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…

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I’ve been expecting you…

As everybody has been incredibly keen to point out surrounding the release of Skyfall, the James Bond film franchise is currently celebrating its 50th birthday. Yes really- some absolute genius of an executive at Eon managed to get the rights to a film series that has lasted longer than the Cold War (which in and of itself presented a problem when Bond couldn’t simply beat up Commies all of a sudden and they had to start inventing new bad guys). But Bond is, of course, far older than that, and his story is an interesting one.

Ian Fleming had served as an intelligence officer during the Second World War, being involved with such charismatic spies as Dusko Popov (who ran an information exchange in Lisbon and traded signals on a roulette table), before returning to England during the 1950s. He later made a famous quote, based on an event that occurred in 1952:

‘Looking out of my window as the rain lashed down during one of those grey austerity-ridden days in post-war Britain, I made two of the biggest decisions of my life; one, never to spend winter in England again; two, to write the spy story to end all spy stories’.

He began writing the first Bond novel (Casino Royale) in February of that year, retiring to his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica to write it (Bond spent the majority of his time in certainly the earlier novels in the Caribbean, and Goldeneye would of course later become the name for Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond film). He chose the name from American ornithologist (and world-renowned expert on Caribbean birds) James Bond, saying that he originally wanted his character to be a normal person to whom extraordinary things happened, and whilst this brief got distorted somewhat through his various revisions this drab name, combined with Bond’s businesslike, unremarkable exterior, formed a contrast with his steely edge and amazing skill set to form the basis of the infamous MI6 operative (Fleming also admitted to incorporating large swathes of himself into the character).

The books were an immediate hit, demonstrating a sharp breakout from the norms of the time, and the film industry was quick to make its move towards them. As early as 1954 a TV version of Casino Royale starring the Americanized ‘Jimmy Bond’ had hit the screen, but Fleming thought he could go better and started a project to make a film adaptation in 1959, with himself acting as screenwriter. However, the project bombed and it wasn’t until 1961 that Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli (along with partner Harry Saltzmann) bought the film rights to the series. This project too was plagued by difficulties; despite Sean Connery being said to ‘walk like a panther’ when he came to audition for the part, Broccoli’s first choice for the Bond role was Cary Grant, and when he said he didn’t want to be part of a series he turned to James Mason. Mason made similar bones and so at last, with some misgivings, they turned to Connery. Said Fleming, ‘he’s not exactly what I had in mind’.

He had even worse things to say when Connery’s first film, Dr. No, was released; ‘Dreadful. Simply dreadful’ his words upon seeing the preview screening. He wasn’t the only one either; the film received only mixed reviews, and even a rebuke from the Vatican (never noted for their tolerance towards bikinis). However, Dr. No did include a few of the features that would later come to define Bond; his gun, for instance. For the first 5 Bond novels, Fleming had him using Berreta 418, but munitions expert Geoffrey Boothroyd subsequently wrote to Fleming criticizing the choice. Describing the weapon ‘a lady’s gun’ (a phrase Fleming himself would later use to describe it), he recommended the Walther PPK as an alternative. Fleming loved the suggestion, incorporating an adapted version of the exchanged into his next book (which was, coincidentally, Dr. No) and giving the name of Bond’s armourer as Major Boothroyd by way of thanks. Boothroyd’s role as a quartermaster eventually lead to his more famous nickname; Q.

Not that any of this saved the film, or indeed ‘From Russia With Love’, which succeeded it. Reviews did improve for this one if only for its better quality of execution, but many still rallied against the very concept of the Bond movie and it hardly kickstarted the franchise. What it did do, however, was prompt the release of the film that did; Goldfinger.

This was the film that cemented Bond’s reputation, and laid the tropes on the table for all subsequent films to follow. Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) became the definitive Bond girl, Sean Connery the definitive Bond (a reputation possibly enhanced by the contrast between his portrayal of Bond and the aggressive, chauvinistic ‘semi-rapist’ portrayed in the books), and his beautiful, silver Aston Martin DB5 the Bond car- one such car sold in the US some years ago for over 2 million dollars. According to many, Goldfinger remains the best Bond film ever (although personally I’m quite fond of Live and Let Die, The World is Not Enough and Casino Royale), although rather sadly Ian Fleming died before he could see it.

Since then, the franchise has had to cope with a whole host of ups & downs. After ‘You Only Live Twice’ (in which the character of supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld is first revealed), Connery announced that it would be his last Bond film, but his replacement George Lazenby appeared just once (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which his performance received mixed reception) before claiming that he didn’t feel the character of a gun-em-down chauvinist such as Bond could survive the ‘peace & love’ sentiment of the late 60s (Lazenby was also, on an unrelated note, the youngest man ever to play Bond, at just 30). After Connery was tempted back for one more film (Diamonds Are Forever) by an exorbitant salary, the gauntlet was thrown to Roger Moore, who simultaneously holds the record for oldest Bond ever (57 by the end) and most number of films (7, over a 12-year period). Moore’s more laid back, light-hearted and some might say graceless approach to the role won him some plaudits by its contrast to Connery’s performance, but despite increasingly negative audience feedback over time this style became ever more necessary as the series came under scrutiny. The feminist lobby (among others) had been gaining voice, and whilst they had once been pleased at the ‘freedom’ demonstrated by the likes of Playgirls and other burlesque performers (seriously, that was the attitude they took in the 50s) by now they saw them as the by-products of a chauvinist society. This quickly meant Bond’s all action, highly sexual and male-dominated atmosphere came under fire, forcing the character to retreat into steadily tamer plots. It was also rapidly running out of ideas (the same director had been working on the project for several films by now), retreating into petty jokes (ie the name ‘Holly Goodhead’) and generally mediocre filmmaking. The series limped on with Moore until A View To A Kill, and for two more with Timothy Dalton after that, but it then took an 6 year break whilst another Dalton production fell through. Some felt that the franchise was on its last legs, that a well-liked and iconic character would soon have to wink out of existence, but then came Pierce Brosnan.

Whatever you do or don’t think of Brosnan’s performances (I happen to like them, others think he’s fairly rubbish), there can be no denying that Goldeneye was the first Bond film to really catapult the franchise into the modern era of filmmaking. With fresh camera techniques to make it at least look new, a new lead actor and a long break to give everyone time to forget about the character, there was a sense of this being something of a new beginning for Bond. And it was; seven films later and with Daniel Craig now at the helm, the series is in rude health and is such a prominent, well-loved and symbolic character that Craig adopted his 007 role when pretending to skydive into the stadium alongside the Queen during the London 2012 opening ceremony (which I’m sure you all agree was possibly the best bit of the entire games). There is something about Bond that fundamentally appeals to us; all the cool, clever gadgets, the cars we could only ever dream of, the supermodels who line his bed (well, maybe a few people would prefer to turn a blind eye to some of that), and the whole smooth, suave nature that defines his character makes him such a fixed trope that he seems impossible for our collective psyche to forget. We can forgive the bad film making, the formula of the character, the lack of the artistry that puts other films in line for Oscars, simply because… he’s Bond. He’s fun, and he’s awesome.

Oh, and on a related note, go and see Skyfall. It’s absolutely brilliant.