History Repeats Itself: Tolkien’s Primary Villains (Guest Post by Mary Drover)

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. 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!


We all know and fear the story of Sauron, master of the One Ring.  He’s often depicted as a physically massive, all-powerful being that takes many forms, as well as shrouded in shadow and made to look like the monster under our beds.  He is a terrifyingly well-done villain because of that—we fear him because he represents all of our darkest nightmares.  And while Tolkien does an excellent job of assuaging those fears by giving the ability to defeat this horror to the smallest of his characters, he’s also already told this story before we ever meet Sauron.  For Sauron was not just born evil—he was carefully curated.

Taking it back all the way to the First Age, before Frodo and the Ring, before Elves and Men hated each other, before war was even a thought, there was Melkor.  Perhaps Tolkien’s most powerful villain, Melkor was also not born evil, though everything that followed—including Sauron’s ascent to power—could have been avoided if he’d maybe talked to someone about the issues he was facing instead of declaring war against all of Arda.

For a time, Melkor was nothing more than one of many.  He toiled away at his work like his brethren, enjoyed being among his family, and generally led a quiet life.  However, in a very Biblical way, Melkor had questions.  Thoughts of his own.  Desires and dreams that he wished to fulfill.  And when he began seeking answers, those he had considered friends and family began to turn against him.  Melkor, enraged at the impossibility of individuality, lashed out.  He decided that he would strike out on his own and seek revenge against those who had tried to silence him.

From there, his story is that of most villain origin stories.  After he took the land that would become Angband, his terrible and evil dominion, Melkor sought his revenge.  After destroying all light in the world, stealing the most precious jewels ever made, and killing the high king of elves, Tolkien gifts Melkor with a name change:

“Then Fëanor rose, and lifting up his hand before Manwë he cursed Melkor, named him Morgoth, the Black Foe of the World; and by that name only was he known to the Eldar ever after.”

–       The Silmarillion, QS Ch 9, Of the Flight of the Noldor

Morgoth then goes on to seek his revenge via war, and the whole world is in turmoil.  Morgoth is, arguably, Tolkien’s most powerful villain.  Even when he is eventually defeated, the most they can do to him is banish him from the world.  He is so powerful that killing him is impossible; so powerful, even, that his legend continues to live on.

However, in this villain origin story, Melkor’s name can easily be replaced with Mairon’s, the man Sauron was before.  Mairon, though considerably less powerful than Morgoth, was still respected for his prowess as a smith, and he drew attention to himself via that skill.  Attention that even Morgoth could not ignore, for he started to slip back into his old home to see what all the fuss was about.

Melkor made decisions that directed him straight on his path toward becoming Morgoth.  Mairon, arguably, did the same thing on his path toward becoming Sauron.  Mairon led a life very similar to Melkor’s—it was quiet, surrounded by friends and family, and centered on his work as a smith.  He had questions and doubts, but he kept them mostly to himself until Morgoth stepped into his life.  Morgoth had come to his answers on his own, and he readily shared them with Mairon, who was still malleable.  Mairon saw not the Black Foe of the World, but someone he had grown up revering.  This was Melkor, someone so powerful that all of Arda feared him, and Mairon willingly gave his service to him:

“Among those of his servants that have names the greatest was that spirit whom the Eldar called Sauron, or Gorthaur the Cruel.”

–       The SilmarillionValaquenta

From the beginning, Mairon and Melkor’s stories are very similar, and as they progress, so do the similarities.  As they become, respectively, Sauron and Morgoth, their paths continually intertwine and echo one another.  They are two individual characters, yes, but they represent much of the same.

Though Sauron became Morgoth’s commander in his war against all of Arda, the arc of their characters continued to reflect one another.  Morgoth stole the Silmarils, the most exquisite jewels ever created, and fastened them to his crown so that he might always be with them.  Sauron, hungry for power, created the Nine Rings, but secretly created one for himself, as well, that he might wear on his finger and keep with him always.  Morgoth stole into Mairon’s heart using the breadth of his power and legend, and Sauron deceived the elves with his beauty and wonder to help him forge the rings.

Even their physical places of power are similar to one another.  Angband, Morgoth’s central base, is deeply entrenched in mountains and difficult to enter.  Mordor, Sauron’s eventual lair, is pitted inside a crater of mountains and massive stone walls.  They each hide themselves behind formidable soldiers like balrogs and orcs, dragons and Ringwraiths.  They seek out servants in the hearts of men, humans they know are susceptible to their wicked ways, and slowly eke out their power throughout the world.

They say history repeats itself, and in Tolkien’s legendarium, there is nothing truer.  The world of Arda might have learned from its mistakes in the great war against Morgoth, but instead, it allowed Sauron to seek power, to gain a throne, to prove himself worthy of his mentor.  Perhaps the only difference between Morgoth and Sauron, then, is that Sauron is defeated.  Eventually, he is killed, and peace comes to Arda.  And while Sauron’s legend lies in ruin, Morgoth is still waiting on the fringes of existence, banished, but not gone.

The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings have widely different fan bases and received vastly different responses when they were published.  For decades, it seemed The Silmarillion might never see the light of day, and even when it did, it was still The Lord of the Rings that struck people to the core.  The defeat of Sauron from a small, unlikely hero is something that will always stand out in Tolkien’s legendarium.  It is, perhaps, because Morgoth was never defeated by a single small, unlikely hero, but many, that he is forgotten and ignored.  But the defeat of Sauron might never have been possible without the rise of Morgoth, and the two are inextricably linked.

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About the Author

Mary Drover finds adventure along the New England coastline, deep in the White Mountains, and always on a yoga mat. She spends her days in an office, her nights drinking tea, and all the in-between moments snuggling her sister cats or writing about magic, pirates, witches, faeries, planets, and romance. She has a BFA in Creative Writing & a BA in English from the University of Maine at Farmington, practices Tibetan Buddhism, has too many candles, and cannot stop buying crystals or plants. She is a registered yoga teacher, a sorted Gryffindor, and a part-time witch. Visit her at marydrover.com.

Tolkien's Lost Chaucer by John M. Bowers

Information

Goodreads: Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: December 3, 2019

Official Summary

Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer uncovers the story of an unpublished and previously unknown book by the author of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien worked between 1922 and 1928 on his Clarendon edition Selections from Chaucer’s Poetry and Prose, and though never completed, its 160 pages of commentary reveals much of his thinking about language and storytelling when he was still at the threshold of his career as an epoch-making writer of fantasy literature. Drawing upon other new materials such as his edition of the Reeve’s Tale and his Oxford lectures on the Pardoner’s Tale, this book reveals Chaucer as a major influence upon Tolkien’s literary imagination.

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Review

Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer is a fascinating look at a book most people–even during Tolkien’s lifetime–had no idea he was working on, a student edition with selections from Geoffrey Chaucer’s works which Tolkien was to gloss and provide notes for. A co-editor would provide the introduction. Bowers work helps position Tolkien as a scholar who was not only interested in Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic literature but also a Chaucerian who was deeply familiar with Chaucer’s work and could even recite some of The Canterbury Tales from memory. This sheds new light on Tolkien as a reader and an academic and on Tolkien’s own fiction and ways it might have been influenced by Chaucer.

The beginning of the book provides a detailed look at the history of the student edition of Chaucer–how it came about, how Tolkien was chosen to work on it, what work he did (or did not) complete for it, what happened to the manuscripts and notes, etc. This is interesting if one wants to know how Tolkien could have done significant work on Chaucer that basically no one knew about or discussed, and it gives a decent portrayal of Tolkien as a scholar–someone who was incredibly thorough, often at the expense of actually finishing things. (There’s probably a whole conversation to be had about academia in general here, to be honest, as Tolkien is compared to scholars who were more well-known and prolific but admitted to just kind of moving on if they weren’t certain about something in what they were working on, instead of trying to figure it out.)

Personally, I was more interested in the next section of the book, which gives an overview of what Tolkien had drafted for his glosses and notes. This section does require the reader have a working knowledge of Chaucer’s “minor” poems, as no summaries are provided, but if you are familiar with the texts Tolkien was commenting on, it’s fascinating to see his thoughts. Bowers also notes where Tolkien’s opinions or commentary is different from other Chaucer scholars’ views–and how much over his page limit for the manuscript his notes extended, as he delved deep into the history of certain words. (The book also emphasizes that Tolkien as a scholar and lecturer was very much a philologist commenting on individual words in individual lines, rather than making general arguments about literature–interesting, as he clearly had a profound understanding of literature and would have been able to analyze it in a lecture.)

Finally, Bowers explores how Tolkien’s familiarity with Chaucer might have influenced his own writing, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. “Tolkien’s sources” is, of course, a favorite topic for Tolkien scholars, who have compared Gandalf to Odin, noted that a cup is stolen from a dragon hoard in both Beowulf and The Hobbit, etc., so it’s no surprise people would want to know what Tolkien might have “taken” from Chaucer. In many places, Bowers’s arguments are convincing, and one can definitely imagine Tolkien reading a scene or seeing a theme in Chaucer and having it in the back of his mind somewhere. At times, however, Bowers seems to be stretching. For instance, there are cases where I wonder if Tolkien was influenced by Chaucer…or just medieval literature in general, which of course is notorious for reworking and recycling various themes, characters, plots, and so forth. There are also times where I would argue Tolkien was probably not “influenced” by much of anything. Can one really argue that the fact Dwarves arrive at Bilbo’s house in discrete groups in The Hobbit is somehow related to the fact that the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales show up in different-sized groups? I think not.

Overall, however, Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer is an excellent, clearly well-researched book that will help Tolkien scholars and fans see the author and his work in a new light and remind them that, as a medievalist, he was actually familiar with works written after the Anglo-Saxon period.

Briana
5 stars

Why The Fellowship of the Ring is Worth Reading (Guest Post by Elli @ NeedtoRead)

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Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. 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!

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Why The Fellowship of the Ring Is Worth Reading

A beautifully-written book about wizards, elves, hobbits, and a treacherous journey to save the world.

Genre: Fantasy/Adventure, Fiction

Summary

The One Ring holds a power that could destroy their entire civilization, if it gets back to its master. The only way to stop it is to destroy it. But doing so isn’t as easy as it sounds. The adventure starts with two hobbits, Frodo and Sam, who set off on an journey to bring the One Ring to Mount Doom in Mordor, the only place where it can be destroyed.


When I first decided to read The Fellowship of the Ring, I was intimidated.

I’d tried reading the book before, but it always took so long to get through the beginning. I also had other books that I wanted/needed to read, and I thought that The Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t worth my time.

But a few weeks ago I decided that I was going to commit to reading it. I wasn’t going to read anything else until I finished it, and I was going to push through the boredom no matter how much I wanted to stop.

Now I realize that I was wrong: reading The Fellowship of the Ring was definitely worth it.

From the beginning of the book, the reader’s attention is grabbed. You right away become interested in Bilbo and Frodo, the most mysterious hobbits in the Shire. Frodo was an orphan when he was taken in by Bilbo, and they both share a love for adventure that most hobbits don’t have.

But something fishy is going on; it seems that Bilbo’s Eleventy-First (One Hundred and Eleventh) birthday party is going to be different from the usual. At the end, Bilbo disappears into thin air while giving a speech.

Frodo is left with Bilbo’s Ring,and doesn’t know how much power it holds until years later, when the wizard Gandalf tells him of its magic and what danger Frodo is in while he has it.

You are introduced to many different characters, many of whom have a bigger part in the story within the next two books, in addition to their roles in the first one. The Fellowship is comprised of Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry the hobbits, Gimli the dwarf, Legolas the elf, Boromir and Aragorn the men, and Gandalf the wizard.

Sam Gamgee is the most lovable character, in my opinion. He vows to follow Frodo wherever he may go and is always by Frodo’s side as a loyal friend and companion.

The hobbits are underestimated because of their size, but they show true signs of bravery when the Fellowship is in peril. All four of them, especially Frodo, grow and mature as time goes on.

I know that I said this book is overly-descriptive, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You are able to imagine settings in immense detail, as if you were there yourself. You can almost feel the grass under your feet and hear the trees swaying in the wind.

There’s something beautiful about the way it’s written, a sense of adventure that keeps readers turning the pages. After reading it, I decided to watch the movie again, as well, which is also definitely worth watching (if you haven’t already).

There is a lot of plain walking around and background information given in this book, since the journey to Mount Doom is just beginning. But you have to get through it to be able to experience more action in the next two books.

Though it is slow-moving, The Fellowship of the Ring is a great start to The Lord of the Rings. If you are a Tolkien fan and haven’t read it yet, then I highly recommend starting it today.

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About the Author

Elli is a Canadian blogger who wants to share her love of writing and literature by posting about books on her blog, NeedtoRead. She enjoys reading through Pages Unbound reviews, and wants to contribute to their Tolkien event by writing one herself.

Defending Middle-Earth by Patrick Curry

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. 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!


Information

Goodreads: Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1997

Official Summary

What are millions of readers all over the world getting out of reading The Lord of the Rings? Newly reissued with a new afterword, Patrick Curry’s Defending Middle-earth argues, in part, that Tolkien has found a way to provide something close to spirit in a secular age. His focus is on three main aspects of Tolkien’s fiction: the social and political structure of Middle-earth and how the varying cultures within it find common cause in the face of a shared threat; the nature and ecology of Middle-earth and how what we think of as the natural world joins the battle against mindless, mechanized destruction; and the spirituality and ethics of Middle-earth, for which Curry provides a particularly insightful and resonant examination that will deepen the understanding of the millions of fans who have taken The Lord of the Rings to heart. 

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Review

Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity by Patrick Curry is a classic in the world of Tolkien scholarship, so I find it somewhat surprising I haven’t read it before now.  Perhaps on some level I don’t feel that Middle-earth needs defending; I love The Lord of the Rings and have ideas about why I do and why other people do.  However, finally reading Defending Middle-Earth has sparked some more reflection in me about why other people love Tolkien’s work and why it continues to resonate with readers year after year.

To be fair, the book was published in 1997 and revised in 2004, so it can feel a bit dated at times (I think some of the disgruntled Goodreads reviews are a reaction to this).  This is both in regards to the real-world examples Curry gives about how Tolkien’s work can be applicable to our own lives and to the positioning of the scholarship.  For instance, although there certainly are still academics today who disdain genre fiction, fantasy, and Tolkien’s work in particular, I think the tide has generally changed and the idea that “scholars don’t take fantasy seriously” is today a bit overblown.  University students can take classes on everything from zombie books to children’s literature.  PhD students can specialize in science fiction.  An incredible amount of serious work has been published on Tolkien alone.  So while Middle-earth might need defending to certain people, I think some of the contempt that Curry was responding to at the time of original publication is much less of an issue today.

Nonetheless, the general scope of Curry’s analysis of what makes Tolkien’s work popular and beloved feels timeless.  He focuses on three main categories: the social, the natural, and the spiritual.  One might reductively say this is about the sense of community in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s obvious love of nature, and the clear sense that there is some spiritual meaning in the world of Middle-earth, even as Tolkien’s books rarely overtly mention anything resembling religion.  Curry, of course, goes much more in-depth on these topics, drawing on scholarship and literary theory and even touching on broad topics like why fantasy or myth might resonate with readers in general.  The result is thought-provoking, even if a reader does not agree with all of Curry’s points.

If you’re a Tolkien fan who wants to think more about The Lord of the Rings and the general question of “why people like this stuff,” Defending Middle-Earth is worth a read.

Briana

A Tour of My Tolkien Shelf (Guest Post by Arwen McGilvra)

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. 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!

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A Tour of My Tolkien Shelf

Hello there! My name is Arwen. Whenever I introduce myself on the Internet, I always add that, yes, that’s my real name, given to me at birth by my parents, not some alias or pseudonym. I got the name because while my mother was pregnant they read The Lord of the Rings together. I guess you could say I was born a fan.

(Although, my husband claims to be the greatest fan because he picked a wife named Arwen. )

Both of us being fans, we, of course, had our own collections when we got married and since then have added on. Right now, our Tolkien collection takes up one long shelf, the top and most prominent one.

We do have some other piece of Tolkien miscellany that are not one the shelf, including Laserdisk versions of the animated movies; the sword of Aragorn, Anduril; and the complete goblet collection that came out from Burger King when the movies were released.

Some special items in our collection include a Chinese version of The Fellowship of the Ring, which I bought in China the summer I taught English there, as a gift for my then boyfriend.

Next to it you can see the nice leather-bound edition I got my husband a couple of Christmases ago. The pictures don’t really do them justice. These are nice copies!

We have this neat Tolkien quiz book, although some of the questions are ridiculously hard. For example, there is a page where you have to match the signatures to the characters. Or questions like:

“How many king and queens ruled Numenor before the reign of Ar-Pharazon?”

Who?

Next to that you can see some of the newer books by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien.

We also have a whole bunch of different editions of the four main books. Just as a sample, I pulled out the different editions of The Hobbit that we own. Including the leather-bound edition, we have six copies. I guess we could always do a book club read-through.

Finally, we arrive at our well-worn copy of The Silmarillion. Don’t you just love the art on the cover? You can also see some of The History of Middle Earth and a biography of Tolkien in the picture.

We’ve got quite the collection, along with the personal connection to the books they are just great stories, the kind of stories that stir the imagination and sweep you along to new places.

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About the Author

Blog: I Love A Good Book

Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheTechChef

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/i_love_a_good_book/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/4930887-arwen

Tolkien Reading Event 2020: Schedule and Introduction

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Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. 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!

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SCHEDULE

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ON TWITTER

Use the hashtag #TolkienReadingEvent20 to follow our event and share your thoughts on Tolkien! We’ll also be sharing discussion questions and polls.

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More Tolkien Resources

For quizzes, discussion posts, reviews, and more, check out our Tolkien post master list here.

Two More (Easy!) Ways to Participate in our March 2020 TolkienReadingEvent

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During March 2019, Pages Unbound will be running our sixth Tolkien Reading Event.  Every year on March 25, the Tolkien Society celebrates Tolkien Reading Day, and we like to expand on the event by hosting several days’ worth of Tolkien-related content.  We have had some wonderful guest posts in the past and would like to invite you to submit a guest post this year.

Theme: To Be Announced

Information for our event on Twitter is under the hashtag #TolkienReadingEvent20.

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Ways to Participate

Regular Guest Post

If you want to write a full guest post, check out the information and sign-up form for doing so here.

However, this year we have two MORE ways to participate, both of which are quicker and easier than a guest post:

Tell Us Why You Haven’t Read Tolkien (or Have Only Read One Book)

We’re switching things up a bit this year and asking people who have NOT read any Tolkien books (or people who have read one but haven’t read any more) to share their reasons why. Share your thoughts here.

We promise we will be nice to you in the comments and not shame you for not being a huge Tolkien fan. 😉

Tell Us a Scene from Tolkien’s Work You Find Impactful

Tell us what scene from Tolkien’s work you find particularly impactful/striking/memorable and why. Fill out the Google form here.

Answers will be shared during our Tolkien Reading Event starting March 25.

Wanted: Guest Posts for Tolkien Reading Event (March 2020)

During March 2019, Pages Unbound will be running our sixth Tolkien Reading Event.  Every year on March 25, the Tolkien Society celebrates Tolkien Reading Day, and we like to expand on the event by hosting several days’ worth of Tolkien-related content.  We have had some wonderful guest posts in the past and would like to invite you to submit a guest post this year.

Official Tolkien Society Theme: Nature and Industry

Post Options

The Tolkien Reading Event is open to a wide variety of posts.  In previous events, we have featured everything from book reviews to quizzes to serious literary criticism.   Pitch us an idea for any type of post you would like!  You can also review books and movies that have been featured before; we love new perspectives! See a full list of past posts here.

If you need ideas, we are particularly open to posts about:

  • the official theme: Nature and Industry
  • any aspect of The Silmarillion
  • the art of Middle-Earth
  • a tour of your Tolkien collection (books or merchandise)
  • Tolkien’s villains
  • reviews of books about (not by) Tolkien
  • reflections on Tolkien’s “minor” works (Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wooton Major, Roverandom)

Details

If you are interested in participating, please fill out the Google form below.  We will begin the event on Sunday, March 25, and so would like to receive guest posts by March 17.  We will contact everyone with final details around that time (such as what day your guest post will be scheduled).  Please feel free to spread the word to fellow Tolkien fans!

Title: Please tell us what you would like the title of the post to be when you send us the draft! Otherwise you will be subject to our whims. 😉

Post Length: There is no required post length; however long you feel you need to address the topic is fine.

Photos/Graphics: Feel free to include photos or graphics if you would like, but only include images you own the rights to post.  (Basically, no copyright infringement, please!)

Poems: Excerpts of poems are fine, but please do not include entire poems still under copyright.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN GUEST POSTING, PLEASE FILL OUT THE GOOGLE FORM BELOW.

*LOTR clip art by Nesca at CuteGraphicSupply.

Click to Fill out Google Form

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeA2VVa_uUfnmpBHvOK7ttMkWU6hcp2eojJCrzTzA_1wF6GqQ/viewform?usp=sf_link

My Personal Journey Reading Tolkien (Guest Post by H.P. @ Every Day Should Be Tuesday)

Tolkien Reading Event 2019

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. 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!


I am not the biggest Tolkien fan in the world.  I still haven’t finished The Silmarillion!  But it would be very hard for me to overplay how important Tolkien has proven for my life.

I first picked up Tolkien when I was very young (sometime in elementary school).  Some fantasy had come into my hands—some book or another, or perhaps the original Final Fantasy game on the NES.  My mom said, “You know, if you like that, there is a book you would like . . .”  I’m not even sure if my mom has ever read The Hobbit, which is a testament to its cultural cache.  I did not immediately acquiesce.  I was a pretentious child—before I became a man and put away childish things like the fear of seeming childish—and I initially rebuffed my mom’s efforts.  But a book is a book, and I didn’t have so many laying around in those days, so I didn’t wait long before reading it.

I was already a reader, but The Hobbit threw gas on the fire.  I blew through it and tore into The Lord of the Rings.  Rereading it as a busy adult, I can see why the slow start throws people off.  But I loved every word as a kid.  I reread it many times, burning through all three books in a day sometimes.  It was a joy and an escape.  My brother died when I was 11.  My memories are hazy, but I was fiddling with The Lord of the Rings: Adventure Game rpg that week.

I grew older and read many more fantasy books.  I left for college and then moved across the state to work.  I read much less, and more of that non-fiction or non-speculative fiction.  I perhaps would have left fantasy behind entirely, but for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and a new book in The Wheel of Time every couple years.  It was the resumption of The Wheel of Time, when Brandon Sanderson took over for Robert Jordan, that pulled me back in.  I started reviewing books on Amazon.  Four years later I started my SF book review blog, Every Day Should Be Tuesday, and began reading fantasy and science fiction much more broadly.

One might ask if Tolkien retains any relevance.  Perhaps I and speculative fiction have moved on?  I had let my copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings grow dusty for many years.  I may not have even reread them since before Jackson’s movies.  Returning to Tolkien’s work this past summer showed me Tolkien still has very much to teach me.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings remain as entertaining as they ever were, and I found also a depth I was better able to appreciate as a man.  I chose The Hobbit to read to my daughter in the womb (and out of it, since I wasn’t quite able to finish).  I effectively read it three times last year—out loud to my daughter, in the usual fashion, and dissected and annotated in John D. Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit.  It did not suffer from the repetition.  I still think it is as close to a perfect fantasy book as you can get, and as slightly exceeding The Lord of the Rings.  The prose is both simple and poetic.  The story silly and scary.  Queer Lodgings and Flies and Spiders are maybe the two best consecutive chapters in English literature.  And, yes, the older, busier me can see why the dilatory start to The Fellowship of the Ring throws people off, but good things come to those who wait.  It deserves its place in the fantasy and English language canon.  It is pulp enough people can attempt to mock it as entertainment for 12-year-olds and literary enough that the International Congress of Medieval Studies hosts an entire track on Tolkien.

But as I returned to his work, it was Tolkien the man who made a bigger impression on me than his work.  My daughter was born as I prepared for my summer Tolkien 101 blog series, and I had just started a new career in academia.

Tolkien chose to live his life as a certain kind of man.  He came from and re-entered the upper middle class.  He held a chair at the most prestigious university in England for 34 years and published two landmark works in his field (his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and his lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics).  He of course came to international fame with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

But he chose to live a “middle-class, conventional, well-regulated existence . . . because he believed it was the right way to live.”  He learned respect for working class Brits “in the trenches” of France and maintained “a deep admiration for ordinary people—butchers, police officers, mail carriers, gardeners” throughout his life.  For all his success as a writer of scholarship and fiction he was infamously dilatory in completing projects—perhaps because he attended Mass daily and wrote elaborate Christmas stories for his children.  The views reflected in The Lord of the Rings—with its heroic, deeply admirable working class Sam and its esteem for nature and the simple life—were reflected in his personal life.  (All quotes from The Fellowship by Philip and Carol Zaleski.)

Tolkien’s life, then, offers lessons for me as I attempt to balance seemingly endless demands among reading and commenting on fiction, family, faith, and work.  It is within our power to choose to live in a way we believe to be right.

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About the Author

H.P. is an academic, attorney, and “author” (well, blogger).  He blogs about speculative fiction at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.  Every Day Should Be Tuesday featured a blog series on Tolkien, Tolkien 101, over this past summer.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (Exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum in NYC)

Tolkien Reading Event 2019

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. 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!


Tolkien Maker of Middle-earth Exhibit Review-min

Background

From January 25 through May 12, 2019, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City is running an exhibit focused on J.R.R. Tolkien’s art and writings, in collaboration with the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.  (A slightly different version of the exhibit was run in England first).

According to the Morgan website:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” With these words the Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien ignited a fervid spark in generations of readers. From the children’s classic The Hobbit to the epic The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s adventurous tales of hobbits and elves, dwarves and wizards have introduced millions to the rich history of Middle-earth. Going beyond literature, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a world complete with its own languages and histories. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth celebrates the man and his creation. The exhibition will be the most extensive public display of original Tolkien material for several generations. Drawn from the collections of the Tolkien Archive at the Bodleian Library (Oxford), Marquette University Libraries (Milwaukee), the Morgan, and private lenders, the exhibition will include family photographs and memorabilia, Tolkien’s original illustrations, maps, draft manuscripts, and designs related to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

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Review

I was fairly jealous that I couldn’t attend the original Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibit, so I was extremely excited when it was announced the the exhibit would be making its way to the US, and I basically counted down the days to its opening in New York.  This March, I finally was able to go.

The Morgan website notes that the exhibit is “first come, first served,” and I was warned upon purchasing my ticket (which, of course, includes access to the whole museum) that visitors were only allowed through the Tolkien exhibit once.  If you left the room, that was it.  This all sounded ominous, and it was even more concerning when I passed a long, roped-off line labelled for the exhibit.  However, early crowds for the exhibit must have been much larger.  Although I went on a Sunday, about an hour and a half after the museum opened, there was no line, and I went right up and in.  (Where all my hopes were crushed as I was informed by a staff member that no photography was permitted.  I was also reminded that I wouldn’t be allowed back once I left, though no one marked my ticket or anything.)

According to staff, there is “no order” to the exhibit and guests can wander at will, but items are grouped into general categories that follow a loose timeline of Tolkien’s life and work.  There’s an area for Tolkien’s family life, for The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, etc.  And most people seemed to be following this order through the exhibit, though, of course, I can imagine that would not have to, particularly if they were familiar with Tolkien’s life.

And whether or not visitors are familiar with Tolkien seems to be one area in which the exhibit struggles.  On one hand, the signage does not provide a lot of information, and if you don’t know about Tolkien, you’re likely to be confused by what you’re looking at and, really, by the experience in general.  I overheard several people desperately asking friends how many books The Lord of the Rings was, what “Gondor” was and who lived there, etc.  They were probably somewhat baffled by the whole thing.  On the other hand, the signage frequently does not offer information that is particularly new if you’re an avid Tolkien fan.  I wouldn’t say that I personally “learned” much that I didn’t know already.

That said, the exhibit was still incredibly cool for me to visit as a fan.  Most of the materials I was already familiar with–illustrations from the books, drafts of book jacket designs, maps Tolkien had drawn, etc.  The joy here is simply seeing these things in person rather than reproduced in a book or on a screen.  There were, however, some items I was not already familiar with–heraldic devices Tolkien had drawn for Silmarillion characters, random doodles he was wont to make on the newspaper as he did the crosswords, a timeline for the different characters and their plots in The Lord of the Rings, and an “account book” he kept with Edith for kisses owed based on how much studying he did while in school.  I was somewhat baffled that some of this stuff had been saved (really, random doodles the man made while thinking about a crossword puzzle?), but I suppose he was famous enough his family knew anything he had “created” would be interesting to Tolkien scholars and the general public.

It is worth noting that most of the exhibit is papers, fair enough since it’s about Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth, the work he did thinking, plotting, brainstorming, illustrating, communicating with his publisher, etc., but there were a few other items, like an Oxford robe he wore to receive an honorary degree, as well as his colored pencils and paint set.  I wished a little that there were more things like this, Tolkien’s personal effects, as seeing them in person was incredibly interesting and made Tolkien seem a bit more real even than the originals of papers and pictures I’ve seen reproductions of a thousand times.

There’s no doubt the exhibit is worth visiting for any fan of Tolkien.  I suppose its real problem is leaving visitors tantalized and wanting more, just as The Lord of the Rings itself often does.  For  fans who cannot visit, there is an exhibit book (aptly titled Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth), and it’s very possible you can get the book from your library if you don’t want to purchase it.

Briana