Top Ten Books for Tolkien-Lovers

“The Written Word is a Fairy, as mocking and elusive as Willy Wisp, speaking lying words to us in a feigned voice. So let all readers of books take warning!”

Hope Mirlees

Now, obviously, there are a lot of terrible Tolkien ripoffs out there. So I’m going to try and stay away from the murky realms of Epic Fantasy (which I don’t much enjoy anyway) and concentrate on the less obvious aspects of Tolkien’s works which you might conceivably want to replicate in your reading experience. (Was that last sentence pretentious enough?)

  1. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever – Stephen Donaldson. “Didn’t you just say you were going to stay away from Epic Fantasy?” Well, yes. But the Covenant series deserves a mention for its existential take on Tolkien, questioning as it does the “reality” of its Middle-earth analogue. A warning, though: Donaldson doesn’t shy away from gore and sexual violence.
  2. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. Lud-in-the-Mist, a novel from the 1920s which has enjoyed something of a renaissance of late, reminds me very much of The Hobbit, both in its slightly facetious narrative voice and in its gentle, ineffable atmosphere of mystery and magic just over the hills.
  3. The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett. It’s absolutely possible to love something and yet to weary of it, and Pratchett’s Discworld series is excellent at deflating the seriousness of Tolkien’s themes without hating on Epic Fantasy or degrading it (yes, Bored of the Rings, I am looking at you). An excellent follow-up to a Tolkien Marathon.
  4. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Something I often forget about The Lord of the Rings is just how good it is at creating place. Tolkien knows every step and stone of his secondary world, and while Peake’s work doesn’t have quite that sense of verisimilitude (I doubt if Gormenghast could ever be mapped even by its inhabitants) it does reproduce that overwhelming atmosphere, that setting-as-character, that to me really characterises the Dead Marshes and Minas Morgul and the Shire.
  5. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory. There is nothing quite like stumbling across the phrase “middle-erth” in a text six hundred years old for generating fangirling. Fans of Tolkien’s archaic, expressive diction will enjoy this – although it might take a while.
  6. The Gunslinger – Stephen King. This is for those who love that grandiose Tolkienian feeling of vast spaces just over the edge of sight, of destinations untold leagues away, of unimaginable sentiences in the dark places of the earth. And for those who love endless, hopeless quests.
  7. The Haunter of the Dark – H.P. Lovecraft. This is really a cultural/historical response to Tolkien, I suppose: Lovecraft was writing roughly at the same time as Tolkien was, and his work seems as Tolkien’s does to speak to the upheavals in the Western psyche that followed the First World War. As China Mieville put it on Crooked Timber: “Tolkien’s is the fantasy of a man murmuring to himself ‘it’s alright, it’s alright’, but not believing it; Lovecraft’s of a man shrieking ‘none of it is alright, nor will it ever be’. Unconvinced forgetting versus psychotic fixation: both are the results of trauma.”
  8. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. Speaking of China Mieville. Perdido Street Station is a novel for those who really want to get their teeth into something with that same richly-imagined sense of place and culture; again, that verisimilitude, that all-encompassing and almost hypnotic reading experience.
  9. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. Another recommendation I’m basing on verisimilitude: Novik is excellent at delineating the social rules of the culture she creates, and adding some fantasy (dragons!) to destabilise it all. (Not that this is really the purpose of Tolkien’s fantasy; but it’s still fun.)
  10. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke. Tolkien was never shy about the fact that he was essentially trying to create the mythology he felt Britain had lost; Clarke’s project in some ways feels quite similar with her brand of very English magic. In the works of neither author is magic to be underestimated or easily dismissed as rational, understandable: in both, deep magic lies in every stone of England.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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