I’ve received an e-mail from the mother of a twelve-year-old asking my advice on what books a Tolkien enthusiast should read. Her e-mail began with the question, “what books would Tolkien recommend to a young writer?” Here’s the text of the relevant part of her e-mail, with my response below:
My young daughter (almost 12 years old) has a gift for writing and is enthusiastic about Tolkien. I very much want to encourage her in the right direction. A lot of the fantasy literature seems to be bad. What books do you think Tolkien would recommend for a young writer to read, who especially has a creative liking for the type of fantasy/quest (with definite Catholic undertones) literature, like that which is portrayed in The Lord of the Rings Triology?
I have tried my best to raise her in a traditional Catholic way and expose her to the best literature possible, while going easy on technology and worldly ways. What general and specific advise would you have for me in how I can encourage the writer in her? By the way, I am not trying to force her to do anything. She has been writing stories and drawing pictures since she could hold a crayon, and has never stopped! I also have a desire to write, but lack her amazing creativity and ability, but I do enjoy helping her as she develops her ideas. She seems to have real potential.
Hope you are well and that God continues to bless you abundantly. I would be so grateful for your response. Thank you in advance.
Here’s my reply:
In answer to your question, I have little doubt that Tolkien would recommend that your daughter continues to exercise her imagination with quality works of literature. Ultimately we only write as well as we read.
I presume from the fact that your daughter is “enthusiastic about Tolkien” that she has already read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If so, she might like to explore some of Tolkien’s other works. She should read Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham, both of which are not only good but good fun, and the short story, “Leaf by Niggle”. She should also read The Silmarillion, though the high style of the writing might be somewhat challenging. I presume that she must have read The Chronicles of Narnia already but, if she hasn’t, this is a sin of omission which will need rectifying. She should also read Lewis’ other fiction, including the Space Trilogy, The Great Divorce, and Till We have Faces, though the last might be a little difficult for even a gifted twelve-year-old. C. S. Lewis would certainly recommend the fantasy fiction of George MacDonald and I am happy to concur. Anything by MacDonald is worth reading but Phantastes would be a good place to start.
Like Tolkien, I do not read much modern fiction. I can, however, recommend the following contemporary titles in the so-called fantasy/heroic-historical fiction genre, either because I’ve read them myself or know someone trustworthy who has done so:
The Tower of Shadows by Drew C. Bowling
Looking for the King by David C. Downing
Toward the Gleam by T. M. Doran
Vinland by George Mackay Brown
The Eleusinian Gate by Richard L. Purtill
Crown of the World by Nathan Sadasivan
Niamh and the Hermit by Emily C. A. Snyder
Ivan of Aldenuri by J. P. Foncea
Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
I hope this helps.
“The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander was a very good five-part series in the fantasy genre, as I recall from myyouth (though of course still in no way measuring up to Tolkien). Perhaps good to read once your daughter has gone through all the others.
Perhaps she should hold off on “That Hideous Strength” (the last of Lewis’s Space Trilogy) for a few more years– it might be a bit dark for her.
Of a somewhat lighter genre of fantasy, but really good, are “Alice in Wonderland” / “Through the Looking Glass” and the various adventures by E. Nesbit (e.g., “Five Children and It”).
Thanks so much for your additional recommendations and suggestions. You might be right about That Hideous Strength. It is dark, to be sure, though the light prevails in a marvelous way.
I agree with you that Lewis Carroll and E. M. Nesbit are worth reading. Are you aware that Nesbit was a convert to the Faith, which is in her favour, but that she also believed that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare, which isn’t?
I see some unfamiliar names among your recommendations – I’ll have to look around a bit!
I recommend Lloyd Alexander. His Prydain Chronicles are the best known (and draw heavily from Welsh folklore) but I personally prefer the Westmark trilogy, which has, I feel, some very Christian themes.
I agree with Chris King, wonderful question!
But what to suggest? I have to keep in mind three things:
1) This is for a twelve year old girl (the hardest part, one is which I will undoubtedly fail to meet with every single suggestion)
2) She loves Tolkien (he is put under the label of High Fantasy…so here it goes)
3)Underlying Catholic/Christian themes appreciated
Alot of the suggestions have been great so far, though some are a bit on the fairy side of things, where as I think she is looking for High fantasy adventure.
1)Tolkien-he is the master, plain and simple. If there is anything she has not read of his, make sure it’s on her list.
2)Lewis-his other fantasy/sf works
But these were already suggested…what about others? In no particular order, here are some suggestions (not all are by Christian authors though, but neither are they anti-christian or wicked):
-“The Chronicles of Prydain” is considered a fantasy classic for a reason, I too recommend it. The man who wrote it was himself a Christian, so the themes are there. Really, any of Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy will do.
-Some of Poul Anderson’s fantasy work would be right up her alley. Though Anderson was an agnostic, he was friendly towards religion, especially the Catholic faith (indeed he is one of the few agnostics out there who writes believeable religious characters). In particular, “Three Hearts and Three Lions”. Classic fantasy, based off medieval Catholic myths, can’t go wrong with it. The main character starts off as an agnostic, and converts to Catholicism by the end, so that is an added plus! When she is a bit older, she should check out Anderson’s “The Broken Sword”, it’s one of his best. Though, like I said, she should wait a few years, it is a bit dark.
-“The Belgariad” and “The Malloreon” were fun reads, and owe a ton to Tolkien. I don’t know the author’s religious beliefs, but they were full of the classic good vs evil stuff. Some of the heroes are a bit mischevious (one is a theif, another a vagabond, for example) but they are all fighting the good fight. While the universe is polytheistic, there is a God figure (UL), complete with quasi biblical Israelites, not to mention the satan stand in (Torak One Eye), and even one or two Christ like gods. The books are not really deep, but they are fun.
-When she is older, she really should check out Gene Wolfe. A Catholic convert, who’s work is imbued with Catholic themes, he is also considered to be one of the best living writers today. His magnus opus, “The Book of the New Sun” tetralogy, is more in the Science fantasy vein, but is widely regarded as one of if not the best SF book of the last century. The man character, Severian, is a Christ figure, essentially trying to save his world. These books, along with the rest of Wolfe’s work, are highly allegorical. And for fantasy there is his excellent “The Wizard Knight” dualogy. Again I say perhaps when she is older, not because of the material but because Wolfe is a hard read. All his stuff is like that. Maybe if the Mother helped read it with her?
-I have to give it a mention, the Harry Potter series. Look, I know there are some Christians out there with reservations about it, but just to be fair, there are MANY out there who are on board the Potter wagon (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, etc). It should also be mentioned that the author, J.K. Rowling, is a professing Christian, and intended the main hero, Potter, to be a Christ figure. The series is very good, loved all over the world, and it does praise the same good things to be found in Tolkien, Lewis, and so forth. Read up on it: John Granger makes a great case for the series (he is Orthodox btw). While most of the hoopla around the series comes from fundamentalists, there are some Catholics who do object, it’s true. But in all honesty some of them (like Michael O’brien) don’t understand the series well at all. Like I said, look into what pro-potter Christians have to say about the series first, before you toss it aside. It’s not without flaws, but at it’s heart, it is a tale of the triumph of good over evil, which is always a wonderful thing to celebrate!
-There is alot of high fantasy out there, some good, some bad. I only named a few off the top of my head, some that I thought may be up her alley, while some she should wait a bit before reading (thought still worth the read, thus why I recommended it!). I’d like to recommend things like Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time”, but that series is so long, and drawn out that she’d be an adult by the time she finished it! Sad too, it’s more Tolkienesque high fantasy, the author I’m fairly certain was a Christian of some sort (protestant variety I think), and a gentleman in real life, and the book was more classic good vs evil (though a bit more dualistic, as most fantasy generally is, sadly). For things like that I’d say wait until she is older, she might enjoy it more then. Two Catholic authors out out a series called “The legacy of the Stone Harp”. Tolkien style fantasy again, intentionally has the author’s faith stamped on it. Two of four books so far, I enjoyed them, though it may be a bit of a “love it or hate it” series.
All the above was fantasy, but fantasy itself was the offspring of a particular invention of Christendom…the romance. No not the cheap porn lit, I mean the chivalric tales! Arthur and his Knights, Orlando Furioso (aka Roland), the celebrated crusaders, why not check out their stories! Full of wonder they are! And do I need to mention their Christianity? Their morality? Check out some of the classics! Even some modern retellings are good. I really liked Steinbeck’s “The Acts of King Arthur and his noble Knights”, that would also fit her age range. Another good knight tale was actually reviewed twice in STAR, “The Magic Ring”, also a great read!
And as she grows older, have her check out the old mythologies, Tolkien loved ’em. Medieval literature in general is very interesting, especially to the fantasy fan. The old chivalric tales, the old mythologies, the norse sagas, Dante, Beowulf, all fascinating stuff! Don’t forget about the ancients, Homer, Virgil, greek myth, etc. All worth her time (in time, of course)!
Phew, that’s long! Didn’t mean it to be 😀
It’s a list off the top of my head, so it’s not perfect, but it’s a good start. Some of it is light and breezy, some heavy and deep, and some (the ancient/medieval stuff) are part of the bedrock of western civilzation!
Tolkien records both his and his children’s love of E.A. Wyke-Smith’s THE MARVELLOUS LAND OF SNERGS, which Tolkien credits as one source of inspiration for THE HOBBIT. Published in 1928, it has recently (2006) been reissued by Dover Books.
Also, would Joseph and the group excuse a little self-promotion if I suggest my own humorous series of Kingdom of Patria books for middle grade readers? Available now as ebooks, print books will be available this Fall. There’s also an unabridged audiobook of the first book in the series, STOUT HEARTS & WHIZZING BISCUITS. Go to http://kingdomofpatria.com for details.
P.S. Joseph, I just read THE QUEST FOR SHAKESPEARE and loved it! I hope this finds you well–
Hi, I’m 53 years old now. I was either in junior high or high school when I read The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings. I can’t say I had a favorite character then nor do I still have one now (the movies are being shown here in Israel for the first time). I think that when you read any book, that you find that there are parts or certain things you will favor more than others…there will be especially exciting parts and perhaps more boring ones. But after so many years after reading the books, which I believe are PERFECT for the adolescent – perhaps from the age of 14 on because I think everything is too hard for anyone under that age to grasp. I remember returning over and over again parts of the books before continuing..gee, so many years have passed…Laurie Yair
There is one simple difference between Fantasy and Science-fiction.
You can tell it’s a Fantasy if there are any elves, magic, or forests.
It’s Science fiction if there are doctors, rivets, or robots.
With that in mind I would recommend Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and the 1st Dune book by Frank Herbert (the rest should wait until high school).
Both have Catholic undertones that I missed until after my conversion – and the Catholic faith is even mentioned explicitly! Both authors seemed to think it natural for the Catholic faith to continue for thousands of years into the future.
As an addition to Mr. Pearce’s recommendations, I would also list Richard Purtill’s novel/short story “The Parallel Man,” a very well-written book which combines sci-fi and fantasy in a very original way and reflects the author’s Catholic faith.
Although they might be better for high school, the Twilight novels are also better than people think, since Stephanie Meyer’s Mormon faith led her to exclude immoral sexual elements from the stories and to instead portray an authentic marital romance.
Finally, the Sword and Serpent trilogy by Taylor Marshall, as well as the hagiographic stories of Louis de Wohl and Susan Peek, while not strictly fantastical, are in a historical setting which, as Tolkien said, gives them a kind of enchantment, and they involve many miraculous and even sorcerous elements similar to that used by Tolkien.
It’s awesome to see a young woman who loves Tolkien; hopefully she can help improve the field of Catholic fantasy in the future!