Archives: J. R. R. Tolkien

Tolkien Birthday Celebration 2019

January rolled around again and with it came another opportunity to celebrate the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien at the Kennedy School. The event added a new wrinkle this year with a room dedicated to Lord of the Rings tabletop games. I hadn’t realized there were so many of them. I’d be tempted to give the game room a shot next year if unaccompanied. However I’m rather certain the HA wouldn’t have the patience for it.

Tolkien Birthday Celebration

I made my annual pilgrimage to the Kennedy School for the J.R.R. Tolkien Birthday Bash on Saturday. The recent inclement weather is the likely culprit for this year’s rather sparse attendance. (Seriously, I saw a couple guys on cross-country skis crossing the street when I left.) So I suppose there isn’t much to report. I brought the family with me, thinking the Heir Apparent would be old enough to enjoy some of the activities, maybe enjoy the costumes. But I only saw one person in costume. Due to naptime considerations (no, not mine, wiseass) and the condition of the roads we left before any of the planned events began (except for the commencement of the trilogy showing in the theater, but I’d just as soon sit at home for a re-watch.)

Dreams and the Perilous Realm

At what point during parenthood do you begin getting a full night’s sleep again. I’m nearly at the three-year mark and I’m still not there. I’m tired. I mention this because I was considering today’s post with my head on my wife’s shoulder. She asked if was sleeping, or thinking, or dreaming. I asked if I could do all three. Because, as I just alluded to, I’m tired. But that exchange brought to mind a paper I’d written during college, back in the antediluvian days of the late 1980s-early 1990s for a class on “The Lord of the Rings.” Yes, I received university credit for re-reading the trilogy. I’m not ashamed. The point is, I wrote about dreams, and the perilous realm, and seeing beyond the veil within the context of LOTR. So, I figure it is appropriate for a post on this here web log of mine.

Fiction Description

Opinion time, readers. What is your preference, or perhaps tolerance, for the amount of description of places, things, physical appearance, etc. in fiction? Do you like to have an exacting rundown of what the characters look like, what the furniture in a room looks like and how it is arranged, and what everyone is wearing? Or do you tend to skip the descriptive paragraphs and scan down the page until the action recommences?

World Building – One Day at a Time

I’m going to continue musing on world-building. A central factor of a person’s or a society’s existence is timekeeping: calendars, the breakdown of the year into seasons, months, weeks, etc.

Tolkien dealt with this by using the conceit that he was publishing a translation of an older work. That, yes, he was using Sundays and August, etc., but that the original work used entirely different terms. He was merely employing contemporary calendar usage for familiarity.

This works well enough if the world in question is intended to be ours in an earlier epoch. But does it create a dissonance when the world is something else entirely, but the characters are referring to Tuesday, July 2nd instead of, say, the fourth day of the Blood Moon?

Of course thinking about that can raise other issues, depending on how deep one wishes to drill. Time depends upon planetary rotation and the circuit about the sun. So, if it isn’t Earth, a twenty-four hour day and a 365-day year is unlikely. On the other hand, is that level of detail and realism necessary? Does it place unnecessary burdens on the reader, requiring him to learn and absorb an unfamiliar calendar in order to appreciate the story? And if having a thirty-hour day and a 220-day year broken into ten 22-month periods contributes nothing to the story, is it worth doing? Is there a level of world-building that harms storytelling?

I think an argument can be made for simplicity: keeping a familiar diurnal and annual cycle. But using our standard terminology is probably a bit much. Meaning creating new names for the days of the week and the months of the year might be the proper balance between world-building and smooth storytelling.

Thoughts?

Twenty Silver Jakatas per Gross Weight of Lembas

Building a believable fantasy world is a challenge. There is no precise recipe, but there are ingredients. One of those ingredients is a sense of an economy, the suggestion that in the lands the characters live in, visit, or simply pass through there are people farming, building, manufacturing, and trading. This doesn’t require a treatise on local coinage or an exegesis on the bailment laws. But a writer who wants the world to feel lived in and vibrant will hint at activity occurring at the margins of the action, that daily life goes on even if the hero isn’t present and that that daily life is of the mundane, work-a-day sort we all experience.

Some writers do this exceedingly well. J.R.R. Tolkien sits at the head of the table of world-builders. MIddle-Earth feels real. He mentions dwarves passing to and from their mines. He builds inns and fills them with travelers. He describes roads and highways and indicates their decay and growing disuse, both suggesting a dwindling of trade and hinting at a time of greater commercial activity. He builds a world of increasing provincialism, of commerce becoming increasingly localized, of long-distance trade growing ever more hazardous. It aids tremendously in making Middle-Earth seem an actual, historical place, and the inhabitants as real as your Aunt Joan.

Robert E. Howard pulls off a similar trick. I’ll write at some later date about his strengths and weaknesses as a world-builder. But the Hyborian Age of Earth, when Conan trod the jeweled  thrones under sandaled feet, does seem alive with ships, caravans, and traveling merchants. The cities appear to bustle with buying and selling. Often Conan is in some hinterland or other, but the reader still gets the impression that somewhere there is a core of nations whose inhabitants are constantly trading, squabbling, and intriguing. The sweat of the laborers, the goods exchanging hands, the clinking of gold coins, all seem real, adding to the verisimilitude.

Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Land never seemed believable to me. I never got the sense that his communities could actually function. They seemed facades, Potemkin villages, or sets thrown up in the desert for a Western. I never got a sense of a working economy, how these people could live, where their stuff came from, how they exchanged goods and services. Now that might have been deliberate on Donaldson’s part. He may have been trying to reinforce the suggestion that this was all a hallucination. But once he introduced a second point of view character from Earth, that red-herring slipped out of the net and swam off.

This isn’t to say that a realistically portrayed world is essential to quality fantasy literature. E.R. Eddison’s Mercury doesn’t require a mention of trade routes or the types of crops the farmers grow in Demonland. But what Eddison is writing is akin to a fable. Like Lord Dunsany and William Morris, what he wrote were long form, adult fairy-tales. With these writers you always have the sense that someone is telling you a tale, you never fall into believing it to be a story told of a real place. You don’t get the immersiveness of Middle-Earth (a fairy-tale, perhaps, but one with solid foundations), or Westeros, or the Malazan Empire. You can almost imagine yourself falling through the pages into Hobbiton or King’s Landing.

And if you did, you just might be able to get a job.


Top Ten Most Influential Fantasy Writers of the Twentieth Century

The wellsprings of modern fantasy run deep. Very deep. People could write books about it. And they have. So if I have the temerity to toss my two-cents worth into the conversation I’d best limit the scope. I’m limiting myself to author’s who wrote in the Twentieth Century (some continue on into this century) and ignoring all the giants of prior centuries upon whose shoulders they stand. This is pure subjective opinion on my part. I’ve done no empirical research to support my conclusions, so take this a grain of salt the size to meet your USDA daily sodium intake.

I’d like to include writers such as E.R. Eddison and James Branch Cabell. But their influence appears to have waned. You might see a touch of Eddison in Clark Ashton Smith, or a hint of Cabell in Jack Vance. Might be a faint echo of both in Gene Wolfe. But I don’t see elements of either in much contemporary fantasy. So my personal preferences won’t play much part in this list.

Note that I’m excluding YA authors from the list. Hey, it’s my list. Write your own damn list if that bothers you.

On with it.

Number 10. Some essayists claim you should begin with your strongest argument. I’m a contrarian, or a fool. Maybe both. Meaning I’m beginning with an entrant whose qualifications I’m least certain about, Anne Rice. “Anne Rice,” you splutter, “doesn’t she write horror?” I don’t know. Could be. These definitions get nebulous at the borders. She writes about vampires, werewolves, and mummies in a more lyrical vein than most horror writers. I think she can be considered a fantasist. Whether she qualifies as a fantasy writer or not, she was certainly influential. The shelves in the bookstore wouldn’t look the same absent her popularization of the vampire. Modern urban fantasy wouldn’t exist in its current form without her. The Science Fiction/Fantasy section wouldn’t feature covers of sword-wielding biker chicks embracing half-clad vampires. So, Ms. Rice leads off at number 10.

Number 9. Jack Vance.The great Jack Vance brought us world-weary amoral heroes. He brought sparkling dialogue and a sardonic sense of humor. His influence comes primarily through his Dying Earth stories. You can trace the genealogy of stories set in a future Earth nearing the end of its habitability to Vance. There are earlier examples of the subgenre, sure (e.g., William Hope Hodgson, Clark Ashton Smith.) But Vance popularized the concept. You can find anthologies paying homage to the Dying Earth. Gene Wolfe’s Long Sun books owe much to Vance. Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison, to name just a couple, have written books in this subgenre.

Number 8. Fritz Leiber. Leiber and Vance shared a literary sensibility. Fitting they’re paired here. Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fathered any number of duos and odd couples. Leiber’s DNA is all over mismatched pairings ranging from Violette Mahan’s Dhulyn and Parno to Simon R. Green’s Hawk and Fisher.

Number 7. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fingerprints are all over fantasy. Tarzan helped popularize lost civilization stories. They are less common now in this time of satellites and Google Earth but writers from A. Merritt to Philip Jose Farmer used to spin those. ERB brought us the Sword and Planet or Planetary Romance novel. Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, and Henry Kuttner, to name three, carried on that tradition. Wasn’t that long ago Disney released a big budget John Carter film. Word is Edgar Rice Burrough’s Inc. is trying to get another version in the works. Hollow Earth novels are still seeing publication. ERB’s influence continues.

Number 6. Michael Moorcock. The speed-writing peddler of the multiverse, Law vs. Chaos cosmological conflict, and albino, elf-like anti-heros. Others may have preceded him with some of these. Poul Anderson was writing independently about a Law/Chaos divide. But Moorcock owned it with his Eternal Champion cycle. The concept of the multiverse is common parlance now, popping up in everything from novels to television shows. Elric of Melniboné can almost be considered an archetype now, cf Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

Number 5. Anne McCaffrey, mother of dragons. Time was you picked up a book with a dragon in it, you knew who the villain was. With The Dragonriders of Pern and those gorgeous Michael Whelan covers that all changed. Now you see a dragon on the cover it could just as easily be an ally as an enemy. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series can claim Pern as a progenitor.

Number 4. Howard Phillips Lovecraft. There’s the horror/fantasy question again, though there used to be little – if any – distinction made between fantasy, science fiction, and horror. HPL’s influence is unquestionable on horror, even science fiction (think Alien or any other H.R. Giger-involved film.) But he was also influential in the development of fantasy. Even immediately so. Think Conan, preventing a wizard from summoning a nameless cosmic horror from the gulfs in the blackness between the stars. This is HPL’s influence, the idea that the demon being conjured is not in fact a demon in the traditional sense at all, but an unknowable entity from a cold, uncaring universe with no interest in man one way or another. I’d argue that philosophically the “grimdark” school owes something to Lovecraft. And you know the Cthulhu mythos has wormed its tentacles deep within popular culture when you can buy a Cthulhu plush doll.

Number 3. Glen Cook. With The Black Company Cook altered the landscape of fantasy. Writing with a gritty, modern prose style, Cook laid the groundwork for the so-called ‘grimdark’ school. Without Cook there is no Joe Abercrombie, no Steven Erikson, possibly no Game of Thrones (though that’s hardly G.R.R. Martin’s only claim to fame.)

Number 2. Robert E. Howard. Can there be any question? One of the big three (along with HPL and Clark Ashton Smith) Weird Tales contributors, Howard was the quintessential pulp writer, churning out Westerns, boxing tales, hard-boiled detective stories, horror, and fantasy. He created the Puritan swordsman Solomon Kane, the barbarian-turned-king Kull, and the barbarian-turned-king Conan. Every broadsword wielding, mighty-thewed barbarian to come down the pike since owes his existence to Conan. From Brak the Barbarian to Druss the Legend, Howard’s influence is undeniable.

Number 1. Come on, say it with me. J.R.R. Tolkien. You saw that coming, right? Tolkien’s influence is deep and indelible. Starting with The Iron Tower and The Sword of Shannara the bookstore shelves have overflowed with Tolkien imitators. You couldn’t find a paperback fantasy back cover blurb in the 1980’s that didn’t compare the author to Tolkien. When people like something they want more of it. And if you’re going to imitate something you could do worse than The Lord of the Rings.

There you have it, the top ten. What do you think? Did I miss an obvious candidate? Is my order out of whack? Who is in your top ten?