Tag Archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

“It Made Less of Narnia For Me”

Author Neil Gaiman describes how he felt about seeing the allegory in The Chronicles of Narnia.

My upset was, I think, that it made less of Narnia for me, it made it less interesting a thing, less interesting a place. Still, the lessons of Narnia sank deep. Aslan telling the Tash worshippers that the prayers he had given to Tash were actually prayers to Him was something I believed then, and ultimately still believe.

‘The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,’ by J.R.R. Tolkien

When I wrote yesterday that my life was “full of Viking stuff again,” I neglected to tell the whole of the tale. I was also finishing up my reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.

I find it difficult to get enough objective distance on this book to make any guess as to how the public at large will receive it. For me, and some of my friends, this book is a gift. All our lives we’ve heard of the young scholars Tolkien and Lewis sitting in their rooms at Oxford, reading Eddaic poems to each other in the original Icelandic (this was how the famous Inklings began). Yet in their published work, both men have surprisingly little to say on the matter. Tolkien gives us echoes in The Lord of the Rings, although those elements are generally as much Anglo-Saxon as Norse. And Lewis seems to have shed his passion for Northernness along with his atheism, as if he’d put aside childish things.

But here we have a genuinely Norse work from Tolkien himself. It’s not a translation. It’s an original poem, drawing on varied sources. The original poem he’s trying to refashion, found in the Codex Regius manuscript in Iceland (where she shares honors with the Flatey Book I mentioned yesterday), is interrupted in the middle by the loss of a whole signature of pages. There are other versions of the story extant, both prose and poetry, but they vary widely in quality and consistency. Tolkien determined to do his own version, in which he’d try to work out contradictions between the traditions.

The result was very pleasing to me. Tolkien has definite views about Old Norse Eddaic poetry, and in his view it’s a very different thing from the Anglo-Saxon kind he translated in Beowulf. Continue reading ‘The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,’ by J.R.R. Tolkien

‘Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

First of all, it should be made clear – and I wonder how anyone could be in doubt on this, but it’s possible – that J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary is not a work of imagination meant for popular entertainment. It’s a translation of an already much-translated work, intended as a teaching aid, by a major scholar in the field. If you’re unfamiliar with Beowulf, you might want to try one of the modern verse translations, like Heaney’s, but I liked this version very much.

Personally, I prefer a prose translation. Tolkien probably knew Old English poetry better than any modern man, and here he attempts to provide some sense of the original metrical form, but he is not forced to alter the text in order to make the verse scan. Any translation is always a trade-off, especially in poetry, and for my own part I prefer some approximation of the original text.

Tolkien’s translation is a lively one. I can imagine him reading it to Lewis (and we’re told Lewis did advise him on bits of it) and then ignoring, as he always did, Lewis’ suggestions.

There are many notes. Some are by Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son, who is editor. Others are drawn directly from Tolkien’s own notes. Some of this material fascinated me, some seemed to me (approaching more from the historian’s than the language scholar’s perspective) pretty tall grass. It was interesting to read, for instance, that Tolkien thinks the Beowulf poem correct in crediting (in passing) the slaying of the dragon to Sigfried’s father Sigmund, rather than to Sigfried himself. The dragon-slaying fits in with Sigmund’s story, he thinks, and seems like an interpolation in the Sigfried-Brunhilde narrative.

Also in this book is a work called “The Sellic Spell,” which is Tolkien’s attempt to reconstruct how the Beowulf story might have been passed down as a folk tale, rather than as a heroic poem. He sees a separation between the “fairy tale” Beowulf and the “historical” (by which he does not mean to suggest he thinks Beowulf a real historical character) tale. Here Tolkien may be observed “reverse engineering” an imagined lost legend, something he later did in a larger, more powerful way with The Lord of the Rings.

Also appended to this book is “The Lay of Beowulf,” an attempt to reimagine story as a sort of ballad. That was pleasant to read, but the editor gives us two earlier drafts to read as well, at which point I’m afraid I lost interest in it.

I recommend Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary for people interested in the Old English poem itself. Less so for readers whose main interest is Middle Earth. I’m glad this work has come out in print, and I’m happy I read it.

The Nightmare of Tolkien’s Success

Who is the more enduringly important of the two? Tolkien wrote the greatest work, as evidenced by Germaine Greer’s backhanded compliment: “It has been my nightmare,” she snarled, “that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has materialized.” Lewis’s claims are broader. A half-century after his death, does any other writer turn up on so many shelves of good bookstores and libraries?

Michael Nelson reviews another one of those books about the Inklings. (via A&L Daily)

The Fellowship of the Inklings

The Eagle and Child

“In general, the all-male group shared a longing for that half-imaginary time before man’s alienation from God, nature and self, the time before the chaos and materialism of the post-industrial era had displaced the elegantly organized cosmos of the Middle Ages. In their ­various ways, each hoped to spearhead a rehabilitation, a re-enchantment of our fallen world.” Michael Dirda reflects on The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. He says the book focuses largely on the men’s religious lives and thoughts.

The Fellowship looks to be a great, detailed introduction to Barfield and Williams, two men close to Lewis and Tolkien but unfamiliar to most of their fans.

Film review: ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’

The main takeaway that I take away from watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, second in Peter Jackson’s very fat movie adaptation of a fairly thin book, is that I have no interest in buying the DVDs. I want to see the movies in theaters, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t find in my heart any desire to buy them and watch them again.

The main reason, I think, is that there’s too much Peter Jackson here. The mix works out to about 50% Tolkien’s story, 50% Jackson’s special effects indulgences. He promised us a Hobbit fleshed out with material from the Silmarillion and other Tolkienian sources. But in fact most of the added stuff is just fluff – improbable chases, a Rube Goldberg strategem for fighting the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, and wonderful to see in itself), and an entirely implausible romantic subplot. Also a fighting female elf, unknown in the original material.

As with the first film, it’s visually wonderful. Glorious, beautiful, dazzling. But I kept getting pulled out of the story by Jackson’s self-indulgences. I don’t think he trusts the material. In the classic moviemakers’ tradition, he wants to do the story the immense favor of improving it in his own image.

I kept wanting to tell him to sit down, shut up, and let Tolkien talk.

My movie companion thought it was better than the first one. He may be right. But I continue to feel that great opportunities were lost here.

Cautions for frightening scenes and fantasy violence. OK for kids above, oh, eight, I’d say.

Oh yes, I wanted to mention that the wise old dwarf Balin is played by Ken Stott, who played Inspector Rebus in the second Rebus TV series, reviewed here.

Film review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey





So I finally saw
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And I enjoyed it. And yet… I understand why some people were disappointed. I suppose I was a little disappointed myself, though that shouldn’t be taken as a thumbs down.

First of all, the good parts. Martin Freeman is a wonderful, wonderful Bilbo Baggins. I can’t imagine how the role could have been better played. Superb casting, superb job.

I liked the visuals. Some people, or so I’ve read, have trouble with the unusually high resolution in which the film was shot, but it didn’t bother me at all. As you’d expect, I saw it in 3D, and I liked that too. There were some wonderful color effects. One of my major take-aways from the whole thing was just how lovely it looked.

My reservations are complicated, and I suppose I’m still thinking it out. A lot of material has been added, in order to grow the original story, which is a pretty quick read, into a twin to The Lord of the Rings. Much of this ought to be legitimate enough for the most exacting Tolkien fan. Instead of taking things out of the story, as they had to do with the first trilogy, Jackson and people put stuff in, and the most substantial of the additions come (or so I’m told, I’ve only actually read The Silmarillion) from Tolkien’s own writings about Middle Earth. Continue reading Film review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

On the Notion Club Papers

This is a remarkable way of writing. Most writers know roughly what they mean in their first draft, and in the process of revising and re-drafting they try to get closer to that known meaning. But Tolkien did the reverse: he generated the first draft, then looked at it as if that draft had been written by someone else, and he was trying to understand what it meant – and in this case eventually deciding that it meant something pretty close to the opposite of the original meaning.

I am a Tolkien fan, but not a Tolkien acolyte. Aside from the standard texts, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I’ve read The Silmarillion and a few other writings, but I never made it through The Book of Lost Tales, and I’ve never even tried The History of Middle Earth.

Prof. Bruce Charlton is hard core. I was directed to his blog, Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers, by our friend Dale Nelson, who has been in correspondence with him. Dale sent me a file of Prof. Charlton’s long blog post, A Companion to JRR Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers, which I read with some interest. You can find it at the blog right here and judge for yourself. Continue reading On the Notion Club Papers

Perilous Realms, by Marjorie Burns

Regular readers here are already aware that I’m a man of many prejudices, so it won’t surprise you to know that I approached Marjorie Burns’ Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth with suspicion. I fully expect any book written by a female academic to be tailored for the Women’s Studies Department—full of anger at men and contempt for the Christian religion.

So I’m delighted to report that this book, written by a female English professor at Portland State University, was a very pleasant surprise in almost every way.

Burns notes that many scholars have traced the Norse and Anglo-Saxon themes in The Lord of the Rings. But she is convinced that Tolkien also drew (less openly, because of the fashions of his day) on Celtic myth and folklore as well. She examines all of Tolkien’s fantastic works (not only The Hobbit and the Trilogy, but the Silmarillion and the later gathered works) and points out (quite convincingly, it seems to me as a non-expert) Celtic parallels that may be nearly as important as the Norse. (Tolkien, she explains, loved Wales but did not care for Ireland. Also, there was a general opinion that Celtic matters were in some sense effeminate, lacking the practicality and fatalism of the Viking world-view. [Reviewer’s note: When you think of it, Tolkien and Lewis were an odd pair of friends—a Catholic Englishman and a Protestant Irishman.])

Gender issues are certainly in Burns’ mind as she examines the accusation that Tolkien’s work, with its vast majority of active males and small minority of (generally) passive females, is a mark of misogyny. But she stands up for him in what I’d call a courageous way. For one thing, she thinks that Tolkien (based on the prejudice mentioned above) had the Celts in mind, and therefore a sort of vital femininity, in his portrayal of the Elves. She also makes much of the manner in which males frequently assume traditionally feminine roles in the books—cooking, nurturing, housekeeping, nursing, etc.

She also spends much time refuting the accusation that Tolkien’s characters are cardboard, either all good or all evil. She not only points to the weaknesses, frailties and near runs with temptation that the good characters display. She also notes the way Tolkien “doubles” his characters—each good character being matched with an evil one. Thus, while Gandalf clearly embodies many of the more positive characteristics of the Norse god Odin, Sauron (who, like Odin, has one eye) displays the god’s wicked traits.

Burns ends the book with a short chapter outlining three questions about the books, and giving her own answers. These answers are blessedly free of radical feminism or condescension towards Tolkien’s Christian faith. In fact, she seems to appreciate the significance of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

So I enjoyed the book very much, and recommend it.

The Children of Hurin, by J. R. R. Tolkien

(Yes, I finally got around to reading this book.)



The trouble with Tolkien’s Middle Earth writing,
apart from The Lord of the Rings, is the acute lack of hobbits. It’s hard to carry off the high heroic tone for a modern audience without offering non-heroic, funny intermediaries with whom the modern reader can identify. The moment I came up with the character of Father Aillil for my Erling books, I understood that the books could work. Modern readers find purely heroic characters and situations kind of clunky. I say it to our shame, but there are few old-style heroes among us (I’m talking about a whole cultural ethic here, not people who do heroic things), and we experience culture shock when we encounter such characters.

I’m not saying The Children of Húrin fails for this reason. I read it with great enjoyment. But you should be prepared for a rather different experience than what you get from Tolkien’s masterwork. If you’ve read The Silmarillion, you know what I mean, and indeed you will have read this story already, in a different form.

The Children of Húrin has been compared to an Icelandic saga. That’s true, if you’re thinking of the high heroic sagas, like the Volsunga Saga, sagas about heroes of old who were larger than life in every way—braver, crueler, more passionate than you and I.

Húrin is not the hero of this book, but his story frames it. At the beginning we learn how he earns the enmity of Glaurung, the evil dragon, who curses him and his family, then forces him to sit watching on a mountain as the curse works itself out. At the end he reappears for a brief epilogue.

The central character is his son Túrin, who (as the Vikings would have put it) has every good quality except for luck. Mighty and brave in battle, devoted to his family and friends, he nevertheless takes every wrong turn. He makes disastrous choices, trusts the wrong people, is offended by his best friends and offends those who should be his allies. In the end the dragon’s curse works itself out in his personal relationships, in a manner worthy of Greek tragedy (something Tolkien imposes on the saga form here, like the recent movie, “Beowulf”). Pity and terror are here in full measure.

I enjoyed it a lot, but it wasn’t lighthearted reading.

Recommended for serious-minded readers. I think it would be all right even for younger teens, if they’re mature.

Heroic fiction: Building bridges

Here’s something I meant to include in my recent review of Poul Anderson’s Mother of Kings, but left out because the thing was long enough. This way I can make another whole post out of it, which saves me thinking up a new idea.

(By the way, it just occurred to me, how come it’s “Poul Anderson” and not “Poul Andersen?” He was Danish, and the standard ending for Danish patronymics is “sen.” I suppose it can be traced back to some culturally insensitive immigration official, like the one who made the Kvalevaags into Walkers).

Anyway, I wrote that I found Mother of Kings kind of dull. I gave a couple reasons, but left one out. It involves what I consider a common problem in novels about Vikings and in heroic fantasy in general.

The book was clunky. Continue reading Heroic fiction: Building bridges