J. R. R. Tolkien

If there is a single author on this planet whose name is more widely known than that of J. R. R. Tolkien, I have no idea who it would be.  He is an incredibly important author in the history of 20th century literature.  In fact, author and fellow professor Tom Shippey presents a case for Professor Tolkien being the most important writer of the 20th century.  J. R. R. Tolkien perhaps almost single-handedly is responsible for the rise of fantasy as a popular genre in the second half of the century.  Talk about casting a giant shadowthe man did, and still does, even though he died in 1973.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in 1892.  His Wikipedia article does a rather nice biography, so I'll not repeat any of that.  And I don't want to spend much time talking about Tolkien's writing career.  There are numerous articles about that as well.  Instead, I want to consider J. R. R. Tolkien from a personal viewpoint--how he touched me first as a reader and later as a writer.

I first discovered J. R. R. Tolkien in 7th grade.  I was omnivorously devouring all the science fiction and fantasy I could find in my local library, and had just recently discovered the science fiction section in the adult stacks.  Among the volumes in that section were three books by Tolkien:  The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King (a/k/a The Lord of the Rings).  This would have been early 1964, so I was 12 years old.  This was before the paperback editions were available, so these were the big hardback volumes published by Houghton Mifflin, with the big foldout maps in the back.

Now, I didn't know anything about trilogies.  I'd never seen one before.  I had no idea that it was possible to write a story arc that would continue across multiple volumes.  So guess what happened.  Right.  I read them out of order.  I read the last volume first, then the first volume in the middle, and the middle volume last.  I was so confused.  It was a few months later before I figured out what had happened, which caused me to reread them in the correct order.  Things made a lot more sense the second time around.  (For what it's worth, I did the same thing the first time I read Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, with much the same result.)

As a reader, I was gobsmacked.  First of all, the story was huge.  (Approximately 450,000 words.  For comparison, Tolstoy's War and Peace is about 600,000 words.)  This was the first time I had encountered a story arc that ran for more than a single volume, and the scope that allowed Tolkien to adopt just astounded me.  I fell in love with the sheer size of the story, and all the detail that it allowed Tolkien to present.  I had read The Hobbit not long before that, and while I had enjoyed it, it absolutely did not grab me like the trilogy did.  Secondly, even as a young reader, Tolkien's world building just enraptured me.  Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Ents, and the casual mention of thousands of years of recorded history--I ate it all up and cried out for more.  Third, when the Ballantine paperback editions came out the following year and I was able for the first time to read the Appendices that were available in that edition of The Return of the King, I was in heaven.  I was already a bit of a history geek, but I had never encountered a fictional history before, and that just pushed all my buttons.  I still remember the "Wow" I felt the first time I finished reading the Appendices.

I read the trilogy twelve times cover to cover over the ensuing eight years, and who knows how many times I reread my favorite passages--probably forty, at least.  And it very quickly became my answer to the question--you know, the one that goes "If you were marooned on a desert island and could only have one book, which one would it be?"  No thought required:  The Lord of the Rings.  And truth to tell, that is still my answer today.

I became moderately knowledgeable about the details of the story.  I knew more LOTR trivia than anyone I knew, although I was never in the running for all-time LOTR trivia geek.  I used the tables in the Appendices to translate the rune bands on the title pages of the individual books.  (If you didn't know there were messages in those rune bands, then you're not as big a fan as you thought you were.)  When Caedmon Records put out the spoken arts recordings of Tolkien reading some of his material, and the Donald Swann song cycle based on Tolkien's poems (The Road Goes Ever On), I bought those immediately.  And for a long time I had a copy of every American edition of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but I finally had to give that up when my Tolkien collection was taking up over half the space I had for books.  (Nowadays I just have a copy of each textual edition, plus most of the limited deluxe editions.  That's at least six copies of The Hobbit--including the original 1938 first American edition--and at least four copies of LOTR.)

The Lord of the Rings became the standard against which I measured everything I read, and not much compared well to it.  I grew very tired of the constant advertising comparisons "The greatest book since The Lord of the Rings."  It took me a while to become a little more balanced in my evaluations of other writers and other books.  And oddly enough, the first book that really broke through was Frank Herbert's Dune, which was a very different book indeed, but had some of the same sense of huge scale and exceptional world building.  So even today, due to the influence of Tolkien, my favorite books all feature outstanding world building.

I finally decided to write in 1978.  Tolkien influenced me there as well, and in much the same way.  I wanted (and still want) to tell stories involving right and wrong, I wanted to tell stories on grand scales, and I wanted to tell stories against great world building.  I'll never equal J. R. R. Tolkien, especially in the last category, because I can't spend twenty years working on a single story idea like he did.  But I can try.

I reread LOTR not long ago, for the first time in a lot of years.  It held up extremely well, although I found myself critiquing the writing much more than I had ever done before.  Side-effect of being a professional writer myself, I guess.  When I was done, I decided that while J. R. R. Tolkien was a really good story teller, there were others who are just as good, if not better.  But no other writer will ever affect me as he did.

Andre Norton

This post about Andre Norton is the leadoff for a series I intend to write about writers who have influenced and shaped both my reading and my writing over the years.  They won't be very profound--mostly just retrospectives and appreciations.

Andre Norton (February 17, 1912 – March 17, 2005) is the name she is most commonly known by.  And yes, she was a successful female writer at a time when most of the industry consisted of male writers.  Her birth name was Alice Mary Norton, but she used at least three pseudonyms over her lengthy career.  Andre Norton appeared on most of her books, but she also used Andrew North and Allen Weston.  According to Wikipedia, she legally changed her name to Andre Alice Norton in 1934.  She is most well known as a science fiction and fantasy writer, although she did dabble in other genres over the years.

Unlike most of her contemporaries, Andre Norton was primarily a novelist.  She wrote very little short fiction in her early career, and even though her output of short work increased in her later career, it was still very definitely the minority of her work.  It was her novels that I fist encountered, and those were responsible for my becoming a science fiction reader.  Also unlike most of her contemporaries, almost all of Norton's output had initial hardback editions, even the earliest works published in the 1930's and 1940's.  Up through the 1970's, most of her books were published as hardback young adult novels by her publishers, and I suspect a large proportion of the sales of those books were to libraries.  That's certainly where I found most of her books over the years.

Her science fiction novels were reprinted in paperback mostly by Ace Books in the early years.  A couple of them had title changes in the initial printings--Star Man's Son became Daybreak 2250 A.D.Star Rangers became The Last Planet. Her book Beast Master was lightly abridged for its first few paperback printings.  All of these reprint editions were noticeably devoid of any indication that they were reprints of juvenile/young adult books, though.  They were marketed to adults, and sold quite well for decades.  I certainly never considered them anything other than great stories.

My initial exposure to Andre Norton came through her novel Catseye, which I still consider to be one of her best works.  It was my first real taste of serious science fiction.  It was my step up from middle grade books like The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and the novels of Edward Eager.  Norton took me to the next level.  She was my gateway drug, if you'll accept that metaphor.  And I still find it both ironic and humorous that I got that 40 cent Ace Books edition of Catseye at school by way of the Scholastic Book Club.  The cover price of the book was 40 cents, but through the book club I got it for 25 cents.  I still think that is the best quarter I ever spent.

It used to be pretty common that writers would talk about one of the strengths of science fiction as a genre was the "sense of wonder" that it generated.  That is exactly what Andre Norton did to and for me--reading Catseye awakened that sense of wonder in the mind of a 6th grade boy in January 1963.  Fifty-five years later it's still alive and burning brightly, and now I write the stuff.

Andre Norton was a great story-teller.  I was drawn into--sucked into--her stories very quickly, and I seldom put them down after starting them before reaching the last page.  And I would reread them almost as voraciously as I read them initially.  I enjoyed the story and the story-telling just as much the second and third and fifth and ninth times as I did the first.  She had that effect on me.  Her story-telling gift was part of what attracted me to the idea of writing.

She told good stories about good characters.  Because most of her earlier works were written for the juvenile/young adult market, the protagonists were usually youths, but they were never stupid or childish.  I had no trouble identifying with them as competent people even when I was in my late 20's and early 30's.  Norton was also one of the first authors that I read who wrote strong female characters and even used them as protagonists.

As her career progressed and she got older, a lot of her science fiction and space opera would kind of cross the line into fantasy.  Her delving into Gothics were also very fantasy influenced, I think.  Her last years were almost totally devoted to fantasy, except for a few collaborative novels in her Time Trader and Solar Queen series.  The pinnacle of her career is probably her Witch World series, which started out as an alternate history story, but very quickly morphed into a full-blown fantasy series.  I fell in love with this series and devoured each new volume as soon as it came out.

One of the things I greatly regret is that Norton never seemed to get much critical attention until very late in her career.  It seems like it wasn't until writers of my generation who grew up reading her books became popular that she started getting some of the renown she really deserved.  People like David Drake, Eric Flint, Mercedes Lackey, David Weber, and others began mentioning her as being a formative influence.  As a result, her last few years seemed to have her being more appreciated and more valued.  I think it's appropriate.

Another great regret is I never got a chance to meet Andre Norton face to face.  I did get to talk to her on the telephone a couple of times back in 1974, so I do have those memories.

My favorite books by her include Catseye, Star Guard, and Star Rangers from her earlier works, and Moon of Three Rings, Year of the Unicorn, and The Crystal Gryphon from her later period.

So, yeah, this is a bit of an homage, and a bit of a retrospective, and a whole lot of fond remembering.  It may not make a lot of sense to you.  That's okay.  Just know that if there is any one person who is responsible for my being a science fiction and fantasy fan and a science fiction and fantasy author in my own right, it's Andre Norton.