Thursday, March 13, 2008

"The Best Introduction to the Mountains"

Take a look at this tribute that renowned fantasy and science fiction writer Gene Wolfe (author of The Book of the New Sun and Soldier in the Mist) has provided as an anecdotal introduction to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I stumbled into the piece recently by accident and had some excitement reading it - a brief essay by one of my favorite writers about one of my other favorite writers. A man of eclectic reading tastes and even more eclectic writing, Wolfe gives air time to his own interpretation of Tolkien's world through the eyes of a former and quite successful engineer, but the main body of his essay is a deeply personal meditation. The tribute is written on the occasion of plucking down from a glass case three often-read old editions of The Lord of the Rings and reflecting upon the bits of verse and brief annotations Wolfe had penciled into the front leaf of each volume. As an example:

Surely I need not tell you that I read and reread these books. I married in November of that wonder-filled 1956; and Rosemary and I read them to each other, most often while driving. A note in The Return of the King indicates that my older son Roy and I read them together, reading the final page on April 20, 1967. (Roy was born in 1958.)

There is a field of study now developing devoted to the marginalia of great writers - their quick sketches and desperate little doodles and quotations inked into the margins of their favorite books. There is a voyeuristic fascination to this sort of thing. What would Coleridge have written in the margins of Milton, or Anne Sexton in the margins of Emily Dickinson? It's the literary arts' world's version of catching up on the latest celebrity gossip, but there's more to it than that: often, great, iconoclastic writers come up with observations about other great writers that just floor us. There is also a sort of literary archaeology involved: delving up the traces and remnants of a reading experience, fragments that allow us to interpret the aesthetic and emotional experience of reading a great work, fragments that invite tentative speculations on the question: Why does a great story so effect us?

Definitely worth taking a look. Wolfe's tribute also includes the text of a letter written to him by J.R.R. Tolkien, for those avid letter-readers among you.

The painting above is Redhorn Gate, by Alan Lee, long-time illustrator of Tolkien's work and one of the two conceptual artists for Peter Jackson's recent film adaptation.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for the link!

Dante's Heart said...

No problem! I'm glad it was useful.