This blog is the result of my self-initiated Tolkien studies. I’ve loved these books since I was a child and have an up and down relationship with them. All in all I find myself now ready to tackle the entire Legendarium once again but with a critical eye.
I don’t want to pick apart the works, I want to analyse in an effort to enhance my enjoyment. My essays will not be presented in a particularly scholarly fashion. They will simply be points of interest I wish to explore or questions I want to try and answer to my own satisfaction or interpretation.
All of these writings will stay ‘live’. Nothing will be locked in a state of completion. As I read, research and hopefully learn more I hope to revisit each essay to make corrections, amendments and expansions.
I hope what follows will be a decent representation of my deepening understanding of, and affection for, Professor Tolkien’s work.
Music of the Ainur & Valaquenta- Tolkien’s Creation Myth
Before I take a formal approach on any of the long form Tolkien books, I feel there is one more text that should be tackled to give a bit of context. That is Ainulindalë, The Music of the Ainur. Technically it’s an introduction, of sorts to the Silmarillion but it sets the scene and rules for Tolkien’s secondary world in its entirety. There are themes and events that happen in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that are strengthened by a deeper understanding while never being dependent upon having read it.
Ainulindalë is Tolkien’s creation myth. It is a legend that describes how Middle-Earth was made by an all powerful deity, and populated by elemental forces of creation and stewardship. These forces are present in the Third Age tales in various ways and explain most of the issues and perceived ‘plot holes’ or skewed character motivations that some readers commonly take issue with. A prime example would be the use of Eagles to save the day.
The legend begins as an abstract description of celestial beings. Eru, or Illuvatar is the supreme creator in this made up universe. It is an absolute monotheistic representation, hardly surprising as Tolkien was a staunch Catholic. Though this theology does have some very vital and interesting differences that I’ll try to delve in to later, it is far from an allegory of Catholicism, though there are, inevitably, clear parallels.
Iluvatar first created the Ainur, they could be called the choir of angels. They are celestial beings, second only to the ultimate creator, first thing He devised. Illuvatar asked the Ainur to make music for Him. Through their song they began to know one another, to realise the aspect of the creator they were made to represent. They also began to harmonise with one another, and learn about their brethren. They would gather together into a choir and Illuvatar provided a theme for them to behold, a grand plan of sorts.
A few weeks ago I shared the results of months of work to create a display/game board of Balin’s tomb for the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game produced by Games Workshop. I’ve decided to write a little about this branch of Tolkien licensing to discuss its merits as an extension of the source material that is so beloved.
This battle game started with the release of the original Lord of the Rings films back in 2001. Games Workshop (GW) obtained the license to make a skirmish war-game at 25mm scale for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. This covered both books and films. They do not have any rights over The Silmarillion, however, part of their agreement includes some latitude to develop it’s own derivative IP to fill in gaps or extend the world portrayed in LotR and The Hobbit. THIS is where it all get particularly interesting from a Tolkien fan’s point of view.
There is always a trepidation that goes with attempting to find out more about the people behind things that you love. You can love a painting without knowing about the artist. We rarely know about the people that make our favourite TV shows. Chances are if you do take the time to look behind that curtain you might find something you don’t like. Mostly because art is made by people and people are eminently fallible.
Considering the Roles of Women in The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings.
My daughter has noticed that I’ve been reading a lot of Tolkien books. She is almost 6, her own reading is beginning to develop well and she has been observant regarding what I’m doing with my own books. I’ve showed her The Hobbit and began reading a bit of it to her (the attention span is still a little way from putting up with long prose stories), in general she is interested. If only because I’m interested in it. When I began thinking about sharing The Hobbit with my her I realised there isn’t a single female character in the entire book. At least not an active participant. If any females are mentioned they are done so in their roles as mothers and in reference to lineage.
There is something vital in the ability for people to be able to see themselves in mass-market media. It makes a difference. If you spend your entire life never seeing anyone that looks like you doing anything, the idea might never enter your head that you could do that too. It sounds simplistic, but the truth is I grew up always seeing boys and men, like me, doing everything, I never for a moment considered I might not be able to do the same. It’s difficult to imagine not having that mind-set and it’s sad to imagine generations of girls growing up believing their lives and opportunities were in some way limited… The reality of which might actually be an even sadder truth.
There is a very simplistic cross-over for this theme that applies to all societal minorities and media representation. I plan to write a follow-up article tackling diversity and race in Tolkien’s work. For now I’m going to concentrate on how women are included.
Shortly after completing my own essay I felt unwell (not related to the effort of writing!) and relaxed by trying to rewatch one of the most complex films to be released in the last decade. It had been a long time since I watched Inception. It thrilled me when it was released and always fascinated me upon subsequent viewings. Life changes over the years and my available time and interest in films has become quite limited. My usual rule is to try and see something new over rewatching a film. On this occasion something lured me back in.
My brain was in a different state this time. I noticed new details, picked up on nuance and suggestion I had missed previously. New questions presented themselves, new ideas needed attention. I had to stop the movie and watch it over a few nights, just to make notes on the things my brain wouldn’t let go of.
You could argue this is fundamental proof that the movie doesn’t reach Tolkien’s high bar of ‘Enchantment’. I might argue the opposite. According to Tolkien there are two feats that should be achieved for a work of fantasy fiction to be considered as art.
Understanding Tolkien’s approach to writing and creation.
Tolkien gave a lecture in 1938 to present his thoughts on defining what ‘Fairy-Stories’ are, their validity and importance as a creative pursuit. Since that time it has been labelled as his ‘manifesto’ as a justification of his life’s work. His ‘Legendarium’.
In 1938 Tolkien was a prominent Professor of Anglo Saxon. He had already produced his seminal essay on Beowulf in 1936. Many academics have stated that without any of his fantasy writing Tolkien would have been famous in academia for this treatise alone. In fact those same academics spend rather a lot of time wishing Tolkien had put more of his energy into his scholarly writing rather than ‘waste’ his time with fanciful fictions. Perhaps this essay was a reaction? Or maybe he simply wanted to lay a foundation so his work could be better understood?
There are so many themes and ideas in this essay that can be seen though the world Tolkien creates. That is the reason I’ve decided to start by giving it a careful read. It gives an insight into how an author set about, not only, ‘world-building’ but how he gave deep thought into why this creative effort is not only important but vital to his life and the lives of others. I’m interested in what drove him to stick with his creation for decades despite it not reaching the critical acclaim it enjoys today. It must be noted his ‘larger’ works were not published until after his death and he always split opinion of the literary critics of his time (more of which later).
Why I find myself diving deeper into the mythology I love.
I’m a bit of a philomath. Though some might say I have a short attention span. I have fads where I’ll get obsessed with something; entertainment, creators, literature, art or specific subjects. I consume as much as I can and eventually the fire is quelled and the initial intensity of that interest is reduced to lukewarm embers. I still hold a fondness for whatever it was that so held my attention. I’m glad to have experienced it, but it soon becomes clear there is no longevity to my intense scrutiny. There is not enough depth to keep me returning in an obsessive fashion.
I’m sure you see where this is going.
I wasn’t always obsessed with Tolkien’s work. I have a relatively long history with his books and I had to be romanced before I fell all the way in love. I believe I was 10 or 11 when I first read The Hobbit. I recall the exact design of the book I borrowed from the school library. I have been trying my hardest to find it again now to add it to my collection. It had the famous green, blue and white mountainous landscape illustration, drawn by Tolkien himself. I remember that it was printed on a hardback cover, but I’ve only ever seen it as a dustcover. I may well be mistaken. I know there is a version of that book that was recently released as a first edition facsimile. I cannot recall if that initial encounter with The Hobbit was the first edition text, but at the time I didn’t particularly care for the storied and fascinating evolution of Chapter 5.