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Posts Tagged ‘The Hobbit’

JRR Tolkien reported that he discovered his stories and the world of Middle Earth.  Bilbo’s complaint that Gandalf took him home from the Lonely Mountain by much too direct a route is perhaps a testimony of Tolkien’s own experience with the Hobbit and subsequently the Lord of the Rings.  Even though the legends of the elves were sprawling through Tolkien’s imagination long before either the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings were published, we know that Lothlorien and Fangorn – and the stories swirling and marching out of them (respectively) – were unexpected developments that Tolkien met as he traveled with Frodo and his companions to the War of the Ring.

To many people, Tolkien’s description of his sub-creation is merely a metaphor for the creative process.  An idea wasn’t in mind before and then unfolds faster than we can write it or say it aloud, as though the whole were in existence before we thought of it.  But for Tolkien, there was more literal (and literary) truth to discovering his characters and stories than I would have guessed.  Especially in the Lord of the Rings, peoples and places were dynamically inspired by meditations on words.

The lore-master of Middle Earth discovered that fantastic age in the associations and nuances of English.  English being only the top level.  He didn’t just borrow an archaic term to sound old or fantastic (as so many pretentious fantasy-novelists do today).  Involved in the study was a lot of Old English, Old Norse, Germanic and even Celtic derivations.  Tolkien hoarded word-mathoms, specimens of language passed around and hidden in old literature, buried in place-names.  Believing that language bore record of a people with creativity, wisdom, and art worth recovering, Tolkien studied and meditated on this vocabulary.  Meanings all-but-forgotten, he restored them, often telling a story in which multiple definitions took living form.  Or if the meaning really was entirely lost, like the purposes of some mathoms, Tolkien upcycled them, making all new but deeply appropriate uses of obscure terms.

One of the easiest examples may be Ent.  In Tolkien’s mythology, Ents are shepherds of the trees, ancient forest-keepers.  They do many things, but most importantly they bring down the corrupted wizard, Saruman, by destroying his stone city, Isengard.  Ent comes from an old English word from which we also get the word “giant.”  The word is also associated with trolls, the large stone-people.  Giants in old mythology were credited with writing the pre-historic epics and constructing the marvelous architecture known to the medieval people only as mysterious ruins.  Tolkien pulled all of these things together in the character and origin of the Ents, and in their stone-dominating assault on Isengard.

Perhaps Lord of the Rings was so successful because Tolkien tapped our own imaginations, our nightmares and our memories, our own ways of talking about those things.  We feel that Middle Earth is part of us because it came from the same places we did.  The Hobbit was nursery-fable, not entirely devoid of the word study that made Tolkien’s other work great, but mostly a hodge-podge of mythology and adventure.  The Silmarillion studied not only the English words and Germanic epics at the root of English and American imagination, but also delved into Greek myths, and more obscure stories (like the Finnish Kaelevala).  The Elvish languages have more to do with Celtic.  All those sources were more remote than the wights and wargs and farthings and elves that resonate with the first audience of Lord of the Rings, the English.

Enormous creativity is required to make stories – especially as complex as Lord of the Rings – out of word definitions and roots.  But it also takes genius to hold so many facts and references in mind at once, seeing comparison and contrast, projecting backwards, remembering how the ancient form of the word was used in some obscure poem.  Thomas A. Shippey’s biography of Tolkien first alerted me to this aspect of his work some years ago, but The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary goes much farther.  A word can be a poem or a story or a mythology or just a really-neat sound.  Tolkien delighted in and brought out all of these.

For more information, look to the Letters of JRR Tolkien and the History of Middle Earth (a series of books containing early manuscripts of Middle Earth stories and also containing glossaries and word-explanations for the languages of middle earth).  I highly recommend that you pick up The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner.  It contains over a hundred studies of words either invented or revived by JRR Tolkien or associated with him and his work.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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The Hobbit is being made into a major motion picture.  I’m sad.  There is a terrible fear in me that this will be like those daily cartoon spin-offs from excellent Disney movies.  All my friends tell me how necessary the story of The Hobbit is to the plot of The Lord of the Rings.  I am glad of its existence, and even glad I read The Hobbit.  There are some enchanting passages about moons and maps and elves and mountains.  Of course Tolkien’s fame and further publications were built on the success of The Hobbit, too. 

 

One part that excites me in seeing Peter Jackson’s skill at fantasy movies is to see Smaug, the dragon.  I love seeing dragons in action.  Not the silly Chinese paper ones that have hundreds of little human feet sticking out the bottom as they run in the parade.  But the dragon in Sleeping Beauty, or those in Reign of Fire, in the old Chronicles of Narnia movies…  and now The Hobbit.  What’s more, this dragon must talk.  That will be interesting. 

 

As I first pondered this one positive point of the upcoming Hobbit movie, I found myself being reproached.  “How could you be a fan of dragons?  You’re a fantasy lover, aren’t you?  Don’t you know that there is a group of Christians who reject fantasy literature because of things like dragons?”  The criticizer was also myself, so I suppose I could be as hard as I wished, in defense or offense. 

 

I think the defense began with a afore-unthought fell blow.  God used dragons in His stories.  Revelation is the most prominent example.  Though my interpretation is generally literal, I believe the dragon in Revelation is an image for a being invisible on the earth, but powerful.  But isn’t the imagery powerful?  Our imaginations are excited.  We shudder.  In most myths, the dragon is a feared and loathsome beast. 

 

God used dragons and other fantastic imagery to connect to our imaginations, which He also created.  Have you ever wondered why God gave us imagination?  Michael Card calls it “the bridge between my heart and mind.” 

 

Respecting Dr. Paleo’s reasoned position on fantasy literature, which he was so good as to share with me, the offense half of myself recovered from this powerful strike to offer further evidence (borrowed from my fellow blogger).  Why would you want to read a story in which the laws God created don’t exist? 

 

Testimonial rebuttal was provided by the defense.  When I read fiction – and fantasy especially, it is like a lens by which I can focus in on one issue.  CS Lewis wrote his Space Trilogy addressing hypothetical questions.  What if God hadn’t given Adam and Eve the choice in the garden?  Through his fantasy world in which there was no choice, I came to better understand my world where there is one.  Lord of the Rings is excellent at showing a strong line between good and evil.  There were falls, temptations, and betrayals.  But the moral right and the moral wrong were always clear.  Good guys could fight bad guys without doubting who was bad. 

 

Tolkien was Catholic, and his worldview is pervasive in his work.  Harry Potter is, I understand, also a series of fantasy books reflecting the author’s worldview.  The reason I am opposed to Harry Potter is that the book directs children to real Satanism, and employs real language from the occult.  There are other more minor issues, like the portrayal of parents and authority, that would make these books unsuitable for children. 

 

My objecting side refused to surrender the point that the two forms of fantasy are substantially different, and made another attempt at dissuading my Lord of the Rings loving side from its stand.  Don’t you have anything better to do or read? 

 

One of my best friends was aghast when I informed her that I am willing to give up my Lord of the Rings collection if the man I marry disapproves of them.  They helped form my philosophy and interests.  At this moment I do not believe God wanted me not to read them.  But it seems remotely possible that with the other characteristics and values I’m praying my husband will have, he might also disapprove of fantasy literature and even of dragons.  In which case there are a lot of things more valuable to me than my stack of Lord of the Rings books, movies, memorabilia, and games. 

 

For a black and white person like me, strong-willed and defensive, a resolution to change my mind if warranted in the future is an interesting position.  I am in a similar place regarding skirts.  I love skirts, and feel I can do almost anything in them.  But I enjoy wearing a good warm pair of jeans some days, too.  It’s always better to err on the side of excellence, isn’t it? 

 

At the end of the debate, the defensive me was winning.  That point about the Bible using a dragon to represent the manifestation of evil encouraged me.  Tolkien, at least, classifies dragons in the same way: representing embodied evil: greed and destruction and deceit.  Without familiarity with these or other mythological dragons, how could one even come close to comprehending the abhorrence intended by John in describing the devil on earth that way? 

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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