Last week I visited the Boolean Library in Oxford to see the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition. This exhibition combines work from Tolkien’s estate, material from various museums, and published material to produce a detailed description of his life and the process of producing his seminal work, The Lord of the Rings. It includes a lot of the original artwork he produced, and notes and scribblings from his entire career. Interspersed with these are letters, diary entries, photos and details of his daily life, including memorabilia and ephemera (?) such as the rocking chair from his office.

The central theme of the exhibition is the long drawn out process by which Tolkien developed Middle Earth, from its first sparks in his teen years and early university days to its final realization. To describe this process they use a lot of material from his study and workshops, and present a lot of maps, as well as some of the content of his interactions with colleagues, publishers and his friends The Inklings. The exhibition does not set out to give a background or introduction to Middle Earth, though it contains some fascinating exhibits that link his art and his voice to the contents of his world. There are several readings of Quenya by Tolkien himself, that were recorded at some point and which you can listen to, and there is an excellent interactive map of the journeys of the Fellowship, with locations that you can click on to see pictures that Tolkien drew or painted that describe the settings (his 3-D pencil sketch of Mordor is particularly good). There is a section devoted to various pictures he drew attempting to visualize the world of the First Age and the Silmarillion, which indicate that this period was not settled in his own mind. There are also stories about how others reacted to his illustrations. Of particular interest here is the reaction of publishers to his pictures, with (for example) the publisher of the Hobbit being very happy with his picture of Bilbo drifting through the forest on a barrel, but not so interested in other pictures. From all of this the visitor can gain a deeper insight into just how long it took him to produce the Lord of the Rings, how intensively it was worked and reworked, and how close it came to never being published.

I’m not a big fan of Tolkien’s illustrations, many of which are amateurish and in a style I don’t really like, but even many of the illustrations I don’t like are evocative of a particular vision and style that really helps to define how Tolkien saw his world (and, given his authorial authority, how we should too!) Some, like the Bilbo on a barrel picture, are quite beautiful in a kind of art nouveau style that I think really summarizes Tolkien’s romanticism and his anti-industrial sensibilities. Others give a sense of the scale and power of the world he wanted us to wander through, and help us to understand how he imagined the journeys at the core of the story. They also give an insight into another interesting thing about Tolkien’s imagination: just as he centered the story of Middle Earth in the world of the Third Age, and depicted the First Age as a lost realm of dreams and myth, so he himself had a very concrete vision of the Third Age, but a very vague and shifting view of the past of his world. His pictures and descriptions of the First and Second Age do not provide much clarity about what it looked like, as if he was drawing on memories and dreams, while from his pictures of the Middle Earth of Lord of the Rings one feels as if he was really there. This might help to give some sense to the conflicting myths and legends underlying the story, and suggests that Tolkien never intended anyone to draw any single clear and definitive strand of history from the First Age to the Third.

I cannot review an exhibition of Tolkien without touching on the recurring theme of my analysis of his work, the problem of scientific racism. The museum does not touch on this issue or discuss it in any way, and nor does it need to – this is an exhibition about Tolkien’s life and how he developed his stories, not about any single theme that underlies it, and it had no great interest in the impact of his work on subsequent writers (except to present some excellent examples of how enormously popular his work has been). However, the exhibition does present a single piece of extremely strong evidence in support of the claim that Middle Earth represents Europe, and the Haradrim are Africans. One of the central pieces of the exhibition is the map that Tolkien worked from in preparing the book. On this map he has written in blue ink the names of real world places that correspond with the places in Middle Earth. Hobbiton is Oxford, Minas Tirith is somewhere in Italy, and the southernmost city on the map – somewhere north of Haradwaith – is Jerusalem. It is abundantly clear from this map – prepared by Tolkien himself and a core part of his working materials for the book – that he envisaged Haradwaith as Africa. This should help to settle debate on how we should analogize the Haradrim in his stories.

Although the exhibition does not intend to – and obviously does not need to – describe Tolkien’s political views in detail, it does give a brief account of his role in the war and his reaction to it, which are generally agreed to be important to the development of some of the ideas behind his imaginary world. There is a tragic picture of his graduating class from Oxford (I think it’s Oxford) with all those who died in the Great War shaded out, showing how terribly that war affected his generation, even those like himself who were relatively cushioned from it by their comparatively elite status. There is a sad letter from a friend heading to the front, urging him to continue his writing even if the friend will never live to see it (that friend died at the front). This helps to give an insight into Tolkien’s personality. But the real insight into Tolkien’s personality comes from excerpts of his letters, and the description of some aspects of his personal life. Though he had been appointed professor of Old English at Oxford, Tolkien had no office, and worked from a study at home. In this study he supervised students, prepared lectures, and did all his philological work. The museum also tells us that he never closed this study to his children, and that it was a popular place for them. It has to be said that from these insights into his personal world the museum really gives the impression of a man who was kind, gentle and in no way an arsehole. This may not seem like much but I have worked in Academia for 10 years now and I have to say that not being an arsehole in Academia is a rare and special trait. Furthermore, in this age of #metoo where we are increasingly discovering that the people whose work we love are arseholes, losers and/or abusers, it is genuine pleasure to find that a man whose work was of such towering importance, who was in an elite position in a world where men of his position were protected from all forms of retribution for their behavior, and an academic to boot, really appears to have just been a decent chap. It’s a balm for the soul in these troubled times, and although I had no special impressions of Tolkien’s personality in any direction, it is nice to be given some evidence that he was not the arsehole so many other famous people have turned out to be. Well done Dr. Tolkien!

Because I have written many blogposts analyzing the racism in Tolkien’s work, and the negative influence of its racist and conservative content on the fantasy genre, I am often mistaken for someone who doesn’t like Tolkien’s work and doesn’t consider it especially influential. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. I love his work and think it was hugely influential. As part of my trip to the UK I went on a tour of some famous sites in Wessex and the area I grew up in, and I realized through these journeys that I really was strongly influenced by the bucolic vision of a green and perfect England that Tolkien incorporated into his works, as well as the Christian and pre-Christian ideas that drive it. I think his work is an amazing and beautiful construction and undoubtedly one of the most important cultural products of the 20th Century (along, perhaps, with heavy metal, role playing, social networks, modern combat sports and computer games). He did something no one else had ever done, and unlike Gary Gygax he did it beautifully on his first try. This exhibition really does a great job of reinforcing that impression, and gives a detailed and careful description of the process by which he achieved his vision, from a clearly sympathetic but not sycophantic perspective. If you have a chance to see this exhibition, please do so. If you like Tolkien, or even if you don’t but are interested in how this important literary figure built and conceived his world, then I recommend you visit this exhibition and immerse yourself in his creative vision. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

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The fellowship was composed of five members:

  • Tywyl Neidr, a hobbit and the sole survivor of the sacking of Rhosgobel
  • Eisa the Axe, Dunlending, an Eye of Saruman and Neidr’s oldest adventuring companion
  • Simir the Swan, a Wainrider from the East who sought the secret to his people’s troubles with the Shadow
  • Mercy, a Barding warrior-woman on a quest to avenge the death of her family
  • Olaf, a Barding archer

It was 2946, five years after the battle of the five armies. The fellowship had first met during that battle, and adventured together briefly in the aftermath, chasing Orcs and worst back into their rotten lairs in the iron hills. The fellowship had broken up but they had all made a solemn pledge: That if after five years of peace they still felt that the Shadow was undefeated, they would meet again and reform their fellowship, to commit again to struggle against the creeping evil from the south. Their appointed meeting place was the Easterly Inn, a small inn run by a hobbit family in the far north of the Vale of Anduin.

So it was that five years after the battle of five armies they met again in the Easterly Inn, all grimly certain of their purpose and bearing dark tidings of the Shadow that continued to hang over the west, and especially over the wilderlands. As soon as their greetings and reminiscences were done, they sought a task through which they could rekindle their fellowship.

The innkeep himself offered it to them. Rumour had been flying that the High Pass through the misty mountains was under siege from dark forces, and passage through it growing more perilous with every season. The innkeep had sent his own brother through the pass during the summer to return to the Shire for important supplies – pipe weed, brandy, the usual accoutrements of a well-stocked hobbit tavern – but now his brother was late and as the high summer passed he began to fear the worst. He needed reliable heroes to travel to the pass and find what had happened to his brother, and he was willing to offer a small portion of treasure for their troubles, as well as free lodgings in the Inn this coming winter.

That was all the trigger the heroes needed. They would investigate the High Pass, find the forces troubling it, and see what could be done to rescue the Innkeeper’s brother, Dilly. The following morning they set off.

The first stage of their journey was easy, taking a trade boat down the Anduin River as far as the Old Fort. From there they would need to take the Forest Road west into the Misty Mountains to where it rose into the High Pass. They reached Old Fort without incident and from there headed west, finding the going easy at first but increasingly perilous as the road rose towards the High Pass. Hunting became difficult and the journey wearisome, and on their first night they were forced to camp in a stinking bog where they were plagued by ferocious biting insects. Still, such minor inconveniences are of no account against the maraudings of the Shadow, and so they passed on into their second day.

The second night they set up a good camp in a secluded patch of woodland and old ruins, near the road but safe on slightly raised ground. In the evening as they settled down to eat they were disturbed by a weary, dirty stranger who came shambling out of the woods and set himself down at their fire, introducing himself as Shambler. As soon as he arrived Tywyl slunk off unnoticed into the shadows to search the area, and the rest of them set to interrogating this strange and arrogant newcomer. He claimed to be traveling east and simply seeking rest, but something was off about him. After a few minutes he pulled out a pipe and began smoking pipe-weed, which further bothered them – could this be weed from the hobbit caravan?

Meanwhile Tywyl moved quietly through the bushes until he had a view of the area between their camp and the road, and soon saw them – four men moving stealthily through the long grass, knives and swords out, intent on the fellowship’s camp. He returned stealthily to the camp and placed himself in position where Eisa the Axe could see him, gesturing the number four to her. She did not hesitate, swinging up her axe and striking Shambler full in the face where he sat at the fire. His rotten tooth flew out of his cruelly sneering mouth and he fell backwards away from the fire as the four men burst into the ring of its light, intent on doing evil but ferociously out-matched by their targets. The battle was over in but a moment, with three men beaten down and the other two desperately surrendering.

They revealed themselves to be bandits, but opportunists, who had decided to rob the camp when they saw it from the Forest Road. They had not robbed the hobbit caravan, but had bought a little brandy and pipe-weed from it some days ago when they came across it in the High Pass. They did not know how far behind them it might be, but it appeared to have been fine when they saw it. The hobbit’s bodyguards, four beornings, had been sufficient warning to the gang not to try robbery, and so they had done business and moved on.

This night they would not move further. The heroes tied the bandits to trees, and in the morning rebuked them with a good solid kicking before breaking camp and proceeding west along the Forest Road.

That day and night were uneventful, and the road now began to break apart as it rose into the mountains. The following day and night the road ascended sharply in switch backs and sweeping turns, and by evening they found themselves bracing against a chill wind, now in the highlands proper. They found a good place to camp, but something about its atmosphere disturbed Eisa. Checking tracks carefully, she noticed that wagons and traveling groups seemed to have come here to camp, but left behind no evidence of having ever actually left. The area seemed suffused with some bitter evil. She warned the rest of her fellowship, and they set a trap for whatever fell beast prowled this place.

It came in the deepest part of the night, first a creeping mist enveloping the camp and then a sinister dark shadowy figure gliding smoothly over the cold earth and into the camp. When it made to attack Tywyl the group sprung their trap, everyone surging up to attack it at the same time. Tywyl and Eisa both struck the tall wraith-like beast with their weapons, and felt a horrific jarring cold run through their arms, and a fear clutching their breast. Mercy struck but missed, and then Simir the Swan charged through the mist on his horse, striking the beast in the chest with his lance and breaking it apart into a million torn fluttering fragments of shadow. It disappeared, and the mist dispersed. Tywyl, versed in Shadow Lore, suggested that it must be the restless spirit of some long dead man, and so they searched the area for signs of remains. Finally in a bog they found the bones of a long-dead warrior, his body submerged in the bog, its armour rotted and ruined. They drew up the remains and took them to a hilltop far from the ambush site, giving them a proper burial that the spirit would never rise again. Then, exhausted, they broke camp and marched into the chill dawn.

During that day’s travel they found signs of goblins, and that evening they found what they sought – the hobbit’s wagon. On a hillside near the path a huge fire burned, and in the far distance they heard drums. Drums! In the Deep! A force of goblins must be on the march. They sent Tywyl ahead off the track to investigate, and he returned quickly to report that the hobbit wagon and its beorning guards were drawn up in a small hollow off the road, where once an ancient hill fort had stood. The wagon had been settled inside the partial protection of the fort’s old outer earthen rings, and they had lit a great fire to keep the night at bay. The beorning guard had been reduced to three, all of whom looked exhausted and injured. The drums, they guessed, were goblins coming to finish off the beornings and steal the wagon’s contents.

They made their way up the hill to a position with a good view of the action. Eisa and Tywyl crept forward to a position in hiding where they thought the goblins would arrive, and Olaf positioned himself well away from the battle field in a patch of rocky cover. Mercy and Simir waited below, a little distance from the fort, ready for the goblins.

The goblins marched down the hillside from hidden tunnel entrances higher in the mountain’s peaks, a force of perhaps 100 of the disgusting, wretched creatures, led by five Orcs and a giant Uruk Hai leader. They gathered in a ring around the fort, and beat their drums and yelled their cries. They obviously did not want to charge into the light of the bonfire, but the brutal urging of the orcs would surely eventually force them forward. The beorning leader stood atop the hill fort embankment and roared his challenge at them, but his voice was tired and it was obvious that he knew what his fate would be. The orcs laughed and the goblin drums beat louder.

It was time to act! Olaf fired a volley of arrows into the leader as Eisa and Tywyl emerged from hiding to ambush him, and Mercy rushed in to attack an Orc. The leader survived the initial attack, but only lived long enough to be ridden down by Simir the Swan, whose horse bore him on a wild careening ride through the goblin horde so that he could strike the leader with his lance. He charged through and up to the embankment, rearing his horse in silhouette against the golden light of the bonfire and yelling a challenge in his harsh native tongue. At the same moment Olaf blew his hunting horn, and its cry reverberated around the mountains, as if a force of a thousand rohirrim were rushing forward.

The goblins did not break immediately, though. Those nearest who could see the action opened fire, shooting Simir the Swan off his horse and injuring Tywyl and Mercy. Eisa, Tywyl and Mercy joined into a tight group and moved to stand over Simir the Swan’s body, beating off the onrushing orc leaders and killing three more. As Olaf rained arrows down from afar the last Orc died, and the three beornings came charging down from the embankment to crash into the nearest goblins. Fearing they were being attacked from all sides, their leaders dead, the goblins gave up a great cry of rage and despair, and broke and ran back up the mountain.

A solid victory! But followed by grim tidings. Though Simir was not badly hurt and recovered his strength soon enough, the beornings were spent. Worse still, one of the two hobbits in their wagon had been abducted by the goblins and was now surely held prisoner in their hideous lair. Would the heroes save him?

They assessed their wounds, gritted their teeth, and nodded grimly. The goblins would be allowed no victory this night. They urged the beornings to move the wagon to the road and make haste eastward while the goblins were in hiding, and set off up in the mountain in pursuit of the vile, grey-skinned monsters.

They found their lair entrance soon enough, and entered cautiously, Tywyl ahead. He found them the path towards the densest part of the goblin lair, but on the way they soon discovered that the goblins had a cave troll. It loomed ahead of them, snuffling around in the caves where perhaps they could pass it by unnoticed. But while Eisa and Tywyl could perhaps creep by, Simir the Swan was no thief in the night, and Mercy clanked in her proud barding mail. They decided to wait until the troll came close, and put an end to its foul life.

The attack was swift and ferocious when the time came. The troll came ambling around the corner straight into their path and they struck, all hitting it at once. It reeled under the blows but was not felled in the first onslaught, and with a roar of rage struck down with its huge club on Eisa the Axe. It struck a great blow on her shoulder but somehow, staggered though she was, she shrug off all the damage, grunted, “Not this day!” and rose up anew, a grim and dark light in her eyes, to hit it again with her trusty Dunlending axe. Its energy wasted on tough Dunlending sinews, the troll was torn down by the fellowship’s second onslaught, and soon lay dead before them.

They cut its head off and, dragging it behind them like a hideous trophy, moved further into the caves. Ahead they could hear cheers and singing, the goblins singing some hideous song about eating men, elves and hobbits, oblivious to their approaching doom. Hundreds of them had gathered in a large feasting hall just ahead, where they sang the song together to impress their leader, an Uruk Hai who made the leader the fellowship had killed earlier look like a leaf against a tree. They had no chance against that horde.

But they had not come to kill, only to rescue. They found the hobbit in a large room off the main hall, toiling over a multitude of fireplaces, preparing roasted meats and peppered potatoes and cooking furiously in the ruddy heat. As they watched from the doorway two goblins came in, one cursing him and the other cuffing him, and he handed over to them a huge tray of some dubious meats, prepared with the loving tenderness that only a hobbit can bestow upon even the rudest of foods. They cursed him again and sloped off to the main room, labouring under the weight of the tray.

The goblins had forced their captive to cook for them, and would treat him so until his cooking bored them – then he would be in the pot. Hideous creatures!

They crept into the room and replaced the hobbit with the cave troll’s head. From there they retreated quickly to the outside world, running as fast as they could to escape from the caves before the goblins realized their little slave-meal was gone. They burst into the chill of the outside world and sprinted down the mountain, listening terrified for the sound of drums behind them.

They heard none – perhaps their earlier attack had terrified the goblins into retreat, or perhaps they had decided they preferred to finish their feast than pursue a single prisoner. Or perhaps it was that faint glow of dawn on the horizon that stopped them putting up a chase. No matter. The fellowship retreated to the road and made haste downward, stopping to rest only when the sun was far enough over the peaks of the mountains that they were sure they would not be pursued. After a brief and dismal meal and the shortest of rests they returned to the trail, heading east as fast as they could while the sun was high. At dusk they did not stop, but beat their way along the now-familiar road all night to put distance between themselves and their enemies. Only the next day, when they had reached lower ground and begun to emerge into the vale of Anduin, under a bright summer sky, did they stop and rest at last, the hobbit safe in their company.

Their first mission against the shadow a complete success, they returned the hobbit wagon and its beorning guards to the Easterly Inn. It was a humble beginning, but in the ice and darkness of the misty mountains their fellowship had been forged anew, and now they would not rest until destiny overtook them. Only time would tell what future adventures they would find in the wilderlands, and what blows they would strike against the gathering shadows. As summer’s long glow faded into the cool of autumn they rested in the Easterly Inn, sure of one thing: they would do their part against the ancient evil that lay over this land, together, and before their bones were finally scattered across the wilderland, they would have songs sung of their deeds as far away as the shores of Gondor!

They all look the same to me

They all look the same to me

I have begun a new campaign with a new group, playing The One Ring. This is Cubicle 7’s Middle Earth role playing game, which seems to have been broadly well-received and is certainly a thoughtful and beautiful work. We’re playing on Wednesday nights for about 3 hours, and so far we’ve only managed to complete character creation, so I can’t say anything about game play, but I can give a brief description of character creation.

Basically in this game you make three choices: your culture (i.e. race); your “calling” which is some kind of aspect of your character determining things like what skills will advance fastest and (from memory) your vulnerability to the shadow; and your background, which is effectively your character class and further refines some aspects of your character. After this you get 10 points to spend on skills (advancing at 1 point per rank, cumulative), weapon skills (2 points per rank, cumulative) or a few other things. Characters have a bunch of traits that determine aspects of how their personality will affect play (e.g. brave, foolhardy etc) and also some special properties that are determined at one of these three stages. Character creation is relatively quick and involves no dice rolling: in fact nothing about it is random at all.

This character creation system has made some interesting decisions that clearly break with standard RPG character creation practice. In particular:

  • All your starting skill and weapon choices are determined by your race. Your skills are fixed and immutable – every elf or woodman starts with the same set of skills – and you have a choice of just two weapon sets, with no variation. You can use those 10 points to modify these but these 10 points are a tiny portion of the total skill allocation. You start with at least one skill at rank 3, for example, which would require almost all the 10 points to acquire. Effectively your starting abilities are entirely determined by your race
  • Your starting attributes are determined by a combination of race and background. Most backgrounds appear to be similar across the races (I didn’t get a chance to look in detail but e.g. Woodmen and Dwarves both get “Slayer” as a choice) but the attributes will be distributed differently for two races with the same background. For example I have 2/4/7 in the three attributes, while a dwarf might get 4/5/4, for example. You get to add “favour to these” but this favour amounts to just 6 points spread over the three attributes, and is only used under specific conditions, so it’s not the main determinant of your attributes
  • The majority of your starting personality traits are determined by your race. There is a list of perhaps 12, and you can choose two from a sub list of 6 that are specified for your race

Because of the combination of calling and background it is possible for two characters of the same race to differ slightly from each other in outlook, wealth and attributes, but they will essentially have exactly the same skills and almost the same attributes at the start of play. It’s not like D&D where you slightly modify the base random distribution of attributes, and skills are entirely class-based; it’s not like warhammer where attributes have a slightly different base and level of randomness and there are some additional talents. Everything is determined by your race.

What a remarkable coincidence! How amazing that a game that attempts to faithfully recreate the world of Lord of the Rings should choose a character creation system in which your race determines everything that we normally accept as mutable about a character. I have said before that Tolkien’s work is heavy with racial determinism and the race-as-destiny theories of the era in which he wrote, and I have received considerable pushback for it. I have previously adduced as evidence of this Tolkien’s attractiveness to fascists. I’ve also said that his work has undue influence on other fantasy writers and casts a shadow of racialism across the whole hobby. Well, what a surprise then to discover that a game attempting to recreate the world puts this aspect of it at the centre. And in case one were inclined to suspect that this is just a coincidence, here is the creator of the game on this issue:

The main reason behind the majority of the design choices in The One Ring is faithfulness to the sources. In Middle-earth, culture is the main defining element in an individual, and by limiting the choices in that regard help us attain a genuine ‘in-world’ perspective

Notice what that blog post adds: culture determines one’s virtues and rewards. And in this comment, “culture” is simply code for race. In attempting to recreate the world faithfully, anyone who delves into it immediately notices that they need to privilege race over all other aspects of background as a determinant of not just physical attributes but also psychological and moral attributes.

I have skimmed a few reviews of this game and the completely non-random aspect of character creation doesn’t seem to come out as a big issue for anyone. I have a suspicion that if someone tried such a tactic in any other setting their game would be viewed the worse for it, but in this case the game gets a pass. These reviews have generally also talked about how this game really is an immersive Tolkien experience, to the extent that they can’t imagine the system being used for anything else. I can’t give my opinion on that yet, since we haven’t started playing, but it certainly looks like there are many aspects beyond the character creation that imbue the game with a strong Tolkienesque flavour – the special rules for travel and fellowship and the Hope/Shadow mechanic, for example. I’m not sure if I’m going to like the system, but it looks intriguing and possibly very very good (the reviews suggest that people who play it really like it). I’ll review that when I have had a chance to test it.

I guess it’s not obvious from my critical review of Tolkien’s work but I am a real sucker for his world – I love it and have gamed in it extensively using MERP. I think The One Ring could be a vast improvement on MERP and offer exactly the right flavour of gaming that I have been looking for in Tolkien’s rich, detailed and beautiful world. But I go into that world with a clear understanding of what it is – a scientific racist, authoritarian conservative fantasy of a dead past that we can all hope will never come back to life. This game is another example of just how powerful the racial underpinnings of the world are, and how hard it is to genuinely appreciate the world without accepting that aspect of its creation. And I present this game as further evidence of my claim that whether anyone wants to admit it or not, no one can conceive of Tolkien’s world without accepting the deterministic and moralistic nature of his racial heirarchy.

While we enjoy this world and all its descendants, we should also remember that fantasy needs to be about so much more than this, and that while its creative, lyrical and mythical influences on fantasy have been huge and beneficial, the overarching influence of its scientific racism and conservatism have not done this genre – or our gaming world – any favours.

Galadriel goes to market

Galadriel goes to market

One of the English loan-words that Japanese people misuse slightly in a really cute way is gorgeous (ゴージャス). In Japanese gorgeous refers not to something really nice, but to something that is overdone or just a bit too much – not necessarily unappealing or unattractive, but just a bit too much. I’ve heard the word applied to appearance, food and even writing (e.g. scientific writing should not be gorgeous). It’s often associated with the stylistic choices of young women of a certain social class, and also with hostesses. It’s not necessarily a marker of class or taste, and not deployed in a particularly judgmental way, but it suggests a certain immaturity or inelegance in taste, something that’s acceptable in young women but not for example something one would respect in an adult[1].

The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies is the cinematic showcase for this word. It’s too long, the battle scenes especially are unnecessarily embellished, and the heroism is over the top and over-frequent. Almost every moment of it is also great fun. These battle scenes are the kind of battles where you can imagine seven impossible maneouvres before breakfast, where enormous and terrifying trolls are killed with a single knife stroke, and where a war pig can be more terrifying than a giant. There are even sand worms! As battles go it’s a tour de force, the entire movie is basically one long series of battles, with maybe two brief pauses to discuss the importance of family and tasteless jewellery. The centerpiece battles – between the Uruk Hai and the dwarven heroes – are masterfully done and very enjoyable, but they’re so over the top as to be ridiculous. They’re also good examples of exactly what gorgeous means: for example, Legolas’s prancing up the collapsing tower is precisely how I imagine an elf to be able to move against the laws of nature, it’s the right thing to be in this kind of movie, but it is dropped into the middle of such a long-running series of epic-level feats that instead of being stunning and impressive, it’s just another blister of impossibilities on the back of your retina.

In this regard the movie can be contrasted very effectively with other works from the same series. The final battle between the fellowship and the Uruk Hai in The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, is a masterclass in how to turn a classic role-playing battle into believable cinema. It depicts a group of high-level characters at the peak of their power pulling themselves out of what is basically a lethal ambush by overwhelming numbers, with minimal losses. They do things we know are physically impossible, but they aren’t so far from impossible that we are lifted out of the feeling of the battle by them, and they aren’t so fast-flowing that they become overwhelming in their fantasticality. That battle is heroic fantasy at its finest, patently unrealistic but completely believable in the context of the world, and really engaging. The battles in the Battle of Five Armies are so full of over-the-top heroics and impossibilities that they become less an exercise in story-telling and heroic fantasy and more of an exercise in braggadocio by everyone involved. Yes, I want to see my fantasy heroes do impossible things; I want to see victories against overwhelming odds; I want to know that these people are not normal, not like me, doing things I can’t do. I don’t want this experience to be transformed into marveling at the ingenuity of the movie’s creator’s rather than its characters.

Just as a young hostess’s style can be so gorgeous that it becomes a self-evident performance of beauty rather than beauty itself, so this movie has turned heroic fantasy into a performance of itself, rather than a performance for its fans.

And don’t get me mistaken, I am a fan. The Hobbit is not a particularly interesting or enjoyable book, and Peter Jackson had pretty thin gruel to work with in making this part of the epic; he also had to please a group of tantrum-prone true-believers with an immature and shallow approach to the work. Given how dark and grim the later Lord of the Rings movies turned, he also had to find a way to leaven the silly boys-own-adventure style of the main plot with some kind of nod to the growing shadows. By choosing to work in the unwritten parts of the original story – Gandalf’s exploration of Mirkwood and the battle with the necromancer, for example – I think he has made the story more engrossing and enjoyable. He has also managed to present us with a breathtaking and splendid vision of Middle Earth, carved out of New Zealand, that has been more or less consistent across six diverse movies, and has stuck very closely to the aesthetic vision of Tolkien’s main visual interpreters. He managed to lift the dwarves from their shallow representation in the book and Snow White-style triviality in popular culture into serious, adult figures without falling on the cheap Jewish or Scottish stereotypes that often get attached to them, and for this all Tolkien fans should be eternally grateful. The dwarves are excellent, and as dwarves should be – dour, hard working, tough, narrow-minded and loyal. They look like adults and adventurers, and unlike Gimli (or Dwain in this movie) they don’t get turned into comedy sideshows. The Hobbit would have been an utter disaster if it had been made by someone trying to be loyal to the original book and the needs of the fans, it would have been a single stupid movie involving 12 characterless technicolor idiots and a dude in a pointy hat, cocking up everything they do.

Furthermore, The Hobbit is a rare example of a movie that manages to make a dragon a central part of it without cocking it up monumentally, which every other movie except Dragonslayer and Reign of Fire has managed to do. Smaug is an evil, cunning, wily and deeply sinister monster of terrifying power, and as soon as he is let loose on Dale you can see why armies of dwarves would fall before one of these things. His supreme arrogance, coupled with his incredible power and complete disregard for mortals and their feeble efforts, is a joy to behold. This is how a dragon should be! But even here we see Jackson falling for the gorgeous: the simple tale of Smaug’s death gets padded out with an unnecessary piece of sentimentality and impossibility, and a spot of slightly out of place (but nonetheless enjoyable) humour. Nothing in this movie just jumps, or just climbs, or just dies. Not even Smaug.

Still, I didn’t sign up for the last instalment in this epic so I could see a handful of orcs get their arses kicked by some woodland sprites and a few technicolor stereotypes in a backwoods scrap. I signed up for a monumental battle between the noble forces of good and the deepest evil ever conceived, and that’s what I got – in spades. The Orc leaders and Uruk Hai champions were awesome, the dwarven and elven battle scenes were spectacular, the troll stormtroopers impressive and exciting (though like every other stormtrooper, remarkably easy to kill …), the desperation of the human defenders grim and hopeless. This is a two-plus hour rollercoaster of well-deserved death and slaughter, and though you will at times find yourself thinking “what were they thinking?” and marvelling more at the movie-makers’ ingenuity than the actual traits of the people on the screen, you’ll still love every minute of it.

But it is too gorgeous.

fn1: Remembering that in modern Japan the word “adult” is increasingly coming to mean a person over 30, and there is even a growing fashion trend for otona (大人) that is specifically aimed at offering classy but still pretty and sexy clothes to women aged in their 30s and 40s. This style is largely the opposite of gorgeous.

Popular perception of Tolkien’s world-building efforts seems to be that they were the product of a determined and methodical visionary. I think this perception arises because his worlds are so detailed and carefully constructed, so complete and internally consistent, that it’s impossible not to imagine that they were constructed systematically out of a guiding vision. However, reading Dimitra Fimi’s Tolkien, Race and Cultural History I have been given a very different insight into Tolkien’s world-creation process, as a jumbled, complex series of reworkings of different visions, stemming from differing and sometimes conflicting political goals, and coalescing around an accidental publication timetable. One also gets the sense that by the end of this creative process Tolkien himself was having difficulty understanding exactly how he approached it, and what his ideological and aesthetic purpose was. The book also helps us to understand how Tolkien’s creative process changed along with the creative fashions of the time, and shows the many ways in which Tolkien’s world-building was closely linked to the changing aesthetics of his era. Here I would like to give a brief overview of how his world-building proceeded, and the ultimate somewhat chaotic way in which it coalesced into a final (publicly) static form.

From inchoate faerie-lore to political vision

Tolkien’s first works were not about Middle-Earth at all, but poems and stories about faeries and goblins. These stories and poems had youthful naivete and a close connection to the fascination with faeries that British society was still enjoying at the end of the Edwardian era. His pre-war poems draw on the popular image of small, flitting woodland creatures of that time, and nothing in them resembled the creatures of his later world. By the end of his creative process Tolkien was saying in letters that he had “always” hated these Edwardian faerie imaginings, but this is clearly not the case in his unpublished and published early works – an interesting example of the author having a vision of his youthful self that is at odds with his own work. As the faeries of the Edwardian era were crushed under the wheels of the first world war (and some classic faerie hoaxes), Tolkien’s own work grew darker and more adult, with faeries changing to gnomes that eventually became Noldor, and who would become the original speakers of the elven language that he originally developed as a fairy and then gnomish tongue. From this mish-mash of faerie lore, combined with his language work, the original Silmarillion began to form after the war, but it went through many revisions and gradually became more mature and complex as the faerie transformed into elves. However, its form was heavily dependent on Tolkien’s political vision, and the content also changed with the development and subsequent atrophying of his political goals.

Middle-earth as a revolutionary Catholic project

Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and also a romantic (in the aesthetic sense), somewhat out of time and place in a protestant England becoming increasingly materialistic. During the end of the Edwardian era, in the pre-war years, this conflict between the increasingly materialistic and scientific modern England and its pastoral romantic past came to the fore in many aspects of its political and artistic culture, and indeed the fanciful beliefs in faeries was one example of a kind of pastoral revivalism occurring in increasingly urban and industrial England. Tolkien was no doubt affected by this romantic revanche, and in the pre-war years he and his friends joined together to form the Tea Club/Barrovian Society (TCBS) which had as its goal “to drive from life, letters, the stage and society teh dabbling in and hankering after the unpleasant sides and incidents in life and nature.” They envisioned England “purified of its loathsome insidious disease” by their works. At this time Tolkien was building his elvish language, and he appears to have envisaged a connection between England’s faerie past and the moral character of Englishness: he seems to have imagined faerie creatures as teaching morality and aesthetically superior ideals to humans in the mythology he was building at this time, and he saw his stories and poems about faerie as an opportunity to proselytize the TCBS ideals publicly. This puts a strange conflict at the heart of his work, because at this stage his language works and some of his stories include strong hints that his Middle Earth was built from a Catholic vision – his language included many specific terms for Catholic religious ideas and ritual objects, and a major part of his stories was inspired by a particular old English world for Christ. Here he was stuck, I think, because faerie are obviously not a Catholic idea and he was forced to reconcile these faerie “teachers” of the romantic vision with his Catholic ideals. At this stage his Middle Earth was incomplete, and he appears to have solved the problem by taking a step towards dividing the world into a period of myth and a period of near history. This step also appears to have been influenced by another of his ideological goals at this time: the recovery of an English mythology.

Tolkien’s English nationalism

Tolkien was open about his desire to build a “mythology for England,” and he admired similar efforts conducted elsewhere, most especially the Kalevala, which was a fabricated ideal of Finnish nationhood that was instrumental in forging modern Finland. Part of this project required the discovery or construction of myths for England, and indeed of a differentiation of English from British. The concept of “Englishness” is of course a joke, a fantasy of racial purity that has no grounding in science or history, but Tolkien liked to labour under the impression that he had some kind of identifiable racial “stock,” and that everyone else in England did too. At the point where he was writing The Hobbit and fiddling with multiple revisions of his world, Tolkien was still impressed by ideas that linked language and racial heritage, and he appears to have still subscribed to ideas about the inherent moral characteristics of different races (we will come back to this in a subsequent post, because Tolkien’s ideas about race seem to have been complex and to have changed a lot in the inter-war period). So early visions of his world included attempts to build a kind of tutelary lore for the English, which as part of the intended proselytizing of the TCBS would lead to the promulgation of ideals of Englishness in the same vein as the Kalevala instilled a unified concept of Finnishness in the Finns.

Unfortunately the Great War pulverized the Edwardian sense of romance out of the British population, and as the TCBS grew up their cynicism overwhelmed their desire to action; by the time the Hobbit came out their activities were largely just correspondence to each other, and Tolkien’s visions of Englishness and romantic revival, though preserved in his aesthetics and his written works, appear to have lost their overtly political impetus.

The Hobbit and the consolidating influence of publication pressure

After the war Tolkien’s world went through multiple revisions, and he kept adding, changing and recreating it, generally in a more adult and cynical direction. However, simultaneously he wrote and published The Hobbit, which he did not appear to have originally envisaged as a core part of his story – even his invention of Hobbits themselves appears to have been something of an afterthought. However, after its success he was put under pressure from his publisher to write more about Hobbits, and so the Lord of the Rings began to take solid form. But with this open publication of a part of his world some elements of it were cemented in place, and all of his vision now had to be built so as to be consistent with the position of the events of The Hobbit in its history. Building on The Hobbit meant constructing a story for adults, with all the conflict and realism that entails, that would be consistent with both the events of the Hobbit and the deeper past of his world. At this point, he had to consolidate the material of his world building and it is only at this point that we see the final form of his world, which we must remember had been built slowly in multiple conflicting revisions over 20 years. Thus it is that we see hints of many different aspects of earlier ideas: his English nationalism drawn in through the three different races of Men; his Catholic revolutionary project through the story of Feanor, a much-diluted version of earlier distinct attempts to create a specific vision based on a specific word in an Anglo-Saxon poem; his division of Middle Earth into eras of myth with flat worlds and pre-history with a spherical world; his placement of Numenor as a western Island, originally conceived of as England but with this visionary role for England diluted over many years of rewriting; his construction of Middle Earth as approximately European geographically, as legacy of his idea of the creation of mythical prehistory for England. All of these sometimes conflicting strands of thought, ideology and aesthetic were tied together not by a clear uniting vision spanning 20 years, but by a series of conflicting aesthetic, political and religious goals that waxed and waned over time, competed and complemented each other, and were deeply influenced by the political, religious and aesthetic trends of his era, as well as by the major political events that shaped Tolkien’s early years.

Understanding how Tolkien’s political and religious ideology shaped his aesthetics and his world-building is useful for better understanding the conservatism, racial theories and political ideals behind his books. For example, many people seem to like the idea that the One Ring is emblematic of technology and its corrupting influence on the world, but I don’t see any hint of this in the ideology underlying the world Tolkien built, and Fimi’s book (which I’m nearly finished now) hasn’t mentioned this idea at all – it just doesn’t seem to fit in with what Tolkien’s stated ideals and goals were (or with those we are able to infer). Similarly, defenders of his work against accusations of racism like to quote Tolkien saying he opposes allegory, perhaps as some kind of evidence that he doesn’t have any political goals underlying his work; but this goes against his own repeated statements of political and religious intent. The man formed a club that intended to use aesthetics to change the ideology of Britain – he was a very political writer! And his politics, or at least the way it interacts with his aesthetic vision, seems to have been both aware of outside political trends and ideals, and to have changed continuously over the period that he wrote his two major books and The Silmarillion. I think this background to the creation of his stories will help us to understand where the racial theories in his world fit in both the social backdrop of his era, and in the context of his own public and private statements on race, as well as his political and ideological goals. In my next post I will look at how his views on Englishness and religion, and his understanding of the politics of his era, may have affected the racial theories in his story – and how Tolkien’s views on race themselves changed as he wrote

 

I have been reading Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, by Dimitra Fimi, in an attempt to get a broader insight into some of the background of Tolkien’s world-building and the ideas underlying it, and it has been presenting some interesting and I think new ideas about how Tolkien’s world developed, some of the reasons for some of the ideas in the world, and some of the challenges he faced in putting it all together. One interesting challenge that Fimi describes in some detail in the book, with perhaps more emphasis than I think it deserves, is the importance of the shape of the world to Tolkien’s thinking, and the extent to which the world’s physical structure troubled Tolkien. Reading the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings, it never occurred to me that this mattered, but apparently it did. The world changed during its construction from a flat earth to a round world, and Tolkien appears to have been uncomfortable with the change.

Dr. Fimi gives a rough creation timeline to Tolkien’s ideas, in which the stories of Middle Earth played a role as a kind of reimagining of an ancient history of England, which as it solidifies over time becomes harder and harder to reconcile with actual England. By the time of writing the Lord of the Rings, the fall of Numenor and the associated flood have become a kind of cataclysm that delineates a sense of mythical history from a more concrete prehistory of the actual world. In this interpretation of his creative process, western Middle Earth’s shape is not accidental – it is representative of our modern world, in some pre-historic sense. For Tolkien, the cataclysm that destroyed Numenor served to separate a mythic time of fairies from a more prosaic era more closely connected with modern history (though still preceding it and unknown to its modern observers).

One strange consequence of the importance of switching from a pre-historic mythic world to one closer to our own is the need to switch from a pre-historic physics to a modern physics, and somehow in all of this the world went from being flat to being a normal sphere, with heavens and stars. There are apparently maps and notes which explicitly show this transformation, and Tolkien himself wrote of it in a letter to a friend:

A transition from a flat world (or at least an [Greek word] with borders all about it) to a globe: an inevitable transition, I suppose, to a modern “myth-maker” with a mind subjected to the same “appearances” as ancient men, and partly fed on their myths, but taught that the Earth was round from the earliest years. So deep was the impression made by “astronomy” on me that I do not think I could deal with or imaginatively conceive a flat world, though a world of static Earth with a Sun going round it seems easier (to fancy if not to reason)

Here Tolkien expresses directly the difficulty he has in writing a plausible world based on genuinely mythical precepts – he needs to ground his magical world in some basic reality, even though he puts the science of that reality in scare-quotes and wishes to believe that he has a similar sense to the ancients. Fimi links this to the placement of the stories in the timeline of the real earth; early versions of his stories (in the Book of Lost Tales) are imagined as only being a few hundred years in the past but as he thinks more about the structure and cosmology of his world the timeline changes, so that the same stories are suddenly before the last Ice Age.

Tolkien’s letters on this topic are notable for the use of many scare-quotes: in another letter he puts the words “spherical” and “space” in scare-quotes. I don’t think this is an indication that he sees the science of heliocentrism or astronomy as incorrect, but indicate that when he writes about his stories, Tolkien places himself (at least partially) inside the framework of his world. Fimi reports from an interview in 1963 in which the interviewer (Anthony Curtis) felt that Tolkien spoke about his own world as if it were a true and real place – he had been building it so long, he no longer spoke as if he were not in it. I think this is the provenance of the scare quotes in the above passage: for Tolkien astronomy is real, but when he speaks of cosmology from within the perspective of his imagined world, astronomy becomes “astronomy” and the structure of the earth becomes a matter of conjecture: once it was flat, and lit by trees, but then there was a cataclysm and now it is round. What of it?

Perhaps this is part of the source of the power of Tolkien’s creation. He placed himself inside his myth as if it were real, and tried to create it as if there were nothing outside of the knowledge contained in that world. Modern myth-makers see a world as an interesting prop for a story – an interesting setting is essential to fantasy, after all, and every author needs to make a setting – but Tolkien saw the stories as useful ways of explaining the mythical world that he had created, and lived inside when he was writing those stories. This world that he created was originally tied quite closely to his  idealistic political goals, conceived of both personally (the creation of a “mythology for England”) and in conjunction with the political goals of the society he and his friends created and dominated (the Tea Club/Barrovian Society), and part of these goals was the promulgation of certain ideas about how England was and should be; so it was inevitable that the stories would take on uses other than just the expression of Tolkien’s own mythical vision, and it is almost certainly the case that his mythical vision was influenced by and not inseparable from his political vision (which did not seem to include any racial elements, incidentally). But it appears that as time passed (and the Great War destroyed his and his friends’ idealism) these original political visions faded from his mythmaking, and it became a more personal aesthetic quest (for example, obviously Catholic language disappeared from his dictionaries of Quenya). However, no matter how deeply involved in this quest he became, it appears that he was still tied to a basic need to keep his stories accessible to a broader readership. Making his earth round appears to have been an explicit part of this process.

In the development of Tolkien’s myths we see his transition from boy to man, idealist to cynic, and embarrassed philologist to accomplished story-teller. It also appears that we see his journey from (mythical) flat-earther to reluctant heliocentrist. We will see though that there is one element of his world that does not change across all this time: the racial heirarchies of his world. I will come back to this in a later post on Fimi’s work, which I haven’t yet finished but am finding a very engaging and insightful perspective on Tolkien and his legacy. I strongly recommend it to those who are interested in the details of the development of Tolkien’s world, and I think I can say that it serves only to deepen the respect with which one views Tolkien’s creative achievements, and will not leave one disappointed with Tolkien or his legacy.

The Guardian reported recently that a researcher in the UK has developed a climate model for Middle Earth. Apparently he developed a climate model and ran it over six days in a super-computer at Bristol university, and has been able to identify different climate zones in Middle Earth. We now know that the Shire had a climate like Dunedin in New Zealand, and Mordor was like LA under smog. The paper contains some nice images of Middle Earth climate, you can see that the researcher treated it like a serious modeling task, divided the map into grids and ran a proper climate model.

For me this raises the immediate and obvious question: will industrialization in Mordor and Isengard lead to global warming, and if so how long will it be before all of Angmar is unfrozen? If so, should the peoples of northern Middle Earth be more worried about rising sea levels, or the undead beasts of Angmar being freed from the ice and descending like a scourge on Eriador?

Perhaps this is the real allegorical message of Lord of the Rings: that global warming will unleash Orcs. I wonder if Dr. Lunt included Orcs and Witch-kings in his climate model?

Or maybe Mordor is where the (illusory) “missing heat” is hiding … seems as good an explanation as any for such a fantasy …