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Tolkien’s Place

A few years back I read Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent, sad, and thrilling biography of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. I don’t intend to here review that book, but I do recommend it for fans of the creator of such epic masterworks as The Lord of the Rings and one of my favorite little stories, Farmer Giles of Ham.

Tolkien is a storm on the horizon in the life of many writers (especially of speculative fiction). He threatens to overwhelm us in our imaginations. Aware of this, my tendency is to want to overcorrect.

While I was writing my first novel (for now, unpublished –what’s up, Pete) I was very careful not to read anything by Tolkien, or any of my favorite authors. I did not want to fall into mimetic tripe. I think I also suffer, like many would-be authors, from the popular prejudice that lives on in the snobbish comments of so many literary sages who say things like, “Oh, no. Not another sword and sorcerer book.”

But I sympathize with them as well. I agree that it appears that every fantasy-lover thinks he must write a story and inevitably falls into the patterns and clichés that are so familiar. I won’t call them orcs, I’ll call them “G’orcs.” Wow, good job. Big difference there. Doubtless there a thousand crude knock-offs of Tolkien, and no doubt English teachers, agents, and publishers tire of the tedious heaps of it. I hope I am not guilty of that charge, and have tried to be careful to avoid it.

I now believe that I have been, perhaps, too sensitive to this charge –too concerned that people not think of my story as just another knock-off. I believe that it very definitely is not. I think it has its innumerable sources in the deep

recesses of my soul, the self-revealing mystery of the outworking of my inner life, and from all the reading I have ever done. None of this reading is more prominent than the Robin Hood stories which have delighted me all my life. But Tolkien is there, in my mind, like a giant. And I am not afraid to say it.

I don’t care how common, or how unsophisticated, it is. I love J.R.R. Tolkien. I have since the moment I first cracked open The Hobbit, and I believe I shall till I live inside that blessed Light of which Tolkien presented such a delightful, and serious, reflection.

Here is the man himself on writing as sub-creation.

“What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.”

“Every writer making a secondary world wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it.” -John Ronald Reuel Tolkien


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