Literary influences

As some of you know, I don’t as a matter of principle get involved in blogging awards because, being a bit of a maverick, I’d much rather be composing an original post than feeling constrained by the questions that inevitably accompany these awards.

But a recent literature-based question posted by Ola on receiving a blogging award for the Re-enchantment of the World blog rather appealed to me and had me scurrying to my bookshelves. Here then is the question, followed by my answer — even if I have no intention of nominating anybody else as I’m invited to do by the rules of the award:

Name (and, if you wish, describe) up to 11 books which influenced you the most.

I drew up a shortlist, but only had to delete one or two titles to get to my eleven; they appear in no particular order except that in which I noted them down.

1. The Lord of the Rings (1954). Yes, rather predictable I know but honest. I first read this in 1968 when a student, in the year the one-volume edition came out, and ever since then I’ve reread it every decade or so. My first copy eventually fell apart so for my fourth read (and now my fifth, due soon) I acquired a more robust secondhand copy. Do I need to justify this choice? I think not, though I may give some thought to it when I start on the revisit. I think though that being marginally older than Tolkien was when LOTR was first published (1954-5) may provide an interesting perspective.

2. Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863). In ‘Kingsley’s Riddle‘ (my review of this Victorian children’s book) I try to hint, not with total success, at what has intrigued me since I read a bowdlerised version as a pre-teen. I’ve also read it at frequent intervals and despite its faults nearly always find something new and interesting to consider.

3. Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995) captivated me as soon as I read the paperback edition. Like The Water-Babies it had a rich hinterland to explore, helped by the plentiful literary guides which I delved into after I’d read the His Dark Materials trilogy. Magnificent themes and a rumbustious protagonist proved to be a winning combination.

4. Terry Jones’ Chaucer’s Knight (1980) appears at first sight to be one of those conspiracy theory books that proposes a solution to historical inconsistencies that has somehow stymied experts in the field. Chaucer’s parfit, gentil knyght was, Jones argues, nothing of the sort but in fact a cold-blooded mercenary. Like so much in The Canterbury Tales the portrait of the soldier pilgrim is shot through with sly humour, a concept that nobody appears to have noticed until this study. I thought Jones, best known from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, made a persuasive case — certainly compared to bogus ‘studies’ I’d read (such The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, published around the same time).

5. All But a Few (1974) was my introduction to the marvellous Joan Aiken, way back in the seventies when this collection came out in paperback. Her magical modern takes on traditional tales entranced me back then, since when I’ve never ceased to be under her spell. And, incredibly, I’ve barely explored the foothills of the mountain range that is her collected works!

6. Beowulf and its Analogues by G N Garmonsway et al (1980) opened my eyes to the direct and indirect links that join great works of literature in a virtual web (in the case of Beowulf contemporary historical events, folktales and other sagas) and confirmed to me why it’s such a powerful work in its own right. I was also struck by Arthurian parallels and how it continues to influence modern writers (such as Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes in their SF novel The Legacy of Heorot and its sequel).

7. Though I skipped huge chunks of C G Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) when I first acquired a paperback copy (in, I think, the early nineties) I have continued to dip into it from time to time. Those mysterious linkages between one’s perceptions, waking and sleeping, as modulated by time have always fascinated me, and I was intrigued reading how Jung’s theories on them developed and evolved over his lifetime. The brain is a wonderful thing, and Jung’s authorised autobiography reveals his own psychology by what and how much he chooses to reveal about himself.

8. More literary detective work caught my attention in John Livingstone Lowes’ The Road to Xanadu (1927) when it came out in paperback in the 1970s. The American author ran a fine-toothed comb over Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan and teased out how interrelated are works of literature and their context. That principle of contextualising has continued to influence me as I even now read and review fiction, though I of course in no way compare myself to Lowes’ brilliant scholarship.

9. From the sublime to the ridiculous, perhaps, but arguably not so different, is my next literary influence: Edgar Rice Burrough’s forest romance Tarzan of the Apes (1914), which I reviewed in ‘African Heirs and Graces’. As a weedy kid I was impressed not only by his physical prowess but also by the sense of his otherness, being in the grey areas between ape and ‘civilised’ human, aristocrat (as the titled Lord Greystoke) and white African, British (his ancestry) and French (his first leaned human language); perhaps I felt that sense of otherness from my own upbringing and early rootlessness.

10. Another literary figure which drew me like a magnet was King Arthur, but mainly because there was a disconnect between the legend and what little I knew of the historical period from which he allegedly hailed. Confirmation of this disconnect coalesced in The Quest for Arthur’s Britain (1968, edited by cultural historian Geoffrey Ashe) which drew together specialists in history and archaeology in an attempt to re-forge those disconnected links. Despite my involvement with some of the actors involved with this publication I feel that the then enthusiastic response to it reflected the zeitgeist of the period but that many of its conclusions and hopes have not stood the test of time and further research. That’s not of course to deny its own place in history.

11. Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). I can’t remember when I read this, my first Le Guin book, but it was definitely towards the end of the last century. She singlehandedly recast my view of what science fiction was about and what had left me feeling empty about what I’d read up to then: the interest exhibited by this novel in psychology and anthropology, along with an anticipation of gender fluidity issues, was very different from the ‘hard’ SF themes I was mostly familiar with (as with Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov or even John Wyndham, for example). Her speculative fiction is also ‘hard’, but in a different way from the mostly nuts-and-bolts novels her male contemporaries wrote: it required engagement with humanist values and environmental issues, how politics could systematically destroy the individual, and how that individual might find the inner resource to survive, all issues that at once distanced the reader and also brought home how they might apply in the here and now.

These then are my current eleven picks. (Why eleven? Why not, I ask — it’s as good as ten or twelve, fifty or a hundred. And it’s what was stipulated.) Tomorrow I might pick some replacements; yesterday my mood may have resulted in different choices. They’re not all what I would have gone for ten or twenty years ago but a couple of titles would have definitely featured. (I hope that this is what you expected, Ola!)


Have you tried an exercise like this? They’re not unusual — listopia is a common meme these days, principally when it’s about books. If you feel the desire to flag up your own choices I’d be pleased to read them. But I shall not be awarding awards — not even this one below!

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52 thoughts on “Literary influences

  1. well – your list here is interesting -make that the way you write and share about each of them was interesting and I am going to come back for another read (because you write a little dense – which is a good thing – and it seems to come easy for ya -) and really found this to be curious:
    “… Jung’s authorised autobiography reveals his own psychology by what and how much he chooses to reveal about himself.”
    hmmmm

    1. I’m sorry about the denseness of my prose — too many ideas rushing about my head and me trying to condense them all onto the page! But I’m pleased you find what I write interesting.

      Jung dictated his thoughts to be written down and edited, but strenuous efforts were made to control what actually went into print, I understand. This was his last work before he died, apparently.

      1. do not apologize because that dense word is a compliment and it is because you are so educated and because you read so much and then you love to share – ahhhh triple win.
        I am not a Jung fan, but like his archetypes and a few other things – very smart but not someone I admire

        1. Well, thank you for the generous compliment (though I’d dispute the label ‘so educated’ — I feel quite ignorant a lot of the time). It’s certainly true I love to share my enthusiasms, however!

        1. I think it’s perfectly possible to pick up valid points from a writer like Jung even if you don’t agree with all that he says, just as (for example) I learn a lot from religious writers even though I’m in no way religious. But it’s true that spirituality varies from person to person, and we’re all naturally free to avoid points of view that we don’t agree with!

  2. What an interesting list–I’m glad to see Northern Lights on there–I appreciated LOTR for the sheer scale of the whole thing, the imaginativeness with each of those world, and indeed the languages but somehow have still not come to love it as I do the Hobbit. I find it takes a while to get one’s head around it all (But a book friend says, for her the third reading really proved the turning point, so there’s still hope yet).

    The Le Guin was quite something too–I read it a few years ago for a science fiction/fantasy Literature course and all of the issues that it threw up gave me so much food for thought. Trust was another theme that stood out for me in the book.

    1. Yes, a lot of fantasy here! But I think that it’s an underrated genre, too long sneered at by some literary snobs as being escapist when the best of it is anything but.

      I don’t love The Hobbit as much as LOTR — maybe because I haven’t read it as many times — mainly because the tone changes from avuncular to saga. It could be that this was Tolkien’s intention of course, but imagine a book which begins like The Father Christmas Letters and then morphs into The Nibelungenlied before your very eyes!

      I intend to begin a reread of HDM soon, this time knuckling down to reviews of each novel, and ditto with the rest of the Earthsea sequence. Interesting about the theme of trust in Left Hand, and now of course I see it. Another reread (my third) is due, methinks!

    1. Thanks, Paula, I had immense fun drawing it up too! Yes, The W-B (I always put in the hyphen, as per the original) works on so many levels, for so many ages, though most of the moralisings and digressions were and are omitted from editions for young readers. Some day I’ll complete a magnum opus, part fiction and part NF, based on copious notes I once took. Or maybe not.

  3. A fantastic list indeed, and I thank you, Chris! πŸ™‚

    LOTR would have been on my list as well, for sure – this was my first entry into the worlds of contemporary fantasy, at the tender age of 7 πŸ˜‰ I guess that’s why I still prefer LOTR to Hobbit… A Wizard of Earthsea would have its place there as well. And though I fully agree with you on the fantasy/SF genres being unfairly underrated, I guess the rest of my list would come from beyond fantastical realms – I’m sure Dispatches by Michael Herr would find itself there as well, as well as more than a few literary/anthropological/philosopical works πŸ˜‰

    I’m really intrigued by Chaucer’s Knight and Beowulf and its Analogues from your list – I haven’t even heard of these books, but they sound fascinating!

    Thank you again πŸ™‚

    1. Fantastic in both senses maybe, Ola?! But thanks, glad you approve. 😊

      I’d had to look at Chaucer in the original Middle English when I was at school, and we all had to have the humour explained to us in class, so I’d always assumed the Tales were hard. The prologue introducing the pilgrims made the Knight appear completely upright and pious, as opposed to the others who were roundly ridiculed, and I never could understand why Chaucer made an exception of him. Jones showed me that we’d all been been misled as to his character.

      Will you and Piotr be giving us your individual choices of books that inspired you? Or maybe you’ve already done so and I’ve missed it?

      1. I think Piotr is already working on his list πŸ™‚ I haven’t thought yet about answering my own question, mainly because it’s easier to ask questions than to answer them and I was quite content with the task I came up with for you πŸ˜‰ But since you mention it, I might actually give it a go! πŸ™‚

          1. LOL πŸ˜€ Actually I was just trying to bend the rules without breaking them: there were supposed to be 11 questions asked and I prepared a workaround πŸ˜‰ But your interpretation is way better! πŸ˜€

        1. piotrek

          Indeed I am, Ola asked a great question. Interesting thing, my rough draft of 18 titles overlaps a bit with yours, with one book (well, the obvious one…), and three authors. I’ve also noticed what you emphasize – similar list from ten, twenty years ago would be different, who knows how one created in a few years would look like. Some books stay with you forever, with some you can’t remember why you felt they were so important. I’ll try to strike a compromise between my selves from different eras, future excluded, they’re total strangers πŸ˜‰

          Terry Jones’ book sounds especially interesting, although I’m afraid I’d have to read the entire Canterbury Tales before, I’ve only read fragments and seen Pasolini’s movie… maybe I’ll start with a re-watch of the Flying Circus, it’s finally on Netflix πŸ™‚

          1. You could always try Nevill Coghill’s modern English version for Penguin Books instead of the original Middle English. Alternatively you could just read the Prologue and the Knight’s Tale to appreciate the gist of Jones’ argument. As for Monty Python, I’d recommend ‘Life of Brian’ and ‘Monty P and the Holy Grail’ as the best of their films to watch, the others are more episodic, like the original tv series.

            Looking forward to reading your choices, Piotr, and your discussion about how you decided on them!

            1. piotrek

              Chris, I bow to your superior knowledge on everything Chaucer, and Arthur, but on Monty Python I think I could stand my ground, at least for a moment πŸ˜‰ Brian is probably my number one movie ever, it influenced me, as a kid, in all the corruptive ways its critics were afraid it would affect receptive youth ;-). Holy Grail is also in top20… But the original TV series, that I haven’t revisited in a decade or so πŸ™‚

  4. While I tend to stay away from lists, especially those “must read” lists, this was an enjoyable read. It gives us insight into what inspired your writing, and love of books. I will give this idea some thought and follow your lead shortly.

    I believe I have the Jones book on my shelf. I have attempted to read it, but it was a little too dry for me. With your recommendation I will give it a second chance.

    1. Looking forward to seeing your choices, Sari! As for the Jones book, it certainly dry — as I remember from all that time ago and as I noted again in a quick skim read before posting my review — but this was his subject area at Oxford (English with an interest in History) so it’s not surprising this has a severely academic approach.

      He subsequently presented a BBC tv series on the crusades in which he mixed scholarly arguments with light comedic moments to camera.

  5. Keeping this as a reference to great books I had no idea they existed, (asides from The Lord of the Rings, lol), this was a very fascinating post.

    1. They’re a little heavy on male authors, I’m afraid, reflecting the bias of earlier decades, but I’m pleased to have included two of my favourite female authors on the list. The rest is a pretty eclectic list, Silvia, and I’d be curious to know how you’d get on with any of these titles if you decided to look into them. πŸ™‚

      1. Oh, Chris, I know what you mean. We are our biases, aren’t we?, they make us who we are, but they also end up teaching us to see them. I see the thoughts these books have inspired, and I like them. I will surely let you know if I get to read anything from such fascinating list.

  6. Congratulations on your Not an Award award πŸ™‚

    I always enjoy when bloggers I like do exercises like this because I get to know them better.

    We have Beowulf and Northern Lights (in America The Golden Compass, but why???) in common as pivotal books. And I love your justification for Tarzan of the Apes, which probably because of the films, has taken on a certain cheesiness that I don’t think is present in the novels.

    Also in this post you gave me my word for the day: rumbustious!

    1. Feel free to share the Not an Award award around, Laurie. They’re two a penny in these here parts! Yes, these choices are designed to be revealing, aren’t they, but I also like the conversations they engender, both for and against particular choices. 😊

      I think The Golden Compass was chosen as the US title for a number of reasons, initially perhaps because the UK title was ambiguous. Laurie Frost’s ‘Definitive Guide’ tells us that the Lyra’s alethiometer was changed from brass to gold in the US edition for some unstated reason; Pullman’s first choice was actually ‘The Golden Compasses’, referring to the geometer’s tool (Blake has an image of God measuring the world with a pair of these) but an ‘editorial misreading’ (!) put it into the singular, possibly in the belief that this was an alternative name for the (brass, now transmuted to gold) alethiometer. It’s never ever called a golden compass in HDM, however.

      The early Tarzan books are good, but they got formulaic and even ridiculous in time (‘Tarzan and the Ant-Men’?!) before settling for credibility in the last title or two. I never read the first sequel, but hope to do so — soon. Now he was rumbustious!

  7. Great list, Chris, and I’m glad to see both Aiken and LeGuin on it. Given your blogging history, neither is a surprise. Nor is the Arthurian book. Jung, however — a bonus!

    1. Thanks, Lizzie! Must revisit Jung, I’ve got a couple of other books — extracts from his writings, primers, critiques — which I really ought to look out again. *Sigh* Too much social media at the moment…

  8. As a young reader I had four favourites: The Water Babies, Alice in Wonderland, Blinky Bill, The Gumnut Babies, the last two Australian classics. I loved the stories but they also had illustrations which appealed to me. Was very pleased recently to introduce two bright young boys sged six and seven to The Hobbit.

    1. I remember just one of the Gumnut Babies books, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and especially the Wicked Banksia Men (those plants are really scary looking) — our father had brought this title back from Aus on one of his trips out of Hong Kong.
      But I’ve never made the acquaintance of Blinky Bill. Sounds like an embarrassing uncle to me… 😁

      1. He was a very sweet koala. I have to add I have not admitted to my voracious reading of everything about Billy Bunter the Fat Owl of the Remove, and the complete oeuvre of Enid Blyton.

  9. You have a few of my favourites e.g. Joan Aiken (when I grow up, I want to be Joan Aiken), Tolkien, and a few I must hunt down now – Beowulf and its Analogues, Terry Jones’s Chaucer’s Knight (intriguing). Off to read your Water Babies post now.

    1. Good to know we have a few favourites in common, Lynden! You may also be pleased to know I’ve scheduled a short Joan Aiken post for tomorrow, one which I hope you may find interesting.

  10. I’m late! I approve of all the fantasy — my list would have a lot too. I always think Aiken is not appreciated enough; she was fantastic. I would quibble with your Northern Lights inclusion, though — I loved the first two so much, and then the third was such a disappointment to me that I never read them again. They sat for years on my shelf, like a toothache in my head.

    1. The Amber Spyglass was a very confusing read for me too, it had a lot to do with multiple points of view, as the feeling that the allegorical thrust (more allusive than allegory, perhaps) was getting in the way of the narrative. I’m looking forward to a reread to see if familiarity will now allow me to see what I may well have missed the first time.

      Many of Aiken’s Regency and Gothic titles are being reissued as ebooks now, but I still hanker after paper copies. Still, I’ve got a few secondhand hardbacks of the less well-known titles waiting for me to explore!

      1. Someday when I’m rich I’m going to collect the whole Wolves Chronicles.

        Yeah, I knew Pullman’s POV very well (I’d read everything he’d written up till then) and I felt like he really let his Message warp his story a lot. It was like being hit with a sledgehammer.

        1. It was, Jean, I agree. But, despite the fact that many felt this was a blatant attack on religion (and, I admit, to some extent that’s true) I saw much of Pullman’s polemic was aimed at institutionalised power, whether it originated from authoritarian governments, political parties, sects or indeed established churches — anything in fact that wielded absolute power.

          I think the fact that he took his cue from Milton (which, from the little of Paradise Lost I’ve read, seems to be about power play and ego) is surely significant. As a freethinker (and there have been many both inside and outside religion, including individuals like Martin Luther) Pullman is averse to blind obedience, whatever its origins. We can see this in the populist movements that are springing up all over the world, which often share a sinister philosophy hiding under a mask of ‘taking back power’.

          It is evident too in the opening of ‘La Belle Sauvage’ — itself problematic, as I suggested in my review — where, under the cloak of a quasi-religious organisation, children are indoctrinated to betray friends and families who don’t conform to type or ideology.

          1. It wasn’t the attack on religion/power I had a problem with (like I said, I was familiar with his views); it was that the story got so warped by it. It didn’t feel natural at all. It felt ruined. 😦

  11. Pingback: 11 books that influenced me the most | Re-enchantment Of The World

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