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Old 12-21-2009, 06:54 PM   #1
onewhitetree
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Tolkien Tolkien Compared to Contemporary Authors

There are many reasons we love Tolkien's writings. Not only does he make prose absolutely sing with his unparalleled mastery of language, but his pages are enriched with beautiful poetry, and symbolism so deep it can take years for the wisest of scholars to wade through, yet it is so very human and natural that children can understand his themes. It's epic, timeless, universal. Does he stand alone?

Sure, we know all the classics that he's often compared to! C.S. Lewis and MacDonald, of course, and other literary giants like Dickens and Austen. Then there are the more contemporary fantasists (if that's what you call them) like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. We all know them and they are widely loved.

What I'm looking for is contemporary, non-fantasy authors who you think have skills on a level like Tolkien, who may not be as well known as the classics and big names. Let's widen our literary horizons! Who have you discovered, and what is it about their writing that can compare to the Man himself? Is it versatility of writing style? Clever turns of phrase? A raw and heart-wrenching true story that reveals deeper truths, or a suspension of disbelief so expertly created that you almost forget it isn't real? Or, do you think that there is simply nothing that compares?

I'd love to hear what the Barrow-Downs has in it's library - on the lower shelves, obviously.
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Old 12-21-2009, 07:02 PM   #2
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To answer my own question, I'd throw out a couple of names.

A.S. Byatt, who is widely respected among scholarly Victorianists (read: about 50 people worldwide ), became better known in the '90s for penning Possession. This was the first of her books I read, and while it took a while (it's something like 600 pages, small type ), it was one of those books, like The Silmarillion, that is like eating a rich meal. You have to go slowly, enjoy it bit by bit, and appreciate the complexities. What impressed me the most was the sheer variety of writing styles, all of them mastered. The book contains prose, poetry, letters, diary entries, and jumps from the 1980s to the Victorian era and back again. In fact, I thought of Tolkien constantly as I read the book - never had I read anything that had anywhere near the same depth and richness, and sheer mastery of written word as his works before!

Once I had read this book, I found some short stories by Byatt, in a compilation called The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. A couple were also printed in Possession, but several were new. They are like fairy tales for adults - creepy, but with that certain handling of language and image that creates the exquisite feel of a true fairy tale. I guess it's one of those things that's hard to put your finger on, and maybe a subject for another post. Nevertheless, though Tolkien doesn't have "short stories" per se, there are many condensations of much longer tales within his greater works that have that same feel (like the tales of Beren and Luthien, or Turin Turambar).


Another name I'd throw out there is somewhat better known, at least in my mind, Anchee Min. She wrote her autobiography, Red Azalea, about growing up in Maoist China. Her writing is very simple, not at all on the same level as Tolkien with nuance and subtlety, but her expressiveness is really what touches me. It was like reading 1984, only it was a true story. It was terrifying, hopeless at times, but she masters one theme in particular that Tolkien did as well - courage, and the triumph of the human (or hobbit) spirit in the face of certain destruction.

Well, those are my thoughts. I tried to relate aspects of the above choices back to Tolkien to keep it appropriate for this forum. I can't wait to hear some of your answers!
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Old 12-22-2009, 02:35 AM   #3
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Excellent thoughts on an interesting topic, onewhitetree! I'm moving this to the Novices and Newcomers area of the forum so that it will be widely noticed and hopefully garner a good deal of participation!
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Old 12-22-2009, 05:54 AM   #4
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Silmaril

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson. I enjoy her later fiction as well, but this, her second book, is her masterpiece, I think. It's a postmodern fairytale set in an English village in the early 1960's (mostly -- the story goes back in time a lot). I discovered it before I discovered Tolkien, but I think I go back to it for similar reasons. Human Croquet is much more psychologically brutal than a book like Lord of the Rings, but, like Tolkien, Atkinson loves her characters, and, for a postmodern author, she does seem to believe in absolute evil, which is interesting. Her sense of place and atmosphere is also something I admire.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. It's the scope, it's all about the scope. And amazing daring.

I'll be coming back to this later.
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Old 12-22-2009, 09:41 AM   #5
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Interestingly, there's another writer aside from Byatt who mines the old veins of Victorian literature for her work, Susanna Clarke. Her Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell might be called fantasy or it might be called an alternate history but she does for the myriad styles of the nineteenth century what Tolkien does for the style of the old Northern epics and like Byatt she uses the tools of scholarly style to instill a sense of verisimilitude. (Is that too Victorianist a word to use here? ) She's particularly good at naming names, another Tolkien trait. Her exploration is with magic and fairie and it's both scary and macabre. Also filled with a few historical anachronisms too, although hers is a bit more significant than Tolkien's umbrellas.
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Old 12-22-2009, 04:11 PM   #6
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Tolkien

Agree wrt Strange & Norrell. Great, great book. I think having read Tolkien before helped me appreciate it that much more. Once again, there are certain writers whose scope and ambition you have to hang back and admire, before you even get into the details of why you love them.
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Old 12-22-2009, 04:39 PM   #7
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Since I discovered The Lord of the Rings (at the age of fifty!) I have been “hooked” by very few other books.
Among these are Mary Renault’s historical novels set in ancient Greece. She evokes this distant time and place in a way that I feel transported there.(Similar to the way I feel transported to Middle Earth.)
Her characters speak and act fitting to their time and culture, they are vivid and plausible. (there’s much historical fiction that doesn’t succeed in this: just contemporary characters and attitudes promenading before superficial historical settings.) My favourites are "The Persian boy" and "The last of the Wine" but I also love Renault’s “The charioteer” which is set during WW II.
Renault’s books are compelling and moving. Same as with Tolkien’s works, I can reread them several times –and often discover things I have previously overlooked, for Renault is very subtle, and some things are just hinted at.

(By the way, Mary Renault was one of Tolkien’s students and he himself read and liked at least some of her novels!)

Someone here on the Downs recommended A.S.Byatt’s “Possession” to me and I started reading it, but sadly didn't get really into it, so I never finished the book.
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Old 12-30-2009, 02:34 PM   #8
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I have yet to read Atwood in a large scale (only read The Handmaid's Tale and The Penelopiad this far), but I believe she might be one of the authors we're looking for.

And even though she writes fantasy, I just have to nominate Ursula Le Guin, because she's so much more than your average fantasy writer. Her books are full of wisdom, and there is a certain simplicity in her work which reminds me of Tolkien. And she has, of course, written other stuff than fantasy as well - very critical science fiction for example, and her newest (?) piece of fiction, Lavinia, is a historical novel and homage to Vergil's Aeneis, but also a very intriguing and beautiful read for someone who has not waddled through the original epic (like me!). I liked it very much.
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Old 12-30-2009, 04:29 PM   #9
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And even though she writes fantasy, I just have to nominate Ursula Le Guin, because she's so much more than your average fantasy writer. .
Me too - 'Always Coming Home' is one of the best examples of world creation in contemporary fiction.
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Old 12-30-2009, 05:05 PM   #10
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Me too - 'Always Coming Home' is one of the best examples of world creation in contemporary fiction.
I wouldn't contest that, but I wonder, davem, if you know Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood series? It seems something you would be keen on. He has a fascinating depiction of the forest that makes the Ents just too tame while his study of ancient British folklore is fascinating.
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Old 12-31-2009, 10:22 AM   #11
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I wouldn't contest that, but I wonder, davem, if you know Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood series? It seems something you would be keen on. He has a fascinating depiction of the forest that makes the Ents just too tame while his study of ancient British folklore is fascinating.
I do - I mentioned in a thread I started on the 30th November http://forum.barrowdowns.com/showthread.php?t=16022 about Robert Holdstock's untimely death that I read Mythago Wood & the sequel Lavondyss a few years back. I intend to return to them at some point, & maybe the rest of the series too if I find the time.
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Old 01-02-2010, 11:12 AM   #12
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Gah, sorry I missed that thread, davem. The entire series Mythago Woods is difficult to come by here, but he's definitely a master at contemporary fantasy without any of the post-modern trappings.
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Old 01-03-2010, 04:39 AM   #13
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I agree with onewhitetree's mention of Byatt. I was really impressed by Possession and, as I remember, there was a story there that had a very Tolkien feel to it. And then there was another of her works, Babel Tower that actually mentions Tolkien. That was another great book.

Also, although she is not exactly contemporary, I would mention Rosemary Sutcliff. She is a British writer of historical fiction for young adults who specializes in Roman Britian. Her works are atmospheric and she describes places and people with great detail. Her characters are also rather Tolkienish and she can write friendship almost as well as Tolkien can.

Then there is, of course, Ray Bradbury, a writer I fell in love with when I started reading his works in English. He is, for me, the only writer - apart from Tokien, of course - who is able to move me only by the words and phrases he uses. It is not what he writes about that impresses me - although his stories are interesting and thought-provoking in themselves - it is how he writes them, the style he uses that is sometimes almost poetic.

That is all I can think of right now, although there might be others that do not come to my mind just yet.
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Old 01-12-2010, 04:51 PM   #14
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Great topic, onewhitetree! And I absolutely concur about Byatt's Possession - a great and memorable read, and I like to think Ash's poetic use of Northern mythology would have delighted our Professor.
Among contemporary fantastists, my top three are Ursula LeGuin (who has been mentioned above), Stephen Donaldson (for narrative technique, character portrayal and piling up any kind of setback imaginable against his protagonists until the final breakthrough) and Patricia McKillip (who has a poet's skill with words - somehow the fantastic in her books seems to just naturally emerge from her use of images and metaphors).
As for contemporary non-fantastists, the most satisfying read I've come across for some years was Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy - the end of Vol. 3, where a damaged and handicapped but strangely loveable character (I have a weak spot for those), with a little help from her friends, 'beats the system' and is vindicated against seemingly impossible odds, comes very close to Tolkienian eucatastrophe for me.

But if you go for sheer daring, scope and ambition, I'll have to mention two contemporaries of Tolkien's rather than of ourselves - both neglected modern classics, both unmistakeably original, and both also sharing our Prof's tendency to write books the size of a brick.
First, John Cowper Powys, author of (among others) Glastonbury Romance, Owen Glendower and, most notably, Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages, an historical novel set in the days of Arthur and Merlin (both of whom are prominent characters in the book). Here we have an author who was just as fascinated with the mythology and history of Britain from Arthurian days to the late Middle Ages as Tolkien, but approached it from an entirely different angle - either (in Glastonbury Romance) using it as backdrop and subtext for a contemporary plot, or (in the other two) examining the characters of history and myth with a depth of psychological introspection comparable to, say, Dostoyevsky, while maintaining a firm connection with the supernatural. In Porius, especially, the thoughts and feelings of his characters, the natural changes in the landscape surrounding them and the stuff of myth and legend just seem to blend seemlessly with one another. Try to imagine D.H. Lawrence (the psychologist of the unconscious, not the sex-prophet) rewriting The Mists of Avalon, and you'll get a faint idea of what Porius is about.
Then, in my native German tongue, there's Hans Henny Jahnn, author of Fluss ohne Ufer (Shoreless River), a fragmentary novel trilogy which draws you into a world (or, what's the same to me, presents a compelling view of our world) as idiosyncratically the author's own as Tolkien's Middle-earth - although as far removed from Tolkien's faith and eucatastrophe as you can possibly get (Jahnn's credo can more or less be summed up by a famous quote from the novel "It is as it is, and it's terrible"). Here, Man (and it's primarily a book about men, which may deter some female readers - Jahnn was your classical closeted homosexual) is just a creature among creatures, floating on the subconscious current of hormonal processes that defy any rationalization. At the same time, the whole book is imbued with a deep, fierce love of nature (including an uncanny skill at describing, or rather evoking, nature and landscape) and compassion for all her suffering creatures that I can't help but think Tolkien would have sympathized with, whatever the philosophical differences. Unfortunately, as far as I could find out, only the first part (Das Holzschiff / The Ship) has been translated into English - which reveals about as much of the whole as The Hobbit does of Middle-earth; but those of you who can read German might give it a try - either you'll be exasperated and throw the book into the corner after Part I, or you'll be hooked for a journey to the dark side of the human mind.
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Old 01-12-2010, 05:00 PM   #15
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Pitchwife - I remember reading Porius many years ago, & its one of those books I keep meaning to go back to, for the very reasons you offer, so I'd add to your recommendation. Odd that you bring Powys up though - I'm going through a re-reading phase at the moment & A Glastonbury Romance is next on my pile ....
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Old 01-12-2010, 09:37 PM   #16
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I totally concur about Ray Bradbury - a quote of his that I live by: "Stuff your eyes with wonder" is just one example of his amazing gift of expression.

Porius
has been recommended to me before - I am definitely putting it on my list.
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Old 01-20-2010, 01:57 PM   #17
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The modern author I've enjoyed reading most in the past year or two is Jasper Fforde. His books can't be classified easily, as they don't fit into a specific genre. Though they aren't fantasy, they do contain some fantastic elements; one is future fiction, but has little to do with science.

Two aspects especially remind me of Tolkien's writing: the construction of a secondary world is the first. Fforde's alternate realities are modern - there are no dragons, swords or horses in evidence. He fills in details that make even the most outrageous ideas seem plausible. In the Thursday Next series, there is an additional world within the alternate version of our Earth - BookWorld is fascinating! (The Nursery Crime series takes place in basically the same universe, though without BookWorld). His newest book, Shades of Grey, takes place in yet another alternate reality, a post-apocalyptic future version of our world. Again, he has created a context in which his rather offbeat ideas are logical.

The second aspect is that of language. Fforde plays with words very skilfully, inventing new ones occasionally and punning gleefully. His names (besides the main heroine "Thursday Next", there's also "Paige Turner") are fun to read. The persons and places in Shades of Grey all have colour names ("Vermillion", for one), appropriate for a colour-based society. Oh, and the characters named "Grey" have first names like "Jane", "Dorian" and "Zane"!

Like Tolkien, Fforde says his objective in writing books is to entertain his readers. He definitely succeeds in doing that!
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Old 01-26-2010, 07:14 AM   #18
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Tolkien Can't say

Hmm...well, that's a hard question! I am more of a fantasy reader than anything else, but I would say the authors who affected me the most aside from Tolkien were Alice Walker and John Boyne. They canNOT compare to Tolkien, but they left a lasting influence on me, especially Alice Walker. I loved her "The Colour Purple", which you have probably heard of.
Oh, and how could I forget Khaled Hosseini? He is AMAZING. I would highly reccomend his "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns". Brilliant, just brilliant. I am dying for his new book, which I don't think is out yet
Yet sadly, none of these authors even come close to Tolkien, whose writing had a certain charm that is not present in most other books. I would not even say Harry Potter has the Tolkien charm, though it is well written.

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Old 01-26-2010, 02:57 PM   #19
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Oh, and how could I forget Khaled Hosseini? He is AMAZING. I would highly reccomend his "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns". Brilliant, just brilliant. I am dying for his new book, which I don't think is out yet
A Thousand Splendid Suns was very beautiful and touching, but I wouldn't maybe compare Hosseini to Tolkien - unless late 20th century Afghanistan is new Middle-Earth. That's an interesting thought though - I guess we probably know about as much real and concrete facts about them!
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