Tag Archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

Blogging through LOTR: Of rings and taters

The Lord of the Rings

Behold, I have completed yet another journey through The Lord of the Rings. It offered the usual fears and joys and tears and thrills, along with the occasional stretch of tedium (it does have them, you know; adds to the verisimilitude).

By some odd function of my aging mind, the passage that stays with me most this time around is this one at the end, where Gaffer Gamgee greets Frodo on his return from the Crack of Doom and the end of the Age:

‘Good evening, Mr. Baggins!’ he said. ‘Glad indeed am I to see you safe back. But I’ve a bone to pick with you, in a manner o’ speaking, if I may make so bold. You didn’t never ought to have a’ sold Bag End, as I always said. That’s what started all the mischief. And while you’ve been trapassing in foreign parts, chasing Black Men up mountains from what my Sam says, though what for he don’t make clear, they’ve been and dug up Bagshot Row and ruined my taters!’

That’s an exquisite moment. I’ve never been a veteran, but I’ll bet any man who’s been in combat has had moments like that.

It’s annoying that the old folks at home don’t understand what you’ve done or what you’ve been through.

But there must also be a sense that it’s good that this is so. That they don’t understand means you’ve done your job. This provincial ignorance is one of the things you risked all to protect.

Addendum: I just had a thought. They strove in The Hobbit movies to make the characters more “diverse.” They should have cast some east Asians as elves. They’d have made great elves.

Blogging through LOTR: The Return of the King

The Return of the King

I’ve finished the narrative of The Return of the King (I’m going on to the appendices now, because, hey, they’re there). Here are a few things that struck me.

‘There is no real going back,’ [said Frodo]. ‘Though I may come to the Shire it will not seem the same, for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’

There’s one of the clearest examples of the effect of the “Great War” on Tolkien’s narrative. Surely something like that was the experience of every combat soldier going home – the strangeness of returning to a familiar place, but finding you somehow don’t fit anymore. The average veteran accustoms himself to it after a while, but (as I am told) the wounds never entirely heal. One always feels something of an outsider, the carrier of a dark secret. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: The Return of the King

Blogging through LOTR: Eucatastrophe

The Fellowship of the Ring

I’m nearing the end of The Return of the King, and I’m kind of overwhelmed. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read the trilogy – no less than six, I’m sure. But I’d forgotten how good it is, especially as the threads come together toward the climax.

I’d remembered Frodo’s and Sam’s trek from Cirith Ungol to the Crack of Doom as taking up more pages than it does. In memory it’s a long narrative, but in the book it actually constitutes a fairly short section. I mean that as praise to Tolkien’s skill – he leaves a strong impression of weary and hopeless trudging that looms large in memory.

As I read the climactic passages describing the defeat of Sauron, sobs shook my diaphragm and tears welled up in my eyes (which was a little embarrassing because I was on a reclining table giving blood at the time). Lewis called LOTR “Good beyond hope,” and I wonder if anything as good of its kind has ever been written before – or ever will be again. Can I myself ever hope to come close?

I thought of the many children of this world who love these books. How can they bear it? How can they experience that joy – Tolkien’s eucatastrophe – and then return to the mundane world, believing that the promise of Middle Earth is just a cheat? That there will never be a true happy ending like that for them? That real life is only a descent through pain and disappointment to death, with a few bright moments which are in themselves just false promises of a happiness that can never be?

Ah well. I suppose they deal with it as best they can. The Lord of the Rings is really about not cutting down trees, after all, they believe.

Blogging through LOTR: War stories

The Two Towers

‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’

Much has been written in Tolkien scholarship about the influence World War I had on the composition of The Lord of the Rings. That influence is certainly discernable in The Two Towers, which I recently completed re-reading. It’s been a few days since I finished it, so I’ve probably forgotten some of what I thought while reading, but I’ll try to offer a few crumbs from the feast for your perusal.

When I first read of the World War I connection, I had some trouble understanding it. The corpses in the Dead Marshes, people said, were reminiscent of the corpses in No Man’s Land, between the trenches. The journey was like trench warfare… somehow.

I understood it a little better, I think, in this reading. Frodo’s and Sam’s journey is in some psychological ways like the experience of a long war. Sam is a perfect epitome of the “common” soldier whom so many men of Tolkien’s class learned to appreciate, as never before, in the shared experience of combat. C. S. Lewis writes affectingly of his experience with his own sergeant, technically his subordinate, who taught him enough war-craft to stay alive in the early stages, and finally gave his own life (inadvertently) for Lewis through standing between him and the exploding shell that would have killed him. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: War stories

Blogging through LOTR: Anglo-Saxon echoes

Anglo-Saxons

‘Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?’

‘A man may do both,’ said Aragorn. ‘For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!’

I’ve been looking for Norse elements in The Two Towers. Of all the LOTR books, I think this one is richest in Scandinavian echoes – or at least Anglo-Saxon, which is as close as makes almost no difference, when you’re thinking of the Age of Beowulf (who lived in what is now Sweden, after all). Because the Rohirrim are plainly modeled on the Anglo-Saxons (though I suspect a tribe of horsemen would have developed the kite-shaped shield by this point, as the Normans did when they took to fighting on horseback).

There’s the boat-burial of Boromir, similar to the classic (mythical) Viking burial. Although most people think of ship burials at sea as a Viking custom, it’s actually undocumented in history or archaeology. Where it comes from is a passage in Beowulf (fully legendary), and the funeral of Baldur in Norse mythology (fully mythical). But it works well for the kind of high fantasy we’re involved with here. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: Anglo-Saxon echoes

Blogging through LOTR: “Write what you know”

The Fellowship of the Ring

Frodo felt that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness. When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among the Elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien.

I have finished my latest re-reading of The Fellowship of the Ring (don’t ask me how many times I’ve read it; I haven’t kept count. I know many a geek has surpassed me in that department).

The last time I read the Trilogy was in the wake of the releases of the Peter Jackson movies. I remember that I had to struggle a bit to override the film images in my imagination (as I’ve mentioned before). This time through, although the “struggle” remained, it bothered me less. I found that I relished the depth and scope of the book, compared to film with its many limitations (even in wide-screen with special effects).

Continuing my theme from last night’s post, I was most struck by the sense of time in the book – an impression of a comprehensive history, often only hinted at but lurking behind every corner. You can learn much of that greater history in the works that Christopher Tolkien has given us, but frankly I’ve never had the patience for all that. I don’t need to know the details. I just need to know it’s there, adding a deeper perspective to the epic narrative.

This is a lesson to writers.

Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” And that’s good advice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “Write only about your own life and experiences.” You can know many things outside your experience. Tolkien writes with such authority about the Third Age of Middle Earth (which, if you didn’t know, corresponds to the Norse term for our planet in mythological terms – Midgard) because he had put in a lot of hard work creating a coherent world with a coherent history, including languages. All those things were imaginary, but he “knew” them because he’d spent so much time with it all. That’s what we really mean when we say, “Write what you know.” We mean know your basic material, even if you’re making it up. Do your spade work before you plant. We live in the golden age of research – the internet gives you access to resources the greatest scholars of the past could only dream of. Take advantage of them.

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.