Edited by Karen Haber
Earthlight (Simon and Schuster) 2002
Illustrated (pencil) by John Howe.
Page references are to the large format 235pp paperback edition.
ISBN: 0-7432-3100-7. £10.
Review by Christopher Kreuzer
There are some great moments in this collection of essays that contains fascinating autobiographical descriptions and analytical essays by a wide range of fantasy authors, detailing their inspiration by Tolkien. Time and again, the familiar tale of complete enthralment by The Lord of the Rings is told by author after author.
There are 15 essays in total, with 13 of them by fantasy authors. Seven of these are men, and six are women. The best-known of the writers are Poul Anderson, Terry Pratchett and Ursula K. Le Guin, along with Raymond E. Feist and Orson Scott Card.
The individual essays vary in quality immensely. Some are quite frankly incoherent, while others are incredibly moving and thought-provoking. There is not enough space to cover all the essays, but I would particularly recommend three of them (A Changling Returns - Michael Swanick; Rhythmic Patterns in The Lord of the Rings - Ursula K. Le Guin; and How Tolkien Means - Orson Scott Card), with another three coming a close second (Awakening the Elves - Poul Anderson; A Bar and a Quest - Robin Hobb; and The Longest Sunday - Diane Duane).
Swanick's essay has some delightful reminiscences from his childhood, but really gets going when he discusses the various Ring-induced tests that are a common theme in The Lord of the Rings. I won't spoil it, but Swanick displays a wry sense of humour in his neat summary of this aspect of the story. His take on the Frodo/Sam/Gollum trio was new to me, and he rather convincingly persuaded me that Sam and Gollum can be viewed as different aspects of Frodo. There is also a rather touching tale of the response by his young son as Swanick reads out the final line in the book.
Le Guin's essay is rather different from the others, in that it does not contain any of the standard "I read the books at such-and-such a time and they had this effect on me" spiel. Instead, Le Guin reveals her appreciation of Tolkien by a comprehensive analysis of rhythms, especially in the speech and songs of the characters in The Lord of the Rings. She then analyses the chapter Fog on the Barrow Downs. She concludes that even on the largest scale, rhythm resonates throughout the book. This is a difficult but fascinating concept.
Card's essay starts with a fierce attack on those literary critics that attempt to decode external meaning in The Lord of the Rings by trying to relate it to surrounding culture and events in the real world. He does a very good job of arguing that people should read it as a story, and as an escapist story at that. This allows people to become immersed in the story and to experience (rather than decode) meanings that are different on each re-reading. An additional bonus, is Card's view on who is the real hero of the story, but you'll have to read about that yourselves!
Anderson's essay gives a glimpse into the furore surrounding the unethical Ace publication of an American paperback of The Lord of the Rings. He also acknowledges his debt to the Tolkien-inspired desire for fantasy books that played a part in his publication as a fantasy author. Anderson then draws attention to the contrast between Tolkien's grave and wise elves, and his (Anderson's) elves that drew directly on the Northern tradition of wild and dangerous spirits of the land.
Hobb's tale starts in her youth in Alaska, and is a well-written account
of how Tolkien started her on a journey to discover
the shards of Story
and become a writer herself.
Duane's essay is also a tale, of having to go a whole day before being able to buy and read the final volume of The Lord of the Rings! Her engaging style draws you along to the moment of 'closure' when she discovers Middle-earth in the Alpine mountains of Europe. Maybe it will now be possible to have similar experiences in New Zealand!
In addition, two essays provide a break from the authors' response to Tolkien. The first is an overview of Tolkien's works by Douglas A. Anderson, which ends by wondering what effect the Peter Jackson film(s) will have. The second is by the brothers Hildebrant, fantasy artists who illustrated many Tolkien calendars. Their 'essay' takes the form of answers to an interview by Glenn Herdling, and includes details of their failed attempt to produce a live-action film of The Lord of the Rings!
It is interesting to note that throughout the book there are no less than six separate acknowledgements of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which seems to get nearly equal recognition with Tolkien for inspiring a generation of fantasy authors. Ballantine published the paperback editions of Tolkien's works, and (following the 1960s success of The Lord of the Rings) their Adult Fantasy series brought past authors to a modern audience. The series was edited by Lin Carter, and included masterworks by authors such as James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, David Lindsay and Mervyn Peake.
There is also a preface by the editor (Karen Haber), an introduction by George R. R. Martin, and a brief biographical section at the end, with details on all the contributors. John Howe provides 24 black-and-white full-page artworks, plus a colour artwork for the covers.
However, while not wishing to detract from the wondrous range of writings and viewpoints on Tolkien, the book does suffer from several rather obvious mistakes that either originate with the authors, or were not corrected in the editing process.
There are at least four erroneous references to
the trilogy. As one of
the more informed authors said, this is a common mistake, so I will not name
the guilty parties. Full credit though to Charles de Lint and especially Poul
Anderson, as the latter redresses the balance by clearly stating that The Lord of the Rings is a unified novel published in three volumes.
There are three typographic errors in the titles of the artworks. These titles
consist of a descriptive title, plus the titles of the chapter and book that
contain the scene that inspired the artwork. The artwork on p.4 shows Bilbo
meeting Gollum. This has the correct title
The Hobbit Chapter V: Riddles
in the Dark but has the glaringly obvious mistake of being described as
Steals the Cup! This is correctly used for the p.12 artwork of a cup being
carried in mid-air past Smaug. There are also two minor spelling mistakes
for the p.38 artwork title
The Raven and Thoren and the p.225 artwork
Punkel-Man. Thorin must be turning in his grave under the Lonely Mountain!
There are at least eight errors in the text of the essays, four of which
are merely typographic. On p.17 Raymond E. Feist describes Tolkien as
oddest of beings, a British christian mystic, and while I feel that the word
'Christian' should be capitalized, I am sure that the tone of the sentence
will be more controversial. On p.13 we have
the obvious evils of Sargon,
who is fairly obviously trying to be Sauron, while on p.63
Owyn struck the
blow that finished the Ringwraith, and on p.124 there is a
tower of Cirith
Ungo. At least I couldn't find any references to Aruman (À la Bakshi)!
While these are annoying, there are several more serious errors that can
be ascribed directly to the writer of the essay. I would be uncertain about
Feist's comment (p.13) that
Tolkien's expected audience [was] the secure,
well-educated, contented British upper-class and upper middle-class readers
of the pre-World War II era. However, when Feist's later description (p.18)
of Tolkien's story included
a princess destined to fight alongside her betrothed,
this merely left me rather bewildered. I can only suspect that the storyline
of the recent film may be responsible.
Another rushed plot summary on p.154 is more obviously wrong. Orson Scott
Card says that
[The ring in the Hobbit] provided [Bilbo Baggins] with a dangerous
travelling companion in the form of Gollum. One might be forgiven for assuming
that he means Frodo (in The Lord of the Rings) instead of Bilbo (in The Hobbit),
but later on, while discussing The Lord of the Rings, he says that
still tags along, as dangerous as ever. A completely tangled moment in an
otherwise exemplary essay. It is ironic that Card later talks about how memories
of a story can become confused. It is well known that memories can be notoriously
unreliable, and it seems that Card has provided a gem of an example!
On pp.221-3, Terri Windling misinterprets Tolkien's
own words, falling into the common trap of ascribing all war-related inspiration
for Tolkien to World
War II. She quotes snippets from Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories", to correctly
say that Tolkien's
deeper passion for fairy-stories developed 'on the
threshold of manhood', where it was 'wakened by philology' [and] 'quickened
life by the war'. Unfortunately, she then spoils the whole effect by
saying that Tolkien's interest was
'quickened' by his experience of war
in its most epic form: the great horrors of World War II. In fact, Tolkien
was actually referring to his experiences as a young man in World War
I. Indeed, "On Fairy-Stories"
was originally delivered by Tolkien as an Andrew Lang lecture at the University
of St Andrews on 8 March 1939, before World
War II. Fortunately, as Windling is mainly concerned with different kinds
of war, this exact detail is unimportant
to her argument. Indeed, despite my comments, her essay is a very personal
story that becomes more moving with each re-reading. Windling's inaccuracy
may cause confusion though, particularly if the reader remembers the more
accurate comment from Michael Swanick on p.36:
fought in World War I and he wrote much of his masterpiece during the
darkest reaches of the second.
Finally, it is rather noticeable that the blurb on the back of the book proudly
lists the Shannara novels by Terry Brooks among a list of writings inspired
by Tolkien. However, despite promising that these writers would
nature of that influence and their relationship with the greatest fantasy
novels ever written, Terry Brooks stands out only by his complete omission
from this collection of essays!
Please don't be put off, though, by the sometimes pedantic listing of the errors in this book. They are more than outweighed by the infectious enthusiasm and even reverence that most of these authors have for Tolkien. The highlights, mentioned above, more than justify purchasing the book. Just don't expect that level of quality on every page!