"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," based on J.R.R. Tolkien's book of the same name, was released Dec. 14. I found the film to be beautiful, fun and true to the spirit of the book -- so much so that I was inspired to revisit Tolkien. This week, there is another reason to celebrate: Thursday is his birthday. He would have been 121 years old.
Though he is often identified as the father of modern fantasy literature, Tolkien did not create his work in a vacuum. He was heavily inspired by Andrew Lang, a Scottish collector of fairy tales. Lang's fairy books -- starting with the "Blue Fairy Book" (1889) -- include stories from the Brothers Grimm as well as traditional stories from "Arabian Nights," Norse mythology and other sources.
George MacDonald was also a strong influence. Young Tolkien loved "The Princess and the Goblin" and its sequel, "The Princess and Curdie." In the first book, young Princess Irene stays out too late and is nearly captured by goblins, hideous, deformed creatures driven underground years before. A boy named Curdie Peterson helps Irene escape, and they embark on a great adventure. You might also enjoy MacDonald's "Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women."
Tolkien -- himself a professor in English and Anglo-Saxon (Old English) language -- was part of a group of Oxford academics called the Inklings. They loved fiction and especially encouraged the writing of fantasy. Another member you might have heard of is C.S. Lewis, who wrote the "Chronicles of Narnia." Start with "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," in which three children stumble into an alternate world via an old armoire in their caretaker's home.
Two other Inklings were Nevill Coghill, who wrote a modern-English translation of "The Canterbury Tales," and Roger Lancelyn Green, who retold "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table."
Of course, Tolkien influenced many writers himself. I can't think of a single fantasy author he did not influence slightly. Guy Gavriel Kay had the privilege of working with Tolkien's son, Christopher, to publish "The Silmarillion," J.R.R.'s works detailing the mythology of Middle Earth. Kay said he was less intimidated by writing epic fantasy after being exposed to Tolkien's "drafts, notes, false starts, (and) dead ends," and went on to write his own epic fantasy, "The Fionavar Tapestry." In the first book, "The Summer Tree," a group of Canadian university students travel to another world as party guests and become more important than they intended.
You can find all these books through the SC LENDS library consortium. Andrew Lang's fairy books and George MacDonald's works are available as free e-books through The Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org).