In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…

I read a lot; I have done since I was a kid. Brian Jacques, JK Rowling, Caroline Lawrence and dozens of other authors’ work sped through my young mind, throwing off ideas, philosophies, and any other random stuff I found interesting in all directions. However, as any committed reader will tell you, after a while flicking through any genre all the ‘low hanging fruit’, the good books everyone’s heard of, will soon be absorbed, and it is often quite a task to find reliable sources of good reading material. It was for partly this reason that I, some years ago, turned to the fantasy genre because, like it or loathe it, it is impossible to deny the sheer volume of stuff, and good stuff too, that is there. Mountains of books have been written for it, many of which are truly huge (I refer to volumes 11 and 12 of Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’, which I have yet to pluck up the courage to actually read, if anyone doubts this fact), and the presence of so many different subgenres (who can compare George RR Martin, creator of A Game of Thrones, with Terry Pratchett, of Discworld fame) and different ideas gives it a nice level of innovation within a relatively safe, predictable sphere of existence.

This sheer volume of work does create one or two issues, most notably the fact that it can be often hard to consult with other fans about ‘epic sagas’ you picked up in the library that they may never have even heard of (hands up how many of you have heard of Raymond E Feist, who really got me started in this genre)- there’s just so much stuff, and not much of it can be said to be standard reading material for fantasy fans. However, there is one point of consistency, one author everyone’s read, and who can always be used as a reliable, if high, benchmark. I speak, of course, of the work of JRR Tolkein.

As has been well documented, John Ronald Reuel Tolkein was not an author by trade or any especial inclination; he was an academic, a professor of first Anglo-Saxon and later English Language & Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford, for 34 years no less. He first rose to real academic prominence in 1936, when he gave (and later published) a seminal lecture entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving works of English literature, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem from around the 8th century AD detailing the adventures of a warrior/king named Beowulf, and Tolkein’s lecture defined many contemporary thoughts about it as a work of literature.

However, there was something about Beowulf that was desperately sad to Tolkein; it was just about the only surviving piece of Old English mythology, and certainly the only one with any degree of public knowledge. Tolkein was a keen student of Germanic mythology and that of other nations, and it always pained him that his home nation had no such traditional mythology to be called upon, all the Saxon stories having been effectively wiped out with the coming of the Normans in 1066. Even our most famous ‘myths’, those of King Arthur, came from a couple of mentions in 8th century texts, and were only formalised by Normans- Sir Thomas Malory didn’t write Le Morte d’Arthur, the first full set of the Arthurian legends, until 1485, and there is plenty of evidence that he made most of it up. It never struck Tolkein as being how a myth should be; ancient, passed down father to son over innumerable generations until it became so ingrained as to be considered true. Tolkein’s response to what he saw as a lamentable gap in our heritage was decidedly pragmatic- he began building his own mythological world.

Since he was a linguistic scholar, Tolkein began by working with what he new; languages. His primary efforts were concerned with elvish, which he invented his own alphabet and grammar for and eventually developed into as deep and fully-fleshed a tongue as you could imagine. He then began experimenting with writing mythology based around the language- building a world of the Dark Ages and before that was as special, fantastical and magical as a story should be to become a fully-fledged myth (you will notice that at the start of The Lord Of The Rings, Tolkein refers to how we don’t see much of hobbits any more, implying that his world was set in the past rather than the alternate universe).

His first work in this field was the Quenta Silmarillion, a title that translates (from elvish) as “the Tale of the Silmarils”. It is a collection of stories and legends supposedly originating from the First Age of his world, although compiled by an Englishman during the Dark Ages from tales edited during the Fourth Age, after the passing of the elves. Tolkein started this work multiple times without ever finishing, and it wasn’t until long after his death that his son published The Silmarillion as a finished article.

However, Tolkein also had a family with young children, and took delight in writing stories for them. Every Christmas (he was, incidentally, a devout Catholic) he wrote letters to them from Father Christmas that took the form of short stories (again, not published until after his death), and wrote numerous other tales for them. A few of these, such as The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, either drew inspiration from or became part of his world (or ‘legendarium’, as it is also known), but he never expected any of them to become popular. And they weren’t- until he, bored out of his mind marking exam papers one day in around 1930, found a blank back page and began writing another, longer story for them, beginning with the immortal lines: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

This work, what would later become The Hobbit (or There and Back Again), was set in the Third Age of his legendarium and is soon to be made into a  series of three films (don’t ask me how that works, given that it’s shorter than each one of the books making up The Lord Of The Rings that each got a film to themselves, but whatever). Like his other stories, he never intended it to be much more than a diverting adventure for his children, and for 4 years after its completion in 1932 it was just that. However, Tolkein was a generous soul who would frequently lend his stories to friends, and one of those, a student named Elaine Griffiths, showed it to another friend called Susan Dagnall. Dagnall worked at the publishing company Allen & Unwin, and she was so impressed upon reading it that she showed it to Stanley Unwin. Unwin lent the book to his son Rayner to review (this was his way of earning pocket money), who described it as ‘suitable for children between the ages of 6 and 12’ (kids were clearly a lot more formal and eloquent where he grew up). Unwin published the book, and everyone loved it. It recieved many glowing reviews in an almost universally positive critical reception, and one of the first reviews came from Tolkein’s friend CS Lewis in The Times, who wrote:

The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology… The professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity that is worth oceans of glib “originality.”

In many ways, that quote describes all that was great about Tolkein’s writing; an almost childish, gleeful imagination combined with the brute seriousness of his academic work, that made it feel like a very, very real fantasy world. However, this was most definitely not the end of JRR Tolkein, and since I am rapidly going over length, the rest of the story will have to wait until next time…

“If I die before I wake…”

…which I might well do when this post hits the internet, then I hope somebody will at least look down upon my soul & life’s work favourably. Today, I am going to be dealing with the internet’s least favourite topic, an idea whose adherence will get you first derided and later inundated with offers to go and be slaughtered in one’s bed, a subject that should be taboo for any blogger looking to not infuriate everybody; that of religion.

I am not a religious person; despite a nominally Anglican upbringing my formative years found most of my Sundays occupied on the rugby pitch, whilst a deep interest in science tended to form the foundations of my world beliefs- I think (sometimes) to some personal detriment. This is a pattern I see regularly among those people I find as company (which may or may not say something about my choice of friends)- predominantly atheists with little or no religious upbringing who tend to steer clear of religion and its various associated features wherever possible. However, where I find I differ from them tends to be when the subject is broached when in the present of a devoutly Christian friend of mine; whilst I tend to leave his beliefs to himself and try not to spark an argument, many others I know see a demonstration of his beliefs as a cue to start on a campaign of ‘ha ha isn’t your world philosophy stupid’, and so on.  I tend to find these attacks more baffling and a little saddening than anything else, so I thought that I might take this opportunity to take my usual approach and try to analyse the issue

First up is a fact that most people are aware of even if it hasn’t quite made the jump into an articulate thought yet; that every religion is in fact two separate parts. The first of these can be dubbed the ‘faith’ aspect; the stories, the gods, the code of morals & general life guidelines and such, all of the bits that form the core of a system of beliefs and are, to a theist, the ‘godly’ part of their religion. The second can be labelled the ‘church’ aspect; this is the more man-made, even artificial, aspect of the religious system, and covers the system of priesthood (or equivalent) for each religion, their holy buildings, the religious leaders and even people’s personal interpretation of the ‘faith’ aspect. Holy books, such as the Bible or Torah, fall somewhere in between (Muslims believe, for example, that the Qur’an is literally the word of Allah, translated through the prophet Muhammed) as do the various prayers and religious music. In Buddhism, these two aspects are known as the Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community), and together with Buddha form the ‘three jewels’ of their religion. In some religions, such as Scientology (if that can technically be called a religion) the two aspects are so closely entwined so as to be hard to separate, but they are still distinct aspects that should be treated separately. The ‘faith’ aspect of religion is, in most respects, the really important one, for it is this that actually formulates the basis of a religion; without a belief system, a church is nothing more than a place where people go to shout their views at those who inexplicably turn up. A religion’s ‘church’ aspect is its organised divisions, and exists for no greater or lesser purpose than to spread, cherish, protect and correctly translate the word of God, or other parts of the ‘faith’ aspect generally. This distinction is vital when we consider how great a difference there can be between what somebody believes and what another does in the same name.

For example, consider the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban currently fighting their Jihad (the word does not, on an unrelated note, technically translate as ‘holy war’ and the two should not be thought of a synonymous) in Afghanistan against the USA and other western powers. Their personal interpretation of the Qur’an and the teachings of Islam (their ‘church’ aspect) has lead them to believe that women do not deserve equal rights to men, that the western powers are ‘infidels’ who should be purged from the world, and that they must use force and military intervention against them to defend Islam from said infidels- hence why they are currently fighting a massive war that is getting huge amounts of innocent civilians killed and destroying their faith’s credibility. By contrast, there are nearly 2 million Muslims currently living in the UK, the vast majority of whom do not interpret their religion in the same way and are not currently blowing up many buildings- and yet they still identify as Islamic and believe in, broadly speaking, the same faith. To pick a perhaps more ‘real world’ example, I’m sure that the majority of Britain’s Catholic population steadfastly disagree with the paedophilia practiced by some of their Church’s priests, and that a certain proportion also disagree with the Pope’s views on the rights of homosexuals; and yet, they are still just as Christian as their priests, are devout believers in the teachings of God & Jesus and try to follow them as best as they can.

This I feel, is the nub of the matter; that one can be simultaneously a practising Christian, Muslim, Jew or whatever else and still be a normal human being. Just because your vicar holds one view, doesn’t mean you hold the same, and just because some people choose to base their entire life around their faith does not mean that a person must be defined by their belief system. And, returning to the subject of the ridicule many practising theists suffer, just because the ‘church’ aspect of a religion does something silly, doesn’t mean all practitioners of it deserve to be tarred with the same brush- or that their view on the world should even matter to you as you enjoy life in your own way (unless of course their belief actively impedes you in some way).

I feel like I haven’t really got my point across properly, so I’ll leave you with a few links that I think illustrate quite well what I’m trying to get at. I only hope that it will help others find a little more tolerance towards those who have found a religious path.

And sorry for this post being rather… weird