Not to beat the subject, like Fingon, to death, but neither writer is trod into the mire by a comparison to the other. The shortest distance between these two towers is the straight line they draw and defend against the dulling of our sense of wonder, the deadening of our sense of loss, and the slow death of imagination denied.
–Steve Tompkins, “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers”
With my first Black Gate post of 2011 I thought I’d kick off the New Year with one of those big, bold, declarative, prediction type posts. So here it is: J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard are firmly ensconced as the two towers of fantasy, and as the years pass they will not only remain such, but perhaps will never be dethroned.
Although they arguably did not blaze the trail, Tolkien and Howard set the standard for two sub-genres of fantasy — high fantasy and swords and sorcery, respectively — and no one has done either better before or since.
Most, but not everyone, place Tolkien at or near the peak of the fantasy mountain. Tolkien developed a language and mythology that spawned the pre-cataclysmic world of Middle-earth (The Silmarillion), then told a story of its saving from destruction courtesy of the small hands of a hobbit (The Lord of the Rings). It’s a world deeper and more resonant than any other in fantasy and readers and critics alike seem to agree. Magazines like Time have selected The Lord of the Rings as one of the top 100 novels ever written, according to Wikipedia it’s one of the top 10 best-selling books of all time with 150 million copies sold, and the movies upon which it’s based won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Tolkien has made it onto several college syllabi and there are academic journals and numerous critical studies devoted to his works, including Tom Shippey’s par excellence works Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-Earth.
Howard, with his lone, strong, swashbuckling heroes (Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, etc.) created the offshoot of fantasy now known as swords-and-sorcery. If Tolkien is the undisputed king of fantasy Howard is a rising challenger, whose name has ascended from near obscurity in the 1940s and 50s to the point where he is now regularly cited by many authors as a seminal influence. Del Rey recently printed all of Howard’s original, unaltered prose, a holy grail for long-time Lancer/Ace readers, which mixed edited Howard with pastiche. Penguin, a publisher long known for its preservation of accepted, “literary” authors, has included him in its “Penguin Modern Classics” imprint. Critical works like The Dark Barbarian and The Barbaric Triumph are probably the best in what, like Tolkien, is a large and growing field of literary criticism sprung up around Howard’s works.
Tolkien is a household name, and The Lord of the Rings is an instantly recognizable title even by non-fantasy fans. Howard’s original stories suffer in comparison (ask your average Joe to place The Hour of the Dragon, and your likely response will be. .. ‘Bruce Lee movie ?’) — but mention the name Conan and you’ll get heads ‘a nodding. Howard’s characters have been the subject of several (mostly poor) films, including Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Kull, Solomon Kane, and the forthcoming remake/re-envisioning of Conan the Barbarian. His creations have been featured in role playing games, computer games, a line of pastiches, television shows, comic books, and more, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. Can the same be said for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser? Even Michael Moorcock’s Elric rates a distant second in popularity.
Some may feel that Tolkien and Howard don’t deserve the appellation “two towers” because they weren’t technically first on the scene. For example, some state that Tolkien wrote in an established tradition, citing works like William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End as a novel that established the conceit of a secondary fantastic world. Others make the claim that Howard was not the first swords and sorcery writer, nor the best. Lord Dunsany’s “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” (1908) was the first swords and sorcery tale ever published, some claim, beating Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom” (1929) to the starting line by some two decades.
But first does not equal greatest (see Lascaux vs. the Cistine Chapel) and most critics worth their salt would agree. In an introduction to The Ballantine Books Fantasy Masterworks edition of The Well at the World’s End (Vol. 2) , editor Lin Carter makes the claim that The Well, though the first true fantasy novel, blazed a trail but was surpassed by the “mightiest masterwork of them all,” The Lord of the Rings. Morris made the huge initial leap of setting his novel entirely in another fantastic realm; Tolkien’s world includes its own mythology and language and multiple Ages of history. There is no comparison. Tolkien’s imitators are legion and, like it or hate it, nothing in fantasy has been the same since the publication of The Lord of the Rings.
As for whether Howard deserves his place as progenitor of swords and sorcery, Leo Grin of The Cimmerian said it best in a February 2007 article on The Cimmerian blog:
And yet despite its formidable presentation of what are now seen as S&S clichés, admiring readers are hard-pressed to say what wouldn’t exist right now had “Sacnoth” never been written. No new genre label was deemed necessary because of “Sacnoth,” no clamor for similar fare was heard, no groundswell of imitation followed its publication.
Grin puts his finger precisely on why “The Shadow Kingdom” deserves to be recognized as the tale that launched S&S, even if it wasn’t “first,” and it’s also why Tolkien should be recognized as the man most responsible for high fantasy. If Dunsany and Morris provided early rumbles, JRRT and REH were the earthquake.
Meanwhile the man who some claim bettered Howard at his own craft, Fritz Leiber, himself acknowledged that he was writing in REHs shadow. Said Leiber: “The best pulp Sword and Sorcery writer was Robert E. Howard.” I’m going with Fritz on this one. (Other critics claim that all swords and sorcery heroes are alike, but I would answer: If that’s the case, why have Conan and Kull endured and Kothar and Amalric fallen by the wayside? The reason is that REH is a much better writer than Gardner Fox or Lin Carter).
The other question is: Can fantasy readers enjoy the works of these two seemingly diametrically opposed towers? By Valka, yes! I certainly do.
At first glance the works of Howard and Tolkien seem very different, and in some profound ways they are. REH’s writings adhered to the tenets of existentialism. Our destiny is what we make of it. The creator (if there is one) gives us strength and a sword and the will to power; what we do with it is our business. Tolkien meanwhile was a devout Catholic. His fervent belief (though he was afflicted with bouts of doubt) was that there is something greater after death. Individual free will and persuasion from larger forces play equal parts in Tolkien’s universe, and in the end the Shadow is only a small and passing thing: there is light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
Tolkien’s works are concerned with the preservation of knowledge and mourn the loss of ancient, beautiful things. The Elves and Númenóreans of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are concerned with keeping great civilizations protected, even in stasis (though Tolkien, who believed that life on earth is the Long Defeat, knew this was impossible). REH meanwhile famously wrote in “Beyond the Black River” that barbarism was the natural state of mankind. The longer cities remain civilized, the more they drift from their strong beginnings carved out by the sword-arm, and the more corrupt they become. Truly ancient cities like Stygia and Zamora are hives of scum and villainy and the gates are best flung wide for the barbarians.
But Tolkien and Howard are united in greatness and in their influence. Calling Tolkien and Howard the “two towers” of fantasy does not imply that, like Minas Tirith and Barad-dûr, they are poles in opposition (Minas Morgul and Saruman’s Orthanc are a better comparison). Howard’s letters and stories are at times meditative and nostalgic, while Tolkien wasn’t afraid to indulge in occasional blood and thunder, qualities frequently ascribed to the other. The Children of Hurin for instance is positively Howardian in its scenes of carnage and ruin and fall — witness the fate of the elven city of Nargothrond, for example.
Both were students of history and myth and literature, and it is that ability to incorporate what they read and saw into their own writings that elevate their work above that of their peers. Tolkien was likely the greatest philologist and Anglo-Saxon scholar of his day; Howard was an avid reader of history and his love was historic fiction. He wrote in a 1933 letter to H.P. Lovecraft, “There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as rewriting history in the guise of fiction … a single paragraph may be packed with action and drama enough to fill a whole volume of fiction.”
In his must-read essay “The Best Introduction to the Mountains,” Gene Wolfe describes the beginning of his love affair with Tolkien. It includes an episode in which he inscribes a quotation inside the back cover of The Return of the King. The source of the quote (“indeed one of the finest things I have ever read,” gushes Wolfe) is Robert E. Howard. It reads
Into the west, unknown of man,
Ships have sailed since the world began.
Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,
With dead hands fumbling his silken coat;
And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack–
Follow the ships that come not back.
“If you remember the end of this last volume, how Frodo rides to the Grey Havens in the long Firth of Lune and boards the white ship, never to be seen again in Middle-earth, you will understand why I chose that particular quotation and why I treasure it (and the book which holds it) even today,” Wolfe writes.
Wolfe etched his quotation some 50-odd years ago and the Aulë -forged link with which he bound together these two seemingly disparate authors is more prescient by the passing day. Tolkien and Howard are united in the genius of their works and their incredible shadow of influence. Both created great, pre-cataclysmic worlds. Both dreamed and breathed life into memorable characters. Both wrote of the clangor of battle, of great victories won, and of eventual loss and defeat. United in greatness, Tolkien and Howard are, to borrow a quote from H. Rider Haggard, “Unshaken on [their] rocky throne above the bleak fjords,” and likely to remain so.
(Despite my earlier declaration that first does not always equal the best, the first and by far the best treatment I’ve ever seen describing the similarities between Tolkien and Howard remains “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers,” the inspiration for this post. Steve Tompkins is a largely unrecognized genius; you can read his essay in full here, although I note that this is an early draft, which was cleaned up and improved for its appearance, four years later, in the Vol. 3, No. 3 print edition of The Cimmerian).