Exploring Middle-Earth every week with the Tolkien Professor

Hail and well-met!

Forgive me for not mentioning this a few months ago, but Dr. Corey Olsen — a.k.a. The Tolkien Professor of so many incredible podcast episodes — has been running a free weekly online seminar going through The Lord of the Rings chapter-by-chapter. Every Tuesday at 9:30PM EDT.

He broadcasts live on Twitch, and there’s an active chat room on Discord that runs simultaneously. Sometimes he even responds to viewer comments and questions! There’s also a forum here where you can carry on discussions throughout the week and post questions in advance for him to answer during the broadcast. I’ve done that a few times and definitely found my appreciation of Middle-Earth broadening.

If you play The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), he’s actually broadcasting from within the game, and you can join him and other players there in Hobbiton. But even if you don’t play the game, as I don’t, you can watch and take part in the discussion. After the chapter discussion, he takes viewers on a field trip through locations in the game that correspond to the locations that have just been read about in the book, and discusses the ways in which the game developers have interpreted Tolkien’s writing.

I’m in the middle of tonight’s broadcast right now, and hope some of you can join us later. Godspeed!

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Beren and Lúthien, a centenary publication — John Garth

In a wood filled with a cloud of white flowers, a soldier walked in the spring of 1917 with his wife, and she sang and danced for him. To that battle-worn lieutenant, J R R Tolkien, Edith’s dance was an unforgettable glimpse of unearthly joy in the midst of sorrow and horror. It inspired the story he saw […]

via Beren and Lúthien, a centenary publication — John Garth

A new Tolkien book is always exciting! Granted, this sounds like it might not have any new material that isn’t already published in other books. But still, the story of Beren and Luthien is one of my absolute favorites, and I welcome the chance to read even many variations of it in its own book, accompanied by the lovely art of Alan Lee.

Also, as a little heads-up for you guys, I’m preparing another book review of a more recent (well, no more than 10 years old…) fantasy novel, so look out for that in the next week or so. Happy reading!

A Birthday Toast for Tolkien!

It seems fitting that I finally posted my post of the first Hobbit movie on the Professor’s birthday. According to my calculations, this is his one hundred and twenty-fourth birthday. And still timeless in our minds and hearts.

If you catch this post tonight, pop on over to the Live Birthday Toast Celebration hosted by Dr. Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor, and his friends. It’s a video stream of them chatting entertainingly about Tolkien, his books, and the films, accompanied by a chat window for average viewers like us. Even if you can’t stay for the whole thing, you can pop in and out with ease. Highly recommended.

TolkienToastHeader2

Song of the Entwives, by J.R.R. Tolkien

treebeard_by_jerry vandersteltSince finishing The Hobbit, I’ve been re-reading The Lord of the Rings. I finished Fellowship a month or so ago, and am now well into The Two Towers. It’s a lovely, enlightening read. It’s been at least a decade since I’ve read this book — most of my Tolkien-reading being spent among The Silmarillion and its spinoff tomes — and there’s so much that I’d forgotten. Like, for instance, how achingly slow the first two thirds of Fellowship is. If you love hobbit lore and fictional geography (and fortunately I do), then it remains interesting, but Tolkien takes an awful lot of time to get things moving. Part of this is because, I think, he wrote the trilogy after fans wrote to him asking for “more about hobbits,” and he started by giving them just that: every little detail about hobbits that he could come up with. I do sympathize with readers who quit after the first 100-150 pages of not much happening. The hobbits are very passive creatures. It makes sense for them to journey so leisurely, but it can be a hard read for the impatient among us. Fortunately, once the Fellowship leave Rivendell, the pace quickens, and we suddenly find ourselves amidst a genuinely exciting adventure.

Anyway, this is all just a lead in to share Treebeard’s song about the Entwives. If I hadn’t known that it would happen, I would’ve been surprised; Treebeard seems an awfully unlikely creature to sing a heart-tugging love song. And yet, here it is. A song about creatures we’ve never seen and can hardly imagine, and characters we’ve never met (but for one and only recently), which has little bearing on the plot before or after or any story significance beyond itself, and yet it breaks our hearts.

Treebeard sings about the Entwives to Merry and Pippin

Ent:
When Spring unfolds the beechen leaf, and sap is in the bough;
When light is on the wild-wood stream, and wind is on the brow;
When stride is long, and breath is deep, and keen the mountain-air,
Come back to me! Come back to me, and say my land is fair!
Entwife:
When Spring is come to garth and field, and corn is in the blade;
When blossom like a shining snow is on the orchard ladi;
When shower and Sun upon the Earth with fragrance fill the air,
I’ll linger here, and will not come, because my land is fair.
Ent:
When Summer lies upon the world, and in a noon of gold
Beneath the roof of sleeping leaves the dreams of trees unfold;
When woodland halls are green and cool, and wind is in the West,
Come back to me! Come back to me, and say my land is best!
Entwife:
When Summer warms the hanging fruit and burns the berry brown;
When Straw is gold, and ear is white, and harvest comes to town;
When honey spills, and apple swells, though wind be in the West,
I’ll linger here beneath the Sun, because my land is best!
Ent:
When Winter comes, the winter wild that hill and wood shall slay;
When trees shall fall and starless night devour the sunless day;
When wind is in the deadly East, then in the bitter rain
I’ll look for thee, and call to thee; I’ll come to thee again!
Entwife:
When Winter comes, and singing ends; when darkness falls at last;
When broken is the barren bough, and light and labour past;
I’ll look for thee, and wait for thee, until we meet again:
Together we will take the road beneath the bitter rain!
Both:
Together we will take the road that leads into the West,
And far away will find a land where both our hearts may rest.
TN-Treebeard_and_the_Entmoot

Hobbit Read-Along Brainstorm

As you all should know and be unbelievably excited about, the first installment of The Hobbit trilogy directed by Peter Jackson will be released in U.S. theaters December 14 of this year.

Mild Tolkien purist and sometimes übergeek that I am, I like to be up on my Tolkien source material whenever an adaptation comes out. The LOTR trilogy was released right about the time I finished reading the books. Since it’s been close to ten years, possibly more, since I’ve actually read The Hobbit, however, this season seems like the optimum time to return to it.

And I want you to join me! In a Read-Along! (From an unknown source the theme song of Reading Rainbow starts playing…)

I don’t plan on doing a formal review for The Hobbit (or The Lord of the Rings, if I go on and reread them too), so this seems like the best way to share my delight in Tolkien’s story with the blogosphere. Bloggers Krysta (from Pages Unbound) and EmilyKazakh have already expressed interest. We hereby extend invitations to any bloggers who read this, are interested, and are willing to contribute posts.

But I’ve never done a Read-Along before, so I’d appreciate some help in figuring out how to organize this. Our ideas thus far:

  1. We’ll start some time in the fall, perhaps on September 22, Bilbo’s birthday (and the day before my own!).
  2. We’ll take turns blogging about each chapter of The Hobbit. These don’t have to be reviews, just anything that interested you about the chapter or the story thus far.
  3. Everyone comments on each others’ posts, so we get some awesome discussions going!

The part that needs figuring out is #2, assigning chapters to individuals. I’m thinking we should expect two or three posts per week, so that no individual has to worry about writing too much. This isn’t like the Memes, where you have to plan ahead and and keep to a regular schedule. Most of your time for this Read-Along should be spent reading and commenting on other posts, until you get to the few that are your responsibility.

So if you want to participate, say so in the comments below! When we know how many people want to participate, we can start assigning chapters and figuring out how often the posts should be coming.

Happy reading!

EDIT as of 8/16: Applications for official participation are now CLOSED. A preliminary schedule is forthcoming.

Book Meme 2012: Week 8 – Best Fictional Story Setting

Topic: Which is the best story setting?

Arda.

Most of the stories take place on the far west coast of that northern continent. Which leaves plenty of uncharted map area to speculate wonderfully about.

In layman’s terms, Middle-earth.

[Middle-earth technically refers just to one half of a continent in which most of Tolkien’s stories take place, but the term for his entire invented world is Arda.]

I am tempted to leave it at that. It’s obvious, sure. It’s unsurprising. But it’s true. By any interpretation I give to the question of which literary setting is the best, the answer for me will always be J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda. Many books feature great and delightful settings, excellently fitted to their stories and wonderful in their design, but none as resplendent in grandeur, as piercing in emotion, or as deep in all things mortal and immortal as this. Not Narnia and its allegories, not Prydain and its Welsh mythologies, not Mossflower and its animal heroes, not Fantastica and its wish-worlds.

I judge this by the fact that Middle-earth is the one literary world that I never, ever tire of. From The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion, to Unfinished Tales, to the Books of Lost Tales and the appendices and the atlases and the maps and the scrawled notes and the personal letters describing worldbuilding concepts and the long, tragic lives of elves, men, and angels…I read them with endless fascination, and have since my youth. I don’t see that changing.

Tolkien created a world of grand mythology and heroism with such attention to detail and internal consistency that, for all the elves and goblins and dragons and enchanted weapons and treasures, it feels real. The emotions are real. Continuity binds together the genealogies of families, the rise and fall of kingdoms, the conflicts both local and cosmic. Every story he tells in Middle-earth gains weight and power because of the world that it exists in, because of what came before, and what’s going on simultaneously. Everything has been shaped for a reason. The tale of Beren and Luthien is great on its own, but gains so much more from its connection to the tale of Turin, and the Fall of Doriath, and Gondolin, and…and everything. Tolkien didn’t just write a bunch of neat stories and stitch them together into the same setting. Reading his personal letters and notes, you see how carefully he crafted every element of his mythology so it fits a unified whole.

But it’s more than just that. Other authors have developed sprawlingly detailed, and sometimes reasonably logical, histories for their fantasy and science fiction worlds; some have even poured much effort into invented languages. What sets Tolkien apart, I think, is the terrible beauty of his creations. All his effort seems to have been concentrated on capturing the elements of the real world that he thought most beautiful, and giving them his own expression as a way of praising God.

The Beauties of Creation and Music

Then Ilúvatar [God] said to them [the Ainur, or angels]: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’
            Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.

~ “Ainulindalë.” The Silmarillion. 3-4.

The Beauties of Light, Water, and Mountain Interplaying

And after a great while, as it seemed to him, when he was weary and yet unwilling to rest in the black tunnel, he saw far before him a light; and hastening on he came to a tall and narrow cleft, and followed the noisy stream between its leaning walls out into a golden evening. For he was come into a deep ravine with tall sheer sides, and it ran straight towards the West; and before him the setting sun, going down through a clear sky, shone into the ravine and kindled its walls with yellow fire, and the waters of the river glittered like gold as they broke and foamed upon many gleaming stones…
            …Thus Tuor journeyed slowly for three days, drinking the cold water but desiring no food, though there were many fish that shone as gold and silver, or gleamed with colours like to the rainbows in the spray above. And on the fourth day the channel grew wider, and its walls lower and less sheer; but the river ran deeper and more strongly, for high hills now marched on either side, and fresh waters spilled from them into Cirith Ninniach over shimmering falls. There long while Tuor sat, watching the swirling of the stream and listening to its endless voice, until night came again and stars shone cold and white in the dark lane of sky above him. Then he lifted up his voice, and plucked the strings of his harp, and above the noise of the water the sound of his song and the sweet thrilling of the harp were echoed in the stone and multiplied, and went forth and rang in the night-clad hills, until all the empty land was filled with music beneath the stars. For though he knew it not, Tuor was now come to the Echoing Mountains of Lammoth about the Firth of Drengist. There once long ago Fëanor had landed from the sea, and the voices of his host were swelled to a mighty clamour upon the coasts of the North ere the rising of the Moon.

~ “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin.” Unfinished Tales. 25-26.

The Terrible Beauties of Tragedy and Catharsis

[N.B. In the first passage, there are two groups being referenced, and both are Eldar, elves in the Western Lands: the Gnomes (later renamed Noldor by Tolkien) led by Fëanor out of Valinor in rebellion, and the Solosimpi, the Shoreland Pipers, who peacefully maintain harbors on the coast of Valinor.]

Behold, the counsel of Fëanor is that by no means can that host hope to win swiftly along the coast save by the aid of ships: ‘and these,’ said he, ‘an the shore-elves will not give them, we must take’. Wherefore going down to the harbour they essayed to go upon those ships that there lay, but the Solosimpi said them nay, yet for the great host of the Gnome-folk  they did not as yet resist; but a new wrath awoke there between Eldar and Eldar. So did the Noldoli embark all their womenfolk and children and a great host beside upon those ships, and casting them loose they oared them with a great multitude of oars towards the seas. Then did a great anger blaze in the hearts of the Shoreland Pipers, seeing the theft of those vessels that their cunning and long labours had fashioned, and some there were that the Gods had made of old on Tol Eressëa as has been recounted, wondrous and magic boats, the first that ever were. So sprang up suddenly a voice among them. ‘Never shall these thieves leave the Haven in our ships’, and all those of the Solosimpi that were there ran swiftly atop of the cliff-wall to where the archway was wherethrough that fleet must pass, and standing there they shouted to the Gnomes to return; but these heeded them not and held ever on their course, and the Solosimpi threatened them with rocks and strung their elfin bows.
            Seeing this and believing war already to be kindled came now those of the Gnomes who might not fare aboard the ships but whose part it was to march along the shores, and they sped behind the Solosimpi, until coming suddenly upon them nigh the Haven’s gate they slew them bitterly or cast them in the sea; and so first perished the Eldar neath the weapons of their own kin, and that was a deed of horror.
            …At length however it is done, and all those ships have passed out to the wide seas, and the Noldoli fared far away, but the little lamps are broken and the Haven is dark and very still, save for the faint sound of tears. Of like kind were all the works of Melko in this world.

~ “The Flight of the Noldoli.” The Book of Lost Tales 1. 183-184.

But Túrin sped far before them, and came to Cabed-en-Aras, and stood still; and he heard the roaring of the water [where his sister had just committed suicide], and saw that all the trees near and far were withered and their sere leaves fell mournfully, as though winter had come in the first days of summer.
            ‘Cabed-en-Aras, Cabed Naeramath!’ he cried. ‘I will not defile your waters where Níniel was washed. For all my deeds have been ill, and the latest the worst.’
            Then he drew forth his sword, and said: ‘Hail Gurthang, iron of death, thou alone now remainest! But what lord or loyalty dost thou know, save the hand that wieldeth thee? From no blood wilt thou shrink! Wilt thou take Túrin Turambar? Wilt thou slay me swiftly?’
            And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: ‘Yea, I will drink thy blood, that I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly.’
            Then Túrin set the hilts upon the ground, and cast himself upon the point of Gurthang, and the black blade took his life.

~ ‘Narn I Hîn Húrin.” Unfinished Tales. 152.

The Beauty of the Punishment of Evil

But Morgoth himself the Valar thrust through the Door of Night beyond the Walls of the World, into the Timeless Void; and a guard is set forever on those walls, and Eärendil [the Mariner, the elf who became a wandering star] keeps watch upon the ramparts of the sky.

~ “Of the Voyage of Eärendil.” The Silmarillion. 315.

The Beauty of the Sunrise in a Holy Land

The First Dawn of the Sun

…Manwë bade cast the ropes that held her, and straightway the Ship of the Morning arose above Taniquetil and the bosom of the air received it.
            Ever as it rose it burned the brighter and the purer till all Valinor was filled with radiance, and the vales of Erúmáni and the Shadowy Seas were bathed in light, and sunshine was spilled on the dark plain of Arvalin, save only where Ungweliantë’s clinging webs and darkest fumes still lay too thick for any radiance to filter through.
            Then all looking up saw that heaven was blue, and very bright and beautiful, but the stars fled as that great dawn came upon the world; and a gentle wind blew from the cold lands to meet the vessel and filled its gleaming sails, and white vapours mounted from off the misty seas below, that her prow seemed to cleave a white and airy foam. Yet did she waver not, for the Mánir that fared about her drew her by golden cords, and higher and higher the Sun’s great galleon rose, until even to the sight of Manwë it was but a disc of fire wreathed in veils of splendour that slowly and majestically wandered from the West.
            Never ever as it drew further away so grew the light in Valinor more mellow, and the shadows of the houses of the Gods grew long, slanting away towards the waters of the Outer Seas, but Taniquetil threw a great westering shadow that waxed ever longer and deeper, and it was afternoon in Valinor.

~ “The Tale of the Sun and Moon.” The Book of Lost Tales 1. 211-211.

…and many more possible examples…

Fantasy and science fiction are both at their greatest when, in showing us new wonders, they show us further the glories of God, His creations, and His Truths that underlie His creations. This, I believe, is the highest calling of art, and is what fantastical stories are ultimately supposed to do. And Tolkien has done this the best of any author I have ever encountered. In short, I think that of all the worlds invented by humans in our stories, Tolkien’s Arda is the greatest Art.

Which passages from Tolkien speak most beautifully to you?

Usually we think of the other men in Middle Earth — the Haradrim, the Easterlings, the Southrons, the Wild Men — as being decidedly evil to their core. But in this passage from The Two Towers, Sam’s empathy gives us a different look into who they are.

Invisible Kingdoms

One of my favourite passages from the Lord of the Rings is this sympathetic description of a slain Southron warrior flung from the ‘Oliphaunt’.

‘His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of men against men, and he did not like it much. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he had come from; and if he really was evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace’

‘The Two Towers’

I think Sam’s views are very much those of the author and reflect the humane vision which permeates the…

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