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.

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NUMBERS

One of the most endlessly charming parts of the human experience is our capacity to see something we can’t describe and just make something up in order to do so, never mind whether it makes any sense in the long run or not. Countless examples have been demonstrated over the years, but the mother lode of such situations has to be humanity’s invention of counting.

Numbers do not, in and of themselves, exist- they are simply a construct designed by our brains to help us get around the awe-inspiring concept of the relative amounts of things. However, this hasn’t prevented this ‘neat little tool’ spiralling out of control to form the vast field that is mathematics. Once merely a diverting pastime designed to help us get more use out of our counting tools, maths (I’m British, live with the spelling) first tentatively applied itself to shapes and geometry before experimenting with trigonometry, storming onwards to algebra, turning calculus into a total mess about four nanoseconds after its discovery of something useful, before just throwing it all together into a melting point of cross-genre mayhem that eventually ended up as a field that it as close as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) gets to art, in that it has no discernible purpose other than for the sake of its own existence.

This is not to say that mathematics is not a useful field, far from it. The study of different ways of counting lead to the discovery of binary arithmetic and enabled the birth of modern computing, huge chunks of astronomy and classical scientific experiments were and are reliant on the application of geometric and trigonometric principles, mathematical modelling has allowed us to predict behaviour ranging from economics & statistics to the weather (albeit with varying degrees of accuracy) and just about every aspect of modern science and engineering is grounded in the brute logic that is core mathematics. But… well, perhaps the best way to explain where the modern science of maths has lead over the last century is to study the story of i.

One of the most basic functions we are able to perform to a number is to multiply it by something- a special case, when we multiply it by itself, is ‘squaring’ it (since a number ‘squared’ is equal to the area of a square with side lengths of that number). Naturally, there is a way of reversing this function, known as finding the square root of a number (ie square rooting the square of a number will yield the original number). However, convention dictates that a negative number squared makes a positive one, and hence there is no number squared that makes a negative and there is no such thing as the square root of a negative number, such as -1. So far, all I have done is use a very basic application of logic, something a five-year old could understand, to explain a fact about ‘real’ numbers, but maths decided that it didn’t want to not be able to square root a negative number, so had to find a way round that problem. The solution? Invent an entirely new type of number, based on the quantity i (which equals the square root of -1), with its own totally arbitrary and made up way of fitting  on a number line, and which can in no way exist in real life.

Admittedly, i has turned out to be useful. When considering electromagnetic forces, quantum physicists generally assign the electrical and magnetic components real and imaginary quantities in order to identify said different components, but its main purpose was only ever to satisfy the OCD nature of mathematicians by filling a hole in their theorems. Since then, it has just become another toy in the mathematician’s arsenal, something for them to play with, slip into inappropriate situations to try and solve abstract and largely irrelevant problems, and with which they can push the field of maths in ever more ridiculous directions.

A good example of the way mathematics has started to lose any semblance of its grip on reality concerns the most famous problem in the whole of the mathematical world- Fermat’s last theorem. Pythagoras famously used the fact that, in certain cases, a squared plus b squared equals c squared as a way of solving some basic problems of geometry, but it was never known as to whether a cubed plus b cubed could ever equal c cubed if a, b and c were whole numbers. This was also true for all other powers of a, b and c greater than 2, but in 1637 the brilliant French mathematician Pierre de Fermat claimed, in a scrawled note inside his copy of Diohantus’ Arithmetica, to have a proof for this fact ‘that is too large for this margin to contain’. This statement ensured the immortality of the puzzle, but its eventual solution (not found until 1995, leading most independent observers to conclude that Fermat must have made a mistake somewhere in his ‘marvellous proof’) took one man, Andrew Wiles, around a decade to complete. His proof involved showing that the terms involved in the theorem could be expressed in the form of an incredibly weird equation that doesn’t exist in the real world, and that all equations of this type had a counterpart equation of an equally irrelevant type. However, since the ‘Fermat equation’ was too weird to exist in the other format, it could not logically be true.

To a mathematician, this was the holy grail; not only did it finally lay to rest an ages-old riddle, but it linked two hitherto unrelated branches of algebraic mathematics by way of proving what is (now it’s been solved) known as the Taniyama-Shimura theorem. To anyone interested in the real world, this exercise made no contribution to it whatsoever- apart from satisfying a few nerds, nobody’s life was made easier by the solution, it didn’t solve any real-world problem, and it did not make the world a tangibly better place. In this respect then, it was a total waste of time.

However, despite everything I’ve just said, I’m not going to decide that all modern day mathematics is a waste of time; very few human activities ever are. Mathematics is many things; among them ridiculous, confusing, full of contradictions and potential slip-ups and, in a field whose age of winning a major prize is younger than in any other STEM field, apparently full of those likely to belittle you out of future success should you enter the world of serious academia. But, for some people, maths is just what makes the world makes sense, and at its heart that was all it was ever created to do. And if some people want their life to be all about the little symbols that make the world make sense, then well done to the world for making a place for them.

Oh, and there’s a theory doing the rounds of cosmology nowadays that reality is nothing more than a mathematical construct. Who knows in what obscure branch of reverse logarithmic integrals we’ll find answers about that one…