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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The Seven Slightly Harmful Quite Bad Things

The Seven Deadly Sins are quite an odd thing amongst western culture; a list of traits ostensibly meant to represent the worst features of humanity, but that is instead regarded as something of a humorous diversion, and one, moreover, that a large section of the population have barely heard of. The sins of wrath (originally spelt ‘wroth’, and often represented simply as ‘anger’), greed (or ‘avarice’), sloth (laziness), pride, lust, envy and gluttony were originally not meant as definite sins at all. Rather, the Catholic Church, who came up with them, called them the seven Capital Vices (their original religious origin also leads to them being referred to as ‘cardinal sins’) and rather than representing mere sins in and of themselves they were representative of the human vices from which all sin was born. The Church’s view on sin is surprisingly complex- all sinful activity is classified either as venial (bad but relatively minor) or mortal (meant to destroy the inner goodness of a person and lead them down a path of eternal damnation). Presumably the distinction was intended to prevent all sinful behaviour from being labelled a straight ticket to hell, but this idea may have been lost in a few places over time, as might (unfortunately) be accepted. Thus, holding a Capital Vice did not mean that you were automatically a sinful person, but that you were more naturally predisposed to commit sin and should try to exorcise them from you. All sin falls under the jurisdiction (for want of better word) of one of the vices, hence the confusion, and each Deadly Sin had its own counterpart Heavenly Virtue; patience for wrath, charity for greed, diligence for sloth, humility for pride, chastity for lust (hence why catholic priests are meant to be chaste), kindness for envy and temperance for gluttony. To a Catholic, therefore, these fourteen vices and virtues are the only real and, from a moral perspective, meaningful traits a person can have, all others being merely offshoots of them. Pride is usually considered the most severe of the sins, in that one challenges your place in comparison to God, and is also considered the source of the other six; Eve’s original sin was not, therefore, the eating of the fruit from the forbidden tree, but the pride and self-importance that lead her to challenge the word of God.

There have been other additions, or suggestions of them, to this list over the years; acedia, a neglect of ones duty based on melancholy and depression, was seen as symptomatic of a refusal to enjoy god’s world, whilst vainglory (a kind of boastful vanity) was incorporated under pride in the 14th century. Some more recent scholars have suggested the addition of traits such as fear, superstition and cruelty, although the church would probably put the former two under pride, in that one is not trusting in God to save you, and the latter as pride in your position and exercising of power over another (as you can see, ‘pride’ can be made to cover a whole host of things). I would also argue that, whilst the internet is notoriously loath to accept anything the Christian church has ever done as being a remotely good idea, that there is a lot we can learn by examining the list. We all do bad things, that goes without saying, but that does not mean that we are incapable of trying to make ourselves into better people, and the first step along that road is a proper understanding of precisely where and how we are flawed as people. Think of some act of your behaviour, maybe something you feel as being good behaviour and another as a dubiously moral incident, and try to place its root cause under one of those fourteen traits. You may be surprised as to what you can find out about yourself.

However, I don’t want to spend the rest of this post on a moral lesson, for there is another angle I wish to consider with regard to the Seven Deadly Sins- that they need not be sins at all. Every one of the capital vices is present to some degree within us, and can be used as justification for a huge range of good behaviour. If we do not allow ourselves to be envious of our peers’ achievements, how can we ever become inspired to achieve such heights ourselves- or, to pick a perhaps more appropriate example, if we are not envious of the perfectness of the Holy Trinity, how can and why should we aspire to be like them? Without the occasional espousal of anger and wrath, we may find it impossible to convey the true emotion behind what we care about, to enable others to care also, and to ensure we can appropriately defend what we care for. How could the Church ever have attempted to retake the Holy Land without the wrath required to act and win decisively? Greed too acts as a driving force for our achievements (can the church’s devotion to its vast collection of holy relics not be labelled as such?), and the occasional bout of gluttony and sloth are often necessary to best aid our rest and recuperation, enabling us to continue to act as good, kind people with the emotional and physical strength to bear life’s burden. Lust is often necessary as a natural predisposition to love, surely a virtuous trait if ever there was one, whilst a world consisting solely of chaste, ‘proper’ people would clearly not last very long. And then there is pride, the deadliest and also the most virtuous of vices. Without a sense of pride, how can we ever have even a modicum of self-respect, how can we ever recognise what we have done well and attempt to emulate it, and how can we ever feel any emotion that makes us seem like normal human beings rather than cold, calculating, heartless machines?

Perhaps, then, the one true virtue that we should apply to all of this is that of temperance. We all do bad things and we may all have a spark of the seven deadly sins inside us, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that the incidences of the two need always to coincide. Sure, if we just embrace our vices and pander to them, the world will probably not end up a terribly healthy place, and I’m sure that my description of the deadly sins is probably stretching the point as to what they specifically meant in their original context. But, not every dubiously right thing you do is entirely terrible, and a little leeway here and there can go an awfully long way to making sure we don’t end up going collectively mental.