A world of pure hue

In my reread of The Lord of the Rings I’ve paused at the Ford of Bruinen, the ending of Book I in The Fellowship of the Ring, so I can take stock of the way I’ve come. In so doing I note that the cover of my one-volume edition features a design by John Howe of Gandalf the Grey in full flow; however my first single volume copy had a design by Pauline Baynes front and back, adapted from her earlier slipcase design for the three volumes of Tolkien’s epic, with Gandalf and the hobbits gazing out over a Middle-earth landscape as one’s first view.

What sticks out for me from both Pauline Baynes designs is the strong use of colour — the yellow-gold of the trees framing the inset images, the bold red of the title and author’s name, the greens of the Shire-like landscape on the front cover, the blue tinge of Mordor’s spiky landscape on the reverse.

Memories of those colours, along with Tolkien’s own illustrations for the third edition in 1966 of The Hobbit, drew me back to an essay I remembered reading in Mythlore, a journal focused on Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams, as well as on general fantasy and mythic studies. Did I still have it? I rummaged amongst miscellaneous papers and magazines I’d brought with me over at least three house moves, and there it was, Mythlore 26, Winter 1981, Volume 7, No 4. I dived straight in.

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The evolution of Aragorn

Bellerophon and the Chimaera
Bellerophon and the Chimaera: artefact in the British Museum © C A Lovegrove

Hobbit to Hero:
the making of Tolkien’s King
by Elizabeth M Stephen.
ADC Publications 2012

Aragorn son of Arathorn, the returning king of the third part of The Lord of the Rings, is as a character very familiar to us now from the Peter Jackson films, but he made little impression on me during my first reading of the trilogy in the late sixties, and not much more on subsequent readings. This, I’d imagine, was a very common situation until the turn of this century.

As is pointed out in Hobbit to Hero there has been, apart from a chapter in Paul Kocher’s 1972 study Master of Middle-earth, precious little extended discussion of Aragorn in any commentary, certainly not in Isaacs and Zimbardo’s Tolkien and the Critics (1968), Lobdell’s 1975 A Tolkien Compass (not, as twice in this text, The Tolkien Compass) nor even in Eaglestone’s Reading The Lord of the Rings collection of essays (2005).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Tolkien student — heaven knows I’ve tried and failed several times to read The Silmarillion, and I’m a stranger to most of Christopher Tolkien’s editings of his father’s incomplete drafts — so can’t vouch that this is so for all the scribblings of Tolkien scholars and fans. But Elizabeth Stephen is a lifelong student, so should know what exists on the subject of Tolkien’s king; and apparently “it is by no means unusual for the name of Aragorn to barely receive a mention”.

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A closely woven story

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
— From the Foreword (1966) to The Lord of the Rings

As part of my discussion of The Lord of the Rings under the general heading Talking Tolkien I want to consider the dread word allegory because, despite so much authoritative refutation, one still sees the earnest question online (eg here) along the lines of “Is The Lord of the Rings an allegory?”

A deliberate reading of a story as allegory is termed allegoresis. However, Tolkien’s own Foreword to the Second Edition denied absolutely that the War of the Ring was a closet way of referring to the Great War or the Second World War, with the One Ring a substitute for the Bomb: the crucial chapter, as he emphasised for example, “was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster. […] The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion.”

So why, in the face of such a public denial, does so much commentary still obsess about the novel being an allegory? Probably the answer partly lies in what Tolkien termed applicability and a persistent inability by some to distinguish between perception and intention.

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Talking ’bout Tolkien

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

— Chapter III, The Fellowship of the Ring.

I first heard about J R R Tolkien in 1967, from a fellow student who brazenly flourished under my nose her three hardback volumes of The Lord of the Rings given by her parents. She enthused about it so much that, when the one-volume paperback (minus the appendices) came out in 1968 I promptly bought myself a copy from my rapidly-depleting student grant and first immersed myself properly in Middle-earth.

How had I not heard of him before, or his works? — because by this time the third edition of The Hobbit had been published in 1966, and hobbitomania was starting to make itself manifest in popular culture — and yet all of that had somehow passed me by. I am one of those who barely remembers the sixties because I sleepwalked my way through them, and for a few decades more.

Anyway, that was the start of my involvement with the work of what Paul Kocher called the Master of Middle-earth. I read The Lord of the Rings pretty much every ten years or so until my 1968 edition with its Pauline Baynes cover eventually fell apart: sometime, probably in the new millennium as the Jackson trilogy opened in the cinemas, I acquired a pre-loved 1993 edition with appendices and a John Howe illustration of Gandalf on the cover.

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Voyage and return

Sugarloaf mountain near Abergavenny: an inspiration for The Lonely Mountain?

J R R Tolkien: The Hobbit,
or There and Back Again
Illustrated by David Wenzel
Adapted by Charles Dixon with Sean Denning
Harper 2006

I scarcely need to introduce the story of Bilbo Baggins, a halfling who is persuaded by a wizard and thirteen dwarfs to go on a long and dangerous journey to an isolated mountain, where treasure is guarded by a wicked dragon, and who finally returns home (as the subtitle proclaims).

First published in 1937, revised in 1951 and adapted for radio, animated and live action films, and for the stage, The Hobbit has been around in in its many guises for over 80 years now. As a graphic novel illustrated by David Wenzel it first began to be issued three decades ago, in 1989, and was reissued with revisions and thirty pages of new artwork in 2006.

Each medium has its advantages and drawbacks and so the question to ask when confronted by David Wenzel’s most famous work is, what does it add to the experience of Tolkien’s original saga?

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Wales and Tolkien

Map of Middle Earth by Chris Taylor and Chris Guerette
http://www.ititches.com/middleearth/me.pdf

In ‘Where was The Shire?’ I mentioned a tradition, local to the Vale of Usk, claiming that Tolkien had not only written part of The Lord of the Rings in Talybont-on-Usk, Powys, Wales but also based his notion of The Shire — the hobbit homeland — on aspects of the Black Mountains landscape. Huge questions and objections had loomed large in my mind however, and it soon became clear that I wasn’t not alone in doubting the likelihood of this recent ‘tradition’. I then promised a follow-up post, and here it is.

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From whimsy to saga

winged

J R R Tolkien:
The Hobbit
George Allen & Unwin (3rd edition 1972)

Wizard at the door?
Twelve dwarves too? You’ll be telling
me a dragon’s next!
I must have spent my childhood and adolescence skim-reading most of the literature I was introduced to, gaining impressionist pictures of those works but missing much of the subtlety of language, characterisation and narrative. Having taken it on myself in recent years to begin re-reading those books with more attentiveness The Hobbit seemed a natural choice. Rather than merely summarising what must be one of the most familiar tales in modern fantasy I’ve opted to discuss the personal insights that this re-reading suggested to me.

The first insight I got is that Tolkien’s prose changes from whimsical to saga-like over the course Bilbo’s journey there and back again. Despite the revisions he made to two subsequent editions (I read the most common 1966 third edition), the avuncular approach he takes at the opening, very reminiscent of the tone of the posthumously published The Father Christmas Letters, sits ill at ease with descriptions of casualities in battle and the more serious and earnest language at the end; revisions clearly haven’t reconciled the two approaches.

The next insight was Continue reading “From whimsy to saga”

What’s the use of a book without pictures?

skyline

Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopædia
by David Day.
Mitchell Beazley 1993 (1991)

This is a work that attempts to live up to its title: it includes an introduction to Tolkien’s published works (not just related to Middle Earth), then rushes straight into chapters on history, geography, peoples and nations (pretentiously called sociology here), natural history and a Who’s Who in Middle Earth, finally ending with indices and acknowledgements.

Because David Day doesn’t just limit himself to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there are charts and maps that help to place the War of the Ring in context, and the whole is profusely illustrated by nearly a score of artists.

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A charming guide to Middle Earth

hills

Barbara Strachey Journeys of Frodo:
an Atlas of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Unwin Paperbacks 1981

Based on Tolkien’s descriptions in The Lord of the Rings and his original paintings and drawings of Middle Earth, Journeys of Frodo tracks the routes taken by the hobbit and his companions of the Fellowship all the way to Gondor and, in the case of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, back to the Shire. Barbara Strachey had long wanted more detailed maps to follow the action and, failing the provision of a definitive atlas, embarked on the task herself despite having no background in cartography. Continue reading “A charming guide to Middle Earth”