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Writing Bliss

"If they do not write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves." -C.S. Lewis

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September 2014

Tolkien Week: A Personal Journey

Today marks a very important date for Tolkien fans.  On September 24, 2014, Tolkien wrote his first poem which would launch his Middle-earth saga.  He wrote it in the trenches of World War I and because of that it had an immense personal attachment for him.  As I mentioned in an earlier post from this week, Tolkien received a final letter from a comrade and friend serving in the trenches before his death and in the letter his friend begged that Tolkien complete his work so that he “may say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them.”[1]  This is a highly personal moment for Tolkien which allows us to better appreciate the emotion and passion in his stories.

For today’s Tolkien Week Blog, I have chosen to enter into a more personal realm and stray, only briefly, from literary critique. The works of J.R.R. Tolkien have had a profound impact on me as an individual and on my writing, and sometimes I cannot explain why. I read The Hobbit as a child, perhaps eight or nine years old. My first exposure to The Lord of the Rings, however, was Peter Jackson’s films which came out when I was in high school. My English teacher once told me, “So you liked the movies, huh? You should try the books. Your imagination will love you for it.” I went to the library, took them home, and never looked back. From that reading experience would awaken a sleeping nerd within which I never knew existed. I exhausted every excuse to use the books in presentations in school; I began to write fan fiction in which I created a new character within the story which led to me joining an online roleplaying community. Before long, I was rereading The Hobbit and exploring The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales. Today I am a student at Signum University seeking a Master’s Language and Literature with a concentration in Tolkien Studies. I am writing a literary and cinematic analysis of Tolkien’s stories and have read his biography and Letters multiple times. How can one author bring on such a surge of inspiration and motivation?

If Tolkien and his writing played an important role in your life, please share it here. This week is about Tolkien’s legacy and to be honest, it is about being thankful to his son, Christopher as well for continuing that legacy. How has The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, or other Tolkienian works shaped your writing experience?

[1] Carpenter, pg. 100

Tolkien Week: In Praise of Bilbo and the Shire

tolkienweek

Happy Hobbit Day!!  Today, in celebration of International Hobbit Day, I am posting an article I wrote previously through The One Ring.net forums on Bilbo and the Shire.  There is much that can be said about any of the hobbits and much more can be said on their familial relationships (which is another article on which I am currently working), but Bilbo comes from a special place; the Shire.  The Shire has many similarities to the England Tolkien once called home.  Although he disliked allegory and it would be wrong to point out blatant symbolism between the Shire and England prior to industrialization, but Tolkien allows us to apply lessons from the Shire in the modern world.

The first three pages of the story, up to the point where readers meet Gandalf, explain a great deal about Bilbo’s personal life. The narrator does not go into great detail about his personality but we are told what hobbits are which was no doubt a great relief to the author who had no clue what they were! Tolkien begins by telling his readers about Bilbo’s family and in a sense, we meet Bilbo’s parents, Belladonna Took and Bungo Baggins. We have already discussed how the internal battle within Bilbo was between the Took and Baggins sides of his family. The narrator tells us that, although the Tooks enjoyed adventures from time to time, they were wealthy enough that it did not matter what sort of trouble in which they may have found themselves. According to legend, or at the very least according to the gossip of the neighbors, someone in the Took family had taken a “fairy wife” (H2). The term “fairy” was used very frequently by Tolkien in his early writings and it was simply a synonym for “elf,” which he uses much more frequently later.[1] The narrator quickly disputes the claim and says it is “absurd”, but nevertheless that side of Bilbo’s family has been associated with an adventurous, less than respectable nature. The Baggins side, however, “never had any adventures or did anything unexpected” and the locals considered them respectable and predictable. We are told that Bilbo “looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father” (H3). Although he looked like the Baggins side of the family, the narrator points out that something Tookish was inside him dying to come out. The lucky readers are privileged to watch both sides become at peace with one another throughout Bilbo’s journey.

Now that we have discovered some information about Bilbo’s family tree, it is also vital to understand the environment in which the hobbit resides. The Shire is a very unique place and it has a sacred place in Bilbo’s heart throughout the entire journey to the Lonely Mountain.   Tolkien, in a letter to Deborah Webster written in 1958, confesses, “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food.”[2] Incidentally, in many interviews, Peter Jackson also admitted to being a hobbit. He hardly ever wears shoes, unless he has to, and he even said in the fifth production video for An Unexpected Journey that he wished he could retire to his Shire set. The events in the book are mostly from the view of hobbits; be it Bilbo, Frodo, or Merry and Pippin, and the films capitalize on this. The set of the Shire is just as Tolkien described and since this is where both stories begin, it is essential that we understand what makes the Shire so special to both author and director.

Arthur W. Hunt III, a Professor at the University of Tennessee, wrote an article in 2009 titled “Back to the Shire: From English Village to Global Village and Back Again.” The purpose of his writing was to persuade a greater audience that the Shire in Tolkien’s stories represents something greater than a fictitious setting for a fantasy piece of literature. “The Shire represents permanence, a sense of place, and harmony with nature,” he argued.[3] Tolkien uses explicit detail to describe the desolation of waste in the North which causes Bilbo to wish he was back at home, and again in Mordor as Frodo and Sam make their way to Mount Doom. These vivid descriptions sharply contrast the beauty of Bag End and are foreshadowing what will happen to Middle-earth if evil is victorious. Tolkien had a love for simple things and nature, as do the hobbits of the Shire and as did the English people in general before the age of industrialization. America too experienced an age of simplicity when the Puritans arrived and settled in New England. Hunt believes that the “early colonial towns were actually transplants of medieval-like villages.”[4] He goes even further to argue that the subtext of Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga is “obviously about the violation of the earth”[5] and, in fact, the end of the later trilogy proves this assessment correct when Frodo and his friends return to find their home in shambles and are forced to rebuild their lives. The folk of the Shire live in harmony with one another, for the most part, and enjoy the simple things in life such as gardening and smoking. Hunt’s article reinforces Tolkien’s personal desire to return to a life unaffected by a rapidly growing technological society.

Throughout the adventure in The Hobbit, we see glimpses of the Shire in Bilbo’s thoughts conveyed through the narrator. It is what gives him strength in the story. Although Gandalf orchestrated the trip and Thorin is the king of his thirteen companions, it is Bilbo who shows true courage and leadership. He quickly evolves from being a tag-along body to the savior of the group on multiple occasions. We begin to see this in Mirkwood as Bilbo slinks through the Elvenking’s halls stealing food to stay alive, and eventually organizing the escape plan which takes the company to Lake-town via barrels down the river.

We should be able to know what the Shire means to Bilbo throughout his journey. We have been told by the narrator that Bilbo often thought of his hobbit hole and of bacon and quiet. He suffers from homesickness, a feeling familiar to anyone who has spent a significant amount of time away from the place in which they live. It is when Bilbo’s sees the Hill for the first time in a year and he breaks into poetry, the first heartfelt bit of poetry he utters the entire journey. The first stanza speaks of his adventure and his travels, but the second stanza is exclusively about the place he calls home:

Roads go ever ever on

Under cloud and under star,

Yet feet that wandering have gone

Turn at last to home afar

Eyes that fire and sword have seen

And horror in the halls of stone

Look at last on meadows green

And trees and hills they long have known (H302).

This stanza also refers to Bilbo himself, although indirectly. Bilbo’s homecoming is a “complex emotional experience.”[6] After a year of wishing he was home in front of his warm hearth, drinking tea, smoking his pipe, and eating good food, he is now home and unsure how to approach it. The voice with which he uses in his poem is distant and impersonal, almost as if he is singing a song that later generations would sing of his adventures. Although he is looking upon his longed-for home, he is still remembering his travels and the unpleasantness of some of his experiences.

Earlier we talked about how Tolkien likes to bookend his stories. Comparing the “unexpected” and “long-expected” parties of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, respectively, Tolkien begins both of his sagas with hobbits and parties. In the same way he ends his hobbits’ adventures with unrestful homecomings. Granted, Bilbo’s return is much less devastating than what Frodo and his companions return to, but nonetheless, Bilbo finds his home being turned upside down by an auction. His family members and neighbors, after a year of not hearing from him, assumed he was dead and had taken it upon themselves to disperse his personal belongings. We should not be surprised at all, or disappointed for that matter, by the fact that Bilbo’s first and greatest annoyance is not that his things are being removed from his home, but that people entering his house are “not even wiping their feet on the mat” (H303). After all that he has been through and after all that he has witnessed, upon coming home he is still perturbed by small things such as having an unclean hobbit hole. In a way, Bilbo has not changed at all.

On the other hand, Bilbo has changed a great deal. Despite the fact that he was no longer considered “respectable,” and in fact even his own family had distanced themselves and their children from him, we are told that Bilbo did not care: “He was quite content; and the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party” (H304). Now Bilbo is appreciating his simple life more than ever. He has no regrets and Tolkien makes a point to capitalize the event of the first chapter because it was a life-altering moment in Bilbo’s longevity. The narrator mentions that Bilbo hung his sword over the mantelpiece and he displayed the coat of mail given to him by Thorin. We are also told that the hobbit followed the lead of Dain, the new King under the Mountain, in giving presents to his family and wisely spending his treasure for the good of others. In Chapter One, we discover that both the Took and Baggins side of his family are wealthy so Bilbo grew up wonting for nothing and even now, as the wealthiest hobbit in Bag End, he continues to spend his money thriftily and selflessly.

Bilbo in The Hobbit is extremely important to fans of Tolkien literature, especially the saga of Middle-earth, and to viewers of Jackson’s film adaptations. This is where the audience is introduced to hobbits, and indeed the author himself learned about hobbits through Bilbo’s character. Another central theme of this book, one that appeals specifically to the young audience Tolkien was targeting, is that little people can achieve big things. This idea sets up readers to expect great things from Frodo when they meet him in The Lord of the Rings. It is also not just something which runs in the Took/Baggins family. Throughout the sequel (if one would dare call it that), Sam, Pippin, and Merry also achieve greatness and it is all possible through the original adventure experienced by the legendary Bilbo Baggins.

[1]Olsen, pg. 22.

[2]‘Letters,’ pg.288.

[3]Hunt, pg. 217.

[4]Hunt, pg. 212.

[5]Hunt, pg. 214.

[6]Olsen, pg. 300.

Tolkien Week: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”

hobbit-day

It has been a while since my last blog post but let’s face it, for Tolkien Week and Hobbit Day (arguably both today and tomorrow) one takes time out of their busy schedule to recognize the very thing that inspired the writing and reading in which I participate.  For those unfamiliar with Hobbit Day or its significance to fantasy nerds everywhere, you may read up on it here on the LOTR Wiki page.  Of course, several people argue that because of the difference between the Shire calendar and our own, the actual birthdays of Bilbo and Frodo should be celebrated on September 12 instead.  Well, for me, every day is Hobbit Day so it doesn’t matter which day I post this, as long as it gets posted.

Hobbit Day officially is tomorrow, September 22, but today in 1937 The Hobbit was first published and with that publication came the first line of a story that would become legendary and iconic: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  The writing of The Hobbit was as much an unexpected adventure for Tolkien as it was for Bilbo Baggins.  Although Tolkien had created quite a lot of what would become his sub-creation of Middle-earth some years prior with the collective works which would eventually be published as The Silmarillion, the journey through the writing of The Hobbit was relatively unknown.  As an Oxford professor, J. R. R. Tolkien taught medieval history and he loved his country dearly, but sadly, he understood that the Norman invasion of 1066 had basically eradicated any and all early history of England up to that point.  It had been a personal goal of Tolkien to create a purely “English” mythology.  He immersed himself in Norse, Celtic, Greek, and other ancient legends to draw upon their literary appeal.  In a letter, written around 1951, Tolkien expressed that he understood the Arthurian tales were as close as he would get to an English mythology.  The problem was, despite being powerful and romantic, the tales of Arthur were “imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with [the] English” and they too “explicitly [contained] the Christian religion.”[1] Arthur, had he existed, would have been of Roman decent, and over time the legend had become heavily influenced by French storytellers.  For this reason, Tolkien felt that the stories did not do the English people justice.  As far as religion was concerned, Tolkien was a dedicated Catholic, so he had no problem with the Christianity alluded to in the Arthurian tales, but he felt that these types of literature should not push a certain theme or message.  Tolkien highly disliked allegory and mentions his opinion several times throughout his letters and in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories.”  To create an English mythology was Tolkien’s ultimate goal, but knowing that is not enough to understand the passion found in his narratives.  We must understand his heart in order to understand his stories.

As early as 1914, while still a student at Oxford, Tolkien had written the first of many poems that would become part of his own personal mythology; “The Voyage of Earendel.”  Tolkien had a circle of friends who had formed a literary group in which they read and composed poems, seeking one another’s approval and criticism.  This group helped shape his ideas, but his friends kept asking what his poems were about.  Even Tolkien did not know, but he assured them that he would find out.  By 1915 he had begun his “nonsense fairy language” which would evolve into Elvish.[2]  Combining his new language with his poems, Tolkien steadily added to his works which would eventually become The Silmarillion.  Before he could continue, however, the first of two world wars began, pulling Tolkien, along with his friends, into the conflict.

Tolkien served his country during the Great War and he saw firsthand the evil of mankind.  He had to bid farewell to many of his comrades because by 1918, all but one of his closest friends had perished.  He stood by, day after day, watching the bodies pile up in the trenches, awaiting his day to die.  It was the trench fever which finally took him away from the war and back to his home in England and his new bride, Edith.  His experience in the trenches certainly molded him, and they later would leak onto the pages of his writing.  His ultimate motivation to continue his faery stories came in the form of a letter written by one his friends from the Oxford literary group.  The last letter he wrote to Tolkien before his death in the trenches encouraged him to write an epic, and begged that he “may say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them.”[3]  Finally, Tolkien sat down and committed himself to creating the mythology which he strove to do for so long.  His stories reflected his experiences through the 1920s, including his multiple visits to the hospitals, which gave him plenty of time to read the Old Norse and Finnish legends he loved so much.  These became the foundation for tales such as The Children of Hurin and “The Fall of Gondolin.”  His own relationship with his wife led to the romantic, and highly personal, tale of Beren and Luthien.  In fact, the name Luthien is engraved on Edith’s tombstone.  On a very personal level Tolkien’s stories were immensely passionate and growing in complexity.  Knowing a little bit about Tolkien’s personal and professional background, we can understand that The Hobbit of 1937 was not the beginning of a journey; nor, of course, was it the end.  It was merely a small step in the grand staircase of Tolkien’s mythology.

In describing his version of a “fairy story,” Tolkien coined the word “eucatastrophe,” which simply means the opposite of the known word “catastrophe.”  Eucatastrophe refers to “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argue is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).”[4]  The idea of thirteen exiled dwarves traveling to battle a fire-breathing dragon for their lost homeland seems futile.  So too does the image of a lonely hobbit walking through Mordor to destroy the One Ring of the Dark Lord depict hopelessness.  Tolkien takes these events that should turn tragic, as expected, and creates a surge of emotion when an unexpected happy ending occurs.  I use the term “happy ending” very loosely, because in truth, Tolkien resisted for a terribly long time in The Hobbit to produce such an ending to the story.  Even in the very end, when all hope seems lost and Thorin and Company storm onto the battlefield, defying death and defeat, Thorin falls and so do his nephews and heirs, and the kingdom he fought so hard to reclaim now passes to a new strain of the line of Durin.  A new generation is born and a new era of kingship enters the mountain.  This is not the happy ending of fairy tales we know, or that the 1937 audience would have known, but it is altogether a different and still very good ending.

At this point, the fantasy genre had finally been established.  Tolkien, the father of fantasy literature, spent most of his life devoted to his creation of Middle-earth and even today, forty years after his death, Christopher Tolkien is still publishing his father’s works as he makes his way through unseen manuscripts and scribbled notes.  In a 1955 response to a fan letter, Tolkien quoted his friend C.S. Lewis as once having said, “If they don’t write the kind of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.”[5]  True to that statement, both Lewis and Tolkien went on to write two of the most beloved fantasy series in literature.  It is to the Lewis quote that I have devoted this blog and it is on this day that I dedicate this post to Tolkien and his stories and in doing so, say a hearty “thank you” for inspiring, not only me and my writing, but generations of readers who can now go forth in the fantasy spirit and carry on the legacy which started today, September 21, 1937.

[More to come this week in celebration of Tolkien Week, thanks for reading!]

[1] ‘Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien,’ pg. 144

[2] ‘Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien,’ Carpenter, pg. 85

[3] Carpenter, pg. 100

[4] ‘Letters,’ pg. 100

[5] ‘Letters,’ pg. 209

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