The world of J.R.R. Tolkien is a world without sexuality in it. I can’t help comparing it with Wagner’s “Ring,” a much greater work in every conceivable way, which is actually throbbing with sexual understanding and sexual passion and so on.

There’s none of that in “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s as if they had their children by a courier or something: please send a boy child by Federal Express to Mrs. Blah blah blah. And once you’re aware that that’s missing, you can then see the other gaps in it. He doesn’t do any sort of speculative thinking about what’s good and what’s evil. The only interesting character in that way is Gollum, but it’s not interesting enough. It’s nowhere near as interesting as the books of realistic fiction that I was reading. You read “Middlemarch,” that’s a real story about real human beings. It’s about the kind of things that you know when you’re young and you discover when you’re growing up and you’ll learn when you’re old. But, orcs and hobbits, they don’t tell you anything at all. It’s very, very thin stuff. No nourishment in it.

So to find myself writing a fantasy was a bit of a surprise. But I thought of it as realism. I wanted to make the characters as real as I could make them. Mrs. Coulter, for example, is not just a one-dimensional figure of wickedness—she’s not the witch queen, of whatever it is, like Narnia. She finds herself, over the course of the story, being invaded by something she has never suspected she was capable of, and that’s her love for her daughter. She never dreamed she could feel that, and it’s taken over her life. That’s the great change in Mrs. Coulter that I was so looking forward to seeing Nicole Kidman embody in the sequels, if there were any sequels to the “Golden Compass” movie, but that never happened.

Philip Pullman
Interview in The New Yorker, 29th September 2019

‘Very well, very well, Master Elrond!’ said Bilbo suddenly. ‘Say no more! It is plain enough what you are pointing at. Bilbo the silly hobbit started this affair, and Bilbo had better finish it, or himself. I was very comfortable here, and getting on with my book. If you want to know, I am just writing an ending for it. I had thought of putting: and he lived happily ever afterwards to the end of his days. It is a good ending, and none the worse for having been used before. Now I shall have to alter that: it does not look like coming true; and anyway there will evidently have to be several more chapters, if I live to write them. It is a frightful nuisance. When ought I to start?’

Boromir looked in surprise at Bilbo, but the laughter died on his lips when he saw that all the others regarded the old hobbit with grave respect. Only Glóin smiled, but his smile came from old memories.

‘Of course, my dear Bilbo,’ said Gandalf. ‘If you had really started this affair, you might be expected to finish it. But you know well enough now that starting is too great a claim for any, and that only a small part is played in great deeds by any hero. You need not bow! Though the word was meant, and we do not doubt that under jest you are making a valiant offer. But one beyond your strength, Bilbo. You cannot take this thing back. It has passed on. If you need my advice any longer, I should say that your part is ended, unless as a recorder. Finish your book, and leave the ending unaltered! There is still hope for it. But get ready to write a sequel, when they come back.’

Bilbo laughed. ‘I have never known you give me pleasant advice before,’ he said. ‘As all your unpleasant advice has been good, I wonder if this advice is not bad. Still, I don’t suppose I have the strength or luck left to deal with the Ring. It has grown, and I have not. But tell me: what do you mean by they?’

‘The messengers who are sent with the Ring.’

‘Exactly! And who are they to be? That seems to me what this Council has to decide, and all that it has to decide. Elves may thrive on speech alone, and Dwarves endure great weariness; but I am only an old hobbit, and I miss my meal at noon. Can’t we think of some names now? Or put it off till after dinner?’

JRR Tolkien
Lord of the Rings

honest fantasy

June 1, 2019

The fantastic literature of my childhood centred around two authors: Tolkien and Lewis. Anyone more than familiar with both men will know their religious history, that Lewis was an atheist who, under Tolkien’s guidance, became first a theist of no particular affiliation, and then a good Anglican whose works on Christianity, while touted by modern American Evangelicals, were radical enough to place him well outside of the conservative mainstream in this country even now. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, very conservative, to the point that when Vatican II changed the liturgical response from Latin to English, he refused to make the transition. What has always interested me about these two is how that religiosity impacted on their primary works. I always knew Narnia was a thin metaphor, even as a child. It wasn’t until I was much older that I met people who read the books as honest fantasy, and were surprised when shown the undercurrents. I think that says something about how thoroughly the core themes of religious metaphor have penetrated the expectations of our collective genre narrative. Tolkien, on the other hand, did not write didactically. I’ve had more arguments with earnest Christians about this than I care to think about, but Tolkien is on record as saying that he despised didactic writing, chided Lewis for the thin veil of metaphor that he employed in the Narnia stories, and insisted that his Middle Earth wasn’t a secret instructional manual for anything. He did, however, say that The Lord of the Rings was a “fundamentally Catholic” story. That’s because Tolkien was a Catholic, and anything he produced was going to be coloured by that thought system. And yet these two imaginations, both men professors and therefore prone to instruction, both men devout in their belief, both wonderfully creative in their storytelling, these two writers produced very different sorts of stories, especially when viewed as religious works. It’s always fascinated me, and confounded my father. It’s something we talk about a lot.

Tim Akers
Faith in the Fantastic

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long now steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.

Of course, such an overweening purpose did not develop all at once. The mere stories were the thing. They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (especially since, even apart from the necessities of life, the mind would wing to the other pole and spend itself on the linguistics): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’. Of course, I made up and even wrote lots of other things (especially for my children). Some escaped from the grasp of this branching acquisitive theme, being ultimately and radically unrelated: Leaf by Niggle and Farmer Giles, for instance, the only two that have been printed. The Hobbit, which has much more essential life in it, was quite independently conceived: I did not know as I began it that it belonged. But it proved to be the discovery of the completion of the whole, its mode of descent to earth, and merging into ‘history’. As the high Legends of the beginning are supposed to look at things through Elvish minds, so the middle tale of the Hobbit takes a virtually human point of view – and the last tale blends them.

J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 131 to Milton Waldman, 1951

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

endings…

January 30, 2018

Why should a novel seek for a tidy closure? Novels are inherently rather messy. They use time very differently from drama. Beginning-middle-end isn’t obligatory. They can wander through a whole lifetime, or follow a great circle like Lord of the Rings, or go right on from what seemed a closure (as happened with Earthsea — my mistake!) I have nothing against endings, but I do write in a form that doesn’t take them too seriously.

Ursula K Le Guin
Interview with Lev Grossman

Tolkien’s lectures…

February 6, 2015

lordofRings

“I went to [Tolkien’s] public lectures. They were absolutely appalling. In those days a lecturer could be paid for his entire course even if he lost his audience, provided he turned up for the first lecture. I think that Tolkien made quite a cynical effort to get rid of us so he could go home and finish writing Lord of the Rings.

“He gave his lectures in a very, very small room and didn’t address us, his audience, at all. In fact he looked the other way, with his face almost squashed up against the blackboard. He spoke in a mutter. His mind was on finishing Lord of the Rings, and he was really musing to himself about the nature of narrative. But I found this so fascinating that I came back week after week, as did one other person. I’ve always wondered what became of him, because he was obviously equally fascinated. And because we stuck there, Tolkien couldn’t go away and write Lord of the Rings! He would say the most marvelous things about the way you take a very basic plot and twitch it here and twitch it there — and it becomes a completely different plot.”

Diana Wynne Jones