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  • Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy
  • Charles E. Noad
Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy, edited by Douglas A. Anderson . New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. [x], 436 pp. $27.95 (hardcover) ISBN 0345458540; $14.95 (trade paperback) ISBN 0345458559.

The main purpose of this volume is to provide a representative selection of early modern fantasy in the period preceding J. R. R. Tolkien's birth and in so doing to show the initial movement towards the self-definition of that genre and its differentiation from other related ones—such as, for example, the early science fiction of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It may be difficult formally to define this genre, but we know it when we see it, and this volume helps to show how it came to be known as such to begin with.

Following an introduction by Anderson, each story is preceded by a note on its background and initial publication. The book ends with a useful section of "Author Notes and Recommended Reading," including authors who aren't represented in the book but belong in the same tradition.

Many of the stories contained in this volume were read by, and stayed in the memory of, the young Tolkien. We know about them because he mentions them in his letters or elsewhere, such as in "On Fairy-stories," although one not mentioned by him, E. Nesbit's "The Dragon Tamers," was published as part of a series which, on the basis of biographical evidence, almost certainly was read by him. To the extent that they made an impression, or were otherwise memorable to him, then we may take it that they "influenced" him when he came to compose his own fictional narratives—or at least aspects of them resurfaced in his narrative-making [End Page 261] imagination. Sometimes, however, as in stories he perhaps didn't read, such as John Buchan's "The Far Islands," with its hero's visions of a land in the West, or A. Merritt's "The Woman of the Wood," with its trees that attempt to defend themselves, one still finds echoes of themes he later used, but such echoes are maybe inevitable given the general themes to be found in fairy-stories or fantasy.

Apart from the stories in this book serving to indicate how the modern genre of fantasy began to define itself, they have the slightly different function of simply making available to interested readers a good many of the tales to which Tolkien variously refers. Reading this book was for this reviewer and long-time Tolkien-fan the first time he has actually read MacDonald's "The Golden Key" or Knatchbull-Hugessen's "Puss-cat Mew"—although I should have liked to see, perhaps, the Brothers Grimm's tale "The Juniper Tree" in place of, say, Austin Tappan Wright's "The Story of Alwina," an extract from the mostly unpublished background materials to his pseudo-history lslandia (published as a novel in 1942), and belonging, I think, to a slightly different genre from fantasy.

And finally this book is a fascinating and enjoyable collection in and of itself. One or two of the tales, such as "Puss-cat Mew," are fairly violent and gruesome—hardly the kind of thing which would be passed today for an intended audience of children, and not a few might come into the category of "politically incorrect," but the audience for which the book is presently intended should just about be able to cope with them. In all, highly recommended and suitable for the shelves of any Tolkienist.

Charles E. Noad
London, England