Tag Archives: Tolkien

Tolkien’s “Take That!” to Shakespeare

Literary Fencing: Tolkien vs. Shakespeare

Tolkien, Shakespeare

Tolkien vs. Shakespeare – looks like an epic showdown, doesn’t it? {PD}

While reading a book about Tolkien this week, I came across the fact that parts of Lord of the Rings were inspired by Macbeth.* Which I’d already known, and was super-obvious to me, especially in Eowyn’s most famous scene. But what I didn’t realize was how much of Lord of the Rings was a direct “take that!” to Shakespeare. Tolkien “rather enjoyed voicing the ultimate Englishman’s heresy of hating Shakespeare altogether.” Yay, Tolkien, join the club!

Of course, Lord of the Rings is inspired by tons of other myths and legends as well. But in case the ways Tolkien issued a challenge to Shakespeare was not obvious to you, I’ll list a couple for you. Starting with the most obvious:

Eowyn and the Witch-King

The prophecy about who would kill the witch-king parallels the prophecy about who could kill Macbeth – “No living man can kill me,” sneers the witch-king, while Macbeth “cannot be slain by man of woman born.”

But Macbeth dies due to a loophole in his prophecy – apparently a man born by C-section is not born of a woman (No, I don’t get this either). Tolkien thought that was lame, and made his witch-king die at the hands of a woman. This seems like the more obvious loophole to me, maybe because I’m female.

The Witch-King as Macbeth

The prophecy part is the part I already knew. But I didn’t know how the witch-king explicitly paralleled Macbeth in other ways, mostly because I never paid much attention to Macbeth.

The witch-king sold his soul in exchange for earthly power, while Macbeth gives in to evil in exchange for his power. So they’re both supposed to be the archetype of kings with doomed, remorseless souls. Is it just me, or is the Witch-King a bit more menacing? Maybe because I don’t need at least ten minutes to figure out what’s he’s saying?

The Ents:

Tolkien loved this line in Shakespeare: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” He loved the thought of marching trees. However, Shakespeare had other ideas. He just makes an army cut down tree branches so they look like a marching wood.

Tolkien thought this was rubbish and invented Ents. And the march of the Huorns on the orcs at Helm’s Deep. Great scenes – glad Shakespeare spurred him to write those.

 

So yeah, Shakespeare was a relatively minor element of inspiration for Tolkien, but he did inspire some rather cool scenes! I love how Shakespeare inspired Tolkien to do the exact opposite with his plots, rather than slavishly copy him. That’s what they call “negative inspiration,” folks!

 

For another book that uses Macbeth to enrich the story, check out Cat Among the Pigeons, by Agatha Christie. Very different from Lord of the Rings, but still good!

*This book is Tolkien’s Ring, by David Day. He seems to have studied Tolkien quite a bit, so let’s hope this is a good source for extra Tolkien info!

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My Favourite Lord of the Rings Quote

Continuing on my Lord of the Rings theme (or, to be honest, just barely remembering to post today), I have decided to share one of my favourite quotes from The Fellowship of the Ring:

“For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”

I I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eyes was bewildered.

“I liked white better,” I said.

I love how this shows Gandalf’s sense of humour! Lord of the Rings is not all dry, high-minded rambling. (Another example from The Hobbit: “I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!”) It also illustrates nicely Tolkien’s theme of the contrast between the Wise, and the wisdom of the humbler folk who sometimes turn out to be wiser than powerful people like Saruman.

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Just Do Something

Gandalf

Gandalf, by JesicaLR. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I am not Frodo–I had not been handed a great and terrible burden. I do not live on the edge of the outbreak of World War III. But the words of Gandalf still mean something to me, and probably most everyone reading this. All we can do is decide what to do with the time given to us.

Lately I’ve felt I’ve hit a dead end in my life–I’m not sure where to go from here in my schooling, my writing, my hopes and dreams–really, where I should live and what career I should pursue, and everything niggling worry of the sort that plague twenty-somethings who try to figure out their life. And I always think, “If only my life were like this, then I would do this.” But it’s a waste of time thinking of it like that. The way my life is right now, that’s what I have to work with.

I feel guilty, because I have been blessed beyond what millions of people throughout history could every have dreamed. Seriously, who in Ancient Greece could have imagined a country like Canada, with a startling lack of warfare, relatively little violence, unprecedented opportunity for women, stupendous riches and time-saving technologies… I could go on. I have all this, and yet feel helpless in the face of the future. Why should I worry about pursuing my dreams at all? Who could ask for a better set of opportunities? Again, Frodo had a right to complain, but I don’t.

The trick is taking that deep breath, taking that first step. Closing your eyes to paralyzing fear, and just doing something. Not letting the frustration of dead ends stop you from trying a new direction.

Ask me again at the end of 2013, if I’ve followed my own advice.

What are your hopes for 2013?

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Of Cellar Doors, and Naming Characters

“Most English-speaking people … will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful,’ especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful that, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful…”

–         Tolkien, again, in English and Welsh

 Funny how some words sound nice, but when written, look ugly. I never would’ve thought of cellar door as sounding nice without Tolkien pointing it out, but it does.

I have this trouble with character names sometimes. Sometimes a name just sounds better than it looks. For example, I’ve always thought “Holly Golightly” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s sounded really pretty, but “Golightly” written has too many consonants together and looks vaguely German (to me). So what’s an author to do? Either change the spelling, or not use that name, I guess.

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Concerning Hobbits

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

The Hobbit

 That has to be the most famous line ever scrawled on the back of a student’s exam paper. It’s such a good example of an intriguing opening line for a novel – I remember wondering just what a hobbit was, and why it lived in a hole in the ground (I was really young when I read it, but I hope I’d still be excited by it). The next line answers part of my unspoken question beautifully: “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

 I am currently re-reading The Hobbit because I happened to catch of glimpse of the trailer for the new Hobbit movie. I’m thinking the movie could be really good, or ruin everything (‘cuz I don’t really remember Legolas or Galadriel in the that particular book, so I hope they have something useful to do in it). All the same, the trailer really excited me, so I had to go back and read the book over again!

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Un Bon Mot – Language Learning is Hard…

No language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself.

– Tolkien, English and Welsh

 I’m thinking this is true, as my Spanish and Portuguese “fluency” languishes… It’s tough to learn languages, and I like doing it. It must be harder if you hate it and only do it because someone tells you it will be useful (as thousands of Canadian schoolchildren are told each year as an explanation for why they are learning French). Knowing languages is probably a useful skill for writers too, so that the foreign phrases they insert are grammatically correct – as well as teaching us what un bon mot means. But if you don’t enjoy it, you might not get far.

 Anyway, I’ve probably just hit the bottom for this semester, and that may be a reason for my lack of progress language-wise. It’s sad – I start each school year fresh off vacation and full of confidence, which always evaporates by November. But I always do survive. 🙂

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Tolkien’s Take On True Love

Edith Tolkien (PD-US)

Since we’ve been talking about romance, here’s Tolkien’s take on the subject. He actually wrote an astoundingly long letter on the marriage to his son, in typical Tolkien style:

 “But…  only the rarest good fortune brings together the man and woman who are really as it were ‘destined’ for one another, and capable of a very great and splendid love. The idea still dazzles us, catches us by the throat: poems and stories in multitudes have been written on the theme, more, probably, than the total of such loves in real life (yet the greatest of these tales do not tell of the happy marriage of such great lovers, but of their tragic separation; as if even in this sphere the truly great and splendid in this fallen world is more nearly achieved by ‘failure’ and suffering). In such great inevitable love, often love at first sight, we catch a vision, I suppose, of marriage as it should have been in an unfallen world. In this fallen world we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will …”

– Letter to Michael Tolkien (March 1941)

He goes on to say,

“Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.”

 There’s got to be some truth to that – we read romance because we want a glimpse of true love, yet this true love seems impossible to achieve because we all have flaws (and whoever we get involved with has flaws too). Tolkien’s conclusion is that true love involves commitment, and doing your best by the other as well as you can.

The full version of the letter is very interesting. He actually goes on to relate his whole tumultuous love affair with Edith Mary Bratt (for Tolkien fans out there, the rumour is he based the characters of Arwen and Luthien on her).

There’s a shorter excerpt to be found here, and a longer version (Letter #43) to be found here.

 Thoughts?

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Lookin' Good

cover 1

Prince.CharmingDid that get you in the mood from some romantic reading? I’ve got a few great stories for you: Lookin’ Good, Spring Fever and Prince Charming. Enjoy!

 

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A Thought from JRR Tolkien – Outside the Prison Walls of Reality

I thought I’d run out of quotes, until it occurred to me to look up authors I like and see what they say about writing. So – voila! – here is Tolkien, nicely following up on Oscar Wilde’s thoughts on real life in literature:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds… Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?

– JRR Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

 I would never say escape is always good. Sometimes you have to sit up and face reality. All the same, when I read a book, I very rarely want to know about how miserable life is. I’ve figured that out already, thanks. I want a story about something better.

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A Meaningful Universe?–Defining Fantasy

Fantasy, according to Crawford Kilian, takes place in a morally meaningful universe, and that is why readers like it so much. “In fantasy, meaning is not something we slap on from the outside, it’s built right into everything from the rocks and trees to the political system.”

I do love fantasy, possibly because I believe everything on this earth is morally meaningful in a rather messed up way. Everything in this world points to something. So I was very intrigued by this explanation of what defines fantasy. It might explain why I enjoy fantasy, and am rather ambivalent about sci-fi. But even for people who don’t think the way I do–most people would like to imagine a world where everything that happens is meaningful.

Then I wondered–does this actually apply to all fantasy?

For old school fantasy giants such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, it obviously applies. Prophecies predict events that happen. Good is recognized as good (and is considered attractive and beautiful by other good people), though some are deceived by its humble nature and rough surroundings. Evil, while attempting to appear beautiful, is revealed as ugly and not worth following.

But even in quite different books, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, this theory of meaningfulness applies. Especially so, since so many of her character names, place names and spell names gives clues to what the thing is actually like. The hero has a plain, ordinary name–Harry Potter. The Death Eaters‘ names all sound ominous–Lucius Malfoy, Draco, Bellatrix Lestrange, Mulciber, Yaxley… The appearance of the Thestrals in the fifth book are a clear indication things are getting darker. And so on.

I am still not sure all fantasy follows this rule though. Some books seem to plunk characters down in a world solely because the author likes that kind of world, and the towns/forests/roads the characters are travelling don’t seem to mean much. I’m not sure if Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is set in a meaningful universe–it’s so incredibly huge I have no idea what it’s trying to say–if you have any ideas on that, add it in the comments below.

That’s one drawback to Crawford Kilian’s book (Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy – I really enjoyed it, by the way). He makes good points, but insists everything in a story should be there for a reason, even if symbolic. As a reader, I do hate pointless scenes. But if they entertain me (and I’m speaking as a reader here, not a writer), fine–I personally don’t care what every object “means,” or represents. That’s why I hated highschool English (Did Shakespeare really mean that?). It is important to put thought in your stories, and not be random. But even Tolkien put in long passages of description that meant nothing to the plot as a whole. (Actually, this was a bad habit of Tolkien’s, but some of it is enjoyable).

How about you–what would you say a good description of fantasy is?

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EPICNESS in the Footsteps of Tolkien

I went through a phase of being obsessed with epic fantasy (see the post Fantasy Round-Up). I still like it, but it’s less of an obsession. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time series… the more epic, the better. So when I was assigned to write poetry in school I tried my hand at Tolkien-style epic poetry, and this was the result:

 

Terrnce, Krvel’s Bane

 

Over fields and happy places

Over town and dark, deep mountains

Over forest, and the faces

Of the desert, and by a lake

There is a castle, evil and grim

And Krvel, lord of dark, is there.

Lo, it is all because of him

That the land was dark and foul

That the lake was slaggy, that the grass was dead

That soil was leached, and piles of waste

Lay about, and that the dread

Of Evil haunts each stone and rock.


But lo, up to his castle

Rides a knight, his eyes like storms

His hair is dark, his arms are strong

The lurking evil ‘round him scorns.


A slave of Krvel comes out to him

“Why are you here?” he leers.

“I am Terrnce,” the stranger replies,

“Go tell Krvel to come here.”


Time does pass, and Krvel comes out

Dark is his raiment, sable his sword.

“I’ve come to regain my Lady Voä,”

Quoth Terrnce, “She belongs not to Krvel lord.”

“I did capture her,” Krvel laughed in reply,

“But she belongs to me alone

She suits me best, and because of that

She stays by Krvel, by his throne.

Unless, unless, you challenge me

And take up your sword and fight

Whoever wins shall have the lady

Whoever is greater in might.”


Terrnce, in reply his sword he drew

A fine sword, long, sharp, clean,

But Krvel, dark lord, drew his too

A cruel blade, wicked and mean.

Lady Voä Looked down from her window

And lo, what did she see?

Krvel, dark lord, down below

Fighting with-  could it be he?

Terrnce, her knight, had come to save her

Save her from this evil lord.


Looking up, Terrnce saw her

And strengthened his resolve

To free fair lady Voä

And Krvel’s power to dissolve.

With a clash their swords met in mid-air

Krvel pushed Terrnce’s blade aside

But Terrnce struck back, himself to defend

Yet does not attack freely, his time he bides

Then with a clash their swords meet again

Striking and biting, as furious as snakes

Terrnce falls back, his sword by his head

Defends himself calmly, a deep breath he then takes

And attacks, like a lion, valiant and true

Krvel steps back, afraid for a moment

But strikes Terrnce’s sword; his mouth in a line

Terrnce’s arm trembles, yet he does not relent.

He leans back and pushes, he calls on his strength,

Gathering all his power, all in one heave

He hews at Krvel’s arm, at his chest, at his neck

Krvel falls dead, and Terrnce it can’t believe

Lady Voä is free!


Voä runs out to meet him, and hold out her arms

Terrnce hugs her, he loves her, and she is now his

Together they ride out into sunset and light

The terror of Krvel to never re-live

By the way, this is probably my last poem for awhile. Stay tuned next week for a new direction!

 

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