Tag Archives: tolkien

Two Tolkiens, One Better World

JRR Tolkien Bradley Birzer reminds us that J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher contributed much to his father’s legacy. It took him four years to compile and edit The Silmarillion before it was ready for publication, and other works, from the elder Tolkien’s modernization of Beowulf to the latest work, The Fall of Gondolin, demanded years of patient scholarship.

But in the same article, Birzer also points out how J.R.R. Tolkien gifted the world with his astonishing and profound creations, works that grew out of Tolkien’s personal losses and the soul-numbing trauma of war. Tolkien’s world-building not only helped him overcome the spiritual and emotional pain caused by his excruciating experience at the Somme, but has inspired countless readers as well.

What makes Tolkien so timeless is that his tales are much, much more than feel-good fables that end with the happy moral “You can do it!” And there’s more going on in Tolkien than the observation that “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

Tolkien’s insight into human nature is that there is such a thing as human nature, and that it springs from roots deeper and mightier than we can understand. While murder and greed and depravity certainly exist, we possess within us timeless ties to countless generations before us, generations whose courage and tenacity are part of us even when we forget them. As Birzer notes:

“Those familiar with The Lord of the Rings know how often the stories of the Elder Days appear at critical moments in the trilogy. When the Ringwraiths are about to attack the hobbits and Aragorn on Weather Top, the ranger tells the ancient and timeless story of Beren and Lúthien, almost as a preparatory prayer in anticipation of battle. Galadriel, in a moment of confession, admits she has lived in Middle-earth since before the fall of Gondolin. When Sam and Frodo wonder what their fate is as they approach Mount Doom, they compare their own experiences with those of a previous age, recognizing that they exist in the same story, just at a later time.”

This, I think, is another aspect of Tolkien’s enduring appeal. In an age that threatens to overwhelm us with mindless distractions, we need to remember our connections to those we love in the present and to those of the past who sacrificed so much so that we could live to carry the flame into the future.

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* Yes, it’s been some time since I posted. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in last-minute edits of my latest book, and am now in the process of polishing it for publication.

* The quote about fairy tales and dragons was first coined by G. K. Chesterton and re-worded by science fiction writer Neil Gaiman.

Christopher Tolkien, last of the Inklings

Christopher Tolkien Hannah Long gives a well-deserved tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien’s son and literary heir Christopher in the latest Weekly Standard. Long’s introduction to Christopher Tolkien’s life work includes insights into what makes the elder Tolkien’s stories so enchanting and timeless.

The junior Tolkien’s task was not easy: He had to organize, polish, and edit 70 boxes of manuscripts his father left behind, many stuffed with scraps of poetry, notes, and incomplete short stories. But out of that chaos, Christopher Tolkien harvested 25 works the world would probably never have seen otherwise, including The Silmarillion and a prose translation of Beowulf. The latest, The Fall of Gondolin, saw publication this August.

Tolkien’s works continue to nourish a reading public hungry for the myths that Tolkien made new, accessible, and meaningful. Tolkien and his fellow Inklings were rebels who waged literary war against the bleak alienation and scientism of their age. As Long puts it in her article:

For the Inklings, the medium of fantasy restored—or rather revealed—the enchantment of a disenchanted world. It reinstated an understanding of the transcendent that had been lost in postwar alienation.

“The value of myth,” C.S. Lewis wrote in an essay defending The Lord of the Rings, “is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’” In this, fantasy did precisely the opposite of what its critics alleged—it did not represent a flight from the real world but a return to it, an unveiling of it. A child, Lewis wrote, “does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods,” but “the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”

And isn’t that what attracts us to fantasy fiction? Today, people find themselves in a blur of gadgets, images, and endless consumption that replaces, rather than enhances, human existence. The enduring appeal of the Inklings’ works, as with all good fantasy, is the astounding news that the enchanted dwells with us, that beauty and mystery surround and enrich us even when we’re too busy to notice.

Peter Jackson’s Tribute to the heroes of The Great War

Peter Jackson, known for his movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, promises audiences they’ll experience the Great War as they’ve never seen it before in his latest film, They Shall Not Grow Old.

The teaser reveals an astounding technical achievement. Jackson has restored, colorized, and repaired hundreds of original films from World War One to show audiences what it was like to fight and die in that terrible conflict. By doing so, he’s made hundred-year-old images seem real and poignant to modern audiences.

I’ve searched numerous articles to see Peter Jackson’s thoughts on the making of this film, and what drove him to do it. I suspect, though I can’t confirm, that Jackson’s latest project grew from his research into the life and work of J.R.R. Tolkien. It was the shocking carnage at the Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien served as Battalion Signaling Officer of the Lancashire Fusiliers, that tormented and inspired the young scholar to capture in fiction the horror — and hope — he’d learned on the battlefield.

Tolkien’s way of making sense of what he’d gone through in WWI was to craft a tale that warned of the dehumanizing effect of technology while celebrating the courage and decency of ordinary people. That, I think, is the true power of fantastic fiction, which opens us to a realm of rediscovered and reimagined possibilities thought lost but still within our grasp.

This day in history

JRR Tolkien

From Infogalactic: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again is a fantasy novel and children’s book by English author J. R. R. Tolkien. It was published on 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction. The book remains popular and is recognized as a classic in children’s literature.

What makes The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so memorable is that the world Tolkien creates is wondrous, terrifying, and fascinating, yet instantly recognizable. The reader soon discovers that underneath the text, a learned, wise, and benevolent soul is joyfully at play with profound truths. I think Tolkien’s works best illustrate the insight that effective fiction reveals only the tip of the iceberg, stimulating the reader to discover for himself the story’s deeper meanings. Tolkien the scholar was an authority on ancient myths and languages, yet also a modern man who had seen war and knew the dark and bright crevices within the human soul. Tolkien the writer crafted an entertaining tale that guides the reader toward a vision that inspires both caution and hope.

That’s quite an achievement.

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How J.R.R. Tolkien Found Mordor on the Western Front

Somme

Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The infantry charge was supposed to have been little more than a mopping-up operation. British artillery had pounded its targets for five days, ensuring — at least in the minds of the military staff — that the area would be defenseless. (Robert E. Lee used the same tactic at Gettsyburg, another great and tragic battle which began on July 1. Pickett’s Charge, like the Somme, was similarly conceived as a final stroke at a broken enemy, but instead resulted in horrendous loss of life.) More than 19,000 British soldiers died on the first day. One of the soldiers caught up in that battle was J.R.R. Tolkien:

According to the British historian Martin Gilbert, who interviewed Tolkien decades later about his combat experience, he came under intense enemy fire. He had heard “the fearful cries of men who had been hit,” Gilbert wrote. “Tolkien and his signalers were always vulnerable.”

Tolkien’s creative mind found an outlet. He began writing the first drafts of his mythology about Middle-earth, as he recalled, “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” In 1917, recuperating from trench fever, Tolkien composed a series of tales involving “gnomes,” dwarves and orcs engaged in a great struggle for his imaginary realm. …

In “The Lord of the Rings,” we meet Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, Hobbits of the Shire, on a fateful mission to destroy the last Ring of Power and save Middle-earth from enslavement and destruction. The heroism of Tolkien’s characters depends on their capacity to resist evil and their tenacity in the face of defeat. It was this quality that Tolkien witnessed among his comrades on the Western Front.

“I have always been impressed that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds,” he explained. The Hobbits were “a reflection of the English soldier,” made small of stature to emphasize “the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch.’ ”

Not only did Tolkien’s battle experience give TLOTR its grim authenticity, it also inspired in him a deep respect and fascination for tales of courage and sacrifice. Despite the terrible ordeal that WWI proved to be, its lessons, filtered and interpreted by a skilled writer, are a treasured part of our heritage. Lest we forget.