Archive for the ‘Tolkien’ Category

In 1984, I fell into conversation with David Brin while pouring over the books in a science fiction convention’s dealers room. He suggested one book, reminding me that it had won the Nebula Award, and I said, “Oh? Was that back when the Nebula meant something?”

Abruptly, I remembered that Brin had won the Nebula Award a few months ago for Startide Rising. I made some strangling noises of embarrassment and stammered out an apology, and he was gracious enough to say, “That’s OK. I used to feel the same way.”

I still flinch at the memory, but not the sentiment. The truth is, with all respect to Brin and many other deserving winners, I’ve never cared for literary awards of any kind, even though once or twice I’ve served on awards committees myself. The recent news that Tolkien’s prose was dismissed by the Nobel Committee in 1961 as having “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality” only reinforces my dislike.

For one thing, technical merit is only one consideration in a literary prize. If nothing else, few awards have any provision for nominating nothing in a given year, and those that do are under heavy pressure from publishers and booksellers to avoid using it.

Moreover, while an award can sometimes be made entirely on technical merit, especially in its early days, or when its jury is hidden, too often nationalism, friendship, and professional interest interfere. For instance, the Nobel Committee has been under pressure for years to see that non-European writers are better represented among the winners. At times, deserving writers have been passed over as too old.

In such circumstances, the criterion of excellence threatens to become compromised. Yet this simple fact can never be admitted. Instead the pretense that the award is completely for excellence is kept up, and the selection process becomes an exercise in hypocrisy. The most that a conscientious member of the jury can hope for is that the eventual award winner isn’t entirely unsuitable.

Fortunately (for the jury members, if not the reading public), such winners aren’t hard to find. Beyond a certain standard of quality, it is frequently impossible to claim in any meaningful way that one writer is more skilled than another, because they have such different goals artistically.

For instance, if you look at well-known 19th Century writers (whom I’m choosing because the canon is much more established for the writers of over a century ago than for living writers), you might just be able to compare meaningfully George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, because they share an interest in psychology.

But how do you compare either one to Charles Dickens? To Charlotte Bronte? Jane Austen? Mark Twain? Henry James? As soon as you ask yourself by what criteria one of these is considered a better writer than another, the whole exercise becomes absurd. The best you can do is point out what one of these writers tries to do that another doesn’t. But these differences don’t mean that one is better than another, any more than differences in physiology prove a cat a superior animal to a dog.

And when you’re dealing with modern writers, the task is even more difficult. With most modern writers, no one has observed what they are good at. Instead, jury members are thrown back on their own powers of observation, or – more likely – upon the perceived wisdom of their generation’s academics and critics.

That, I suspect, was what happened to Tolkien in 1961 (to say nothing of Graham Greene, Karen Blixen, and Lawrence Durrell, all of whom are now recognized as major literary figures). If you take Tolkien on his own terms – as a writer whose important influences are a mixture of Old English and Medieval traditions, popular ballads, and oral storytelling, and as a writer of epics rather than novels – then he is an excellent writer of his sort.

However, in 1961 (and still, to an extent today), none of Tolkien’s influences or intentions were recognized by academics and critics as worthwhile. Tolkien’s tradition is plot-based, and its social observations are metaphorical where they exist at all. He has little psychological perception, even less social realism, and, generally speaking, none of the virtues prized in a modern serious novel.

Under these circumstances, how could the Nobel Committee possibly appreciate Tolkien? Its members would have been like people who are color blind trying to appreciate a painting in which subtle changes of hue are a major element. With the best will in the world, they couldn’t appreciate Tolkien – and, backed by the official opinions of their times, they probably didn’t see any reason to try very hard, either.

Literary awards may be popular with publishers and booksellers, because they can mean increased sales. Yet I can’t help noticing that very few writers of any stature take them very seriously. In fact, in my experience, the more acclaimed a writer is, the less seriously they take any award. They know that the only real competition they are up against is themselves.

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The Lord of the Rings is one of the books to which I’ve kept returning in my life, and I’ve seen the movies several times. So, when I heard that a group of fans were issuing a prequel called The Hunt for Gollum, and offering it for free viewing on the web (in the hopes that, if profit wasn’t an issue, issues about copyright violation might be ignored), I was immediately intrigued. It’s far from the first movie made this way, but my interest in Tolkien meant that it’s the first that I have actually made the effort of watching. What I saw was a homage to the films, obviously made on the cheap and lacking plot, but far from the worst forty minutes I’ve spent watching a movie.

The movie is a prequel to the trilogy in which Aragorn hunts down Gollum and captures him for questioning. These events are mentioned in The Fellowship of the Ring as having happened recently, but are not shown directly (the better, no doubt to keep Aragorn off stage until he makes his mysterious entrance at Bree).

The camera work, staging, costuming, and music could almost have come straight from Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop. Like Jackson’s movies, The Hunt has long, panoramic shots of landscapes. When something is about to happen, Aragorn – who is in-camera for most of the forty minutes – strikes a pose while the camera lingers on him. When he is wounded, he has a mystical vision of Arwen, the elf woman who has his heart. Meanwhile, the soundtrack gives unsubtle hints about what is about to happen.

In short, the grand opera mannerisms of Peter Jackson are imitated as closely as possible. Even the characters, from Gollum to Gandalf and the orcs are based heavily on the movie (even if Aragorn does look a little too much like a poetic grad student, and not enough like someone who sleeps rough most nights). You might consider this imitation a lack of originality, but I suspect it shows more the sincerity of the makers. The Hunt is above all else a homage, a re-creation of the atmosphere developed by Jackson by people who full-heartedly love it.

The trouble is, of course, is that a slight difference in budget exists. If you’re looking, you should have no difficulty in seeing where money is conserved. For example, a scene set in a house looks like a modern pub or antiqued kitchen, while a conservatory with anachronistic glass serves as a stand-in for Rivendell. You get one elf, only three or four orcs whose makeup shows. Most obviously, Gollum is seen close up in only one shot, and, in fact, spends most of his time in a sack hung over Aragorn’s shoulder, which poerhaps llows more than one person to play him.

However, most of these budget measures are unobtrusive, unless you make a point of looking for them. The one exception is the unavailability of Gollum in closeup, which reduces much of the drama, leaving poor Aragorn to respond to a sack. Adrian Webster, the actor playing Aragorn, tries valiantly, but no actor, no matter how skilled, can do much to save essentially dramaless scenes.

But the greatest problem with The Hunt for Gollum is the script. Granted, the scope of the story that can be told in forty minutes is limited. All the same, there is a difference between a string of incidents that related to each other only by when they happen, and a plot, in which one incident leads to another – and, for most of the forty minutes, the movie offers only a string of incidents. They are acceptably acted and staged incidents, but they do not form a plotted story.

Still, full credit to the production team for its ingenuity. The same team is already working on a science fiction thriller, and, while I was not absolutely entranced by this first effort, I was impressed enough that I’ll check on its progress every now and then. There are dozens, if not thousands of half hour TV shows that entertained me less, and if I sound flippant, the reason is that my interest in Tolkien made me hope for something marvelous instead of simply well-done. I only hope that, second time out, the team remembers to arm itself with a tighter script.

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Ever since I learned to read, I’ve been a chain reader, sometimes literally finishing one book and picking up another one. Books have been my refuge from the bleakness and bad news of the day, a way to while away time while in line at the store, and my companion on constant rides on transit and planes. I even shave while reading to alleviate the boredom of the task (obviously, I use a safety razor). And, inevitably, I re-read.

The first time I read a book, I may have many motivations. Obviously, I need to have an interest in the topic or the writer, but I’m not a very discriminating reader, so that hardly narrows down why I might read something – everything from graphic novels to Middle English poetry might seem interesting to me in different moods. At times, I read because the writer has a reputation, and I want to push back the boundaries of my ignorance a furlong or two. At other times, I read because I’ve been given a book (I count heavily on friends to urge on me books that I might not pick for myself, and, often enough, I find myself pleasantly surprised). Still other times, I read because nothing better is at hand.

However, why I re-read is easier to delineate. I rarely re-read non-fiction from cover to cover, although I might return to particular pages when researching or needing to prod my memory. Mostly, what I re-read is fiction. If I was trying to be a snob, I would claim that I re-read only worthwhile books, but that would be a half-truth. Unless my tastes change, I doubt I’ll re-read standards of the literary canon like Henry James or Anthony Trollope; I recognize that their writing shows some skill, but, like opera, it’s a skill I recognize without appreciating.

It would be more exact to say that I re-read fiction whose skill has impressed me with its craft, regardless of how the canon regards it: Charles Dickens, but also Wilkie Collins; John Fowles and Lawrence Durrell, but also any number of writers who labored their life away in the science fiction ghetto.
What others think of my taste makes little difference to me (although I confess I can’t quite bring myself to read graphic novels on the bus). Instead, what matters is that the work shows some skill. The over-maligned Stephen King, for instance, is a master at pacing and observation of Americana – two skills that are usually missing from the academic’s checklist for greatness, but which average readers reward unconsciously by purchasing his work.
However, the books I re-read the most are those that are not only give aesthetic pleasure, but also reinforce my world view. Three books (or series) in particular come to mind: T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which shaped my sense of right and wrong; J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, from which I learned the core values of endurance and rising to the occasion; and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin novels, which idealize friendship and a detached but amused view of the world while also offering historical adventure in the 19th century British navy.

Probably, you could gauge my character very accurately, not only from the common nature of these books – none, notably, have a modern or mundane setting – but also from the number of times I’ve re-read them. White I’ve re-read at least a dozen times since childhood, and Tolkien – the last time I checked – over 33 times, a number that astonishes me as I write it. By contrast, I have only read the twenty or so novels in O’Brian’s series three times through, but, then, I came to them much later that the other two, and they probably amount to two or three times the words of White’s and Tolkien’s classics. I’m re-reading O’Brian now, savoring favorite lines (“Jack, you have debauched my sloth”) and finding new subtleties.

The chances are, I’ll re-read all three – to say nothing of other favorites – many times in the rest of my life. However, I doubt I’ll re-read any of them as many times again as I already have. As I grow older, I am more jealous of time, and more aware of all that I have still to read. In fact, probably a new book has to impress me more than my classics did before I’ll re-read it in preference to moving on to something new. But a change of heart or a prolonged illness might change that, and, even if they don’t, I still expect many hours of pleasure ahead with my old favorites.

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Early in The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien mentions that the Baggins family was so respectable that you knew what a member would say on a given subject without the troubling of asking them. He meant that they were hopelessly conventional, and, despite his own conservatism, Tolkien leaves no doubt that Bilbo Baggins became a better person for having adventures and becoming an eccentric. I’ve been thinking about this comment a lot lately, because recently I’ve been feeling like I’m surrounded by the members of the Baggins family.

The specific trigger for this feeling was an effort to get back in touch with someone last week. I was reasonably certain I wouldn’t get a reply, but every once in a while, a Baggins does go off and have an adventure, so I tried anyway. Call it an act of cynicism, or a gesture of faith – you wouldn’t be wrong either way – but I was right.

Since then, I’ve had half a dozen other incidents in which people acted in the most predicable way imaginable. Maybe I’m just too observant for my own good, but I find this predictability disappointing. When, I keep wondering, are people going to stop acting like characters out of a movie or book, and start acting like people?

You know what I mean. I’m talking about the people who, if you know one of their opinions on social issues, you know most of the others ones. The people whose greatest wish is to be married – not because they’ve found someone special, but because all their friends are getting married or they’re afraid of the sound of their own thoughts when they’re alone. The ones who never rebel, or the ones who rebel by getting a tattoo or body-piercing just like millions of others. The women who see all men as predators, the men who see all women as prey. The businessmen and women who underpay employees but set up carefully selected charities so they can live with themselves. All the millions of reconditioned Victorians with their secondhand hypocrisies and emotions who cry at nationally declared tragedies that didn’t affect them or theirs and put flowers and plush toys on the roadside shrines for strangers, but won’t stop to help someone with a flat tire or give a dollar to someone begging on the streets.

What I really want to know is: Does everybody have to be such a walking cliche?

I don’t know if people are getting worse, or I’m simply observing more as I get older. Remembering Oscar Wilde’s comment that there was no fog on the Thames until artists painted it, I have a theory

(I always have a theory)

that people are taking their role models from the thousands of hours of sitcoms and reality shows that they watch.

That insight first struck me when I read a decade ago about a man who hired a hitman to go after his girlfriend. At the time, I wondered: Had he ever thought of talking to her? Or just leaving?

But, increasingly, I seem to run into people who act as if they are in a TV show scripted by a derivative hack.
It’s easier, I guess, than thinking for yourself.

The thought that people are basing their lives on bad art is depressing enough. Yet the real nightmarish thought is that maybe people aren’t capable of better.

What if they aren’t simply failing to live up to potential? What if they are living up to their potential, and the mediocrity of a bureaucrat refusing to bend the rules out of compassion or the petty mendacities of people who don’t have the decency to breakup with their lovers face to face are really the best that the average human can do?

If I truly believed that for more than a few seconds, then I would know what despair was all about.

So far, I still cling somehow to the belief that people are better than they let themselves be, that people could be foresighted, decent, and courageous if they chose to be, that people really could surprise me and shatter my gloomy cynicism. But, with all the petty daily betrayals of themselves, I have an increasing sympathy for Cassandra.

You remember Cassandra. The Trojan princess to whom Apollo gave the gift of prophecy, then cursed her so she would never be believed? When I predict how people will act based on my experience and knowledge of convention, I get the same dubious stares she must have endured. And, like Cassandra, I am just as tired of being right as I am of being doubted.

Sometimes, I almost feel like standing on the street corner and shouting, “Come on, people! Surprise me, just once! Prove me wrong!”

But, like Cassandra, I’d only get blank stares if I did. Apparently most people haven’t read The Hobbit. Or, if they have, they were cheering for the Bagginses instead of Bilbo.

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I first caught a glimpse of the power of allusions when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in Grade Six. As much as I loved the characters and was swept along by Tolkien’s sense of timing, what really struck me was all the passing references to thousands of miles of geography and thousands of miles of history. I didn’t know, then, that Tolkien had built up this material over decades. What mattered to me was the illusion of added depth created by the allusions. You didn’t need to know all the details — in fact, as subsequent Tolkien publications of the back story showed, you were usually better off if you didn’t, because what seemed magically suggestive in passing became unavoidably disappointing in detail. But, even at that age, I recognized an effective literary technique when I saw one.

Later, I saw it in a number of other books, including The Worm Ourboros by E. R. Eddison, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (when unsolved cases are mentioned), and in the Dark Border series by my late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer. So it’s not a new device, even if you won’t find it taught along the memorized definitions of metaphor and metonymy that they teach in high school.

Part of the reason, I suppose, is that, despite the enduring popularity of writers like Tolkien or Conan Doyle, it’s a device used most often in fantasy, which literary critics still distrust because of the whiff of popular culture that rise from them. Moreover, it requires a deft hand, and is harder to observe objectively than something as straightforward as a simile.

Basicallly, however, the art of creating depth through allusions lies in striking the exact balance between suggestiveness and mystery. The allusion has to be comprehensible enough that readers can get some dim understanding of it, but no more.

That lack of detail may seem lazy, yet it’s essential. Because the allusion is incomplete, readers have to fill in the gap themselves with guesswork. By doing so, they are drawn into the story-telling, and become participants in the development of the background.

The idea is the same, I suppose, as Stephen King’s observation that a horror writer has to use the appearance of the monster sparingly. The monster may be scary, King says, but its actual appearance will never match what the reader imagined. The writer may show a ten foot monster, but what the reader imagined was a sixty foot monster, and the reality will disappoint.

In the same way, an allusion explained is an allusion lost. When Tolkien mentions Lúthien and Beren, you know that it’s an unhappy love story and somehow applies to Aragorn. The tale in the appendices or in The Simarillion may be interesting in its own right, but it’s not nearly as poignant as the tale you imagine when you first read the allusion.

In the same way, has anyone ever read one of the pastiches that explains the giant rat of Sumatra that is half as interesting as the passing mention of the unwritten story that Dr. Watson makes in passing?

The technique is used mainly in fantasy, but it can be used more conventionally, too. For example, in Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal, the title character explains that he is late for an event because he was attending the birthday party of a friend’s young daughter. As Zelazny himself observes, the line of explanation is technically unnecessary. All the same, he kept it in because it suggests that the character has a life beyond what is being told in the page, and that he’s the kind of person who, for all his toughness, would do such a thing. At the cost of maybe fifteen words, Zelazny gets an illusion of depth that enriches his effort. That illusion makes the allusion worth having, always.

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The first of Tolkien’s unfinished works to be published since Peter Jackson released his operatic version of The Lord of the Rings, The Children of Húrin has actually made several bestseller lists. I suspect that it will be a book like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Tiime that people buy and don’t read. At the most, they may only open it to admire Alan Lee’s moody full-color illustrations — which, incidentally, have always struck me as inspired by Tolkien’s own amateurish watercolors, although rendered by an infinitely more talented artist. But, for whatever reason, people like me or the members of the Mythopoeic Society find ourselves once again in the embarrassingly unfamiliar position of having our tastes become popular. However, if the critics are any indication, it won’t last long, because most people are simply unequipped to appreciate Tolkien’s unpublished papers.

To start with, let’s dispense with the idea that the book was published to cash in on the success of the movie. The Tolkien family has already made a good thing from their ancestor’s literary works, and works like The Children of Húrin aren’t going to substantially improve the royalties.

Even more importantly, Christopher Tolkien, who edited the book, stitching different pieces together to make a coherrent whole, has been printing his father’s unpublished works for several decades, so it’s not as though he suddenly decided to cash in. Probably he can’t be completely unaware of the commercial probabilities, but in such a sustained effort over so many years, scholarship and love have to play a large role, too. To harp, as the Globe and Mail did, about the movie that could be made from the book overlooks the more basic point that this may be the last piece of his father’s works that Christopher Tolkien publishes, since he is now in his eighties. Christopher Tolkien may have wanted that last piece to win a large audience so that it becomes the crown of his editorial efforts, but probably we can exonerate him from any motives more mercenary than that.

For another thing, Tolkien’s prose model is evidently the Norse sagas, with which the average critic or reader today is unfamiliar unless they happened to grow up in Iceland and learned to read from them. This is a highly readable tradition, but it is not the modern European or North American novel tradition. In the saga tradition, speech is not naturalistic, and motives and characters are stated plainly, not revealed in action or through indirection. And, like most sagas, The Children of Húrin is about the concerns and feuds of a family. That’s why it starts with detailed explanations of who is related to whom, and ends with a family scene. What seems tedious to a modern sensibility is a necessary part of the saga form.

As well as the sagas, Tolkien is also drawing on Norse traditions of the dragon slayer, like Beowulf or Sigmund, the hero of Wagner’s Ring cycle. It is a part of this tradition that the dragon slayer himself must die, often, as here, for a wrong that he has done unknowingly. What drives the plot is not sudden twists, but a sense of fate unfolding inevitably. Here, fate is nudged more than a little by the curse of Morgoth, Sauron’s tougher former boss, but the effect is much the same as though less concrete forces are at work. The main characters struggle with their fate and in the end fall prey to it, but in their struggles they become figures of heroic grandeur. It is an existential, Germanic sense of fate at play in The Children of Húrin, and someone who only knows tragedy from the Greek version of the word is unlikely to appreciate it.

Another major misunderstanding that you encounter among critics is that The Children of Húrin is written in an archaic style. It is true that the tone of Tolkien’s work, like that of the King James Bible, has a balanced and dignified cadence, but aside from a few archaicisms such as “save” for “except for,” Tolkien is actually one of the twentieth century’s great masters of simple prose.

Should you have any doubts on the matter, read this passage (chosen at random) aloud. Húrin and his brother have just returned to their father Galdor on the backs of giant Eagles after being lost and rescued by the elves of a hidden kingdom. To keep the kingdom secret, they have promised not to reveal how they have survived so long:

Their kinfolk rejoiced to see them, for messengers from Brethil had reported they were lost; but they would not tell even to their father where they had been, save that they were rescued in the wilderness by the Eagles that brought them home. But Galdor said, “Did you then dwell a year in the wild? Or did the Eagles house you in their eyries? But you found food and raiment, and return as young princes, not as waifs of the wood.” “Be content, father, said Húrin, “that we have returned; for only under an oath of silence was this permitted. That oath is still on us.” Then Galdor questioned them no more, but he and many others guessed at the truth.

The simplicity of the language is probably due to the inspiration of the sagas, as well as Tolkien’s preference for Old English words over ones derived from French or Latin. But the overall effect is one of dignified restraint between men who share a strong sense of honor and are somewhat constrained at expressing emotion to each other. Such passages are, quite simply, beautiful, and anyone who alleges archaicisms and fails to mention the power of the language prove themselves the owners of tin ears, at least when they are reading silently.

If you don’t know the tradition that Tolkien is working in, whether you like The Children of Húrin can be predicted by what you thought of the appendices in the The Lord of the Rings. If you thought the story of Beren and Lúthien romantic, or the image of the last kings of Gondor brooding childless in their towers evocative, then chances are The Children of Húrin will be just as moving to you. But if you found the appendices a bore and skipped through them, do yourself a favor and avoid this new book. You’ll also be doing any Tolkien readers a favor by not prodding at it with your clumsy and unknowing fingers.

But for people like me, who devoured the first book of The Lord of the Rings one summer Saturday in Grade Six and spent a frantic Sunday waiting for the store to be open on Monday so I could get the next book, The Children of Húrin is a welcome return to a familiar place — especially since, to paraphrase Bilbo Baggins (that inestimable old hobbit) it may very well be the last drop of the old Smaug vintage.

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