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.

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 President Problem

As one or two of you may have noticed, our good friends across the pond are getting dreadfully overexcited at the prospect of their upcoming election later this year, and America is gripped by the paralyzing dilemma of whether a Mormon or a black guy would be worse to put in charge of their country for the next four years. This has got me, when I have nothing better to do, having the occasional think about politics, politicians and the whole mess in general, and about how worked up everyone seems to get over it.

It is a long-established fact that the fastest way for a politician to get himself hated, apart from murdering some puppies on live TV, is to actually get himself in power. As the opposition, constantly biting at the heels of those in power, they can have lots of fun making snarky comments and criticisms about their opponent’s ineptitude, whereas when in power they have no choice but to sit quietly and absorb the insults, since their opponents are rarely doing anything interesting or important enough to warrant a good shouting. When in power, one constantly has the media jumping at every opportunity to ridicule decisions and throw around labels like ‘out of touch’ or just plain old ‘stupid’, and even the public seem to make it their business to hate everything their glorious leader does in their name. Nobody likes their politicians, and the only way for them once in power is, it seems, down.

An awful lot of reasons have been suggested for this trend, including the fact that we humans do love to hate stuff- but more on that another time, because I want to make another point. Consider why you, or anyone else for that matter, vote for your respective candidate during an election. Maybe it’s their dedication to a particular cause, such as education, that really makes you back them, or maybe their political philosophy is, broadly speaking, aligned with yours. Maybe it’s something that could be called politically superficial, such as skin colour; when Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980 it was for almost entirely that reason. Or is it because of the person themselves; somebody who presents themselves as a strong, capable leader, the kind of person you want to lead your country into the future?

Broadly speaking, we have to consider the fact that it is not just someone’s political alignment that gets a cross next to their name; it is who they are. To even become a politician somebody needs to be intelligent, diligent, very strong in their opinions and beliefs, have a good understanding of all the principles involved and an active political contributor. To persuade their party to let them stand, they need to be good with people, able to excite their peers and seniors, demonstrate an aligning political philosophy with the kind of people who choose these things, and able to lay everything, including their pride, in pursuit of a chance to run. To get elected, they need to be charismatic, tireless workers, dedicated to their cause, very good at getting their point across and associated PR, have no skeletons in the closet and be prepared to get shouted at by constituents for the rest of their career. To become a leader of a country, they need to have that art mastered to within a pinprick of perfection.

All of these requirements are what stop the bloke in the pub with a reason why the government is wrong about everything from ever actually having a chance to action his opinions, and they weed out a lot of people with one good idea from getting that idea out there- it takes an awful lot more than strong opinions and reasons why they will work to actually become a politician. However, this process has a habit of moulding people into politicians, rather than letting politicians be people, and that is often to the detriment of people in general. Everything becomes about what will let you stay in power, what you will have to give up to allow you to push the things you feel really strong for, and how many concessions you will have to make for the sake of popularity, just so you can do a little good with your time in power.

For instance, a while ago somebody compiled a list of the key demographics of British people (and gave them all stupid names like ‘Dinky Developers’ or whatever), expanded to include information about typical geographical spread, income and, among other things, political views. Two of those groups have been identified by the three main parties as being the most likely to swing their vote one way or the other (being middle of the road liberal types without a strong preference either way), and are thus the victim of an awful lot of vote-fishing by the various parties. In the 2005 election, some 80% of campaign funding (I’ve probably got this stat wrong; it’s been a while since I heard it) was directed towards swinging the votes of these key demographics to try and win key seats; never mind whether these policies were part of their exponent’s political views or even whether they ever got enacted to any great degree, they had to go in just to try and appease the voters. And, of course, when power eventually does come their way many of their promises prove an undeliverable part of their vision for a healthier future of their country.

This basically means that only ‘political people’, those suited to the hierarchical mess of a workplace environment and the PR mayhem that comes with the job, are able to ever get a shot at the top job, and these are not necessarily those who are best suited to get the best out of a country. And that, in turn means everybody gets pissed off with them. All. The. Bloody. Time.

But, unfortunately, this is the only way that the system of democracy can ever really function, for human nature will always drag it back to some semblance of this no matter how hard we try to change it; and that’s if it were ever to change at all. Maybe Terry Pratchett had it right all along; maybe a benevolent dictatorship is the way to go instead.

The Great Mr Adams

As one or two of you may be aware, my very first post on this blog extolled the virtues of one man- a certain Dr M von Vogelhausen of Amazon, internet, and his truly legendary reviews. He’s still a legend, check  his stuff out. However, since then I haven’t done a one-man profile again, but today that is about to change, as I review a man once described as ‘a possible fragment of the humour singularity’. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Douglas Adams.

Now, I am quite aware that Adams, being a bestselling novelist and general public figure, is quite more well known than Dr M is, and probably doesn’t need me to add to the chorus of voices who have extolled his virtues over the years. But bring him up I nonetheless do, for three reasons- firstly, there are STILL some new people I meet who have never heard of him, despite the fact that his earliest work is now 34 years old, secondly because I would like to reintroduce those who have been put off by his odd writing style and inability to tell a straight-faced joke and labelled him ‘unfunny’ to his world, and thirdly because I had something of a Hitchiker’s refreshment course yesterday evening. It was awesome.

So, Douglas Adams: born in Cambridge in 1952, his story really comes to be of interest in 1971, whilst hitch-hiking around Europe. Lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, with his copy of ‘The Hitchiker’s Guide to Europe’ beside him and staring up at the Milky Way above him, he thought that somebody really ought to make a Hitchiker’s guide to the Galaxy as well, showing the sparks of offbeat, eccentric genius that would typify his later work. After graduating from Cambridge University he headed to London to try and break into radio & TV as a writer, following his English degree and a passion for creative writing. Despite working with Monty Python’s Graham Chapman for a while and even appearing in a couple of sketches, he struggled to fit in with writing for his chosen media, and work was slow for much of the seventies. Then, in 1978, he began working on a six-part radio series called ‘The Ends of the Earth’, the idea being that each episode would end with the world being destroyed in a different way. Working on the first episode, Adams realised he had a problem. To make his story work, he needed there to be an alien of some sort on Earth, and more importantly a reason for him to be there. Eventually, his piece of 7 year-old inspiration came back to him, and his character became a roving researcher for a wholly remarkable book: The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The character became Ford Prefect (so named because, having not done his research properly, he thought that the name would be nicely inconspicuous) and, along with the tea-obsessed, dressing gown-wearing and very English main character Arthur Dent, would become a central feature of both that episode and, as Adams quickly changed tack to follow this new story instead of writing 5 new ones, the rest of the series of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy.

That radio series was broadcast in 1978, and catapulted Adams to fame. It was something of a love/hate thing- some thought Adams quirky, offbeat sense of humour was weird and unfunny, whilst others declared him a comic genius for the invention of, say, the Babel fish:

The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech like, and possibly the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brainwave energy, absorbing unconscious frequencies and then excreting a complex matrix formed from the concious frequencies picked up from the speech centres of the brain- the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear you can instantly understand everything said to you in any form of language. The speech you here decodes the brainwave matrix.

Now, it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that many races have chosen to use it as final clinching proof of the nonexistence of God*. The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist” says God, “for proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing”

“BUT” says man “the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It proves you exist and so therefore you don’t, QED”

“Oh dear” says God “I hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

“Oh that was easy” says man, and for an encore he goes on to prove that black is white and get’s killed on the next zebra crossing.

Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, having effectively removed all barriers of communication between species, has caused more and bloodier wars than any race in the history of the galaxy.

*It is worth mentioning that Adams was a staunch atheist

So… yeah, that’s Douglas Adams humour- my unfortunate friends have to put up with me spouting that kind of stuff a lot. That’s hardly an isolated example either, for Adams has proposed, explained or made mention of the concepts of spaceships powered by improbability (and, indirectly, tea), restaurant mathematics and bad news, exactly how to throw oneself at the ground and miss, custom-made luxury planet building, a restaurant at the end of the universe that works by being impossible in at least 6 ways, the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (the effect of which is like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick) the unimaginable usefulness of a towel, the Somebody Else’s Problem field, Vogon Poetry (and that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, a corruption of the name of someone Adams went to university with) and the Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe, And Everything (42, in case you’re interested- they just keep having problems finding the Ultimate Question). To name but a few. You get the general picture.

After the success of the first radio series, the BBC commissioned a second. Between and after this, Adams turned his attention to novel writing, and began a tradition of substantially rewriting the storyline with each new incarnation of it to, among other things, ‘annoy the fans’. The first part of what would later become his famous ‘trilogy in five parts’ was published in 1979, and was later followed by The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless (all of which are references to parts of the first book). He also produced a 1981 TV adaptation, and a few other projects including the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the little joke dictionary The Meaning of Liff, and a radio series and book entitled Last Chance to See, about endangered species.

But… what is it that makes him so special? Why the cult following? Why national towel day? Why do I know that Babel Fish quote above by heart? Well… I really don’t know. I can’t quantify the quirkiness, the jokes, the flashes of abstract genius that none bar perhaps Terry Pratchett have ever emulated, the way that every successive adaptation is sufficiently different that every fan’s experience is a little difference. I was indoctrinated through the radio series, think the TV adaptation is rubbish and that the books can’t quite capture the humour as well- but other people I know insist that the literary form is the greatest piece of writing in the universe. As for the film, I think it’s… different and not quite as amazing, but for some of my friends it’s their only dip in the ocean of Adams, and they loved every minute. Others thought it was terrible. It’s a funny old thing.

Adams died in 2002, long before his time. As Richard Dawkins said, in his passing “science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender”. But his stories will never die, so long as there are people willing to enjoy and remember them. They are not stories for everyone, but they’re something everyone should try, just in case they’re perfect for you. And remember, on May 25th: everyone should know where his towel is.