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.

Why we made the bid in the first place

…and now we arrive at the slack time, that couple of weeks between the end of the Olympics and start of the Paralympics where everyone gets a chance to relax, wind down a little, and take time away from being as resolutely enthusiastic and patriotic as we have been required to for the last two weeks (or a lot longer if you factor in the Royal Wedding and Queen’s Jubilee). However, it’s also an undoubtedly good time to reflect on what have been, whatever your viewpoint, a very eventful last couple of weeks.

To my mind, and certainly to those of the Olympic organisers, these games have been a success. Whether you feel that it was all a colossal waste of money (although how anyone can think that of an event featuring the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter alongside James Bond is somewhat puzzling to me), or the single most amazing thing to grace the earth this side of its existence (in which case you could probably do with a nice lie down at the very least), its motto has been to ‘Inspire a Generation’. From a purely numerical perspective, it appears to have worked- sports clubs of all sorts up and down the land, even in niche areas such as handball, have been inundated with requests from enthusiastic youngsters after membership, and every other sentence among BBC pundits at the moment appears to include the phrase ‘the next Mo Farah/Usain Bolt/Ben Ainslie/Chris Hoy’ (delete as applicable).

However, I think that in this respect they are missing the point slightly, but to explain what I mean I’m going to have to go on a bit of a tangent. Trust me, it’ll make sense by the end.

So…, what is the point of sport? This has always been a tricky one to answer, the kind of question posed by the kind of awkward people who are likely to soon find an answer flying swiftly towards them in foot-shaped form. In fact, I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to exactly why we watch sport, apart from that it is for some unexplained reason compelling to do so. But even if we stick to the act of participation, why do we bother?

Academics and non-sportspeople have always had a whole host of reasons why not, ever since the days that they were the skinny, speccy one last to be picked in the dreaded playground football lineup (I’ve been there- not fun). Humans are naturally lazy (an evolutionary side-effect of using our brains rather than brawn to get ahead), and the idea of running around a wet, muddy field expending a lot of precious energy for no immediately obvious reason is obviously unappealing. Then we consider that the gain of sport, the extent to which it contributes to making the world a better place is, in material terms at least, apparently quite small. Humankind’s sporting endeavours use up a lot of material for equipment, burn a lot of precious calories that could be used elsewhere around the world to help the starving, and often demand truly vast expenses in terms of facilities and, in the professional world, salaries. Even this economic consideration does not take into account the loss in income presented by the using up of acres upon acres of valuable land for sports facilities and pitches. Sport also increases the danger factor of our lives, with a heavy risk of injury ranging from minor knocks to severe, debilitating disabilities (such as spinal injury), all of which only adds to the strain on health services worldwide and further increases the ‘cost’ of sport to the world.

So why do we bother with it at all? Why is it that the question governments are asking themselves is “why aren’t enough kids playing sport?” rather than ‘why are so many of them doing so’? Simple reason is that, from every analytical perspective, the benefits of sport far outweigh the costs. 10% of the NHS’ entire budget is spent on dealing with diabetes, just one of a host of health problems associated with obesity, and if just half of these cases were to disappear thanks to a healthier lifestyle it would free up around an extra £5 billion- by 2035, diabetes could be costing the country around £17 billion unless something changes. Then there are the physical benefits of sport, the stuff it enables us to do. In the modern world being able to run a kilometre and a half in four minutes might seem like a pointless skill, but when you’re being chased down the street by a potential mugger (bad example I know, but it’ll do) then you’d definitely rather be a fit, athletic runner than slow, lumbering and overweight. Sport is also one of the largest commercial industries on earth, if not on a professional level then at least in terms of manufacture and sale of equipment and such, worth billions worldwide each year and providing many thousands or even millions of jobs (although some of the manufacturing does admittedly have a dubious human rights record). The health benefits of sport go far beyond the physical & economic too, as both the endorphins released during physical activity and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle are known to increase happiness & general well-being, surely the ultimate goals of all our lives. But perhaps most valuable of all is the social side of sport. Whilst some sports (or, more specifically, some of the &%^$£*)@s involved) have a reputation for being exclusive and for demoralising hopeful youngsters, sport when done properly is a powerful force for social interaction & making friends, as well as being a great social equaliser. As old Etonian, heir his father’s baronet and Olympic 110m hurdles finalist Lawrence Clarke recently pointed out in an interview ‘On the track it doesn’t matter how rich your family is or where you’ve come from or where you went to school; all that matters is how fast you can get to the finish line’ (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the general gist). Over the years, sport has allowed mixing between people of a myriad of different genders and nationalities, allowing messages of goodwill to spread between them and changing the world’s social and political landscape immeasurably. This Olympics was, for example, the first in which Palestinian and Saudi Arabian women competed, potentially paving the way for increased gender equality in these two countries.

Clearly, when we all get behind it, sport has the power to be an immense tool for good. But notice that nowhere in that argument was any mention made of being the physical best, being on top of the world, breaking world records because, try as one might, the value of such achievement is solely that of entertainment and the odd moment of inspiration. Valuable though those two things surely are, they cannot begin to compare with the incalculable benefits of a population, a country, a world united by sport for the good of us all. So, in many respects, the success of an Olympic games should not be judged by whether it inspires a new superstar, but rather by how it encourages the guy who turns up with him at that first training session, who might never be that good a competitor… but who carries on turning up anyway. The aim of top-flight sport should not be to inspire the best. It should simply be to inspire the average.