Posts Tagged ‘Tolkien’

Adventures in Bookland: Tolkien by Raymond Edwards

Saturday, June 6th, 2015


Humphrey Carpenter’s 1977 biography of Tolkien remains deservedly the definitive biography of the Good Professor, in part because, alone of the writers mining Middle-earth, he was given access to Tolkien’s private papers, yet in the half century since then a huge amount of material has come to light, particularly relating to JRRT’s professional life. Raymond Edwards’ new biography pays particular attention to this and, since Edwards’ own background is Oxford philology, he makes the struggles, intrigues and battles of academic departments quite fascinating. There is also an engaging strain of waspishness to his judgements – always enjoyable in a biography which, let’s be honest, is really gossip writ literary style – so I’d recommend this to anyone who has read Carpenter and wants some more detail about Tolkien’s life.

On Magic and Science

Friday, January 2nd, 2015
Wizard worlds

Wizard worlds

So, you’ve got – as a writer – your carefully worked out world, complete with dragons, various branches of the faerie folk with names artfully changed to suggest that no, you really didn’t mean Elves like in Middle-earth, and, of course, magic. After all, what fantasy world would be complete without a bit of magic, a little sprinkling of wonder and strangeness across the boundaries of the mundane that hem us into our own world. And, what’s more, the book works! You find a publisher, the public read it, clamour for more, you are rolling in authorial clover (if not money; get real, this is a first novel after all). Time for the sequel. Ah, the sequel. Now, what exactly can Wizard Wiz do – and what can’t he do? What about the Witches? Broomsticks – that’s as read. But what other powers do they have? Better start working this out.

And this is precisely where so many fantasy worlds and fantasy authors start going wrong. Yes, as one goes deeper into a secondary world, you have to work things through and understand them more deeply, but the danger with magic is to start treating it as engineering with a veneer of Latin. So, taken to its conclusion, you have a sort of Tops Trumps version of magic, where strength 5 wizards with additional special powers are, literally, trumped by the authorial McGuffin of a blocking ability or the amulet or token that trumps other powers; it becomes a Marvel/DC universe, where fans (and the Lord knows I’m one of them) can spend enjoyable hours debating whether the Hulk would beat Thor: power trumps everything.

Engineering is magic, but not the right sort of magic

Engineering is magic, but not the right sort of magic

But this is not magic. This is to view magic through 21st-century, scientific eyes. To put it simply, magic is not science. Science proceeds by virtue of its method, which means that while it might take a genius such as Newton or Einstein to propose a new theory, once published it is possible for anyone of reasonable intelligence to follow the reasoning by which they came to their conclusions. Similarly, science is demonstrated by experimenters of genius, like Michelson and Morley, running tests to show if predictions match results. But, once the experiment has first been run, anyone following the same method should be able to replicate the results.

Science is repeatable. That’s its point. It might take a genius to find the path through the overwhelming array of data, but once the path is found anyone should be able to follow it. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can do it.

The point of magic is that any Tom, Dick or Harry cannot do it. A magician, a wizard might take years to learn a spell, a craft, a potion but even if you, the reader (or indeed, the would-be wizard), followed the same practices as diligently and for as long, there would be no guarantee that you could repeat the spell. Magic is personal and particular; in that it resembles elite sport or virtuoso musicians. I might practice batting for as long as Kevin Pietersen, working as diligently as he does, and yet at the end of it I would not be able to do what he does. Why not? The short answer: I don’t have his talent. The slightly longer answer: I do not have the combination of physical, mental and emotional characteristics that make him a great batsman – my deficiencies ranging from poorer eyesight and being a good six inches shorter through to lacking a taste for physical confrontation as confirmation of my own abilities.

Only 9,982 hours to go

Only 9,982 hours to go

Similarly with music. Pace Malcolm Gladwell, but 10,000 hours of practice might be necessary for mastery of an art, it is not necessarily sufficient for it. I could have set aside eight hours every day on the guitar – I did, for a number of years – and yet I never even came close to mastering the instrument, and this for a particular combination of physical and psychological reasons. To coin Albert’s law: practice is necessary for mastery of an art but it is not sufficient for it; you need talent too. And by talent I mean the particular combination of physical, psychological and spiritual traits that are necessary for a particular person to master a particular skill – and note that these will differ according to person and art.

Similarly with magic. A wizard is, by nature, singular. Defining magical laws, turning it into engineering, is to filter it through the wrong lens. Try applying the laws of performance to it, and you will be on stronger writing ground.

The Four Causes

The Four Causes

As so often when writing fantasy, JRR Tolkien provides the best example. He barely mentions magic in The Lord of the Rings, and when the Elves do talk about it, they say that what they do is not magic as understood by mortals. And nor is it. Tolkien, being well grounded in Thomistic theology, understood better than most the Aristotelian underpinning of Elvish magic and its relationship to the four causes indentified by the Stagirite, to whit the formal, material, efficient and final causes, so Elvish magic, or art as they themselves more likely saw it, was the deep understanding of causation in relation to any object and the ability to see more clearly through to its true end, and bring that about. Tolkien distinguishes this from sorcery, where the ultimate aim is the subjugation of the free will of others to the sorceror – the greatest sin within Arda, for it seeks to subvert the supreme gift of Eru (God).

So, writers, when writing magic and wizards, banish thoughts of Warhammer outcome tables and video game power ups; think rather of Yo Yo Ma or Zinedine Zidane then apply that mixture of refinement, ability and the pursuit of perfection to magic and you won’t go far wrong.

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’.

An Extract from Professor Tolkien of Oxford

Friday, December 14th, 2012

In honour of the release of The Hobbit (and in an unashamed attempt to drum up some business) here’s an extract from my ebook, Professor Tolkien of Oxford. It’s from the chapter The Halls of Lore.


Listen! This Anglo-Saxon cry rang through the halls of the kings of the Anglo-Saxons when the bard, or scop, stood up to begin a tale of heroism or adventure. It is the first word of Beowulf, the epic Anglo-Saxon poem that Tolkien loved, studied, defended and taught through all his working life. And it was the word that Tolkien would shout out at the start of his lectures on Old English, startling a room of gossiping undergraduates into silence.


Words were the basis of everything Tolkien wrote. Not merely because he was a writer, but because it was the love of words, the intrigue of these nuggety bundles of sound and meaning that carry thought and love and history and the immense burden of human history on their unassuming backs, that made Tolkien into a scholar and writer in the first place. Words, their meaning, their derivation, the glimpses they offered into the deep past of places and peoples, were what brought him to Oxford and what made him stay. Tolkien was a philologist as much as he was a writer, and the two disciplines interpenetrated in his depths.

To read some more, buy the book!

Northumbria is Middle-earth

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Now, as you may know (and if you don’t, I’ll need to make my self-advertisement even more blatant), my ebook on Tolkien, Professor Tolkien of Oxford, has just come out, and my old-fashioned paper book on the history and archaeology of Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom is out 1 October. What I had not known before is that other eyes than mine have seen the connection between the two. When places are touted as the inspiration for Middle-earth, the areas around Birmingham where Tolkien grew up (which were then bucolic expanses of greenery rather than suburbs) usually win out. But, it turns out, and this will not be a surprise to visitors, Northumberland fits better today. For the poster for The Hobbit features Gandalf striding across the Shire, but the backdrop is Northumberland. The ruined castle to the right of centre is Edlingham Castle. The hills are the Simonside Hills, according to folklore the home of dwarves, the duergar, who lead travellers astray.

So, Northumbria is Middle-earth. I knew it!