(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 23.)
A friend who's much smarter than I once theorized that the process of growing up involves going either through a Tolkien phase or a Beat phase, but never both. I didn't want to sound precious by declaring myself the exception to her rule, but I could have. I came to The Beats, like so many others before me and since, during my freshman year of college. Is there a better literary soundtrack to that moment when the possibilities of the unsupervised world first present themselves? Is there a branch of literature more concerned with emphasizing that the old ways of doing things might have to go? I worked my way through the usual suspects for a year, even when the returns started to diminish. (Have you ever actually tried to read Nova Express?) I still treasure the chance I got to see Ginsberg sing/read at a Boulder bookstore the following summer, even if his new poems about not being able to get it up for his new, young boyfriend weren't exactly "Kaddish." But even then I'd started to move on. I found Tolkien much earlier, reading through the whole of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit two or three times (I forget) in fifth and sixth grade. I even tried reading The Silmarillion but never made it too far. It felt like reading all the least interesting parts of The Bible. But like most things we feel desperately passionate about when we're young, both grew a little embarrassing over the years. By high school I had no use for Tolkien. By sophomore year I developed a keener interest in George Eliot than Kerouac. But on the other side of that embarrassment lies a deeper appreciation. I haven't gone back to the Beats much yet, which would no doubt be an interesting project, but I re-read The Lord Of The Rings in advance of the Peter Jackson movies and found it as good as I'd remembered. If I'd lost some of my appreciation for the fussy fine details of Tolkien's Middle Earth and had less use for all those endless faux-medieval ballads, I better understood the fullness of his vision. Tolkien can shift focus from the sweeping action of a battle scene to the concerns of the individual with remarkable grace. He understands how epic events impact on the local level and how any story of war is also the story of the conflicted people who pack up and leave home to fight it. And he captures how even a war's victorious conclusion leaves the lands they sought to protect changed forever. (I love Jackson's films, but I'll never understand his logic in cutting the final act in The Shire.) The slim paperback Smith Of Wooton Major & Farmer Giles Of Ham collects two Tolkien stories, neither of which I'd read before, set in worlds that share a lot of common ground with Middle Earth, even if they're not the same place. They're best read in the order opposite of their presentation. Written in 1937 and published in 1949 on the heels of The Hobbit, Farmer Giles Of Ham is a fun trifle set in the Little Kingdom, an alternate medieval England filled with giants, dragons, and talking dogs. A comic, and ultimately democratic, twist on heroic tales, it casts a humble farmer as a reluctant warrior after he drives a giant off his property using a primitive gun called a blunderbuss. (The giant simply writes the stinging sensation off as a bugbite but decides to retreat to less annoying turf anyway.) Soon, shades of Jack The Giant Killer, he's the hero of the land and pressed into service the save it from a meddlesome dragon. From there, the story spins off into a shaggy dog tale involving an ancient weapon, a dragon who's open to negotiation, and an unexpected ascent to power. It's a lot of fun, with no hint of the gravity found in Tolkien's Middle Earth stories. I suspect, as with The Hobbit, he had kids in mind when he wrote it and the charming storybook-by-way-of-illuminated-manuscript illustrations by Pauline Baynes reinforce the fairy tale theme. It's the work of a scholar of medieval literature giving the material he knows so well a new, fun shape for the 20th century. Written decades later, Smith Of Wooton Major has a similar fairy tale feel, but while kids might enjoy it, they probably won't get it. It's the privilege of grown-ups to know free-floating disappointment with the world. In Wootton Major, so called "because it was larger than Wootton Minor, a few miles away deep in the trees," the year revolves around festivals, including something called "The Feast Of Good Children," a winter gathering to which "not many were invited." Ever 24 years this morphs into "the Twenty-four Feast," to which only 24 children receive invitations and where those invited enjoy a Great Cake stuffed with trinkets. A Master Cook has the duty of making the cake, but the arrival of the Twenty-four Feast at the beginning of this story finds the village short their Master Cook, who recently departed for an unknown destination. Only the too-young apprentice, called Prentice, from another village remains. This being an unacceptable arrangement, the village appoints an unimaginative fellow named Nokes, who farms out most of the Great Cake construction to Prentice but takes the credit anyway. Nokes also doesn't believe Prentice when Prentice tells him a small, tarnished star comes from Faery. Baked into the cake, it ends up in the stomach of an unsuspecting son of a blacksmith, and later onto his forehead where it serves as a passport into the lands of Faery into his adulthood. Tolkien describes Faery in loving, absurd detail and I'll leave that for readers to discover for themselves. But there's a sense throughout that the influence of Faery, already fading, will soon disappear from the Earth. (In this it echoes LOTR and anticipates Neil Gaiman, who no doubt read this story well and often in conceptualizing his own take on magic lands in Sandman and Stardust.) Furthermore, those like the blacksmith's boy who dream and believe in magic and can traverse both the mundane world and the Faery world will become fewer and further between. Then again, it's not a place to stay. As Smith grows older, Faery closes to him and it's with considerable sadness that he looks for a successor. Tolkien said of Smith that it's "an Old Man's tale," and it's hard not to agree. Smith ultimately reads less like a fairy tale than an expression of the feeling that life grows less magical as we get older, that we just missed the age of adventure and discovery and the world we inherited never quite lives up to the promises we glimpsed in the books that obsessed as when we were young. It's an escapist fantasy that can't escape itself.
Next: The Seedling Stars by James Blish
Then: The Bridges at Toko-Ri by James Michener