Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review - J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons

Short review: A scholarly discussion concerning the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard followed by some material concerning Superman.

A little Tolkien
Just a small dash of Howard
And some Superman

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the Birth of Modern Fantasy is a book that promises much, and while it does deliver to a certain extent, it also seems maddeningly incomplete. The basic format of the book is mostly laid out in the title: The first few chapters are about J.R.R. Tolkien, the next few are about Robert E. Howard, there is a chapter about Superman and the development of superhero comics, and finally chapter that gives fairly cursory overview of the development of fantasy following these three influences. While the author does cover the handful of elements he focuses on reasonably well, for a work that promises an exploration of the birth of modern fantasy, this book seems like a relatively perfunctory treatment of the subject, with at least as much left out as is included.

Parsons opens the book with a chapter that is principally a biography of Tolkien followed by a chapter of analysis of The Lord of the Rings. In the first chapter the author focuses heavily on the Boer War, World War I, and World War II as formative events in Tolkien's life, accompanied by a great deal of exposition concerning Tolkien's Catholicism and how this positioned him as something of an outsider in English society of the time. But the narrative also delves a bit into the influence the collegial groups the "Tea Club and Barrovian Society" and the Inklings had upon Tolkien, demonstrating just how difficult it is to maintain that a tenured professor at Pembroke College in Oxford was actually an "outsider". The tone of much of this chapter is adulatory, with the biography veering into hagiography at times. On the whole, it is a fairly decent summary of Tolkien's life, but it falls well short of being comprehensive.

In the second chapter, Parsons mostly analyzes The Lord of the Rings, and following up on the ground work laid in the first chapter, spends much of his efforts focused upon the connection between Tolkien's Catholic faith, the events of World War II, and the book. It is in this chapter that the worshipful attitude of the author towards Tolkien becomes most apparent, as he spends a fair amount of the chapter refuting the opinions of those who have been critical of the book in the past. A noticeable portion of this chapter is also spent contrasting Tolkien's book with the film adaptations made by Peter Jackson and others, usually to dismiss the films as being made without understanding the source material, although he makes an odd gaffe where he appears to think that the song Where There's a Whip There's a Way appeared in the Ralph Bakshi animated version of the story. It did not, it appeared in the Rankin-Bass animated movie The Return of the King. One weird quirk displayed by the author is that he seems to think The Hobbit was overly long, which is a criticism of that I don't think I have ever seen anyone make except in reference to the Peter Jackson adaptations. Except for a few instances in which specific authors who studied under Tolkien are referenced as having been his students, this chapter is entirely lacking in an evaluation of how Tolkien's work helped to birth and influence modern fantasy fiction. In fact, at several points Parsons takes great pains to distinguish The Lord of the Rings from the works of fiction that would come after it, explaining how the themes and symbols used by Tolkien are markedly different from its alleged successors. Between the sometimes sloppy fact-checking, and the lack of explanation concerning the development of fantasy from this root, this section seems disappointing.

Parsons then turns his attention to Robert E. Howard, taking much the same tack as he had with Tolkien: First a chapter that is mostly biographical information about Howard, and then a chapter that is mostly an examination of Howard's writing that spotlights his stories about Conan. As revealed by Parsons, Howard provides a stark contrast with Tolkien. While Tolkien lived in southern Africa, moved to Britain, fought in World War I, was orphaned relatively young but still educated at some of the finest institutions in England before becoming a professor for much of his life, Howard seems to have essentially never left a tiny section of rural Texas, never gained any education beyond high school, and was tied to an ailing mother until shortly before he died. While Tolkien lived the comfortable life of an Oxford professor, Howard scraped out a meager living writing for pulp magazines that were at best sporadic in paying him. All that said, much of the chapter serves not as a contrast to Tolkien, but rather an exploration of, and to a certain extent apologetics for, Howard's fairly pervasive racism and his brief relationship with Novalyn Price Ellis. While Parsons doesn't seem to place Howard on quite the same pedestal as he has placed Tolkien, he does go to great lengths to soft-pedal Howard's racist attitudes, at times using them to explain Howard's rage at his relatively marginal position in society, but at others going to great lengths to explain that they weren't really an issue because even though he took great pains to detail the ethnicities of the characters in his stories, they were all portrayed as variations of Caucasian, and thus could not be seen as racist. Despite this, the biographical chapter on Howard is much more interesting than that on Tolkien, mostly because it presents a much more complex view of the subject.

Parsons elected to focus his attention concerning Howard's writing heavily upon his selection of Conan stories, which seems reasonable given that he is Howard's most famous creation. The odd thing that even though he spends a fair amount of time discussing Howard's failed novel Post Oaks and Sand Notes and gives little more than a perfunctory examination of his stories featuring characters such as Solomon Kane, Kull, or Bran Mak Morn, which seems like a strange oversight. Much of the chapter is taken up with an analysis of how Howard used Conan as a vehicle to comment upon the corruption of civilization and the relative purity of barbarians such as the Cimmerian, which a significant portion of the balance is taken up with a broadsided attack upon L. Sprague de Camp and some fairly sharp criticism of the various Conan films that have been produced over the years. In what appears to be an unintended twist, the chapter makes a much better case for de Camp's efforts having a greater influence on the development of modern fantasy than Howard, as without the work put in by de Camp in reprinting Howard's stories, writing new tales featuring Conan, and licensing works in other media such as comics, it seems likely that Howard's work would have fallen into obscurity. The thinly veiled contempt that Parsons seems to hold for de Camp seems like it would be more appropriate for a book attempting to defend the purity of Howard's vision, rather than a work intended to examine the initial development of modern fantasy and trace the origins of its foundational works.

After evaluating Tolkien and Howard and their respective works, Parsons turns his attention to Superman, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. This seems like an odd choice, as the only substantive relationship the Kryptonian seems to have with The Lord of the Rings or Conan is that he was created in the 1930s. Although Superman did more or less spawn the modern super-hero, and as a result the fictional universes published by DC and Marvel Comics, he doesn't really seem to fit into the fantasy genre unless one defines it in the broadest and most generous terms possible. The development of Superman, let alone super-hero comics in general, is simply a topic that is too broad to be adequately tackled in one chapter of a book, and the inadequate nature of the treatment in this volume is readily apparent. After Parsons describes the nature of the earliest Superman stories, and then covers the genesis and early development of Batman and Wonder Woman, he launches into a discussion of the influence of Dr. Fredric Wertham and his crusade against the comic book industry. Finally, Parsons delves into the filmed representations of the super-hero, and at least with respect to the 1978 film, he is reasonably satisfied with the portrayal. Unfortunately, Parsons fails to connect the mythos spawned by Superman to the development of modern fantasy in any but the most tenuous manner. Superman certainly spawned a host of imitators in comic book form, and multiple fictional universes for his successors to inhabit, but they aren't really so much fantasy fiction as they are the representatives of their own genre.

What makes the digression into Superman and other comic book super-heroes disappointing is that the author gives little or no attention to many of the critical figures in the development of early fantasy. In the final chapter, titled "The Inheritors", Parsons covers work by Lloyd Alexander, Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and George R.R. Martin. Edgar Rice Burroughs is referenced in passing at one point, but almost entirely ignoring his contributions to the shape of modern fantasy seems like an egregious oversight. Further, including material about those authors makes the absence of commentary concerning such pioneers of fantasy such as Fritz Lieber, Poul Anderson, and Michael Moorcock all the more glaringly obvious, especially given the fact that so much of Moorcock's writing is so directly in dialogue with Tolkien's and Howard's. The final chapter of the book surveys so an extended range of time and material while discussing so few examples that it seems both overly broad, and perfunctory at the same time. More crucially, the book once again doesn't really do much to explaining or analyzing the birth of modern fantasy fiction, in part because it omits such large portions of the roots of the genre, and in part because it spends more time giving biographies of the authors and assessing film adaptations than it does focused on how the works created and influenced fantasy fiction.

In general, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the Birth of Modern Fantasy is not a bad book, but it is a somewhat disappointing one. What there is of the book is reasonably well presented, but the author doesn't seem to actually want to focus on how modern fantasy came into being so much as he wants to discuss the lives and books of what seem to be his favorite fantasy authors. As a summary biography of Tolkien and Howard, and a brief examination of The Lord of the Rings, Conan, and Superman, this book is reasonably satisfactory, although Parsons' work seems to be relatively superficial: For example, nothing in this book seems to offer more concerning Tolkien and his work than what Humphrey Carter has already written. While this might serve as a reasonably interesting introduction to the authors and works cited within it for someone relatively new to the subjects discussed, anyone looking for an in-depth exploration of the roots of the modern fantasy genre is advised to look elsewhere.

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