The Amateur Lord of the Rings

In an interview in the British newspaper, The Guardian, to coincide with the publication of the Children of Hurin in 2007, Christopher Tolkien was asked what his father would have made of his tremendous popularity. In brief Christopher replied that he thought his father would have been absolutely and comprehensively astounded. That the wrestlings and cogitations with dead languages and poetry should produce a work of art that seventy years after its appearance is still selling well and in such vast quantities is indeed astounding. No other work of literature in the 20th century can claim such influence among so many, and indeed now on the frontier of discovery, an area of Pluto’s moon Charon has been named—temporarily—Mordor. One has to ask why, what are its peculiar qualities? Time and again it tops, or is a runner up with honours, in various best book/favourite book reader-voted contests. What is in it that it reaches out to so many. For it is a book not taught at school, nor is it short unlike To Kill A Mocking Bird (which is taught in schools), and which frequently achieves high honours in similar beauty pageants. One can list the wide scope of Tolkien’s imagination, his narrative strength, the many vistas (in some ways the book is a travelogue of wondrous lands), his strongly defined characters or the consistency of his nomenclature which has a subtle and strong contribution to the verisimilitude of the imaginary world. We can tick these off but we can tick these boxes with other authors going back to Jonathan Swift and now coming up to Game of Thrones, which probably has more in common with the Hundred Years War than The Lord of the Rings. There are people who say that they love the book; but there are those who say it has changed our lives. What is it about the book and its writer that pierces and reaches so many?

Despite being a professional philologist, academic and administrator, I think it was because Tolkien was an amateur writer; he was not writing for money, he was not hacking around in Grub St to pay the rent. Unlike the professional writers of his time, or those who worked in the modish literature business, like T S Eliot, Ezra Pound or Virginia Woolf, he could let the need to be seen and to be seen to be contemporary or relevant pass him by. So he could write what he liked and about what he wanted. And like a train spotter or manic gardener devoted to their fancies he just sat down and wrestled with the themes that dominated his mind; and I think we can say these were death and loss, and the passing of a more perfect time (or Age). Without a more comprehensive and deeper biography than the current Carpenter opus (Allen and Unwin 1977), it is easy to spot the seeds of these themes: the loss of his parents; the loss of his friends and so many acquaintances in the First World War. He once said in an interview that returning to the army (= going to France = a very likely death) and leaving his new bride behind was indeed “like a death”. And we can picture John Ronald in the railway carriage looking out of the window and feeling this, wondering if he would ever see his wife again. I wonder if the memory of this stayed with him all his life. And from this trauma came the great works.

Because he had no pretentions to being a professional writer—but that is not to say he had no idea of his own considerable powers—he wrote like a sort of literary everyman and these themes that touched him and moulded the great scenes in the Lord of the Rings—themes that rise from the narrative—touch us because we wonder what we would do in such situations: could we be Frodo? Or Sam? How would we face life in the trenches, or the implacable walls of Mordor. And there is terror and fear in The Lord of The Rings and at times a sense of hopelessness in the Quest. Were these feelings held by a frightened young second lieutenant all through the Battle of the Somme?

It is significant that the first story he wrote after being whisked out of the Somme by fortune was a work of imaginative literature (as Christopher Tolkien would later put it); and so often have writers resorted to works of imagination to deal with inexpressible horror or danger faced in reality. This was the Fall of Gondolin, a Tolkienian re-working of the second book of the Aeneid (remember Tolkien was an accomplished classicist before hopping courses to study English), and for the next two decades he struggled with the work that was to become The Silmarillion, a meditation on death where mortality and immorality are juxtaposed. The Hobbit was a mere jeu d’esprit halfway up this mountain but in it, where Tolkien the amateur writer = Bilbo Baggins = us, meets and deals with the issues of death and battle, and courage and fear. In Beorn’s house the warg and goblin are very truly and bloodily dead – this is just one example but it shows the reality of the emotions and ideas he is subliminally processing. The ending of the Hobbit is so different from the usual children’s literature of the period and especially the literature Tolkien grew up with – it is the ending written by a man who has seen the Western Front, the disenchantment of the 1920s and the General Strike of 1926. There are no tidy, happy endings.

The request for a sequel spawned The Lord Of The Rings; a professional writer would have given the publishers what they really wanted, another The Hobbit where mad Baggins goes off into the blue for another wild adventure, number two in a new and exciting series! But Tolkien was not a professional writer; inexorably he was drawn to his long digested internal debate on mortality, The Silmarillion, and under the shadow of war he produced The Lord of The Rings, again to process, like our parents and grandparents, the horrors of those days. Tolkien had two sons away in the army, either of which could have been killed at ay time, a true horror not only for a middle class Oxford professor, but for any parent in wartime irregardless of class. The Lord Of The Rings deals with what are the truly important things, and the truly important things to do, under induced conflict.

He himself said in the preface to the second edition of The Lord of The Rings that its effect lies in the applicability of aspects of the story on an individual reader’s situation (against the purposed domination of the author in an allegory which he said he detested). This is true but it is the topics, the hopes, the fears that Tolkien the amateur author (= us) chooses to write about as an ordinary middle class man, and no member of a vying fashionable literary elite, that gives his works their universality and power…and tremendous reach.

First published in the Tolkien LIbrary July 2015


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Blessed half term is sadly over and evil college looms. During the time I have been plodding on with Dragon’s Wood in between bouts of private teaching and reading. And I am getting nowhere. The tension that I hoped would be present as we approach the climax is lacking, where the disclosures are made and the horror becomes rampant. There is a misalignment in the plot in that the solution is revealed before the mystery deepens, and Margueritte’s English is almost as good as mine. But I have been here before: during the writing of Lights Over Sheel I had Michael working at McKinnon’s for some thirty thousand words; and from the ending I cut about the same during a rewrite because I did not know what I was doing while writing it.

But being stuck has yielded up some good ideas to be incorporated in the second draft and which both add to to the narrative and the texture. With this at least I am pleased. But I am also weary – oh for some encouragement. I have sold two copies of  The Dene this past month and more encouragement like this would be good.

Friend Nicola has tempted me with a opportunity for a performance for which I must write the material. Mmm will think; and indeed am tempted – but the material has to be written.

The dead months (see below) take their toll.

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back to ink

I have gone back to pen and ink in an effort to spur me on, to give me a different perspective, and I am using a pen I think I first bought at Drama School, a reliable stainless steel Parker. Now up to Chapter 22 and wildly over word budget, yet I am coming to the climax of an idea I had in Aix last year concerning Marguerite. I am  not near the end yet, but perhaps I am near the end of the middle eight and the harmonies I am weaving are surprising me, giving me a little faith in the score I have constructed.

Also glad to note I have sold two copies of The Dene and one Lights Over Sheel this month. Very gratifying and one buyer was using Canadian dollars.

go on – check them out:

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new term

…and so evil term begins at evil college and I am depressed. The place seems empty, there are missing faces and faces I sorely miss, yet the inanity of the place remains. And I wonder why I am back…

But I have not left Captain Toomey and the boys behind. I am reaching a climax of a story idea concerning Marguerite that came to me in Aix-en-Provence last summer; and this year while sitting in my favourite bar under the maple tree I stumbled upon an idea that ties up all the loose ends. When one writes one deliberately leaves in loose ends or the narrative equivalent of  an Ha-ha, to force you to stumble, to force you to think.

And perhaps with lighter (famous last words) duties this year I may see the end of this draft by Christmas.

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A Hundred Years On

exeter 1914

Earlier in the week I watched the extinguishing at the eleventh hour the candle in Westminter Abbey. My own candle in the window of my flat was put out with it, and one trembles and the resonance of the hour and the contemplation of those hundred years. When I started to become interested in the Great War it was still within easy memory, and those whose memories it was were still young (by today’s standards). And now with the last tommy some five years dead and with the passing of the centenary it is indeed becoming history.

Yet I feel there was some drama missed last night. The event was diluted by having actors read out passages instead of service personnel or public servants with real connection to the body of the state, and a prince or princess of the blood should have doused the last candle if royalty is to have any meaning. But most importantly the famous words that inspired the service, and the dimming of the lights across Britain, his words should have been read out by the current Foreign Secretary. Then there would have been resonance.

I post the above picture because I cannot look at it without a tear coming to my eye. They are the undergraduates of Exeter College Oxford, taken in the June of 1914, that glorious summer. And when I look at that picture this mantra runs through my mind: they have no idea what’s coming…they have no idea what’s coming…

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Down to Work


Now that evil term at evil college is over I have been working: writing like the clappers to  try to finish Dragon’s Wood, and preparing the text and web site for my novel (horror) The Dene. I have knocked out some 38,000 words which I have used to get back into the feeling of the book, get to know the characters again, and although significant disclosures are made  I am nowhere near the resolution. Often I have thought my story unfit for the memory of the soldiers who fought in the great war, and I have pause at this. I could have set it anywhere where a group of people are isolated, but I was spurred on by my interest in the war and my discovery of the tunnelling war (long before I had read Birdsong). And so I married the war with the horror plot. However as I have gone on I have begun to wonder if the plot, embedded as it is within its mis-en-scene, is a comment on the atrocities, and in doing so have begone to fashion the responses and motivations of the characters – but alas I have run out of time for soon I am off to France.

This week I have been preparing The Dene, a novel I wrote twenty years ago before I moved to London, and which was kindly received by publishers: “not bad at all, you can write, but not for our list. Send it to so-and-so.” So I did until I ran out of so-and-sos, then I moved to London and it got lost in life. But why not put it up? So on the grounds that you never know what you write I am putting it up on the Amazon store. It reads like an English Dean R Koontz, with Stephen King themeing.  And my friend Nicola has done me a front cover.

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Well, I’m off, he said.

There, am all packed for my spontaneously booked weekend in Provence. During the odiferous ofsted period (see below) I threw my hands up in the air and cried Why am I doing this! What is this for? and I promptly went onto the web and  booked for Marseille; I half fancied Athens but I might do that later, and my Roman history is not strong enough to sustain a visit to the Eternal City: I would end up wandering round wondering when they were going to finish the demolition job.

I am taking Captain Toomey with me: my work during term time on Dragon’s Wood, has been desultory but it has never left my thoughts. Of late when re-reading I find the new chapters plodding, very plodding, in parts, so I am going to take action on an idea that came to me in Provence last summer. It is unexpected and dramatic and by god the book needs it.

So hopefully, this time tomorrow night I shall be in a bar in Marseille, perhaps just off the old port, writing this up on my iPad with perhaps a glass of wine, or pastis, by my side.

But I am also taking Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. I am surprised I have not read it before though I was aware of it on the margins of my radar. You know the context, you know what is going to happen, and suddenly a phrase, a sentence, will leap out from the period prose and have tears running down your cheek … because you know what will happen.

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