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Posts for Tag: Tolkien

The books on the shelf

    Andrew Peterson     Christopher Tolkien     Timothy Boyd     film     Tolkien

Over the last few days, Andy Peterson and Timothy Boyd have pointed me to two very different on-line articles about Tolkien films.

One was Ethan Gilsdorf’s interview over at Wired magazine with Philippa Boyens, one of the screenwriters for Peter Jackson’s three-part movie of The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings before that. (Boyens is of course not to be confused with Pauline Baynes, Tolkien’s friend and illustrator.)

The other article was “Concerning Christopher — An Essay on Tolkien’s Son’s Decision To Not Allow Further Cinematic Licensing of His Work”, an essay posted by “JPB” at TheOneRing.net.

JPB doesn’t break much new ground, but he does thoughtfully take us step-by-step to the conclusions that Christopher Tolkien “has the legal right to make the call, is a good choice to be the one making the call,” and “knows his father’s wishes better than anyone,” — before finally concluding:

JPB, “Concerning Christopher — An Essay on Tolkien’s Son’s Decision To Not Allow Further Cinematic Licensing of His Work”. At TheOneRing.net: 2013–01–07.

When people get their Tolkien only from the films, or plays, or role-playing games, or other adaptations, they are missing the true value of his father’s work. Christopher has devoted much of his life to combating this problem…. That’s what I think Christopher is doing — fighting what he sees as “the long defeat” — wherever he can, not only publishing as much of his father’s work as he can, but preventing further erosion of his father’s written word by simply not allowing further adaptations to take place.

It looks now as if our family will be going to see The Hobbit this weekend. This decision is not made lightly: in addition to the question of giving New Line Cinema $US 40, our nearest movie theaters are 35 minutes’ drive. And what will we see when we get there? Indeed, not The Hobbit that I’ve been reading since 1973. Boynes says that the book

Ethan Gilsdorf, “Hobbit Week: A Conversation with Hobbit Screenwriter Philippa Boyens”. Wired: 2012–12–11.

has got a lot of issues as a story in terms of a film adaptation. Something that’s not film friendly, so to speak.

She’s right: The Hobbit is not well suited to a film adaptation. Even of The Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to Molly Waldron in 1955, “I think the book quite unsuitable for ‘dramatization’” — and it’s widely thought that the episodic nature of The Hobbit would work even less well as a modern film. In Boynes’s own words, though, the movie is a story that they wrote:

Ethan Gilsdorf, “A Conversation with Philippa Boyens”, as above; emphasis added.

I think we managed to write a story where we have too few dwarves, not too many.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:

J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to Forrest J. Ackerman (probably in the spring of 1958), in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #210.

I would ask [adaptors] to make an effort of imagination sufficient to undersand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds … his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about…. The canons of narrative art in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.

Though I would not go so far as to call The Lord of the Rings a “poor” film, Jackson and Boynes clearly do not perceive “where the core of the original lies”, and they deliberately alter “the story, in fact and significance” — which Tolkien objects to in the same letter. It seems, though, that Boynes thinks they know better:

Ethan Gilsdorf, “A Conversation with Philippa Boyens”, as above.

There’s always going to be people who have imagined they understand how these things work and how storytelling works. But in the end, you have to accept that they don’t. You have to trust yourself and that’s what we did.

Near the end of that same 1958 letter, Tolkien wrote:

J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to Forrest J. Ackerman (probably in the spring of 1958), as above.

I do earnestly hope that in the assignment of actual speeches to the characters they will be represented as I have presented them: in style and sentiment. I should resent perversion of the characters … even more than the spoiling of the plot and scenery.

Tolkien evidently felt strongly about this, for in 1955 he had written to Terence Tiller at the BBC — who was adapting The Lord of the Rings for radio broadcast — that he placed importance

J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to Terrence Tiller 1955–09–10, in Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, vol. 2, p. 12.

on the point of not making Meriadoc or Pippin rustic (nor indeed any of the 144 gentry at the party)….

That, of course, is exactly what Boynes did do, of course — and though even David Bratman observed that

David Bratman, “Summa Jacksonica: A Reply to Defenses of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Films, after St. Thomas Aquinas”, in Janet Brennan Croft, Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. The Mythopoeic Press, 2005.

it didn’t even bother me that much that Jackson turned the Hobbits into Irish peasants, though it would have infuriated Tolkien…. It’s departures from the spirit that I’m worried about….

it still rankles, given Tolkien’s thoughts on the subject. It remains to be seen (well, at least by those few of us who have not yet viewed it) how faithfully Jackson and Boynes put forth Tolkien’s characters in The Hobbit, but I see little reason for optimism. (Just how Tolkien would have reacted to the addition of new characters, of course, can only be imagined.)

Upon hearing that Jackson was splitting The Hobbit into two — and then into three — separate films, I had had some hope that he and Boynes would have done their homework used material such as Tolkien’s “Quest for Erebor” (presented in a shortened form in Unfinished Tales and in a different, fuller form in Douglas Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit). According to The History of The Hobbit author John Rateliff, however, Jackson

John Rateliff, quoted in Rachel Nuwer, “The Tolkien Nerd’s Guide to The Hobbit”. The Smithsonian: 2013–01–03.

had a very difficult task in that the movie rights extend only to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings…. He’s well aware that there’s a great deal more material set in that world, but contractually not allowed to use that material in the movies.

That Jackson is to some extent hindered from telling the “full” canonical Hobbit story by the Tolkien Estate’s insistence that the filmmakers be strictly limited to material found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is ironic indeed. But it scarcely matters, for even when not limited contractually, Jackson and Boynes have hardly hewn closely to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. And this brings us right back around again to JPB’s essay on Christopher Tolkien. He writes:

JPB, “Concerning Christopher”, as above.

It’s clear … that Christopher thinks his father’s work conveys something vital. He wants us to see what’s so inspiring about those words. I believe, that to his viewpoint, based on his experience over the decades, the more that work is filtered through the imperfect lens of adaptation, and becomes fodder for the grist-mill of popular culture, the further it gets from the purity of its source material.

Christopher Tolkien lamented:

Christopher Tolkien, quoted in Raphaëlle Rérolle, “Tolkien, l’anneau de la discorde”. Le Monde, 2012–07–05.

Le fossé qui s’est creusé entre la beauté, le sérieux de l’œuvre, et ce qu’elle est devenue, tout cela me dépasse. Un tel degré de commercialisation réduit à rien la portée esthétique et philosophique de cette création.

Or, as translated in the Worldcrunch version:

Christopher Tolkien, quoted in Raphaëlle Rérolle, “My Father’s ‘Eviscerated’ Work: Son of Hobbit Scribe J.R.R. Tolkien Finally Speaks Out”. Worldcrunch, 2012–12–05.

The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing.

Indeed, perhaps the “impact” has been reduced, thanks to the Jackson juggernaut’s effect on the mass consciousness. But the books (as Bratman quotes James M. Cain) are “right there, sitting on the shelf”. Bratman seems to disagree, but as long as we keep picking those books up and reading them — to our selves, our sweeties, our children, — the books will not be forgotten; nor will be their beauty, their seriousness, their aesthetics, or their philosophy. That’s my plan, whether the new movies are close to or far from Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur

    Tolkien     verse

 Cover of the forthcoming The Fall of Arthur

The Guardian reports that HarperCollins will be releasing Tolkien’s latest posthumous work, The Fall of Arthur, this coming May. The opening lines:

J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted in ‘New’ JRR Tolkien epic due out next year, 2012-10-09

Arthur eastward in arms purposed
his war to wage on the wild marches,
over seas sailing to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm ruin defending.
Thus the tides of time to turn backward
and the heathen to humble, his hope urged him,
that with harrying ships they should hunt no more
on the shining shores and shallow waters
of South Britain, booty seeking.

This form of verse should look familiar to readers of The Lord of the Rings:

The Lord of the Rings, LRC §5.03.097; 50th Anniversary Ed., 803

Forth rode Théoden. Five nights and days
east and onward rode the Eorlingas
through Folde and Fenmarch and the Firienwood,
six thousand spears to Sunlending,
Mundburg the mighty under Mindolluin,
Sea-kings’ city in the South-kingdom
foe-beleaguered, fire-encircled.
Doom drove them on. Darkness took them,
horse and horseman; hoofbeats afar
sank into silence: so the songs tell us.

Tolkien calls this meter “the ancestral measure of England” in his essay on “The Verse-forms of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl.” He continues:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Sir Orfeo, 155.

This kind of line falls into two parts. … There is nearly always a breath-pause between them, corresponding to some degree of pause in the sense. But the line was welded into a metrical unit by alliteration; one or more (usually two) of the chief words in the first part were linked by alliteration with the first important word in the second part.

I love this essay; it’s a short read, yet it easily explains this native English verse form, displaced over the centuries by the (first) French and (later) Italian forms that we now tend to think of as “standard.”

The Guardian article quotes Christopher Tolkien:

It is well known that a prominent strain in my father’s poetry was his abiding love for the old Northern alliterative verse. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he displayed his skill in his rendering of the alliterative verse of the 14th century into the same metre in modern English. To these is now added his unfinished and unpublished poem The Fall of Arthur.

Not knowing about The Fall of Arthur, I just had to do a little more research. I found that Pieter Collier at The Tolkien Library wrote that Tolkien

New Tolkien book by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur, will be released in May 2013, 2012–10–07

made a single reference to [his poem] in a 1955 letter and kept a 1934 letter from his friend, R.W. Chambers, professor of English at University College London, who wrote: “It is very great indeed … really heroic …. You really must finish it.”

Turning to Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull’s J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, I found that Tolkien began the work in the early 1930s, but that he abandoned it

J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide vol. II, p. 56

after 954 lines, though various outlines and drafts survive in addition to the final unfinished text.

“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, quoted in J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide vol. II, p. 152.

They devote several excellent pages to “Arthur and the Matter of Britain,” as well as one page to Raymond Wilson Chambers, whose letter Collier quotes. Tolkien respected Chambers, describing his “Beowulf and the Heroic Age” “the most significant single essay on the poem that I know.”

HarperCollins’ press release:

The world first publication of a previously unknown work by J.R.R. Tolkien, which tells the extraordinary story of the final days of England’s legendary hero, King Arthur.

The Fall of Arthur recounts in verse the last campaign of King Arthur who, even as he stands at the threshold of Mirkwood is summoned back to Britain by news of the treachery of Mordred. Already weakened in spirit by Guinevere’s infidelity with the now-exiled Lancelot, Arthur must rouse his knights to battle one last time against Mordred’s rebels and foreign mercenaries.

Powerful, passionate and filled with vivid imagery, The Fall of Arthur reveals Tolkien’s gift for storytelling at its brilliant best. Originally composed by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s, this work was set aside for The Hobbit and has lain untouched for 80 years.

Now it has been edited for publication by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who contributes three illuminating essays that explore the literary world of King Arthur, reveal the deeper meaning of the verses and the painstaking work that his father applied to bring it to a finished form, and the intriguing links between The Fall of Arthur and his greatest creation, Middle-earth.

To be quite clear, the “Mirkwood” mentioned in the press release is not the Mirkwood we know from Middle-earth. In a letter Tolkien wrote to his grandson Michael George Tolkien on 1966–07–29, Tolkien explained:

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #289, 369–70

Mirkwood is not an invention of mine, but a very ancient name, weighted with legendary associations. It was probably the Primitive Germanic name for the great mountainous forest regions that anciently formed a barrier to the south of the lands of Germanic expansion. In some traditions it became used especially of the boundary between Goths and Huns. I speak now from memory: its ancientness seems indicated by its appearance in very early Germanic (11th c. ?) as mirkiwidu although the merkw- stem ‘dark’ is not otherwise found in German at all (only in O.E., O.S., and On.N.), and the stem widu- > witu was in German (I think) limited to the sense ‘timber’, not very common, and did not survive into mod. G. In O.E. mirce only survives in poetry, and in the sense ‘dark’, or rather ‘gloomy’. Only in Beowulf 1405 ofer myrcan mor: elsewhere only with the sense ‘murky’ > wicked, hellish. It was never, I think, a mere ‘colour’ word: ‘black’, and was from the beginning weighted with the sense of ‘gloom’.…

It seemed to me too good a fortune that Mirkwood remained intelligible (with exactly the right tone) in modern English to pass over: whether mirk is a Norse loan or a freshment of the obsolescent O.E. word.

We wouldn’t want anyone to be misled! Back to The Fall of Arthur now. The Times Literary Supplement writes:

“This is the most unexpected of Tolkien’s many posthumous publications; his son’s ‘Commentary’ is a model of informed accessibility; the poems stand comparison with their Eddic models, and there is little poetry in the world like those.”

May 23rd can’t come soon enough!

Pre-order The Fall of Arthur at Amazon.com or The Book Depository.

— Ð

Tolkien, Iceland, and trolls

    Tolkien     Iceland

 Tolkien’s family with their au pair Arndís Þorbjarnardóttir, from the Icelandic paper Morgunblað, 1999–02–28, p. 26

In a post titled “Bilbo’s Ride through Iceland,” our neighbor (give or take twenty miles), Nancy Marie Brown, recently wrote about the influence William Morris’s Journals of Travel in Iceland, 1871–73 may have had on Tolkien’s visualization of portions of Middle-earth — drawing particularly from Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth by Marjorie Burns.

As is usual with Nancy’s blog (God of Wednesday), the comments are interesting and informative. Specifically, Þóra Magnúsdóttir includes a link to an article in the 1999–02–28 issue of the Icelandic newspaper Morgunblað: “Barnfóstran frá Islandi og Tolkien-fjölskyldan” (“Au pair from Iceland and the Tolkien Family”) in which Linda Ásdísardóttir interviews Arndís Þorbjarnardóttir, one of the Icelandic nannies who lived with and worked for the Tolkiens in the late ’20s.

Two weeks later, Nancy followed up with a post titled “Tolkien’s Icelandic Trolls.”

John Rateliff followed up on these posts with his “An Icelandic au pair?” on 2012–08–09. Amongst other things, he observes that the Tolkien family photograph captioned “Family party, 20 Northmoor Road, March 1930” in The Tolkien Family Album

was obviously taken at the same time as the picture on the facing page of The Tolkien Family Album, except that the Icelandic newspaper’s picture has Edith, all four children, and another woman (presumably Arndís), while the Family Album version has Edith, the children, and JRRT. The two photos, though not identical, were obviously taken at the same occasion (check the white tea-pot as a confirming detail).

He concludes that it’s “very likely” that Tolkien himself took the Morgunblað photo, while Arndís took the one appearing in The Tolkien Family Album.

All of this, of course, helps confirm Hammond & Scull’s entry in their The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide:

?1926–?1930 For some years after the move to 22 Northmoor Road a series of Icelandic au pair girls will live with the Tolkien family and entertain the boys with tales about trolls.

— Ð

En route to Tolkien at UVM conference

    Tolkien     conferences     Andrew Peterson     Marc Zender

 Mark, Ray, Andy, me, and Marc setting out

 2012 Tolkien at UVM conference poster

The topic of this year’s Tolkien at UVM conference (the 9th annual) was “Tolkien’s Bestiary”; again, it was hosted and organized by UVM professor Chris Vaccaro.

We hosted former “Tolkien As Translator” classmates Mark Kaminsky, Andrew Peterson, and Ray Saxon — as well as our professor, Dr. Marc Zender.

As you can see from the conference poster, Andy, Ray, and Marc all gave presentations:

9th annual Tolkien at UVM conference

  • Martha Monsson: “Forth Eorlingas: Horses and Ponies in _The Lord of the Rings_”
  • Andrew Peterson: “The Many Faces of Trolls in Middle-earth”
  • Matt Dickerson: “From Goblins to the Valaraukar: Scourges of Fire and Demons of Terror”
  • roundtable: “What To Do with Tolkien’s Orcs”
  • Jonathan Evans: “Tolkien’s Non-Allegorical Bestiary”
  • Ray Saxon: “Manwë’s Messengers: The Role of the Eagles in Middle-earth”
  • Marc Zender: “Mammoths, Mûmakil, and ‘The Old Fireside Rhyme of Oliphaunt’: Tolkien’s Contributions to the Medieval Bestiary Tradition”
  • Kristine Larsen: “A Creature of an Older World”: Tolkien and the “Mythology of the Prehistoric”
  • Gerry Blair: “A Boy and His Dog”
  • Jamie Williamson: “Tolkien and the Codification of Non-Human Beings”

— Ð