LoTR and dwj

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Wed Feb 18 17:28:04 EST 2004

Charlie wrote:

>This thread has become entwined in my mailbox with another going on at the
>moment on the Sidney-Spenser list, where the current question seems to be
>'Is Spenser the rich man's Tolkien?' One participant posted the following
>extract from Tom Shippey's *Tolkien: Author of the Century?*, which I
>thought was [worth] passing on:

[but snipping because it doesn't have much to do with what I am replying
to, really.]

>So - is Tolkien the poor man's Spenser (leaving James Joyce out of [t]he

I'm happy to leave James Joyce out of [t]he account. :-)

>My own opinion, FWIW, is that they don't have too much in common,
>except perhaps via DWJ - whose *Hexwood* owes so much to the Spenser's Book
>of Justice.

Spenser is a bit out of my period, and simply because of the press of time
against my shoulderblades I have read rather less of his work than perhaps
I should have, but I wonder whether this is a comparison that can be made:
not because of the two authors in question and their work, but because of
the contemporary reading public available to them.  In the sixteenth
century, how wide a market was there for long books of fantasy, as it were?
And how much of a lit'ry establishment was there, to condemn such a thing
as "populist", how influential and listened-to (lacking the sunday colour
supplements etc) were the "arbiters of taste, the critics, the
educationalists, the literati" of the time?  I don't have the impression
that Spenser has ever been regarded as a footler who betrayed his proper
academic status by writing rubbish for children and the feeble-minded,
which is how it sometimes seems that Tolkien is dissed -- but I suspect
that given a set-up in the 1590s by which books were as widely distributed,
to as high a literate proportion of the population at as comparatively low
a price per volume, as they have were in the 1950s, Spenser might easily
have been as popular among the "groundlings" as Tolkien.  The difference is
that Spenser is cited as an influence on all sorts of "respectable"
subsequent poets, who are highly acceptable for centuries, the likes of
Milton, isn't he?  Whereas all poor Tolkien is credited with is having
spawned vast numbers of inferior fantasy novels from inferior imitators and
ruined the development of the modern fantasy novel (see Clute, who loves
Tolkien personally but really seems to wish that fantasy writers had
followed the likes of Dunsany and Morris rather than the Quest Interminable
model), an awful lot of the time.  But if there were terrible faux-Spenser
epic poems, they seem not to have survived, in the main.  (Praise be.)

(I wonder how many of the faux-Tolkien trilogies will survive four hundred

If Tolkien is the "poor man's Spenser", is it for the work itself that he
is a lesser figure or is it for the followers/imitators that work has
garnered, seems to be what that makes me wonder, in other words.


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