Sunday, March 11, 2018

book discussion: The Treasure of the Isle of Mist

Recently I was shown an early review of The Hobbit (Horn Book, March 1938). The reviewer described the book as unlike Alice or Wind in the Willows. Praising it for being "firmly rooted in Beowulf and authentic Saxon lore," she found "something in common" with William Morris and with W.W. Tarn's The Treasure of the Isle of Mist.

I was reminded of early reviews of The Lord of the Rings, which similarly cast around wildly looking for something to compare this work to, usually also landing on William Morris among others. Well, I know Morris, but what was The Treasure of the Isle of Mist? I found this 1919 publication on Project Gutenberg, and, liking the Tolkienesque donnish whimsy of the opening, proposed it as a topic for our Mythopoeic Society book-discussion group.

We mostly enjoyed the book, but didn't find it very Tolkienesque on the whole. A. agreed with me about the donnish whimsy, and copied out some favorite passages. C. identified a few other Tolkienesque aspects: the narrative voice and the depiction of the landscape (which he was able to identify as the island of Skye). I noted also that the heroine Fiona's ability to speak with animals that others can't understand has a faint resemblance to the role of the thrush in The Hobbit.

E. was the most critical, saying that The Hobbit is much more original and less formulaic. This book is twee and over-moralistic, like George MacDonald. The Faerie sequence in the latter part of the book has the air of a religious allegory a la Pilgrim's Progress, though M. added that there's nothing Christian or mythopoeic about the actual content. B. thought of Lewis Carroll and E. Nesbit, and others named L. Frank Baum and the archetypal hero's journey from Joseph Campbell. C. found a long discussion of the book online that names more comparable works, in particular The Crock of Gold.

M. observed that the plot, though nominally a quest, is more of a simple fairy tale than a quest as Tolkien would tell it; and we noted other fairy-tale elements. C. commented that the wandering fairy king is a traditional fairy-tale element, and E. and I simultaneously chimed in with Smith of Wootton Major as another example. J. noted that Fiona is, like so many children in fairy tales, motherless. She is said to be 15, a relatively advanced age which surprised some of us. B. summarized the theme as a morality play about maturing out of a childhood connection to Faerie. Her father's role as a mentor who's sympathetic to the idea of Faerie but disclaims any personal knowledge of it, until at the end he's revealed to have gone there himself as a child, reminded me strongly of Prof. Kirke in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Magician's Nephew.

We don't know if Lewis, or Tolkien, ever read this book, though they easily could have. It was reprinted in the 1930s and is mentioned often in the 1938 volume of Horn Book, so it was a popular book in its time. The more whimsical Marvellous Land of Snergs by E.A. Wyke-Smith is the children's book of the time that Tolkien is known to have read and been influenced by.

The conversation, always volatile, suddenly veered to Salman Rushdie, and the book topic discussion was over.

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