Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Is there anything *like* Tolkien?


In some recent e-mail discussions with Dale J Nelson, we touched on the question of whether there was anything like Tolkien.

This was a burning question for me aged c. 14 years once I had read and re-read Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit) to the point of wanting to read something else.

What did I find?


Having seen a reference to Spenser's Fairie Queene on the LotR blurb, I picked this up to look-at in a second hand bookshop - I pretty quickly put it down again!  But I was never foolish enough to tackle Ariosto (to which C.S Lewis bizarrely compared LotR - what on earth did he think he was doing?!)

Then having done some background reading (for example, in Lin Carter's A look behind the Lord of the Rings I tried some older fantasy and also some more recent fantasy.

I read Lord Dunsany's King of Elfland's Daughter but it was hard work and made no impression - I failed to read E.R Eddison's Worm Ourorboros. I actually enjoyed Evangeline Walton's Island of the Mighty - which was a retelling of the 'Mabinogion' Welsh legends - but it was nothing like Tolkien.


In sum - I found only a couple of books (or a couple of pairs of books) which were post-Tolkien and resembled him enough to satisfy re-readings.

The Minippins (aka The Gammage Cup) by Carol Kendall, and its sequel The Whisper of Glocken -  which are rather like The Hobbit.

And the Weirdstone of Brisingamen  and The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner - which are somewhat like Tolkien's world breaking into the modern world.

To this double-duo I would add the quintet of books by Lloyd Alexander that begins with The Book of Three - which are a somewhat Tolkien-like version of the Mabinogion (again). 


However, none of these are at all like Lord of the Rings in their flavour - except perhaps for the earlier more Hobbit-like chapters leading up to Rivendell. All are on a much lower level than Tolkien - but I retain a strong affection for Kendall and Alexander, and sometimes re-read them - I have later been put off Garner by his subsequent developments (post The Owl Service - which is absolutely brilliant, albeit already tending towards the constipated evil of his later work) but there are a couple of very fine passages to which I return.


To return to the original question - there is, in my experience, nothing like Tolkien.


Note: there is something like Lewis's Narnia books, however - which is Borrobil by William Croft Dickinson which was published in 1944, therefore before Narnia. Presumably I am not the first to notice the resemblance, since the Puffin edition has a cover illustration by Pauline Baynes. I would say that Borrobil is about as good as Narnia - better in some ways - but written in a 'neo-pagan' tradition rather than being Christian.



CorkyAgain said...

One of the aspects of LotR that enchanted me as a teenager was its evocation of a long lost past -- what Tolkien once called "the great abyss of time, not measurable even by twe tusend Johr."

I got something like that from Robert E. Howard's books about Conan the Barbarian.

I also remember enjoying a book by L. Sprague deCamp that worked the same magic with the ancient Middle East. I can't recall the title.

Of course, and best of all, there was Genesis.

CorkyAgain said...

I want to stress that the only thing that made Howard's post-Atlantean but still prehistoric Europe or deCamp's ancient Middle East similar to anything in Tolkien's work was that evocation of the great abyss of time.

Otherwise, I found them woefully inadequate.

Brian Murphy said...

After wracking my brain a bit here, the closest work I can think of is Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. It is like Tolkien, though by that I mean the Tolkien of The Silmarillion, particularly the Quenta Silmarillion, and not The Lord of the Rings. It's a lean, hard, and very Northern novel of tragic fate; Anderson's Elves are very much Tolkien's First Age Elves and quite Feanor-ian. The characters mingle verse with common speech. And so on.

At best that's a stretch though. I really can't think of anything else like Tolkien, other than the poor Tolkien clones that followed in his wake.

Brian Murphy said...

After wracking my brain a bit here, the closest work I can think of is Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. It is like Tolkien, though by that I mean the Tolkien of The Silmarillion, particularly the Quenta Silmarillion, and not The Lord of the Rings. It's a lean, hard, and very Northern novel of tragic fate; Anderson's Elves are very much Tolkien's First Age Elves and quite Feanor-ian. The characters mingle verse with common speech. And so on.

At best that's a stretch though. I really can't think of anything else like Tolkien, other than the poor Tolkien clones that followed in his wake.

bgc said...

@BM - The Silmarillion hadn't yet been published at the time I am talking of. Indeed, Tolkien was still alive and I (foolishly) wrote to him to ask about it, and got a short typed reply to say it was not close to completion.

bgc said...

On reflection, The Silmarillion is not 'like Tolkien' in the sense that I wanted (except that it is like the Appendices to LotR).

Perhaps what is like Tolkien has the basic structure of another world of a essentially archaic and simpler type, yet coming up against higher and more serious (and magical) things, and which we perceive via people much like our (modern bourgeois) selves.

So, neither unrelieved high fantasy of an archaic type (as Eddison seems to me, or Dunsany), nor yet a world of 'life among the hobbits' - as perhaps The Minippins most resembles.

From this angle, Lloyd Alexander's Book of Three quintet seems the closest to Tolkien (of which I know) - since the main characters are quite modern and down to earth in outlook, yet there are encounters with nobility, terror, magic, ancient powers etc. - and through the series there is an ascent to high moral seriousness.

Deniz Bevan said...

I agree completely. I still haven't found anything to equal Tolkien!

Dale James Nelson said...

To the best of my knowledge, there isn't anything really like The Lord of the Rings. However, there are innumerable things that -parts- of The Lord of the Rings are like.

For example, compare Bilbo's birthday speech and farewell, with the interruptions -- with the speech earlier in Dickens's Pickwick Papers. The resemblance seems close enough that I suspect it was conscious on Tolkien's part. The palantirs are very like the seeing-globes in H. G. Wells's science fiction story "The Crystal Egg." And so on.

This sort of thing has led me to the theory that one way of looking at LOTR, for all its strangeness on the literary scene onto which it burst in 1954-56 (UK, US publications), is that it draws together features and qualities of a great deal of British literature into one whole (not an amalgam).

I admit I do not see even a trace of Restoration comedy in LOTR, though.

As for other Tolkien works -- some of the second half of The Notion Club Papers reminds me of H. P. Lovecraft's mid-Thirties story "The Shadow Out of Time."

Joel said...

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun manages the sense of a similar great abyss of time. He is another Catholic author.

The Night Lands has that sense of an abyss of time as well. My suggested introduction to them, however, would be through John C. Wright's short story Awake in the Night.

Interestingly, John C. Wright is another Catholic author. And Googling for the above story links to his recent discussion of this post. !!

Dale James Nelson said...

Here is a passage:

"Then he climbed again, and went up between limestone rocks, higher and higher, till the noise of waters became indistinct, a faint humming of swarming hives in summer. He walked some distance on level ground, till there was a break in the banks and a stile on which he could lean and look out. He found himself, as he had hoped, afar and forlorn; he had strayed into outland and occult territory. From the eminence of the lane, skirting the brow of a hill, he looked down into deep valleys and dingles, and beyond, across the trees, to remoter country, wild bare hills and dark wooded lands meeting the grey still sky. Immediately beneath his feet the ground sloped steep down to the valley, a hillside of close grass patched with dead bracken, and dotted here and there with stunted thorns, and below there were deep oak woods, all still and silent, and lonely as if no one ever passed that way. The grass and bracken and thorns and woods, all were brown and grey beneath the leaden sky, and as Lucian looked he was amazed, as though he were reading a wonderful story, the meaning of which was a little greater than his understanding. Then, like the hero of a fairy-book, he went on and on, catching now and again glimpses of the amazing country into which he had penetrated, and perceiving rather than seeing that as the day waned everything grew more grey and somber. As he advanced he heard the evening sounds of the farms, the low of the cattle, and the barking of the sheepdogs; a faint thin noise from far away. It was growing late, and as the shadows blackened he walked faster, till once more the lane began to descend, there was a sharp turn, and he found himself, with a good deal of relief, and a little disappointment, on familiar ground."

With a few changes, this feels, to me, somewhat like Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major. It is from the first few pages of Arthur Machen's decadent novel The Hill of Dreams, which is an un-Tolkienian work.

Here's a passage from Machen's evolutionary horror story "The Black Seal":

"The next morning, when I awoke and looked out of the bow window of the big, old-fashioned bedroom, I saw under a grey sky a country that was still all mystery. The long, lovely valley, with the river winding in and out below, crossed in mid-vision by a medieval bridge of vaulted and buttressed stone, the clear presence of the rising ground beyond, and the woods that I had only seen in shadow the night before, seemed tinged with enchantment, and the soft breath of air that sighed in at the opened pane was like no other wind. I looked across the valley, and beyond, hill followed hill as wave on wave, and here a faint blue pillar of smoke rose still in the morning air from the chimney of an ancient grey farm-house, there was a rugged height crowned with dark firs, and in the distance I saw the white streak of a road that climbed and vanished into some unimagined country. But the boundary of all was a great wall of mountain, vast in the west, and ending like a fortress with a steep ascent and a domed tumulus clear against the sky."

That reminds me a bit of the House of Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-Downs, e.g. this excerpt: "Eastward the Barrowdowns rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains."

Machen is not a very Tolkienian author. It's just, again, that numerous passages in Tolkien's fantasy seem to have an affinity with passages in other works, as I suggested in an earlier comment here.

bgc said...

@Dale - I don't really find it very similar to Tolkien, I'm afraid.

But there is a general flavour of the time - and it comes through in much 'neo-pagan' work of the late 19th early 20th century, that was concerned with countryside matters (perhaps the best example is Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Graeme also wrote Pagan Papers).

I would say that this prose has more of a Tolkien flavour


in case the link doesn't work, this is from Charles Vince, Wayfarers in Arcady - the essay called The Two Valleys.

Lovely clean prose in my opinion, and terribly terribly sad, with the sadness of an upper middle class English man just after 1918 who has seen most of his friends killed and his world turned upside down.

Much like Tolkien.

Dale James Nelson said...

Topics like this one elicit personal experience. Tolkien and Machen seem to me to have affected my imaginative awareness of the natural world more than any other authors. I began reading Tolkien when I was 11 years old and Machen at about 14 (I believe), and at that age poetry and poetic prose can, perhaps, exercise more of a sway over one's imaginative development than when one is an adult. Very well, these two authors seem to have affected me profoundly: what is it that they have in common that reached me? It seems to have been something like the haunting effect of landscape and sky and few dwellings, a sense of distances, of an unspecifiable expectancy, a removal from the mechanized and rationalized, etc.

But I am not trying to persuade anyone to read Machen. There is probably no author about whom I am more conflicted. Some of his writing got under my skin and retains its attraction, and on the other hand I think he was badly damaged by his self-pity, his rebellion against "Victorian convention," his obdurate antipathy to Protestantism, and so on. So while I read something or other by him every year, I don't own any of his books (any more!).

Ted Swanson said...

Not "post" Tolkien, but I think the Icelandic Sagas are very much *like* Tolkien. I'm sure Tolkien was familiar with, and influenced by, the Sagas, no?

bgc said...

@TS - Yes, Tolkien was expert in Old Norse, and got to know CS Lewis at a 'Coalbiters' club he formed to teach the language to other Oxford academics.

The sagas are like the Silmarillion annals, for sure - but not like the Hobbit/ LotR - except in a few scattered passages (e.g. the debate between Thorin and Bard at the gates of the Lonely Mountain).

baduin said...

I would suggest William Morris - such books as "The Well at the World's End" or "The Glittering Plain"; they quite clearly influenced Tolkien, but they are certainly not as good - his style is a bit stiff, too artificially archaic.

If you do not like Eddison, who was a much better stylist, it is possible that you will not be able to read Morris.

bgc said...

@b - as a result of reading Tolkien I did in fact read Morris as a teenager - but it was the Dream of John Ball, and News from Nowhere that I liked.

Anonymous said...

I havent read many books though much of what I read falls in this genre that is just because LOTR is my first book in this genre. From then I have been frantically searching for books that make feel the same as how felt for LOTR. The deep longing once the book gets completed, making us think that though there is so much and more to know that we are denied all that glorious past though all the while reading the book hoping for that glorious past to repeat. Yes I agree with what the first commenter had said.
So from the books I have read I could only pick up 'Tad williams, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn' The same longing much of 80% we experience even in this book, though the book not in any way closer to LOTR in its setting and complexity.