Inspiring culture – the meta-literature of Tolkien

It occurred to me the other day that one of my favourite authors – J R R Tolkien – has probably had more written about him than he actually wrote himself.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'
I had to prone to take this picture in the Hobbit Artisan Market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

Certainly that’s true if you consider the books Tolkien published in his lifetime. There were, after all, only two Middle Earth books plus a few other bits and pieces. But even if you add in the endless sequence of ‘first drafts’ churned out of the voluminous Tolkien papers by his son and one or two others since the elder Tolkien’s passing in 1973, the fact remains that the amount of stuff triggered by Tolkien is even larger.

I happened to be prowling the Tolkien shelves of my local bookstore the other day and spotted, apart from various editions of Tolkien’s own work, at least a complete shelf of analyses, of books-about-the-films, of books about the mythology behind Middle Earth, about the artwork – in all its flavours – and at least two send-ups. The Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings (a comic novel in its own right) and a more impenetrable spoof of The Hobbit written by someone else.

That’s apart from the plethora of Tolkien biographies – which, based on what I have in my own collection, range from the ‘definitive’ general biography by John Carpenter through to more specialist studies of Tolkien in the First World War. I also have a semi-biographical snapshot, published as a book, based on the observations of a fan who was so taken by drafts of the Silmarillion that he sought out, and visited, the elderly Professor in the early 1970s.

Not to mention the music. Tolkien himself worked with Donald Swann to set some of his Middle Earth songs to music. Since then his mythos has inspired everything from Bo Hansson’s album Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings (1969), through to Led Zeppelin’s Battle for Evermore, and more recently Nightwish numbers such as Elvenpath or Wishmaster. The latter, with some of the lyrics actually in Tolkien’s High Elvish, isn’t exactly subtle. And there are reasons why a lot of Norwegian rock is known, colloquially, as ‘heavy mithril’.

All of which, to me, underscores just what a massive influence Tolkien actually was. And, of course, still is. None of it, of course, was planned or intended; the whole thing grew, to use a Tolkienism, in the telling.

I suppose next we’ll find books discussing the books that discuss Tolkien. Meta-meta literature? Or maybe not.

Do you have any ‘meta Tolkien’ literature – or music – in your collection?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


10 thoughts on “Inspiring culture – the meta-literature of Tolkien

  1. I suppose if we were really desperate we could read the Oxford dictionary – apparently Tolkien was responsible for several definitions, including the one for ‘walrus’

  2. We had the Bo Hansson album! Used to love driving up the South Island through Lewis Pass, heading home from university to Nelson and imagining LOTR happening among the wild, rugged scenery. Whaddya know? Thirty years later it actually did!

    1. I still have the vinyl. No record player but it was worth keeping for the album art. Summed up the way Tolkien was received in the late 1960s. The music was amazing and I believe Hansson was credited with inventing the prog concept album on the way. Not bad for something done mostly in Hansson’s home on a Hammond organ with a couple of mates in on bongos and bass.

  3. A book I found very interesting is an anthology of stories that supposedly inspired Tolkien. I came across it in a friend’s bookshelf once and only got to skim through it – I can’t even remember the title – but it contained some of the fantasy stories (not classical fairytales) that were available and that Tolkien would probably have been familiar with before he redefined the genre. It’s a fairly recent publication but, lacking the title, I haven’t been able to find it since.

    1. I have a funny feeling I’ve seen a list of – or references, somewhere – to the stories that inspired Tolkien too. Can’t think what they are though! I know Beowulf was important to him – this to the point where Tolkien produced his own translation from the Anglo Saxon.

  4. “Tales Before Tolkien” edited by Douglas Anderson who also wrote “The Annotated Hobbit” might be the book the anthology referred to. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf has just been published and is now available!

    1. I think we are hard presed to underestimate the influence of Tolkien both on writers and on popular society in general. Not bad for a modest Oxford Don who always saw what he did as a hobby.

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