A lot of people were surprised when I said I wanted to write a fantasy novel (which became a trilogy, starting with Den of Thieves). My father was especially confused. An avid reader, he frequently asks me for book recommendations but every time I suggest a fantasy novel he just shakes his head. “No magic, please. And no elves,” he said once, pronouncing that last word the way most people would say “and no anchovies” when asked what they want on a pizza. Elves seem to be a dividing line for a lot of people in their literary tastes, because they associate pointy ears with the kind of goofy plotlines and unpronounceable names that have become the hallmark of modern fantasy. Yet there was a time, and I can prove it, when Dad read about elves with fascination and wonder.
Growing up in a house full of books I quickly discovered there were four books that he truly loved. Four big books in incredibly beautiful editions with mysterious covers and page after page of text full of weird plot twists unpronounceable names, but also amazing fold-out three color maps and appendices on impossible history and, yes, lots and lots of elves. They were, of course, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Like most people of his generation Dad read them because they were a fad at the time. And like almost everyone who has ever opened their covers, he fell in love with the world tucked neatly away behind those giant maps of Mordor and Mirkwood and the Shire.*
I learned to read early (how could I not in that house?) but it took me a while to feel comfortable enough to read books without pictures (the maps most certainly didn’t count—they were scary when I was six). I knew, though, that these beautiful books were going to be something I had to master. It took me a year to read them the first time. They lived in my bed, tucked away with my favorite toys and every night before I went to sleep I would struggle with a few pages, not understanding much but always grasping to learn more of the unfamiliar words and memorize those long, musical elfin names. I pored for hours over Professor Tolkien’s own illustrations (they still hold magic for me today), asked everyone I met if they knew what a goblin or an orc looked like, and talked endlessly on long summer nights with Dad about the characters and the ring and why people seemed to like the hobbits so much when the elves—the elves!—were clearly so much better.
The second time I read them, when I was ten or so, I got a little more of the story, and a whole new dimension of the books opened itself up to me. The third time I read them I probably started to think Tom Bombadil was a little corny, but the barrow wights and ring wraiths still gave me a shiver. By the time the movies came out, I was the one leaning over to tell my sisters what was going on, and why palantirs were important, and which one was Boromir and which one was Aragorn, and why that mattered.
I’ve moved on in my literary tastes somewhat since then. I like my fantasy a little grittier now, and even I think the elves are a little bit too much (there aren’t any in Den of Thieves. There are two dwarves, but they aren’t Scottish and they don’t carry battleaxes, if you were wondering). I don’t think that’s so much Tolkien’s fault, though, as that of his imitators. Too many authors have made a living just repeating—let’s be generous and call it updating—the master’s work, which I feel is missing the point of Tolkien’s legacy. It wasn’t elves and hobbits he gave us that makes him such a legend—it was the ability, the right, to build a whole new world from scratch, a place fathers and sons could visit together, a place lonely kids or bored adults could explore, and even live in, for a while. Tolkien has plenty of detractors now and sometimes their arguments ring true. But anyone who asks me why I want to write fantasy should know about those four big books, and the time I spent with my Dad communing over Middle Earth, and that should be answer enough.
*In the interest of transparency, yes, my Dad had a copy of The Silmarilion, too. And no, neither of us ever managed to read the whole thing.
- David Chandler, 2011
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