Someone around here was enthused enough to prefer my books to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Well, what can I say?
I first read The Lord of the Rings in high school, and it overwhelmed me. My imagination was already on fire, thanks to Edgar Rice Burroughs–first his Pellucidar novels, and then his tales of adventure on Mars. But Tolkien–!
I was astonished that such a book could ever have been written. Burroughs’ books are short; Tolkien’s was a monumental trilogy. You wind up spending a lot of time in it. The marvelous thing about The Lord of the Rings was that it positively came alive for me: it made me believe in the story that it told. Perhaps it was the mass of detail: Tolkien’s imaginary world is vast. To this day, after many re-readings, I’m sure I could find my way around the Shire, and I’m sure I’d like it there. And I’d know which places to avoid–Mordor, Mirkwood, and the Mines of Moria.
I’ve never seen any illustrations of LOTR which satisfied me. That’s because Tolkien’s art made his people and places real to me, as if I’d actually been there, seen them; and any illustration is, of course, someone else’s imagination, and can never show me anything exactly how I’d already imagined it myself.
It gave me a burning desire to write fantasy. I can’t even guess how many pages I turned out in notebooks, and on my old manual typewriter, trying to imitate Tolkien, trying to match him. But I can say it took several decades for me to realize that the world didn’t need another Tolkien: any fantasies I wrote would have to be my fantasies, and no one else’s. And that took another couple of decades to accomplish.
It’s important to remember that when LOTR came out, there was nothing else remotely like it. Since then, the fantasy genre has been suffocated with Tolkien wannabes, shamelessly ripping off his once-upon-a-time unique creation. I still love Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves and warriors, etc., but find everybody else’s cheap imitations intolerable. I suspect that if my first reading had been now instead of then, it wouldn’t have had the impact that it did.
Burroughs and Tolkien inspired me, and I doubt my own books would ever have been written if I hadn’t read theirs first. I still stand up and salute The Chessmen of Mars, and in my imagination, search for the road to the forest of Lothlorien.