Thursday 21 February 2013

Was Tolkien not a niggler?


"I am a natural niggler, alas!" said JRR Tolkien in a letter to Rayner Unwin of December 30 10961 - he was, of course, referring to his story Leaf by Niggle in which the protagonist with the name of Niggle is so delayed by his niggling-away at minutiae of his Big Painting, then death takes him before the work is completed.


Leaf by Niggle was written in 1938-9, during the time Tolkien was working on the Hobbit-sequel that ultimately became Lord of the Rings - and working on that particular book at that particular time, Tolkien was indeed a niggler par excellence.


I have been slowly re-reading volume six of The History of Middle Earth devoted to the early stages in composing Lord of the Rings (The Return of the Shadow, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 1988); and sure enough there is a vast amount of niggling going on.

But the context is that Tolkien was (more or less) forcing himself to write this Hobbit-sequel - it was not what he spontaneously wanted to write, it was being done 'to order' following the success of The Hobbit and a request from the publisher for another book about hobbits.


As I read Return of the Shadow for something like the third time, and more carefully than before, I am struck by how poor (by Tolkien's own standards) some parts of it are - just about the worst fiction writing of  Tolkien's that I have seen: worse than the Hobbit, worse than Farmer Giles, and worse than the drafts of The Lost Road.

The problem is that so much of the writing lacks spontaneity and seems contrived and at times just silly. Clearly the story wasn't flowing forth, and was having to be squeezed out.

Consequently, the Hobbit-sequel was coming-out wrong, with gross incoherences of plot and tone, and vacillations on key principles - in other words the text needed an awful lot of 'niggling' in order to try and 'fix' the inconsistencies.


But later on in the writing of Lord of the Rings (I am not sure of the timing, but certainly from after Tolkien broke off in 1945-6, during which he began the aborted Notion Club Papers) the LotR text flows easily, and the first draft is typically very similar to the final published version.

The later portions of LotR thus emerged quite rapidly and without need of much revision.


And this seems to have been the norm for Tolkien.

Most of Tolkien's books were composed quickly, and the first drafts are both high in literary quality, and requiring very little revision and not much 'niggling'.

Thus Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wooton Major were all produced quickly with good first drafts. Both the Lost Tales, and the 1920s and 30s versions of The Silmarillion were composed quite quickly, and with an immediately-attained high quality of both literary finish and factual cohesion.

Even unrevised and only posthumously-published works like Roverandom and the Father Christmas Letters were written quickly, and with a high level of literary finish at the first (and only) attempt.

Tolkien's letters were also often of superb literary quality and organization.  


So, when Tolkien was writing what he wanted to write, for reasons of inner motivation - he worked quickly and attained excellent first drafts.

Tolkien was therefore not by nature a niggler

- except when he was being forced to work at externally-imposed projects, or work faster than he wanted to go.


Saturday 9 February 2013

At what precise point did The Hobbit-sequel change into Lord of the Rings


According to Professor Tom Shippey (the greatest-ever Tolkien scholar who is not also Tolkien's son) this point occurred on 9.Feb.1942 and is described on page 424 of The Treason of Isengard (volume seven of the History of Middle Earth edited by Christopher Tolkien, 1992).

Shippey makes this claim in an essay entitled "Tolkien and Iceland: the philology of envy" in the (superb) collection of essays Roots and Branches (2007).


The context is this paragraph:

We know now that Tolkien had great difficulty in getting his story going. In my opinion, he did not break through until, on February 9th 1942, he settled the issue of languages.

Think about the dwarves, with their Old Norse names. Clearly it was not possible for the dwarves really to have had Old Norse names, they lived long long ago, long before Old Norse was a language.

So the names Tolkien had given them, in a work written in modern English, must be there just to show that the dwarves, for convenience, spoke a language which related to the hobbits language in the same sort of way as Old Norse to modern English, or modern Icelandic to modern English - these things do happen in reality.

But if that was the case, then it was possible to imagine, in Middle Earth, a place where people were still speaking English, or even Gothic, a place where the poem Beowulf was still alive. 

Once Tolkien allowed himself to think this - and we can see him doing so on page 424 of The Treason of Isengard - then he could immediately, and with great ease, imagine the society of the Riders of Rohan, or the Riddermark, contrast them with the post Imperial society of Gondor, and allow his story to expand in entirely new and to Tolkien quite unexpected directions. 

The linguistic correspondences freed Tolkien's imagination. They made the book three times as long as it was supposed to be...


So what exactly is written on page 424 of TToI?

Language of Shire = modern English
Language of Dale = Norse (used by Dwarves of that region)
Language of Rohan = Old English

'Modern English' is lingua franca spoken by all people (except a few secluded folk like Lorien) - but little and ill by orcs. 


Thus is answered the puzzle of why the dwarves in the Hobbit had Norse names (they came from near Dale) - and potentially also why Gandalf has a Norse name (taken from the same Icelandic source as the dwarves names - indeed Gandalf was originally the name of Thorin).

Shippey (himself a philologist) was able to intuit how much such apparent inconsistencies in nomenclature bothered Tolkien; and how important it was that they should be resolved. And, as is usual with Tolkien, the language led to the story - new elements in the history of Middle Earth.


So I am pretty confident Shippey is right about this solution releasing Tolkien to let the story flow; although (as I have argued elsewhere on the blog) there remained a more spiritual/ religious problem about the 'purpose' of the story; which - together with a period of Psychological stress or illness - blocked the Lord of the Rings for a sustained period from 1944 until the late summer of 1946; when the experience of working on The Notion Club Papers seems to have finally enabled Tolkien to proceed without further major gaps in composition to finish Lord of the Rings in the form we have it.


Friday 8 February 2013

Tolkien nods: The saga of Trotter's feet


In reading The History of Middle Earth, and the early drafts of Lord of the Rings, there are some 'cold sweat moments' when you realize how horribly wrong it all might have gone - or perhaps it is just that a genius needs to make mistakes en route to a masterpiece.

Many of these relate to the character called Trotter - a friend of Gandalf whom the hobbits met at the Prancing Pony in Bree and who guides them to Rivendell.


Trotter eventually became the noble Numenorean heir to the throne of Gondor and Arnor we know as Aragorn - but he began as a brown skinned hobbit who wore wooden shoes.

The wooden shoes - whose clopping sound on the road explains the nickname of 'trotter' - seem (for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom) to have been taken by Tolkien as an immovable necessity to the story, and he expended considerable ingenuity in devising explanations for why a hobbit should be wearing clogs...


These matters come to a head in the draft chapter for the Council of Elrond (page 401 of The Return of the Shadow - volume 6 of The History of Middle Earth) :

Gandalf spoke long, making clear to those who did not already know the tale in full the ancient history of the Ring, and the reasons why the Dark Lord so greatly desired it.

Bilbo then gave  an account of the finding of the Ring in the cave of the Misty Mountains, and Trotter described his search for Gollum that he had made with Gandalf's help, and told of his perilous adventures in Mordor. 

Thus it was that Frodo learned how Trotter had tracked Gollum as he wandered southwards, through Fangorn Forest, and past the Dead Marshes, until he had himself been caught and imprisoned by the Dark Lord.

'Ever since I have worn shoes,' said Trotter with a shudder, and though he said no more Frodo knew he had been tortured and his feet hurt in some way...  

[Reference 20]


Well, all this is bad. After all this build-up about the clogs we get the phrase 'Hurt in some way...

Lame, one might say


But worse is yet to come.

The real, twenty-four carat cold sweat moment comes in Reference 20, where Christopher Tolkien reveals:

My father bracketed the passage from 'Ever since I have worn shoes' to 'hurt in some way', and wrote in the margin (with a query) that it should be revealed later that Trotter had wooden feet.

Go back and read that last sentence again...


Clogs would have been bad enough; but instead of the noble Aragorn, we very nearly had a mahogany-footed halfling.

Phew! (Wipes brow with large spotted handkerchief.)


Monday 4 February 2013

Review of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain


Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) - published between1964-1968:

The Book of Three
The Black Cauldron
The Castle of Llyr
Taran Wanderer
The High King


These books are among my favourite fantasy books. I came across them via a reference in Lin Carter's A look behind the Lord of the Rings and bought the first three volumes in the middle 1970s - only completing the set when the last two volumes were published in the UK in the 1980s. They are among my very favourite of the post-Tolkien fantasies that I have come across (but I don't read very widely in this genre).


In terms of difficulty the books are pitched at about the same level as the first two volumes of the Harry Potter series - age about 8-11 yars old.

I freely acknowledge that there is a certain 'corniness' about the structure of the books, with frequent 'cliffhangers' at the ends of chapters, for instance, and a somewhat low plausibility of action (especially battles - despite the author having seen active service in the US army during the European invasion of WWII); and an element of sentimentality concerning the main characters. this hold them back from the highest level of attainment.

However, these are good hearted books, and there is always a very appealing earnestness and seriousness about them - the author was really doing his best and trying to put his deepest convictions into this series. And they are extremely enjoyable - full of humour, adventure and pathos.


The world of Prydain is loosely based on the 'Mabinogion' legends of ancient Wales - a world of approximately Ancient Briton technology - but of course one where there is magic: enchanters (good and evil) magical swords, cauldrons, foresight, incantations etc; and several races and types of being - dwarves and other fairy 'Fair Folk', undead warriors and so on - including the one and only Gurgi who seems to be a 'missing link' between Orang Utans and humans. In sum, it is a very satisfying subcreation.


I have just finished (at least) my fourth read through of the series (and I have dipped into it at other times) - and I always feel better for having read it.

It is one of those books I like party because the author seems such a good and decent man.

(Most authors are not good and decent men - and I have a special fondness for those who are. Another example of g-ness and decency is Jerome K Jerome as evidenced by his autobiography My Life and Times (1926) which is also one of the best autobiographies I have ever read.)

There is a delightful three segment interview/ visit with Lloyd Alexander recorded in 1994 and currently available on YouTube:


Friday 1 February 2013

Tolkien or Lewis - who was the most intelligent?


There is not much in it - and we must remember that 'general intelligence' ('g', measured as IQ) is only one dimension of cognitive ability - and creativity (in particular) is a separate dimension. In terms of creativity, Tolkien excelled Lewis -

(General intelligence is that concept - constructed statistically as IQ - which was hypothesized to explain why all cognitive abilities co-correlate in population samples - to a greater or lesser extent. In groups, being good at one cognitive task - memory, general knowledge, mathematics, verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, vocabulary, reading age etc... any one and all such tasks - correlates with being good at any and all others.)


In terms of approximations, general intelligence can roughly be measured in terms of speed of learning and capacity for abstract reasoning.

And in traditional educational systems, where ability is measured in supervised and time limited exams that require on the spot thinking as well as memory, there is a high correlation between exam results and intelligence.

(This correlation is much lower now due to the non-validity of examinations and endemic cheating - a.k.a. 'coursework'.)


So, we can compare Tolkien and Lewis head to head on examinations.

1. Oxford scholarship examinations. Lewis got a Scholarship (the largest financial award) at the first attempt; but Tolkien only got an Exhibition (a lower level of award) at the second attempt.

2. Both Tolkien and Lewis began by studying the same course (Classics, or Literae Humaniores) at much the same time (Tolkien 'went up' to Oxford in 1911, Lewis in 1917) - in the first set of exams in that course Tolkien (only just) got a second class while Lewis got a First.

3. Tolkien switched his degree to English in which he got a First class degree; Lewis stayed in Classics where he also got a First. But Lewis's L.H. degree was Oxford's oldest and highest-status degree (a four year course) while English was a lower ranked 'upstart' (and a three year course).

(Just one year after completing his classics degree, Lewis did the English degree (a three year degree completed in one year) - and got yet another First... A Triple First!)


After this point there is a wide divergence, because Tolkien had a precocious academic career in which - with the assistance of good fortune - a few items of high quality early scholarship led to a very early Oxford Professorship - after which his published productivity declined substantially.

Lewis, on the other hand, published almost nothing except poetry until his mid-thirties and it was not until his late thirties when The Allegory of Love made his academic reputation, after which was unleashed a veritable tidal wave of published scholarship - plus of course the other work in fiction and apologetics for which he became famous among the general public -  and it was not until Lewis's fifties that he became a Professor (in Cambridge).


But on head-to-head comparisons, Lewis beat Tolkien clearly on the entrance exam and the interim Classical Moderations exam - and Lewis's performance in general is better.

I conclude that Lewis was more intelligent than Tolkien in the sense of having a higher IQ. 

(Although both were clearly very intelligent, in the top less-than-one-percent of the population!)


The idea that Lewis has higher IQ than Tolkien fits with Lewis being famous for his memory, ability to quote, and swiftness of assertion and response in conceptual argument.

Having said that, Lewis did recognize other people as superior in intelligence to himself - for example he certainly regarded the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe as more intelligent than himself.


So, Tolkien and Lewis were both exceptionally intelligent and creative: but Tolkien was more creative and Lewis was more intelligent.