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Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 15 March, 2021 02:00PM
L. Sprague de Camp gave J. R. R. Tolkien a copy of his paperback anthology Swords and Sorcery. The contents of the book, and the book itself, may be read online here:

[archive.org]

Eventually, Tolkien's copy was offered for sale with the notes Tolkien wrote about the stories. An attempted transcription was made:

Jirel of Joiry. Does create an atmosphere
and [?the] sinister 'corrupt' household of Alaric was
eerie and credible. But I never [sic] find phantasmal
struggles such as that of Jirel with 'Undead' Andred
quite unconvincing — especially when the victims escape!

Dunsany at his worst. Trying so hard for
the shudder. But not for a moment making the
tale 'credible' enough to {pro} make a background for
a strong [?e...]. And the ending lamentable — in
fact [?insulting]. In a world in which a Thangobrind
could even begin to be (let alone Hlo-hlo or [?all the rest])
early 19th century Riviera [?...] is surely utterly
impossible — or vice versa. And what is meant
by selling his daughter's soul.

Cappen Varra. Nomenclature v[ery] bad
Let us have genuine Scandinavian/Norse "bar-
barians" or something invented.

The Athammaus monster wholly unbelievable
[?…] disgusting [?... ... …]. There are lots
of ways of being [?... as] nastily, without all this
[?tooraloo] of nonsense.

Most of these things are overheated & exaggerated
([?...] bigger or [?would be] bigger, [?'...'] is
[?...] than the {ends} purposes warrant)
Also obviously over or ill-written.

Jirel of Joiry 140 - 146 is good but
needs a [?deft] story (and [?explication]) to [?...]
[?valid]. Dunsany's is one of his worst
That final ghastly paragraph!

[Here end the Tolkien comments.]

It will be seen that no comments on Howard's Conan story "Shadows in the Moonlight" appear. However, de Camp evidently said that Tolkien liked it. Lin Carter misrepresented Tolkien's opinion by starting that Tolkien had read the Conan stories and rather liked them, but in fact de Camp is on record as saying he doubts Tolkien had read any of them except the one reprinted in this book.

So far as I know there's no proof that Tolkien read the stories by Kuttner, Leiber, and Lovecraft, but I suppose he did.

Anyway, the incomplete notes are, so far as I know, our best evidence for Tolkien's having read Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith, as well as several other authors of American pulp fantasy. His notes indicate that he'd read more than one of Dunsany's stories. I see Dunsany as almost the opposite of Tolkien, as a fantasist: Dunsany emphasizes the unreality of his stories where Tolkien referred to the "secondary belief" that readers experience thanks to the Elvish art of (the best) fantasy. Dunsany's names -- which used to be lauded -- sound made up, as they are; improvised for the sake of a story with only enough substance to hang together till the conclusion (if then). I used to regard Dunsany as one of my favorite authors, but now I find it takes too much effort to complete the reading of much of his short fiction, so inconsequential.

But I'm going off on my own opinions. I thought it would interest some people here to see Tolkien's remarks, though they are so brief and underdeveloped.

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Hespire (IP Logged)
Date: 15 March, 2021 04:43PM
Didn't Tolkien regard Dunsany very highly? I swear I've read that more than once before, though I'm not a fan of Tolkien (I prefer the sources he was inspired by over his own work) so I wouldn't know much about that.

Whatever the case, Dunsany's "Thangobrind" (the story Tolkien commented on) was originally published in his Book of Wonder, which is seen as a significant turning point in Dunsany's style. It was the book that showed he was moving away from sincere fantasy to much more ironic stuff, moving away from colorful descriptions of wonder to brief paragraphs of whimsy and supposedly clever humor. From what little I know of Tolkien, I imagine he would have preferred Dunsany's earlier stories, which didn't try to be cute or clever but tried to create a consistent atmosphere through rich descriptions of their fantasy worlds. I can see some similarities to Dunsany's fiction in Tolkien's shorter stuff, especially his "Smith of Wootton Major", so I imagine Dunsany's stories closer to those lines appealed to Tolkien more. ("Sword of Welleran", "Kith of the Elf Folk", "Carcassonne", etc.)

Edit: Also, I notice he complained about Thangobrind and Hlo-Hlo existing in the same world as London and the Riviera. From what a LOTR-loving friend of mine told me, Tolkien didn't like fantasy fiction that joined random, unrelated, clashing things together, which was supposedly one of his reasons for disliking the Narnia series. Again, I know so little about Tolkien that some of this could be wrong!



Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 15 Mar 21 | 05:01PM by Hespire.

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 15 March, 2021 06:39PM
Hespire, I’ve read a bunch of books and many amateur magazine pieces and academic articles about Tolkien during 50 years. Offhand I don’t remember any evidence that Tolkien was a big fan of Dunsany at any point in his life. That he’d read Dunsany is sure. I even wrote an article myself about Tolkien’s Mewlips poem (in The Adevntures of Tom Bombadil) being influenced by Dunsany’s “Hoard of the Gibbelins.”

Your comment makes me think I should revisit Dunsany ‘s earlier stories (though maybe not the earliest ones). I may have tended in recent years to assume too much homogeneity. I’ve thought of Dunsany in terms of someone’s characterization of the music of Alan Hovhaness, as yards and yards of beautiful handmade wallpaper unrolling.

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Platypus (IP Logged)
Date: 16 March, 2021 10:12AM
Hespire Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Didn't Tolkien regard Dunsany very highly?

He mentions Dunsany three times in his LETTERS (selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter}. In Letter #19 (1937), Tolkien says he likes his own invented names better than those of Swift or Dunsany. In Letter #294 (1968), while discussing the arbitrary meanings we attach to sounds, he says he personally associates the syllables "boo hoo" with pomposity because they remind him of Chu-bu from Dunsany's "Chu-bu and Sheemish", which he says he read many years ago. Finally, in Letter #336 (1972) he jokes about having become an idol in his lifetime, and remarks that he is younger than Chu-bu but older than Sheemish.

None of which implies any particularly uncritical admiration for Dunsany, but he evidently read him and found some elements memorable.

Also, saying that a particular story is "Dunsany at his worst" certainly implies he thinks that Dunsany is usually better.

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 16 March, 2021 11:13AM
Thanks, Platypus.

I have to monitor my reaction to Dunsany a bit to be fair to him.

I was a huge fan of his 50 years or so ago. When I entered college, I discovered his Fifty Poems in the library. I typed up the book on our manual typewriter.

But in later years I have found what I took to be his characteristic fantastic short fiction to be almost unreadable. I did enjoy The Curse of the Wise Woman when I read it at last (I'd had a copy for many years). I can enjoy some of his other stories. I still like "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" & included it when I taught a course on fantasy. But I typically feel I have better things to do than read most of his stuff, though I have kept the six Ballantine releases as sentimental favorites, and several other books by him.

But the issue is not my opinion, but Tolkien's. More evidence might come forward, but, as I say, having read a lot about Tolkien, I remember no real evidence that Tolkien favored him. Speculation is OK as long as we practice a kind of mental chastity and realize that it is just speculation. So my speculation would be that Tolkien read some Dunsany early on with some enjoyment; but that Dunsany was not an important influence and that Tolkien didn't find Dunsany all that much to his taste. (The "Oriental" flavor wouldn't have interested Tolkien, I suppose.)

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 16 March, 2021 12:23PM
Dale Nelson Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Thanks, Platypus.
>
> I have to monitor my reaction to Dunsany a bit to
> be fair to him.
>
> I was a huge fan of his 50 years or so ago. When
> I entered college, I discovered his Fifty Poems in
> the library. I typed up the book on our manual
> typewriter.
>
> But in later years I have found what I took to be
> his characteristic fantastic short fiction to be
> almost unreadable. I did enjoy The Curse of the
> Wise Woman when I read it at last (I'd had a copy
> for many years). I can enjoy some of his other
> stories. I still like "The Hoard of the
> Gibbelins" & included it when I taught a course on
> fantasy. But I typically feel I have better
> things to do than read most of his stuff, though I
> have kept the six Ballantine releases as
> sentimental favorites, and several other books by
> him.
>
> But the issue is not my opinion, but Tolkien's.
> More evidence might come forward, but, as I say,
> having read a lot about Tolkien, I remember no
> real evidence that Tolkien favored him.
> Speculation is OK as long as we practice a kind of
> mental chastity and realize that it is just
> speculation. So my speculation would be that
> Tolkien read some Dunsany early on with some
> enjoyment; but that Dunsany was not an important
> influence and that Tolkien didn't find Dunsany all
> that much to his taste. (The "Oriental" flavor
> wouldn't have interested Tolkien, I suppose.)

In truth, the Jorkens stories are of far more value to me as a clever, witty extended joke than any of Dunsany's longer works as serious literature.

As I'd said before, the same applies to Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories as compared to his more esteemed fiction. This is not to say that it is poorly written, but rather simply not my cup o' tea.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. But give a man a boat,
a case of beer, and a few sticks of dynamite..." -- Sawfish

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Martinus (IP Logged)
Date: 16 March, 2021 01:25PM
Dale Nelson Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
>
> But the issue is not my opinion, but Tolkien's.
> More evidence might come forward, but, as I say,
> having read a lot about Tolkien, I remember no
> real evidence that Tolkien favored him.
> Speculation is OK as long as we practice a kind of
> mental chastity and realize that it is just
> speculation. So my speculation would be that
> Tolkien read some Dunsany early on with some
> enjoyment; but that Dunsany was not an important
> influence and that Tolkien didn't find Dunsany all
> that much to his taste. (The "Oriental" flavor
> wouldn't have interested Tolkien, I suppose.)

This may be of relevance: [sacnoths.blogspot.com]

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 16 March, 2021 01:58PM
Martinus, that is an excellent catch -- that Tolkien directed Clyde Kilby to read The Book of Wonder to help him -- in some unspecified way -- to assist Tolkien with The Silmarillion. That is tantalizing. It certainly seems on the face of it to indicate a very positive assessment of that Dunsany book.

Btw, in the comments -- "Wurmbrand" is me. But I'd forgotten what John Rateliff posted here (and what I have read on my own in Kilby, too).

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Martinus (IP Logged)
Date: 16 March, 2021 02:20PM
Dale Nelson Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Martinus, that is an excellent catch -- that
> Tolkien directed Clyde Kilby to read The Book of
> Wonder to help him -- in some unspecified way --
> to assist Tolkien with The Silmarillion. That is
> tantalizing. It certainly seems on the face of it
> to indicate a very positive assessment of that
> Dunsany book.
>
> Btw, in the comments -- "Wurmbrand" is me. But
> I'd forgotten what John Rateliff posted here (and
> what I have read on my own in Kilby, too).

It's a small world! :)

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Knygatin (IP Logged)
Date: 17 March, 2021 06:42AM
Dunsany is quite different from Tolkien. I don't know what Tolkien thought, but when I read "The King of Elfland's Daughter" in my mid 20s, I found it the most beautiful book I had read. Not sure I would like it as much today, it is probably best suited for younger people. "The Charwoman's Shadow" is another beautiful masterpiece with great magic. I thoughtA Dreamer's Tales the best of his early short story collections, The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories was good too, Time and the Gods has a few memorable pieces like "In the Land of Time". I also have a soft spot for Tales of Three Hemispheres, which includes both "Idle Days on the Yann" and its two sequels "A Shop in Go-By Street" and "The Avenger of Perdóndaris".

I can well understand if Tolkien was not very enthusiastic about Dunsany. Tolkien was a struggling intellectual academic, while Dunsany appeared a smooth individual. I am told Dunsany spontaneously narrated his early stories to his wife who meanwhile wrote them down, and that he used this first draft without changing a word; although I find it hard to believe.

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: zimriel (IP Logged)
Date: 17 March, 2021 12:40PM
Beleriand and especially the plateau Dorthonion (Beren's people) always looked like the Hyborean Age map, to me. I suspect Tolkien had a guilty-pleasure attitude to Howard's oeuvre.
It doesn't surprise me that Tolkien disliked Smith. Smith was always too much of an ironist against the Catholic faith. *I* fault Smith for this, imagine one like Tolkien.
But I would have guessed Tolkien held Dunsany in more esteem. Maybe that's just "King of Elfland's Daughter".

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Platypus (IP Logged)
Date: 17 March, 2021 01:12PM
zimriel Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> It doesn't surprise me that Tolkien disliked
> Smith. Smith was always too much of an ironist
> against the Catholic faith. *I* fault Smith for
> this, imagine one like Tolkien.

There is as far as I know no reason to think Tolkien read anything other than that one story. So I'm thinking this was not a factor.

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 17 March, 2021 01:16PM
zimriel Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Beleriand and especially the plateau Dorthonion
> (Beren's people) always looked like the Hyborean
> Age map, to me. I suspect Tolkien had a
> guilty-pleasure attitude to Howard's oeuvre.
> It doesn't surprise me that Tolkien disliked
> Smith. Smith was always too much of an ironist
> against the Catholic faith. *I* fault Smith for
> this, imagine one like Tolkien.
> But I would have guessed Tolkien held Dunsany in
> more esteem. Maybe that's just "King of Elfland's
> Daughter".

If you're saying that Tolkien may have disliked Smith in part because Smith treated the clergy with a level of irreverence and/or skepticism in some of his stories, and that this was more directly linked to the Catholic church in the Averoigne series, that's sort of a petty reason to apply as a criticism of Smith's writing abilities, in my opinion. There are certainly other aesthetic reasons.

I have a very intangible aesthetic reaction to Smith's works that make me think of him as a consummate craftsman rather than as an artist. And the best way I can describe this reaction is to liken it to seeing really fine SW indigenous jewelry.

So in a place like Santa Fe, NM, there are higher-end shops that have the usual turquoise and silver, or jasper/coral and silver jewelry creations. I ***really*** enjoy looking at these pieces in a museum or gallery-like setting, but as functional jewelry they're unthinkable. "Barbaric" is the best term I can use, in that you can only envision a barbarian from historical or fantasy literature actually wearing something like this.

I repeat: to simply look at or examine these high-end pieces is breath-taking. but are they actually an expression of true art, or are they epitome of craftsmanship? I think some *may* cross the line to art, but for the most art I tend to think of them as some of the very finest craftsmanship being done in what amounts to a very specific stylistic school of execution.

So it is with Smith's best work. I'd have to really work to find something that's art, I think.

This may simply be my own idiosyncratic way of reacting to aesthetic artifacts, however, nor is it particularly well-formed at this point.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. But give a man a boat,
a case of beer, and a few sticks of dynamite..." -- Sawfish

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Hespire (IP Logged)
Date: 17 March, 2021 02:10PM
I must thank both Platypus and Dale for enlightening me on the matter! Tolkien is a fine writer, and I've read all of his shorter fiction, his Hobbit, and his Fellowship, but they never greatly appealed to me beyond a few choice passages (I love the stuff with Tom Bombadil), so I never knew much about the man beyond what a friend has told me. Blurbs and casual internet discussions tend to overblow Dunsany's influence on Tolkien, the same way people overblow his influence on REH and CAS without really explaining anything.

I remember the Mewlips poem (again, I love the Bombadil stuff), and that must have further cemented my impression that Dunsany was a major influence. Though I suppose the idea of treasure-guarding elfish entities are common in European folklore.

> Your comment makes me think I should revisit
> Dunsany ‘s earlier stories (though maybe not the
> earliest ones). I may have tended in recent years
> to assume too much homogeneity. I’ve thought of
> Dunsany in terms of someone’s characterization
> of the music of Alan Hovhaness, as yards and yards
> of beautiful handmade wallpaper unrolling.

I admit, I often forget Dunsany's Pegana book because it felt so airy to me. I see its creative and artistic merits, as an early attempt at creating a mythology and making good use of the King James style, but its stories were too little and ironic to leave a lasting impression. When I refer to Dunsany's earlier stuff, I refer most of all to his Dreamer's Tales and Sword of Welleran and Other Stories. Not all of it would appeal to your taste; "Hashish-Man" for instance feels a lot like Lovecraft's early dreamy fantasies (which I thoroughly enjoy, though I understand they're not for you) but with less of the grand visionary kick Lovecraft invested in all his work. But perhaps "The Sword of Welleran", "Kith of the Elf Folk", "Carcassonne", or "Poor Old Bill" will stand out from the rest of his dreamy stuff.

I've yet to read Jorkens. I'll get right on that soon!



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 17 Mar 21 | 02:12PM by Hespire.

Re: Tolkien's comments on Swordsmen and Sorcerers
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 17 March, 2021 04:25PM
Sawfish, the matter of Smith's attitudes toward Catholic clergy is a red herring so far as Tolkien is concerned, I'm sure. There is no reason whatever to think Tolkien read anything by Smith but "The Testament of Athammaus," and what put off Tolkien was the style and the disgustingness of the monster, from anything I can tell. I doubt Lewis ever heard of Smith.

It's more likely that C. S. Lewis read some of Lovecraft's mature fiction than that Tolkien did. Lewis was a reader of Astounding in the 1930s. I think it pretty plausible to suppose that he read At the Mountains of Madness and "The Shadow Out of Time" published there. His library as catalogued after his death contained a number of sf anthologies, with one or both of these included. Now it's possible that Lewis one day loaned Tolkien magazines or books with one or both of these stories, but now we are out on a limb.

Tolkien evidently read Howard's "Shadows in the Moonlight," which I recall as being a run-of-the-mill story for the Conan ouevre. I doubt Lewis had heard of Howard; he had died by the time Tolkien read Swords and Sorcery.

I take it that all five of these authors had read some of Lord Dunsany. How much of Dunsany had C. S. Lewis read?

Brace yourself....

The 1969 catalogue of Lewis's library included these works by Dunsany:

Blessing of Pan 1928
Book of Wonder (two copies, one no date, one 1918)
Charwoman's Shadow 1926
Dreamer's Tales (two copies, one no date, one 1917)
Fourth Book of Jorkens 1948
Gods of Pegana (two copies, 1919)
If 1923
Jorkens Remembers Africa 1934
Man Who Ate the Phoenix -- no date
Strange Journeys of Col. Polders 1950
Tales of Three Hemispheres 1919

A few observations about the Dunsany books in the Lewis library:

1.The duplicates likely reflect the merging of Lewis's library with that of his American wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, who died before he did. She was a fan of science fiction who had been on the edges at least of a circle around Fletcher Pratt (The Well of the Unicorn, The Black Star, collaborations with de Camp, etc.). When she relocated to England, she seems to have connected with a science fiction circle around Arthur C. Clarke, as (perhaps through Joy??) did CSL (or was it vice versa?).

2.The library was catalogued in 1969; Lewis died in 1963. Some books that had been in Lewis's library were gone by the time the catalogue was made -- sold, given away, etc. It is thus possible that Lewis had owned additional Dunsany books.

3.But it is also possible that all of the Dunsany books catalogued were Joy's. I doubt that, though, especially as regards the earlier ones.

4.Lewis's Dunsany holdings include a few but not all of the ones that were dedicated to the characteristically "Dunsanian" fantasy that Lovecraft relished and imitated & that people usually have in mind when they comment on Dunsany. Did Lewis ever read the ones not listed? For that matter, did he read the ones that are listed?

Well, let's see what CSL wrote about Dunsany. It seems to come to just two remarks.

1.27 May 1917: The teenaged Lewis writes to a friend about seeing a review of a Dunsany book. He writes, "I should like to see his 'Tales of Wonder', but I do not think it would be worth 5/-." Tales of Wonder was reviewed in the TLS, the Times Literary Supplement, 12 April 1917, p. 172.

2.Dunsany fans will like this -- 31 March 1954 he writes to an admirer, "Ld. Dunsany is a glorious writer in prose: try The Charwoman's Shadow." Long before I ever read Lewis's comment on it, that was a favorite Dunsany of mine too.

I think there might be something I'm forgetting. At any rate I thought ED folk might be interested. Tolkien and Lewis certainly had read Dunsany, like REH, CAS, & HPL. (I assume the former two had -- I actually don't know if I have seen proof that they had read Dunsany.)

There are some other authors these five had in common, or that most of them did.

I suppose all the Americans had read William Hope Hodgson, right? Lewis certainly had & praised The Night Land while disapproving of the pseudo-antique style. I don't know if Tolkien had read WHH, but my guess is that he had at least sampled him; but if it was The Night Land, Tolkien might have found the style so off-putting that he couldn't stick with it.

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