Wednesday, May 14, 2014

5 works by Tolkien you may not have known existed, but which may just change your life

Everybody has heard of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and most people have probably read them. Many people have also read The Silmarillion, which is less popular and slightly more difficult to read (though it's really not that bad and well worth it). Then there are Tolkien's other Middle-Earth related writings, published posthumously by his son and not as well known as The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Included in this group is The Children of Hurin, Unfinished Tales, and the extensive History of Middle-Earth series. The first of these is a longer retelling of one of the most tragic stories in The Silmarillion, the second a collection of somewhat miscellaneous writings by Tolkein that pertain to the Four Ages of Middle-Earth. The History of Middle-Earth is a series of books put together by Christopher Tolkien that chronicle the development of Middle-Earth and the larger world of The Silmarillion in Tolkien's writings.

But often overlooked are Tolkien's other writings that do not pertain directly to the world of Middle-Earth and The Silmarillion. These works are barely ever mentioned in conversations between fans of Tolkien, and many people (myself included until a few years ago) do not even know that these other books exist. But those who do know that they have found a treasure. These other works I speak of comprise short stories, poems, essays, and other miscellanea. By turns surprising, ponderous, funny, brilliant and beautiful, these are works that every Tolkien fan should read - and probably some other people who aren't Tolkien fans should read them, too. Here's the list:

1. The Tolkien Reader
2. Smith of Wooton Major
3. Letters from Father Christmas
4. Mythopoeia
5. The Fall of Arthur

Caution: This review may contain one or two brief rants, diverse literary references, and general reveling in the supreme awesomeness of Tolkien.

The Tolkien Reader

What Goodreads has to say:

An invitation to Tolkien's world. This rich treasury includes Tolkien's most beloved short fiction plus his essay on fantasy. 

[What? That's it?]

What I have to say:

First on my list is The Tolkien Reader. This little volume published during Tolkien's lifetime contains a short dialogue play, Tolkien's monumental essay "On Fairy-Stories," the only allegory he ever wrote, a short story, and several surprisingly wonderful and wonderfully surprising poems. The Tolkien Reader, more than anything else on this list, is the single Tolkien book apart from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit that I would urge every Tolkien fan to read. And the good news is that, because of its relative obscurity, you can usually buy the book for pretty cheap. I found it for $1.00 at a book-sale, picked it up, bought it, read it, and found that it changed me forever.

Let me tell you what is in this book. First there's an essay by Peter S. Beagle, which is kind of cool, if only because I love Peter Beagle (author of The Last Unicorn). But after this we get into the Tolkien part, and all of that just leaves Beagle's essay in the dust.

The first piece by Tolkien is "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's Son," which is a short play in the form of a dialogue between two characters. The scene takes place just after the famous Battle of Maldon, fought in the year 991 in England. This battle is the subject of an old Anglo-Saxon poem, now partly lost. Tolkien's dialogue picks up where the Anglo-Saxon poem ends: the battle is over, the invading Vikings have utterly defeated the Anglo-Saxon army, and two Anglo-Saxon men have been sent to the battlefield to find their leader's body and bring it back for burial. The play is at once like and unlike Tolkien's more familiar works. The younger of the two characters is a poet, and waxes poetic in the Epic Anglo-Saxon tradition, but the older man questions the poetry which glorifies the actions of heroes and omits the story of the common people. "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's Son" reminds me of some Early Modernist Irish plays I've read, and is vaguely reminiscent of the style of playwrights like Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard. Thus it is rather surprising coming from Tolkien, and yet it is also clear that no one but Tolkien could have written it.

Next in The Tolkien Reader comes Tolkien's monumental essay "On Fairy Stories," which I frequently wish that everyone had read, because it would be so much easier when I want to reference it, and, believe me, that happens a lot. This essay is probably the best argument I've ever heard for fantasy literature (though C. S. Lewis also wrote some very eloquent and convincing defenses of fantasy literature, especially for children - see On Stories and Other Essays on Literature). This essay also introduces the word "eucatastrophe" coined by Tolkien himself, which again I wish that everyone knew, because it would be SO helpful if I could reference it in discussions and papers. It's a very useful word to know, and it's also AWESOME. I'll just tell you what it means now. "Eucatastrophe" is a wonderful catastrophe, like the kind that occurs at the end of fairy tales; when everything looks darkest and it seems as if all hope is lost, something happens to reverse the situation. A good example is the end of Sleeping Beauty, when the prince kisses the princess and wakes her up. If you still don't understand what the word means, just think: "The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!" and you'll probably get it. Of course, Tolkien explains it much better than I can, so read the essay. It is a little long, but extremely interesting and enlightening. It opens up your eyes to look at fairy tales and fantasy literature in a whole new way, and it also gives several arguments for the value of fantasy literature, which you can use against people who tell you that reading fantasy novels is a waste of time.

And now we come to my very favorite part of The Tolkien Reader (probably with the exception of the poems at the end): "Leaf By Niggle." This is the only allegory Tolkien ever wrote, and no, The Lord of the Rings is NOT an allegory, nor are The Chronicles of Narnia (though obviously Tolkien didn't write those). An allegory is a story in which every character and event represents something larger. Probably the most famous allegory is The Pilgrim's Progress. Allegories were very popular in Medieval England, especially as plays; there was usually one character named "Everyman" who represented the common man, as well as characters symbolizing things like virtue, sin, pride, honesty, etc. The Narnia books are not allegorical because, while many of the characters suggest things beyond themselves, they don't all represent something specific - they are characters in their own right. Also, Aslan does not symbolize Christ, he is Christ. Thus, people who say that The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia are allegorical usually don't know what they're talking about. And so "Leaf By Niggle" is Tolkien's only allegory. And, wow, is it amazing.

This piece tells the story of Niggle, a painter who knows he has to go on a journey someday, but keeps putting it off. He spends endless amounts of time working on his "masterpiece" a painting of a tree with many leaves, and often neglects or at least resents doing other "more important" things. But eventually a man arrives to take him on his journey, and he has to leave his painting and everything else behind. (What do you think the journey represents?) I'll stop the summary here and let you read the story for yourself; it's not very long. Once again, the story is startlingly different from all of Tolkien's other writings, yet also uniquely Tolkienesque. The story functions on multiple levels, including allegory and autobiography: Niggle resembles Tolkien himself in many ways (Tolkien was notorious for working forever on projects and frequently not finishing them). Yet in many ways "Leaf By Niggle" feels almost more like something written by Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis, especially The Great Divorce. Read it once, figure out what everything in the story represents, and then maybe read it again. Like "On Fairy Stories," "Leaf By Niggle" changed the way I look at and think about art in all of its forms, and especially changed how I see the role of the artist himself.

"Farmer Giles of Ham," a longish short story about a country farmer who encounters a dragon, is the next work in the reader. While not as deep or meaningful as the previous works in the collection, this story is a lot of fun, and is very obviously written by Tolkien. It shares some similarities with The Hobbit, and in fact might be described as a very compressed, lighter version of The Hobbit. But of course it's not exactly the same; it's an original and enjoyable story in its own right. Read it and try to figure out what a blunderbuss is (and please let me know what it is when you find out).

The final pages of The Tolkien Reader contain a collection of poems written by Tolkien, entitled, "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book" so it's hobbit poetry!! How exciting is that?? Anyway, the collection starts off with two poems about Tom Bombadil, for all the Bombadil fans out there (you know who you are), then launches into a series of diverse and wonderful poems. There's one that's super creepy, another about a mariner that's super fun and, I think, the source of the name "Dumbledore." Then there are some that are just lighthearted playing around: there's one about a cat dreaming about his ancestors, another about an oliphaunt (probably written by a certain hobbit that you know well), one about a shadow-bride, and another with a troll in it. But my favorite are the last two. "The Sea-Bell" (also known in the Red Book as "Frodo's Dream") is my very favorite. I read it over and over again. It is so beautiful and so desolate. The first time I read it, I was rather startled - once again it was so unlike anything and everything else I'd ever read by Tolkien. It almost seemed more like something T.S. Eliot might have written, especially considering certain passages in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." And, when I read this poem, I realize how great of a poet Tolkien was. "The Sea-Bell" both soothes and stirs, setting something deep within me into motion.

The final poem tells of the meeting of a mortal princess with one of the last boats of elves headed for the Undying Lands. It is lovely, lyrical, and faintly sorrowful in the way that much of Tolkien's writing is. This piece was clearly written by the author of The Lord of the Rings.

Hey, are you still here? Well, since it took me that long to get through only The Tolkien Reader, I think I'll save the other works on my list for another time. And don't worry, they won't take as long as this one did. In the meantime, the good news it that I've already reviewed The Fall of Arthur! I will get through every work on this list someday - but it is not this day.

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