After the King edited by Martin H. Greenberg
No figure looms larger in fantasy than J. R. R. Tolkien. One hundred and twenty-one (or eleventy-eleven) years after his birth and fifty-nine years after the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings still functions as the baseline for the entire genre of high fantasy. (There’s a very valid argument to be made that we need to move forward from that baseline, but that’s another post for another time.) But a lot of Tolkien-inspired fantasy only mimics the most obvious trappings of the good Professor’s legendarium. That’s not necessarily a judgment on the quality of those works—Blizzard Entertainment used those trappings as a stepping stone to create their own interesting, engaging world for the Warcraft franchise, and Eragon… well, Eragon exists. It can go either way. But there’s much more to Tolkien’s world than dwarves and elves never getting along and an epic battle of good versus evil. There’s the wistful, sorrowful tone that overtakes the novel as the Third Age ends; the influence of Tolkien’s own life, especially his experiences in World War I; and an appreciation for the simple, good, and domestic life. (I’ve heard people grouse that my beloved Eowyn gives up being a warrior at the end of The Lord of the Rings, but they should remember that she decides what she needs is a garden. And who else gardens? Why, none other than the hero of the entire novel, Samwise Gamgee. From Tolkien, that’s high praise.) Living in a post-Tolkien world, it’s these elements that set his work apart from the genre it created. The best stories in After the King, a collection of short stories written in honor of Tolkien and published to celebrate his one-hundredth birthday, capture that quality. While I enjoyed Robert Silverberg’s “A Long Night’s Vigil at the Temple,” where a faithless priest confronts the truth of his religion’s creation myth, John Brunner’s “In the Season of the Dressing of the Wells” was the first short story in the collection that did what it set out to do—to honor, not imitate, the grand master. It finds an aristocratic World War I veteran finding the strength to defy his aunt in order to reestablish a pagan custom in their village. It’s not high fantasy by a long shot, as its lone speculative element is entirely implied. But there’s something so utterly Shire-like about the village, there’s shades of the recovering Frodo in its protagonist, and it boasts a spirited female lead. She’s the kind of woman who drops philosophical bombs on her lover before determinedly going to sleep. But Brunner is the only one who reaches for World War I. Harry Turtledove goes straight to the source with “The Decoy Duck,” a riff on religion inspired by Anglo-Saxon cultures, that, unfortunately, ends up clunky and awkward, while Peter S. Beagle specifically mimics Tolkien’s conceit of translating historical documents with the lovely “The Naga,” a supposed lost text of Pliny the Elder. Judith Tarr’s “Death and the Lady” reimagines a much-desired and corrupting power as a pregnant fey woman who falls upon the mercy of a community ravaged by the Black Death. (She herself does not corrupt, just the idea of her being used as such; she decides to remove herself from the mortal realms once she realizes that “This is no world for the likes of me. It hates me, or fears me, or both together; it sees me as a thing, to use or to burn” .) While Yolen’s introduction promises no imitations, Charles de Lint does reach for fanfiction. (Well, Bilbo makes an uncredited cameo in Dennis L. McKiernan’s “The Halfling House,” a wacky, disappointing, and very early nineties piece.) But, like all the best fanfiction, he goes hunting in the subtext rather than rehashing the beloved text, returning with a story about Tom Bombadil (unnamed, but you just don’t see too many yellow shoes on anybody else). It’s a lovely tribute to the power of stories—stories like The Lord of the Rings!—but de Lint does take a moment to grump about modern technology in it. He sees mass media as something that dulls the brain, rather than something that fans convert into meaning. I find that a bit funny, since Textual Poachers and After the King share a publication year. Of the rest, Emma Bull’s “Silver or Gold,” wherein a witch’s apprentice sets out to save her mistress and her prince, is the best traditional fantasy story out of the lot, echoing Tolkien’s style as well as some of his melancholy and cheek. The other witches, the apprentice notes marvelously, “haven’t all gone tramping off like a pack of questing youngest sons” (272). But there are some stunning duds. According to the copyright page, all of these stories were expressly produced for this volume… and yet some authors turned in fairly generic fantasy stories or stories that have nothing to do with Tolkien at all. Mike Resnick’s “Revolt of the Sugar Plum Fairies” is a helplessly dated piece of wacky business about a pack of Sugar Plum Fairies trying to fix their cutesy image who end up employed by Disney, and Gregory Benford’s “Down the River Road,” about a young man traveling down a river of time in order to extract vengeance on his father, reads so grimdark that I was just baffled by its inclusion. But such is ever the uneven nature of short story collections, so you have my permission (though you don’t need it) to skip those two and focus on the good stuff.
Bottom line: All short story collections are uneven, and the duds in After the King are either generic fantasy or just bizarre. But the stories that manage to echo or capture Tolkien and the depths of his world are well worth reading, especially John Brunner’s “In the Season of the Dressing of the Well.” It’s the highlight of the collection.
I rented this book from the public library.