Tolkien started a new wave in Fantasy literature when he started writing stories for his son during WWII. Stories written for loved ones seem to have a special way of catching on in the hearts of readers, as Harry Potter's recent explosion onto the YA scene and movie screen have recently shown.
The Hobbit was the first Fantasy I remember voluntarily reading, though I was fed the Narnia Chronicles in grade school, but the heroic sagas of first Bilbo, then Frodo Baggins captured my attention over a long Vermont summer, where I could walk back woods trails and imagine Hobbit folk around every mossy turn. Now, decades later, when I cross the Vermont border going back to visit those woods, it always seems that I'm entering the Shire, and the title of Bilbo's story, often comes to mind, "There and Back Again."
J.R.R. Tolkien's writing had tremendous influence on several generations of writers, and asked some of them to share a thought or two with us on the eve of the Lord of the Rings arrival on the screen.
Although we've gotten a great response for some of our other "Appreciations", Robert Heinlein's for instance, it turns out that SFRevu's usual suspects are shy about their feelings for Tolkien...and a few die hard hard SF types pointed out that they aren't all that comfortable with Fantasy. Who would have imagined?
I have my own concerns about fantasy. First, it reduces religion to technology, stripping it of absolutes of good and evil, and rendering the spiritual plane useless as a moral compass. Second, it reduces technology to a "black box" which the user manipulates by rote at best or by having been born with "the gift" at worst.
While we are more or less comfortable with the consequence of the first (moral relativism), Science Fiction readers tend to believe in meritocracy, that is that the best of us rise to the top. Is Harry Potter's natural talent any different than any of Robert Heinlein's YA characters strengths? I would argue that RAH's characters are much more everyman, and that their turning point inevitably comes when they decide to buckle down and work for what they want, not discovering that they have super powers. Also, SF has provided entry into real world technical realms for several generations at this point...does the shift to Fantasy mean that we will turning out more warlocks than webmasters?
But for all that, Tolkien isn't about magic nearly as much as it is about friendship. About forging alliances, dealing with fear and temptation, and of course rising above yourself for the greater good.
Speak "friend", and enter, and behold Tolkien's legacy.
Patrick O'Leary, author of some really excellent fantasy (THE IMPOSSIBLE BIRD / OTHER VOICES, OTHER DOORS / THE GIFT /DOOR NUMBER THREE) came in with pretty much what I had in mind...
Patrick O'Leary: THE BOOK OF GOLD
Most books tell a story. Tolkien told a world. When I devoured THE LORD OF THE RINGS I was 23. I had never been so enthralled, so transported. It stood at the pinnacle of all my reading experiences until two decades later, when I wrote a fan letter to another author comparing his work to Tolkien's. I told him reading THE LORD OF THE RINGS "felt like a huge bell was rung in me, and years later, I'm still absorbing that astonishing note." I didn't understand people who reread the book every year. For me "to go back to that table would be gluttony. For nearly twenty years Tolkien's rich yet modest prose, his grand imagery, the swell and release of his plot, the resounding mystery of his characters, the depth of feeling, wisdom, care and love he plumbed to bring up that story was, in my experience, incomparable. It was my Book of Gold. Until now."
I was writing to Gene Wolfe about his masterpiece THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN. It was the only way I could tell him how beautiful it was. It was the letter I wish I could have written to J.R.R. Tolkien when he was alive.
On the other hand, David Brin, who has written some epic adventures himself, enjoyed the spoof more than the story...
David Brin: On the truest form of tribute
Naturally, I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (LOTR) when I first read it as a kid, during its first big boom in the 1960s... even though I did it unconventionally, by starting with The Two Towers and backfilling as I went along.
Likewise, I may be a bit off-kilter in liking, best of all, the unofficial companion volume to LOTR... perhaps the funniest literary work ever penned in the English (or any other) language. I refer to the Harvard Lampoon's 1968 parody, entitled "Bored of the Rings." Even if you revere and admire Tolkien... even if you take LOTR much too seriously... you will still find yourself unable to restrain guffaws at the adventures of Frito, son of Dildo and his sidekick Spam... along with Gimlet, son of Groin, Eorache, daughter of Eordrum, and Arrowroot, son of Arrowshirt, son of Araplane....
Oh, it's true that many of the jokes refer to 1960s TV commercials. (Here's one hint; there was a jingle that went "Things go better with Coca-Cola".)
Still, when the Dwarfish language features phrases like "A Dristan Nazograph!" and when Tom Bombadil comes out as the zonked hippie, Tim Benzedrine, and when Goodgulf runs a-foul of the Ball-hog dribbling underneath the Mines of Andrea Doria... well, there's something timeless and adorable about this work of zonker genius.Any author should be flattered to receive such inspired satire. It means you've arrived.
It is all Tolkien's fault! By A Wombat (Jan Howard Finder)
I've been involved in SF fandom for about 30 years now, and it is all the fault of JRR Tolkien. I had originally blamed John Brunner, but, naw, it is JRR's fault.
In 1963 I was a shy, humble grad student at the University of Chicago. Deeply involved with wave functions and quantum numbers. Then one day a friend [He is now living in New Zealand.] gave me or forced me to read The Hobbit.
It was ok. I enjoyed the book, but really wasn't too interested in finding out what Tolkien could do with 4 times as much Hobbit.
Later in late 63 or early 64 I was over at this friend's[?] house. He was reading "Window on the West" out of the Two Towers. I thought, "Hmm, this is a different book."
In the week preceding my graduation I reread The Hobbit. It was "OK." It was a dark & stormy Friday night in March of 1964 when I sat down with The Fellowship of the Ring. It was late on Sunday night that I finally put down The Return of the King. I had read all three books, including the appendixes. I wanted MORE! In a way I got much more than I expected.
Over the next few years I returned to reading SF and fantasy, which I had put aside during my quest for my degree. I found others out there who liked The Stuff! I forced the books on friends, well they were at the time. This began before the paperback editions were available.
Over the course of the next few years I pulled together a "Fellowship of the Ring" three times. We would read the books aloud beginning on 22 September. It was great fun and lasted about 6-7 months. I still have friends made thru these readings.
Then began a the organization phase. While still living in Chicago, I organized a birthday party for Frodo & Bilbo. Great fun and a big success. Then on to the University of Illinois for another masters and the formation of the Tolkien Society there. We sold posters and partied. It was the 60's!
We decided that a conference on tolkien would be nice. I went to the conference folk at the university and asked how does one run a conference. They said, choose a speaker/guest, get a venue and invite the world. Sounded like a plan. Thus, began the 1969 "The Conference on Middle-earth." The conference was a very big success.
[Aside: The Tolkien Society evolved into more than just Tolkien even during the 2 years I was running it. By 1970 it was an SF club. In 1971 it ran the 1st CHAMBANACON. Thus, I guess, I'm the Ghod Father or Ghod-damn Father of that con. J]
I graduated and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. I was working at Cleveland State University. I started a Tolkien Club there, too. As I had had fun with the first conference, why not do a second. Thus, in the spring of 1971 there occurred "The 2nd Conference on Middle-earth." It, too, was a very big success. The book, "A Tolkien Compass" edited by Jared Lobdell resulted from some of the papers presented at my conferences.
[Aside: I also acquired a T-shirt for my birthday. It was precious. It said "Wombat Enterprises" on the front and "The Wombat" on the back. And so it began!]
Shortly thereafter I was notified, that my position at a branch of CSU was being dropped. I had 3 months to find a job. I did. I was off to Germany to teach Chemistry to 10th grade German students. As I was leaving, I found in the mail a flyer from the 1st SF Congress of Europe; EUROCON 1 in Trieste, Italy. I wrote and asked if they were having a panel on Tolkien. They said no, but I could arrange one if I wished. This is like offering mushrooms to hobbits. Thus, my first real introduction to European SF fandom was through moderating a panel on Tolkien in 1972 at EUROCON 1.
[Aside: It was here that John Brunner suggested that if I really wanted to have fun at an SF con, I should go to a British con. Yup! I went to 73 EASTERCON, and it all really began there.]
At EUROCON 1 I met fans from all over Europe. When I took up the invitation to visit Budapest, Hungary, I was asked if I could spend an extra day and give a talk on Tolkien to the Hungarian SF Society. Cool! It was a marvelous trip.
I now began to attend cons. I put out an international fanzine, THE SPANG BLAH, which got me an award from the 1976 Italian SF Congress and went to AUSSIECON in 75. After I got back to the States in 76, I wrote a review on The Silmarillion for a local newspaper.
Since then I've moved on to other things in SF and fandom. However, it was Tolkien who led me down the path. As Bilbo notes, "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to." Well, I'm still on the path and have no idea of where it might lead me next. The Road does go ever, ever on! Thank you Professor Tolkien.
jan howard finder -- or -- The Wombat
Hmmm. Not the overwhelming tribute I expected, but it's my fault really. I've been so busy moving from NY to FL this last month that I haven't had time to do much editorial encouraging.
I expect we'll take another run at it in a while, Tolkien is too important not to.
|© 2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu|