Monday, 22 June 2020

Tolkien, the late-developer, with reference to photographs (stimulated by re-reading Tolkien at Exeter College, by John Garth; 2014)

I have just re-read Tolkien at Exeter College: how an Oxford undergraduate created Middle Earth by John Garth - a 64 page illustrated pamphlet, published by Exeter College, Oxford in 2014. It is enjoyable and well worth reading; since it puts a microscope onto this important and transitional period of Tolkien's life (complementing the same author's Tolkien and the Great War).

What strikes me is that Tolkien was very much of a late developer. This is obvious from his undergraduate career; he started at Oxford aged 19, and the impression from his first couple of years of college life is of an immature, almost compulsively-sociable young man; who joined a large number of dining, conversation and sports clubs; worked very little; engaged in rowdy, destructive, even criminal 'japes'; and spent a lot more money on entertainment, eating and drinking than he could afford - significantly more than the other young men with Exhibitions and Scholarships spent.

It was not until he changed his course from Classics to English, that Tolkien found his vocation, and began to focus his efforts on learning and working. Furthermore, he focused his friendships away from casual acquaintance with dozens, down to fewer and closer relationships; especially with the TCBS members from his schooldays (GB Smith at Oxford; RC Gilson and C Wiseman at Cambridge), and the re-awakening engagement with his future wife Edith.

But I would like to discuss photographs. In Humphrey Carpenter's 1977 official biography there is indeed a whole chapter called Photographs Observed; but HC does not mention what strikes me just now.

Which is that in all his early photography, from his teenage right through to the early twenties, Tolkien had a singularly characterless, expressionless face - at least as revealed in photographs. There seems no disernable trace of his genius, nor even of an interesting person!

The narrowed eyes stare into the distance - but in a way that seems vacuous rather than visionary!

It might be objected that these are just photographs, and that nobody looks very lively in these old posed pictures. Yet the fact is that most of Tolkien's colleagues look much more distinctive, interesting, characterful than he did!

Of course these were a talented bunch of young men, and many of them were killed in the war (fully half of his matriculating class; overall about 20 percent of the entire college) before they could demonstrate that they might be even greater geniuses than Tolkien...

For example, Colin Cullis, in the second picture, was Tolkien's room mate and a member of most of his clubs, and held a higher academic award than Tolkien (a Scholarship, to Tolkien's Exhibition). He has a poetic and sensitive-looking face; with intent eyes. But Cullis was laid low with a serious heart condition, missed the war from ill heath and died in the 'Spanish Flu' of 1919.

Nonetheless, having made all these caveats I am in no doubt that Tolkien was a singularly blank-looking young man, especially when contrasted with the more familiar characterful and appealling old man he became. This fits with his extravert, sensation-seeking, drifting way of life.

Presumably the transition to an internally-driven genius began to evolve in his young adult life or later; perhaps related to getting married, having children, taking responsible jobs...

There is, however, a picture taken in his later 20s when a Reader or Professor at Leeds, where he still seems only 'partially-formed'! And even by the time of this formal picture of 'the 1930s' (aged about forty), although Tolkien has developed a much more intent and eagle-eyed expression, yet he still seems a bit blank and 'vacant'!

It was not until Tolkien's late forties when we start to see that 'twinkle' in the eye that I regard as characteristic:

What do I conclude? Simply that Tolkien's facial appearance broadly matches-up-with and tracks the strengthening and deepening of his literary powers; and this came after middle age. Surely this is what we would expect, after all?

It is perhaps reasonable to conclude (albeit rather lamely!) that these and other photographs confirm that Tolkien probably could not have written his greatest work, until the later-life years when - in fact - he did write his greatest work!

Note: The photos above are merely illustrative ones that I could find on the interweb. My case is argued on the basis of scores of photos I have in various books.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Review: John Garth, The Worlds of JRR Tolkien (2020)

John Garth. The Worlds of JRR Tolkien: the places that inspired Middle-Earth. Frances Lincoln, London: UK, 2020. pp 208

John Garth is one of the best and most important writers on JRR Tolkien. This is his first full-length book since the landmark volume Tolkien and the Great War of 2003; so I knew I would enjoy it.

From the title, and the fact that it is a large format, really beautifully-produced, hardback volume; I supposed The Worlds of JRR Tolkien might be dominated by the pictures, maybe even be something like a superior 'coffee table' book? I supposed that I might be able to read it in an hour or two... I could not have been more wrong!

This book is absolutely packed with information, a considerable amount completely new to me; analyses, comparisons, discussions, perspectives...

For example, the chapter on 'Craft and Industry' is a fresh examination of the Birmingham links; clarifying that the city was originally composed of thousands of small workshops, making 'toys' of a very hobbit-like kind: buckles and buttons and the like. Tolkien's Grammar School bulidings (now demolished) were one of the great examples of Victorian Gothic revival. And, in general, it would seem that Birmingham and its environs had many positive aspects to contribute to the assimilated childhood and youth experiences of Tolkien, upon which he mainly drew in his writing.

Another stunning chapter was entitled 'The Land of Luthien', and this focused upon maps. There is enough inspired analysis in this chapter to make a whole book. I was particularly gripped by the multiple diagrams where Garth superimposes Tolkien's Lost Tales, Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings maps onto the modern geography of the British Isles (sometimes altering scales). He does this several times, demonstrating what we get from various possible identifications of specific Middle Earth places with specific British cities (e.g. Hobbiton and Oxford) or rivers (e.g. Lhun with Severn).

Other chapters focus on the sea and coastline, mountains, rivers and lakes, towers, warscapes, and - of course! - trees, woodland and forests!

So in broad terms; this book is about the influences of Place on Tolkien's work. It can immediately be seen that this is an entirely appropriate subject matter; because Tolkien is, perhaps above all others, a creator of places. Influences are traced in both directions: from the Tolkien's important places to their possible usage in his works; and from the striking places in Tolkien's works, looking back to possible real locations and experiences that may have contributed to them.

Throughout, Garth manages to maintain the 'right' tone. On the one hand he acknowledges that this is a serious study, about a writer who for many people (including myself) - is The most important of modern fiction authors. On the other hand he maintains a lightness of touch about the activity - allowing himself to speculate (and report the speculations of others) even when these are somewhat wild and loose.

In the event, the book took me several days of intense reading - the process interrupted frequently by setting it aside to think; and by reading out passages, showing pictures, and expounding 'fascinating facts' to my family. 

The Worlds of JRR Tolkien is clearly a labour of love; a considered product of thought; fuelled by a deep appreciation of Tolkien and his works. You could buy it as a handsome gift, because it is an exceptionally fine volume: built to last. But anyone who engages with the text and illustrations will discover greater depths and deeper fascinations; and find this to be a major resource for the serious Tolkien reader. 

Friday, 19 June 2020

Gandalf should not have shown mercy to the unrepentant Saruman

I have always been troubled about the attitude shown toward Saruman by first Gandalf then Frodo, at the end of the Lord of the Rings.

Saruman is a corrupted wizard (a goodie turned baddie) who is the second most important villain in LotR. He is defeated by a combination of the Riders of Rohan and the Ents; and, after being offered and refusing a chance to repent and reform, he is imprisoned by the Ents in the tower of Orthanc.

However, after only a few weeks (and after the prime evil leader Sauron has been defeated and destroyed) Saruman is allowed by the chief Ent (Treebeard) to leave the tower and wander free.

In other words, Treebeard shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and lifts his punishment.

When Gandalf discovers that Saruman has been released, he believes that Treebeard has been hoodwinked by Saruman's almost magical rhetorical skills; and that releasing him was a mistake.

However, when Gandalf and a group of the Fellowship accidentally meet Saruman later in the journey, Gandalf does not make any attempt to recapture Saruman; but allows him to continue his wanderings.

In other words, Gandalf shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and lifts his punishment.

Saruman goes to the Shire and accelerates the process of enslavement, torture, killing, looting and environmental destruction which he had set into action shortly after Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin had left on their quest. When the four hobbits return to the Shire they need to fight and defeat Saruman and his gangs of ruffians; and in doing so several hobbits are killed and others injured.

So, Gandalf's mercy has by this point led to considerable death among hobbits and destruction of the Shire (plus even more death among the ruffians - who are first offered and refuse a chance to repent, surrender and leave without molestation).

Even after all this, Frodo offers Saruman a further chance to repent, which he refuses. Then Frodo shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and does not impose punishment.

Saruman then stabs and tries but fails to kill Frodo, after which Frodo again shows the unrepentant Saruman mercy, and does not impose any punishment.

Eventually Saruman is killed by his servant Wormtongue, who is slain by the other hobbits before Frodo could stop this.

The result of Frodo’s last acts of mercy was the death of both the unrepentant Saruman, and the on-the-verge-of-repenting Wormtongue.

My feeling is that while Gandalf and Frodo are obviously just in offering Saruman repeated opportunities to repent, and that in their hearts it is right that they forgive Saruman; they are both at fault for showing Saruman a mercy (a reprieve from just punishment) which he did not deserve and which led to great harm. I mean, Gandalf and Frodo's repeated acts of mercy led to harm to others, although not to Gandalf and Frodo.

I am also troubled that Saruman - unlike his mass-slaughtered and mass-imprisoned minions (which included men, as well as orcs, wolves and other perhaps intrinsically-evil creatures) - was hardly punished for his wicked deeds.

Such punishment would have been deserved, and it could perhaps also have brought Saruman towards a realization of his wickedness. To let him wander free did none of this.

I wonder how these acts of mercy would have seemed to the men of Rohan, for example. Saruman simply walking free at the end of these terrible wars; having lied, betrayed, corrupted - not to mention having unleashed orcs on women and children... and so on!

Why should Saruman not be punished?

My interpretation is that Gandalf and Frodo were - understandably - exhausted; and for that reason behaved wrongly in showing mercy to Saruman.

They had both, in fact, from perfectly understandable exhaustion lapsed into a lazy and immoral attitude of pacifism - which is at root a kind of pride, pride in one's own superiority, a reluctance (born of exhaustion) to go through the psychological struggles and compromises of judgment, punishment etc).

Indeed, it was wrong for Gandalf and Frodo to have taken it upon themselves to judge in this matter - since both were (at this point in the story) merely biding their time and settling their affairs prior to leaving Middle Earth. Both had done their duty, succeeded in their primary tasks, and neither had an eye to the future of Middle Earth.

Therefore, the right thing for Gandalf to have done would have been to step aside for Aragorn to make a judgment (or to send Saruman back to the King Aragorn for this purpose); the right thing for Frodo to have done was to step aside for Sam, Merry and Pippin to make a judgment - or perhaps also to refer the matter to King Aragorn (imprisoning Saruman and Wormtongue in the meanwhile).

The whole business illustrates for me a confusion between forgiveness and mercy which is very common.

People seem to assume that to forgive somebody also entails showing them mercy - such that a person who is forgiven is not punished.

This is surely completely and utterly wrong!

Universal forgiveness is quite simply a duty, which everyone must strive to achieve - but universal mercy would be wicked, catastrophically wicked.

It is a gross misunderstanding to imagine that wrong deeds ought never to be punished, and that punishment is only done from resentment.

What should have happened (surely?) is that Gandalf, and Frodo, and the Riders of Rohan and everyone should ideally have forgiven Saruman; but that Saruman should have been punished - and punished severely, up-to and perhaps including execution of his earthly body (as an angelic spirit Sauman's soul was presumably immortal within the life of the world).

In my opinion, the repeated mercy that Gandalf and Frodo showed towards Saruman was at best inappropriate soft-heartedness and at worst a kind of 'aristocratic' lenience - whereby rulers are (from a sense of solidarity) more considerate and merciful towards each other than they are to the common people.

Did Tolkien intend to imply this kind of interpretation?

I am not at all sure - but I would not be *too* surprised if he did; wanting, at some level, to show us mistaken mercy borne of exhaustion as being yet another of the many ill effects of the war of the ring.

Note: Originally published 7th September 2010 at Bruce Charlton's Notions. 

Further Note: If Saruman deserved to be let go free to do evil 'in a small way'; how about if Sauron had been captured instead of killed (supposing that the destruction of The Ring hadn't dissolved him into smoke)? What kind of justice would that be? 

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

How many Mars Bar-adjusted pounds does the Lord of the Rings cost, then and now?

 A hobbit holding some Mars Bars

When the Lord of the Rings was first published in the middle 1950s, its UK cost was 1 Guinea - and a Guinea was 1 Pound and 1 Shilling (a Pound being 240 old-pennies and a Shilling being 12 old-pennies); so a Guinea was was 252d (d = old-pennies).

All three LotR volumes cost 3 guineas = about 3.2 pounds. Nowadays, the three volume paperback costs about 25 pounds from including delivery. So, the raw cost of buying a new three volume LotR has increased from the 1950s to now by about Eight-fold (25/3.2 = 7.8).

By contrast the price of a Mars Bar (MB) has increased from 5d to 60p, and 60p would have been 144d. Therefore the cost of a Mars Bar has increased (1950s-now) by about Twentynine-fold. (144/5 = c28.8)

Therefore, to adjust for UK inflation since the 1950s to now, we need to multiply current prices by twenty-nine.

(Why Mars Bars? Well, the Mars Bar is 'officially' (i.e. according to an article in the The Financial Times) a Standard; and a (sort-of) acknowledged unit of inflation-adjusted cost. This means that we can standardise the 'real value' of money c. 1955 by correcting for the inflation of Mars Bar prices - that is by multiplying current price by twenty-nine*. )

Therefore, the equivalent (MB-adjusted) cost of LotR at the time it was published was about 93 pounds (approx = 29 X 3.2 pounds).

Of course, for that high price, one was getting a beautifully sewn hard-backed book to last a lifetime, instead of a glued paperback that will probably fall to pieces in about a decade.

The point is that 93 pounds would nowadays be A Lot to pay to buy a copy of a novel, and way beyond what people (especially teens) would normally pay for a book. Therefore it is not at all surprising that the LotR took quite a while to become well known and widely read in the UK.   

The first UK paperback was an omnibus edition of all three books - which was not published until 1968. However, this version was minus the appendices (except for an excerpt about Aragorn and Arwen). It sold for 30 Shillings - or 1.5 pounds.

By 1970 the Mars Bars had apparently increased in price to 6d - so we can use a twentyfour-fold inflation adjuster; then we get an MB-adjusted price of 36 pounds for the 1968 omnibus paperback edition.

At the time I first read LotR that single-volume-paperback was the only 'affordable' option for a teen - and very steep even so.

Because the paperback was incomplete, I wanted to buy The Return of the King, in order to get the appendices; and this was only available in hardback. But by 1970 the hardback had nearly doubled in price (to 1.95 pounds) since it was published.

So the MB-adjusted cost of a single volume of the hardback at the time I began reading the LotR in 1972 would be something-like forty-seven pounds. (1.95 X 24 = 46.8). No wonder I didn't buy it...

This shows what poor value was the UK paperback in the early 1970s, and how the restrictive practices of bookselling had - by the 1970s - made UK books relatively more expensive in 1968 than they were in the 1950s. Although I recall that, in addition, Unwin's Tolkien books were noticeably more expensive than most.

From all this it is easy to see just why it was in the United States that Tolkien first became popular, with the UK lagging far behind. Books have always been cheaper in the US than the UK - despite usually being better made; perhaps due to more competition and to the larger market?

And furthermore while the UK had to wait until 1968 for an incomplete paperback; the US had a (pirate) Ace paperback of the complete book from 1965, selling at 2.25 dollars for all three volumes (75 cents per volume)  - which would (with about 2.5 dollars to the pound, at that time) have been equivalent to less than 1 Pound, half the price of the UK paperback omnibus version.

*Note: Alternatively, we could express the cost of buying the Lord of the Rings - then and now - in Mars Bars (MBs). At the time of publication the cost was 151 MBs (756d/5) and this has now gone down to 42 MBs (2500p/60).

PS: I got the idea for this from Tom Shippey, who calculated the relative cost of LotR - then and now - but (characteristically) using the price of a pint of beer as his adjustor. I felt this could be improved (economically, albeit less amusingly) using the FT-approved Mars Bar Standard.

PPS - 16:32h - Commenter dearime tells me that Mars bars were 5d in the 1950s (and I believe him!) so I have recalculated on that basis, and again on the basis that an MB was 6d by 1970. 

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Review of Tolkien and the Silmarillion by Clyde Kilby

Tolkien and The Silmarillion by Clyde Kilby. Lion Publishing, Berkhamsted, Kent, UK. 1977 pp 89. (US edition, 1976.)

This is a hardly-known, slim, minor, but fascinating contribution to the writings about Tolkien. Its centre is an account of the summer of 1966 which the author spent meeting with the seventy-four year old Tolkien a few times per week, ostensibly to provide him with informed and enthusiastic secretarial assistance to get The Silmarillion ready for publication.

Clive Kilby was extremely well suited to the job - being a scholar of English literature, and the man who ultimately established the Marion Wade centre at Wheaton College, Illinois (a mecca for Inklings scholars).

As he candidly admits, Kilby's mission failed completely and he was unable to move Tolkien even an inch towards completing his task; indeed it soon became apparent that Tolkien was not really even trying to make the Silmarillion ready for publication; devoting his attention and spending his time on almost anything else rather than this. The Silmarillion was finally prepared for publication by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay in 1977; the same year as this book was published. 

Kilby's secondary task (given him by Rayner Unwin, Tolkien's publisher) was to get him to finish the introduction to the modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; which needed only a few more days work to be ready but had been stuck at this point for many years. Kirby also failed at this - and Tolkien announced ("almost triumphantly") at the end of the summer "Well, I didn't write it!" (The book was finally published posthumously by Christopher, in 1975.)

Kilby's book made no kind of impact - probably because it was from such a small publisher; and partly because its speculations about the Silmarillion seemed to be rendered obsolete by the long trailed publication of The Silmarillion itself, in 1977. Similarly, the memoir snippets about Tolkien which Kilby provides, were also swept away by Humphrey Carpenter's official biography, also in 1977.

The special value of Kilby's book, and why it still remains well worth reading (if you can get hold of a modestly priced copy) is the 28 page chapter Summer with Tolkien. This I would rate as the best concentrated account I have ever read of what Tolkien was like as a person - in his old age. Kilby had (and Warnie Lewis confirms this, in his diaries) a very sweet and direct nature, with that nice kind of (as it seems to English people) boyish naivete characteristic of some grown-up American men.

So, there are some really good descriptions of Tolkien's appearance, behaviour, manners, mode of speech - and the conversational topics that interested him. Kilby provides a specimen day where he lists, in order, the subjects into-which Tolkien led the conversation:

1. Fan letters, and how T replies to them; 2. Annoyance at an article on T in the Saturday Evening Post; 3. Declaring the birch outside to be his totem tree; 4. How he and Mrs T were annoyed with WH Auden for reportedly making the remark that T's home was 'hideous' in a meeting of the T Society in the US; 5. His dislike of the covers on the Ballantyne paperbacks - and (on publishers more generally) that he was both annoyed and gratified by the Ace paperbacks pirate edition of Lord of the Rings; 6. That he was pleased with the Japanese edition of The Hobbit; 7. Discussing Mrs T's chronic illness; 8. K asks if anyone has asked to write a biography, T says yes and discusses his worries at inner motives being misrepresented; 9. His intention to write a book on the Second Age of Middle Earth, especially Numenor; 10. T showed K some old manuscripts of his work, with evidence of much re-working.

In general; Kilby commented (what the above list confirms) that Tolkien did not seem much interested in working on The Silmarillion, had lost track of much written material among a chaos of manuscripts, and seemed to have forgotten some things he had written (often some decades earlier).

In sum, this little book contains plenty to enjoy, and contributes an unique perspective to understanding the delightful, frustrating, complex and contradictory character of JRR Tolkien.

Back to the Notion Club Papers; connections with the current spiritual war

 By Afalstein

I am currently on an all-round diet of Tolkien - Reading The Notion Club Papers for the nth time (and dipping-into other things); and listening to the audiobook of Christopher Tolkien's thematic edition of the Beren and Luthien texts (2017).

Coming at the Notion Club Papers this time, I am much aware that Tolkien was writing this as a spiritual exploration, he was trying to solve some pressing personal problems by writing them. Instead of working these out in real-life conversations with the Inklings; he chose to do so through the the Notion Club - which were fictional-fantasy Inklings.

And then he would read what he had written to the actual Inklings, presumably to gather reactions; and return to do more Notion Club - all through the first half of 1946 until he again took-up The Lord of the Rings, never to return again to the NCPs.

What Tolkien was concerned by, was something that 'obsessed' him all through his writing life - which was the 'frame' of his fantasy.

The NCPs open with Tolkien's alter ego Ramer (one of his two alter egos in this work - the other being Lowdham) having just read a science fiction story about another planet to the Club; and being criticised for the clumsiness and perfunctory, unconvincing nature of the 'framing device' for travel to and from this planet - apparently in a spaceship of some kind.

Tolkien himself needed a way of relating, of explaining, the link between his stories and the modern world. 

After considering various possibilities, the consensus is that some kind of mental travel is the best possibility - either telepathy or in a trance or dream state. A psychic link needs to be established between a human body here-and-now, and other times and places. This was actively being considered by Tolkien as the basis for linking his 'Middle Earth' (Arda) writings with modern Oxford - in which case the NCPs would have been, in effect, the first volume of The Lord of the Rings and/or The Silmarillion.

But in a larger sense, which soon becomes apparent; Tolkien is writing more generally about the relation between his imaginative fantasy and the modern mundane world. The Club's discussions branch off into considering how - as imagination goes back - history turns into myth. And it is clear that the mythic way of thinking is regarded as being of great value. Indeed, the projected NCPs seem to be about re-establishing the link between myth and modern life.

Following the telepathy/ trance/ dream line of thinking; this link is established by members of the Notion Club themselves, as a consequence of their conscious and purposive brooding on this theme. In effect, because they regard it as important and as possible - the Notion Club are able to bridge time and space in their own minds, thereby opening a 'channel' through which myth can re-enter modernity.

This at first happens by the storms that led to the drowning of Numenor, breaking-through to sweep the British Isles from West to East (Ireland bearing the brunt of it, but Oxford also severely affected).

What impresses me with the NCPs this-time-round, is that Tolkien was saying that thinking is real - and that purposive, conscious, sincere thinking has an effect on the world - primarily a spiritual effect, but also a physical effect (albeit something of a minor disaster in terms of wind and floods).

Also, I am appreciating the way that the Notion Club are engaged in a kind of intuitive searching. They don't know exactly what they are looking-for, nor do they know where or how to find-it. So they try this, and that - and follow hunches to see whether they lead to anything.

Ramer and Dolbear being by means of trances and dreams; and in the second part Lowdham and Jeremy extend this to a physical search for... clues and connections; travelling by boat and on foot in Ireland and the West coast of the mainland of Britain.

I am finding all this is encouraging me in my current efforts, as described recently. Because The Notion Club Papers is - in one sense - 'about' the need to combat the deathly, dead-ly materialism and reductionism of modern society; to combat it consciously and purposively (and effectively) by our minds, our imaginations.