Ragnarök’n’roll! The Poetic Edda and Tolkien’s Sigurd and Gudrún

My son and I have been talking about Ragnarök. Besides the super cool sound of this Norse word and the deep world behind it, we are being fueled by Neil Gaiman’s new book, Norse Mythology. I listened to the author read it when it came out, and Nicolas has just been able to land a (beautifully designed) copy from the library. That it is timed with a new apocalyptic-looking Thor film has kept the Twilight of the Gods on our minds.

And, on top of all of this, I found out that Dr. Carl Anderson is offering a free three-part seminar at Signum University on Tolkien’s Sigurd and Gudrún. Here is the seminar description:

From early childhood, the story of Sigurd the Dragonslayer exercised a fascination on J.R.R. Tolkien. Elements and echoes from the medieval Vǫlsung-Nibelung Cycle of legends are woven through his published fiction. Tolkien composed his own versions of these tales in English alliterative verse modeled on Old Norse poetic style during the 1930s, before the publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings, but these works did not come to light until 2009 when they were published as The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. These works, like other posthumously published pieces including “Sellic Spell” (published with Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf), The Fall of Arthur, and The Story of Kullervo, show Tolkien working his own voice through the tangled skeins of myths, legends, and history in anticipation of that voice’s imminent maturation in his own original fiction.

For Norsophiles (a word made up by SignumU staff, methinks), this is a great event. While I am not a Norse scholar, I did review a new translation of The Poetic Edda–one of the critical sources of Ragnarök and Tolkien’s retelling/newtelling of Eddaic legends. For those that are afraid to find their way into the Edda, Dodds’ translation is excellent, and I’ve reprinted the review from Scrivener below. And you will recall that C.S. Lewis was fascinated by boreal myths and the longing they evoked in him (see here and here).

Make sure you connect with the seminars on Tolkien’s Sigurd and Gudrún (starting tomorrow).

  • Thursday, April 27, 11:30 AM EDT – 1 PM EDT
  • Tuesday, May 2, 11:30 AM EDT – 1 PM EDT
  • Thursday, May 4, 11:30 AM EDT – 1 PM EDT

You can sign up here, and if you can’t get to one of the times you’ll be able to watch it at SignumU’s youtube channel (as ancient lovers of story have always done). This is a free event, but do consider donating to Signum. No one does what they do.

Dodds, Jeramy, trans. The Poetic Edda. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014. $23.95. Reviewed by Brenton D.G. Dickieson in Scrivener 40 (April 2015), 44-49. Read it free online. I apologize that the beautifully desined side-by-side the editors did doesn’t work here.

One day a young C.S. Lewis casually flipped to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Tegner’s Drapa and read these words:

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead— (Lewis 17).

The pleasure of reading these lines was quite different from other pleasures he had experienced, more “like a voice from far more distant regions….”  In his autobiography, Lewis described his first reading of Norse saga: “I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be…” (17). This “Pure Northernness,” filled out with Wagner’s Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods would come to engulf Lewis with its “vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity…” (Lewis 73).

Lewis is not alone of those captured by that sense of Northernness. Even more influential, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium and numerous characters in the Marvel Universe find their origin in Norse mythology. The influence is obvious for the latter, as Thor, Odin, and Loki are feature characters in a new generation of videographical storytelling. Within the evocative mindscapes of Middle Earth, however, the influence is less obvious. Dwarves are common fare in fantasy, and we might know that Tolkien’s elves, transformed as they are, evoke the Norse realms of Alfheim and Svartalfheim (Elfland and Dark Elfland, captured as Lios Alfar and Svart Alfar in Canadian Tolkien editor and fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry).

When we move to The Poetic Edda—one of Norse mythology’s key texts—we see immediately how Tolkien was drawn into the old Nordic speculative universe. Only eleven stanzas into the first poem, the influence of the Edda on Tolkien is obvious:

11. Nyi and Nidi, Nordri, …
Althjof, Dwalin, Nar and Nain,
Niping, Dain, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur,
Nori, An and Onar, Ai, Mjothvitnit,

12. Vigg and Gandalf, Vindalf, Thrain
Thekk and Thorin, Thror, Vit and Lit …

13. Fili, Kili, Fundin, Nali….

And the list continues. While not the greatest example of the work’s poetic quality, this list from Jeramy Dodds’ new translation of The Poetic Edda demonstrates how very important this oft-neglected medieval text is. The Eddic poems are “invaluable primary sources on early Nordic mythology and heroic legend” (Dodds 8). Their mythological and historical value, as well as their contemporary influence, warrant translations for new generations of readers. Award-winning Canadian poet Jeramy Dodds has indeed provided a fresh translation, vivid and accessible, a skillful combination of the closeness of the text with the remote wilderness of the world that birthed it.

As Dodds explains in his “Introduction,” The Poetic Edda is made up of “oral pagan poems, passed mouth to ear for centuries, until they were flash-frozen onto vellum sometime around 1270 by Christian monks in Iceland” (12). Dodds’ translation aims at a precise method of thawing this text so that it exposes the culturally bound mythology that the Edda encapsulates.

In particular, Dodds has aimed for accessibility. Indeed, his translation is shockingly fresh, drawing out images heretofore buried in previous translations that obscured the meaning. At other points, Dodds chooses a voice in his interpretation that reshapes the poem.

A side-by-side comparison of one of the poems will show the value and limitations of Dodds’ translation. Below are several stanzas of “Loki’s Flyting,” or “Lokasenna” in some editions. In the left-hand column is Henry Adams Bellows’ traditional translation. At the opening of the poem, we see how Bellows captures the majesty of a formal interlocutor calling for a tale. Dodds (below) takes a different approach with subtle shifts in translation.

Bellows: “Speak now, Eldir, | for not one step
Farther shalt thou fare;
What ale-talk here | do they have within,
The sons of the glorious gods?”

Dodds: ‘Eldir, before you take another step,
tell me, what do those sons
of the Triumph Gods have
going on inside as far as ale-talk?’

The syntax is clearer in Dodds’ translation, and he leaves behind Bellows’ alliterative “glorious gods” for a categorical refinement: the Triumph Gods. Each translator captures the Edda’s propensity for compound words with “ale-talk.” Overall, the translations are quite similar.

Throughout the poem Dodds chooses a far more colloquial approach—even more than the updating of English for this decade. In Loki’s taunt of the gods below, Dodds leaves behind the Bellows’ Shepherd Psalm echo with the colloquialism, “fetch me a seat.” As well, “bid me forth to fare” is far different in tone than Dodds’ “tell me to clear off.”

Bellows: [Loki]
7. “Why sit ye silent, | swollen with pride,
Ye gods, and no answer give?
At your feast a place | and a seat prepare me,
Or bid me forth to fare.”

Dodds: [Loki]
7. ‘Why so silent, you haughty gods,
have you nothing to say to me?
Fetch me a seat here at your feast
or tell me to clear off.’

As the poem continues, Bellows’ evocative translation heightens the battle of wits, while Dodds’ translation allows the conversation to take the personality of a rap battle. “Mad art thou” is the formal equivalent of “you’re a lunatic,” and Dodds restores alliteration with the street insult, “your wits are out of whack.”

Bellows: Othin spake:
21. “Mad art thou, Loki, | and little of wit,
The wrath of Gefjun to rouse;
For the fate that is set | for all she sees,
Even as I, methinks.”

Dodds: Odin said
21. ‘Loki, you’re a lunatic – your wits
are out of whack if you want Gefjon
as an enemy, for she can foresee
the world’s future as well as I can.’

Both are better than Lee Hollander’s “Bereft of reason and raving thou art”; Bellows evokes the poetic past without becoming archaic, while Dodds draws the text very close to the speech of the television generation. As the insults continue, three stanzas heighten the difference between the two philosophies of translation.

Freyja spake:
32. “False is thy tongue, | and soon shalt thou find
That it sings thee an evil song;
The gods are wroth, | and the goddesses all,
And in grief shalt thou homeward go.”

Loki spake:
32. “Be silent, Freyja! | thou foulest witch,
And steeped full sore in sin;
In the arms of thy brother | the bright gods caught thee
When Freyja her wind set free.”

Njorth spake:
33. “Small ill does it work | though a woman may have
A lord or a lover or both;
But a wonder it is | that this womanish god
Comes hither, though babes he has borne.”

Freyja said:
31. ‘Your tongue’s cutting, I’m sure
one day it’ll flail you to pieces.
The Æsir and the Asynjor are livid
with you. You’ll go home unhappy.’

Loki said:
32. ‘Shut up, Freyja, you’re riddled with
wickedness, a real witch. The giggling
gods walked in on you riding your own
brother, Freyja, and then you farted.’

Njord said:
33. ‘Who cares if a woman takes lovers
with or without her husband? Odd, though,
how a cock-gobbling god like you
got in here after birthing his own babes.’

Note the punning contrasts in Freyja’s speech. For Bellows, “tongue” leads to “evil song,” which opens up to wrath and grief. Dodds heightens the pun—a “cutting tongue … flails to pieces”—but loses the transumptive power. From “flailing” Dodds moves to “livid” as the contemporary of “wrath.” While “livid” has metaphorical possibilities, they leave behind “cut to pieces” for new rigidity. Certainly, “And in grief shalt thou homeward go” is an archaism. But if Dodds had finished the stanza, “You’ll go home in grief,” he would have recovered consonance while capturing the idea of “gravity”—etymologically connected with “grief”—that may strengthen lividity. Or perhaps a crimson frown would contrast the giggling gods’ bluish countenance.

Bellows’ nostalgic poetry is as intentional as Dodds’ kitchen table prose-in-verse. In Bellows’ 1930s, “said” or “spoke” were the common translation for the Old Icelandic kvað. However, “spake” helped evoke the poetic atmosphere Bellows desired—Tolkien or Lewis might have done the same. Certainly Bellows’ translation is more elevated, but in stanzas 32 and 33, Dodds demonstrates the poignancy and humour in a far more immediate way. While “thou foulest witch” has a poetic elegance lacking in “a real witch,” the immediacy of “Shut up, Freyja” has its own poignancy. Hear it as prose from the trickster Loki’s mouth: “The giggling gods walked in on you riding your own brother, Freyja, and then you farted.” While I wish Dodds risked some exclamation marks, if we recall the ale-house scenery, we can imagine hundreds of horns raised in salute at the insult. Moreover, Dodds has recaptured the original frata, obscured in Bellows’ translation, which is marvellously paired in a verbal pun with Freyja in the original text. At the charge of incest, the double-wronged Njörð—father of Freyja and her purported lover-brother—castrates and impregnates the grinning god-son Loki, accusing him not simply of homoerotic desire, or even of passivity in that pairing. Instead, Loki’s lack of manhood turns scrotum to womb, god to goddess.

Doubtless Bellows’ is a stronger piece of poetry than Dodds’ storytelling form in these examples. There were times that I yearned for the archaic poetry over the vulgar prose, especially in the heroic tales, which seem to me to plod on with too little diversity in style. Dodds’ translation, however, brings us to the immediacy of the language. There is little incomprehensible in Dodds’ Edda. In this way Dodds’ Edda is the J.B. Phillips translation of Norse poetics, the Living Bible of The Poetic Edda. Yet, it is not the Edda for dummies. For all Dodds aims at today’s language, he retains the Æsir and the Asynjor, intentionally creating distance for the reader: while the language is close to us, the world is not. What is lost in atmosphere—the Northerness that Tolkien and Lewis longed for—is gained in the reader’s contextual understanding of this distant world.

This tightrope walk leads to some obscurity about who the intended reader truly is. The translation is easy to read, colloquial, and evocative; the introduction is basic, informative, and designed to intrigue. The index cleverly combines definitions with topical cross-sections, doing one of the jobs we would expect of footnotes that are absent in this text. Everything but the text slips away, with open fields of white space for the reader’s notes. One would presume, then, that non-professional readers are in view. An academic audience would demand text critical notes and a research review.

Yet there are challenges for the lay reader too. For contemporary ears trained in the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, or the rhymes of Dr. Seuss, hip hop, greeting cards, limericks, and pop music, Old Icelandic poetry is going to be a stumbling block in its very form. Even those familiar with the medieval-evocative poetry of Lewis and Tolkien, or the new streams of modern poetry opened by T.S. Eliot, are going to find the poetry itself to be strange. It simply lacks the metrical diversity or baseline rhythms we know in English poetry. Dodds’ dependence on alliteration is light, bucking trends of heavy consonance in verse translation and initial rhyming, such as the tendencies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translators J.R.R. Tolkien and Simon Armitage, or Hollander’s Edda. While heavy alliteration can cause the contemporary reader to flounder, since The Poetic Edda is so inspirational to subsequent poets I still wonder if more of that initial rhyming could have been kept.

While Dodds’ translation is meant to be an Edda Vulgate, some of the word choices are strange to the ear. The choice of “ninny” as the translation of ósnotr instead of the more classic and intertextually rich “fool” is very odd. If Dodds wanted to strip away the temptations to archaic language, he could have used “loser.” “Ninny” strikes me as an after-school special word from the last century. But Dodds himself does not shrink from the offensive. Homophobic slurs and gender-bending insults are kept throughout his Edda. Particularly interesting is his translation, “cock-gobbler.” While this is a creative rendering, we have in North American English a popular slur—“cocksucker”—that would do just as well without the oddness. It may be that these two examples of “ninny” and “cock-gobbler” began as alliterative choices; if so, however, I cannot discern the pattern.

Besides these small translational quibbles, there is one aspect of the introduction that is missing for the intelligent, nonprofessional reader. Besides those traditions mentioned above—myth and mythology, poetry, and Nordic-soaked fantasy like J.R.R. Tolkien or Guy Gavriel Kay—the other stream of readers will be those who encountered the Halls of Valhalla through comic books and their film interpretations. When my ten year old saw I was reading the Edda, he quickly snatched it away from me and poured over the spatial geography of Yggdrasil. No one would argue that the introduction should be written for preteens—my son got lost in the introduction—but this particular reader represents a significant part of popular culture that encounters Thor, Odin, Loki, and the Frost Giants in a particular stylized context. These sorts of readers are often encyclopedic in their understanding of what they think of as “Norse mythology.” I think this particular introduction, aimed at the new reader, would have benefitted from a brief conversation that redefines Loki and the Jotuns in the Edda with the Marvel Universe in mind.

This detailed consideration contains few criticisms that stack up against the sheer freshness and creativity of this new translation. The introduction is excellent in what it covers, the family trees and map of Yggdrasil are essential, and an index-glossary is an elegant use of space. The university student or lover of poetry and myth will find this translation both engaging and approachable. Considering the too few paths to the Northern climes of Yggdrasil, this is by far the easiest for new pilgrims. A professional can add this translation to his or her resources in viewing the text from a new angle and reading it afresh. It is a beautifully produced book, a relevant and long-needed translation, and an opportunity for a new generation of readers to find their way to the imaginative landscapes of The Poetic Edda. That it is completed by a Canadian poet who is so young and yet so accomplished is a notable moment.

Works Cited

Bellows, Henry Adams, trans. The Poetic Edda: Translated from the Icelandic with an Introduction and Notes. New York: Princeton University Press, 1936.

Dodds, Jeramy, trans. The Poetic Edda. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014.

Hollander, Lee M., trans. The Poetic Edda. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1962.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Fionavar Tapestry. Toronto: Harper Perennial Canada, 1995.

Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. Princeton: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1955.

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Sad Peninsula by Mark Sampson

My mother was a voracious reader. I remember watching her as she read on the couch or a deck chair, slowly turning the leaves as if she was counting the pages rather than gobbling up hundreds of words at a time. She devoured books. One of the saddest parts of her getting sick last year was that when she was on chemo she couldn’t concentrate well enough to read for long. The illness ate away at more than flesh and bone.

One of the last books she read was Sad Peninsula by Mark Sampson. I knew Mark back in high school, so I picked up a copy for my mother when he did a book launch in his old hometown. A metropolitan man now on his way to a solid Canadian literary career, I was curious at how Mark was doing. Truth be told, I got the book for my mother because I wanted to support Mark and this sort of novel is not up my alley. Besides, if it survived the fiercely critical eye of my mother, I could always borrow it.

Mark and I didn’t know each other well in school, but I was struck back then by his focus. Even as a teenager he said he wrote every day, and I believed him. He knew that he was meant to be a writer. At the time, I interpreted this resolve as arrogance. I now recognize that it was really envy, on my part, and vocation on his. I had all the dreams of authorship but none of the discipline. It was easier for me to silently disparage one of the only other thinkers in my English class I enjoyed than it was to face the blinking cursor on the blank screen for myself.

And when I finally sat down in front of that blank screen to tell a story, it was Mark’s resolve that was my model. Over years of failed attempts to make those words mean something, the image of the teenage Mark Sampson faded into anecdote. In 2006, knowing I could write a book because I had done so in a Masters degree, Stephen King’s On Writing gave me the confidence to turn those false-start writing sessions into something meaningful.

As I think about it now, I wonder if it wasn’t Mark that first brought Stephen King to my mind as a model of a successful writer. I believe that it was.

In any case, two decades have passed and I see in the newspaper that local-boy-done-good is launching his book with a big Toronto publisher. I was curious to know what Mark has done with that drive and focus?

One of the things he has done is write Sad Peninsula. My bias is clear, and I don’t know realistic fiction as well, but I thought this was a wow-factor book. Since I am untrustworthy on this point, I would like to share my mother’s assessment of this book.

She said it was one of the best books she had ever read. It is quite a statement from a lifelong insatiable reader.

Sad Peninsula is a two-stream historical fiction novel. One of the streams is the story of a Canadian ex-pat, fleeing the country under suspicious circumstances to teach in Korea. The protagonist, having lost his career and the love of his life, tumbles into the foreigner nightlife scene in Seoul. He spends his afternoons in the assembly line version of English teaching, and his nights in the bars and dance clubs of the seedier areas of Seoul. The protagonist soon discovers that the true demons that caused his Nova Scotian life to crumble have followed him to Korea. The real demons are in the heart, after all, and it is in that space that he must contend.

Plus there is a girl, a Korean girl, alien and alluring, wonderful and problematic.

The second story stream is the secret shame of the difficult history between Japan and Korea. During Japan’s long occupation of the west coast of Asia, they managed Korea as a human resource colony. They recruited its men to fight in the war against the Allies, but they also recruited some of the women. Girls, actually, Korean girls who were snatched from their homes and brought to camps where they were raped repeatedly, hour after hour, day after day by Japanese soldiers. Korean “comfort girls” were taken from their families, stripped of their identities, and violated in every imaginable way. In the end those that survived received no compensation except the shame of harlotry that led many to a life of alienation from family and society. For those who found partners, many were so riddled by sexually transmitted diseases—or scarred by 1940s-era “cures”—that they were never able to have children.

While we might be able to understand the terror and humiliation of rape, it is difficult for non-Asians to know how Japanese colonialists heaped shame upon shame on the most vulnerable of their Korean citizens.

Mark Sampson compellingly tells the tale of one of these comfort women, Eun-young. It is a difficult story, and the temptations for the author to descend into a moralistic rant that would serve to torture the character—and the reader—must have been very great. Though there are many hard pages, Sampson avoids this descent into despair by doing a couple of interesting things.

First, he sets the ESL teacher stream of the story in the context of the first days of the 2003 US-UK action in Iraq. Lights are flashing in the dance club in Seoul as the night sky is filled with fire in Baghdad. The Canadian protagonist finds himself re-forming his identity not merely in dialogue with the otherness of Korean culture, but with that third alienation: the non-Americanness of Canadian presence in the world. It is something that Canadian ex-pats have to contend with. The ESL teacher’s particular perspective, however, places the Iraq war in conversation with Korean colonial relationships—first Japanese and then American. In this sense, both streams are historical fiction (a necessity as most Korean comfort women will have passed away within a few years of the book’s setting in 2003-2005).

Second, Sampson draws the stories of the Canadian ex-pat and the Korean comfort woman together. Not only does this put the ex-pat protagonist’s problems in a new kind of perspective, but it allows Eun-young’s character to shine. Allowing a tortured, bitter woman to shine is no difficult task, but Sampson deftly utilizes relationships of otherness to form the identity of our two “heroes”—beaten and pitiable as they are. The “others” in the text—a Japanese doctor, a party scene ex-pat, a mourning father, a shamed veteran, a Japanese tour guide, the girl who wasn’t taken, a fundamentalist roommate—are not mere foils. Sampson is comfortable with disintegration, and uses the varied stories of “others” in the text to set the context for the protagonists’ potential reintegration. Finding healing, though, is awfully hard, and not everyone can submit to that path.

This is a dangerous book that sits on the knife’s edge of disaster the entire time. Beyond the dangers I have mentioned of stereotyping or torturing his characters in a moral tale, Sampson is in danger of appropriating stories, of wandering into the complex history of Japan and Korea, and of villainizing those who are, according to some, clearly villains. Perhaps an even greater danger is the story of the teacher-writer in a Korean self-exile. I wonder if the lines between fiction and autobiography are dimmed beyond recognition here, so that the accusation of self-indulgence might be near.

Honestly, though, I’m glad for these dangers. In a world of safe books it is refreshing to see one that takes risks.

While it is not a perfect book, it is a compelling one. True to our twinned biographical history—mostly constructed in my head, for I doubt Mark has any particular thoughts about it—it is far better than the book I had sketched out about my experience as a Canadian ex-pat working and teaching in Japan. This may be one of the reasons that I gobbled this book down in greedy bites: though I’ve never been to Korea, I could identify with the changes that come over a person in immigrating to a new culture. You see things differently, and write new kinds of books.

My mother’s copy of Sad Peninsula is now my one. This is one the few things she left behind as she left this life. Cleaning her apartment in that other sad peninsula, Nova Scotia, I am glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and read this story. Sad Peninsula is an important book.

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“Between the Altar and the Stars: Science Fiction and Catholic Storytelling” by Stephen Kotowych

One of my favourite events to attend–and the talk I have perhaps most enjoyed giving–is our local Theology on Tap. Hosted in the taproom above an Irish pub in Charlottetown, we get a diverse perspective of Christian theology, sponsored by the St. Dunstan’s Institute for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the University of Prince Edward Island. One recent talk is particularly interesting to readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia. While targeted at Roman Catholic storytellers, the talk is an intelligent and humorous approach to faith and science fiction writing from someone who is at the cross-section of academia, publishing, and writing.

Stephen Kotowych is winner of the Writers of the Future Grand Prize, Spain’s Ictineu Award, and a two-time finalist for the Prix Aurora Award, Canada’s highest prize for Science Fiction. To find out more about Mr. Kotowych, visit his website, http://kotowych.com/. And do take enjoy this brilliant video below.

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Stephen King on the Supernatural

On Tuesday I spent time thinking about my Stickin’ Huge Awesome Novel Winter Awesome Read (SHANWAR) read for 2017, Stephen King’s The Stand. As the snows of winter pen me in, I want a big, long, great book that I can hold in my hands on the coldest of nights. The Stand fulfilled this role admirably and should be on everyone’s SHANWAR list. Moreover, I argued that Stephen King sits among the great writers, drawing from deep wells and playing with various kinds of books in his writing.

One of those genres—or cluster of genres—is supernatural fiction. I had promised some thoughts about Stephen King and the supernatural, and I wonder now if I may have over promised. This is a little bit about King as supernatural fiction writer, but also some thoughts about King’s characters and what his supernatural world might mean.

As I am not a fan of ghost stories, supernatural fiction is not a genre I know it all its depths. However, its more recent literary parent—Gothic literature—truly draws me in. A particular strain of the Gothic, the vampire story, is one that I know well. I’ve been caught since Matthew Lewis’ proto-vampire tale, The Monk (1796)—though I didn’t catch it when it first came out.

Vampire tales most often sit in one of two main kinds of worlds: the scientific or the supernatural. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is the model of the SciFi vampire tale, where there is a scientific or environmental—a material—reality underlying the vampirism. Though viral/plague vampire stories have waned as of late (zombie stories have fulfilled the role), religious language abounds in Bram Stoker through Anne Rice. This language is nearly gone by Charlene Harris’ Dead Until Dark books—no doubt influenced by the Buffyization of vampire tales. It may also be that Harris’ human rights framework of vampires as a virus victim may be a real construct (True Blood went that way; I just don’t know the whole series).

While vampire stories can often slide into those SciFi or supernatural camps, we often don’t know the origin stories and thus don’t know if it is a supernatural or SciFi tale. That’s part of the thrill, actually—not just the unknown, but the deeply rooted unknown of history that encounters our very thin and complicated present.

Tabitha King, Stephen King’s wife, once joked that if a vampire showed up in New York City it would get run down by a taxi. The narrator of Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum (1998) jokes that vampires should be super easy to spot and kill, given their penchant for vampiric fashion and a thousand ways to die. Yet vampires are surprisingly responsive to the modern world; the tools of technology won’t be enough to defeat them. Courage and community are needed to use the tools of today—and yesterday—to conquer the undead fiends. Just drive by the deserted town of ‘Salem’s Lot in rural Maine and you’ll see how hard they are to kill.

For we don’t know the root of King’s Eastern European immigrants that overtake ‘Salem’s Lot. In one sense, the vampires of ’Salem’s Lot (1975) act like viruses, playing themselves out when they get too strong and putting themselves in danger because the “body” they feed off of has begun to fight back against the invader. Yet their strength seems supernatural. Their origin is unknown.

This is the case for most of Stephen King’s engines of fantasy and terror. We don’t know the ultimate reason a character has telepathy, or why a house manifests its fears, or why machines take on life. The canon of fantastic writing is his library or story machinery. Thinking of The Stand’s villain, much of Randall Flagg’s origin lies also in the mist for most of his literary history.

I first encountered Randall Flagg as a child in The Eyes of the Dragon (1984). Flagg was a fairly typical medieval-style magician manipulating the king for his own evil ends. The psychological depth of the manipulation is unusual for this kind of court tale, but King’s best books are psychologically complex. As a magician, Flagg needed no origin story: sorcerer is the second oldest profession, after all. We might wonder where Merlin came from—son of an angel or demon, it is still up in the air—but no one questions the magic. Magic is in the veins of reality.

The case is more complex as Flagg reappears in The Stand—or pre-appears, as The Stand (1978) is older than my first childhood encounter. For all kinds of reasons, I am glad I didn’t read The Stand as a kid. Throughout the R.F. books—The Dark Tower series (1982-2013) and Hearts in Atlantis (1999)—Randall Flagg is a Dark Man, variously able to disappear into a crowd, infuse himself in the mind of a mob, take on the form of an animal, and travel through space and time in unaccountable ways. Randall Flagg (+ aliases) is an ageless wanderer, tall, thin, and hard. While the passage is a bit more Tell and not enough Show, this quotation from the Uncut (1990) version captures Flagg in The Stand:

There was a dark hilarity in his face, and perhaps in his heart, too, you would think—and you would be right. It was the face of a hatefully happy man, a face that radiated a horrible handsome warmth, a face to make water glasses shatter in the hands of tired truck-stop waitresses, to make small children crash their trikes into board fences and then run wailing to their mommies with stake-shaped splinters sticking out of their knees. It was a face guaranteed to make barroom arguments over batting averages turn bloody (214-5).

In The Stand, Flagg is a cowboy on the road, his army surplus jacket filled with tracts and pamphlets from every politically dynamic group of the 60s and 70s. Every crowd he enters turns to violence. Every war he joins falls from honour. Every time he makes love the woman discovers it is rape. Randall Flagg is a moral hustler in his unwavering commitment to evil. Every man he calls comes and serves in obedience.

And The Stand is, at heart, about calling. Flagg appears slowly on the scene; at first we do not know if he is a fantasy character or merely evil. Truthfully, in the U.S. in the 1980s it might have been hard to tell the difference. The first one-third of the book is simply the plague: the scientifically-generated death of 99.5% of humanity and the collapse of all cultures and social systems. As Stephen King is the master of the slow build, it is not until the plague has done its damage and its few survivors begin to blink in the morning sun of a new world that the fantastic elements begin to take shape.

While the Flagg character would suggest that it is a sorcerer’s world on the other side of the apocalypse, this is not what King creates for us. Randal Flagg is magical, but his magic is elemental in a way that is unique to this book. Flagg is able to work his way into the dreams of thousands of surviving Americans, drawing some to Las Vegas as a new home, and calling others to special service in his name. Those he lure invite he haunts—not nightmares but dark dreams of a faceless, ageless, placeless dark man, shrouded in shadow and emanating evil.

Randall Flagg is almost the perfect villain: the only fantastic character in a world of the mundane, nearly omniscient, able to manipulate dreams and nature and (maybe) even the elements. The community he sets up is completely unconquerable because they are ruthlessly committed to the task of snuffing anyone who is not them. There are no ethics to get in the way.

And who is there to stand up to Randall Flagg?

An old, black farmer, a great-great-grandmother of 107, dirt poor in a little country house and nearly starved to the bone, embarrassingly religious and a little batty. She does have a good sense of humour, but she also has a tendency to wander off. This is Mother Abagail, though all her children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are dead. Everyone, almost, is dead.

Perhaps I am exaggerating a little bit. On the good-guy side there is also a deaf-mute, a wild boy with dissociative disorder, an intellectually disabled street person, a washed-up pop singer with narcissistic tendencies, a pregnant teenage lit major, a sociology professor who never got full professor, his dog (Kojak, not Cujo), and a factory worker from Texas. At night, in the dreamlands, ancient Mother Abagail battles the ageless Randal Flagg and draws this beggarly crowd to Boulder, Colorado, to set up a resistance army without weapons.

What I find amazing about this set up is that despite the fact that there is not a single active Christian in the entire book—other than Mother Abagail, and we only have a few paragraphs of her in the flesh—The Stand is one of the most biblically-infused contemporary novels I have read. King’s fantasy engine in The Stand is built upon the following principles:

  • Sin has its consequences (Numbers 32:23; Proverbs 13:6; Roman 6:23), though real love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8)
  • God has chosen the foolish of the world to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27)
  • The least will be the greatest, and the greatest shall become the least (Matthew 19:30; 23:11)
  • Despite choosing the “good” side, the characters only see through a glass darkly, struggling their way almost blindly toward the good (1 Corinthians 13:12)
  • Self-sacrifice is at the heart of human experience (1 Peter 2:18-25; Isaiah 53; John 15:13)
  • They are called to take nothing for their great quest except the clothes on their back (Matthew 10:10)
  • Despite much evidence to the contrary, God is over all and in all (Psalm 103:19), for “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28)
  • And, at its depths, even in the midst of post-apocalyptic civil war against a monomaniacal genius with every weapon of earth and sky at his disposal, our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12)

Actually, it is worth quoting that entire passage:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12, ESV).

This is what The Stand is all about.

It is also worth mentioning that a reader of Tuesday’s post noted that the film of The Stand—which I haven’t seen, unfortunately—captures Randall Flagg as a demon who “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14, though the cosmology isn’t perfect). I don’t see this as much in the book, but Flagg does inspire loyalty as well as fear. Another reader noted that King’s characters remind us of the presence of evil in the world. Too true.

I do not know if the principle of Matthew 16:18 continues in the world after The Stand—that even the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church, but always a remnant will remain. However, this “horror” book by pop culture genius Stephen King is not just full of Bible ideas, but principally founded upon central biblical concepts. In the end, evil collapses in on itself and the servants of Mother Abagail look like Jesus submitting to the cross as they take their final stand against the Dark Man.

While I am tempted to ask why contemporary Christians are not able to write with this kind of biblical depth—I think it comes down to the depth and risk I talked about on Tuesday—I am intrigued by the fact that as spiritual director of American readers, King is very much like the followers of Mother Abagail in The Stand. The characters keep trying to do good, and often succeeding, without any clear idea of how to do so. God has the final say, and it is necessary and terrifying and beautiful and not a little troubling. In The Stand, God is the god of the machine.

All of this makes this kind of supernatural machinery terribly interesting. Is this a result of the power of the layering of Christianity into the American mythic framework? Will that mythic ability disappear as that layering becomes thinner and thinner? Is Stephen King doing something here, trying to inspire or root out questions of faith? Is King just curious about how to think about God in fiction? Is he perhaps asking the question of whether God would let humans destroy themselves, and would God show up if they did? Or, as a friend of mine put it, is Stephen King close to the kingdom of God?

I don’t know, but this is a book worth reading for all the complex religious and mythic questions that emerge in the best of other supernatural fiction, whether it is the novels of Charles Williams, the SciFi of C.S. Lewis, the early dystopian writers, vampire fiction, or King’s other dances macabre. I would also encourage writers who have something to say—environmental writers, feminists, people trying to buoy literacy or culture, and, please God, Christian fiction writers—to spend some time in The Stand. Perhaps Stephen King did it by accident, but it is a brilliant book.

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Stephen King and the Genre of Genius

This year for my Stickin’ Huge Awesome Novel Winter Awesome Read (SHANWAR), I chose Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) I have never read it before and I don’t think I have ever had a conversation with someone about it. Still, it has hovered in my peripheral vision for a while. As this winter I had a period of cyclical colds and flu symptoms that slayed me in apocalyptic fashion, I thought it was time to pick up The Stand. At the very least, if I survived my illness, I would be better prepared for the world after the Plague.

The Stand is definitely worth the time. Today I want to spend some time thinking about genre; on Thursday I want to think a bit about the supernatural elements in the book.

Readers unfamiliar with Stephen King seem to want to sweep away his work with a single word: horror. I just don’t think this genre identification does justice to the great diversity of material he has produced.

King is a horror writer, and has shaped and reshaped that genre over an entire generation. Just going by the few books I know, Carrie (1974), IT (1986), and Misery (1987) are all horror, but with radically different premises and engines of terror. Spanning across the dozens of lesser known works, the Maine stories often have a horror or thriller context to them. Yet, even in these pieces, like The Dark Half (1989) or Needful Things (1991), it is the psychological haunting that stands out. And when you look at this group of books as a whole, none fit the slasher genre of horror that pops into people’s minds.

We can see that from the very beginning of his mainstream speculative, King tugs at the edge of the horror genre. Carrie (1974) is an epistolary tale, a collection of pieces of evidence about the strange case of a victim of spiritual abuse. ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) has horror elements because of its main villains, but it is a pretty standard slug-it-out vampire tale. It is mostly important because of King’s keen sense of human nature and local context, and because this kind of vampire tale becomes more common after it was joined by Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire in 1976.

Then we have The Shining (1977). It is a terrifying story, but where does the horror lie? In the end, it is a standard, though brilliant, haunted house tale, with the critical twist that the horror sits within the chest of man as much as it does in the evil that haunts without. In Stephen King’s most famous haunted house tale, the main characters bring the horror with them to the house of horrors.

Which brings us to Randall Flagg, the Dark Man of The Stand. Flagg is a brilliant character that plays on the edges of supernatural, spiritual, and mythic origins. We’ll turn to his character on Thursday, but consider for a moment the fact that Randall Flagg is featured not just in the apocalyptic supernatural thriller, The Stand, but also in The Eyes of the Dragon (court adventure tale for children, 1976), The Dark Tower Cycle (a “gunslinger” quest with diverse fantastic elements, 1982-2012), and Hearts in Atlantis (what Charles de Lint calls “the Great American Baby Boomer Novel,” 1999).

It is a stunning diversity of genres partially anchored by a single figure.

A scan at Stephen King’s CV will show that he is entirely comfortable with spinning out in new directions. Dolores Claiborne (1992) sits outside the horror pack as a kind of deconstructed sleuth book, and The Tommyknockers (1987) is pretty standard SciFi. The Green Mile (1996) diverges again from horror, and I think is an essential supernatural tale of the post-Christian world. I have not read 11/22/63 yet, but it is a radically different kind of story than Pet Sematary (1983)—a book I probably should not have picked up as a fourteen-year-old who just buried his baby brother.

And we must remember that this is the same author that wrote the novellas behind the brilliant films Stand by Me (1986) and The Shawshank Redemption (1996)—neither of which is in the horror genre and each exploring themes of mortality and identity in sophisticated ways.

There is no sense speculating as to why Stephen King still gets typecast as “merely” a horror writer. It is valuable, though, to think about his capacity in writing such diverse works of speculative fiction.

Many Great Writers Play with Genre

This is a difficult claim to make of the deep past because the genres of literature were fairly tight until pretty recently. However, if we think of the diversity of works from Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, or Voltaire, we can see how genius tugs at the edges of possibility. If you will forgive the narrowness of my choices, we see that this kind of genre-bending genius carries over into the modern world.

Any reader familiar with the breadth of J.R.R Tolkien’s work will marvel at how there is a cohesive whole that spans across lyric and narrative poetry, translation, essay-writing and lectures, epic, myth, legend, fictional history, and romance—a unity that exists not just in the Legendarium but in his non-Middle Earth works as well.

C.S. Lewis, too, had a bibliography that was as wide as it was deep. Even his most well-known works span children’s fairy tale and Christian apologetics, but that is only part of the tale. He was a literary critic, literary historian, amateur philologist, cultural critic, editorialist, lecturer, mythmaker, poet, fantasist, early SF writer, editor, commentator, controversialist, memoir writer, devotional author, and (we discover recently) war propagandist. Those who only know Narnia and Mere Christianity only have a smidgeon of the possible.

We see this breadth in authors like G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, H.G. Wells, Roald Dahl, E.B. White, George Orwell, Anne Rice, Neil Gaiman, George MacDonald, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Margaret Atwood. Even highly focussed geniuses like Jane Austen or L.M. Montgomery betray a playfulness with the novel genre. Stephen King is in the company of great authors who are reflexive in the creative process, finding the right form for the story they are trying to tell.

Great Writers Read Broadly

Part of King’s literary breadth comes from the fact that he reads broadly—a point he drives home in his brilliant part-bio/part-guide On Writing (2001). Reading the echoes in his novels and the books he mentions in On Writing and interviews, we know that King didn’t just Richard Matheson, Bram Stoker, and H.P. Lovecraft—and even there, these are authors who produce a diverse corpus (even Stoker: in 1879 he wrote a book called The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland—how terrifyingly non-vampirical). In his formative period, King read broadly in classic literature, modern novels, fantasy, and early science fiction. Stephen King was the graduate of an English program that heavily featured poetry, and could probably have been a good literary critic if he didn’t swear so much.

This reading is supplemented by a voracious appetite for great (and awful) film and a love of golden-era rock music. Reading deeply in a large variety of types of literature has given King the ability to express a relatively core voice in a vast number of ways. King’s encouragement to writers in On Writing is to expand their reading. Here is how he puts it:

I usually listen to [a book] in the car (always unabridged; I think abridged audiobooks are the pits), and carry another wherever I go. You just never know when you’ll want an escape hatch: mile-long lines at tollbooth plazas, the fifteen minutes you have to spend in the hall of some boring college building waiting for your advisor (who’s got some yank-off in there threatening to commit suicide because he/she is flunking Custom Kurmfurling 101) to come out so you can get his signature on a drop-card, airport boarding lounges, laundromats on rainy afternoons, and the absolute worst, which is the doctor’s office when the guy is running late and you have to wait half an hour in order to have something sensitive mauled. At such times I find a book vital. If I have to spend time in purgatory before going to one place or the other, I guess I’ll be all right as long as there’s a lending library (if there is it’s probably stocked with nothing but novels by Danielle Steel and Chicken Soup books, ha-ha, joke’s on you, Steve).

Great Writers Ignore the Naysayers

Stephen King has had his naysayers. Our über-critical friend, Harold Bloom, responded to Stephen King’s National Book Award lifetime achievement honour (the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters) with these words:

The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution” to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.

You should see what Bloom goes on to say about J.K. Rowling! Bloom is just one of the most highly credentialed of critics to write King off as popular fluff. The re-emergence of the term “speculative fiction” is partly a way of adapting genre fiction into the literary fiction world. No small part of this is because of greats like Margaret Atwood who have avoided terms like “science fiction” and “fantasy,” even though must of her work fits in those genre categories.

While “speculative fiction” is the truly best description of the wide variety of stories he tells, Stephen King has embraced the label of a horror hack. The result is that he has lived on a kind of popular fiction side road. Until his On Writing he typically had to buy tickets for literary events, while the “real authors” received gilded invitations.

Perhaps this outsiderness has sometimes gotten to King. When I see a quotation like the following, I wonder if this has sometimes had an effect on his self-conception:

King aimed to “…build a bridge between wide popularity and a critical acceptance. But my taste is too low, there is a broad streak of the i, not the ‘vulgar,’ in my stuff. But that is the limitation of my background, and one of my limitations as a writer. I’ve got a lot of great things out of a small amount of talent.”

In the end, though, Stephen King has kept writing genre-busting stories out of the great depth of reading that has fed his wonderfully perverse imagination. His productivity is testament to the fact that he has ignored the haters, read deeply and broadly, and entered the diverse generic hallways of the great writers before him.

Genre-wise, The Stand is post-apocalyptic science fiction with an entirely supernatural construct. Crazily, the supernatural construct does not appear until more than 150,000 words are read. It is one of King’s longest books, and fans scrambled to get the original text of 450,000+ words when it was released as the “uncut” version in 1990. King was made for SHANWAR, and I am so grateful The Stand was my choice for this year.

Few have the skill build worlds like Stephen King, and it is the oft-unrecognized spiritual nature of his fiction that I want to turn to on Thursday.

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Introducing Why Read Lewis with William O’Flaherty (Friday Feature)

William O’Flaherty is introducing a new occasional podcast series designed to encourage you to read books that C.S. Lewis wrote (or edited). Even those who have read a variety of works by him are surprised to learn he wrote more than forty books during his lifetime. Additionally, there are numerous books (mostly essay collections) created after his death. As you are likely aware, Lewis wrote in a variety of styles or genres. How many have you read? This new podcast feature will focus on a single work by Lewis with between three to five individuals sharing thoughts about it. However, because this episode introduces the series, William has included comments on six different titles (as noted in the picture). Dr. Michael Ward, Prof. Sørina Higgins, Dr. Crystal Hurd, Dr. Jerry Root, Mark Neal, and I share in this introductory show.

Check out the podcast by clicking here, and broaden your reading experience.


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Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time

As brilliant as lovers of Middle Earth recognize that it is, there are few books as daunting as The Silmarillion. It is a dense and complex text of genealogies, places, and characters, each woven together with multiple names in multiple languages and tucked into mythic threads that go out in various directions. I was slain by the text a couple of times before I finally conquered it. At only 130,000 words, I marvel at the edition that Tolkien must have had in mind when he told publishers it would be 400,000-600,000 words!

Readers who closed the cover of The Lord of the Rings and turned to The Silmarillion for more of Middle Earth are often quite surprised. Sometimes the first few pages of text is just too much.

Yet, despite its challenges, it is a rich reading experience for those who stick with it. Not only does The Silmarillion fill in the great mythic background behind LOTR and The Hobbit, but it is filled with compelling stories of beauty, longing, love and loss, great adventure, and heroes as they grapple with the meaning of mortality. And, more than anything else, J.R.R. Tolkien saw The Silmarillion as an integral part of his Legendarium. Finding a way to access the text puts us in fellowship with the man behind Middle Earth.

I’ve decided to compile some tips for those that want to read The Silmarillion. Until someone takes up my call for a Silmarillion Talmud, following one or another of these tips can open up a whole new experience of reading for Tolkien lovers.

I. Read the Books before Middle Earth

Among the difficulties of reading The Silmarillion, one of the key ones is that the language is so strange. It is evocative, calling us to greater appreciation of its breadth and grandeur. But there are many genres set within an archaic text and filled with difficult names and strange places. One of the ways that can strengthen our ability to enjoy The Silmarillion is to read the books that Tolkien loved and that played some part in forming the Legendarium.

There are several ways to do this. Douglas A. Anderson has an excellent book called Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy. It includes 22 short stories from late 19th and early 20th century authors who play with fantastic literature before the age that will be transformed by Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. It includes authors like H. Rider Haggard, E. Nesbit, David Lindsay, Andrew Lang, George MacDonald, and William Morris.

Beyond Doug’s book, those latter three authors are particularly important. The richness of Andrew Lang’s twelve coloured book collection of fairy stories–perhaps the red and blue books are most important–is evident in Tolkien’s lecture, “On Fairy-stories,” which he gave in honour of Andrew Lang. George MacDonald is another wealth of storytelling in the fairy tale genre, and Tolkien himself notes that William Morris’s stories like The Well at the World’s End were an important influence in terms of language development, adventure, and imaginative scope.

The influences are perhaps unending, but I would roughly put them into these categories:

  1. Early Fantasy and Fairy Tales: See The Tales Before Tolkien, plus Lang, Morris, MacDonald, Jonathan Swift, Grimm, and other speculative authors you love. E.R. Eddison’ The Worm Ouroboros was a particularly important book, as well as Lord Dunsany’s work.
  2. Arthuriana: Tolkien spent a good part of his life reading and working in Arthurian literature, including his own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. There are great knew translations of the older tales that exist, including Tolkien’s own incomplete Fall of Arthur.
  3. Nordic Literature: This is a vast library, but books like The Song of the Nibelungs, The Poetic Edda (or Elder Edda), and The Volsungs help us appreciate Tolkien’s love of Northernness and the root of some of his language development. There are new translations of many of these pieces, including an excellent Poetic Edda by Jeramy Dodds (see my review here). You may even want to try Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, which I enjoyed on audiobook.
  4. England’s Tales: Although Tolkien lamented the lack of “myth” in England–most of the tales are borrowed, including the Arthurian ones which are first in French–there is no doubt that Beowulf was a critical text for Middle Earth. Tolkien’s own translation is now available, but reading anthologies of Old English poetry will draw you into the imaginative landscapes that Tolkien loved and spent much of his scholarship developing an appreciation for.

These background tales are now becoming so important that The Royal Mint and Penguin have each developed beautifully designed books to prepare readers for Middle Earth.

II. Don’t Begin at the Beginning

I remember the first time I picked up the Bible. It was a King James version someone gave to me with the hope that I would somehow hault the downward path of perilous self-destruction I was on. The strange language and evocative opening words of Genesis drew me in, but within a few lines I was lost. The Silmarillion begins in the same kind of way with “Ainulindale” and “Valequenta,” a series of complex creation myths that flood over into the first couple of chapters of the “Quenta Silmarillion,” the core text of the book. If you go to the average bookshelf and pull down The Silmarillion, you are likely to find a folded down corner within the first forty pages or so, an indication that someone picked up the book and got lost in the mythic material.

But why must we begin at the beginning? Here are some alternative ways to read The Silmarillion.

  1. Begin at Chapter 3: It sounds strange, but beginning at chapter 3 gets the reader right into the adventure of the elves and heroes of Middle Earth. Once the story of Middle Earth’s origins is in play, the reader can the go back to fill in the mythic material.
  2. The Tale of Beren and Lúthien: As I said in this post, I don’t think I have ever read anything better than the tale of Beren and Lúthien. It is a gorgeous sad tale of fidelity, courage, and the great deeds of the heroes and heroines of the past. It is also a great way to get a sense of the storytelling in The Silmarillion.
  3. “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”: While many Tolkien lovers detest Peter Jackson’s films, it was the prologue to the first film that had me hooked immediately. I don’t think I am alone. Yet readers looking for this story in The Silmarillion will only find it at the end of the tale, in the section called “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”. If you love it, why not begin there?

III. The Silmarillion as Read-Along Book

Audiobooks are one of the fastest growing segments of the book world. While this can have a downside, think back to your earliest experiences of reading. For most of us, this was lap-reading, snuggling in to the warmth and comfort of someone we love and listening to a trusted voice read words on that page that are still black scribbles to us. We did not know all the words but we trusted the reading experience. As a result, our trust in the reader filled in the blanks in the story. Rereading those stories later when the black scribbles were words was a great delight.

While the deep and overly-dramatic voice of Martin Shaw is not the same as a warm lap and a homemade blanket, audiobook reading can bring new depth to the experience. I prefer to use audiobooks to reread rather than read the first time, but the audio can accentuate our first time in the text. Open up the book and turn on the audio. While narrators are going to be much slower than our silent reading would be, the professional reader never gets distracted. He will keep our eyes on the page, keep us moving forward.

There are snatches of Martin Shaw’s Silmarillion text on the web, and you can purchase it from iTunes and Audible (though not in Canada). There is also a German version by Achim Höppner on Audible, and you will find some fan readings here and there within the internet of the Fourth Age.

IV. The Bible for Tolkien Geeks

This is what a friend of mine called The Silmarillion: the Bible for Tolkien geeks. It is an astute observation, I think. Like the Bible, The Silmarillion includes genres like myth, legend, history, genealogy, prophecy, and poetry. It is a text of texts from another culture based in other languages, but a text that is meant to inform not just the past but the present. Like the Bible, it better reread than read.

Unfortunately, like the Bible, we know that the discipline of reading a challenging text will pay off, but it is hard sometimes to stay motivated. So, like the Bible, perhaps we should bend our will to the task.

For anyone who has finally set up a schedule of Bible reading–or a diet regime, exercise program, meditation schedule, or a commitment to secretly bless someone on a daily basis–in the end it will take rugged determination, a ruthless attention to organization and habit, the support of loved ones, and a whole lot of grace and self-forgiveness along the way. Here are some tips to get into The Silmarillion the way we get into any hard good thing:

  1. Bedside Friend: Have your copy of The Silmarillion at the bedside, reading a section (1-4 pages) each night before turning to your favourite novel.
  2. Daily Habit: With eBook readers and phone apps–not to mention mass market paperbacks–reading is portable. Perhaps taking your 15-minute break at work to enjoy a coffee and a few pages of Tolkien is the kind of daily habit that would work. The weekend might break this up, but if you are sharp on Monday the habit will soon be easy to you.
  3. Accountability Partners: Anyone who has done something difficult will know how embarrassing it is to fail. That is why we anticipate that experience by inviting others to hold us accountable to our tasks. Do you have someone you can trust to ask you the hard question: Have you picked up your Silmarillion today? If so, enlist him or her to hold your feet to the flame.
  4. Reading Challenges: Take that concept of accountability to a new level by making The Silmarillion part of your Goodreads challenge. Even better, announce on your blog or Facebook page that you are going to read The Silmarillion, through hell or high water–or, more likely, too many emails and dishes that need to get done. If you are a step counter or run your books on Excel sheets, a reading challenge could help you (not that I know anyone like that).
  5. Suffer With Others: Why not set up a reading group in your local community–online or in real life? There is no need to suffer alone. And when it comes together or you are puzzled, there is someone else to talk about it with you.

V. Read with Resources

There are a tonne of resources to support your reading of The Silmarillion. Here are just a few:

  1. Appendices: Make sure you take advantage of the family trees, pronunciation guides, Elven dictionaries, and maps that are part of your copy. I have been looking for a second copy at yard sales and thrift stories so I don’t have to flip back and forth, but they are there for you.
  2. The Greatness of Tolkien Nerds: I won’t take time to link all the possible resources that exist online, lovingly created by people who have been captivated by the Mythmaker’s work. The ones I have found most helpful are the Tolkien Gateway and the LOTR Project–the former for basic information including histories and kin connections, and the latter for its interactive maps, timelines, and cool apps. Beyond that, becoming a member of the Tolkien Society opens you up to a wealth of resources.
  3. Higher Education: While some schools are still closed to the idea that fantastic literature is worthy of exploration, you may find a Tolkien class at your local college. Beyond that, I want to suggest Signum University as a key resource. J.R.R. Tolkien is part of its regular curriculum–including a class this summer by Tom Shippey and Corey Olsen (the Tolkien Prof podcaster) called “Beyond Middle Earth.” Dr. Olsen, President at SignumU, believe it or not has done lectures on every section of The Silmarillion and given them away for free here (the mp3s work, I believe). Signum’s MA in Imaginative Literature has a Tolkien track and is open to thesis projects in The Silmarillion.

These are just a few tips that might help the reader who is ready for The Silmarillion. What about you? What has helped you finally get into the great texts behind texts like The Silmarillion? Please tell us in the comments below or by sharing this post on Twitter or Facebook.

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