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The Fellowship of the RingI’ve been pretty lazy when it comes to my blog lately, so it’s been a while since I finished reading this – and an even longer while since I started reading it (which is a logical necessity, when you think about it). We read The Lord of the Rings in my friend Steve’s Tolkien and the Inklings group in Seoul; it was the culmination of a year of Tolkien reading. In fact, it was most of the Tolkien reading as we read it one book at a time for our monthly meetings and the novel is divided into six books (but often published in three volumes). So this review is pretty much a year in the making – and, as I don’t have the books with me right now, it will probably end up being rather vague.

I read The Lord of the Rings first when I was a teenager, I believe – during that period of my life when I often visited Shopping City Library. I don’t have any particular memory of it though – so I actually may not have read it then at all. I did read it (again – or possibly for the first time) when I was at university in my mid-twenties. This was the time when Peter Jackson’s films were coming out; I picked up a nice boxed set with the whole thing divided into seven volumes – one for each of the books and one for the appendices. I remember being impressed by the invented world and history and the rather post-modern structure, and less than impressed by the writing style.

In particular, I remember reading the very end of the story in a gazebo next to one of the ponds at Bath Spa University and pretty much breaking down in tears at the sadness of the conclusion.

All throughout the months of reading it this time around, I wondered if it would affect me quite as much. It didn’t.

The Return of the KingOne of the great attractions and flaws of The Lord of the Rings is its simplicity. The writing is quite naïve; none of the descriptive writing is especially literary or challenging by mondern standards. The characters are generally quite two-dimensional – with the exceptions, perhaps, of Boromir and Frodo (one of whom dies a third of the way through, the other is not present on page for large portions of the rest of the novel). This makes the story seem a little less like the struggle of individual characters than a dance of paper dolls.

But, of course, Tolkien wasn’t trying to make something comparable to modern literature – he was writing a fairy tale, a myth. I remember thinking, when I read the story in the 2000s, that the childlike simplicity of the text allowed it to somehow slip through the reader’s critical defences, to operate on a more primitive level. I didn’t necessarily feel that this time – I found it more of a constant distraction.

Probably one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings is so popular is because it is not at all challenging, literarily or morally. It’s a bit like a warm, unconditional hug from a parental figure. Nature and rural life is unconditionally good and meet and beautiful; the good guys are always ultimately good – even if sometimes troubled or tempted – and all their actions turn out for the best; evil will always be defeated.

The Two TowersThe Lord of the Rings is too important and influential a book – personally and globally – for me to dismiss it. There is much that is genuinely beautiful about it. In particular, the sense of a world changing, becoming less than it once was, personified exceptionally in the age-long melancholy of the elves and their eventual passage to the West … and less exceptionally in the industrialisation of the Shire. Gandalf is a wonderful character – a wise and benevolent, yet reluctant leader, who, despite his utter trustworthiness, still has his secrets and is not a stranger to losing his temper (‘Fool of a Took!’).

The narrative structure is one of the most interesting features of the novel. The first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring is the most conventional part, but thereafter it alternates, book by book, between focussing on Frodo and Sam on the one hand and the rest of the characters on the other. This works very well for building suspense about what is happening to Sam and Frodo – especially as Aragorn, Merry, Pippin et al have no idea how their friends’ unlikely quest is proceeding. There are a couple of parts where first Merry and Pippin’s adventures and later Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s are glossed over in flashback (the sacking of Isengard by the Ents and the ghost army’s routing of the southern corsairs) somewhat unsatisfactorily – but that may just be because we’ve already seen these things in the films.

J R R Tolkien

There is more that could be said – and we discussed a lot of these issues and more in our book group over the months we were reading The Lord of the Rings – but I would rather this review stayed reasonably concise. In short, many of the core elements of the story are archetypally powerful and it’s a masterpiece within its own terms. In the contexts of twentieth century literature and contemporary fantasy, it’s a little lacking. I couldn’t help thinking many times what it might be like if the same story were written by a more ‘grown-up’ writer like Stephen R Donaldson, George R R Martin or R Scott Bakker (fantasy writers having an ‘R’ initial in their name is a old charter or a tradition or something). Nevertheless, I’m sure this is far from the last time I will read The Lord of the Rings.

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The HobbitThe Silmarillion with my Tolkien and the Inklings group the previous month, for June, we were supposed to read The Hobbit – so that’s what I did.

Of the three main Middle Earth-based works, The Hobbit is the one most squarely aimed at children. It has quite a Victorian children’s tale feel to it – the style of narration reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, of which I read a little recently. It has a definite narrator – an ‘I’ that pops up now and then, usually to profess its ignorance (‘I don’t know how Bilbo ever managed to …’, ‘I never heard what happened to [x] after that …’ etc). By today’s standards, the style is a little clunky and patronising, but it works well and is perfectly suited to the story being told.

That story is, of course, about Bilbo Baggins and his employment by a band of treasure-hungry Dwarves, at the behest of Gandalf the Wizard, to assist in stealing into the Lonely Mountain – once a Dwarven capital, now the lair of Smaug the dragon – and stealing it (or all the gold and jewels therein) back. On the long trek into the east, they are beset by various difficulties – goblins and wolves, an almost endless forest, a stream of anaesthetic, spiders and haughty Elves.

Bilbo’s character arc, from being a timid, stay-at-home Hobbit who’s most concerned with personal comfort and keeping up appearances, to becoming a wily, brave – even arrogant – thief/fighter, is one of the best elements of the novel. His presence in the Dwarven party and Gandalf’s recommendation of him is not so believable and you just have to put it down to Wizardly intuition; in the context of the larger Middle Earth narrative, we know that Gandalf is, in fact, a Maia, one of the second tier of divine beings created by Ilúvatar at the beginning of time, so his prescience is understandable.

Some of the other characters’ performances seemed a little off – namely the Dwarves. Dwarves’ legendary love of gold and other treasure comes through admirably towards the end of the story and makes for the most interesting conflict of the book. Before that, however, these supposedly doughty warriors often seem buffoonish and even cowardly. When, for instance, the band finally gains access to the halls of the Lonely Mountain, the Dwarves are content to huddle at the door while Bilbo alone goes to spy out the dragon and its hoard. Admittedly, by this time, they’ve come to trust and rely on the Hobbit a lot, but it didn’t quite ring true for me.

Another thing that bothered me is the dispossessed king syndrome. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s Aragorn who is destined by his heritage to play a major part in events. In The Hobbit we have not only Thorin Oakenshield – whose quest to recapture what his family lost is understandable – but also Bard, a seemingly random Man and minor character who pops up towards the end of the story more or less happily living in obscurity until Bilbo et al turn up. He then plays a pivotal rôle in defeating Smaug. Bard just happens to be descended from the kings of Dale, a city that was destroyed by the dragon. Part of this love of the idea of noble kingship, that kings are just better than the rest of us, is idiomatic of the early fantasy genre, and part of it is simply because Tolkien lived in a more deferential age, but I don’t much like it (I also, as it happens, don’t care for the more recent inversion of this, that those in authority are worse than the rest of us).

All in all, The Hobbit is an entertaining, if slightly slight, novel. Having now read the first book (not volume) of The Lord of the Rings – parts of which rather dragged – I now appreciate the conciseness of The Hobbit, although the later work is decidedly less twee.J R R Tolkien

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The SilmarillionThe Silmarillion is a curious book, in various ways. While many (though not all) love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, not so many of those who do have a great liking for Tolkien’s part mythology, part history of Middle Earth. It is a book that could only be published on the coattails of a massively successful fantasy series – The Wheel of Time and A Sonf of Ice and Fire, for instance – and would probably only be of interest to people who really liked the original story.

It’s also strange in its narrative focus. The early part of the volume is distinctly biblical in its style of writing and concerns the pantheon gods and lesser primordial beings – the Ainur – which gives it very classical Greek overtones. After that, though, the story gradually expands to become more novelistic in style – events are described in increasing detail and characters are given more dialogue.

Some of those who have read the book prefer the later parts for exactly this more character-centred stle. However, I first read it a long time ago and it was the earlier, mythopoetic part of the volume that always stuck in my imagination; it shaped my attitude towards fantasy cosmogony in my own creations. That said, the tale of Beren and Lúthien also got lodged in there, although less inspirationally so.

Reading The Silmarillion a second time – for the Tolkien discussion group I attend – I was struck by a few things. Firstly, my memory is not very good for lots of the details of the various sub-plots and characters that occupy various chapters of the Quenta Silmarillion – the long central part of the book that deals with much of the history of the Elves. This is largely due to the nature of the narrative being related.

J R R Tolkien

It was the story of Fëanor, his jewels, his family and his people that especially interested me, but their story is dispersed throughout the Quenta. This arc story is interrupted by various notable episodes. There are a few chapters – that concerning Beren and Lúthien and the one about Túrin Turambar – where the narrative becomes rather more detailed than usual – and these are admittedly some of the best tales within the larger story. But, in some ways, they feel rather irrelevant, especially that of Túrin; Beren and Lúthien have a direct impact on the fate of the Silmarils, at least. It also occured to me that, if all three Hobbit films are successful, these individual tales from The Silmarillion might make excellent money-spinning successors.

Towards the end of the book, the attention shifts away from the Elves and towards Men. To me, this felt very anti-climactic. Men are lesser beings than Elves, having been given the crappiest gift imaginable – short lives and actual death – by Ilúvatar, the Creator. Even the villain of the latter piece, Sauron, is basically a cheap knock-off of his erstwhile boss, Morgoth. Much of what Sauron does has already been done by the disgraced god.

This relates to one of the overall themes of all the Middle Earth works – that of continual decline, a slow, inevitable fall from grace. The poignancy of this comes across extremely effectively in The Lord of the Rings, I think, but here, the sweep of history – and especially Man’s role in the latter parts of that history – render it a rather annoying kind of nostalgia.

My attitude towards the Ainur – the Valar, in particular – changed a lot over the course of reading the volume. At the start, they seem wonderfully noble and magical. By the end, however, they are distinctly haughty and uncaring – especially when it comes to Men. Their ban on anyone sailing west beyond sight of Númenor seems little more than divine racism and then tearing the world in two, punishing Elves and Men for the sins of Sauron is a fit of pique a two-year-old would be proud of.

Which observation segues into one of the more profound (and yet somehow irrelevant) critiques of Tolkien’s work: that it propounds a deeply reactionary message: some people are just better than others, some people’s ancestry gives them the right to rule their fellows. This is countered, of course by the fact that Frodo Baggins, a simple Hobbit from the Shire, saves the world in The Return of the King – but Frodo is also accompanied by his unquestioning servant, Sam; and, while Frodo sails off to retirement in the sky, Aragorn, descendant of the Kings of Númenor – a land that no longer exists – becomes king of Middle Earth (a large part of it, anyway).

All that being said, there is much that is good in The Silmarillion. The writing style, while antiquated – in different ways at different places – is carried off with an authority that makes you feel that you really are reading the collected myths and legends of a world. Many of the motivations of the human-scale characters are thoroughly believable and their often unpleasant ends have a sense of justice to them. And in terms of killing off characters, Tolkien definitely out-George R R Martined George R R Martin long before Westeros had been thought of.

I don’t think The Silmarillion is perfect, by any means, but anyone who’s enjoyed The Hobbit and TLotR should find their appreciation enriched by reading it. Or, given that the published form of the book was put together after Tolkien’s death by his son Christopher and Canadian fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay, they may just find it an example of barrel-scraping.

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The last few weekends have been a bit of a whirlwind of socialising for me. Which is pretty strange, given that I’m not only shy, but a shy introvert. I guess I’m finally discovering my inner extrovert. He’s been a shy chap most of my life. Someone once described that part of my personality as a monkey in a cave – every now and then he’d come out for a bit then duck back inside and hide.

Since my end of year holiday, I’ve:

been to see Life of Pi with a book group,

attended a Tolkien and the Inklings appreciation group,

attended the Life of Pi meeting with said book club,

been on a hike out near Chuncheon,

held two coffee mornings in Cheonan,

gone on a weekend ski trip to Yongpyeong – venue of next year’s Winter Olympics,

attended a Toastmasters event

and gone to a Father Ted-themed night out (with my black shirt and a homemade dog collar).

Add to that a good sprinkling of gaming and the faintest hint of romance (well – I met someone and we seemed to have a good rapport, but nothing further developed), and January has been a full month (actually, the latter couple of items on the list occurred in February). I’ve also met a bunch of new people. However, with my full weekends and full weekdays, I haven’t had much opportunity to write about all this stuff.

One of my new friends from New Year’s Eve invited me to a Tolkien and the Inklings group. I extended this invitation to my gaming friends; one of them suggested I should scope the group out first and report back on the number of weirdos in attendance; I countered that any of attending wouldn’t necessarily reduce the weirdo ratio. Although the meeting went on a bit long, it was pretty interesting. The organiser had prepared materials and talked about Owen Barfield and some of the philosophical underpinnings of the Inklings’ work. There’ll be another meeting in a couple of weeks.

As I have barely met anyone in Cheonan yet, I followed the example of my friend Peter, a resident of Daegu, and started a coffee morning group for Cheonan people. On the first such event, one person turned up, a woman I’d met at a small dinner event a couple of weeks earlier. We had a perfectly nice time chatting about work and life and stuff. I held the second one on Wednesday – more about that later.

The Mug

I went on a hike near Chuncheon in Gangwondo, which involved my taking the subway from Ssangyong in Cheonan to Sanbong in Seoul (about two and a half hours) then meeting the hiking group and heading east for another hour or more, still on the subway system. I hadn’t got much sleep and didn’t get much on the train, so I was pretty miserable by the time we started hiking, but a few conversations got my social brain in gear and I met some nice people.

Hikers

One of whom I went on a ski trip to Yongpyeong with (along her friends and a bus load of other foreigners). The skiing was good fun and, by the end of the evening session, I was fairly zipping down an intermediate slope time after time (while my fingers were getting terribly cold inside my gloves – when I went inside to warm up, they really hurt for a couple of minutes). I met more nice people.

Yongpyeong

One of whom invited me to Tedfest the following weekend – which was quite a modest affair in a bar out in Incheon, but the organisers put on various Father Ted-themed events, such as a Lovely Girls competition. I met further nice people, including – uniquely, in my experience in Korea – a Scouser. We got drunk.

I just had a great attendance at my second coffee morning event – seven people besides me. The conversation went pretty well, by an large; there were some slightly awkward lulls in the conversation, but they were fleeting and few. I didn’t really make a great effort to lead the conversation and it mostly took care of itself. At one point, one person suggested everyone say what their hobbies and interests were – which was a good idea, and one I may adopt and adapt for future meetings.

So now I’m going on a return trip to Chuncheon to pick strawberries on Saturday and I’m ‘hosting’ a ‘watching Die Hard 5’ event on Monday – which is a holiday here in Korea (Seollal – lunar new year – is actually a three day holiday, but because the other two days (actually, only the middle day is Seollal) fall on a Saturday and Sunday, they don’t count).

Life seems decidedly not too shabby at the moment. It’s actually become a bit of a mission for me to do all this stuff and develop as a human being. Maybe, one day, I’ll become the confident, charismatic leader of men I’ve always dreamed of being. Until then, I’m just me.

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This story should be familiar to anyone who’s read that compendium of old tales of Middle Earth, The Silmarillion. The narrative presented here, though, is an expanded version drawn from various manuscripts written by Tolkien at different times and seemingly never finished. Tolkien’s son, Christopher Toilkien, in a pair of appendices, describes how the tale of Húrin’s children evolved through different versions, including a couple of attempts to write it as a poem. Although published before in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales (both books put together by Christopher Tolkien), this version includes more detail about Túrin’s wanderings and adventures.

And really, despite the volume’s title, this is Túrin son of Húrin’s tale – his older sister dies at a young age, and his younger sister only comes into the story as a protagonist towards the end.

The story is a tragic one. Túrin is a doom-cloaked character who struggles throughout to escape from the machinations of Morgoth and of fate. While he is a brave and skilled warrior, he is also stubborn and constantly ignores the good advice given him – and in doing so he dooms others.

For the tale is set against the backdrop of one of the darkest periods of Middle Earth history: Morgoth – the spiteful Vala – reigns in the north and sends down hordes of Orcs whose ferocity, trickery and sheer numbers best the armies of Man and Elf alike. Túrin’s father, Húrin is a captive in Angband and has to watch while his son commits mistake after mistake.

The writing style is very similar to that of The Silmarillion, but with much more detail and dialogue, and strives for an archaic, almost bardic tone – one that is done with skill and authority, but that also rings faintly ridiculous to a 21st century ear. The story has plenty of twists and turns and is quite moving in places, and is quite a short read. And, like, The Lord of the Rings, it’s a very dark tale and its conclusion even darker.

One has to wonder how necessary this book was. The story already exists in The Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales, and the former, at least, of these provides much needed context to this episode of Middle Earth history – context that isn’t provided here.

Still, I enjoyed reading it. It’s nice to read some good old-fashioned fantasy that isn’t full of Americanisms and hundreds of pages of padding, although it’s not nearly as good as Tolkien’s more famous works.

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