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…

The Conquest of Air

Everybody in the USA, and in fact just about everyone across the world, has heard of Orville and Wilbur Wright. Two of the pioneers of aviation, when their experimental biplane Flyer achieved the first ever manned, powered, heavier-than-air flight on the morning of December 17, 1903, they had finally achieved one of man’s long-held dreams; control and mastery of air travel.

However, what is often puzzling when considering the Wright brothers’ story is the number of misconceptions surrounding them. Many, for instance, are under the impression that they were the first people to fly at all, inventing all the various technicalities of lift, aerofoil structures and control that are now commonplace in today’s aircraft. In fact, the story of flight, perhaps the oldest and maddest of human ambitions, an idea inspired by every time someone has looked up in wonder at the graceful flight of a bird, is a good deal older than either of them.

Our story begins, as does nearly all technological innovation, in imperial China, around 300 BC (the Greek scholar Archytas had admittedly made a model wooden pigeon ‘fly’ some 100 years previously, but nobody is sure exactly how he managed it). The Chinese’s first contribution was the invention of the kite, an innovation that would be insignificant if it wasn’t for whichever nutter decided to build one big enough to fly in. However, being strapped inside a giant kite and sent hurtling skywards not only took some balls, but was heavily dependent on wind conditions, heinously dangerous and dubiously useful, so in the end the Chinese gave up on manned flight and turned instead to unmanned ballooning, which they used for both military signalling and ceremonial purposes. It isn’t actually known if they ever successfully put a man into the air using a kite, but they almost certainly gave it a go. The Chinese did have one further attempt, this time at inventing the rocket engine, some years later, in which a young and presumably mental man theorised that if you strapped enough fireworks to a chair then they would send the chair and its occupants hurtling into the night sky. His prototype (predictably) exploded, and it wasn’t for two millennia, after the passage of classical civilisation, the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, that anyone tried flight again.

That is not to say that the idea didn’t stick around. The science was, admittedly beyond most people, but as early as 1500 Leonardo da Vinci, after close examination of bird wings, had successfully deduced the principle of lift and made several sketches showing designs for a manned glider. The design was never tested, and not fully rediscovered for many hundreds of years after his death (Da Vinci was not only a controversial figure and far ahead of his time, but wrote his notebooks in a code that it took centuries to decipher), but modern-day experiments have shown that his design would probably have worked. Da Vinci also put forward the popular idea of ornithopters, aircraft powered by flapping motion as in bird wings, and many subsequent attempts at flight attempted to emulate this method of motion. Needless to say, these all failed (not least because very few of the inventors concerned actually understood aerodynamics).

In fact, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that anyone started to really make any headway in the pursuit of flight. In 1783, a Parisian physics professor, Jacques Charles, built on the work of several Englishmen concerning the newly discovered hydrogen gas and the properties and behaviour of gases themselves. Theorising that, since hydrogen was less dense than air, it should follow Archimedes’ principle of buoyancy and rise, thus enabling it to lift a balloon, he launched the world’s first hydrogen balloon from the Champs du Mars on August 27th. The balloon was only small, and there were significant difficulties encountered in building it, but in the design process Charles, aided by his engineers the Roberts brothers, invented a method of treating silk to make it airtight, spelling the way for future pioneers of aviation. Whilst Charles made some significant headway in the launch of ever-larger hydrogen balloons, he was beaten to the next significant milestones by the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne. In that same year, their far simpler hot-air balloon designs not only put the first living things (a sheep, rooster and duck) into the atmosphere, but, just a month later, a human too- Jacques-Etienne was the first European, and probably the first human, ever to fly.

After that, balloon technology took off rapidly (no pun intended). The French rapidly became masters of the air, being the first to cross the English Channel and creators of the first steerable and powered balloon flights. Finally settling on Charles’ hydrogen balloons as a preferable method of flight, blimps and airships began, over the next century or so, to become an accepted method of travel, and would remain so right up until the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, which rather put people off the idea. For some scientists and engineers, humankind had made it- we could now fly, could control where we were going at least partially independent of the elements, and any attempt to do so with a heavier-than-air machine was both a waste of time and money, the preserve of dreamers. Nonetheless, to change the world, you sometimes have to dream big, and that was where Sir George Cayley came in.

Cayley was an aristocratic Yorkshireman, a skilled engineer and inventor, and a magnanimous, generous man- he offered all of his inventions for the public good and expected no payment for them. He dabbled in a number of fields, including seatbelts, lifeboats, caterpillar tracks, prosthetics, ballistics and railway signalling. In his development of flight, he even reinvented the wheel- he developed the idea of holding a wheel in place using thin metal spokes under tension rather than solid ones under compression, in an effort to make the wheels lighter, and is thus responsible for making all modern bicycles practical to use. However, he is most famous for being the first man ever, in 1853, to put somebody into the air using a heavier-than-air glider (although Cayley may have put a ten-year old in a biplane four years earlier).

The man in question was Cayley’s chauffeur (or butler- historical sources differ widely), who was (perhaps understandably) so hesitant to go in his boss’ mental contraption that he handed in his notice upon landing after his flight across Brompton Dale, stating  as his reason that ‘I was hired to drive, not fly’. Nonetheless, Cayley had shown that the impossible could be done- man could fly using just wings and wheels. He had also designed the aerofoil from scratch, identified the forces of thrust, lift, weight and drag that control an aircraft’s movements, and paved the way for the true pioneer of ‘heavy’ flight- Otto Lilienthal.

Lilienthal (aka ‘The Glider King’) was another engineer, making 25 patents in his life, including a revolutionary new engine design. But his fame comes from a world without engines- the world of the sky, with which he was obsessed. He was just a boy when he first strapped wings to his arms in an effort to fly (which obviously failed completely), and later published works detailing the physics of bird flight. It wasn’t until 1891, aged 43, once his career and financial position was stable and he had finished fighting in the Franco-Prussian War, that he began to fly in earnest, building around 12 gliders over a 5-year period (of which 6 still survive). It might have taken him a while, but once he started there was no stopping him, as he made over 2000 flights in just 5 years (averaging more than one every day). During this time he was only able to rack up 5 hours of flight time (meaning his average flight time was just 9 seconds), but his contribution to his field was enormous. He was the first to be able to control and manoeuvre his machines by varying his position and weight distribution, a factor whose importance he realised was absolutely paramount, and also recognised that a proper understanding of how to achieve powered flight (a pursuit that had been proceeding largely unsuccessfully for the past 50 years) could not be achieved without a basis in unpowered glider flight, in recognising that one must work in harmony with aerodynamic forces. Tragically, one of Lilienthal’s gliders crashed in 1896, and he died after two days in hospital. But his work lived on, and the story of his exploits and his death reached across the world, including to a pair of brothers living in Dayton, Ohio, USA, by the name of Wright. Together, the Wright brothers made huge innovations- they redesigned the aerofoil more efficiently, revolutionised aircraft control using wing warping technology (another idea possibly invented by da Vinci), conducted hours of testing in their own wind tunnel, built dozens of test gliders and brought together the work of Cayley, Lilienthal, da Vinci and a host of other, mostly sadly dead, pioneers of the air.  The Wright brothers are undoubtedly the conquerors of the air, being the first to show that man need not be constrained by either gravity or wind, but can use the air as a medium of travel unlike any other. But the credit is not theirs- it is a credit shared between all those who have lived and died in pursuit of the dream of fling like birds. To quote Lilienthal’s dying words, as he lay crippled by mortal injuries from his crash, ‘Sacrifices must be made’.