Is The North Beyond like The Lord of the Rings?

As promised in the FAQ section of the website, we’ll now have a look at the notorious $100 question! The moment that the word ‘fantasy’ is mentioned in connection with The North Beyond, it’s almost inevitable that someone will immediately ask: ‘Is it like The Lord of the Rings?’

The short answer is no, it isn’t – but we’ll come back to this later. First let’s consider the question.

The fact that it’s always The Lord of the Rings that’s used as a measure for comparison is obviously an indication of the enormous success this book has enjoyed. It’s the one title everyone has heard of, whether they’ve read it or not, whether they enjoy fantasy or not. This is no doubt because, as Tom Shippey points out in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, though fantasy literature had existed before Tolkien, it was the unprecedented success and popularity of The Lord of the Rings that sparked the huge expansion of the genre so that today it is a major sector of the commercial book market.

At this point I should say where I stand.

I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was eighteen. I was completely swept away: gripped by the feeling that the story was one I’d been waiting for, groping towards, all my life. With the passage of time, that first flush of unconditional love has mellowed. I now feel about the book rather as I would about a favourite relative or cherished friend: I can smile at their oddities and ignore their foibles and love them in spite of all because my appreciation is more measured. But what I have never forgotten is that sense of simultaneous discovery and familiarity; the conviction that Middle-earth was full of wonders and yet was out there ready to be explored every time I stepped into it. That was what hit me at first reading, and what stays with me still.

Having enjoyed The Lord of the Rings so much, I immediately looked for ‘more of the same’. In those days there wasn’t much to choose from but I began with writers supposed to have influenced, or been of interest to, Tolkien himself: for example, William Morris and Lord Dunsany. I read eagerly but somehow wasn’t greatly moved or involved. Then new titles began to appear and occasionally I would be recommended to try a contemporary work of fantasy. After several dismal experiences, I came to the conclusion that there really wasn’t ‘more of the same’. Nobody has hit this nail more squarely on the head than Tom Shippey in his marvellous book The Road to Middle Earth (I’ve mentioned this title elsewhere and it really is one of my desert island books). Shippey quotes (in Chapter 9, ‘The Course of Actual Composition’) a scholar from the time of King Alfred, who while working on a translation for the king included a comment about the seventh-century English poet Caedmon. After praising Caedmon for his poetry, this long-ago translator remarks that other writers and poets had been moved to produce their own work, inspired by Caedmon’s example. But, he adds, ‘…none of them could do it like him.’

So what was I really looking for? In the late 1960s, Tolkien gave an interview to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer (published in the Daily Telegraph Magazine, 22 March 1968). In this, he says that in his own reading, ‘…I’m always looking for something I can’t find.’ When asked what this might be, he replied: ‘Something like what I wrote myself.’ I don’t suppose for one moment he meant that works apart from his own weren’t worth reading; rather, that he just couldn’t find the kind of thing he liked: the words, the theme, the story that would touch his heart.

Neither could I. In fact, without being conscious of it, I must have more or less stopped looking, because a glance at my bookshelves shows that my reading is predominantly non-fiction. Maybe in my heart of hearts I didn’t really like fantasy all that much?

But, as described earlier in this blog, I saw that road sign. The North. At that point a seed was planted in my mind, one that took a long, long time to germinate. During that time, I actively avoided fiction and especially fantasy, because as a story grew slowly from that seed in my mind, I began to be afraid that others might have had the same idea, that another book might be sufficiently similar as to influence what I wanted to write. And somehow I knew, not ‘I’m sure I could write a book’ (which so many people say and indeed I’m sure most people could), but more that one day, I would write a book. The book that began with the road sign, the book that became The North Beyond.

When the moment came, I simply sat down and wrote. I didn’t expect The North Beyond to be so long, but that’s the way it was. I worked to a synopsis and a map, but it was as if the story wrote itself. It took four years but there was no stopping, no hiatus, no writer’s block: it was as if I was recording something I already knew, something that had really happened but that only I knew about.

And now that The North Beyond is published, reactions and questions from readers and prospective readers are starting to come in. So we come back to where we started: is it like The Lord of the Rings?

No, in the sense that there are no wizards, no elves, no dwarves, no hobbits, no orcs, no talking eagles, no ents, no woses, no spells, no dark lords, in fact hardly any of the paraphernalia of fantasy that, post-Tolkien, has become standard fare. In many ways it’s scarcely fantasy at all, given that all the characters except one are human beings with all the vices and virtues endemic to the species.

But possibly yes in some other ways.

To start with the most obvious and the least important: both books are very long. Here I’d just like to recall what Tolkien said when his book was persistently linked with Wagner’s four-work operatic marathon Der Ring des Nibelungen. As recorded in Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography Part V Chapter 2, The New Hobbit, his response was the splendidly waspish: ‘Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.’ There’s also the fact that The Lord of the Rings consists of three ‘books’ (originally published separately) and The North Beyond has appeared in four parts. In the first case, the reason was a post-war shortage of paper; in the second, the difficulty of binding a work of such length in one paperback. The one is not a trilogy, in spite of being constantly described as such; the other is not a tetralogy.

Secondly, neither book is an allegory. Of course, once a book is published and acquires readers, an author has no way of controlling what readers may see or think they see in what they’ve read. I can only emphasise as strongly as possible that The North Beyond is not an allegory, and quote Tolkien himself once more: ‘…many confuse “applicability” with “allegory”; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.’ (Quoted in the Humphrey Carpenter biography already mentioned, Part IV Chapter 6, The Storyteller.)

Thirdly and perhaps more significantly, the setting of each story. If your heart belongs to Middle-earth, then you’ll know you only have to turn the pages of The Lord of the Rings to see its mountains, walk its plains, breathe its air. I believe that The North Beyond is another example of a world in words, a place as familiar as your own back garden, yet as wide and wonderful as a realm of fantasy. There’s that word fantasy again. Interviewed by Magnus Magnusson for the radio programme ‘Now Read On’ (17 December 1970), Tolkien was asked: ‘Is it (Middle-earth) our world, our planet, but at another era?’ To which he replied: ‘Not really. Say, in another state of the imagination.’ You’ll notice that it was ‘another era’, not ‘our world, our planet’ that he qualified. However this has certainly not prevented many readers seeing Middle-earth as a fantasy world, depicted by him so clearly in all its detail that it appears visible to their mind’s eye. To me as its author, The North Beyond is set in ‘our world, our planet’. Not wishing to give an essential element of the plot away, I won’t say anything here about the era in which it’s set; but readers have already done a lot of speculating, both as to past and future, and I suppose that I must acknowledge that this too ‘resides in the freedom of the reader’.

Finally. Tolkien recalled that C.S. Lewis once said to him that there was too little of what they themselves liked in stories, and ‘I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves.’ The anecdote is mentioned in the same chapter of Humprey Carpenter’s biography mentioned above and also in his The Inklings, Chapter 4 ‘The sort of thing a man might say’. Ultimately this led to The Lord of the Rings, of which Tolkien wrote to his publisher: ‘It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can no other’; and to a friend: ‘I have exposed my heart to be shot at.’ With me, writing what I myself wanted to read led to The North Beyond. It came straight from my heart and my whole heart went into it. If readers were to get the same pleasure from reading it as I got from writing it, I would be well content.