An Opera Posessed

My last post left the story of JRR Tolkein immediately after his writing of his first bestseller; the rather charming, lighthearted, almost fairy story of a tale that was The Hobbit. This was a major success, and not just among the ‘children aged between 6 and 12’ demographic identified by young Rayner Unwin; adults lapped up Tolkein’s work too, and his publishers Allen & Unwin were positively rubbing their hands in glee. Naturally, they requested a sequel, a request to which Tolkein’s attitude appears to have been along the lines of ‘challenge accepted’.

Even holding down the rigours of another job, and even accounting for the phenomenal length of his finished product, the writing of a book is a process that takes a few months for a professional writer (Dame Barbara Cartland once released 25 books in the space of a year, but that’s another story), and perhaps a year or two for an amateur like Tolkein. He started writing the book in December 1937, and it was finally published 18 years later in 1955.

This was partly a reflection of the difficulties Tolkein had in publishing his work (more on that later), but this also reflects the measured, meticulous and very serious approach Tolkein took to his writing. He started his story from scratch, each time going in a completely different direction with an entirely different plot, at least three times. His first effort, for instance, was due to chronicle another adventure of his protagonist Bilbo from The Hobbit, making it a direct sequel in both a literal and spiritual sense. However, he then remembered about the ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains, won (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the creature Gollum, and the strange power it held; not just invisibility, as was Bilbo’s main use for it, but the hypnotic effect it had on Gollum (he even subsequently rewrote that scene for The Hobbit‘s second edition to emphasise that effect). He decided that the strange power of the ring was a more natural direction to follow, and so he wrote about that instead.

Progress was slow. Tolkein went months at a time without working on the book, making only occasional, sporadic yet highly focused bouts of progress. Huge amounts were cross-referenced or borrowed from his earlier writings concerning the mythology, history & background of Middle Earth, Tolkein constantly trying to make his mythic world feel and, in a sense, be as real as possible, but it was mainly due to the influence of his son Christopher, who Tolkein would send chapters to whilst he was away fighting the Second World War in his father’s native South Africa, that the book ever got finished at all. When it eventually did, Tolkein had been working the story of Bilbo’s son Frodo and his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power for over 12 years. His final work was over 1000 pages long, spread across six ‘books’, as well as being laden with appendices to explain & offer background information, and he called it The Lord of The Rings (in reference to his overarching antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron).

A similar story had, incidentally, been attempted once before; Der Ring des Nibelungen is an opera (well, four operas) written by German composer Richard Wagner during the 19th century, traditionally performed over the course of four consecutive nights (yeah, you have to be pretty committed to sit through all of that) and also known as ‘The Ring Cycle’- it’s where ‘Ride of The Valkyries’ comes from. The opera follows the story of a ring, made from the traditionally evil Rhinegold (gold panned from the Rhine river), and the trail of death, chaos and destruction it leaves in its wake between its forging & destruction. Many commentators have pointed out the close similarities between the two, and as a keen follower of Germanic mythology Tolkein certainly knew the story, but Tolkein rubbished any suggestion that he had borrowed from it, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”. You can probably work out my approximate personal opinion from the title of this post, although I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Even once his epic was finished, the problems weren’t over. Once finished, he quarrelled with Allen & Unwin over his desire to release LOTR in one volume, along with his still-incomplete Silmarillion (that he wasn’t allowed to may explain all the appendices). He then turned to Collins, but they claimed his book was in urgent need of an editor and a license to cut (my words, not theirs, I should add). Many other people have voiced this complaint since, but Tolkein refused and ordered Collins to publish by 1952. This they failed to do, so Tolkein wrote back to Allen & Unwin and eventually agreed to publish his book in three parts; The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King (a title Tolkein, incidentally, detested because it told you how the book ended).

Still, the book was out now, and the critics… weren’t that enthusiastic. Well, some of them were, certainly, but the book has always had its detractors among the world of literature, and that was most certainly the case during its inception. The New York Times criticised Tolkein’s academic approach, saying he had “formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself”, whilst others claimed it, and its characters in particular, lacked depth. Even Hugo Dyson, one of Tolkein’s close friends and a member of his own literary group, spent public readings of the book lying on a sofa shouting complaints along the lines of “Oh God, not another elf!”. Unlike The Hobbit, which had been a light-hearted children’s story in many ways, The Lord of The Rings was darker & more grown up, dealing with themes of death, power and evil and written in a far more adult style; this could be said to have exposed it to more serious critics and a harder gaze than its predecessor, causing some to be put off by it (a problem that wasn’t helped by the sheer size of the thing).

However, I personally am part of the other crowd, those who have voiced their opinions in nearly 500 five-star reviews on Amazon (although one should never read too much into such figures) and who agree with the likes of CS  Lewis, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times of the time that “Here is a book that will break your heart”, that it is “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and that “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them”. These are the people who have shown the truth in the review of the New York Herald Tribune: that Tolkein’s masterpiece was and is “destined to outlast our time”.

But… what exactly is it that makes Tolkein’s epic so special, such a fixture; why, even years after its publication as the first genuinely great work of fantasy, it is still widely regarded as the finest work the genre has ever produced? I could probably write an entire book just to try and answer that question (and several people probably have done), but to me it was because Tolkein understood, absolutely perfectly and fundamentally, exactly what he was trying to write. Many modern fantasy novels try to be uber-fantastical, or try to base themselves around an idea or a concept, in some way trying to find their own level of reality on which their world can exist, and they often find themselves in a sort of awkward middle ground, but Tolkein never suffered that problem because he knew that, quite simply, he was writing a myth, and he knew exactly how that was done. Terry Pratchett may have mastered comedic fantasy, George RR Martin may be the king of political-style fantasy, but only JRR Tolkein has, in recent times, been able to harness the awesome power of the first source of story; the legend, told around the campfire, of the hero and the villain, of the character defined by their virtues over their flaws, of the purest, rawest adventure in the pursuit of saving what is good and true in this world. These are the stories written to outlast the generations, and Tolkein’s mastery of them is, to me, the secret to his masterpiece.


The Price of Sex

This is (probably, I might come back to it if I have trouble thinking of material) the last post I will be doing in this mini-series on the subject of sex.  Today’s title is probably the bluntest of the series as a whole, and yet is probably most descriptive of its post’s content, as today I am going to be dealing with the rather edgy subject of prostitution.

Prostitution is famously quoted as being the world’s oldest profession, and it’s not hard to see why. Since men tend to have physical superiority over women they have tended to adopt overlord roles since the ‘hitting other people with clubs and shouting “Ug”‘ stage, women have, as previously stated, tended to be relatively undervalued and underskilled (in regards to stuff other than, oh I don’t know, raising kids and foraging for food with a degree of success often exceeding that of hunting parties, although that is partly to do with methodology and I could spend all day arguing this point). In fact it can be argued that the only reason that some (presumably rather arrogant) male-dominated tribes didn’t just have done with women as a gender is purely down to sex- partly because it allowed them to father children but mostly, obviously, because they really enjoyed it. Thus the availability of sex was historically not a woman’s most valuable asset to her male peers, but since it was something that men couldn’t/would rather not sort out between themselves it took on a great degree of value. It could even be argued that women have been ‘selling’ sex in exchange for being allowed to exist since the earliest origins of a male-dominated tribe structure, although you’d have to check with an actual anthropologist to clarify that point.

Since those early days of human history, prostitution has always remained one of those things that was always there, sort of tucked into the background and that never made most history books. However, that’s  not to say it has not affected history- the availability of pleasures of the flesh has kept more than one king away from his duties and sent his country into some degree of turmoil, and even Pope Alexander VI (a la, among other things, Assassin’s Creed II) once famously hired 50 prostitutes for a party known as the Ballet of the Chestnuts, where their clothes were auctioned off before both courtesans and guests (including several clergymen) crawled naked over the floor to first pick up chestnuts, and later compete to see who could have the most sex. In fact, for large swathes of history, prostitution was considered a relatively popular profession among lowborn women, whose only other choices were generally the church (if you could afford to get in), agriculture (which involved backbreaking toil, malnourishment and a generally poor quality of life), or serving work if you were lucky. It was relatively well-paid, required no real skill, was more exciting than most other walks of life and far less risky than a life of crime. Even nowadays sex workers are held with a degree of respect in many countries (such as The Netherlands and New Zealand) as being people stuck in a difficult situation who really don’t need the law trying to screw over (if you’ll pardon the pun) what little they have.

However, that doesn’t mean, and never has done, that prostitution is just some harmless little sideshow that we should simply ignore. The annual death rate among female prostitutes in the USA is around 200 per 100,000, meaning that over a (say) 10 year career one in fifty are likely to be killed. Compare that to a rate of 118 per 100,000 for America’s supposedly most dangerous profession, being a lumberjack. Added to this is the fact that prostitutes, many of whom are illegal immigrants, runaways or imported slaves, are rarely missed or even noticed by society, so make easy victims for predators and serial killers. Prostitution is often seen as a major contributory factor in the continued spread of STD’s such as HIV/AIDS, and is often targeted by women’s rights groups as being both degrading to women both directly involved and indirectly associated as well as slowing the decline of chauvinist attitudes. Then there is sex tourism (aka travelling to somewhere like Thailand to hire prostitutes because at home people might see you coming out), which is rapidly becoming one of the most distasteful, as well as dangerous & counter-productive, aspects of 21st century tourism. And then, of course, there is sex trafficking, perhaps the lowest of the low as far as all human activities go. Sex trafficking is the practice of abducting young women to sell into slavery as prostitutes, both within a country and across international borders, which would be morally repugnant enough if it wasn’t for the fact that a significant proportion of those trafficked are children, sometimes sold even by their own families. Around three-quarters of human trafficking today, the largest slavery operation in the history of the world, is concerned with the global sex trade, and is the fastest growing criminal activity on the planet. Much of it is connected to other aspects of organised crime, such as the drugs wars in Mexico, and can therefore be directly linked to large-scale theft, murder and smuggling, amongst other crimes. In India & Bangaladesh, some 40% of prostitutes are thought to be children, many of whom use a highly addictive drug linked to diabetes and high blood pressure to make them seem older & fatter (research suggests that men find fuller physiques more attractive when under stress or hardship). Looking through some of these figures & reading some of the stories surrounding them, it’s hard not to be struck by how low humanity has the potential to stoop when it ceases to think or care.

Over the last 100 or so years, as life has got less hard for the average woman and job opportunities have expanded, prevailing attitudes towards, and the prevalence & amount of, prostitution have declined heavily, and it is now frequently seen more as a rather distasteful sideshow to modern living that most would rather avoid. But to contrast against this we have the fact that the industry is both very much alive across the world, but could even be said to be thriving- the ‘labour’ of slave prostitutes is worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide. The trouble is, because it is an inherently seedy sideshow, it is impossible to get rid of, with legislation usually causing it to merely go underground and leading to further degradation in living conditions and welfare of sex workers, and regulating it is similarly tricky. Thus, it’s very hard for governments to know what to do about an industry that they recognise will always be there but is immensely prone to crime, human rights abuse and health issues. Unless the world, in a rather unlikely twist learns to live largely without prostitutes, a black stain is unfortunately likely to remain on our pride and dignity as a race. Exactly how this should be dealt with is still a little unclear.

Icky stuff

OK guys, time for another multi-part series (always a good fallback when I’m short of ideas). Actually, this one started out as just an idea for a single post about homosexuality, but when thinking about how much background stuff I’d have to stick in for the argument to make sense, I thought I might as well dedicate an entire post to background and see what I could do with it from there. So, here comes said background: an entire post on the subject of sex.

The biological history of sex must really start by considering the history of biological reproduction. Reproduction is a vital part of the experience of life for all species, a necessary feature for something to be classified ‘life’, and among some thinkers is their only reason for existence in the first place. In order to be successful by any measure, a species must exist; in order to exist, those of the species who die must be replaced, and in order for this to occur, the species must reproduce. The earliest form of reproduction, occurring amongst the earliest single-celled life forms, was binary fission, a basic form of asexual reproduction whereby the internal structure of the organism is replicated, and it then splits in two to create two organisms with identical genetic makeup. This is an efficient way of expanding a population size very quickly, but it has its flaws. For one thing, it does not create any variation in the genetics of a population, meaning what kills one stands a very good chance of destroying the entire population; all genetic diversity is dependent on random mutations. For another, it is only really suitable for single-celled organisms such as bacteria, as trying to split up a multi-celled organism once all the data has been replicated is a complicated geometric task. Other organisms have tried other methods of reproducing asexually, such as budding in yeast, but about 1 billion years ago an incredibly strange piece of genetic mutation must have taken place, possibly among several different organisms at once. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but one type of organism began requiring the genetic data from two, rather than one, different creatures, and thus was sexual reproduction, both metaphorically and literally, born.

Just about every complex organism alive on Earth today now uses this system in one form or another (although some can reproduce asexually as well, or self-fertilise), and it’s easy to see why. It may be a more complicated system, far harder to execute, but by naturally varying the genetic makeup of a species it makes the species as a whole far more resistant to external factors such as disease- natural selection being demonstrated at its finest. Perhaps is most basic form is that adopted by aquatic animals such as most fish and lobster- both will simply spray their eggs and sperm into the water (usually as a group at roughly the same time and place to increase the chance of conception) and leave them to mix and fertilise one another. The zygotes are then left to grow into adults of their own accord- a lot are of course lost to predators, representing a huge loss in terms of inputted energy, but the sheer number of fertilised eggs still produces a healthy population. It is interesting to note that this most basic of reproductive methods, performed in a similar matter by plants, is performed by such complex animals as fish (although their place on the evolutionary ladder is both confusing and uncertain), whilst supposedly more ‘basic’ animals such as molluscs have some of the weirdest and most elaborate courtship and mating rituals on earth (seriously, YouTube ‘snail mating’. That shit’s weird)

Over time, the process of mating and breeding in the animal kingdom has grown more and more complicated. Exactly why the male testes & penis and the female vagina developed in the way they did is unclear from an evolutionary perspective, but since most animals appear to use a broadly similar system (males have an appendage, females have a depository) we can presume this was just how it started off and things haven’t changed much since. Most vertebrates and insects have distinct sexes and mate via internal fertilisation of a female’s eggs, in many cases by several different males to enhance genetic diversity. However, many species also take the approach that ensuring they care for their offspring for some portion of their development is a worthwhile trade-off in terms of energy when compared to the advantages of giving them the best possible chance in life. This care generally (but not always, perhaps most notably in seahorses) is the role of the mother, males having usually buggered off after mating to leave mother & baby well alone, and the general ‘attitude’ of such an approach gives a species, especially females, a vested interest in ensuring their baby is as well-prepared as possible. This manifests itself in the process of a female choosing her partner prior to mating. Natural selection dictates that females who pick characteristics in males that result in successful offspring, good at surviving, are more likely to pass on their genes and the same attraction towards those characteristics, so over time these traits become ‘attractive’ to all females of a species. These traits tend to be strength-related, since strong creatures are generally better at competing for food and such, hence the fact that most pre-mating procedures involve a fight or physical contest of some sort between males to allow them to take their pick of available females. This is also why strong, muscular men are considered attractive to women among the human race, even though these people may not always be the most suitable to father their children for various reasons (although one could counter this by saying that they are more likely to produce children capable of surviving the coming zombie apocalypse). Sexual selection on the other hand is to blame for the fact that sex is so enjoyable- members of a species who enjoy sex are more likely to perform it more often, making them more likely to conceive and thus pass on their genes, hence the massive hit of endorphins our bodies experience both during and post sexual activity.

Broadly speaking then, we come to the ‘sex situation’ we have now- we mate by sticking penises in vaginas to allow sperm and egg to meet, and women generally tend to pick men who they find ‘attractive’ because it is traditionally an evolutionary advantage, as is the fact that we find sex as a whole fun. Clearly, however, the whole situation is a good deal more complicated than just this… but what is a multi parter for otherwise?