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Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy
edited by Douglas A. Anderson
Del Rey, 436 pages

Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy
Douglas A. Anderson
Douglas A. Anderson is a leading American Tolkien scholar, via his work on The Annotated Hobbit. His book reproduces the fully corrected text of The Hobbit as J.R.R. Tolkien approved it before his death in 1973. Anderson has compared every page from every major edition of The Hobbit with Tolkien's own last checking copy in the restoration work.

ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Hank Luttrell

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Readers have always wondered, do the people who create the copy for book covers even read the books? Not necessarily, of course, and actually accuracy isn't their top priority, anyway. Selling books is really the only goal.

Tales Before Tolkien wasn't Douglas A. Anderson's top choice as a title. But the marketing trolls thought it was important that the book say "Tolkien" right up there at the top. Makes marketing sense, actually. Sort of a catchy title, and consistent with Anderson's goals as stated in the introduction. That cover blurb, however: "Classic stories that inspired the author of The Lord of the Rings." Well, some of the stories. There is no reason to think Tolkien ever read some of these stories. All of these stories were written before the publication of The Hobbit in 1937, by writers at least somewhat older than Tolkien. Some of these stories are similar to Tolkien's work, even where he may not have been familiar with them; some were almost certainly unknown to Tolkien, and some were clearly influences. Anderson intends the anthology to depict the fantasy landscape before it began to be reshaped by Tolkien's work.

I want to share my notes on just a few of the stories in Anderson's anthology.

George MacDonald is one of the best known writers in this collection. MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie have basically never been out of print, notably from Christian publishers, although some of these editions have been abridged. Obviously, his work tends to be Christian allegory, and I suspect that "The Golden Key" is as well. I'm going to suggest that the allegory isn't overly obvious or preachy in this instance, since I didn't understand it anyway. Delightful and entertaining, but to me it seemed rather surreal.

"Puss-cat Mew" by E. H. Knatchbull-Hugessen is a great story! Using the organization of anthropomorphic fiction in Fred Patten's anthology Best of Show, this would be a transformational story. (Here is the link to Best in Show.) This old tale has a goal similar to Gregory Maguire's retelling of familiar fairy tales, such as his recent Mirror Mirror. (Here is the link to Mirror Mirror.) Now, I wasn't familiar with the story of Puss-cat Mew, nor do I think that most contemporary North American readers will know it well, but in its time and place it was a popular story-poem. Knatchbull-Hugessen's piece is an elaboration, and a behind-the-scenes retelling of that story. One thing that struck me is, my gosh, this story is gory! This was like Texas Chainsaw Massacre-meets-Puss 'n' Boots. Kids kidnapped and eaten by Ogres, corpses hung up on meat hooks, throats cut, brains bashed out, heads cut off while bodies sank in quicksand, this story has it all. Not unlike unexpurgated Grimm's Fairy Tales, granted, but very strong stuff by contemporary children's story standards.

"Puss-cat Mew" also features a "glove of invisibility" which I thought a remarkable parallel to Tolkien's Ring, although not as sinister.

Frank R. Stockton was a successful, widely popular American short story writer, now mostly forgotten. His "Lady or the Tiger" is still famous, but various re-tellings and adaptations are mostly remembered, rather than Stockton's story itself. "The Griffin and the Minor Canon" is a pleasant fable, and probably won't relaunch his celebrity, but for my part I'd like to see more.

"The Demon Pope" by Richard Garnett is a clever Deal with the Devil story, featuring a firm historical foundation and a critical view of the Catholic Church hierarchy.

"Black Heart and White Heart: A Zulu Idyll" by H. Rider Haggard is a remarkable contrast to Haggard's more familiar novels. I liked it better than the more famous, often reprinted She and King Solomon's Mines. Haggard knew what he was writing about in his stories about Africa, but though accurate, for a modern reader the British Colonial viewpoint can be distressing. Haggard's protagonists will rhapsodize about Africa's beauty and grandeur, laud the wonderful elephant (for instance), then shoot one for sport and leave it to rot. The protagonists' attitude toward natives is usually condescending at best.

In this story, on the other hand, the white main character is a villain, while there are black characters who are noble and admirable. The fantastic elements recall African folklore and shamanism.

"The Dragon Tamers" by E. Nesbit is a light-hearted taming of a dragon, one in which neither fair maidens nor dragons are harmed in the telling. Cats are also charmingly involved.

"The Enchanted Buffalo" by L. Frank Baum makes us remember strongly that Baum intended to create a real North American fantasy story telling tradition. This story is an anthropomorphic rendering of a conflict over leadership in a "tribe" of buffalo.

"The Coming of the Terror" by Arthur Machen had an interesting publishing history. It was serialized, then published as a book in Britain, and then condensed and published in an American magazine. The abridgement was so successful that even Machen approved, and it is that shortened version that Anderson uses in this book. Like many strong fantasy stories, it has, as a background, a great war. A modern interpretation would certainly suggest that this story represented an ecological rejection of the horrors of war by the biosphere. It would be inappropriate to give away all of the story's twists, but I can't help but think that ultimately it closely resembles several classic Gary Larson Far Side cartoons.

"The Woman of the Wood" by A. Merritt. Anderson recalls Tolkien's statement about his support of trees, which of course recalls Saruman's attack on the forest and the counterattack of the Ents. While Tolkien probably didn't know the work of American writer A. Merritt, his attitude toward trees is reflected here.

"Golithos the Ogre" by E. A. Wyke-Smith is an excerpt from The Marvellous Land of Snergs, which stands well on its own, as it offers a striking characterization of an Ogre who has reformed by becoming a vegetarian, and given up eating children. This reminds me of a friend; once he told a group of people he had become a vegetarian, and after taking a good look at him they misunderstood and thought he meant he ate vegetarians.

Tolkien wrote in a letter that he never read Austin Tappen Wright's Islandia, but for all that the scope of Wright's invention in creating his fantasy world is one of the few that is comparable.

Islandia was published in 1942, many years after Wright's death, and this piece, "The Story of Alwina" was first published in 1981. It may have remained unpublished for so long despite its quality and great interest in Wright's work because of its curious, condensed style. It is presented as a non-fiction history, with the tone of a historical essay or even a textbook: a summary and analysis of the events in the life of an important Islandia leader. It is quite impressive as it stands, a fascinating saga of a three dimensional, empowered woman protagonist, a feminist paragon, the first woman ruler in her land who takes and holds power despite great opposition. Did Wright create it for his own enjoyment, or to help himself imagine Islandia with greater verisimilitude? Did he hope to eventually publish this piece, in this form? For that matter, did he hope for publication of any of his work, or was it intended for the amusement of friends and family? Did he view this story as an early draft, or perhaps part of his personal "bible" for his story cycle, a template and notes which he might have used to help write a more traditional novel?

Anderson shows himself to be an innovative, resourceful and courageous editor. It is obviously a coup for any editor in the fantasy field to introduce a previously unpublished David Lindsay piece. Less studious editors wouldn't have learned of it, but possibly others decided against using it because they feared that a play wouldn't be popular with readers. "A Christmas Play" by Lindsay is a profound holiday treasure.

Reading Anderson's concise headnotes to each story, and his "Author Notes and Recommended Reading" (which includes many writers not represented in this anthology), it seems to me that I can sense a tension in this work. I'm sure that it was a challenge to limit the content of this volume to a reasonable length. My hope is that this book will be successful enough that Anderson will be invited to extend his project as a series of collections, and say, how about a series of reprints of novel length books as well.

As many recreational readers are aware, anthologies are a great way of sampling new writers, and even different types of stories, as a way of finding new authors and books to place on our "to be read" lists, an important project for all passionate readers, as we all irrationally fear a day when we'll have nothing to read next. Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy is an excellent source of this sort of information, but one not without an element of frustration, because more stories and books by some of these writers will be hard to find. Another good reason to get Anderson to work putting more of this old stuff back in print.

Copyright © 2004 Hank Luttrell

Hank Luttrell has reviewed science fiction for newspapers, magazines and web sites. He was nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo Award and is currently a bookseller in Madison, Wisconsin.


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