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Following Tolkien's Footsteps Tehanu's First Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?

Recently I was leafing through a book about Tolkien’s artwork, which was pretty interesting, and if I could remember the name of it I’d tell you. He was no mean draughtsman. What struck me most, though, was one little sketch of a sign or sigil, something like the seal that Beren might have used, perhaps. This kind of thing:


Not that the drawing itself was so interesting, but I noticed the way it and others like it were done on the backs of envelopes, the blank corners of newspapers. I had a sudden image of Tolkien dawdling over breakfast or listening to somebody dull on one of those old bakelite telephones; reaching for a pencil… Almost unconsciously he starts to draw on the nearest thing to hand. His mind never stops working, and before the end of the converstation he has formulated a set of rules about the design of seals in Middle Earth, male and female, lowborn and highborn.

I imagined him spending decades of his life where every idle moment he had, he dropped with unconscious ease back into his imaginary world, playing with ideas and stitching them together into a vast structure. It could take no less to create something like ‘The Lord of the Rings.’

JRR Tolkien

Every time I walk into the library it looks like the ‘SF&Fantasy’ collection is outgrowing its shelf-space faster than the system can cope; thousands of people are out there trying to create fantasy worlds and most of their books have written on the back somewhere "…a worthy successor to Tolkien," or words to that effect. Hmm. I think unless somebody is willing to spend decades of their life totally obsessed with their imaginary world, they’re unlikely to even get the depth of field for a book like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ let alone the sense of mythology Tolkien had.

We must be just dying for a bit of fantasy in our lives at the moment. Besides the burgeoning trade in SF and fantasy books, (which stand proudly displayed in the same ‘New Releases’ stand in the bookstore as mainstream literature, have you noticed lately? They used to skulk out the back in their own ghetto) it only takes a look at the local cinema to make you aware of the same thing. Here this randomly selected week: Films about aliens at your local high school, futuristic alien machines in your computer, your favourite Martians, aliens and people coming soon from a galaxy far, far away. I wonder why?

We’re living for the first time in a world where we know too much to be able to send our imaginations to Darkest Africa (or the Bermuda Triangle, or in Shakespeare’s case, Verona) and call it a long trip. Nothing on this earth is mysterious in that sense any more, so we invent new worlds.

I wanted to go and find what sources Tolkien was drawing from when he started creating his new world.

Operating on the usual ‘random search’ method, I found a copy of ‘Njal’s Saga,’ thinking that Medieval Icelandic sagas were something Tolkien would have been familiar with.


Somebody from Iceland please write in and defend your national literature, because ‘Njal’ was dull,dull dull! How can anyone write a story with hundreds of characters all called ‘Thord,’ and the main characters die about two-thirds of the way through? Every few chapters, somebody gets killed in the following manner:

"Thjostolf raised his axe a second time and drove it into Thorvald’s head, killing him instantly," and variations of thereof. Sometimes you get more detail about collarbones shattering, legs being severed, and blood gushing into lungs. I rather preferred lines like:

"He snatched up a spear and hurled it at Hrut’s ship. The man who was in its way fell dead." Deadly understatement.

Then every summer everybody meets up at the Law Rock on the Rangriver Plains to take part in tortuously detailed lawsuits about the previous year’s killings. There’s no resemblance to Tolkien and and unfortunately no resemblance to John Grisham either. Yawn. No monsters, except one that was reported by Thorkel Braggart which doesn’t enter the story, worse luck.

There were instances of ‘battle panache’ that reminded me of the way Legolas and Gimli talk at times like in the battle of Helm’s Deep. In ‘Njal’s Saga, ’ Thorgrim the Easterner climbs up onto the roof of Gunnar’s house, which he is beseiging. Gunnar strikes him with his halberd through the window. Thorgrim drops his shield, slips, and falls off the roof. He strides over to where the other beseigers are sitting.

Viking Ship

‘"Is Gunnar at home?" one of them asks.

"That’s for you to find out," replied Thorgrim. "But I know that his halberd certainly is." And with that he fell dead.’

Coolness was important back then, I guess. Heroic coolness. It has a certain flavour of Middle Earth about it.

Next week I’ll ramble on about Beowulf, which is a lot more interesting.

Feel free to challenge, inform, argue and criticize anything I’ve said via:


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