Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lin Carter: Explorations in Fantasy Part 2," Tolkien: A Look Behind the 'Lord of the Rings"

I began this series on Lin Carter a long time back and am now just getting back to it. The reason for the long delay is I just wasn't sure what I was trying to prove. I believe that Lin Carter, while looked down upon too often by the establishment and fans of Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery, he is not given enough credit for the positive influence he has had upon the genre. Lin Carter was one of the first critical writers to take fantasy and its related genres seriously and to attempt to make the public at large view it as Literature (capital L intended). So after a long delay, here is my second love letter to the memory of Lin Carter.

This post is more of a retrospective then a review. I don't feel it is fare to review this work, as Carter was attempting to pioneer the idea that the Fantasy genre is not to be viewed as childish and non-academic. Mr. Carter was well read in the field and beyond. He shows it here. I would like you as the reader to keep in mind that when Carter was writing this, The Lord of the Rings (hereafter LotR) was more of a cult favorite and was not universally as well known as such pop-culture icons such as Batman or Superman. It isn't too far fetched to suggest that Carter, with the publication of this book helped bring pop-culture status to Tolkien's work.

First published in paper back form in March 1969 by Ballantine Books. There were numerous printings of this book, the latest in 2003. To the best of my knowledge, it is currently out of print. The edition I own is a fourteenth printing dated 1978.

Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, is an insightful guide to the man who created Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf and the gang. The first chapter, "The Lives and Times of Professor Tolkien" is a short biography, and is interesting, but as to information gained from reading it, if you've read any works about Tolkien before, you won't learn anything further. The same can be said of Chapter 2 which discusses Tolkien's involvement with the Inklings. This is tried and true Tolkienism that many an armchair Tolkien scholar has read numerous times before. What makes it different and special, is Carter is perhaps one of the first few to take The Lord of the Rings seriously, not as an entertainment, but as a serious work of Literature worthy of study.

Chapter 3 stands out with interest. Titled "Tolkien Today", it is a look at the good professor's other works such as his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The bulk of the chapter is Carter's discussion of "Tolkien's upcoming new LotR book The Silmarillion". I found it interesting, for it was written while Tolkien was still writing the book. As any fan of Tolkien knows, that work was published posthumously in 1977 by his son Christopher Tolkien. When Carter wrote this chapter, the professor's fan base was still slathering at the mouth in anticipation of The Silmarillion being published. There was much excitement for no one truly knew what the book would be about, and many were hoping for a sequel to LotR. Here, Carter discusses what he believes the book will be about. Being that I was very young when LotR first saw print and was thus a Johnny-Come-Lately, it made for a nice bit of history for me. Later editions of Carter's book included an editor's note dated January 1975 noting the death of J.R.R. Tolkien in 1973 and the fact that he was still in the midst of completing The Silmarillion at the time of his death.

Chapters 4 through 7 are nothing more then synopsis of The Hobbit and all three books of The Lord of the Rings. For anyone who is familiar with the books, there is nothing gained from the reading of these four chapters.

The interesting stuff begins in Chapter 8 where Carter discusses if LotR can fairly be read as satire, allegory or something else. Chapter 9 explores Tolkien's famous Andrew Lang lecture Tree and Leaf and how Tolkien's admiration of the fairy story factored into his writing. Carter uses this chapter as well to further define the genre of fantasy and to ponder what kind of fantasy LotR is (from the book):

Does it belong to the whimsy of James Stephen's The Crock of Gold or to the supernatural horror of H.P. Lovecraft's Weird Shadow Over Innsmouth? To the swashbuckling heroics of Robert E. Howard's "Conan" stories or the ironic symbolism of James Branch Cabell's Jurgen? To the high adventure of H. Rider Haggard's She or to the subtle legendry of Lord Dunsany's Idle Days on the Yann?...

Many more examples are given with no conclusion yet drawn.

Chapter 10 explores Tolkien's connection to the Epic. In true Carter fashion, he begins with a short history of the Epic and what an Epic entails. In this chapter, the author calls upon Homer and Gilgamesh, plus a few other works, show casing his wide range of literature read. Also discussed is if the epic can be classified as fantasy. This chapter, along with the following chapters of the book serve as a preview of sorts of his next book Imaginary Worlds.

The next chapter serves as a continuation of the history of the Epic. Carter begins with a discussion of the Argonautica then traces the art to the formation of the French epics "chansons de geste ("songs of deeds") which includes Song of Roland. The songs of deeds detail the heroics of Charlemagne. Carter spends a good deal of time examining Roland. He ends the chapter with an introduction to the topic of Chapter 12, the Romances of the late Middle Age.

Here Carter discusses how Romances made the addition of magicians and magic in general to the literature that is building towards Tolkien's work. He turns to a discussion of Amadis of Gaul, and his admiration for it. As he explains, the popularity of Amadis sprung a wealth of new romances, mostly imitators. Most of those works which followed the Amadis became so convoluted with the idea of topping the last, that they became dreary and nearly unintelligible. Carter is not afraid to tell his reader when he thinks something is crap; for instance, the end of this chapter includes his opinion of Edmund Spenser, author of The Fairie Queen. His opinion of Spenser is not good, as he attributes to him the death blow (of the literature of romance). More opinion of Spenser and The Fairie Queen is given in Carter's Imaginary Worlds.

Chapter 13 shows Carter's tastes in literature that can, without a doubt, be confined to the genre of Fantasy. He writes mostly of three men whom he gives credit to for creating fantasy. First up is William Morris, who Carter labels The Reformer; next is Lord Dunsany, The Aristocrat; last of his "big three" is Eric Rucker Eddison who Carter calls The Romancer. The major works of all three are discussed. In this chapter Carter also pays homage to: L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt. H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance and Mervyn Peak. He gives some attention to Peak's "Gormenghast trilogy".

In chapter 14, Carter puts forth what he considers to be the primary sources for Tolkien's ring trilogy. He gives much time to the Elder Edda and includes a list of names from the Edda. Amongst those names are many of the dwarven names used by Tolkien. Interestingly enough, the list includes a dwarf named Gandalf. Carter also looks in depth at the Siegfried Legend. Sometimes remembered as the legend of the dragon-slayer, the Siegfried tales includes magical rings amongst other similarities. His discussion of this ends with an examination of Richard Wagner's operas and their likeness to Tolkien's writings.

Chapter 15 "On the Naming of Names", explores the probable sources for many of Professor Tolkien's character names. Carter begins the chapter with a quick anecdote that fans of H.P. Lovecraft would find interesting. Carter relates a tongue-cheek-joke of Lovecraft naming one of his characters "the Comte d'Erlette", which he proposes is a play on the name August Derleth (this is based on the similarity of the sound of d'Erlette and Derleth, plus August Derleth was a correspondent of Lovecraft and Lovecraft knew that Derleth was descended from French nobility, but as an American citizen, Derleth could not retain a title of nobility). (On a side note, it is anecdotes such as this that add strength to Lin Carter's explorations). The meat of the chapter involves Carter tracing character names in Tolkien's LotR to their respective sources: mostly by "immersion in Welsh, Norse, Gaelic, Scandinavian and Germanic folklore" (the quote is from an article called "The Fantastic World of Professor Tolkien" by Michael Straight, originally published in The New Republic, January 16, 1956). Carter shows that often there is more then one source for each name. For instance, the name Gandalf was first found in the Edda's dwarf catalogue; however, a character named Gandalf also plays a part in the fourteenth century Norse saga Thattr Nornagest Saga; we see the name Gandalf also appearing in the William Morris' novel The Well at the World's End. From here, Carter leads into the final chapter of the book.

Chapter 15, Some People, Places and Things explores the setting of Tolkien's fantasy work. Carter begins with "Places" and establishes the history of a fantasy world in the the Morris-Dunsany-Eddison-Tolkien tradition. By this is meant that the idea of a fantasy world, as understood by the modern reader, began with William Morris, and was used (and perhaps built upon and or expanded) by Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison and then J.R.R. Tolkien in that order. He also gives another what I call a Lin Carter PR moment when in a foot note he expands upon the term Sword & Sorcery, in which he is speaking of the similarities between epic fantasy worlds and those of the common sword and sorcery world. Here he explains that Robert E. Howard is the father of the sword and sorcery genre, but it was later expanded upon by such authors as Henry Kuttner (with his Elak Stories), L. Sprague de Camp (who at the time Carter was writing this book shared a strong friendship with him), Fritz Lieber (who actually coined the term Sword & Sorcery) and oh-yeah, Lin Carter (for his Thongor stories). The "People" section of this chapter is the strongest. Here Carter points out the character tropes used for Tolkien's characters. He suggests that Aragon is the perfect Patrician Hero and that Frodo is perhaps in the words of William Shakespeare "one who has greatness thrust upon them". He ends the chapter with an interesting tracing of the origins of "...the White Tree which once bloomed in Minas Arnor in the great days of Gondor" and its relation to the tree mythology laid out in volume III of Teutonic Mythology by Viktor Rydberg.

Lin Carter ends the book with a post-script titled, After Tolkien, which is a laundry list of works that are influenced by Tolkien. For instance, Carol Kendall's Gammage Cup, published in 1959, tells a story of a hobbit like race of little people. He also compares Alan Garner's novels The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), The Moon of Gomrath (1963) and Elidor (1965) all seem influenced by LotR. He ends with stating that the finest books to follow the Tolkien tradition to date are the works of Llyod Alexander; The Book of Three (1964), The Black Cauldron (1965), The Castle of Llyr (1966), Taran Wanderer (1967) and The High King (1968).

He includes two appendix, "A Checklist of Critical Literature on The Lord of the Rings" and "A Selected Bibliography". Both are outdated to the modern reader, but are not without merit.

I end this retrospective with Lin Carter's first sentence to the first paragraph of his "Postscript: After Tolkien"

If L. Sprague de Camp is correct in his opinion that Lord Dunsany was the most influential fantasy writer of the first half of this century, then I feel certain that J.R.R. Tolkien will prove the greatest influence over writers in the last half.

In my humble opinion, I would say Lin Carter was unarguably correct in his assumption. To deny the fingerprint left by J.R.R. Tolkien upon the Fantasy Genre, popular culture and Literature in general would be a hard argument to make.

Part three of this series will look at Lin Carter's magnum opus, Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy.

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