9.24.12 Of 6th & 7th Grade Teachers, Public Libraries, “The Hobbit”, & “The Princess Bride”: Or, How I Got Interested in Fantasy Fiction
Whenever I discuss my novel, The Codex Lacrimae: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight (http://www.amazon.com/The-Codex-Lacrimae) among the questions most often asked are what inspired me to write fantasy and how I chose the characters and settings of the story. I’ll divide the response into three blogs: (1) when was my first encounter with fantasy literature, (2) why does the genre of fantasy inspire me , and (3) how do I choose the characters and settings for my stories?
It’s appropriate that in recalling my “first encounter” to epic fantasy, I see grey clouds canvassing the sky outside my office window while trees and shrubs make their autumnal shift from various shades of green to glorious hues of gold, red, and orange. Appropriate because this season reminds me of when I first met the character of Bilbo Baggins.
It was autumn in the mid-1970s, the beginning of my sixth-grade year, and the class had just returned from lunch break. My teacher, Mrs. O’Hare, ordered everyone to settle down, sat on the top of her desk, and told us that she was going to start reading us a story every day at that time; her stated purpose to calm us down after recess, but she also said that she wanted to share a book with the class that she thought we’d really enjoy .
Mrs. O’Hare then opened a well-read paperback version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and made good on her promise, reading the words “Chapter One, An Unexpected Party,” and then proceeding to “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit….” From that point, school days that had previously been filled with a standard schedule of math, history, science, and reading became merely hours to endure until we returned from lunch to resume the tale of Bilbo on his adventures with Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves!
For that couple of months while Mrs. O’Hare read the story, those 20-25 minutes were the best part of my day, and even the joy I’d take in playing zone dodge or handball took second-place to hearing my teacher read The Hobbit. I was completely enthralled by Bilbo’s adventures, from his encounters with trolls and elves, to fighting goblins, spiders, and even a dragon, to learning about such things as runes and riddles. Such topics were true departures from our typical school day, and stimulated my imagination in ways I’d never experienced before. I remember being completely mesmerized by the story, and there was something about hearing it read aloud that I appreciate to this day. (That is, even though I’m a voracious reader, I still enjoy listening to unabridged audiobooks whenever I’m running errands, walking the dogs, or while waiting for kids’ after-school activities to finish.)
Thankfully, my parents also had a set of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so when the inevitable moment came at the end of The Hobbit where Bilbo exclaims, “Thank goodness!” and hands Gandalf a tobacco jar, I took our copy of the book and began the first of what would become many, many rereads of the novel. Completing that, I couldn’t wait to begin The Lord of the Rings. Anyone who’s gone on to read LOTR after The Hobbit knows that moment of pure delight when you realized that there were more adventures set in Middle Earth, and involving hobbits.
You also may know that instant of disorientation when you began reading The Fellowship of the Ring and noticed within a couple of pages that that book was a completely different reading experience than The Hobbit! I recall a slight feeling of dismay when I opened the novel and came upon a long Prologue. Dismay, and also something akin to a feeling of embarrassed inadequacy because while I wanted to get to another tale about hobbits, I instead found myself confronted with a kind of literary, historical language that I didn’t quite understand.
For me, the experience of starting The Fellowship of the Ring had none of the easy comfort that had marked Mrs. O’Hare’s reading of The Hobbit. What did it mean to have a book begin with pages devoted to “Of Hobbit Lore and Genealogies?” Why the heck did I need to know the material in the prologue entitled “Concerning Pipe-weed”? Or, worse, why did I have to slog through “Of the Ordering of the Shire”? At twelve, I was overwhelmed and confused. Then I got to the prologue’s passage on “Of the Finding of the Ring,” and got more enthusiastic. Ah, yes, here was Bilbo and Gollum, the riddle game, the invisible ring… I’d at last reached a place where there was something familiar, so I plunged on. Okay, there was also a bit about “A Note on Shire Records” that read like a history lesson, but by the end of the prologue I was confident that the story would pick up where events in The Hobbit had left off. Surely I’d soon be up and running in my imagination with Bilbo and the dwarves again on another adventure!
Nope. When I finished Tolkien’s Prologue, and turned to Chapter One’s “A Long Expected Party,” I was again in a very different story and place than any part of The Hobbit. Moreover, Bilbo was much older, and other characters such as Frodo and Samwise Gamgee were being introduced in what was (to me) a very different writing style than The Hobbit. However, as I kept reading over that summer between my sixth and seventh grade years, I learned how to read in a new way, slowly wending through descriptions and conversations to immerse myself in a different world. Middle Earth came alive when I slowed down and let Tolkien reveal his world to me, and as Frodo and Sam set forth to meet Gandalf at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, were joined by Merry and Pippin, hazarded the Barrow-Downs and met Tom Bombadil, and escaped Dark Riders to reach Rivendell, I realized that I could read this book, albeit in a very, very different manner than I’d read The Hobbit.
It took me a year to read The Lord of the Rings for the first time — and in The Two Towers, I even “cheated” once I realized that the broken fellowship meant I’d not be finding out what happened to Frodo and Sam until a couple hundred pages into the story. Therefore, I came up with a strategy where I’d read a chapter from Book 3 (following the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli), then flip to Book 4 and read a chapter (to find out what was happening to Frodo, Sam, and Gollum) and so forth. The effort was well worth it, and exposed me to the world of high epic fantasy. (For the next ten years, I’d reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a ritualistic way to welcome the autumn and winter seasons.)
That interest in the fantasy genre was solidified when we returned to school in the fall and my seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Dore, began reading the class William Goldman’s The Princess Bride for the twenty-minute decompression time after lunch. While presenting a completely different take on the fantasy genre than any of Tolkien’s works, I was amazed both by the immediacy and humor of Goldman’s prose, as well as by a story that kept the entire class wondering at the fate of Buttercup and Westley, the loyalty of Inigo Montoya and Fezzik, the villainy of Prince Humperdinck, and marveling at a pseudo-Renaissance world filled with places such as The Cliffs of Insanity, the Fire Swamp, Florin & Guilder, and The Pit of Despair!
The experience was unique, in that I don’t know if I’d have ever picked up the book on my own at that age. But, because my teacher made us listen to the story, the class and I were soon completely vested in Goldman’s fantasy. In that moment, I learned to give even odd-sounding stories a chance — that is, when I was twelve, a book entitled “The Princess Bride” wouldn’t have been at the top of my “must-read-next” list because it sounded like a fairy tale, and I wanted high adventure. Happily, Goldman confounded my expectations and more than delivered on all counts — I’m still grateful to Mrs. Dore for the introduction, and her subsequent pushing us to try reading different forms of literature than we initially thought we preferred. (I don’t think that many schools still offer “reading time,” either at the elementary levels or into the middle school grades, but for me those moments of post-lunch listening to my teachers read roughly a chapter a day were transformative; besides instilling a life-long interest in the fantasy genre, they also fostered a habit of reading at lunch-time that remains with me.)
Excited by those early introductions to fantasy literature in the classroom, after my younger brother and I made the brief walk down to the local library (where we’d have to wait for a couple of hours every day until our father got off work), I started asking the librarian for recommendations on other fantasy novels. So began a routine of finishing my homework as soon as possible after getting to the library, and then becoming acquainted with a variety of authors whose works still remain a fond part of my childhood memories.
So, that’s the story of how I was initially introduced to epic fantasy. Exposure to other kinds of novels soon followed, most notably in the genres of science-fiction, mystery, and English literature (hey, I was in a library almost everyday after school from fifth through eighth grades!), but I’ll leave tales of those encounters to another time.
Next: Why does the genre of fantasy inspire me?
Thanks for visiting,
A.J. Carlisle’s List of Fantasy Must-Reads (through early-1990s):
Favorites from that time (& through my high school & early college years) include the following novels and series, listed here in alphabetical order by author’s last name, with links to respective Wikipedia pages to give you a lead on author links, reading orders, and critical receptions.
Please keep in mind that these works are a record of my own reading interests and influences and in some cases the books here precede by decades recent contributions to the genre such as the Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and His Dark Materials series. (I’ll add an updated list of notable fantasy works of the 1990s, 2000s, and through today on some future blog.)
Still, besides offering a chance for me to share some of my influences, I think that the following list might also serve as a primer/reading list for anyone interested in reading some great fantasy works!
Lloyd Alexander, The Chronicles of Prydain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Prydain_Chronicles
Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Broken_Sword
Piers Anthony, Xanth Series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piers_Anthony
Robert Aspirin (later, with Jody Lynn Nye), The MythAdventures Series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MythAdventures
Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Unicorn
Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mists_of_Avalon
Terry Brooks, Shannara Series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Brooks
Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising Sequence http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dark_Is_Rising_Sequence
Stephen R. Donaldson, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_R._Donaldson
David Eddings, The Belgariad, The Mallorean, The Elenium, & The Tamuli Series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Eddings
William Goldman, The Princess Bride http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Princess_Bride
Robert E. Howard, The Conan the Barbarian Series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conan_the_Barbarian
Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time Series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wheel_of_Time
Stephen King, The Dark Tower Series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dark_Tower_(series)
Katherine Kurtz, The Deryni Series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deryni_novels
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Earthsea Novels http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthsea_The_Earthsea_canon
C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia Series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chronicles_of_Narnia
Fritz Leiber, The Lankhmar Series (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fafhrd_and_the_Gray_Mouser
Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Morte_d’Arthur
Michael Moorcock, Elric of Melniboné Series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elric_of_Melniboné
Robert Silverberg, The Majipoor Series (blends sci-fi & fantasy) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Valentines_Castle
Mary Stewart, The Merlin Trilogy & The Wicked Day http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Stewart
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Silmarillion
T.H. White, The Once and Future King http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Once_and_Future_King
Tad Williams, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tad_Williams
Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun Tetralogy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_the_New_Sun