In an alternate reality, Tolkien would be a woman.

The Sci-Fi blog io9 posted yesterday about a fantasy writer who could well have become as famous and influential as Tolkien – had she been a man. Naomi Mitchison, author of The Corn King, The Spring Queen and Travel Light, was a friend of Tolkien’s, and one of the proof readers for  The Lord of the Rings. But her own books have been neglected and forgotten.

Amal El-Mohtar reviews Travel Light, the story of a little orphan girl who is brought up by bears, then dragons, and abandons her dragon lifestyle of hoarding to hit the road, says she fell from a great height when she discovered the book, as an adult, and realised that she could have been reading it alongside her childhood favourite, The Hobbit.

That Mitchison’s life and works should have been so unfairly relegated to secret history drove home my feeling of books as points of divergence to alternate timelines; that having read The Hobbit rather than Travel Light at that fragile, formative moment of being a child in Lebanon standing at a crossroads of languages, religions and literary traditions nudged me into a different life. Who might I have been if I had met Halla Bearsbairn before Bilbo Baggins? How different might my attitude toward dragons have been if I’d met Uggi before Smaug? How different would the spiritual landscapes of fantasy and science fiction be if they had accepted as antecedents works that showed a corrupt Byzantine Christianity and sympathy toward Islam?

But, most crucially for me, I wonder: Where might I have gone if, instead of a middle-aged Hobbit enamored of his pantry, I had embraced a girl who lost three homes before choosing the open road?

After a cursory inquiry on Facebook, it turns out that a handful of feminist fantasy and scifi geeks I know have heard of the author, but none have read her books.

Her Wikipedia entry says that as well as being a prolific writer, Mitchison was an active socialist and feminist fighting for the rights to birth control and abortion.

Travel Light is available on the US Amazon site, and some of the other novels, a memoir, and a biography are available on the UK site.


4 thoughts on “In an alternate reality, Tolkien would be a woman.

  1. The Corn King and the Spring Queen is available in the U.S. through the iTunes store, as is Travel Light, but when I downloaded the sample of Travel Light from the iTunes store, it contained the content from another book entirely, so I’m reluctant to buy it there. The sample of The Corn King and the Spring Queen downloaded just fine.

    Travel Light is also available through its publisher, Small Beer Press, at in trade paperback or ebook.

  2. Thanks for the lead on a neglected author; I found several books by her in our university library today. I also picked up a science fiction novel she wrote, Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), in which the protagonist explores alternative sexualities with her Martian hermaphrodite friend.

  3. […] In een alternatief universum had Tolkien een vrouw kunnen zijn. Dat stelt website Feminist Philosophers naar aanleiding van een herontdekking van Naomi Mitchison. Mitchison publiceerde haar fantasyboek Travel Light twee jaar voordat De Hobbit het levenslicht zag. Ze was goed bevriend met Tolkien en hielp hem waar ze maar kon. Waarna Tolkien wereldberoemd werd, terwijl Mitchison in de vergetelheid verdween. […]

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