Monday, 18 February 2013
Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings'
Now, here is a big topic; a topic and a half eh!
J. R. R. Tolkien's work - 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings'.
I was first introduced to all of this in my mid-teens. I read 'The Hobbit' and quite enjoyed it. At the time, I was inspired by adventure stories, and I liked stories with little people and little species (as a child, I loved reading Mary Norton's 'The Borrowers', for example). So, I read Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' and liked it. I then went on to try 'Lord of the Rings'. I read about one third of Part 1 and then gave up. At the time, I thought that it was just going on too much and there was too much description (I felt the same about Charles Dickens novels then, but years later got to really enjoy them.) But 'The Fellowship of the Ring' was all just too vast for my liking and I could not relate to it all enough (unlike 'The Hobbit'). Somehow, I was getting lost amongst it all.
That was that, I thought. I did not envisage myself ever venturing down the path again, or ever trying to read the books again.
But then suddenly 'The Lord of the Rings' films (directed by Peter Jackson of course) hit the screens. Our sons (in their teens and early 20's at the time) somehow got hold of DVD copies unbeknown to us, and they were suddenly all sitting there watching it all enthralled. At the time, they had no understanding or knowledge that these were classics. How strange life can be! For some reason, we had never spoken to them about either 'The Lord of the Rings' or 'The Hobbit'. Then, suddenly Glenn got drawn in; and he was also loving the films. Even more bizarre, as he gave up on the books in his teens even sooner than I did!
I tried to give the films a go - I liked the atmosphere, but found it vast, and still, I largely found myself falling asleep! I concluded that my basic thoughts about 'Lord of the Rings' all those years ago remained the same. So, I left them all to it (or so I thought!).
Meanwhile, though, our eldest son Alexander, was getting more and more enthralled with it all. He had not studied 'English Literature' or indeed, or read any novels at all much over the years, so this was really all quite something. Something incredible was happening! And so he started reading 'Lord of the Rings'. He poured himself into it; he loved it all. Be was besotted; he was consumed; he was immersed; he was enchanted. He read all 3 of them; and read them all quite quickly - 'The Fellowship of the Ring'; 'The Two Towers' and 'The Return of the King'. Then, he bought the music for it and a big poster, and google searched about it all. His big room was being transformed into 'Lord of the Rings' land - there seemed no end to it all. Once again, I left him to it, but did listen to him, to some extent, telling me how wonderful it all was! And I was certainly pleased that he had ventured into some classical literature - and I hoped that it might be the start of him starting to read some other classical works of literature at some point.
Anyway, then, recently of course, 'The Hobbit' film (1 of 3) hit the cinemas. Well, I thought that I really should go and watch that as I had enjoyed reading 'The Hobbit' in my teens. I also decided that I must be prepared to persevere a bit. Well, I quite enjoyed the film, although I did find it rather drawn out - a 3 hour film, and we are only one third of the way through it all! Is this not cashing in on 'The Lord of the Rings' films, I wondered? Ideally, there should probably have been one film of 'The Hobbit' made first in my opinion; then followed by the 3 films of 'Lord of the Rings'. But then of course, money is ruling this, not literature, I guess. But of course, I don't know what the 2 other 'Hobbit' films are like, as they have not been released yet! Still, the first of 'The Hobbit' films was certainly all very well-acted, wonderfully put together; beautiful scenery and a lovely atmosphere.
So, this all made me think and helped me to make my decision. Yes, I would re-read 'The Hobbit'. I also wanted to read it again, because so often, the film can end up getting more praise than the book; the director more praise than the author, as it were. And the director is often being derivative really - taking the text, the ideas, the plots that the authors have so painstakingly created. That's how I tend to view things anyway. I also got slightly irritated with Glenn here actually, because he ended up loving the films just so much, but had no intention, at all, of trying to read the books again! But on the other hand, I guess the films alerted my attention to it all again, and helped me to decide to have another 'go' at the books. Something which I am sure that I would never have attempted to do otherwise. In fact, this is a huge topic for me - books v. films. Now is not the time to write further on this, but perhaps I will on another occasion - have to see. But for now, and if readers are interested, they could have a look at my 'Woman in the Fifth' blog. Incidentally, that blog is currently running as the 2nd most popular of all my blogs of all time! So, the film must be playing its part in helping to put Kennedy on the map as an author in some way, must it not.
However, I digress, and must return. So, I re-read 'The Hobbit'. I surprised myself really. I read it in about 3 days and I really enjoyed it. And I could see why I liked it in my teens. Tolkien wrote the book, originally, for his children of course. And the way it is written - it is clearly written for children; bright and intelligent children - it is not at all patronising. I thought it was really clever - how Tolkien managed to 'pull that off'. It was also very manageable and readable; it was great for ones imagination; wonderful fantasy and all written in a very seamless way, flowing together just so well. It is all written so well and so beautifully, of course. Such craftsmanship, the likes of which we might never see again. So, next, could I dare to try reading 'The Lord of the Rings' again? Yes, why not? Might as well, I decided. I thought it would also very much please Alexander if I did that - as he rates it all so highly.
Another strand to all of this is 'The Game of Thrones' by George Martin. That also helped me to make my decision. Now what is all this about, one might well ask? Well, our middle son Victor suddenly started talking loads about this. He had bought the whole set on DVD a few months ago, and said it was really great. Another fascinating angle to this is that we sent draft chapters of Victor's story 'The Megalith' to 2 publishers when he was in his mid-teens. He got some very positive feedback, but was told (of course) that he needed to go through an agent. One of the publishers, Voyager, also suggested that he read 'The Game of Thrones'. They were the publishers of this, and it was one of their best-sellers and I guess they thought that Victor could learn something from reading this. They sent him a copy of the book. Victor read some of it, but did not persevere (bit like me with 'Lord of the Rings', I guess). Now, we have bought the whole set of books as well, and believe it or not (as Glenn hardly ever reads fiction), Glenn has now started reading them and is enjoying it all (and he has also already watched the whole DVD set several times)! Wow! How strange life can be!
Am I digressing again? Well, no, not really. Why not? Well, because 'The Game of Thrones' is being compared to 'Lord of the Rings' would you believe! What a big coincidence! It is another huge epic fantasy story, set in another time and another place (a more primitive one). But the main difference is that, whereas with 'The Lord of the Rings' goodness fundamentally wins out (remembering of course, that Tolkien was a Roman Catholic Christian), in 'The Game of Thrones' this is often not the case. Instead, badness often seems to be winning. It is more up to the reader/watcher to make sense of it all. But having said this, I tried watching 'The Game of Thrones' but did not like the general atmosphere much at all (unlike 'The Lord of the Rings'). So at that point, I gave up really with 'The Game of Thrones'. Perhaps, these huge fantasy/adventure stories are more for the male species, I thought. But no, rather than take that attitude, I would try reading Tolkien's work again. That was a much better idea, I decided. Victor and Gregory, by the way, have not (at least so far) read any of Tolkien's work at all.
So, to return to where I was at. Right - I had re-read 'The Hobbit' and enjoyed it. I would try reading 'The Lord of the Rings' again, I decided. Part 1 - 'The Fellowship of the Ring'. I started reading it. I was determined to concentrate and give it my best effort. And hey - I was pleasantly surprised. I was finding myself enjoying it: it was beautifully written; it was all just so artistically put together. A real craftsmanship. Such clever sentence construction; and such a wide variety of language. Amazing! The effort that Tolkien must (and clearly did) put into it all, to make is just so perfect and so complete in this way. I liked the atmosphere with the overpowering feeling of good defeating evil, I liked the characters and I loved the scenery. And I was following it all OK - although one definitely had to pay attention, and it certainly was not an easy read. Well, how could it be? Yet, on the other hand, the writing was beautifully clear (as well as being clever) and of course was also very poetic in many places.The plot progressed slowly, but it was good. I wanted to find out more. But then unfortunately, some things happened in my life that rather distracted me. I could not be so heavily absorbed in it all, and I was finding it more difficult to really engage with it. I still liked the overall feel of it though - as indeed, I did with the films. I managed to finish Part 1. But could I go straight on to Part 2? I decided that I really couldn't. I needed a break; I needed something lighter. And I would perhaps return to it on another occasion, and/or try the films again.
Whilst reading 'The Hobbit' and 'The Fellowship of the Ring' though, I also read another book alongside it. This was 'Tolkien's Ring' by David Day (illus by Alan Lee), Pavilion Books, London, 1999 (hdbk). This is a great book; beautiful illustrations, and explores much of the background to 'The Lord of the Rings'. It looks at, for example, how important the ring in general has been symbolically down the ages (e.g. Wagner's 'Ring') and how Tolkien wanted to create an English legend; English mythology. Indeed, we discover that Tolkien wrote in a letter to a friend:
"I am interested in mythological invention, and the mystery of literary creation. I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish; but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff." (p. 12).
So, I now had a much better understanding about what Tolkien's huge project was all about. So, this is a book that I would definitely recommend if one wants to engage further with Tolkien's work. And coupling this up with reading about Tolkien on the web, things were starting to make more sense to me. By creating this amazing and wonderful myth, he hoped to guide people to the virtuous path, to follow the Roman Catholic Christian path, in fact. But of course, this was all done very subtly (and at first unconsciously by him), and indeed, he criticised C.S. Lewis (who he helped to convert to Christianity in the first place) for making the Christian message all too transparent in 'The Chronicles of Narnia'.
I was amazed to think that one person would work so hard and would put just so much effort in, in this way. He must have been really convinced that he was doing the right thing, that he was doing something very worthwhile and important. It must have been so intrinsically a part of who and what he was. That this was really the most effective way to convey the messages that he wanted to convey; to portray goodness and to convince people that Christianity was right (although, as I say, at first this was done unconsciously by him). We also learn about the importance of trying to figure things out for ourselves, with the wizard Gandalf, leaving them (hobbits and dwarfs) at various points, and them having to work things out for themselves. What a valuable lesson that is; and indeed is one that I think everyone could do with learning!
In addition, Alexander has nearly always tried to do the right thing in his life in one way or another, and perhaps this is one reason why he took to 'The Lord of the Rings' just so much. But I would never have realised the extent of this if I had not read 'The Fellowship of the Ring', so I am glad that I read it for that reason alone (apart from anything else).
So, Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' has done a great deal of good for our family in one way and another, and this was probably one reason that I thought I should venture down the path that I did. It is also a great credit to Tolkien - that it has had such a powerful effect on our whole family, is it not (usually, only one or two of us like a particular work, and/or a particular author). Tolkien's work must have helped just so many other people and families in this and other ways. Creating great fantasies; helping one to be able to develop ones imagination, but also demonstrating that if one aims to do the right thing, then it should pay off in the long run. So, in this way it can also help one through life. It can help to encourage and inspire people to do the right thing (and that one does not have to be a large and handsome hero in order to make this possible!), and it can inspire and help to give people faith and hope in humanity. What more can I say?
I concluded that Tolkien must really have appreciated his Roman Catholic upbringing - well, it did, after all, give him a very good, comfortable, interesting and worthwhile life. Also, that he must have felt all this very instinctively and intuitively. That it shows just how much he appreciated it - that he choose to use his great intelligence in this way.
Tolkien's mother, Mabel Tolkien, was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1900 - even though her Baptist family protested. When he was 3 years old Tolkien and his brother went to England with his mother, but his father died in South Africa. Mabel taught her children herself, and Tolkien could read by 4 years of age. But Mabel sadly died very young - 34 years of age. But she assigned the guardianship of her sons to Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. Fr. Francis was assigned to bring the 2 boys up as good Catholics. Tolkien went on to study at Exeter College, Oxford - first, the Classics and then changed to English Language and Literature. He then became a Professor at Oxford, of course, as well as being a writer, poet and philologist. So, clearly he felt that he had a lot to thank his Christian Catholic upbringing for.
Tolkien himself said that:
"The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision."
Perhaps, again, that is the power of Christianity - it has been around for so long. And it has helped to keep society very stable of course, down the ages. And of course, the symbolism, and rituals in Tolkien's works helps to demonstrate the Catholicism integral in it all. So, Tolkien wrote from the heart, from deep within himself, and it only gradually dawned on him that he was basically portraying Christian Catholicism. All this I have learnt. I felt this instinctively myself as a I read Tolkien's work anyway as I was also bought up Christian, of course, so I had some understanding about where he was coming from. He was not just evangelising - it was far deeper and more complex.
But could Tolkien perhaps have used his intelligence in any better way? Did he just put far too much effort into this project? Who is to say. But obviously, this raises issues for me, as I personally rejected Christianity in my teens. But still, we should be grateful that Tolkien left us this great work; this great mythology; this epic fantasy; this great legend. It is there for us all now, for all time, and it is something that the English can, indeed, be very proud of. That is the problem with geniuses; we can always expect more; we can always not be satisfied and can forget that geniuses are still also just mere mortals, mere human beings, that have to negotiate their way through all the things that life throws at them. They are not divorced from it all.
So, having read Part 1, I decided that I could not continue straightaway with Parts 2 and 3 - I needed some light relief! I needed to read plots that gripped me quicker and that basically cheered me up a bit in a shorter time span So, I read Jane Green's latest book, 'Patchwork Marriage' and 'Emotional Geology' by Linda Gillard, both of which I really enjoyed - (see my last but one blog about 'Emotional Geology'). Hopefully, the author now has some appreciation about how I came to read her book in the first place! I think she should take it as a big compliment, don't you? That I put Tolkien's 'The Two Towers', which I had also borrowed from my local library to one side, and decided to read her book instead! She says in her comment on my blog that it took her a long time to write her book, but it cannot be anything compared to how long it took Tolkien, as it took Tolkien some 13 years to write 'The Lord of the Rings' (1936-1949). Yes, I choose her book over his. Hopefully, this puts things into perspective a little for her. Mind you, I am certain that my whole family will not go on to read (or watch) her works!
I wonder whether I will get round to reading 'The Two Towers' and 'The Return of the King'? We will have to see; and/or perhaps I will go and watch the films again - but concentrate properly this time! Although I have some idea about what happens, I would like to know it in more detail, so this thirst will probably eventually lead me to read and/or watch! So, perhaps watch this space, although in terms of my basic understanding about the whole mission and purpose of the project - well, I think I am basically there with it!