Three parallels between E. M. Forster and J. R. R. Tolkien

Forster and Tolkien are not much alike on the surface, but if you peer just a bit deeper, the similarities start popping out.

1. Both served in the First World War

Both served in the war in their own way. Neither wanted to be a soldier. Tolkien was coerced by his relatives to join the army as a matter of honor. Forster knew he wasn’t cut out to be a soldier, so he served the Red Cross as a conscientious objector.

Both men were deeply affected by the war. Some people link the war with Forster’s cessation in novel writing. Everyone can see the cynicism that runs through A Passage to India that just wasn’t as present in the earlier novels. Tolkien wrote primarily about soldiers, at least in The Lord of the Rings. All of the characters serve the war effort, and come back altered.

Tolkien in WWI
Tolkien in WWI

2. Both mixed fantasy with Englishness

In Tolkien’s books, he takes regular English people and puts them into a deep fantasy world. Bilbo Baggins is drafted from his bourgeois, middle class world, into the world of heroes and dragons. In The Lord of the Rings, the four hobbits are transformed from humble country folk to slayers of great beasts.

Forster does the exact opposite. He brings fantasy events into everyday English lives. This is particularly clear in his short stories where English people struggle to deal with fantastical events. Take the mysterious writing on the shaving glass in The Purple Envelope or the posession of a young boy’s body in Story of a Panic.

But fantastic events occur in the novels too, such as when Adela Quested and Ronnie hit an animal with their car. The narrator tells us of all the potential ghosts that may be intervening.

3. Both were academics

Tolkien is still remembered as one of the great philologists, and founders of modern linguistics. He studied medieval European literature and languages and applied that knowledge to his fiction. The great mythology of Middle Earth is built upon very similar tales to those Tolkien studied. In fact, the names of the dwarfs in The Hobbit were stolen from an ancient text.

Forster recieved an Honorary Doctorate from Leidens University
Forster recieved an Honorary Doctorate from Leidens University

Forster did much the same thing, although at a lesser scale. Forster is remembered for his lectures that became Aspects of the Novel, but he didn’t change the academic landscape like Tolkien. Still, he studied classical Greek and Roman mythologies as an undergrad, and populated all his novels with those gods.

It was Phaethon who drove them to Fiesole that memorable day, a youth all irresponsibility and fire, recklessly urging his master’s horses up the stony hill.

It’s really difficult to write about E. M. Forster

When I started getting into A Room with a View a few years back, I kept reading it over and over again. In each reading, I would find something new. Something would be changed, revealed, or transmuted into something new. It was fascinating. But there were still things that I didn’t understand. Some of the places and artiss were obscure. Some of the referenced literature was very obscure.

I started taking notes on the novel. Whenever I came across something that was obscured by distance, time, or education, I would look it up online and produce a little note to myself about it. Eventually, I had enough of these to think, ‘hey, I should share these with other people!’

That’s where things got tricky. After all, I don’t want to share spurious or incorrect notes. I want to share notes that increase the enjoyment of the book for casual readers and fans. But how can I know if one of my notes is incorrect? How can I be sure that what I’m pointing out isn’t very subjective or obvious?

So I thought I should at least read his other novels to get some context. I read his first novel first. Where Angels Fear to Tread is, in most respects, not a great novel. But it does begin to reveal Forster’s unique approach to realism. Next I picked up The Longest Journey. That book is truly boring. It was a slog to get through, and I don’t know how anyone enjoys it without knowing a lot about Forster’s biography.

Then I read The Machine Stops, which is fabulous and unique and ahead of its time. So I thought maybe Forster had a particular gift for short fiction? So I read all of his short fiction that was in collections (which I know now is not all his short fiction). It was excellent, but there wasn’t very much of it. So I went back to the novels. I finished with Howard’s End, A Passage to India, and Maurice, each of which is a masterpiece in its own way.

Then I went back to my original task. I could finally say something about Forster’s most popular book from a position of authority, right?

Well, no. I soon learned that Forster produced even more essays and non-fiction than he produced fiction. I read his guide to Alexandria, and some of his essay collections. I couldn’t get through it all, and some of his collections are difficult to acquire these days.

Then I thought I should read a biography. So I read Wendy Moffat’s excellent book.

At this point, I’m years away from my original task. I have more or less forgotten that I ever wanted to say anything about Forster and his most famous novel. Still, I’ve realized that he also wrote a lot of letters, and the selected letters are available in bound collections. I’m duty-bound to read them, right?

I read as much of the letters as I could, but I think you can see the problem. It’s really hard to say anything with authority about a writer who produced such a massive volume of words as EM Forster. The novels, essays, non-fiction, lectures, and letters amount to such a vast quantity of work that I would put it up against even the most fecund modern novelists. It’s unbelievable.

Then there’s the critics, biographers, and academics. I can see how a grad student could get very dis-heartened. How can you hope to add to the vast discourse on such a popular, beloved author? …

I don’t know if I will ever finish taking notes on A Room with a View (and now Forster’s other novels too). All I know at this point is that the journey has become the goal. Reading and studying Forster’s work and the work about Forster has become a little hobby of mine. Maybe I won’t ever say anything about Forster, but I’ll have a lot of fun not saying it!