By Ted Gioia

In 1961, C.S. Lewis attempted to nominate his friend
and fellow Oxford don J.R.R. Tolkien for the Nobel
Prize in literature.  Recently released files from the
Nobel archive in Stockholm indicate that the jury
briefly considered Tolkien, before dismissing the author
of
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with a terse
verdict: his books had "not in
any way measured up to story-
telling of the highest quality."  
That same year, the judges also
considered and rejected Graham
Greene, Isak Dinesen, Robert
Frost and E.M. Forster
none
of whom would ever win the
prize.  The award went instead
to Yugoslav writer (and civil
servant under dictator Tito) Ivo
Andrić.

I am no wide-eyed fan.  Unlike most Tolkien admirers,
I did not read his books during my youth, and thus
encountered them with eyes that had already worked
their way through the major novels of Dostoevsky,
Proust, Tolstoy, Joyce, Kafka, Woolf, Dickens, James
and the other mainstays of highbrow literature. As such,
I chafed against the rococo elements in Tolkien's stories:
the stilted diction, the interminable journeys through
painstakingly described landscapes, and especially those
insufferable songs.

Clap! Snap! the black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down, down to Goblin-town
You go, my lad!

Clash, crash! Crush, smash!
Hammer and tongs!  Knocker and gongs!
Pound, pound, far underground!
Ho, ho! my lad!

Etc. etc.

I have my gripes, in other words.  And yet I must object
to the Nobel jury's glib dismissal.  One might as well
put down Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes
stories or Lewis Carroll's Alice books for their
shallowness and contrivance. Such attitudes miss the
larger point:  to create modern myth on such a large
scale and with such pervasive impact on the collective
consciousness places an author on the highest rank of
storytellers, no matter what judges and jury might say
to the contrary.

Tolkien's works have not only survived the changing
tastes of several generations, but they loom larger now
than ever.  Peter Jackson's film trilogy of
The Lord of
Rings
(2001-2003) brought in a staggering $3 billion in
worldwide box office receipts, and 35 years after
Tolkien's death his estate generated $50 million in
annual earnings, placing the Oxford don right behind
Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley on the list of income-
producing dead celebrities.  But Tolkien's impact can
hardly be measured in merely monetary terms.  Has any
twentieth century author enchanted more people or
inspired more imitators?  I doubt it.

Tolkien began work on
The Hobbit in the early 1930s,
but the earliest roots of the work go back even further
to the years of World War I, when he began
constructing imaginary languages and a related
mythology.  This odd approach to writing fiction is
both revealing of Tolkien's mindset and helps explain
his work's lasting appeal.  A certain ineffable richness in
the fabric of his novels contributed greatly to their
success
and this texture no doubt came from our
author's unusual determination to spend a couple
decades tinkering with his imaginary universe before
bringing it the attention of the public.

From this perspective, even the ingredients I least enjoy
about Tolkien
such as those godawful elven songs
are essential parts of the recipe.  In addressing a book
such as
The Hobbit, one almost needs to adopt an
anthropologist's perspective.  After all, we are not just
reading a story but immersing ourselves in a different
culture.  As such, it's best to remember that the folk
songs that construct and celebrate the key meanings for
a society aren't always the tunes with the catchiest
melodies or the wittiest lyrics.  The folk tales that
establish a group's literary culture aren't picked on the
basis of clever plot twists.  Cultural resonance requires
more than wit or erudition, but rather a symbolic depth
and an archetypal reality.  On those measures, Tolkien
is unsurpassed.

These deeper levels of signification allow Tolkien to
build his plot around mundane objects
a stone, a cup,
a ring.  For another storyteller, these would be little
more than what screenplay writers call a
MacGuffin, an
item sought by characters in a way that drives forward
the plot, but without much thought put into its essence
or attributes.  It might be a Maltese falcon or a sleigh
named Rosebud or the briefcase in
Pulp Fiction.  But
Tolkien is less worried about plot than with the iconic
(in the original meaning of the word) and archetypal
nature of his imaginary world.  

Of course, the idea of a mythic quest for a ring would
have been familiar to Tolkien's earliest readers
it
serves as a titular element in Richard Wagner's
magnum opus
Der Ring des Nibelungen, completed only
a decade-and-a-half before Tolkien's birth. Tolkien
himself dismissed the connection
"Both rings were
round, and there the resemblance ceases," was his
rejoinder.  Yet the connections between the two are
striking, with Tolkien less an emulator of Wagner and
more his mirror image. Witness the anti-heroic qualities
of the quest for Tolkien's ring, especially in
The Hobbit
where the hapless antagonists Bilbo Baggins and
Gollum could hardly provide a starker contrast with
the Wagnerian will to power of the famous opera cycle.

The best adjective Tolkien can offer in praise of the
hobbit Baggins at the start of his novel is "respectable."  
When the wizard Gandalf shows up, "looking for
someone to share in an adventure," Bilbo responds:
"We are plain quiet folks and I have no use for
adventures."  Gandalf eventually enlists Baggins help in
a quest to capture the treasure guarded by the dragon
Smaug.  Along the way, the company encounters trolls,
goblins, giant spiders, wood-elves
familiar enough
from children's stories, but presented here in a manner
more reminiscent of an oral epic or Icelandic saga.  

My favorite interlude in
The Hobbit involves a less
spectacular conflict, the aforementioned contest over
the ring between Baggins and Gollum.  Here Tolkien's
anti-heroic tendencies are most pronounced.  Indeed,
the two combatants do not battle with swords or
daggers, clubs or spears, but simply with riddles.  

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.  

Bilbo Baggins is unable to answer this riddle, but when
he begs for more time-muttering "Time! Time!"
he
finds that he has provided the solution by the sheerest
luck.

No, one would not find that in Wagner
or even in
Narnia or at Hogwarts. And while Tolkien's legions of
imitators may have matched him dragon for dragon,
troll for troll, few can impart such fluency with
language and rustic charm into their adventure stories.
Reading his works, one is constantly reminded that
this author was imbibing
Beowulf and the Kalevala while
others were immersed in pulp fiction potboilers.  
Perhaps his genius lay in the simple realization that we
still crave myth even as we live in an age that insists on
rejecting it. So we shouldn't be surprised if his work
seems so different from other "genre" fiction
if only
because mythmakers always aim for something far too
large to be reduced to genre.  
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
The Hobbit
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Click on image to purchase
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by
Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
by
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
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Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
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