October 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Tales Before Tolkien by Douglas A. Anderson (ed)
Del Rey /Ballantine/ Random House HCVR: ISBN 0345458540 PubDate: 09/01/03
Review by Edward Carmien

437 pgs. List price $ 14.95
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Three for Tolkien: Tales Before Tolkien by Douglas A. Anderson (ed) Tolkien - A Cultural Phenomenon by Brian Rosebury, and The Real Middle Earth by Brian Bates

I was understandably wary when I first cracked open Douglas A. Anderson’s anthology Tales Before Tolkien, which is subtitled “The Roots of Modern Fantasy—Classic Stories that Inspired the Author of The Lord of the Rings.” As it happens, while the subtitle goes a bit too far (not all of the stories within, one learns, could have inspired Tolkien) there is magic to be found in this book.

The stories collected here serve as a good reminder to American readers that while Tolkien burst upon the popular culture scene (in the form of a rogue paperback edition at first) with apparently no warning, he did in fact rely at least in part on English and European fantastic literature for inspiration.

“The Elves,” by Ludwig Tieck presents these faerie-folk as human in size though fundamentally faerie in nature. Tolkien’s elves have long been understood to be an innovation of sorts, springing as they do from a realm of faerie tales in which more Pixie-like beings are the norm. In the short preface to “Puss Cat Mew” Anderson notes that not only does Tolkien mention being fond of the story in a letter from 1971, but the story itself contains beasties confounded by quick talking. The dragon in “The Dragon Tamers” is said by Anderson (and I agree) to be similar in some ways to the dragon of Tolkien’s “Farmer Giles of Ham.”

Most telling for this reader is the haunting theme of “The Far Islands,” in which a young man is haunted by an apparently hereditary longing and memory for an isle far out at sea. This of course calls to mind the sea-longing of the Elves, which grips Legolas after he witnesses the sea for the first time. Anderson notes less well-known echoes as well.

There is no escaping the fact that these are older stories. All will seem more or less archaic to contemporary readers, but for Tolkien fans most of the stories are well worth the time and effort to read. The true pleasure here, however, is in reading the tales and experiencing an “aha!” moment. The more familiar one is with LOTR and Tolkien’s other work, the more of these moments one will experience. I recommend Tales Before Tolkien for any serious reader of the Professor’s work.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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