This new compilation of stories that "might have influenced Tolkien" features some well-known writers, along with lesser-known writers of fantasy. The 22 stories show the wide range of fantasy that existed before Tolkien's Middle Earth came into being. Some are witty, some tragic, some comedic; many are based in fantastical European worlds, while others journey to far-off Africa. It's a diverse collection whose only theme seems to be the possibility that Tolkien might have read them. The editor gives brief descriptions of the authors, all of which are informative but unintrusive. Occasionally one learns a few amazing things. For instance, in the introduction to H. Rider Haggard's story, he writes that "As a small child, Tolkien was briefly stolen by the houseboy, who wanted to show off a white baby to his native Kraal." Such exhaustive research helps connect each story to Tolkien's creative output.
The adjective "Before" in the title is not really apt, because Tolkien was born in 1892 and many of these authors were very nearly his contemporaries. However, The Hobbit was published in 1937, and by then many of these writers were well into their careers. It is good that these stories are being republished, whether or not Tolkien was actually acquainted with them.
The stories share many common themes. Ludwig Tieck's "The Elves," a story in the tradition of the German "literary fairy tales," and "The Golden Key," a charmer by George MacDonald, creator of many English spiritual novels and a favorite of C.S. Lewis, both have their preachy moments and sound like cautionary Victorian bedtime stories. But faireland is not only perilous, it often encroaches on the worlds of unwitting humans, as in Francis Steven's "The Elf Trap," where a professor of biology falls in love with a fairy princess whose world he mistakes for an artist colony at one time and a gypsy camp at another.
Another commonality is dragons, who in this collection generally do not get much respect. Among the better dragon stories, and my favorite, are "The Griffin and The Minor Canon" by the American writer Frank R. Stockton. This humorous little story offers a fiendishly fun twist on the nature of dragons in depicting a holy and kind-hearted cleric whose parish learns to respect him after a dragon comes to town. "The Dragon-tamers" by E. Nesbi, has a Victorian feel, but this story about a poor family that traps a dragon and gets financial gain by using it as an attraction is eccentrically sweet – no dragon was ever more put-upon.
Other motifs in the collection are the power of words, promises and oaths. The journalistic yet lovely semi-abstract "The Coming of the Terror" by Arthur Machen cleverly explores war, mystery, and the media by describing in memoir-like form a Terror that a British island community doesn't quite acknowledge. The great Lord Dunsany is represented by "Chu-Bu and Sheemish," a story about the jealousies of two minor gods. A deal is made with the devil in Richard Garnett's "The Demon Pope." And between the subtle mind games played by both the devil and the main character, the intricately intellectual spiritual puzzle unfolds toward great loss for one of the characters. I won't say who.
Stories based in non-European cultures include "Black heart and White heart: a Zulu Idyll" by H. Rider Haggard, a surprisingly unoffensive story which takes place in Zulu territory, and the absolutely wonderful and fine fable "The Enchanted Buffalo" by L. Frank Baum (author of the Oz books) about a power struggle for kingship among the American buffalo . Other stories are equally impressive and contrast nicely with each other. Whether Tolkien read most of them or not, they depict a garish, fun, terrifying world which sometimes invades or is invaded by the human world, and sometimes stands alongside it, indifferent to human issues. The collection contains tales equally amusing, entertaining, and imaginative and is a consummate collection. The only thing it lacks are illustrations, but why ask the researcher to do even more research? As it is, the collection, with its impressive array of distinctive styles, deserves to be treasured alongside or independently of Tolkien. Youngsters and the young-at-heart alike will enjoy the whimsy, wit and wildness of these distinctive fairy lands.