Talkin’ Bout Tolkien: The Influence of War + Exeter College

Cover of Tolkien at Exeter College

War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien by Janet Brennan Croft

Having participated in the First World War, and having seen two of his sons serve in the Second, Tolkien was concerned with many of the same themes that interested other writers in the post-war period. The rhythm of war flows through his writings, but his own interpretation of the themes, symbols, and motifs of war, however, were influenced by his religious views and his interest in fantasy, which add another layer of meaning and a sense of timelessness to his writing. Croft explores the different aspect of Tolkien’s relationship with war both in his life and in his work from the early “Book of Lost Tales” to his last story “Smith of Wootten Major,” and concentrating on his greatest and most well-known works “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” This timely addition to the critical literature on Tolkien sheds new light on the author’s life and works.

  • What Croft does well in this book is place  Tolkien’s writing in a grander historical context in which it’s not often considered. He was an author writing primarily in the time following the terrible experience of WWI. Croft juxtaposes other critical writing on war writers and explores how Tolkien was similar or dissimilar, drawing primarily from Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Croft draws reasoned connections between Tolkien’s war experiences and personal faith, and what he wrote in his fiction, without making allegorical claims.
  • One key theme which Croft is explores is the concept of courage without hope. This is not a book just about the physicality of war – grander philosophical concepts are explored throughout.
  • Not only does she explore the overall influence of war on Tolkien’s writing, she also explores concrete manifestations of ideas of war when discussing, for example, the leadership style of key characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In describing Bilbo’s actions after freeing the dwarves from the Mirkwood spiders, she writes, “This episode is the closest Bilbo gets to military leadership, and he shows a fine command of strategy in rallying and deploying his followers and drawing the spiders off with a series of feigned attacks” (82).
  • The titles of the six chapters that comprise the book offer a clear representation of the different approaches to the influence of war that Croft explores:
    1. “The Great War and Tolkien’s Memory”
    2. “World War I Themes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
    3. “World War II: ‘The Young Perish and the Old Linger, Withering'”
    4. “Military Leaders and Leadership”
    5. “Training, Tactics, Strategy, and Battlefield Communication’
    6. “Philosophy, Pathology and Conclusions”.
  • I recommend this book to readers curious about the influence of war in Tolkien’s work, an influence that should not be casually overlooked or dismissed.

Perhaps one reason Tolkien is so frequently voted “Author of the Century” is because he took what was a pivotal event in world history and transformed it into a comprehensible myth to help us understand how our world has changed and learn how we can still live in it with courage (32).

Tolkien at Exeter College by John Garth

Tolkien at Exeter College is the definitive account of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life as an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford, from peacetime into war. It is also the tale of how he first created his mythological world of Middle-earth in 1914–15. Rich with archive material, it includes more than 40 images, including previously unseen original sketches by and photographs of Tolkien. The 64-page booklet complements and adds significantly to the account in Tolkien and the Great War.

  • I don’t have much to add to the summary above. I can say that it’s quite accurate! I recommend it for readers whose appetite for biographical information about Tolkien’s early years cannot be satisfied.
  • I particularly enjoyed the anecdotes about the shenanigans Tolkien got up to as a undergrad. In one, Tolkien recounts how he and a friend ‘captured’ a bus and drove it around town, filling it up with other students. (Apparently this story is documented in Carpenter’s Biography, but I did not remember it. Placing details like this one within the grander context of Tolkien’s undergraduate years gives them room to be noticed). In some ways, Tolkien’s undergraduate experience is vastly different from anything I experienced (I marvel at his involvement in literary clubs), and yet in other ways, not so much…
  • Garth writes, “Already revealing a fluent grasp of vivid detail, an ability to crank up dramatic tension, and an interest in the clash of order and chaos, Tolkien’s mini-epic is his earliest known prose narrative” (27).  To which mini-epic is Garth referring? Tolkien’s report of an university club meeting. A sample: “When Mr. Trevor Oliphant arose with the white face of bitter determination and demanded that the House go back to Private Business for the discussion of the shelved constitutional question, all bounds, all order, and all else was forgotten; and in one long riot of raucous hubbub; of hoarse cries, brandished bottles, flying match-stands, gowns wildly flourished, cups smashed, and lights extinguished, the House declared its determination to have its will and override the constitution” (27).
  • The book contains a variety of images, including sketches by and photos of Tolkien, some of which have not been published before. The booklet is worth it for the images alone, but I also recommend it for the in-depth and illuminating look at Tolkien’s undergraduate years. If nothing else, you might have some fun comparing your own university experience to Tolkien’s…
  • You can purchase this booklet directly from the Garth’s website (approx. $15 including shipping).

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Talkin’ Bout Tolkien – A Secret Vice and The Plants of Middle-Earth

The Plants of Middle-Earth

The Plants of Middle-Earth: Botany and Sub-Creation by Dina Hazell

★★★★ | GoodReads | IndieBound | Wordery

I purchased this book expecting a field guide of sorts to the plants found in Middle-earth*. The Plants of Middle-earth instead uses said greenery as a point from which to explore various themes and concepts in Tolkien’s work. Hazell argues that Tolkien’s careful selection and naming of plants both real and fantastic reflects the implications of the grander tale.

The Lord of the Rings is far too complex to be reduced to a simple tale of good versus evil, but one of the questions that must be asked is whether it is ultimately optimistic or pessimistic. Tolkien explores the issue in many places, not least in his botany, where he directs our gaze toward the ephemeral beauty of a single bloom and the enduring strength of nature. (43)

I particularly liked the chapter “Forest and Trees”, which discusses significance of trees (beyond the role of Ents) via a tour of the forests of Middle-Earth. I also came to appreciate a brief aside on modernization and Sarehole Mill, which I initially thought was somewhat removed from the topic (84 to 87).

Of course, The Lord of the Rings cannot become commonplace, regardless of how often we read it. But hopefully awareness of its plant life will offer a new perspective for future visits to Middle-earth. (95)

The Plants of Middle-earth is a pretty little book, an example of why one might prefer physical over digital. The deep green binding is soft to touch and the pages have a bit of weight to them. The lovely illustrations are one of this book’s feature attractions. However, the illustrations were not captioned. I could usually figure out which plant featured in the illustrations, but some pages described multiple plants and I wasn’t quite sure what was being depicted. For those wondering about the artists, that information is tucked in the back of the book (117).

I recommend this book for a fresh take on the world of Middle-earth, through the lens of its plentiful plant life.

*For anyone interested in such a field guide, a forthcoming release from Oxford UP (Flora of Middle-Earth) might be the book we’re looking for.

A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins

★★★★ | GoodReads | Chapters | Wordery

The title A Secret Vice refers to a talk that J.R.R. Tolkien originally gave in 1931. He discussed the joys of inventing language and the significant role language has to play in mythology creation.

I had previously read parts of Tolkien’s essay back 2013, when I fulfilled a years long dream of writing about Tolkien for my undergrad degree. The paper I wrote was titled “Retaining Meaning: Translating Tolkien’s Middle-Earth”, and it dealt very much with Tolkien’s passion for language creation. I was pleased to learn A Secret Vice” was being released in similar to fashion to “On Fairy-Stories”, which was released in an independent volume titled Tolkien On Fairy Stories. This book would have been handy to have around during my undergrad!

The talk itself spans 31 pages. A brief “Essay on Phonetic Symbolism” is also included in the book. (The editors theorize that Tolkien may have written the essay to expand on ideas not integral to “A Secret Vice” [63].) A 54 page introduction serves well in providing context for the actual essay. Not just padding, the introduction explores the social and cultural context in which Tolkien was writing as well characteristics of his invented languages. A 15 page coda after the essay and manuscripts titled “The Reception and Legacy of Tolkien’s Invented Languages” continues the style of the introduction in exploring Tolkien’s impact. Finally, manuscripts are also included. Sometimes these can reveal a lot about a writer’s development of thought, but I skipped them in this volume.

Originally a talk given to a literary society (xxxi), “A Secret Vice” has a relatively casual and at times self-deprecating tone. Having read so much of Tolkien’s fiction, I find it something of a novelty to read in his own ‘voice’. Fans of Tolkien or those interested in constructed languages will appreciate the sentiments expressed and ideas explored in A Secret Vice.

Do either of these books interest you? Is there a fantasy world for which you would like to read a plants field guide?
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Guest Post At Pages Unbound

Since March 19, Pages Unbound has been hosting two weeks of posts about Tolkien in celebration of Tolkien Reading Day. Today features my review of Tolkien in Translation edited by Thomas Honegger. Here is the first paragraph:

Tolkien in TranslationOnce upon a time, I wanted to write a paper about translating Tolkien for an undergraduate course. Numerous challenges accompany the task of translating literature. Tolkien crafted his stories on a foundation of language. His careful use of the English language and his creation of Middle-earth’s own languages further complicates the process of translating his works. As he wrote of The Lord of the Rings, “Hardly a word in its 600,000 or more has been unconsidered” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 160). Though my paper never materialized, the beginning of my research led me to Tolkien in Translation¸ a volume of works that “reflects on some of these challenges and how different translators overcame them” (back description). This book is the fourth volume in the Cormarë series from Walking Tree Publishers. The series currently consists of 35 books collecting scholarly papers and studies about Tolkien and his writing.

Head on over to Pages Unbound to read the rest of my review. Be sure to check out some of the other great posts from the Tolkien Reading Event as well.

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Tolkien Reading Day 2017

March 25 is Tolkien Reading Day. Organized by the Tolkien Society, the day was chosen to coincide with the defeat of Sauron. The day was established “to encourage fans to celebrate and promote the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien by reading favourite passages”. My posts covers my plans for today + 8 playlists to listen to while reading your favourite Tolkien tales.

Too much time has passed since  I read much by or about Tolkien. I recently completed Tolkien in Translation and that has renewed by hunger for Middle-earth. I read that book for a guest post I’m doing as part of Pages Unbound‘s two week long celebration of Tolkien Reading Day. They’ve been featuring a post a day about Tolkien (including many guest posts) since March 19, so be sure to check it out. My review of Tolkien in Translation will be posted there on 31 March.

I actually have some fun plans beyond reading Tolkien all day (see below for my book choices). Way back in October at Comic-con, I bought tickets to an event titled “All Who Wander” that will feature dramatic readings from the Middle-Earth canon and acapella renditions of songs from The Lord of the Rings. Sounds like a fun evening!

Today’s Reading

Tolkien Reading Day 2017 TBR

  • A Secret Vice by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins – I started this book way back in the summer. I only finished the introduction. Time to delve into the lecture proper.
  • The Botany of Middle-Earth by Dinah Hazell – A lovely hardcover that’s been sitting too long on my shelf.
  • The Hobbit facsimile first edition – I received this edition as a Christmas gift in 2016. This edition replicates both the original text (which Tolkien made some significant modifications to after publishing The Lord of the Rings) and the design of The Hobbit as first published in 1937.

Recommended Listening

One of my favourite websites for discovering thematic background music is 8tracks. 8tracks allows users to create and tag their own mixes. The website has an extensive tagging system so you can pinpoint just the kind of music you want to listen to. I would like to recommend 8 of my favourite Tolkien-themed playlists. Playlist themes include places, races, characters, and particular chapters. Below I’ve listed the title of the playlist and the description given by the playlist creator. Links to listen to the playlists on 8tracks. I’ve embedded my most listened playlist 🙂

Rohan from mindlessdesigns on 8tracks Radio.

  1. In Places Deep – Songs for Erebor (“An instrumental mix for the high, proud halls under the Lonely Mountain, for the clang of hammer-falls and the roar of the forge, gold-veined caverns and lost places deep in the earth.”)
  2. Alix’s Hobbit-Style Birthday Playlist (“Guess what! It’s my birthday today, and in true hobbit fashion I’m giving you all a gift! Here’s a playlist of some of my personal favorite Tolkien-inspired music.”)
  3. Rohan (“A mix for the men of Rohan.”)
  4. Songs of Forgotten Kings (“songs for the Dunedain, the songs of forgotten kings”)
  5. A Elbereth Gilthoniel (“a mostly instrumental mix for varda elentári, queen of the valar and renowned star-kindler”)
  6. The River Run (“Joined by a mysterious Ranger the party races to Rivendell. ‘It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all tales of Middle- earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.’ – Strider.”)
  7. Songs for Middle-Earth IV (“The fourth addition to a never ending collection of fanmixes dedicated to the beauty of Middle-earth. {featuring the soundtracks of BCC Merlin, War in the North & Kingdom of Heaven}”)
  8. Tolkien Readalong‘s playlists – Featuring playlists that follow readalongs of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Additional playlists cover characters and appendices.

(All the Elvish playlists I saved seem to no longer be in existence :/ Guess I’ll have to find some new ones!) Do you have any plans for Tolkien Reading Day?

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Literary Pilgrimages: Hobbiton, Middle-Earth (Part 5)

Middle-Earth Literary Pilgrimage
Earlier this year, I spent three months travelling around New Zealand. My primary reason for doing so? Exploring locations in featured in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, of course! Come along as I revisit what will likely remain my most extensive ‘literary pilgrimage’.

Hobbiton

My final post in this literary pilgrimage series features Hobbiton, home to Bilbo and Frodo, protagonists of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Some might say I’ve saved the best for last. That was my intent when I planned out my trip. Of all the locations one can visit, Hobbiton is the only one preserved as seen in the movies (the set was dismantled after The Lord of the Rings and rebuilt permanently after The Hobbit). I booked the evening banquet tour. The tour is absolutely worth it. You explore Hobbiton by day and by night (as the tour runs from something like 4300PM-7:30PM), and enjoy an impressive hobbit feast in the Green Dragon. I have also read the evening tour only runs one tour at a time – you can see Hobbiton without the crowds of Big Folk, which I found essential to the experience.

Hobbiton is about a 15 minute drive from Matamata. As the bus approached the site, I felt like I was really leaving New Zealand for the Shire. The rolling green hills, trickling brooks, and bright sunbeams set the mood. I felt a bit odd as I walked the paths of Hobbiton. I kept wondering where all the hobbits had gone! It seemed to me that they’d been shuffled out by a real estate agent who wanted to show off their homes to likely buyers (those of us on the tour).  This was one of my most surreal experiences.

Hobbit hole in Hobbiton

View of Hobbiton from Bag End
Looking down over Hobbiton from Bag End. Can you spot the Green Dragon?
No admittance except on party business
An iconic notice…
Bag End, Hobbiton
Anybody home?
Bag End, Hobbiton
Bag End, home of Bilbo and Frodo
Sam's hole, Hobbiton
If I recall correctly, this is Sam’s hole (note the gardening supplies out front)
Hobbiton
By the time we wandered down to the Green Dragon, the sun had set and the lights of the village were coming on.
The Green Dragon, Hobbiton
Behind the counter at the Green Dragon
Green Dragon, Hobbiton
Enjoying my Sackville Cider. You can enjoy four brews exclusive to this inn.
Hobbit feast, Hobbiton
The meal was one of the most expansively and beautifully prepared I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying. I only wish I had been able to eat more!
Inside the Green Dragon, Hobbiton
Choosing a dessert was a difficult task! I had one of the baked apples. I enjoyed reading the notices that were posted up around the inn. The cat looked especially cozy, curled up by the fire.

Walking through Hobbiton after dark was an entirely different sensation. (I don’t have any great photos as I was relying on an iPhone). As we wandered through the village with lanterns in hand, I imagined the hobbits were now home, snug and cozy in their holes. This was an easy thing to imagine as lights came on outside the holes and in the windows. We visited the field were the party tent was set up. We sang the tribute to the Green Dragon that Merry and Pippin sing in The Return of the King. I had a wonderful evening. This tour was the perfect event to round off three months of exploring Middle-Earth.

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