I want to share this fascinating essay on J.R.R. Tolkien by the American writer Gene Wolfe. I am a fan of both writers and I think that this is one of the best essays about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings I’ve ever read. I will post selected highlights from Wolfe’s essay, but I wholeheartedly recommend that you read the whole essay. There is a link to the essay at the end of this post. I hope you enjoy it and I’d love to hear your thoughts on what Wolfe wrote about Tolkien’s most famous books.
The Best Introduction to the Mountains by Gene Wolfe, 2001
There is one very real sense in which the Dark Ages were the brightest of times, and it is this: that they were times of defined and definite duties and freedoms. The king might rule badly, but everyone agreed as to what good rule was. Not only every earl and baron but every carl and churl knew what an ideal king would say and do. The peasant might behave badly; but the peasant did not expect praise for it, even his own praise. These assertions can be quibbled over endlessly, of course; there are always exceptional persons and exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless they represent a broad truth about Christianized barbarian society as a whole, and arguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented. At a time when few others knew this, and very few others understood its implications, J. R. R. Tolkien both knew and understood, and was able to express that understanding in art, and in time in great art.
That, I believe, was what drew me to him so strongly when I first encountered The Lord of the Rings. As a child I had been taught a code of conduct: I was to be courteous and considerate, and most courteous and most considerate of those less strong than I — of girls and women, and of old people especially. Less educated men might hold inferior positions, but that did not mean that they themselves were inferior; they might be (and often would be) wiser, braver, and more honest than I was. They were entitled to respect, and were to be thanked when they befriended me, even in minor matters. Legitimate authority was to be obeyed without shirking and without question. Mere strength (the corrupt coercion Washington calls power and Chicago clout) was to be defied. It might be better to be a slave than to die, but it was better to die than to be a slave who acquiesced in his own slavery. Above all, I was to be honest with everyone. Debts were to be paid, and my word was to be as good as I could make it.
With that preparation I entered the Mills of Mordor, where courtesy is weakness, honesty is foolishness, and cruelty is entertainment.
I was living in a club for men, a place much like a YMCA. I was thoroughly wretched in half a dozen ways (much more so than I had ever been in college or the Army), but for the first time in my life I had enough money to subscribe to magazines and even buy books in hardcover. Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Weird Tales, and Famous Fantastic Mysteries — pulps I had read as a boy while hiding behind the candy counter in the Richmond Pharmacy — were gone; but Astounding Stories lingered as a digest-size magazine a bit less costly than most paperback books. There was also The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, put out by the same company that had published Curtains for the Copper and other Mercury Mysteries that my mother and I had devoured. I subscribed to both, and to any other magazines dealing with science fiction or fantasy that could locate.
Here I must do someone a grave injustice. I no longer recall who wrote the review I read in Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was a glowing review, and I would quote at length from it if I could. It convinced me then and there that I must read The Lord of the Rings. In those days (the middle 1950s, if you can conceive of a period so remote) the magazine offered books for sale — one might write enclosing a cheque, and receive the book one had ordered by mail. Accustomed as you are to ordering from Amazon.com, you will deride so primitive a system; but you have never been a friendless young man in a strange city far from home. Now that you have enjoyed yourself, please keep in mind that the big-box stores we are accustomed to did not exist. There was no cavernous Barnes & Noble stocking a thousand titles under Science Fiction and Fantasy, no two-tiered Borders rejoicing in a friendly coffee shop and a dozen helpful clerks. There were (if the city was large and one was lucky) one or two old-line book shops downtown; they carried bestsellers, classics like Anna Karenina, cookbooks, and books of local interest, with a smattering of other things, mostly humour and books about dogs. The city in which I was living also boasted a glorious used-book store, five floors and a cellar, in which one might find the most amazing things; but these things did not include science fiction or much fantasy — the few who were fortunate enough to own those books kept them. There may have been speciality shops already in New York; there very probably were. But if there were, they could not have specialized in fantasy or science fiction. Or in horror, for that matter. It was a surprise, a distinct departure from the usual publishing practices, whenever any such book appeared.
An example may make the reason clear. In 1939, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei had published twelve hundred copies of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider and Others, at their own expense. Fanzines had publicized their effort widely and with enthusiasm; but selling those twelve hundred books, which cost three dollars and fifty cents before publication and five dollars after, took four years.
The copy of The Fellowship of the Ring that I received from Fantasy & Science Fiction lies on my desk as I write. It is, I suppose, the first American edition; it was issued in 1956 (the year in which I bought it) by the Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston. It is gold-stamped, and is bound in cloth the colour of slightly faded denim. Its elegant dust jacket vanished long ago, though I still recall it. Its back board holds a much-folded map of Middle-earth, sixteen inches on a side, showing among other places the Shire, the Lost Realm of Arnor, Mirkwood, the Brown Lands, Rohan, and Gondor. On its half-title there is now a quotation from Thoreau that I inscribed in blue ink many years ago. I give it because its presence on that slightly yellowed page should convey to you more of what this book meant to me in those days than anything that I might write in my little essay possibly could.
Our fabled shores none ever reach,
No mariner has found our beach,
Scarcely our mirage is seen,
And Neighbouring waves of floating green,
Yet still the oldest charts contain
Some dotted outline of our main.
You are not likely to believe me when I say that I still remember vividly, almost 50 years later, how strictly I disciplined myself with that book, forcing myself to read no more than a single chapter each evening. The catch, my out, the stratagem by which I escaped the bonds of my own law, was that I could read that chapter as many times as I wished; and that I could also return to the chapter I had read the night before, if I chose. There were evenings on which I reread the entire book up the point — The Council of Elrond, let us say — at which I had forced myself to stop.
Naturally I had sent for The Two Towers as soon as I could. Eventually it came, bound and typeset as beautifully as The Fellowship of the Ring, with the same map (I confess that I had hoped for something new) in its back. Just as I inscribed that quotation from Thoreau in Fellowship, I put one from Conrad Aiken on the half-title page of Two Towers:
There was an island in the sea
That out of immortal chaos reared
Towers of topaz, trees of pearl
For maidens adored and warriors feared.
Long ago it sunk in the sea;
And now, a thousand fathoms deep,
Sea worms above it whirl their lamps,
Crabs on the pale mosaic creep.
By the time I received Two Towers, I had learned my lesson — I ordered The Return of the King at once. That, too, is on my desk. With one other thing, its back holds a delightfully detailed map of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor. The quotation I inscribed on its half-title is from Robert E. Howard. You have my leave to quarrel with me, but I think it the finest of the three, indeed one of the finest things I have ever read.
Into the west, unknown of man,
Ships have sailed since the world began.
Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,
With dead hands fumbling his silken coat;
And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack–
Follow the ships that come not back.
If you remember the end of this last volume, how Frodo rides to the Grey Havens in the long Firth of Lune and boards the white ship, never to be seen again in Middle-earth, you will understand why I chose that particular quotation and why I treasure it (and the book which holds it) even today.
Surely I need not tell you that I read and reread these books. I married in November of that wonder-filled 1956; and Rosemary and I read them to each other, most often while driving. A note in The Return of the King indicates that my older son Roy and I read them together, reading the final page on April 20, 1967. (Roy was born in 1958.) Eventually I feared that I would read my Houghton Mifflin hardcovers to pieces and bought paperbacks, putting the hardcovers away in the old, glass-fronted bookcase where they will stand again when I have completed this tribute to their author.
Yet in a sense, it is complete now. I have shown you, I hope, what these books have meant to me. If you find echoes of them in my own books and stories (and particularly in The Wizard Knight, with which I have struggled for the past year) you will not have discomfited me — I am proud of them. Terry Brooks has often been disparaged for imitating Tolkien, particularly by those reviewers who find his books inferior to Tolkien’s own. I can say only that I wish there were more imitators — we need them — and that all imitations of so great an original must necessarily be inferior.
What, then, did Tolkien do? And how did he come to do it? The second question can be more easily answered than the first. He was a philologist (Greek philo-logos, a lover of words), and he had somehow escaped the modern cast of mind that makes us glory in ignorance and regard our forebears, who somehow muddled along without washing machines and air conditioning, with contempt.
I have approached this scientifically because Tolkien’s own approach was historical, and it is a mark of truth that the same truth can be approached by many roads. Philology led him to the study of the largely illiterate societies of Northern Europe between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the true Middle Ages (roughly AD 400 to 1000). There he found a quality — let us call it Folk Law — that has almost disappeared from his world and ours. It is the neighbour-love and settled customary goodness of the Shire. Frodo is “rich” in comparison to Sam, though no dragon would call Frodo rich; Sam is poor in comparison to Frodo, though Sam is far richer than Gollum, who has been devoured by the tyranny and corruption of the One Ring. Frodo does not despise Sam for his poverty, he employs him; and Sam does not detest Frodo for his wealth, but is grateful for the job. Most central of all, the difference in their positions does not prevent their friendship. And in the end, poor Sam rises in the estimation of the Shire because of his association with Frodo, and rich Frodo sacrifices himself for the good of all the Sams.
Earlier I asked what Tolkien did and how he came to do it; we have reached the point at which the first question can be answered. He uncovered a forgotten wisdom among the barbarian tribes who had proved (against all expectation) strong enough to overpower the glorious civilizations of Greece and Rome; and he had not only uncovered but understood it. He understood that their strength — the irresistible strength that had smashed the legions — had been the product of that wisdom, which has now been ebbing away bit by bit for a thousand years.
Having learned that, he created in Middle-earth a means of displaying it in the clearest and most favourable possible light. Its reintroduction would be small — just three books among the overwhelming flood of books published every year — but as large as he could make it; and he was very conscious (no man has been more conscious of it than he) that an entire forest might spring from a handful of seed. What he did, then, was to plant in my consciousness and yours the truth that society need not be as we see it around us.
I have cut out parts of Wolfe’s essay to prevent this post from becoming too long, but I highly recommend you read the full version.
Here is the link to Gene Wolfe’s full essay “The Best Introduction to the Mountains.”
Thanks for reading!