Sunday, April 29, 2012

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

I honestly do not know how I got through so much of my life without hearing this man's books recommended. But, as I explained in my review of The Warden, all that changed when Mrs Sonnemann introduced me to him and then sent me a little starter pack of my own! I have just now finished the sequel to that first book: Barchester Towers.

The differences between The Warden and Barchester Towers are pretty obvious. Barchester Towers is, to begin with, at least three times longer. It also contains everything that I enjoyed about The Warden—but much, much more so. My original thought was that Trollope is the man to read when you are all out of Jane Austen. I would like to modify that view now. Trollope is in many ways different to Austen. He has the same satiric bite, but a somewhat freer hand: no Jane Austen heroine, for example, would box an unwelcome suitor's ears. In addition Austen's satire was more directed at people's foibles in private life than their public behaviour and institutions. In short, Trollope is all himself—quirky, compassionate, chatty, and gurgling with quiet humour.

Five years on from the events of The Warden, the bishop of Barchester dies and is replaced by the appointment of a Whig government: Dr Proudie, a clergyman with low-church leanings, who comes complete with a Gorgon of a wife and her revolting hanger-on Mr Slope. Hitherto, Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope have seen eye-to-eye in matters of doctrine, but with the bestowal of the bishopric on Dr Proudie, Mr Slope revolts in earnest: Mrs Proudie intends to be the real bishop of Barchester. Mr Slope, installed as the bishop's chaplain, has ambitions of his own and is determined to supplant Mrs Proudie's control over the bishop. Mr Slope and Mrs Proudie's pungent mixture of arrogance and ungraciousness in their intended reforms soon antagonises every one of the existing Barchester clergymen, especially the archdeacon, Dr Grantly. Injury is soon added to insult: Hiram's hospital, without a warden since the end of the last book, is to be given a new warden, and despite expectations that the humble and deserving previous warden, Mr Harding, will be restored to his old home, Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope determine to give the wardenship to another clergyman, Mr Quiverful.

Meanwhile, other storms gather on the horizon. Dr Stanhope and his feckless family--conniving Charlotte, useless and idle Bertie, and man-eating divorcee Madeline--return from Italy and settle in Barchester, where Charlotte incites Bertie to marry Mr Harding's wealthy younger daughter and Madeline sets about her favourite pastime, even ensnaring Mr Slope. Despite his passion for Madeline, Mr Slope too decides to marry Mr Harding's daughter.

As romantic complications pile up, the war between Mr Slope, Mrs Proudie, and Dr Grantly intensifies. There's only room for one shadow bishop in Barchester; but who shall it be?

This book was wonderful: I enjoyed every minute of it, though I read it slowly at first. Trollope's plot is detailed, with a few unexpected turns, and a wholly satisfactory ending. His characters are, as I mentioned in my review of The Warden, wonderfully drawn, with great flaws but also with great compassion. All his good characters have faults, but all his bad characters have their good points.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Today, the 25th of April, is Anzac Day, the day that Australians and New Zealanders remember their fallen fighting men. It especially exists to commemorate the day in 1915 that the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—or Anzacs for short—landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula as part of an Allied expeditionary force. They had been sent to conquer Constantinople, but the plans for the attack—Winston Churchill was responsible—seem to have been ill-made. After a terrible landing, the campaign stalemated and the Anzacs dug in (which is why Australian soldiers will always be called “Diggers”), fighting a long and seemingly pointless series of battles until their evacuation at the end of the year.

It was just one more fiasco in the long series of fiascos that was World War I. But for Australians and New Zealanders fighting their first war as nations, Gallipoli was a defining moment. Although many English and Frenchmen also died in that campaign—although it ended in evacuation, not victory—that rugged peninsula will always belong to Australia and New Zealand.

Other names have become linked to Anzac Day. The charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, one of the last great cavalry charges of history, was a victory as sudden and brilliant as Gallipoli was slow and deadly. The gruelling seige of Tobruk in World War II Libya became a proud name in our history, especially after German propagandist “Lord Haw-Haw” called its plucky Australian defenders “poor desert rats of Tobruk”--naturally, the Australians adopted the epithet, even striking unofficial medals from a downed German bomber and even after finishing the War and returning home,called themselves with pride the Rats of Tobruk. Erwin Rommel, the German general who failed to conquer the town, is recorded as saying, “If I had to take Hell, I would use the Australians to take it and the New Zealanders to hold it." A year later, in Papua New Guinea, a small body of Australian troops fought the Kokoda Trail campaign: it was a single-file track through jungle and mountains, along which the Japanese hoped to advance in order to take Port Moresby. This would have put them in an ideal position to threaten Australia's more populous southeastern states and make it impossible for the Allies to use Australia as a base. The campaign, one of the very few times Australian territory has ever been threatened, has been called “Australia's Thermopylae”.

I looked around for an appropriate poem to mark the occasion. This one, despite the pacifist overtones early on, seems to say it well:

by John Le Gay Brereton

Within my heart I hear the cry
Of loves that suffer, souls that die,
And you may have no praise from me
For warfare's vast vulgarity;
Only the flag of love, unfurled
For peace above a weeping world,
I follow, though the fiery breath
Of murder shrivel me in death.
Yet here I stand and bow my head
To those whom other banners led,
Because within their hearts the clang
Of Freedom's summoning trumpets rang,
Because they welcomed grisly pain
And laughed at prudence, mocked at gain,
With noble hope and courage high,
And taught our manhood how to die.
Praise, praise and love be theirs who came
From that red hell of stench and flame,
Staggering, bloody, sick, but still
Strong with indomitable will,
Happy because, in gloomiest night,
Their own hearts drummed them to the fight.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

JRR Tolkien Week: Envoi

This concludes JRR Tolkien Week. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have, as I've tried to demonstrate the way JRR Tolkien's theory of mythopoeia, which I summarised a while ago in a previous post “Mythopoeia and the Charge of Escapism,” together with his Christian convictions, pervade and inform all his works, setting them among the greatest artworks of Christendom.

There are other Tolkien books that I have not reviewed here. The Children of Hurin is perhaps my most notable omission—published recently by Christopher Tolkien, it is the full story of Turin Turambar and will be reviewed in due course. The Unfinished Tales is another excellent resource containing fascinating backstory on The Hobbit in “The Quest for Erebor” as well as “Aldarion and Erendis”, one of the few stories from Numenor before the Fall. Unfortunately, the stories in this volume guessed it...unfinished.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Leaf by Niggle by JRR Tolkien

Again, you might find it surprising that I've chosen to review this particular work—one of the very few fictional works published by Tolkien that are not tied into the Silmarillion (others include Farmer Giles of Ham, Roverandom, Smith of Wootton Major, and The Homecoming of Beorhthelm Beorhtnoth's Son) but I have chosen it because it is a strange and beautiful allegory of Tolkien's own creation. I will quickly summarise it here, beginning to end; if you haven't read it, it would be much better for you to read the whole thing yourself quickly before I give it all away. It is really only a short story, and very good.

Leaf by Niggle, also published as Tree and Leaf, is about a painter called Niggle. The word means something like “spending far too much effort on details.” Niggle is not a very successful painter, owing to other claims on his time—especially those of his lame neighbour, Mr Parish. Meanwhile, he knows that he has a long journey to go on sometime, which he occasionally attempts to prepare for 'in an ineffectual way.'

Niggle's trouble as a painter is that his pictures are “too large and ambitious for his skill,” and meanwhile “he was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees.” His great work, Leaf, is slowly getting out of hand:
It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow. Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture.
Niggle's picture distracts him from mundane things like growing potatoes or talking to visitors, but as the start of his journey grows closer, he begins to realise that he will just have to stop expanding the picture and finish it.
Actually it seemed to him wholly unsatisfactory, and yet very lovely, the only really beautiful picture in the world.
Time goes by and Niggle realises that he must take his journey very soon. But just as he is hard at work trying to finish the picture—time is running out—Mr Parish needs help, and then Niggle gets sick, and finally an Inspector arrives.
'Your neighbour's house is not satisfactory at all,' said the Inspector.
'I know,' said Niggle. 'I took a not to the builders a long time ago, but they have never come. Then I have been ill.'
'I see,' said the Inspector. 'But you are not ill now.'
Niggle is shocked when the Inspector suggests that he should have used the wood and canvas from his picture to mend Parish's house. But alas for Niggle! That's when the Driver arrives to take him on his journey. Niggle has failed to pack anything, and what he does pack he loses on the train; so when he arrives, they send him to the Workhouse, where he is made to work hard “at digging, carpentry, and painting bare boards all one plain colour.” In the Workhouse, he learns at last to work diligently and hard. Then at last--
'I think it is a case for a little gentle treatment now,' said the Second Voice.
Niggle though that he had never heard anything so generous as that Voice. It made Gentle Treatment sound like a load of rich gifts, and the summons to a King's feast. Then suddenly Niggle felt ashamed. To hear that he was considered a case for Gentle Treatment overwhelmed him, and made him blush in the dark.
The next morning he goes down to the train station and takes a new train to a new place—a place that is beautiful, yet strangely familiar:
The curves of the land were familiar somehow. Yes: the ground was becoming level, as it should, and now, of course, it was beginning to rise again. A great green shadow came between him and the sun. Niggle looked up, and fell off his bicycle.
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished.
The landscape is beautiful, right, enchanting—the way he imagined it, but failed to paint it--but it still needs work. And suddenly he wishes that he had Parish with him, for Parish knows about trees and gardening...Indeed, Parish turns up, and the two of them collaborate on finishing the picture.
Oddly enough, it was Niggle who became most absorbed in building and gardening, while Parish often wandered about looking at trees, and especially at the Tree.
Finally Niggle is ready to move on to the Mountains, happy in the knowledge that his picture is finished and far more glorious than it ever could have have been before.

The story finishes with two men discussing Niggles's work.
'He could not have designed a telling poster to save his life. Always fiddling with leaves and flowers. I asked him why, once. He said he thought they were pretty! Can you believe it? He said pretty! 'What, digestive and genital organs of plants?' I said to him; and he had nothing to answer.'
In Niggle's hometown, he is quickly forgotten.
'Oh, poor little Niggle!' said Perkins. 'Never knew he painted.'
But the glorified Tree--'Niggle's Parish'--really does become useful:
'It is splendid for convalescence; and not only for that, for many it is the best introduction to the Mountains. It works wonders in some cases.'
This is a many-sided little story, articulating many of Tolkien's fears and desires about his works. What value do our artistic works have in God's creation?

One side of the story deals with Tolkien and Niggle. Like Niggle, Tolkien was a perfectionist and a procrastinator tempted to view covenant, community life as a distraction from his work. Like the picture of the Tree, the legends of Middle-Earth were a magnificent undertaking, constantly being added to, worked and reworked in painstaking detail. Tolkien may have worried that his works would die with him, and Leaf by Niggle demonstrates his hope that God would accept his works and glorify them even if they were forgotten here.

Of course, Mr Parish is Niggle's neighbour whom he must love as himself, the journey Niggle must take is death, the Mountains must be Heaven, and the Workhouse and Niggle's Parish are supposed to be Purgatory.

Despite the theological differences here, I love Leaf by Niggle for the way in which it discusses art, life, and hope. I love the fact that Mr Parish in the end becomes indispensible to the picture; some of the best parts of it are those in which he and Niggle collaborate, so that in the end the most utterly glorious parts of the art are those which Parish affected. There is no duality here between art and loving one's neighbour: loving one's neighbour is a work to be glorified in the world to come, and the purpose of art should be to love one's neighbour. It is the enduring legacy of Niggle's Parish that it forms the best introduction to Heaven. This is partly what CS Lewis was trying to do in The Chronicles of Narnia—reintroduce people to a distinctively Christian view of the world. It seems from Leaf by Niggle that Tolkien hoped the beauties of Middle-Earth would also form an excellent introduction to true, heavenly, truth, beauty and goodness.

In addition the work deals with the place of sub-creation within creation. Humans subcreate, Tolkien argued; the question is not whether they will do so, but whether they will create things that echo and give glory to God, or whether they will mock and twist God's creation and truth, seeking to become an independent creation. Tolkien hopes that his work does give glory to God.

Rayner Unwin's daughter Camilla wrote to Tolkien to ask “What is the purpose of life?” as part of a school project. Tolkien's answer reads—in very small part—as follows:
So it may be said that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis: Laudamus te, benedicamus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam. We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendour.
The artist's work gives glory to God in that it is his response to God's glory—the evidence of his yearning to mirror, to echo back, some of the grandeur and beauty that he sees. However, Tolkien also recognised that his work was never going to be perfect in giving glory to God. Instead, he hopes that God will accept and perfect his works; that he himself, perhaps, will be given the chance to assist in their perfection and glorification, so that the reflection they provide of God's glory can become pure and clear.

Leaf by Niggle is so important because it is Tolkien's own apology for his work; an odd, beautiful, poetic apology, clearly showing where his treasure was laid up.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Lays of Beleriand by JRR Tolkien

Surprised? You might have expected me to review The Children of Hurin, the most recently-published 'finished' Tolkien book. But instead I have decided to deal with a favourite, one I'm far more familiar with.

The History of Middle-Earth series is a twelve-volume series published over the course of decades, including many intermediate drafts of Tolkien's legendarium together with editorial notes by his son Christopher. Volume 3, The Lays of Beleriand, is the only one I've read from start to finish, and the only one I keep coming back to for pleasure (I have not touched, much less acquired and read, all of the books. Nor do I intend to).

The Lays of Beleriand contains two major and three minor poetic works, supposedly the works of Elven minstrels commemorating great moments in First Age history. They are expansions of stories briefly told in The Silmarillion.

Part I contains “The Lay of the Children of Hurin”, a fuller account of the story of Turin Turambar in Anglo-Saxon style alliterative verse:
For Turgon towering in terrible anger
a pathway clove him with his pale sword-blade
out of that slaughter-- yea, his swath was plain
through the hosts of Hell like hay that lieth
all low on the lea where the long scythe goes.
This poem ceases after 2,275 lines, and then a second, wordier, version starts:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien

Tolkien's illustration of Valinor.
Sometimes, people ask me if I have managed to make it through The Silmarillion.

I always feel a little embarrassed that the answer isn't so much “Yes” as it is “Multiple times, and I'm so looking forward to the next round.”

Wits have called this particular work “a telephone directory of Elvish names.” I really don't know why; the Silmarillion is considerably easier reading than the book of Numbers or the Iliad, and significantly shorter than the latter.

Let me lay some groundwork. As I've mentioned several times this week, the Quenta Silmarillion is the body of legends which constituted JRR Tolkien's major life's work and his attempt to construct a myth for England. Unlike most artists, the work that was dearest to his own soul was never published during his lifetime, while the parts that were published—The Hobbit and The Lord of the Ringswere mere tributaries to the magnumopus. This was because Tolkien never arrived at a completed version of the legends.

After his death, however, his son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien realised that something would need to be published. In the Foreword to The Silmarillion, he wrote:
It became clear to me that to attempt to present, within the covers of a single book, the diversity of the materials—to show The Silmarillion as in truth a continuing and evolving creation extending over more than half a century—would in fact lead only to confusion and the submerging of what is essential. I set myself therefore to work out a single text, selecting and arranging in such a way as seemed to me to produce the most coherent and internally self-consistent narrative.
The book we know as The Silmarillion is the result of Christopher Tolkien's editing-together of a formidable body of his father's stories and notes—hundreds of earlier and even some later versions remain, catalogued in the twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth series. The Silmarillion itself contains five of Tolkien's writings.

1. The Ainulindale (The Music of the Ainur)
This is the short creation myth of Middle-Earth. It begins, “There was Eru, the One.” Eru—also known as Iluvatar, the All-Father--creates from his thought the Ainur, the Holy Ones, who sing the music of Eru before him and are animated with the “Secret Fire” and given power to make music of their own. One of the Ainur, however, Melkor, the mightiest, seeks to devise things discordant with the music of Eru. The discord grows until Eru stops the music and begins a new theme; this happens twice before Eru rebukes Melkor:
“And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”
Eru then gives the music of the Ainur shape in the world, showing them a vision of the world as it will be. At that point, however, it was yet unformed, and certain of the Ainur go down into the world to form it, taking on bodies and going to work to make the world fit for the Children of Iluvatar—Elves and Men.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Tolkien never intended to publish The Hobbit, but friends who had seen the manuscript encouraged him to try. He sent it to the firm of George Allen & Unwin, where Stanley Unwin gave the manuscript to his eleven-year-old son Rayner. Rayner approved of the book and The Hobbit was enough of a success that the publishers asked Tolkien about a sequel.

His major work, as we have mentioned, was the body of legends he called the Quenta Silmarillion. But The Hobbit had been a quick work, not too demanding, and an Oxford don with four young children could always use some extra income. With that in mind, Tolkien agreed to begin work on “another Hobbit.”

But this time the story that had struggled to burst out of The Hobbit could not be contained. Tolkien found this work tangling into his work on the Silmarillion, becoming bigger and grander and far more important than he could ever have guessed. By the time the manuscript of The Lord of the Rings was ready for publication, eleven years and another world war had passed. The children for whom it was written were full-grown, seeing war service, ordination, or marriage. Rayner Unwin was now in his father's business and it was he who accepted the new manuscript. In postwar England, the depressed economy meant that the book could not be published and sold in one volume, so it was divided into three volumes for separate sale: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Decades later, Peter Jackson's films also followed this last-minute division, but don't let it fool you—The Lord of the Rings is one book in six parts, not a trilogy.

Tolkien's original cover designs for each volume
The Plot

This, as you know, deals with the magic ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains during his adventures in The Hobbit. Sixty-one years have gone by and Bilbo has adopted an orphan cousin as his heir. Frodo Baggins would be a normal hobbit—fond of a pipe, a pint, and a peaceful life—if it wasn't for the influence of his strange cousin, who will go down in hobbit lore as Mad Baggins. From Bilbo Frodo has learned something of the outside world, the dangers that lurk in strange places, and the wisdom of Elves. All the same, after his uncle disappears at his “eleventy-first” birthday party to spend his last days wandering the road and visiting Elves, leaving the ancestral hole and—at Gandalf the wizard's insistence—the magic Ring to Frodo, the young hobbit seems perfectly happy to go on living in the Shire much as he always has done.

Years go by, and then a visit from Gandalf changes everything. For Frodo, nothing will ever be the same again. For Bilbo's magic Ring, the Ring of invisibility, is actually a weapon forged by the Dark Lord Sauron long ago; it is the Chief Ring of Power, ruling over all others. It was lost centuries ago when the Dark Lord fell; now the Dark Lord is rising again, gathering his strength in the Dark Land of Mordor, and the one thing he is most anxious to get—apart from the dominion of all Middle-Earth—is the Ring of Power that will seal his victory.

Worse: not only is he looking for the Ring, he knows where to find it. His servants, the undead Ringwraiths whose most potent weapons are the black fear that hangs about them, are already on their way.

The Ring cannot be hidden. It cannot be given away. It cannot be destroyed. There is only one thing to do.

Take it on a perilous journey, over mountains, through caverns, through places of exquisite beauty and places of horrifying darkness, past armies and epic battles, through the Dead Marshes, Shelob's Lair, and the Black Land itself, to the Dark Lord's very doorstep, where it can only be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, the volcano in which it was made. Take it there. And then—if there is anything left of the bearer when he gets there—throw it into the fire.

The Fellowship of the Ring
Frodo receives companions for his road, a fellowship of nine: Sam, his loyal servant and gardener, who will become a hero in the end. Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck, two young hobbits who will become the mightiest warriors of the Shire since Bullroarer Took. Gandalf, the prophetic mentor. Strider, whose name is Aragorn, the wilderness ranger who carries the reforged sword of a long-lost king. Gimli, son of Gloin, a dwarf of the Lonely Mountain and son of one of Bilbo's thirteen companions. Legolas, son of Thranduil, an Elf of Mirkwood. And Boromir, the son of the Steward of Gondor, who has come in answer to a prophetic dream of help for that beleaguered kingdom.
“The Ring-bearer is setting out on the Quest of Mount Doom. On him alone is any charge laid: neither to cast away the ring, nor to deliver it to any servant of the Enemy nor indeed to let any handle it, save members of the Company and the Council, and only then in gravest need. The others go with him as free companions, to help him on his way. You may tarry, or come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows. The further you go, the less easy will it be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road.”
And indeed unimaginable danger lies ahead for each of the Fellowship.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

Tolkien was already deep into the work on his heroic legends when, on an impulse, he jotted down what would become the first line of The Hobbit—an originally unrelated story which, like most of his stories, ended up being swallowed into the major work, and ultimately itself generated his best-known book, The Lord of the Rings.

But on that sleepy afternoon in spring, it was just a nonsensical sentence, possibly the seed of a good bedtime story for the children:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
A hobbit? Now, where did that word come from? The linguist in him began to invent. What could be meant by a hobbit? Perhaps a short humanoid with furred feet and a love for comfort, pipe-smoking, and waistcoats of an entertaining hue and pattern. Given that, a hobbit-hole could not be any ordinary burrow.
Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
And then the story grew in the telling. You probably know it; if you don't, you will know it soon in some form or another once the Hollywood epic comes out at the end of this year. It is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a middle-aged hobbit gentleman who cares only for peace and quiet. But there is a spark of adventure hidden deep within Bilbo, and when a wandering wizard with a reputation for trouble drops by for tea and brings fourteen unexpected guests with him, Bilbo finds himself unexpectedly on the adventure of a lifetime. The fourteen dwarves, under the leadership of the formidable Thorin Oakenshield, are on a quest across the Misty Mountains, through the dangerous Mirkwood, to the Lonely Mountain that was once their kingdom—before the dragon came.
Tolkien drew the cover, too!
The mountain smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves, they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!
No one—from Thorin to Bilbo himself--can tell why their guide and mentor Gandalf has chosen Bilbo, such a timid and comfortable hobbit, as the fourteenth companion on such a perilous journey. But then, as the company runs into trolls, goblins, eagles, bears, giant spiders, Elves, and the fearsome and cunning old dragon Smaug, Bilbo proves his worth and, with the help of his Elvish dagger Sting and the magic ring he won in a game of riddles at the roots of a mountain, eventually becomes Thorin and Co.'s only hope for survival.

The Hobbit is an unusual creature: a children's book, written in a light and jolly style, with something much bigger and much more serious constantly threatening to burst out of it. At the beginning it appears set to be a rollicking adventure with a light touch of British silliness, unrelated to the more serious matter of the Quenta Silmarillion, Tolkien's major legendarium. But the Silmarillion is lurking in the background: the character of Elrond is the ageless son of Earendil the Mariner from those stories, and the Elves and Orcs of the Silmarillion spill over into The Hobbit. The book may be a children's story, but it inhabits a big and epical world.

One of the Tolkien illustrations.
In addition, there is a note of desperate seriousness in all Tolkien's works, and this too strains the seams of the children's story. By the end of the book, it has burst out completely as the geopolitical repercussions of the sudden liberation of a dragon's treasure nearly causes a war. Hubris and pride haunt the dwarves, and Bilbo is forced to decide whether he can betray his friends for the sake of peace and justice. It is unusual for a children's story to end on such notes, but this does not compromise the story structure. Rather, it pulls the book beyond itself into a new, more serious level.

One of the charms of The Hobbit is the fact that it is in many places a homage to Norse myth. And this is accomplished without gods or heroes or vikings, but with simply the everyday trappings. For instance, the game of riddles Bilbo plays for his life is a hoary, long-forgotten trope from the old myths; as are the names of Gandalf and all the dwarves; as is the enigmatic Beorn and the wise eagles, messengers of Manwe.

Despite these Norse trappings, however, the world of The Hobbit is, as you would expect from Tolkien, largely Christian. Smaug, Norse in imagery, is a lying worm with much to do with that old serpent, the devil. Gandalf is not really a wizard; within the world of the legendarium he is a sort of angelic messenger, or if you will, the image of an Old Testament prophet—which becomes clearer in The Lord of the Rings. But the overwhelming theme of this book is Providence.

Because Gandalf is a prophet/angel figure, his role in getting the plot going is supposed to remind one of Providence. However, the theme goes much further than this, in that it is not the hero's actions which ultimately bring victory. Bilbo Baggins is the hero of this adventure, he is the one who repeatedly saves the dwarves from catastrophe, and he even has a role to play in the epic climax. But by then, events are entirely out of his control, and he can only do what he can and hope for the rest. The humility of his role—his inability to control and predestine events—is marked.

An Alan Lee illustration
But Bilbo is not a pawn of fate, or even of Luck. And the book does refer to Luck—loudly and often. But this is a misattribution, as Tolkien reveals on the very last page.
“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.
“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in the wide world after all!”
In fact, there is a force far wiser and stronger at work than mere luck, as we'll see in The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo is not the predestinator of his fate, but a recipient and agent of some kind of providence. We'll get deeper into Tolkien's worldview later on as we dig into his more serious works.

The Hobbit is a classic adventure story, the prelude to one of the greatest novels of all time, and enjoyable for children who can handle the tension and danger. I highly recommend it.

Captions are fun!
Two movies based on The Hobbit and on parts of its backstory will be released in December 2012 and December 2013. I regard the attempt with skepticism. I can't see them wanting to adapt The Hobbit so much as to produce a second Lord of the Rings. I don't expect the movie to be a straight adaptation of the book at all. As usual with most film adaptations of novels, I advise reading the book several times and making the movies optional.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Feature Week: JRR Tolkien

Hello and welcome to another Feature Week here at Vintage Novels! This time we'll be looking at the works of the author of my favourite book of all time—JRR Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings.

What Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings and its surrounding mythology is unparalleled in the history of literature. Singlehandedly, he did the work of a whole culture: he constructed languages, legends, and cosmology. It was a gargantuan effort—he began work on the legendarium in his late teens or early twenties, and was still hard at work when he died. The extraordinary brilliance of his mind, combined with a disciplined and ardent love for languages of every kind, and a reverent wish to give glory to God in his subcreations, formed the foundation for a life's work that has never been equalled. Tolkien's masterpiece—the epic novel The Lord of the Rings—has spawned a thousand imitators which succeed in reproducing little more than the volume of the story. The imitators do not, or cannot, reproduce Tolkien's overriding concern with what he called True Myth or the evangelium—the Gospel; they cannot even begin to think about using words in the same way that Tolkien could; and they do not have the lifetime of discipline and knowledge to try. We are, after all, talking about a man who, as a young boy in high school, disdained Latin as too easy and opted for Gothic instead.

This week I will be taking a look at some of Tolkien's major and minor works. There is no time to review everything, but we'll cover the basics and some of the additional material. Before I begin, I should let you know two things. One, I have probably spent more time thinking about these books than about any other books—and they do reward the study—so there are some very long posts ahead. Two, if you are looking for a critical discussion of the books, you have come to the wrong place. Discussion there will be, but little or no criticism. I have spoken to people of every persuasion, from Christians who sincerely believe that Tolkien's work demonstrates a pagan worldview to postmodernist literary snobs who will never be happy as long as someone thinks that The Lord of the Rings is great literature. I cannot join them in their objections, but maybe, as I discuss these books this week, I can demonstrate the underlying worldview and the immense literary skill that went into them. I hope that you enjoy this series.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé

The Adventures of Tintin are the cartoon adventures of an unassuming young man with a ginger tuft of hair, his dog Snowy, and his friend, the irascible old sailor Captain Haddock. Over the course of the 24 books, Tintin stumbles into one adventure, mystery, or treasure-hunt after another, faces every kind of danger, visits every corner of the globe (and even the Moon) and foils dozens of bad guys up to every kind of evil trick.

Need I mention how highly I recommend these books? There are many, many excellent things about the Tintin books, and although I cannot hope to cover them all, I shall at least try to list some of them.

  • The art. Hergé drew his books with a combination of beautiful simplicity and elegant detail. Much work and skill went into the cartoons, Hergé extensively researched specific locations, and the result is excellent: understated, clear, unobtrusive, but endlessly pleasant to look at.
  • The characters. Captain Haddock is everyone's favourite—a peremptory old curmudgeon with a drinking problem and an endless vocabulary of insults (“Coelacanth! Bashi-bazouk! Freshwater pirate!). Snowy is also a delightful character, by turns loyal, cowardly, clever, or foolish. Professor Calculus, the scientific genius who is slightly hard of hearing in one ear, is perfectly amusing and harmless as long as you don't accuse him of acting the goat. But even Tintin, the oddly featureless main character, is a protagonist it's a pleasure to be around. Originally conceived as a role model for Catholic boy scouts, you won't catch Tintin doing anything blameworthy, but that's OK, because he can shoot, fly a plane, knock out a bad guy with one punch, outwit villainous masterminds, investigate mysteries that baffle the police, and drive a tank. He does appear to be about seventeen years old, but that just makes it more fun. One of my favourite Tintin moments occurs in Cigars of the Pharaoh, when Tintin—journeying through a corner of the Sahara—hears a woman screaming and rushes to save her from her villainous attackers (before it turns out that she wasn't really in trouble—he's blundered onto a film set).
  • The plots are also brilliant. After the first couple of Tintin books—which were rambling and a little absurd—the plots began to tighten up a lot and for most of the series they were taut, well-constructed mysteries that somehow managed both to present a coherent, satisfying narrative and to have a cliffhanger moment at the end of every page.
  • The settings are well thought out. As others have mentioned, Hergé was at his best when dealing with complex geopolitical situations, like in The Land of Black Gold (oil in the Middle East), The Calculus Affair (Communism and the Cold War), and The Blue Lotus (the Japanese invasion of China). During the Nazi occupation of Belgium, Hergé was unable to carry on his political commentary, opting for more far-fetched stories. But when he could, he used then-current affairs as much as possible.
  • Some people would find this disturbing.
    The books are refreshingly free of political correctness. All the characters use guns, drink is a common part of life (though it can be abused), tobacco isn't difficult to come by or stigmatised, women are treated with respect and omitted from dangerous situations, and so on. On one page in The Red Sea Sharks, the small boat on which Tintin and Captain Haddock are trying to escape from the bad guys is being strafed by enemy pilots, so Tintin grabs a machine-gun and shoots down the enemy plane. When the pilot survives, they pick him up and end up becoming fast friends. A wonderful intersection of self-defence and charity.

The series of twenty-four can be roughly divided into various segments.

  • The formation of Tintin. The first three Tintin books are called Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in America. The first two were very difficult to find when I was young, and I've only read them more recently. They show little research, an undeveloped drawing style, and loose meandering plots. The first two have been more or less dropped from official Tintin canon, for good reason: I am not at all the kind of person to see racists behind every bush, but there's really only one word for some of the escapades in Tintin in the Congo.
  • Tintin's adventures with Snowy, from Cigars of the Pharaoh to King Ottokar's Sceptre. A turning-point in the Tintin series came with The Blue Lotus, the sequel to Cigars of the Pharaoh: since he had never been to China, Hergé enlisted a Chinese exchange student as a consultant on the book. They became fast friends, the young man became a character in The Blue Lotus (later to feature in Tintin in Tibet), Hergé learned the value of good research and avoiding stereotypes, and from then on the Tintin books would remain at a very high standard for many years.
  • Tintin's adventures with Captain Haddock. Book 9, The Crab with the Golden Claws, would change Tintin forever. Halfway through this book, Tintin collides—literally--with a drunken sea-captain whose villainous first mate has hi-jacked his ship. Tintin and Captain Haddock escape the Karaboudjan together, get lost in the Sahara, and face their enemies in picturesque Morocco. By the end of it, Tintin has not just busted a gang of drug-runners—he has found a new friend. From then on, the pair of them would be a team.
  • Tintin's deconstruction. Books 20 to 24 saw Hergé do something I have never seen happen before (even Arthur Conan Doyle, becoming tired of Sherlock Holmes, simply killed off his detective). He began to destroy his creation, at first just playing with it and then actively undermining it. Tintin in Tibet showed the first signs: in this epic man-vs-wild quest, the only villain turns out to be just misunderstood. This was followed by The Castafiore Emerald, considered by some to be Hergé's masterpiece: a story in which very little happens, there is no mystery, there are no bad guys, and yet in which the tension is kept up on every page. Both of these books were interesting and completely successful experiments. However, this was just the start of a derailment into the downright bizarre. Flight 714 was, perhaps, no weirder than the Peruvian adventures, but the whole point of the book seemed to be to take two of the series's most iconic villains—Rastapopoulos and Allan—and make them as ridiculous and unintimidating as possible. Finally, in the last completed book, Tintin and the Picaros, Hergé began to deconstruct his heroes themselves: Tintin loses his taste for adventure, Haddock loses his taste for whiskey, and the two of them end up helping with a meaningless revolution. What caused this sudden turn into deconstruction? Was it a full-blown author breakdown or simply boredom? Tantalising questions.
  • The unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art, published with notes as far as it went, seemed to be ready to continue the process of change and deconstruction, though not (perhaps) in such an extreme fashion.

Besides the sudden swerve into self-deconstruction at the end of the series, there are a couple of other things to be aware of—Hergé appeared to have a fascination with the occult which cropped up once or twice, most notably in The Seven Crystal Balls and its sequel, Prisoners of the Sun, with its ancient mummy and voodoo dolls.

But for all that, the Tintin books are well worth your time. Some of my favourites include the following:

  • The Black Island: Possibly Hergé's homage to Hitchcock and Buchan, this story gets underway when two villainous characters, worried that Tintin may be on their trail, frame him for assault and robbery. Detectives Thompson and Thomson arrest him, but Tintin knows he's innocent and goes after the real culprits—a gang of forgers led by the sinister Dr Muller. This is a great story set in England and Scotland with beautiful scenery, a well-made detective/adventure plot, and a thrilling climax in a ruined and possibly haunted castle on the Black Island off the Scottish coast.
  • King Ottokar's Sceptre: When Tintin returns a lost briefcase he meets seal collector and sigillographer Professor Alembick, who invites him to travel as his assistant to the fictional Balkan country of Syldavia. At first Tintin isn't interested, but then after a series of brushes with mysterious Syldavians, he realises that something is afoot and joins the Professor for his trip to Syldavia. Tintin soon discovers that there's a plot afoot to force the abdication of the quiet but competent King Muskar XII, but there are traitors everywhere and it won't be so easy to warn the King. This book introduces another notable recurring character—Bianca Castafiore, the buxom and deadly opera star, who will go on to become one of Tintin's most loyal allies.
  • The Land of Black Gold: Trouble is brewing in the Arabian emirate of Wadesdah, the Emir's son Prince Abdullah vanishes, and war seems imminent. Meanwhile, someone is doctoring the world's petrol supplies. Tintin goes to Arabia to investigate. This book is a great adventure story; my favourite parts include the melodramatic story Tintin's ally Senhor Oliveira da Figueira tells the servants at the villain's house to distract them, and the introduction of the ghastly spoiled brat Abdullah.
  • The Red Sea Sharks: Tintin and Captain Haddock find themselves up against an old enemy after they begin investigating a shady arms dealer. Their friend Emir Ben Kalish Ezab has been deposed by archenemy Sheik Bab El Ehr, and the bratty Prince Abdullah has been sent to Captain Haddock at Marlinspike hall for safety. Tintin and Captain Haddock decide that Marlinspike Hall is a little too small to hold them and the Arabian Nightmare, so they jet off for war-torn Wadesdah to see what they can do to help.

Tintin books can be found at most Australian libraries and should be increasingly available in the US as well. I highly recommend them.

I have seen the Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson film The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and thoroughly enjoyed it despite a few flaws. Find a more thorough review of the movie, together with some good comments on the books, at Outside Hollywood.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Interview - Fiction and Nonfiction

Well, I will once again interrupt your regularly-scheduled book reviews for a post. I was tagged to answer a set of interview questions over at the blog of My Lady Bibliophile--which I have been reading with great enjoyment since it started up at the beginning of this year! Pop on over and say hello!

And now for the interview...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Knight Crusader by Ronald Welch

Philip D'Aubigny is a son of two worlds, the product of a very unusual time in history, and the witness of the end of an era.

Philip is a young nobleman of Norman-English extraction, training for knighthood, the aide and apprentice of his father, an important noble. He is inured to wearing armour, an excellent swordsman, and knows something of the affairs of state. Like any other young squire, he lives in a castle where the retainers have known him and trained him since his childhood.

But Philip's home is unique. Instead of the green hills of Wales, his father's castle stands in a valley of Palestine. Philip's fair skin has been beaten to bronze by the harsh sun of that country, and he is accustomed to the strange luxuries of the East.

For nearly a hundred years, the Crusader kingdom of Outremer—carved from Muslim-held territory in 1099—has kept its tenuous grip on the Holy Land, ruled by kings from Jerusalem. But now as Philip D'Aubigny grows to manhood, mutters of war come from the east; the knights of Outremer dwindle away, and charismatic but incompetent King Guy of Lusignan appears ready to be swayed by any counsel. Then the great Saracen general Saladin attacks Outremer and besieges Tiberias, and the chivalry of Outremer muster to their final battle at Hattin.

This account of the Second and Third Crusades for young people is a well-written, exciting, and relatively even-handed account of the fall of Outremer in 1187. Welch clearly intends to present accurate history through the eyes of an original character, and he does so with great skill.

It is a little difficult to review this book, because I came to it with a lot of baggage. In the Middle East there are many who have not forgotten the name of Salah ad-Din. Nor have I forgotten the names of Charles Martel, Digenes Akrites, or Baldwin the Leper. What an endeavour was Outremer! What a mission: to liberate the Holy Land from the tyrants who had trampled it for nearly five hundred years, to plant a kingdom and a community there, and to cling there for generations. The fall of Outremer, like the fall of the Byzantine provinces to Abu-Bakr in the 600s, was the extinguishing of a lamp and a legend.

With this view, I thought that this book—though a serviceable and enjoyable adventure story—could have made more of the events. Like many current historians—though not as offensively as most—Welch depicts the Christians as relatively barbaric next to the Saracens. For example, at one point, an old crusader scoffs at the Saracen idea of cleaning wounds—his advice is to just wrap it up and let the blood and pus fight it out. As a matter of fact, the importance of cleaning and airing a serious wound was well known to medieval European physicians.

I got the feeling that Welch did not truly understand the grand significance of the history he described. There were also snippets of the history I wish he'd spent more time on. The story of Baldwin IV's victory at the battle of Montgisard, for example, is the most incredible story you'll ever hear about a mild-mannered sixteen-year-old leper king leading his knights into battle to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And the story of Balian of Ibelin's defence of Jerusalem after Hattin is another story worth hearing, only known to Western audiences these days through the false and twisted 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven
The stories of Outremer are the stories of one of the greatest adventures of Christendom, and should be familiar to all of us. Knight Crusader is a wonderful place to start learning some of these stories.

Ronald Welch went on to write a whole series of books set around Philip's descendants, the Carey family, who inherit their ancestor's skill with a sword, and who fight For the King in the English Civil War, act as a spy and Captain of Dragoons during Marlborough's campaigns, Escape from France during the Revolution, and even wind up as a Tank Commander during World War I. The series is great historical adventure but, sadly, out of print and as scarce as hen's teeth. The publisher has, I hear, absolutely refused either to republish the books or to sell the rights. Keep an eye out for these at second-hand booksales.


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