Monday, 25 March 2013

Wildly inaccurate fantasy cover art


I do not have a high opinion of publishers - and one of their worst attributes is to use cover art on fiction which is wildly inaccurate, and has either nothing to do with the text, or includes outright falsehoods - people, things and events that never happen in the story.

One of the most notorious was that Ballantine paperback cover of The Hobbit  - which deployed a talented artist, but one who had never read the book and was given such a ludicrously short time to produce the artwork that it was a miracle she completed the picture: there was zero possibility of painting the cover and also reading the book, as is very obvious:

Aside from the picture having nothing to do with anything in The Hobbit it is the pair of emus quietly grazing by the lake and reflected in its placid waters that really get me!


But what gross, savage disrespect for a publisher to saddle an author with such irrelevant and misleading cover art.

(It should be pointed-out that Tolkien's British publishers were of a completely different mindset - and went to enormous lengths in trying to accommodate Tolkien's exacting requests.)


Another example is the back cover of my copy of the the first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

Who the heck is that supposed to be?

Don't say Dumbledore, who is described as: "tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice."


No, the fact is that the Philosopher's Stone illustration, which apparently survived for about a score of impressions of the first edition, is of some person who certainly does not appear anywhere in the novel - it is inaccurate simply because there has been no attempt whatsoever to be accurate.


Usually, the worst excesses are practiced on novice authors; suggesting bullying as a motivation.

But another example is Josh Kirby's illustrations for Terry Pratchett's discworld novels (look them up for yourself, if you dare), which are just plain grotesque as well as inaccurate to the test - but which (since they appeared long after he became a huge seller) I presume were approved by the author; for hard-to-fathom reasons.

With people like this working for publishers, indeed the norm for publishers, it is a miracle of sorts that anything god ever comes from publishing books at all.


But let's end with a counter-example from the Armada Lion's edition of Lloyd Alexander's Book of Three commencing the Prydain chronicles:

Which is a delightful and accurate illustration by the young and as-yet-unknown Brian Froud; who not long afterwards went-on to co-publish (with Alan Lee) the superb and influential Fairies, and became one of the most famous ever fantasy illustrators.


Monday, 18 March 2013

Mapping the Notion Club onto the Inklings – a parodic melange featuring in-jokes and running jokes


While some members are more-or-less based upon real life Inklings (such as Ramer on Tolkien and Dolbear on Havard), each member of the Notion Club in his origin contains playful elements of parodic melange, as appropriate for the status of the NCPs being designed to be read aloud to, and provoke discussion from, the Inklings.

As they progressed, as is usual for Tolkien, the NCPs became more serious, and pulled in (or were pulled-into) Tolkiens deepest concerns.

Yet the playful origins of the NCPs are clear in the earliest draft versions of the Foreword, and the first entry recording the club meetings.


Preface to the Inklings

While listening to this fantasia (if you do), I beg of the present company not to look for their own faces in the mirror. For the mirror is cracked, and at the best you will only see your countenances distorted, and adorned maybe with noses (and other features) that are not your own, but belong to other members of the company – if to anybody.


The Inklings were being told to look-out for characteristic features of group members, and parodic inversions of such features, but transposed between members.

In other words, the early drafts of the NCPs would have been stuffed with 'in jokes' – only some of which can now be decoded; yet the presence of an in joke is often implied by context, even when we cannot decode it.


Just to recap the six main Inklings members in the period leading up to 1945-6 when the NCPs was written; and therefore those members whose identities were most probably the models to be listed, inverted and mashed-up; in no particular order they were:

Jack Lewis
Warnie Lewis
and Charles Williams
(who died about 6 months before NCPs were drafted)

Notion Club


There is apparently no character that is 'based upon' Charles Williams, at least not obviously; quite likely because his absence was too recent and too keenly felt to permit of jesting parody – but it is not hard to suppose that a few scattered references in relation to Jeremy and elsewhere may have raised a rueful reminiscent smile from the surviving Inklings.

As an example of parodic inversion, early notes indicate that the character Frankley was originally 'based on' Jack Lewis, yet he is described as suffering from 'horror borealis',  that is the supposed medical condition of being 'intolerant of all things Northern or Germanic' – which is the opposite preference from Lewis's own well-known Nordic preferences.


The first entry in the NCPs, part one, is Night 54:

A wet night. Only Frankley and Dolbear arrived (Dolbear's house).

Dolbear reports that Philip never said a word worth recording, but read him an unintelligable poem about a Mechanical Nightingale (or he thought that was the subject).

Frankley reports that Rufus was drowsy and kept on chuckling to himself. The only clearly audible remark that he made was 'going off the deep end I think'. This was in reply to an enquiry about Michael Ramer, and whether D had seen him lately.

After F had read a poem (later read again) called The Canticle of Artegall they parted.


Aside from the single 'plot point' regarding Ramer possibly going off the deep end (i.e. going crazy); night 54 reads very much like an in-joke, as if it was based on an actual incident – presumably a meeting between Jack Lewis and Havard, and perhaps based on the fact that afterwards each gave a very different account of the proceedings.

The entry is written in a droll style, yet it is not clear what the actual jokes are. Possibly these include a mishearing of a poem title (maybe even Keats 'ode to a' nightingale being misheard as 'mechanical', and the drowsiness of Dolbear/ Havard.

As noted elsewhere on this blog, I have asked the real-life Havard's eldest son John whether it was characteristic of his father to be drowsy or nod off to sleep in company, and John says he has no recollection that this was the case.

Yet, of course, it would only need a single such incident of doziness (plausibly, since Havard was a doctor, after being kept awake all the previous night by on-call medical work), an incident quite likely unknown to his son, for the doziness of Havard to become an established stereotype and a 'running joke' among the Inklings – that is exactly the way things often work in groups of men (or boys).


As for the Canticle of Artegall, Christopher Tolkien has drawn a blank in unravelling the meaning of Artegall beyond noting that the Irish for article is arteagal.

My guess at the in-joke here is that Jack Lewis, at some point in an Inklings meeting, slipped into his Ulster accent and pronounced article as phonetically transcribed by 'artegall' – provoking first incomprehension then jocularity – and that this also became a running joke such that the 'song of artegall' was an amusing title for a poem by the parody Lewis.


Whether I have guessed right about these NCP in-jokes is probably unknowable, and not as important as the internal evidence that they are indeed in-jokes; and can be understood as intended to refer to some kind of running-joke of the Inklings.

(If the NCPs had ever reached the stage of being prepared for publication, these bits of private humour would most likely have been deleted.)

Such in-jokes and running jokes were entirely characteristic of the Inklings, as we know from other sources such as the Lewis brothers' letters and journals - although by no means restricted to the Inklings, but indeed to be found wherever men (or boys) gather for extended periods.


Saturday, 16 March 2013

The best book which, otherwise than my recommending it, you would be unlikely to buy


Is the collection of essays Roots and Branches: selected papers on Tolkien by Tom Shippey (Walking Tree Publishers, 2007).

Assuming you are a Tolkien fan, so that you can appreciate the medium of discussion, this is just one of the best books I have ever read that is not a classic; it is, indeed, virtually unknown.

Replete with gems, such as:


Extracts from Orcs, Wraiths, Wights: Tolkien's images of evil: becomes clear that though the Ringwraiths do have physical capacities, their real weapon is psychological: they disarm their victims by striking them with fear and despair.

This at least is a suggestive concept. Many people during the course of the twentieth century, and authors as different from Tolkien and from each other as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and William Golding, have been surprised, even baffled, by the strange passivity of the Western world (a phrase Tolkien would have accepted) in the face of deadly dangers coming out of the East. 

Whole communities seem again and again to have gone to their deaths in a sleepwalking state, abandoning thoughts of resistance when it would have been entirely feasible. In contests between the strong and the weak, the weak (wraiths) have often won. 

...The obvious wraith in [That Hideous Strength] is Wither, the Deputy Director of NICE. On one level he is an obvious example of the bureaucrat, that characteristic twentieth century figure. His language is elaborate, polished, utterly evasive. He is master of getting his own way... without committing himself to any statement at all. It is impossible to argue with him since he never says anything which contains any substance; nor does he appear to remember anything he has said before.

All this is familiar enough to those who work in large organizations.

...[Lewis and Tolkien] demonstrate between them that one of the major advantages of fantasy in the modern world is that it effectively addresses the major threats of the modern world, like work, tedium, despair and bureaucracy, so often a closed book to modern mainstream authors without real-life work experience. 


Roots and Branches by Tom Shippey.

If you a) like Tolkien and b) trust my judgment (...?): then buy it!


Monday, 11 March 2013

What would happen, exactly, if the goodies tried to wield the One Ring


The following useful and interesting explanation is found in The History of Middle Earth volume 8 The War of the Ring (page 401), in the context of an early draft of 'The Last Debate' chapter .


'But if we should find the Ring and wield it, how would it give us victory?' asked Imrahil.

 'It would not do so all in a day,' answered Gandalf. 'But were it to come to the hand of some one of power [?or] royalty, as say the Lord Aragorn, or the Steward of this City, or Elrond of Imladrist, or even to me, then he being the Ringlord would wax ever in power and the desire of power; and all minds he would cow or dominate so that they would blindly do his will.

'And he could not be slain.

'More: the deepest secrets of the mind and heart of Sauron would become plain to him, so that the Dark Lord could do nothing unforseen. The Ringlord would suck the very power and thought from him, so that all would forsake his allegiance and follow the Ringlord, and they would serve him and worship him as a God.

'And so Sauron would be overthrown utterly and fade into oblivion; but behold, there would be Sauron still...

'but upon the other side, [a tyrant brooking no freedom, shrinking from no deed of evil to hold his sway and to widen it].'


A striking phrase is that the Ringlord would suck the very power and thought from Sauron, so that all would forsake his allegiance and follow the Ringlord.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Tolkien fandom then and now: Tolkien-based or meta-Tolkien - the Litmus Test of re-reading


As a young teen in the early 1970s and a Tolkien fan, the essence of fandom was re-reading.

There was very little published material by Tolkien, even less about him - all of it was expensive and most of it was inaccessible on a pocket-money budget.

Therefore, I read and re-read Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.


Nowadays, a fan need never re-read because there is so much secondary and tertiary material - there are the movies and their fandom - so many web sites, so much chat-about Tolkien-related matters.

There is no need to re-read - and anyway re-reading is quantitatively swamped by all the other stuff.

For the modern Tolkien fan, therefore, Tolkien is mostly a mass media phenomenon: the modern Tolkien fan is actually a meta-Tolkien fan: a fan of Tolkienish stuff of which Tolkien is a part, but by no means the dominant part.


I doubt whether the modern Tolkien fan experiences those years upon Years of aching desire for more of the same; only satiated (and only partly) by returning again and again to the books: to Tolkien's own words.


Sunday, 3 March 2013

Why is it important to recognize that Tolkien was not exactly a niggler?


In the previous post I argued that Tolkien was not fundamentally a niggler - against which Troels produced some robust arguments.

Now he has been joined in his pro-niggling onslaught by Tom Shippey, no less, who wrote me in an e-mail: 

Well, I have to agree with Troels. I've recently written the chapter on T as editor for Stuart Lee's forthcoming Companion, and honestly, how did he get away with it? Oxford professor, of course, which helps when it comes to dealing with OUP, but of the 11 projects he took up, only one was completed satisfactorily and more or less on time, which was the SGGK edition - and Gordon was the motor who drove that. Tolkien didn't really have a lot to do. 

The Sisam Glossary is full of niggling, in the sense of quite unnecessary detail - I bet the majority of his entries have never been looked at once in all the years since 1921, nor did they need to be - and that was what sank the Clarendon Chaucer (which, by the way, has been recently rediscovered under the urging of John M. Bowers from Las Vegas). 

Another failure was the Ancrene Wisse edition, which took 33 years to come out, and was not only delayed by totally unnecessary fussing over presentation, but appeared, quite against normal procedure, without the usual introduction and notes, which Tolkien was ideally suited to produce. If I had been the OUP editor responsible I would have handed the job over to G T Shepherd, who did many of the things Tolkien should have done, with far less backing.

I admit that I have known several academics who were EVEN WORSE, and that it is a professional deformation. And Tolkien was good about helping other people, like Simone d'Ardenne.

Also that he had an all-purpose excuse, which is that his mind was on other and more important things. He could indeed write quickly and directly once he saw his way clear.

Alas that he was not relieved of academic duties and put on permanent sabbatical, say about 1940. And maybe he would have been better-off to stay in Leeds and continue working with Gordon. But then he would not have had the stimulus of Lewis, without whom LotR would not have been finished, by all accounts.

So, why don't I just throw in the towel and admit defeat?


The reason is that we importantly need to recognize that Tolkien was not a niggler pure and simple, in order properly to understand his character and achievement.

Most nigglers - by which I mean those with an over-scrupulous attention to 'minor' details which other people regard as trivial - are highly conscientious characters, dutiful, able to grind away at any job until it is done.

If we have known nigglers in our own lives, the chances are that they were of this highly conscientious type.


Yet Tolkien was not of this type. His over-scrupulous attention to microscopic detail was (from his youth, and throughout adult and professional life) combined with an inability to stick to what he was 'supposed to do' but did not actually want to do.

This was what led to his failure to get a Scholarship to Oxford (and having to settle for a lower Exhibition award at the second attempt) and to his nearly disastrous performance in the first part of his Classics degree (only just avoiding a third class rank - which would probably have finished any realistic chance of an academic job).

Lack of conscientiousness also accounts for other aspects of his later professional performance - as one example that he apparently 'always' failed to complete the subject matter of his lecture courses, because of spending too much time on the early parts, until he ran out of time.


What we see with Tolkien is in fact is a much stranger mixture of extreme attention to detail and perfectionism with an ability to work hard and with close attention for long hours - yet combined with an almost endless ability to put off working on things he was not fundamentally interested by; leading to an apparent selfishness and willfulness of behaviour whereby he could not make himself complete, but would not abandon, projects.


Like most creative geniuses (according to H.J Eysenck), Tolkien was relatively high in the personality trait called Psychoticism.

(Word search this term in this blog for further information, and see

Psychoticism is associated with high creativity - especially 'schizotypal' creativity of the dream-like type: widely-associative and insightful (in novel ways).

But Psychoticism is also associated with low conscientiousness, and a certain independence from the opinion/ approval of others that borders on selfishness (in other words low Agreeableness, in one of the modern terminologies of personality traits).

So the typical creative genius, who is high in Psychoticism, is someone whose hard work is channelled into their avocation - their self chosen hobby - rather than their vocation (appointed job): to use the words of Robert Frost from Two Tramps in Mud Time:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes. 


Tolkien certainly succeeded in uniting his avocation and his vocation - but ruthlessly, at the expense of his vocation.

With respect to his vocation Tolkien was a prevaricator, a putter-offer and a delayer  - yet would not cancel because, in a sense, he needed the 'cover' of having these projects which he was 'working on'. The way he put-off working-on or completing these tasks was the most natural to him - that is niggling; but niggling without urgency or purpose.

Therefore I would regard Tolkien's 1961 comment to Rayner Unwin, that he was a 'natural niggler' to be essentially an excuse; a self-justifying but not complete and accurate explanation of frequent endless delays.

Meanwhile, no effort was too great for his avocation - yet the niggling was disciplined, kept in bounds by the need to complete and publish his beloved hobbies - as soon as he saw the way ahead, by which he could fulfil his distinctive purposes through writing, the work flowed swift and sure to completion.


So Tolkien was either at most a partial-niggler; or else the word 'niggler' needs to be redefined to exclude merely conscientious, dutiful attention to detail.