Whilst perusing the fantasy and science fiction section of one of our local library branches, I happened across "Tales Before Tolkien" edited by Douglas Anderson. The forward promised a view into the fantasy fiction that the godfather of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien read. Included as well were some works by authors that were known to Tolkien that he may or may not have read and works that no one reasonably suspects him to have read, but that certainly reflected the state of fantasy writing in the years before "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" were written and published.
In many ways, this book is an unbidden view into the workings of Tolkien's fantasy world. If the avid Tolkien reader imagines that all of the fantastic characters and circumstances simply bubbled up as works of his unique ingenuity, then "Tales Before Tolkien" will disabuse that reader of such wild thoughts. Having loved lingering over Tolkien's use of language to present such a unique world, it was a bit of a disappointment to discover that the idea of confusing trolls by speaking while invisible was not a unique idea. Nor was the concept of elves as illusive beings that live from an almost unworldly, exclusive perspective.
One of the tales included is "Puss-Cat Mew" that was written by E.H. Knatchbull-Hugessen in 1869. Tolkien was read to from a collection that included this story. There are many elements within this story that are reflected, amplified, and refined by Mr. Tolkien in his writing. I won't spoil the surprise as to which elements those might be.
Only one or two of the stories were really difficult to get through. Those few stories contained lengthy passages that threatened to become nearly Randian in their length of prose and depth of minutia. I will confess to skipping past a couple of them.
My favorite tale of the collection was "The Regent of the North" written by Kenneth Morris. Mr. Morris' work was almost certainly unknown to Tolkien. Yet he evoked a certain sense of perspective that most any Tolkienian dwarf would find comforting.
"The Regent" tells the tale of a Viking lord who is sorely disappointed that his king has adopted this "new" Christian faith. The lord sees Christ as a weak deity that is unworthy of the allegiance of decent Viking men. Rather that submit to his king's command that the lord should come and accept this new faith, the lord flatly refuses in the hope that his king will attack his keep. Better to die as a man fighting for that in which he believes than to kneel and scrape to weakling idol.
The king, in a fashion worthy of his new faith, offers forbearance and tolerance to his vassal lord. "I will not trouble with you" the king sends in response the lord's outright challenge.
The lord is incensed at being essentially dismissed to live out his days being ignored by his king. After raging about for a week, the he sends for his fifty most loyal men. He proposed that those who were willing accompany him as he went a-viking. They would sail forth to raid and rend. They would fight the ocean and the elements if no better foes could be found. And if death should find them during their travels, then they would die manly deaths on their feet rather than joining the mass of ignoble races answering jangling church bells to offer ignoble prayers.
By the end of the story, all of the lord's men have died at sea. His ships were wrecked on a far northern coast. He has ridden a lengthy sleigh ride pulled by a lone reindeer and finds himself surrounded by a pack of wolves.
Battle with a worthy foe is about to commence.
This story spoke to me from two perspectives. One is the larger narrative of the relative virtues of living such a physical life. The lord is presented to the reader as a positive character who virtuously defends his country, his people, and his keep with enthusiasm. Were it not for his king's conversion, the lord would have been venerated in old age or death for his faithful and manly service.
In our laudable pursuit of equality among the genders, I fear that we have denigrated the manly defense of justice, honor, and defense of the defenseless.
The second perspective was that of religion. Never fear, dear reader. I am not some blossoming Odinic novitiate. I'm not looking to put the Thor back in Thorsday.
What I am is skeptical about all religions. Might there be some sort of higher power out there? Might we be the mote in a deity's eye?
Perhaps. If there is, then I reasonably suspect that he/she/they have expended the fullest fraction of their interest in planting us here on planet Earth that will ever be expended. I also reasonably suspect that they have nothing to do with any of the texts that are associated with any religion; past, present, or future.
Or perhaps not.
I see little difference between either conclusion given the lack of divine interaction.
I share our protagonist's skepticism regarding Christianity even though I do not share his alternative.
This collection was an interesting read and worth your time.
Also edited by Mr. Anderson is "Tales Before Narnia". I haven't read it, but given the quality of the Tolkien tome, I think this one might be worthwhile for Narnia fans.