Sunday, March 25, 2007

Classics of the genre, pt. 3

While there were earlier authors who mined the ground of what we now call "fantasy", easily the most influential and most innovative was J.R.R. Tolkien. Previous writers indulging in the wildest flights of imagination, such as Lewis Carroll, A. A. Milne, or L. Frank Baum, wrote books that either were designed for or primarily appealed to children, as was the case with Tolkien's first major work The Hobbit.

Tolkien, however, had been assiduously working on creating an entire mythology for England's past decades before penning The Hobbit, and indeed, he continued working this hidden vein for his entire life. The Hobbit, though, was such a runaway best seller that his publisher demanded some sort of sequel, and Tolkien responded (eventually) by producing what many have called the "
Book of the Century".

I am speaking, of course, of Tolkien's masterpiece
Lord of the Rings. I realize everyone reading this has already heard of LOTR, either because of the books themselves (originally published in three parts, although Tolkien did not design LOTR as such) or the wildly successful and lucrative movie trilogy, so I won't go into detail on it. Suffice it to say that the completeness of the vision presented by Tolkien in his imagined world as seen in LOTR created a new standard for fantasy. Never again would mere plotting or characterization be enough to sate the audience for this genre; writers would now be expected to create whole and consistent settings as well.

Tolkien's exhaustively rich (he created at least 3 whole languages with their own syntaxes, grammars, and vocabularies!) unpublished history of Middle-Earth lay behind LOTR (and through a revision, The Hobbit as well), even though we only get the slightest glimpses of it in those works.

Tolkien's obsessive perfectionism in thinking (and rethinking, in an endlessly deepening pool of his own imaginary world's history and lore) and writing about the earlier history of his Middle-Earth made it impossible to publish any other completed works to complement The Hobbit and LOTR.

One of his sons took on the task of sifting through Tolkien's voluminous notes in order to present some sort of coherent narrative to an audience ravenous for more. Christopher Tolkien's first stab at editing his father's legacy,
The Silmarillion, received rapturously by Tolkien's fans, proved so tantalizing that he began to release ever more fragmentary pieces of his father's work, culminating in his massive 12-volume History of Middle-Earth--most of which can be found here. Christopher Tolkien realized that his father had left too many unconnected dots for the entire mythology to be written down as a single story. So, despite the success of The Silmarillion with fans, its omissions and lack of fidelity to the source materials frustrated its editor. Instead, Tolkien presented us with the most detailed analysis possible of his father's life work as a work of literary criticism.

While the majority of J.R.R. Tolkien's audience will never want to tackle the History of Middle-Earth, (or worse, will get bored by its repetitions and alternate narratives), it stands as a fascinating and rigorous document recording one man's obsession. That such an analysis was warranted is testament to Tolkien's peculiar genius; that each volume sold well enough for the work to be published in its entirety decades after Tolkien's death is evidence of his lasting appeal.

Next up: Michael Moorcock works just one aspect of Tolkien's legacy.

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