Archives For Tolkien

reading awardsMost readers recognize significant differences exist between British and American literature.

Not only do our literary tastes often differ, there are more than a few differences in the English we use . . . for example, whether we include our punctuation inside, or outside, of “quotation marks.”

With that caveat, it’s interesting to ponder the 2008 list of favorite books in the United Kingdom, as reported in The Telegraph. I’m unsure right now whether there’s a more recent list, but it would probably remain fairly stable a lustrum later. (It would, however, be interesting to see how Rowling’s works rank in fifty or seventy years. Not to mention Pullman’s Gnostic series.)

In their balanced compendium of passages from C.S. Lewis’ works, Martindale and Root point out the transitory nature of literary fads.

A book that is number one on the New York Times Best-seller List for several weeks may be all but forgotten a decade later. Popularity in a moment of history does not guarantee that a book will endure beyond its own time. C. S. Lewis once observed that, like fashions, the more up-to-date a book is, the sooner it is out of date.

One of the peculiarities of the list is that only a single book by any particular author was allowed in the top twenty-one titles.

I read somewhere that the average reader had only read an “average” of six of the books. I’m not sure how that is calculated, since I know a fair number who have not read—if they’re being honest—a single book in the survey (those assigned for coursework included).

And, now that I’ve made that seemingly judgmental statement, I need to be particularly truthful in my own list. That means I can’t check off a title because I saw the movie or read the Classics Illustrated edition . . . even though I think it would be fair to get partial credit for either of those options.*

I’ll reproduce the entire British classics canon in a moment, but since everyone will get distracted while they read it (assessing which titles they themselves have read), I’ll share my brief list first.

I’m not too embarrassed by its brevity, since 80% of my reading is nonfiction, and the list is decidedly not that. Also, I can honestly say that there are another ten or so titles here that I have begun to read, without being sufficiently interested to finish.

The truth is that just as less than a quarter of my reading is devoted to fiction, most of that focuses on my favorite genre, alternative history. And, for some reason unknown to me, none of those titles made the list!

Here is my humble account of British must-reads that I have actually finished.

 1) The Lord of the Rings (Ranked #2).

 2) The Bible** (#6)

 3) Nineteen Eighty-Four (#8).

 4) Catch 22 (#13).

 5) The Hobbit (#16).

 6) The Great Gatsby (#22).

 7) The Chronicles of Narnia (#33).

 8) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (#36)

 — Isn’t that a tad redundant (in the American, not the British, sense)?

 9) Winnie the Pooh (#40).

10) Animal Farm (#41).

11) Lord of the Flies (#49).

12) Dune (#52).

13) Brave New World (#58).

14) Moby Dick (#70).

15) Dracula (#72).

16) A Christmas Carol (#81).

17) Charlotte’s Web (#87).

18) Heart of Darkness (#91).

Interesting—I thought it would be shorter. Their presence on this short list, by the way, doesn’t indicate my recommendation of all of these. Some were assigned reading. I’ve also read some of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, of course, but neither in their entirety.***

The full list follows. Enjoy going through it yourself to see how you stack up. And, don’t be intimidated if the books you favor keep you too busy to read what others deem the most significant.

_____

* Just joking. I would never consider seeing a movie as the equivalent of reading a book; some of them bear little resemblance to their source. That acknowledged, sometimes the cinematic adaptations are better than the books.

** I know it only has a single Author, but shouldn’t this count as 66 books?

*** My lovely wife, who I sometimes compel to proofread for me, could not resist mentioning that she was able to check off many more titles on this list than I did. I chalk that up to her sharp intelligence (valedictorian, 4.0 in college and grad school, etc.), general perfectionism, speed-reading skills, tolerance for boring literature, and “compulsive” personality. All of that, plus her consuming love of reading.

Here’s the British list.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6 The Bible

7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34 Emma – Jane Austen

35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72 Dracula – Bram Stoker

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses – James Joyce

76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal – Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Alborn

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

bandersnatchIf you’re a writer and you’ve never been part of a critique group, you’ve missed out on some beneficial (and occasionally annoying) experiences.

Critiquing is, of course, the process of providing constructive criticism to someone, in the hopes of improving their work. Good criticism is priceless. The problem is that it takes true skill to offer useful advice . . . and it requires the proper degree of self-assurance to receive the criticism itself.

Those who have been burned by scathing criticism are reticent to “invite” more of the same. However, when the criticism begins with affirmation (about positive aspects of the work), that tiny spoonful of sugar certainly helps the more difficult parts of the evaluation easier to swallow.

And yet, for some, even expertly delivered criticism—covered by a chocolate layer of affirmation and accolades—remains nearly impossible to accept.

A fine example of this truth comes in C.S. Lewis’ description of a prominent member of the Inklings writing fellowship. J.R.R. Tolkien was a virtual perfectionist when it came to all things Middle Earth. Because of this “flaw,” Lewis and the other Inklings were frustrated when it came time to review the progress of The Hobbit and elements of Lord of the Rings. As Lewis described it in a 1959 letter:

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

To learn the nature of a bandersnatch, we must travel Through the Looking Glass into Lewis Carroll’s 1872 novel. Carroll coined the word and introduced it to the world in a poem called “Jabberwocky,” which appears in Alice’s wonderful adventures.

Lewis, of course, was not likening his dear friend to a frumious* bandersnatch in terms of it’s overall personality. Rather, he was describing the severity of Tolkien’s inability to positively process criticism of his work, to the bandersnatch’s incapacity to do the same. It is similar to the sense in which the White King alludes to the creature’s swiftness in describing his wife: “She runs so fearfully quick. You might as well try to catch a Bandersnatch!”

Although few of us are destined to be members of so illustrious a critique community as the Inklings, I highly commend joining one of your local parallels. While you may encounter a bandersnatch or two, on the whole you’ll likely find the process quite beneficial.

____

* “Frumious,” like bandersnatch itself, was coined by Lewis Carroll and is a blending of the words “fuming” and “furious.”

The bandersnatch, as envisioned above, is used with the permission of New Zealand illustrator David Elliot.

Lengthening Good Stories

January 15, 2013 — 8 Comments

bayeuxWe’re all familiar with the saying “too much of a good thing.” Because it’s a cliché, most reviewers wisely avoid the phrase, but in reading a fair number of reviews of The Hobbit, I’ve heard this very thought expressed in a number of ways.

Everyone is familiar with Director Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. Most fans were thrilled when it was announced he would also film J.R.R. Tolkien’s much “smaller” tale of The Hobbit. Some were surprised when they learned he would divide it into two parts. Still, the general sentiment was “the more the better” (another tired phrase). However, when it was ultimately announced that Jackson intended to stretch the modest novel into a trilogy of its own, many fans were incredulous.

There is a tad of irony in transforming Tolkien’s beloved adventure of a hobbit assisting dwarves in a regional quest into an epic to rival the high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings with its conflict enmeshing every corner of Middle Earth.

As I write this column, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is doing well. It is ranked sixth at the box office, and held the number one position for three full weeks, against tough competition.

In order to discover sufficient content to expand the story, Jackson has incorporated a number of Middle Earth tales Tolkien had written about its history in other sources. The primary sourcebook was The Silmarillion, a collection published posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher in 1977. Some regard the importing of these elements as a sort of corruption of the simpler story of the single volume. Others welcome the elaboration on the essential story, since the additions are certainly “genuine Tolkien,” and they provide a more elaborate portrayal of Middle Earth.

The reactions to the expansion have been mixed. I don’t have strong feelings either way, but I treasure my time in Middle Earth so highly, that I would likely pitch my tent in the camp of those who approve of the increase. (Not to the point, of course, where I would behead those who objected, as we see on the fragment from the Bayeux Tapestry above.)

In the energetic conversation about the expansion of the saga, people frequently interject the name of the author, and offer suppositions about how he would have reacted. I find this interesting, but somewhat futile. Frankly, there is far too much that we simply don’t know about Middle Earth to authoritatively render Tolkien’s judgment on these things. Yes, we know that he was reluctant to see his work on the screen, but he did sell those rights to his creations. Of course we are aware of his lack of confidence in material originating in the colonies.

In a 1937 letter he writes about a possible publisher in the United States: “As for the illustrations: I am divided between knowledge of my own inability and fear of what American artists (doubtless of admirable skill) might produce.” It is in this same letter that he offers his criticism about a Disneyesque presentation: “It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do as seems good to them—as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartful loathing).”

In an essay entitled “On Criticism,” C.S. Lewis described the limitations of outsiders attempting to discern the intent of authors.

Nearly all reviewers assume that your books were written in the same order in which they were published and all shortly before publication. There was a very good instance of this lately in the reviews of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Most critics assumed (this illustrates a different vice) that it must be a political allegory and a good many thought that the master Ring must “be” the atomic bomb.

Anyone who knew the real history of the composition knew that this was not only erroneous, but impossible; chronologically impossible. Others assumed that the mythology of his romance had grown out of his children’s story The Hobbit. This, again, he and his friends knew to be mainly false. Now of course nobody blames the critics for not knowing these things: how should they? The trouble is that they don’t know they don’t know. A guess leaps into their minds and they write it down without even noticing that it is a guess.

Learning from Lewis, I won’t hazard a guess about Tolkien’s ultimate attitude towards the cinematic portrayals of his works—which will now, I assume, come to carry greater weight in the public psyche than the novels themselves. Well, at least until the current mode of motion pictures becomes obsolete. Then, once again, the words as Tolkien wrote them will reign supreme.

For those who are interested, I created the faux Bayeux Tapestry scrap at the top of the column using a program that allows manipulation of a variety of the hand-stitched images. Then I simply added the text in a simple graphics program. The Historic Tale Construction Kit is available here.

There is also a more sophisticated software interface that I haven’t tried called the “interactive” Bayeux Tapestry.

Avoiding Fantasy Clichés

November 12, 2012 — 41 Comments

We’re all familiar with that classic paradigm of suspenseful introductions: “It was a dark and stormy night.” While this is not intrinsically poor writing, it has been parroted and ridiculed for so long as a lightweight cliché, that the author’s name has become a byword for writing “purple prose.”

In the same way, there are certain plotlines or story devices that are overused, particularly in genre literature. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s genius in creating Middle Earth cannot be exaggerated. Yet, since his epic, dwarves, elves and orcs innumerable have been written about in chronicles ad nauseum by lesser poets. Many of Tolkien’s inventions seem rather tired when repeated by contemporary writers for the hundredth time. (Hundred thousandth time, if you count fan fiction.)

This literary dilemma has led to the creation of “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam,” designed to be taken by aspiring authors before submitting their manuscripts for publication. (The link for the exam will be found below.)

The purpose of the test is to determine how derivative your storytelling is. If you use too many of the listed elements, you are in danger of composing a parody rather than a masterpiece. Some of the questions posed in the exam are astute, many are glib, and most are humorous. Here’s a sampling, with my responses (speculative, of course, since I haven’t written any fantasy proper).

Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?

How about an anonymous member of minor nobility?

Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawl?

I never visit bars, but isn’t hosting altercations a primary purpose of all drinking establishments?

Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?

Ah, a conundrum. If I know I don’t really know . . .

Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?

You mean they have another role they can perform? (Wait, I’m just joking!)

Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer?”

My Viking ancestors would never forgive me if I did!

Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?

I wasn’t raised on a ranch, but I’m not that stupid.

Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?

Whoops.

As you see, the questions are fun to read, but there’s one that bothered me a bit. Well, not the question itself. It’s innocent enough. But it alludes to a particular scene in The Lord of the Rings films which I find stunning—in the original sense of the word. It strikes me viscerally, almost leaving me breathless.

Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?

Generally, no . . . but if that hero is Boromir, most certainly!

The Death of Boromir

One of the most moving scenes in The Lord of the Rings involves the death of Boromir as he sacrifices his life in a futile battle to allow the hobbits time to escape the Uruk-hai. It’s impact is magnified by the fact that it immediately follows Boromir’s near-betrayal, under the corrupting influence of the Ring.

The irony is that this spectacular scene is not described in detail in Tolkien’s book. It is a tribute to director Peter Jackson’s cinematic brilliance. This is the original telling:

Even as [Aragorn] gazed his quick ears caught sounds in the woodlands below, on the west side of the River. He stiffened. There were cries, and among them, to his horror, he could distinguish the harsh voices of Orcs. Then suddenly with a deep-throated call a great horn blew, and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls.

“The horn of Boromir!” he cried. “He is in need!” He sprang down the steps and away, leaping down the path. “Alas! An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes amiss. Where is Sam?”

As he ran the cries came louder, but fainter now and desperately the horn was blowing. Fierce and shrill rose the yells of the Orcs, and suddenly the horn-calls ceased. Aragorn raced down the last slope, but before he could reach the hill’s foot, the sounds died away; and as he turned to the left and ran towards them they retreated, until at last he could hear them no more. Drawing his bright sword and crying Elendil! Elendil! he crashed through the trees.

A mile, maybe, from Parth Galen in a little glade not far from the lake he found Boromir. He was sitting with his back to a great tree, as if he was resting. But Aragorn saw that he was pierced with many black-feathered arrows; his sword was still in his hand, but it was broken near the hilt; his horn cloven in two was at his side. Many Orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet.

Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.” His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. “They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them.” He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment he spoke again. “Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.”

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!” Boromir smiled.

“Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?” said Aragorn.

But Boromir did not speak again.

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now? Boromir has laid it on me to go to Minas Tirith, and my heart desires it; but where are the Ring and the Bearer? How shall I find them and save the Quest from disaster?”

He knelt for a while, bent with weeping, still clasping Boromir’s hand. So it was that Legolas and Gimli found him. (Lord of the Rings, Book III Chapter 1).

So, we understand that while a single arrow might slay a common warrior, it could well take a quiver full to lay low a champion such as this.

___

If you would like to review “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam,” simply follow this link.

Allow me to once again display my grammatical ignorance. I was reading an online book review and the author used lots of multisyllabic words. (That’s something I actually enjoy.) But then he went and threw in one of those words I had to rush to dictionary.com to define. (That’s another thing I love—learning new words.)

Naturally, I could partially decipher the definition from the context. However, whenever I have a dictionary within reach, that shortcut doesn’t satisfy me.

In this case, the word was anacolutha, the plural form of anacoluthon. It is defined as “a construction involving a break in grammatical sequence, as ‘It makes me so—I just get angry.’” Well, we can all agree that is not a good sentence; it’s a fine example of what a writer should avoid.

Not all grammar rules make sense. Take for example the notion that one cannot end a sentence with a preposition. Some of us literally had our knuckles rapped for scribbling such grammatical “obscenities.” While it’s true that you can avoid using prepositions in this manner, it’s not the great sin we were taught it was. In his Letters to an American Lady, C.S. Lewis writes:

[Regarding] a sentence ending with a preposition. The silly “rule” against it was invented by Dryden. I think he disliked it only because you can’t do it in either French or Latin which he thought more “polite” languages than English.

Well, isn’t that an interesting historical note to become aware of?

But, back to anacolutha . . . let’s see if it’s difficult for a trained pen to sever the ties of logic, and compose this sort of literary construction.

Reepicheep was a great swordsman who, “a tail is the honor and glory of a Mouse” was his creed.

Frodo pondered his options while—the Nazgûl loathed bathing more than once each fortnight.

Wow, that’s a lot harder than it looks. If you can think of better examples (not difficult, I’m sure), feel free to share them in a comment! But only write them here, and don’t allow any anacolutha to slip into your real writing!

The Road Taken

June 19, 2012 — 4 Comments

They are both important. Where we are going, and how we get there.

It’s quite common for analogies about our lives to assume the form of journeys. The journey, in fact, is a fitting metaphor for all human life.

Aging is a journey. Maturing is a journey that should run parallel to aging (though it seldom seems to do so). Learning is a journey. And the image of the “lifelong learner” is something that appeals to most readers and to all who hunger for daily intellectual growth.

Our spiritual lives are journeys of a sort. They follow “paths,” with branches that invite us to travel in myriad directions. Yet all roads are not “equal.” David, the anointed Psalmist prayed, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
 teach me your paths” (Psalm 25:4, ESV).

Even secular poets have recognized the power of this concept. One of the most memorable lines ever penned in English is: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I . . . I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference” (“The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost).

The Inklings expertly used the metaphor of journey to frame their works. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are both propelled, in fact, by vivid journeys. Likewise, Narnia’s Chronicles contain a number of momentous journeys, which ultimately culminate in the final journey which just begins with the close of The Last Battle.

These journeys are, of course, literal trips. Physical traveling from one place to another. Of course, these physical passages occur simultaneously with far more meaningful changes.

The typical contemporary journey of life may take us to varying locales—but it’s possible to savor a rich life journey without ever traveling far from the home of our youth. Indeed, one could be bedridden from birth, and travel the world in terms of experiencing Life. Thanks to God’s gifts of imagination, dream, wonder and faith.

C.S. Lewis also employs this journeying metaphor in his nonfiction works. In The Problem of Pain, he paints a fascinating panorama of our life in this world. He reveals that suffering is actually a blessing, in that it prevents us from growing too attached to this world. Although God graces us with pleasing moments in this life, they are interrupted by moments of insecurity . . . lest we mistakenly believe this finite world is our true home.

Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

May the roads we choose to follow bring us safely to the wonderful home our heavenly Father has prepared for each of us.

___

The beautiful, copyrighted photograph above appears compliments of Craig Sterken Photography at craigsterken.com. Check out his exceptional gallery!