What Did Tolkien Think of Fantasy Fiction?

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Nicola Alter has a great piece on J.R.R. Tolkien at Thoughts on Fantasy. Anyone who admires Tolkien will enjoy this review of his special genius and unique contribution to fantasy fiction. As Alter says:

People often forget that Tolkien was also a linguist and a poet and a university professor. He invented new languages. He wrote literary essays, many of which discuss his work. He was a friend of fellow fantasy author C.S. Lewis, and the two were members of the same informal literary discussion group.

Tolkien was not only writing amazing fantasy novels, he was also reflecting on his own work and on the fantasy genre itself. One of Tolkien’s famous essays is called On Fairy Stories (Tolkien called “fairy stories” what we would today call “fantasy”) – a speech he wrote and then later published.

I read On Fairy Stories several years ago for an essay I was writing, and recently revisited it to answer a related question on Quora. When I did, I was once again astounded by the eloquence and intelligence of this man. It struck me that in its fledging years, as the fantasy genre was growing in popularity, it couldn’t have had a better champion. He was not just someone writing brilliant fantasy, but also someone analysing it, promoting it, and defending it against critics who dismissed it as useless or escapist or literature fit only for children.

I’m presently reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s commentary on his translation of Beowulf. Not only does Tolkien deliver an energetic and loving rendition of this classic adventure, he also shares his insights into the rich and vigorous culture that produced it. As the poet W.H. Auden once declared, encountering Tolkien’s long-sighted and perceptive observations on Beowulf is an “unforgettable experience.”

And it still is.

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About those literary labels …

Bottom line: They’re all useful. And like anything useful, they can be misused.

Over at Thoughts on Fantasy, Nicola Alter argues for the necessity of literary labels:

As a reader, I love genre. I love that there are labels in the different parts of the book store, or labels on Goodreads, that help me find the kind of story I’m looking for.

As a writer, I love genre, because it allows me to convey the kind of story I am writing with a few simple words. I love to think about stories I could write that use elements of different genres, or that subvert or fulfill genre expectations in interesting ways.

Alter also weighs in on the debate she calls “The Myth of Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction.” It’s true they are distinct categories, but they are not castes. One is not superior to the other. There are good and bad examples of each. Plot and characterization are vital in both.

I can relate. I’ll get an occasional raised eyebrow for considering both Hemingway and Howard as mentors. But I learned a great deal from reading Hemingway and Howard. Both authors crafted great stories that still crackle with energy.

That said, another label that generates more heat than light among readers and writers involves region. Dannye Romine Powell dismisses regional labels as restrictive, even dismissive. But I tend to side with Hailey Foglio on this:

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the identity of writers and how we define ourselves. Writers label themselves based on location, genre, themes, etc. Personally, I refer to myself as a Young Adult writer because that’s what I love and that’s what I do. A couple weeks ago, we had a wonderful writer visit us at WVU named George Singleton. George is from South Carolina, and during his visit, George told us that he had been invited to an Appalachian writing conference. But he distinctly argued, “I don’t consider myself an Appalachian writer; I’m a Southern writer.”

I consider myself a Southern writer primarily writing fantasy fiction, and I see nothing incongruous in adapting the wild and fantastic to traditional themes. The best apologist for this approach was Flannery O’Connor, who famously said, “You have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Works for me.

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Better than you remembered

“In truly good writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is done. That is beacause there is a mystery in all great writing and that mystery does not dissect out. It continues and it is always valid. Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Fred on the Head has posed an interesting question: Do you re-read?

To this I can only plead: Guilty.

There are about a dozen works I find myself returning to, and for exactly the reason Hemingway cites above. In fact, three of Hemingway’s works are on my list: The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Killers, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. For me, they never lose their power to amaze and teach. Even when my intention is to analyze, I end up getting lured in once again by the robust narrative.

Mishima’s Patriotism leaves me reeling each time I experience it. What a show: breathtaking eroticism and rapturous prose made all the more vivid and potent by the blunt reality of sepukku. Whoa.

Among the classics, I keep returning to A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Beowulf more than any of the others. And I’m in the process of travelling to Mordor once again with the Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve almost finished The Two Towers, and am just as carried away by Tolkien’s imaginative world-building as the first time I experienced him.

All good friends I could never get tired of.

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