Monday, January 7, 2013

Tolkien and Weird Tales-Part 2

H.P. Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. A mere year and a half separated him in age from J.R.R. Tolkien, who came into the world on January 3, 1892. Lovecraft spent almost his entire life in the city of his birth. His gravestone is inscribed "I am Providence." Born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now part of the Union of South Africa), Tolkien was removed to England when he was just three years old and spent most of the rest of his life in his parents' native country. (1) Not long after he arrived in England, Tolkien's father died in the Orange Free State. Lovecraft also lost his father when he was a child. Both Lovecraft and Tolkien were educated at home (although both also received formal education). Both were prodigies: Tolkien could read by age four and learned to write soon after, while Lovecraft recited poetry as a toddler and began composing his own verse by age six. "He was a brown-eyed tot with long golden curls," L. Sprague de Camp wrote, adding that Lovecraft's mother "dressed him in a Lord Fauntleroy suit." Tolkien received the same treatment when he was a child:
Mabel Tolkien apparently took great pride in dressing her sons in the finery of the day: short black velvet coats and knee-length trousers, large round hats with drawstrings, frilly white satin shirts with wide collars and huge red bows loosely tied at the neck. She also made them wear their hair long and curly. (2)
Without putting a name to it, Daniel Grotta seems to be describing a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit. It's worth noting that Fauntleroy also lost his father when he was a child.

Frances Hodgson Burnett must have tapped into a common fantasy in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885-1886), namely, that of the orphaned boy who is unexpectedly rescued from genteel poverty by a wealthy benefactor or high status. That fantasy came true in some ways for both Lovecraft and Tolkien. However, Lovecraft's benefactor (his grandfather) died in 1904 and the boy was returned to his genteel state, living with his mother and maiden aunts in a life of ever-diminishing means. Lovecraft never completed high school and seldom held a job. Instead, he became an amateur astronomer, scholar, writer, printer, and publisher. Lovecraft began writing professionally in 1919 and contributed to Weird Tales during the magazine's first year in print, 1923. He would continue writing for pulp magazines until his death in 1937. Lovecraft's mother passed away in 1921, leaving her son a true orphan in the world. Three years later, Lovecraft married and moved to New York City on the same day. Both ventures proved to be failures.

Tolkien on the other hand received a sound formal education and became a professional and widely respected scholar and writer. (Tolkien was also left an orphan with the death of his mother in 1904.) He served in the British army during World War I and saw combat on the Western Front. (3) Returning to civilian life, he worked as an etymologist, then in academia where he remained until retirement in 1959. By all appearances, Tolkien's marriage was happy and successful. He and his wife had four children, two of whom are still living. Lovecraft on the other hand was literally the last of his line: in his own lifetime, he was the only male living in the United States with the surname Lovecraft.

There are other similarities. Despite his Germanic name, Tolkien was very British and conservative. I don't think it's any coincidence at all that the Hobbits who save their land from evil come from the West. Lovecraft was of course a devoted Anglophile and a Tory. He was probably not a racist; he might more properly be called a "racialist." Like Tolkien, Lovecraft favored northern and western Europe over all. There are obvious differences between the two men as well. First, Lovecraft was a materialist, while Tolkien was a devout Catholic. Second, there appears to be little overlap in the books and writers who individually influenced Tolkien and Lovecraft. Also, Tolkien specialized in the Anglo-Saxon period, whereas Lovecraft was enamored of eighteenth century England. Both now are giants of twentieth century fantasy. Despite that, both are treated seriously in academic studies, Tolkien perhaps more than Lovecraft. As I noted in my previous posting, Lovecraft and Tolkien (along with other writers of the pulp fiction era) became wildly popular in the 1960s, mostly through mass market paperback editions of their work. Both inspired song, music, movies, television shows, and role-playing games. (First came Dungeons and Dragons in 1974, then Call of Cthulhu in 1981.) Both also inspired imitation, for today it seems every writer of fantasy wants to be either Tolkien or Lovecraft. (4) A question remains: When it comes to fantasy fiction, have Tolkien and other British writers been esteemed more highly than Lovecraft and his compatriots?

To be continued . . .

(1) Bloemfontein was later the location of an astronomical observatory. If you want to reach for connections, you might remember that Lovecraft was an amateur astronomer. The astronomer Morris K. Jessup spent three years at Bloemfontein. Although he never contributed to Weird Tales, he can be counted among those who wrote about flying saucers, a group that included Vincent H. Gaddis, Donald E. Keyhoe, Millen le Poer Trench (aka Wilma Dorothy Vermilyea), and MacKinlay Kantor, all of whom were contributors. Correction (Jan. 19, 2013): MacKinlay Kantor did not in fact contribute to Weird Tales. Instead, he contributed to Real Detective Tales and Mystery Stories, edited by Edwin Baird, former editor of Weird Tales. Real Detective Tales was a companion magazine to Weird Tales before Jacob Clark Henneberger sold it off in order to keep his "Unique Magazine" in print.
(2) From The Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, Architect of Middle Earth by Daniel Grotta (1978).
(3) Lovecraft's mother prevented him from serving in the national guard during the war. As a private in the coastal artillery, he would not have been far from home and in no danger. Even that, it would appear, was too much for her to take. It's fascinating to think how Lovecraft's life would have been different after military service. As he himself wrote, "It would either have killed me or cured me."
(4) Time was when they all wanted to be Robert E. Howard, but there are far fewer barbarians crowding the bookrack today than in 1970. Now everyone wants to write great sweeping fantasies (preferably trilogies, tetralogies, or beyond), or tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. I have to ask: Don't we have enough elves, dwarves, and wizards? Aren't there enough stories of Great Old Ones and other dripping horrors?

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1886) was one of the most popular books of its day and inspired a look that we recognize even now. Late Victorian mothers dressed their boys this way, Sarah Phillips Lovecraft and Mabel Suffield Tolkien among them. Perhaps more powerful and subtle is the fantasy of the highly placed benefactor who rescues the poor child from his ordinary life.
Not to be outdone by Lovecraft fans, followers of J.R.R. Tolkien formed their own music groups in the 1960s. The Hobbits and Gandalf (pictured here) drew on the Tolkien craze, if only for a while.
Coming full circle, here are The Young Rascals in what look like Little Lord Fauntleroy shirts. We are nostalgic for the 1960s, or '70s, or '80s. Then people were nostalgic for the 1920s, or '30s, or '40s, or even before. And so it goes into the remote and irretrievable past.
Text and captions copyright 2013 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Tolkien famously disliked allegory and specifically and vigorously denied any such connection between the narrative and plot of the Lord of the Rings and any 20th century events.
    However threats/evil have come from the East on a regular basis since the mongol hordes or before, and I speculate that he felt able to site the evil influences there as a standard folk memory echo, with which the LOTR abounds. And that being the case, everyone else, Hobbits included, had nowhere else to come from but the West.. in the case of Hobbits, incidentally, the North West.And Mordor is clearly in the SE rather than the E per se.

    Interesting article, though, thanks

    Jerry W

    1. Jerry,

      I'm a little late in replying, but I want to say thanks for the comment. I know that Tolkein disliked allegory, but I can't help but see allegory in the Lord of the Rings. I remember thinking when the movies came out, "This time we have knocked down their towers," i.e., the towers put up by the evil forces in this world. As for the geography of Middle Earth, I'll accept northwest as being west and southeast as being east, but I won't quibble with you, either.

      Thanks again.