Friday, April 25, 2008

A New Arrival (LotR Soundtrack)

So, Monday the mail from brought my copy of the soundtrack to the new LORD OF THE RINGS musical currently being staged in London. I wasn't able to see this when I was in England back in October/November, since I was based in Oxford and time in London meant time away from the manuscripts I'd gone over to see. I did pick up the artbook based on the play, which convinced me that (a) it was based more on the Jackson films than Tolkien's books and (b) the most impressive thing about it was probably the elaborate mechanical stage made up of multi-tiered platforms that morph into different configurations from scene to scene (and apparently within scenes as well). Not having a copy of the script, it was hard to tell how faithful or otherwise it was to JRRT's story, but there were signs that it leaned towards "or otherwise" -- for example, when including both Rohan and Gondor made the performance run long, they mashed them together into a generic "Kingdom of Men".

Still, I was curious about the music -- after all, the wretchedly bad Bakshi film had a decent, if unsubtle, score by Leonard Rosenman (channeling Richard Strauss for all he was worth) considerably better than the movie it accompanied (not that this wd be hard). Also, they'd had the odd idea of combining a group of Finnish musicians with an Indian composer, apparently in the hopes that this wd add an 'elvish' (Finnish > Quenya) gracenote coupled with Bollywood's ability to synthesize elements of western culture.

Surprisingly enough, the results aren't that bad. It's certainly listenable, if nothing Tolkien wd recognize as his own. For one thing, they haven't used his actual lyrics, taking care even when singing a song based on one of the songs in LotR to change the words at least slightly in almost every line. Thus "The Road Goes Ever On" becomes "The Road goes on/Ever ever on/Hill by hill/Mile by mile/Field by field/Stile by stile . . ."; "The Cat & the Fiddle" becomes "The Cat & the Moon" ("There's an inn of old renown/Where they brew a beer so brown/Moon came rolling down the hill/One Hevnsday night to drink his fill"). And at least half the songs have no direct LotR analogue at all. All in all, it sounds very, very Andrew-Lloyd-Webberish, so if you like Lloyd Webber's work you'll probably find this pleasant enough. The best songs, I think, are the three hobbit tunes: "The Road Goes On", "The Cat & the Moon", and "Now and Forever" (Sam & Frodo in Mordor evoke hobbit-heroes of the past), although the Bree dancing song does sound rather as if Boiled in Lead had been held hostage somewhere until they came up with a routine for a scene from 'Riverdance'.

One surprising feature of the songs is their linguistic variety. Thus we get songs in ordinary modern English as well as in Sindarin, Black Speech, Old English (what would Tolkien think of their Orcs chanting battle-cries in OE?), Quenya (I think), and '12th century Middle Welsh' (huh?); one song consists almost entirely of elves chanting the names of the Valar, another of lines from the Ring-poem ('ash nazg thrakatuluk'). The booklet accompanying the cd credits four people for helping with the lyrics in other languages, including Julian Bradfield (former editor of QUETTAR, famous in Tolkien circles for having first published elven numerals back in the early '80s) for 'Elvish Translations' and Tom Shippey for reviewing 'Hobbit Nonsense Lyrics', presumably meaning lines like the following, from the hobbit dancing song:

Hoo-rye-and-hott-a-cott-a ho
Hoo-rye-and-hott-a-cott-a ho ho

All in all, an odd production: it's not Tolkien, but it's not a horror to be shunned at all costs. The orc battle song is rather fun in an unsubtle way, starting as if a dozen taiko drummers were showing off before being one-upped by a tuba section, and "Now and For Always" does a good job of capturing hobbit-courage and the friendship between Sam and Frodo. As a whole it's certainly no stranger than, say, Bo Hansson's instrumental LotR concept album from the early 70s. And as a bonus it comes with an informative cd-sized booklet listing all the lyrics and summarizing the stage-story; the version I got also included a dvd that alas does not provide a film of the stage-show but instead still pictures from the production in a slideshow set to the soundtrack.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

New HOBBIT movie

So, it's official. Jackson, New Line, MGM, and Del Toro have come to an agreement and signed contracts to do two new Middle-earth movies: one based on THE HOBBIT and the other to fill the gap between THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS (assembled from bits and pieces in the various Appendices, I assume). Must say I'm disappointed it isn't a two-part film of just THE HOBBIT itself -- but then as the author of a two-part book on THE HOBBIT I'm probably prejudiced in thinking there's plenty of story there for two movies.
Here's the initial link; thanks to Yvette for forwarding it:

And for more news, here's the ever-informative Kristen Thompson's post on the subject:

The next thing to watch will be which of the folks who made Jackson's trilogy of films based on THE LORD OF THE RINGS will be returning to work both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras in the next film. And, of course, what new talent signs on to take the major roles of Bilbo (assuming Ian Holm, alas, gives it a pass) and Thorin & Company.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Did I Mention that Tancredo is EVIL?

So, late last week my eye was caught by a piece with the headline "Tancredo slams pope". Following the link (, I found that specifically the outgoing congressman from Colorado used the occasion of Benedict's visit and goodwill tour to denounce the pope's stance on immigration --nativist anti-immigration policies being a keystone of Tancredo's credo.

Now, I don't think Benedict is immune to criticism, for his actions either before and since he became pope.

But (and this is a pretty big BUT) all he was doing in this case was urging American Catholics to welcome immigrants who share their faith into their churches and communities as brethren. It's pretty hard to find fault with a church leader who encourages all fellow denomenationalists to treat each other well; it's like slamming the Dalai Lama for advocating peace, tolerance, and enlightenment. Surely telling Catholics to love and respect one another is a fundamental part of what being pope is all about.

So, dismissing a call to Xian charity as mere "faith based marketing" is confirmation that Tancredo deserves his spot in the waxworks of horrors alongside Strom Thurman, George Wallace, Senator Bilbo, and the rest. Pity, but there it is.

--John R.

current reading: THE BRILLIANT CAREER OF WINNIE-THE-POOH by Ann Thwaite.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Oldest Tree in the World

"There was a man named Lessingham
dwelt in an old low house in Wastdale,
set in a gray old garden
where yew-trees flourished
that had seen Vikings in Copeland
in their seedling time."
--opening sentence of E. R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros [1922]

So, today they announced the discovery of a tree almost as old as Treebeard himself:

This is roughly twice as old as the previous record holder, one of the bristlecomb pines in the US -- which incidently was CUT DOWN by the researcher who discovered it in order to find out how old it was.

Just for comparison, supposedly only one apple tree planted by "Johnny Appleseed" (John Chapman) in the early 1800s still survives, while oak trees can live about a thousand years. The yews Eddison describes are some eleven or twelve hundred years old, which is entirely possible, since the oldest known yew (in central Scotland) is about two thousand years old. The Swedish spruce, by contrast, is now believed to have "taken root" around 7,542 BC, some 9550 years ago -- before Egypt, before Mesopotamia, before writing, not just all the way back in the Neolithic but near the beginning of the Neolithic Age.



Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I Am Interviewed . . .

. . . by Stephen Sullivan and Linda Godfrey for UNCANNY RADIO, a program broadcast on WBSD 89.1 FM in Burlington Wisconsin, not far from Lake Geneva where I used to work during the old TSR days (1991-1996).
You can listen to it on the radio if you're in the SE Wisconsin area, or I'm told it'll be streaming live between eight and nine p.m. (Central Daylight Savings time) tonight on; within a day or two the podcast version shd be posted on; see also
Many thanks to Stephen for the invitation; he's someone whose work I've known for many years but ironically we've never met, since our eras at TSR didn't overlap. Still, it's nice to finally make contact with someone with whom I share so many friends (most of them among his fellow Alliterates); his cousin was even best man at my wedding.
So, enjoy.
--John R.

current reading: Whittingham's THE EVOLUTION OF MIDDLE-EARTH (still).

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"Brownies, Fays, Pixies, Leprawns"

So, this evening I was sitting in the closet reading Elizabeth Whittingham's THE EVOLUTION OF TOLKIEN'S MYTHOLOGY: A STUDY OF THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH, when her third repetition of a phrase made a mental shoe drop. It just goes to show the value of encountering something you already know well out of context (Chesterton's Mooreeffoc).

The passage in question concerned the lesser spirits that accompanied the Valar when they descended into what was later called Arda, the created world. Among others, their numbers are said in THE BOOK OF LOST TALES to include "brownies, fays, pixies, leprawns" (BLT.I.66). These lesser spirits are de-emphasized in the later forms of the mythology, but they never entirely faded away; as late as 1965 JRRT published a stray Bombadil poem (the third featuring that character, by far the best, and the only one omitted from THE ADVENTURES OF TOM BOMBADIL), "Once Upon A Time", which includes the lintips, elusive little creatures even Bombadil doesn't know much about (cf. the far more menacing mewlips of another, much earlier poem). In the end, all these minor Maiar-like folk seem to have been subsumed into the general category 'fay' (which in the early stages of the legendarium is distinct from fairy, the latter then being a synonym for elf).

But I shd have noticed, and drawn attention to, the appearance of brownie here, for the brownies or brown-men of traditional folk-lore are a kind of hob. And, since we have every reason to believe Tolkien drew on hob-lore when creating his hobbits more than a decade later, it's of interest to find a hint of some kind of similar creature within his mythology, albeit in a much different role, at a much earlier stage. I don't think we can make too much of this, but it does at least open the possibility that when Tolkien sat down in the summer of 1930 and spontaneously invented his hobbits he had already potentially made a place for them within his legendarium long before. And we can't rule out that he thought of hobbits along those earlier lines when he first set out to tell Bilbo's story, however greatly they diverged in the telling.

So, if there's ever a second edition of THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT, I'll need to add a paragraph or so to that effect drawing attention to this passage to what's now JDR Note 1 on page 850 of RETURN TO BAG-END.

--John R.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

In Memorium

Melinda's birthday.
April 13th, 1982.
rest in peace.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

They're Reading Tolkien at Guantanamo

So, this one is weird even by my standards, and I'm not as easily weirded out as some people. I have not confirmed the story, but according to the following website, which I discovered thanks to Wendell Wagner's posting the link to the Mythsoc site, a prisoner in the Gulag at Guantanamo Bay has just had the script for the Peter Jackson LotR movie taken away from him (which installment it did not say). The reason given is that a lawyer is not allowed to give a prisoner there anything "not related to the defense of his military commission case". The lawyer has similarly been forbidden to play chess with the prisoner, or dominoes, all activities he'd undertaken to get to know the prisoner and win his trust. Apparently this particular prisoner "wants nothing more in life than to see Lord of the Rings".

As if all this were not strange enough came the news that the Gulag library has "all three installments of the book version of J.R.R. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy . . . available to prisoners. It was not clear why [the prisoner] wanted the screenplay. Some detainees have complained through their lawyers about long waits for books from Guantanamo's library." Not surprising it'd take them quite a while to read, since so far as I know LotR has never been translated into Pashtun or even Arabic.

So, for humanitarian purposes should we be shipping more copies of Tolkien's work to the Gulag?*

Here's the original link:


*This particular prisoner, by the way, is in the Gulag for having killed an enemy soldier in a firefight six years ago. At that time he was a boy soldier of fifteen. He's been in prison ever since; the Military Commission is seeking a life sentence.

The Mimosa, and Tribal Dancing

So, today I finally planted my mimosa tree, which I grew from a seed (provided by the tree in Jennifer Clarke Wilkes' yard; many thanks JCW). For several years it's been in a successively larger series of pots, the earlier ones on the window-sill at the old WotC building, the most recent so big it rests on a wheeled coaster. It spent this past winter, its first outside, on the back porch (protected from above and one side but otherwise exposed to the elements), and I wasn't sure it'd survive. Luckily, it did; just this week I noticed that the first buds are starting to form. So I went ahead and took the plunge and planted it out back, where the ill-fated cherry tree briefly grew. Tomorrow I'll need to put a rail of some sort around it to protect it from groundskeepers and their mowers, and possibly also some flowers just to re-inforce the 'this is supposed to be here' message. Wish it luck.

And, speaking of out back, I was only joking when Janice asked me what that percussion sound was in mid-afternoon when I said "tribal dancing". Turns out I was right; over at the school (Neely-OBrian) there was a large group of folks who, as best we could tell, were getting lessons in how to do tribal dances. They were a long way off, but from their general appearance and dress they seem to have been Polynesian. Now I'm curious what event they were practicing for.

Just as with the mimosa, time no doubt will tell -- but in the one case I'll be monitoring the result daily, while with the other I may never know.

--John R.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

C. S. Lewis's Worst Essay? (part one)

So, I've recently enjoyed skimming through C. S. LEWIS: ESSAY COLLECTION AND OTHER SHORT PIECES, ed. Lesley Walmsley [HarperCollins, 2000]. Apparently published only in the U.K., this is a massive (894 page) collection that brings together everything from his short fiction (e.g. THE DARK TOWER, "Forms of Things Unknown", &c) to all kinds of ephemera: letters to the editor, pieces written in response to articles he'd read in some journal, and the like. Naturally, out of such a mass of material (135 separate pieces), the quality varies enormously. But I was struck both by how readable the whole collection is and by how far off the mark Lewis could sometimes be. This division is evident in his longer works, of course -- for every SCREWTAPE LETTERS or DISCARDED IMAGE there's also a MIRACLES or ABOLITION OF MAN -- but somehow it seems starker in his shorter pieces. Hence I thought it might be interesting to look in more detail at some of his worst essays, since his best work is so well known as to need no analysis.

Second Runner Up: "Why I Am Not A Pacifist" [1940]

To be fair, I shd note that Lewis never attempted to publish this piece; it survives only because his friend George Sayer requested a copy and, many years later, provided Fr. Walter Hooper with a transcript. It was first published in THE WEIGHT OF GLORY [1980], itself an expanded edition of the 1949 book TRANSPOSITION AND OTHER ADDRESSES (which had included five of the latter book's nine pieces); see page 18 of Hooper's Introduction to that book. Thus it is a better representation of Lewis as a debater than as an essayist.

Delivered to a pacifist group at Oxford in the early part of World War II, this one made it onto my short list not so much because I disagree with him (which, of course, I do) but by how weak I found his argument. That is, I read the piece knowing full well that Lewis was no pacifist, as his service in World War I and the actions of his characters in his novels clearly show. But I expected him to make a good case against pacifism, and sought out this piece because while I didn't expect him to sway my own opinion (I don't think I've ever changed my mind on any subject because of anything I've read in Lewis) I wanted to see what he had to say.

In brief, since it's a long article (more than a dozen pages in this densely packed anthology) and a complex one, I was surprised by the degree to which his argument hinges on an appeal to (civil) authority and majority opinion. He denies that individual revelation (what he calls "intuition") can be taken seriously when it goes against the example of most political leaders (in whom he includes the fictitious King Arthur!) and many of his favorite writers. Thus, for Lewis, belief in pacifism would put one in a minority, and on that ground alone is probably wrong. This seems to me such a strange argument that at first I thought he must be joking, but it's clear he really is arguing that the majority position must thus be the correct one ("the universal opinion of mankind"), as if morality were simply decided by majority vote (in which case, what about "give us Barabbas"?).

This alone of course would not make this essay rank among his worst, of course. Much more troubling are his tactics. Like a speaker more concerned with winning a debate than arriving at the truth, Lewis very carefully works to exclude all evidence that counters his point. For example, he quotes The Book of Common Prayer in support of Anglicans supporting 'a just war' in good conscience, wh. is fair enough, but then goes on to imply that ALL Christian denominations support 'the just war' --which is of course flatly untrue: cf the Quakers, Amish, Shakers, Mennonites, &c., not to mention the early church before Constantine got his hands on it. But what he actually says is "All bodies that claim to be Churches -- that is, who claim apostolic succession and accept the Creeds -- have constantly blessed what they regard as righteous arms". Can he really be claiming that if you're not a member of such a 'Church', you're not really Christian or your opinion doesn't count?

Finally, he does tackle the most difficult point of any Christian who is not a pacifist: the 'turn the other cheek' passage in the Gospel. Lewis's solution is to argue that this cannot possibly have any military application, since "the audience were private people in a disarmed nation" --which is disingenuous, given the long string of uprisings that bedeviled the area, the most well-known of which are the Maccabees' revolt a century before and the disastrous revolt a generation later that ended at Masada. He goes on to assert that Jesus would surely approve of anyone with rightful authority using force to defend himself against violence, most amusingly using as one of his examples a tutor fighting back against a student who wanted to hit him (just how heated did CSL's tutorials get?). He concludes this section with references to two New Testament epistles, both from passages urging submission to civil authority: ROMANS Chapter 13 ("Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment") and 1st PETER Chapter 2 ("Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right"); the latter comes from the same section that admonishes servants to obey their masters (long used as a justification for slavery) and for wives to "be submissive to your husbands". I shd have thought it much more apropos to cite the scene in Gethsemene where Jesus rebukes Peter for striking the guard (an example of violence in defense of the innocent if ever there was one).

So, in conclusion: Lewis was proud of his oratorical skill, and rightly so; he was by all accounts a marvellous speaker, and the few surviving bits of audiotape bear this out. But his gifts fail him here, leaving him with an overly complex essay marred by several ad hominem attacks on his audience in passing. Far better as a presentation of Lewis's ideas about the duty of submission to civil authority is "The Conditions for a Just War" [1939] (pages 767-768 in the same collection), where he argues that it's not the hangman's job to decide who is and isn't guilty, merely to hang those sent to him for hanging; so too he claims that a citizen can't know whether a given war is just or not and so must leave that to his government, who alone can make that decision, and serve as a soldier in whatever war his government deems necessary. But even here he complicates his point by adding that the hangman "must not hang a man whom he knows to be innocent", nor the soldier "murder prisoners or bomb civilians", which acknowledges individual responsibility based on individual judgment after all. Even so, this short, focused piece is far superior to "Why I Am Not A Pacifist".


current audiobook: LOST CHRISTIANITIES by Bart Ehrman.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Giles Revisited

So, since making my 'Ubiquity' post over the weekend, I've now heard, both through the comment to the post and in private e-mail (thanks 'Trotter'; thanks Mike) that 'Giles' is a traditional farmer-name in England, rather like 'Jeeves' has become a joking default butler name over here (ironically so, since Wodehouse's Jeeves is not a butler but a valet). The piece in BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE obviously drew on this traditional lore, then, not JRRT's little story. But I suspect the reference in FOYLE'S WAR (see my post of Jan. 25th) genuinely does refer to Tolkien, since it mentions the blunderbuss as well.

Unless, of course, both 'farmer Giles' AND his blunderbuss are part of the traditional lore, in which case FGH is closer to, say, Tolkien's recasting of 'Cat & the Fiddle' than, say, THE HOBBIT. If anyone knows more about how far back 'Giles' goes as the generic farmer name, or any pre-Tolkien connection of that stock name with a blunderbuss, I'd be v. interested to hear about it.


The Golden Age of Tolkien Studies

So, hard to believe, but it's already more than half a year since I gave my Marquette lecture ("A Kind of Elvish Craft: Tolkien as Literary Craftsman"). My essay has now been accepted for publication, but in the process of revising it I cut out most of the opening section, which had been focused towards the oral presentation. Still, since I put a lot of work into it, and it's on a topic that means a lot to me, so thought I'd share it here. Enjoy.

Seventy years. It was almost exactly seventy years ago today* that Tolkien scholarship began, with publication of a short review of THE HOBBIT on October the 2nd, 1937 in the TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, followed up a few days later (on Friday October 8th) by an even briefer piece in the London TIMES by the same anonymous reviewer (in fact, Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis**). Certainly works in what we now think of as Tolkien’s legendarium had been critiqued before--the early Earendel poems by a rather baffled G. B. Smith in 1914 (Carpenter 75, Garth 64), the ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ and Lay of Turin by an equally puzzled Dickie Reynolds around 1926 (HME.III.3, HME.IV.11), and, more perceptively, the Lay of Leithian (the Beren & Luthien story) by an attentive and wholly sympathetic C. S. Lewis in 1929 (HME.III.150–151 & 315–329), the year before Tolkien began work on THE HOBBIT. But only with published commentary on a published work did the tradition of Tolkien criticism properly begin; a tradition that has continued, intermittently but in ever-growing volume, down to the present day.

And on the whole we have been fortunate. While there have been many bad books and misguided articles, from Edmund Wilson’s notorious ‘Oo Those Awful Orcs’ [1956] to more recent but equally inept examples we need not name, and many more inoffensive but unremarkable pieces, or interesting but flawed ones, there have been a number of superlative works, from Paul Kocher’s MASTER OF MIDDLE-EARTH (still after thirty-five years the best single-volume introduction to Tolkien’s work) through Tom Shippey’s THE ROAD TO MIDDLE-EARTH and AUTHOR OF THE CENTURY.

Indeed, in his recent review of the published proceedings from Marquette’s 2004 Tolkien Conference, Brian Rosebury conveys his sense that

". . . fairly gentle adjustments and additions are now being made to a generally accepted understanding of Tolkien’s art and thought. We are on the putting green of scholarship, as it were, rather than the fairway." --TOLKIEN STUDIES Vol. IV [2007], p. 282

Leaving aside his unfortunate metaphor, which suggests a coziness wholly at odds with the ongoing battles over the ultimate impact of the film adaptations upon Tolkien’s audience, or the continuing fratricidal struggle among Tolkien linguists, or even the exact role Tolkien’s faith did or did not play in his work, Rosebury’s remark suggests that we are now nearing the end of Tolkien scholarship: that little remains to say other than to add a few refinements upon an almost completed picture. Such a conclusion does not accord with my own impression of the field at all; in fact, I am reminded of the apocryphal story about the head of the U.S. patent office who supposedly predicted a century or so ago that there would soon be nothing left to invent; an anecdote invented solely to show that such a prediction would have been egregiously wrong.

And indeed, just the three years since the conference whose proceedings prompted Mr. Rosebury’s remarks have seen the publication of major works such as Verlyn Flieger’s INTERRUPTED MUSIC, which explains better than anywhere else just what it means to sit down and create a mythology; Marjorie Burns’s PERILOUS REALMS, which not only shows how Tolkien drew on a balance of both Norse and Celtic mythological elements but is the best analysis ever of Tolkien’s characteristic ambiguity; Christina Scull & Wayne Hammond’s J. R. R. TOLKIEN COMPANION & GUIDE, with its masses of biographical detail. And more work of comparable importance is on its way: an expanded critical edition of Tolkien’s most important essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, is due out soon, shortly to be followed by a collection of all Tolkien’s interviews, an important primary source never before gathered in one easily accessible place. Add to these the relatively recent advent of the journal TOLKIEN STUDIES [debuting in 2004] and the now well-established ‘Tolkien Track’ at the annual Medievalism Conference at Kalamazoo, which has produced several erudite volumes over the last four years,*** plus a number of active Tolkien websites, including the soon to be launched Tolkien Estate website, and I think you could make the case that we are in fact living in the Golden Age of Tolkien Studies, where we have a community of Tolkien scholars in regular touch with each other, constantly exchanging information and critiques of each others’ work, and increasingly beginning to collaborate on joint projects.

This is, I think, a development after Tolkien’s own heart . . .

*[Nt 1]This paper was originally delivered as the 2007 Blackwelder Lecture at Marquette University on October 4th, 2007.

**[Nt 2]Both these two brief reviews together total only a little over seven hundred words. In them, Lewis compares THE HOBBIT respectively to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and to Grahame’s THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, praising Tolkien’s world-building. Lewis of course had the advantage of having been the first outside Tolkien’s immediate family to read the book back in February 1933, immediately upon its completion, and had more recently heard it read aloud to the writers’ group to which both men belonged (and indeed had co-founded), the Inklings. The first piece is reprinted in ON STORIES, ed. Walter Hooper [1982], pages 81–82, while Douglas Anderson quotes a goodly portion from the second piece in THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT [rev. ed., 2002], page 18.

***[Nt 3]The three volumes so far are TOLKIEN THE MEDIEVALIST, ed. Jane Chance [2003]; TOLKIEN AND THE INVENTION OF MYTH, ed. Jane Chance [2004]; and TOLKIEN'S MODERN MIDDLE AGES, ed. Jane Chance and Alfred K. Siewers [2005].


Sunday, April 6, 2008

Peake on Tolkien

So, today I was at Half-Price Books, buying a book I'd seen on my last visit there some weeks ago,* and I happened to come across a biography of Mervyn Peake I hadn't seen before: MERVYN PEAKE: MY EYE MINTS GOLD by Malcolm Yorke [2002]. Thumbing through the index, I found several references to Tolkien, one of which gave a second-hand account of Peake's opinion of JRRT.

"The three men [Peake, Jn Wood, and Aaron Judah] discussed ULYSSES and then Mervyn had a rather trenchant comment to make about Tolkien's THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, which had just been published. He described it as 'rather twee' and mildly mocked the character of Goldberry, Tom Bombadil's lady-friend, as 'precious' -- which proves that Peake was well aware of his better-selling rival. He always resented the critics' habit of linking them, thinking that Tolkien wrote primarily for children whilst he [Peake] wrote for adults. Tolkien's creation relied on magic and supernatural props, while Peake's fantasy world never did." (page 221)

Yorke's source for this is John Wood's piece 'Mervyn Peake: A Pupil Remembers' by one of the art students Peake tutored, published in MPR (the Mervyn Peake Review) No. 13 (Spring 1981), page 28. It's interesting to see that Peake knew about Tolkien, but cd not appreciate his work (the children vs. adults comment sounds remarkably like the sort of chuckle-headed remark that has made Edmund Wilson's name a hissing and a byword among Tolkien scholars); rather odd that it was Goldberry rather than Bombadil himself he was dismissive of. The book also included a reference to Lewis, who first read Peake in 1958 and wrote him a letter of high praise (no doubt a genuine expression of CSL's response to the first two Gormenghast books but also probably an act of charity, since Lewis knew of Peake's mental and physical breakdown of the year before); both this and another letter, I now see, are printed by Hooper in COLLECTED LETTERS OF CSL Vol. III.

--John R.


Thursday, April 3, 2008

Ben Ladin as Sauron

So, I was lying on the couch last Saturday evening (a bit past six pm on Sat. March 29th), letting the over-the-counter cold medicine do its work, when I came across something both surprising and appalling. Not feeling up to watching something with subtitles and no longer having access to Book TV, I was switching back and forth between the four cable news channels (as opposed to the two I usually watch), when I caught a Tolkien reference on one of them. Fox News, which I rarely watch, was running some kind of special designed to stir up fear and trembling in the viewers, one of those Are-You-Scared-Yet?/We-Can-Make-You-Scared things. This particular one was called "JIHAD USA: HOMEGROWN TERROR" and was looking at the phenomenon of copycat attacks and would-be attacks by people who have no connection to al-Qaeda. Rather than drawing what would seem to be the obvious conclusion -- such hairbrained plots are a predictable side-effect of the war, and our conduct of the war, and unpreventable in a society as heavily (and irresponsibly) armed as ours -- they had a pundit (whose name I unfortunately missed) who saw the whole thing in terms of a Tolkien analogy:

"ben Ladin is the Lord without the Rings".

Granted, this is not an exact quote and I missed the context that had led up to this remark, but if I understood him rightly he was claiming that Ben Ladin was like Sauron, holed up in his lair, but that he'd sent the Rings of Power (jihadist doctrine) out into the world where they were working his evil (inspiring terrorist plots).

Like I said, appalling.

I consider this the down side of Tolkien's permeation of our culture: he now has admirers across the board, from the white supremacists who are forging evidence that he was sympathetic to their cause (a fraud exposed by David Doughan in a recent issue of AMON HEN) to, well, this guy.



current audiobook : JOHN ADAMS by David McCullough (still)


So, today I was in the bookstore looking at the history magazines, and the headline "FARMER GILES VERSUS PETER RABBIT" caught my eye. The magazine in question, BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE (Vol. 9 no. 3), isn't one I've read before, and a quick glance showed that the article ("Myxomatosis and the Rabbit's Fight for Survival" by Peter Bartrip, pages 48-49) had nothing whatsoever to do with Tolkien or his characters but was instead a two-page account of a rabbit plague (myxomatosis) I'd only previously heard about through passing references in WATERSHIP DOWN. That made it all the more striking, to me, that they'd used the name of a Tolkien character in the attention-getting lead on the cover, especially since FARMER GILES OF HAM, while possibly the best of all Tolkien's 'minor' works, isn't exactly a household name the way, say, hobbits are. Or at least that was my impression; perhaps the Tolkien penetration of our culture goes not just wider but also deeper than I realized. Or perhaps, given the collaboratory evidence of FOYLE'S WAR, FGH might just be more popular in the UK than over here. If so, good to see it getting the attention it deserves.

current reading: THE EVOLUTION OF MIDDLE-EARTH by Eliz. Whittingham.