Piotr Nowik, Tolkien and Le Guin

par Gelydrihan



“I consider it useless and tedious to represent what exists, because nothing that exists satisfies me. Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my fancy to what is positively trivial”. Charles Baudelaire.

Nobody would have ever dared to think at the times of Baudelaire, that fantasy would become to be considered as a serious literary genre. Only such an eccentric as Baudelaire could openly state his appreciation for something, that ‘ordinary’ literary minds perceived as not real and therefore a totally useless kind of writing. Nowadays the situation looks completely different. Not only has fantasy been accepted as the literary genre, and become considered as equal with other ‘serious’ genres in terms of literary merit, but it has also become one of the most popular and profitable genres, making its way in bookstores as well as in cinemas and computer games. The phenomenon of Harry Potter, undying love for The Lord of the Rings and other works by Tolkien like The Hobbit or The Silmarillion, or C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia : millions of people all over the world have read them and enjoyed them. The importance and role fantasy plays nowadays is immense, and its place in the literary pantheon is now beyond question.
The two principal works and authors I am going to discuss in this essay, are considered to be the milestones in the literary genre of fantasy fiction, these being the already mentioned The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, and maybe less known but equally praised and appreciated by critics The Earthsea Series by Ursula K. Le Guin. To answer the question why Ursula Le Guin despite her great inventiveness and originality in fantasy is less popular than Tolkien among the common readers of fantasy would require another research, however literary critics place Le Guin and her Earthsea Stories as one of the chief paradigms of the ‘high fantasy’ along with the two most important and influential writers : John R. R. Tolkien and Clive S. Lewis.
There is no doubt that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is ‘the’ paradigm in literary fantasy creation, and his work inspired many people in all sorts of artistic creation going thorough literature, film, video games, and even music. He was also the chief promoter and advocate of fantasy literature, who managed to convince literary critics that fantasy is not merely a sort of escapism. His famous essay “On Fairy-Stories” defends fantasy and reveals the virtues and merits fantasy writing contains, making of it the kind of literature beyond the “for children only” etiquette it used to have.
The greatness and genius of Tolkien’s literary work and his fervent advocacy of fantasy found him many admirers and followers in the world of literature, among them young Ursula Le Guin. Of course we can’t name the extent to which she was influenced by Tolkien, we can only guess or estimate it by making some allusions or reading the allegories. Besides, Le Guin is a writer much praised by critics, with strong personality and original imagination, making it much harder to detect Tolkien’s influence in her writing, and any sort of plagiarism as some might suppose is totally out question. Indeed, there exist some signs and indications of the possible interrelations between the two books which can make one think of imitation of Tolkien’s masterpiece, and which by the way induced me to write this research, however once having read The Earthsea Series there’s no doubt of Le Guin’s originality. That is why, in order to be able to see these similarities, and appreciate the differences between these two great works of fantasy, we should refer to the theory of intertextuality. The chief concern in my work will be to show that in the light of intertextual literary theory Le Guin draws on and in a way pays tribute to Tolkien, but at the same time she both consciously or subconsciously changes certain aspects of his creation and brings them into light in her own work. It has to be noted that this work is no way an attempt at bringing the two authors into competition on the level of the ingenuity in creating, or the scope of what they have created, for in that matter the heritage of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth seems to have no equal, at least so far. The aim of such comparison is to show that Le Guin being under the influence or/and in awe of Tolkien’s literary creation she created her own so similar, because working on the same principles, and at the same time so different fantasy world.
In the first part of my work I am going to discuss the notion of intertextuality, its general definition and function. Then, being aware that ‘intertextuality’ was not a coincidental, one-person discovery but a long term work of different components by different people, I am going to present the most important contributors who laid the groundwork for the notion of intertextuality, namely Ferdinand de Saussure and Mikhail Bakhtin. Next, I am going to present a central to the notion figure of Julia Kristeva, who in her studies made an extensive use of the theories of Saussure and Bakhtin and combining them she gave life to the term ‘intertextuality’. At the end of the part one, we are going to see the figures of two literary theorists : Harold Bloom and Gerard Genette, whose definitions and principles of intertextuality as a kind of “anxiety of influence” between the authors are the most suitable to the kind of literary relation we can see with the works of Tolkien and Le Guin.
As this work is strongly in the frame of fantasy, before I will apply the theories of Bloom and Genette to The Lord of the Rings and The Earthsea Cycle, in my second part I am going to briefly discuss the main sources of intertextual influence in the genre of fantasy, and within this I am going to present J. R. R. Tolkien as a father figure of modern fantasy and the influence of his works on other artists and their creations, Ursula Le Guin in particular. As follows, we will see the most striking similarities between the works of Tolkien and Le Guin, especially as far as their two fantasy worlds, Middle-Earth and Earthsea, are concerned.
The gist of this work is the artistic response of Ursula Le Guin to the influence of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In this light, in part three I am meaning to present what Harold Bloom has called “the anxiety of influence”, that is all the things and motifs in Le Guin’s world of Earthsea that although show the author’s originality, are nevertheless reminiscent of Tolkien’s masterpiece. The inescapable power of influence and the poetic struggle for originality are particularly conspicuous in the case of The Earthsea and The Lord of the Rings. Le Guin’s fantasy world, characters, creatures, and plots are of course different, we could say that sometimes they are even opposite to those of Tolkien. However a close examination of these two excellent fantasy stories will allow us to perceive how Le Guin in creating her world of Earthsea used the elements of Tolkien’s fantasy, and next departed in her own direction. Thus we get a totally new dimension of a fantasy wizard that was quite revolutionary at the time when the book The Wizard of Earthsea appeared, and a surprising, because a totally different from the one imposed by Tolkien and other members of Inkling group, world of fantasy beasts.
The fourth part in this respect is going to treat the things that are present in The Lord of the Rings, but which Tolkien does not seem to have paid much attention to, and which in turn lie at the core of Le Guin’s work. In this way we arrive firstly, at the feministic aspects of Le Guin’s work in response to Tolkien’s criticised negligence of women characters in his The Lord of the Rings, and secondly, the nature of magic that in Le Guin seems to be of crucial importance, and what is more, the author’s logical explanation to the way this magic works, as opposed to Tolkien’s purely imaginative assumptions about it.