Tolkien’s Place


A few years back I read Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent, sad, and thrilling biography of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. I don’t intend to here review that book, but I do recommend it for fans of the creator of such epic masterworks as The Lord of the Rings and one of my favorite little stories, Farmer Giles of Ham.

Tolkien is a storm on the horizon in the life of many writers (especially of speculative fiction). He threatens to overwhelm us in our imaginations. Aware of this, my tendency is to want to overcorrect.

While I was writing my first novel (for now, unpublished –what’s up, Pete) I was very careful not to read anything by Tolkien, or any of my favorite authors. I did not want to fall into mimetic tripe. I think I also suffer, like many would-be authors, from the popular prejudice that lives on in the snobbish comments of so many literary sages who say things like, “Oh, no. Not another sword and sorcerer book.”

But I sympathize with them as well. I agree that it appears that every fantasy-lover thinks he must write a story and inevitably falls into the patterns and clichés that are so familiar. I won’t call them orcs, I’ll call them “G’orcs.” Wow, good job. Big difference there. Doubtless there a thousand crude knock-offs of Tolkien, and no doubt English teachers, agents, and publishers tire of the tedious heaps of it. I hope I am not guilty of that charge, and have tried to be careful to avoid it.

I now believe that I have been, perhaps, too sensitive to this charge –too concerned that people not think of my story as just another knock-off. I believe that it very definitely is not. I think it has its innumerable sources in the deep sampiping1recesses of my soul, the self-revealing mystery of the outworking of my inner life, and from all the reading I have ever done. None of this reading is more prominent than the Robin Hood stories which have delighted me all my life. But Tolkien is there, in my mind, like a giant. And I am not afraid to say it.

I don’t care how common, or how unsophisticated, it is. I love J.R.R. Tolkien. I have since the moment I first cracked open The Hobbit, and I believe I shall till I live inside that blessed Light of which Tolkien presented such a delightful, and serious, reflection.

Here is the man himself on writing as sub-creation.

“What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.”

“Every writer making a secondary world wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it.”
-John Ronald Reuel Tolkien


  1. Robert Treskillard


    You said:

    “I believe that [my story] very definitely is not [just another knock-of]. I think it has its innumerable sources in the deep recesses of my soul, the self-revealing mystery of the outworking of my inner life, and from all the reading I have ever done.”

    I’m greatly looking forward to reading your book!

    I like the JRRT quote … the first half made sense to me as a fiction writer. The second half, caught me by surprise. The writers creation flowing from reality? Or flowing in? Maybe both? Very interesting way to look at it … both coming from the world, yet changing the world.

    Certainly Tolkien’s works have done just that—thus he is, as you say, the giant in our minds.

    Thanks for sharing,


  2. Tony Heringer


    Strong words buddy, I look forward to the book. Have you read the Tom Shippey and Joseph Pearce books on Tolkien (“Author Of The Century” and “Man and Myth”)? They are both good reads. Shippey shows up in the “Lord Of The Rings” DVD extras for all three films.

  3. Travis Prinzi


    Well said. So much better to admit Tolkien’s influence and embrace it than try to avoid it. Resistance is futile.

    Excellent Lewis scholar Colin Manlove wrote an essay on Harry Potter for a book I’m editing, which will be out in a few months. In it, he addresses the charge that the books are derivative, and his answer is a wise one. “Of course they are.” Just like Tolkien’s derived influence and materials from his great predecessors, and those from the ones before them.

    No one writing imaginative fiction from now on can avoid Tolkien. Let him be part of the story soup, and throw in your own ingredients as well.

  4. Chris Yokel

    Tolkien is a redwood at the center of a forest of oaks. It’s hard NOT to be influenced by him. And if you’re a Christian mythopoeic soul it would be wrong not to dwell a little under his influence. But your point is well taken. Tolkien wanted us to be our own sub-creators writing as reflections of God, not reflections of he (Tolkien).

  5. Chris Yokel

    I take the “oaks” analogy back somewhat. Some of the fantasy hack in his wake are more like shrubs.

  6. Stephen Lamb


    Speaking of influences, one phrase we use in the arranging world I’m in is, “The mark of true genius is the ability to conceal your sources.”

  7. Travis Prinzi


    “The mark of true genius is the ability to conceal your sources.”

    This is particularly true of the kappa (or cryptic) element of literature. It’s the secret imaginative key. The kappa element of Narnia, for example, is the medieval cosmology of the seven heavens. For the Ransom Trilogy, it’s literary alchemy.

  8. sd smith

    Tony- I have read neither of those books, but I did meet Miss Universe once in South Africa. Be God’s. C’mon. You gotta bring that out of retirement.

    Roberto- I also can’t wait to read your book. And, I can’t wait to see your e-mail to me after you’ve read mine: “Well, I liked one thing about it…the ending, because…well, it ended.”

    Mike- I think so. I hope you like my book too. I hope it is available at some near-future date. But I must warn you -there are a few parts which appear to have been written by an astronaut who has returned to the wrong planet. Not really, but it would be cool if there really were parts like that.

    Chris- Great analogy. Some of us are shrubbery, but some people like shrubbery. I’d just like to be in the same forest. ::Native American, boldly looks across valley with solitary tear sliding down his noble face::

    Stephen- I think I effectively concealed my sources by eliminating the man whose manuscript I stole and now claim as my own. Genius. Yes.

    Travis -It’s irritating how smart you are. Stop it. Or, teach me some stuff. I love the Borg reference. So true. Might as well deal with facts, he is a giant.

  9. Robert Treskillard


    That will definitely NOT be my comment. If you put your soul into the manuscript, as I know you did, then I will hold it with care and not dare breath on it without brushing my teeth. First.

    I’m going slow on my editing, but maybe I’ll pick up the pace after this weekend.

    -Roberto (how’d you know my mother called me that?)

  10. Peter B

    Mr. Smith, thank you for joining us here at the Rabbit Room. Thank you as well for the deep and thoughtful analysis of Prof. Tolkien’s work and how it relates to our own.

  11. Tony Heringer


    Did I sign off with that in the Room? I usually use it in emails but don’t recall it here. However, just for you and your posts I’ll always sign off with it.

    Be God’s,

    Tony 🙂

  12. Sir Wilbur

    I have read it. It is the greatest work of fiction I have ever read…

    …that was written by my brother.

    Most of the best parts are due to my recommended changes!!

  13. Keith Paquin

    I heard Andrew Peterson on the Midday Connection show today, on Moody Radio @ WCRF. I was very intrigued as he discussed the Rabbit Room, and its origins. Just had to check it out. As a Christian trying to find his own voice I feel priviledged to gleen from the exchange and fellowship you share here.

    the ‘Shrubbery’

  14. sd smith

    Thanks for popping over, Keith. A warm wlecome to you, sir. And thanks for letting us know about the AP interview. I enjoyed it.


  15. Lori

    “The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.” This is why good editing is so important. The minute there is a detail that is inconsistent or that contradicts previous information given, the reader stumbles right out of the story. For some of us, misplaced punctuation marks have the same effect.

    I’m also looking forward to reading your book, Sam!

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