The Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge was made by Alexandru Constantin over at the Barbarian Book Club. The rules are simple:
Identify 3 Fantasy stories written before Lord of the Rings was published. 3 stories written before 1954.
Review all three on your blog, focusing on pre-Tolkien differences or similarities, and making sure you let us know where we can find them for ourselves.
Share the challenge.
I will do him one better and review three fantasy stories that were published before The Hobbit was published in 1937. Although they will be less reviews and more focused on the comparison to Tolkien (you didn’t think I was done with Tolkien, did you!?).
“Skulls in the Stars” by Robert E. Howard (1929)
Skulls in the Stars is the second story Howard had published about his flintlock-packing Puritan, as best I can tell, and it is the third Solomon Kane story I have read. Here, Kane encounters a vicious ghost on the road through the moor between two villages.
Kane is often classed as sword and sorcery, but the other stories I’ve read show the influence the old adventures pulps had on Howard, and this story shows the influence of folklore. It feels a lot like one of Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John stories, only Solomon Kane carries a rapier, dagger, and two flintlock pistols instead of a silver-stringed guitar. It is a good reminder that Tolkien-esque fantasy represents only a subset of the genre, and Tolkien’s Saxon and Norse sources only a subset of the sources from which a storyteller can draw.
“Black God’s Kiss” by C.L. Moore (1934)
Black God’s Kiss is Moore’s first published Jirel of Joiry story. It is my first Jirel story and my second Moore story (Shambleau was the first). Jirel is a fiery redhead, the equal of many a man in deadly combat and the lord of her own keep. In Black God’s Kiss, her fierce pride and thirst for vengeance drive her through a portal to Hell in search of a weapon to use against the man who took that keep.
I never “got” cosmic horror until I read Shambleau. I remain convinced after reading Black God’s Kiss. Shambleau is science fiction; Black God’s Kiss is fantasy (Genre Lines? We don’t need no stinking genre lines.). The horror aspects of Tolkien’s work are underrated, especially the sequence with Shelob in the mountains ringing Mordor. But Tolkien left the really eldritch stuff out of the Lord of the Rings, relegating Ungoliant to the posthumously published Silmarillion and Book of Lost Tales. Tolkien at least has it; effective cosmic horror pretty much disappeared from later fantasy, even of the self-consciously Lovecraftian variety (tentacles, though…).
Jirel also makes Eowyn look like a milksop. But, unlike a lot of contemporary writers, Moore can write a female character who would gut you as soon as kiss you but who still feels entirely feminine.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Dunsany (1924)
Lord Dunsany (or, here in America, just Dunsany) was one of the great early fantasists. Tolkien was aware of the pulps (and a fan of Burroughs), but we don’t know that he read Howard until L. Sprague de Camp sent him some Conan stories after The Lord of the Rings was published. Nor, I think, do we know if he read Moore. But he definitely read Dunsany. Dunsany also influenced the Weird Tales triumvirate of Lovecraft, Smith, and Howard.
Dunsany’s short novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter is perhaps his most famous. In it, the king of Erl travels to Elfland in search of a fae wife. He returns with the king of Elfland’s daughter and sires an heir, but she finds the ways of humans incomprehensible and winds up returned to Elfland courtesy of her father’s powerful rune, leaving the king to wander in search of an Elfland that has “ebbed” and his son to learn of his nature on his own. (I am only about two-thirds of the way through The King of Elfland’s Daughter, but I wanted to go ahead and get this post up.)
The first thing that strikes me reading this book is that it is exactly the sort of story that Tolkien lauds in On Fairy Stories. One of the things that struck me rereading The Lord of the Rings this summer that I didn’t appreciate as a kid is the otherworldly nature of the elves. The movies of course miss this entirely, as do his imitators. Legolas isn’t a superhuman archer; he doesn’t really come off as human at all. The otherworldliness of the elves in The King of Elfland’s Daughter is much more marked. The line seems obvious from Dunsany to Tolkien to Tolkien’s imitators (although the blame lies with those who stripped away the otherworldliness entirely).
Dunsany’s approach makes one aspect of his story much more effective than something similar from Tolkien. The tension part-and-parcel to the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen due to his being a human and her being an elf never worked for me. So one of you will die before the other . . . so what? Welcome to life for the rest of us who don’t die screaming together in the same car accident! Dunsany, though, shows us some much more. Such a love is star-crossed because an elf can never understand a human. The king of Elfland’s daughter, Lirazel, initially has no appreciation for time and is quietly horrified when she notices a woman aging over the course of a couple years. She isn’t able to grasp that the candle and the bell, the little bowl and the silver snuffer are tools of worship rather than the objects of worship themselves.
It is the otherworldliness, evoking a sense of wonder, that most stands out, as distinctive in Dunsany’s tale, present but more subtle in Tolkien’s, and entirely absent from his imitators. Reading Dunsany, then, highlights what was lost in facsimile. The otherworldliness is absent even where storytellers reach beyond the lame elves of D&D tie-in novels to the source material. Leigh Brackett’s People of the Talisman, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, and John Maddox Robert’s Conan the Champion (and, to a lesser extent, M.L. Brennan’s Generation V series) all have takes on elves that are weird—weird as in bizarre—but not otherworldly. Urban fantasy is the worst offender for that sort of thing, really.
A few other things stood out to me. Despite the #PulpRev emphasis on story (in no small part in reaction to a turn by traditional SF publishers toward writing), the three writers I cover in this post are all tremendous stylists. As was Tolkien, but they probably each exceed him. Although their writing is out of style, and the literati are nothing if not slaves to stylistic trends. Dunsany, like Tolkien, affects a faux-archaic style, and he makes heavy use of repetition as a rhetorical technique.
All three stories expressly take place in a Christian world, where The Lord of the Rings is only implicitly Christian (albeit strongly and obviously). Tolkien was a master of evoking soaring emotion; Dunsany shares that very effective, somewhat removed approach. Howard and Moore, on the other hand, are incredibly visceral storytellers. You can almost taste the bile and smell the blood as you read. Moore’s depiction of Hell is unlike anything you have ever read.
All three writers deserve more recognition relative to Tolkien. And would-be writers would do well to turn toward influences not so well mined in the last half-century.
 Riffing on a famous line from The Treasure of Sierra Madre, of course. The Treasure of Sierra Madre was written and directed by John Huston, who voiced Gandalf in the Rankin/Bass animated adaptation of The Hobbit.