Friday, October 20, 2006

Tolkien and Literary Tradition

I received an e-mail a week or so ago from Matt Fellows, in which he raised some issues about the relationship between Tolkien and fantasy fiction. From his comments, I realize that I left some things implied that needed to be explicitly said in "The Lord of the Rings and the Medieval Literary Tradition."

He wrote:

I have been a long time fan of your blog and was today reading through your essay entitled "The Lord of the Rings and the Medieval Literary Tradition". I found it very insightful, yet on a certain point would enjoy more detail. This being your statement that Tolkien created fantasy fiction or more specifically that in his fiction Tolkien found himself "breaking into a new cavern that we today know as fantasy fiction"(emphasis obviously mine).

Anyone with the least bit of knowledge of modern fantasy knows that much is but cloned Tolkien. That being said, I would rather say that Tolkien innovated fantasy fiction in a direction that is most characteristic of the genre today. To imply that he created the genre minimizes the genius of earlier writers such as James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany or E.R. Eddison, who were in my opinion all brilliant writers that simply did not break into the public scene. That Tolkien brought fantasy to its peak I will whole heartedly proclaim, yet if the writings of the aforementioned authors aren't examples of modern fantasy fiction, then what are they?

The fairly recent 'New Weird' movement in fantasy also illustrates the endurance of darker authors like Mervyn Peake and H.P. Lovecraft. I can understand not thinking the above authors important due to personal aesthetic preferences, yet that should not hinder their proper categorization in the fantasy fiction genre.

I responded:

I don't mean to minimize the work of other contemporary or early fantasy writers. As you point out, however, much of what passes as fantasy fiction is the army of Tolkien clones.For the creation of a genre, one must have many people following the work of a set of writers. While fantasy geeks like you and me might know of the contributions of these other writers, by-and-large they did not build durable followings of other authors. Their influence, then, far less than Tolkien's (and Robert E. Howard's).On the other end, of course, Tolkien is really discovering fantasy fiction for himself, not following another's work (this, of course, happens relatively often -- that a particular zeitgeist will lead thinkers independently to the same end). If Tolkien is following anyone's school of thought, it is the work of much older, medieval writers of romance (like Chretien de Troyes).

He responded:

You make a good point. If only a select few are reading your work then it really isn't reaching a large enough audience to leave a genre in its wake. In that sense we can never really look at what is 'big' in a genre to know what is the best. I mean, look at the horror genre! It's not Poe, Lovecraft or any of the masters that are big, it's third rate writers like Stephen King.

Tolkien certainly did follow his own unique path in fiction. While he mentions enjoying the works of Dunsany, and Eddison's classic Worm Ouroboros, he was always sure to mention they were not influences on him. Indeed, I am not sure where, but C.S. Lewis went as far as to say that in their Inklings meetings 'no one influenced Tolkien, he was as hard to influence as a Bandersnatch.'

I completely agree with you about Tolkien's continuation of earlier literary traditions. It was this aspect of his writings that has lead me to discover the great Medieval, and even Classical, writers.

I think Fellows was responding to a hole in my argument that I need to fill in a bit. What does it take to be an artist, and part of a tradition? I take my own position from T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (which can be read in its totality from the link). To crudely summarize Eliot, innovation of the individual talent only has value within a particular artistic tradition. Why does your love poetry from the 10th grade stink so badly? It's because you didn't read poetry, and so didn't have a good understanding of where poetry was coming from.

I understand Fellow's point about not discounting other contemporary and earlier fantasy writers. At the end of the day, though, the other writers he mentioned were admired, but not followed -- and THIS is what it takes to make a genre. The only possible exception in that group is Mervyn Peake, who, strangely enough, makes his dark vision best felt in the area of children's fantasy, in the works of Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket, and the first Harry Potter book (no, I'm not claiming that Rowling had read Peake, but that she was following through Dahl).

On the other hand, we have people like Lovecraft ... who is much loved, much admired, but not much imitated.* Occasionally we'll see people trying to write in Lovecraft's world, using his pantheon, and this might be the beginnings of a "Lovecraft school," but it's too early to be sure. At the moment, I don't see too many fantasy writings exploring the "Unspeakable."

*Full disclosure: I'm among the fans of Lovecraft. I even taught him in a graduate seminar once, linking his "unspeakable" to Freud's "unheimlich," and the two ideas worked quite nicely together.


  1. Anonymous9:54 AM

    Dear Richard,

    Interesting conversation, though I would argue that Tolkien owes more to Nordic traditions than to Chretien. My students have been exploring similar questions in our "Tolkien's Middle Ages" course this semester. They have done presentations on everything from Grimm's Teutonic Mythology to The Old English Exodus to George MacDonald. You can get some idea of what we have been working on here:


  2. There are a lot of different kinds of influence, and different target audiences (writers vs readers at least) and different time-spans.

    James Branch Cabell sold a whole pile of books over a long period of time. If he's not well known at this particular point in time, does that mean he had little influence? No.

    Lovecraft and Howard are authors who are in many respects laughable, but lots of people like them, buy or have bought the books, have made movies of various levels of popularity from their works. But they will never be thought of as great writers by literary people. And even many of their fans might not say they were great.

    I don't know if I will ever read another word by Howard or Lovecraft but I did read quite a bit on either side of the age of 20. It had an effect and it would be foolish to deny it.

    BTW does anyone here know a good book on the cultural influence of Walter Scott? I was in a major library last week and though they had hundreds of books on him -- practically a whole wing -- they were (a) all old and (b) overwhelmingly biographical in orientation.

  3. His imitators forgot one thing about Tolkien, he wasn't following a set of tropes but telling a story. A long, involved, great stretches of talking about the scenary and having his characters spout off epic poetry story, but a story. He knew what he was doing, and he did it rather well.

    Later authors missed the point. It wasn't the three books, the high concept, or any of that, Tolkien succeeded because he cared about what he was doing. For all the criticisms made of his story and characterization, he cared about both. So he wasn't the best story teller and his characters were slight and shallow, he cared about them. We still have science fiction and mystery fiction magazines because those genres have writers who appreciate story.

    There are writers in the fantasy field who are following different paths than the one Tolkien set. Raymond Feist and Tad Williams for example. Or Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories. Then you have the urban fantasy of Tim Powers and Rachel Caine, or the historical fantasy of Naomi Novik's stories of the dragon Tremeraire (serving with the British Aerial Corps during the Napoleonic Wars).

    So people are working outside of the "Tolkien Tradition", following other traditions, or creating traditions of their own.

  4. Alan,

    Gotta disagree with you. Yes, Tolkien cared about the story. But he cared about the whole world of the story and made his readers care about it, too.

    The Fellowship of the Ring is the best thing he ever wrote because he unfolded a huge dazzling canvas in very few words, all things considered.

  5. Let me emend what I said. Lots of fantasy writers have unfolded canvases. Tolkien's world had solid foundations going way, way down.

  6. Mr. Fellows said, Tolkien certainly did follow his own unique path in fiction. While he mentions enjoying the works of Dunsany, and Eddison's classic Worm Ouroboros, he was always sure to mention they were not influences on him. Indeed, I am not sure where, but C.S. Lewis went as far as to say that in their Inklings meetings 'no one influenced Tolkien, he was as hard to influence as a Bandersnatch.'

    Is that it, then? Tolkien says sure, he read and enjoyed specific earlier fantasy authors, but oh no, they were not an influence on him. So it must be so?

    I've always taken Lewis' comment to mean only that Tolkien did not take Lewis' advice very much.

    Tolkien had an almost ideological need to deny the relevance of "influences" in evaluating literature, especially his. Yet so much of the Tolkien scholarship I've read involves critics (usually medievalists) defying his wishes and deliberately comparing his writing to others'. Sometimes the comparisons are very effective; sometimes they are lame. But the effort seems worthwhile.

    Cannot the same thing be done with Dunsany, Eddison, etc.? Tolkien was a genius and does indeed seem the founder of an entire popular genre. But he lived in his own era and breathed its own odd air, along with the dustier stuff found in good medieval libraries. Has no one really found any interesting or plausible connections between his horror/science-fiction aspects, and what was already being created in those modern pop genres?

  7. Anonymous5:24 PM

    I'm with squire: just because Tolkein said no one influenced him doesn't mean it's true. He also said WWII had no influence on LotR, but it had to have had SOME.

    And does one HAVE to have a large following in order to influence a genre? Isn't it WHO reads rather than how many?

  8. Anonymous5:50 PM

    Perhaps Dunsany and Eddison were influences on Tolkien, and it would be very interesting to see him critically compared to them. Yet whether they truly influenced him or not the fact remains that Tolkien SAID that they did not and therefore was attempting to distance his work from theirs. What does this mean? It means that while Tolkien may have been influenced by other authors, he was making a concerted effort to have his work move in a different direction.

    Secondly I would like to address Steve Muhlberger. You say of Howard and Lovecraft "But they will never be thought of as great writers by literary people." Granted Howard is not seen as a first-rate writer by many, the same however does not apply to Lovecraft. H.P. Lovecraft has been greatly respected by authors within the Fantasy, Horrror, and Science Fiction genres(and aren't they the ones whose opinions count most in this matter?) often being compared to Edgar Allan Poe. If however, by 'literary people' you mean the elite literati who consider Horror and Fantasy merely 'genre fiction' then you are indeed right. Yet by the same token this same crowd as a general rule thinks very little of Tolkien as well. Furthermore, how can you honestly say they will NEVER be thought of as great? If you can truly predict the aesthetic tastes of the future then I suppose you should be making alot of money as a writer.

    You go on to say "And even many of their fans might not say they were great." I guess we have just been talking to different Howard and Lovecraft fans.

  9. Just a trio of points for reference.

    1. Matt Fellows noted that C.S. Lewis, "I am not sure where", likened Tolkien to a bandersnatch. This appears in Humphrey Carpenter's J.R.R. Tolkien: a biography in the chapter, "The New Hobbit" (p. 204 in my copy), where Carpenter quotes Lewis: "No one ever influenced Tolkien – you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch."

    2. John Halbrooks observes, "Tolkien owes more to Nordic traditions than to Chretien". Probably so, but just on the specific word choice: in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 375 (Letter #294), this comment from a draft article about him for the Daily Telegraph is quoted: "Middle-earth ... corresponds to spiritually to Nordic Europe". Tolkien replied: "Not Nordic, please! A word I personally dislike; it is associated, though of French origin, with racialist theories."

    3. Frank argues that despite Tolkien's protests to the contrary, World War II "had to have had some" influence on The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, in Tolkien's Letters, p. 41, he writes early in the process of writing LotR that "the darkness of the present days" was affecting the story.

  10. Frank, you asked, "And does one HAVE to have a large following in order to influence a genre? Isn't it WHO reads rather than how many?"

    The answer to the first question is "yes," else it cannot rise to the level of "genre." One guy writing by himself can't be consider a genre, no matter how good.

    The answer to the second question is that it is almost irrelevant who reads ... what is relevant is who writes. If other writers read you, it matters little if no one else reads you. If, on the other hand, lots of people read you but never spill ink on parchment, you really have no influence at all, just a bunch of admirers.

    Of course, the above are just thought experiments, since in reality every writer has some tiny influence if he is read by any other writer at any time, in the same way planetary gravity can make the stars wiggle. Planets can only make stars wiggle a bit, though, whereas stars hold the planets around their orbit and can consume them in cosmic fire.

  11. Steve Muhlberger,

    Not so much a disagreement as an expansion on what I said. Tolkien cared about what he was doing. Something not, necessarily, true of other writers.

    Others have created worlds for their stories. Some well; Greg Stafford, M. A. R. Barker, and Monte Cook for example. Others poorly. J. R. R. Tolkien gets to be The Beatles of world creation because he came on the scene at just the right time.

    As for influences... I have a sneaking suspicion that one day the professor happened to find somebody's discarded copy of the American magazine Weird Tales, read a H. P. Lovecraft story inside, and starting thinking, "Now where could I put a tentacular horror in my story? " :)

  12. M. Fellows is quite right to point out me contradicting myself:

    "Furthermore, how can you honestly say they will NEVER be thought of as great?"

    Good point indeed.

    However I will stick with the point I made about Howard and Lovecraft. Maybe I should put it in the first person. I don't think they are great writers, even though I enjoyed them a lot at the time, and they provided some furniture for my mind.

    You can be seminal without being great, I'd say.

    What do people who don't like Tolkien's writing but honestly admit his influence say about him?

    Tolkien as the Beatles of fantasy just as a matter of timing? Tolkien, like the Beatles, was very very good. The question of finding an audience -- that's an interesting one.

  13. Anonymous5:56 PM


    Thankyou for clarifying your thoughts on Lovecraft. I was not bothered that you have different tastes than I. What I took issue with was what seemed like an attempt to make your opinions seem like universal truths. I apologize if my comments came across as arrogant or rude.

    The first question you raise about those who were influenced by Tolkien but did not like him is a very interesting one. At the moment nothing comes to mind. The writers that I have come across mentioning his influence,Peter S. Beagle and Ursula K. Le Guin for example, have all spoken very positively of him.

    I can think of such a situation relating to C.S. Lewis though. It seems Pullman was influenced by his works in a strongly negative way, leading many to see his fantasy world as sort of the antithesis of Narnia.

    As to the second question you raise, I used to be firmly of the camp that Tolkien was the best known because he was far superior to all other writers. Having read Eddison's Worm Ouroboros however, I can no longer bring myself to accept this.

    Perhaps Tolkien was just more accesible to the modern man. It is far easier for a layman to relate to a simple Hobbit than the epic heroes of Eddison. Or in other words, Tolkien blended elements of modern literature into his mythos to a far greater degree than (to use writers already mentioned) Dunsany or Eddison.

  14. Yes, I blush that I used the "Voice of Universal Authority."

    I was unclear in another point. If a critic said "I don't like Tolkien but you can hardly argue with his influence," what would such a person say to explain that influence?

  15. Anonymous6:58 PM

    I think a critic who disliked Tolkien and was trying to explain his influence would probably point to what he saw as the foolishness in those that followed him. It would be similar to an atheist like Nietzche(I think it was Nietzche) claiming religion only lasted because it was an 'opiate of the masses'.

    I must be careful in completely condemning this kind of reasoning though, for I embarrassingly find myself using these exact same methods when speaking of authors and belief systems I myself dislike.

  16. Steve,

    In their respective cases it wasn't just a matter of talent. A lot of better bands/fantasists have come along, but only they came along at the right time. When there was nothing like them to be found.

    Yes, without talent they wouldn't have gotten very far even under the conditions they came to the world's attention. But if the world hadn't been receptive, or if the world had seen it before, they would not have made the splash they did.

  17. A stray thought...

    There are few who begin a literary tradition, and few who exemplify that tradition. But there are very few indeed who have done both.

  18. Anonymous9:28 PM

    Tolkien admitted to having been influenced by H. Rider Haggard's SHE, in an interview with Henry Resnick published in the fanzine Niekas. Also, Douglas Anderson, in the book Tales Before Tolkien, says that Tolkien praised Haggard's Viking fantasy ERIC BRIGHTEYES.

    I have written a 10,000-word entry on 19th- and 20th-century literary influences ON Tolkien, for The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, due out about now from Routledge. The editor is Michael Drout. The article was submitted in mid-2005, and since then, while waiting for its publication, I've written quite a few brief pieces about additional instances of exploration on Tolkien for the newsletter Beyond Bree, edited by Nancy Martsch.

    I won't repeat my findings here, but I am confident that the influence of Haggard on Tolkien was not minimal and incidental, but (in The Lord of the Rings especially) evidently quite important. My encyclopedia article also argues that John Buchan (author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, etc.) contributed to Tolkien's invention. Other authors who influenced JRRT at least incidentally were, I suggest, H. G. Wells and - - Charles Dickens!

  19. Anonymous9:31 PM

    Correction - - I meant "instances of influence," not "instances of exploration."

  20. That's quite an article!

    In addition to your piece, the Tolkien encyclopedia includes a separate article just on Buchan, by Tom Shippey, who identifies Midwinter: Certain Travellers in Old England as Buchan's most "Tolkienian" book. (Shippey had suggested this influence at least as far back as 1991, in a speech to the Tolkien Society -- see the society's collection, Digging Potatoes, Growing Trees, volume 2). Shippey also wrote the article immediately following yours in the encyclopedia, a mere 4,000 words on "Literature, Twentieth Century: Influence of Tolkien". His first two paragraphs briefly describe the modern fantastic authors preceding Tolkien, including Dunsany, Eddison, Cabell and Lovecraft. Other 19th and 20th C. authors receiving separate articles in the encylopedia include J.M. Barrie, George MacDonald, William Morris, and Robert Howard (Tolkien read Howard late in life). Finally, the article preceding yours, by Claire Buck, on "Literary Context: Twentieth Century", considers Tolkien from a modernist viewpoint. (By the way, people looking for more information on this discussion in a cheaper form than the Tolkien encyclopedia would do well to read Brian Rosebury's Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon.)

    On a completely different note: the comparison above of Tolkien and the Beatles makes me note that Mike Foster wrote what David Bratman (in Tolkien Studies 3) calls a "seriously written but lighthearted" essay on JRRT and the Fab Four, titled "Ringo and Samwise: Paradigms?" It appears in the 2001 collection, Concerning Hobbits and Other Matters: Tolkien Across the Disciplines, from the University of St. Thomas. (Foster and the artist Ted Nasmith presented a concert based on those connections at the "Gathering of the Fellowship" event in Toronto this summer.)

  21. Anonymous1:48 PM

    That's interesting about Buchan's Midwinter, Brigand. I haven't read that book yet.

    Jared Lobdell's identification of Buchan's Huntingtower as something likely to appeal to or even influence Tolkien goes back to Lobdell's England And Always, which is about 25 years old now. And Lobdell was right!

  22. Buchan was also identified as a possible source in Robert Giddings and Elizabeth Holland's J.R.R. Tolkien: The Shores of Middle-earth (1981), which Shippey lists in his entry's bibliography. That work took a deliberate and now laughable anti-medievalist approach to Tolkienian source-hunting (for example, doubting the connections that Shippey himself had noted between the Rohirrim and the Anglo-Saxons in "Creation from Philology in The Lord of the Rings" in the collection J.R.R. Tolkien: Scholar and Storyteller -- The Road to Middle-earth having not yet appeared) but did occasionally strike home along the way: for example, by suggesting not just Buchan but Rider Haggard as an influence, noting some similarities that were taken up again nineteen years later by William N. Rogers II and Michael R. Underwood in "Gagool and Gollum: Exemplars of Degeneration in King Solomon's Mines and The Hobbit", an article appearing in the 2000 collection, J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth, edited by George Clark and the late Daniel Timmons. Rogers and Underwood don't cite Giddings and Holland; the earlier book has a terrible reputation, self-inflicted by its bizarre writing style and peculiar methods, especially where nomenclature is concerned. You can read a few choice snippets of G&H that were posted here for discussion last year; I particular recommend this response and this one. (These three links are a bit slow, but will open after about ten seconds.)

  23. Anonymous8:35 PM

    I always thought that from when I read The Hobbit a long time ago; the Battle of the Five Armies I think it was? That always seemed to me to be World War II in microcosm, with the Elves being the British, the dwarves of the Iron Hills being the Soviets, the eagles being the Americans, with the Goblins as the Germans and the Wargs or whatever they were as the Japanese. Or maybe I am reading too much into this but it's food for thought anyway.

  24. That was prescient of Tolkien, then: the Battle of Five Armies was written no later than early 1936, I believe, and The Hobbit was published in late 1937.

  25. Anonymous8:03 PM