Posts Tagged ‘JRR Tolkien’

Adventures in Bookland: Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

There are three essential works for anyone interested in going deeper into Tolkien’s writing and thought: Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, Tom Shippey’s philological appreciation, JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, and John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. While Tolkien, famously and justly, abhorred the mining of an author’s life for the coal seam of his literary material, Garth’s study of Tolkien’s war, and that of the other three members of the youthful coterie that had gathered around him, the TCBS, is both an appreciation of the subtle weaving of thought, experience and action, and an examination of that generation, raised at the height of Empire, who bled out in the holocaust of the First World War. If anything, the two members of the TCBS who died in France, GB Smith and Robert Gilson, are portrayed even more vividly than Tolkien himself. It is clear that Tolkien was a writer who particularly required the frank and unvarnished feedback of men whom he admired and who resonated with him: most famously CS Lewis, who cajoled and encouraged the writing of The Lord of the Rings but, Garth’s book shows, Smith, Gilson and Wiseman similarly played midwife to the birthing of Middle-earth through their talks, discussions and shared ideals. For someone who has always been solitary in his creative endeavours, I find this aspect of Tolkien’s work fascinating and inscrutable. I’m also, I think, rather jealous. Would that I might say, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”


Adventures in Bookland: Bilbo’s Last Song by JRR Tolkien

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Death stalked JRR Tolkien through his childhood and his youth. Nowadays, we are most of us blessed with parents who live on to our own middle age, and friends who grow up alongside us. In Tolkien’s case, his father died when he was four and his mother when he was 12; enlisting in the army as a young man, as he remarks in the preface to The Lord of the Rings, by 1918 when he was 26, all but one of his closest friends were dead, killed in the First World War. So, yes, Tolkien knew death, personally and all too intimately.

This is a poem about death as indeed much of The Lord of the Rings is too. But where does that ship take us?

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

That’s how Philip Larkin describes it. But Tolkien, it seems, keeps faith with his characters, when faced with that final, definitive choice: “let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!”

Is death catastrophe or Eucatastrophe? Believing, hoping, despite all the evidence of his life, the latter, Tolkien produced The Lord of the Rings and all the wide realms of Middle-earth. Pascal’s Wager and Puddleglum’s vow hold true: better to live as a Narnian, even if there is no Narnia, for the black-sailed ship has no waters in its wake.


Adventures in Bookland: Leaf by Niggle by JRR Tolkien

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

I had read this little story by JRR Tolkien many years ago and remember being strangely moved by it, but not much more. So when I heard that a theatre production of the story by the Puppet State Theatre Company was touring with it, we all went along to see it. As Richard Medrington, the performer and narrator of the performance, tells us at the beginning, the production company’s name is a bit of a misnomer for this production: there’s no puppets and it’s not really a theatre show, there being only one performer, Mr Medrington himself. But after a preamble, delving into his own family history for reasons that aren’t immediately clear but become so later, Medrington begins telling the story of the painter, Niggle, and his attempts to paint a painting of a landscape he glimpses in his imagination, but can’t quite grasp. And in the telling, something extraordinary, something almost miraculous happens: worlds unfold, hearts open, eyes are made clear, for a while at least, of the dirt of daily life and we see, we see… Well, what do we see? In the end, we see a glimpse of what Niggle saw: the world he strove to capture but never quite did, the worlds that Tolkien wrote about but never completely grasped, the worlds we hope and dream and think on. It was the most moving theatrical evening of my life. Richard Medrington and his team at Puppet State have done wonders with Tolkien’s little tale, and brought out the vast world that is necessary to make even one, little, leaf. If you ever get the chance to see the production, don’t miss it. Here’s the trailer for the show.

Oh, and that preamble about Richard Medrington’s family? Through the course of the performance, we all come to realise that artistic creation is not vain, even if it never finds an audience, for through it we are doing what we, as humans and, in Tolkien’s phrase, co-creators are put on this Middle-earth to do.


Adventures in Bookland: The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

This was my first rereading of The Lord of the Rings since the films came out at the beginning of the century. I did wonder how much the film’s version of Middle-earth would intrude into my reading of the story and I was more than a little worried that it would shoulder aside every other imaginative engagement with Tolkien’s story. I’m pleased to say that, in most areas, it did not. Middle-earth remained, in my mind at least, largely uncontaminated by Peter Jackson’s vision. The one exception was were the films themselves succeeded best: in their design. The film designers’ imagining of Gondor and Rohan, of Moria and Rivendell, was, to be honest, better than anything I’d ever imagined, and I’m glad to accept it. The only areas were it failed for me were those were Jackson’s inveterate tendency to over-egg the pudding affected the design. So, for me, Barad-dûr, as pictured above, is simply too tall, more Burj Khalifa than a proper fortress, and the same criticism applies to Orthanc. But, apart from that, I generally loved how the designers made Middle-earth come alive.

As far as the actors are concerned, only Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey has fused with my own idea of Gandalf, so that now when I think of Gandalf I see him, standing on the bridge of Khazad-dûm. But, to my surprise, I’ve learned that another dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings has left a far deeper and more long-lasting impression: the BBC radio dramatisation that came out in 1981 and which I have listened to (as technology has changed) on radio, cassette, CD and digitally. Reading The Lord of the Rings, I heard parts of the dialogue exactly as those radio actors said the lines, with their voices speaking. When Faramir, in the radio play, finds he has Frodo and Sam, and the Ring, at his mercy, the actor playing him, Andrew Seear, does the most extraordinary job of conveying the life-defining struggle that Faramir endures for the space of a few seconds, as he has ‘a chance to show his quality’. Similarly, when Ian Holm, as Frodo, on the Cracks of Doom, chooses not to consign the ring to the fire but to claim it. Robert Stephens, as Aragorn, conveys Tolkien’s description of Strider as a man of doubtful appearance but true heart brilliantly, and Peter Woodthorpe’s Gollum is simply extraordinary.

I am sure Tolkien would be pleased at this: sound and words endure longer and go deeper in memory than images and pictures. For a philologist, this would be only right and proper.

Adventures in Bookland: The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

No, I’m not a Legolas fan boy. The reason I read this edition of The Lord of the Rings was because they had it at my local library.

‘What, you don’t have a copy yourself?’ I hear you ask in horror.

Of course I do. But – it is precious to me. This was the copy I read when I was back in secondary school, that I saved up my money to buy: the hardback edition with the fold out map at the back. I spent hours copying that map out, by hand, and the copy was no bad effort either: good enough to be stuck to my wall.

‘Why didn’t you just stick up the map in the book?’

What? And deface my copy of The Book? You jest – or are in the service of Mordor, where books are not appreciated. I would no more rip out the map at the back of The Two Towers (or The Fellowship of the Ring) than I would deface Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection. You might think a book is not the same as a picture, one being a vehicle for conveying a story, the other being, in itself, the colours and shapes on the wall. But books, as objects, are precious to me, things of reverence. They should be treated with the same respect that one treats a great painting – and this is particularly so for the books of life, those books that have changed your life. So, coming to re-read The Lord of the Rings, and needing to fit in the reading during tube journeys and in waiting rooms, meant that I would have to carry the books around with me, running the risk of damaging them. Hence, the trip to the local library, and why I ended up reading the edition of The Two Towers with Orlando Bloom on the front. Luckily, reading it meant that I did not have to look at the cover.

As to what was within the covers, well, you know, don’t you. Simply the second part of the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Adventures in Middle-earth: The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien

Sunday, November 26th, 2017

There are some books – most books actually – that pass under the eye as swiftly and with as little mark as the colours on a screen. There are other books, a small number in a lifetime, that mark you indelibly. For me, the book that has marked me probably more than any other is The Lord of the Rings. But it had been many years since I had revisited Middle-earth and I opened the oh-so-familiar book with some trepidation, the sort of fear that might attend meeting again the love of your life after long separation – would the enchantment remain unbroken?

It has. I remember, when I first read The Lord of the Rings, going to sleep each night for six months or more with the prayer that I might wake up in Middle-earth. Many years later, I would still wish to step out of this world and into Arda. If the theology of creation that Tolkien was feeling his way towards proves true, mayhap that shall indeed be possible. For if ever a work of heart and hand might be given the Secret Fire by Eru, and live, then surely it is Middle-earth. As for the Good Professor himself, I believe that, like Niggle the painter, he walks today by the willow meads of Tasarinan, looking towards the distant prospect of mountains towards which the road that goes ever on but that always leads home will take him.

On a more prosaic level, re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring, I was struck by the great part that geography played in the narrative. A modern-day writer would not spend so long telling of walking through landscapes – we have become an even hastier people – but for this reader, the word paintings of Middle-earth were as pure a pleasure as the surface narrative. For this is the tale of a world, in all its complexity, rather than just a telling of heroes.

Sometimes, all that is possible by way of review is gratitude. JRR Tolkien poured heart and soul and mind into Middle-earth. Now, 44 years after his death, we can still visit Middle-earth in heart and soul and mind.

Book review: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L Sayers

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
The Mind of the Maker

The Mind of the Maker

A while back, when taking a theology MA, a group of we students were put together in a group and left, by our tutor, with the instruction to talk about the Trinity. Now, this wasn’t one of those assemblages where fear of talking leads to agonised glances around to see if someone else will be brave enough to start things rolling – no, we were a voluble group, with most of us (not least me) quite convinced that what we had to say was quite as valuable as our tutor (so what if he had about four different degrees, various masters and enough doctorates to start a small clinic; we knew what we thought and we were damned if we weren’t going to tell everyone else too. Writing this, a number of years later, I wonder if that might be a clue as to why he shoved us all off into small groups to talk among ourselves.) So, there we were, dispatched to talk on the Trinity and, for the one and only occasion during the MA, I saw the flickering glances, the sidelong looks, the panicked, ‘Oh, God, I’ll have to say something if no one else will,’ glaze in people’s eyes. In the end, if memory serves, I plunged first into the pool of silence: ‘Look, do any of us understand what the Trinity is?’

Yes, that is what the Trinity will do to a group of even reasonably well read and devout Christians. Possibly the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity, and we are plunged into stuttering silence. It really isn’t good enough and, to judge by the acerbic tone of her introduction, Dorothy L Sayers shares the latter judgement and wrote The Mind of the Maker to challenge the first.  In fact, having finished it, I really wish I’d had the book to hand when we all sat around, tongues tied, trying to define what we’d all, apparently, written off at some level as the undefinable.

Now, of course, in one sense that is right: God is not definable, He can be no more (in fact, rather less) pinned down in words than can, say, the colour red. But, as with colour, we can use language analogically of God; He can be approached through metaphor. And here Sayers makes a crucial point, and one that immediately spoke to me: God is, both in his being and in terms of the language we use of him, far more the God of artists, of composers and painters and writers, than he is the God of philosophers and, dare I say, theologians. Of course, I should have known this all along. After all, God, the God of testaments Old and New, is a storyteller, weaving tales from history and then, in the most daring (and difficult to pull off; just ask Stephen King with respect to his Dark Tower cycle) stroke of all, God put Himself, as character into the story He was telling and, as a player on the stage, we know that God not only loves stories, He tells them: parables, phrases so vivid with meaning they have shook loose from history to enter the every day.

Let me quote Sayers at a little length (the quote from a play she wrote, The Zeal of Thy House, and sums up what she expands upon in The Mind of the Maker):

For every work (or act) of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other: and this is the image of the Trinity.

Now, as a writer, I can understand this. Sayers argues that this creative process, discernible in the Trinity, is also the template by which human creation works, a shadow of our maker, and in this she is supported by Tolkien, who in his great creation myth in The Silmarillion sees Men, and Elves, very much as sub-creators, most like God when we make, as He makes and, ultimately, when the world is refashioned and made right, Tolkien’s vision stretches even to a final great music of Creation, when Men and Elves join their voices to the music of Creation and, hearing what they fashion and hearing that it is good, God gives life to their fashionings, that they be real, as His own makings are.

I’ve gone on about this for a bit, but this really is a book worth reading, pondering on, and then reading again. Although I got it from the library, I will buy it: this is a keeper.

Book review: The Traitor’s Heir by Anna Thayer

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014
The Traitor's Heir by Anna Thayer

The Traitor’s Heir by Anna Thayer

Like many others, I suffer from PTRD – post-Tolkien reading disorder: the deepening sense of despair that slowly overwhelms a reader as he discovers that, in the field of fantasy fiction, he started at the top with the Good Professor and ever since then he has been coming down from the mountain of the worlds, into the flat plains – or, in some cases, stagnant pools – that comprise the world-building imaginations of other writers.

Let’s be clear about this: no one, and I mean no one, will match, let alone beat, Tolkien in the depth, breadth, height and profundity of their world building. The reasons for this are multiple, and mainly lie in the peculiar, and unique, range of gifts Tolkien brought to the creation of Middle-earth: most notably his astonishing grasp of the deep structure of language accompanied with the imagination to wield that creatively, and his profound, but non-allegorical faith, that transmuted the considerable suffering of his life into the meditation on divine providence that underlies his work.

So it’s hardly any surprise that, after discovering Tolkien and falling on any book that mentioned JRRT on its cover (‘comparable to Tolkien at his best’ – I’m looking at you, publishers of Stephen Donaldson), and finding out that none of them were comparable to Tolkien – and having fallen to the depths of Shannara – I shunned fantasy completely for many years. Recently, I’ve put a toe back into one or two of the pools in the Wood Between Worlds, but only for the relatively new genre of urban fantasy, which is making some progress (although I fear its obsession with the noumenal nature of tramps and hobos threatens towards self parody). So Anna Thayer’s ‘The Traitor’s Heir’ is the first proper, secondary world fantasy novel I’ve read for many years, and what a relief it was to enjoy it thoroughly. By keeping its focus strictly on the human (with a bit of magic thrown in) it avoids the unfavourable comparisons with Tolkien, while the emphasis on the struggles of the good does actually bear comparison with what Tolkien is doing in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. So, thank you, Anna, for reawakening my interest in secondary-world fantasy. Now for the second volume in the trilogy, ‘The King’s Hand’.