Tag Archives: J R R Tolkien

After the King: Tolkien’s heirs

22 Oct

It is something of a relief, having looked last month at his critics, to turn this time to Tolkien’s many admirers. It would not be true to say that there was no such thing as epic fantasy before Tolkien: there was a tradition of English and Irish writers before him, such as E R Eddison and Lord Dunsany, and a parallel tradition also of American writers appearing in pulp-magazines such as Weird Tales and Unknown. The Lord of the Rings however altered reading tastes rapidly and lastingly. Several hundred English-language fantasy novels are currently being published annually. The influence of Tolkien on them is often apparent from their titles – Guardians of the West (David Eddings), The Fellowship of the Talisman (Clifford D Simak), The Halfling’s Gem (R A Salvatore) and so on, to name just a few. Most writers do better at concealing their literary ancestry, but the first works even of authors who have found their own highly distinctive voices, like Stephen Donaldson or Alan Garner, habitually betray deep Tolkienian influence. Terry Pratchett, whose works have now been reliable best-sellers for almost forty years, began with what is obviously in part an affectionate parody of Tolkien, The Colour of Magic. Tolkien furthermore provided much of the inspiration, the personnel and the material, for early fantasy games and for role-playing games of the Dungeons & Dragons type. Spin-offs from these into computer games are still developing and multiplying. Middle-earth has become a cultural phenomenon, a part of many people’s mental furniture. Any full study of Tolkien’s legacy would have to be at least book-length – and will not be attempted here – but there is some interest in recording what at least a few of his most evident emulators have found most inspirational in Tolkien.

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Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics

24 Sep

“This is not a work that many adults will read right through more than once.” With these words the anonymous reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (25 November 1955) summed up his judgment of J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It must have seemed a pretty safe prophecy at the time, for of course in those days very few adults (or children) read anything right through more than once, still less anything as long as The Lord of the Rings. However, it could not have been more wrong: of all popular best-sellers, The Lord of the Rings is the one most likely to be read over and over again by readers eager to immerse themselves in Middle Earth. This did not stop critics continuing to say the same thing. Six years later, after the three separate volumes had gone through eight or nine hardback impressions each, Philip Toynbee in the Observer (6 August 1961) voiced delight at the way sales, he thought, were dropping. Most of Professor Tolkien’s more ardent supporters, he declared, were beginning to “sell out their shares” in him, so that “today these books have passed into merciful oblivion.” Five years afterwards the authorised American paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings was moving rapidly past its first million copies, starting a wave which never receded and has in the 21st century reached levels Toynbee could not have dreamed of. This general phenomenon of intense critical hostility to Tolkien in the face of his undeniable popularity is open enough; however, the reasons for it often remain unexpressed, hints and sneers rather than statements. Several attempts have been made to explain this deep and seemingly compulsive antipathy. This is the first of two linked posts that deal, firstly, with Tolkien’s critics and, secondly, with his legacy in the form of his many admirers and emulators.

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The Wolf in the Attic

21 Aug

1920s Oxford: home to C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and, in Paul Kearney’s novel The Wolf in the Attic, Anna Francis, a young Greek girl looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work all around them. Anna lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer’s wine-dark sea. But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is. That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know. Kearney’s is a great Oxford novel; and the wonderfully conjured period detail – Tolkien and Lewis in particular stand out – is given added resonance by the long and complex real-life friendship on which it is partly based.

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Of Wood Woses and Wild Men

24 Apr

In The Lord of the Rings a strange and primitive folk named the Woses came to aid the men of Gondor in breaking the siege of Minas Tirith. These wild woodland people lived in the ancient forest of Druadan, below the White Mountains. In form they were weather-worn, short-legged, thick-armed and stumpy-bodied and they knew wood-craft better than any man. The men of Gondor called the Woses the Wild-men of Druadan and believed that they were descended from the even more ancient Pukel-men of the First Age. These Wood Woses or Wild-men were an example of J R R Tolkien’s seemingly boundless capacity to invent plausible and memorable fictional races from the gaps and errors in ancient literature – in this particular case the mysterious medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For Tolkien was by no means the first author to make use of the literary and mythical archetype of the Wild-man. This is a mythological figure that appears fairly frequently in the artwork and literature of medieval Europe, comparable to the satyr or faun type in classical mythology and to Silvanus, the Roman god of the woodlands. Tolkien’s skill is in adapting this archetype to the landscape of English folklore through his fantasy masterpiece.

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Spawn of Ungoliant

13 Sep

Among the foulest beings that ever inhabited Middle Earth were the Great Spiders. They were dark and filled with envy, greed and the poison of malice. First of the beings that took spider form was Ungoliant, mother of the evil race that plagued the world thereafter, as well as a close ally of the first dark lord, Morgoth. Her origins are unclear, as Tolkien’s writings do not explicitly reveal her nature, other than that she is from “before the world”. Ungoliant fled after devouring the light of the Trees that once lit the world in its springtime and it is not known what ultimately was her fate, although it is suggested in The Silmarillion that her unremitting hunger drove her to devour herself. At some point, however, she gave birth to a race of Great Spiders, including the character Shelob in The Lord of the Rings and the spiders of Mirkwood in The Hobbit. Unlike many of Tolkien’s other creations, such as Smaug, Beorn, ents, orcs, hobbits and so on, even the most eminent experts on his work have struggled to find clear sources for the Great Spiders of Middle Earth. It is, however, possible to begin to explain the origins of these terrifying creatures by reference to Tolkien’s earliest inspirations (and fears) as a child.

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The Race of Twilight

14 Jun

Although Middle Earth is full of monsters that are highly original, Tolkien also introduces us to some fairly familiar foes: the trolls from The Hobbit, for example, are quite traditional in the way they are depicted. Although it must be said, by the standards of most trolls in mythology and fantasy, the three encountered by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit were mental giants. Bert, William and Tom spoke and understood the tongue of men and had an elementary, if faulty, knowledge of arithmetic. They were, none the less, turned to stone as a result of the quickness of wit of the wizard Gandalf and in this they conformed to myth and legend in more than one way. For the idea that trolls “must be underground before dawn, or they go back to the stuff of the mountains they are made of” is an ancient one, with the god Odin playing the same trick as Gandalf in the Old Norse poem Alvissmal. Elsewhere, again in keeping with Scandinavian trolls, Tolkien tells us that “In their beginning far back in the twilight of Elder Days, these were creatures of dull and lumpish nature and had no more language than beasts”. Like orcs, Tolkien’s trolls were bred by the artifice of the first Dark Lord Morgoth, and were his own twisted version of the noble race of Ents. But trolls were rightly feared, for they were twice the height and bulk of the greatest men, had skin of green scales like armour and they desired most a diet of raw flesh. As if that were not bad enough, by the time of The Lord of the Rings a troll-race not before seen appeared in Middle Earth – one that, unlike the older race of twilight, could even endure the sun.

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The Skin-Changer

14 Mar

In The Hobbit, the character of Beorn is described as a huge, black-bearded man who wears a coarse wool tunic and is armed with a woodsman’s axe. His peculiar gift is that he is a ‘skin changer’: that is, he can assume the appearance of a great black bear when the mood takes him. Whilst, shape-shifting tendencies aside, Beorn appears at first to be a relatively straightforward character from a children’s novel, he exemplifies a mass of complexities and tensions typical of much of Tolkien’s creative output. In naming his character, Tolkien used beorn, an Old English word for bear, which later came to mean man and warrior (with implications of freeman and nobleman in Anglo-Saxon society). It is related to the Scandinavian names Björn (Swedish and Icelandic) and Bjørn (Norwegian and Danish), meaning bear (the word baron is indirectly related to beorn). Beorn also one of many characters in Middle-Earth who are capable of devoting themselves to a just cause when the time is right, while preserving an aura of danger, self-sufficiency and freedom of choice. Other examples of this Tolkien archetype are Tom Bombadil, Treebeard, Radagast and even, to some extent, Aragorn. Like Beorn, these individuals are all stewards or guardians, who seem to prefer seclusion in isolated hills or homes and who live or travel apart from the other forces of good, while belonging to the same side. What differentiates Beorn is that, as a skin-changer, he belongs to the specifically pagan world of Norse mythology.

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Enter the Dragon

11 Jan

The dragon Smaug is in many ways the centrepiece of both The Hobbit book and film series – no other character more often dominates covers, calendars and promotional art related to the story. It is no accident that a dragon plays such a prominent role in one of J R R Tolkien’s very first works of fiction – he did, after all, once famously say: “I desired dragons with a profound desire”. For Tolkien’s taste, however, there were too few dragons in ancient literature, indeed by his count only three – the Miðgarðsorm or ‘Worm of Middle-earth’ which was to destroy the god Thor at Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse; the dragon which the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf fights and kills at the cost of his own life; and Fafnir, who is killed by the Norse hero Sigurd. There are elements of all three of these mythological dragons in Smaug, as well as some entirely of Tolkien’s own making, such as the dragon’s name. Tolkien once noted that Smaug bore as a name the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb smúgan (to squeeze through a hole) – “a low philological jest”, as Tolkien himself put it, from an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon and Norse.

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Out of the Pit

23 Aug

In the writings of Tolkien it is said that in the Elder days, within the deepest pits of Utumno, the first dark lord Morgoth committed his greatest act of blasphemy. For in that time he captured many of the newly risen race of Elves and took them to his dungeons where, with hideous acts of torture, he made ruined and terrible forms of life. From these he bred a goblin race of slaves, who were as loathsome as Elves were fair. These were the Orcs, a multitude brought forth in shapes twisted by pain and hate. The only joy of these creatures was in the pain of others, for the blood that flowed within Orcs was both black and cold. Their stunted form was hideous: bent, bow-legged and squat. Their arms were long and strong as those of an ape, and their skin was black as wood that has been charred by flame. The jagged fangs in their wide mouths were yellow, their tongues red and thick, and their nostrils and faces were broad and flat. Their eyes were crimson gashes, like narrow slits in black iron grates behind which hot coals burn. Tolkien’s Orcs have been copied many times in fantasy media – debased, changed and even made humorous. But nothing that has been published since the Lord of the Rings has truly done justice to this, one of Tolkien’s most original and fearsome creations: the brood of Morgoth, spawned from the deepest, foulest pits of Utumno.

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Durin’s Folk

18 Oct

“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.

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