Friday, January 25, 2008


So, yesterday a language went extinct.

To be more specific, the last living member of the Eyak people died at age 89.

Although she helped scholars create a dictionary so that some of her people's language could be preserved, she was the last native speaker; her children grew up speaking only English. Nor is this situation unusual: in fact, the article goes on to note that about twenty other Alaskan languages are in similar straits. John McWhorter, in THE POWER OF BABEL, estimates that ninety percent of all languages spoken at the time his book was written [2001] will be extinct by the end of this century, with most of the rest reduced to the status of secondary languages used in the home, but not for day-to-day communications.

And, speaking of passings, it turns out that earlier this month the last German veteran of World War I passed away quietly at the age of 107:

--John R.

Tolkien Sighting

So, the other night we watched FOYLE'S WAR on PBS's MYSTERY, about an English police inspector trying to do his job (solve crimes and catch murderers) in trying times (WWII England). Pretty good: well-acted main parts (particularly the American commander in charge of setting up a new airbase), and an interesting backdrop in wartime England. The surprise came when they worked in a sly Tolkien reference that went by so quickly you'd miss it if you blinked. A young American soldier and his new English girlfriend from the local village are enjoying some small talk after a tryst in a farmer's barn when they hear first one shot and then another outside. She's a bit startled and asks what that noise was, and the American reassures her, saying it's probably just Farmer Giles, firing off his blunderbuss.
This is anachronistic, of course, given that FARMER GILES OF HAM wasn't published until 1949; although it was in existence by 1936 there's no way a young American soldier at Hastings could know about it in 1942-43. Still, it's nice to see the writers work in a subtle Tolkien reference they knew most of their audience wd miss. I'll definitely be watching to see if there are others.

--John R.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Britain's '50 Greatest' Postwar Writers

So, last week a friend in London sent me the following link:

For those who have trouble opening the link, here's the list itself:

1. Philip Larkin

2. George Orwell

3. William Golding

4. Ted Hughes

5. Doris Lessing

6. J. R. R. Tolkien

7. V. S. Naipaul

8. Muriel Spark

9. Kingsley Amis

10. Angela Carter

11. C. S. Lewis

12. Iris Murdoch

13. Salman Rushdie

14. Ian Fleming

15. Jan Morris

16. Roald Dahl

17. Anthony Burgess

18. Mervyn Peake

19. Martin Amis

20. Anthony Powell

21. Alan Sillitoe

22. John Le Carré

23. Penelope Fitzgerald

24. Philippa Pearce

25. Barbara Pym

26. Beryl Bainbridge

27. J. G. Ballard

28. Alan Garner

29. Alasdair Gray

30. John Fowles

31. Derek Walcott

32. Kazuo Ishiguro

33. Anita Brookner

34. A. S. Byatt

35. Ian McEwan

36. Geoffrey Hill

37. Hanif Kureishi

38. Iain Banks

39. George Mackay Brown

40. A. J. P. Taylor

41. Isaiah Berlin

42. J. K. Rowling

43. Philip Pullman

44. Julian Barnes

45. Colin Thubron

46. Bruce Chatwin

47. Alice Oswald

48. Benjamin Zephaniah

49. Rosemary Sutcliff

50. Michael Moorcock

Naturally, I'm delighted to see Tolkien in the top ten, especially since for the most part he's in very good company up there (I'd have left out Carter and bumped up Fowles about twenty spots). And it's nice that Larkin, a favorite of mine, did so well. I'm also pleased to see Pullman and Rowlings made the list, although near the bottom. It's interesting that three of the figures Shippey linked in AUTHOR OF THE CENTURY (Tolkien, Golding, Orwell) made the top six here (the fourth, Vonnegut, is ineligible, being an American). But what a strange list it is. Most writers whose careers straddled the 1945 divide were omitted (e.g. Waugh, Huxley, Wodehouse, Eliot, Carey, Dylan Thomas), even when they continued to produce major works for decades (the majority of Grahame Greene's and Auden's careers were post-war). Yet Orwell, who died in 1950 and was unable to write for the last year or two of his life due to illness, made it in the top two.

Looking over the list as a whole, the two authors I think they really shd have made room for are (1) Richard Adams, not just for WATERSHIP DOWN (there's really nothing else quite like it) but also GIRL ON A SWING, and (2) Neil Gaiman -- although he now lives in the U.S. that shdn't disqualify him.

Others I could make an argument for including include Dick Francis, for the sheer literary quality of his detective novels; Terry Pratchett, who at his best is v. gd indeed; and Douglas Adams (as a radio scriptwriter, not a novelist). I think some figures are in there for historical significance rather than any literary quality --e.g., Fleming for having invented the modern spy novel and Le Carre for having drearied it down; Ellis Peters, if it comes to that, is a better writer than either.

Figures I'd drop include Carter, Rushdie (being a cause celebre does not a talented writer make), Peake, and of course Moorcock (a hack, however prolific, doesn't deserve a spot). I'd also replace A. Garner with K. Briggs: HOBBERDY DICK is hard to beat.

Still, an interesting list, and one they clearly kept an open mind about. Good for them!


current reading: THE COMPANY THEY KEEP (Pavlac-Glyer), BANKER TO THE POOR (Yunus).

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Belated Tolkien's Birthday

Happy Belated Tolkien's birthday, all.

2007 was a big year for us, between finally completing and seeing published MR. BAGGINS and RETURN TO BAG-END, as well as making my first trip to England in thirteen years (and my first research trip in fifteen). 2008 also promises to be eventful, if somewhat more low key, as I absorb the research I did in Oxford and start sketching out the next project(s).

Thanks to all who sent in errata; I've passed along a list of corrections to the good folks at HarperCollins, who will be incorporating them into the forthcoming trade paperback edition, due out in March. This expanded edition will include Appendix V, which looks at whom Tolkien sent his author's copies of THE HOBBIT to, and the Addendum, some late material from 1965-66 that came to light too late for inclusion in the original edition. It's not many more pages, and I don't think any startling revelations are included therein, but I think folks will find these last few odds and ins interesting in and of themselves. More on this later.

Thanks also to the good folks at Houghton Mifflin, who pointed out to me a favorable review in the L. A. TIMES by Nick Owchar. My two favorite lines:

"Rateliff's labors have resulted in a rich treatment of the many changes, false starts and motivations behind Tolkien's storytelling choices."


"Rateliff's efforts have a paradoxical effect: Even as they demystify Tolkien and show us that there is no such thing as easy genius, they remind us that his willingness to endure numbing revisions to develop a nuanced story is even greater reason to revere him."

Needless to say, I've very pleased. The whole review can be found here:,1,6672345.story?coll=la-headlines-bookreview

I've also done a ten-minute audio interview that should soon be posted online in what is, for me, an unlikely forum; I'll provide the link once it's up.

Finally, here's another little piece I came across that supports the argument that MR. BLISS dates from 1932 or '33, not the late '20s. In the same illustration that shows Gaffer Gamgee, a character who entered the family mythology following the Tolkiens' holiday to Lamora Cove in Cornwall in the summer of 1932, one of the shops on the street is ALLBONE the butcher (MR. BLISS page 36). Given the otherwise unexplained appearance of the name Allibone-Baggins in the final chapter of the first draft HOBBIT (soon to be renamed the Sackville-Bagginses), I would now suggest that the 'allibone' element is probably another family joke, the significance of which is lost. In any case, as with all the elements from THE HOBBIT incorporated into the 1932 FATHER CHRISTMAS LETTER, the Allbone/Allibone parallel suggests that MR. BLISS might have been written around the same time (1932-33) as the conclusion of THE HOBBIT (January 1933).