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Posts Tagged ‘JRR Tolkien’

Adventures in Middle-earth: The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien

Sunday, November 26th, 2017

There are some books – most books actually – that pass under the eye as swiftly and with as little mark as the colours on a screen. There are other books, a small number in a lifetime, that mark you indelibly. For me, the book that has marked me probably more than any other is The Lord of the Rings. But it had been many years since I had revisited Middle-earth and I opened the oh-so-familiar book with some trepidation, the sort of fear that might attend meeting again the love of your life after long separation – would the enchantment remain unbroken?

It has. I remember, when I first read The Lord of the Rings, going to sleep each night for six months or more with the prayer that I might wake up in Middle-earth. Many years later, I would still wish to step out of this world and into Arda. If the theology of creation that Tolkien was feeling his way towards proves true, mayhap that shall indeed be possible. For if ever a work of heart and hand might be given the Secret Fire by Eru, and live, then surely it is Middle-earth. As for the Good Professor himself, I believe that, like Niggle the painter, he walks today by the willow meads of Tasarinan, looking towards the distant prospect of mountains towards which the road that goes ever on but that always leads home will take him.

On a more prosaic level, re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring, I was struck by the great part that geography played in the narrative. A modern-day writer would not spend so long telling of walking through landscapes – we have become an even hastier people – but for this reader, the word paintings of Middle-earth were as pure a pleasure as the surface narrative. For this is the tale of a world, in all its complexity, rather than just a telling of heroes.

Sometimes, all that is possible by way of review is gratitude. JRR Tolkien poured heart and soul and mind into Middle-earth. Now, 44 years after his death, we can still visit Middle-earth in heart and soul and mind.

Book review: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L Sayers

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
The Mind of the Maker

The Mind of the Maker

A while back, when taking a theology MA, a group of we students were put together in a group and left, by our tutor, with the instruction to talk about the Trinity. Now, this wasn’t one of those assemblages where fear of talking leads to agonised glances around to see if someone else will be brave enough to start things rolling – no, we were a voluble group, with most of us (not least me) quite convinced that what we had to say was quite as valuable as our tutor (so what if he had about four different degrees, various masters and enough doctorates to start a small clinic; we knew what we thought and we were damned if we weren’t going to tell everyone else too. Writing this, a number of years later, I wonder if that might be a clue as to why he shoved us all off into small groups to talk among ourselves.) So, there we were, dispatched to talk on the Trinity and, for the one and only occasion during the MA, I saw the flickering glances, the sidelong looks, the panicked, ‘Oh, God, I’ll have to say something if no one else will,’ glaze in people’s eyes. In the end, if memory serves, I plunged first into the pool of silence: ‘Look, do any of us understand what the Trinity is?’

Yes, that is what the Trinity will do to a group of even reasonably well read and devout Christians. Possibly the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity, and we are plunged into stuttering silence. It really isn’t good enough and, to judge by the acerbic tone of her introduction, Dorothy L Sayers shares the latter judgement and wrote The Mind of the Maker to challenge the first.  In fact, having finished it, I really wish I’d had the book to hand when we all sat around, tongues tied, trying to define what we’d all, apparently, written off at some level as the undefinable.

Now, of course, in one sense that is right: God is not definable, He can be no more (in fact, rather less) pinned down in words than can, say, the colour red. But, as with colour, we can use language analogically of God; He can be approached through metaphor. And here Sayers makes a crucial point, and one that immediately spoke to me: God is, both in his being and in terms of the language we use of him, far more the God of artists, of composers and painters and writers, than he is the God of philosophers and, dare I say, theologians. Of course, I should have known this all along. After all, God, the God of testaments Old and New, is a storyteller, weaving tales from history and then, in the most daring (and difficult to pull off; just ask Stephen King with respect to his Dark Tower cycle) stroke of all, God put Himself, as character into the story He was telling and, as a player on the stage, we know that God not only loves stories, He tells them: parables, phrases so vivid with meaning they have shook loose from history to enter the every day.

Let me quote Sayers at a little length (the quote from a play she wrote, The Zeal of Thy House, and sums up what she expands upon in The Mind of the Maker):

For every work (or act) of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other: and this is the image of the Trinity.

Now, as a writer, I can understand this. Sayers argues that this creative process, discernible in the Trinity, is also the template by which human creation works, a shadow of our maker, and in this she is supported by Tolkien, who in his great creation myth in The Silmarillion sees Men, and Elves, very much as sub-creators, most like God when we make, as He makes and, ultimately, when the world is refashioned and made right, Tolkien’s vision stretches even to a final great music of Creation, when Men and Elves join their voices to the music of Creation and, hearing what they fashion and hearing that it is good, God gives life to their fashionings, that they be real, as His own makings are.

I’ve gone on about this for a bit, but this really is a book worth reading, pondering on, and then reading again. Although I got it from the library, I will buy it: this is a keeper.

Book review: The Traitor’s Heir by Anna Thayer

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014
The Traitor's Heir by Anna Thayer

The Traitor’s Heir by Anna Thayer

Like many others, I suffer from PTRD – post-Tolkien reading disorder: the deepening sense of despair that slowly overwhelms a reader as he discovers that, in the field of fantasy fiction, he started at the top with the Good Professor and ever since then he has been coming down from the mountain of the worlds, into the flat plains – or, in some cases, stagnant pools – that comprise the world-building imaginations of other writers.

Let’s be clear about this: no one, and I mean no one, will match, let alone beat, Tolkien in the depth, breadth, height and profundity of their world building. The reasons for this are multiple, and mainly lie in the peculiar, and unique, range of gifts Tolkien brought to the creation of Middle-earth: most notably his astonishing grasp of the deep structure of language accompanied with the imagination to wield that creatively, and his profound, but non-allegorical faith, that transmuted the considerable suffering of his life into the meditation on divine providence that underlies his work.

So it’s hardly any surprise that, after discovering Tolkien and falling on any book that mentioned JRRT on its cover (‘comparable to Tolkien at his best’ – I’m looking at you, publishers of Stephen Donaldson), and finding out that none of them were comparable to Tolkien – and having fallen to the depths of Shannara – I shunned fantasy completely for many years. Recently, I’ve put a toe back into one or two of the pools in the Wood Between Worlds, but only for the relatively new genre of urban fantasy, which is making some progress (although I fear its obsession with the noumenal nature of tramps and hobos threatens towards self parody). So Anna Thayer’s ‘The Traitor’s Heir’ is the first proper, secondary world fantasy novel I’ve read for many years, and what a relief it was to enjoy it thoroughly. By keeping its focus strictly on the human (with a bit of magic thrown in) it avoids the unfavourable comparisons with Tolkien, while the emphasis on the struggles of the good does actually bear comparison with what Tolkien is doing in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. So, thank you, Anna, for reawakening my interest in secondary-world fantasy. Now for the second volume in the trilogy, ‘The King’s Hand’.