A Call for a Silmarillion Talmud

Though we live in a digital age, we are sometimes artificially constrained by older technologies. Like modern cars and trains that are largely designed according to the size of Roman cart paths, our reading is still shaped by a time when scrolls were the containers of words. Though we can flip through a book that falls open on our laps, we still approach reading very much like the unrolling of a scroll: as lines that emerge one after the other, from beginning to end.

There is something to be said about the linearity of books. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. And although some great pieces play with time, the only nonlinear stories I have loved could still be plotted on a timeline, living life as humans do.

But not all stories are a single story. To read the Bible cover to cover the first time you pick it up would be a strange experience in a post-Christian culture. Anthologies, poetry collections, and the providential scraps we find in archives often lack that A to Z space-time linearity. Series like Discworld or Narnia have different kinds of internal logic and can be read in chronological order, the order of composition, or according to cycles of characters and tales found within the series. Not all stories are a single story.

The Silmarillion is one of these books that is not a single story. The Silmarillion we have is not all the Silmarillion that exists, and in some cases–due to editorial necessity–has more than the original Silmarillion drafts had. It is an edited text, drawn from a living collection of texts, artificially sealed in time and compiled so that lovers of Middle Earth can find their way to the Legendarium behind The Lord of the Rings. It is not one text, but many texts, the many stories of many peoples from many lands and languages.

The Silmarillion is broadly chronological in the way that the Bible and Narnia are chronological, moving from genesis to the fall of sentient creatures, through the heartache and great deeds of its heroes to the dawn of a new age. But, like these, The Silmarillion has a number of genres within it and spans great ages. And, like the Bible at least, The Silmarillion is better reread than read, offering great challenges to the uninitiated and great obstacles to emerging readers who are not familiar with this kind of literature.

Perhaps one of the unnecessary challenges to reading The Silmarillion is the linear nature of the task. What if we thought about technology and reading in a new way to create a new kind of reading experience of Tolkien’s great work?

If I can summarize the challenges of reading The Silmarillion, they are these:

  • an archaic style, especially in the mythic and dialogue portions
  • complex geographies that cover multiple ages and includes lands that cannot be mapped
  • an intense interest in languages, which are not always translated and can be difficult to pronounce (and thus hard to remember)
  • a large number of critical characters, many of whom have multiple names
  • names that have an internal linguistic and cultural logic but are also chosen because they are beautiful (euphonic, or phonaesthetic), with the result that the names of kin often sound similar and blur in the mind
  • myths, epics, sagas, and tales strewn across a grand timeline that is not always evident in the text itself

The only way to conquer the first point is by spending time reading Tolkien and authors that influenced him–Arthurian tales, Nordic sagas and medieval poetry, and authors like William Morris. The other points, however, have been anticipated (except one) by Christopher Tolkien as he edited The Silmarillion. My text has an index of names, basic family trees, some maps, a pronunciation guide, and some elements in Elven languages that occur again and again. The only thing it is missing is a timeline, which you can find easily enough online. The editor, though, is attuned to the challenges that come for virgin readers.

However, even with this dandy text, this is not a perfect way to read. I only own one copy of The Silmarillion, so flipping back and forth between the text and the appendices is challenging. And, honestly, the maps on a paperback page are not very good at all. I can open up my Sibley-Howe map of Middle Earth, but it only covers a part of the whole Legendarium. Far better are the online resources, where the LOTR Project and other websites have gathered maps, chronologies, genealogies, languages, and text linkages together for the reader.

This means, however, that if I am going to truly read The Silmarillion and try to make all the links possible, I have to supplement the paper book either with a big paper map open and my phone app, or at my computer desk with multiple screens. Honestly, that’s a difficult way to read with a paper copy open.

Yet, the technology exists for a heightened reading of The Silmarillion, and history provides with a great model of how to do that.

Let’s begin in history.

The ancient Jews are a remarkable people. An oppressed confederacy of small tribes, as exiles under the brutal dominion of some of the greatest empires of history, they managed to collect together one of the most remarkable collections ever known. With the possible exception of Luke and Acts, the entire Bible is written by Jews, and that book is just a part of their religious literary legacy.

While the story is more complex than I am making it sound, a critical moment in Jewish history was when the Roman hammer fell on Jerusalem. Various Jewish political forces united to throw off the Roman yoke in 66 CE. By 70 CE, Jerusalem was sacked, the Temple was razed to the ground, and 10% of Judea’s people were lost (as seen in the Arch of Titus above). Though a second rebellion was attempted in 132-5 CE, even after the first Jewish war, the people knew that Jews would never have the same relationship with Rome again.

We do not know the whole story, but we do know that something happened in the first few years after that war that sealed in the Jewish understanding of Scriptures. Called by historians the Council of Jamnia, a number of rabbis are believed to have retreated from Jerusalem to set the text of the Hebrew Bible–the same text that makes up the Christian Old Testament. In the cultural pressures and persecutions of the next century, Jewish leaders had to deal with two realities. First, how can they be the people of God without the temple? Second, how do they relate to the followers of Jesus that were now part of every synagogue? While the second question worked itself out in various ways–the persecution of the Romans on both Jews and Christians served to separate the two groups–scribes and rabbis began to shape the Jews into a people of the book.

This meant thinking about books differently. I have seen the 2200-year-old Qumran scroll of Isaiah, 24 feet of precise Hebrew text on 17 sheets of parchment. And this is just one of many scrolls that made up the Hebrew Bible. The Torah would have been a series of five scrolls and the minor prophets on another single scroll. Though it would be unusual for a synagogue to have a complete collection of texts–a set of Torah might have had the relative cost the equivalent of a suburban bungalow today–the scrolls they had lived like rare wine bottles, taken down carefully from their precious space and experienced as a single unit of deep goodness.

What the 2nd- and 3rd-century scribes and rabbis did, however, was to think about what it would mean to live the “way” as Jews scattered across the earth, alienated from land and temple. One of the things they did was create the Mishnah, a word that means “studying by repetition.” Jewish scribes wrote down the “Oral Torah,” the traditions about how to read and live Scripture. The scribes clustered these customs and teachings around bits of Scripture on the page, adding commentary. What you see on the left is a clearly non-linear text: multilingual, multi-generational, circular, layered, and attuned to the different levels of reading necessary to applying text to real life.

As time went on, the Mishnah (c. 200 CE) was taken up into the Talmud, a word that means “learning.” The Talmud–the first page of a copy of the Talmud is on the left–set the Mishnah at the centre of its text, then filled it out with the debates of faithful scholars. If a scholarly reading of either the law or the oral law was reasonable, it was included. There is an old saying that if you give a text to two rabbis you will get three opinions. This is the spirit of Talmud, where the critical thinking necessary to a life of faith–often a life lived under intense social pressure–requires a diversity of intelligent voices. The Talmud sought to bring together all the resources for reading a biblical text onto a single page, including background knowledge, conversations about language and meaning, and how to apply the text in real life.

I think the Talmud is a model for new reading experience of The Silmarillion in two key ways.

First, it would not be difficult to create a text that looks like the Talmud. Imagine the text of The Silmarillion framed by brief biographies of characters (including alternate names), geographical notes, pronunciation hints, known words written in Elven tongues, family trees and intimate connections, and echoes of other stories in the Legendarium. The Silmarillion Talmud could also have relevant variants and Tolkien’s own comments about the text from letters and marginalia.

The paper copy of the Silmarillion Talmud could be laid out like an Archaeology Study Bible, with text on top and footnotes on the bottom, and sprinkled throughout with text cross-references, beautiful maps, and quick studies. Or the circular nature of the Mishnah and Talmud could be kept. Either way, this would be a big, thick book with large colour maps and all the references you need on a single page so a quick glance to the margin will make a necessary link in reading.

Plus–and this might be controversial–the Silmarillion Talmud could include the opinions of scholars when they have critical disagreement about a passage. Is it not true, after all, that if you put two Tolkienists in a chatroom together they will emerge with three opinions (and sometimes a digital bloody nose)? What better way to capture the constructive diversity of the field than a Silmarillion Talmud?

Second, with the Talmudic principle of non-linearity and diversity in mind, imagine what the digital possibilities would be! Though a phone screen might be too small, if we want to read with a screen open, The Silmarillion is the perfect text to test the capability of tech-forward reading possibilities for our generation.

Begin with one of my favourites, the LOTR Project (though true Tolkienists would know what the full digital landscape has to offer). This website has interactive maps linked in with the critical timeline. There is a lot of potential for hours in front of your screen at the LOTR Project when you add in the blogs, infographics, statistics, and cool apps. I mean, just check out the Periodic Table of Middle Earth or the Six Degrees of Sauron utilities. Awesome.

Beyond the LOTR Project there are commentaries, podcasts, blogs, encyclopedias, lexicons, films, and audiobooks. Imagine having the text open on your screen and you come to a name you do not know. You shadow the mouse above the name and it gives you a brief bio or geographical location. You can click on the name and get pronunciation, etymology, history, importance to the story, place history or kin connections, and a map that shows you where you are in space and time. There are a few Peter Jackson film clips that are relevant that might highlight a scene, or you may want to read along with Marin Shaw or Achim Höppner’s rich voices. Or you may want to pause your reading and spend some time in that section with the Tolkien Prof (Corey Olsen).

All of this by the click of a mouse or the tap of your finger on an iPad.

I am not naive enough to think that the legal aspect of this is even remotely possible, or that the price point is reasonable (though I think the Digital Silmarillion Talmud would not be that costly as much of the material is already produced). I just think that in opening up The Silmarillion and trying to read it beginning to end is an unnecessarily rigorous project when you consider the models we have from history and the tools we have through digital technology (as well as the time of Tolkien nerds lovingly devoted to the craft).

More than anything, this project is true to Tolkien’s work. Creating a Silmarillion Talmud not only invites others into a deeper experience of the world he loved so much, but it would be “a treasury of good counsel and wise lore” that Elrond himself would admire. Tolkien’s work is, after all, like the Mishnah in reverse. With The Lord of the Rings at the centre, rather than moving forward as the rabbis did, Tolkien moved backwards into the already established and yet ever-living Legendarium.

So, here’s the call: Who would like to create a Silmarillion Talmud?

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When Tolkien reinvented Atlantis and Lewis went to Mars

This gallery contains 7 photos.

Originally posted on John Garth:
Discovering the dates of The Fall of Númenor and Out of the Silent Planet A few months ago I revealed what I think is an exciting new find about the origins of J R R Tolkien’s Atlantis story,…

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From the Mouths of Atheists: Faith Lessons from Terry Pratchett

In creating the Discworld, Terry Pratchett set for himself an interesting problem for an atheist of his era: he created a world where gods are a reality. From an artist’s perspective, this is no particular problem at all. Pratchett made what I call a Syncretic Overlay world, where he took all the great legends, myths, and folktales that have landed on Western shores, brought them together into a single fictional universe and placed them upon an early industrial age London (Ankh-Morpork)–which, over time, expanded to other parts of England, Europe, and our world, as well as various dimensions of time and space. As gods are a key part of the sources of Pratchett’s Discworld Imaginarium, gods are a part of the Discworld.

What is unusual about Discworld is that it contains within it an internal logic so that gods come into existence through belief, rather than the other way around. It is a creative machine that gives animated life to the stock answer from anthropology of the last few generations. An atheist today might say that as humans, we invent gods that exist only as a projection of our humanity or as a database for hopes and dreams or as a cultural coping mechanism. Those gods are no more real than the worlds that writers make.

In Pratchett’s Discworld, however, the gods actually come alive as belief grows. In this way, the lesson from anthropology fuels Discworld’s reality: the gods actually come to life as belief grows and they diminish belief falters. On a metaphorical level, this is not unlike Pratchett’s own view. When asked whether he believes in God or gods, Pratchett answers this way here (see below):

[Humans are] shaped by the universe to be its consciousness. We tell the universe what it is. In my religion, the building of a telescope is the building of a cathedral. I have no truck whatsoever with Genesis, I was inoculated against the Christian religion by reading the whole of the Old Testament in one go (apart from the begats). And I thought if this were true, we were in the hands of a maniac.

Reading this, it is hard not to hear a modernized version of Granny Weatherwax saying, “I have no truck with the gods.” The interesting problem for an atheist creator of a world like Discworld is that it is difficult to capture unbelief from the perspective of the narrator. Granny Weatherwax may have no truck with the gods, but the gods exist nonetheless. Everyone in Discworld who has any sense to see beyond the pebbles and puffy clouds knows the gods are in various degrees of real. There seems to be a detente between witches and gods, so they each stay off the other’s turf (except when excited Omnian priests were doing their best to burn witches). But Discworld gods exist, if only in an unwritten covenant of correlation with humans.

It is important to note what is missing in Discworld: God, with a capital G, Yahweh, the Unmoved Mover of philosophy, the God above god.

There is the Great God Om, but I think it is actually Omnianism that resembles Christianity rather than Om being like the God of Sarah and Abraham. Omnianism has a state like European Christendom had, and the schismatic nature of the church looks like Protestantism, which has the tendency to splinter like fine wood. In Carpe Jugulum, the schisms reach such a high pitch that they are splitting into global-sized denominations every few minutes. Like the popular belief of Europe’s Christian past, the Omnians had a witch-burning period–though, of course, no real witches would have put up with being burned at the stake. There is a Church of the Latter-Day Omnians, as well as ReUnited Free Chelonianist group, split into the Hubwards and Rimwards conferences. They love handing out tracts (like Jehovah Witnesses, or Campus Crusade for Christ volunteers in the 70s), and there are monastic versions of the religion. The multiplying of Scriptures into the thousands is more like Buddhism, but the Omnian believers we get to know still carry around a single collection of books like Christian or Jewish pilgrims.

But the Great God Om in not like the creator and sustainer God, though he has claimed to be one of the most powerful gods. Instead, Discworld exists in a universe of either unknown origins or infinite regress–theorized in The Colour of Magic, which I talk about here. There is no god that would satisfy philosophers in Discworld, though there are plenty that would satisfy psychologists, anthropologists, classicists, and used car salesmen. In this way, there is a kind of atheism embedded in Discworld.

And yet, I derive great spiritual benefit from these books. Besides the delight of humour and the awe I feel at the feet of a mythopoeic master, I find spiritual lessons embedded everywhere in the series. Honestly, I can’t help including Pratchett in the list of authors that I feel are “near to the kingdom of God.” Don’t think I’m buying into the rumours of conversion that haunt the afterdeath of many great atheists. Though in the video below Pratchett hints at a kind of scientific mysticism, he also denies any belief in the kind of god that is God. I find quite dishonourable the recently popular trend of seeking to posthumously baptize (or unbaptize, or demonize) figures of the past. I have learned much from atheists, and some of my best students have been of that zealous, evangelistic new atheistic streak.

In any case, if I have read history and philosophy aright, Terry Pratchett will have plenty of time to defend his case against God far away from the court of public opinion.

I have only read about 2/3rds of Discworld and am now 1/2way through the 45+ Discworld books and stories in the order they were written. For my money, though, Small Gods and Carpe Jugulum–and to a lesser degree, The Hogfather–are the more sophisticated books in dealing with matters of faith. All three deal with the nature of belief, where “humans tell the universe what it is” (Small Gods) and how belief contains fiction and myth that is each necessary to human experience (The Hogfather). In Small Gods we walk with Om’s last true believer, Brutha, when Om shows up as a tortoise and needs Brutha’s help. In Carpe Jugulum, we meet Mightily Oats.

Mightly Oats, or the Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats, is an Omnian missionary who lands in the city-state of Lancre just as it is about to be taken over by vampires (Carpe Jugulum = “Seize the Jugular”). As a recent graduate of seminary, Rev. Oats is seized with indecision. He has a great mind for science and languages and is unforgivably curious. This skill and curiosity led him to the Omnian archive, where he began to note contradictions in the text and parallels between the Omnian stories and those of other religions. This is where atheistic-type texts from The Golden Bough to Bart Ehrman begin, and it is often these kinds of issues that lead my brightest atheistic students away from faith in the first place.

Yet, this is not the fate for Mightily Oats. The spiritual anxiety that Oats’ doubtfulness brews within his own soul creates a double-mindedness that is essential to resisting the hypnotic lure of the hipster vampires that seek to subvert the throne of Lancre and turn its people into cattle. Yet, Pastor Oats is not free to wallow in the sorrow of his doubt. For one, he is driven by a moral courage that overwhelms his intellectual fearfulness. More than that, though, Granny Weatherwax seizes upon him as a surprisingly resourceful companion. As she applies headology at the highest levels against a foe she is certain she cannot beat, Oats is helpful along the way. In this Granny, for all intents and purposes a Discworld atheist, guides Mightily Oats into a critical breakthrough in his faith.

In the scene I include below, Mightly Oats has followed Om’s advice in Scripture that he should bring a light into dark places: he faithfully brings light by burning the Scriptures for heat and light as he and Granny were freezing to death. Watch how Granny shapes Oats, whose double-mindedness had not shaped a critical faith but a slippery one, where truth is like mercury between your fingers. The witch puts the screws to him:

Now if I’d seen [the god, Om], really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ’em like a father and cared for ’em like a mother . . . well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like “There are two sides to every question,” and “We must respect other people’s beliefs.” You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people any more, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just . . . is just bein’ nice….

This is why Pratchett says in the video, “God help me if I ever become a Christian.” If Pratchett were to be a believer, he would have to be a true believer. If he really believed in God, it would matter. There is a dark tinge to this claim. Mightily Oats trades his holy relic tortoiseshell for a double-edged axe. But he wields the battleaxe as the hard edge of forgiveness and love–something a pamphleteer would not be able or willing to do.

And though Pratchett underestimates the importance of doubt for the formation of faith–how could he understand?–his picture of Mightly Oats is one of genuine, unhypocritical faith. Pratchett captures the essence of faith: laying down your own life, “one day at a time, to the flame.”

If Christians understood the self-sacrificial, steeled-soul principle of faith that this atheist gets, oh what a world it would be.


‘Shame about your little book of holy words. . .’ she said, when she was further down the track. There was a long pause before Oats replied.

‘I can easily get another,’ he said levelly.

‘Must be hard, not having your book of words.’

‘It’s only paper.’

‘I shall ask the King to see about getting you another book of words.’

‘I wouldn’t trouble him.’

‘Terrible thing to have to burn all them words, though.’

‘The worthwhile ones don’t burn.’

‘You’re not too stupid, for all that you wear a funny hat,’ said Granny.

‘I know when I’m being pushed, Mistress Weatherwax.’

‘Well done.’

They walked on in silence. A shower of hail bounced off Granny’s pointy hat and Oats’s wide brim.  Then Granny said, ‘It’s no good you trying to make me believe in Om, though.’

‘Om forbid that I should try, Mistress Weatherwax. I haven’t even given you a pamphlet, have I?’

‘No, but you’re trying to make me think, “Oo, what a nice young man, his god must be
something special if nice young men like him helps old ladies like me,” aren’t you?’

‘No.’

‘Really? Well, it’s not working. People you can believe in, sometimes, but not gods. And I’ll
tell you this, Mister Oats . . .’

He sighed. ‘Yes?’

She turned to face him, suddenly alive. ‘It’d be as well for you if I didn’t believe,’ she said,
prodding him with a sharp finger. ‘This Om . . . anyone seen him?’

‘It is said three thousand people witnessed his manifestation at the Great Temple when he
made the Covenant with the prophet Brutha and saved him from death by torture on the iron turtle-‘

‘But I bet that now they’re arguing about what they actually saw, eh?’

‘Well, indeed, yes, there are many opinions-‘

‘Right. Right. That’s people for you. Now if I’d seen him, really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ’em like a father and cared for ’em like a mother . . . well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like “There are two sides to every question,” and “We must respect other people’s beliefs.” You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people any more, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just . . . is just bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbours.’

She relaxed slightly, and went on in a quieter voice: ‘Anyway, that’s what I’d be, if I really
believed. And I don’t think that’s fashionable right now, ‘cos it seems that if you sees evil now you have to wring your hands and say, “Oh deary me, we must debate this.” That’s my two penn’orth, Mister Oats. You be happy to let things lie. Don’t chase faith, ‘cos you’ll never catch it.’ She added, almost as an aside, ‘But, perhaps, you can live faithfully.’

Her teeth chattered as a gust of icy wind flapped her wet dress around her legs.

‘You got another book of holy words on you?’ she added.

‘No,’ said Oats, still shocked. He thought: my god, if she ever finds a religion, what would come out of these mountains and sweep across the plains? My god. . . I just said, ‘My god’…

‘A book of hymns, maybe?’ said Granny.

‘No.’

‘A slim volume o’ prayers, suitable for every occasion?’

‘No, Granny Weatherwax.’

‘Damn.’ Granny slowly collapsed backwards, folding up like an empty dress.

He rushed forward and caught her before she landed in the mud. One thin white hand gripped his wrist so hard that he yelped. Then she relaxed, and sagged in his grasp.

Something made Oats look up. A hooded figure sat on a white horse a little way away, outlined in the faintest blue fire.

‘Go away!’ he screamed. ‘You be gone right now or . . . or. . .’

He lowered the body on to some tufts of grass, grabbed a handful of mud and flung it into the gloom. He ran after it, punching wildly at a shape that was suddenly no more than shadows and curling mist.

He dashed back, picked up Granny Weatherwax, slung her over his shoulder and ran on,
downhill.

The mist behind him formed a shape on a white horse. Death shook his head.

IT WASN’T EVEN AS IF I SAID ANYTHING, he said.

Posted in Fictional Worlds, Memorable Quotes, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The SHANWAR List: The Stickin’ Huge Awesome Novel Winter Awesome Read

Winters can be long in these Northern climes. Yesterday I walked to work with white fluffy snowflakes dusting my hair. As gardening friends in Europe and the United States have begun sinking their fingers in dirt, I felt the urge to stop by at the local Home Depot to pick up potting soil. “It’s still frozen,” the gardening expert said. “But I can dig some out for you. Let me get my ice chopper.” This is early April as you approach the 49th parallel.

Unless you are part of the horde of old farts that seem to get some great delight in caviling about the weather at Tim Hortons and McDonald, there doesn’t seem to be much use in complaining about winter. Instead, we bear up to it and revel in it with perverse and grim pleasure. We snowshoe and ski and hike. We put food in jars for later and play hockey. We check our emergency supplies and wait for a storm to blow the power out so we can fill the night with candles. We string mittens on strings in front of woodstoves or above heating vents. If you track the birth patterns of Canadians, it is statistically probable that we do other things too during those candlelit evening without television or wifi.

Of course, I mean reading.

Whether by candlelight or lamplight, with our feet on the fender or in slippers under an afghan, wintertime is a great chance to catch up on great books. This is why I invented SHANWAR, the Stickin’ Huge Awesome Novel Winter Awesome Read. Sometimes you need a honkin’ big book to take you through the long nights and snowbound days. When I’m avoiding digging into a life-threatening snowdrift, I am often digging into a time-stealing story. SHANWAR is not so much a reading challenging as a survival mechanism.

As our first few feet of snow fell in Prince Edward Island last fall, I was finishing off the last three long books of the Harry Potter hepatology. Last winter was the two-volume Well at the World’s End edition by William Morris, though they are only 600 pages total. It was the gargantuan David Foster Wallace book, Infinite Jest, that haunted my late winter and early spring. It is one of the most imaginative books I have ever read, but I don’t know if I have enough free hours left in this life to repeat the feat.

In past years I  read Margaret George’s autobiography of Henry VIII and Matthew Dickerson’s The Rood and the Torc–both of which have some cool winter tales within them. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is one of my all-time favourites–though winter is not bleak in Canada as it is in London; here it is more terrifying. Over the last decade, I have read most of the Jack Ryan cycle by Tom Clancy–to the horror of my truly literary friends. With due respect to the literati, it was not Clancy’s onerous-but-spytastic thrillers that were my SHANWAR mistakes. No, the worst reading choice I have ever made was beginning–and continuing to the literary sludge that was the end–Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged. It is a winter of words that I can never, ever, get back.

About every third of my SHANWAR reads have been by Stephen King, though some are technically too short for “Stinkin’ Huge” designations. Needful Things was me melting into a leather couch housesitting at a cottage with a wall of south-facing windows. The Dark Half and Salem’s Lot were the post-Christmas cleanse from happy feelings of two subsequent years. You have to read The Shining in winter, or what’s the point? If you can’t feel nature hemming you in, you won’t be able to feel your skin crawl in just the right way.

Stephen King can heat up the coldest winter. So, as I was scanning the shelves for SHANWAR 2017, I picked up The Stand. That I had a flu that was evocative of plague levels heightened the pleasure and the panic. At nearly 1000 pages–I didn’t have the 1200-page uncut version–both the length and brilliant story fit into the SHANWAR sweet spot. I’ll post more about this book soon.

As I was closing the last page of The Stand, I already started thinking about this coming fall, when the year sinks into its icy depths. What books would I like to read for SHANWAR 2017-18?

I am not counting my continual long-reads (which I talk about here). This fall I will be finishing up J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. For me, SHANWAR is a pin-yourself-to-the-page kind of read, where I go chest to chest with a great work and see if I can make it over the course of a few months.

So, what’s up ahead?

Well, I’ve found the second-last Jack Ryan book at a yard sale. At 1137 pages, The Bear and the Dragon is positively thin for Tom Clancy. That’s a possibility. I would like to read all the Sherlock stories and T.H. White’s Arthurian cycle, but I have good audiobooks for each of those, so it’s a different kind of reading experience than SHANWAR. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is tempting me, hitting SHANWAR’s “stinkin’ big” level with 662 pages. One day I will have to succumb to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is about 2m words total (so each book qualifies for SHANWAR, and whole series qualifies for a medal). I have 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami on my shelf, but as it is such a nice hardback I can’t use a razor blade to split the book up to make it lighter to hold. We’ll see: my carpal tunnel syndrome is already starting to complain at the sight of the book.

Or–and I suppose some of you saw this coming–I could read IT. I was a teenager the last time I picked it up. Since then I have worked as a professional clown, traveled through Maine, created offspring of my own, read a dozen more Stephen King stories, and wrote a couple books of my own. At 444,000 words and considered one of the greatest horror books of history, IT seems like the perfect choice for SHANWAR. Plus, I have heard rumours that a film remake is in the works.

Actually, I just googled it, and the trailer was released last week! Nearly peed my pants watching just the trailer. Which is a bad thing to do in PEI in winter: your jeans freeze to your legs. It can be very uncomfortable.

So, are you a practitioner of SHANWAR–even if you didn’t know about it? What kind of books filled your winter nights this year? I am always on the hunt for the perfect long winter’s tale, so please share with readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia.

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“The Givenness of Things”: Marilynne Robinson’s Wide-Ranging Collection of Essays

One of my absolute favourite blogs to follow is “On Art and Aesthetics”. Tulika curates gorgeous posts featuring mainstream and eyebrow-raising artists from across the world and throughout history. I am so far from an art critic that I cannot speak critically to the work she features, but I love every single post. This one, today’s Friday Feature post, is something I actually can talk about.
Marilynne Robinson is one of the leading essayists, storytellers, and Christian public intellectuals in America today. Her collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, makes the links of Christian thought, literary criticism, and a historically-based cultural critique that is absolutely essential today. I hope you hunt down Robinson’s work and enjoy this beautiful blog.

On Art and Aesthetics

Marilynne Robinson speaking at the Covenant Fine Arts Center during an interview at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College by User “Christian Scott Heinen Bell”, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Marilynne Robinson (born 1943, FB: @MarilynneRobinson) is the only celebrity author in the world whom I have had the opportunity of looking at and listening to in reality. This happened back in November or December of 2013, when she was on a UK visit. I wouldn’t call her stern but there was a steely seriousness and confidence in her that made you want to think long and hard before raising any question, discussing any point related to her artistry or beliefs.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with her – she is an American writer and scholar, the recipient of a National Humanities Medal and Pulitzer Prize, among other accolades. She taught at the Iowa Writers’…

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Of Beren and Lúthien, Of Myth and the Worlds We Love

I don’t think I have ever read anything better than the tale of Beren and Lúthien.

It is a bold statement, so allow me to give some context.

One of the things that readers love about The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is that they are tales drawn from a weighty world. A lot of the Tolkienesque high fiction of the past 50 years has failed not because of poor writing–though sometimes that is the case–and not even because it is derivative. Often fantasy fails because the fictional world is thin.

In fantastic realms, the greatest examples of adventure, romance, heroic quest, or self-sacrifice in the face of evil are placed within the context of a subcreated world that is both vast and expansive in terms of scope and imagination, as well as rooted in the depths of history, myth, and legend. In high fantasy, the story only resonates when it is set within a speculative universe created by the skillful hands of a true myth-maker. Stripped of fictional worlds that are both deep and wide, and the stories might as well be soap operas or Hollywood copy-and-print CGI blockbusters.

The reason we read and reread great fantasy literature is the reason we keep going back to the same mythological sources: there is a resonant authenticity to the secondary world, for true myth always carries with it core truth that is relevant to our primary world.

As Tolkien reminds us again and again in his lettersThe Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are not truly stories on their own. Instead, they are drawn from a vast library of materials that encode the history, mythology, legends, songs, and other source materials that are the literary remains of three great ages of the prehistoric past. Even when we read The Hobbit, whimsical and humorous and in the pattern of a fairy tale, as the tale slowly transforms before our eyes into an epic, we feel that Middle Earth has no edges in time or space. Even in that children’s tale, we can feel the weight that is the Legendarium–even though it is almost entirely hidden from us.

Which is why nothing is random in the Legendarium. Nothing is careless–not even is the appearance of the great eagles. They are not a deus ex machina, for the god in the machine of Tolkien’s world is the internal logic of the thousands of pages and millions of words that are an entire universe in outline form.

After The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, readers turn to The Silmarillion. Tolkien had originally wanted to publish The Silmarillion with LOTR, for he feared his epic would make no sense without the myth and history behind it. Forty years ago, less than four years after his father’s death, Christopher Tolkien prepared a novel-length version of The Silmarillion, with the help of fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay.

Though filled to the brim with technical languages, etymologies, chronologies, geographies, and complex relationships between characters and their evolving place names, the success of The Silmarillion is a testimony to the insatiable appetite of Tolkien readers. In the decades that followed, Christopher Tolkien, aided by only a few trusted editors, has published the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth, as well as a number of one-off volumes, including The Children of Húrin from the Legendarium, as well as a number of books that are linked to Tolkien’s oeuvre in more sophisticated ways, such as The Legend of Sigurn and Gudrún, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, The Story of Kullervo, Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf and his incomplete version of The Fall of Arthur.

Truthfully, I have been one of the victims of The Silmarillion. I have read all of the auxiliary books and various parts of the History of Middle Earth. And though I have read much of The Silmarillion, each time I try to read it through in earnest, I fail. My PhD supervisor, a published Tolkien scholar, called The Silmarillion “the Bible for Tolkien geeks,” and I struggle in reading it in the same way that I struggle in reading the Bible: I love mythology, but I get lost in the complex interweaving of genealogy and geography.

In the end, it was rugged discipline that helped me come to a working knowledge of the Bible, and the same can be true of The Silmarillion. With extensive use of reading resources (lists, maps, etc.), I am now two-thirds of the way through. I am fairly confident I will finish in earnest, so I will no longer be a Silmarillion cherry-picker.

Right at the centre of my second edition paperback is the tale of Beren and Lúthien. This is the prose version of the tale, and complete in its telling. There are other versions, including the “Song of Beren and Lúthien” as Aragorn tells it in chapter 11 of The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve attached Tolkien’s reading of the song below, but the beginning of the poem captures both the premise and the flavour of the story:

The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinúviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.

There Beren came from mountains cold,
And lost he wandered under leaves,
And where the Elven-river rolled
He walked alone and sorrowing.
He peered between the hemlock-leaves
And saw in wonder flowers of gold
Upon her mantle and her sleeves,
And her hair like shadow following.

Enchantment healed his weary feet
That over hills were doomed to roam; …

Here the man is caught by the beauty of an elf-maiden, enchanted and drawn into a world filled with curses, mythology, and the pride of men. Shaun Gunner at the Tolkien Society Blog has given an excellent background to the Beren and Lúthien cycle, which I won’t retell. It is, however, no mere trifle of a Romeo and Juliet tale. Beren is a great hero who dared to test the strenght and cunning of Morgoth himself. Lúthien is one of the most powerful women in Tolkien’s work, and in this tale it is her critical interventions of power to win fidelity and cast shadows of doubt and sloth over evil that make success possible.

Beyond the evocative and beautifully written tale itself, both the mortal, Beren, and the immortal, Lúthien, are essential to The Lord of the Rings. Historically, Lúthien is the cousin of Galadriel, oldest–and, according to Gimli the Dwarf–fairest of elf-maidens in Middle Earth. The children of Beren and Lúthien are the first creatures to live on the knife’s edge between the immortal life and the fate of all men, death. The Númenoreans and the great kings of old choose mortality. Their legacies, both good and ill, sit in the breast of Aragorn. Elrond, Lúthien and Beren’s great-grandson, chooses immortality and shepherds Middle Earth through each of its subsequent ages. Arwen, in her love for Aragorn, much choose her path, and in their tales they echo the story of Beren and Lúthien.

Aragorn is not merely recounting history or providing the hobbits with a campfire tale. In his song he is evoking myth’s great power to inform the actions of the wise. In the Beren and Lúthien cycle, the question of doom resounds. While myth can inform and the resounding echoes of narrative are portents for the future, these tales can never work as prophecy. Arwen and Aragorn must reckon with fate themselves, and their choices are critical to the destiny of Middle Earth.

This evocative tale that occupied a half-century of Tolkien’s life is now being published with other material from the Beren and Lúthien archive. Alan Lee illustrates the volume, and although I do not know how much new material is included, if any, any chance to get more of this greatest of tales is welcome by me. Be sure to reserve your copy for July 1st.


From the Publisher:

The tale of Beren and Lúthien was, or became, an essential element in the evolution of The Silmarillion, the myths and legends of the First Age of the World conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien. Returning from France and the battle of the Somme at the end of 1916, he wrote the tale in the following year.

Essential to the story, and never changed, is the fate that shadowed the love of Beren and Lúthien: for Beren was a mortal man, but Lúthien was an immortal elf. Her father, a great elvish lord, in deep opposition to Beren, imposed on him an impossible task that he must perform before he might wed Lúthien. This is the kernel of the legend; and it leads to the supremely heroic attempt of Beren and Lúthien together to rob the greatest of all evil beings, Melkor, called Morgoth, the Black Enemy, of a Silmaril.

In this book Christopher Tolkien has attempted to extract the story of Beren and Lúthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded; but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this legend of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father’s own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterwards lost.

Published on the tenth anniversary of the last Middle-earth book, the international bestseller The Children of Húrin, this new volume will similarly include drawings and color plates by Alan Lee, who also illustrated The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and went on to win Academy Awards for his work on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

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The Tolkien Letter that Every Lover of Middle-Earth Must Read

It is sort of a trick, isn’t it? Any true Tolkien fan will say that every page in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is essential. However, not everyone enjoys letters as much as I do. Some might absolutely love The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but don’t find great joy peeking into the lives of authors by reading their mail. I may well be the odd man out.

However, embedded in the bits and pieces of correspondence that remain are some absolute gems. It is in these letters that we discover that Tolkien supported C.S. Lewis in his first foray into fiction. We see the heart-crushing weight of work that Tolkien was faced with, and the struggles that he had to complete The Lord of the Rings. And we have the moments, finally, when he finished his work and made it ready for publication. The letters of Tolkien to his friends, family, and publishers are the heart and joy behind the mythic worlds of Middle-Earth.

For the true lovers of Tolkien’s subcreated world, there are also moments where he explains bits and pieces of Middle-Earth and The Silmarillion that we may not know except by a scientific reading of the texts or by archival work that is limited to very few scholars. And even then, some of the points of myth, language, geography, and character development only existed in Tolkien’s brain. So the letters are priceless resources for the Tolkien reader hungry for more.

One of these essential pieces is a 9,500-word letter–really an essay–written to Milton Waldman, a publisher at Collins. Tolkien was trying to win Waldman to the idea of publishing both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion–a project that the publishers of The Hobbit were unable to commit to at the stage the manuscripts were in at that time (1951). According to the editor of Tolkien’s Letters, Humphrey Carpenter, Waldman was so impressed by Tolkien’s letter he had a typed copy made for posterity. This detailed letter lays out most clearly the relationship between the various complex parts of Tolkien’s legendarium. It is such an important piece that editor Christopher Tolkien included it as prolegomena to The Silmarillion.

There is a second letter, though, that gives a great deal of background to The Lord of the Rings. Naomi Mitchison, a prolific novelist and memoirist–and sister of J.B.S. Haldane–read proofs of LOTR as it was being prepared for publication in early 1954. She wrote to Tolkien with a number of perceptive questions. In reading Tolkien’s response, he is obviously delighted with the depth of her interest in and knowledge of the world that exists in and behind the text. Included in the letter are links between LOTR and the great wealth of myth, legend, history, and story behind it. He takes some time to talk about the different kinds of characters in Middle-Earth, including relationships between Elves, Dwarves, and humans, but also the fallen creatures and the ones that do not have a full explanation in the text-world, like Tom Bombadil, the Ents (and missing Entwives), Hobbits, Shelob, and dragons.

And, of course, Tolkien explains about the languages–his absolute favourite part of the creative process. This letter is particularly interesting because he does not just explain the links between the languages of Middle-Earth, but explains how they developed with relationship to other European languages and Tolkien’s own “phonaesthetic pleasure,” as he puts it.

If you would like to deepen your experience of The Lord of the Rings, and perhaps help transition to the difficult text of The Silmarillion, this letter is a great resource for knowing Tolkien’s mind and the world he made.


25 April 1954                                                                76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Oxford

Dear Mrs. Mitchison,

It has been both rude and ungrateful of me not to have acknowledged, or to have thanked you for past letters, gifts, and remembrances – all the more so, since your interest has, in fact, been a great comfort to me, and encouragement in the despondency that not unnaturally accompanies the labours of actually publishing such a work as The Lord of the Rings.

But it is most unfortunate that this has coincided with a period of exceptionally heavy labours and duties in other functions, so that I have been at times almost distracted.

I will try and answer your questions. I may say that they are very welcome. I like things worked out in detail myself, and answers provided to all reasonable questions. Your letter will, I hope, guide me in choosing the kind of information to be provided (as promised) in an appendix, and strengthen my hand with the publishers. Since the third volume will be rather slimmer than the second (events move quicker, and less explanations are needed), there will, I believe be a certain amount of room for such matter. My problem is not the difficulty of providing it, but of choosing from the mass of material I have already composed.

There is of course a clash between ‘literary’ technique, and the fascination of elaborating in detail an imaginary mythical Age (mythical, not allegorical: my mind does not work allegorically). As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists); and I have perhaps from this point of view erred in trying to explain too much, and give too much past history. Many readers have, for instance, rather stuck at the Council of Elrond. And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).

But as much further history (backwards) as anyone could desire actually exists in the Silmarillion and related stories and poems, composing the History of the Eldar (Elves). I believe that in the event (which seems much to hope) of sufficient people being interested in the Lord of the Rings to pay for the cost of its publication, the gallant publishers may consider printing some of that. It was actually written first, and I wished to have the matter issued in historical order, which would have saved a lot of allusion and explanation in the present book. But I could not get it accepted.

The third volume was of course completed years ago, as far as the tale goes. I have finished such revision, as seemed necessary, and it will go to be set up almost at once. In the meanwhile I am giving what fragments of time I have to making compressed versions of such historical, ethnographical, and linguistic matter as can go in the Appendix. If it will interest you, I will send you a copy (rather rough) of the matter dealing with Languages (and Writing), Peoples and Translation.

The latter has given me much thought. It seems seldom regarded by other creators of imaginary worlds, however gifted as narrators (such as Eddison). But then I am a philologist, and much though I should like to be more precise on other cultural aspects and features, that is not within my competence. Anyway ‘language’ is the most important, for the story has to be told, and the dialogue conducted in a language; but English cannot have been the language of any people at that time. What I have, in fact done, is to equate the Westron or wide-spread Common Speech of the Third Age with English; and translate everything, including names such as The Shire, that was in the Westron into English terms, with some differentiation of style to represent dialectal differences. Languages quite alien to the C.S. have been left alone. Except for a few scraps in the Black Speech of Mordor, and a few names and a battle-cry in Dwarvish, these are almost entirely Elvish (Eldarin).

Languages, however, that were related to the Westron presented a special problem. I turned them into forms of speech related to English. Since the Rohirrim are represented as recent comers out of the North, and users of an archaic Mannish language relatively untouched by the influence of Eldarin, I have turned their names into forms like (but not identical with) Old English. The language of Dale and the Long Lake would, if it appeared, be represented as more or less Scandinavian in character; but it is only represented by a few names, especially those of the Dwarves that came from that region. These are all Old Norse Dwarf-names.

(Dwarves are represented as keeping their own native tongue more or less secret, and using for all ‘outer’ purposes the language of the people they dwelt near; they never reveal their own ‘true’ personal names in their own tongue.)

The Westron or C.S. is supposed to be derived from the Mannish Adunaic language of the Númenóreans, spreading from the Númenórean Kingdoms in the days of the Kings, and especially from Gondor, where it remains spoken in nobler and rather more antique style (a style also usually adopted by the Elves when they use this language). But all the names in Gondor, except for a few of supposedly prehistoric origin, are of Elvish form, since the Númenórean nobility still used an Elvish language, or could. This was because they had been allies of the Elves in the First Age, and had for that reason been granted the Atlantis isle of Númenor.

Two of the Elvish tongues appear in this book. They have some sort of existence, since I have composed them in some completeness, as well as their history and account of their relationship. They are intended (a) to be definitely of a European kind in style and structure (not in detail); and (b) to be specially pleasant. The former is not difficult to achieve; but the latter is more difficult, since individuals’ personal predilections, especially in the phonetic structure of languages, varies widely, even when modified by the imposed languages (including their so-called ‘native’ tongue).

I have therefore pleased myself. The archaic language of lore is meant to be a kind of ‘Elven-latin’, and by transcribing it into a spelling closely resembling that of Latin (except that y is only used as a consonant, as y in E. Yes) the similarity to Latin has been increased ocularly. Actually it might be said to be composed on a Latin basis with two other (main) ingredients that happen to give me ‘phonaesthetic’ pleasure: Finnish and Greek. It is however less consonantal than any of the three. This language is High-elven or in its own terms Quenya (Elvish).

The living language of the Western Elves (Sindarin or Grey-elven) is the one usually met, especially in names. This is derived from an origin common to it and Quenya; but the changes have been deliberately devised to give it a linguistic character very like (though not identical with) British-Welsh: because that character is one that I find, in some linguistic moods, very attractive; and because it seems to fit the rather ‘Celtic’ type of legends and stories told of its speakers.

‘Elves’ is a translation, not perhaps now very suitable, but originally good enough, of Quendi. They are represented as a race similar in appearance (and more so the further back) to Men, and in former days of the same stature. I will not here go into their differences from Men! But I suppose that the Quendi are in fact in these histories very little akin to the Elves and Fairies of Europe; and if I were pressed to rationalize, I should say that they represent really Men with greatly enhanced aesthetic and creative faculties, greater beauty and longer life, and nobility – the Elder Children, doomed to fade before the Followers (Men), and to live ultimately only by the thin line of their blood that was mingled with that of Men, among whom it was the only real claim to ‘nobility’.

They are represented as having become early divided in to two, or three, varieties. 1. The Eldar who heard the summons of the Valar or Powers to pass from Middle-earth over the Sea to the West; and 2. the Lesser Elves who did not answer it. Most of the Eldar after a great march reached the Western Shores and passed over Sea; these were the High Elves, who became immensely enhanced in powers and knowledge. But part of them in the event remained in the coast-lands of the North-west: these were the Sindar or Grey-elves. The lesser Elves hardly appear, except as part of the people of The Elf-realm; of Northern Mirkwood, and of Lorien, ruled by Eldar; their languages do not appear.

The High Elves met in this book are Exiles, returned back over Sea to Middle-earth, after events which are the main matter of the Silmarillion, part of one of the main kindreds of the Eldar: the Noldor[1] (Masters of Lore). Or rather a last remnant of these. For the Silmarillion proper and the First Age ended with the destruction of the primeval Dark Power (of whom Sauron was a mere lieutenant), and the rehabilitation of the Exiles, who returned again over Sea. Those who lingered were those who were enamoured of Middle-earth and yet desired the unchanging beauty of the Land of the Valar. Hence the making of the Rings; for the Three Rings were precisely endowed with the power of preservation, not of birth. Though unsullied, because they were not made by Sauron nor touched by him, they were nonetheless partly products of his instruction, and ultimately under the control of the One. Thus, as you will see, when the One goes, the last defenders of High-elven lore and beauty are shorn of power to hold back time, and depart.

I am sorry about the Geography. It must have been dreadfully difficult without a map or maps. There will be in volume I a map of part of the Shire, and a small-scale general map of the whole scene of action and reference (of which the map at the end of The Hobbit is the N.E. corner). These have been drawn from my less elegant maps by my son Christopher, who is learned in this lore. But I have only had one proof and that had to go back. I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances). The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story — as I fear you have found.

I cannot send you my own working maps; but perhaps these very rough and not entirely accurate drafts, made hurriedly at various times for readers, would be of some assistance. …. Perhaps when you have done with these MS. maps or made some notes you would not mind sending them back. I shall find them useful in making some more; but I cannot get to that yet. I may say that my son’s maps are beautifully clear, as far as reduction in reproduction allows; but they do not contain everything, alas!

Some stray answers. Dragons. They had not stopped; since they were active in far later times, close to our own. Have I said anything to suggest the final ending of dragons? If so it should be altered. The only passage I can think of is Vol. I p. 70 : ‘there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough’. But that implies, I think, that there are still dragons, if not of full primeval stature. I have a long historical table of events from the Beginning to the End of the Third Age. It is rather full; but I agree that a short form, containing events important for this tale would be useful. If you would care for typed copies of some of this material: eg. The Rings of Power; The Downfall of Númenor; the Lists of the Heirs of Elendil; the House of Eorl (Genealogy); Genealogy of Durin and the Dwarf-lords of Moria; and The Tale of the Years (esp. those of the Second and Third Ages), I will try and get copies made soon. ….

Orcs (the word is as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English orc ‘demon’, but only because of its phonetic suitability) are nowhere clearly stated to be of any particular origin. But since they are servants of the Dark Power, and later of Sauron, neither of whom could, or would, produce living things, they must be ‘corruptions’. They are not based on direct experience of mine; but owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition (goblin is used as a translation in The Hobbit, where orc only occurs once, I think), especially as it appears in George MacDonald, except for the soft feet which I never believed in. The name has the form orch (pl. yrch) in Sindarin and uruk in the Black Speech.

The Black Speech was only used in Mordor; it only occurs in the Ring inscription, and a sentence uttered by the Orcs of Barad-dûr (Vol. II p. 48) and in the word Nazgûl (cf. nazg in the Ring inscription). It was never used willingly by any other people, and consequently even the names of places in Mordor are in English (for the C.S.) or Elvish. Morannon is just the Elvish for Black Gate; cf. Mordor Black Land, Mor-ia Black Chasm, Mor-thond Black-root (river-name). Rohir-rim is the Elvish (Gondorian) name for the people that called themselves Riders of the Mark or Eorlings. The formation is not meant to resemble Hebrew. The Eldarin languages distinguish in forms and use between a ‘partitive’ or ‘particular’ plural, and the general or total plural. Thus yrch ‘orcs, some orcs, des orques’ occurs in vol I pp. 359,402; the Orcs, as a race, or the whole of a group previously mentioned would have been orchoth. In Grey-elven the general plurals were very frequently made by adding to a name (or a place-name) some word meaning ‘tribe, host, horde, people’. So Haradrim the Southrons: Q. rimbe, S. rim, host; Onod-rim the Ents. The Rohirrim is derived from roch (Q. rokko) horse, and the Elvish stem kher- ‘possess’; whence Sindarin Rochir ‘horse-lord’, and Rochir-rim ‘the host of the Horse-lords’. In the pronunciation of Gondor the ch (as in German, Welsh, etc) had been softened to a sounded h; so in Rochann ‘Hippia’ to Rohan.

Beorn is dead; see vol. I p. 241. He appeared in The Hobbit. It was then the year Third Age 2940 (Shire-reckoning 1340). We are now in the years 3018-19 (1418-19). Though a skin-changer and no doubt a bit of a magician, Beorn was a Man.

Tom Bombadil is not an important person – to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.

He has no connexion in my mind with the Entwives. What had happened to them is not resolved in this book. He is in a way the answer to them in the sense that he is almost the opposite, being say, Botany and Zoology (as sciences) and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture and practicality.

I think that in fact the Entwives had disappeared for good, being destroyed with their gardens in the War of the Last Alliance (Second Age 3429-3441) when Sauron pursued a scorched earth policy and burned their land against the advance of the Allies down the Anduin (vol. II p. 79 refers to it). They survived only in the ‘agriculture’ transmitted to Men (and Hobbits). Some, of course, may have fled east, or even have become enslaved: tyrants even in such tales must have an economic and agricultural background to their soldiers and metal-workers. If any survived so, they would indeed be far estranged from the Ents, and any rapprochement would be difficult – unless experience of industrialized and militarized agriculture had made them a little more anarchic. I hope so. I don’t know.

Hobbit-children were delightful, but I am afraid that the only glimpses of them in this book are found at the beginning of vol. I. An epilogue giving a further glimpse (though of a rather exceptional family) has been so universally condemned that I shall not insert it. One must stop somewhere.

Yes, Sam Gamgee is in a sense a relation of Dr. Gamgee, in that his name would not have taken that form, if I had not heard of ‘Gamgee tissue’; there was I believe a Dr. Gamgee (no doubt of the kin) in Birmingham when I was a child. The name was any way always familiar to me. Gaffer Gamgee arose first: he was a legendary character to my children (based on a real-life gaffer, not of that name). But, as you will find explained, in this tale the name is a ‘translation’ of the real Hobbit name, derived from a village (devoted to rope-making) anglicized as Gamwich (pron. Gammidge), near Tighfield (see vol. II p. 217). Since Sam was close friends of the family of Cotton (another village-name), I was led astray into the Hobbit-like joke of spelling Gamwichy Gamgee, though I do not think that in actual Hobbit-dialect the joke really arose.

There are no precise opposites to the Wizards – a translation (perhaps not suitable, but throughout distinguished from other ‘magician’ terms) of Q. Elvish Istari. Their origin was not known to any but a few (such as Elrond and Galadriel) in the Third Age. They are said to have first appeared about the year 1000 of the Third Age, when the shadow of Sauron began first to grow again to new shape. They always appeared old, but grew older with their labours, slowly, and disappeared with the end of the Rings. They were thought to be Emissaries (in the terms of this tale from the Far West beyond the Sea), and their proper function, maintained by Gandalf, and perverted by Saruman, was to encourage and bring out the native powers of the Enemies of Sauron. Gandalf’s opposite was, strictly, Sauron, in one part of Sauron’s operations; as Aragorn was in another.

The Balrog is a survivor from the Silmarillion and the legends of the First Age. So is Shelob. The Balrogs, of whom the whips were the chief weapons, were primeval spirits of destroying fire, chief servants of the primeval Dark Power of the First Age. They were supposed to have been all destroyed in the overthrow of Thangorodrim, his fortress in the North. But it is here found (there is usually a hang-over especially of evil from one age to another) that one had escaped and taken refuge under the mountains of Hithaeglin (the Misty Mountains). It is observable that only the Elf knows what the thing is – and doubtless Gandalf.

Shelob (English representing C.S ‘she-lob’ = female spider) is a translation of Elvish Ungol ‘spider’. She is represented in vol. II p. 332 as descendant of the giant spiders of the glens of Nandungorthin, which come into the legends of the First Age, especially into the chief of them, the tale of Beren and Lúthien. This is constantly referred to, since as Sam points out (vol. II p. 321) this history is in a sense only a further continuation of it. Both Elrond (and his daughter Arwen Undómiel, who resembles Lúthien closely in looks and fate) are descendants of Beren and Lúthien; and so at very many more removes is Aragorn. The giant spiders were themselves only the offspring of Ungoliante the primeval devourer of light, that in spider-form assisted the Dark Power, but ultimately quarrelled with him. There is thus no alliance between Shelob and Sauron, the Dark Power’s deputy; only a common hatred.

Galadriel is as old, or older than Shelob. She is the last remaining of the Great among the High Elves, and ‘awoke’ in Eldamar beyond the Sea, long before Ungoliante came to Middle-earth and produced her broods there. ….

Well, after a long silence you have evoked a fairly long reply. Not too long, I hope, even for such delightful and encouraging interest. I am deeply grateful for it; and I hope all staying at Carradale will accept my thanks.

Yours sincerely,
J. R. R. Tolkien.

[1] N = ng as in ding.


Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

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