The Children of Hurin's Dotty Review

by Varda with responses, following into the topic of Mythology.

The text of the article in question is found within this discussion here.

I did a little jump for joy (a rather low one as I was walking The Silent Valley in the Mourne Mountains on Saturday and fell down a slope. Luckily, I landed in a bog...he's led us into a bog!) when I opened the Sunday Times the Culture magazine had a cover story about JRR Tolkien.

My joy was short-lived, however. On closer examination I saw the cover picture showed the eagles carrying Sam and Frodo high over Minas Tirith. I can't remember that ever happening. Did it? Loremasters, out with your books, please....

Anyway, it suggested that the article might be a bit, well, woolly.

But the writer of the piece, Bryan Appleyard, is a critic I admire very much, so I set to reading the article, 'What Took Them So Long?' with considerable anticipation.

It is about the publication of the Children of Hurin, but not a full review of the book, which is a disappointment. Appleyard appears to have only read the first paragraph. He does gush, however, that the 'great tale' of Hurin is 'about to become a global myth'. because of the recent film trilogy's success, and because out of the 150 million copies of The Lord of The Rings, 50 million have been sold since the films were released.

It seems strange to say a book will sell not because of what is in it but because of who wrote it. And some bolshie instinct in me is asking 'yes but DID Tolkien write it?'

Appleyard admits the book was not written, but 'retrieved' by Christopher from his father's writings. Only grammatical changes being made. I have my doubts about that; even the arrangement of text is important in the writing of a book. But significantly for the cash flow, Appleyard says; 'this will probably be the last finished Tolkien tale'

Appleyard then goes on to say that Christopher Tolkien undertook this project because he wanted to 'return Tolkien to the printed page'. That the films had made the stories too literal, too defined. This book attempts to put the Tolkien universe, nuanced, nebulous and mythical, back to the forefront of Tolkien's visible works.

So within one article we are told that the films are responsible for selling a third of all LOTR copies ever sold....but that The Children of Hurin was published to 'reclaim' Tolkien from film.

This assumes that we are incapable of retaining the images that the book inspired in us alongside the images the film gives us. Appleyard should not belittle our imagination this way. Long before I saw the film I formed my pictures of Frodo and Faramir, Gandalf and Saruman. The film has given me other images, but those original pictures are still intact. I don't need Tolkien's writings to be 'returned to the page'. They have already successfully transferred to my imagination.

Appleyard goes on to recognise some problems with releasing posthumous Tolkien. When the Silmarillon was released in 1977 it was called the 'Sell-A-Million', and criticised for Christopher's intruded sections. It was said that money was the object, and that 'Tolkien' was becoming a 'brand' not a writer.

Appleyard then says; 'if Christopher has, indeed, done no more than string together a coherent story from his father's prose, I can't see much of a problem. He has done only what his father intended.'

Quite the contrary! Writing is far, far more than 'stringing together a coherent story'. If it were not, every pub bore would have the Pulitzer. Writing is a craft. And if Tolkien intended to publish The Children of Hurin, why didn't he? Or why did he not give express directions to his estate to do so? He didn't, because the only thing a writer can be said to have written is what he writes, re-writes and edits himself, then sends, heart in mouth, to an alligator-fanged publisher. I find it astonishing that a writer like Appleyard should so diminish the craft of writing by saying anyone can 'strong together a coherent story' from just notes, whoever wrote them.

Whatever happened to literary merit?

Well, the answer comes next in the article, when Appleyard lets out that he doesn't think much of Tolkien as a writer.
'Years ago, I gave up on The Lord of The Rings and the Hobbit ..because the prose seemed to be all surface, with none of the deeper currents that make good or great writing'

So, basically, Christopher Tolkien can't ruin his father's writing because it is not too good to begin with.

Appleyard does justify his criticism of Tolkien's writing by quoting AN Wilson's comment that Tolkien was not a writer at all but the creator of a world, through maps, etymologies, languages and genealogies and that the books were sort of by-products of this larger world.

As such, Tolkien was interested not in modern ideas of psychology but in absolutes, and 'last things', heroism, and magic, and he tries to recreate the styles in which such things were written originally, in Beowulf, The Green Knight and the Kalevala.

I agree that this is where Tolkien's style comes from. But to say that the Lord of The Rings is a 'by-product' is the tail wagging the dog. The story of the Fellowship and its quest, of Frodo and Sam and Aragorn and Arwen, is not a footnote. It is the story that got everyone interested in Middle Earth to begin with, even if it was not the first thing Tolkien wrote.

Probably, it was the elements of The Lord of The Rings that Tolkien liked least that 'sold' the book; the hobbits, with their humanity, and Gollum, with his twisted, pitiable but somehow fascinatingly repellent character. These are not 'last things', but something born out of a deep truth about what people are, how they pursue an ideal with heroism, self-doubt and mistakes, and how even the bad can do good. Today, as in any age of history.

So what Appleyard does not mention is that what made The Lord of The Rings a - dare I say the word? -classic, are the very things he leaves out of The Silmarillon; a rattling good narrative, flawed but credible characters, grubby but gold-hearted gardeners and Gollum.

But there are no hobbits in The Children of Hurin. I can't say Appleyard darns it with faint praise, but the following is not good;
''I didn't give up on it..because an intense and very grown-up manner saves it from the failings of his other works'

What other works? The Lord of The Rings and the Hobbit? I think if Hurin is half as good as them it would be pretty good indeed. And what the dickens is 'a grown up manner'? Do we mean s*x?

Appleyard then says;
'The popularity of his other works may well have distracted (Tolkien) from the seriousness and intensity of his vision of Middle Earth. He was a devout Catholic and although Christianity is not explicitly present, there is an unfolding drama of history and salvation throughout the work. This is man who meant what he said'

This is a very muddled paragraph. Appleyard suggests that The Lord of The Rings has no seriousness and intensity. That shows he certainly did not read it all. The themes of loss, loyalty, sacrifice, and the costs of accepting change, living your idealism and the shouldering of duty are nothing but serious and intense. The theme of salvation, for characters as different as Theoden and Gollum, runs right through The Lord of The Rings. I have only read Hurin's tale in the unfinished version, but it is a story of incest and suicide and violent, hopeless death. Can anyone tell me what redemption lies in all that?


Appleyard then goes on to try to find similarities between Tolkien and the authors, James Joyce and TS Eliot. Even though these were, of course, 'much greater artists'

I don't think they are at all like Tolkien, and to compare him to them is very unfair. To then say they are much greater is even more unfair.

Inadvertently, however, Appleyard delivers a hard blow to Tolkien. He says that James Joyce and TS Eliot used myths of the past, but Tolkien uses myths of his own created world, his invention. Appleyard then says 'but that does not diminish its significance as a prime symptom of the modern condition'

But it does, unfortunately. The modern condition is nothing like the world of the Elves, or the semi-magic world of the first ages of Middle Earth. This supernatural world with its absolutely good or bad creatures is hardly a 'prime symptom of the modern condition', but rather its very antithesis.

Appleyard then goes on to say;
'in view of the sales and the global cultural impact of Tolkien's tales of Middle-earth, it would be insane to attempt to diminish its significance. These books have plainly struck a contemporary nerve. There is a need for, not fantasy, exactly..but for stories that seem better, grander and bigger and stranger than the drab narratives of the mere present...'

Appleyard has a point, but it is the pointed wrong end of the stick.

Tolkien's tales of Middle Earth are not what has had a global impact; it is The Lord of The Rings that has had the global impact, and that long before the films came out. The reason why was that book has what the Sil does not have; a powerful narrative. A story. And it is a story that weaves the fates of characters we believe in, identify with and care for; Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Merry, Gimli, Legolas, Aragorn and Boromir, to mention only a few. These characters are nothing like Turin or Hurin; they are like us. They are drawn sympathetically and realistically. Like a novel, not a saga. They have psychologically sound motivation and their story is unfurled with drama, tragedy, comedy and suspense. They develop and change, and some even die. Sure, it all takes place against the wonderful setting of Middle Earth with its Elves and their beautiful world, and the mystery and awe of a long and dark history. But these things are not in the foreground. They are the background, the more powerful because, like real history here in the world, they are only hinted at, like icebergs under water. These characters had to be developed, their diction studied with care. It is impossible to duplicate the deeply moving effect such craft has on the reader by 'stringing together a coherent story' from a jumble of notes.

What about the fate of Frodo and Sam and Gollum on Mount Doom? the suffering and heroism of the hobbits as they strive to achieve their goal, the complexity and compassion of their friendship and their doomed courage and above all their hope; this is what makes The Lord of The Rings a great book. It is nice that ancient beings in the shape of giant Eagles rescue them. But the heart of the story is there in those two little people, not in the heart of Lothlorien, no matter how much the golden wood enriches the story.

Bryan Appleyard desperately wants to say something good about The Children Of Hurin. Not because he thinks it is a good book; he doesn't. He calls it 'retro writing' with more 'gesture than depth'.
Nor does he think it is a good book because Tolkien wrote it; he is not even sure Tolkien is a writer. No, Appleyard approves of The Children of Hurin because reading it is a Good Thing. It will drag us away from silly modern works to read something 'grander'.

I doubt that reading a cod-medieval epic with 'more gesture than depth' will prove grander than reading a powerful modern novel like Alexander Solshenitzyn's Cancer Ward.

In all this essay, the most accurate and important statement is that Tolkien has become a 'mark', a brand name. He is now an empire, a phenomenon, and new products, books and toys and films, are eagerly desired to feed the Tolkien market. What matters is not how good these things are, but that there is plenty of them, and that they are all marked Tolkien.

Astonishingly for a literary critic, Appleyard does not seem to think it matters how good The Children of Hurin is; what matters is there is more Tolkien available to feed demand, even if it is 'retrieved' Tolkien.

Well phenomena pass and empires fall, but a book that has genuine literary merit will survive long after the marketing frenzy dies down. If it hasn't, it won't, no matter how many nice illustrations by Alan Lee grace its pages. But Appleyard can't bring himself to say this is a good book.

It is not about myth; Tolkien hoped that his stories would be taken as myths, but they are stories, no more or less fiction than something written by Hemingway or Sartre. That they are fantasy is irrelevent;
As the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa said; 'Only failed fictions reproduce reality; successful fictions abolish and transfigure reality'

Appleyard ends;
'The Children of Hurin, in its own dotty but also awe-inspiring way, works'

Well The Lord of The Rings, a book actually written by JRR Tolkien, works even better because it is not dotty at all but great literature. That is why, as Vargas Llosa said, it transfigures reality to move and inspire us and become part of our very existence.

top
Response from MerryK:

Good analysis, Varda!

I disagree slightly about the effect of the movies...while some people, you and myself included, can retain their original vision of the series, many other people have not. I spend a lot of time in the artwork and fanfiction sections of the Tolkien fandom, and it is most clear there that the movie has greatly influenced fans, far more than it should have (whatever you think of the quality, no movie should take over its book). I, for one, am glad for new Tolkien books that have nothing to do with the movies.

Another thing I disagreed with was that Tolkien is full of black and white characters. Is there anyone who can actually enjoy something that is black and white? And even things that are only mostly black and white, like mythologies, are not popular reads for that reason (IMHO). It is that Tolkien's characters are living and breathing (if heroically exaggerated at times) that make his work so well-loved. There is not one good character in LOTR who does not fail at some point, nor a bad character who had no chance for good.

As for the Children of Hurin, you are right, there is no redemption in it. I suppose the closest you could get to redemption is that, even though cursed, Turin managed to kill one of Morgoth's greatest servants. But though in the Silmarillion the tale is short and compressed, it is much more fleshed out in other drafts that Christopher Tolkien has published, and I am looking forward to this longer and more coherent version. While the Silmarillion is not an easy read, and certainly has no universal appeal, it is by no means ignored by Tolkien fans, and many people find the characters fascinating and will leap for joy at the idea of more literature on them.

Will this book spark interest for Tolkien's other works in fans who have only seen the movie? Unlikely, though I have certainly seen great Silmarillion fans who started by seeing PJ's movies. Is it something that deserves to be published by itself and without reference to the Tolkien "hype"? I say yes. I do not think that we can say that the works Christopher Tolkien has edited and published are really Tolkien's work, but I do think they are as close to Tolkien as one can get, and that is something intensely valuable. Unfortunately, Tolkien published very little in his lifetime, which leaves fans wanting for more, and ready and willing to accept hints and pieces from Tolkien's original drafts. Some of them will just read the Silmarillion and accept it as Tolkien's work, others will go to look at the chonology and notes for the drafts and come up with what they think was Tolkien's last words on his plan for Middle-earth, and others will simply stick with the published works. I have even seen some people accept some parts of fanfiction as "canon" 0.o

Tolkien left an unfinished universe when he died, and he expected and approved of people adding to it, because what he most wanted to create was a mythology. For some people, LOTR will remain a great novel only, but for many it is the door to another universe, complete with elven gynecology, linguistic inside jokes, and mysteriously vague historical notes that prompt endless discussions. So whether the Children of Hurin is great taken as literature is, in the end, not most important. What is important is that it is another piece to the ever-expanding mythology of Middle-earth, and more valuable than most because it originated in Tolkien's own thoughts.

~MerryK (who happens to adore the Silmarillion)


Response from Erech the Undead to MerryK:

Yes, MerryK, many of us would do well to explore "Elven gynecology"..!!..

It's surely something that should be probed more deeply; a little spelunking...Helm's deep...the glittering caves and all that...

Thank you for your insight, as usual...

Response from Rohirrim Eored regarding Erech's response:

I think you meant geneology, MerryK. At least, I sure hope you did. Erech, you are a bad boy!

Reply from MerryK regarding the above:

Surprisingly, I didn't. (wink) Tolkien wrote an essay on Elven fertility and childbirth, amazingly enough. It is those sorts of things that make me shiver and wonder for just a moment if this could all be real? Surely no one author could have a world this detailed all in his head? But it only lasts a moment.

Response from Erech the Undead:

Though I've often visualised such a possibility, I'm not nearly as idealistic as you (MerryK), and I must ask you to consider as to how I know for certain, that Tolkien indeed knew little about Elven fertility:

They're all gone!

There is hope, however. Valinor may yet be discovered by men, albeit not necessarily in this plane of existence. Also, those Elves who perhaps remained in ME may simply have wandered off; scattered to the four winds, like the Entwives.

Not gone, merely missing, and gynecologically challenged, much like the Entwives: no action for centuries, with the "swords" of male Elves truly glowing blue whenever an Elf maiden wanders by...

There may indeed be an heir to the throne of Aragorn out there wandering, as not all who wander are lost. An obscure, little known regal descendant, the blood royale, if you will. Think DaVinci code, or perhaps Elvinci code.

Perhaps through his voluminous reading Tolkien discovered just such a clue to the existence of the descendants of a lost race of immortal beings, scattered through Europe like vagabonds. Perhaps there are clues to this in his writings, much like the letter-sequence codes in the Dead Sea scrolls...Imagine...

Imagine they are out there, waiting to be discovered, and in desperate need of feminine hygeine products...you could help them, MerryK; you can help end their suffering, and bring them out of darkness.

It is with just such a commission in mind, that I ask you, MerryK, to prepare yourself for just such an adventure; to step out your door not knowing where the road may lead you; to leave this board, never to return until your noble quest is fullfilled.

You can write about it, MerryK, at length, as you often do. Think of what a grand tale it would surely be:

There and Still There Again, by MerryK.

Now there's a fantasy I can really get into...

top
Response from MerryK:

Thankfully, I am not that obsessed, and if I ever go that far, I do hope someone will step in and stop me.  But really late at night when everything seems possible and plausible because of sleep-deprivation, it's easy to be enchanted by Tolkien's attitude of "Oh, I found the Red Book and translated it", because he's so darn talented. 

But, I think I prefer Middle-earth as mythology in any case, because then one can add to it without some long-lost descendant of Aragorn tapping one's shoulder and saying, "Oh, actually my great-eceteras-grandfather had only three children—and Balrogs had wings." 

But if any elf-maiden does knock on my door, I'll be sure to let you all know. *pauses* Is that the doorbell ringing?

Response by Rogorn:

Cheers, V. This is the article in question:

"This is, as Tolkien’s grandson Adam has put it, the “director’s cut” of The Children of Hurin — though I am not sure if the director in question is father or son.

Yet the very fact that this is how the book has emerged points to one of the most revealing oddities of Tolkien’s work. He was not, primarily, a novelist, and, as AN Wilson has suggested, not really a writer. The task he set himself was to create the world, Middle-earth, that preceded ours. He did so through maps, etymologies, invented species — primarily elves and orcs — and vast and often indecipher-ably complex genealogies. From this mountain of curious invention, the books emerged. But they were only ever fragments of the whole. Reading Tolkien, one is perpetually aware of a vast back story that will probably never be completely knowable, because, as a whole, it resided only in Tolkien’s head. The novels, in other words, were byproducts of a much larger project.

The Wilson charge that Tolkien was not really a writer will horrify millions, but he had a point. Tolkien’s style — indeed, his entire approach — was derived from English narrative poems such as Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight, from the Norse sagas and, especially in the case of this latest book, from Wagner. These were tales of heroism and magic, of absolute values, of the last things. The obvious approach for a contemporary writer who wishes to retrieve such forms is to update their style and, perhaps, set them in a contemporary context. This is emphatically not what Tolkien set out to do. He wanted to recreate their world and their language, only marginally adjusted for modern ears. A sentence from the first paragraph of The Children of Hurin makes the point: “His daughter Gloredhel wedded Haldir, son of Halmir, lord of the men of Brethil; and at the same feast, his son Galdor the tall wedded Hareth, the daughter of Halmir.”

This is “retro” writing with a vengeance. The modern mind is clearly being dragged by the scruff of its neck away from its literary comfort zone. Wilson’s point was that, having made this gesture, Tolkien’s interest in style ended. He compares him to Iris Murdoch: “Actually, Murdoch and Tolkien had this in common, though they could hardly be more different in other respects: like Murdoch, Tolkien did not worry about ‘style’ at all, simply charging on, where The Lord of the Rings was in question, with his sub-William Morris prose.”

This is exactly right. Years ago, I gave up on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit precisely because the prose seemed to be all surface, with none of the deeper currents that make good or great writing. My childhood hunger for fantasy had been fed by the wit, elegance and power of TH White’s wonderful novel sequence The Once and Future King. After that, Tolkien seemed thin and frequently prissy, in a tweedy, donnish kind of way. I was entirely in sympathy with the remark of one Hugo Dyson, on listening to Tolkien reading from The Lord of the Rings: “Not another f***ing elf.”

That said, The Children of Hurin is a different kettle of fish. I didn’t give up on it, primarily because an intense and very grown-up manner saves it from the failings of his other works. The prose is still more gesture than depth, but there is a real feeling of high seriousness. It is not a children’s story like The Hobbit, and it is much darker than The Lord of the Rings. This is Tolkien in Wagnerian mode. Indeed, it may be possible to say that it is echt Tolkien. The popularity of his other works may well have distracted him from the seriousness and intensity of his vision of Middle-earth. He was a devout Catholic, and although Christianity is not explicitly present, there is an unfolding drama of history and salvation throughout the work. This was a man who meant what he said. But, why? What did it all mean? The first and most obvious point to make is about context. Middle-earth was born in the dark days of the first world war, and The Lord of the Rings was written during and in the aftermath of the second. It would be absurd to see the evil lords Morgoth and Sauron as the Kaiser and Hitler; indeed, Tolkien always denied any allegorical intention. Nevertheless, his dreams of ancient, epic struggles between good and evil do feel like a way of making sense of the meaning-less, globalised slaughter of the 20th century.

There is a further twist to this. Tolkien is conventionally seen as an antimodernist figure. He disliked technology, and his pursuit of the ancient seems to echo that of the preRaphaelites and the gothic fantasist Augustus Pugin, designer of the Palace of Westminster.

This may be seen as escapism, a rejection of modernist engagement with the present and the future, but I’m not sure this is quite fair. Compare, for example, Tolkien’s project with two of the greatest works of modernist literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses tells the story of the ordinary life of a Dublin day as a recapitulation of the legend of the wandering Greek hero. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land is a mythological panorama, drawing on the tales of the past to cast devastating light on the condition of the present, the whole thing haunted by the spectre of mental breakdown.

In other words, though utterly different (and much greater artists), these writers were doing something similar to Tolkien: trying to cast light on the present by adapting the tales and mythologies of the past. Tolkien’s project was, indeed, more like simple escapism — his past was, after all, entirely his own invention — but that does not diminish its significance as a prime symptom of the modern condition.

In fact, in view of the sales and the global cultural impact of Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth, it would be insane to attempt to diminish its significance. These books have plainly struck a contemporary nerve. There is a need for, not fantasy, exactly — both Christopher and Lee agree that they do not want Tolkien to be cosily confined to the fantasy genre — but for stories that seem better, grander, bigger and stranger than the drab narratives of the mere present. As The Lord of the Rings was in the midst of its rise up the global bestseller lists, the board game Dungeons & Dragons, first sold in 1974, was sweeping fetid undergraduate bedrooms. Today, it would be similarly fantastic computer games such as World of Warcraft. Magic, in an age of disbelief, endures in curious interstices of the contemporary.

In addition, both the Star Wars films and the Harry Potter books confirm the contemporary longing for the grand and magical narrative. Glaurung the dragon sounds remarkably like Jabba the Hutt, and Turin’s talking sword could belong to Harry. There seems to be a need, across all modern cultures, for the story that transcends time and space, that, by escaping the particulars and compromises of the present, directly addresses the ultimate issues of life. If tweedy Tolkien raises our eyes above the mundane with his headlong, gestural prose and wild mythologies, then who am I to complain? Anyway, as a book, not just a fragment of a project, The Children of Hurin, in its own dotty but also awe-inspiring way, works.

Six thousand years before Bilbo Bag-ginsfound the ring of Sauron, Turin and Nienor were born to Hurin, called the Steadfast, lord of Dor-lo-min, husband of Morwen. Turin waged war against Morgoth and slew Glaurung, the first of the dragons of Morgoth. But . ..

No, I’d better not go on. The plot of JRR Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin is about to thrill and intrigue millions. It has an initial print run of 500,000 worldwide, but that will be just the beginning. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has sold 150m copies — 50m of those since Peter Jackson’s films were released. Another 50m copies of other Tolkiens, primarily The Hobbit, have also been sold. It is safe to say that the “great tale” of Turin is about to become a global myth.

The book has been retrieved by Tolkien’s son Christopher from his father’s assorted writings. It was begun in 1918, but never formally organised into a novel. Christopher has now done this, using, it is said, only his father’s words, with few grammatical changes. In theory, this raises the possibility of the retrieval of other great tales from this period — The Fall of Gondolin, Beren and Luthien has been suggested, and The Lay of Leithian — but, in practice, none of these seems to be in the complete, though dispersed, state of The Children of Hurin. This will probably be the last finished Tolkien tale.

The timing is significant. The films fundamentally changed the status of the books. As Alan Lee, the illustrator of The Children of Hurin and Oscar-winning art director of the three movies, tells me, there is something literal about film. In designing for Jackson, he found himself having to flesh out every nuance. Whereas Tolkien might sketch in a page of prose, the modern cinema audience wants the whole thing on screen. Furthermore, a generation of Lord of the Rings fans was created — but not necessarily Tolkien readers. The emphasis had shifted from the books.

This seems, at least in part, to explain the timing of The Children of Hurin. Christopher first told David Brawn, publishing director of HarperCollins, about the book two years ago, when the film fuss was ready to die down. It was, Brawn believes, a clear attempt to return his father’s work to the printed page. And, indeed, for Lee, it has been a chance to escape the literalism of the movies and to get back to his haunting, suggestive and very English fairy-tale style.

A new posthumous Tolkien is a risk, however. In 1977, the publication of The Silmarillion was criticised because it included interpolations by Christopher. The charge was that the estate was exploiting the legacy. It was lampooned as “The Sell-a-Million”. The implication was that Tolkien was becoming a brand rather than an author, a process surely accelerated by the films. On the other hand, it is the job of literary executors to find good unpublished material. If Christopher has, indeed, done no more than string together a coherent story from his father’s prose, I can’t see much of a problem. He has done only what his father intended."

The Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien is published on April 16 (HarperCollins £18.99)

top
Reply from Varda:

Thanks, Rogorn!

this is quite strange, as the article did not appear in that form in the paper. It began halfway through, then went back to the start.

Obviously messing about with text goes with the Tolkien territory.

The thing you have to remember is that Middle Earth never existed. It is a fiction no less than Tolstoy's Russia. What makes it real is Tolkien's skill as a writer. So in the end we can't separate a discussion of Middle Earth from a discussion of Tolkien as a writer, or indeed writing as writing and nothing else.

But Appleyard tries to get us to look at just about everything BUT the writing; the book's successes; its similarities to Star Wars ( shock ) the need to have another go in print after the films. But when Appleyard tries to say something meaningful about Tolkien the writer (and he is a writer, of course, whatever AN Wilson said, with tongue in cheek) the best he can do is belittle Tolkien in comparison to Joyce or TS Eliot. Appleyard betrays himself. He wants to say this is a good book, but he can't find a convincingly literary reason why, so he falls back on describing Middle Earth and its effect on our world.

It became clearer to me when I read this review that Middle Earth works best as background. When Tolkien puts the background into the foreground, as he does in the Silmarillion, it instantly becomes very obviously a created world, showing the hand of the creator. In describing his creation myth, Tolkien borrows the language of the King James bible. But the biblical style collapes when the monotheistic universe suddenly becomes a polytheistic one, and gets away from its creator. This is not hidden but overt style, and one notices that style. When Middle Earth becomes the background, assumed and subtle, as it does in The Lord of The Rings and even the Hobbit, it becomes unassailable, haunting and powerfully evocative.

Tolkien's world contained many contradictions. The fate of the Elves went through several evolutions in Tolkien's works, so that it is hard to really define Elven eschatology. And the question of mortality of heroes such as Beren similarly also gets shifted about, as if Tolkien was looking for an ultimate reality. This is not, then, a fixedly created world, but an idea in flux in the creator-writer's mind. But when you see that world in a moment of time, as in The Lord of The Rings, the contradictions and uncertainties not only don't matter but they enrich it. But if you are drawing a world view ouside a point in time, contradictions do matter, and they make it a confused and unconvincing picture.

There is also the question of diction. In The Lord of The Rings, Tolkien's diction evolves, from being similar to that of the Hobbit at the start to being much more detached and elegiac at the end. But the diction of The Silmarillion varies far more wildly. We start off with the King James Bible then go onto the Battle of Maldon, veering from a moral cosmos in the making to a Saxon battle saga, with the far narrower concepts of virtue that entails. Wisdom is supplanted by courage, which is an evolving down. Not just Hurin, but many of Tolkien's Silmarillion figures are, basically, stupid, so in drawing them Tolkien has to emphasise the epic and heroic over the profound and the meaningful. His diction also has to be modified from the elevated beauty of his early description of the music of the universe of Eru to trying to convince us that proud, brave but not very bright heroes like Turin deserve our approval. We admire Cuchulainn for his courage, yet despise him for his pride and arrogance, but Tolkien does not invite us to despise Turin.

Tolkien never finds a convincing diction as a writer in this book, but then, he never meant it to be published in this form and although Christopher could string stuff together he - and his collaborators - could not alter the tone of the writer.

That would not matter if this was a genuine history or geography, but in the end, this is fiction, whether it is a myth, romance or a novel. It might be closer to Homer than to HG Wells, but it is still fiction, and should be discussed as fiction, with diction and style part of that literary creation.

To do otherwise would be to say that Tolkien is too great to criticise at all. That he is a genius above all examination. I think if we let that idea in, and Appleyard does come close to saying 'what the heck about the weak points, it's Tolkien isn't it, let's just worship at the shrine!' we would do Tolkien a terrible disservice. If we say it is all good, not evaluating and questioning it as we do other works, we will not only not see faults, but we will not see genuine triumphs and marks of true genius. We will also set Tolkien up for future generations to find feet of clay attached to our statue of gold. They will accuse us of doing a King's Clothes, and the ulitmate victim will be Tolkien. He was a critic himself, he deserves the very best literary criticism, and Appleyard gives us a slapdash 'isn't it all great!' instead.


Reponse by MerryK:

As far as my personal opinion goes, I think that we should honor what Tolkien was trying to do. He submitted the Hobbit as a literary work, but though the Lord of the Rings should have followed from there, it got away from him, and transformed into something else. It ended up being inexorably more and more connected with the Silmarillion, with England's mythology that had been in the works for nearly forty years. And in the end, as one reads his letters, it is plain that he embraced the point of view that Lord of the Rings (if not the Hobbit, perhaps) was now a piece of his grand mythology.

Now, if someone writes a pastoral comedy, should one judge it by its dramatic value? Of course not, we should judge it on how well it works as a pastoral comedy. Whether it should have happened or not, to hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, Middle-earth has become a mythology to grasp on to. I believe that, since this was Tolkien's intent, we should judge his world as a mythology. Of course there are inconsistencies, errors, and contradictions, and one may examine them to one's heart's content...but unlike in literature, Tolkien's world can hold up through it all. There are fans out there who slam their heads up against the wall at some of the errors of Tolkien, and rant about them on forums for weeks, and yet they go back to his work. What piece of literature could at once annoy and enchant to such an extent? Tolkien's world has grown beyond literature, and if the critics attempt to judge it by literary standards, they will have missed what is most important.

And when Tolkien's works go out of copyright, and sequels to it are being written and published, the criticism should not be, "Is it like Tolkien?" The criticism should be, "Is it like Middle-earth?" Yes, this is Tolkien's mythology, and his opinions and worldviews are through it all. Thankfully, because of his attitude, that he was merely the first modern historian of Middle-earth, others may carry on the legacy without having to imitate his style. And if, years from now, there are even more histories of Middle-earth than he ever dreamed of, I believe he would be proud.

The Lord of the Rings and its related works are not merely an icon in literature, but a grand and vital piece of our culture. Just as the Greeks would say "like Odysseus" to inspire a long and hard journey, we may say "like Frodo and the Ring".


Another review - text supplied by Rogorn:

Away with the fairies
Tom Deveson

THE CHILDREN OF HURIN by JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

HarperCollins £18.99

Mim’s house on Amon Rudh is given the name Echad i Sedryn. The sword Anglachel is forged anew in Nargothrond and called Gurthang. Turin (the story’s irascible hero) is known in Middle-earth as Neithan, Gorthol, Agarwaen, Adanedhel, Mormegil and Turambar. A taste for this kind of stuff is as innocuous as collecting train numbers or cricket records, but, although JRR Tolkien aficionados will be thrilled, others will find The Children of Hurin barely readable. Fifty pages of explanatory material, crammed with chronologies, genealogies and lists of battles, topographical details and more-than-human powers, merely create a miasma of allusion and demand a loyal acceptance of the myth.

The book is the “artificial” reworking of Tolkien’s many abandoned attempts to tell this tale, including 2,000 lines of lacklustre alliterative verse, some of which is unwisely quoted here. Versions have been published before; what is new is a continuous narrative devised by the author’s son.

Nothing really happens, although there is a tedious succession of events. Turin leaves home and slaughters large numbers of baddies. Time and again we read that “he struck down all before him” or “slew the last of the Easterlings that remained”. He also wears the Helm that “guarded any who wore it from wound or death”, kills a dragon and marries his sister. These events can, of course, be matched in Wagner or the Finnish epic of the Kalevala. In the Ring Cycle, however, every bar contributes to a constantly shifting alteration of mood and meaning, whereas here we are too often escorted through monotonous passages of annalistic prose.

The characters are straightforwardly conventional. The wise are wise; the brave, brave; the noble, noble; and the wicked, wicked. A girl’s “laughter was like the sound of the merry stream”. Turin’s face is “more beautiful than any other among mortal men”, and a girl who loves him is “golden-haired after the manner of the house of Finar-fin”. When, after a long separation, he meets and falls in love with his sister, she is “tall, and her eyes were blue, her hair fine gold” — now there’s a surprise. Lineage is all and virtue is hereditary.

Turin is captivated by “the Sindarin tongue”, “older, and . . . richer in beautiful words”. Tolkien endorses this equation of archaism with beauty, but doesn’t show why it is more desirable to write “dwelt” than “lived”, to describe a sword that “would cleave all earth-dolven iron” or to have people say, “Await me here until haply I return.” Phrases such as “the dark lord upon a dark throne” or “their dark doom’s shadow” recur with wearisome insistence. Sentences with a gnomic brevity derived from the sagas are overwhelmed by pages of self-indulgent feebleness. Fans will doubtless read on with passionate piety, but for others it is an act of painful penitence.

top
Response by Varda:

Thanks for that, Rogorn.

This review is a painful but salutary reminder that we should be accurate and fair in our own criticism of Tolkien, because heaven knows those who are not his fans will be ruthless in pointing out his flaws and we need a critical armoury to rebuff them.

It is not enough to say 'well I like it'. Sadly, liking something doesn't make it good. This review, hostile as it is, makes telling points because they are accurate points; Tolkien's poetry is not amongst the greats; the characters in this tale are wooden; a sequence of events is NOT a story; it is ridiculous to suggest virtue is hereditary. Nice illustrations don't save an inferior book. And just because a tale can echo Wagner or the Kalevala does not give it the depth of meaning of those works, especially for this age.

I think The Lord of The Rings is a masterpiece, one of the greatest works of literature ever written. I just don't think Tolkien's other writings are in the same boat and would be best left in their present form for those who wish to go and seek them out and study them. This review is right to be critical of the way this material has been hauled out and tarted up. I do not believe Tolkien would ever have published this.

We can cry 'but we want more!' But what if more exposes Tolkien to criticism like this which picks out the weaker points of his writing? Weak points that readers of The Lord of The Rings never notice. We ARE past the place where it is enough for the brave to be brave and the fair fair and nothing else, mate. Why do we have to admire this surly and stupid hero anyway? Tolkien gives us two wonderful heroes in Aragorn and Frodo, why do we look for others like that where they are not to be found?

I have been in the Tolkien Society for thirty years and their magazine Mallorn publishes new Tolkien criticism every four months, and in all that time I have never failed to find new and fresh insights into The Lord of The Rings. There are endless avenues and influences to be explored in that book, let us discuss it till the stars come out, not drag out unfinished fragments of Tolkien's writing to attract criticism like this and damage Tolkien's reputation as a great writer.

It is not enough to say more is good. I had got to page 15 of the Silmarillion when I said to myself 'this is a good way to spoiling my memory of the magic of reading The Lord Of The Rings', and after that I only read it passim.

This is the review that Appleyard did not write because he did not read the whole book. And he was so intent on being positive about Tolkien for reasons other than literary criticism.

I don't want to see Tolkien regarded as a writer whom only 'aficionados' can like. His best work - and the only works he presented for publication - are great literature and as such have universal appeal. In this incarnation, this book is neither.

Varda, very unhappy about the review because its arrows are well aimed.


Response by MerryK:

Varda wrote:  There are endless avenues and influences to be explored in that book, let us discuss it till the stars come out, not drag out unfinished fragments of Tolkien's writing to attract criticism like this and damage Tolkien's reputation as a great writer.


I am curious about this statement, Varda. It has always got on my nerves when people pretend that an author did not write something because they consider it inferior, thinking that it will somehow make the great writing any less great and well-loved, but I never actually had a chance to discuss it with someone. I see it all the time with Jane Austen as well, where Northanger Abbey is the "inferior" piece. As a minority in boths fandoms, loving both Northanger Abbey and The Silmarillion, it at first was only annoying, but now seems an odd reaction to me, as if an author must do everything right or they are worth nothing. Cannot an author be great even if you dislike a piece of his work?

Another idea that I am getting from what you said, which may very well be completely off the mark, is that you think that people will see these reviews and then think that Tolkien cannot write. (huh?)  Considering that people have said this before about the LOTR, and yet sales have not diminished, I cannot agree. If Tolkien's work is truly great, a bad piece of writing or a nasty critic will not affect it. Mark Twain wrote a scathing review of Jane Austen, and the faults he found were not completely off the mark, but that did not make Austen less respected. It is only truly inferior work that needs to have its reputation "protected" from criticism; anything else can stand up to it.

As far as the review goes, I certainly cannot deny that those points can be made...but I do not feel a need to deny it. I read The Silmarillion first when I was only about 12, having just come from LOTR and wanting more of Tolkien, and from the first chapter was drawn quickly and headlong into the story. There were characters I loved and characters I hated, but it never crossed my mind that this might not be as "good" a book as LOTR. It was very different, undeniably, but I adored it and read it just as often as LOTR. It was only later that I read criticisms on it, and discovered that it did not have universal appeal.

But those criticisms did not affect me, as the reviews posted here did not either; it did not matter to me that others did not like it, because I did. For all the hereditary virtue, good looks belonging only to the good, and repetitive language, I could not put the book down nor dislike it. (That is what sets Tolkien alongside such authors as Dickens, that one can find so much "wrong" and yet love it at the same time. I have talked to many people who raved about some Dickens book, and yet in the same conversation harshly bashed his too-perfect heroines and sentimentality.) I feel no need to have an armory of responses to the criticisms laid on The Silmarillion, because while they go on about how flat and wooden it is, I only know that it touched (and still touches) my soul. And that is something that The Great Gatsby, for instance, never did, great literature though it may be. So, I say, live and let be published; what is inferior to one is great to another.

As an aside, you say that it is not enough to evoke the Kalevala, but I have never met someone who cried over characters in the Kalevala, while I have met many who did so over the "wooden" characters of The Silmarillion. Likewise, I believe that all of the "faults" with The Silmarillion have been and can be found in LOTR; it really ends up as a matter of preference.

You say, why do we have to admire Turin? We don't. But what you fail to address is that some of us do, and we do without "having" to. It is a fair argument to say that most people will not like The Children of Hurin, and it is even fair to say that Tolkien would not have published this in this state, but it is not fair to say that because it has no universal appeal it should be hidden away where only diehard fans can find it. You say that we can discuss LOTR till the cows come home. Can we not do so without tossing Tolkien's other work in the trash? If you don't like The Silmarillion, or The Children of Hurin, that is entirely up to you, and you will not be forced to discuss it. But saying that you don't want something published because you'd rather talk about something else seems close-minded to me.

It is not enough to say "well, I like it", but neither is it enough to say "well, I think it's inferior".


Response by Rogorn:

Exactly. Some reviewers seem to forget that some people love the Silmarillion (and all the other related stories, like the Unfinished Tales), even when fully knowing that they weren't in their final shape. Some even like those more than LOTR. This might be a travesty to some, but, well, one can choose their own pleasures. Besides, liking it more doesn't mean that one can't recognise which one is 'superior'.

I think it is good that we can see this material published, even if only to find the same interest in them as one could find from seeing initial sketches of the work of great painters. For me they go beyond that, but I don't think that they 'water down' Tolkien's quality or that of LOTR. It's always nice and cool to be labelled as a publisher of nothing like masterpieces (as is said of James Joyce), but I don't think these other works by Tolkien are worthless. In fact, I find them superb, and moreover, the fact that they look like that when unfinished even gives them more appeal. While they have been a shock to many (especially those whose started their walk into Arda through LOTR), they have given pleasure to countless people.

Deveson's piece, however, is a good reminder of what many readers are going to think about CoH, if not the whole Silmarillion by extension. Fair enough. I hope they find it useful when deciding whether to invest their time and maybe money into reading the book - that's one of the things a literary review is useful for - but I can live with those opinions and still enjoy what I like.



Response by Vik:

Oh dear - I need more time to read and re-read all those interesting posts! When I first read LOTR oh those many years ago I wanted all the Tolkien I could get and I remember that I was a little disappointed because there weren't so many books available. At that time I could only read the german books. 
I had rather mixed feelings when COH was first announced. Just another way to make more money. And it's not a new story - he "just" put the pieces from the Sil and Unfinished tales together.
There's an introduction and a lengthy explanation at the end of the story where he explains that he didn't make much changes to the original text - merely some "logical" rearrangements. This part is definitely for the scholars/fans!Someone certainly does expect some discussions about this book! :-D
I've just read a german proof copy of COH and tomorrow I will have a look at the finished book and enjoy the illustrations by Alan Lee!  For me that is most likely the main reason to get this book...
While reading COH I had this crazy idea..... I wonder how Varda would write this story.. ;-)
Turin beware!


Response by MerryK:

That would be interesting indeed! I wonder if that would make a good challenge, for those members here might be interested, to write a summary of how LOTR or the Sil would have turned out if you had written it. I certainly would love to read the results!

top
Response by Varda:

Thanks for your replies to my post, friends, and the links, especially that one to the critical article on Appleyard, Linaewen.

Remember what I am saying refers to Tolkien's critical reception. I am not arguing with you guys who want to read more and more Tolkien, of whatever style. My argument is about putting out an unfinished fragment of uncertain quality with massive hype and fanfare as if it was equal in any way to Tolkien's great work, which is undoubtedly The Lord of The Rings.

As that article cited by Linaewen shows, Tolkien is by any standards a great writer, but by merely critical standards he often does not even qualify as one. The problem is therefore with the criticism, not the writer. Modern criticism has justly been described as 'literature's long suicide note' and I agree.

But I don't agree that Tolkien is in some way 'above' criticism. As a critic himself, he would not have liked to think he was. Much Tolkien fan writing tries to say Tolkien is the mediator between our world and Middle Earth, not a writer but a historian, genealogist and linguist, adapting it all for our ears.

Very quaint, but daft. Middle Earth is a literary creation. I do believe as I said before that Tolkien is sui generis, a unique writer, but he is still a writer and his work is literature. Just because we have to adjust our critical spectacles does not mean we should be blind.

Nor does it mean we should ignore the considerable body of Tolkien criticism produced by critics like Shippey and by the Tolkien Society over the years. Friends, if it is Tolkien criticism you seek, criticism that treats the books as successful literature, it is all out there for you to find.

But the fact remains that Tolkien wrote a great body of work and only presented some of it for publication. the reason is simple; chronology. The moment that matters in Middle Earth is the end moment we are given in The Lord of The Rings, the final battle with Sauron. All the backfill of the Silmarillion and even of the Hobbit, prepared and led to this moment.

Sure we can go back and read the tales of those long past far off days, but Tolkien intended these to be the background and mythology of a world a bit like ours, where people worked out their lives against traditions of song, story, belief, magic and history. The Children of Hurin is part of that tapestry.

But I don't think Tolkien ever thought it should be hauled out and presented on its own. Shorn of its context, it has flaws; Tolkien was making myths for a fictional world. He drew heavily on Wagner's Ring, and on the Kalevala, saying that Turin was modelled on that epic's 'hapless hero'. This is writing that is very derivative as it was only cast as a story to be referred to, something out of the past. As the hostile reviews are quick to point out, the characters have no depth, the action no story and the dialague no dynamic.

Tolkien is trying out a study of a mythological type, not writing a truly original work. The characters in this tale are nothing like characters worked to a unique individuality like Frodo or Faramir, who leap stright from the page into our hearts. Here are not genius-inspired characters to move us, just unfinished ideas borrowed from other tales.

Nor do I believe for a moment that Tolkien would ever have published this in this form, whatever his relatives say. Tolkien worked and re-worked his books, he was a writer who drafted and re-drafted his work. If you look at the published drafts of The Lord of The Rings, you will see two rough-hewn characters, Bungo and Trotter, wandering Middle Earth speaking in comprehensible dialogue. Eventually, they were worked and honed till they became Frodo Baggins and Strider wandering Middle Earth speaking meaningful dialect in a brilliant and epic story.

Maybe, Turin's tale might have been quietly discarded for separate publication by Tolkien as being too 8th century for our age. Or maybe he might have worked and re-worked it into something just as unrecognisable and brilliant as Frodo and Aragorn are unrecognisable from their rough drafts Bungo and Trotter. But we don't know, and this publication assumes this is what he would have wanted when all the evidence of his methods points in the other direction.

But as I said, the whole reason for Turin's story is not Turin himself; it is part of the sagas and history that forms the backdrop for Tolkien's REAL masterpiece, The Lord of The Rings. If you distilled all the pathos and tragedy in Turin's whole tale you would not come up with one percent of the pathos and tragedy of the death of Boromir with Aragorn at his side; one is real and great literature, the death of Turin at the hands of a speaking sword is stylised and remote.

In The Lord of The Rings, we do indeed 'stand on a knife's edge' as Galadriel says; Middle Earth has known a long history, (documented in Tolkien's other writings), but it has come now to this point, the last clash of good and evil destined from the very first days. Now, not only Sauron and his evil magic but the Elves and their wise and good powers, stand on the brink of destruction. This is the dawn of the age of man, and all magic and things that belong to the Elder ages, like Ents, will slowly disappear from the world.

In a way, Tolkien felt the same; he was born into a Europe still recognisably the result of medieval tradtions; royal houses and empires still flourished. When he was writing, at the time of the second world war, all those empires and kingdoms had been swept away, and medieval Europe had been swept away with it. Even the British Empire for which he had fought had been swept away.

Tolkien always resisted any analogy with contemporary history. But in The Lord of The Rings we see ancient dynasties such as that of Denethor giving way to a new kind of kingship, that of Aragorn, relying on justice and courage and generosity. Leading from the ranks, it is called, or democracy if you are a Spartan (that is a joke) This is all a long long long way from Turin; so it should be. This is the culmination of Tolkien's great creation, the history of Middle Earth.

When Gandalf tells Aragorn that he must leave Middle Earth, Aragorn is devastated; so are we, to think that all that is magic and wondrous will go from the world, along with the Elves and the higher folk. But so it is destined to be. Tolkien is saying the age of magic is over, and here comes the age of Man. But Gandalf tells Aragorn that hope and goodness will never die, and as proof he finds a sapling of the White Tree. So even in a world where physical magic might die, still the memory of the Two Trees of Valinor will be a hope and an inspiration to the world. Sure the magic of Lothlorien will fade, but the evil magic of Sauron will fade too, and that is the price we have paid to rid the world of it.

So the Tale of Turin belongs not in the real present of Middle Earth, but in the mystical magic past. Aragorn reforges a sword of mythical importance to his people. But as Elrond tells him in the film, it is he who must exert his strength to wield it. Turin's sword can act on its own, to 'drink his blood'. This is not a real story but a fairy tale.

Yes, Middle Earth needs its fairy tales, its distant and magic past. But the publishing hype of this book presents it on the same level and in the same style as The Lord of The Rings, and that could damage the greater work. This really is an appendix, and the hype surrounding the publication might damage the hard-won critical acclaim that The Lord of The Rings has gained, against great hostility, over the past few decades.

The real reason everyone has trouble with Tom Bombadil, even while liking him so much, is that he is in the wrong book. He belongs to the world of many spirits that is the Silmarillion. Tolkien as he wrote The Lord of The Rings realised that this was a realistic narrative, and that magic in the end could neither defeat nor save his heroes; only their own strengths and weaknesses could do that. But Turin is not such a hero; he is defeated by magic and secrets and things beyond his knowledge. His fate is not in his own hands. As a moral and physical hero he is to Frodo what Cuchulainn is to Hamlet.

I don't want to spoil everyone's fun, not that I found Turin's story much fun when I read it. It is nice that we have it all laid out more clearly, even if it not what Tolkien wanted or not in the form he wanted. It is nice that Alan Lee has done illustrations for it, although it is deeply wrong to suggest that Lee has not always had 'first shot' at Tolkien illustrations; he certainly always did.

I am just worried that presenting this story with all this hype at the same level as the much greater and properly finished work The Lord of The Rings will cast back some criticism on that greater work. If people read this first, will they ever to on to the trilogy? This is a fragment Tolkien wrote to fill out his world. It is an experimental re-working of other myths; it has problems of diction and style and even metre; it is not complete, and it is not even in the form Tolkien approved for final release. I think the literary reasons for publishing this are nil. There are indeed other reasons, an insatiable fan readership, profit etc. But the reasons for publishing should always be literary excellence, and that is not the reason for publishing The Children of Hurin, and so it is easy meat for the critics.

Varda, who knows she is a voice crying in the wilderness. ;-)


Response by MerryK:

Great post, Varda! I think I understand your point more clearly, and I certainly agree that The Children of Hurin should not be considered on the same level as LOTR literarily. I don't think it is quite as bad as you seem to think it, and I still don't think that Tolkien should be treated like other literature, but I agree with your main point.

But I don't agree that Tolkien is in some way 'above' criticism. As a critic himself, he would not have liked to think he was.

Perhaps he would not have wished to think that he was, but he certainly behaved that way. He did it politely, but he certainly did not pay much mind to the critics.

IMHO, Tolkien is above the critics, not because he is without flaw, but because the critics judge him like other literature. And as you said, Tolkien is one of a kind. Just like Star Wars is not just another movie, Tolkien's world is more than just literature: it is an attempt at world-building, probably the greatest attempt in all of history. I believe it should be judged by world-building standards.

The characters in this tale are nothing like characters worked to a unique individuality like Frodo or Faramir, who leap stright from the page into our hearts.

Actually, I do think Turin has a unique personality, though perhaps he is the only one in the tale who does. Perhaps it is derivative personality, but it certainly shone for me. And, after all, you can find hilarious parodies of him, and you cannot write parodies in good fun about flat characters; you can write critical parodies, but not fun ones. (For example, you cannot write a good parody about Orophin, Haldir's brother, because he has no personality to poke fun at.)


Reply by Varda:

 Thank you for your reply, MerryK.

About Tolkien not listening to criticism, I must correct you; he certainly did listen to it, and some unknown critic may have been responsible for Tolkien being a novelist and not a poet.

What happened was that Tolkien, as you will know if you have read this tale in its original form, first wrote parts of it in verse. This was quite early in his writing career. He was using the alliterative old English verse form.

Tolkien then submitted his verse to a critic - whose name he never divulged, but probably was one of his circle - who returned a verdict of considerable harshness. It amounted to advising Tolkien not to write his story in poetic form. Far from ignoring this critical analysis, Tolkien took it so seriously that he did not write any more of the tale in verse, but continued it in prose.

I doubt that Tolkien wrote in verse out of more than a desire to use an Old English metre he particularly loved, but it has been suggested that this unknown critic and his verdict made Tolkien a prose writer and not a poet, and so we owe The Lord of The Rings to him.

But if you think about it, it does stand to reason that Tolkien would listen to literary criticism; he met a circle of writer friends in the Eagle and Child and they read each other's work and, well, criticised it. That was literary criticism in its most lively and radical form - a form that does not stunt but creates great literature, acting as a forcing house of talent, urging good writers on to become better ones. No craft comes easy, and as my archery coach keeps telling me, listening to advice is the first step of every art. Criticism is a vital tool of a professional writer.

I certainly agree with you that Tolkien had a high opinion of his own talents. But he was still a professional critic, and if he had ignored criticism it would have been like a doctor despising medicine.

As regards Tolkien not being literature, that does not exalt him, it diminishes him. If he is not a writer, he is the creator of a fantasy world that actually does not exist. I prefer writer. A unique writer, but a writer nonetheless.

His skill is in the fact that you think his world exists. You don't see the wires. His writing has disappeared and all you see is what he describes. That is the ultimate great writing. Sadly, though, in The Children of Hurin, you see too many wires; you see Tolkien fumbling to develop a hero with shavings off the Kalevala and Wagner. You see him struggling to evolve a diction in keeping with mythology but also suitable for modern prose. You see him juggling with 'dark' elements like suicide and forbidden s*x but only to let them in the end overwhelm his hero in a hopeless and pointless denouement.

This is my problem with The Children of Hurin; it has flaws that Tolkien's other writing doesn't have, so in a short space it dents his reputation as a flawless writer. It should have been left where it was, for those to read who want to read, not thrust in front of the public as if it was equal to his greatest work. MerryK, the people are not that stupid, they will see they have been sold an inferior work at an inflated price, and this could be the beginning of the anti-Tolkien backlash.

I can only admire you for finding Turin unique. He is actually just like his dad. And is replicated later on in Beren. His final incarnation is Aragorn, by which time Tolkien had got it right. The wanderer in the wilds, amply justifying Wormtongue's 'his cloth was poor' remark, enjoying a permanent bad hair day but under it all possessing royal lineage, this is almost an archetype in Tolkien's work. Hurin is only unique in that he engages in forbidden s*x, a subject usually taboo in Tolkien's writing, and he commits suicide, which is usually restricted to Tolkien's evil characters or good ones who have gone hopelessly astray, like Denethor.

In order to write a good parody you need to have a well defined character to begin with; there is not enough written about Orophin to show us what he is like, so a parody is impossible.

However, I am fascinated that you have managed to find 'hilarious parodies' of Turin.

Please, MerryK, do share these with us....

top
Response by MerryK:


About Tolkien not listening to criticism, I must correct you; he certainly did listen to it, and some unknown critic may have been responsible for Tolkien being a novelist and not a poet.

Oh, I am not saying that he did not listen to it at all, but there are many comments in his letters relating to criticism, where he completely brushed it off. I believe he was more open to the comments of his friends in the Inklings, but he certainly didn't let the critics rule him...otherwise we would have had a vastly different and IMHO inferior work.

As regards Tolkien not being literature, that does not exalt him, it diminishes him. If he is not a writer, he is the creator of a fantasy world that actually does not exist.

So then, you think that it is of greater value to write a self-contained work, rather than create an expansive world? huh I am afraid I must disagree. If you read LOTR as a mere book, IMHO, you are missing much. I do not wish to sound pretentious, but I believe you have a more meaningful experience if you dig deeper. It is only when you realize that the light in Frodo's phial came from Earendil, who in turn received it from Elwing, descendant of Beren and Luthien, who took it from Morgoth, who stole it from Feanor himself, greatest genius in Middle-earth, that the true depth of LOTR is shone. It is only when you realize that the ring on Aragorn's finger, the ring of Barahir, is not only an heirloom but the physical memorial of when an High-Elven lord sacrificed himself for his mortal friend, that the majesty and nobility of Aragorn's claim becomes clearer. There is so much more to Frodo and his quest than what is contained in LOTR, and despite the varying quality of the rest, it is valuable and worthwhile material. You simply cannot ignore that Middle-earth is a world; an unfinished, flawed, contradictory world, but one that has been and will be of lasting importance. It can only diminish it to deny this.

You don't see the wires. His writing has disappeared and all you see is what he describes. That is the ultimate great writing.

Then in that case Tolkien is a greater writer than Shakespeare, whose wires pop out at every turn. wink grin

I can only admire you for finding Turin unique. He is actually just like his dad. And is replicated later on in Beren. His final incarnation is Aragorn, by which time Tolkien had got it right.

Hmm, well, as I find subtle differences in those characters, but you do not, and since I am not going to call you wrong, there is nothing more to be said here. I think it is up to opinion, however, on whether characters are successful.

In order to write a good parody you need to have a well defined character to begin with;

That was exactly what I said...so if you can have a parody about Turin, he's not a flat character. (I cannot find any parodies with him at the moment mutter but I know I have read some.)

Thanks for replying!


Reply by Varda:


Thank you for your reply, MerryK


(Regarding this, you disagree with) my point that Tolkien is better regarded as a writer who created a great work than a man who dreamed up a world. But that world is conveyed to us in writing. Sure, Frodo is a real character to us, but Frodo did not leap fully formed from Tolkien's head like Athena from the head of Zeus. He went through many evolutions; that is called writing.

Writing is not just hitting the keys, it is formulating characters, even grand and timeless characters. Writing in short is art, the creation of a higher reality that inspires our own. I once did quote to you Shelley's dictum that writers are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. Tolkien proves the possibilities of writers to the greatest degree, as Shippey said. Just because there is no-one near Tolkien in the race does not mean he isn't on the course.

Among writers, Tolkien is as Shadowfax among horses. But he is still a writer.

Here is the saving of the ring of Barahir, actually;
'But Arvedui did not take his counsel. He thanked him (the chief of the Lossoth) and at parting gave him his ring, saying ;'This is a thing of worth beyond your reckoning. For its ancientry alone. It has no power, save the esteem in which those hold it who love my house. It will not help you, but if every you are in need, my kin will ransome it with great store of all that you desire....'

Arvedui is lost in a shipwreck; 'and with him the palantiri (of Annuminas and Amon Sul) were buried in the sea' but his grandson Arahel was fostered in Rivendell, and'there also were kept the heirlooms of their house; the ring of Barahir, the shards of Narsil, the star of Elendil and the sceptre of Annuminas'

(Return of the King; Appendix A, pps 392-3 Harper Collins 2992 Ed)

So you see  I know the book too, I have even read the Silmarillion and the Appendixes, I just don't think they are central to the meaning of Tolkien's best work. (I encourage) the close reading and appreciation of Tolkien.

Good criticism is the highest form of appreciation.

To conclude, I feel your replies are more retorts, slanted at me rather than engaging with my arguments, and you reply just to have the last word. This is disheartening, because an intelligent discussion of my favourite writer is the main reason I came here.

Thank you, MerryK, and you can have the last word.

Varda, like Bono my fellow Dubliner still not having found what I am looking for.

(the above post was mildly edited to remove flames)


Reponse by MerryK:

I am deeply sorry if any of my words offended you, Varda. Though I used the pronoun "you", it was general and hypothetical usage, and nothing I said was meant to be personal. I offer humble apologies.

I never said "Tolkien never listened to criticism." What I said was he "did not pay much mind" to it, which is certainly true. I do not have all my resources at hand at the moment, but there was one quote I remember well enough to paraphrase: "[this critic] says my work is poor; well, I do not mind, since I think the same of works he approves of"

On the parodies of Turin: I said I spend a lot of time around fanfiction. That translates to about thirty such sites that I have visited, not to mention all the online communities, many of which do not archive their writings. I do not bookmark every story that I found funny, therefore I simply would have to spend hours to find particular examples. I did not brush you off, however; I have done my utmost, and found this one at least: http://www.henneth-annun.net/stories/chapter.cfm?stid=3453

You have been saying that it diminishes Tolkien to include his whole world, and yet have offered no clear argument why that is the case, when all other sources I have come across seem to point otherwise. I do not see an argument to engage with here. I have always endeavored to be reasonable and logical, though I certainly admit that I can fail, but I saw nothing here to respond to.

I never, ever, meant to imply that you were ignorant, Varda. Ignorant has a harsh connotation that had nothing to do with what I was saying. Logically, if you do not know everything on a subject, you are missing something. I am missing something, because I have not learnt Sindarin yet. I am missing something from literature in general because I have not read Anna Karenina. I was responding to your belief that we should only focus on LOTR, and I do not see how it is unreasonable to say that one is missing something if one does that.

Good criticism is the highest form of appreciation, Merryk.

I completely agree with that; I merely do not think critics are going about it the right way.

(And what I was speaking of, in reference to the ring of Barahir, was the story in the Silmarillion. Finrod, heir to the king of the Noldor, gave his ring to Barahir when the latter saved his life in battle. When Beren, Barahir's son, inherited it, he asked for Finrod's succor in his quest for the Silmaril. During that quest, Finrod gave his life, and was slain by a werewolf of Sauron, to save Beren. Aragorn is the descendant of Beren, and so even a family heirloom mentioned in passing in LOTR has depth, if one looks at his whole world.)


Response by Silmaryan:

Varda: I don't know if anyone answered your question but the two Eagles are carrying Hurin and Huor to the hidden city of Gondolin.

top
Reply from Varda:

Thanks, Silmaryan!   I don't know if that can be true, as the figures are too small and homely to be anything other than hobbits, and the city pictured is definitely Minas Tirith. I have lost the picture but I recall it was white and it had numerous levels and a White Tower.

Maybe it was just a generic 'Eagles bearing Tolkien heroes' picture?


Response by Vison:

Good posts, everyone.

I ain't buyin' it, I can tell ya that.

Money grab, that's all it is.

LOTR is Tolkien's masterpiece. It stands alone.

IMHO, the rest is nearly "sound and fury, signifying nothing. . ."


Response by Silmaryan:

It's a wonderful story. It's sad but beautifully written in Tolkien's style. It's not the LOTR, it's different, but it's still his work and I think you 'll be missing a lot if you don't read it. If you have read the Silmarillion, this will be a piece of cake!


Response by Varda:

Silmaryan this is a tale of incest and murder and suicide and I am baffled what you find wonderful in that. It has not a shred of hope. The hero is morose, violent and worse still utterly stupid. Has the world not been already damaged enough by morose, stupid violent men but we need to make heroes of them ?

Sorry, but if you miss this you won't be missing much, Vison. It was not 'written in Tolkien's style' but patched together from unedited writings by his son. And if you have read the Silmarillion, you will have read this same old piece of cheese. And if you found the Silmarillion unreadable, it is not because there is something defective in your critical faculties; it might just be because it is unreadable.

It is also overpriced and already available in print, cheaper.

Response by Silmaryan:

This is Tolkien's mythology similar to the Greek mythology, it's like a Greek tragedy where human beings struggle with their weaknesses , and hopefully we can both identify with their struggles and have great empathy for what they have experienced. It's like watching the great tragedy in Dafur. If we turn our backs to that and don't realize that this could happen to us, then nothing will ever be done about it. We all have struggles in our lives, and that's part of being human. I beleive that this is what Tolkien was addressing. As far as the incest, we have two innocent people who fall in love and are totally unaware of their relationship. They love each other deeply and are blameless for what happens. In reading this book we realize that we all are as vulnerable to the same mistakes Turin made and perhaps because of this we can avoid them.

Response by Varda:

Thank you for your reply, Silmaryan.

I am aware that Turin's story is called a 'myth', but a myth is not just a tale of bad things happening to good people. It has to have enough merit in its creation to make its audience empathise with or at least believe in the character involved. Turin has all the range of expression, complexity of character and sympathetic qualities of a traffic bollard. This is not a myth, it is a highly stylised and derivative tale told within a cycle of tales that were meant to form the background not the foreground of a much greater tale, The Tale of the Ring.

Turin's story is nothing like the myths of ancient Greece, for they were not written to be myths, but religion. The people who evolved them believed the players in them existed and were gods. When King Xerxes finally defeated the 300 Spartans and marched on Athens, the population saved themselves by fleeing the city. But the priests and priestesses of Athena could not flee their temple, and they were destroyed along with it. That is not myth. Would you die for a myth?

Similarly the situation in Darfur (I presume you mean Darfur) is not a tragedy but a catastrophe which could have been avoided if the international community had taken steps to do so. Had these unfortunate people possessed oil reserves and not some skinny goats, the situation would have been resolved long ago. A tragedy has an inevitability about it. This was neither a tragedy nor inevitable, just a disgusting tale of the cynicism and irresponsibility of politicians.

You are quite right to say that the aim of myth, or tragedy, is to make us think 'that could happen to me'. This is the essence of the Greek 'catharsis'. But in order for us to feel this we must emphasise with the hero. Sadly Tolkien has not created a hero in Turin that we can emphasise with, unless you go for proud, arrogant, violent men stuffed with machismo who kill their friends and won't listen to anyone.

It is true that Turin did not know it was his sister he was marrying. But he is a rash stupid man who acts on his first impulse and won't think or listen, so sooner or later he was going to do something really disastrous. Marrying his sister is in character, it was his accident waiting to happen.

It was back in the The Bronze Age when characters like Turin were admired by the people - heroes like Cuchulainn or Achilles - and that time is over, Silmaryan, and we can't step into a time machine and accept Turin as an hero. For us today, he just seems violent, insensitive and quite thick. We are sorry for his trouble, but we don't feel we are enough like him to think 'there go I'.

Tolkien wanted to create a myth for our age; it was one of his aims in writing at all. Turin is modelled on the hero of the Kalevala, according to Tolkien, who is 'hapless', sort of inspiredly unlucky. He is also arrogant and strong-willed, and brings his disaster on his own head. So Turin has the potential to be a tragic hero. But the character as created in this story never rises above the wooden, and so we are not prompted to feel much sympathy. Well you might, but I don't. I require just an inkling of self-knowledge, such as even Oedipus has, but which Turin never achieves.

Tolkien however succeeded in his aim of creating myth. The characters of The Lord of The Rings have passed into myth; Frodo and Sam, Aragorn, Gollum, Gimli and Legolas. In the archery club in which I shoot the kids call each other Legolas when they shoot well. THAT is the people's recognition and approval of a character that lifts it from just a name in a story to the level of myth.


Response by Silmaryan:

Perhaps the function of good literature is to make people think, and this can lead to differences of opinions. Thank you for your input. Although I don't agree with everything you have said, it cerainly gives me a different way to look at the story. I still think the story is a great adventure and a deep study in human nature and psyche.

Response from Varda:

I too think literature is there to make us think, and entertain us too. Someone once said that its function is to make us more human, but maybe that is asking too much.


Response by Erech the Undead:

Judgeing by the calibre of men I've had the displeasure of meeting in my half century of living, I have to wonder if Turin isn't in fact a perfect archetype for the millenial male, or a great many of them.

On one hand you have men who embrace their "better natures," i.e. caring, giving, responsive men who try to do more good than harm.

Then, you have those who live as Turin among us: "Turin has all the range of expression, complexity of character and sympathetic qualities of a traffic bollard." "He is a rash stupid man who acts on his first impulse and won't think or listen." And of course; "Proud, arrogant, violent men stuffed with machismo who kill their friends and won't listen to anyone"

Unfortunately this describes so very many men in the NY/NJ area, that were I to rise pheonix-like from my wheelchair tomorrow, I would not feel highly encouraged to go out and meet alot of new people. Forgive my cynicism. I've seen and heard so much of humanity's failings and nasty doings, I feel as though we're drowning in a sea of callous self interest. I've never seen American culture quite this rife with brutish narcisism, in which women take a willing hand as well.

Forget the bronze age. I think Turin is a modern day poster boy for the way so many among us now choose to be: stupid and selfish.

I think Turin should be on billboards nationwide. That way people can get a free glimpse of their own narcisistic lives while they're doing 70 in their SUV's... IMHO...
top

Response by Varda:

My dear Erech, I heartily agree with you. Not just in America but here too in Europe the ignorant overweight dumbo with the mobile phone glued to one ear and the 4x4 glued to the other, lacking education or manners or any kind of sensitivity or compassion seems to be not just the norm, but the admired norm. (Who is Norm, anyway? )

As you say, there are still Faramirs amongst us, kind caring men who listen and show understanding and sympathy. Was not this once called 'New Man'? But sadly now New Man is shown in the media as New Wimp, and is despised.

Where did this awful worship of the ignorant and the violent come from? We have an age in which it was never so easy to be informed, never so difficult to avoid seeing the plight of our fellow man (or animals) never so easy to hear the voice of women. Is it some wilful self-destructiveness heralding the end of mankind, or just the temporary coolness of Latin machismo and gangsta culture?

This is one of the reasons I detest this awful Children of Hurin. It is not a new tale, it is not an uplifting tale, it is not even a well told tale. We basically don't need this stuff. I might also seem a bit off side but I don't understand why incest has to be paid for with one's suicide. Half the royal houses of Europe practised a mild form for centuries and other than the First World War and a squint or two no harm came of it.

When Oedipus committed incest he only blinded himself, for he knew he had commited the crime of lacking perception, not of wilful wrong. And wasn't there some unborn child that is destroyed by the suicides in Turin's tale? That is the innocent paying for the guilty, and it betrays a moral basis to the story that is deeply flawed; it tries to sell us a prurient and unlucky accident as a tragedy and mistakes the stubborn and stupid for the noble and constant.

If fiction can get it so wrong, is it any surprise that popular culture can also get it wrong, and applaud stupid, egotistical heroes when this is surely the last thing we want, in print or in life. Can we get back to applauding the real heroes, people like Frodo and Sam, Faramir and Theoden, Aragorn and Arwen.

Real heroes, who make real sacrifices for others, and ask for little themselves, save if the Gods are good to just be able to say;

'I'm back'.
Not rich, not powerful, not wearing Armani and packing a gun, just home.

Modern life is applauding the orcs; let us return to applauding the real heroes, like the ones Tolkien gave us in his masterpiece, The Lord of The Rings.

many thanks, Erech, and sorry for the diatribe....


Response by Orangeblossom Took:

Oh, you put it very well, Erech and Varda. The narcissism (sp?) of modern life has been much on my mind lately. Violence and machisimo do seem to be glorified. It reminds me -sort of- of in Daughter of Time when one character asks where in history/myth/literature you'd have to go to find a mother who would make nice with the killer of her young children and the other character answers, "the ancient Greeks." That kind of applies to the whole bloody machisimo thing. It's why I NEVER could stand Achilles. I just hope we can see the "quality" in the Faramirs around us instead of glorifiying the Turins and Achilles'.


Response by Rogorn:

This is a tale of incest and murder and suicide and I am baffled what you find wonderful in that. It has not a shred of hope. The hero is morose, violent and worse still utterly stupid. Has the world not been already damaged enough by morose, stupid violent men but we need to make heroes of them?

I don't know if Túrin's is anybody's 'hero', if you understand by that someone whose behaviour is admired and even imitated when possible. It is one thing that many people find Túrin's story haunting, impressive or that it leaves a mark in one's memory (for reasons good or bad, that depends on each reader), and another that a 'hero', a model of conduct, is being made of him. That would be akin to saying that if anyone likes reading reading about Achilles or Hamlet one is worshipping them. It's just enjoying (if that is the word) a different type of writing. In the preface to TCOH, Christopher Tolkien remembers the much-quoted words of his father about having the idea of writing different types of tales, some longer, some shorter, some of one type and some of other. Just like every culture has produced in their own language. It was terribly ambitious (and 'my crest has since fallen', he says), and for some it doesn't work. For many it does, though.

This is not a myth, it is a highly stylised and derivative tale told within a cycle of tales that were meant to form the background not the foreground of a much greater tale, 'The Tale of the Ring'.

The tales before LOTR, although revisited many times later, even after LOTR was published, weren't made as anything's background, and much less LOTR, which wasn't even in Tolkien's mind then. Or of it was, it was a very small seed, not the sweeping tale that finally came out. Most of the tales, and this is one of them, were made to form part of a whole 'Arda body', but to stand on their own.

Sadly Tolkien has not created a hero in Turin that we can emphasise with, unless you go for proud, arrogant, violent men stuffed with machismo who kill their friends and won't listen to anyone. (...) It was back in the The Bronze Age when characters like Turin were admired by the people - heroes like Cuchulainn or Achilles - and that time is over, Silmaryan, and we can't step into a time machine and accept Turin as an hero. (...) Tolkien wanted to create a myth for our age; it was one of his aims in writing at all. Turin is modelled on the hero of the Kalevala, according to Tolkien, who is 'hapless', sort of inspiredly unlucky. He is also arrogant and strong-willed, and brings his disaster on his own head. So Turin has the potential to be a tragic hero. But (...) we are not prompted to feel much sympathy.

This is very interesting. On the one hand Tolkien said he wanted his 'myth' to be 'purged of the gross', and there is a consensus that even his darkest or bloodiest Silmarillion tales do not achieve the levels of cruelty that can be found in many old proper legends and myths. Taking this into account, it can be surprising that a 20th-century writer had a need to revisit that type of tale. But I put that down to his desire to imitate, or be inspired by, the thought of what an imaginary English body of mythical tales might have looked like, and all older cultures, at least in Western Europe, have those tales. I am not sure whether ancient peoples (or 17-century theatre-goers, to bring it closer in time) needed to empathyse with what they were seeing in order for them to accept / like / enjoy / be moved by what they were reading, hearing or seeing. But their story-tellers produced tales of that type for them, and there must have been reasons why. If stories of this type do not abound in today's literature, it may be because there is not a public for them any more. But even so, many people still read again and again the ones written in the past - even a near past like the 20-odd years that the Silmarillion has been around.

Is it some wilful self-destructiveness heralding the end of mankind, or just the temporary coolness of Latin machismo and gangsta culture?

Erm... I know what you mean, but could we just leave it at plain 'machismo'. Even if the word has a Latin root, it's universal. ;-)

This is one of the reasons I detest this awful Children of Hurin. It is not a new tale, it is not an uplifting tale, it is not even a well told tale. We basically don't need this stuff. If fiction can get it so wrong, is it any surprise that popular culture can also get it wrong, and applaud stupid, egotistical heroes when this is surely the last thing we want, in print or in life. Can we get back to applauding the real heroes, people like Frodo and Sam, Faramir and Theoden, Aragorn and Arwen.

I think we can do both. I'm all for applauding the LOTR heroes, but I can also appreciate (not applaud) Túrin et al in the darker ages of the world, when literature didn't do uplifting. And as for 'we don't need this stuff', well, I know you don't mean 'we' as everybody.

Cheers.

top

Response by Varda:

Thank you for your reply, Rogorn.

Of course we are invited to see Turin as a hero. The pompous heroic style of the story offers him to us as a hero and invites our admiration. Does he not fight the forces of evil and slay a dragon? I think that is what we are supposed to applaud, or St George was wasting his time.

If Turin is not a hero, why read his story? Just for interest? Turin is presented to us as much more than an interesting person, Rogorn. I just think we should reject him as a hero, because the world needs something better than a stupid, violent short-sighted man to regard as hero. In the Bronze Age, maybe.

To read about Turin and Achilles is not like reading about Hamlet. Hamlet does dreadful things, but in the middle of it all he turns to us and says 'Who am I?' and by extension, who are we? This moment of 'fruitful doubt' sets him apart from Achilles and Turin and makes him both modern and a real hero, for he faces the greatest challenge - uncertainty about our basic human nature and our place in the universe.

The reason Tolkien tried to create this type of tale is as you say a desire to imitate what he thought an ancient cycle of English myths might be like. But Tolkien, no less than we today, could not psyche back into that mindset, despite all his medieval scholarship. That is why such an attempt is doomed to fail, or to be a curiosity; we can't think like Beowulf's audience did, until we build that time machine.

And Tolkien too was a Christian, and myth is often amoral, so to write convincing myth he would have had to set aside that Christian moral order, and in the end it was part of his deepest character as a writer and as a person, and his writing only convinces when as in the Lord of The Rings he could utilise his ideas of sacrifice, redemption, friendship and love. That is why The Lord of The Rings is a more effective myth than anything in the Silmarillion, for us here today in the real world. Even Tolkien's doomed and wifeless Ents foreshadow our environmental catastrophe, which more than anything in the ancient myths threatens to wipe us all off the earth.

I am glad that the tale of Turin works for some, Rogorn. But we are being subjected to a tsunami of publiciity about TOLKIEN'S NEW TALE! and the cash tills are ringing. I was quite happy to let the world enjoy (as you say, if that is the word) Turin when it occupied its proper place as a minor work of a great writer. But now it is being touted as one of his great masterpieces and Rogorn that and that only is the reason I am pointing out a few of its flaws. I do passionately believe that if we say this is gold and the world sees it is dross Tolkien, whose critical reputation, which has taken a long time to become established, will once again be ridiculed as a writer for geeks.

Tolkien is a great writer for the all the world, not just for fantasy fans.

No, Rogorn, I don't mean we as in everybody, just as in the few of us who don't like hype and are concerned about Tolkien's critical reputaion and his relevance for today, and tomorrow.


Response by Avondster:

I have leafed through 'The Children of Húrin' the other day when I was at the Fantasy Fair and, basically, that's all I need to do with it. The Silmarillion has its merits - though it's hardly a 'curl up on the couch' kind of reading', but I don't need more of stuff like that, and from what I saw, TCOH is just that.
I loved the pictures, however! ;-)

I agree with Rogorn that Tolkien did not intend for his grand mythology to be a background to anything, but to be fair, that's what it's become anyway. After all, Unwin did not want to publish it at first because he, as a reasonably objective reader at the time, saw that it was not the kind of book anyone but the most religious of Tolkien readers would get through. The idea of it is great; but like I said it's not something you pick up and read for its entertainment value. Like Unwin said to Tolkien: "where are the Hobbits?".
Because people then, just like now, needed heroes, and that's what the Hobbits had on Túrin & co: they were true heroes.

When you look up the word 'heroes' in any given dictionary, there will be different definitions, but the one that struck me as most true is: 'a person who is willing to put others before himself, who is willing to jeopardize himself for someone or something other than himself, and who is regardless of the dangers or benefits to his own person'.

Is this not Frodo, who was willing to give everything he was to save the Shire? Is this not Sam, who declared himself willing to die for his master? Is this not Merry, or Pippin, who told Frodo they were "terribly afraid, but coming with you or following you like hounds"? And even Bilbo, who was the first to offer to carry the Ring to Mordor, ancient though he was?

The protagonists in TCOH may be proud and fearless and fair and noble and all that, but I have the feeling that in the end, they fight for their own honour and glory. Does that make them heroes?


Response by Rogorn:

I merely wanted to point out that many readers find Tolkien's writings before TH and LOTR (let's call them all 'The Silmarillion' to abbreviate) very valuable, and find that they don't detract from Tolkien's literary glory, but add to it. And I mean add significantly, not just be a burden tagged onto LOTR. I can't help it if some dismiss it as dross or for-geeks, especially if they are critics, but if they feel strongly in that way, I and many others feel strongly in the opposite.

About the campaign for TCOH, I don't know what it has been in other people's experience, but I don't feel it has been a tsunami of publicity at all. Of course we in this forum have heard every last bit from it, even from months ago, because one forum member or another always brings a new tidbit to our attention, but the most I have seen outside us is a big poster in a bookshop, and the book in the shop window - at a reduced price. I haven't seen midnight openings, tumultuous book-signings, tv interviews or anything like it. It hasn't been HarryPotter-y at all, and I live very near where the man and his sons used to live. It's got a fair amount of attention in the appropriate sections of newspapers, but nothing above any other especially-featured book of any other week, and that has been all. And I think it deserves that at least.

As I think it deserves the focused attention. The Silmarillion writings were a very significant part in Tolkien's literary life, and demonstrate that there was more to him that what TH and LOTR show. Lots of people are pleased to have seen the world that was behind it, because it's full of different sensations and vistas, explained and unexplained, even while being imperfect. It's a tremendous achievement for one man to have done that - and in his spare time too, without earning him a penny. I wouldn't call it minor, but while accepting that many people are happy to keep it there, I'll happily do the opposite and celebrate it. And yes, I'll finally say I'll 'enjoy' it.

Avondster - there must be a reason why the word 'hero' today has almost become synonimous with 'protagonist' or 'main character' or 'lead role'. You only have to say you've read a script or a book for someone who ask: 'nice, who's the hero?' Hero? Who says there has to be one? Maybe modern storytelling, particularly in cinema, dwells so much in the fact that there has to be a 'hero' with which the audience has to empathyse that it has become almost the only way of telling a story, and everything else is seen as negative.

But it doesn't have to be that way, and so I see Túrin as the hero-main-character, not as the hero-admirable-model-of-conduct. Coming back to Varda's point about Túrin being presented as a hero-hero, St George's style, well, that's the complexity of the tale and the character (yes, I find some in him). You find yourself attracted to some of his traits and repulsed by others, so one has to be very careful what to admire and what to deplore in the same man. This does happen with many real-life characters such as kings, leaders... and heroes.

top

Response by Varda:

Thanks, Avondster!

That is a good point about the hero. They use the word 'protagonist', but in the novel the hero has to have some affinity with us, however bad or outrageous he is, and for that reason 'hero' is still a good word to describe the protagonist of a novel. And The Lord of The Rings is a novel, because they can't think of a better word, just yet. ;-)

Many thanks for your post, Rogorn.

I am aware that many people find The Silmarillion valuable and I am not arguing with their right to read and enjoy it.

But I post a lot of admittedly feeble attempts at evaluation here, and I try to discuss why The Lord of The Rings is a great book, critically as well as because we enjoy it. Does the Silmarillion have any critical value, other than that people like it? If so, what is that critical value? Give me a reason to like The Silmarillion. :-P

The Lord of The Rings succeeds for the same reason Shakespeare succeeds; they both go for the Big Issues; good and evil, love and friendship, loyalty, loss and sacrifice. These things never fail to catch our interest. Can someone delineate the themes of interest in The Silmarillion, bearing in mind that they have to be carried through via convincing characters and well wrought plots?

Where are the memorable quotes, the breathtaking moments, such as when Sam rescues Frodo from Shelob, or Pippin finds Merry on the battlefield? Where are the big issues, the epic contradictions that make great literature, and the small details that make good reading?

A clue; if you can't call one to mind in ten seconds, it doesn't exist. Don't bother to look them up, they should be engraved on your heart.

The Lord of The Rings has a hero who is in himself a literary miracle; Frodo. For this creation Tolkien drew not just from the hero of the Beowulf poem but from Hamlet, mining rich veins in English literature. Both Everyman and a paragon, both homely friend and chosen hero, the character of Frodo alone is proof that this book is great literature, layered with meaning and reference.

Refresh my memory, please, as to what character in the Silmarillion bears any comparison?

Perhaps depth of character is not what is required in a mock epic, but if not, I would want to see excellence in some area, whether it is diction, style, symbolism, dialogue, allegory, anything. If this book is not dross, what makes it gold?

Rogorn you say; 'The Silmarillion writings were a very significant part in Tolkien's literary life, and demonstrate that there was more to him that what TH and LOTR show.'

Rogorn The Lord of The Rings, and the Hobbit, don't need to have 'more' to them because they are masterpieces and as with any masterpiece, take something out or put more in and you might destroy the delicate balance that makes them succeed. Publishing inferior work to 'bulk them out' will not add to them but might detract from them.

The Silmarillion only has interest for people BECAUSE of The Lord of The Rings. Considered in isolation it is not an integral whole and very difficult to read or to put into context. And The Silmarillion and this book - The Children of Hurin, were not edited or presented for publication by Tolkien at all, but by his son, who admitted in the preface that they were as much his work as his father's.

There is no way at all that books of such editorial doubtfulness should be compared to The Lord of The Rings, which was finished, edited and published all with the full intent and control of the author. They should be made available, not sold as 'other works' but as, in your own words, footnotes.

I am glad you have avoided the publishing hype. But even you have not been able to avoid some of the adverse criticism, which you posted yourself in the Sunday Times review.

This is my point; I did not come here to rubbish The Silmarillion. It has interest, it even has poetry, but I don't think it is a good book. That many people like it and enjoy it is nice, though.

But what I don't like is that an excerpt from Tolkien's early fragments, bits he may never have wanted to publish, has been cobbled together to form this book and despite its flaws (see the review) it has been presented to the world on the same level as The Lord of The Rings. A lot of unsuspecting people will be very disappointed, and might even feel cheated. After seeing or reading The Lord of The Rings and having got over their initial resistance to 'fantasy' they will throw it aside and not bother to re-read or think about Tolkien again, and believe their enjoyment of the books or films was just a delusion.

The Lord of The Rings is a great book and like many great books should be re-read and re-evaluated many times. This dull mock heroic dirge might derail people from doing that, and that is why I don't like it.

I am exaggerating? Well, like anyone, I am entitled to my opinion....


Response by MerryK:

Varda wrote:
Where are the memorable quotes, the breathtaking moments, such as when Sam rescues Frodo from Shelob, or Pippin finds Merry on the battlefield? Where are the big issues, the epic contradictions that make great literature, and the small details that make good reading?

A clue; if you can't call one to mind in ten seconds, it doesn't exist. Don't bother to look them up, they should be engraved on your heart.

Well, you gave a challenge, how could I do anything but answer? wink The very first thing that came to my mind when I read that, was this quote. The setting is after the Two Trees, the only source of light for Valinor, have been suddenly struck down by Morgoth, and the Valar beg Feanor to give up his jewels so that they might break them open to see if they can restore the trees to life. Feanor has been proud, he has been arrogant, he has been paranoid, he has been possessive, but his speech to them is heartfelt: these are his life's work, his magnum opus, and he can no more sacrifice them than he would his own children. Then the word comes; a messenger comes in saying that Morgoth has attacked Feanor's house, and his father is slain, and the Silmarils are stolen. And this is what it says about him: "Then Feanor ran from the Ring of Doom, and fled into the night; for his father was dearer to him than the Light of Valinor or the peerless works of his hands; and who among sons, of Elves or of Men, have held their fathers of greater worth?" My heart aches and my eyes well with tears every time I read this.

Another one that I need look up only for the exact wording, is at a near-hopeless battle between Elves and the Dark Lord. The Elves at this point are weary, they are in factions, they are fighting the long defeat, and this is their last effort against a foe mightier than the mightiest Elf: "The light of the drawing of the swords of the Noldor was like a fire in a field of reeds; and so fell and swift was their onset that almost the designs of Morgoth went astray." And it is here that my heart swells.

And lastly, because I do not wish to ramble too long, comes from a scene earlier in The Silmarillion. The Noldor have been banished from paradise, from Valinor, and are on their own in Middle-earth where they must fight against the Dark Vala, Morgoth. Fingolfin, brother of Feanor, is feeling the hopelessness of their wars, and does something rather rash: "Thus he came alone to Angband's gates, and he sounded his horn, and smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat. And Morgoth came." And Morgoth, a supernatural being whose form towers over even this tall Elven king, is duly insulted and wounded seven times before bringing Fingolfin down...no wonder the Elves praise Fingolfin's name!

Varda wrote:
Refresh my memory, please, as to what character in the Silmarillion bears any comparison?

Feanor. Incredibly complex; I've loved him for years and still don't understand quite how his mind works. As you said, it is an epic, and it is impossible to provide incredible depth of character in that genre. Considering the amount of character information you can draw from even such minimalistic work, I would never say that Tolkien's lowest point was his characters. The problem comes when people expect the character depth that can only be obtained in a novel. I have yet to see someone complain about The Silmarillion while offering a way that Tolkien could have offered LOTR-level characters within a mythological/epic format. How do you provide little moments of self-doubt or humor or irritation when the style you have chosen words everything like "Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment"? The style of The Silmarillion is a perfectly legitimate one, and begging for character depth and subtlety in it is like asking for Rochester's point of view in Jane Eyre.

Varda wrote:
If this book is not dross, what makes it gold?

Considering that The Silmarillion is an epic mythology, might one be permitted to ask what makes the Greek or Norse myths gold? What makes them something that no one would call dross? Characters? Diction? Plot? In every area that you mentioned, save allegory (and there Tolkien scholars all know why wink ), The Silmarillion tops most mythologies. If nothing else, it makes me think, makes me examine my beliefs on immortality, war, fate, true love, cause and effect...what more could one expect from it?

Had Tolkien written The Silmarillion about any world but Middle-earth, it would probably have few readers and fans, most likely incredibly bookish people who are tickled pink by the idea of an English mythology written in the twentieth century, and perhaps some incredibly fanatic fantasy fans as well. But I cannot see anyone tossing the objections at it that The Silmarillion must combat. Perhaps unfortunately, it is connected irrevocably to the LOTR, and time and time again readers are disappointed by the fact that it is not in the same style. As a novel, it is horridly poor, but as a mythology—well, I have yet to see a criticism of it as such. I deeply desire that some day people will come right out and say that The Silmarillion is just not the sort of story they like, and that they wish Tolkien had written more things like LOTR, and stop 'criticizing' it as if it were something it is not.


Response by Rogorn:

In ten seconds I can recall about ten, all of them jockeying for position to be out of the gate first. ;-)

Well, as far as epic goes, how about a new legend on how the universe was created? As good as any religions have been founded on. The idea of immortality as a curse not a blessing, which runs all the way through Tolkien's writings to the end of LOTR, when Elves will one day envy Men their gift. Túrin's own shocking descent into darkness and shocking demise. Aulë about to smite his creation, the Dwarves, and as these recoil from the hammer, Eru finds a place for them in creation. The remaking of the world so that it's round and only Elves can leave it, together with the creation of Númenor and the Men's trial by ban. Sauron forging the rings in Eregion elbow-by-elbow with the Elves. Beren seeing Lúthien for the first time.

None of this is remotely similar to what happens in LOTR, I know. Nor it needs to be. And of course, they don't evoke the same feelings. Nor was it written for that. These are larger-than-life times, with tremendous events happening to largely superhuman beings, so they were not well-nuanced as in a 19-century novel because they are painted in broad strokes. They're more Stonehenge than a delicately finished Greek statue, but that's why its grandness is meant to provoke awe. One day this lot will all be saved by those peculiar beings the hobbits, three of whom were ringbearers. But in the meantime these are the old days, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days. It's a big leap that some will take reluctantly, or not at all and fail to get anywhere, but others will reach the stars. Where Varda reigns supreme.


Response by MerryK:

Indeed! I simply love how Dwarves, often low and despised in mythologies, are made especially for resisting evil in ME, and are the beloved of one of the highest of the Valar. A gorgeous scene, that; I'm glad you mentioned it.


Response by Varda:

MerryK, thank you for rising to the challenge, but your reply has rather served to show what I have tried to say about The Silmarillion.

This sentence you quote;
'Thus he came alone to Angband's gates, and he sounded his horn, and smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat.'
MerryK, what language is this? It is not English as we speak it. We don't use that syntax or vocabulary. Nor is it English as was spoken in the Middle Ages; if you check out Chaucer or Langland, you will see that changing you to thou and thee and using old words does not make Medieval English; it was a totally different language, with different words, grammar, inflections and spelling.

And it is not just this sentence; the entire Silmarillion is like this. People don't live, they dwell. They don't kill, they slay. etc etc etc. This was a deliberate choice of words by Tolkien, who as a professor of Medieval English knew better than anyone that it was a fake; nobody ever spoke like this.

It may be that Tolkien was trying to 'elevate' his diction; these were mighty matters, and one had to tell them in weighty, majesterial prose. Unfortunately, the effect can be the opposite. It sounds stilted rather than stylised; the archaisms are self-conscious and often tedious. It sounds pompous. Tolkien's creation myth is pure fantasy; Middle Earth after all is not the world, it is fiction. But Tolkien uses the language of the Bible, and many people find this too great a burden on their ability to suspend disbelief.

Tollkien at first wanted to tell this story in poetry, but it proved too difficult, and got a hostile critical reception, so he switched to prose. Perhaps he wanted to make the prose more poetical, and this diction could be an attempt to write a prose poetry epic, which is a creditable effort.

But if that is so, the Silmarillion is not a creation myth but pure poetry, like the battle of the angels in Paradise Lost, or the Arabian Nights, a total fantasy, the afternoon dream of a god. To be deeply moved by any character in such a remote, fantastical environment is very hard, so I salute you MerryK for managing to do it.

Thank you Rogorn for pointing out those interesting events in the Silmarillion. However they do not amount to themes, or even motifs. The Elves' reference to the curse of immortality is highly ambiguous. They never bewail it as a doom in The Lord of The Rings, not even when Gimli and Legolas discuss the different fates of the races. After all, they are not immortal, only existing as long as the earth, which is their joy.

But these situations do not alone constitute themes; they are not developed enough, nor has Turin generated enough sympathy for us to find his end shocking. In fact it is not even surprising, given the tone of the story. A 'bad end' was coming, the only question was how. He is not easy to feel sorry for.

Nor are Tolkien's creation myths anything to rival that of the Bible or of the ancient Greeks. A creation myth has to be validated by the belief of a people. Generations have to find it relevant, and add to it and embellish it. The same goes for myth. Tolkien however well he writes and however vivid his imagination, can't create myth except for his own created world, so that myth and creation legend can be subject to examination like any made-up story. What Tolkien is writing here, devoid of verisimilitude or valid human narrative, is pure fantasy and depends for its merit on its writing alone.

But Tolkien was not happy with this style of writing. Having used it, he discards it and moves on to the style he uses in The Lord of The Rings. He realised that to communicate more effectively he must adopt a style that won't place a barrier between him and his reader, as the style of the Silmarillion did. In the end, it is a phoney diction, and owes as much to Sir Walter Scott and the Victorian mock Gothick craze as it does to genuine Old English. Discerning readers, like MerryK and Rogorn, felt their hearts ache when they read this style of writing. Undiscerning Dubliners like me who still use real medieval English words in daily speech, just thought of M P and the Holy Grail.

I know, I am not worthy.  ;-)

Tolkien then worked the miracle; from these earlier works, and material that he might have written for his own pleasure only, he evolved a calm, detached style, the style of the Lord of The Rings. He did not manage it without a struggle; if you read the first chapters of the book, Tolkien is still using the joky familiar style of the Hobbit. But by the Council of Elrond, Tolkien has assumed a style of lucid, cool, unhurried modern English of great beauty; spare, elegant and wonderfully adapted to the telling of this narrative.

Even when Tolkien describes events that really belong in the Silmarillion, like Tom Bombadil, he sticks to this style, and the results are remarkable. Not hiding behind fake medievalisms or elevated diction, his story knocks you down. Even Tom keeps us guessing; described with utter verisimilitude, we can't decide if he is a God or a sprite or Tolkien himself, as literary joke.

Having tried to write action fiction, I know how hard it is; but Tolkien makes it seem easy. Here is Sam beating Gollum off at Cirith Ungol;

'With a squeal Gollum let go. Then Sam waded in; not waiting to change the staff from left to right he dealt another savage blow. Quick as a snake Gollum slithered aside, and the stroke aimed at his head fell across his back. The staff cracked and broke. That was enough for him. Grabbing from behind was an old game of his, and seldom had he failed in it. But his time, misled by spite, he had made the mistake of speaking, and gloating before he had both hands on his victim's neck. Everything had gone wrong with his beautiful plan, since that horrible light had so unexpectedly appeared in the darkness. And now he was face to face with a furious enemy, little less than his own size. This fight was not for him. Sam swept up his sword from the ground and raised it. Gollum Squealed and springing aside on to all fours, he jumped away in one big bound like a frog. Before Sam could reach him, he was off, running with amazing speed back towards the tunnel. '

Notice the plain, monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words and the tactile onomatopeiac vocabulary; 'slithered' 'cracked' 'squealed'; notice how Tolkien shortens and shortens the sentences to speed up the action and convey the violence; notice how the language is not going too fast to denote irony; 'his beautiful plan'. Notice the wonderful Beowulf-like moral comment on Gollum; 'misled by spite, he had made the mistake of speaking and gloating before he had both hands on his victim's neck'' Notice how a few deft strokes paint the picture of Sam; ' a furious enemy, little less than his own size'

This really is great writing, in a different class from fake heroic. The language is alive and responsive and the character is real and warm and we are on the edge of our seats to see if he will live or die. We know that Sam is doing all this in a white fury of revenge for his beloved master, and we know that Shelob stands only feet away, towering over him and that Sam will turn and face her next. This, MerryK, is the kind of writing that makes ME cry.

On the matter of character, MerryK, I am surprised that you used an Elf as your example. Elves don't have characters in the way that human races do. They live as long as the earth, and are co-creators with the Tolkienite Gods and Godesses. They are the first race on earth, the first born. As Treebeard says to Merry and Pippin, they woke the other creatures up to sensation, thought and speech. They can't be compared to men nor can their characters be scanned as ours can, for they are immutable. If they were to admit any change, then over their thousands of years they would alter completely, and from those Elves we see, Elrond or Galadriel, we can observe they keep their individual traits all their lives, even if they learn or alter their behaviour. Elrond was the herald of Gil-galad and warned Isildur; much later he is still warning people, at the Council. Galadriel has a dangerous independence that is the sign of the Noldor, masters of the intricate artefact. She is still
dangerous when she speaks to Frodo. These great beings have not changed their essence.

But change is essential to human characters. Boromir changes, Aragorn changes, Frodo changes; in those change is their character revealed.

Without mortality too Elves are distant to men and hard to ken. They often refer to death as the gift of men, because in the passing of long ages it is hard to fend off boredom, even if your team is top of the first division. We can't delineate Elven characters, no more than those of wizards, for they are not human. Even the Dwarves say 'go not to the Elves for council for they will say yea and nay'

So it is to men that we have to look for depth of character as a mark of literary excellence as it can be measured against other literature. Maybe I have more sensitivity to the cosmos of The Silmarillion than you give me credit for, Merryk wink Feanor is certainly interesting, but he is an elemental rather than a person.

MerryK you say;
'I deeply desire that some day people will come right out and say that The Silmarillion is just not the sort of story they like, and that they wish Tolkien had written more things like LOTR, and stop 'criticizing' it as if it were something it is not. '

On the contrary, I am criticising it for what it is, a mock medieval creation myth with stilted diction. Parts of it work, and work well, but Tolkien never meant it to be published in this form, so I don't think it should be presented on a par with finished books he DID present for publication.

I also believe that the Silmarillion marked a phase in his writing that he passed through and left behind. That he found a better way to convey his themes, and that as Christopher Tolkien admitted, he decided those themes were not the fantasy cosmology that is the subject of The Sil. The Elves, fascinating and beautiful as they were, proved difficult to frame moral or philosophical themes around, on account of their very longevity and immutability. If you aren't going to die for another thousand years your moral focus is just not the same as that of people. Tolkien came to appreciate the moral and aesthetic possibilities of the ordinary - the hobbits, missing from the Silmarillion. He found his moral hero not among the Elves, but in very human beings, and small ones at that. The Silmarillion is Tolkien's music before the play, and if you wish to be carried away on the music of Elven names, and not think too deeply on meaning, the Silmarillion is your man;

'It is told that even as Varda ended her labours, and they were long, when first Menelmacar strode up the sky and the blue fire of Helluin flickered in the mists above the borders of the world, in that hour the Children of the Earth awoke, the Firstborn of Iluvatar. By the starlit mere of Cuivienen, Water of Wakening, they rose from the sleep of Iluvatar, and while they dwelt yet silent by Cuivienen their eyes beheld first of all things the stars of heaven. Therefore they have ever loved the starlight, and have revered Varda Elentari above all the Valar.'

The Silmarillion; P56.

Varda, resting after her long labours


Response by MerryK:

Varda wrote:
But Tolkien was not happy with this style of writing. Having used it, he discards it and moves on to the style he uses in The Lord of The Rings.

You may certainly think that, but The Silmarillion was dear to Tolkien until his dying day, as he ever sought to blend it even more with LOTR, so I will always hold it as something very important. It was his heart's joy, and I cannot find any evidence that he ever preferred writing in the style of LOTR, so I am wondering why you think so.

As for the language, of all people, Tolkien would know how to make medieval sound natural, and for many people he has accomplished just that. Perhaps it is difficult, but the fact that many others are moved by it proves your argument nothing but opinion. But the linguistics are much deeper than forced archaisms. Consider this sentence from FOTR:

"Only to the North did these tidings come, and only to a few."

Compare this to a line from the Silmarillion:

"The doom lies in yourself, not in your name."

Elrond speaks the first, and Gwindor the second, yet they are similar. Elrond was born in the end of the First Age, and his speech, even after 6000 years of language evolution, is full of what we would call "archaic" words. But if he spoke otherwise, it would be a failure by Tolkien, just as it would be failure if those in The Silmarillion spoke in the language of the Men of Gondor in LOTR. Consider this line, a quote from Isildur used in FOTR:

"This will I have as weregild for my father, and my brother."

It is no accident that this sounds very much like the dialogue from The Silmarillion. Tolkien wished when writing LOTR to use 'thee' and 'thou' as formal pronouns along with 'you' for familiar use, to show how Pippin (who always used 'you') was taken as a Prince of the Halflings; and also to show the development in feelings between Faramir and Eowyn (all that needs be said is that Faramir almost immediately begins using 'you', but Eowyn uses the formal terms until near the end). Every work of Tolkien was centered around language, and it makes sense that The Silmarillion, ancient history in Middle-earth, should use language that readers automatically find archaic sounding. At the time of LOTR, we have Elrond, who is most archaic; Boromir, who still says things like "Loth was my father to give me leave"; then Aragorn, who says things like "one fat man"; and lastly the Hobbits, who are as modern as they come in Middle-earth.

Whether one finds the dialogue in The Silmarillion moving or not, which is merely a matter of opinion in the end, it serves an important role in the history of Middle-earth, and cannot be discounted lightly.

Varda wrote:
A creation myth has to be validated by the belief of a people.

You mean, like the Elves? wink That is just it; The Silmarillion is not a mythology for us, as we know it is not true, but for the inhabitants of Middle-earth. And there, it was validated, and expanded upon; Finrod and Andreth have a long discourse on what happens to Elves and Men when they die, and whether Illuvatar could enter his creation. Mythologies are no longer for people to believe in, so it is no wonder that you remain skeptical of the fantastical creation myth. But that does not make it any less a mythology; I still read the Norse Myths because they are interesting and relevant, even if fantastical. But already many people have found even Tolkien's work relevant, though it has not been around long enough for the generations you seem to require, so I fail to see your point.

I am completely surprised at your brushing off of Elven characters; I am sure that Legolas is giving you the evil eyebrow at this very moment. wink The Elves certainly have character, proved by, if nothing else, the many thousands who have fallen for them, and it is another part of Tolkien's genius that we can relate to immortal beings at all. Saying that an author can only write relevant characters if they are human is putting a limit on imagination that is certain to be broken.

You say that characters must change for them to be relevant; is that not the same argument that Phillipa and Fran used when justifying the changes to Faramir in TTT? A character need not change to show their character, though certainly that is the easiest way to do it; a great author can portray characters in any situation and have them be felt clearly by readers.
top

Response by Rogorn:

 I know that nothing we could say is going to make anyone change their mind. Each person is going to read the books and draw their own conclusions. The scenes that we have presented were just some that came to our minds, and if being etched in them as treasures is (at least the beginnings of) good literature, well, with us and many others that was achieved.

About the kind of language used, I'm not a native speaker of English, so that bothers me less. ‘The Silmarillion’ was an elaborate game in which Tolkien played at being just the translator into English of some papers that someone had found in other languages, mainly Elvish, so they are supposed to have quirks and surprising turns of phrase which do not exist in English. It’s the same effect as when one reads a translation of 'The Illiad' which tries to be faithful to the original, (rather than updated for a Cliff Notes), where every dawn is 'rosy-fingered' and all the Trojans are 'breakers of horses'. And just by this effort, the language takes you somewhere else, like poetry does, not so much by what it says, but how it is said. You have a very good point about the deeply satisfying English used in LOTR, but it wouldn’t work for many places of the Silmarillion. It can’t sound like Frodo is the one telling us about the creation of the world or the breaking of Thangorodrim. If Frodo ever attempted to write about it, it would sound hobbitish, and I mean it in a good way: heartwarming, heartfelt, no-nonsense, down-to-Earth-but-not-chained-by-it . But there is another way of going about it, and The Ainulindalë shows this. It has to go deeper, and the language attempts to go there.

So I don’t think Tolkien ‘discarded’ the language of The Silmarillion to find a ‘better’ English for LOTR, as a phase he had to grow out of. In fact, he went back to finish 'The Silmarillion' after LOTR. Only, each endeavour had to have its own style. He succeded at one better than at another? Most likely. But the other creation has also brilliance to it. Of course, this is only an explanation, not an excuse. If someone finds the result unreadable or unpleasant because of the style, well, maybe the explanation helps.

Not that Tolkien wasn’t aware of the thing. Someone wrote to him criticising the archaic narrative style of parts of ‘The Two Towers’, especially the chapter 'The King of the Golden Hall' calling this style 'Ossianic' and agreeing with a critic's description of it as 'tushery'. Tolkien answered:

“Don't be disturbed: I have not noticed any impertinence (or sycophancy) in your letters; and anyone so appreciative and so perceptive is entitled to criticism. (…) The proper use of 'tushery' is to apply it to the kind of bogus 'medieval' stuff which attempts (without knowledge) to give a supposed temporal colour with expletives, such as ‘tush’, ‘pish’, ‘zounds’, ‘marry’, and the like. But a real archaic English is far more terse than modern; also many things could not be said in our slack and often frivolous idiom. Of course, not being specially well read in modern English, and far more familiar with works in the ancient and 'middle' idioms, my own ear is to some extent affected; so that though I could easily recollect how a modern would put this or that, what comes easiest to mind or pen is not quite that. (…) People (like Théoden) who think like that just do not talk a modern idiom. (…) There would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. (...) Such 'heroic' scenes do not occur in a modern setting to which a modern idiom belongs. Why deliberately ignore, refuse to use the wealth of English which leaves us a choice of styles – without any possibility of unintelligibility.
I can see no more reason for not using the much terser and more vivid ancient style, than for changing the obsolete weapons, helms, shields, hauberks into modern uniforms? (…) If modern English has lost the trick of putting a word desired to emphasize (for pictorial, emotional or logical reasons) into prominent first place, without addition of a lot of little 'empty' words (as the Chinese say), so much the worse for it. And so much the better for it the sooner it learns the trick again. And someone must begin the teaching, by example. I am sorry to find you affected by the extraordinary 20th-century delusion that its usages per se and simply as 'contemporary' – irrespective of whether they are terser, more vivid (or even nobler!) – have some peculiar validity, above those of all other times, so that not to use them (even when quite unsuitable in tone) is a solecism, a gaffe, a thing at which one's friends shudder or feel hot in the collar. Shake yourself out of this parochialism of time! Also (not to be too donnish) learn to discriminate between the bogus and genuine antique – as you would if you hoped not to be cheated by a dealer!”

--

Yes, the hobbits are the big difference. I'm all for them. But just because the hobbits bring Tolkien’s world closer to today’s humans it doesn’t mean that one can’t look beyond them and imagine a world where all that commonplace can be left behind for a while. I'm not saying to stay there, but to contemplate other possibilities, other worlds, other stories, told in other ways. Tolkien made the hobbits capable of many things: also reluctant to leave their own little world. The figure of Frodo would probably be the ideal. But even he ended up in the Silmarillionest place still left, the Undying Lands. wink

Quote:
Discerning readers, like MerryK and Rogorn, felt their hearts ache when they read this style of writing. Undiscerning Dubliners like me who still use real medieval English words in daily speech, just thought of M P and the Holy Grail.
I know, I am not worthy. ;-)

Oh dear… I hope this is just for effect, and that you don’t see us as that, or that you think we’re trying to portray you as that. We’re not in our ivory tower thinking that the undiscerning masses, Dubliner or otherwise, are just too silly to understand this glorious and godlike delight that only a chosen few can comprehend. If anything, we are the ‘Sillie’ ones, hehe.