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Tolkien:  A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings

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Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings

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Author: Lin Carter
Publisher: Tor, 2004
Gollancz, 2003
Ballantine Books, 1969
Series: Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings

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Book Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Fantasy
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Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings is a study of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien written by Lin Carter. It was 1st published in paper by Ballantine in 3/69 & went thru numerous additional printings. It was among the earliest full-length critical works devoted to Tolkien's fantasies, the 1st to set his writings in their proper context in the history of fantasy. It was the earliest of three studies by Carter devoted to fantasy/horror writers & the history of fantasy, being followed by Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulhu Mythos ('72) & Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy ('73), establishing him as an authority on the genre, indirectly leading to his editorial guidance of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Gollancz published a cloth edition updated by Adam Roberts in 8/03.

The study serves as an introduction for those unfamiliar with Tolkien's work. An introduction briefly reviews the publishing phenomenon of The Lord of the Rings & its popularity in the wake of the 1st paper editions in the '60s, after which he devotes three chapters to a short biography of the author thru the late '60s, including an account of how it was written. Four chapters explaining Middle-earth & summarizing the stories of The Hobbit & the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings follow, for the benefit of readers who may not have actually read the works.

Carter next turns to the question of what the works are, a point of some confusion at the time. The then-current vogue for realistic fiction provided critics with few tools for evaluating an out-&-out fantasy on its own terms. Attempts to deconstruct it as a satire or allegory were rife. Carter firmly debunks these efforts, supporting his argument by drawing on Tolkien's own published ruminations on fantasy's functions & purposes. He then contextualizes the works by sketching the history of written fantasy from its earliest appearance in the epic poetry of the ancient world thru the heroic poetry of the Dark & the prose romances of the Middle Ages, down to the fairy tales, ghost stories & gothic novels of the early modern era & the rediscovery of the genre by writers of the 19-20th centuries prior to & contemporary with Tolkien. The origins of the modern genre are discovered in the writings of Wm Morris, Lord Dunsany & E.R. Eddison & followed thru the works of authors they influenced, including H.P. Lovecraft, Fletcher Pratt, L. Sprague de Camp & Mervyn Peake.

Carter next highlights some of Tolkien's particular debts to his predecessors, tracing the motifs & names he utilizes back to their beginnings in Norse mythology & highlighting other echoes in his work deriving from legend & history. Finally noted is Tolkien's influence on contemporary fantasy, which was just beginning to make itself felt, primarily in the juvenile fantasies of Carol Kendall, Alan Garner & Lloyd Alexander.


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