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Edited by Karen Haber

St. Martin's Press


235pp/$24.95/November 2001

Meditations on Middle-Earth
Cover by John Howe

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

On the eve of the release of the live-action “The Fellowship of the Ring,” fantasist Karen Haber has commissioned several other fantasy authors to write short essays discussing what J.R.R. Tolkien has meant to them, on both a personal and professional level.  The results are collected in Meditations on Middle-Earth, a collection with no academic pretensions.  Instead, the essays read as if they are parts of discussions the authors are having about someone who has had a profound influence on them.

What is interesting is that although the book purports to be Meditations on Middle-Earth, the majority of the themes discussed by the authors deal with the Middle-Earth presented in The Lord of the Rings, rather than in The Hobbit.  References to The Hobbit abound, frequently noting that it was the introduction to Tolkien and the impetus for diving into The Lord of the Rings, but it definitely comes off as a second-class (but not second-rate) work.

Poul Anderson, who began publishing stories in 1947, seven years before The Fellowship of the Rings appeared, discusses his own introduction to Tolkien’s writing by fellow author Reginald Bretnor, as well as the commercial effects the publication of The Lord of the Rings had on his own fantasy works in the early 1970s.  Anderson is unique in this book as having a career which pre-dates the publication of The Lord of the Rings.  The majority of the other authors discuss how his writing influenced their own decision to write fantasy.

George R.R. Martin begins the book by describing Tolkien as the forerunner of all modern  fantasists, a theme frequently repeated in the following pages.  Raymond Feist views Tolkien as the spiritual grandfather of those who write fantasy, while Harry Turtledove discusses his own early attempts to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings.  Esther Friesner points out that reading Tolkien led her to write humorous fantasy, despite the fact that Tolkien is epic fantasy of the most pure sort.  One of the more moving reminiscences is Michael Swanwick’s juxtaposition of reading the trilogy to his son and remembering his own childhood and his adult reinterpretation of Tolkien’s words.  Diane Duane’s reminiscence takes the form of a young girl who finished reading the second book only to realize she would not be able to obtain the third book until the next day.  She uses this situation to expound on the purpose of reading and what it means to someone in their formative years.

Charles De Lint describes discovering The Hobbit in a world completely different from today's world.  Not so much politically or culturally, but by the simple fact that there were not shelves upon shelves of thick fantasy novels which turned Tolkien's creations into archetypes.  De Lint reminds the reader that one of the magical powers of discovering Tolkien was that he was sui generis, while today he is almost lost in a sea of imitators.

Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series which began by parodying many of the tropes Tolkien used in fantastic fiction, looks at Tolkien’s growth from cult author to an author frequently ranked among the favorite of the last century.  Given Pratchett’s own position in British literary circles, he has a, perhaps, unique perspective on this matter.

Another unique perspective is provided in Glenn Hurdling’s conversation with the Brothers Hildebrandt, who built much of their career illustrated various versions The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Their discussion mostly revolves around the work they did on the Tolkien calendars of the 1970s, but they also talk about how Tolkien’s work influenced their own non-Tolkien-related projects.

Douglas A. Anderson brings a critics eye to Tolkien’s work, but does not descend into academic jargon in explaining the importance of The Lord of the Rings to literature.  Anderson also takes a look at much of the criticism which has dismissed The Lord of the Rings as merely fantasy.  Rather than the “Period Piece” Harold Bloom has dismissed is as, Anderson defends Swanwick’s assertion that The Lord of the Rings retains relevance.  This point was driven home by the fact that as I was reading Meditations on Middle-Earth Tom Shippey was winning a World Fantasy Award for his study J.R.R. Tolkien:  Author of the Century.

While noting that she is not an academic, Robin Hobb also takes a look at the writing of The Lord of the Rings and how it affected her emotionally and psychologically.  Hobb also notes that as an aspiring author she viewed The Lord of the Rings as a challenge to write something which would have meaning in the light of a book she considered to be a masterpiece.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s contribution may be the most like an English teacher’s, pointing out the rhythmic meter which appears frequently in Tolkien’s writing.  Le Guin’s analysis stems from reading the books out loud to her children (as Swanwick discussed in his essay) and noticing certain patterns which would be less noticeable in a silent reading.  Given Tolkien’s penchant for poetry, Le Guin surmised that these were included intentionally.

Perhaps Orson Scott Card comes closest to explaining why the meditations on Tolkien included in this work are not analytical in nature.  He views The Lord of the Rings as a story first and foremost.  Dissecting it in literary terms does not say anything about Tolkien or the tale, but rather says something about "whichever lit-crit lens" happens to be used (p.155).  Rather than try to deconstruct Middle-Earth, Card suggests the reader simply enjoy the world Tolkien has created for himself and deigned to share.

In counterpoint to Card's assertion that what grabs the reader is the story, Lisa Goldstein believes that Tolkien has created a myth for modern times in the writing of The Lord of the Rings.  In a time where people have lost faith in their institutions and legends, they find another world, not necessarily simpler, but with ethical demarcations, in Middle Earth.   Terri Windling also views The Lord of the Rings in terms of myth, or rather fairy tale and ties that understanding in to Tolkien's more explicit work on fairy tales.  

The entire book is illustrated with sketches by John Howe.  Rather than illustrating specific points made by the authors, these drawings are taken directly from scenes in the books.  Each one is identified by title, colume, book and chapter.  While they may not have the finished look that one of the Hildebrandt’s calendar pieces have, they speak to a visceral understanding of the events and bring up memories of passages from Tolkien’s work.

In the end, Meditations on Middle-Earth probably says more about the writing careers and styles of the authors who are included than about Tolkien’s own writing.  However, Tolkien also has had more critical examination than most, if not all, of the contributors.  While Meditations on Middle-Earth may not offer much critical insight into Tolkien’s writing, reading it feels like a friendly conversation among similar-minded fans whose lives have been influenced and enhanced by the reading experience.  Where the essays in Meditations on Middle-Earth succeed most is making the reader want to put the book down and pick up the nearest copy of The Lord of the Rings.

Karen Haber Preface:  The Beat Goes On
George R.R. Martin Introduction
Raymond Feist Our Grandfather:  Meditations on J.R.R. Tolkien
Poul Anderson Awakening the Elves
Michael Swanwick A Changeling Returns
Esther M. Friesner If You Give a Girl a Hobbit
Harry Turtledove The Ring and I
Terry Pratchett Cult Classic
Robin Hobb A Bar and a Quest
Ursula K. Le Guin Rhythmic Pattern in the Lord of the Rings
Diane Duane The Longest Sunday
Douglas A. Anderson Tolkien After All These Years
Orson Scott Card How Tolkien Means
Charles de Lint The Tale Goes Ever On
Lisa Goldstein The Mythmaker
Glenn Hurdling "The Radical Distinction. . . "  A Conversation with Tim and Greg Hildebrandt
Terri Windling On Tolkien and Fairy-Stories

Purchase this book in hardcover from Amazon Books.

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