Tag Archive: reading


A Tolkien Fanatic Ramble

ImageI first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the late seventies—wow, that’s thirty-five years ago. I was immediately entranced and read them once a year for several years following, then sporadically throughout the intervening years. One of the times was while I was a stay-at-home parent. They say it’s good for language development to read to children essentially from birth, and I found out that it doesn’t take as long as you might think to read all four books aloud to a baby. I eventually lost track of how many times I reread them. I would guess at least a dozen, perhaps fifteen or so.

One of the reasons the books are so captivating for me (and for many people, I would guess) is that they seem so real. Strange to say about a fantasy with dragons and giant spiders, but the sense of a vast history beyond the pages you’re turning creates that feeling and pervades The Hobbit and, to a greater extent, The Lord of the Rings. That impression of a deep history wasn’t achieved solely through well-turned flashbacks in the narratives at hand; Tolkien had created a rich tapestry of Middle-earth stories even before he wrote The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Those early stories, tinkered with by Tolkien in various degrees for decades (and touched upon in the appendices of Rings), were released posthumously, sometimes in multiple forms, in several books: The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Húrin, and the multivolume History of Middle-earth, all edited by Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R.’s youngest son. I’ve read them all. 

That foundational work outside of the four best-known books informs the destinies of Bilbo and Frodo. Just as the rough edges of World War I would eventually boil over into World War II, so too would Isildur’s cutting of the One Ring from Sauron’s hand at the end of the Second Age of Middle-earth lead to the War of the Ring some three thousand years later in the Third Age, as told in Rings. I don’t mean to imply any historical allegory—Tolkien said he disliked allegory—but to emphasize that the “reality” of Middle-earth is enhanced by such connections and consequences running through the various works. 

With all that said, it’s clear I’m a Tolkien fanatic. So it was a bit of a dream come true to become professionally involved in a book about Middle-earth. In an earlier age of the world, I was consulted by a coworker at my then-employer, Quayside Publishing, about whether I thought we should do a Middle-earth book of some sort. I said YES. (As an aside, during this chat I was asked the same question about Star Trek. My equally loud YES to that eventually led to Robert Greenberger’s Star Trek: The Complete Unauthorized History, which I edited.) And, lo, thus was the humble beginning of Middle-earth Envisioned: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings On Screen, On Stage, and Beyond by Paul Simpson and Brian J. Robb, out now in time for that Middle-earth fanatic on your holiday list. Just helping it along in that little way was fun, but there was more to come. 

I’ve known Paul for several years. I first worked for him when he was editing the official Star Trek Magazine, contributing articles about my first fanatic fave, which I’d discovered prior to Tolkien by about five years. Reversing roles, he wrote That’s What They Want You to Think, a conspiracy 101 eBook, for me at Quayside. Then he invited me to contribute a sidebar to the Middle-earth book. Woo-hoo! That meant I would be professionally published in my favorite fictional past as well as my favorite fictional future. I jumped at the chance, and you can read the result when you rush out and buy the book, which is gorgeously designed and illustrated. Go ahead, I’ll wait here, you can grab it from your local bookstore or order it from Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, or Amazon

My sidebar, “Middle-earth Beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings,” talks about those other Middle-earth texts mentioned above and how Peter Jackson drew on those sources for his film adaptations of the four novels. For space reasons, I wasn’t able to include every example of material outside the novels that informs the films, so what follows are a few interesting tidbits. 

In part, The Silmarillion recounts the strife between Ilúvatar—the creator—and Melkor, who is, to greatly simplify things with a common archetype, a fallen angel. Melkor became the Dark Lord Morgoth in the First Age of Middle-earth, and he created the Balrogs, the last of which appears in The Lord of the Rings. Morgoth’s chief servant was Sauron, also a terrible threat across the ages of Middle-earth. These are prime examples of the deep history that resonates throughout Tolkien’s writings.

Jackson & Co. expanded Arwen’s role in the Rings films to counterbalance the novel’s dearth of female roles. When her father, Elrond, counsels her to leave Middle-earth by foreseeing her future after Aragorn’s death, his dialogue draws directly from Appendix A of Rings. Arwen and Aragorn’s future son, Eldarion—whose appearance in a vision turns Arwen away from the Grey Havens and back toward Rivendell—is another detail drawn from Appendix A.

 Expanding The Hobbit into a three-film extravaganza also necessitated drawing on additional sources. The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, includes a meeting of the White Council—Elrond, Gandalf, Galadriel, and Saruman—where Gandalf expresses concern about how Sauron could use Smaug if the dragon were not destroyed, which is taken straight from dialogue in Unfinished Tales (although in a different setting). 

Hardly a complete list, and more examples will certainly appear in the remaining two parts of The Hobbit. Now that a whole new generation of viewers have been drawn into Tolkien’s world by these films, I hope young fans discover that not only is Middle-earth more than the films, it’s more than the four books that inspired the films, and is well-worth exploring more deeply.

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ImageThe thing about recorded music is that it has always required buying an encoded object that you needed to put into a machine to listen to; everything from records to tapes to CDs required a player, and this hasn’t changed in the age of downloaded audio files. That matchbox-sized mp3 player in your shirt pocket really isn’t all that different from the paperback-sized Walkman clipped to my belt in 1982—the technology has advanced, obviously, but the role of the machine hasn’t.

But the book . . . ah, the book is a different story (as it were). You just open one with your hands and read the data on your own. It’s a tactile, organic experience, which is not quite replicated by eBooks. I don’t have anything at all against eBooks, I’ve bought them and I’ve written them. But unlike listening to recorded music, which still involves headphones or speakers just as in the days of LPs, the experience of reading has more fundamentally changed as it moved to the digital world from paper.

Sure, you’re still reading the printed/displayed word, but the feel of it is not the same. I for one continue to crave the choice of the printed book, even as I buy more eBooks. I don’t have the same feelings for my LPs gathering dust in the basement. Although the hiss and crackle of an oft-played LP induces a certain nostalgic fondness, I’d still rather hear the music clear and clean from an audio file. Outside of ancient texts, reading words from a page of a book doesn’t generally involve any comparable degradation, and the words from a printed novel will be just as easily read ten years from now. By contrast, I own eBooks—which, I must emphasize, were legally purchased—that I can no longer open due to outdated software or arcane DRM schemes. It’s like someone came into my house, pulled a book off the shelf, and glued all the pages together. Although, to be fair to eBooks, I do own some vintage printed books that would fall apart if I attempted to read them, that’s a little like a scratched old LP.

I think printed books and eBooks will exist side by side for a long time yet, even as LPs are still around alongside the iPod. And they will definitely come in handy after the zombie apocalypse, because they don’t require batteries. Just be careful with your glasses, Burgess. There’s no adjusting the font size on paper.