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The Road Goes Ever On and On

What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?
- Sam Gamgee

The man who created Middle-Earth was a hobbit himself, he liked to say.

“I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking. I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.”

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was, also, a class-conscious conservative, a father of four, an unswervingly devout Catholic, a clubby sort who loved smoking and drinking with his fellow Oxford academics and writers, and a first-rate scholar who was happiest in his overcrammed study. Here in his hobbit-hole, he would both ponder the roots of language and invent his own, with its own mythology. When you live in Middle-Earth, why go anywhere else?

For the rest of us, Middle-Earth may be more of a challenge. If you’ve read Lord of the Rings a dozen times, maybe you accept the place on faith. More earthbound readers have a harder time putting it in time and space; it’s a world too old to be modern and too modern to be truly old, a land filled with royalty, castles, moats, vast ruined landscapes and untrammeled green spaces, yet populated with fantastical creatures — elves, hobbits, dwarves, ents, orcs, trolls, dragons, wizards, and men — who speak in 19th Century English and have modern habits and conveniences, like afternoon tea and kitchen matches.

Another planet, as some readers thought? No, it was this world, a fallen world, said Tolkien, who according to biographer Humphrey Carpenter firmly believed there had once been an Eden, and seemed to believe in Middle-Earth, too. He would talk of his major book, said Carpenter, “not as a work of fiction, but as a chronicle of actual events,” seeing himself not so much its maker as its discoverer and historian.

Living in a forgotten time was what he did for a living. A philologist at Oxford University, he was an expert in the study of the roots of the English language and its early literature. In the beginning was the word and in the word was a mystery; to decipher an ancient text like Beowulf is to imagine yourself into the world where it was written — a world of heroic warriors doing battle with monsters.

This mystical attraction to words would lead him not only to become a linguistic polymath, but to invent his own private language, with its own alphabet, which he used in writing his diary. Consequently, he also started writing a history about the kind of land where those words might be formed: a place which combined elements of the Middle and Modern English worlds. He began at the beginning: the creation. It’s title was The Silmarillion, and he wouldn’t live to see it published, despite toiling away at it to the end of his life.

Success, as it sometimes does, came in the form of a spin-off. During the early 1930s, Tolkien was earning a little extra money with a boring job grading papers for a school examination. When he came upon a blank page, a sentence popped into his head: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” It would be the first line of a story, written as bedtime fare for his children, about a “halfling,” a fat, hairy-footed, three-foot creature named Bilbo Baggins with a talent for thievery. At the behest of the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo joins a gaggle of dwarves in a journey to retrieve stolen jewels from the dragon Smaug. Along the way, he steals a ring from the slimy half-beast Gollum; a ring whose power to make the wearer invisible leads to Smaug’s destruction and a multi-ethnic battle to defend the realm of the Elvenking.

Tolkien hoped the success of The Hobbit would lead to a publication deal for his major work. But The Silmarillion wasn’t sequel material. He needed something that would take The Hobbit further. he wrote himself a note: “Make return of ring a motive.”


  • James Russell

    I enjoyed “The Hobbit” when I was 12, but always thought “LOTR” suffered from bloat, and could never be bothered reading anything else by him after that. If Fellowship of the Ring was any indication, I think I’ll be rushing back to Jackson’s films before I’ll rush back to Tolkien’s books.

  • Phillip Winn

    If you’ve read Lord of the Rings a dozen times, maybe you accept the place on faith. More earthbound readers have a harder time putting it in time and space;

    Personally, I find it hard to believe that someone would read the books a dozen times without long since having been able to visualize Middle Earth. In a case like this one, the chicken most definitely comes before the egg. Or the other way around, whichever. <grin>

  • Hans Georg Lundahl

    The Monster:
    And behold! it was a winged creature: if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank. A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil.

    The Critic:
    There’s something hesitant and tentative in such passages, suggesting a writer whose imagination is not all that sharply focused on what he wants us to see.

    My comment:
    It has not occurred to the eminent (or otherwise) critic, that Tolkien is describing, what in a letter to a reader he called “something perydactylish”: and that the hobbit who is supposed to have written this in Westron could hardly have heard about this Greek and scientific name of it. Supposing this to describe a live pterodactyl (ridden by a demonic ghost) to someone who has never heard that name, the description is economical:

    “And behold!” – you’d say that too, if you had to face a live pterodactyl with a demon rider

    “it was a winged creature:” – bird, bat or, as is the case here, something pterodactylish

    “if bird, then greater than all other birds,” – in fact bigger than a bird

    “and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear,” – not a bird then

    “and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers;” – but a “reptile” except that such crawl and do not fly: i e a pterodactyl

    “and it stank.” – as a creature ridden by a demon ought to do

    “A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day,” – a guess about what the darwinist reader is supposed to “know”: if pterodactyls survived to meet men (and hobbits) they were by then living fossiles

    “and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil.” – an understatement, considering the rider.

  • Sharon

    Why did you bother to even start reading Tolkien, much less proceed through several books? You obviously are a fan of a much different style of literature so please confine yourself to reviewing works you enjoy. Biased reviews are not helpful to any reader who desires an objective opinion.–Or is this a group devoted to bashing fantasy…

  • Nancy

    I first read LOTR when I was 10, in an all-weekend marathon session, including the appendices. For me it was the most amazing book, & it rapidly became a large part of my internal reference, as if it were real indeed. I read Hobbit afterwards, perhaps fortunately, as I suspect if I’d read it first I wouldn’t have bothered w/LOTR, since I’ve always disliked “kiddies books” writing & juvenile sound effects or asides to the audience in prose. Even then I guess I had some taste in style.

    I would estimate I’ve read the entire Hobbit-LOTR (including appendices) at least 50+ times by now. Well enough, at any rate, to be able to write in Westron or Tengwar or runes with fair facility, altho I understand spoken Elvish better than I can crank it out myself. It was pretty nifty to me to sit in the theatre & listen to the dialogue in Elvish in the Lorien scenes, and not need to read the translations.

    I do have to say that Tolkien’s habit of lapsing into quasi-biblical/King Jamesian stuff of the “Lo-!” sort is, IMO, a serious stylistic problem in his writing which can be very detracting from the story itself, and understandibly off-putting. I don’t like it, and think it’s extremely inappropriate unless its dialbgue directly attributable to an appropriate character – say someone in the court of Minas Tirith or one of the high elves at either Imladris or Lorien; otherwise it’s just pompous & affected, especially when being used in general description in the body of the text, as it was in the passage about the pterodactylian. To have rendered that passage in ‘plain English’ would have been far more effective; as it was, the inserted para-medieval style was distracting to the tenor of the description as well as the action. Here is where Tolkien could have used a more stringent editor, IMO, all to the good; but that’s water under the bridge, so I live with it as a minor irritation, but I fear it’s a major put-off to far too many others.

    When the Silmarillion & Book of lost Tales came out I got & devoured them, too, but frankly I find them turgid, depressing, and downright boring. For me, they’re more useful as background references when trying to assess why this character or that one reacts the way they do, for example as with Lady Galadriel, whose youthful mistakes & arrogance were soundly punished by her own choices – as she herself came to realize all too well by the time of the action in LOTR. After reading Silmarillion I had a lot more understanding of where she was coming from, so to speak, and why she was so grieved, for her people as well as for what she was convinced was her own eternal ban from the West, which she rightfully could call ‘home’ if anybody could.

    However, other than that, I have to agree that these two works, at least, are probably for rabid LOTR/Tolkienists, and not the general reading public. They’re awfully heavy, even for me.

    I would highly recommend, however, for all who have made their way thru Hobbit or LOTR, that they acquire Harvard Lampoon’s ‘Bored Of The Rings’. It may not be in print and therefore hard to find, but it will be worth tracking it down. It’s one of the best & funniest takeoffs & parodys of Tolkien I’ve ever come across, and even now just the memory of certain phrases and mangled names (Arrowroot son of Arrowshirt, Frito, Dildo, Moxie, Pepsi, Legolam, Gimlet, Schlob, etc.) cracks me up. It’s a welcome counterpoint when the real thing gets a bit much, and adds a good levening to either the books or the Jackson movies.

    Jackson’s movies. Well…I have mixed feelings about those. Fellowship was very well done, and pretty close to the book. I enjoyed it hugely, and was likewise relieved that the hobbits weren’t made to look grotesque or weird, as they were in the various cartoons. The orcs were spot-on, as were the dwarves & elves. However, I was vastly disappointed by the radical changes & liberties Jackson took with the storyline & development in the other two movies, turning them into excuses for boy-violent-action sort of medieval Rambo flicks. Some violence & war scenes were in order, by all means, but not to the extent Jackson fixated on them, IMO. I also disliked the extreme liberties taken with Faramir’s character & behavior, and thought taking Frodo/Sam/Gollum to Minas Tirith was gratuitous. I thought the business with Elrond delivering the sword & standard were also non-sequiturs & just distraction that wasn’t needed, except to remind the audience that Elrond was still around & Arwen was still waiting. I do think there were better ways to let the uninitiated in on those things.

    All in all, I wish Tolkien were still alive & writing, though. He had a lot more to explain.

  • butts