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In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit
September 21, 2012 12:43 AM   Subscribe

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, went on sale 75 years ago today. The first printing, by Allen & Unwin, was for 1,500 copies (which now fetch a premium at auction); the first reviewer, the son of the publisher, was paid a shilling. Through a contorted publishing history, exact or even approximate sales figures are unknown; "over a hundred million" is often quoted.

Tolkien was born in the Orange Free State (now South Africa) in 1892. Via Birmingham and Worcestershire, and active service in World War I, he spent much of his life in Oxford where he taught at the university, wrote The Hobbit and several other works, and studied, invented and translated languages. One significant revision to the original text of the Hobbit was made here when Tolkien was drafting The Lord of the Rings, to make the nature of the ring, and its effect on Gollum, compatible with this later work.

While some speculate on the endurance of the story, read one of the many companion books, or the ebook version in which Tolkien sings 'Chip the glasses and crack the plates!", replay the ZX Spectrum game adaptation, celebrate the anniversary by partaking of a second breakfast at 11am this morning, or watch the latest trailer for the first in the forthcoming film trilogy (or watch one of the previous adaptations), others may choose to hear the author himself read from The Hobbit, or explain how he wrote the first line.

In addition to todays anniversary, many fans celebrate tomorrow (September 22nd) as Hobbit day, marking the birthdays of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

After a long academic career at Oxford University, Tolkien retired to Bournemouth. He died in 1973. John and Edith, married for 55 years, are buried in the same grave in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford.
posted by Wordshore (108 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
In a hole in my head lives a Hobbit. Thankee J.R.R.!
posted by brappi at 1:00 AM on September 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


ZX Spectrum game adaptation

KILL GOLLUM WITH SWORD
TAKE RING

Well. That'd make everything so much simpler, no doubt.
posted by hat_eater at 1:15 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like the Hobbit much more than The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf is a lot more fun in that book, Thorin is a great character, and it covers ground the grass and flowers of which haven't been stomped down by so many fantasy armies in later, LOTR-aping fantasy books.
posted by JHarris at 1:17 AM on September 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


So, Bilbo shot first?
posted by kram175 at 1:24 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you are particularly sick, there's a #TalkLikeAHobbitDay hashtag.

And, for anyone who hasn't seen it, the four extra bits for The Hobbit trailer.

Also Gandalf Style.

I do loves me The Hobbit.
posted by Mezentian at 1:42 AM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


I admit it: I sometimes get a little weepy when I near the end of The Tale of Beren and Lúthien.
posted by sbutler at 1:44 AM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


I really wonder... has any other author has been that influential on a whole culture's shared mythology? There have been extremely successful tellers-of-tales, like Mary Shelley, that caught the essence of their eras, but Tolkien.... in the 20th century, he was the million-ton behemoth that became so dominant that the entire mythic landscape is still echoing his ideas. We all know exactly what dwarves and elves and hobbits are, and what they should look like, and even what they should sound like, to some degree. It would not shock me if, were you to poll random Americans, over 80% would know what those creatures were, and maybe could even name The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. That kind of pervasiveness is exceedingly rare.

Shakespeare probably had more overall influence, but his stuff wasn't mythic... and whether Shakespeare has more influence over a modern reader is actually somewhat questionable.

One thing I've realized is that, to humans, telling stories is absolutely central to us... in many ways, we organize our lives in such a way as to tell a story to other people about who and what we are. This is, I think, much of the reason for the endless striving and politics and one-upsmanship, because so many want to tell the story where they're better than everyone else, where they're Superior Examples of Humanity... and, like all other stories, it is fiction. Stories are in our blood and bones in a way that maybe nothing else is, not even sex.

And of all these stories, both little and large, individual and political, shared verbal histories and formal published fictions, Tolkien's stand near the top of the heap, one tale to bind us all. If he wasn't the most influential writer in the twentieth century, he was absolutely in the top five.
posted by Malor at 2:06 AM on September 21, 2012 [26 favorites]


Who are the other 4? Limited to the 20th century authors who wrote in English.

L. Ron Hubbard has got to be up there with his religion and all.

no, I will not accept DFW as a valid answer
posted by Ad hominem at 2:19 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


L. Ron Hubbard has got to be up there with his religion and all.

No.
Just... no.

(I might accept JK Rowling and Stephen King as being possible candidates).
posted by Mezentian at 2:22 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yep, King. Not epic myths, but myths nonetheless. Cujo, Carrie and maybe a couple other things have passed into our collective conciousness.

I had an English teacher who said bugs bunny was the modern day Greek myth. A shared story that bound us together as a culture. It created a set of shared refernece points that allow us to communicate. So the guy across the street isn't like Wittgenstein's lion to me. I could see the same being said about Tolkien and King. I can't think of anyone else who has created something along the lines of a greek myth, something the binds and defines a culture.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:35 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


When I was young I read science fiction, at some point in college I discovered The Hobbit (as did everyone else in college in the '70's), my initial reaction to this new (at least to me) genre was a bit skeptical. I was well into the trilogy before I realized that the transition from science fiction to Middle Earth fantasy was akin to switching from Pot to Heroin.

And, the idea of a second breakfast may be worth considering as a regular part of my semi-retired mornings.
posted by HuronBob at 3:20 AM on September 21, 2012


I have a wonderful memory of being introduced to The Hobbit. My fifth grade teacher was a giant of a man, built somewhat like Herman Munster with a gravely, deep voice. As a treat for our good behavior one day he read the chapter with the trolls to us. Such fun.
posted by saffry at 4:00 AM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


My first introduction to The Hobbit was actually the 70s Bakshi animated film. Later on, I read the book, and read Lord of the Rings when I was in high school. Since then, I pick up and read them every couple years or so. I am looking forward to being able to introduce my son to them.
posted by Fleebnork at 4:00 AM on September 21, 2012


Cujoe and Carrie really only mean anything to old people. Even now, the writing style is of a certain time and of a certain place, and limited to it. It hasn't pollinated the way Tolkein's work has...

...and more to the point, King is standing on some immensely tall and broad shoulders. Lovecraft is the real titan here. Nowhere near as widely-read as King or Koontz or Barker, but his influence is everywhere in SF/F and horror, and will be for the next century or more.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:06 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Hobbit is my favourite book of Tolkien bar none. Reading the background of Middle Earth in books like Unfinished Tales may increase one's appreciation, but the beauty of it is that it's self-contained, playful and yet well-grounded.
posted by ersatz at 4:07 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think Rowling's Potter series might be in that league, Ad hominem.... we were, presumably, all too old to be shaped by her stories like we were shaped by Tolkien, but the younger crowd is absolutely nuts about that story. I enjoyed them a great deal, but if I'd been 15 and new, instead of over thirty and jaded when I read them, I think my reaction could have been far stronger.

She may also prove to just be popular, as opposed to having lasting cultural impact. Tolkien, over time, created an entire new genre, modern fantasy, where I'm not sure Rowling's stories will change later books in the same way.

I think we probably won't be able to answer that question for another twenty years. My overall guess is no; her books don't shatter the old rules, they uphold them. But I could be missing the real truth, because I'm too old to see it.
posted by Malor at 4:09 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


One of my grade school teachers introduced me to Thomas Covenant.
He is still in hiding.

My oldest memory of The Hobbit is listening to it on audiobook, on multiple cassettes, probably in mid-late late '83.It was okay, but I really wasn't sold until I read the book.

I try to revisit it every few years in some form or other.
posted by Mezentian at 4:10 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lovecraft, Burroughs, RE Howard.... I think you'd have to toss all of their names into the ring.
posted by Mezentian at 4:12 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


God, Thomas Covenant, blech. Five books to tell a two-book story. I read the whole series, one Christmas vacation in my teens, taking most of a week to plow through them.

When I finished, I described the sensation as having spent an entire week with a severe case of constipation.
posted by Malor at 4:12 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Lovecraft, Burroughs, RE Howard.... I think you'd have to toss all of their names into the ring.

Oh now that comment is just... precioussss.
posted by hal9k at 4:16 AM on September 21, 2012


I remember my mom reading The Hobbit to us as kids. And according to what she wrote in my baby book, I read it myself for the first time at age 6. Cannot wait to read it to my own son, once his attention span can last through a chapter... (He's 3 and loves to read with Mom and Dad, but I think he will apprecitse it a bit more when he's a little older!)
posted by caution live frogs at 4:23 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure George Orwell trumps Stephen King any day over cultural impact. How many expressions and words have entered general use from King?
posted by Pyrogenesis at 5:04 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I find it completely astounding that The Hobbit is only 75 years old. Even when I was much, much younger, and the story was just 40 years old or so, I just assumed it was just a particularly well translated myth.
posted by DigDoug at 5:06 AM on September 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'm pretty sure George Orwell trumps Stephen King any day over cultural impact.

This Comment is DoublePlusGood.
I have always considered Orwell better than King. Always.
posted by Mezentian at 5:12 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ah yes, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbelievable Asshole.
posted by Pistache at 5:14 AM on September 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


celebrate the anniversary by partaking of a second breakfast at 11am this morning

Excuse me, but I believe we have elevenses at 11AM. Second breakfast is between first breakfast and elevenses.
posted by hoca efendi at 5:18 AM on September 21, 2012 [15 favorites]


I suppose Conan Doyle created a mythology with Sherlock Holmes that leads directly to every dysfunctional police detective genius on TV today.
posted by Malla at 5:19 AM on September 21, 2012 [12 favorites]


Why do people always get upset by Thomas Covenant ? It's not like he raped someone....
posted by Pendragon at 5:39 AM on September 21, 2012


It's not that he didn't rape anyone, it's that he whined about it. A lot.

(also lulz).
posted by Mezentian at 5:46 AM on September 21, 2012


has any other author has been that influential on a whole culture's shared mythology?

Homer
posted by IndigoJones at 5:48 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Foamfollower should have strangled that fucker in his sleep, world be damned.
posted by Malor at 5:49 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think Stephen King or JK Rowling are in the same league. Yes, they are incredibly influential, but they didn't dramatically redefine the boundaries of their genre to the point that every single writer in their genre is living in their shadow. I mean, take elves. Elves in ancient myth aren't tall, blonde, etherial being of goodness. They were tiny, mischievous imps. Tolkien actually managed to redraw elves in the shared cultural landscape into these tall, beautiful, wise, artistic, archery-loving dudes and now, almost EVERY fantasy novel that has elves in it is using those tropes. Stephen King ain't got nothin' on that.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:05 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tolkien's work is nothing but pro-Gondor imperialist propaganda. I recommend that you all educate yourselves about the real FACTS behind the Middle-Earth conflict by consulting a more balanced work, such as "The Hobbiton Conspiracy", by W. K. Angmar, or Jeff Sauron's wonderful autobiography, "Lidless, I". Teach the controversy, MetaFilter.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 6:07 AM on September 21, 2012 [55 favorites]


On the whole 'impact of tolkien' note, I can't help but say my reading so far into Ents, Elves, and Eribor has been very positive. It covers his impact on environmentalism and if it was intentional or not. I was glad to see that, so far at least, the authors have not presumed too much.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:07 AM on September 21, 2012


Malor, I agree in general with your comment, but Shakespeare... Shakespeare is a different league entirely. He changed the English *language*, and his stories have affected culture and storytelling worldwide.

And Fleebnork... you poor bastard... You're fortunate to have come out of that experience still liking the damn books!
posted by scolbath at 6:11 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


numerologists have fun:

The Hobbit: published in 1937

JRR died in 1973

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:27 AM on September 21, 2012 [16 favorites]


I suppose Conan Doyle created a mythology with Sherlock Holmes that leads directly to every dysfunctional police detective genius on TV today.

Personality-wise, perhaps. But even Conan Doyle admitted his deep debt to Edgar Allen Poe, who is generally acknowledged as having written the first "detective story" with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Dupin is a comparatively colorless character compared to Holmes, but their methods and philosophy of ratiocination are basically the same.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:31 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Heh, was reading the first book of the Covenant series earlier in the week. After the rape scene the character seems to completely not care that he just fucked up someone's life. Then he gets all pissy because the Mother of the girl he raped isn't so keen on him, understandably. Then he meets a literally jolly giant with a magic boat, and he's still a insufferable douche canoe who just wants to complain about everything. God what whiny, boring, self important book, very glad I only spent a couple of bucks on it at the op shop around the corner. I'm this close to throwing it into the bin, which is something I find almost physically unable to do with books, even the copy of The DaVinci Code my Mum gave me for Christmas one year.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:37 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think Stephen King or JK Rowling are in the same league. Yes, they are incredibly influential, but they didn't dramatically redefine the boundaries of their genre to the point that every single writer in their genre is living in their shadow.

I think it's hard to tell. We're too close to Carrie and Cujo, and we can muggle along, but I was just throwing out possible names.

The other issue is that other mediums have become so important. Rowling's influence is all over Twitter and Tumblr. And it's all down to the not-particularly ground-breaking but well-written adventures of a boy wizard.

In some metrics, I think you could make the case that he's easily on part of Arthur (King).
posted by Mezentian at 6:37 AM on September 21, 2012


Malor, I agree in general with your comment, but Shakespeare... Shakespeare is a different league entirely. He changed the English *language*, and his stories have affected culture and storytelling worldwide.

But what I'm really talking about there is myth. Shakespeare didn't work much with myth, he worked more with archetypes (defined many of them, in fact), and in many ways defined how dramatic stories should be told. But I'm not really aware that he changed the stories that people told amongst themselves, the faerie tales, and the mythological landscape that those tales come from.

Tolkein did. The older strands survive still, and you see them in, say Charles de Lint's work (who I think is absolutely wonderful, probably my favorite fantasy author), but Tolkein just stomped a whole new kind of fantasy world into the collective consciousness. Pre-Tolkien, you had The Brothers Grimm, and Lewis Carroll, and certainly some others that I'm not thinking of just now. Post-Tolkien, fantasy changed. Myth changed. The Brothers Grimm seems hokey and ancient to modern ears, but Tolkien doesn't.
posted by Malor at 6:56 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure George Orwell trumps Stephen King any day over cultural impact. How many expressions and words have entered general use from King?

Speaking personally, I've already used the phrase "shoot a pickle" at least once today, including this very sentence.
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:10 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ok, I think I see your point more clearly - although it raises an interesting question of what "myth" consists of! If you include the Brothers Grimm, why not Romeo and Juliet?
posted by scolbath at 7:10 AM on September 21, 2012


The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began
Now far ahead the road has gone, and I must follow it if I can
Pursuing it with eager feet, until it meets some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet, whither then I cannot say
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:15 AM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Shakespeare didn't work much with myth, he worked more with archetypes (defined many of them, in fact), and in many ways defined how dramatic stories should be told.

I suspect A Midsummer Night's Dream had an influence on how we read fairies. And I agree, Romeo and Juliet (and perhaps Hamlet) are mythic. Look at the way the story is thrown around in books like Twilight.

I see what Malor is saying, though. When I was a kid, I didn't think that Tolkien was someone writing within recent history. I thought his stories had always been there, or been there for a very long time. Certainly felt older than the works of authors like Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum, and when I later started reading actual Tolkien it felt . . . well, cliche. Because every fantasy author I'd read before was doing something so similar. Of course, this was complicated for me by the fact that my dad was buds with the Hildebrandt brothers. He posed for a bunch of Tolkien calendars (that's him at the center of An Unexpected Party) and so our house was littered with Hildebrandt artwork and books. When your dad is a hobbit, it kind of changes your relationship to the myth.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:21 AM on September 21, 2012 [14 favorites]


Where there is a whip, there is a way.
posted by Mezentian at 7:22 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


the fact that my dad was buds with the Hildebrandt brothers.

Your dad is Shea Ohmsford?
posted by Mezentian at 7:25 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


"King is standing on some immensely tall and broad shoulders. Lovecraft is the real titan here."

And Lovecraft was standing on the shoulders of R. W. Chambers and possibly also William Hope Hodgson and others I'm likely ignorant of. And so on.
posted by Eideteker at 7:28 AM on September 21, 2012


William Hope Hodgson was an awful writer.
Brilliant ideas (oh, so brilliant) but his writing was average.
I do want a Night Lands mini-series.

R. W. Chambers appears to be unknown to me. Could you share some pointers, if it's not too much of a derail?
posted by Mezentian at 7:30 AM on September 21, 2012


Your dad is Shea Ohmsford?

No, but he may or may not have been Luke Skywalker (he claimed he posed for that one, but when I met the Bros. as a teenager, they couldn't remember).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:33 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I mean, take elves. They were tiny, mischievous imps. Tolkien actually managed to redraw elves in the shared cultural landscape into these tall, beautiful, wise, artistic, archery-loving dudes ..."

... but fortunately, despite his best efforts to make us all forget the true majesty of elf magic, we've reclaimed that part of Western lore by remembering that they live in trees and make delicious cookies.
posted by mph at 7:34 AM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why do people always get upset by Thomas Covenant ?

I always thought the interesting question that should've been tackled by the series is "What do you do when the saviour of your world is an insufferable ass?". You would have to tell the story from the POVs of Foamfollower, Morin and a few members of the Bloodguard, though.

I have a strange fascination with the Covenant books, and keep occasionally picking at them, like a scab that won't heal.
posted by never used baby shoes at 7:43 AM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Chambers (who was in turn influenced by Ambrose Bierce...)

[study yr BÖC FAQ]
posted by Eideteker at 7:57 AM on September 21, 2012


Shakespeare probably had more overall influence, but his stuff wasn't mythic... and whether Shakespeare has more influence over a modern reader is actually somewhat questionable.

What?

Wait...what?

Not mythic? How about King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry IV Part One?

And the only reason you dont recognize Shakespeare's influence over modern culture is that it has been so ingrained into modern culture that you dont recognize the original tropes.
posted by Billiken at 8:00 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


King is standing on some immensely tall and broad shoulders. Lovecraft is the real titan here.

So is Tolkien; it's just that his tall and broad shoulders is "all of Medieval Northern European mythology." Tolkien can be great, but he's basically Walt Disney.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:07 AM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm sorry; my fourteen year-old self still sees The Hobbit as the necessary evil (or the "enchanting prelude", take your pick) that you have to slog through to get to The Lord of the Rings.
posted by Curious Artificer at 8:17 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


But they're not mythic, the hidden creatures that we can't see, the gods and fairies and pookas. Shakespeare defined many of the fundamental character archetypes, and many of the fundamental plots, but most of his stories were about things that could have happened, even though they were fictional.

Maybe I'm misusing "myth", because I'm not formally educated in this area. Myths, to me, are stories about the invisible entities we imagine for why things happen; they're the tales we tell each other around the campfire, the stuff that most folks think is fantasy, but aren't quite sure. I'd call the Bible probably our strongest cultural myth in this context, but all the religions qualify, and the old Norse fables, and the Greek epics about the gods... dealing with fantastic creatures that never existed, and probably never could exist.

Shakespeare was working in fiction, but his stuff was about archetypes, powerful examplars of specific character types that we've come to recognize as common across human experience. It's not necessarily that these are how people actually are, but rather that this is how we tell stories about them, and Shakespeare seems to have shaped many of those expectations. But he wrote about kings, and jesters, and courts, and men-at-arms, not gods striding the earth and calling the lightning, and usually not fairies, A Midsummer Night's Dream excepted.

This stuff is really powerful, but I think of it as being at maybe a higher level than myths, a more sophisticated construct... stories that could potentially be taken, in many cases, as real happenings, to people that actually could have existed. Where Tolkien was writing about fantastic creatures and places, Shakespeare was writing about people, and his ideas are enmeshed in modern culture.

So they're very different things, but when I compare their impact on modern minds, the thought occurs that if you were ask random people in the street, more of them would recognize Gandalf's name than Hamlet's, and I'm nearly certain that they'd be more likely to know that Gandalf was a wizard than that Hamlet was a prince.

And that's 75 years after the books were first published, so it's not like this is a temporary flash in the pan. Twilight, it ain't.
posted by Malor at 8:28 AM on September 21, 2012


Of course, this was complicated for me by the fact that my dad was buds with the Hildebrandt brothers. He posed for a bunch of Tolkien calendars (that's him at the center of An Unexpected Party) and so our house was littered with Hildebrandt artwork and books. When your dad is a hobbit, it kind of changes your relationship to the myth.

And it is because of this type of comment that I love Metafilter. Seriously, I never even thought of the fact that there are people around who modeled for those things, much less imagined hearing from the child of one of them. That is ridiculously neat.

It also makes me realize that somewhere there are probably people who modeled for the Dragonlance calendar that I had when I was 13. That is weird.


My first thought is not "who is as influential as Tolkien" but "who is Tolkien as influential as"? I'd argue that he's sort of a fantasy novel equivalent of Marx or Freud, someone who so reshaped what people expect that even people who have not read him or who would say that they dislike his work have absorbed certain foundational ideas without realizing.
posted by Frowner at 8:30 AM on September 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


The obvious mythmakers in English and French culture are the writers of the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:31 AM on September 21, 2012


So is Tolkien; it's just that his tall and broad shoulders is "all of Medieval Northern European mythology." Tolkien can be great, but he's basically Walt Disney.

Yes and no. He used elements from a ton of myths, but combined them and made them reflect his own sensibilities (which might be a good or a bad thing). Even if you take the most obvious example of Beowulf, there is a difference in tone and scope. Whereas Walt Disney mainly bowdlerised folk tales and filmed them.

The Brothers Grimm seems hokey and ancient to modern ears, but Tolkien doesn't.

To your modern ears. I read them happily.

Tolkien's work is nothing but pro-Gondor imperialist propaganda. I recommend that you all educate yourselves about the real FACTS behind the Middle-Earth conflict by consulting a more balanced work, such as "The Hobbiton Conspiracy", by W. K. Angmar, or Jeff Sauron's wonderful autobiography, "Lidless, I". Teach the controversy, MetaFilter.

Or The Last Ringbearer. Remember to vote #1 Quidnunc Kid for Dark Lord of Mordor, Where the Shadows Dwell this fall.
posted by ersatz at 8:34 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


"William Hope Hodgson was an awful writer.
Brilliant ideas (oh, so brilliant) but his writing was average."


This certainly describes Lovecraft, King, and definitely Tolkien.
posted by Eideteker at 8:34 AM on September 21, 2012


Argh, it post early: the Matter of France. So Chrétien de Troyes, Monmouth, Malory, and the anonymous authors of the Chanson de Roland.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:36 AM on September 21, 2012


Yes and no. He used elements from a ton of myths, but combined them and made them reflect his own sensibilities (which might be a good or a bad thing). Even if you take the most obvious example of Beowulf, there is a difference in tone and scope. Whereas Walt Disney mainly bowdlerised folk tales and filmed them.

I'd say the line between bowdlerizing and making something reflect your own sensibilities is really in the eye of the beholder. I think the real difference between Disney and Tolkien is the scope and depth of the sources they draw on. I also don't say that to reflect badly on Tolkien; there's no reason that retellings and heavily sourced works can't be just as deep, interesting, and important as "original" stories. My point is more the opposite, namely that "he's standing on the shoulders of other authors" is not a particularly useful criticism. Stephen King isn't less interesting because he's borrowing from Lovecraft, anymore than than the existence of the Volsunga Saga makes The Lord of the Rings less interesting.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:43 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, we agree on depth and scope being the main difference. I didn't take your previous comment as criticism fwiw.
posted by ersatz at 8:50 AM on September 21, 2012


In terms if impact I think L Frank Baum should be somewhere on that list, too.
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:53 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


A friend of the family would come over, nearly every night, and he would read to me (mostly so my mom could get some actual work done). Big, big guy, as if Santa had red hair instead of white, and an amazing, booming voice, perfect for fantasy. He read the Phantom Tollbooth to me, and then we switched to the leatherbound copy of the Hobbit. He came over for weeks, reading a bit here and there. He knew the songs, knew the pronunciation of words in the various languages. After we finished the Hobbit, we went straight into Lord of the Rings. It was an amazing part of my childhood, and I have always wanted to do nothing more than tell stories to people.

Later on, the family friend introduced me to science fiction conventions, and in doing so, provided me an out from how godawful day-to-day life was when I was a teen, by which time I'd been re-reading Tolkien every year, catching more and more of the things that I'd completely missed when I was younger.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:01 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


has any other author has been that influential on a whole culture's shared mythology?

Can I throw Stan Lee out there?
posted by The Hamms Bear at 9:05 AM on September 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


As a big Stephen King fan, I don't think that he has anywhere near the influence of Tolkien or Lovecraft, although they were certainly influences on him. (King has always been very upfront about the Dark Tower series being a cross-pollination between LOTR and Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns.) One way to think of someone's level of influence on others is to look at how many would-be imitators and competitors for the same market that they've got, and a quick perusal of almost any bookstore will still show any number of Stephenie Meyer wannabes and J.K. Rowling imitators; ditto for Anne Rice in her heyday. People were writing stories using elements of the Cthulhu Mythos before Lovecraft died, and the the debt that the entire fantasy genre (and especially role-playing games) owes Tolkien is incalculable.

King, though, I don't see as having imitators or direct competitors; the closest that he's got to competition is probably Dean Koontz, and Koontz seems to have gone off in a very different direction from King (and one that I don't particularly care for). A big part of that, I think, is that much of fantasy that's set in contemporary times seems to be set in a sort of hidden, parallel world that's not actually a separate dimension but coexists with ours to one degree or another (the wizarding world of Harry Potter, the magical/demonic underground of Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim series, etc.). A few of King's works dabble in this, but the bulk of his work is set very much in the world and is much more strongly informed by it than most hidden-world fantasy. The main villain of The Dead Zone is a populist politician (King made the point a few years ago that Sarah Palin, for all practical intents and purposes, is Greg Stillson), and at least one of the villains, if not the main villain, of The Stand, Firestarter, and Dreamcatcher is the United States government or an agency thereof.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:06 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


the quidnunc kid - you joke but the orcs' side of the story is a real thing and it is EPIC.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:09 AM on September 21, 2012


another vote for The Last Ringbearer, which is surprisingly good and not at all just another bit of pastiche. It's whole new way of thinking about Middle-earth, and it actually feels more like a spy novel than fantasy. I don't think it's possible to think about Middle-earth in quite the same way again after you've read it.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:15 AM on September 21, 2012


I really wonder... has any other author has been that influential on a whole culture's shared mythology?

H.G. Wells. Practically all of science fiction has been a reaction to his work. Just look at his hit list: The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, War Of The Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau (which predicted genetic engineering) The First Men In The Moon, The War In The Air, The World Set Free (which predicted nuclear power) The Shape Of Things To Come (which predicted World War II). Science Fiction has been much more influential on the culture as a whole than Tolkienesque fantasy.
posted by vibrotronica at 9:17 AM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Maybe I'm misusing "myth", because I'm not formally educated in this area. Myths, to me, are stories about the invisible entities we imagine for why things happen; they're the tales we tell each other around the campfire, the stuff that most folks think is fantasy, but aren't quite sure. I'd call the Bible probably our strongest cultural myth in this context, but all the religions qualify, and the old Norse fables, and the Greek epics about the gods... dealing with fantastic creatures that never existed, and probably never could exist.

I'm not exactly an expert, but the professor I had in college who was one made it very clear that myths are, at their core, just stories people told each other and enjoyed. The idea that they all explain why things are the way they are is a modern invention. Plenty of myths don't do that at all. What exactly does the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur explain? I guess Aegeus throws himself into the sea at the end and then Theseus founded Athens, but it's a pretty roundabout way to get to that endpoint. Really, the most familiar Greek myths do precious little explaining -- Jason and the Argonauts, the Odyssey and Iliad, Hercules's Labors, etc.

I also don't think they're all necessarily stories about the distant and magical past. To pick a Bibical myth, David and Goliath is both one of the most famous and culturally relevant stories in the Bible, and while you can shoehorn some supernatural content in there, it's basically irrelevant to the action of the story. Plus, it's set in a world that's basically the same as the world the people who first told it lived in, not in what would have been an ancient time of gods and monsters to them.

Basically, I think they're best understood as exciting, interesting stories, and the idea that all myths are magical tales of gods and heros of the distant past that all have Just So Story endings is only something that came about once we stopped telling each other those sorts of stories, and it came with a fair bit of retconning.

you joke but the orcs' side of the story is a real thing and it is EPIC.

All I need to know about anti-orc propaganda I learned from Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.
posted by Copronymus at 9:22 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


H.G. Wells. Practically all of science fiction has been a reaction to his work.

Jules Verne takes precedence, no? He put men on the moon 36 years before H.G. and centuries after Lucian. It's a good point though as the fantasies of these writers ended up becoming reality to an extent.

By the way, I find it amusing that we have two Byzantine emperors in this thread.
posted by ersatz at 9:41 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had an English teacher who said bugs bunny was the modern day Greek myth. A shared story that bound us together as a culture.

Bugs and Daffy at Tanagra.

The awesome Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Hobbit was part of my first introduction to the Tolkien mythos. Indeed, the fact that it told the story so well in 70 minutes or so -- leavign out pretty much only Beorn -- is part of what makes me skeptical of the Jackson three-movie plan.
posted by Gelatin at 9:43 AM on September 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


Burroughs needs mention here.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:47 AM on September 21, 2012


Tolkein did. The older strands survive still, and you see them in, say Charles de Lint's work (who I think is absolutely wonderful, probably my favorite fantasy author), but Tolkein just stomped a whole new kind of fantasy world into the collective consciousness. Pre-Tolkien, you had The Brothers Grimm, and Lewis Carroll, and certainly some others that I'm not thinking of just now. Post-Tolkien, fantasy changed. Myth changed. The Brothers Grimm seems hokey and ancient to modern ears, but Tolkien doesn't.

Tolkien sounds PLENTY hokey to my ears (he's a pretty crappy prose stylist and his dialogue is horribly wooden). Nothing about the Grimm brothers sounds even the least hokey to me; I wonder, in fact, if you've actually read the original Grimm collection. Much of it is passing strange.

I'm struggling a little to grasp what Malor means by "mythic" but I think it's actually "world-creating." That is, the difference between Shakespeare and Tolkien that he's trying to put his finger on is that Tolkien created a whole world that we can keep going back into a playing around in: almost like a video game world, while Shakespeare merely told particular individual stories (because it's just wrong to suggest that Shakespeare is uninterested in invisible/supernatural forces: the Ghost in Hamlet, the witches in Macbeth etc. etc.).

I think there's a little bit of truth in this, but I also think that Tolkien is less of an innovator in that regard than we now tend to think. Wagner is an obvious precursor (heck, it's even a giant mythic saga about a magical ring of power!). And if you look at late Victorian children's literature and poetry it's full of invented worlds where the borders between normal reality and "faerie" of various descriptions are permeable: George MacDonald, E. Nesbit, Christina Rossetti etc. etc. (and one could throw in Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," actually, as another branch of this development). Tolkien is a pretty predictable product of a general period interest in this kind of imaginative world-building, not some kind of earth-shattering bolt out of the blue.
posted by yoink at 10:13 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you're looking for a storyteller that took over the whole world literary wise, I'd have to go with Dickens. He didn't invent a world, but holy moly those were some compelling characters in really compelling stories.

Sure, he or his agent decided to serialize the story to make more money, but hot damn it worked. Who knew serialization coupled with great storytelling could work together so well?
posted by Sphinx at 10:28 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


For those who wish to celebrate Hobbit Day with some cooking, here is a recipe list to make your reading experience more authentic (and tasty!).
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:31 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had an English teacher who said bugs bunny was the modern day Greek myth. A shared story that bound us together as a culture.

From a certain point of view, the Roadrunner/Coyote cartoons can be seen as Native American trickster-god fanfic.

Bugs and Daffy at Tanagra.

When the frog danced!
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:04 AM on September 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


All these comments and nobody's mentioned that it's Bilbo's birthday tomorrow? Come on!
posted by grubi at 11:19 AM on September 21, 2012


Grubi: you didn't read all of the FPP?
posted by Wordshore at 11:25 AM on September 21, 2012


Ah. Um.


Oops.
posted by grubi at 11:28 AM on September 21, 2012


I'm not as familiar with Tolkien's immediate predecessors as I would like, but wasn't Tolkien's world building fairly unique, if not revolutionary, since he went to the trouble of drawing maps, inventing languages and dialects, writing thousands of years of history + mythology, and then fitting his main novels into all of this as just one small piece of the overall chronology?

I can't think of too many others who did this. Lovecraft, to an extent, yes. But what Tolkien did seems part of a modernization of myth. Our world still has some mystery left to it, but it has been extensively studied and catalogued by historians, scientists, linguists, theologists, etc. to a very high level of detail. Tolkien wanted the same sort of catalogue for his imagined universe, and that seems like a very modern desire his predecessors didn't share, since, for them, the world of myth was something completely separate and ultimately unknowable in a logical way.

In a way, Tolkien and the rise of fundamentalism seem to have some parallels in the way they blur the line between myth and the observable, quantifiable world. Since Tolkien and the rise of the fundamentalists are roughly contemporaneous , maybe there's something to this idea.

At any rate, the world-building at a historian's level of detail seems to be his chief legacy, more than his versions of elves, dwarves, and magic rings. On a closely related note, perhaps Tolkien could also be credited with largely creating the obsession with continuity that modern readers have, when they're reading yet another multi-tome epic. After all, internal consistency regarding characters, locations, and events is vital to creating the illusion that this book reflects an actual history of an actual place.
posted by honestcoyote at 12:01 PM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


From a certain point of view, the Roadrunner/Coyote cartoons can be seen as Native American trickster-god fanfic.

Coyote, his mouth wide.
posted by Gelatin at 12:09 PM on September 21, 2012 [5 favorites]



I think there's a little bit of truth in this, but I also think that Tolkien is less of an innovator in that regard than we now tend to think. Wagner is an obvious precursor (heck, it's even a giant mythic saga about a magical ring of power!). And if you look at late Victorian children's literature and poetry it's full of invented worlds where the borders between normal reality and "faerie" of various descriptions are permeable: George MacDonald, E. Nesbit, Christina Rossetti etc. etc. (and one could throw in Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," actually, as another branch of this development). Tolkien is a pretty predictable product of a general period interest in this kind of imaginative world-building, not some kind of earth-shattering bolt out of the blue.


I think folks are maybe assuming that innovation or influence implies total, wild-haired genius originality, and that therefore if Tolkien wasn't 100% original, he couldn't be substantially influential.

But again, I'd point to Marx and Freud. Neither was purely original; both were tremendous scholars of earlier work, and their commentary on other scholars is an important part of what they produced. But both pulled things together so persuasively into a new form that what they did was not just building on what went before but something different - a difference not only in quantity but in kind, so to speak.

Tolkien is a very different writer from Rossetti or Mrs. Molesworth or E Nesbitt or George MacDonald - he's a 20th century writer concerned with political modernity as they are mostly not (I mean, Nesbitt is very much a modern writer but she's not concerned with what you might call the Matter of Modernity). MacDonald hates modernity - he wants to turn back the clock - you have only to read the deeply undemocratic Princess and Curdie books. We could go on. What makes Tolkien different as a writer - and makes that "Tolkien from the point of view of the orcs" book so appropriate and real - is that he's bringing in the concerns of modern warfare and modern geopolitics. Even in his jokier works, like Farmer Giles of Ham and Leaf by Niggle, he's writing modernity. I expect, honestly, that this is why his books resonate so strongly - you can read them "about" the now in a way that you can't read Phantastes. Even if your reading is negative, emphasizing the racism or turning the whole story upside-down and making Sauron a modernizing post-colonial strong ruler (I spent a whole road trip fleshing that scenario out with some friends once), you're still reading it in tension with current concerns. And it's possible to do a corrective reading as it isn't with The Princess and Curdie - that's a creepy book that did deal extensively with certain political problems of its day, from an extremely reactionary angle. You can recuperate Tolkien a bit by reading the story from the standpoint of Eowyn or Merry or thinking like an Orc, but MacDonald's work doesn't have that kind of scope.

There are some great writers of fantasy before Tolkien - and some contemporaries like Lord Dunsany - who produced delightful, amazing, wonderful work that is perhaps on points better than Tolkien. But better isn't the same as amenable to being read against contemporary concerns. Is Lud-In-The-Mist better than Lord of the Rings? It's certainly funnier and better written and more sophisticated, but it's also a lyric period piece. You have to be a pretty unusual person to find yourself there. It's not a book for a person who sees herself as living in the thick of history. (I mean, it's certainly one of my favorites.)

I also wonder about how reactionary politics affect a work's longevity. Tolkien is a funny kind of conservative, but he's not (IMO) the kind of reactionary that MacDonald and Mirlees are - he sure is nostalgic for a kind of imaginary feudal England, but he doesn't have that raging spite against democracy that they have. It's like his conservatism is an outgrowth of a muddled aestheticism and privilege, whereas theirs is actually born of disdain for regular people and an active preference for elite rule. To me, that means that it is easier to do an enjoyable counter- or critical reading of Tolkien...you have to go "la la la I can't hear you" so much less often.
posted by Frowner at 1:05 PM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Bugs and Daffy at Tanagra.

When the frog danced!

Coyote, his mouth wide.


Acme, when the products failed.
posted by radwolf76 at 1:22 PM on September 21, 2012 [17 favorites]


he doesn't have that raging spite against democracy that they have

I'm feeling as though we must have read radically different editions of both Tolkien and MacDonald. Where do you see the slightest either interest in or affection for "democracy" in Tolkien? The only form of "good" rule that Tolkien ever shows the least interest in is monarchy. The whole "scouring of the Shire" section is a radically reactionary rejection of "modernity" as a kind of infection in an otherwise ideal world. Everything in Tolkien is set up as a lament for modernity--we are to understand that we live in a world drained of magic and drained of beauty because it is the grubby, industrial modern world of democracy and the mob.

MacDonald seems to me, in The Princess and the Goblin to be almost entirely uninterested in politics. Yeah, it's set in a monarchy, but that's simply a matter of signalling "this is a fairy story, not a realist novel." If you're reading the goblins as allegorical stand-ins for the underclass, what, then, are the plucky, heroic and apparently entirely self-employed miners? MacDonald is certainly writing an allegory in The Princess and the Goblin but it is a religious allegory (the Great Great Grandmother as Aslan, er, sorry, God/Jesus). Any attempt to read the goblins through a political lens seems to me doomed to self-contradiction.
posted by yoink at 1:51 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


MacDonald seems to me, in The Princess and the Goblin to be almost entirely uninterested in politics. Yeah, it's set in a monarchy, but that's simply a matter of signalling "this is a fairy story, not a realist novel." If you're reading the goblins as allegorical stand-ins for the underclass, what, then, are the plucky, heroic and apparently entirely self-employed miners? MacDonald is certainly writing an allegory in The Princess and the Goblin but it is a religious allegory (the Great Great Grandmother as Aslan, er, sorry, God/Jesus). Any attempt to read the goblins through a political lens seems to me doomed to self-contradiction.

No, no, in MacDonald's sequel The Princess and Curdie (not The Princess and the Goblin) there is quite a lot of holding forth about the issues of the day, there's a lot of very explicit forelock-tugging by Peter and Peter's father, and the Old Princess holds forth quite a lot about monarchy, just rule and the working class. There's also a really, really gross and very explicitly stated part at the very end (SPOILER) which describes how, long after the events of the book, the city dwellers are so greedy (and it's very clear from the rest of the book that 'greed' is mere middle class social mobility) that they destroy the city and they all die, but that's okay because they brought it on themselves. It's a very clearly political book. It has some wonderful, wonderful passages (and really terrific illustrations in my version) - far more lyrical and memorable than anything in LOTR - but its politics are very ugly. The Princess and the Goblin just has some standard loyal proles, possibly because it's not set in a city.

The distinction I'm trying to draw is between what I consider Tolkien's aesthetic dislike of modernity (which carries with it a positive kind of snobbery - the positive depiction of feudal relations and of the early modern country aristocracy) and Mirelees's and MacDonald's active, clearly spelled-out, directly political hatred of democratic governance. Tolkien thinks industry is ugly and breeds dissent and Baggins charity is great, and he sure is no friend to people of color, but he doesn't have this positive, developed idea that his fellow citizens cannot govern themselves by electing people - Sam even becomes Mayor. Tolkien, IMO, thinks that industry breeds bad behavior among the ordinary people; MacDonald and Mirlees think the ordinary people are bad and therefore breed industry.

Also, I contend that Tolkien accepts the reality of modernity in a way that MacDonald doesn't - you've got the dead faces in the marsh, the vast battles, the troops mustered from all over the empire, all the geostrategic stuff, the coming into being of nation states. It may not be lovely, but it's in the world.

we are to understand that we live in a world drained of magic and drained of beauty because it is the grubby, industrial modern world of democracy and the mob.

I don't think this is quite the right reading. It's true that the elves leave and there isn't any more magic, but I'm not entirely sure we're meant to read the world of Men as just grubby blah-ness. There's quite a lot of splendor in the whole Minas Tirith end of things, and there's positive technology via the dwarves. (And there's a question - where do the dwarves go? Why do they die out? Why don't they still exist?) Tolkien is a conservative, yeah, but he's not a reactionary - he's not someone motivated by spiteful resentment of the now. (Seriously, read Lud-In-The-Mist's depiction of the quite literal mob at the end, or read the Serious Message parts of The Princess and Curdie - they are written with a great deal of emotion and spite. Mocking and clever spite in Mirlees; sententious heavy-handed spite in MacDonald - but spite all the way.)

Also, I suppose you could argue that Leaf By Niggle is about the little modern petit bourgeois man who is plodding and ordinary yet who still has access to grace - it's a weird little story.

posted by Frowner at 2:11 PM on September 21, 2012


Well, I haven't read "The Princess and Curdie" yet, so I'll have to bow out of that part of the discussion. I don't understand how you think the "dead faces in the marsh," or "the vast battles, the troops mustered from all over the empire" etc. represent an "acceptance" of modernity. The mustering of troops from all over the empire is an integral part of Homer's Iliad, for instance, as, of course, are vast battles. There is, no doubt, an awareness of and an acknowledgement of modernity in Tolkien, but I don't see this as a particularly innovative aspect of his writing: it's integral to all the sources he's drawing on: William Morris's "House of the Wolfings," for example, or Wagner's Ring cycle. The sense of modernity as a "fall" away from some imagined mythic era of ideal unity is everywhere, of course, in Romantic and post-Romantic literature. Tolkien's writings are pervaded with the same sense of elegiac mourning for a lost world of chivalry, nobility and magic as Tennyson's "Idylls." Tolkien's just seems a rather less complex and interesting version of this common stance (more reactionary and less dialectical) than that of most of his models.
posted by yoink at 2:50 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hello, I'm David McGahan: "Heh, was reading the first book of the Covenant series earlier in the week. After the rape scene the character seems to completely not care that he just fucked up someone's life. Then he gets all pissy because the Mother of the girl he raped isn't so keen on him, understandably. Then he meets a literally jolly giant with a magic boat, and he's still a insufferable douche canoe who just wants to complain about everything. God what whiny, boring, self important book, very glad I only spent a couple of bucks on it at the op shop around the corner. I'm this close to throwing it into the bin, which is something I find almost physically unable to do with books, even the copy of The DaVinci Code my Mum gave me for Christmas one year."

If you disliked the Thomas Covenant series, you'll hate Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series.
posted by boo_radley at 2:56 PM on September 21, 2012


All right-thinking folk hate the Sword of Truth series, especially after it spirals into blatant Objectivism.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:44 PM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, I contend that Tolkien accepts the reality of modernity in a way that MacDonald doesn't - you've got the dead faces in the marsh, the vast battles, the troops mustered from all over the empire, all the geostrategic stuff, the coming into being of nation states. It may not be lovely, but it's in the world.

The Dead Marshes were supposedly based on Tolkien's experiences of walking over the dead bodies of his friends in Battle of the Somme so yeah, that's pretty much accepting the reality of modernity.
posted by Ber at 3:48 PM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Last Ringbearer is pretty good, but feel free to skip the parts with characters named things like Jacuzzi and any time he tries to create Elvish words. The scope and daring of the project are still admirable.
posted by Earthtopus at 4:03 PM on September 21, 2012


I don't know if my experience is unique, but it certainly confused me. I read LoTRs first and then The Hobbit. Much like how the movie viewing experience will go.

The versions I read, strangely, had Orcs in LoTRs and Goblins in The Hobbit, and it took me forever to work out they were the same thing.
posted by panaceanot at 4:24 PM on September 21, 2012


The sense of modernity as a "fall" away from some imagined mythic era of ideal unity is everywhere, of course, in Romantic and post-Romantic literature.

The fall is also an old, old theme. It's in the bible and Greek myths etc. Even the name of Ages goes a while back.

Iron Age: During this age humans live an existence of toil and misery. Children dishonor their parents, brother fights with brother and the social contract between guest and host (xenia) is forgotten. During this age might makes right, and bad men use lies to be thought good. At the height of this age, humans no longer feel shame or indignation at wrongdoing; babies will be born with gray hair and the gods will have completely forsaken humanity: "there will be no help against evil."

men demarcate nations with boundaries; they learn the arts of navigation and mining; they are warlike, greedy and impious. Truth, modesty and loyalty are nowhere to be found.


Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book, as Cicero would say.
posted by ersatz at 4:44 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hope Hodgeson's The Night Land is a great book, but it's a slog.
I used to refer to LOTR as my own private 'Nam (back before we had more modern wars we could reference) because from age 12 I could never get past bloody Tom Bombadil. Took me 12 years and four goes.

The Night Land is just badly, badly written. And lo, I came upon the brick at 14 and I was entranced by the ideas there, and attracted by the cover font, which I quickly came to understand was the very same typeface that shared the cover of the tome I loved muchly, Magician by the strapping REF. And, lo, I did take me that book from the librarium and raced home to ingest the mysteries and wonders therein, and I became trapped, the text overshadowed by vast sentences that loomed above me, never moving, never ending, horrors from beyond time, vast and unknowable things I could not best. And, lo, I returned the book to that librarium, but the idea flickered like a shadow in my brain, and I could not cleanse its stain from mine deepest recesses. And lo, I once more procured a copy close to my 40th year, and lo, I did embark on a savage quest towards the last page, and lo, I didst conquer it, or did I? Was it a dream, sent from bizarre future place? A hand, stretching back from the vast and unknowable Future......

*cough*

I think House on the Borderland was much better. Or the acid trip was better.

And now I am off to procure The Last Ringbearer.
posted by Mezentian at 4:52 PM on September 21, 2012


Did someone mention Stan Lee without Jack Kirby? Or Steve Ditko?
*pish*
The House of Ideas was more than Lee. View him as a hack or not, his self-promotion skills are amazing.

But that's beside the point.

Anyway, here is Stan Lee singing with Peter Murphy (from Bauhaus): That Old Black Magic.

You have been warned.
posted by Mezentian at 4:58 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lord Of The Rings Stained Glass
posted by homunculus at 5:43 PM on September 21, 2012


he's a 20th century writer concerned with political modernity

Maybe I'm getting hooked up on an undetected difference between modernity and mordernism, but for em Tolkien's books are practically the antithesis of modernism and modernity. They drip with certainty like an overvarnished bannister.

Doesn't make them bad or anything, but modernist, really?

I dunno, I'm a bit of a grouch when it come to Tolkien, acknowledging his success and influence. I feel like there's two types of people who tend to carry-on a bit about Tolkien:

1) He was their first (fantasy) love.
2) He is their only (fantasy) love.

I have infinitely more sympathy for the former than the latter.
posted by smoke at 6:40 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Dickens were writers whose works, in their time, had profound consequences in the public mind.
posted by SPrintF at 6:46 PM on September 21, 2012


yoink: The whole "scouring of the Shire" section is a radically reactionary rejection of "modernity" as a kind of infection in an otherwise ideal world. Everything in Tolkien is set up as a lament for modernity--we are to understand that we live in a world drained of magic and drained of beauty because it is the grubby, industrial modern world of democracy and the mob.

That's not how I read that section at all. I read it as weeping for the loss of pastoral life, for the ugly replacements of huge factories, belching soot into the air. The world isn't drained of magic and beauty because of democracy, but because they paved it over.

And note that, more or less, all this is inflicted at bayonet-point on the Shire, by Saruman. New boss, same as the old boss, except they didn't have an old boss, and were incredibly happy and productive.

Saruman was probably the equivalent of Mussolini, a monster using a state as a weapon, but subsidiary to the Master Evil in Germany. I'd call that whole section an indictment of both the old AND the new ways -- authoritarianism and industrialization both.... that both men in power and machines are not to be trusted.

And that thing about 'men can't be trusted with power' is probably the single strongest theme in the whole series. And it's almost always individual men, usually causing great grief by their ability to issue unjust orders and see them enforced. Orcs are evil because they're orcs, but many of the Kingdoms of Men are evil or have fallen into disrepair because they have evil leaders at their hearts.

Now, you can argue that the belief that if only the Good Leader Takes Over, things will be better, is both very feudal and very present, but I just don't see, offhand, how you can call The Lord of the Rings criticism of mob rule, when the only mob rule is the Happiest Place On Earth(tm).
posted by Malor at 5:13 AM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Andy Serkis reads The Hobbit as Gollum on stage
posted by homunculus at 7:27 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some book covers from over the years.
posted by Wordshore at 9:29 AM on September 26, 2012


Those book covers in Wordshore's link. Images by number:

#1: The original cover is my favorite.
#4: Wow, look at fat ol' Bilbo. "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for some pipeweed today."
#6: ACTION HOBBIT STABBIN A DRAGON. That's a weird look for Bilbo.
#7: I seem to recall a previous MeFi thread showed off the awesome illustrations from this familiar-looking Russian version.
#8: This 1969 French cover has the wildly disproportionate sizes distinctive of bad Photoshop images.
#10: Handdrawn British cover from 1961, a weird image to use, of the company riding horses up a mountain pass. Why not just show everyone chowing down at Bear Guy's house?
#11: That's the copy I own, and yes, that's an unflattering rendition of both Bilbo "George Wendt" Baggins and Christopher "heavily made-up Gollum" Lloyd.
posted by JHarris at 4:46 PM on September 26, 2012


I have #11 too, and I was all confused, until I read it again and found out that, yeah, Bilbo is described in those sort of homely terms. He enjoyed the good life, and his around Bag End, slothing.

Of course he's not going to be sporting improbable chiseled abs and muscles like this week's bizarre Wolverine Does Uncanny Valley.

So, I have a soft spot for it, as iffy as I think it is.

#1 or #9 are right up there as favourites. I also like #10. It matches my Narnia books.
posted by Mezentian at 1:23 AM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Gorgeous prop replica maps of Middle Earth take us through Peter Jackson’s Hobbit
posted by homunculus at 5:18 PM on October 1, 2012


1937 must have been a bleak period to be a fan of fantastic literature. In the past two years R.E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft had both cashed in, Clark Ashton Smith had retired, the first Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story was a couple of years away (and Narnia about a decade away). The Hobbit was not much embraced by American readers for a while, I understand.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:35 PM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


'New' JRR Tolkien epic due out next year: Lord of the Rings author's previously unseen 200-page poem of Arthurian legend draws on tales of ancient Britain rather than Middle-earth
posted by homunculus at 4:52 PM on October 10, 2012


The chart that proves just how much of a sausage fest Middle Earth is
posted by homunculus at 1:35 PM on October 13, 2012


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