Tolkien. J.R.R.

Here are links to two recent posts I did on my Blue Zoo Writers blog, a site that focuses on the writing process.

Secrets of Goblins and Good Writing

William Alexander’s debut fantasy novel Goblin Secrets recently just won a National Book Award for Young People’s literature, and it’s a wonderful piece of literary storytelling. Goblin Secrets is a book that adults will enjoy as much as young readers. And for writers in particular, it offers many noteworthy examples of delightful prose and approaches to captivating storytelling.

Six Writing Tips from J.R.R. Tolkien

Are you a fan of The Hobbit? A Lord of the Rings geek? Perhaps you just enjoy a good story, well told.

For writers, here are some tips drawn from Tolkien’s work. Attention to these principles will improve your writing.


This is either just a curious coincidence . . . or . . .

I happened to notice that three blockbuster works of fantasy all got published, at least according to the stories told by their own publishers, when a young reader of the manuscript (or self-published book in one of the cases below) happened to recommend the work to an adult parent who was influential in the literary world.

One somewhat recent case was the acquisition of young author Christopher Paolini’s first book, Eragon (the first in an eventual four books in his bestselling Inheritance cycle).

According to the UK’s The Guardian:

Novelist Carl Hiaasen was on a fishing holiday in the area; his stepson saw [Paolini’s self-published] book in a shop, read it, loved it and showed it to Hiaasen who immediately contacted his publishers [Knopf, where it ended up on the desk of Michelle Frey, who ended up making a mega-offer to Paolini]. Paolini’s feet have barely touched the ground since.

A similar young-reader-as-advocate story is told about the publishing of J.K. Rowling’s first Happy Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.). According to Bloomberg Businessweek:

It’s not every exec who turns to his 8-year-old daughter for advice. But that’s what publisher Nigel Newton did when he received a manuscript from an unknown children’s author in 1997. The founder of Bloomsbury Publishing PLC handed Alice a sheaf of papers and asked her to read them. “She came down from her room an hour later glowing, saying: ‘Dad, this is so much better than anything else,”‘ says the 49-year-old Newton.

The third example: the decision to acquire J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was similarly influenced by a very young reader. Here’s the story, from the New York Times:

Rayner Unwin took charge of the publishing house George Allen & Unwin in 1968 after the death of his father, Sir Stanley. The senior Unwin paid his son a shilling when he was 10 to write a reader’s report on a manuscript by J. R. R. Tolkien called ”The Hobbit.” The title, published in 1937, became a classic. . . . ”My father still has a copy of that reader’s report,” said Merlin Unwin, who noted that it included observations in schoolboy handwriting like: ”This is an excellent book. This will appeal to all children between the ages of 7 and 9.”

Out of the mouths of babes . . .

I do suspect this is more than just a coincidence. It says a number of things about how fantasy novels (and many other works of fiction) are chosen for publication. First, for the work of new, unknown authors, it’s a non-scientific, somewhat random process of luck. Many good works, undoubtedly—and perhaps some great ones—never make it out of the slush-pile oblivion for lack of an enthusiastic and well-connected advocate.

It also says something about the basic appeal of fantasy and how it often crosses the “intended recommended age-categories” often assigned to books. The Harry Potter series and The Hobbit are preeminent examples; both were marketed at first as children’s books, but have achieved a devoted readership among adults.

And of course, good works of fantasy (like many good works of genre-based literature) are much-loved by readers, who appreciate a good story and the richness of adventure, magic, and all that . . . but this may be under-appreciated by acquisitions editors seeking more “literary’ (i.e., non-genre-tainted) standards. (In the case of Tolkien, The Hobbit helped to established its genre. But at the time, many literary reviewers did not know what to make of this strangely appealing tale.)

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from these three bonanza-blockbuster tales of publishing serendipity.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

In a fascinating, slim volume, The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy, Harvey Cox, a Professor of Divinity teaching at Harvard fr0m the mid-1960s to 2009, made an eloquent prediction that it was time for festivity and fantasy to come back into a place of value (as it had been in the medieval world, before Cartesian logic and scientific method ruled for some centuries).

Cox was echoing what J.R.R. Tolkien had written earlier in a powerful essay, “On Fairy Stories” (written 1938, published 1947 in Essays Presented to Charles Williams). Tolkien called it “sub-creation” – noting how the literary invention of whole imaginary worlds, as in fairy stories, is a mirror of that God did in creating the world. Cox took up this case when he wrote:

Fantasy is the richest sources of human creativity. Theologically speaking, it is the image of the creator God in man. Like God, man in fantasy creates whole worlds ex nihilo, out of nothing.
—p. 59, Harvey Cox, in The Feast of Fools (Harvard University Press, 1969)

In the early pages of Feast, Cox lays out his case:

Though we have no annual Feast of Fools, the life affirmation and playful irreverence once incarnated in that day are bubbling up again in our times . . . rediscovering the value of two components of culture both of which were once seen in the Feast of Fools. The first is the feast or festival . . . the other important cultural component is fantasy and social criticism.

Cox continues:

In a success and money-oriented society we need a rebirth of unapologetically unproductive festivity and expressive celebration. . . . We need a renaissance of the spirit and there are signs that it is coming.

Cox’s book is a wonderful work (from which I quoted a different, equally thought-provoking passage in A Guide to Fantasy Literature).

Surely he is pointing to a key to understanding the role of fantasy literature: to celebrate (unproductively and unapologetically!) just how creative we can be in our storytelling . . . and yet to do it in a way that makes us even more amazed at the world beyond those fantastic ones that we return to, each time, after celebrating our various feasts of fools.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

The description of magic, and the underlying concept of it, is variously tackled in many a fantasy book. What does it feel like to use magic? Is it a tool, a technique? An external force? Or is it an art? A gift?

Tolkien wrote (in an undated letter, probably in 1951) that in Middle-earth, in The Lord of the Rings, there was a sort of machine-like magic used by the dark forces, used like a bulldozer to dominate or coerce, to gain Power. And in contrast, he offered the more wonderful high art of the immortal Elves, whose powers were simply “more effortless, more quick, more complete” than ordinary abilities of mere mortals.

To find an insightful description of magic and how it feels to use it, look to the writings of Ursula Le Guin, author of the famed Earthsea series, and more recently, an excellent series (Annals of the Western Shore) that includes the novel Gifts (2004), Voices (2006), and Powers (2007).

About Powers, a reviewer in Canada’s The Globe and Mail said:

What if there were a writer who exhibited all the inventiveness of genre fantasy but played out the action with a cast of nuanced, gritty, convincing characters in a prose style that was as lean, distilled and rhythmical as poetry? What if there were a writer who could invite all those readers who duck at the mention of dragons into a fantasy world that was as compelling and familiar as any in realistic fiction? . . . Peer as you might, you can’t quite see how she does it. Events from the past reappear, the future is foreshadowed and every incident is deeply rooted in character.

Gifts, the first in the series, introduces the Upland tribes, strong in magical powers that are different for each family group, gifts passed down from father to son, mother to daughter – power to see, command animals, destroy . . . with “a glance, a gesture, a word.” It focuses on a young teen, Orrec, who has a wild gift, and his friend, Gry, a girl whose powers to work with animals is taking shape.

What does it feel like to use the great powers of magic?

“But what does it feel like, to use it?”

He [Canoc, Orrec’s father] frowned and thought a long time before he spoke.

It’s as if something comes all together,” he said. His left hand moved a little, involuntarily. “As if you were a knot at the center of a dozen lines, all of them drawn into you, and you holding them taut. As if you were a bow, but with a dozen bowstrings. And you draw them in tighter, and they draw on you, till you say, ‘Now!’ And the power shoots out like the arrow.”

That’s a description of magic . .  rich with the tangible imagery and cadence of poetry . . . the kind of writing that those who read Le Guin’s novels are hooked on.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

“There and Back Again” . . .

In fantasy literature, the story often involves a journey from place familiar to place unknown. Leaving your small cottage, you enter the dark forest. Beyond is terra incognito, where dangerous beasts lurk, strange people are encountered, perilous decisions must be made.

These are the roads to the underground maze of Neverwhere, or the serene treetops of Lothlórien, or the tea parties and croquet matches of Wonderland.

There and Back Again, the subtitle of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, at first seems the epitome of understatement. It suggests the homebody nature of the hobbit, Bilbo’s penchant for the ordinary. The great adventure of going “there,” it suggests, means mostly just being away from home for a while.

But on his return, as is often true in epic tales, the hero finds that home itself has changed. Bilbo’s own neighbors don’t recognize him; they are absorbed in the process of selling off his furniture, eager to take over the cozy hobbit-hole they think he has abandoned. Bilbo himself has changed; he is not quite the same hobbit he used to be.

In that marvelous subtitle, Tolkien has summed up the essence of fantasy. There and back again is the very heart of adventure. To travel through Middle-earth or into any fantasy world is not just a series of stops on a Caribbean cruise. It is a journey into a mythic place.

There’s no “there” there, said Gertrude Stein, infamously, about Oakland, California. In Stein’s circle of hip literati and artists, “thereness” was a prized quality. It described an elevated aspect of place – just as destiny is a special quality of plot, or inner nature is a special aspect of character.

Indeed, this sense of “there-ness” might have been the true meaning of British climber George Mallory’s famous answer to the question of why he attempted to climb Mount Everest. “Because it’s there,” he replied. Perhaps what he really meant was that the high Himalayas had the quintessential “there-ness” of sacred space. Gertrude Stein would have known what he meant.

Perhaps Tolkien did too. As did Joseph Campbell, who wrote: “Sacred place is the place where eternity shines through.”

[This is excerpted from A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment, by Philip Martin, Crickhollow Books, copyright 2009. I’ve also added another excerpt about sense of place, from the “Fantastic Places” chapter, to the Excerpt page of this blog.]

The Inklings, of course, is the name for the now-famous group of writers and thinkers hosted by C.S. Lewis in his rooms at Magdalen College at Oxford – rooms that might be called shabby chic, with worn, comfortable armchairs and a big sofa. Attendees included Lewis’s good friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others. They would brew a pot of strong tea, light their pipes, and have at it, first reading excerpts from a work-in-progress and then letting the assembled company “sit in judgement upon it.”

As quoted in Diana Pavlac Glyer‘s fine book, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, member and older brother of C.S. Lewis, Warren (“Warnie”) Lewis said: “We were no mutual admiration society: praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work – or even not-so-good work – was often brutally frank.”

Glyer’s book documents how they influenced each other in so many ways, as a regular meeting of working writers. In detail, she describes (see p. 104 on) how Lewis helped Tolkien refine the tone of his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, steering the early drafts of first chapters away from a hobbity, chatty, playful work (first conceived as a sequel to Tolkien’s earlier work for young readers, The Hobbit) and into a more serious work with real “gravity.” It’s a fascinating look into the minds of those two great writers of modern fantasy.

The Company They Keep also brought to my attention the name (see Glyer’s book, p. 3) that Tolkien chose for an earlier version of the Inklings, Kolbítar. It came from an Old Norse/Icelandic word meaning Coal Biters, describing “old cronies” who sat closest to a fire; close enough, as it were, to bite the coal.

What a great image for a literary fellowship, friends huddled around a glowing hearth-fire!

Ever since I heard that term, I’ve also thought of it as a great image for the virtual form: the legions of blog followers, electronic “coal biters,” those of you who bend close to the computer monitor and follow the ethereal musings of bloggers small and mighty. (Today, the term could be “pixel polishers,” but that has so little poetic appeal.)

So welcome, coal-biters all! And be sure to pass on an invitation to others to join us here at Creeping Past Dragons at any time. There’s always a seat at the fire for any and all who might like to squeeze in for a bit of bandying about of all things philosophical and fantastical.

Is Harry Potter a decent person?

Okay, we all know that the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling has been the subject of Christian concern, some criticism, and occasional outright attempts at banning by certain factions.

On that subject, I enjoyed reading and recommend to you this article:

Harry Potter vs. Gandalf: An in-depth analysis of the literary use of magic in the works of J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis
A booklet-length essay by Steven D. Greydanus

The piece is posted on, a site of “film appreciation, information, and criticism informed by Christian faith.” It’s run by Mr. Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register. He also writes for Christianity Today Movies and Our Sunday Visitor.

The (long) article compares Harry Potter to C.S Lewis, Tolkien, and modern occult-based stories like the Buffy series, The Craft, etc.

What, then, defines morally acceptable use of good magic in fiction? Where, and how, do we draw the line? How do we distinguish the truly worthwhile (Tolkien and Lewis), the basically harmless (Glinda, Cinderella’s fairy godmother), and the problematic or objectionable (“Buffy,” The Craft)? And where on this continuum does Harry Potter really fall?

The article is fascinating, well-informed, and well-nuanced. Worth reading!

It’s particularly interesting as Greydanus looks at the cautionary limits to magic (what he calls “Seven Hedges”) that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis implanted in their works, as essentially Christian writers. These “hedges” are:

seven specific literary characteristics common to Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fiction — above and beyond the fantasy nature of the magic itself — that have the net effect of limiting and restricting the role of magic in their fantasy worlds, essentially acting as barricades or hedges between magic and the reader, in effect saying: “Magic is not for the likes of us.”

The “hedges” that Greydanus outlines and then examines are things like how open or secret the magic is (more secret in Rowling’s fictional world, less in Tolkien’s or Lewis’s); how central the role of magic is to the main events; how dangerous or corrupting to the users; how much the acquisition of magic is portrayed as a practical process rather than a mysterious one; and so on.

It’s an interesting look at the use of magic in fantasy fiction. I don’t agree with all his assumptions about which is better or worse, but I found the analysis interesting.

Greydanus concludes fairly reasonably that Potter books have fewer “hedges,” and could be “potentially problematic”  . . . but probably aren’t. “The key,” he says rather fairly, “in my judgment, is balance and context. ”

. . . [It isn’t necessary to rewrite who God is in order to imagine a world, like Narnia or Middle-earth, in which the order of creation includes powerful forces, good or neutral in themselves, that some inhabitants of that world are able to engage or control by means of such paraphernalia as incantations or wands — some using this power for good, lawfully, while others for ill, unlawfully.

And this is in fact what’s going on in Tolkien and Lewis, not to mention The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella . . . and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories.

While the article is well-nuanced, I don’t agree in particular with his view of dark fantasy. He tends to object to the dark fantasy of works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Craft as bad because they are realistic enough to possibly encourage young readers to consider dabbling in actual occult practice. He differentiates between “séances vs. flying broomsticks” (with the latter, or similar magic found in Hogwarts, Narnia, and Middle-earth, being so imaginary as to be impossible and unrewarding to try to implement in real life.)

As I discuss in my own book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder and Enchantment, in a chapter titled “Types of Fantasy: Five Rings of Tradition,” dark fantasy and high fantasy are to great degree just different styles of a common genre, with their own interests and approaches. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily believe in different standards of good and evil.

Although some may not see it, dark fantasy doesn’t embrace evil things as good; they are more often just cautionary, scary, often humorous tales. Yes, they focus on those dark powers – their allure and sheer power to scare and grab us . . . physically, emotionally, psychically – and our primal fears of all things dark and different. (Of course, the best dark-fantasy authors do that with more more insight than the hacks in the field . . . as is also true of high fantasy and its weaker vs. stronger works.)

And yes, for fictional power, dark fantasy typically adopts a realistic setting, which high fantasy doesn’t as often.

With dark fantasy, you need to understand the humor and practical catharsis (literally, a purging) implicit in the genre. Stephen King isn’t an evil person. And the Twilight Saga examines issues of real significance (romance, physical attraction, morality, abstinence), in an interesting, fictional way.

And I’ll point out that a blind swallowing of all aspects of high fantasy can lead to a weakness of insight about how easy it is to split the world into black and white, and how goodness will always triumph through conviction and pluckiness and persistence.

In his article, Greydanus concludes:

For my part, I don’t see any one hard and fast answer: no one line in the sand, no one litmus test capable of distinguishing all acceptable uses of good magic in fiction from all unacceptable ones.

I agree with that statement!

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

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