Tag Archives: tolkien

Best Fiction and Writing Blogs

Hemingway Writing

The best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, with advice and inspiration guaranteed to make you a literary adventurer. Compiled by ernie.

Elizabeth StokkebyeLessons From Writing Boot Camp
Stratford CaldecottThe Provocative Imagination Behind Comic Books (A Tolkien scholar’s insights into comics)
Jacob EmetWriting
Shiva AcharyaCelebrating the Joy of Reading
Daedalus LexBest Sentence in English Lit
Jay Dee ArcherWorldbuilding
Nihar Pradhan – Writing Is Romancing With Self

re: the comic books article, I must admit I never recognized the archetypes represented by the Fantastic Four. Cool.

Tolkien, Trees, and Tradition

TreeRoots

Joseph Pearce explores Tolkien’s reverence for language and heritage:

This deep understanding of language is analogous to an understanding of history. If we want to understand where we are now and where we are going, we have to understand where we have been. And what is true of history in the broader sense is equally true of the history of words. In order to really speak well, write well, or think clearly, we need to use words correctly. We need to know linguistic tradition. We need to be linguistic traditionalists. We have to be in touch with the language, its roots, and its heritage. We need to become linguistic tree-huggers! We do not necessarily have to speak very quickly; we have to speak well. We have to speak accurately, with a precision of meaning. Contrary to Peter Jackson’s tragically abusive presentation of the Ents in his film version of Tolkien’s epic, in which they appear to be dim-wits who are outwitted by the smartness of the hobbits, we know that when Tolkien’s Ents come to a decision it will be the right one, because they have been absolutely precise in the way they have used their words. They think and speak definitely, in accordance with precise definition. They define their terms and they know their meanings. They are the opposite of postmoderns and nihilists who see no meaningful roots to the cosmos because they see no meaningful roots to words.

Modernism, argues Pearce, is vandalism that fancies itself to be liberation from a constraining  past. Indeed, it celebrates the murder of authenticity, as it demands that all heritage chains down the individual. Of course, what actually happens is not a glorious jail-break from nature and history, but alienation from those things Charlene Spretnak has identified as the prime Modernist targets: “the knowing body, the creative cosmos, and the complex sense of place.” If we lose those things, then we are unshielded from today’s manipulators of language and value who profit by convincing us that our identity is discretionary, and can be as sleek and desirable as the Gap jeans and Zappo shoes they urge us to buy.

The Complex Sense of Place

Tobacco Barn

“The deconstuctionist postmodern analysis asserts that we never actually know anything about our local patch of the biosphere because we can know only the concepts our particular society has invented … All this seems exceedingly odd–and more than a little pathological–to traditional native peoples, for instance. From an early age, they pay a great deal of attention to the dynamics of the natural world, both individually and collectively. They observe with great sensitivity the dramas, rhythms, and presence of place.” Charlene Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real, p. 27.

Worthwhile writing, like any other product of a living culture, arises from a people’s strivings, tragedies, and victories as experienced in a particular place. This is an insight that animates the fiction of Tolkien, and I think he would agree that the sense of alienation that afflicts so many these days is the result of our loss of feeling for the dramas, rhythms, and presence of place. Tolkien certainly knew that a vivid setting could be as strong a character in a good story as the protagonist, and no one could create a living, dynamic backdrop like he could.

A Terrible Beauty

Weapons hold a special place in all cultures. The tradition of a special bond between the weapon and its owner is one we see often in history, folklore, and literature. Think of the samurai’s katana, Thor’s Mjölnir, Arthur’s Excalibur, Bilbo’s Sting, and Davy Crockett’s Ol’ Betsy.

This morning, I attended a presentation at the Charlotte Museum of History on the Mecklenburg Longrifle, a fine and highly sought-after weapon produced here in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Michael Briggs, the author of The Longrifle Makers of Guilford County and The Longrifle Makers of Forsyth County & Davidson County, displayed some breathtaking pieces from his personal collection, and generously identified and discussed longrifles that audience members brought in.

Audience
Author Michael Briggs examining a longrifle.

North Carolina had nine different schools, or regional styles, of longrifles. Those distinctive styles were the outgrowth of the culture of the settler population. The predominant Scots-Irish and German population in the North Carolina Piedmont and Appalachian Mountains brought their woodworking, silversmithing, and metalworking traditions together to craft elegant and vital weapons for life on the frontier.

Longrifles

Click to enlarge

What most fascinated me was the extraordinary detail and ornamentation gunsmiths imparted to their creations. These longrifles are truly works of art. When the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts featured a longrifle exhibit, the magazine ad announcing it featured a photo showing the gorgeous detail of an engraved silver stock with the motto “I’ve stopped people in their tracks without firing a shot.”

Pistol

This pistol was the work of Zenas Alexander, who was also a noted silversmith working in Charlotte in the early 19th century. When Michael Briggs showed a photo of a silver pitcher by Alexander, someone behind me muttered, “Guns and tea sets. What a helluva combination!”

But I think there’s no disparity at all in Alexander’s dual careers. The longrifle was more than just a tool. It was necessary for hunting and self-defense. With it, a settler possessed security and independence. For the settlers on the North Carolina frontier, the longrifle was life itself. So the ornamentation wasn’t just an afterthought; it personalized the weapon. As the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts said, these guns were stunning works of art. And yes, they were weapons, too. Something that essential to life possesses a beauty of its own, and I think the extra effort Zenas Alexander and the other gunsmiths spent engraving their creations was their way of expressing the natural awe that the future owners of their creations would feel.

As John O’Donohue once said, “The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere – in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion, and in ourselves.” I’d add that beauty can be found where we often least expect it — and that makes it all the more compelling.

What Did Tolkien Think of Fantasy Fiction?

TolkienSignature

Nicola Alter has a great piece on J.R.R. Tolkien at Thoughts on Fantasy. Anyone who admires Tolkien will enjoy this review of his special genius and unique contribution to fantasy fiction. As Alter says:

People often forget that Tolkien was also a linguist and a poet and a university professor. He invented new languages. He wrote literary essays, many of which discuss his work. He was a friend of fellow fantasy author C.S. Lewis, and the two were members of the same informal literary discussion group.

Tolkien was not only writing amazing fantasy novels, he was also reflecting on his own work and on the fantasy genre itself. One of Tolkien’s famous essays is called On Fairy Stories (Tolkien called “fairy stories” what we would today call “fantasy”) – a speech he wrote and then later published.

I read On Fairy Stories several years ago for an essay I was writing, and recently revisited it to answer a related question on Quora. When I did, I was once again astounded by the eloquence and intelligence of this man. It struck me that in its fledging years, as the fantasy genre was growing in popularity, it couldn’t have had a better champion. He was not just someone writing brilliant fantasy, but also someone analysing it, promoting it, and defending it against critics who dismissed it as useless or escapist or literature fit only for children.

I’m presently reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s commentary on his translation of Beowulf. Not only does Tolkien deliver an energetic and loving rendition of this classic adventure, he also shares his insights into the rich and vigorous culture that produced it. As the poet W.H. Auden once declared, encountering Tolkien’s long-sighted and perceptive observations on Beowulf is an “unforgettable experience.”

And it still is.

Better than you remembered

“In truly good writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is done. That is beacause there is a mystery in all great writing and that mystery does not dissect out. It continues and it is always valid. Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Fred on the Head has posed an interesting question: Do you re-read?

To this I can only plead: Guilty.

There are about a dozen works I find myself returning to, and for exactly the reason Hemingway cites above. In fact, three of Hemingway’s works are on my list: The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Killers, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. For me, they never lose their power to amaze and teach. Even when my intention is to analyze, I end up getting lured in once again by the robust narrative.

Mishima’s Patriotism leaves me reeling each time I experience it. What a show: breathtaking eroticism and rapturous prose made all the more vivid and potent by the blunt reality of sepukku. Whoa.

Among the classics, I keep returning to A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Beowulf more than any of the others. And I’m in the process of travelling to Mordor once again with the Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve almost finished The Two Towers, and am just as carried away by Tolkien’s imaginative world-building as the first time I experienced him.

All good friends I could never get tired of.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Vision of Just War

Gandalf

Writing in the latest Imaginative Conservative,   and  offer a useful summary of Tolkien’s themes in Lord of the Rings. They point out that Tolkien’s epic is a war tale that was not intended to be an allegory, but still applicable to the issues of the time in which it was written. I’d add that Tolkien’s insights are applicable to many current issues  as well.

In response to the early criticism that the methods of Sauron’s forces and those of the Fellowship are “indistinguishable” since each side kills the other, Richards and Witt note that the Fellowship observes Just War theory: They fight aggression, they fight honorably, and, as far as circumstances allow, they are charitable to those they defeat in battle. But such acts rise from a fundamentally different worldview from their enemies:

There is also the stark difference between what Brian Rosebury calls “the diversity of good and the sameness of evil.”Among the free peoples of Middle-Earth there is widespread and mostly tolerated diversity, which extends to what does not happen. For instance, King Théoden and later Aragorn might have tried to insist that a primitive and ancient people known as the Woses join their military alliance. Instead Théoden takes the gracious help they offer, and both he and Aragorn honor the Woses’ desire to otherwise stay out of the war.

Compare this to the homogenizing slavery and oppression of those who bow the knee to Mordor. The contrast is stark enough that only a reader blinded by a philosophy of war devoid of even the crudest nuance could miss it.

I think that’s the key to understanding the differences between Sauron and the Fellowship, as well as the difference between totalitarians and small “r” republicans. The desire to flatten reality and make all the same drives all totalitarians, whether Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot. One of Russell Kirk’s principles of conservatism tell us, “They [conservatives] feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”

The notion that one possesses an absolute and universal truth is too often used to justify the initiation of violence to enforce that truth. As Tolkien counseled, men are not wise enough to choose for all. Now that lesson is certainly applicable today.

Dream Creatures

DreamCreature
Who says Ents aren’t real? All you need is time in the wild and a little imagination:

Italian photographer Elido Turco spent four years between 2004 and 2008 exploring a mirrored photography world that remains invisible to most of us. By taking photographs of tree bark and then mirroring the photographs he captured, he discovered a whole society of “Dream Creatures” were watching him each time he would take a stroll through the mountain paths.

Turco loves walking the mountain paths of his native Friuli with his wife, and for years he would use this time to try and find human forms and faces formed by the bark and roots of the trees in the forest.

Click here for more amazing images.

Tolkien and Beowulf

I was greatly pleased by the news that J.R.R. Tolkien’s son discovered his father’s manuscript of an original translation of Beowulf and had it published. And this thoughtful review in The Catholic World Report is just as enjoyable. Tolkien’s inspired translation is a forceful reminder that whatever perversions and distractions may delude and ensnare modern man, certain truths endure:

At the least, we can say that there is more reality to Old English folklore than in the perverse fantasies by which Americans now live. When a society promotes disloyalty and monstrosity so far as to celebrate dragons and vampires and witches, when respectability-craving “conservatives” can always find reasons to compromise with the next phase of an ongoing anti-Christian revolution, when piles of gadgets and toys and luxury goods are offered in compensation for the loss of faith, family, and roots—why, in such times we could do worse than to recall Beowulf’s trusty kinsman Wiglaf, who lives by the dictum that “[k]inship may nothing set aside in virtuous mind.”

This reminds me of Sam Francis’ review of James C. Russell’s The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, which argued that northern European Christianity was heavily influenced by the pagan worldview of its adherents. Unlike the “world-rejecting” Oriental religions, northern Europeans embraced and celebrated the world, including their past:

The saints and Christ Himself were depicted as Germanic warrior heroes; both festivals and locations sacred in ancient Germanic cults were quietly taken over by the Christians as their own; and words and concepts with religious meanings and connotations were subtly redefined in terms of the new religion. Yet the final result was not that the Germans were converted to the Christianity they had originally encountered, but rather that that form of Christianity was “Germanized,” coming to adopt many of the same Indo-European folk values that the old pagan religion had celebrated.

I think J.R.R. Tolkien would approve.