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11.27.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 3.2: Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis (Medieval Fantasy with Tolkien and Lewis)

Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages (1991)

Norman F. Cantor (1929-2004)

Before I continue my own discussion about J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis’s influences upon my writing of The Codex Lacrimae and the entire Artifacts of Destiny series, here’s the remainder of the relevant excerpts about their medieval history & literary sides from Norman F. Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century. Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages (Amazon.com)

[book excerpt] Norman F. Cantor,Inventing the Middle Ages (NY: William Morrow & Co., 1991), pp. 205-208.

“Chapter Six: The Oxford Fantasists: Clive Staples Lewis, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and Frederick Maurice Powicke”

1. Save the Beloved Land

…Despite his prodigious learning and early professional accomplishments, Tolkien’s academic career in the early forties seemed on a downward trajectory.  In the previous decade his only book publication was a children’s fantasy, The Hobbit (1937), which had sold well.  Tolkien’s publisher clamored for a sequel, but as yet he had not produced it, although he desperately needed the money, having a wife and three children in a lower-middle-class suburb of Oxford.  Tolkien had no private means, and he had to waste a month every summer picking up a few extra pounds grading examination booklets.  Tolkien read to the Inklings miscellaneous sections of what seemed to be a disordered fantasy addressed more to adults than to children.  Who would want to read this thing?  Who would dare publish it?  Jack Lewis’s response to it was only intermittently enthusiastic…

C.S. Lewis (Time cover, Sept. 8, 1947)

….Tolkien and Lewis were at least visibly good friends as well as college luminaries in Oxford’s medieval language and literature faculty. Their friendship was always tense because their personalities were so different — Tolkien, reclusive, driven, querulous, unsatisfied; Lewis, calm, affable, outgoing, sociable.  Underneath their surface friendship there was a deep rivalry between them, not so much in scholarship as in writing fantasy literature.  Of all the medievalists of the twentieth century, Lewis and Tolkien have gained incomparably the greatest audience, although 99.9 percent of their readers have never looked at their scholarly work.  They are among the best-selling authors of modern times for their works of fantasy, adult and children’s.  There are forty million copies of Lewis’s work in print. [A.J.’s note: Cantor’s book was written 21 years ago; according to a recent biography, Lewis’s Narnia books now number over 100 million copies.] The novel that Tolkien read bits of to the Inklings, with mixed response in the early forties, was finally published with trepidation by Allen and Unwin in three volumes in 1954 and 1955.  It has now sold eight million copies in many languages, with about half the sales in American paperback edition.  This is The Lord of the Rings. [A.J.’s note: again, that number has to be revised in the 20 years since Cantor’s work: after Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, the number of copies sold is well over 150 million.]

J.R.R. Tolkien

…Their fantasy writing was a very serious undertaking.  It was not done as a hobby or primarily as a money-making venture, though they both died well-off from it.  They wanted to impart a sense of medieval myth to the widest audience possible.  They wanted to represent to the public the impress of the kind of traditional ethic they derived from their devotion to conservative Christianity.  But essentially they wrote as all creative writers do, from some compulsion within their beings, from something beyond the level of consciousness. Tolkien memorably described this obsession in 1953: “One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, not by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind; out of all that has been thought or seen or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps….”

After an assessment of each author’s contribution to medieval literature and the fantasy genre, Cantor concludes [p. 232], “…the importance of their [Tolkien and Lewis’s] work as medievalists…lies in a much broader area, one harder to define.  Tolkien and Lewis immersed the twentieth-century reader in medieval worlds and made that person a participant in the highly activated realm of imagination that at the same time communicates how medieval people thought of themselves and gives us the opportunity to perceive ourselves as possible actors in a medieval place.  That is a highly unusual achievement….”

Before I return to my own thoughts about Tolkien and Lewis, I think it might be worthwhile to return to 1955, when the 2nd and 3rd volumes of The Lord of the Rings [LOTR] had just been published, and give two examples of how literary circles received Tolkien’s magnum opus.

Negative Review of LOTR:

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972)

In the first excerpt (April, 1956) from the literary critic, Edmund Wilson, we have a very negative review, “Oo Those Awful Orcs!” (AwfulOrcs.pdf):

….[The LOTR] is indeed the tale of a Quest, but, to this reader, an extremely unrewarding one.  The hero has no serious temptations; is lured by no insidious enchantments, perplexed by no serious problems.  What we get here is a simple confrontation ― in more or less the traditional terms of British melodrama ― of the Forces of Evil with the Forces of Good, the remote and alien villain with the plucky little homegrown hero.  There are streaks of imagination: the ancient tree-spirits, the Ents, with their deep eyes, twiggy beards, rumbly voices; the Elves, whose nobility and beauty is elusive and not quite human.  But even these are rather clumsily handled.  There is never much development in the episodes; you simply go on getting more of the same.  Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form.  The characters talk a story-book language that might have come out of Howard Pyle, and as personalities they do not impose themselves.  At the end of this long romance, I had still no conception of the wizard Gandalph [sic], who is made to play a cardinal role.  I had never been able to visualize him at all.  For the most part such characterizations as Dr. Tolkien is able to contrive are perfectly stereotyped: Frodo the good little Englishman; Samwise, his dog-like servant, who talks lower-class and respectful, and never deserts his master…”

Wilson spends another page criticizing the ineffectiveness of the unseen Sauron as a worthwhile Enemy for the characters in the books, concluding, “…He makes his first, rather promising appearance as a terrible fire-rimmed yellow eye seen in a water-mirror.  But this is as far as we ever get.  Once Sauron’s realm is invaded, we think we are going to meet him; but he still remains nothing but a burning eye…we never feel Sauron’s power.  And the climax, to which we have been working up through exactly nine-hundred and ninety-nine large close-printed pages, when it comes, proves extremely flat…Frodo has come to the end of his Quest, but the reader has remained untouched by the wounds and fatigue of his journey…”

Positive Literary Review of LOTR:

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

In contrast, the poet W.H. Auden, whose NY Times 1954 positive critique (“The Hero is a Hobbit,” http://www.nytimes.com/1954/10/31) runs more along the lines of how I think of LOTR, even though this review assesses only The Fellowship of the Ring:

“Seventeen years ago there appeared, without any fanfare, a book called “The Hobbit” which, in my opinion, is one of the best children’s stories of this century.  In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” which is the first volume of a trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien continues his imaginative history of the imaginary world to which he introduced us in his earlier book but in a manner suited to adults, to those, that is, between 12 and 70.  For anyone who likes the genre to which it belongs, the Heroic Quest, I cannot imagine a more wonderful Christmas present.  All Quests are concerned with some numinous object, the Waters of Life, the Grail, buried treasure, etc.; normally this is a good Object which it is the Hero’s task to find or to rescue from the Enemy, but the Ring of Mr. Tolkien’s story was made by the Enemy and is so dangerous that even the good cannot use it without being corrupted….

The hero, Frodo Baggins, belongs to a race of beings called hobbits, who may be only three feet high; have hairy feet and prefer to live in underground houses, but in their thinking and sensibility resemble very closely those arcadian rustics who inhabit so many British detective stories. I think some readers may find the opening chapter a little shy-making, nut they must not let themselves be put off, for, once the story gets moving, this initial archness disappears.

For over a thousand years the hobbits have been living a peaceful existence in a fertile district called the Shire, incurious about the world outside. Actually, the latter is rather sinister; towns have fallen to ruins, roads into disrepair, fertile fields have returned to wilderness, wild beasts and evil beings on the prowl, and travel is difficult and dangerous. In addition to the Hobbits, there are Elves who are wise and good, Dwarves who are skillful and good on the whole, and Men, some warriors,some wizards, who are good or bad. The present incarnation of the Enemy is Sauron, Lord of Barad-Dur, the Dark Tower in the Land of Mordor. Assisting him are the Orcs, wolves and other horrid creatures and, of course, such men as his power attracts or overawes. Landscape, climate and atmosphere are northern, reminiscent of the Icelandic sagas.

The Lord of the Rings (1st American Edition)

The first thing that one asks is that the adventure should be various and exciting; in this respect Mr. Tolkien’s invention is unflagging, and, on the primitive level of wanting to know what happens next, “The Fellowship of the Ring” is at least as good as “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” Of any imaginary world the reader demands that it seem real, and the standard of realism demanded today is much stricter than in the time, say, of Malory. Mr. Tolkien is fortunate in possessing an amazing gift for naming and a wonderfully exact eye for description; by the time one has finished his book one knows the histories of Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and the landscape they inhabit as well as one knows one’s own childhood.

Lastly, if one is to take a tale of this kind seriously, one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we live in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own; in this, too, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly, and what happened in the year of the Shire 1418 in the Third Age of Middle Earth is not only fascinating in A. D. 1954 but also a warning and an inspiration. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

The Chronicles of Narnia (1st American Edition)

I think I’ve provided sufficient historical and literary evidence at how Tolkien & Lewis were received in their own time, as well as some assessment of how posterity’s judged their fantasy works.  In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll start bringing it together and begin to tell why I think that there’s still plenty of “medieval” left to be explored in medieval epic fantasy!

Next time: Concluding Thoughts on an Aspect of Imagining the Middle Ages in Fantasy

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