Friday, July 16, 2021

if Tolkien is ...

A recent conversation presented me with a chance to answer the question, "If Tolkien is my favorite fantasy author, who are my other favorites?"

To answer this, I'm going to have to turn back to a long-ago time, before recent fantasy giants like Martin and Pratchett, before even Donaldson and Brooks, not quite before the Ballantine Unicorn's Head series but before I was aware of it, and report on my perplexity at the recommendations I was getting from friends and helpful librarians for "things like Tolkien" to read after him. They were sword-and-sorcery authors like Robert E. Howard, and the likes of comic-book superheroes. I tried these things, but I was not even remotely attracted to them. I could see the superficial resemblance - battles involving mighty heroes, often in a semi-barbarian pseudo-medieval landscape - but that's not what Tolkien was about, or what he was like. They were badly written, crudely plotted, and their heroes were all like Boromir. The likes of Frodo and Sam didn't even exist there. They only had the crude surface resemblance, and not what I went to Tolkien for: his soul, his depth of creativity, his sense of morality. I quickly learned that surface resemblance has nothing to do with what makes Tolkien distinctive or worthwhile. That inoculated me against falling for all the Tolclones to come just because they were Tolclones, as so many did (and the Jackson movies are Tolclones in that respect).

What gave Tolkien quality I learned when I read the original Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin. These books were not very like Tolkien in surface appearance, but they had the depth of creative impulse, and a sure sense of moral imperative. Le Guin's moral principles were different from Tolkien's, but they were consistent, and morally defensible, and above all they were palpable. That's what taught me that a coherent moral vision was what made for a real resemblance to Tolkien.

If you wonder more about what I mean by Tolkien's moral vision, I mean "That which George R.R. Martin's fans praise him for lacking." Oh yes they do.

But in fact I wasn't much of a fantasy reader in those days. What I read mostly was history. And in The Lord of the Rings what drew me most was the palpable sense of a realistic history of almost unfathomable depth and complexity. I turned to Appendices A-C with the eagerness than others devoted to the linguistic appendices, E and F. I did things like create comparative timeline charts for the kings of Arnor, Gondor, and Rohan, the same way as I'd done for England, France, and Spain.

But eventually I learned something else. I learned that historical appendices do no good if they aren't at the service of a great and meaningful story. I learned that from reading Katherine Kurtz's Deryni books. They had plenty of timelines and genealogical charts. But the story wasn't very interesting, so of what use was the historical apparatus? It had nothing to fasten itself on to.

Eventually I found the Unicorn's Head series and discerned from there two older authors whom I could cherish as, while not the same as Tolkien, special ones whom I could absorb and appreciate, if not the whole of their oevures, a wide swath of their outputs, and I put them with Ursula K. Le Guin as a third: Lord Dunsany and Mervyn Peake. Dunsany primarily for his morally stark and typologically eerie early short stories, and Peake primarily for his epic Gothic constructions Titus Groan and Gormenghast, though I have a liking for some of his shorter works and poetry, and I seem to be one of the few people who appreciates that Titus Alone, offbeat as it is, is not a result of failure of authorial capacity, but does exactly what Peake intended for it to do.

At this point one asks, what about E.R. Eddison? I read Eddison with appreciation, but I found him an author easier to admire than to like. This applies to The Worm Ouroboros, which reads as if it were designed as an appealing adventure story, but whose ending - hinted at in the title - reveals its profound moral distinction from Tolkien, who would never do something like that. It also applies to Zimiamvia, which is much closer to the essense of Eddison. I read Zimiamvia twice - I can still hardly believe I did that - and came to the conclusion that the way I approached it the second time, "backwards" as it were with The Mezentian Gate first, is the more satisfactory and comprehensible reading order.

There are other post-Tolkien fantasy authors whom I like, notably Patricia A. McKillip, but of fantasy works published since The Lord of the Rings that I've read, there are three that utterly awed me at first encounter and that I still cherish as among the very best fictional works I know. All three of them I read before I was 30 years old, and I wonders, yes I wonders, if increasing age and tiredness and cynicism are responsible for the absence of any additions to their numbers. Yet I cannot think of any novels I've read since of which I thought, "If only I'd read this when I was young and eager, I'd have loved it as much as ..."

Those three are:

1. Watership Down by Richard Adams. The only later-day quest story with some of the same mythopoeic quality and the vast epic scope of Tolkien's, despite its tiny size on the linear-mile scale.

2. Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. Despite the similar language used in all of her books, I find DWJ a massively inconsistent author, not in quality but in how her works hit me. Some I bounce off of entirely, some are captivating, but this one stands alone as an awesomely complex masterpiece, the ideal recasting of medieval folk ballads.

3. Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. An exercise in sub-creation as rich and full as Tolkien's though on a much smaller scale, brilliantly framed as an anthopological study. It works, and when you peer inside, the stories have resonance too, though they depend on the background for full impact.

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