Tag Archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

Blogging through LOTR: A matter of time

Beside the standing stone Gimli halted and looked up. It was cracked and weather-worn, and the faint runes upon its side could not be read. ‘This pillar marks the spot where Durin first looked in the Mirrormere,’ said the dwarf. ‘Let us look ourselves once, ere we go!’

Happy New Year to you. In this season we think about time, which “like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.” That makes this a good day, I aver, to discuss the question of time in The Lord of the Rings. At least some aspects I’ve noticed.

I’ve been looking for hints of Norse influences in The Fellowship of the Ring, which I’m still reading (almost done now). One such element seems to be the runestone that Gimli visits, shortly after the escape from Moria (excerpt above).

But the stone is illegible, thanks to time and weather. And that got me thinking about time and the concept of ancient things in the Trilogy. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: A matter of time

Blogging through LOTR: The pictures in our heads

The Fellowship of the Ring

In recording my Lord of the Rings reading impressions, I keep reminding myself that I’ve got to let the movies go. The web is full of criticism of the films. I can add nothing useful.

But let me say this. I read visually. I stage the scenes in my head, and watch them (more or less) like movies.

The real world movies are hard to get free of. Humans are visual creatures. Things we see inevitably supersede things we imagine, however vividly. As I read (I’m on The Fellowship of the Ring now), I consciously attempt to recall to myself the actual book descriptions, but the actors and sets of the films keep washing over them. (For instance, Frodo is described in the books as “fair,” meaning blond. Doesn’t look much like Elijah Wood at all). For that reason I appreciate the undramatized sections of the novels even more. They are unadulterated, so to speak.

Not that I’m complaining. The movies have many excellencies which I enjoyed. But when I’m reading I want to engage with Professor Tolkien himself. Since the movies came out, they are my main deceivers. But I had deceivers before then – mainly my own misunderstandings.

For instance, on my first reading I got the elves completely wrong. I was in high school at the time, and I still thought of elves as “little” people. I don’t know how I missed the description at the banquet in Rivendell, where both Glorfindel and Elrond are described as being taller than Gandalf. But I did. I imagined elves as basically like dwarves (even to having beards), but better looking. When at last I was disabused of that fallacy (I think my college roommate might have done it), I abandoned it with pleasure.

That was around the time I met a girl who was very like Goldberry. I see her still, in my imagination, every time I read the books. I’m glad no movie actress has superseded that image.

Blogging through LOTR: Concerning dwarves

Seven dwarfs

Continuing blogging my reading of The Lord of the Rings. Still on The Hobbit.

I have an idea that, if J. R. R. Tolkien had gotten the chance to see the Peter Jackson movies, he would have found the Lord of the Rings movies acceptable in parts. But he would have disliked the Hobbit movies intensely.

One of several things he would have hated in the Hobbit movies is the appearance of the dwarves. Both Tolkien and Lewis were keenly interested in dwarves (or dwarfs), and had definite opinions about them. Lewis writes (in Surprised by Joy, I think) about how he loved dwarfs as a boy, “before Disney vulgarized them.” He describes dwarfs as having long beards and wearing hoods. The dwarfs in the Narnia books are always dressed that way. Likewise, Tolkien’s dwarves always wear hoods except when they wear armor.

Peter Jackson, or his costume designers, apparently disliked hoods. Gimli never wears a hood in the movies. I think a hood or two shows up in the Hobbit films, but they’re gotten rid of fairly quickly. Maybe actors won’t wear them because they put their faces in shadow. Aragorn was supposed to wear a hood when traveling as Strider, too. But it’s almost never up.

Tolkien (and by Tolkien, I mean me, because I’m assuming he’d agree with me) would have hated the Dwarf-Elf romance, and the necessity of making one of the dwarfs “sexy” in order to achieve the unlikely goal of attracting a goddess-like Elf. I don’t think he wanted Thorin to look as heroic as the movies make him, either. Tolkien’s assessment of dwarves’ characters is interesting.

There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.

That passage is interesting in light of the fact (I don’t know its source, but it’s commonly cited as authentic by Tolkien scholars) that Tolkien modeled his dwarves, at least in part, on the Jews. The passage above parallels pretty well the opinion of a broad-minded Englishman of Tolkien’s time, when pressed on the subject. It sounds condescending to us, but in that day it was commendably tolerant. It’s consistent with the Professor’s famous retort to German publishers when they queried him about his pure Aryan ancestry.

The Hobbit movies went wrong in so many ways. I’ve heard that somebody’s done a cut that reduces them to one movie, excising all Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit Helper” extensions. I’d love to see that. Tolkien and Lewis might even have tolerated it.

Reading report: ‘The Hobbit,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit

I keep bellyaching about having a difficult time with my latest Erling book. And this continues to be the case. I make progress – don’t get me wrong – but it’s kind of like punching my way through sand.

So I said to myself, maybe I haven’t spent enough time with fantasy lately. Maybe it’s time to read The Lord of the Rings again, to get my mind onto a different track.

And behold, I did even according to my word. Reading the Trilogy and its prequel, of course, is a time-consuming project. And it’s a little late in history to review the books. So I figured I’d blog my way through them. I can’t compete with the real Middle Earth geeks who’ve memorized Bilbo’s genealogy and know how many miles it is from Buckleberry Ferry to the Grey Havens. But perhaps my modest expertise in Norse mythology and legend may help illuminate one or two points for you, rendering the exercise not entirely worthless to mankind.

I’ve made it through The Hobbit already. There are definite Norse elements in this book. Some of the ones that struck me on this reading were these: Continue reading Reading report: ‘The Hobbit,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

‘Bandersnatch,’ by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Bandersnatch

Lewis’s writing process was quite different from Tolkien’s. While Tolkien wrote things out in order to discover what he wanted to say, Lewis tended to mull things over before committing anything to paper.

According to a well-known anecdote, C. S. Lewis never read newspapers. “If anything really important happens,” he said, “someone is bound to tell you about it.”

I have a similar attitude to books about C. S. Lewis and the Inklings. I’ve read several, but far from all of them, and I feel no obligation to. If someone writes a new book with fresh information, somebody is pretty likely to tell me about it, in a discussion group or in a review in the Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society.

So I didn’t learn a lot of new things from Diana Pavlac Glyer’s Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings. But this book wasn’t really intended to convey biographical information (though it’s as good an introduction as any for the curious). Its purpose is to analyze the ways in which the Inklings group, which lasted 17 years (quite an achievement for any writers’ group) served as a catalyst for its members’ creativity. She follows the Inklings’ history from its beginning when Tolkien – very shyly and with trepidation – showed a poem to his new friend Jack, taking a chance that he’d be the kind of person who’d appreciate it. Jack Lewis did – with great enthusiasm – and gradually they gathered about them a small community of fellow writers of like mind. They read their work to each other and boldly critiqued it, in a cloud of tobacco smoke in Lewis’ shabby rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford (the famous Tuesday meetings at the Eagle and Child pub were purely social, and guests were permitted, which was not true of the Thursday nights at Magdalen. I was amused to read that Tolkien made the mistake of bringing along the historian Gwyn Jones [a famous name to Viking buffs] one evening, and it got a little awkward, though Jones proved acceptable).

Author Glyer has done a tremendous job going carefully through old manuscripts and notes in various collections, looking for evidences of revision, and correlating them with reports of the Inklings meetings. It was a gargantuan task, and the result is a book that will be valuable to everyone interested in artistic mutual support groups – not just to writers, but to anyone who creates art. I recommend Bandersnatch.

In memory yet Green

Roger Lancelyn Green
Roger Lancelyn Green

My friend Dale Nelson recently sent me a couple old articles on Tolkien he thought might be of interest. One of them was from Amon Hen, the journal of the Tolkien Society, #44, May 1980. It was a piece by Roger Lancelyn Green, in which he reminisced on his friendship with the professor. Green has sometimes been identified as a member of the Inklings, but he does not claim that honor (or honour). His article includes the following delightful paragraph:

I never saw The Lord of the Rings before it was published, but heard a good deal about it from Lewis, who kept saying that if only Tolkien would finish it, it would be one of the great books of the century – “But Tollers just won’t finish it! Every time he gives himself a month’s holiday to do so, he begins by reading over what he has already written, and sees how he can better that, and spends most of his month on revising!”

Tolkien Almost Didn’t Write LOTR

It’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s 125th birthday today. As has been the case for years, there’s a toast to honor the professor on the books for 9:00 local time. Wherever you are with whatever you wish to drink, raise a glass to Tolkien at 9:00 tonight with the words, “The Professor.”

Brenton Dickieson offers what he calls “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings,” drawn from the author’s letters. Tolkien suffered with illness and a busy schedule for a quite a while and made excuses to his publisher for not making progress on their planned sequel to The Hobbit, but something happened to provoke him to write again.

‘The Fellowship,’ by Philip and Carol Zaleski

The Fellowship

Though surpassed in poetry and prose style by the very modernists they failed to appreciate, though surpassed in technical sophistication by any number of distinguished academic philosophers and theologians, the Inklings fulfilled what many find to be a more urgent need: not simply to restore the discarded image, but to refresh it and bring it to life for the present and future.

Last night I was complaining about the length of this book, but it turned out as I speculated – about 35% of its body is end notes. Still, it’s a big book. But it’s well worth reading, if you’re interested in the social and intellectual matrix that produced some of the 20th Century’s most influential Christian writing.

The Inklings began as an Oxford student literary group in 1932, but when the students had graduated and moved on, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other friends who had been invited to join carried it on as a sort of cross between a writers’ criticism group and a social club. They met once a week in Lewis’ rooms at Magdelen College for the writing phase, and again at the Eagle and Child pub for the more social part. They carried on, with some changes in membership, until the 1960s.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip and Carol Zaleski, concentrates on the lives of the four best-known Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. Much of the material covered will already be familiar to fans, but Williams’ and Barfield’s lives are far less known, and there’s plenty of material that will be new to most readers (there certainly was for me). I did not know, for instance, the Tolkien had suffered an injury to his tongue in his youth, which caused him to mumble when speaking (this impediment disappeared when he was “performing,” as in his famous LOTR readings recorded by George Sayer). I didn’t know that Owen Barfield was baptized as an adult into the Anglican Church (though he continued to believe in reincarnation and other Anthroposophist doctrines). Remarkably, there’s even some movie trivia – one discovers connections between the Inklings and David Lean, Julie Christie, and Ava Gardner. Continue reading ‘The Fellowship,’ by Philip and Carol Zaleski

A new leaf

I’m still working through the Inklings book I’m reading. I must be getting near the end – most everybody’s dead now. Maybe there’s a long notes section at the end.

But for now, you’re stuck with my idle thoughts.

My reading today got me thinking about The Lord of the Rings, and my mixed feelings about the Peter Jackson films.

I remain a fan of the original movie trilogy. It has its flaws, but all in all (and this is my personal metric) the experience of watching the films is fairly similar to that of reading the books. So they get a thumbs up. The Hobbit movies are a different matter. I saw them in a theater, but hope never to watch them again.

Still, there are moments in the LOTR movies that should have warned me, I think, of what was to come with the Hobbit fiasco. I’m thinking primarily of the treatment of smoking.

It’s impossible for anyone who understands Tolkien’s life and culture, his friends and environment to understand the smoking in the LOTR books as being about anything but tobacco. Tolkien and the Inklings were inveterate smokers. No doubt we might have enjoyed their presence in this world longer if they hadn’t been, but the world was different then. Lewis is on record as disbelieving all the health warnings.

But in the very first movie, as Gandalf and Bilbo smoke together, they consistently refer to what they’re smoking as “weed.” That’s shorthand, of course, for “pipeweed,” which is what tobacco is called in the books. But the clear implication for the modern viewer is that they’re enjoying marijuana. This is reinforced later on, when Saruman taunts Gandalf, saying that his love of “the halflings’ leaf” has muddled his thinking.

Of course it’s a different world today. People today are taught to treat tobacco as if it were plutonium. It has almost become magical in its evil effects, in the public imagination. So Jackson, no doubt, thought he was helping Tolkien out by turning his beloved tobacco to cannabis. In so doing he changed the Shire, replacing Tolkien’s idealized agrarian English village with something that might be his own ideal – a 1960s California commune.

And that’s Jackson’s problem, it seems to me. He thinks he’s in a position to correct Tolkien. To explain to him how a story really ought to be told. In his view, he is the master, Tolkien the student. Tolkien is lucky to benefit from his storytelling genius.

And that’s what spoiled the Hobbit movies.

In my opinion.

A Basketful of Thyme

AP: “A new study published Friday by the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam says despite decades of research there is no conclusive evidence the Jewish diarist and her family were betrayed to the Netherlands’ German occupiers during the second world war, leading to their arrest and deportation.” While it’s still possible they were betrayed, it’s also possible the Nazis were investigating “illegal labor or falsified ration coupons” when the Franks were discovered.

University of Stavanger: “The works of J.R.R. Tolkien are an excellent introduction to Old English and other historic languages, according to researcher.”

TGC:  Robert Barron has produced a documentary on G. K. Chesterton. Treven Wax says, “It dives headlong into two of Chesterton’s greatest works: Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, the latter of which C. S. Lewis called the greatest apologetic for Christianity in English.”

“Noel” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.
The wind in the trees was like to the sea,
And over the mountains’ teeth
It whistled bitter-cold and free,
As a sword leapt from its sheath.

This is the start of Tolkien’s Christmas poem, “Noel,” which was uncovered back in June 2013. The discovery of a copy of it in Our Lady’s School in Abingdon made a stir earlier this year. You can read the whole thing here.

Daniel Helen of the Tolkien Society explains what was found when.

Tolkien on Sex

Al Mohler writes about a 1941 letter Tolkien wrote to his son, Michael.

The devil is endlessly ingenious, and sex is his favorite subject,” Tolkien insisted. “He is as good every bit at catching you through generous romantic or tender motives, as through baser or more animal ones.” Thus, Tolkien advised his young son, then 21, that the sexual fantasies of the 20th century were demonic lies, intended to ensnare human beings. Sex was a trap, Tolkien warned, because human beings are capable of almost infinite rationalization in terms of sexual motives. Romantic love is not sufficient as a justification for sex, Tolkien understood.

There is much more on Mohler’s site.

Tolkien Styled His Dwarfs After Jews

In 1971, Tolkien said it was obvious that his dwarfs represented the Jewish people. In a letter, he said, “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.”


via GIPHY

Among the members of Gandalf’s group (known as the “Fellowship of the Ring”) are a dwarf named Gimli and an elf named Legolas. Dwarfs and elves, Tolkien informs us, had never gotten along. When Gimli and Legolas first meet, each blames this historical ill will on the other’s people. Gandalf, in turn, calls for a truce. “I beg you two, Legolas and Gimli, at least to be friends, and to help me,” he says. “I need you both.” Coaxed by Gandalf, the two ultimately become the best of friends, fighting side by side and risking their lives to defeat the Dark Lord and his evil legions. This dwarf-elf alliance may well be a paradigm of a Jewish-Christian friendship. Interestingly, as Saks and others have noted, Tolkien’s correspondence during World War II reveals that he himself fell into an unplanned interfaith friendship.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik offers his reaction to this revelation. (via Prufrock News)

Understanding Pornography Through Tolkien

“‘No, I am afraid not, Sam,” said Frodo. “At least, I know that such things happened, but I cannot see them. No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire.”

Samuel James says, “I don’t think I have ever read anything that more poetically expresses what it’s like to be addicted to pornography than that passage.”

“As someone who was rescued from severe bondage to porn, I can feel the contrast in my life now versus my life then much more keenly than I can describe it. I feel emotional lightness, I suppose, and I no longer live in that withering dread of exposure that colored every human encounter.”

‘A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War,’ by Joseph Loconte

I’m not sure C. S. Lewis would have approved of this book. He maintained, on numerous occasions, that an author’s biography should be of no interest to the reader. Studying the lives of Milton or of Spenser, he insisted, would provide no insight into the meanings of their works beyond what an intelligent reader can gather from reading the plain texts.

Still, I think Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War serves a useful purpose. Amidst the tremendous popularity of the works of Tolkien and Lewis all these decades after their deaths, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about their artistic motivations (particularly in Tolkien’s case. I’m pretty sure a lot of fans of the movies think the books are about environmentalism). Loconte follows the two men’s lives, concentrating especially on their experiences in the First World War, and explains how the experience of battle (Lewis remembered thinking, “This is war. This is what Homer wrote about”) impressed itself on their memories and their imaginations. In the midst of the great disillusionment that swept Europe after the armistice, Tolkien kept his bearings, because he’d never fallen for over-optimistic enthusiasms like eugenics but had put his faith in eternal things. And in time he was able to help his friend Jack Lewis to understand as well.

For fans unfamiliar with the lives and the thought behind the books of these two men, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War may be very illuminating. It’s well written and well researched. I recommend it.