Posts Tagged With: J.R.R. Tolkien

Equality and Diversity of Humans…and Elves?

Fantasy tales are often populated with a wide array of beings. Elves, humans and dwarves are a common trio, along with trolls, orcs and countless other variations. Not all authors have filled their stories with these fantastic races to purposely tell stories of diversity or race-relations.  However, long before terms like diversity were buzzing in everyone’s minds, two masters of fantasy had made a statement on equality among people. Joseph Loconte writes in A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War:

[J.R.R.] Tolkien and [C.S.] Lewis encountered the horrific progeny of [eugenics] in the trenches and barbed wire and mortars of the Great War [World War I] — and it gave them great pause about human potentiality…the characters in their novels possess a great nobility, creatures endowed with a unique capacity for virtue, courage, and love. Indeed, a vital theme throughout is the sacred worth of the individual soul in Middle-Earth and Narnia, every life is of immense consequence.

The “races” of Narnia and Middle-Earth are very much like us, always at odds with each other: Elves hate dwarves; elves look down on humans; hobbits are obviously different from their larger human cousins; orcs once were elves.  And yet the fellowship of the ring throws together polar opposite, feuding races in a quest to the save the world.

Against all odds, they succeeded.  A powerful message among the many in these stories.

Tolkien and Lewis began writing during a time when eugenics was on the rise. This misuse of science and philosophies pretending to be science was rationale to cleanse humanity of undesirable races, beliefs or attributes. People remember the result of this horror in World War II under the Nazis, yet don’t know that this thinking had been promoted among the “elite” thinkers and governments across the world for decades.

While many many post-WWI writers saw hopelessness, and others turned to Progress as a god to right humanity, Tolkien and Lewis saw the importance of every life. They wrote of evil that couldn’t be reasoned away — and could be hidden behind “science” and “progress.” The equality of peoples doesn’t automatically equate to the equality of ideas and actions. Even Tolkien’s “dreadful orcs are presented as rational beings” — but being rational isn’t the same as being on the side of virtue.

Middle-Earth and Narnia showed how mankind, even with its capacity for wrong, has innate qualities that can defeat the most terrible of evils; qualities that transcend superficial differences among people, and show that we are much more than a result of randomness and fate.

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A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and a Great War

Check out the trailer for the upcoming series on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis:

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Imagination and the Doorway to Reality

Writers often draw us into the worlds and characters that burst from their imaginations.  These “made-up” worlds are reason for some to shun this or that genre because they are imaginary. The truth, though, is that authors aren’t writing imaginary stories. Alister McGrath, in his biography of C.S. Lewis, explains:

Narnia is imaginative, not an imaginary, world. Lewis was quite clear that a distinction had to be drawn between those ideas. The “imaginary” is something that has been falsely imagined, having no counterpart in reality. Lewis regards such an invented reality as opening the way to delusion. The “imaginative” is something produced by the human mind as it tries to respond to something greater than itself…to “communicate more Reality to us.”

Lewis would use his imaginative world to explore serious themes like “origins of evil, nature of faith, and the human desire for God” — not unlike most writers have grand ideas of deep thoughts woven through their narrative.

Quite often their starting point to accomplish this is surprisingly very simple. Narnia started with “an image of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels through a snowy wood.” Tolkien scrawled on a paper, “In a hole in he ground there lived a hobbit,” after the idea popped in his head and he “did not know why” it had. From these humble origins, grand tales came to life.

What lives in your imagination, ready to inspire, entertain and challenge?

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Fairy Tales Illuminate What we Forget

If you read older versions of common fairy tales, they were often darker and more adult. They were made more kid friendly at some point, because children cannot always determine fact from fantasy, as Tolkien would argue. However, they do want something rooted in reality that didn’t have to be all cutesie. Tolkien’s first book, The Hobbit would attempt this. He was concerned about some of its more darker moments, but witness its success, and depth that exceeds what often passes for “children” books. And so Tolkien, and later C.S. Lewis with The Chronicles of Narnia, would bring fairy tales out of the nursery and gave something that would drive a child’s imagination and be sophisticated enough for an adult. Then, Lord of the Rings would take this further, bringing fantasy to maturity.

Bradley J. Birzer writes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, that fantasy — or fairy stories as Tolkien would often call them — is worth “the effort of entering” in spite of “its many perils and the great possibilities of misunderstanding” because:

…fairy stories illuminate the vast inheritance our ancestors have bequeathed to us…[they] give us a new sense of wonder about things we have taken for granted or which have become commonplace…[and] provide humans with a means to escape the darkness, conformity, and mechanization of modernity…this is not the same thing as escaping from reality. We still deal with life and death, comfort and discomfort. We merely escape progressivism and the progressive dream, which reduces all of complex reality to a mere shadow of creation’s true wonders

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Middle-Earth was much more than elves, orcs and trolls. Of course, what do you expect from an author who was an Oxford scholar who created an entire history, new languages and new races for his mythos? And those things were not even what made it great.

The very human stories were.

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“Escaping” Into Fantasy? Be Wary…

Since 1977, Terry Brooks has been writing his Shannara fantasy series. Once the first trilogy was complete, he gave up his day job as a lawyer and never looked back. In spite of his success, he has often been asked why he writes fantasy. Not so much now, with fantasy’s mainstream success, but some still equate fantasy with escapism.

True, any book, television show, hobby has that element — and there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as most people know how not let one overcome the other. Good fiction, whether or not it is fantasy, ultimately rests on how much it draws on real life. From the outside, that may be hard to grasp when talking about stories with fantastic creatures. Yet we have detailed here in past posts that it was the depth and themes of fictional worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia that was in large measure the reason for their enduring success. Continue reading

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How the Father of Fantasy Told His Story

The influence of 19th Century novelist George MacDonald can still be seen in the fantasy genre today. C.S. Lewis referred to MacDonald as his “master.” Tolkien called his fairy tales “stories of power and beauty.” MacDonald encouraged his friend C. L. Dodgson to publish his children stories — later known to the world as Alice in Wonderland under the pen name Lewis Carroll. MacDonald unintentionally became the father of modern fantasy.

Biographer Michael R. Phillips writes he was “deeply challenged with the magnitude and complexity” of telling MacDonald’s life:

…[MacDonald had a] tremendous variety of…literary genres — he was [also] a theologian, a spiritual mystic, a poet, a novelist, a preacher, a scientist, an essayist, a highly successful lecturer, a teacher, an actor, an editor and a fantasy writer — his ideas defy categorization and pigeon-hole analysis.

That MacDonald was a writer can be seen in his comments on potential biographies on himself. He maintained “that no biography should be written, stating that his books contained all he had to say to the world…” Phillips continues:

But it is my hope to convey George MacDonald’s thoughts and emotions…[which are] most strongly reflected through his literary works…his fictional characters were a means of communicating his own ideas and view of the world…The words he wrote…illuminate what he thought about, how he approached his quandaries, what kinds of questions he asked, and what answers he found…His books are the fullest means we have to get under the surface of his thought-skin to discover what really made him tick.

Therein lies a truth for all writers. Their fiction is art, entertainment and conveyor of ideas and messages. Ultimately, though, no matter how they try not to (if they try not to), parts of their story is also in the tales they tell.

I have written often here that everyone has a story to tell. That doesn’t just mean in the sense of sci-fi, fantasy, thriller or romance. It means the stories that reveal who you are, regardless of what background you tell it against.

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Heroes and Legends

Famed J.R.R. Tolkien biographer, Professor Thomas A. Shippey, in his course Heroes and Legends, writes on the “universal human art form” of storytelling:

…Over the millennia of human history, millions of tales, novels, romances and epics have been written, published, and many more must have been told in the far longer millennia of prehistory. The vast majority vanished without a trace once their immediate purpose had been served – forgotten, discarded, out of print.

A small number survive and become classics. Of that small number, an even smaller number does more than survive: They inspire imitations, sequels, remakes and responses. It is the heroes and heroines – and sometimes the villains – of these super-survivors who have created and continue to create our imaginative world. “Don’t the great tales never end?” asks the hobbit Sam Gamgee…Sam has good reason to see that the answer is: No, they don’t.

…Most of all, the “great tales” offer an insight into the human heart, in all its variety and complexity, that nothing else can provide.

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Would Tolkien and Lewis Make the Cut?

There’s been much debate among Christian writers on what writing “Christian Fiction” means. The artificial rules of Corporate Christian Publishing would eliminate many of the well-known writers who were Christians. These would include J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as Donovan M. Neal writes. Many Christian writers – like writers of all beliefs – just want to write their story. A story informed by their beliefs (again, like all writers), but where their beliefs come through organically – not forced or contrived by some sort of formula. I’ve read books from all sorts of authors who want to lecture or preach to their readers. Really, it’s the difference between good and bad writing.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything good on the Christian Fiction shelf. There’s good and bad in all fiction markets and genres. Part of the debate also concerns the pros and cons of having your fiction labeled by your religion. If you are writing for a specific audience, then I suppose it’s fine, though religion is still bit of an unique way to classify fiction. Yes, there are other examples of targeting this or that demographic.

In the end, regardless of a writer’s beliefs, they shouldn’t spend their time figuring out how to be successful in getting certain people to read their books. They should write their story.

Readers should demand it.

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Will Readers “Misunderstand” Your Book?

I wonder how much authors worry about how readers misunderstanding what their book is about. Its meanings, themes and intentions. Some authors might overcompensate by entering the story and explaining too much. This “author intrusion” often makes a character sound out of character or exposition sound like a lecture. Authors should realize not every reader is going to get, or like, everything you have written and that’s okay. A mature reader isn’t going throw down your book if he or she doesn’t agree with every sentence you write. They might do so if your book isn’t entertaining or is unreadable.

I mentioned in an earlier post on how modern readers like to reinterpret older books (in that case Dracula) through modern eyes. When an author is still living, or wrote about their books, it’s always best to default to their explanations. After all, they wrote the book. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is brimming with themes and meaning, but it was no allegory. The author wrote:

There is no ‘symbolism’ or conscious allegory in my story…To ask if the Orcs ‘are’ communists is to me as sensible as asking if Communists are Orcs.

Devin Brown continues by asking, “Don’t they share a number of similarities? [along with Sauron/Hitler, etc.] Of course they do.” But he adds what Tolkien explained, “I think many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory.'”

Of course, “everyone knows” C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was an allegory. Everyone forgot to tell C.S. Lewis. He said he never intended to write an allegory, the story unfolded as it did. He also wrote:

As we know, almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough…[the author] will find reviewers, both favorable and hostile, reading into his stories all manner of allegories which he never intended. (Some of the allegories thus imposed on my own books have been so ingenious and interesting that I often wish I has thought of them myself.)

So focus on writing your story. Understand not everyone will like it or get all the wonderful things you are trying to get across. Nor should you attempt to appease everyone or your story will most likely end up not being very interesting. Make your tale organic and entertaining. Use the tools you have to improve your craft.

Because ultimately the mythos you create is yours and someone out there wants to enter it.

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Need for Adventure

“Adventures?  Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!” said Bilbo to Gandalf.  If he only knew. The scenes that follow — the arrival of the dwarves who take over his home — did not seem to be a favorite in the films, but was an essential part of the book.  In it we see much of ourselves.

Bilbo was set in his ways, in his little world. Didn’t want to be bothered, nor wanted any deviations from the norm. So imagine the disruption of this rowdy band taking up residence, uninvited. Think about about how people handle disruptions in their life. Poorly. Even good, life-changing ones. We don’t see what goes on around us. Neighbors in need. Corrupt governments.  If the snack bag is full, and the batteries are good in the remote, we’re a-okay.  Devin Brown writes in Hobbit Lessons, “We might also think of someone who can’t bear to be away from their laptop for more than a few minutes. Or someone for whom being out of cell phone range counts as a real hardship.”  Sad.

We see Bilbo’s change in his dwarf encounter. Brown writes that the hobbit senses “he is missing something” and decides to go on a “quest to live more fully” and ultimately becomes a critical part in the history of his world.

Are you going to challenge your status quo? How are you going to handle the next disruption?

Perhaps we all need a quest. An adventure.

hb2

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