SWORD & SORCERY & J. R. R. TOLKIEN

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    difference1In September 1937 an English Don named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien published a children’s book called The Hobbit. Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, had been dead for fifteen months. In 1950 Gnome Press published the first Conan stories in hard cover. July 1954, Tolkien begins publishing a second version of his mythology, but this time as an adult book called The Lord of the Rings. Jump still further to 1965 and the unauthorized paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings by Ballantine Books exploding across campuses in the United States. Now, finally after thirty years, these two giants are going to meet head-on. Tolkien (through Ballantine) and Howard (through Lancer) drive a new wave of Fantasy publishing that results in a cultural shift that is still being felt today. Fantasy went from being that stuff nobody published to the bestsellers list.

    difference2One of the ways fans of Fantasy like to waste their time since the mid-60s is to argue about Howard and Tolkien. They created labels like “Sword & Sorcery” and “High Fantasy” or “Epic Fantasy” to distinguish between the two, usually with a sneer on the lips. But in recent years I’ve studied the works of these two writers and have found very little to separate them. Both were inspired by “The Northern Thing” just as C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books were. Howard and Tolkien both admired the tales of Sigmund, Beowulf and Grettir, though perhaps not in quite the same way. Tolkien was a professor and came to it through language, while Howard was a working writer and knew of the tales of North through non-scholarly works.

    More importantly, both Sword & Sorcery and Epic Fantasy feature all the same types and tropes. There are heroes and monsters, quests and treasure, good versus evil. Where they deviate is in two ways: philosophy and mediation. Both writers bring strong personal philosophies to their stories. Howard’s belief in the savage nature of humankind comes out in his self-interested Conan. Tolkien wanted to create a new mythology for England and worked from a Christian point-of-view (one well diffused, unlike Lewis’s religious Narnian allegories.) In this, the two writers were coming from very different places. Their messages, despite the swords and monsters, were different. Howard’s message (if any) is one of survival. Tolkien’s is redemption.

    difference3The second important difference is mediation. Tolkien chose to mediate between his world of wonders and the readers by using hobbits. These simple, honest folk take the hyperbole of the fantastic and bring it down to the ordinary level of cutting the grass or cooking potatoes. Imagine the tale of Aragorn told directly, without hobbits. It might sound a lot closer to the tales of Conan (or more likely King Kull) than The Lord of the Rings. Sword & Sorcery has an immediacy that made Howard’s friends joke he wrote his tales in blood. Tolkienian Fantasy is slower, but richer in detail. The disparagers of either type of Fantasy are often choosing between these two preferences.

    difference4In the final analysis, Sword & Sorcery and High Fantasy aren’t so very different. What has made them different at all is mere happenstance. Howard was an American Pulp writer, so therefore his Fantasy is short-story based and fast-paced. Tolkien wrote not for money and took an entire lifetime to craft one long tale. In spirit they are the same, Heroic Fantasy. In execution, tone and message, they differ as much as two writers should, each reflecting their own spirit. Lin Carter, in his book Imaginary Worlds, says that Tolkien had read Howard and liked him. This doesn’t surprise me at all. They were both inspired by the same sources of the fantastic and found their own ways of writing about it.

    5 COMMENTS

    1. PS I’ve written a long article on the Lovecraft Circle and the Inklings (Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams…) in Mallorn, the journal of the Tolkien Society (#59, 2019). So far as I know, this is the most comprehensive source for the evidence, and responsible speculation, regarding what awareness the authors of the two groups had of each other. It isn’t a lot, but a little more than might be expected. I won’t summarize the article, but will mention a few bits: Lovecraft had read some of Charles Williams’s supernatural thrillers and been impressed (despite HPL’s aversion to Williams’s Anglican Christianity); Clark Ashton Smith had read and been impressed by The Hobbit and at least part of The Fellowship of the Ring; C. S. Lewis had virtually certainly read and been consciously influenced by Donald Wandrei’s “Colossus”; there’s a good chance Lewis had read Lovecraft’s “Shadow Out of Time” in Astounding and/or perhaps in anthology… and so on. And, yes, Tolkien must have read Howard’s “Shadows in the Moonlight.” But he was more interested in the Lord Dunsany story in that book, “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller.”

    2. My article on Robert E. Howard, in the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia (edited by Michael Drout), goes into the question of what Tolkien had read by Howard. It comes down probably just to “Shadows in the Moonlight” as reprinted by de Camp in a 1963 anthology, Swords and Sorcery; de Camp gave Tolkien a copy, which was offered for sale a few years ago, btw.

      De Camp eventually doubted that Tolkien had read any other Howard stories. I don’t have my article at hand, but I don’t think Tolkien commented specifically on “Shadows.” Lin Carter seems to have gotten carried away when he wrote that Tolkien had read and liked the Conan stories.

    3. Hi Mr. Thomas
      Wonderful article!
      I’m of the opinion that the only real difference between the two is that S&S is much more immediate and on a smaller scale. Were as Epic/Heroic Fantasy uses a much larger canvas with stakes that are usual higher.

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