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Review: Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. Valente

I hardly know what to say about this book. I found it in my library’s OverDrive ebook catalog, looking the books they had by Catherynne Valente, because I’ve intended to read more of her work for a few years now. (I’ve previously read Deathless and Space Opera.) I read most of it on Thursday, but it’s very densely written, so I took a break and finished it the next day. I happened to stop just before the plot twist, though, or I don’t think I would have.

‘This novella is a kind of surburban horror, about a woman named Sophia in a gated community called Arcadia Gardens. The essence of this type of story is the horror of conformity. The book opens with an excerpt from the local homeowner’s association agreement, and additional excerpts precede each chapter of the book, as the rules described become more and more draconian and disturbing. Now that I stop to think about it, I’m surprised I haven’t seen “bizarre HOA agreements” as a plot device in horror before. Valente creates a powerful sense that Something Is Wrong Here, but it becomes a completely different book when you find out why.

I spent some time searching the internet for discussion and commentary after I read this book, and I want to recommend 2 different podcast episodes:

– One from CastleBridge Media, which is 30 minutes and doesn’t reveal major details of the book. A great discussion with the author about her inspirations and writing process.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=us67n…

– And another from Breaking the Glass Slipper: Perfect Women With Cat Valente, which is a completely different discussion because this time, they discuss the plot twist and its implications. This one is just under 50 minutes.
https://www.breakingtheglassslipper.c…

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5 Great Fantasy Stories as Podcast Episodes

(tree wolf image by chic2view on 123RF.co)

This is another post for the Fantastic Five short stories prompt (May 22: “Bite-sized delight”), a little late this time. I have listened to a lot of short story podcasts in the last few years, mostly the horror podcast Pseudopod and its sister podcast Podcastle, which covers fantasy short stories. My first pick for this top five, however, is from a podcast called Starship Sofa, just because I really love this one and Podcastle hasn’t recorded it. (So far!) If you listen to podcasts at all, I hope you find something you like from this selection.

Starship Sofa 232: The Truth is A Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

This is possibly my favorite short story by Neil Gaiman, and I’ve read most of his short fiction. (Well, my favorite outside of the Sandman comics, anyway.) It’s a story of greed, loss, revenge and fate. Oh, and a search for gold. This is probably the most adventure-ish story in my top 5, but there is also an element of mystery.

Podcastle 01: Come Lady Death by Peter Beagle

The very first episode of Podcastle: A bored woman who has nothing to do but give parties invites Death to a party. You know from the title that Death will be a woman, but the characters don’t, and that’s part of the fun of this episode. I had read this story before in The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and it was the highlight of the collection. 

Podcastle Miniature 56: The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe

Everyone has already read this, right? But you should listen to it anyway, for Podcastle’s amazing narration. I also recommend a great commentary on this story by Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth at Tor.com. (It was written for their project The Lovecraft Reread, which — despite its name — covered  stories by a bunch of other writers, including a few Edgar Allen Poe. And if you want to understand the headings, it may help to read the intro to the series, which you can find by clicking “The Lovecraft Reread” at the top of the post.)

Podcastle 660: Tales from the Vaults: The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Muchado [rated R]

Another one that I had previously read before I started listening to Podcastle. It was included in the author’s collection Her Body and Other Parties (2017), which I read several years ago. It’s a twist on the urban legend of the green ribbon. Very weird but compelling. It might be best not to say too much about this one. This story could easily have been an episode of Pseudopod, the sister podcast to Podcastle that covers short horror fiction.

516A: Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy by Saladin Ahmed [rated R]

I found this story through the “For New Listeners” page and then I clicked on “more by this author” and found that there was a second recording in 2018, when Podcastle listeners voted on their most popular episodes and then the top 5 were re-recorded. This is that version. Although this is rated R, I’d call it a softer R than the previous one. If you have paid attention to fantasy at all from the last few decades, you have probably noticed writing from the perspective of the villain of an existing story is a very popular trope these days. This story does that for the three Saracen brothers in The Faerie Queen, who in the original are known as Sans Foy (without faith), Sans Loy (without law), and Sans Joy (without joy). Of these five stories this is the one I’ve heard most recently, a few weeks ago, but I think it will stick with me for a long time.

Podcastle also records stories written originally for the podcast. I’ve listened to a few of those, but none of them made this top five. For the last year or so I’ve listened to one of their new stories about once a month, but it’s a weekly podcast so that means I’m not listening to all of them. I’d like to listen more regularly, but I also want to keep exploring the archives.

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Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Kingdoms of Elfin is a collection of 17 stories by the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, most of which appeared in The New Yorker in the 1970s. This was her last book. I don’t know why “Elfin” seems to be a noun in the title instead of an adjective; I’ve never seen anyone else use it that way.

I discovered this book a long time ago through Kate Nepveu’s reread of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, at Tor.com (2014). But I didn’t read it then.

Nepveu writes:
“Here’s a good place to mention Sylvia Townsend Warner’s collection Kingdoms of Elfin, which was recommended to me when I was preparing for this project as possibly influential on JS&MN’s depiction of elves. I, uh, haven’t finished it yet, but from the first two-thirds or so, it strikes me as an interesting comparison in two ways.

First, the elves’ behavior there has something of the same juxtaposition of sometimes acting similarly to humans but thinking in completely alien ways. Second, Kingdoms of Elfin also imagines Elfland as being made up of multiple kingdoms that overlay, or coexist with, Europe—as opposed to, for instance, Elfland being a single kingdom with a physical border between it and our world (Lud-in-the-Mist) or a single kingdom in an entirely separate dimension (Discworld). Kingdoms of Elfin is very out-of-print, but it’s worth checking your library, because it’s quite interesting (though much chillier than JS&MN).”

Warner’s elves are long-lived but not quite immortal. In “The Five Black Swans,” five black swans appear as an omen of death. This story has some of the most memorable passages in the collection Warner writes:
“They are born, and eventually die; but their longevity and their habit of remaining good-looking, slender and unimpaired till the hour of death has led to the Kingdom of Elfin being called the land of the Ever-Young. Again, it is an error to say ‘the Kingdom of Elfin’: the kingdoms of elfin are as numerous and kingdoms were the Europe of the nineteenth century, and as diverse.”

And a little later:

“Dying is not an aristocratic activity, like fencing, yachting, patronizing the arts: it is enforced — a willy-nilly affair. Though no one at Elfhame was so superstitious as to suppose Tiphaine would live forever, they were too well-mannered to admit openly that she would come to her end by dying. In the same way, though everyone knew that she had wings, it would have been lèse-majesté to think she might use them. Flying was a servile activity: cooks, grooms, laundresses flew about their work, and to be strong on the wing was a merit in a footman. But however speedily he flew to the banqueting room with a soup tureen, at the threshold he folded his wings and entered at a walk.”

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5 Fabulous Fairytale Retellings

(tree wolf image by chic2view on 123RF.co)

This is for the Fantastic Five short stories prompt (May 22: “Bite-sized delight”), but I decided to be a little bit more specific and recommend 5 of my favorite fairytale retellings. I’ve read a few novel-length retellings — I loved Robin McKinley’s Deerskin and Spindle’s End — but I’m not sure I’ve read enough to make a top five, so here are 5 short stories instead. Three of these stories are from the anthology Black Swan, White Raven, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, which I read last year. There are several fairytales-for-adults anthologies from the same editors, and I look forward to reading more.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories)

This story is definitely the highlight of this well-known collection, for me. A Bluebeard retelling.

“Are you sure, she’d said when they delivered the gigantic box that held the wedding dress he’d bought me, wrapped up in tissue paper and red ribbon like a Christmas gift of crystallized fruit. Are you sure you love him? There was a dress for her, too; black silk, with the dull, prismatic sheen of oil on water, finer than anything she’d worn since that adventurous girlhood in Indo-China, daughter of a rich tea planter. My eagle-featured, indomitable mother; what other student at the Conservatoire could boast that her mother had outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand and all before she was as old as I? ‘Are you sure you love him?'”

Pied Piper by Tanith Lee (Red As Blood)

My favorite Tanith Lee story of the ones I’ve read so far. From her collection Red As Blood. The original tale is, of course, The Pied Piper of Hamelin; this version is set in Asia.

“You try to lock everything up in a cage. Your animals and your hearts. But love will always get out. Love, or hate. Somehow.”

True Thomas by Bruce Glassco (Black Swan, White Raven)

This one is a science fiction twist on the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, and so not properly a fantasy story. But I just couldn’t leave it out!

How can I describe the Words of the Queen? Imagine that you are feasting on the finest banquet ever served to king or pope. It has been prepared by the finest cooks from Ireland to Inde, and they have studied your body until they know your favorite foods better than you know them yourself. Now imagine that, with every bite, you taste every course of the meal at once, but preserve the flavors separately as well, the way five strings of a harp struck together sound sweeter than one string plucked alone.”

The Dog Rose by Sven Westgard (Black Swan, White Raven)

The editor’s introduction to this story says, “It is the tradition of many fairy tales to have a prince awaken and rescue a princess. ‘The Dog Rose’ instead focuses on less royal folk who might have an interest in the outcome.”

In the middle of May, when irises grow their beards and bleeding hearts shed their first white drop, Edward battled the sun for the life of the garden. Father was too old to haul buckets, so Edward carried the rain of the absent clouds on his shoulder-yoke. But in spite of his dousing, the herbs and flowers sagged under the growing heat. Shepherd’s knot leaves turned shriveled and brown, and Edward saw the fevers he would not cure.

Godmother Death by Jane Yolen (Black Swan, White Raven)

I didn’t know, or at least didn’t remember, the original fairytale (“Godfather Death”) before reading this story. This is definitely the most metafictional of these five stories. I don’t always enjoy that sort of thing, but it works beautifully here.

“You think you know this story. You do not. You think it comes from Ireland, from Norway, from Spain. It does not. You have heard it in Hebrew, in Swedish, in German. You have read it in French, Italian and Greek. It is not a story, though many mouths have made it that way. It is true. How do I know? Death, herself, told me.”

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Fantastic Five: Great fantasies I’ve read since last May

This is my first post for this year’s Wyrd & Wonder, an annual event each May with a fantasy theme. This year, each week in May, there will be a Top 5 List prompt called the Fantastic Five. This will give me a chance to give a shoutout to books I didn’t review!

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold (read June 2021): I don’t know why I didn’t review this one, but I’ll probably read it again eventually and write a review then. However, I want to read the sequel (Paladin of Souls) first. For now, I’ll just say that I really liked the protagonist in this intrigue-driven fantasy, but the secondary cast was sort of unsatisfying.

The Conference of the Birds by Farid Attar (read July 2021): I intended to read more premodern literature in the last year or so, but I managed to read a little bit, and this is probably the highlight. There is some boring stuff at the beginning, but it becomes more interesting pretty quickly. The birds of the world gather to decide who should be king of the birds, and they decide on the legendary Simorgh, but then they need to find him. I read the Peter David translation.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (read September 2021): The second Guy Gavriel Kay novel I’ve read. I read Tigana first, but I wasn’t thrilled with it. This one is more recent (2010) and I think I like it better. This book is set in a fantasy version of Tang-era China, with ghosts and assassinations and shapeshifters and quite a bit of interpersonal drama. This is another one I will probably reread once I read the semi-sequel, River of Stars.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (read February 2022): I really have no idea what to say about this book. I thought it was great, but I was sort of stumped. Fortunately lots of people are smarter than I am; here is an excellent review from one such person.

Grim Tales by E. Nesbit (read April 30): This is a collection of seven supernatural tales. I listened to the LibriVox recording, which is excellent. (The book is in the public domain at least in the United States, because it was published before January 1, 1927.) The last two stories (“Man-size in Marble” and “The Mass for the Dead”) are probably my favorites from this collection. This is one of Nesbit’s books for adults, but she was better known as a children’s writer. I don’t think I ever heard of her when I was growing up.

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There Would Always Be A Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien by Verlyn Flieger

My library doesn’t have Flieger’s earlier collection, Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien, so I read this instead. I’m not really sure how to review this, so I’ll start by linking to Megan Fontentot’s review:
http://journal.finfar.org/articles/book-review-there-would-always-be-a-fairy-tale/

These were interesting to read, but I’m finding it difficult to say much about them. I’ll probably come back to some of these later.

“How Trees Behave, Or Do They?” is one of my favorites, a fantastic essay on the nature of trees in LotR. It’s also available online, so you can read it here:
https://dc.swosu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1084&context=mythlore

“Eucatastrophe and the Dark” is not really a scholarly essay, but a reflection on Flieger’s experiences teaching Tolkien’s work. She writes about teaching The Lord of the Rings along with two Tolkien essays, “On Fairy Stories” and “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.” As she says, the two essays deal with the opposite poles of Tolkien’s imagination: the fairytale and the tragic epic. I have to admit that when she describes some of her students resisting the bittersweet aspect of LotR, I am completely baffled, because I just don’t share that reaction at all. I do agree with her that the ending of LotR is bittersweet rather than happy. I wonder, though, what teaching The Silmarillion must be like, because I think most people who have read it would say that while LotR is pretty balanced between joy and sorrow, The Silmarillion comes close to crashing the scales on the tragic side. (I love it, but still.)

My introduction to Flieger’s work was her excellent study of The Silmarillion, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. (I reviewed it here.) I have Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien and A Question of Time: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie on my reading list, but first I want to reread John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, and I’m not sure when I’ll get to it.

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Notes on “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings”

This is a 1983 essay by fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, published her book Reflections: On the Magic of Writing. I read this essay because of a post from Calmgrove, which is part of a series of posts concerning The Lord of the Rings. I have read a few of Jones’s books (so far Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire & Hemlock, and Charmed Life) and I want to read more by her, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Jones writes that the book is “organized in movements, just like a symphony, but with this difference: each movement has an extension, or coda, which reflects partly back on the movement just completed and partly forward to what is to come.”

Jones has a few criticisms of Tolkien’s style. She thinks he uses “suddenly” too much, and maybe she’s right. She doesn’t like what she calls his “hackneyed high style” in the more archaic passages. I don’t share her reaction at all, but I am a little surprised, because she says some admiring things about The Return of the King (RotK) later in the essay. I think if I didn’t like Tolkien’s use of a higher register then I would like RotK much less, because it’s very prominent in that volume.

She finds Tom Bombadil “supremely irritating” even though she recognizes that he represents something unique in the narrative. I’m with her on that one. She likes the gate of Moria but “once they get inside, I am never as impressed as I could wish.” She notes that the Orcs don’t have personalities here as they do in vol. 2, which is true, but I love the other villains we get here: the Balrog and also the Watcher in the Water. They don’t have personalities either, but I really like the fact that so many of Tolkien’s monsters have an air of mystery, rather than just being minions of Sauron.

Regarding the Elves, Jones says: Legolas makes us think that Elves can be “human and approachable.” She continues: “This is not the case. Tolkien leaves the Elves almost as mysterious and alien as they were before you saw Lothlorien.” I don’t really agree… I think they continue to come across as alien, but they continue to surprise us by undermining that impression too.

She also writes about the contrast between the two sections of RotK, books IV and V. The dreary journey through Mordor contrasts with the uplifting tone in much of book IV: “Though it is odd that the positive side of the action is compounded of killing and politics, and the negative of love, endurance, and courage, this is how it seems to be.”

I have a few other articles on various aspects of LotR that I have saved from the internet to read later. I’m not sure when I’ll have a chance to write about those, but in the meantime you can read my review of Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth.

Classics Club Spin #27 List

I haven’t reviewed any books in a while, but I’m joining the Classics Club Spin #27! Info here. And I will review The Conference of the Birds soon (my current book for The Classics Club).

  1. The Golden Ass
  2. The Symposium
  3. The True History 
  4. Electra 
  5. The Saga of the Volsungs
  6. Troilus & Cressida
  7. Cymbeline
  8. Songs of Innocence & Experience 
  9. Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy 
  10. The Best of CL Moore
  11. The King of Elfland’s Daughter (reread)
  12. The Complete Cosmicomics 
  13. The Boat of a Million Years
  14. Lyrical Ballads
  15. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  16. The Phantom Tollbooth
  17. The Fifth Head of Cerberus
  18. The First Men in the Moon
  19. The Wild Shore

Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. McKillip


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ombria in Shadow is one of two books by McKillip that won the World Fantasy Award, the other being The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, which I read a few years ago. It is set in the city of Ombria,  where the prince has just died and his great-aunt, Domina Pearl, is acting as regent for the prince’s young son Kyel. Lydea, the dying prince’s lover, is not welcome in the palace while Domina Pearl is there. She takes refuge in her father’s tavern and receives mysterious help from a girl named Mag, who serves the sorceress Faey. Ducon, the dead prince’s nephew (and Kyel’s cousin), whose charcoal drawings depict the otherworldly counterpart of Ombria; the shadow city. Lydea, Mag, and Ducon are the main viewpoint characters. This book has much more plot than The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; I wouldn’t called it fast-paced but it’s certainly intricate. There’s no obvious single protagonist, but the characters are all interesting, and Domina Pearl is a wonderfully haunting villain. The ending is satisfying, which wasn’t the case for me in Alphabet of Thorn and possibly The Bell at Sealey Head, although I don’t remember that second one well enough to say why.

What really stands out in this book is the setting. The mysterious city of Ombria was great, maybe the most interesting setting that I’ve read from McKillip so far. I think I like this better than The Bell at Sealey Head although since that one is similarly intensely focused on a small setting, I’m now wondering how it would compare if I read it again. I’ll probably read more by this author, but I’m not sure which book to read. The threat of serious violence and various bad things going on in the city make this probably the darkest book I’ve read from this author, but none of the disturbing stuff is gratuitous.

The writing is beautiful. Here are some of my favorite bits:
“Faey lived, for those who knew how to find her, within Ombria’s past. Parts of the city’s past lay within time’s reach, beneath the streets in great old limestone tunnels: the hovels and mansions and sunken river that Ombria shrugged off like a forgotten skin, and buried beneath itself through the centuries…”

“There was the gaudy patch of sunflowers beside the west gate of the palace of the Prince of Ombria, that did nothing all day long but turn their golden-haired, thousand-eyed faces to follow the sun.”

“Mag had learned to move through the streets like a musician moved through music, tuning it note by note with every breath, every touch. A rough voice in the dark could render her invisible; at a touch, she was simply gone, up a pipe, down a barrel, down deeper than that, through a shadow or a door. Not being human, she never wondered at what humans did. She had seen them pilfer each other’s watches, slit each other’s throats, break each other’s hearts. She had seen newborns tossed away with yesterday’s rubbish. She had stepped over men snoring drunk on the cobbles; she had walked around women with bleeding faces, slumped in rich, torn gowns, weeping and cursing in tavern alleys. Since she was wax, none of this concerned her; they might have been dreams or ghosts she moved through, until they tried to pull her into their night-terrors.”




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Review: The Road to Middle-Earth

by Tom Shippey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I read Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century a few years ago, but The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created A New Mythology is his earlier book on Tolkien, and now that I have read it, I think I should have started with this one. This a great book and I am sure I’ll read it again someday.

The first two chapters are about philology, the comparative study of languages to understand their evolution. These chapters are informed by Shippey’s tenure at Oxford which overlapped chronologically with Tolkien’s and teaching the same syllabus. The third chapter looks at Tolkien’s portrayal of heroism in The Hobbit, or There and Back Again and how he uses different linguistic registers. One of my favorite quotes comes from this chapter:
“There is one very evident obstacle to recreating the ancient world of heroic legend for modern readers, and that lies in the nature of heroes. These are not acceptable any more, and tend very strongly to be treated with irony: the modern view of Beowulf is John Gardner’s novel Grendel (1971). Tolkien did not want to be ironic about heroes, and yet he could not eliminate modern reactions. His response to the difficulty is Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, the anachronism, a character whose initial role at least is very strongly that of mediator. He represents and often voices modern opinions, modern incapacities: he has no impulses towards revenge or self-conscious heroism, cannot ‘hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl’ as the dwarves suggest, knows almost nothing about Wilderland and cannot even skin a rabbit, being used to having his meat ‘delivered by the butcher ready to cook’. Yet he has a place in the ancient world too, and there is a hint that (just like us) all his efforts cannot keep him entirely separate from the past.

Where Bard and Thorin used archaic words (‘Hail!’, ‘foes’, ‘hoard’, ‘kindred’, ‘slain’), he uses modern ones: ‘profit’, never used in English until 1604, and then only in Aberdeen; ‘deduct’, recorded in 1524 but then indistinguishable from ‘subtract’ and not given its commercial sense till much later; ‘total’, not used as here till 1557; ‘claim’, ‘interest’, ‘affair’, ‘matter’, all French or Latin imports not adopted fully into English till well after the Norman Conquest. It is fair to say that no character from epic or saga could even begin to think or talk like Bilbo.


Chapters Four, Five and Six are about LotR. In chapter four of the highlights is Shippey’s discussion of the Council of Elrond, where he looks at the way Tolkien makes each character’s speech distinct. But he also has interesting things to say about the contrasts between the cultures of Gondor and Rohan; it’s great but I’m not going to try to summarize it. And in Chapter Five; Shippey looks at the tension in Tolkien’s work between Boethian and Manichean views of evil. (This section of the later book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century apparently were a revised or abridged version of what’s in the older book. I don’t remember for sure which other parts are like this.)

“A good way to understand The Lord of the Rings in its full complexity is to see it as an attempt to reconcile two views of evil, both old, both authoritative, both living, each seemingly contradicted by the other. One of these is in essence the orthodox Christian one, expounded by St. Augustine and then by Catholic and Protestant teaching alike, but finding its clearest expression in a book which does not mention Christ at all: Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophe… this says that there is no such thing as evil; ‘evil is nothing,’ is the absence of good, is possibly even an unappreciated good, Omnem bonam prorsus esse fortunam, wrote Boethius, ‘all fortune is certainly good.’ …Views like these are strongly prominent in The Lord of the Rings.

Still, there is an alternative tradition in Western thought, one which has never become ‘official’ but which nevertheless arises spontaneously from experience. This says that while it may be all very well to make philosophical statements about evil, evil nevertheless is real, and not merely an absence; and what’s more it can be resisted, and what’s more still, not resisting it (in the belief that one day Omnipotence will cure all ills) is a dereliction of duty. The danger of this opinion is that it tends toward Manicheanism, the heresy which says that good and evil are equal and opposite…”


Chapter Six has more discussion of Tolkien’s style, including interesting readings of the poems in LotR. He also examines how Tolkien viewed his non-Christian characters and how he was influenced by the Beowulf poet’s view of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons.

In Chapter 7 Shippey describes Tolkien’s writing process and his literary influences for the tales that eventually became The Silmarillion. It is probably fine to read this chapter if you haven’t read the book; in fact one of the objectives of this chapter is to make The Silmarillion more accessible to people who haven’t read it. (As someone who has read it, I think the overview he gives goes a little bit too far in its emphasis on fatalism, but the issue is too complicated to get into here.) An important part of Tolkien’s work on these stories was his attempt to reconcile his stories about Elves with traditional theology, and Shippey suggests that a passage in the Middle English text Early South English Legendary (c. 1250) may have provided a source for Tolkien’s core ideas about Elves, which Shippey summarizes as the following“that elves were like angels; that they had however been involved in a Fall; that their fate at Doomsday is not clear (for men ‘shall join in the Second Music of the Ainur,’ elves perhaps not), that they are associated with the Earthly Paradise, and cannot die till the end of the world.”

Chapter 8 is mostly about one of Tolkien’s short stories, Smith of Wootton Major, which is not set in Middle-earth but does involve fairies. Shippey’s analysis will probably make more sense if you have read it before. I have read it, but not recently, and I will probably want to read this chapter again sometime when I reread that story.

Chapter 9 focuses on the earlier drafts of Tolkien’s writing and how his ideas changed in later versions. (Some of these issues are discussed throughout the book at different points as well). Shippey describes the early drafts of LotR and notes that they lack some of the darker elements of the final version. If Tolkien had stuck to his earlier approach LotR would be “a story of much narrower emotional range, with far less sense of irrevocable loss.” (The earlier drafts have been published in the History of The Lord of the Rings, which I haven’t read, but usually Shippey provides enough context that I could follow the discussion anyway.)

I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this. It can a bit technical and dense sometimes but it was very rewarding. I’ll probably read this again someday.


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