Yours truly finds it hard to review a book like this. The Children of Hurin unrolls a beautifully tragic story. Yet, tragic beauty is not something I typically appreciate in literature–especially not as much as this blog’s co-author, Thomp D. James. (That Euripides sometimes gives the audience a happy ending makes him my favorite of the Three Athenian Tragedians.) With The Children of Hurin, like in your classic Greek tragedy, our hero, Turin, has many noble qualities twisted by tragic flaws–melancholy and pride in this case. These two faults drag him down from every happy circumstance he finds and lead to his demise.
Studying World War One has been on my mind for the past while. The Great War set the course for all the events which came after it and deeply altered Western culture. The part this war played in shaping the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis has also aroused my curiosity. And so, this book supplies for both of my wants, since it describes the world prior to the war, the attitudes of Tolkien and Lewis to WWI, their careers during the war, and how it shaped their lives and works. The book contains an impressive amount of information in its short two hundred pages.
The early chapters inform the reader of the important intellectual movements prior to the war. These movements proposed that science, technology, and the state could build a superior society without reliance upon God. Eugenics and Social Darwinism played a huge role in these Utopian schemes, which all crumbled in the cataclysm of 1914-1918. World War I ushered in an era of pessimism with patriotic and religious values being suspect and often disowned. Former soldiers often led the way in literature by sucking all the glory and meaning from war. The book attempts to answer the question why Tolkien and Lewis defended traditional values in a world where most intellectuals were turning against them.
Those of you who also follow me on Medieval Otaku know that I’ve placed that blog on hiatus. Of course, that need not mean that I shall quit blogging here–though, the thought did cross my mind. That blog was placed on hold so that I might read more, and how better to may one understand what one reads more than by writing about it–especially if people comment on my ideas?
The following passage of The Two Towers occurs after Samwise’s fight with Shelob and the apparent death of Frodo. Some people accuse Tolkien of not having very interesting prose or prose which obscures his personality–as Neil Gaiman writes. While it is certain that Tolkien’s work shines more in conversion and when he wishes to give a place a mythic feel, he can create very powerful prose descriptions which have a direct link to his experience. Read the following perfectly constructed sentence:
And then black despair came down on him, and Sam bowed to the ground, and drew his grey hood over his head, and night came into his heart, and he knew no more.
How many better images of utter despair are there in literature? How many of these are as succinct? In a single sentence, images of crushing darkness are added upon one another until the light of the intellect is extinguished. Black despair presses down on Sam from without, the drawing of the grey hood over his head shows that despair has taken a hold on his mind, and lastly the night coming into his heart saliently conveys the image of darkness as all-encompassing and pervasive. How much more so when one recalls that this takes place in a lightless tunnel?
Anyone else like how Tolkien names the two traditional seats of thought in this sentence? The heart and the head are also the two traditional seats of the soul. The heart and the head, in that they point to the soul or the form of man, show the immersion of his mind in black despair.
Tolkien admitted that Samwise was supposed to represent the average doughboy of WWI. Tolkien lost all save one of his friends in that awful conflict, and one can’t help but think that this image of despair relates to his tragic experiences in this war. Perhaps, Tolkien even imagined–like Sam–that his last close friend had died at one point. Then, all the sense and meaning was taken out of life: “and he knew no more.”
Well, I found this passage really cool, but what do my dear readers think? Any other ways such grim despair might have been present in Tolkien’s life?
I have just finished a famous two volume compilation, Latro in the Mist, which combines Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete. Gene Wolfe achieves something beautiful in these two volumes. They stand right next to Lord of the Rings in creativity. The comparison is an apt one: where Tolkien relies upon archaic European languages and motifs drawn from medieval history and culture, Wolfe–also a Catholic–uses ancient Greek history, language, and mythology to immerse us into the world. The immersion in the ancient world is so perfect that Wolfe makes us see it through new eyes.
The primary way in which he forces the reader to look at the ancient world with a new perspective is by translating the Greek place names to which we are accustomed. This separates us from the notions we have of these places, and we come to view them from the perspective of the characters. Athens is Thought; Spartans are Rope Makers; Salamis is Peace; Plataea is Clay; and Thermopylae is the Hot Gates. The use of English translations for these places has the unique effect of making us feel as though the action takes place in a fantasy world. This impression of fantasy is further enforced by the way Wolfe inserts gods, goddesses, nymphs, Amazons, and dead souls into the action. The story begins after the Battle of Plataea, but the reader cannot view the tale as a historical fiction. In the back of our minds, we know this story happens in history; but, we feel as though Gene Wolfe had created an original world.
None of the characters feel modern either, except for the people from Thought, i.e. Athenians. This impression is helped by the fact that they are democrats and traders rather than subjects of a monarch. Our hero, Latro, is particularly unique in that he suffers from both long and short memory amnesia. This means that he knows little of his origins nor what occurred twenty-four hours earlier. He relies heavily on his companions to tell him the truth and upon the scrolls he keeps as a diary, which is what the two volumes purport to be. This can make things get tricky as people often attempt to lie to him. Latro must keep his wits about him, though he often trusts people who appear genuine and accepts their version of events though he has no memory of them. Even his most stalwart companions, Io and Seven Lions, need to be reintroduced to him daily. As the reader, we need to keep a clear memory of events lest we get lost.
Latro himself was in the service of the Persian king Xerxes as a mercenary during the Battle of Plataea. His goal is to discover his origins and return to his fatherland or patria. (We know he’s either a Roman or from another Latin tribe, though neither he nor his companions know about Italy.) But, even people who recognize him are not forthcoming about his identity.
There is now one more book of the trilogy for me to read. So far, the story has been a fun ride of divine encounters, political intrigue, philosophical discussions, and battle. The friend who introduced me to the series claims that the last volume stands as the best. And so, I greatly look forward to it and highly recommend the work to those of my dear readers who love fantasy and the Classical period.
Dear readers, rather than declaim the superiority of Jules Verne over Tolkien, I must rather deplore the fact that Tolkien is not higher on my friend’s list. Please feel free to refer to it for the following remarks. Of those authors in the next three places higher, I have placed H. G. Wells in a personal Index Librorum Prohibitorum–likely due to the influence of author placed on the top of Thomp’s list, G. K. Chesterton. (I should write a book in the future: All I Needed to Know about H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw I Learned from Chesterton.) Concerning Clarke and Grahame, I heartily acknowledge their contributions to the Great Conversation, but I am unsure whether they understood it as well as Tolkien. Tolkien’s incredible depth of knowledge concerning the Middle Ages, philology, Catholic theology, and immense repertoire of foreign and classical languages made him a very unique vehicle for carrying the moral imagination of prior ages into the modern age. From C. S. Lewis and above, Tolkien receives a stiff challenge, and it would require a post of at least 1,000 words to discuss–but what a fun discussion that would be!
But now onto Jules Verne. This post is supposed to be about him after all! Certain achievements immediately justify his choice for my list: 1) he’s the Father of Science Fiction; 2) his works have been translated into more languages than Shakespeare and is second only to Agatha Christie in this regard; and 3) His vibrant Catholic faith, in the manner of all the French Romantics, shines through his novels. This faith seems to shine most brightly as the situations into which his characters fall become more dire, and they are always sure to give thanks to an ever watchful Providence.
His works also interest me by their lack of prejudice, interesting and swashbuckling characters, and the endless facility of invention displayed by the heroes. Verne’s characters cover the globe and he delights in people of every culture: Phileas Fogg of Around the World in Eighty Days is British, Germans and one Icelander are the main characters of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Captain Nemo is an Indian, and the heroes of The Mysterious Island Americans. Despite his perspicacious grasp of other cultures, his French mind does often lend Gallic airs to his characters–particularly in the case of the Americans in The Mysterious Island. But, Verne had a special place in his heart for America, which may have been due to a perceived similarity between the two cultures as much as an admiration of our audacity and inventiveness.
Yet, the character type for which Verne deserves greatest praise is his portrayal of the scientist. Unlike the modern portrayal of scientists as atheists and brainy intellectuals, Verne’s scientists tend to be men of courage and faith. I have yet to discover an atheistic scientist in a Verne novel, whether it be Dr. Clawbonny of The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, Professor Lidenbrock of Journey to the Center of the Earth, or the engineering officer of The Mysterious Island. The idea behind this is that the whole universe is of God’s making, which therefore reveals God Himself. So, the more one understands the world God created, the more one can also both understand the Creator and know that Divine Intelligence made the world. These same persons are also the ones who refuse to throw in the towel during the most trying circumstances and constantly seek for ways out of their difficulties. Would that all scientists displayed that marriage of fides et scientia!
All Verne’s novels display high adventure, except perhaps Five Weeks in a Balloon. My friend told me this was boring, and I confess that I was unable to finish it, though I want to go back to it. Therefore, my recommendation to people new to Verne is Around the World in Eighty Days. The work is short and exciting. Its only drawback may be that the adventure leaves little space for science, which makes it diverge sharply from Verne’s other works. Those of you well immersed in Verne may give The Adventures of Captain Hatteras a try. Every fan of Verne whom I’ve met says that they have never heard of this novel, which is a shame. The work keeps the reader turning pages, and it displays remarkable knowledge of polar expeditions and the unique phenomena of the Arctic.
Tolkien: I dont think anyone reading this would dispute the placement of Tolkien in the top ten. I know that M. Otaku will likely argue against his placement below the likes of Clarke and Wells. I believe that he is so adamant that Tolkien be higher because he agrees with Tolkien. M. Otaku agrees with Tolkien’s worldview, with Tolkien’s Christianity, and especially with his Catholicism. But I believe that while all the best novelists wrote in English 😉 M. Otaku seems to believe that all the best novelist must agree with him. I personally find that (unfortunately) some excellent novelists are not Christian, not even in mindset. But that does not rob them of their ability nor weaken the strength of their canon of novels. So, I will defend Wells and Clarke later, for now I will write briefly to explain why Tolkien is in the top ten, which novels are the real gems, and why he doesn’t rank higher for all the excellent philosophy and important conversations his characters have.
OK, I lied, I wont take much time to explain why he fits the top ten category. Anyone who writes such incredible novels as the lord of the rings, that even after being tortured and somewhat disfigured by a screenwriter comes out to be such incredible movies that everyone reading this has seen, undoubtedly has a place in any top ten list.
But, that said, his best novels are not the ones that he wrote to invent worlds to accompany the languages he made up. Not the ones that everyone know. Actually, his best are the ones that have nothing to do with middle-earth. There is a simple beauty to ‘Smith of Wooton Major’ that is, not absent, but dimmer in the LOTR trilogy proper. That and there is a high tragedy about the Silmarillion that falters in LOTR. In fact, even ‘The Hobbit’ does better on this score.
Yes, I am complaining about the fact that every major character lives in LOTR, even though they should, by rights, die. (No, I am not really counting Boromir, Denethor, Theoden, or Saruman…) I believe that this happens because Tolkien loved them too much and kept them around. To me, this is almost like keeping them around as undead. Also, having Frodo and Sam being rescued by Gandalf lowers Gandalf to a Deus ex Machina. No great battles were ever fought where everyone lives, something that Tolkien knew horribly well. In this he has done an injustice to his characters that he does not do in The Hobbit or the Silmarillion. Doing this minimizes the sacrifices of the people who actually did die (now I sound like all this really happened…) and makes all the individuals feel a bit like expendable riff-raff in retrospect.
The other reason I have put Tolkien so low was that, without the three LOTR, which he wanted to be one book, you have to scrounge for more novels that might elevate Tolkien further up. The Sillmarillion? Well, not really a novel, more like a collection of loosely related short stories… The Hobbit, yes. Smith of Wooton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham, though fantastic, both fit into a book the size of ‘The Dawn Treader’ so yes, the other part of my argument is the scarcity of novels.
Now, if we consider ‘The Lay of the Children of Húrin’ ‘ The Lay of Leithian’ (both unfinished) and all the assorted poetry in all his writings, I believe we could put Tolkien in the top 5 English poets. (Donne, Chesterton and (duh) Shakespeare would beat him, but Chesterton only by a hair.)
(Lastly, I think Tolkien would be horrified to hear of his novels being mutilated into straight up allegory… sorry M. Otaku when we make it through the list, we need to start in on these disagreements we have, they could be lots of fun…)
It has been very famously said by Tolkien that The Lord of the Rings was a Catholic fairy tale: first unconsciously, then consciously so in the revision. Reading Lord of the Rings for the fourth time now, the Catholicity of the work sticks out like a sore thumb to me. In particular, the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring contains brilliant use of Catholic imagery and spirituality, which lays out the recurrent themes of the work.
First, I should like to point out that the Ring symbolizes sin, perhaps venial sin in particular. Gandalf speaks of how lucky Bilbo was to cast off the ring when he did; otherwise, he might have been ensnared by the powers of darkness: “Alas! Mordor draws all wicked things…” (72) Even venial sin, though not taking away the life of grace within the soul, draws it to hell and repeated venial sins–despite the fact that many venial sins, no matter how many times they are repeated, cannot add up to a mortal sin–often lead to the commission of a grave sin, which is damning. *Huge Spoiler Alert to the end of this paragraph* Indeed, Gollum, who had been completely possessed by the Ring, falls into Mt. Doom at the end, and Frodo narrowly escapes. This is reminiscent of the first letter of St. Peter 4:18: “And if the righteous is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?”
People can become absorbed by sin. They become a preoccupation either in the penitent or impenitent. This is symbolized by the obsession produced in Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo, and those covetous of the ring. This absorption leads to people becoming irritable when admonished by others–plain in the case of Bilbo in chapter one and Frodo by the end of the work. Even if the sinner acknowledges his fault, he cannot overcome his fault without help:
Frodo drew the ring out of his pocket again and looked at it…It was an admirable thing and altogether precious. When he took it out he had intended to fling it from him into the very hottest part of the fire. But he found now that he could not do so, not without a great struggle…and then with an effort of will he made a movement, as if to cast it away–but he found that he had put it back in his pocket.
Frodo later protests that he really wants to destroy it, but grace acting upon nature, the formation of will power through developing good habits–is necessary for overcoming sin. And so, we have the concept of a long journey, which symbolizes a life of resisting temptation and striving to do the right. As a matter of fact, Bilbo’s very, very long life symbolizes God’s mercy: even though Bilbo cannot cast away the ring, he is given a very long time to do so, which results in the eventual triumph of grace.
But, the Ring’s ability to make one invisible symbolizes how sin destroys charity and weakens faith. We see from Gollum’s back story that his use of the ring led to people distrusting him and eventually exiling him. Also, since all sin indicates deficiency of faith, the sinner, while he sins, might imagine himself invisible to God. Instead, God still sees the sinner, and, worse yet, the sinner becomes more apparent to his enemies and more easily disturbed by them, which is excellently displayed in Peter Jackson’s movies.
Then again, the theme of spiritual acedia and sinners preferring darkness to light (John 3:19) is apparent in Gollum’s story and what happens to the ring-bearers. After all, all ring bearers start to feel “thin” and generally become weary of life. This is due to hiding from Life Illimitable by continuing in sin–even if apparently trifling. Gollum even hates the presence of the sun and hides himself in caves! Then, sinners lie rather than face the truth, as Gollum does, and so further enter the darkness encircling them. Darkness itself promises “great secrets” (p. 68), but Satan “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44); therefore, all his promises are empty. The reward for sinning is nothing but guilt and pain: nothingness itself.
But, there is always hope, and there is always a part of the sinner reaching for the Light, as Gandalf avers. This is the case even when the case is most desperate–as with Gollum. On the other hand, Tolkien sets out hope for sinners in the form of Charity: “Pity? It was Pity that stayed [Bilbo’s] hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he had been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity” (p. 73). This echoes Luke 7:47: “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” As much as any sin breaks the laws of God, which are based on charity and derive from Charity Himself, charity covers many sins. Gandalf’s further remarks on the pity Bilbo showed Gollum show the idea that God can save anyone.
Tolkien also has the understanding that God’s will is always accomplished, as is revealed by Gandalf’s words:
Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!
Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.
God’s presence may not always be felt, but we can trust that He is always there and will give us the strength to carry out his will. God can even turn good out of evil for His glory. This passage also reveals another attribute of God: He uses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. “When I am weak, then truly I am strong” (2 Corinthians 21:10). It is also symbolic of David and Goliath.
Three other Catholic symbols I have picked up on from this conversation were the Cain and Abel imagery between Gollum and the friend he murders, Deagol, the Men of Westernesse as the Jews, and therefore, Aragorn of the kingly line of the Westernesse, as the Son of David, whose return symbolizes the Second Coming. Lastly, the juxtaposition of Bilbo and Gollum reminds one of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, whose greatest difference is that the former showed charity to their fellow men while the latter did not. But, there is so much to the Lord of the Rings that it could fill many pages of commentary. A truly remarkable work!