Two days ago I clicked on one of agent Colleen Lindsay’s blog posts, mentioning opinions on Tolkien. I read, and ended up entrenched in a rather heated debate stemming from an essay by Richard K. Morgan.
After two really long posts, and kind of working myself up about this, I came to a few conclusions. If you’ve read either of my blogs, you know I often cite Tolkien as an influence–lots of fantasy writers do that. It’s a common link for a lot of us, and I find that I climg more to the texts since the movies (not that I don’t love the movies).
So, in a nutshell, here’s A Hobbity Note.
When I picked up The Two Towers, I was fourteen. I had just been classically ostracized from a group of friends for doing something, apparently, that I still don’t know what it was. That’s junior high for you. But it probably had to do with me being really nerdy, spending most of my time reading and writing tomes of crappy Billy the Kid novels, and looking like the Caldor catalog barfed all over me. I mean, scary. Some day I will share pictures. I had only just picked up guitar, so I was not cool yet. Not in the least.
Anyway, instead of starting at the beginning, I started in the middle. And at that time, I had never read anything better. I was completely absorbed. At that point in my life, Tolkien was The Best Thing in the World. I devoured Rings (albeit in the wrong order!).
Throughout high school, I think I managed to be a little less of a misanthrope, but no less… um, eccentric. And that was okay, because between my writing, reading, and music, I was a pretty confident kid when all was said and done. I remember getting the flu my junior year, and I read Rings again–and the reading was so different. I had apparently skipped huge sections the first few times, or at least, perhaps I was just noticing things on a totally different level at that age. I don’t know. It was a magical experience, honestly.
By the time I was in the medieval studies program at Loyola College, I discovered that my love of Tolkien could actually translate into papers for credit. That was pretty unbelievable.
I ended up getting a grant to write a paper about Tolkien and his religion. It was sobering to do, at the time, to get a view into the man who was, really, quite melancholic. His letters are rather remarkable, as is Tom Shippey’s biography on the subject. I also read a lot of really crappy books which about Tolkien and Religion (including one that constantly spelled “Bolger” as “Bolgar”), in spite of my best efforts, keep crawling their way back into my library. I found another yesterday! Yikes.
Studying something you love, of course, is dangerous. And Tolkien never felt the same after that, but that’s okay. I’ve since questioned a lot of his choices–his portrayal of good and evil, the role of women, his rather obsessive/selfish publishing tendencies. Politically we would likely bite our mutual heads off if we were ever to be in the same room. I don’t think we’d get along at all, and I know he would hate my work, what with all the feminist/gender issues and warped mythologies. Not to mention the whole steampunk/technology aspect! Haha. Yes, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the guy, but in context, too. And that’s so important. That some contemporary fantasy writers want to write him off is… well, good luck with that, I say. It’s like trying to write the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll without Elvis.
There’s nothing wrong with criticism. It’s healthy for a work. But it’s not okay to push your opinions on other people, especially every day readers who just want to enjoy reading. After going through too much literary criticism courses, I’m hung out to dry on that subject. If I hear one more person complain that Marie de France isn’t feminist enough I might bite their head off. (Just the same, I’m not going to rail against some of the writers I can’t stand; I’ll happy critique writers I like, though. They should know better.)
Still, still, though. I wouldn’t have known what a medievalist was (which informed my entire college experience through Graduate School and now is one of the linchpins of my writing approach), and wouldn’t have survived high school without Tolkien. Maybe that’s a childish excuse, I don’t know. Some certainly view it that way.
Because, you know, the magic of literature is that it transforms into something different for every single person who reads it. And there’s a golden era, especially with Tolkien, for this to happen to most of us. Rings will never affect me like it did during that feverish read-through in high school. But parts of it linger in me still. I remember.
This sounds a little hokey, but I started writing with the hopes that I could write a novel that would affect people, just like Tolkien had affected me. Because, for me, it was the greatest gift I’d ever received: a ticket to Mount Doom, perhaps, but an escape none the less.