This post contains affiliated links that are all highly recommended. Buy them, borrow them, or steal them, but you ought to read them. (Maybe not that last option; you’re not Bilbo Baggins, after all.)
While reading Beowulf with the girls, I came across this passage:
A dragon on the prowl
from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow
where he guarded a hoard; there was a hidden passage,
unknown to men, but someone managed
to enter by it and interfere
with the heathen trove. He hand handled and removed
a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing,
though with a thief’s wiles he had outwitted
the sleeping dragon; that drove him into rage,
as the people of that country would soon discover
If that doesn’t immediately think of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, you need to turn off your computer and go re-read it right now, or rather when you finish this post.
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Tolkien was heavily influenced by Old Norse and Old English tales. In fact, he translated Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, among other works. Those influences are felt throughout all his writings. C.S. Lewis was famously influenced by George MacDonald, going so far as to have him be his Virgil in The Great Divorce.
When you read Beowulf or The Princess and the Goblin, you see a seed of the magic that blooms in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s works. But if I say Tolkien got the idea of a thief stealing from and awakening a dragon from Beowulf, I don’t mean he copied that idea from Beowulf. I mean that scene obviously sparked something in Tolkien that might have gone something like this, “What if we had a story was told from the thief’s perspective?” And of course, Hobbits and all of Middle Earth are uniquely Tolkien’s, whatever influences he may have used in his creation of them.
Recently, we read a book that J.K Rowling has called a childhood favorite that obviously greatly influenced her imagination, the effects of which are clearly seen throughout the Harry Potter books. We just finished The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. The heroine reminds me of Anne Shirley, and the story is one Anne would have appreciated: a fairy tale of magic and mystery and reconciliation.
But again, when I say influenced, I don’t mean Rowling copied from The Little White Horse. But I think perhaps that while she was creating her wonderful world, she thought about that book and the creatures that embodied beauty and mystery and elusiveness and longing. I can definitely see the seeds of patronuses in the little white horse. There are all sorts of images and characters that very likely fed and nurtured the imagination that created Harry Potter’s world.
One of the most important reasons we read good, beautiful, imaginative books to our children is so that they will develop a rich imagination. Whatever they read (or otherwise take in – be it audio or visual) plays a role in developing their imaginations. If it’s mainly lowest common denominator tripe, then those are the seeds of their imagination, and that’s the type of imagination they will develop. Whether stories of virtue or stories of conniving, lovely language or dumbed-down insults, rich and intriguing tales or formulaic mind-candy, whatever type food nurtures our imaginations will bear the same kind of fruit.
I’m thankful Tolkien found Beowulf, Lewis found Curdie, and Rowling found The Little White Horse. I think we owe a debt to those original authors for the stories they helped to create. And now I hope they, as well as Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling, will nurture my own children’s imaginations, as well as my own. Who knows what worlds may be created?