Saturday 23 May 2020

Tolkien - the only 'Two Hit Wonder'?

It seems to be one of the many unique aspects of JRR Tolkien as a writer, that nearly all of the vast numbers of people who have read him, have read only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They have not read any of the smaller works published during his lifetime, nor have they read any of the couple of dozen books of extra material published by Christopher Tolkien after his death.

Indeed, I would guess that a very large majority of those who read, and loved, and frequently re-read the LotR; have never read the Appendices of that book (and certainly do not re-read them).

I don't find this particularly surprising (not least because I am describing my wife!) but it does demonstrate the gulf between the majority of Tolkien lovers (not 'fans') and the  minority such as myself who - from the age of 13 - read all of his fiction ASAP, and at least 'tackle' almost every scrap of writing (and drawing) he produced (including sitting down and reading the entire, in parts almost day by day, chronology of his life published in the JRRT Companion and Guide by Scull and Hammond.

(I have probably not read all his writings about the invented languages, because I can't understand them - that is, I looked at the words... but that doesn't really count as 'reading'.)

I think this is very interesting and distinctive. There are some writers - indeed most famous or influential writers - who are known for one book. (To be a 'one hit wonder' is The Norm, especially among dramatists - and nothing to be sneezed at!) There are others who are famous for several or lots of books/ works - Shakespeare and Shaw, Dickens and Austen... This applies to minor writers as well as major - either just one genre classic, or a great mass of popular works.

But to be very famous, very beloved, and very influential on the basis of two books; is perhaps unique?

Note: The only other example I can think of is RB Sheridan with two classic plays: The Rivals and School for Scandal.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Does Homer count?

I’d also say War and Peace and Anna Karenina are the only Tolstoy most people read.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - yes, that's a good example, although I was only thinking of Eng Lit - but insofar as Tolstoy is a part of Eng Lit, then yes. And they're sometimes next door in the alphabetical shelving of bookshops/ libraries.

Joel said...

There are plenty of authors with two popular works. But the nature of the second work usually shows up somehow in the promise of the first. Yet the Lord of the Rings is a hit, but in an entirely new and inventive way, different from the Hobbit, and one that appeals to different people.

Kipling, for example, was famous for his poetry, short stories, and children's books. And he had an early and mature stage. But it's all the same genius applied in different areas.

The Hobbit had depths that no one could have guessed in 1937.

Karl said...

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass?

Karl said...

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Karl - Lewis Carroll is indeed a good example (Tolkien was often, misleadingly, compared with Carroll by earlier reviewers, especially of the Hobbit - because they were both Oxford Dons). My impression is that most modern people - especially adaptors - treat the two Alice books as one, and blend the two stories.

I'm not quite so sure about Mark Twain, but its not a bad idea; those two novels do seem to be known on a different level from Twain's other works.

His main 19th century rival Melville is a one-hit wonder, by contrast.

@Joel - it has to be two works qualitatively above the others. I would say Kipling is nowadays either known for the Jungle Book alone, or for several works rather than two above the rest.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Okay, English literature... Childe Harold and Don Juan? 1984 and Animal Farm? Call of the Wild and White Fang? Treasure Island and Jekyll & Hyde? Gravity's Rainbow and Lot 49?

Bruce Charlton said...

Pangloss has left a new comment on your post "Tolkien - the only 'Two Hit Wonder'?":

"Read The Diaries of Adam & Eve. A timeless gem and largely unknown but should be a classic. "

Note: Apparently this is by Mark Twain.

Karl said...

Songs of Innocence and of Experience? No, that is a single work.

Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained? No, whatever Milton's intention, the second hasn't had anything like the same impact.

Right, how about the Old and New Testaments?

Karl said...

Wm Jas: Yes, Animal Farm and 1984 are a fine example. After decades of journalism and a string of depressingly realistic novels (which I am among the few to have read), Orwell achieved popular success with a fairy tale and a utopia.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I attempt to quantify two-hit-wonder-ness here:

By my metric, Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, and Jack London all outrank Tolkien in this regard.

@Karl, "utopia" is a pretty strange way of characterizing 1984!

Joseph A. said...

""utopia" is a pretty strange way of characterizing 1984!"

Especially as it has become ever more _topical_ since it was published (unto our very days, sadly).

About the post -- you don't think that there is another level of folks who also read _The Silmarillion_ but not the other tales (so, a trilogy of sorts -- adventure story, epic story, and then mythic prequel)? They have to comprise a sizable group.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

A minor synchronicity that I didn’t notice at the time. On Friday, the day before I read this post, I was creating a vocabulary quiz for some of my students and, needing a fill-in-the-blank sentence that would elicit the word “author,” I came up with “J.R.R. Tolkien was the ____ of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.”

Chent said...

Stendhal. 1) The red and the black 2) The Charterhouse of Parma. Wonderful novels for the young man in his early twenties

Karl said...

@Joseph A.: Stranger things than that have turned out to be true, but until I learn better, no, I don't believe there is anybody who cares about the Silmarillion except as the seedbed from which the Lord of the Rings sprouted.

Bruce Charlton said...

Re: Silmarillion; I've written about this, over the years - .

Scattered through Christopher Tolkien's publications post The Silarillion-1977 there are many comments when he all-but states that he regards the book as a mistake, in several ways - a mistake he spent the next forty-plus years trying to undo.

I personally believe it would be a good idea to let the 1977 Silmarillion go out of print, since it has put-off far more people than it has drawn-in (and there are some, I acknowledge).

The later History of Middle Earth volumes, and the specialist volumes on the specific stories (Unfinished Tales, Lost Tales, Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, Fall of Gondolin etc) have rendered the 1977 heavily-edited/ distorted compilation superfluous - an inferior version of the Real Thing in JRRT's words (rather than via Christopher's arrangement and Guy Gavriel Kay's script-doctoring).

Wurmbrand said...

Karl, I've participated at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Chronicles Forums list for about 12 years, and I think I've seen a few readers there who rate The Silmarillion higher than The Lord of the Rings, or as high, etc. The Silmarillion actually does have quite a few readers who esteem it.

Contributor "kythe":"I have read The Silmarillion more times than I can count"
Contributor "Bick": "In a fairly recent re-reading of the Silmarillion and LOTR, I found the Silmarillion to be more satisfying."
Contributo "The Big Peat": "I just flat up love the Silmarillion in its own right"

And so on.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting - and thought-provoking - post and comments!

Going on tangents... I wonder:

if authorial two-hits (which two works someone is (most/best) known for) sometimes shift over time?

how things like trilogies and other series work in this context (e.g., should we count E. Nesbit's Bastable series and Psammead series as one 'hit' each? - does anyone who likes one book in each set, not go on to read and like the other two, once they are known to exist?)?

how rare or common it is to go in search of more works by the author?

how exceptional is Tolkien in that (1) The Hobbit and LotR are a sort of published 'diptych', (2) but some readers who like The Hobbit don't like LotR as much after the Shire first part, and vice versa (i.e., liking the post Shire LotR more than The Hobbit), (3) other free-standing published works like Farmer Giles, Smith, Leaf by Niggle, and the posthumously-published Father Christmas Letters, Mr. Bliss, and Roverandom are not that much like either The Hobbit or LotR?

how different might things have been if Tolkien had got both The Hobbit and Roverandom published when he tried, or, again, only Roverandom? (I feel pretty sure Tolkien would be a one-hit author with me if Roverandom was the only thing of his ever published.)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Karl said...

@Wurmbrand,thanks! That is the sort of evidence I was asking for.

I still wonder, though, if any of these Silmarillion fanciers has ever read the Silmarillion out loud to a willing listener.

Wurmbrand said...

Karl, I read most or all of it on to tape for a blind friend when it first came out...

Anonymous said...

I read The Silmarillion aloud en famille twice, with grateful reception. I wonder how many people have listened to all of Martin Shaw's audiobook? (repeatedly)?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD Ive listened to it at least three times. Plus Christopher reading excerpts.