Sunday, March 26, 2017

Appendix N Madness Day 26: Howard vs Tolkien

The Weird Region Final was won by H.P. Lovecraft, who will go on to face the winner of today's match-up in the semifinal round.

Fantasy Region Final: Robert E. Howard vs J.R.R. Tolkien

Is there a starker choice in all of fantastic literature than Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien?

Howard was a Texan who wrote short fiction by the ream. While he is remembered mainly for his creation of Conan across eighteen stories published in his lifetime, he published literally hundreds of others. He was prolific in the way that only a writer paid by the word can be, even though Howard never padded his stories. He left dozens of unfinished fragments, and when his work was popularized in the 1960s it created a craze for "Barbarian" fantasy that was of absolutely lower quality than Howard's original.

Tolkien was an Englishman who taught Beowulf at Oxford. He published two major works in his lifetime, as well as a few minor pieces. From his convalescence in a war hospital in 1916 until shortly before his death in 1973, he worked on the legendarium that was published in wholly inadequate form as the Silmarillion and in various drafts as The History of Middle-Earth. This work of over 50 years involved endless re-framing and revisions to the mythology. The Lord of the Rings was, in part, an attempt to use the success of The Hobbit to show a further tale in the same mythology, and also to publish the Silmarillion.

Ace Books manages to be responsible for controversial editions of both Conan and The Lord of the Rings; the former because L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter wrote a good chunk of the material, the latter because they were using a loophole in copyright to publish without paying any royalties to Tolkien and incorporated a great number of typographical errors. Both editions contributed greatly to the popularity of Howard and Tolkien, and of fantasy in general.

It was The Sword of Shannara in 1977 that started a craze for Tolkien imitations in fantasy publishing, and began to close the period of Conan imitations. While I generally reserve critique on these epigones, those imitating Howard did have at least the minor virtue of writing much shorter works.

Middle-Earth and the Hyborian Age bear a striking symmetry. The story of Númenor was a deliberate parallel to the sinking of Atlantis, and set up the Middle-Earth of the Third Age as an immediate pre-historic precursor to the current age of history. The Hyborian Age is explicitly between Atlantis and the coming of the Aryan people into the Indus Valley. Both story cycles, then, are set on Earth in a lost prehistory.

But they are set to opposite effect. Howard's Hyborian Age was an excuse to use various historical periods like the sound stages on a Hollywood backlot, interesting and flavorful backdrops for his stories but with a breezy disregard for historical details and gleeful use of anachronisms. Tolkien's Third Age, on the other hand, is the conclusion of his mythological cycle, chosen precisely for the exact mythic resonances that its elaborate history creates.

Their prose, too, diverges almost completely. Howard's words leap from the page in a vivid gush of color, painting a world that is rough and brutal and immediate, savage in both its joy and destruction. He uses a wide vocabulary because ordinary words fail to create the pictures he is painting. Tolkien's language is almost infinitely patient, describing details and landscapes to root the reader as fully as possible in the world he imagines as clearly as a photograph. For his action scenes he elevates it almost to a mythological pitch, reaching its absolute apex when Éowyn slays the Witch-King of Angmar.

Philosophically there is an utter contrast. Conan has a personal set of morals that is the only thing that matters to him; he has utterly no compunctions about killing or stealing, but he has a strong sense of honor that he will not violate. Tolkien, particularly in the character of Gandalf, strongly enforces Judeo-Christian morality, and even a creature such as Gollum must be spared. Conan would have dispatched him and used the Ring, we can be sure.

(As a brief aside: I find that none of the films of either Howard's stories or Tolkien's, except maybe the Rankin-Bass Hobbit, demonstrates a deep understanding of either author or his work. I understand that there is a wider appreciation of the same, though.)

Writing about the influence of either Howard or Tolkien on D&D is silly. Between the two of them they are the sine qua non of the game; Gary wouldn't have written it if not for Conan, nor would fantasy have had a mass audience without Tolkien.

In short, Howard vs Tolkien is the battle for the soul of fantasy. Is it in Conan or in Frodo?

You can vote in the poll here.

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