5 Bookish Misconceptions: Part Four

Hamlet is an Angsty Teen.

Scholars debate the exact age of Hamlet and some will argue that Hamlet is a teenager based on differences in various versions of the play.  However, we do know that the role of Hamlet was almost certainly written for and played by Richard Burbage, who would have been in 30s at the time.  We also have the testimony of the gravedigger in Act V,  who states that he began working his job thirty years ago, when Hamlet was born.  Although this testimony occurs in the Second Quarto and not the First, it seems clear to me, at least, that Shakespeare would have ultimately written his play for the actors he had available, making Hamlet an adult and not a teen.

J. R. R. Tolkien Created Fantasy.

I do not think anyone doubts that J. R. R. Tolkien revolutionized fantasy or made it cool or inspired countless generations of fantasy writers.  However, people were indeed writing fantasy before Tolkien.  Tolkien read George MacDonald, for example, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was published decades before Tolkien in 1865, while L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz appeared in print in 1900.  If you are interested in more fantasies published before The Hobbit, you can check out Tales Before Tolkien, edited by Douglas A. Anderson.

“The Road Not Taken” Is a Celebration of the American Spirit of Independence.

Robert Frost’s poem is famous for its final last lines: “”Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”  By themselves, the lines seem to be a congratulatory reflection on how the speaker forged his own path through the world. However, if you read the whole poem, you will see that the speaker presents the two roads as equal–“just as fair” and worn by feet “really about the same.”  The final lines are perhaps the speaker justifying his decision to himself–or maybe even sighing regretfully (Is the “difference” good or bad?)–and not an unambiguous celebration of his pioneer spirit.

The Phantom of the Opera is a seductive romance.

Gaston Leroux’s novel reads much more like a detective novel than a romance, with various sources being compiled by the narrator to determine the truth behind the titular Phantom of the Opera.  Leroux’s Phantom is much darker than the one made famous by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical.  He presents himself to Christine as the Angel of Music spoken of by her dead father, using her credulity to tie her to himself emotionally.  However, he also kidnaps her twice and Christine begs Raoul to take her away to safety.  The book ends with the Phantom (an assassin who prefers to kill with the lasso) imprisoning and threatening to torture Raoul and his ally “the Persian.”  Christine is forced to agree to marry the Phantom to save the men and prevent the Phantom from blowing up a packed opera house.  The book still ends with redemption, but, suffice it to say, Leroux’s version does not present the Phantom as a sexy lover but rather as a deranged killer (despite his sympathetic backstory).

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5 Bookish Misconceptions: Part Three

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The Ringbearers Die/Gain Immortality at the End of The Lord of the Rings.

Ships that leave from the Grey Havens set sail for the Undying Lands, named so because the immortal Valar dwell there.  Frodo does not die at the end of the book, nor does he become immortal himself.  We can assume that he lives quietly in the Undying Lands for some time before dying a natural death.

Juliet Wakes to See Romeo One Last Time Before He Dies.

Garrick’s 1758 version of Romeo and Juliet modified Shakespeare’s text so that the lovers have a brief union before their deaths.  This may be one of the  most famous adaptations of the play.  However, students who believe that Juliet wakes before Romeo’s death are likely thinking about the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann.  In Shakespeare’s original play, Romeo dies before Juliet can see him again, thus denying audiences that brief moment of happiness.

Thoreau Lived in the Remote Wilderness When Writing Walden.

It’s an inside literary joke to remark on how Thoreau’s experience roughing it in nature actually consisted of his living in a cabin less than a half hour’s walk from his family’s home.  His mother also came by sometimes to help with the housekeeping.  Thoreau may have been observing nature, but he was hardly in a survival situation.

The Western Canon Has Remained Static Over the Years.

The Canon is supposed to be a list of “timeless” works that have influenced Western culture.  It is thus awkward sometimes to admit that the list of works in the Canon have changed over the years, with some titles being dropped and others added.  Consider, for instance, that literary scholars largely ignored Beowulf until 1936–when Tolkien made a case for its literary, and not just its historic, value.  Its “timeless” qualities simply were not obvious to most people for hundreds of years.  And, in the future, we could very well see Beowulf, or another work, removed from the list as literary tastes and values change.

Go Set a Watchman Is the Sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Go Set a Watchman was the original story Lee presented for publication and she was asked to rewrite it.  The result was To Kill a Mockingbird.  Thus, we can consider Go Set a Watchman as a draft for To Kill a Mockingbird.  It is, however, difficult to know how Lee’s understanding of the story and the characters changed as she rewrote it, or if, after rewriting, she still saw the events of Go Set a Watchman as canonical.

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10 Misconceptions about J. R. R. Tolkien and His Work

Tolkien Reading Event 2018Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Home and Hearth: The Many Ways of Being a Hobbit. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!  Check out the complete schedule here.

Tolkien Was Primarily a Fantasy Author.

In his lifetime, Tolkien was a respected philologist and professor of literature; he was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.  Some of his professional achievements include convincing the scholarly community of the literary value of Beowulf and producing a highly-regarded translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with E. V. Gordon.  Only today do we think primarily of Tolkien as a fiction writer.  In his letters, Tolkien notes he is worried that his colleagues will think he was wasting his time by producing works of fantasy rather than working on his academic obligations.

The Lord of the Rings Was WRitten a Trilogy.

Tolkien actually wrote the work as a single book.  His publishers asked him to split it into three volumes due to a paper shortage that resulted from WWII.  This also lowered the price for consumers.

Denethor Is Nothing But a Loser.

The films depict Denethor as a degenerating madman who no longer cares for the good of his city, but sits back to watch it crumble.  In the book, we learn that Denethor, according to Gandalf is a man of great power and high lineage.  His strength of will allows him to resist Sauron and continue fighting him until Faramir’s seeming death, when Denethor finally succumbs to Sauron’s suggestions that all his acts are without hope.

Eowyn Defeated the Witch-King Alone.

Glorfindel predicted that the Witch-king of Angmar would not fall by the hand of man alone.  Eowyn fulfills this prophecy, but so does the Hobbit Meriadoc, who stabs the Witch-king, allowing Eowyn to go in for the kill.

Gondor= Minas Tirith

The films suggest that Gondor is a fading kingdom comprised primarily of its capital city Minas Tirith, along with a ruined outpost at Osgiliath.  In the book, readers learn that Gondor is a much larger country and that its soldiers are fighting against Sauron on multiple fronts, not just at Osgiliath.

There Are Only Three Women in LotR.  (Four if We Count Shelob)

Fans tend to point towards Arwen, Eowyn, Galadriel, and sometimes Shelob (debatable because she is a spider) as Tolkien’s “only” female characters in the book.  This is presumably because the films leave out Goldberry, Ioreth, and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins.  Rosie Cotton appears briefly in both the book and the films.  How effective fans find each character is, of course, open to discussion.

Sauron Is the Ultimate Evil in Tolkien’s Mythology.

Melkor turned Morgoth is Tolkien’s first super villain and, at the height of his power, far stronger than Sauron, who was at first only his lieutenant.  Morgoth is so powerful that only intervention by the Valar (divine beings) can result in his overthrow.

Elves Are Perfect.

The Elvers were, at one point, open to manipulation by Morgoth and Sauron.  For years, they fought each other for possession of the Silmarils.  Fëanor and his sons, for instance, lead an attack on the Teleri for their ships, an act known as the Kinslaying.  They continued to fight and betray each other long after.

The Silmarillion Is Strictly Canonical.

At his death, Tolkien left a large number of unpublished manuscripts with various versions of different stories.  His son Christopher organized these into The Silmarillion and edited them to make a coherent narrative.  However, in many cases, it is difficult for us to know which version of the story Tolkien intended to be the final, definitive version.  Other versions can be found in The History of Middle-Earth.

Tolkien’s Work Is All Too Difficult to Approach.

Tolkien wrote many different kinds of works from academic texts to children’s books.  Readers who find themselves intimidated by The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion might want to check out one of Tolkien’s shorter works such as Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wooton Major, or Roverandom.

5 Bookish Misconceptions: Surprising Facts about Literature

Are you an avid reader? You still might not know some these facts about some very famous books!

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Shakespeare is hard to understand because he wrote Old English.

Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon) was spoken in England until about 1150.  It was followed by Middle English, which was followed by modern English around 1500.  William Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote early modern English.  You can easily tell the difference.  This is the start of Beowulf, written in Old English:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

It makes Shakespeare look quite easy, doesn’t it? He may invert some of his sentences and use some unfamiliar words, but most of us can figure out his text with some practice. Learning Old English, however, is like learning a new language!

All classics are Victorian novels.

When people say they “hate” classics, they usually seem to be thinking of some large, dusty tome full of long sentences.  In other words, they seem to thinking of the Victorian novel or, even more specifically, of Charles Dickens (who was, in his defense, paid by the word).  However, classics span all time periods and genres.  The Lord of the Rings, Anne of Green Gables, 1984, and Beloved are all considered classics. And they are all very different.

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy.

The Lord of the Rings was actually written as a single novel.  (This becomes more obvious once you consider that Boromir’s part in the Fellowship is concluded a few pages into The Two Towers–not at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, where Peter Jackson moved it for a more conclusive ending to the first part of the story).  Tolkien’s publishers asked him to split the book up due to a paper shortage caused by World War II.  He conceived of the work as a single volume, however.

The Shakespeare authorship “question” is a real debate.

In pop culture, it is somewhat fashionable to wonder whether William Shakespeare was William Shakespeare.  Perhaps he was really Christopher Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford or even Elizabeth I!  However, almost no serious scholar believes that Shakespeare was anyone other than himself.  Aside from the fact that it’s fairly easy to debunk most Shakespeare contenders (Marlowe, for instance, died in 1593 and Shakespeare mysteriously continued to publish afterwards), the arguments against Shakespeare are typically located in his class.  The idea is that a glove maker’s son could never be such a successful playwright.  Obviously a rich person has to be England’s most famous author!  Today, this argument looks increasingly prejudiced and silly.

Anne Brontë is not as interesting as her sisters.

When it comes to the Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily seem to get all the love.  However, Anne wrote two novels before her death–Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall–and presumably would have gone on to cement a place for herself in the canon had she lived.  However, she fell into obscurity shortly after her death, in part because Charlotte prevented the republication of Tenant.  With its depiction of a woman who flees from an abusive husband, it was too realistic and too shocking for its day.  Now, however, Anne’s work is being reevaluated by critics.

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