Heaven on Middle-earth: New editions of cult favourites

Michael Dirda

THE WASHINGTON POST – Reality got you down? Then come to Middle-earth or Oz! Devotees of Sherlock Holmes regularly escape to 1895, and readers of PG Wodehouse know that the sun is always shining on Blandings Castle. After all, certain writers, books and films are so attractive that we happily immerse ourselves in their imaginary worlds. FIAWOL, as they say in science fiction circles: Fandom Is a Way of Life. Here, for instance, are some recent books to help you forget, if only for a while, that it is 2020.

The long-standing cultic fervor associated with JRR Tolkien very seldom cools down, given the steady attention his work receives from publishers, artists and scholars. Just this fall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has reissued The History of Middle-Earth as a three-book boxed set. Originally published as 12 individual volumes, the set more fully relates some of the legends, tragic episodes and ancient lore merely nodded to in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Scrupulously edited by Christopher Tolkien, it complements his one-volume compilation titled Unfinished Tales, which now reappears in a 40th anniversary edition, along with a “centenary edition” of the delightful Letters From Father Christmas. Keeping it all in the family, this last is edited by Christopher’s wife, Baillie Tolkien. Yet even that’s not all. Alan Lee, Tolkien’s best-known illustrator and the “conceptual designer” for Peter Jackson’s films, has brought out The Hobbit Sketchbook, while Christopher Snyder’s Hobbit Virtues addresses the philosophical and ethical issues embedded in these epic tales of swords and sorcery.

Winter is still coming for Westeros, but fans of George R R Martin can now acquire A Game of Thrones along with its first two successors, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, in sumptuous editions from the Folio Society. Admirers of Ray Bradbury, perhaps the most revered of all American writers of fantastika, will slaver over David and Daniel Ritter’s The Earliest Bradbury, a scrapbook-like volume that reproduces in facsimile the young writer’s contributions to 1930s and ‘40s fanzines. Scholars, as well as general readers, have already learned an immense amount from Jonathan R Eller’s Becoming Ray Bradbury and Ray Bradbury Unbound, the first two installments of a critical biography now completed by Bradbury Beyond Apollo, about which I’ll say no more since I gave the book a blurb.

Though Star Wars began as just a movie, it quickly grew into a trilogy, then a franchise and eventually a mythology. Bill Kimberlin’s Inside the Star Wars Empire calls itself a memoir by “one of those names on the endless list of credits at the close of blockbuster movies”. Kimberlin first directed his own indie film (American Nitro, described as “having a strong cult following”) but paid the bills as a visual effects expert, often as part of Industrial Light and Magic. He’s certainly an engaging storyteller. Did you know that in Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade the scene in which Hitler’s hand is shown signing an autograph book required 45 takes? The next day, however, those few seconds had to be reshot because the hand mistakenly scribbled Adolph instead of Adolf.

Lewis Carroll’s two novels about a little girl’s misadventures in topsy-turvy dream lands are revered everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. In the very first of the nine superb essays collected in Lewis Carroll: The Worlds of His Alices, Edward Guiliano, a past president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, writes that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been translated into 174 languages. I myself actually prefer Through the Looking-Glass, in part because it features that best of all nonsense poems, Jabberwocky, now available as a stunning children’s book, the last project of that much-missed illustrator, Charles Santore, who died in 2019.

In this large album, a clean-cut, long-haired warrior encounters the fierce Jubjub Bird and the Frumious Bandersnatch before facing – in a four-page gatefold – the impossibly immense, dragon-like Jabberwock. Fortunately, our hero can count on his vorpal blade to go snicker-snack. O frabjous day!

Santore’s numerous other picture books are no less breathtaking. These include the nostalgia-laden The Night Before Christmas, a Snow White whose evil queen exhibits the kind of chilling sensuality we associate with Swinburne’s poetry, The Wizard of Oz wonderfully re-imagined, and a rumbustious ‘Aesop’s Fables’, as well as half dozen other children’s favourites, available individually or together in a hefty “treasury” volume from Cider Mill Press.

The critic Steven Moore once said that he wanted to be buried with his copy of Darconville’s Cat, Alexander Theroux’s linguistically dazzling, extremely funny and matchlessly vituperative first novel of love, betrayal and revenge, set largely at a Virginia women’s college. Moore’s Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes isn’t just an overview of this sui generis writer’s fiction, poetry and criticism; it’s the literary equivalent of a carnival goody-bag, mixing insights, gossipy anecdotes, photographs and exacting bibliographical scholarship, all of it related with Moore’s own characteristic razzmatazz.

Among late 20th-Century American writers, none can rival Norman Mailer and Hunter S Thompson in sheer force of personality, both on the page and in person. Mailer, whether in his fiction, polemical essays or reportage, always aimed to be consequential, to be fiercely engaged with his times. Would that he were living now! For a hint of what we’ve lost, check out the latest book-length issue, Volume 13, of The Mailer Review at the home page of The Norman Mailer Society.

Thompson’s motto might well have been “Nothing in moderation.” For The ‘Hell’s Angels’ Letters, Margaret Ann Harrell – in collaboration with Ron Whitehead – has assembled a dossier of all her correspondence with Thompson during the time she worked as the editor of the gonzo writer’s “strange and terrible sage of the outlaw motorcycle gangs”. Typed manuscript pages, scribbled notes, photographs, interviews and all sorts of period ephemera relating to Hell’s Angels allow the reader a valuable, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the making of this classic of New Journalism.