On May 10, see the story of J.R.R. Tolkien’s early life, and how it inspired the legendary creation of Middle Earth:
Posts Tagged With: Middle-Earth
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.
Whether print, film or television, fantasy as gone from being a fringe to mainstream genre in recent years. We’ve discussed why it has appeal and how the stories of the masters like Tolkien have such depth and staying power. But what if you could take these worlds that captivate your mind and add another dimension to them? An interactive one where you can enter for a time?
I’m not talking about joining some reenactment group (though some do) or video games (and their lack of face-to-face human interaction). Instead, there have been a number of successful attempts to lay out fantasy worlds right on your table in the form of board games. No, these aren’t the repetitive and soon worn out type of games we are all introduced to as kids.
Take Legends of Andor where you join your fellow players in Andor to stand up to the evil hordes and resolve pressing quests. Yes, I said join; this is a cooperative game. This is a whole different experience for those (nearly all of us) used to the normal competitive party games. Most find they like it, but might find it strange that everyone can lose.
In Runebound you set off on your own into Terrinoth, but instead of just reading about heroes, you can become one and face their trials and triumphs for yourself. Or maybe you want a familiar land? Then enter Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. With essentially just cards, you find yourself in immersive scenarios with your allies. Soon you will want to jump back into the books, or are you already there?
While the stories that unfold cannot be as detailed as a book, they certainly have qualities of unexpectedness, interaction and variability that pull you in like a good book would. These class of games bring gaming out of the kid realm. The learning curve is a bit steeper than say Scattergories or Trivial Pursuit, and but you are rewarded with depth and the joy of engaging your mind (that’s not to mean that they are hard to learn). Apparently there is a golden age of gaming threatening to drag people from their glowing screens and replacing it with human interaction and adventure.
Battling evil, finding the hero within, exploring strange lands…it all seems much more exciting than another television show that is the same as the last twenty.
But as fantasy fans, you already knew that.
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
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.
“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.
Part three of The Hobbit trilogy has come and, in all likelihood, is the last of Middle-Earth’s time on the big screen. Fans never thought they would have to wait nine years from the original trilogy to revisit this world that became a bit of a December tradition. And so that now ends, but Middle-Earth will never leave us.
It has been over seventy-five years since The Hobbit was first published. How many books endure that long? Few. Fewer still inspire films that don’t quickly fade from history. Fans argued which film trilogy was better. Such arguments usually ignored the fact that you couldn’t expect to compare the two. The books themselves were quite different, Tolkien never changing the style of his first to match the latter volumes. He didn’t feel the need to change it, other than a few details. So the filmmakers had to find a careful balance: Make The Hobbit more in line with the look and feel of the first films without losing its unique, and lighter, traits.
Keeping that in mind, the films largely succeeded. By the end of the latest, you are shown a Middle-Earth that is changing and the future holds darkness. Not the finality of The Return of the King, because it isn’t the end. It is a prologue to what is to come (or what has already passed, depending how you look at it).
Why has Middle-Earth captured readers (and now film lovers) for so long? Why has it inspired so much in the fantasy and other genres?
Because behind all the creatures, the fantastic battles, wizards and elves, it’s about people. People who stand against evil, who never abandon each other even in the darkest times, and risk it all in the process.
It’s the Story about who we all want to be. What we were meant to be.
A few months ago in my post More Than Just a Fantasy we looked at how the fantasy genre — in particular J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision — is relevant to us in its stories and themes. In particular, Matthew Dickerson’s book A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, showed us how Tolkien’s worldview was populated with many deep ideas to ponder and learn from.
With the release of the second Hobbit film, it’s a good time for Tolkien fans to once again dig deep into his mythos and what formed what has become a classic part of 20th Century literature. There is no shortage of books to peruse, but a couple stand out.
There is the before-mentioned by Dickerson, which focuses on how Tolkien’s Christian beliefs were the foundation to his writings. Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology is the go to biography of Tolkien and exploration of his many inspirations. John Garth expands on one aspect of Tolkien’s past, his serving in World War I, in Tolkien and the Great War. The War of the Ring had some very real life parallels.
To top all this off, Christopher Snyder’s new The Making of Middle-Earth covers a little bit of everything of Tolkien’s world and legacy. It’s a great place to start for all Tolkien students and fans.
Do you need these books to enjoy Tolkien’s fiction? No. Do they make you want to go back and re-read and become immersed — deeply so — into Middle-Earth like it was the first time? Yes, they certainly do.
It’s not often that popular fiction stays in print for decades. Even less often does it have the depth that allows it to transcend the imaginary barrier from pop to literature or even to the status of classics. Even most of what is today referred to as literary fiction, well, won’t stand the test of time. Every so often there are books that do the impossible. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, as embodied in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, have done just that and have endured for over a half a century.
Many have only been exposed to Tolkien’s world through the recent movie versions. Or perhaps you think fantasy is just that, fantasy. Elves, trolls and big battles. Doesn’t sound very relevant to the real world, does it? There must be a reason why Middle-Earth is still the inspiration for an entire genre and still attacts millions of readers decades after its publication.
Because it is relevant.
Like any great book, the author has the primary responsibility for its success. Tolkien was a scholar, not a fiction writer. His mastery of history, language and culture allowed him to create an alternate history of Earth. This wasn’t his most important strength, however. Like any writer, his beliefs and convictions inform and influence his words on paper. As a great writer, he didn’t strive to lecture or teach as much as meant to entertain.
And so there have been endless books critically analyzing every aspect of Tolkien’s world. Most of today’s “literature” never warrants such study. One of the best such scholarly, yet accessible, endeavors is Matthew Dickerson’s A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
Dickerson explores Tolkien’s many themes such as the free will of men, moral responsibility and war. This last may be apparent from the film versions and people may think it the overwhelming part. Indeed it is in many ways, but Tolkien wove many subtleties in his stories.
War is at time necessary, but takes a terrible toll on all, even the victors. That is clear in the books, as is that the forces of good should never use evil to conquer evil. The means don’t always justify the end. The Ring could be used to destroy Sauron, but at what cost? What did it do to all that did use or want it, often with the best of intentions? Even the way the “good guys” treated captured enemies was diametrically opposed to how the Enemy treated their prisoners. Moral and military victories aren’t always the same thing. Discussions like these in Dickerson’s book reveal some very deep issues embedded in Tolkien’s books.
Thoughtful people will begin to realize that all the screaming “experts” on television who pretend to be intellectuals, never approach the mind of someone like Tolkien. Unlike them, he doesn’t preach, browbeat or lecture his readers. His beliefs are so well-thought out, they naturally flow within the story. They make his book an endless treasure chest to be searched.
The films captured Tolkien’s world better than any other book-to-screen adaptation, but there is much more. If you are someone who likes books that can reveal new depth at every reading, or you have never delved into a book for a literary study, Dickerson’s book will surprise and challenge you to do just that with Tolkien.
And no doubt you will pick up Tolkien’s books again and read them like it was the first time.