There and Back Again – The Hobbit

The Hobbit In the middle of November, I talked about Tolkien’s WWI experiences and their impact into their writing. With the live action adaptation of The Hobbit released into theaters soon, it makes sense to look at how The Hobbit was written in the first place. It’s an interesting story, with a bunch of twists and turns.

Go read  There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Tale over on Kirkus Reviews.

Here are the sources that I used and would recommend:

The Annotated Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien and Douglas A. Anderson: This edition of The Hobbit has received the annotated treatment. I was a big fan of the Annotated Dracula, and this edition has some good insights into the creation of the book.

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond: This massive volume was an invaluable resource in determining where Tolkien went during his time in combat. It’s detailed down to the day in most cases, with an overwhelming amount of information.

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond: This second companion book was also great for background information on Tolkien’s friends and some of his influences.

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter: This book was one that I came across years ago, and it still remains one of the definitive biographies of the author, with a comprehensive and readable detailing of his life and works.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey: This book provided some good background information on Tolkien and his influences in the War.

J.R.R. Tolkien and the Great War

Sometimes, stories find you when you least expect them. I began this column thinking that I would find Tolkien’s experiences in war as an almost superficial influence on his later stories, only to find the complete opposite. Tolkien went to war and underwent pure horror. He witnessed a terrible war from the front lines, and found most of his friends dead when he left. It’s little wonder that he felt that his creative spirit was dampened by it.

That aside, I found the story of Tolkien and his three close friends to be the most emotional and heartbreaking episode of his life, and I can’t help but wonder how much it will change how I read certain parts of the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit.

Interestingly, this piece comes shortly after Veteran’s Day (Armistice Day elsewhere), commemorating the end of WWI. I hadn’t realized that this piece would come out at the same time.

Read J.R.R. Tolkien and the Great War over on Kirkus Reviews. We’re not done with Tolkien yet, so stay tuned through December!

Here are the sources that I used and would recommend:

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond: This massive volume was an invaluable resource in determining where Tolkien went during his time in combat. It’s detailed down to the day in most cases, with an overwhelming amount of information.

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond: This second companion book was also great for background information on Tolkien’s friends and some of his influences.

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter: This book was one that I came across years ago, and it still remains one of the definitive biographies of the author, with a comprehensive and readable detailing of his life and works.

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth, by John Garth: This volume is dense, but an invaluable resource on how World War I impacted Tolkien’s life and later works.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey: This book provided some good background information on Tolkien and his influences in the War.

A Game of Thrones & Epic Fantasy

This past weekend while at ReaderCon, I finally completed George R.R. Martin’s first novel in his Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones, something I’ve been trying to do since I first bought the book in 2007. Epic fantasy doesn’t do much for me: I’m annoyed at the sheer complexity of most of the stories, (most of it unnecessarily so) and while that’s put me off from Martin’s books for a long time, I’m coming to understand some key differences between his books and the others that I’ve often read. At the same time, I’ve been following along with the HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones, which helped me visualize which characters were which, along with the various storylines.

To my surprise, I liked A Game of Thrones, quite a bit, and not just because I enjoyed the television series. It was genuinely cool to read, and I can see where a lot of the praise comes from for the novels: the plotting is outstanding, but moreover, it sets itself apart from other epic fantasy by placing the reins in the hands of the characters.

From the onset, it’s clear that there is a heavy push to define the actions of the story within the characters themselves. They drive the actions forward, rather than external factors: magical rings, destinies, prophecies, etc. Author and Times critic Lev Grossman claimed that Martin ‘The American Tolkien’, and I think that’s an accurate description: in this modern day and age, the definitions that help to define the story have changed radically since the end of the 1st and 2nd World Wars, the environment that sparked J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The world isn’t as polarized as it appears to have been back then: there’s no epic war between the good of the Allies and the evil of the Axis powers. We live in a world full of problems that come from every side of the political spectrum, from across the world, and jumping into A Game of Thrones felt like something inspired by the last twenty years of geopolitics.

The reason for the complexity and incredible work on the characters here builds the story and keeps it running. Characters take on their own actions, and in turn, cause further actions. The attempted killing of Bran sparks anger from the Starks, who in turn kidnap Tyrion Lannister, which in turn sparks trouble of its own. The conflicts snowball, all within a greater story of politics and strife over the seven kingdoms.

This is in sharp contrast to other fantasy novels that I’ve read, notably The Lord of the Rings, which took the complete opposite approach: Frodo and Samwise aren’t defining their own lives by taking the ring to Mordor, nor any of the supporting characters who aid them: their journey is defined by a greater need. Rather than their own strength of character defining their quest, the quest defines their strength of character. The books are no worse for wear due to the world view: Tolkien’s own experiences during the 1st World War likely helped to shape is own world. The conflict that swept over Europe was so much larger and almost inconceivable to the person in the trenches: it’s not a style of conflict where anybody would be able to influence the entire operation by themselves: the war defined the soldier’s lives: it brought out the best that they had, and sometimes, asked for more.

The larger issue is one that falls out in A Song of Ice and Fire is the idea that a long lasting winter is coming, which pushes the first book into a bit of both worlds, and I suspect, the series as a whole, putting some constraints on what the characters will be able to do: just as much as we define the world around us, it has elements that are much larger, whether they’re a destiny or simply the force of nature. What seems to set A Game of Thrones apart is that this larger problem is still approached through the actions of the characters: the conflicts of men go on in Westeros, while those manning the wall prepare for the inevitable worse as winter approaches.

There’s other, character-based fantasy epics that come to mind: Harry Potter is a notable example of not only where characters help to define their actions, but actively seeks to contrast the idea that destiny and one’s own choices define the character, especially in the run up to the finale in The Deathly Hallows. Of the two approaches, it’s hard to say which is ‘better’ or even if it’s a measure of quality for any given story. Certainly, it’s worked well for A Game of Thrones.

Andvari’s Ring, Arthur Peterson

Earlier this year, I came across a spectacular find in the local Northfield Bookstore. While browsing, I came across an old book from 1916, titled Andvari’s Ring, by Arthur Peterson, outfitted with a deep green cover, no dust jacket and gold lettering. Popping the cover open, it appears to have been a rejected copy from Norwich University’s Kreitzberg Library, just up the street. Looking over the first couple of pages, I discovered that the book was a translation of a Norse epic poem, the legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, which I had another translation of, by author J.R.R. Tolkien. The book looked absolutely fascinating, and I picked it up, reading it piecemeal over the last couple of months. The result was a read that absolutely blew me away, not only for its story, but because it was a root story that has since influenced numerous others since its inception, providing a considerable amount of insight into modern popular culture.

The myth is an interesting one, and I can’t see why the Norse mythology and Vikings haven’t become more popular in modern culture, especially as publishers and production companies have looked towards a lot of older material to churn to the masses. The story is a fun one, with quite a lot of violence, quite a lot of speculative fiction source material and a number of surprising connections to other myths and historical figures around the world: Attila the Hun makes an appearance, as does Claudius, Cleopatra, and some of the underlying myths that informed King Arthur’s Sword in the Stone to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The influences in Tolkien’s works are clear, which should come as no surprise, given the author’s deep level of influence in mythology, which appears in his professional and fictional works.

What impressed me greatly was the role that these sorts of ground zero myths have for modern culture: looking at a number of modern stories, such as the ones above, it’s clear that there’s quite a lot of borrowing and common ground between stories. As my girlfriend and I marathoned Stargate SG-1 over the course of this fall, there was a heavy dip into Arthurian legend that supplemented some of the Norse undertones with a couple of storylines, while J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate has recently released a new translation, titled Sigurd and Gudrún. Despite some of these influences, there’s been no major capitalization on this sort of storyline, for better or for worse. Such attention focuses the general public on a subject that doesn’t necessarily get the attention that it might deserve, for better or for worse.

This particular copy, coming up on its century mark, feels and looks like a book. It has a small amount of heft for something its size, with an unassuming cover, rather than a photo shopped gimmick that’s been informed by marketing and research teams. It’s lasted the test of time, and I think for that reason, it attracted my attention as something worth reading.

Andvari’s Ring feels like a real book, from the physical appearance to the text inside. There is precious little on the author or any other titles that he might have published, and reading this sort of early material on the legend, one that informed some of the cornerstone works of speculative fiction, helps to further my own interest in the genre. Reading the classics of any genre is important, but going further, into the roots of the subject, helps to put the elements into place, based on an author’s knowledge and understanding of what then informed their work. Understanding these root influences grants a far better understanding, therefore, of the subject that’s being read. While it might not help with the specific enjoyment of a derivative work, it does help when you begin to put things together as a larger whole.

Andvari’s Ring helps to fulfill both functions: understanding and enjoyment, and for those two reasons alone, it’s worth looking up. Google Books has a copy, here, and I’m sure that other copies exist throughout used bookstores and forgotten libraries.