J.R.R. Tolkien wrote essays and myths for years before the publication of The Hobbit in 1937. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics is also published this year. The Lord of the Rings is published in three volumes during 1954-55. And through all of this time, the author may have been thinking he should possibly find time to write something deep on Chaucer.
His research student V.A. Kolve said, “He confessed to me once that some were disappointed by how little he had done in the academic way, but that he had chosen instead to explore his own vision of things.”
Tolkien himself said, “I have always been incapable of doing the job at hand.”
[Tolkien] confided to his publisher in 1937 that Oxford would merely add The Hobbit to his “long list of never-never procrastinations” (Letters, 18). Fiction-writing simply did not count in terms of academic production, especially after Tolkien had idled away his two-year Leverhulme Research Fellowship. “The authorities of the university,” he would lament when The Lord of the Rings was in press, “might well consider it an aberration of an elderly professor of philology to write and publish fairy stories and romances” (Letters, 219). He explained to his American publisher this widespread view of his failings: “Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (cert. behind my back, sometimes to my face) at the fall of a philological into ‘Trivial literature’; and anyway the cry is: ‘now we know how you have been wasting your time for 20 years’” (Letters, 238).
During the war he had said to Christopher: ‘We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring’ and now he wrote: ‘The War is not over (and the one that is, or part of it, has largely been lost). But it is of course wrong to fall into such a mood, for Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on, and it is no good growing faint.’
The trailers for the new Tolkien movie looked kind of good, so I figured I might go to see it. It seemed to me it would be a good idea to read a Tolkien biography before I did that. And although I’m now hearing that the movie leaves out Tolkien’s Catholic faith – which means I probably won’t see it after all – I’m glad I bought Humphrey Carpenter’s Tolkien: A Biography.
The book is easy to read and not too long. It follows “Toller’s”
life from his birth in South Africa to his death in England, and the author is
clearly a sympathetic fan – though he is often amused by Tolkien’s
eccentricities. Which were many.
This is, I believe, the classic Tolkien biography, and it’s fairly
old now. I expect there are new things to be learned from more recent ones. I
noted, for instance, that Carpenter speaks of “Jack” Lewis’s transfer to
Cambridge University only in passing, as a step backwards in the two men’s
friendship. While that’s true enough, it should have been noted that it was
through the good offices of Tolkien himself that Jack got the job.
But, reading as a fan, I found Tolkien: A Biography fascinating. I recommend it highly.
The star of the upcoming biopic on Tolkien, Nicholas Hoult, said he loves what he has learned about the great author’s rich knowledge of history and language. His character demonstrates an early love of language in the film by talking to the woman who would become his wife about a word he felt should mean far more than it does. Entertainment Weekly states, “The give-and-take of their blossoming romance is founded on language, and in such ways, Tolkien makes a case for why the mind of The Lord of the Rings author was as fascinating as his fantasy epics.”
Tolkien historian John Garth said theirs is a good plan, because biographical movies like this usually make up things. He told The Guardian, “As a biographer, I expect I’ll be busy correcting new misconceptions arising from the movie. I hope that anyone who enjoys the film and is interested in Tolkien’s formative years will pick up a reliable biography.”
Jeffrey Overstreet calls Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary on the war that shaped J.R.R. Tolkien the best offering of all of Jackson’s Tolkien-inspired movies.
Honoring these intimate archival recordings, Jackson reveals harrowing accounts of the misleading propaganda that summoned so many young men, the dehumanizing pressures of the war, the particular chaos and slaughter of the Somme, the burdens that the survivors would have to carry, and the betrayals, abandonment, and loneliness that awaited those few who returned. And as we listen, he fills the screen with highlights (that word sounds trite and inappropriate here) from more than 600 hours of material from the Imperial War Museum and BBC archives. Much of it is sharpened and focused, but then, as in Wings of Desire and The Wizard of Oz, its black-and-white footage suddenly blooms into color and detail that takes your breath away.
What would you say is the prequel to the Lord of the Rings? Yeah, that’s not this. With an estimated cost of over $1B, the new Amazon series will look into all of those details we get in the appendices about Aragorn’s life as the ranger and heir to the Gondorian throne. When Gandalf took Bilbo and the dwarves to Rivendell, the young heir was there, though perhaps not around them. A few years later, he was told who he was, that the sword of kings of Arnor was his, and that he needed to watch his back. That’s when he began to roam Middle Earth and later served under two kings for many years.
Lots of good material for them to, you know, ruin. I know they want a new Game of Thrones, which would be bad, but I hope they don’t give us a medieval Gotham, which would be like saying, “You know all of the hope and purity of Middle Earth that you’ve loved all your life? This ain’t that.”
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on this day in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Here’s a recording of an interview from the 1960s. I think you can identify the slight slur in his speech, caused by an early tongue injury. By all accounts, it did not affect his lecturing voice, but it did make him hard to understand, sometimes, in conversation.
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.
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→
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.
‘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→
‘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→
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.
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).
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.