“Concerning the beginning of the Dwarves strange tales are told both by the Eldar and by the Dwarves themselves…” – so says Appendix A to the Lord of the Rings. As one of the most iconic sentient fantasy races, the very word ‘Dwarf’ (plural, post-Tolkien: ‘Dwarves’) immediately brings to mind a highly distinctive image. Dwarves, we imagine, are a short and stocky folk, standing between four and five feet tall by the measure of men. Strong and hardy, they are known to endure pain, fatigue and suffering more readily than other races. At need, they can push themselves hard to cross rough terrain quickly or to come to grips with a foe. Their men grow thick, luxuriant beards in which they take great pride, often colouring, forking, or braiding them. They are stern, often stubborn and proud, and are prone to resist any attempt to dominate or sway them. They rarely forget insults or wrongs done them or their families, even over centuries, and they take the burdens of vengeance (and other obligations) placed upon them seriously. But, to balance this, they rarely forget a favour or kindness either. With such unique, appealing attributes, it is no surprise that Dwarves have consistently been a feature of fantasy novels both before and since Tolkien’s day. Given the important role that Dwarves will play in the forthcoming big screen adaptations of The Hobbit, now is an opportune time to take a look at the ‘strange tales’ to which Tolkien alludes concerning the beginnings of the Dwarves.
When readers of The Two Towers first encounter the Riders of Rohan there immediately seems to be something vaguely familiar about them. Their names, mode of speech and manner of dress all recall those ancient inhabitants of the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons. Although this is a culture that, even more than that of the Celts, has been in so many ways lost to history, Tolkien, as an Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, as well as a gifted storyteller, was perhaps better qualified than almost anyone to bring them to life in fiction. Interestingly, however, Tolkien seemed at great pains to distance himself from the notion that he was doing any such thing. In a footnote to Appendix F (II) of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien insisted that the fact that he had ‘translated’ all Rider-names into Old English did not mean that Riders and Anglo-Saxons were any more than generally similar. But this process of ‘translation’ – beginning with the Riders’ own name for their land, ‘The Mark’ – runs very deep. Among historians the central kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England is invariably known as ‘Mercia’. This is however a Latinization of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Mearc’. It takes no great leap of logic to link this Anglo-Saxon word with the Rohirrim term ‘Mark’, as translated by Tolkien. As for the white horse that is the emblem of the Mark, this is present in the form of the White Horse of Uffington, cut into the chalk a short stroll from the great Stone Age barrow of Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, one of the counties which, along with Worcestershire, Warwickshire and others made up Mercia. All the names given to the Riders, their horses and weapons are pure Anglo-Saxon. The names of their kings, Théoden, Thengel, Fengel, Folcwine, etc., are all simply Anglo-Saxon words or epithets for ‘king’, except, significantly, the first: Eorl, the name of the ancestor of the royal line, just means ‘earl’, or in very Old English, ‘warrior’. It dates back to a time before kings were invented.
To quote Treebeard ‘… the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth and I smell it in the air.’ It always surprises me when I hear other fantasy writers and readers say that they find Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast and many of the other masterworks of fantasy hard going. When I first came across these books they held me spellbound for weeks on end – I’d never read anything like them and everything else in the world at large (let alone in the world of books) seemed to just fade away while I was under their spell. In one sense, though, it should perhaps not be so difficult to understand. These days it is more likely than not that someone who reads fantasy will only come to Tolkien after having read other, more modern books, most likely in the growing field of young adult fantasy, which is spearheaded by the likes of J K Rowling and Philip Pullman. Written in an up-to-date, engaging and above all understandable manner, Harry Potter and its ilk are in stark contrast to what must to many people seem the dessicated writings of an out of touch Oxford Don sitting in his ivory tower over half a century ago. It should also be noted that very many people will now only come to Tolkien’s book in light of the (well-deserved) critical and commercial success of Peter Jackson’s film versions. Anyone who came out of the cinema thinking ‘Cool, a book about lots of vikings and elves killing trolls and scary-looking guys in cloaks!’ might well be left feeling bewildered and annoyed by Tolkien’s dense, plodding prose and old-fashioned language. Even back in the 1950s when it was first published, Lord of the Rings must have presented a conundrum to its publishers, let alone the book-buying public. Here was a novel that was over one thousand pages long, with over a hundred pages of additional appendices, filled with hundreds of characters (very many of whom only appear for a handful of pages, if that) and poems in invented languages that in many cases the author did not even bother to translate! Despite all of this Lord of the Rings is to this day often voted the most popular novel in all of English Literature and Tolkien the most popular author. His influence on the field of epic fantasy remains palpable in the form of his many imitators and his work has more devotees and fan clubs all over the world than almost any other writer. Why do people read and re-read Tolkien’s books? What makes them so powerful and enduring?
I appreciate fantasy artwork both for its aesthetic merits and for its importance to selling fantasy novels. They say you should never judge a book by its cover but I will freely admit that there has been more than one occasion on which I have been drawn to read or buy a book because of a spellbinding illustration on the cover that has made me just itch to find out more. Some illustrators have become as synonymous with certain writers’ work as the words themselves – it is difficult to imagine Alice in Wonderland without John Tenniel’s iconic sketches, Dickens and Phiz go together like salt and vinegar, and even today most editions of C S Lewis’s Narnia novels are adorned with the illustrations of Pauline Baynes. Perhaps the most perfect example as far as fantasy novels go of an author and illustrator being artistic soul-mates is that of Alan Lee and J R R Tolkien.