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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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…