Every writer of modern fantasy was influenced by Tolkien to some degree. He was the premiere fantasy writer of the last century, and all of us writing today owe him a huge debt. – Terry Brooks
If you enjoyed JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit there’s a good chance that you’ll enjoy Jonathan Gould’s Magnus Opum. Or not. I guess it all depends on how passionate you were over The Hobbit. Some readers are a bit precious about Tolkien’s work and parodies like The Wobbit and Bored of the Rings don’t sit well with them. I was probably about fourteen when I first read the book and I’d no sooner finished it than I fed a sheet of paper into my dad’s old typewriter and began to pound out a sequel. Several chapters in and with Bilbo and his new companions trapped atop a giant’s table I had pretty much written myself into a corner and so it was with some relief—but really more annoyance—that I learned that apparently Tolkien had already found the time to pen his own not insubstantial follow-up and so I abandoned the project.
Tolkien intended The Hobbit as a fairy story and wrote it in a tone suited to addressing children although he said later that the book was not specifically written for children but had rather been created out of his interest in mythologies and epic legends. This is something Jonathan has also said about his own writing, that it’s not specifically aimed at children—and the reviews from adults of his first two ebooks, Doodling and Flidderbugs, provide ample evidence that grownups can and do appreciate his unique approach to storytelling—but this reviewer most definitely had to access his inner child to enjoy them. Which I did, be they parables, fables, satires or just funny stories. The blanket term he uses to describe his style of writing is ‘dag-lit’ which I discuss in my review of his first two books but if you’ve not read my article this is how he defines it:
It’s a term I’ve used to create a genre for my books, obviously based on things like chick-lit and lad-lit. Dag is Australian slang for someone who is uncool and doesn’t follow the crowd but usually in a funny kind of way. Originally it was an insult (a bit like nerd) derived from the wool industry (the dags are the bits of poo stuck to the wool on a sheep’s bum) but its meaning has been flipped around and many people (myself included) now wear that badge with pride. I like it, partly because, like a true dag, my stories don’t follow the crowd and can be hard to classify. It also gives a sense of the audience I’m writing for. Dags can be young or old, male or female – they just need to have their own unique view of the world. And that’s a good description of the sort of readers I’m aiming for. – L.T. Suzuki, ‘Jonathan Gould Interview’, Author’s Den
That Magnus Opum is derivative goes without saying but I’m going to let Jonathan say it anyway:
Magnus Opum is an epic fantasy with a twist. Tolkien meets Dr Seuss.
It’s an interesting amalgam especially since Geisel felt that children couldn’t handle ancient myths, except those that were largely visual: Thor and his hammer, Hermes and his winged sandals. But then he was thinking about very young children. Neither The Hobbit nor Magnus Opum is suitable for very young children.
The question is: Is it a parody?
Those who oppose parody dismiss it as merely secondary (rather than original) and contend that it tends to mock its model and criticise its target, that it does not pay any respect to acclaimed works of art and their creators, that its humour is tasteless, and that it, therefore, ultimately damages its intertext. Parodists have also been suspected of being envious of the success of others and resorting to parody as a means of revenge. – Beate Müller ed., Parody: Dimension and Perspectives, p.5 – italics mine
There are those who argue for a more positive view of parody but in general the word has been viewed negatively for so many years that they have their job cut out for them. For parody to work well it does rely on a knowledge of the original text and where that is lacking many of the in jokes will fall flat on their faces. Here, for example, is how The Hobbit begins:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats-the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it-and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.
And this is how the home of Magnus, the Kertoobis, is described in Magnus Opum:
The village of Lower Kertoob was, as the name suggested, built at the bottom of a shady green hill. When the Kertoobis first arrived there many years ago, there had been talk of establishing another village at the top of the hill, to be called, of course, Upper Kertoob. There were even plans to found a series of In-the-middle Kertoobs on the slopes of the hill as well. As it turned out, life in Lower Kertoob was so idyllic that nobody ever got around to actually making a start on any of these other Kertoobs. Still, the intention was not forgotten, and to that day, the hill was always referred to by the inhabitants below as Upper Kertoob.
Home for most Kertoobis was a little five-sided house, known as a kertottage. Each of the five walls was painted in a different colour, with the brighter sides facing towards the street and the duller sides facing towards the back. The two street-facing walls each had their own separate front door, so you weren’t stuck with going in and out of the same old door every day. The other three walls were filled with an array of oddly sized and shaped windows, to provide numerous different views of the world around.
Inside the kertottage, a very particular floor plan was always followed. There was a master bedroom as well as a spare bedroom because Kertoobis loved sleepovers. Then there was a lounge room, a dining room, and a baking room for making pflugberry pies.
So, yes, there are obvious similarities but I don’t hear a mocking tone here. And that’s an important consideration for me. Here though is how The Wobbit begins:
In a wholly below-ground apartment there lived a wobbit. His apartment was not as nastly, dirty, and wet as a hole, but it wasn't as fresh, bright and fun as a beach house. It was definitely at the "nasty" end of the home spectrum. Plants can cheer a place up, but the wobbit's apartment only had the mold in the walls and the mildew in the bathtub. It was a basement apartment, and that means fungus.
The wobbit was not very well-to-do, and his name was Bunkins. He worked as a barista at a local coffee bar, which was honest work, at least. Prior to that he was in banking.
So, no, I don’t think it would be fair to call Magnus Opum a parody of The Hobbit. It is, however, a pastiche based on the definition in Oxford English Dictionary:
This meaning accords with etymology: pastiche is the French version of the Greco-Roman dish pastitsio or pasticcio, a kind of pie made of many different ingredients.
There is no mockery intended here; Jonathan’s not trying to be clever or to get a cheap laugh by ridiculing his source material—think Spaceballs or Saturday the 14th or many of the Carry On flicks—but that doesn’t mean he takes his sources too seriously either. The mocking of course does not need to be malicious—many fans create spoofs to laugh at themselves.
Of course I should point out that The Hobbit itself is not all that original. There is a long article in Wikipedia where Tolkien’s influences are discussed; The Hobbit clearly owes a debt to Norse mythology and I no sooner read that than I heard the opening words to Noggin the Nog:
In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale... and those tales they tell are the stories of a kind and wise king and his people; they are the Sagas of Noggin the Nog.
Edward Wyke-Smith's Marvellous Land of Snergs, with its 'table-high' title characters, strongly influenced the incidents, themes, and depiction of Bilbo's race in The Hobbit; Mirkwood appeared first in The House Of The Wolfings by William Morris, Samuel Rutherford Crockett's historical novel The Black Douglas was a touchstone as was the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.
Nothing is truly original. But that’s okay.
As much as there are obvious similarities between Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Gould’s world there are differences: the quasi-medieval world populated by dwarves, elves, trolls and various monsters, or their counterparts—check; the small, meek, overlooked hero on an epic quest—check; the powerful villain who is set on world domination—not really; the strange, magical artefact that can save everyone—again not so much, in fact there’s no magic whatsoever in Magnus Opum.
But what about Dr Seuss? I didn’t grow up with him and it wasn’t until I had a daughter of my own that I read my first book of his which I think was The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and perhaps one other; Fox in Socks rings a bell. To this day I’ve not read his best known books.
Most of the time, Ted never even thought of himself as a children's author. He simply did what he did: drew pictures and wrote rhymes. Honing his style with his first books, driving himself (and the other authors writing for Beginning Books) to mercilessly high quality standards, his style remained essentially unchanged through the years. Other than his brief stint at research in 1949, Ted basically never considered that he was writing for children. He was happy that adults and children loved and bought his books, but he wrote and drew to amuse himself. – Melissa Kaplan, Theodor Seuss Geisel: Author Study, 1995
What we get when grownups write about him is usually along the lines of what Dr Seuss himself called “bunny-bunny” tripe. That is, he was “everyone’s inner child”; he was “the master of the batty and wacky, the lord of the goony and loony,” the “creator of inspired lunacy,” and so forth. In other words, cotton candy cuteness. Fun, fluff, and frivolity along with an occasional commonplace moral lesson, we are left to understand, is about all we can expect from this man who himself abhorred the “cute.” – Robert L Short, The Parables of Dr Seuss – p.x
The fact is that there is hidden depth to what this man wrote:
The Lorax (1971), about environmentalism and anti-consumerism; The Sneetches (1961), about racial equality; The Butter Battle Book (1984), about the arms race; Yertle the Turtle (1958), about Hitler and anti-authoritarianism; How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), criticizing the materialism and consumerism of the Christmas season; and Horton Hears a Who! (1950), about anti-isolationism and internationalism. – Wikipedia
And the same is true when we look at the writing of Jonathan Gould. All you have to do is look at what people have written in their reviews of Doodling and Flidderbugs—which you can read here and here—to see that there is a surprising depth to his writing. How many kids’ books get called a “social satire” let along a “political satire” and yet these are accurate descriptions of both books.
So, is Magnus Opum also a satire?
Not so obviously as the previous books, although there are satirical elements. The common factor that runs through all of Jonathan’s books so far has been one of difference especially the inherent difficulty in communicating with someone else who is holds an opposing viewpoint or simply who sees the world a little differently to you. The most obvious example is the difference in ideologies held by the Triplifers and the Quadrigons in Flidderbugs: the tribes disagree on just about everything but the most fundamental issue on which they cannot see eye to eye is with regard to how many points the leaves on the Krephiloff Tree should have: the Triplifers are adamant it is three, the Quadrigons insist it is four. It takes one member from each tribe to put aside their differences and listen to the opposing view before peace can be achieved. And that’s very much what happens in Magnus Opum. Only in this case we have The Glurgs versus everyone else; everyone else being the Kertoobis, the Doosies, the Cherine, the Oponiots, the Querks, the Frungoles, the Gleeprogs and the Pharsheeth and a few others.
And this is another area where we see a nod to Dr Seuss in the fact that a number of the aforementioned races are anatomically outrageous, e.g. the Doosies have three ears, “two in the normal places and another on the back of their heads – so they could hear absolutely everything that was said by anyone in the vicinity” and then there’s the Gleeprogs, “a race of highly evolved fish capable of living on land, [but who had yet] to evolve lungs and so were required to go around with large bowls of water over their heads.” The important thing is that Jonathan doesn’t just insert a bizarre creature or character without some explanation and this is something Geisel felt strongly about:
This is the crux … a man with two heads is not a story. It is a situation to be built upon logically. He must have two hats and two toothbrushes. Don’t go wild with hair made of purple seaweed, or live fireflies for eyeballs … Children analyse fantasy. They know you’re kidding them. There’s got to be logic in the way you kid them. Their fun is pretending … making believe they believe it. – quoted in Thomas Fensch, The Man who was Dr Seuss: The Life and Work of Theodore Geisel, p.97
Seuss is, of course, world famous for the (occasionally groanworthy) rhymes in his books. This is not so evident in Magnus Opum. There are a few rhymes like:
If you’re after the newsy,
Then speak to a Doosie.
If you seek for the truth, of course,
Never make a Doosie your source.
and a number of songs that Shaindor has a habit of spontaneously bursting into but they’re more reminiscent of The Hobbit than anything Seuss wrote. In Magus Opum Shaindor sings:
Oh Mountains of Mounji, so high in the air,
When I climb your great heights I forget all my cares.
I shall breathe your fresh breeze, dip my feet in your streams,
And be carried away to a land of sweet [dreams].
And in The Hobbit Thorin sings:
Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To find our long-forgotten gold.
There is, however, a playfulness to Jonathan’s use of language that does remind me of Seuss. For example, wherever the diperagoff is mentioned it is always referred to in full as “the seldom seen but much discussed diperagoff” no matter who’s doing the talking; likewise the Drungledum Valley always gets called “dingy, dungy Drungledum Valley” which reminded me also of the Bog of Eternal Stench from Labyrinth.
This is how the book begins. Some months earlier Jangos, Magnus’ brother, had got the Grompets:
On the whole, Kertoobis were the most settled race you could possibly imagine. Their idea of excitement was sitting around on the main street discussing the pros and cons of using fresh or preserved fruit in pflugberry pies. Their idea of adventure was going out through the left door and in through the right door every day except Wednesdays, when they liked to reverse the pattern. But every so often, strange things happened to individual Kertoobis. They would get a kind of wanderlust, a desire to go out and see the big wide world around them. This desire was so inexplicable to the average Kertoobi that a name had come into use to describe it, a name that was uttered with amazement and fear. That name was the Grompets and Jangos had as bad a case of it as Magnus had ever heard.
There were a number of treatments recommended for the Grompets but these generally involved ropes, chains, shackles and large buckets of water, none of which Magnus was keen to impose on his brother.
And so, one day, Jangos upped and left. At first he sent back reports of his travels and the wonders he had seen—delivered by messenger flythrops (birds with bright lilac wings and bulging green eyes “frequently used as a delivery service due to their rare gift of being able to read minds through pictures”)—wonders like “the glistening gardens of Glen-Arbee and the sweeping sands of the Drushida Dunes.” And then, one other day, the reports stopped. Finally, some three months later, a pair of Doosies arrive in the town:
Of all the races, Doosies were the biggest storytellers and gossips you could ever meet. They had three ears – two in the normal places and another on the back of their heads – so they could hear absolutely everything that was said by anyone in the vicinity. In addition, they had long, prehensile noses, perfect for sticking into other people’s business. Unfortunately, they only had one eye and not a very good one at that, so there were often substantial discrepancies between what they heard and what had actually happened. Not that this ever got in the way of a Doosie telling a good story.
One of the stories they have to recount concerned the discovery of “[t]hree bodies … on the road leading to the rim of the fabled Whounga Canyon, famous for its iridescent cliffs;” two Cherine and a Kertoobi with a letter addressed to Magnus Mandalora. Glurgs are blamed for the crime. Overcome with grief Magnus quickly determines to seek vengeance:
Magnus found it difficult to even think the word, let alone say it. It was one that was not often uttered in the village. The Glurgs. The most horrifyingly revolting, detestably repugnant creatures ever to have defiled the world. Vicious and savage and ruthless and cruel. The Glurgs were the scourge of all other races, the enemy in a great struggle that had gone on for as long as history had been recorded.
A great wave of fury swept over Magnus. He hated the Glurgs for what they had done to his brother, hated them like he had never hated anything before. He wanted to hurt them like they had hurt Jangos. He wanted to kick them and beat them and bash them and mash them till nothing was left of the whole accursed race but the slimy, squalid mulch they had been born from.
So our hero’s quest begins but it’s not for something tangible like a holy grail or a ring; no, it’s for something abstract. No sooner has he set out on his travels than he encounters the Plergle-Brots and would have perished there in the Plergle Swamp were he not rescued by one of the mighty Cherines, Shaindor, who serves as his guide and protector until they reach the city of the Cherines, Sweet Harmody. No better ally could he have hoped to run into because “[t]he Cherines had been at the forefront of all the great Glurg Wars;” they had defeated them in the past, driven them from their lands and destroyed all their strongholds bar one, Hargh Gryghrgr, where, Magnus learns, they have been amassing troops for a new assault. When in Sweet Harmody, Magnus finds his quest modified. He is asked to volunteer to act as a spy on behalf of the Cherines. He is to infiltrate Hargh Gryghrgr and discover what “the Krpolg” is; they fear it is a terrible new weapon and are hesitant to attack the Glurg without this intel. With Shaindor as his protector and with a Pharsheeth, Biddira, as their guide they set off to find the Parghwum Pass that will lead them over the mountains. So not quite The Wizard of Oz but when they stop to consult the wisdom of the Great Oponium I did wonder a little.
The Hero’s Quest is one of the basic fantasy plots and on the surface you would think that The Hobbit ticked all the boxes only it doesn’t really. For starters there is no clear antagonist. Smaug, the dragon, is merely an obstacle to overcome as is the Blerchherchh in Magnus Opum. The great quest Bilbo sets out on is to reclaim treasure stolen by the marauding dragon, something tangible, but even once the mysterious Krpolg enters the picture Magnus’ quest is still abstract; rather than revenge he finds himself looking for information which, admittedly, will hopefully lead to his being able to avenge his brother’s murder. Bilbo certainly has a wizard as one of his travelling companions and “supernatural” aid is a key element of the Hero’s Quest—even in Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope, Obi-wan Kenobi gives Luke Skywalker a lightsaber, an object that later helps him confront his father, Darth Vader—all Magnus gets handed is the letter-opener that belonged to Gronfel the Brave since he’s too small to wield the legendary warrior’s actual sword. The real question is what are Bilbo and Magnus fighting for in the end? Both start off with one goal in mind and end up in a completely different place.
Both books begins in peace—in the case of Magnus we first meet him out in his pflugberry field, trying to get his borse, a creature worthy of Dr Seuss that “looked a little like a cow and a little like a pig and not an awful lot like a horse at all [and whose] two legs on the left were substantially shorter than the two legs on the right,” to plough a straight line—and both books ends in peace but it is a different kind of peace. Life goes on as normal but things are not normal. And only the privileged few know what’s different. When Bilbo returns home he finds he is no longer accepted by respectable hobbit society but he doesn’t care; Magnus, following his return, is “regarded as a bit odd, rather grumpy … and extremely private, but as the Kertoobis were by and large a tolerant lot, this was all fine by them.” The difference is knowledge. Magnus returns home knowing a truth that most of the Kertoobis, the Doosies, the Cherine, the Oponiots, the Querks, the Frungoles, the Gleeprogs, the Pharsheeth (and, it turns out, even the Glurgs) are not ready to accept. It feels anticlimactic, but it’s realistic. If he had marched back into his home town wearing the Golden Fleece things might have been different. Instead he is just older and wiser.
Bottom line, then. When I first read The Hobbit I loved it—that’s obvious—but I was younger then. I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings (I did see the films and, Christ, they were long) but I cannot in all honesty think of any other work that one might classify as fantasy that I have read. Not Stephen R. Donaldson, Robert Jordan, Robert E. Howard, George R.R. Martin or even Sir Terry Pratchett. And so I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to read Magnus Opum as much as you might imagine, considering how effusive I was when writing about his previous works of fiction. It was the Hobbit thing. No matter how good a job he was going to do with this from page one I saw ‘Magnus’ and read ‘poor man’s Bilbo’. It was, for me at least, impossible not to and that was the book’s downfall because it’s not The Hobbit. And I don’t think I am especially precious about the book. It’s just a hard act to follow. That said, with all the current interest in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming film I have little doubt that those who have read all of Tolkien and are desperate for the next best thing (or next-best thing) will be tempted by Jonathan’s book and I expect the majority will be pleased by what they find there; it’s certainly a far cry from The Wobbit. I do wish though that he had displayed more originality. Yes, make it a fantasy quest by all means, but not a pastiche of The Hobbit and not another story where the moral, for want of a better word, is that different does not equal bad.
As I wrote this there are seven 5-star reviews on Amazon and a couple of 5-star reviews on personal blogs and I fully expect there will be more by the time I post this. I don’t give stars and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. The question I have to answer, though, before I finish is this: Does the book succeed in doing what the author intended it to do? I would have to say: Yes, and I think a lot of people will enjoy this, BUT I think he is capable of more and, for my money, this book only highlights his potential. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next. Just please not a Rocky Horror Show / Fraggle Rock mashup.