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Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings

by Lin Carter

(Gollancz, £6.99, 188 pages, hardback, published 31 August 2003.)

Review by Nicholas Whyte

This book, originally published by Ballantine in 1969, has now been updated by Adam Roberts and republished by Gollancz, billed cover scanas "The companion to The Lord of the Rings". Unfortunately, it isn't. Tolkienology has come a very long way in the last thirty-five years, and very little in this book will be new to anyone who has read Humphrey Carpenter or Tom Shippey.

Even in 1969, the Tolkien-hungry reader could not have been completely satisfied by this book. Fully a quarter of it is taken up with a synopsis of the plots of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, material that would surely have already been familiar to the average Tolkien reader. There is a chapter asking if LOTR (as Carter repeatedly abbreviates it) is satire or allegory. (Conclusion: it is neither.) A third of the book is taken up with a survey of other works of epic fantasy, the genre that Carter argues Tolkien's writing belongs to; completely coincidentally, Ballantine - for whom Carter worked as an editor - was publishing or about to publish many of the authors who are namechecked here at the time this book was first published.

Carter identifies epic fantasy as a tradition including Homer, the chansons de geste, Spenser (who is mentioned often), William Morris, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, Fletcher Pratt, and Mervyn Peake. He makes no attempt to demonstrate the influences of the earlier writers on Tolkien; indeed where he does identify Tolkien's sources directly, he ends up appearing to argue that The Hobbit is a rip-off of Walter de la Mare's The Three Mulla Mulgars (aka The Three Royal Monkeys) or that the whole of Middle-Earth is based on Wagner's Ring. (Tolkien himself, of course, famously retorted that the only similarity between his ring and Wagner's was that they were both round.)

A single, though long, footnote describes the Swords and Sorcery genre, including the works of Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber and indeed Carter himself, but concludes without further discussion that these are "not strictly speaking epic fantasy in the Morris-Dunsany-Eddison-Tolkien tradition at all." This is simply unconvincing. Carter actually reports Tolkien as saying that he was influenced by H. Rider Haggard's She (and one can see that Mount Doom owes something to the climactic scenes of Haggard's novel) and  that he enjoyed Robert E. Howard's Conan books; do we know if he actually read Dunsany or Eddison, and if so if he liked them? Carter's distinction between the two types of fantasy is then blurred still further by placing Alan Garner, Lloyd Alexander and Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea firmly in the Tolkien tradition.

Adam Roberts, given the impossible job of updating this rather messy book, sensibly did not try very hard. He has added a chapter on The Silmarillion (confusingly placed before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which fits the internal chronology but not the way in which most readers will come to it) and updated the section on more recent fantasy writers. But the gaps are rather obvious: the foreword, for instance, begins by referring to the 2001-3 film trilogy (presumably a note by Roberts), and then describes the sub-culture of Tolkien societies and fanzines in affectionate detail (presumably Carter's original text), with no reference to the medium through which you are reading these words. He shouldn't really have bothered. The original book may well have been the high water mark of Tolkienology at its time, and should certainly be on the shelf of any committed completist. But it's difficult to see why anyone should buy this edition.

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