Born January 3, 1892: J.R.R. Tolkien
Around the world people will raise a toast to the Professor at 9 p.m. local time – so it’s not too late for those of us in North America.
And today’s recommended theme reading is Bradley J. Birzer’s “’Hobbits on My Hands’: Two Keys to Understanding Tolkien’s Myths”, which has the good taste to borrow from Clyde Kilby:
Tolkien believed his legendarium to be a single entity revealed to him over time. To him, The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings were a continuation of the same story, inseparable, and, when divided, incomprehensible. In fact, as Clyde Kilby has noted, there are over 600 references to The Silmarillion in The Lord of the Rings. “Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours,” Sam says in The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo and Sam reluctantly follow Gollum to the stairs of Cirith Ungol, entering Mordor. Sam, looking at the light of the Phial from Galadriel, realizes that the quest to destroy the Ring is a continuation of the story of The Silmarillion. “You’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s still going.” When a rider from Rohan encounters Aragorn, the future king, for the first time, a similar conversation ensues. After a mention of a Halfling, the rider exclaims: “Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” Unmoved, Aragorn responds: “A man may do both. For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!” Little difference, Tolkien’s characters state, exists between history and myth, or between the historian and the minstrel. Indeed, the minstrel may understand the complexities of life far more than the historian, trapped in his archives and specialized, cramped world.
But if this is too much sweetness and light for you, the New Yorker offers an interview with the “Anti-Tolkien” – Michael Moorcock:
Moorcock thinks Tolkien’s vast catalogue of names, places, magic rings, and dwarven kings is, as he told Hari Kunzru in a 2011 piece for The Guardian, “a pernicious confirmation of the values of a morally bankrupt middle class.”
Nevertheless, Moorcock might be someone to trust in these matters. From his first job, editing a Tarzan fan magazine at the age of seventeen, to his seventieth novel, which will be released in January, he has essentially written the other style guide for modern fantasy. Moorcock is the author of an almost uncountable number of short stories; he’s edited anthologies, written critical books of nonfiction and had his novel “Mother London” shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. With that output, Moorcock is likely to have written some duds, but he is quick to acknowledge his own limitations. He once wrote, “I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I’d rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas”
[Thanks to John King Tarpinian and Martin Morse Wooster for the story.]