J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy
by Deke Parsons
Edited by Donald E. Palumbo and C.W. Sullivan III
Cover Artist: Enchanted nature series --The Golden Tree / Shutterstock
Review by Sam Tomaino
Mcfarland & Company Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780786495375
Date: 30 November 2014 List Price $35.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Publisher's Book Page / Show Official Info /
J,R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons is another entry in the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy published by McFarland & Company. It has chapters on Tolkien, Howard, Jerry Siegel, and other contributors to the field called Modern Fantasy.
The book opens with a brief introduction with paragraphs summarizing the chapters: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard, Conan, Jerry Siegel and Superman with a concluding paragraph saying that these seminal works in modern fantasy are "literary creations of unusual vitality that grew organically from their time--and that are greatly influencing ours".
The first chapter discusses John Ronald Reuel Tolkien with a brief biography. It discusses the influence of Tolkien's Roman Catholicism and experiences of World War I on his landmark book, The Lord of the Rings (henceforth abbreviated here as LotR). He feels that the book reflects the attitudes of World War I rather than "the stoicism of the British people during and after World War II". Manly love is freely expressed. Strong men weep over tragedy. He feels that the hobbits are much like English soldiers in their attitudes with "their characteristic English interest in regular meals and bourgeois values". At least until the war gets "so brutal that all pretense is stripped away". He also discusses Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories" and The Silmarillion.
Chapter Two is a more detailed discussion of The Lord of the Rings. Parsons talks about the light tone of the early chapters and how "The homeliness and humor of the hobbits returns to the novel occasionally even after the epic plot is in full swing". Through Tolkien's letters, he discusses Tolkien's anger at Hitler and the Nazis for their perverting of the "noble, Northern spirit". He also talks about Tolkien's disdain for the political climate in England during the war. Parsons goes on to talk about Tolkien's rejection of "direct allegory and direct symbolic representations of real-world-concerns" which also distinguishes LotR from other modern fantasists. About Tolkien's influences. Parsons feels Beowulf and other medieval poems, like Sir Gawain and The Pearl have little influence over LotR. He feels Shakespeare and, very definitely, William Morris are more of an influence. Of the film versions of Tolkien's works, he is mostly positive of Peter Jackson's LotR. He feels that while the films might lack "thematic depth", hey make up for it in "depth of character". However, he calls the first part of Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, a "bloated disaster". He is not impressed with the cartoon made by Ralph Bakshi, either.
In Chapter Three, he turns to Robert. E. Howard, beginning with some biographical information and Howard's attitudes about the place that he lives as well as a magazine called Adventure that was an early influence on him. The magazine's publishing of Rafael Sabatini, Harold Lamb, and Talbot Mundy are discussed. Howard's disdain for the Roman Empire is mentioned. That is followed by a discussion of three major biographies of Robert E. Howard: "a psychoanalytical biography of Conan's popularizer L. Sprague de Camp, a more recent biography focusing on his Texas roots by Mark Finn, and Howard's own autobiographical writings". That last takes the form of details about Howard's letters and his early autobiographical novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. This runs for several pages and is quite fascinating. Parsons criticizes de Camp's biography for relying too much on comments by E. Hoffman Price, who only met Howard briefly. He thinks more highly of One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price Ellis, a school teacher who had a brief relationship with Howard. He also talks positively about The Whole Wide World, the film made from the book. Parsons goes into some detail about the differences between the portrayals of Howard by de Camp and Finn. While he comes down largely on Finn's side in this, he acknowledges that "De Camp's paperback series is responsible for Conan's great popularity beyond the limited circle of true Howard fans, and the media properties like the films and the comics licensed by de Camp are responsible for much of the rest of the character's fame". The chapter also spends a great deal of time on the history of the publication of the various editions of Conan.
Chapter Four continues the REH part of the book with a discussion of Conan. He discusses the individual stories with mostly valuable comments on them. He strays occasionally by saying that the character of Demetrio in "The God in the Bowl" has "similarities to Sherlock Holmes" but, on the whole his comments are accurate Especially interesting is his contrasting the younger Conan of "Tower of the Elephant" with the older, wiser Conan of "Beyond the Black River". Conan's discussions with Balthus in the second story about the situation they find themselves in are remarkably perceptive.
He also talks about similarities between "Beyond the Black River" and the movie Apocalypse Now (1979). Parsons goes a little astray by saying rhat the movie "was famously supposed to have been directed by George Lucas." Huh? Everyone knew it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and it was felt that he had lost control of the movie. Parsons gets back on track by saying the screenplay was mostly by John Milius, director of the film Conan the Barbarian (1982). He continues with what is an excellent discussion of "Beyond the Black River" before discussing the first Conan film. Parsons (rightly) criticizes Conan the Barbarian as more John Milius than Robert E. Howard, but is much more brutal in his opinion of Conan the Destroyer. Curiously, he compares that movie to director Richard Fleischer's Soylent Green and doesn't even mention Fleischer's The Vikings, which was much more akin to Conan. Parson's has an even lower opinion of the 2011 film also called Conan the Barbarian.
Chapter Five is his last major chapter and deals with the creation of Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. He mentions that Siegel read Weird Tales and had probably read the Conan stories. He is very dismissive of Shuster's artistic skills. We get a lot of interesting detail about how the character was published and how quickly he became a superstar. He does say that Siegel and Shuster had no successes after Superman. Actually, Siegel, with artist Bernard Baily, did create DC's ghostly avenger, The Spectre, and did write Superman stories (very GOOD ones) into the 60s. His point in this chapter is that Superman is the first superhero and is, thus, responsible for all the super heroes of today. I don't disagree with that.
Other heroes from Batman to the Marvel universe and beyond are discussed but here, I feel, he falters a bit. He does not even mention Bill Finger, who was very responsible for Batman after Bob Kane's initial idea. Batman artist Jerry Robinson also gets no mention. He discusses Captain America just crediting Joe Simon with no mention of Jack Kirby. For the most part his discussion of the comic book industry is fine. There is pretty good coverage of Seduction of the Innocent and the Kefauver hearings criticizing comic books. Here, too, he gets himself into trouble with a passing reference to "Joseph McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities". McCarthy was a senator and senators do not chair committees of the House of Representatives.
Chapter Six is a brief chapter about "The Inheritors" with mentions of Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Lloyd Alexander (The Chronicles of Prydain), Ursula K. LeGuin (Earthsea), Roger Zelazny (Amber) and George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones). He concludes with a paragraph wrapping the whole book up.
All in all, I found this book a very enjoyable read and I would recommend it for its coverage of J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and the worlds they created.