Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blogging The Silmarillion: Out of ruined lands and cities, a star of hope arises

Part seven of Blogging the Silmarillion concludes the Quenta Silmarillion with a look at Chapters 22-24.


No careful reader of Tolkien’s fiction can fail to be aware of the polarities that give it form and tension. His work is built on contrasts—between hope and despair, between good and evil, between enlightenment and ignorance—and these contrasts are embodied in the polarities of light and dark that are the creative outgrowth of his contrary moods, the “antitheses” of his nature.

–Verlyn Flieger,
Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World

J.R.R. Tolkien was, paradoxically, a man of deep faith who was subject to extreme bouts of despair. He believed that life here on earth is a long defeat, an inevitable march toward the destruction of man and all his creations. However, he also believed in an afterlife. Despite numerous defeats and endured miseries, there existed for Tolkien the possibility of final, unlooked-for victory (coined by Tolkien as a “eucatastrophe”) in this world or the next.

These contrasting sides to Tolkien’s personality are revealed in the final three chapters of the Quenta Silmarillion. In chapters 22-24 we experience (Middle)-earthian defeats that result in unimaginable ruin, followed by the Valar-backed defeat of Morgoth, a victory of truly epic scale.

It’s foolish to think that we can ever have a paradise on earth, for life here is transitory, a passing thing. So too it was in the First Age of Middle-earth. The Elves built cities of surpassing beauty and strength, but each in turn fall into ruin. While Part Six of Blogging The Silmarillion revisited the sack of Nargothrond, in this section of The Silmarillion we witness the ruin of the kingdom of Doriath, followed by the fall of the hidden mountain city of Gondolin. This is the culmination of the Long Defeat for the Elves, whose greatest and seemingly most enduring works come to a violent and ruinous end.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Blogging The Silmarillion: Of Túrin Turambar and the sightless dark of Tolkien’s vision

Thus was the fate of Túrin woven, which is foretold in that lay that is called Narn i Hîn Húrin, the Tale of the Children of Húrin, and is the longest of all the lays that speak of those days. Here that tale is told in brief, for it is woven with the fate of the Silmarils and of the Elves; and it is called the Tale of Grief, for it is sorrowful, and in it are revealed most evil works of Morgoth Bauglir.


Are our lives lived in vain? Are we ultimately slaves to our own weaknesses and pre-programmed natures? Does life have any real significance when death’s mouth yawns blackly at its end?

These are some of the questions with which J.R.R. Tolkien grapples in his writing, but perhaps never so clearly and forthrightly as in Chapter 21 of The Silmarillion, “Of Túrin Turambar.”

I haven’t read as much of the Northern myths as I would like, but I can say with certainty that “Of Túrin Turambar” would fit right alongside any of the stories in The Sagas of Icelanders, for example. Along with the tale of Fëanor it is the most northern story in the book: heroic and studded with mighty deeds and feats of arms, but bleak, tragic, and ultimately fruitless. This is Tolkien in his darkest hour.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A recap of Boskone 47: Talking Tolkien with Tom Shippey

Tom Shippey might be the closest connection we have to J.R.R. Tolkien himself, save for Tolkien’s son Christopher. Shippey met Tolkien and had a few conversations with him shortly before the latter’s death in 1973. He followed in Tolkien’s footsteps as a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature, inheriting Tolkien’s chair and syllabus. Most importantly of all he understands the source material of Tolkien’s legendarium probably better than any man alive, including works like the Finnish Kalevala, Beowulf, the Eddas, and the Icelandic sagas. Shippey has also written two highly regarded critical works on Tolkien (certainly the two most impressive I’ve read), J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien created a new mythology.

Entering Friday’s night’s Boskone 47 conference at the Westin Boston Waterfront in Boston, MA, I was hoping to steal a minute or two of Shippey’s time to ask him some questions about my favorite author. I’m pleased to say I got much more!

I arrived at the conference a little before 6 p.m., checked in and got my badge and conference literature, then slid into an ongoing panel discussion about works of science fiction that don’t seem to be aging well (“What’s Showing Its Age?” by Daniel Dern, David Hartwell, and Peter Weston). The session let out at 7, just in time for an autographing session with Shippey, children’s author Jane Yolen, and sci-fi author Andrew Zimmerman Jones. The autographing session was being held in the Galleria, a large exhibition hall full of book dealers, purveyors of fantasy sculpture and miniatures, original artwork by the likes of John Picacio and Michael Whelan (the latter of Elric book cover fame), and much more.

When I entered the hall I saw that Yolen had a line of some 15-20 people deep waiting for autographs; Shippey had only a couple! Within minutes I was shaking the hand of perhaps the greatest Tolkien scholar ever, offering thanks for teaching me more about Tolkien than any other author, and garnering signatures for my copies of J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth.

I was prepared to be swept aside by other autograph seekers, but with none coming I got to speak with Shippey for quite a while. I felt completely out of my depth and initially a bit flustered, but he put me at ease with his friendly banter, warmth, and genuine sense of humor. Shippey is a lifelong fan of fantasy and science-fiction beyond Tolkien which also helped put me at ease.

I could not resist asking such fannish questions as:

“What was Tolkien like?”

“Have you read Michael Moorcock’s Epic Pooh? What did you think?”

“Which was a greater influence on Middle-earth: Old Northern or Christian mythology?” (this last question sparked some interesting side-conversation on Joseph Pearce’s Tolkien: Man and Myth).

“Was Middle-earth our actual earth in some pre-cataclysmic age? Or did Tolkien intend it purely as a fictional creation?” (The former, Shippey said)

Shippey took the time to answer them all. I won’t share all of Shippey’s comments here as it was personal, candid conversation, but I will relay a few things. For example, he mentioned how Tolkien was very Hobbit-like: He cared about things like football scores and people’s names and their origins. Shippey also talked about the declining enrollment of English majors and the marginalization of literature studies and critics (I agree completely). It’s strange to say, but having spoken with Shippey I now feel two degrees removed from Tolkien himself (and technically, I now am)!

Afterwards I attended two panel discussions featuring Shippey and others: The Lord of the Rings Films: 5 Years Later (which ran from 8-9 p.m.) and The Problem of Glorfindel and Other Issues in Tolkien (which ran from 9-10 p.m.). These were very enjoyable.

In general, Shippey enjoyed the Peter Jackson films and thought they were well done. He has some problems with them, of course, and stated that he didn’t like what Jackson did with the character of Theoden. Aragorn’s fake death when he falls over the cliff was derided by the panel, as were some of Jackson’s over-the-top scenes of grue (his horror influences spilling through).

But in general the panel thought the films were very good, and that the changes from the book were necessary in adapting it to a film medium while ensuring that the movie remained profitable and accessible for a broader audience. Someone else asked why battle scenes were downplayed in the books, particularly their graphic details, while in contrast the battles were huge set-pieces in the movies. Shippey responded, “Everyone who Tolkien knew was a veteran—there were things you didn’t have to explain,” whereas audiences today are “civilianized.”

Speaking of profitable, Shippey quipped that Tolkien’s writing of The Lord of the Rings “must have been the biggest return on investment in the history of the universe,” noting that Tolkien used scrap paper and borrowed ink to write the early drafts, and only had to sacrifice a college professor’s spare time (which is essentially worth zero, joked Shippey, who is a professor himself).

Shippey said Jackson made some “very gutty decisions” with the script, including leaving the ending as-is, keeping its tone of sadness and loss when a Star Wars-like ending might have been more palatable for a modern audience. Fellow panelist Michael Swanwick commented that the end of The Lord of the Rings “breaks your heart,” in that it’s happy and sad all at once. One of my favorite moments was Shippey’s comment that Sam’s final line (“Well, I’m back”) is “such an Anglo-Saxon thing to say:” It’s all of three syllables and in one respect pointless (of course Sam is back!), but at the same time means so much more. Shippey noted that Sam paradoxically came back to die, but also to live with his family and as Mayor of Michel Delving.

The panel took some questions from the audience, including one from yours truly about the decision to remove the Scouring of the Shire. Other panelists than Shippey weighed in, but the general consensus was that there were already too many endings and that the Scouring was anti-climactic and works better in a book than on film (I don’t really agree, but there you have it).

As for whether or not these films still resonate, a member of the audience pretty much answered that with a story about a trip to New Zealand taken by his friend and friend’s fiancé. The two were pleased to discover that the country’s tourist maps are marked with all the sites from the films. The couple hiked up “Mount Doom” and brought him back a piece of igneous rock from its now legendary slope.

The second lecture/panel discussion I attended, The Problem of Glorfindel and Other Issues in Tolkien was a discussion of the minutea in Tolkien’s legendarium and some of its seeming inconsistencies. Panelist Mary Kay Kate of the Mythopoeic Society commented that, “We care about trivial things because [Tolkien] succeeded so well at creating his world—he can’t have just made mistakes.”

The panel opened with a discussion of Glorfindel. Elves in Tolkien’s legendarium do not reuse names, therefore the Glorfindel who died fighting a balrog in the First Age (as told in The Silmarillion) must have been reincarnated into the Glorfindel we know from The Lord of the Rings. However, it was unclear (and remains so) if Tolkien intended this, or whether he merely re-used an old name by accident. Shippey remarked that Tolkien had an uneasy attitude toward reincarnation—while he didn’t deny it, when asked whether he believed in its possibility Tolkien answered, “I’m a Catholic.”

There was a lot of conversation among the panel and the audience regarding Tom Bombadil, why this section of the book feels different, whether or not it’s important to advancement of the plot, etc. I admit that I’m rather ambivalent about this section of the book and so took few notes.

Shippey, who had been quiet for much of this discussion, then took off on a spellbinding 10 minute talk about Tolkien’s lifelong habit of revising and re-revising his work: “Niggling,” Shippey called it (Tolkien wrote a story entitled “Leaf by Niggle” which addresses this facet of his personality). This led to some problems and could have potentially wrought significant havoc with Tolkien’s creations. For example, Shippey stated that Tolkien was strongly considering a sixth revision of The Hobbit which would have significantly altered and softened the story, but fortunately reconsidered when a confidant said, “That’s all well and good John Ronald, but it’s not The Hobbit”). Shippey added that Christopher Tolkien told him that “his father never would have finished The Lord of the Rings if it were not for C.S. Lewis.” Shippey also noted that Tolkien went a large part of his latter academic career without publishing any scholarly works or papers, which was frowned upon by administration.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the session was the panel’s discussion of the problem of orcs. Some critics have called Tolkien’s depiction of the orcs racist; also troubling is the fact that orcs seem like an unredeemable race (whereas others in Tolkien’s legendarium choose evil, so they can theoretically repent their ways and be granted mercy).

Shippey noted that orcs share many human-like values: For instance, they value loyalty and abide by rough Geneva-like conventions of warfare (Shippey quoted the “regular elvish trick” line from the orc Gorbag who finds Frodo bound in webs and abandoned on the orc-path; Gorbag is at least outwardly appalled that a soldier would leave a wounded fellow soldier to die). “Orcs are all right!” Shippey said. But he also laid his finger on the root of the orcs’ evil: The problem of Ufthak. Ufthak was the unfortunate orc who was found by his comrades alive, emeshed in Shelob’s webs. Rather than freeing him, the other orcs laughed and left him hanging in a corner to die a horrible end. Saving him wasn’t their business.

Shippey made a compelling case that the problem of Ufthak demonstrates that the orcs have a thoroughly modern mindset: They know the difference between right and wrong and have a theoretical knowledge of good and evil, but don’t put into practice. They act self-centeredly, separate from standards of decency. This attitude resulted in the major man-made holocausts of the 20th century.

On a final note, when the moderator asked the panelists for closing remarks, Shippey with his booming voice told everyone that Tom Bombadil is “not a Maiar, or a Valar. He’s a land wight!”

Sounds reasonable to me, and who am I to argue?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A date with Tom Shippey at Boskone 47

This week I signed up for a one-day pass to attend Boskone. It's a regional convention put on by the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA). It runs all weekend at the Westin hotel in Boston and features dozens of authors, artists, panel discussions, board and computer games, medieval weapon displays, zombies, and more.

I just found out about the convention this week, and was stunned to see that one of the special guests is Tom Shippey. Immediately I knew that I must attend.

For the uninitiated, Shippey is the premiere J.R.R. Tolkien scholar of our age, author of the incomparable works J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien created a new mythology. Shippey knew Tolkien personally, teaching Old English at St. John's College during Tolkien's last years of retirement. He later followed directly in Tolkien's footsteps, inheriting JRRT's chair and syllabus.

If you own the extended versions of Peter Jackson's LOTR films, Shippey is featured prominently on the extras on these discs. I have learned more about Tolkien from Shippey than any other author. He's brilliant.

Shippey will be at Boskone throughout the weekend, but the stuff I'm most interested in all takes place tomorrow. I was able to buy a one-day pass for $17 and plan to attend the following panel sessions (you can bet I'll be bringing my copies of The Road to Middle-earth and Author of the Century for autographing):

Friday 7 p.m. Autographing
Andrew Zimmerman Jones, Tom Shippey, Jane Yolen

Commentary: I don't know AZJ, but I have read Yolen's Owl Moon to my children. She's a prolific children's author and Owl Moon is wonderful.

Friday 8 p.m. Harbor 1: The Lord of the Rings Films: 5 Years Later
How are they holding up? Any virtues or themes (or faults) that are clearer nos? Think they'll be popular for decades, watched annually on September 22 (Bilbo's birthday—but you should know that)? If computer graphics imagery keeps improving (see Avatar!), should we redo LOTR every five years? Come join the discussion of what is lost and what is gained when adapting beloved books to the silver screen, and share what your vision of a (non-Peter Jackson?) LOTR 2.0 might look like.

Ethan Gilsdorf, Laurie Mann (m), Tom Shippey, Michael Swanwick, Ann Tonsor Zeddies

Friday 9 p.m. Harbor 2: The Problem of Glorfindel—and Other Issues in Tolkien
Tolkien's elves never re-used names (they were immortal, after all) yet a Glorfindel lived and died in the First Age of Middle-Earth and another was a character in The Lord of the Rings six thousand years later—what happened? One of the joys of Tolkien's world is that it is so well-realized that minor anomalies (which in a lesser writer would be assumed to be sloppiness) only make it seem more real, since the history of the real worls also abounds in puzzles. Enjoy a walk through Middle-Earth's lesser-know byways. Who was Eldest: Treebeard or Tom Bombadil? What were orcs, actually, since Morgoth could not create anything new? Why are the wood-elves such jerks in The Hobbit? Whatever happend to Ungoliant? Arwen became mortal, but what happened to the sons of Elrond when he took ship for Valinor? Where did Sauron hide the One Ring when he was taken captive to Numinor? Let's take the time to explore these and other intriguing curiosities of Middle Earth.

Mary Kay Kare, Kate Nepveu, Mark L. Olson (m), Tom Shippey

I'd love to get the chance to ask the guy a few questions about Tolkien, but it all depends on how crazy the con is. I'll post a report here afterwards.

Blogging The Silmarillion: Of Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-earth

In this week’s Blogging the Silmarillion, I’ve decided to take a temporary detour into two tastes that taste great together: Heavy metal and J.R.R. Tolkien. Following is a review of Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-earth, aka. The Silmarillion with electric guitars.

I can’t speak for all readers of The Cimmerian and The Silver Key, but back when I was in high school—circa 1987-91—there was a bright line drawn between fantasy fiction and heavy metal. The former was the province of D&D-playing nerds, and the latter was for bad-asses who hung out in the back parking lots, wore denim and smoked cigarettes. And never the twain shall meet.
This divide was equal parts myth and reality, of course. Some people liked both. For example, I always prided myself on having one foot in each camp, and I was not alone—most of my friends were into metal, and many were also fans of books like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

In addition, you could find a few examples of successful metal-fantasy alliances back then. For example, Iron Maiden attracted both stoners and readers alike with songs like “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Alexander the Great,” and “To Tame a Land” (the latter was a song about Frank Herbert’s novel Dune). Black Sabbath’s album Heaven and Hell (fronted by Ronnie James Dio) had plenty of fantasy imagery in its lyrics, too.

Still, in the main, the two camps were on opposing sides of the battle-line, perennially at odds like the forces of Gondor and Minas Morgul.

After high school I lost touch with the day-to-day happenings in the heavy metal scene. I kept listening to bands like Maiden and Judas Priest, but I stopped paying attention to new trends and upcoming bands. Specifically, I failed to keep up with a new metal force rising like a steel wave out of the heart of Europe, until I woke up one day to find that heavy metal and J.R.R. Tolkien had inexplicably become bedfellows. The unholy offspring of this unlikely coupling was the 1998 album Nightfall in Middle-earth by Blind Guardian.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site .

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Blogging The Silmarillion: The breaking of the siege of Angband and other (myth) busting

Part five of Blogging the Silmarillion continues with chapters 16-20 of the Quenta Silmarillion.

By the command of Morgoth the Orcs with great labour gathered all the bodies of those who had fallen in the great battle, and all their harness and weapons, and piled them in a great mound in the midst of Anfauglith; and it was like a hill that could be seen from afar. Haudh-en-Ndengin the Elves named it, the Hill of Slain, and Haudh-en-Nirnaeth, the Hill of Tears.

—J.R.R. Tolkien,
The Silmarillion, “Of the Fifth Battle”

If you had but four words to describe the action of Chapters 16-20 of The Silmarillion, you could do worse than all hell’s breaking loose. It’s a section I equate to a great turning of the tide against the forces of good.

In fact, Hell breaking loose is almost a literal interpretation of what happens in the fourth great Battle of Beleriand, the Dagor Bragollach (Battle of Sudden Flame). From the deep pits and mines of hellish Angband issue great streams of fire, followed by hosts of orcs, Balrogs, and the dragon Glaurung. It’s very much as if Gehenna, on the orders of Satan, were to empty its bowels of fell spirits and demons. The Noldorin guarding Angband are destroyed or driven back as Morgoth, pent up in his fortress for nearly 400 years, breaks out with a fury and a vengeance.

Seventeen years after this eruption, the forces of good marshal for another great cast at overthrowing Morgoth and ending his reign of terror. The result is the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (Battle of Unnumbered Tears), whose enduring image is a great hill of corpses of Elves, Men, and Dwarves, captured magnificently in the above piece of art by the incomparable Ted Nasmith. The Doom of the Noldor comes home fully to roost as the grieving wives and children of the slain indeed shed “tears unnumbered.” With the defeat, Elven might in Beleriand, save in a defensive capacity only, is smashed. It’s one of the greatest and at the same time most heartbreaking scenes of battlefield ruin I’ve read.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.