Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tolkien's other stuff

On December 15th we get to experience the film The Hobbit ("TH").  I have some trepidation about it, but not a lot. The same film makers made The Lord of the Rings ("LOTR"),and leaving aside a few scenes they  altered from the book and some things they left out, which I suppose is inevitable in movies -- the casting, acting, production, music, scenery  and other aspects were marvelous.  I've seen them several times and never feel the urge to fast forward.  I am hoping The Hobbit was made with the same scrupulously care.
 J.R.R. Tolkien has been my favorite fictional writer for a long, long time, and the more I have learned about him and his work, the greater my appreciation has become.  I'm hardly alone. Though not the greatest selling author of all time, he is up there. Tolkien scholarship has itself become a cottage industry.  I've written before about him a lot before:

2/21/10 - Would you just finish it already, JRRT  - A trip through the Master's letters while he was writing LOTR (seemingly forever).
5/14/09 Fulfilling Edith Hamilton's prophecy: J. R. R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, which is one of my most viewed posts, describing why LOTR was the greatest book of the twentieth century. 

4/10/08 -The Greatest Epics Ever Made (in my humble opinion).
7/17/07 - Will the real Tom Bombadil please stand up. Who or what is Tom Bombadil.

I will try not to repeat myself, but not promising anything. Today I will write about some of the "other" stuff he wrote.
It is highly probable that TH would have been the only full length novel we ever saw by Tolkien and that by far fewer of us. It might not even still be being published today.  LOTR took 16 years to write it, and the entire work was completed before the first was published (it was split up for financial reasons).  That includes many stops, starts and frustrations by the Master, who could have easily set it aside forever.   

Though TH and LOTR  are virtually of a piece, both being a part of his Middle-earth creation - a pre-European continent created mainly from Northern European mythology and a little bit of the Bible, among other sources, but they are different in tone.  TH is a children's story and LOTR for adults.  And, frankly, there is a difference in quality. Though TH is merely a great book, it is not the masterpiece LOTR is, and wasn't really expected to be.  In fact, LOTR made TH in more than one way.  I can even forgive him,  in his second edition of TH, from altering the tale, if in a minimal but significant part of the story to fit the larger scheme created by LOTR.
Even together, they are certainly the most significant, but not the most part of the writings Tolkien left behind.  You would be surprised how many poems and songs he wrote alone.  I have not read everything he wrote by a long shot and will not. But, I have read all of the important ones and many of the not so important ones. Many were edited by his son, Christopher, a scholar of his father's work, for which we should be grateful.  Some are okay, some very good and some wonderful.  Don't be surprised that I am not giving them all great raves.

If I were giving advice to a reader, it would be to read his three main works as they came out, TH followed by LOTR, followed by The Silmarillion, which is a much less well developed history of Middle Earth before the days of LOTR. Reading them chronologically in Middle Earth years would just be puzzling for many people, as The Silmarillion was crafted together by his son Christopher (with some help) in 1977after his father's death, but it is not very readable for all its own success. In fact, even after reading LOTR once, many readers would still be bored and confused by The Silmarillion. Though I can't recommend it enough to those who are fascinated by Middle Earth, as it takes you from creation until the age of man, I would never say to anyone - you must read this.  In fact, for most people I'd say skip it.
There is a good shot you've never heard of Roverandom. It is a silly children's book written before TH but not published until the late 90s, when I read it. There is nothing really special about it at all, and it is only interesting for two reasons. First, because he wrote it - for his kids.  But, more so, second, because he has a wizard in it who it is very easy to see as an early child-like version of Gandalf.  You can read the book in a few minutes, so it is not much of an investment in time. I'd say read it, if it comes into your hand, maybe standing in a library or on your Nook while sitting in Barnes & Noble.

Another children's story, but a little more entertaining for adults, is Father Giles of Ham, which I found charming. It was written the same year he published TH but it was not itself published until after WWII.  Would I remember it - or have even read it - had he not authored it? Probably not. But, it's a fun little book, really a novella. It also includes a few little tidbits that are recognizable themes in his greater works that make it interesting. The hero is not a hobbit, but he is slow and comfortable Englishman - he practically shouts out hobbit, even if he isn't one. After sort of scaring off a giant, he is sent to confront a powerful if comical dragon, and does so reluctantly. Sound familiar? Like some hobbits we know, he eventually carried a magical sword. But, the Master loved dragons and swords, so it is no surprise. It is more a surprise that at initially the Master Giles used a rather unusual blunderbuss - rather modern for Tolkien.
Smith of Wootton Major, sometimes published with Father Giles of Ham, is another children's story and, in my opinion, not quite as good. I don't remember when he wrote it, but it was published after LOTR was a success, the first time in a magazine.  The hero swallowed a magic star and was able to travel to faerie. There is an element of melancholy and loss though that I found reminiscent of LOTR and that is enough to make it work for me.

His short story Leaf by Niggle is also published in collections. Though some make analogies with it to his own life, I'd say read it only if obsessed by him.
But none of those children's works are tethered to Middle-earth or are translations of classics he has written. Some of the works he wrote were published much later, very recently in fact, being edited by Christopher.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is a translation of a medieval poem concerning one of the knights of the round table and published after his death.  Many others have translated it too. If you are interested,  you want the modern English version, not the middle English text he and another scholar published when Calvin Coolidge was president and Hitler was just a failed revolutionary.  For us, it's most interesting feature is the beheading game, which challenge the Gawain accepted.  Basically, Gawain was allowed to strike the Green Knight a blow, but in turn, had to submit to the Knight returning the favor the following year. So, Gawain, no dummy, cuts his head off. Unfortunately, the Green Knight merely picked it up and walks away. Uh oh. If you want the rest, you have to read it (although my guess is, you can find online summaries).
The Children of Húrin is probably the best of his works published posthumously, just a few years ago in 2007. It is part of his history of Middle-earth and actually written, at least largely so, back in 1910 and re-written a number of times. Christopher put them together and provided commentary. And, it is really good. If you are only going to read any of these, it is the one I recommend most.  It takes place long before Bilbo's and Frodo's days, back when Sauron was only a henchman to the satanic god (hat is, a Vala to Tolkien), Morgoth.  It is based, at least in part, on the Finnish poem, The Kalevala, which Tolkien revered, and also the Germanic heroes in the Volsunga Saga.  But, it will remind you much of LOTR which also is derived from the saga. Húrin tale is partly told in The Silmarillion but much better here.  I would go as far as to say, if you are a Tolkien-phile, you really should read it.

Somewhat different, but perhaps equally good is Sigurd and Gudrún which is Tolkien's own narrative retelling of the Volsunga Saga written in his 20s and 30s. As interesting as his version is, it is made more so by the excellent work done by Christopher in notating it. However, where I can recommend The Children of Húrin to the Tolkien lover, this I would probably recommend only to someone who loves medieval sagas as well. Not all Tolkien is easy reading like his great works.   And if you really like Sigurd and Gudrún , I am happy to recommend to you The Nibelungenlied and William Morris' (a fascinating man, multi-talented, who was sort of a Tolkien before there was Tolkien) own version of the saga - The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs. All of these brought me as much joy in my youth as did Wagner's Ring cycle - also, the same story.
On the non-fiction side, Tolkien's  1936 lecture, Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics (you can find another version as Beowulf and the Critics) revolutionized the field before TH was even published. I've read it a few times and it is very worthwhile. My favorite paragraph quote from it:

"A dragon is no idle fancy. Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold. 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 haven't touched upon all of his writings, but merely discussed ones I liked a lot or loved, and some others I have read. I would not recommend, even for parents, his Letters from Father Christmas, though I own it. I would not recommend his Finn and Hengist, except for someone who is interested in Anglo-Saxon as a language. It is a scholarly work about a fragment and very esoteric. Tolkien, obviously, could be a great writer, even his non-fiction.  But he was not always trying.    

Enjoy TH. I will likely give some kind of non-spoiler review.


  1. I saw TH yesterday; I rank it below LotR both for story and visual aspects. I saw the "regular" version as I am not a 3D fan. Jackson experimented a lot with camera angles and swoops of motion that were (a) unnecessary for the story; (b) added little; (c) made it clear I was watching a film, thus losing the immersion process I so enjoy with LotR; and (d) gave me a headache, even in the 2D version. I would have preferred more emphasis on character and story and less on cinematography. I looked at my watch several times during TH, something I never do during LotR; there are places where TH drags. But do go see it. Even with these issues I give it high marks. Every Tolkien fan should, if only to have something to talk about.

  2. Thanks, CD. I will look for that. The way you describe it reminds me a bit of the the second trilogy of Star Wars. High on effects, low on good writing, which was really what I cared about. Hope to see it this weekend. I can't remember one great line from that trilogy or even who most of the characters were that didn't come from the original trilogy. But, you are probably right that every Tolkien fan should see it.


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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 . . . .