Tag Archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

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 below.

Tolkien’s Lost “Noel”

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.

“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)