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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?