Here’s Tolkien himself, in a letter to Milton Waldman, probably written about 1951 but never sent:
“Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story . . .The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” *
He finishes with “Absurd.”
But I don’t believe that is aimed at those other hands and minds, it’s rueful self-mockery a few years before the first three volumes appeared and his grand vision was pot-shotted by critics, like Edmund Wilson, who refused to see any worth whatsoever in any part of it.
In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom maintains that literary works are based upon a misreading of those that preceded them. After reading and rereading Bloom and considering his theories on poetry with regard to fiction, I’ve come to appreciate his literary insights (Bloom is particularly interesting about Shakespeare, for example, as well as Percy Bysshe Shelley) but I have come to disagree with that central tenet.
I believe it is not useful to maintain that readers’ take on books (or poetry) is wrong. Even though I can sympathize with writers when reviewers seem to be talking about someone else’s book altogether. Likewise, I understand Flaubert’s (somewhat recondite) frustration at sincere letters from readers who saw themselves and their tragic lives beautifully depicted in Madame Bovary, unaware that he intended for readers to perceive Emma Bovary’s romantic visions as delusion, the characters’ lives empty and pitiful, not grand tragedy at all.
I would maintain that ‘misreading’ (Bloom goes far enough to call it ‘misprision’) is incorrect; it implies that some judge (literary critic? Author?) can declare what is a ‘right’ reading. Convincing? Sure. Right? Ehhh (picture the hand tipping back and forth) not so much.
And the farther we get away from the time of publication, the more distant reactions of author, critics, and sometimes readers can seem. Take for example Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, which was beloved at the time of publication 150 years ago.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy rereading that book. But I am astonished when I read contemporaries’ takes on it—the bright, perceptive Mrs. Gaskell declared it a cozy book, one she wished “would go on and on.” To me, there are parts that almost verge on horror; it exemplifies just how thin the veneer of civilization is in human behavior, a view I don’t believe I am alone in. If you read Jo Walton’s brilliant Tooth and Claw, which is in direct conversation with Framley Parsonage, I think you might come to a similar conclusion.
A great book, I feel, furnishes something for a variety of perceptual spectra, which in turn contributes to reshaping those spectra. A writer then draws from her experience and perceptual spectrum to shape her own stories.
Writers have been reflecting and refracting stories and myth as human culture evolves. The more I read, the more I discover fiction reflecting history, back and forth. Sometimes a work seems to overwhelm new authors’ vision so much so that they retell the story from their particular experience.
I think here is the kernel of Bloom’s misprision: back in 1977, many Tolkien lovers such as myself found Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara to be a mawkishly cartoonish retelling of Lord of the Rings, its being reset as a post-holocaust tale notwithstanding. In my young twenties’ arrogance, I wrote a bitter letter to Lester Del Rey proclaiming just that—and to my surprise received a letter back, crisply informing me that not only was I totally wrong, and the only person who thought so, but that millions of readers adored Brooks’ vision.
Well, a few years later, when I got into teaching, I discovered that del Rey was right about those millions of readers. I met young people who were not aware of Lord of the Rings, who found the Shannara stories exciting and engaging—some of these readers went on to try Tolkien at my earnest recommendation, to find his work tedious, slow, and not enough interesting women. In other words, for them, influence was irrelevant: the work stood on its own, and found an audience.
Since that time, I discovered the influence of the LOTR in a surprisingly disparate number of novels since its original appearance in the 1950s, and not just Terry Brooks and David Eddings, et al. Like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea contains some very strong echoes, as well as Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Barbara Hambly’s horror-fantasy The Darwath Trilogy does as well.
There are many others. Until the Great Celtic Explosion, it seemed that every fantasy was shaped similarly, with the bad guys’ dark kingdom off to the East, and a great haven off to the West, perhaps echoing the dim historical memory of bloodthirsty horsemen thundering out of the east to hack and smash before riding on—and escape from tyranny and poverty to the west.
All these writers seemed to need to work the Tolkien influence out through their own vision, which then took off in highly individualistic directions; in each case many readers felt that the balance of Tolkien’s material was met and matched by the vision that these new writers brought to it. Certainly there is a third generation of writers in whose works one can still detect the workings of Tolkien’s vision: another strand of the great literature conversation is woven into the whole tapestry by collaboration between writers, readers, and influence.
Concerning Tolkienian influence, and how it is reflected in the work of writers today, let me close with some remarks by Tolkien, again from the letters, this one to his son Christopher, in 1944: “…I coined the word eucatastrophe: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives–if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane . . . that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.” [p.100. LETTERS]
*THE LETTERS OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin, 1981