Gene Wolfe on JRR Tolkien: The Best Introduction to the Mountains

Here below is the beginning of my favorite essay on JRR Tolkien. It is by the author Gene Wolfe, who is the finest writer in any genre currently gracing our planet, and he happens to have selected, and expanded, the genre called science fiction to work his arts. I was fascinated by his insight into Tolkien, not to mention into our Lower Earth of which Middle Earth is an elevated reflection.

Because this essay disappeared from the reaches of the Internet for a time, I wish to reprint the opening here, and post to link to where the balance still might be found.

The full essay is here.

The Best Introduction to the Mountains

by Gene Wolfe


There is one very real sense in which the Dark Ages were the brightest of times, and it is this: that they were times of defined and definite duties and freedoms. The king might rule badly, but everyone agreed as to what good rule was. Not only every earl and baron but every carl and churl knew what an ideal king would say and do. The peasant might behave badly; but the peasant did not expect praise for it, even his own praise. These assertions can be quibbled over endlessly, of course; there are always exceptional persons and exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless they represent a broad truth about Christianized barbarian society as a whole, and arguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented. At a time when few others knew this, and very few others understood its implications, J. R. R. Tolkien both knew and understood, and was able to express that understanding in art, and in time in great art.

That, I believe, was what drew me to him so strongly when I first encountered The Lord of the Rings. As a child I had been taught a code of conduct: I was to be courteous and considerate, and most courteous and most considerate of those less strong than I — of girls and women, and of old people especially. Less educated men might hold inferior positions, but that did not mean that they themselves were inferior; they might be (and often would be) wiser, braver, and more honest than I was. They were entitled to respect, and were to be thanked when they befriended me, even in minor matters. Legitimate authority was to be obeyed without shirking and without question. Mere strength (the corrupt coercion Washington calls power and Chicago clout) was to be defied. It might be better to be a slave than to die, but it was better to die than to be a slave who acquiesced in his own slavery. Above all, I was to be honest with everyone. Debts were to be paid, and my word was to be as good as I could make it.

With that preparation I entered the Mills of Mordor, where courtesy is weakness, honesty is foolishness, and cruelty is entertainment.

I was living in a club for men, a place much like a YMCA. I was thoroughly wretched in half a dozen ways (much more so than I had ever been in college or the Army), but for the first time in my life I had enough money to subscribe to magazines and even buy books in hardcover. Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Weird Tales, and Famous Fantastic Mysteries — pulps I had read as a boy while hiding behind the candy counter in the Richmond Pharmacy — were gone; but Astounding Stories lingered as a digest-size magazine a bit less costly than most paperback books. There was also The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, put out by the same company that had published Curtains for the Copper and other Mercury Mysteries that my mother and I had devoured. I subscribed to both, and to any other magazines dealing with science fiction or fantasy that could locate.

Here I must do someone (quite likely the late Anthony Boucher) a grave injustice. I no longer recall who wrote the review I read in Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was a glowing review, and I would quote at length from it if I could. It convinced me then and there that I must read The Lord of the Rings. In those days (the middle 1950s, if you can conceive of a period so remote) the magazine offered books for sale — one might write enclosing a cheque, and receive the book one had ordered by mail. Accustomed as you are to ordering from, you will deride so primitive a system; but you have never been a friendless young man in a strange city far from home. Now that you have enjoyed yourself, please keep in mind that the big-box stores we are accustomed to did not exist. There was no cavernous Barnes & Noble stocking a thousand titles under Science Fiction and Fantasy, no two-tiered Borders rejoicing in a friendly coffee shop and a dozen helpful clerks. There were (if the city was large and one was lucky) one or two old-line book shops downtown; they carried bestsellers, classics like Anna Karenina, cookbooks, and books of local interest, with a smattering of other things, mostly humour and books about dogs. The city in which I was living also boasted a glorious used-book store, five floors and a cellar, in which one might find the most amazing things; but these things did not include science fiction or much fantasy — the few who were fortunate enough to own those books kept them. There may have been speciality shops already in New York; there very probably were. But if there were, they could not have specialized in fantasy or science fiction. Or in horror, for that matter. It was a surprise, a distinct departure from the usual publishing practices, whenever any such book appeared.

An example may make the reason clear. In 1939, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei had published twelve hundred copies of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider and Others, at their own expense. Fanzines had publicized their effort widely and with enthusiasm; but selling those twelve hundred books, which cost three dollars and fifty cents before publication and five dollars after, took four years.

The copy of The Fellowship of the Ring that I received from Fantasy & Science Fiction lies on my desk as I write. It is, I suppose, the first American edition; it was issued in 1956 (the year in which I bought it) by the Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston. It is gold-stamped, and is bound in cloth the colour of slightly faded denim. Its elegant dust jacket vanished long ago, though I still recall it. Its back board holds a much-folded map of Middle-earth, sixteen inches on a side, showing among other places the Shire, the Lost Realm of Arnor, Mirkwood, the Brown Lands, Rohan, and Gondor. On its half-title there is now a quotation from Thoreau that I inscribed in blue ink many years ago. I give it because its presence on that slightly yellowed page should convey to you more of what this book meant to me in those days than anything that I might write in my little essay possibly could.

Our fabled shores none ever reach,
No mariner has found our beach,
Scarcely our mirage is seen,
And Neighbouring waves of floating green,
Yet still the oldest charts contain
Some dotted outline of our main.

You are not likely to believe me when I say that I still remember vividly, almost 50 years later, how strictly I disciplined myself with that book, forcing myself to read no more than a single chapter each evening. The catch, my out, the stratagem by which I escaped the bonds of my own law, was that I could read that chapter as many times as I wished; and that I could also return to the chapter I had read the night before, if I chose. There were evenings on which I reread the entire book up the point — The Council of Elrond, let us say — at which I had forced myself to stop.

Naturally I had sent for The Two Towers as soon as I could. Eventually it came, bound and typeset as beautifully as The Fellowship of the Ring, with the same map (I confess that I had hoped for something new) in its back. Just as I inscribed that quotation from Thoreau in Fellowship, I put one from Conrad Aiken on the half-title page of Two Towers:

There was an island in the sea
That out of immortal chaos reared
Towers of topaz, trees of pearl
For maidens adored and warriors feared.

Long ago it sunk in the sea;
And now, a thousand fathoms deep,
Sea worms above it whirl their lamps,
Crabs on the pale mosaic creep.

By the time I received Two Towers, I had learned my lesson — I ordered The Return of the King at once. That, too, is on my desk. With one other thing, its back holds a delightfully detailed map of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor. The quotation I inscribed on its half-title is from Robert E. Howard. You have my leave to quarrel with me, but I think it the finest of the three, indeed one of the finest things have ever read.

Into the west, unknown of man,
Ships have sailed since the world began.
Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,
With dead hands fumbling his silken coat;
And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack–
Follow the ships that come not back.

If you remember the end of this last volume, how Frodo rides to the Grey Havens in the long Firth of Lune and boards the white ship, never to be seen again in Middle-earth, you will understand why I chose that particular quotation and why I treasure it (and the book which holds it) even today. But there is one thing more.

You see, ten years later I wrote J. R. R. Tolkien a fan letter.


The full essay is here.