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How Tolkien has Ruined my Appetite for Modern Fiction

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I took a stroll through the local bookstore tonight. I scoured. I picked up and flipped over.

And I yawned.

I am not suggesting that good contemporary fiction does not exist. I subscribe to several popular book blogs which boast of the newest fascinating work. When I have followed their suggestion, I usually concur with the verdict. One recent example is Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. It’s fabulous.

So I know that there are good authors out there. But, at the grand risk of sounding like a book snob, most of today’s selection cannot hold a candle to the cherished classics. Now, before you cringe, let me assure you that when I use the term “classic,” I am not necessarily referring to those lofty, intangible tomes with four-syllable words which, with a glance, trigger our gag reflex and torment us with horrid memories of 8th grade English class. I mean those books we keep coming back to over and over. For me, works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeline L’Engle, Dorothy Sayers, David Foster Wallace, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, George R.R. Martin, Diana Galbaldon, and Marilynne Robinson are a joy to reread.

Yet, I keep getting drawn back into Tolkien and Lewis. To a startling degree. I always end up where I started. One of my reading goals this year is to maintain a steady diet of the literature which inspired Tolkien and Lewis (Milton, Dante, The Iliad, etc.). I simply can’t shake the compulsion to uncover the deep roots of beautiful literary blooms we all enjoy.

The first time I read Tolkien, I was actually an adult (*gasp*) who had meandered into Lewis through his apologetic works. After reading Diana Glyer’s amazing book The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, I decided to explore other Inkling writers. Tolkien was a peripheral interest for me. Several years ago, I taught The Hobbit for several semesters.  I was casually acquainted, but hadn’t followed the interest much further.

Then I began reading The Fellowship of the Ring.

I realized about three pages in that I wanted, sorely, to live in Middle Earth. This world, the one being built by sentences and paragraphs before my eyes, was stretching its vivid topography across my imagination. Establishing permanence and reinforcing in me a familiar sense of longing (Lewis called it “sehnsucht”).  Beautiful pictures of wooded lands, of majestic mountain peaks, of a smoke-filled Prancing Pony, of the elegance of Lothlorien. On and on it went. Tolkien described so well the surroundings and captured the climate of a place seeking redemption and restoration, but even in it’s brokenness, it was still arresting.

Do you see what I mean? How can one turn to prosaic, ordinary fiction once one has visited Middle Earth? Regular fiction is suddenly an imitation. Often, it is a regurgitation of familiar storylines with different characters or different species. But Lord of the Rings is different. As Jane Austen once said, good literature “alters the color of the mind.” There is no going back.

When I finally finished it, 1100 pages later, it left me hungry. Aragorn is King…and…and now what? I have to carry on in a world without dragons and Dwarf gold and second breakfast. Reality faded just a little bit for me. Over time, and rather reluctantly, I returned to a normal rhythm of life but the scenery had changed. The bar of “good work” has been raised significantly.

I expect to find a fictional jewel every now and again. But I doubt we will see such rare talent as Tolkien in a long while. That is just fine though. I’ve twelve books of Middle Earth history (and other Tolkien miscellany) to keep me company.

About Niklas Anderson

12 comments

  1. Agreed. I’ve often thought that good fiction is like going away to a new place; Middle-earth is like going home.

  2. I agree 100%. I haven’t found anything that even compares to Middle Earth or Narnia. Each time I pick up a Tolkien book, it’s like I’m going home for a visit.

    I did find another author from Lewis’ and Tolkien’s time though, that writes almost as well but never became as famous as the two masters. Lloyd Alexander and his Chronicles of Prydain. They are another series I gladly go back to regulalrly.

  3. Harry Potter is pretty good I think.

  4. I do understand the points made and yes, I do keep coming back to Tolkien, always. Next on my reading list are biographies and the letters of C.S. Lewis (so I am doing things the other way around 😉 ) and another huge inspiration for Tolkien would be William Morris – so that’s the next step, then.

    However, I wouldn’t want to be so pessimistic in outlook – there is good stuff out there and it is being written as we speak. Anthony Ryan is a fun read, Rothfuss keeps fascinating me, Gaiman – well, he is Gaiman, after all -, and particularly the fun of Kevin Hearne. As my heart also goes out to Pratchett funny fantasy is my thing, too. Much too rare, still, if you ask me!

    The bar has been raised significantly, true enough. However, we should really start working on sharing those classics to a new generation of fantasy readers who -possibly- haven’t heard of Beagle, Zelazny, Moorcock, Le Guin, Alexander, and so many other great names.

    That will most certainly keep me busy in the years to come as well.

    Note to self: Get Crystal Hurd’s dissertation! *g*

    • I completely agree! Gaiman and Le Guin are amazing writers. I devour Gaiman (he has a new book coming out next month). You are right that people can restrict themselves to certain authors and miss out on new, amazing authors. This particular visit was disappointing when I scoured through the new releases. I keep getting drawn back to Lewis and Tolkien. 🙂

      My dissertation is available through international research databases as “Transformational Leadership in the Life and Works of C.S. Lewis.” If you can’t find it, shoot me a message and I can send it to you!

    • Don’t miss Lars Walker’s novels about the conversion of Norway. He is different in style from Tolkien, but I think that the Rohirrim would approve.

  5. Aristotle – The Philosopher
    St. John – The Evangelist
    St. Aquinas – The Theologian
    Tolkien – The Sub-Creator

    And yes, Tolkien certainly belongs in such esteemed compnay. His works will be around long after we are gone and will be discussed avidly for many generations to come, if not indeed centuries.
    As such, few things can hold a candle to his work and many will find it impossible to avoid comparison with him, indeed impossible not to borrow from him. And if they don’t borrow, it’s only because they explicitly intend to avoid him. Needless to say, this makes a casual stroll through the bookstore underwhelming, though as the good Dr. says, there are still some gems out there. A couple of my favorites would be Michael Flynn and John C. Wright.

  6. It is rare that I find an article that so perfectly describes my feelings. I completely agree with this. I do still enjoy some modern works, but I always find myself drawn back to writers like Tolkien

  7. I totally agree, Tolkien has created a completely different world from what we are use to
    read. I had just finished reading the book and as you mentioned, it leaves you
    hungry, for real. If they wouldn’t pursue me to read the novel, probably I
    wouldn’t have the opportunity to adventure in Tolkien’s world. Since the moment
    you read the first pages, you appreciate literature and thank that we could
    enjoy these terrific novels. Every time I read Tolkien, I asked myself, how can
    a person have such an imagination and how come everything becomes so real when
    reading it? Then, I realized that like him, there is nobody. His writing style
    is so creative and makes Middle-Earth feels like home even though it
    doesn’t exists. Tolkien’s rich fantasy give readers a literary trove populated
    by hobbits, dwarfs, goblins, wizards and other gorgeous creatures where
    everything is possible. Tolkien is indeed one of the best authors I had read
    and I am privileged of enjoying all of his adventures.

  8. Mary Beth Atkinson

    I hope you have read The Silmarillion. It gives us so much more of the whole of Arda. As for modern writers, I enjoy Connie Willis.

  9. 3 of my favorite authors are Garth Nix, Trudi Canavan and Maria V Snyder. Garth Nix old kingdom books (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, Clariel) are sepecialy good books and i love to re read them every so often. I really recommend these authors especially Garth Nix as you can really feel like you are in his world with his old kingdom books.

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