My first attempt to read _The Book of Lost Tales_ was made way too early in my life and made certain that my response was to put it on the sh...more3.5 stars
My first attempt to read _The Book of Lost Tales_ was made way too early in my life and made certain that my response was to put it on the shelf and decide that all of this background stuff, especially taken from this early phase in Tolkien’s life as a writer, was way too different from the Middle-Earth stories that I loved for me to waste any time on it. Looking at where the book mark from my first attempt still sat when I picked it up again, I noticed that I didn’t even get much beyond the first several pages of the introductory chapter “The Cottage of Lost Play”. I remember thinking that it was just altogether too twee for me, what with the Eldar of Middle-Earth still being referred to as ‘faeries’ and the, to me, bizarre structure of a wanderer coming to a tiny cottage (bigger on the inside than the outside) peopled by dancing and singing children and adults who primarily sat around telling tales and reciting pretty mediocre poetry. It wasn’t really Middle-Earth now was it? Well, at the time I put down the volume and decided that I’d stick with the ‘real’ stuff of LotR, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion and that, as they say, was that for probably about two and a half decades. Then it came about that I discovered my greatest love vis a vis Tolkien’s work was growing to be the posthumously published The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth, both of which contained some of the most beautiful and powerful of Tolkien’s writing. I looked at the corpus of ‘The History of Middle Earth’ with something of a new eye and decided that I might just dip into it and see what it was like. I consciously chose to first read those volumes that dealt with the matter of the First and Second ages of Middle-Earth and were latest in the chronology of composition thus presumably assuring that I was coming across ideas and stories that were closer in tone and content to the ones with which I was so familiar and that thrilled me with their mythic reverberations. I ended up loving what I found in Morgoth's Ring and The War of the Jewels and decided that maybe this huge work undertaken by Christopher Tolkien to present the works of his father in toto wasn’t an altogether bad idea after all (especially given my hunger for more material regarding the tales as told in The Silmarillion).
So now I find myself re-embarking on the journey from the beginning and tackling the very Book of Lost Tales (part one) that defeated me in my youth. I’m glad I came back. Pushing through past the point in the first chapter beyond which I never made it before I actually found a fair bit to like, even though it wasn’t the undiluted Middle-Earth vintage I had initially wanted. I was actually reminded a bit of William Morris’ medieval romances that so influenced Tolkien as I read about the journey of Eriol the mariner upon the Isle of Tol Eressëa and once the tales themselves began to be told I saw that there was a surprising amount of coherence between these earliest versions of the myths of Middle-Earth with what eventually came to be published in The Sil. The differences themselves were intriguing and I found as the chapters sped on the framing device didn’t bother me half as much as once it had. I will readily admit that much of the poetry in this volume leaves something to be desired. I am not one of those readers of Tolkien that skips over the poems, and I think that many of them are quite beautiful (esp. Bilbo’s poem of Eärendil sung in Rivendell), but the early ones showcased in this volume are not really my cup of tea (though one can certainly see Tolkien’s word-craft in them improving as time went on). The Cottage of Lost Play itself took on greater interest as well as I started to see some parallels between it and the ultimate development of Elrond’s house of Rivendell as “a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all’. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.”
Eriol the mariner, a man from medieval England who has found his way to the magical isles of the west, sits in this pleasant house and has recounted to him many of the tales of the elder days when the Elves were alone in Middle-Earth, or mankind just arising from their ages long slumber. All of these tales are ones that a reader of The Silmarillion will already be familiar with: the creation myth of the Music of the Ainur, the building of Valinor and creation of the Two Trees of Light, the battles against Melkor (here named Melko) and his initial imprisonment, the coming of the Elves to the blessed lands and their ultimate rebellion and return to Middle-Earth in pursuit of Melko, and the myth of the creation of the sun and moon upon the death of the two trees. Some of these are not very far from the more final versions that were presented in The Silmarillion, while others display drastic differences (such as the expanded legend of the sun and moon, the extensive bits that deal with cosmology and the make-up of the world, and the inclusion of Valar who mate and even include in their number some gods of war), but it is very safe to say that unless you have a deep and abiding love for Middle-Earth, and especially tales of the elder days, you probably won’t get much out of this book. I would agree with those who claim this is really only for aficionados of Tolkien’s tales who want more and who are interested in seeing the development of his mythology. It is indeed a fascinating peek over the shoulder of Tolkien as he writes his tales and we finally start to get a glimpse of the sheer magnitude of the effort that his son expended simply in producing from the jumble of inter-related texts about the legends of the Elves a volume as slim and relatively cohesive as The Silmarillion.
I’m looking forward to tackling Book II of the lost tales and proceeding with the history of Middle-Earth texts at least up to volume 5 to continue to get my fix and maybe even get a taste of some legends of the elder days that I haven’t already experienced in another form. Recommended for hard-core Tolkien fans who don’t mind critical apparatus and multiple versions of tales.(less)
One of the best of the 'classic' Arthurian tales. Gawain is presented a bit differently here from many of the other ones. Usually he's a bit of a brag...moreOne of the best of the 'classic' Arthurian tales. Gawain is presented a bit differently here from many of the other ones. Usually he's a bit of a braggart and kind of a jerk, especially to women, but here he is presented as the perfect exemplar of courtoisie. He's also a bit young and still untried, so maybe that explains it for those who want to be able to have a grand unified theory of Arthuriana.
Anyway, you probably all know the story: Arthur is about to have a New Year's feast, but according to tradition is waiting for some marvel to occur. Right on cue in trots the Green Knight on his horse, a giant of a man who proceeds to trash the reputation of the entire court and dare someone to cut off his head as long as he gets to return the favour. No one makes a move and Arthur decides he better do something about this until Gawain steps up and asks to take on this quest himself. Everyone agrees and Gawain proceeds to smite the green head from the Knight's body. Everyone is fairly pleased with the result until the Green Knight gets up, picks up his smiling head, and says: "See you next year, G. Don't forget that it's my turn then." (I paraphrase, the middle english of the poet is far superior.) Needless to say everyone is a bit nonplussed by this.
The year passes and Gawain doesn't seem to do much of anything until he finally decides it's time to get out and find this green fellow and fulfill his obligation...hopefully something will come up along the way to improve his prospects. What follows is a journey to the borders of the Otherworld as well as a detailed primer on just how one ought to act in order to follow the dictates of courtliness. Gawain ends up being the guest of Sir Bertilak, a generous knight who says that the Green Chapel, the destination of Gawain's quest, is close by and Gawain should stay with them for the duration of the holidays. We are treated to some coy (and mostly chaste) loveplay on the part of Bertilak's wife from which Gawain mostly manages to extricate himself without contravening the dictates of politeness, as well as the details of a medieval deer, boar and fox hunt with nary a point missing.
In the end Gawain goes to the chapel and finds that his erstwhile host Bertilak was in fact the Green Knight. Gawain submits himself and is left, after three swings, with only a scratch as a reward for his courteous behaviour in Bertilak's castle. Despite the apparent success of Gawain, he views the adventure as a failure since he did not come off completely unscathed and he wears a girdle he was gifted by Bertilak's wife as a mark of shame to remind himself of this. Harsh much?
The language of the Gawain poet's middle english is beautiful and I highly recommend reading it in the original with a good translation at hand to catch the nuances of meaning. The poem is replete with an almost dreamlike quality that is made real by all of the exquisite details of medieval life that are interspersed throughout the text. This is a great book to read at Christmas time.(less)
So declares Prof. Sven Agaard, an old-school historian of former glory, now an outcast at his own university....more3.5 stars
“I have a son who’s a monster.”
So declares Prof. Sven Agaard, an old-school historian of former glory, now an outcast at his own university. His audience is Prof. Jack Winesap, the academic star of the moment and expert in the somewhat rarefied (and questionable?) area of “psycho-history” (no, not Asimov’s). He is Agaard’s polar opposite, sitting happily on the other end of the academic spectrum in terms of both popularity and academic rigour. Despite the animosity that Agaard displays towards Winesap and his field he ends up inviting him to his home. For his part Winesap is intrigued, who or what can this monster be? Why is this obviously antagonistic man even speaking to him? Of course he accepts. Thus Gardner sets up the mystery that will lead us into the first part of the novel which plays out this uncomfortable, though enlightening, scenario.
In the course of an evening where Winesap is snowed in and forced to partake of Agaard’s ‘hospitality’ he comes to learn the answers to some of his questions. Freddy, Agaard's son, turns out to be an outcast himself. A giant of a boy, he not only has a physical appearance that sets him apart, but is apparently subject to rages that make his cohabitation with others somewhat dangerous. At the boy’s own instigation locks and bars are kept on all of the doors and windows of Agaard’s drafty old house, meant not to keep Freddy in, but to keep others out. What at first seems like a horrific confinement comes to take on a different colour as we learn more about this small family and come to see that Agaard is not just a crusty old man hiding an unwanted child from the world, he is a father sick at heart over the pain he has seen Freddy suffer whenever he has been exposed to the world at large. Freddy has thus learned to be an introvert with an intellectual bent. His entire experience of the world has come from books and his room is cluttered with them, along with the various drawings and dioramas he has made based on their contents.
It also appears, much to Agaard’s chagrin, that Freddy is something of a fan of Winesap’s and so he has called in this man, whom he views with nothing but disdain and contempt, in the hopes that he can reach out to his son who otherwise remains locked in an ivory tower of his own making. Their initial meeting does not seem to go well. Winesap is nonplussed while Freddy is virtually silent, doing his best to hide his enormous bulk from view. Ready to set the matter at a dead loss as he readies himself for bed, Winesap is surprised when Freddy creeps up to his room in the dead of night and leaves behind a present for him. It is the eponymous book of the title, and is also, perhaps, the only method Freddy has learned of communicating freely with another person.
What follows, and which contains the bulk of the novel’s content, is the text of Freddy’s manuscript that is half fable and half history, detailing the adventures of a 16th century Swedish Knight and his conflict with the devil. I’m a little uncertain of how to proceed with this review. Gardner packs so much into this relatively slim volume that to cover all of the ideas he explores would be counter-productive. Suffice it to say that this is an existential novel and as we follow the main character Lars-Goren in his travails we touch on a host of philosophical and political issues that run the gamut of human experience. Lars-Goren and his cousin Gustav Vasa begin the story watching as their kinsman Sten Sture and his fellow revolutionaries are slaughtered for their revolt against the Danes that currently rule Sweden. Lars and Gustav barely escaped this fate and long to avenge the deaths of their family and friends. At this point the devil appears and, taking Gustav under his wing, the road starts to be paved for the rise of King Gustav and the expulsion of the Danes from Sweden. Lars-Goren, a man who has known no fear in his life, suddenly becomes gripped by this unknown sensation. Of what is he afraid? Upon examination he realizes it is neither his death, nor eternal damnation that worries the knight. Just what it is proves to elude him and his search for an answer takes up the rest of the story.
Into the tale of Gustav’s rise comes another major figure: Bishop Hans Brask, an old confrère of the devil’s and a man able to easily weather the numerous instances of political turmoil his nation has undergone with equanimity and safety. He is a man ahead of his times, an ironic and disillusioned cynic in the dying days of the age of faith. The idealism of his learned youth has given way to realpolitik on a political scale and nihilism on the metaphysical. Brask first uses Gustav for his own ends, lending his support to his rise when it suits his purposes, but willing to let him hang when he is no longer of use. Much to the chagrin of both Brask and the devil Gustav turns out to be a much wilier fox than they had anticipated. Lars-Goren can do little more than watch in dismay as his cousin moves from idealist to tyrant. He wishes for no further part in things, especially as they concern the devil, and wants only to return to his own family and demesne.
Gustav is convinced that it is only the prince of darkness that stands in the way of his true success as king, for it seems that everything he touches goes astray and every plan he makes goes awry…whose fault could it be other than the devil himself? As a result Brask and Lars-Goren get thrown together by Gustav and tasked with the impossible commission of killing the devil. Thus we have the seemingly simple, though deep thinker Lars-Goren, who still wants to believe in the good of the world with Brask, the man who has seen it all and is certain that the world ultimately holds no meaning. What will they learn from each other, and how in the world will they kill the devil?
Gardner (or, if you wish, Freddy) uses each of his characters to evaluate the different ways of looking at the world and struggling with its eternal questions. One can see in this novel a real cry of pain from the post-modern man who has at once both embraced the view that all of the old meanings no longer hold sway and that new methods are leaving even the concept of ‘meaning’ as a questionable one at best, with the nostalgic looking-back to these beliefs with a yearning that is nearly all-consuming. I’m not really quite sure what answer, if any, Gardner comes up with. I will have to think about this book a lot more before I even pretend to have an opinion on that, but there is ample food for thought here. My biggest complaint would probably be that we never return again to “our” world and see Freddy, Winesap and Agaard again. I’m fairly certain that Gardner felt that any answers we wanted about Freddy’s life, and any meaning he derived from it, were contained in the text of his tale of knights, kings and devils, but I would have liked to visit him again for some kind of closure to his own tale.
I am not quite sure where my previous 5-star rating for this book came from. I love Holdstock’s Mythago Wo...more2.5 - 3 stars (downgraded from a previous 5)
I am not quite sure where my previous 5-star rating for this book came from. I love Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, but on this re-read I found the second book of the Mythago cycle to be a sl-o-o-o-w burn which unfortunately never really seemed to ignite. I may simply not have been in the mood for this book at this time, but I think it’s more than that. There are significant pacing issues that drag the book down and Holdstock’s desire to both go deeper into the meaning of Ryhope Wood and also maintain an air of mystery and the unknown for as long as possible seem to work against each other.
Instead of being a direct sequel to Mythago Wood we are told the story of Tallis Keeton, the half-sister of a secondary character from the first book (Harry Keeton), who seems to have been marked in some way by the magical wood that swallowed the Huxley family years before. Eventually we also come to meet Edward Wynne-Jones, the former collaborator of George Huxley who was also tangentially mentioned in the first volume, but no resolution to the stories of Christian and Stephen Huxley is to be found. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but I don’t think Tallis was a strong enough character to support the book (at least not the ponderous first half of it) and ultimately I think that the book Holdstock gives us ends up being all build-up with relatively little pay-off. There doesn’t even seem to be any real action until more than half-way through the book and even then calling it ‘action’ is a bit of a misnomer. Granted Holdstock is writing a more cerebral take on fantasy (literally so since the wood itself, the main magical element of the tales, is all about the manifestation of the myth-images from our collective unconscious), but much of what we are told is not new for any reader coming to the story from volume one and the story of Tallis’ childhood spent under the ever increasing sway of the wood starts to drag as Holdstock dwells on far too much detail with significant repetition. Alas Holdstock seemed to be trying to structure the story as though it was a mystery with a gradual (and I mean *very* gradual) build-up of tension and parsing out of knowledge. Unfortunately a lot of the mystery just wasn’t present for me (perhaps because I was a re-reader, but also I think because if you’ve read the first volume you *know* what the wood is about so a lot of the mysterious elements and slow build seemed highly unnecessary). In the end I think that half the time spent showing us Tallis’ childhood could have been cut/reduced without any reduction in the facts learned.
In a nutshell we witness the birth and first years of Harry Keeton’s half-sister Tallis who grows up on a farm located near the mysterious Ryhope Wood under the shadow of Harry’s strange disappearance when she was only four years old. Having read the first book we know where it is that Harry went, but Tallis only slowly comes to understand this as she is apparently taken under the wing of tutelary mythagos and ‘trained’ by them to become something of an avatar for the forces of the wood (or at least for some of them, the eldritch presences spawned by the wood apparently always being in conflict). This then spins out into a tale of tragic love, divided allegiances, and the quest for the mythical Heart of the Wood, where all of the characters hope that their desires will be granted and questions answered. Of course it’s not as easy as that and the true nature of the wood’s heart, which mirrors the deepest and darkest levels of the human psyche, may be much more perilous than anyone imagines.
One other thing that really bugged me, but that turned out to be more of a nit-pick in the long run, was the characterization of Tallis’ parents. It revolved around their utter powerlessness in the face of Tallis’ growing strangeness and apparent inability to do anything at all resembling a responsible parental action. This is an ever-present danger when using very young characters as your heroes, especially when you are not writing a YA novel. In a YA story I might be more willing to accept that the genre itself demands that the young child-hero Tallis have parents who are little more than feckless spectators whose useless obstructions are easily overcome. In a novel meant for adults, however, I would generally expect a somewhat more responsible, and conceivably effective (or at least proactive), response from her parents. Instead we see them apparently accept the changes and behaviour in her that, seen from the outside and with the lens of any ‘normal’ parent, would seem to be a descent into psychosis and mental illness without interfering in her ‘adventures’ and it rang particularly false. Given the fact that her father had already lost one child to Ryhope is it really likely that he will sit idly by while his daughter also seems to come under the sway of the wood with little more than a feeble complaints and disagreements? Granted that her father’s father was known to have a strange relationship with the wood and perhaps her family is thus more inclined to accept it as something other than mental illness, but I still had my suspension of disbelief strongly strained (perhaps due to the fact that I am now a parent) by the thought that any parent would let their child freely fall into the strange behaviours that the wood prompts in Tallis with little more than a concerned look and occasional ‘disagreements’.
So a fair amount of disappointment for me on this re-read, though I will readily admit that Holdstock still manages to work with his mythic material in an effective and fascinating way. The resolution to the story is as ambiguous and circular as was the one from the first volume…I haven’t yet read further in the Mythago cycle (and must admit to being less inclined to now), but I hope that Holdstock managed to overcome his desire to keep spinning out the mystery and supplied some real answers, or at least resolutions, to the still hanging threads of the story of Ryhope Wood.(less)
What a great read! Holdstock managed to come up with something completely new and incredibly old at the same time with his Mythago Wood series. By min...moreWhat a great read! Holdstock managed to come up with something completely new and incredibly old at the same time with his Mythago Wood series. By mining the rich vein of British myth and tying it to both the Jungian subconscious and the magical influence of an acient living forest he managed to create a fantasy work that was both epic in scope and personal in its resonance. It's a work that truly stands the test of time.
In the first volume, _Mythago Wood_, we follow the story of Stephen Huxley who returns home from the war to his ancient family home in the countryside of Britain to find his brother, Christopher, a changed and haunted man. The family estate borders the enigmatic Ryhope Wood, a forest whose mysteries had obsessed their father, and now threaten to consume Christopher as well.
As the story progresses we begin to discover some of the mysteries uncovered by the elder Huxley and see that the wood is much more than a simple forest...it is somehow a nexus for the mythical imagery of humanity and, when people come into close contact with it, can generate 'mythagos', or living embodiments of their mythic figures. In addition we soon discover, through the journeys of the brothers, that the forest distorts both time and space, becoming larger as you go inside and taking you further back into mankind's prehistory.
The story itself becomes a complex family conflict as first the Oedipal battle between Christopher and his father is acted out and then, inevitably, that of Christopher vs. his brother Stephen. All of these battles are undertaken in the name of Gwyneth, an alluring mythago whose charms manage to enamour all of the Huxley men. In addition the desire to uncover the ultimate meaning behind the forest's mysterious power push the Huxley's to overcome the obstacles and traps that the forest constantly puts in their way.(less)
I find Poul Anderson pretty uneven. I tend to either really like his books, or be left cold by them. I also tend to enjoy his fantasy much more than h...moreI find Poul Anderson pretty uneven. I tend to either really like his books, or be left cold by them. I also tend to enjoy his fantasy much more than his science fiction (for which he is probably better known). This book is obviously in the former camp. For my money it's probably his best book (even better than _The Broken Sword_ or _Three Hearts & Three Lions_ which mine a similar vein). In essence this is a novelisation of the fragmentary saga tales of the Danish King Hrolf Kraki. Pulling together elements from various sources, Anderson creates a unified tale of a Nordic King Arthur...actually going back a generation in order to set the stage for this tragic tale.
I think that Anderson's greatest achievement here is his ability to convincingly portray the world of the mythic North. He gives us vivid details that truly bring it to life and the harsh grandeur of Midgard is effectively protrayed as equal parts the land of men and playground of the gods. It's a work that, for me at least, really captures that "Northern thing" that so enamoured Tolkien and Lewis and satisfies me when I'm hungering for such a thing myself.
The characters are sufficiently mythic, yet still flawed and human enough to hold the reader's interest and the encroachment of the supernatural into the human world is never overdone, displaying the characteristic wildness and unpredictability of the sagas from which they come.(less)
Another love-it-or-hate-it book. Mannered in its language, weird in so many ways, and chock-full of larger than life characters acting in ways that mo...moreAnother love-it-or-hate-it book. Mannered in its language, weird in so many ways, and chock-full of larger than life characters acting in ways that most people just don't get. If you have a problem with something written in an archaic style, then you probably won't get much out of it, but if you like that kind of thing I think the book repays reading and is definitely worth it.
First off a caveat: it took me two reads of the book to appreciate it and a third to decide that I thought it was genius.
The Worm is definitely unlike almost anything else out there and is a throw-back to much older works. The first sign, as mentioned above, is the prose itself. Eddison uses a faux-Jacobean that is certainly foreign to most people's preference for Hemingway-esque 'transparent prose'. Don't worry overmuch about this though, for Eddison knew what he was doing and he is one of, if not the, only writers post-Renaissance who actually can get away with this style. He knows what he's doing, as opposed to the myriad other fantasy authors who try to add 'realism' to their stories by sprinkling it with 'thee's' and 'thous' without knowing how to properly use the language. This was a man who intimately understood the archaic form of the english language and used it to perfection...he was a stylist and thus anyone who hates stylistic prose will not likely be drawn to him, but anyone who appreciates the crafstmanship of language (think Morris & Dunsany) has to at least appreciate if not love Eddison. Reading this book is analagous to partaking of a sumptuous feast, so long as you enjoy devouring words.
The characters are not perhaps as 'psychologically realistic' as what is generally expected these days, but I'd definitely say they are more than just names. Think of them as archetypal 'supermen' striding across the pages performing great deeds for their own sake. They don't really want to save the world, just experience it to the full, so they may not be particularly sympathetic according to your world view. I always found that they generally had very distinctive characters, but they did each generally represent one dominant trait or way of looking at the world.
If you want a larger than life adventure in exquisite prose then I think _The Worm_ is great. If you want something else you should perhaps skip it.
This is the first work that showed us how Tolkien's obsessive perfectionism was a double-edged sword. On the one hand it gave us the wonderfully deep...moreThis is the first work that showed us how Tolkien's obsessive perfectionism was a double-edged sword. On the one hand it gave us the wonderfully deep world and implied distances of The Lord of the Rings; and on the other hand it left us with a jumble of tales in various states of revision and development that had to be compiled by Tolkien's son Christopher into some form as The Silmarillion...a jumble of tales that, if they had been finished, would have given us a truly staggering body of work. Just reading the fragment that makes up the entirety of "Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin" makes me weep for what might have been. Given the chance to expand even half of the partial tales from _The Silmarillion_ into something equating the full treatment of the LotR would have been a wonder indeed.
Even given the incomplete nature of the works herein, the reader is greatly repaid the effort of reading them even though many tantalizing questions are left unanswered. We get perhaps the only significant view of the land of Numenor in the Second Age; intriguing glimpses into the nature of the Istari, the Woodwoses, and the Palantiri; and expansions on the background of the Third Age and the events that led up to both The Hobbit and the LotR.
A really amazing work and enjoyable read if you're a die-hard Tolkien fan.(less)
I’m somewhat dubious of my ability to review this work, but I’m going to do my best. _The Silmarillion_ is the work of Tolkien’s most often viewed wit...moreI’m somewhat dubious of my ability to review this work, but I’m going to do my best. _The Silmarillion_ is the work of Tolkien’s most often viewed with apprehension by readers and, I think, the one most unjustly maligned. It has the reputation of being the most difficult of his published works and I guess this is not without reason, though I think it is often a position based more on preconceptions than due to the inherent value of the work itself.
I’ve read _The Silmarillion_ many times prior to this most recent re-read and I don’t remember what my first experience of the book was like, but I don’t recall being particularly put-off by it or finding it ‘difficult’ in a way that made me dislike it (though of course I am a devoted Tolkien-phile which may have contributed to this). My only real complaint is that I wish there was more and I think this ties in with what is the most common ‘problem’ that readers have with _The Silmarillion_. I imagine that nearly everyone who comes to this work does so after having read _The Hobbit_ and _The Lord of the Rings_ and thus they already have some preconceptions of what they are in for that are going to get crushed (or at least modified greatly) once they start reading the Sil. From the expectation, or hope, of having a novelistic narrative with a clearly identified group of main characters following a linear story arc they are instead presented with a pared down history of the Elves and Men of the first ages of Middle-Earth where many characters weave in and out of the story, each playing greater or lesser roles in what are really epics or sagas, each of which are connected to the others, but with their own concerns and tales to tell. They do follow an overall arc that tells us the travails of the Eldar (Elves) as they come in contact with the Valar (the 'gods' of Middle Earth that rule it under the auspices of Illuvatar, “the One”) and ultimately engage in their great war with the Enemy, Morgoth (the original Dark Lord of whom Sauron is merely a pale imitation). I love this group of tales and wish Tolkien had had the time to treat all of them in the full length, novelistic format that he gave to the LotR, but even having what amounts to précis of each of them is still better than not having had them at all, so my kudos go out to Christopher Tolkien (whatever his subsequent apprehensions) for compiling and publishing these tales after his father’s death.
These stories were the heart of Tolkien’s mythology of Middle Earth and are what allowed the LotR to gain its great depth and mythic context. Worked on for the duration of his life from the time of WWI until his death, the tales of _The Silmarillion_ were the ones Tolkien most wanted to see the light of day, and also the ones he felt never would. He worked on the various tales in many versions and drafts, many only partial narratives, others in the form of annals or chronicles and the sheer volume of work can be seen in the subsequently produced “History of Middle Earth” volumes which collected the complete works of Tolkien in annotated form. _The Silmarillion_ was an early foray by Tolkien’s son Christopher into trying to give some coherence to these tales in a publishable form (hence, I think, the root of most people’s problem with the work). We start with a creation myth, told in very biblical style (probably the first, and biggest, stumbling block for new readers) which delineates the names and characters of the major players amongst the angelic beings known as the Valar and Maiar and see their early travails in Arda (the Earth) wherein are created the major realms of Middle Earth and Valinor (the realms of mortality and the gods respectively) and their own wars with the rebellious Melkor, soon to be named Morgoth (the enemy) by Elves. We then go on to more historical/saga/epic style tales as we learn of the awakening of the Elves and their invitation to come to Valinor and live with the Valar in bliss. Of course there is a temptation and a fall, a rebellion and a return to the mortal lands as the Elves pursue Morgoth in an attempt to regain from him the stolen Silmarils, three gems created by the greatest and most powerful of the craftsmen of the Elves, Fëanor, and which contain the last vestige of the great light of the Trees of Valinor, a final reminder of the early bliss of the world. It is the story of these gems, and the attempts at their recovery, that creates the major story arc of the many tales of _The Silmarillion_ and is indeed from where the volume gets its name.
Amongst these tales are the three ‘great’ or central ones of Middle Earth: The tale of the children of Hurin which delineates the tragic fate of the conflicted Turin Turambar, a man driven equally by fate and his own pride and personal failings to suffer loss, murder, incest and death; the tale of Beren and Luthien, the greatest love story of the early days, wherein the races of Elves and Men are united and against all odds the strength of Morgoth is proven to not be unassailable; finally there is the tale of Tuor and the fall of Gondolin, a tale which perhaps combines something of the other two in that it details the tragedy of the fall of the last and greatest of the Elven kingdoms and yet also tells of the uniting of Elves and Men in the bonds of love and the subsequent hope this provides for future generations. There are many other tales in the volume and we move from the First Age into the Second wherein we see Sauron take over from his master Morgoth as the reigning Dark Lord and the rise in power of the men of the blessed isle of Numenor is told, as is their equally great fall; and finally a précis of the events of the Third Age (the time of the LotR) and the creation of the rings of power.
I love this book. It really does deliver on epic sweep and is a roller coaster of high emotions. It is a tale of tragedy that is interspersed with hope and I think puts the lie to the accusations that Tolkien wrote simplistic stories about white hats vs. black hats (which I think is a bad reading of LotR as it is, but is definitely untrue of Tolkien’s earlier myths). Here the Elves are not purely good superbeings, but very flawed (and in many cases borderline evil) people who screw up for bad reasons as often as anyone else. We also see in the tale of Beren & Luthien what I have seen described as “a girl and her dog go off on a quest to save her boyfriend and beat the dark lord” and while that oversimplifies things and perhaps downplays Beren’s part a wee bit it shows that Tolkien was in no way a misogynist who couldn’t bring himself to write strong female characters who were central to his tales. I encourage anyone who loves tales of high romance (in the original sense) and epic tragedy to give _The Silmarillion_ a chance…just don’t expect a modern novel and be prepared for something much more akin to the epics and romances of the Middle Ages. I envy you your first journey into the First Age of Middle Earth. You won’t regret the trip. (less)
I have a long and very personal history with _The Hobbit_. My first experience of it was, I think, at the age of 7 or 8 when my older brother (13 year...moreI have a long and very personal history with _The Hobbit_. My first experience of it was, I think, at the age of 7 or 8 when my older brother (13 years my senior) read the story to me and I was immediately captivated. After that came readings from the LotR and I was a Tolkien fan forevermore. My re-reading of _The Hobbit_ immediately prior to my most recent one was a bit of a disappointment. Somehow the same old magic didn’t all seem to be there and I was perhaps most discomfited by the gaps in style that were apparent between this story and its even more famous descendent, _The Lord of the Rings_. On this re-read, however, I found much of my initial love of the tale coming back to me and many of the same episodes stirred memories of my first hearing of the tale.
For those two or three people not in the know, this is the story of a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins by name, and his unexpected adventure with 13 dwarves and, for part of the time at least, the wizard Gandalf. Thorin Oakenshield and his followers have long been exiled from their home, the far-away and fabled dwarf-realm of Erebor at the Lonely Mountain, after its pillaging by the dragon Smaug. We follow Bilbo as he moves from inept bungler to expert burglar and begin to see, along with the dwarves, just why Gandalf chose this particular hobbit to round out the unlucky number of the dwarves’ party as his inner courage and resourcefulness grow. We see Bilbo through many adventures, from an encounter with trolls and a harrowing escape from goblins, to a dark journey through the treacherous spider-haunted deeps of Mirkwood and a creeping view of the great dragon upon his misbegotten mound of gold. There are many great characters to meet in the journey from Bilbo’s hobbit hole to the Lonely Mountain, even if only a few of the dwarves are fleshed out to any great detail. A personal favourite is the irascible Beorn, a vegetarian skin-changer and unwitting host to the party who eventually becomes a staunch ally; and am I wrong in seeing in the enigmatic and laconic Bard the bowman something of a prototype for Aragorn?
This is, of course, a children’s story, and as such does not always seem to sit well as a prequel to the later work, the Lord of the Rings (though of course in its original conception the tale was not meant to be a prequel to anything and its ultimate inclusion into the storied history of Middle Earth only grew as the tale did and the significance of certain elements, namely the Ring, became clearer in Tolkien’s mind). Whether it is the silly songs sung by the elves of Rivendell (can anyone picture Fëanor or Thingol singing these things?), the faux-cockney accents and names of the trolls encountered by Bilbo and co., or the various authorial asides, this book can appear hard to reconcile with the later tales. Of course one valid approach to this is simply to say, “who cares?” and move on. This is certainly valid, but after my most recent reading I found that taking into account the conceit of Tolkien’s that all of his tales from Middle Earth (even the posthumously published _The Silmarillion_) exist as documents taken originally from the “Red Book of Westmarch”, a hobbit tome detailing the adventures of the Shire’s most famous sons, and subsequently handled and translated by many hands before coming down to us was a helpful approach. In essence we can see in _The Hobbit_ how Bilbo’s diary of his own adventures was turned into an adventure tale for children, while the higher matters of the LotR were possibly deemed unsuitable for such treatment. Thus we have talking spiders, tra-la-laing High Elves, and silly trolls mixed in with berserk shape-changing warriors, hints of malign necromancy, and a final battle on the doorstep of the Lonely Mountain.
Bilbo is an excellent main character, both unsure of himself and eager to prove his dwarven compatriots wrong in their initial impression of him to be “more a green grocer than a burglar”. Many may criticize Tolkien for his apparent anachronism with the hobbits and the Shire in Middle Earth, with their mantel clocks, singing tea kettles and other modern conveniences in the midst of what appears to be a medieval world of saga and epics. Yet it is this familiarity that allows us to identify with Bilbo as he is thrown into the strange epic world outside the bounds of the Shire. To my mind, despite his estrangement from it, Bilbo sits much more comfortably in this world than do a pack of modern British schoolchildren crossing dimensions or some other conceit that might have been used to allow the reader to identify with the hero. This also gives Bilbo the chance to grow into something more akin to a hero and leader than we ever would have expected of him based on his origins and it is this growth that gives impetus to the story amidst its many colourful episodes. The most famous of these is, of course, the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum, a suitably creepy game played by Bilbo for nothing less than his life and the keystone moment that links this smaller tale to the greater epic of the LotR as we see just how important that question Bilbo asks is: “What have I got in my pocket?”
Bilbo not only grows in courage and resourcefulness, but shows his inner worth when he resists the call of the dragon horde, unlike the unfortunate Thorin, and even attempts to broker peace between those who ought to be allies when greed and anger threaten to destroy all that the quest attempted to achieve, at the possible cost of his own safety and the friendship of his comrades. This is a great story for children, of any age, and will provide them with not only an exciting adventure, but also some good lessons and a fine model for true heroism. It’s also a great introduction to the world of Middle Earth and you won’t regret your time spent with the charming Mr. Baggins of Bag End. (less)