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Tad Episode Tehanu's Fourth Note

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 The Return of the King
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 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
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 Arthur: Quests and Legends
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 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?

reetings from the Winterless North.

Confusing statement for some of you, and an ironic one for me, given that my every breath jets steam into the icy air of the room, the water in the taps is so cold it hurts to touch, and the outside world looks like some kind of Niflheim. Everything disappears in mist except when the rain is…persisting down.

Our Hell is hot because that’s what a desert people living in Palestine would most dread, but for the Norsemen, their hell was icy and misty. Myself and Rutherford the sulking cat are in agreement with the Norsemen.

In "The Lord of the Rings," the Witch King of Angmar caused a long Fimbulwinter, and even in the Third Age the northern lands above the Shire were colder than their latitude suggested as a legacy of those days. Tolkien doesn’t draw much on the Norse imagery of Niflheim’s icebound death and evil for "The Lord of the Rings," but it’s lurking in the in the back-history. Sauron’s present dwelling in the story is more like our hell, hot and waterless…Though one description seems inspired by images of the moon. "…the whole surface of the plains of Gorgoroth was pocked with great holes, as if, while it was still a waste of soft mud, it had been smitten with a shower of bolts and huge slingstones." That could have been written around the time of the first unmanned rockets round the moon. But Tolkien had an interest in astronomy anyway.

It’s funny that although the whole of "The Lord of the Rings" is about good and evil, and for Tolkien himself it was a form of religious allegory (well all right, it was a lot of things. But that was one of them.) nobody in it seems to believe in a God. Would we have liked it if they did? Or would it have confused the issue?

[Snowy Village]
Winter from Les tres riches heures du Duc de Berry.

Tad Williams does a wonderfully oppressive Fimbulwinter in his "Dragonbone Chair" trilogy. The forces of evil get loose and they turn on an endless winter. It’s very scary. Williams seems to draw from some of the same well of European myth that Tolkien did to good effect. Rather daringly, he invents an ‘Aedonite’ religion that parallels Christianity, and a pagan religion that has the same figures as the Norse mythology, Odin, Thor etc. But the evil and good seems to be outside the domain of religion: people (and elves) with powerful learning and magic commit horrible evil for reasons to do with greed, grief and a desire for revenge. They’re not tempted by the Devil. The God, gods and Devil that the protagonists believe in don’t seem to swing events one way or another. Maybe they do in the third book, I don’t remember. Some bastard out there who has the third book orphaned on their bookshelf can tell us.

Who is it, by the way, that goes and sells ONE book of a trilogy to a second-hand bookstore? Hands up who does this! Now I’ve bought the ONE that was in there, and next time I see a complete set of "The Dragonbone Chair" I’ll have to break it up and buy the last two, leaving another single one to annoy the next customer.

Anyway, back to Tolkien. Initially I was going to list different ways to read Tolkien because it occurred to me that the reason I’ve read LOTR so many times is that there are so many ways to read it.

The first time, as a child, I read it in order to find out what happened at the end. So the book has an attractive surface – enough conflict and action to keep a child entertained. The next few times I read it were quite frankly because Middle-earth was a nice place to go and escape from the world around me. Any time I started in at Bilbo’s party, I could pretty much dismiss the real world from my mind for the next few weeks. Most teenagers need that in some form or another, and I bet it’s the age when a lot of us get hooked on fantasy. It’s a cheap holidy, opening a good book. When you're a teenager you can't afford the airfare to go anywhere better, and things may not necessarily improve in later life.

I did a semester on Middle English and suddenly found myself drawn back to LOTR again because there were things about the language that Tolkien uses that I hadn’t recognised before. If I’d done Old English it would have been even more obvious. Anyway I don’t want to go on about alliterative poetry. The Rohirrim do it a lot, and it sounds like the old forms of English with which Tolkien was so familiar.

"We heard of the horns in the hills ringing,
the swords shining in the South-kingdom.
Steeds went striding to the stoningland"

Instead of rhyming ends of words, you get the repeated ‘h’s at the beginnings of words in the first line, the ‘s’s in the second, and the ‘st’ sound in the third. Beowulf is full of it:

"Waves were churning
sea with sand; the sailors bore
on the breast of the bark their bright array."

Another time I read LOTR in order to enjoy the account of the journey itself. I loved the detail with which the walking was described, the countryside, the weather, and the effort of moving through it carrying a pack. Tolkien walked a lot and must have done a fair bit of backpacking too. So much of "The Fellowship of the Ring" proceeds at a walking pace, it’s ordinary hard work to get to where they’re going. It adds so much to the credibility of the characters and their journey. Real-life backpacking does get sweaty, there are sometimes uncomfortable numbers of midges, trails do get confusing. Time is spent every day setting up camp and taking it down again.

I was right into "The Dragonbone Chair" until the bit in the second book where Simon and his team walk for about two weeks in snow without apparently finding or catching any food, through the coldest and barest of midwinter forests. At that point I surfaced from the book thinking, ‘Oh yeah, heroic fantasy, I forgot. Nobody needs to eat."

They carried two weeks’ food? I don’t think so. A summer backpack holding one jersey, something to sleep on, something to sleep in, five days’ food and something to cook it on makes a load about the size of my own body. Unless we’re talking that freeze-dried stuff from tramping shops which I don’t think Simon Snowlock was using either. Polar travellers reckon on using about 5000 calories a day, it’s a great sport for anyone that loves an all-fat diet.

Yeah, right, obviously they were hunting and stuff, and Tad Williams doesn’t want to bother telling us about it because that section of the book is long enough without it, but it shows up the difficulty of providing enough detail to make something believable without bogging down in trivia. Tolkien gets away with it, the detail’s there, ( five pages on rabbit stew!) but somehow it doesn’t get in the way.

For every reader there will be different places in books where they say, ‘Oh, those details are all wrong, this just isn’t realistic enough.’ People who love armour will get distressed about inaccurate portrayals of chain-mail, horsey people wonder how horses in books get ridden hundreds of miles without ever casting a shoe or eating more than a bit of grass during their time off, and so on. Getting the detail right is important, doing it so it isn’t boring is difficult.

People who hate fantasy writing anyway say ,‘Well why bother? None of this heroic stuff happens in real life any way, people are never as brave or noble or quick to discern evil, there are never any conflicts that pit good against evil in such absolute terms. If the basic premise of the story is a load of rubbish, who’s worried about the details?’

Most of us became interested in fantasy when we were young enough to care a great deal about good and evil. We didn’t know what kind of people we were going to grow up to be, so what could be more important than finding out where we stood? Reading fantasy could make us wonder if one day we could be as good, as brave, as heroic….

[Socrates being Posioned]
Socrates accepting the drink of hemlock, by David.

This is a branch of education that used to be more formal. For centuries kids learned about heroic characters out of history – that was the reason for a lot of that insistence on learning Latin and Greek. Kids memorised the speeches of the great emperors and generals and philosphers of the Greek and Roman empires of the past. This was serious stuff – Socrates drinking poison rather than recanting his beliefs, the heroic defenders at Thermopylae dying to the last man, Hannibal’s doomed gambit across the Alps. True history, and therefore a worthy example for young minds, people thought.

I venture to say that good fantasy literature takes the place of that kind of history. These days history is taught with a lot less romanticism and a great deal more detail about social and economic motivations. But our hunger for stories about nobility and courage hasn’t diminished. Hence the squillions of fantasy novels being written every day.

Pity so many of them are crap.

Now I’m not going to put the boot into Tad Williams here as some of you were expecting. I’m very much enjoying my re-read of ‘The Dragonbone Chair’ (All right, nitpickers, I know it’s called ‘Memory, Thorn and Sorrow’ or something) especially because of Tad’s obvious affection for the main character Simon – and he is a real character, a self-absorbed teenager that you’ve totally known in some incarnation, full of grandiose heroic fantasies and also full of a complete reluctance to pull his weight and face up to reality. Williams writes about Simon with such a gentle humour and understanding that I’m drawn in. Plus he has a playful way with language, coining phrases and calling up fresh images with his neat similes.

Because Williams’ world of Osten Ard is based on a grab-bag of Celtic and Nordic and European myth elements and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ itself, it’s fun seeing where he’s made it different. The different languages and cultures are there, the familiar medieval fantasy world, and all very thoroughly detailed. There’s a quest, of course…there are elves, and the familiar theme of the passing of an older greater civilisation.

March from Les tres riches heures du Duc de Berry.

But whereas Tolkien’s hobbits start out in a state of innocence because they are in a sheltered part of the world forgotten by history, Simon the scullion starts his adventures out in the midst of the greatest artefact of his world’s mysterious past. He’s surrounded by tremendous history on all sides, and he’s so stubbornly reluctant to see it that it makes for an undercurrent of irony right through the first section of the book. His home castle, the Hayholt, is an accretion of old and older buildings. The foundations were built by the Fair Folk, and unlike Tolkien’s elves, they are not at all resigned to the passing of their age of dominion!

Somebody who knows more old languages than me can say if ‘Osten Ard’ means Eastern Earth, in which case it could be a place east of Middle-earth, where the Elves didn’t meet the Valar…and ended up wanting revenge on the newcomer Men who drove them out.

One of my correspondents this week sent a quote from Tolkien’s letters that said that he’d wanted to create a kind of mythology for Britain, as it had nothing of its own like the Norse or Greek myths. He totally suceeded, and Middle-earth has become as natural a source for writers to draw on as any other mythology.

Next week: How did Tolkien structure ‘The Lord of the Rings’? Very cleverly, according to Diana Wynne Jones.


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