Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fulfilling Edith Hamilton's prophecy: J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings

This article presupposes you’ve read The Lord of The Rings or at least seen the movies.

To the best of my memory I was taught to read from books written by two women. The first of these was Born Free by Joy Adamson and the second Mythology by Edith Hamilton. Adamson and Hamilton were both remarkable women and I will perhaps deal with them another day. I really just want to quote from Hamilton’s Mythology, published first in 1942 and still being re-published today. It might be the most popular guide to Greek and Roman Mythology out there, although Bullfinch’s might have something to say about that. It also has a short section at the end of the book on Norse mythology. Discussing the Elder Edda, which might very, very loosely be termed the Norse Bible, is this interesting, perhaps prophetic tidbit:

The Elder Edda is much the more important of the two [eddas]. It is made up of separate poems, often about the same story, but never connected with each other. The material for a great epic is there, as great as the Iliad, perhaps even greater, but no poet came to work it over as Homer did the early stories which preceded the Iliad. There was no man of genius in the Northland to weld the poems into a whole and make it a thing of common beauty and power: no one even to discard the crude and the commonplace and cut out the childish and wearisome repetitions. There are lists of name in the Edda which sometimes run on unbroken for pages. Nevertheless the somber grandeur of the stories comes through in spite of the style. Perhaps no one should speak of ‘the style’ who cannot read ancient Norse; but all the translations are so alike in being singularly awkward and involved that one cannot but suspect the original of being responsible, at least in part. The poets of the Elder Edda seem to have had conceptions greater than their skill to put them into words. Many of the stories are splendid. There are none to equal them in Greek mythology, except those retold by the tragic poets. All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women who go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism.”

Little did Hamilton seem to know as she wrote in the early 1940s, some linguistic genius, who did read ancient Norse and related languages, and was a renowned expert on Beowulf among other classics, was already writing such an epic. His name was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. His masterpieces, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Ring as well as the less celebrated prequel, The Silmarillion, tells the tale of ancient mythological civilizations clashing, drawing out from this Oxford philogist breathtaking knowledge of his great loves – Norse mythology, his native England and numerous languages.

That this was Tolkien’s aim is made clear by Tolkien himself: “I have tried to modernize the myths and make them credible.” He succeeded wildly, and although it seems little known by many of his hundreds of millions of fans, he has given longer life to traditions that would be much less known in the world today were it not for his work, even though most people will never crack a binding on either Edda to read his main source.

There are endless books (not to mention webpages) on Tolkien and his work, and, many are interesting, although I have not yet found one that I would say was both comprehensive and delightful. The closest I’ve found yet are the 1969 (soon after Tolkien became celebrated) Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings by a not so good fantasy writer but better editor named Lin Carter, who died 20 years ago, and, a series of books by Tolkien’s own son, Christopher, which chronicle the history of the writing of the epic stories. Carter’s work deals more with Tolkien’s sources and predecessors and the son’s work with Tolkien’s own development of the books themselves. I would recommend Carter’s short book if you have mild interest in Tolkien’s influence and the development of fantasy, or, sitting in a library and skimming the growing list of Christopher’s Tolkien’s works. They are deliberately ponderous and repetitious, in his effort to be complete in showing how his father wrote these works from the early 1900s and constantly revised them, but contain much fascinating information. They are extremely worthwhile, but only for a real fan. But, I must admit, I have not read all the books out there on Tolkien and there may be some gems I have missed. I would also recommend the works of Tom Shippey, who followed Tolkien in the same chair at Oxford and worked with him.

Instead of writing an even remotely comprehensive account about LOTR, I have two propositions, each subjective and unprovable, but strongly felt by me. One, that the Lord of the Rings is the “best” book of the 20th century (obviously not my idea; not only has he topped many such polls, but, Tom Shippey already wrote J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, which makes the same point); but more so, two, the books are far deeper and operate on more levels than many fans suspect. Which reminds me of one of my favorite LOTR lines, spoken of Cirdan, the elf lord who waited by the Grey Havens to take home elves returning to the undying lands – “He saw farther and deeper than any in Middle-earth.” I have sometimes suspected that Cirdan was an avatar for Tolkien - not that he so intended -- seemingly sitting and watching the events of the Third Age of Middle Earth unfold, without participating, neither omniscient, nor ignorant, but more knowledgeable about what had and was going to transpire than any other of the wise.

I support my own two propositions as if they were one and break them down into arbitrary categories.

Popularity – Popularity does not itself make for a great work. The Harry Potter series, for example, is phenomenally popular, and I certainly enjoyed them, but there is no more historical or mythological depth to them than there is for Smurfs or Snuffleupagus. I cringe when they are mentioned in the same breath with Tolkien’s works, although they are both fantasy and deal with many of the same themes. I do not consider the Potter books great (although a lot of fun) unless you define it by popularity and financial success alone. Then it is the greatest, bar none, and we should probably forget Shakespeare too.

While popularity is not necessary for a book to be great, or, greatness automatic if it is popular, it certainly means something. People want to read it. And if people don't want to read it, it is much harder to call a book or author "the best." Tolkien’s works have been best sellers for nearly 50 years. They are read all over the world and in many different languages. They have spawned not only three of the most popular movies ever made, but inspired probably thousands of copy cat novels, some bordering on plagiarism, by those who wanted to write their own tales of elves and dwarves. Not to mention, books commenting on Tolkien or his work have become a cottage industry. Help me with this, dear reader. Is there another 20th century author whose works have inspired so many others to write about him (note to idiots – Shakespeare and Dickens didn’t write in the 20th century)? Let me know. Maybe I’m missing someone. Perhaps we have to go back to Twain and Dickens to find any other modern author so seriously studied and written about. Anyway, I would hardly be alone in my belief that LOTR was the best book(s) of the last century, as poll after poll has shown Tolkien and his works in the English speaking world up at or near the top, even in this century.

LOTR has been rated in a number of polls as the best of various categories, particularly in the British Commonwealth. The London Times’ 50 greatest British authors since 1945 rated him sixth (although, other than George Orwell, I can’t fathom the top 5 – a poet, Philip Larkin, was first – critics know so little). Or take the Modern Library’s 100 best novels. It doesn't make the critic's list at all. But, LOTR is number 4 in the reader’s list. Since most books are written for readers, not critics, I take this as far more important. I snipped the following from Wikipedia, minus the links and footnotes:

The Lord of the Rings became immensely popular in the 1960s and has remained so ever since, ranking as one of the most popular works of fiction of the 20th century, judged by both sales and reader survey. In the 2003 "Big Read" survey conducted by the BBC, The Lord of the Rings was found to be the "Nation's Best-loved Book". Australians voted The Lord of the Rings "My Favourite Book" in a 2004 survey conducted by the Australian ABC. In a 1999 poll of Amazon.com customers, The Lord of the Rings was judged to be their favourite "book of the millennium". In 2002 Tolkien was voted the 92nd "greatest Briton" in a poll conducted by the BBC, and in 2004 he was voted 35th in the SABC3's Great South Africans, the only person to appear in both lists. His popularity is not limited to the English-speaking world: in a 2004 poll inspired by the UK's "Big Read" survey, about 250,000 Germans found The Lord of the Rings to be their favourite work of literature.”

Probably one hundred and fifty million copies of LOTR have been sold since the early 1950s and another one hundred million copies of The Hobbit, making him either the first or second most read author ever before J.K. Rowlings (with modern populations and marketing, I wouldn’t know how to compare) – maybe Dickens has been read as much or more (and A Tale of Two Cities has sold more copies than even LOTR) but the numbers are comparable. Of course, none of this mentions the movies, seen by millions as well, and which gave the books a second life. As much as I enoyed the movies, Peter Jackson could not bring into them some of the facets of the LOTR that make it so wonderful for me, as I discuss below.

Influence - If you go to the bookstore and flip through the fantasy aisle, you will be struck at how many publishers seek to use Tolkien’s name to puff their own artists ("The new Tolkien" – "The best since Tolkien" – "Tolkien’s heir") much like mystery writers are forever being compared with John LeCarre.

I am not suggesting that Tolkien invented the fantasy genre, or even what is commonly called "sword and sorcery." Far from it. He was writing out of a long tradition. He simply did it better than anyone else, fortified with his mastery of language and mythology. However, even his modernization of myth and attempt to make credible the Northern myths was not unique. For example, the multi-talented William Morris published The Well at the World’s End (1896) when Tolkien was a little boy. It deeply influenced him. One letter to his wife long before LOTR indicates he was attempting to write something along the lines of Morris’s work (indeed, Morris had a “Gandalf” and even a horse named “Silverfax,” just a shade away from Tolkien’s Shadowfax). Another legendary fantasy writer, Sir William Haggard Rider, wrote The Saga of Eric Brighteyes, a supercharged story which takes the best parts from Icelandic sagas and leaves the boring parts out. Tolkien acknowledged that Rider’s She had an influence on him. Rider and Morris are among my favorite writers of heroic fantasy and but two examples. In my opinion, though, there are few others worthy, and it is a genre that usually disappoints me, because the writing is neither drenched in history nor mythology, only the modern appearence of it, and often not even well written. Here’s my own very short list of the best works of “sword and sorcery,” which were not written by Tolkien:

- The Once and Future King ("TOAFK") by T. H. White. It can be found in a single volume, but has also been published as a trilogy. I recommend reading the first volume, The Sword and the Sorceror, in a solitary volume first, because of a wonderful chapter for some reason not included in the collection. And please do not read the posthumously published The Book of Merlin, which was god awful, and not in any real sense part of the story. Many years ago I thought TOAFK, based on the King Arthur legends, might be even better than Tolkien, but that was before I began to understood LOTR on some different levels. Although the TOAFK is well known, and inspired a Disney film, I don’t believe it gets enough readership. Yet, in my opinion, it is almost to Harry Potter, what Longfellow is to Dr. Seuss.

- The Worm Ourobos by Eric Eddison. A riotous adventure story. The first 30 pages or so, until the Earthman gets to Mercury seemingly in a dream, should be browsed through and forgotten, just as the author then does. Eddison was a brilliant writer, and though the story is not mythologically based, it is so beautifully written, almost poetic prose, and so riveting a story, it is an exception to my general rule.

- The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs is an adult, but very light (and short) fantasy. It's hard to find and you may need to get it used. Very well done though, even if I would have preferred a different ending. When I lend it out I rarely get it back.

- Silverthorn, by John Myers Myers. This is one of my favorite historians (Western) and fiction writers who has somehow escaped great public notice. Silverthorn is a tour de force about a man who finds himself in the waters off of an island after a shipwreck and then in one historical or literary adventure after another. Again, I would have preferred a different ending, but it is so much fun guessing as to who the historical/literary figures are, that it will keep you rolling along. There are a number of websites that have made a project about figuring this out for you, because you will not know them all. You can just read it as a fun story though even if you have no literary pretensions.

- The Arthurian Saga by Mary Stewart. Another King Arthur saga, it is totally different than White's books and you can read both with great pleasure. I have found I can read nothing else she wrote, although she is somewhat celebrated. But these books were sublime.

- Many works by William Haggard Rider, but if just one, then, The People of The Mist. Even before Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan, Rider specialized at taking English explorers and having them come upon adventure in lost African cities. If not The People of the Mist, then either She or King Solomon's Mines.

- Just about any of Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories or books or those of his puritan scourge, Soloman Kane (Howard is an author who I can credit this blog’s self appointed critic-in-chief, Bear, with introducing me to when we were boys). The Schwarzenegger movies actually captured the spirit quite well, but Conan is fun and easy reading if you like the genre at all.

However, although he was working in a genre with predecessors, there can be no doubt that Tolkien’s influence has been greater than anyone else’s on fantasy or sword and sorcery writers. I can only think of one fantasy writer who may have close to a claim to having had similar influence, and that would be the short lived Robert Howard, above mentioned, who had legions of followers. Still, when I think back on the fantasy novels I’ve seen on shelves for the past 30 years, there are far more who have followed or credit Tolkien than Howard (who, like Tolkien, actually created his own pseudo world history, his called the Hyperborian Age, loosely based on the ancient Europe, as was Middle Earth).

Critical reputation – One problem Tolkien faces, of course, is that some people and critics can not see past fantasy and consider it a serious work of art. For some reason, painters can choose mythology or fantasy as their subject and no one has a problem with it. In fact, many of the greatest works of art have fantastic, legendary or mythological characters as their subject, but authors are not taken seriously if they indulge in it, at least not in modern times. Before Tolkien was famous, he was well known as a scholar in his own field. His 1936 essay/speech on Beowulf is still THE essay on that subject. He wrote therein as follows:

Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm. More than one poem in recent years (since Beowulf escaped somewhat from the dominion of the students of origins to the students of poetry) has been inspired by the dragon of Beowulf , but none that I know of by Ingeld son of Froda.”

I’m not a stuffy Oxford don, so, I can speak more frankly. Those who believe that great literature cannot be centered around fantasy figures are missing life’s great adventures. Fantasy is inspirational, whereas some of the more mundane characters of literature, however much great literary creations, just aren't. By the way, notice his reference to Froda. Sound familiar?

The dragon of The Hobbit is, of course, much inspired by Beowulf too. Just this decade has been found Tolkien’s own translation of Beowulf, complete with line by line notes, that I believe will be a great publishing success some day. Tolkien himself wrote “Beowulf is among my most valued sources.”

As many English professors don’t get fantasy, they don’t take LOTR seriously. But there are many, a growing number, who do and Tolkien scholarship has long been a serious endeavor for those who are not too smug or pretentious to read it. Scholarly titles are added each year. I’ve stopped trying to keep up because it would be taking up an entire new area of study.

Language – This is perhaps the essence of Tolkien’s work. At least, his work was for him a vehicle for his invented languages, languages based on his knowledge of Old English, Ancient Norse, Latin, etc. He was a world class philogist or scholar of ancient texts. He was also benignly obsessed with his love of languages. Tolkien once wrote to his son, who had sent him some interesting historical tidbit, that he just couldn’t be that interested in history if the historical fact did not include something of linguistic merit. I too often find that knowing what words means, or what place names mean, are the most interesting facets of history for me, although, unlike Tolkien, I find plenty of delight in history without it.

It is often said that Tolkien created several languages for LOTR, including two elvish, one dwarvish, the black speech of Mordor and the Common tongue spoken by seemingly all. This is a gross exaggeration in my opinion. He did create many words, alphabets, pronunciation guides and even grammar for some make believe languages which are to some degree based on his own prolific knowledge of actual ancient languages, and which are, in some cases, quite beautiful. But, there is no actual lengthy work or even a real dictionary in any particular language. Perhaps, some enterprising artist will write one some day with the permission of the estate or when the copyright expires. Tolkien's books though, were about imaginary languages.

I hope I’m dead when new works of fiction based on Tolkien’s classic come out after the copyright expires, because it will hurt me to the core to see his great work raped and pillaged, even by generally good writers. If they are not as versed as he in the old languages, and have not mastered his archaic tone, plus, are brilliant writers themselves, they should not try. That whittles it down to pretty much nobody, but everyone from third graders to schlock adventure writers will jump in for sure - there's money to be made. Recently, Christopher Tolkien has released two works, one based on an uncompleted work of his father’s – The Children of Hurin, a tale which took place long before those of the Hobbit and LOTR, and based on The Silmarillion and unpublished works by his father. Just released is The Tale of Sigurd and Gudrun, a retelling of one of the great Northern Myths. I wonder how much is the father and how much of it is the son, although he is very careful to delineate in my experience, and I am not sure I can bear to read it. While Christopher is a gifted historian of his father, I am not sure critics should become co-authors and I might have preferred to read Tolkien’s unfinished, imperfect work. I should mention that Christopher is no kid – he’s 85 years old, a former Oxford scholar himself, and is suing New Line Cinema on behalf of the estate for 80 million pounds.

Nevertheless, Tolkien’s language play is a study in itself. The languages of Middle Earth are derived from Tolkien’s knowledge of Norse mythology and languages. Gandalf means “Magic” (or wand/staff) Elf.” His name, and the names of all the dwarves from The Hobbit come straight from a list in the Elder Edda. Incidentally in an earlier draft, the head dwarf of The Hobbit was Gandalf. Many of the riders of Rohan began their names with Eo-, and ancient English word (Eoh-) for a warhorse. Eowyn, for example, is an old English combination which could mean lover or joy of (war)horses. For LOTR fans, note that originally Tolkien thought it was she Aragon would love and possible marry, not Arwen. Eowyn’s brother, Eomer’s name comes straight out of Beowulf, as does Frodo (Froda), although he was originally written in as Bingo by Tolkien.

I am no master of Old English, but Orc is an Old English word for demon and is from Beowulf, Ent for Giant, Mordor from murder, Theoden a chief or leader, Saruman means man of skill or cunning. Edoras (the name for Theoden’s court) is from sheltering building and his golden hall, Meduseld, is also taken directly from Beowulf, and means ‘mead-hall’. Beorn means either warrior or, obviously, Bear. Hobbit was only recently found in an old and long list of names for little people, although Tolkien always said he invented it. No one thinks a man who delighted in taking his names straight from ancient literature as homage and an act of love would deny that particular one, particularly as it kept his books from initially being published in Germany, but he probably saw it and forgot. The list is endless and has been very well researched at this point. It would have been nice if the creator left us a full list, but such has not been reported.

Religion – Tolkien was a religious Catholic. The beginning of the universe and Middle Earth in The Silmarillion is a rewriting of Genesis. Tolkien’s Iluvatar or Eru is simply God, the Valar and Maia, his angels, cherubim, etc. Lin Carter, who I referred to above as one of the best authors about Tolkien’s great works, complained that there was not any religion among Tolkien’s people. I think he missed the point. Gandalf, Frodo and friends were the religion and the first three ages were the mythology – what existed in the world before the magic went out of it and the elves and magic returned to the West. We have more evidence than my opinion. Gandalf, Tolkien wrote, was an incarnate angel. Frodo, who almost makes the ultimate sacrifice, and finally goes into the West, is clearly a Christ figure. As Stephen Greydanus points out in an excellent essay, Faith and Fantasy: Tolkien the Catholic, The Lord of the Rings, and Peter Jackson’s Film Trilogy, each of Gandalf, Frodo and Aragorn undergoes a Christ-like “death” and “rebirth.” Tolkien called his own works not only religious, but "Catholic"; and, he also said he owed much of Galadriel’s character to Mother Mary.

Mythology – This is inseparable from the language. I have already pointed out how Tolkien took names from the Elder Edda. Gandalf is the most obvious mythological character, being not only an incarnate angel, but also made in the “Odinic wanderer” archetype (says Tolkien). Of course, he also said that he was based on a painting of the spirit of England – but he can be derived from all these things and come out whole. If you are unfamiliar with Odin, the father of the Norse Gods, he was wisest, although unlike the Greek Zeus, not strongest, sacrificed much, invented magic, cared about humans, wore a hat and wandered through the world of men as an old man with a staff. Hard to miss the connection. The dwarves, the elves, the dragon, Middle Earth itself, Mirkwood, and many other features of LOTR and The Hobbit are all based on beings or creations from Northern mythology (although dragons are certainly a worldwide phenomena). However, all is not. There is a mixture with Christianity as I’ve said earlier. Sauron, and his former master, Melkor, are versions of Lucifer.

Writing style – LOTR in particular is filled with great phrases in dialogue, poetry, songs, description and narration. Tolkien meant it to be serious sounding, although it has its comic moments, and for adults. It was deliberately written in an archaic fashion. Neither Hemingway nor other modern writers could make a dent in Tolkien’s classicism.

Yet, Tolkien was a great writer, and if his genre required certain archetypes, he was a great writer around them. LOTR is a magical web woven with words, if archaic in tone. Tolkien, who worked on The Oxford English Dictionary, edited a Middle English Dictionary, was the translator of a number of works, including, famously, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and was a master of so many languages, was ideally suited for his task. Perhaps he was the only one so suited. There are too many wonderful lines and images to even begin summoning them here with any hope of comprehensive representation, so I will satisfy myself with these few, starting with two conversations between Frodo and Gandalf:

What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’
‘Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity
.’

Even better -

I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us
.’

More poetic are the lines burned on the inside of the great ring -

'Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for the Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie
.'

And this brief poem describing one of the stories' protaganists –

'All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost,
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.'


In LOTR, Bilbo wrote that last poem for his friend, Aragorn (who in an earlier version was also a hobbit), but, Tolkien could go back to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice - “All that glisters is not gold.” But, it was not original to Shakespeare either and variations were at least as old as the 15th century. Go to http://everything2.com/title/All%2520that%2520glitters%2520is%2520not%2520gold for an historical commentary on this phrase.

Tragic theme – LOTR is tragedy, not comedy. Deep down, although the heroes are triumphant, it is about loss - the loss of the world Tolkien had known in his youth, the triumph of the combustion engine over fire, of cars and trains over horses, roads over paths. When Gandalf and the elves return to the West over the sea, it is the end of the age of folk magic and simple wisdom and the beginning of the age of man, science and technology. Perhaps, indeed, Saruman triumphs after all. For Tolkien it was a great loss. I believe he would have been thrilled with the music from the movies that did a great job of capturing his work on film, but particularly with the song “Into the West” played over the credits, written by composer, Howard Shore and co-written and hauntingly sung by Annie Lennox. I hope to have it played at my funeral (seriously).

The feeling of loss is well in keeping with the Norse tradition and brings us back to the last two sentences of the quote from Edith Hamilton we started with: “All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women who go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism.”

The Hobbit was already out a few years before Hamilton wrote those words, but either she didn’t read it, or it wasn’t serious enough, being a children’s story, to let her understand who Tolkien was and what he was doing. I have no idea if she ever read LOTR, which came out in the 1950s long before she died. But Tolkien and Hamilton were on the same page and I think he fulfilled her prophecy.

15 comments:

  1. Thank you for this article. I am obsessed with the work of JRR Tolkien and love learning more about it. I found your article quite by accident while doing a search for information on Tom Shippey. I saw him in the Appendices of the extended cut DVD version of the LOTR by Peter Jackson and decicded that I wanted toread his book and learn more about him. Being obsessed with Tolkien I checked out a DVD entitled "Inside Tolkien's The Hobbit" distributed by Kultur. It has some interesting things such as video of Tolkien himself talking about his work and various other things like smoking; audio of Tolkien reading selections of his work; interviews with 2 of his children (Priscilla and John); and amoung other things interviews with a much younger Tom Shippey. Anyway ...I came across your article and I appreciatevery much theinformation on Tolkien's sources and influences, especially William Morris and Sir William Haggard Rider. Also your list of the "best works of "sword and sorcery" which were not written by Tolkien" inspires me to read something new.
    I am continually amazed at the levels of meaning contained in the works of Tolkien. I have the complete unabridged audio CDs of the LOTR and the Hobbit. I listen to them constantly (yes I am obsessed) and find endless meanings and themes especially of a spiritual nature that inspire me and help me "to decide what to do with the time that is given" to me. There are spiritual values clearly expressed throughout his works as in this passage spoken by Gandalf:
    "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be so eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."

    I have recently become obsessed with Homer and I am struck with the similarities between theIliad, the Odyssey, and the LOTR. Of course all 3 are long narratives, but all 3 have a richness of expression of universal themes meaningful to people over multiple generations. Anyway real life intrudes...

    thanks Nina

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Nina. You are exactly the person I was trying to reach. And that was a great quote from the master too.

    It seems amazing to me that one of the most well read books in history can actually be underappreciated, but I believe it is. The more I read the more I learn to.

    If you love Homer, you might also be interested in my 9/21/07 post entitled For Language Lovers Only, which discusses the ancient Greek language and Homer in particular.

    You also give me an opportunity for a post script. I picked up newly released The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun by Tolkien, recently found and now edited by his son. Christopher is as careful in his scholarship of his father's translations as he is with all his work and adds much with excellent commentary (I've learned enough to justify the price of the book in a few minutes. You might find that you would love the same story even better (I haven't gotten to Tolkien's version yet, but it is not complete) The Nibelungenlied (in English, The Song of the Nibelungs) as well. It is in my mind the classic version of the Sigurd/Sigfried tale dating from the 12th or 13th century and well translated into English, and you might also like the William Morris translation (I believe which is entitled The Volsunga Saga - I can't find my copy this moment)both which are wonderful. All of these were big Tolkien influences.

    Please drop in any time.

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  3. In case Nina clicked the box to get follow up comments, I should add you might also enjoy, based on your obsession, the July 17th, 2007, Who was Tom Bombadil? and the November 2, 2006, A Day of Thunder of Lightning, which concerns the Norse god, Thor, I hope in a unique way (at least, I can't find a similar opinion out there).

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  4. Thank you for your suggestions. I am looking forwardto reading them. It is fun to find a place that feeds my obsession for endless information on topics I love.
    Nina

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  5. Hey,
    I loved the post.
    Could never get into Face in the Frost though.
    Seems you found a new reader too.
    -Don

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  6. "Surely, you would not separate an old man from his staff?"
    That's the favorite line that pops into my head today. I think you doth protest too much about the confusion of quality and popularity. I wish Tolkien were less popular frankly. The masses will out and Tolkien will read like Grimm's fairy tales before long. You are entertaining when your dander is up about something near and dear to you,Frodo.

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  7. Anonymous10:24 AM

    Great post Dave. I have not read any of the trilogy books but will someday when I have some time. I am stuck on WWII history at the moment and have about 3 more books on the topic to read. However, now that I think about it, WWII and the trilogy have many similarities. One of the few wars with truly good vs. evil players Excluding Stalin).

    Also, Churchill's wartime speeches share a certain majesty with Tolkien's prose.

    -Eric

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  8. Some comments on the comments. First, see how much nicer everyone is to me if I don't write about politics. Fortunately, this week's post is on The Civil War, so I might be spared again.

    As to Don: The Face in the Frost is definitely the lightest in tone of the books I mentioned and possibly beneath for comfort zone for that. I found it refreshing and original and have a treasured copy I will never lend out again - it never comes back.

    As to Eric: You see WWII there, I see it, lots of people see it. Tolkien didn't (and, disliked all allegory) and insisted that it all came from somewhere else. I think he was mostly right, but how could the most momentous events in the world not affect him. It is easy to see Sauron/Hitler and Mordor/Germany and the whole ramping up of mechanization as at least being in the back of JRRT's mind, although he is probably right that it was not the main.

    As to Bear: I'll re-state what I said on popularity - Because something is popular doesn't mean it is great, but if no one reads it, or many people do read it, that has to mean something too. Do we really differ that much on this point? I doubt it.

    Anyway, thanks all for the kind words.

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  9. One more quote from Tolkien from the forward to the Fellowship of the Ring:
    " I think that many confuse applicability with allegory but the one resides in the freedom of the reader and the other in the purposed domination of the author."

    Nina

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  10. Good point. As discussed with Eric though, I just find it hard to believe that living through WWII in England would not have had some impact on him while writing it. Think about it - In LOTR, the Shire was saved - but not for Frodo (I can't remember if that is a line from the book or just the movie). And, after WWII, England was saved, but at cost of it's empire and much of it's rural way of life. In the end, Sharky won despite himself.

    I'm sure it will be debated as long as there are people reading LOTR.

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  11. Wow, I hope that last comment isn't a message from Edith Hamilton.

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  13. It is not William Haggard Rider it is Henry Rider Haggard, David!! Lefting aside this mistake I think that your article was very correct and insighful. Congratulations!!

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  14. Thanks, Paulolapetus. I've read a number of his books for thiry years or so but frequently bollux his name up. Proofreading continues to be among the greatest of my shortcomings. Glad you enjoyed it though.

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .