In his Guest of Honour speech at Mythcon 35 (2004), Neil Gaiman revealed his childhood response to Lord of the Rings like this:
“I came to the conclusion that Lord of the Rings was, most probably, the best book that ever could be written, which put me in something of a quandary. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. (That’s not true: I wanted to be a writer then.) And I wanted to write The Lord of the Rings. The problem was that it had already been written.
I gave the matter a great deal of thought, and eventually came to the conclusion that the best thing would be if, while holding a copy of The Lord of the Rings, I slipped into a parallel universe in which Professor Tolkien had not existed. And then I would get someone to retype the book — I knew that if I sent a publisher a book that had already been published, even in a parallel universe, they’d get suspicious, just as I knew my own thirteen-year old typing skills were not going to be up to the job of typing it. And once the book was published I would, in this parallel universe, be the author of Lord of the Rings, than which there can be no better thing.”
(You can find the rest of this speech here.)
This speech, delivered ten years after the publication of Gaiman’s short story ‘One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock’ in the Moorcock Anthology Tales of the White Wolf, I find fascinating for a number of reasons. First of all, because it shows Gaiman’s range, even as a young reader; devotion to Tolkien often sits unhappily with an equal addiction to Moorcock’s albino hero Elric and his soul-sucking sword. Moorcock, furthermore, is an anti-Tolkien polemicist whose essay ‘Epic Pooh’ in his Wizardry and Wild Romance attacks Tolkien (along with C. S. Lewis) for espousing middle-class values and failing to rise above suburban sentiment and Winnie-the-Pooh-style language. Coincindentally, the book was republished in the same year as Gaiman gave his speech to the Mythopoeic Society’s annual conference: 2004 (it was originally published in the 1980s). Gaiman’s tendency to read very widely and promote what he likes to others is evident in various activities in addition to his writing, including writing a wide range of introductions to fantasy novels and working on the ‘Neil Gaiman Presents’ set of audio books at Audible.com. You can of course also read his ongoing thoughts at his journal.
Second, because Gaiman’s response to Tolkien mirrors Richard’s response to Moorcock in ‘One Life’; there, too, we see played out a reader’s desire to take ownership of the story and even to take credit (and remuneration!) for its production. I have explored these ideas in detail in an earlier blog (see ‘A writer maybe. Like Michael Moorcock’ posted on March 30th 2011) and their implications for understanding fan fiction. But the fact that Gaiman returns to them as the defining aspect of his childhood experience of reading Tolkien suggests that his writing may productively be read as an extraordinarily creative and diverse set of appropriations and explorations of both past texts and modern SF and fantasy.
Even in the Smoke and Mirrors anthology, for example, we find Gaiman drawing on and playing with medieval texts in ‘Murder Mysteries’ (headed up by a quote from a medieval mystery play) as well as ‘Chivalry’ and ‘Bay Wolf’, working with fairy tale and folk tale in ‘Troll Bridge’, ‘The White Road’ and ‘Snow, Glass, Apples’ and showing his engagement with H. P. Lovecraft in two stories, ‘Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar’ and ‘Only the End of the World Again’. Into this are blended a series of experiments with different genres, in particular the detective story.
The trick in each case is to work so creatively and so apparently effortlessly with the material that one easily forgets the sources and inspirations to these stories; yet they are never hidden. After all, these are ‘short fictions and illusions’. We are merely too distracted by the detail to see them, gazing at a few trees decked out with lights while an entire orchard waits to be explored around them. This is not a criticism; these stories show us ways of focusing on aspects of medieval texts, or qualities of modern fantasy, so that we can understand them in more wide-ranging and productive ways. Gaiman’s stories function as microcosmic refractions of much older stories and ideas, and in this they help us to look, think and see more than we otherwise might.