Friday, October 21, 2016

REVIEW: J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons

One probably ought not review a book for which you didn't read past page 45 (and even then only skimmed), but for things like this was the internet made. Still, sometimes the character of a particular book makes itself very clear, very quickly. Judging by the title, Deke Parsons's J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy (2015) looks like a fascinating text. The problem starts once you begin reading. The introductory chapter -- a scant 2 pages -- is not an introduction. There's no hint of a thesis. Instead, Parsons gives us . . . well, I don't know. A 2-paragraph biographical statement on Tolkien, Howard, and the creator of Superman, Jerry Siegel, followed by a final "concluding" paragraph. Seven paragraphs total. Outside of all his writers living in the 1930s (and he doesn't even mention the Great Depression until the 7th paragraph), Parsons does not even present transitions or segways when switching from Tolkien, Howard, and Siegel. Transitions, for crying out loud. Those are just a basic principle of competent writing.

I kept on reading, hoping to find a thesis at some point, but alas. The rest of the book seems to follow the same structure as Parsons's introduction -- 2 chapters on Tolkien, 2 chapters on Howard, 1 chapter on Siegel (switching things up there!), and a final 6-page chapter "discussing" their inheritors. The so-called "Conclusion" of the book is literally only a paragraph long and says nothing substantive. Worse, the individual chapters are either biography (no original research, btw) or plot summary, interspersed with the occasional comment or citation.

Given that the title is the only hint of a thesis, let's look at the problems that offers:

  • Parsons actually focuses on three writers, not two, as the title implies.
  • The title mentions the birth of modern fantasy, which sounds promising, but Parsons makes absolutely no case for why he picked these three writers as the birth of modern fantasy but not others. His major seems to be, "These are major writers of the 1930s," fitting Tolkien into that decade because he conceived LOTR during that period. But there's no mention of Wm. Morris or Lord Dunsany, or those critics who locate the origins of fantasy in the 19th-century Romantic movement of the 18th-century theories of the sublime or antiquarianism. He mentions Lin Carter once without noting his contribution to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, which might be the real birth of "modern" fantasy.
The book is still too new to have gotten any reviews, but I'll be interested to see what is thought by people who forced themselves to go through the whole thing carefully.

Off the top of my head, this is the second book I remember reading in the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy series by McFarlane publishers, and it is the second book in that series that has left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

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