolkien for the first time around the same age, early teens. Others like Bijee and Verlyn who were much older when they first encountered Tolkien, answered the question very differently.

Wurmbrand said...

It seems to me that I took to mythology and science fiction as a young boy, the former in children’s books and the latter in television and comic books. Greek mythology came first, but Norse mythology captivated me before long. I also discovered Norwegian Folk Tales, notably the Viking Press book of that title, published in 1960 with illustrations by Kittelsen and Werenskiold. The combination of hugeness, ill will, earthiness, wealth, and gullibility of the trolls particularly pleased me.

Tolkien desired dragons with a fierce desire, while I desired trolls, and it seems I already liked trolls when I discovered The Hobbit in a display of the Ballantine Tolkien paperbacks at the public library, with Barbara Remington’s Middle-earth map or the “Come to Middle-earth!” poster. Here was more about trolls! But the very first impression the books made was of something science fictiony, thanks to the cover art, which I liked and still like.

This happened in late 1966 or early 1967. I found Lloyd Alexander and C. S. Lewis by browsing the children’s section of the library, and if I’d been asked what I liked I probably would still have said “science fiction.” I don’t think I thought in terms of “fantasy” yet – not quite, though the Ballantine Tolkien books used the word and I no doubt took note – but not to the extent of asking a librarian for “fantasy”; nor do I remember asking for “more like Tolkien.” If I had, perhaps I would have been gently corrected about pronouncing his name as Tol-kine and referring to his long story as a “triology.” I continued to look for science fiction, not finding Heinlein somehow very attractive, but loving Wollheim’s Secret of the Ninth Planet and Secret of the Martian Moons. Wollheim’s titles were much more appealing than, say, Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy. (When I branched out into poking around the adult section of the library, I must have run into dozens of walls as I looked at the title pages of anthologies of stories from Galaxy, etc. These books reprinted fiction by people such as Simak and Asimov from a time when, probably in reaction against lurid pulp magazine titles, stories were given aggressively dull titles such as “Lobby,” “Good Night, Mr. James,” “Crying Jag,” “Jackpot,” “Green Thumb,” “Neighbor,” “Lulu,” “Installment Plan,” “Trends,” “Reason,” “Someday,” “Evidence,” “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” “In a Good Cause,” and many more. These titles may have been all very well for sophisticated readers in their thirties. They stymied a 13-year-old searching for wonder.)

Happily for me, the late-1960s period saw release of lots of fantasy paperbacks with colorful cover designs, so as my pocket money increased I was able to explore. By the early 1970s I did think of myself as deliberately delving into Fantasy. So much of it, however, was sword and sorcery or otherwise not very Tolkienian than I would hesitate to say Tolkien, foremost in my affection as his work was, was exactly a “gateway” for me. It might be better to say that science fiction and mythology together were the gateway into fantasy.

Some approximations… it’s a long time ago.

Dale Nelson

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Matt:

Well, you beat me out by a few months: my discovery of Tolkien (THE HOBBIT and then LotR) came in fall 1973.

I was lucky in that I first read them in hardcover (library copies) with Tolkien's ring design; I didn't pick up the paperbacks until years later.

The discussion at the 1992 conference sounds great -- I wonder if I was there. I was certainly there at the conference but have no memory of this particular discussion.

--John R

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Dale

What, no Andre Norton (e.g. THE ZERO STONE)? She was my favorite among all the younger readers' science fiction; Heinlein's juveniles (THE STAR BEAST) firmly in second place, followed I think by Alexander Key. Then Tolkien came and blew it all away. Or at least changed everything, like the volcano that suddenly appeared in a Mexican cornfield.

--John R.

Wurmbrand said...

John, Andre Norton's Moon of Three Rings was in the children's section with an appealing dustjacket illustration, but somehow I never read it, maybe never checked it out. Prior to my 14th birthday, "fantasy" was Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, and Lewis and (a lucky find) the Ace paperback of "A novel in the Tolkien tradition -- 'A prime favorite of mine'--Andre Norton" -- Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen, discovered in a convenience store if I remember aright; and Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, in the adult section of the library. Mention must be made of James Baldwin's retelling of the Nibelungenlied, The Story of Siegfried, with a cover painting by Peter Hurd that much appealed to me plus some interior pictures. This included retellings of some Norse myths. But for sure I was through the gateway, just not deep into the landscape.

David Bratman said...

Inspired by this post and the comments thereon, I put my own account here.

As I was discussing what I read after Tolkien, and my children's fantasy discoveries were mostly before, I didn't mention Andre Norton, but my experience with her works was rather sad. A book of hers - a science-fiction novel, but I don't recall its title - was one of the books I received as a present as a child. Many of these became lasting favorites, but the Norton was unmarked in any way as what it was, a sequel to some other novel. Consequently I found it an opaque reading experience and dropped it. And that's my total experience as an Andre Norton reader.

John D. Rateliff said...

Is this THE James Baldwin? If so that rather surprises me.

I too read a Wagner synopsis/retelling v. early on ( alongside two similar ones on Beowulf). Except in that case I've never gone back and read a good version Wagner's RING. The NEBENLUNGENLIED yes, THE RING no.

--John R

John D. Rateliff said...

David: I suspect that wd have been UNCHARTERED STARS, a direct sequel to THE ZERO STONE. There are other cases where A.N. had characters from earlier books reappear in later books, but this is the only case of a direct sequel that I can think of.

This does not include the WITCHWORLD series --which by the way I found a great disappointment, along with all the rest of her non-juveniles.

As for being given a good book at exactly the wrong time, this happened to me immediately after reading JRRT. I was lucky in that after THE HOBBBIT my junior high school librarian pointed me at THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which was in the county library's downstairs adult literature. But I had bad luck in the same librarian pointing me towards THE TOMBS OF ATUAN as her recommended follow-up to LotR --a disastrous choice, which put me off Le Guin for years.--John R.

Wurmbrand said...

Ah no, The Story of Siegfried and The Story of Roland, with paintings by N. C. Wyeth's son-in-law Peter Hurd, are by an earlier James Baldwin. It seems my mom was surprised when, in the late Sixties, at 11 or 12, I said James Baldwin was one of my favorite authors. (I don't remember the incident clearly.)

The Siegfried and Roland books were in the same format as some classics illustrated by Wyeth and begun to be reprinted in the early 1980s, but these two were not reissued.

Surely another fantasy-gateway book for me, quite possibly pre-Tolkien, was Padraic Colum's The Children of Odin, with drawings by Willy Pogany.

Then there was Babette Deutsch's Heroes of the Kalevala -- even if I did hear the strange word as Kayla Vayla in my mind's ear. Here the artist was Fritz Eichenberg.

Now I must mention a book from around the time of discovering Tolkien. This is one you don't see mentioned very often: The Little Grey Men, written and very beautifully illustrated by Denys Watkins-Pitchford. It's possible that, at the time, this one might have bitten more deeply into my boyish imagination than the Tolkien books.

As for science fiction, I haven't mentioned but should have, a couple of juveniles by Robert Silverberg: Time of the Great Freeze and Conquerors from the Darkness -- as gateway books for science fiction along with the two Donald Wollheim books I mentioned before. I'm confident that the opening of Wollheim's Secret of the Ninth Planet hit me where I lived, as they say. A father and son are exploring in the Andes and notice that the sunlight is dimmer. It turns out that aliens from the edge of the solar system have set up "sun-tap stations" that are beaming light to themselves and thus robbing the host planets. One or two of Lester del Rey's juveniles, such as Outpost of Jupiter, probably grabbed me. But no, not Andre Norton.

But shoot -- the gateway books for science fiction may have gone back farther, to Roy Gallant's Exploring the Planets, specifically for John Polgreen's paintings, and a Golden book about dinosaurs with art from the magnificent Zallinger murals at the Peabody Museum. I'm not absolutely certain I'd read any fantasy (except fairy tales, including Chrisman's Shen of the Sea, with a few eerie silhouettes) or science fiction books when I saw these.

At any rate, my imagination's compass was pointing true north with these (although my favorite picture by Polgreen, I now recognize, is more or less a swipe from Chesley Bonestell).

Again -- I couldn't swear to all of this but these remarks should be at least good approximations of things 55 years or so ago.

Dale Nelson

David Bratman said...

From the publication date of Unchartered Stars, and what little I've tracked down about its plot online and what even littler I can remember from trying to read it over half a century ago, I suspect it was indeed the book.

Yes, though they're independent stories, I wouldn't recommend starting with the later Earthsea books, certainly not for readers in their intended age range.

David Bratman said...

I've only ever read the libretto of Wagner's Ring in conjunction with listening to a recording. It's a musical work, not a literary one, and isn't intended to be consumed that way.