To celebrate Tolkien’s twelfthty-sixth birthday on 3 January 2017, the Tolkien Society is once again raising a toast to the Professor. After Bilbo left the Shire on his eleventy-first birthday in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo toasted his uncle’s birthday each year. Tolkien fans continue the tradition for the maker of Middle-earth on this day. J.R.R. Tolkien was born in South Africa on 3 January 1892, making this (if he had Hobbit longevity), his 126th. The Tolkien Society invites you to celebrate the birthday by raising a glass at 9pm your local time, simply toasting “The Professor!”
If you go to the Tolkien Society site, there are a number of Tolkien gatherings listed for today. You can also use the Twitter hashtag, #TolkienBirthdayToast for a little social media cheer.
In honour of Tolkien’s birthday, I decided to update the catalogue of Tolkien posts featured here on A Pilgrim in Narnia. There were a dozen new Tolkien related posts in 2017 as I continued to work through the Letters, reread the Trilogy, read The Silmarillion, and enjoy a lot of the pre-Middle-earth material and old legends. I hope you enjoy the great selection of guest bloggers and feature posts, filling out your Tolkien reading and inspiring you to widen and deepen your Tolkienaphilia.
Tolkien’s work is rich with reflection on the world around us. In posts like “Let Folly Be Our Cloak: Power in the Lord of the Rings” and “Affirming Creation in LOTR,” I explore themes related to ideas that are central to Tolkien’s beliefs. The latter idea, creation and good things green, is covered also with Samwise Gamgee here and with Radagast the Brown here. One that resonates long after reading is the theme of Providence, which I explore in “Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark.”
One surprising connection was “Simone de Beauvoir and the Keyspring of the Lord of the Rings“–a pairing that many would find unusual and includes some great old footage. Guest blogger Trish Lambert rounded out the discussion with “Friendship Over Family in Lord of the The Rings.” Author Tim Willard talks about “Eucatastrophe: J.R.R Tolkien & C.S. Lewis’s Magic Formula for Hope.” And you can follow Stephen Winter’s LOTR thought project here.
Perhaps Tolkien’s most central contribution beyond the storied world is his idea of subcreation in the poem, “Mythopoeia” and in other works like the essay, “On Fairy-stories” and the allegorical short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” I have been reading a lot about this concept–partly because of students working on the idea–and appreicated poet-philosopher Malcolm Guite’s take on it here.
My most important contribution, I think, is my Theology on Tap talk, called “A Hobbit’s Theology.” It is one of the ideas I am struggling with most specifically in my academic work. And one of the more popular posts this year was a very personal one, “Battling a Mountain of Neglect with J.R.R. Tolkien.” Though I am still not sure if I should have written that post, it has connected with readers.
Tolkien as Writer
I remain fascinated by Tolkien’s development as an author, and spent some time of late exploring the theme. The most popular of pieces I wrote was the coyly titled, “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings.” The reason is, of course, not all that shocking, but could be helpful for the subcreators amongst us. Two more substantial posts on the topic are “12 Reasons not to Write Lord of the Rings, or an Ode Against the Muses” and “The Stories before the Hobbit: Tolkien Intertextuality, or the Sources behind his Diamond Waistcoat.”
C.S. Lewis took an interest as well in Tolkien’s formation (see “Book Reviews” below). You can read more about it in Diana Pavlac Glyer’s Bandersnatch, and in this blog post, “‘So Multifarious and So True’: The C.S. Lewis Blurb for the Fellowship of the Ring.” Lewis’ support for Tolkien did not go unrewarded. Besides the great joy of Tolkien’s work, there was a time when Tolkien interceded a time or two on Lewis’ behalf. Friendship goes both ways. Tolkien historian John Garth takes some time to explore this literary friendship further in his detailed explanation of “When Tolkien reinvented Atlantis and Lewis went to Mars.”
Tolkien’s letters remain a rich resource for researchers that is available to everyday readers–and usually available used for a pretty cheap price. In these letters I discovered the tidbits on writing above, and notes like “The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life.” But it goes much deeper. In “The Tolkien Letter that Every Lover of Middle-Earth Must Read,” I include much of a draft that Tolkien wrote to a Mrs. Mitchison that fills in much of the background to Middle-earth. I also took the time to put Tolkien’s great “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)” quotation in context.
The letters afforded me some time to think about some other ideas. In a longer popular post that any conlanger will know is poorly named–“Why Tolkien Thought Fake Languages Fail“–I discussed Tolkien’s own constructed language program and surmised with the Professor that conlangs fail when the lack a mythic element. I think I am mostly correct and the essay is quite fun, even if I am missing some key elements.
Finally, a little fun with the post, “When Sam Gamgee Wrote to J.R.R. Tolkien.” As you might guess, it is about a real-life Sam Gamgee who sends a note to the maker of Middle-earth. And, of course, when the season of advent returns, check out the Father Christmas Letters.
The Silmarillion Project
This is a new feature for me, partly because 2017 was the year I completed The Silmarillion in its entirety in a single reading (rather than the higgledy-piggledy approach of cherry-picking stories and languishing in the mythic portions, as I am wont to do). I thought I would take advantage of my status as a Silm-struggler to offer suggestions and resources to people looking to extend their reading of the Legendarium.
In “Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time” I made a handful of suggestions for readers intending to read this peculiar book for the first time. If you are a fellow Silm-struggler, I hope this helps you get a fuller experience of a beautiful collection of texts. That experience inspired me to write “A Call for a Silmarillion Talmud,” an unusual post for Tolkienists with more creative and technological skills to consider.
Finally, I had to write as a fan and as a scholar together in considering the cycle of Lúthien and Beren. In “Of Beren and Lúthien, Of Myth and the Worlds We Love” I talk about my love of the story and its links to the Legendarium while noting my hope for the 2017 release of the Beren and Lúthien materials and sharing some Silmarillion inspired artwork.
When the teaser trailer of the third film, The Battle of Five Armies, was released, I wrote “Faint Hope for The Hobbit.” Although it is clear in the trailers that this is a war and intrigue film, I still had some hope I would enjoy it. The huge comment section shows in that post shows that not everyone agreed it was possible!
My review of An Unexpected Journey captures the tug back and forth I feel about the films. I called it, “Not All Adventures Begin Well,” and it is a much more positive review than many of the hardcore Tolkien fans or academics. And it gives this cool dwarf picture:
“What Have We Done?” These words are breathed in the dying moments of the second installation of The Hobbit adaptation, The Desolation of Smaug. In this review I think about what it means to do film adaptations. While I do not hate this Hobbit trilogy, I think that Peter Jackson just got lost a bit.
When I finally got to The Battle of 5 Armies, I decided it would be fun to do a Battle of 5 Blogs. 5 other bloggers joined it, making it a Battle of 6 Blogs! But the armies are pretty tough to count anyhow. I titled my blog, “The Hobbit as Living Text.” It was a controversial approach to the film, I know. Make sure you check out the other reviewers link here. Some of us chatted about the films in an All About Jack Podcast, which you can hear here and here.
While these aren’t substantial reviews, I featured two indie films: a documentary on Tolkien’s Great War, and a fictional biopic recreating Tolkien’s invention of Middle Earth called Tolkien’s Road—both inspired, perhaps, by John Garth’s work.
There was no greater friend of The Hobbit in the early days than C.S. Lewis. In “The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends,” I talk about how, if it wasn’t for Lewis, Tolkien may never have finished The Hobbit, and the entire Lord of the Rings legendarium would be in an Oxford archive somewhere. Lewis not only encouraged the book to completion, but reviewed The Hobbit a few times. Here is his review in The Times Literary Supplement.
Lewis is not the only significant reviewer of The Hobbit. When he was 8, my son Nicolas published his review, just as the first film was coming to the end of its run. When I was posting Nicolas’ review, I came across another young fellow–the son of Stanley Unwin, the first publisher to receive the remarkable manuscript of The Hobbit. Unsure how children would respond, he paid his son, Rayner, to write a response to the book. You can read about it here: “The Youngest Reviewers Get it Right, or The Hobbit in the Hands of Young Men.”
The Read-Aloud Hobbit
One of my first digital exchanges was participating in The Hobbit Read Along–you can still see the great collection of posts online. As I was doing this shared project, I was reading The Hobbit to my 7 3/4-year-old son. It was a great experience, but I made the mistake of doing accents to distinguish characters early on in the book. That’s fine when you’ve got oafish trolls or prim little hobbits. But a baker’s dozen of dwarfs stretched my abilities! You can read about my reading aloud adventures here.
In reading aloud I was really struck by the theme of providence in The Hobbit. I’m sure others have talked about it, but “Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (Chapter 5)” is a great example of that hand of guidance behind the scenes.
Hobbit and Art
I am fascinated by Tolkien’s own artwork. In some of the Tolkien letters we find out how his humble drawings came to be published with the children’s tale. I decided, though, that I wanted to explore it a little more, and so I wrote, “Drawing the Hobbit.”
There have been many other illustrators since–including Peter Jackson, whose work as a whole is visually stunning, even for those who don’t feel he was true to the books. One of my favourites was captured in this reblog, “Russian Medievalist Tolkien“–a gorgeous collection of Sergey Yuhimov’s interpretation of The Hobbit.
With the great new editions of unpublished Tolkien by his son, we also get to see some of Tolkien’s original art. I continue to be fascinated by this dragon drawing. What an evocation of the Würme in medieval literature!
I would like to spend more time thinking about the speculative universes of J.R.R Tolkien. Meanwhile, I would encourage you to read Jubilare’s reblog of the Khazâd series. It’s just the first of a great series, but shows you a bit of the depth of Tolkien’s world behind the world. In reading up on the Wizards of Middle Earth–the Brown, the White, the Grey, and the two Blues–it struck me how relevant Radagast the Brown is to us today. I take some time here to put a comment that Lewis made about Tolkien’s work in the context of other speculative writers, especially J.K. Rowling.
You can also check out the work of people like the Tolkienist, the links on the Tolkien Transactions to catch what kinds of conversations are about these days, or the academic work of people like David Russell Mosley. And, of course, we are all interested in Tolkien’s work on Beowulf. I read it last year for the free SignumU three-lecture class with Tom Shippey, which is now free on the SignumU youtube channel.
And Just For Fun….
Because I can, and because some things are entirely meaningless, I will leave you with a quiz: What Character in the Hobbit Are You? You will not be surprised that I am Thorin Oakenshield! The LOTR Project is a great online source for all kinds of Tolkien geekery, by the way. The LOTR Project has some great connections to Sparrow Alden’s “Words That You Were Saying” digital humanities project.