Book Review: Tales Before Tolkien

Tales Before Tolkien
Edited by Douglas A. Anderson

Tales Before Tolkien is a collection of literary fairy tales, or fairy tales written to imitate genuine folklore, all of which were written before J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was published in 1937. While there is no evidence that Tolkien was familiar with all of these stories, he specifically credited some of them as inspirations in his writings. This anthology contains twenty-one of these literary fairy tales, ranging from “The Elves,” published in 1812, to “A Christmas Play,” probably written in the 1930s and never published.

“The Elves” (1812), by Ludwig Tieck, is the story of a young girl’s encounter with a nearby settlement of elves and its effect on the surrounding countryside. It includes several elements familiar from European folklore, such as the difference in the passage of time between the normal world and the world of fairies.

“The Golden Key” (1867), by George MacDonald, tells the story of two children who wander into fairyland and travel together on a quest to find a keyhole for the golden key. The story seems to hold a deeper spiritual meaning, although it is never really defined. One of my favorite scenes in the entire collection is also the only overt hint to the meaning of this tale:
“You have tasted of death now,” said the Old Man. “Is it good?”
“It is good,” said Mossy. “It is better than life.”
“No,” said the Old Man: “it is only more life.”

“Puss-cat Mew” (1869), by E.H. Knatchbull-Hugessen, claims to be the story behind the rhyme:
“Puss-cat Mew jumped over a coal;
In her best petticoat burnt a great hole;
Puss-cat Mew shan’t have any milk
Till her best petticoat’s mended with silk.”
It wasn’t one of my favorite stories in the anthology, but it definitely influenced scenes in The Hobbit.

“The Griffin and the Minor Canon” (1885), by Frank R. Stockton, is the tale of a griffin who travels to see a statue of himself on a church and become attached to a minor church official. Also not one of my favorite stories, but it was well-written and interesting.

“The Demon Pope” (1888), by Richard Garnett, is the story of a student of religion who makes a deal with the devil, then cheats him of the prize. It was well written, and an interesting commentary on the power struggles which exist in any organization.

“The Story of Sigurd” (1890), by Andrew Lang, is the retelling of a classic Norse saga. While I have always enjoyed the tale of Sigurd Sigmundsson, I found Lang’s retelling to be somewhat tedious and overly condensed.

“The Folk of the Mountain Door” (1890s), by William Morris, is the tale of a king’s supernatural encounter with the founder of his dynasty. I rather enjoyed the style of this story, but the constant interruptions by bits of poetry got old fast. The story also felt unfinished, which may have been the case since it was first published posthumously.

“Black Heart and White Heart: A Zulu Idyll” (1896), by H. Rider Haggard, is an African love story set in the late 18th century. It tells the tale of a young Zulu couple torn apart by the treachery of a white man and the cruelty of a tribal chief.

“The Dragon Tamers” (1899), by E. Nesbit, is the tale of a poor blacksmith and his family who trick a dragon into becoming a pet. It has many similarities to Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham, although it is unknown if Tolkien ever read the story.

“The Far Islands” (1899), by John Buchan, is a whistful tale of a young Scottish man’s dreams of magical isles beyond the sea. Tolkien was a fan of Buchan’s writing and The Book of Lost Tales bears echoes of his influence.

“The Drawn Arrow” (c.1900), by Clemence Housman, is the tale of a hillman who saves a fleeing king’s life, and the king’s repayment for his loyalty. This was probably one of my least favorite in the anthology, and I was a little confused on the events at the end.

“The Enchanted Buffalo” (1905), by L. Frank Baum, is the tale of a young buffalo’s succession to the leadership of his father’s herd. It was an interesting story, reminicent of animal folklore.

“Chu-bu and Sheemish” (1911), by Lord Dunsany, tells the story of two idols’ jealousy toward each other, and the result of each’s attempts be to better than the other. It was a well-written story, and I really enjoyed it.

“The Baumoff Explosive” (1912), by William Hope Hodgson, tells the tale of a scientist’s attempts to recreate the suffering of Christ. It was a little creepy for my taste, but it was well-written.

“The Regent of the North” (1915), by Kenneth Morris, is the story of a Viking chief’s refusal to accept Christianity. It is an interesting study in how many ‘heathens’ must have felt towards a religion of peace at odds with their barbarian lifestyles.

“The Coming of Terror” (1917), by Arthur Machen, is the tale of a series of mysterious deaths set during World War I. It was a little hard to get into at first, but it is an excellent and thought-provoking read. I’m not sure I would say I liked it, but I’m curious to see what my thoughts will be when I read it again knowing the ending.

“The Elf Trap” (1919), by Francis Stevens, tells the tale of a stuffy professor who unknowingly falls in love with an elf maiden. The author’s description of the elf village painted a vivid picture in my mind as I read. This was probably one of my favorite stories in the collection.

“The Thin Queen of Elfhame” (1922), by James Branch Cabell, tells the tale of a lord or knight who strives to escape from a life of expectations. I found the story a little confusing, but the writing was excellent.

“The Woman of the Wood” (1926), by A. Merritt, tells the tale of a man driven to commit murder by the spirits of the trees. It was filled with wonderful imagery, but I didn’t like the way the story ended.

“Golithos the Ogre” (1927), by E.A. Wyke-Smith, is actually a chapter from a novel, The Marvellous Land of Snergs. The novel was a favorite of Tolkien’s children, and was at least a partial inspiration for The Hobbit. I didn’t care much for this chapter, but it had some interesting ideas.

“A Christmas Play” (1930s), by David Lindsay, tells the tale of three sisters who each receive their heart’s by desire, by gift of the fairy queen Titania. The play is as much a long piece of poetry as it is a play, and contains a surprise twist at the end.

Overall, I think this is a wonderful collection of tales, although there are a few I would have left out. My favorites of the bunch were “The Golden Key,” “Chu-bu and Sheemish,” “The Regent of the North,” “The Elf Trap,” and “The Woman of the Wood.”

This review originally appeared 15 September 2012 on

Permanent link to this article: