Friday, June 29, 2007

Enjoy a Dark Roast

I was introduced to the Dark Roasted Blend blog by my good friend, Jason Heath. No surprise there. Jason has been making a name for himself in the blogosphere with his Double Bass Blog. He is also a very popular podcaster, being the host of Contrabass Conversations. All in all, a great friend to have when you're learning the ropes. Jason has included a number of posts on his blog about posts that have appeared on Dark Roasted Blend, bringing incredible material to his readers.

Dark Roasted Blend specializes in articles surrounding collections of photographs. Though I have not delved into the inner workings of this well-crafted blog I have enjoyed the majority of their posts over the last several months. The content ranges from comical to inspirational to awe-inspiring. Dark Roasted Blend is a page maintained by Avi and Rachel Abrams. They began the blog, one of many they have, in October of 2006. In their short time in the blogosphere (look who's talking) they have made an incredible impact and attained a readership most bloggers can only dream of.

The reason I wanted to mention them today is due to a post that appeared on Dark Roasted Blend on Tuesday, June 26, 2007. Their "One Day in Space" post includes several photos from NASA's recent Atlantis shuttle mission. These pictures fall under the awe-inspiring category. Especially one that shows the shuttle flying over a mountainous terrain. It almost feels as if the shuttle isn't really in space in this photo. I haven't included a copy of the picture because I haven't researched who actually owns it. And, being new to the blogosphere, I don't want to break any rules...or laws. But check out One Day in Space at Dark Roasted Blend and discover why this blog has such a loyal following.

Trying To Be Well

I still haven't posted Chapter Four. I'm sorry about that. I will try to get it up for everyone sometime this weekend. I have just been trying not to push myself lately. I've had this terrible cough for the last 3-4 weeks, and it is driving me nuts. The second week that I had it I also had bronchitis, which was no good. I saw the doctor again tonight and they did some blood work and chest x-rays. Everything looked OK, so the doctor is assuming some nasty virus is holding on for dear life in my body. We'll have to see how this next round of prescriptions works.

Sorry, I didn't mean to ramble about personal issues. This was not meant to be a personal journal. I just hate coughing my lungs out. Stay tuned, I have some more information to share in a separate post.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Tolkien - Chapter Three

The Choice of the Ring

by Michael I. Colwill

When reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one is reading an epic in the form of a novel. In giving us this tremendous tale, Tolkien has kept in mind the style of the epic story. The story should follow a particular person who resembles a hero both mentally and physically. This hero ought to embody the ideals and values of a particular group of people. Like the heroes in The Odyssey and Beowulf, this hero will go on a journey and experience several adventures. And after surviving many hardships during his journey the hero will return once again to his own home and people.

In writing his epic, Tolkien has given us several variations on the typical format of the epic. In the classic epic the hero encounters a collection or council of gods; in The Lord of the Rings we are shown the council meetings at Rivendell. The traditional epic hero usually visits legendary places during his journey that are spoken of in legends; Tolkien’s hero visits places of legend in Middle-earth, such as the house of Tom Bombadil, the Mines of Moria, and the kingdom of Mordor. During the traditional epic a bard is usually found singing about the history of times past, such as the deeds of ancient heroes; this is found continually in the use of song and tales throughout The Lord of the Rings. In the epic a hero will often travel to an underworld of sorts and return with information that allows him to go on with his journey; during Tolkien’s story we see the descent into the Mines of Moria. We sometimes see visions of the future being granted to a hero in the epic; such glimpses of things to come are given from Galadriel’s mirror in Tolkien. The epic hero will frequently be held captive in the arms of a beautiful woman who prevents him from continuing on his journey; Tolkien brought in an ironic twist to this element through the use of Shelob, the giant female spider. But perhaps one of the most significant changes for Tolkien was his use of a hero. The hero, Frodo Baggins, is a distinctly unheroic figure.

The Lord of the Rings does contain its heroic characters, like Aragorn, son of Arathorn. But the continuous use of unheroic characters throughout Tolkien’s novels seems to imply that Middle-earth must be saved by someone who is quite ordinary and even humble in many respects. Tolkien’s hero is made great by the fact that, despite the obvious lack of mental and physical heroic qualities, he decides to take on the task of destroying the one Ring of his own free will. It is the personal choices of Frodo Baggins throughout the story to continue with his quest that truly makes him a hero.

It seems, however, that not everybody shares my opinion of free will in The Lord of the Rings. C.N. Manlove recognizes Tolkien’s use of an unconventional hero in his book, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies. He tells us that Tolkien chose “a little man, a four-foot halfling of a race happiest just to eat and sleep. The idea is to give us in Frodo a protagonist who grows into being a hero as his journey proceeds” (174-175). It is here, says Manlove, that Tolkien’s problems begin.

Manlove goes on to say that the conception of any hero “demands that the hero’s actions be substantially based on free choice and human will; and Tolkien certainly seems to have meant this to be a major spring in the action of his fantasy” (175). He believes that the decisions Frodo makes in the Shire and at Rivendell are simply arranged to appear as if they are acts of personal choice on the part of the hobbit, “in each case he is presented with the facts and we are to believe that he has a choice between the comforts of staying and the rigours of going which he alone must decide” (175).

Free choice is not meant to be the sole thing that drives the action in The Lord of the Rings. After all, it was the Ring that chose Frodo to be its carrier. With one exception, a Ring-Bearer is never the one to make the decision to pass on the Ring. Bilbo, though with some regrets and persuasion, willingly passes on the one Ring to Frodo. Even Gandalf hints at the already made decision for Frodo to carry the ring by saying, “only a small part is played in great deeds by any hero” (The Fellowship of the Rings, 283). However, the whole idea behind the Ring is that its bearer is constantly tempted by the power it has to offer, and must make a conscious decision to resist every step of the way.

Manlove also goes into the fact that in all of his most important decisions Frodo always seems to choose correctly. By some stroke of good luck he is led along the correct paths throughout his journey to Mordor. “And if he is in doubt,” states Manlove, “as he is at Parth Galen whether to go to Minas Tirith or Mordor, he is pushed into making the right decision” (177). In this case it is the attempt of Boromir to possess the Ring, thinking that it will aid him in conquering the evil forces that threaten his people, that pushes Frodo. The result appears to be a continuous run of correct choices that cause the reader to expect Frodo to never go wrong. In fact, this makes the possibility of making a wrong choice all but disappear, and with it goes the very thought of choice.

There are several examples of this luck that seem to be surrounding Frodo during his quest. Many of these examples occur during his near encounters with and narrow escapes from the Black Riders. On one of these occasions a black rider turns away from Frodo’s hiding place when he is nearly upon him. We realize what an unusual occurrence this is when Aragorn later describes the Black Riders’ heightened senses. “’In the dark they perceive many signs that are hidden from us: then they are most to be feared. And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it. Senses, too, there are other than sight or smell. We can feel their presence…they feel ours more keenly. Also,’ he added, and his voice sank to a whisper, ‘the Ring draws them’” (The Fellowship of the Ring, 202). There are also other near encounters where Frodo and his party are saved by elves that appear to protect them. And we never find out why the Black Riders do not guard the road to the Shire when they already know that the Ring is in the possession of a Baggins there.

Manlove continues his argument; “The treatment of the Black Riders is only one strand in a whole skein of apparent coincidences and luck by which the hobbits are protected” (182). Tom Bombadil rescues them from Old Man Willow on the one day of the year that he is found in the Old Forest. Gandalf finally discovers the spell that will open the gates to Moria as the monster that was residing in the Sirannon Lake emerges. Sam Gamgee happens to wake in time to stop Gollum from stealing the Ring off of a sleeping Frodo. The giant eagles rescue Frodo and Sam just in time before the molten lava that surrounds them from all sides swallows them.

In the face of all this, any conception that the reader might have had of Frodo or the others as heroic will battling against giant adversaries fades into oblivion. It may be true that from the point of view of the characters themselves, the constant assistance is not expected, and that to themselves, their fear and courage are real; but for the reader, who sees that it is not mortal luck which is the architect of success, the struggles with the evil forces become unreal (Manlove, 183).

Manlove seems to indicate that, from the reader’s point of view, Frodo was not moving through the narrative by way of his own free will. I do not agree with what he has been saying. I think that it is evident to the reader that Frodo was moving through the narrative based on personal choices that he made as he went along. For him there were a number of possibilities for the future. He could conceivably have taken an entirely different route with different occurrences in order to reach his final goal, but that is not how Tolkien wanted it to happen, or perceived it happening. In his essay, “The Quest Hero,” W.H. Auden makes this comment, “Man is a history-making creature for whom the future is always open” (40).

When the decision has been taken to send the Ring to the Fire, his feelings are those of Papageno [The Magic Flute]: ‘such dangerous exploits are not for hobbits like me. I would much rather stay home than risk my life on the very slight chance of winning glory.’ But his conscience tells him: ‘You may be nobody in particular in yourself, yet, for some inexplicable reasons, through no choice of your own, the Ring has come into your keeping, so that is on you and not on Gandalf or Aragorn that the task falls of destroying it’ (Auden, 55).

Yes, this could be seen as a removal of Frodo’s power of free will. However, being human, he still has the choice to refuse the task of destroying the Ring. Frodo knows that the Ring has come into his possession through some higher fate than he is aware of. Knowing that he can’t pass on such a task to someone else, and still have a clean conscience, Frodo makes the decision to carry this item of power that has worked its way into his life.

In his book, Master of Middle-Earth, Paul H. Kocher speaks about Frodo being chosen to bear the Ring. Frodo is not quite sure as to why he was chosen and not someone else. He is sure that it is not because of any past merits that he has. Gandalf tells him that even he is unaware as to the reasons that Frodo was chosen, but assures him that he has been chosen and must now use what wit and strength he has. Gandalf carefully goes on to inform Frodo that he is free to accept or reject the choice: ‘…the decision lies with you.’ The option not to cooperate with the grand design is open to Frodo’s will, as it is to that of all other intelligent creatures who are aware of the issues” (Kocher, 36).

In order to show that Frodo’s decision to make the journey to Mordor with the Ring was one of his own free will, we should look at what could have caused him to make that decision. Frodo seems to have an extraordinary sense of what is right and what is wrong. And he possesses a conscience that helps him determine the right thing to do. “If Frodo’s acceptance would be ‘right,’ would not refusal be, if not ‘wrong,’ at least an abdication of duty, diminishing him morally?” (Kocher, 41-42). The refusal of the Ring is not in Frodo’s character. In order to do what he knew was the right thing, Frodo made the conscious decision to be the bearer of the Ring on the journey to its destruction.

Tolkien does want to give his readers a mystical sense that some divine hand may be guiding some of the action; however, he does not want to cause this theme to overshadow the fact that his characters have a choice in what they do. He does not want to take away the suspense from the narrative by allowing the reader to know that Frodo will make it to his next destination safely. Kocher says that one “technique Tolkien finds handy is to couple every incident anyone calls foreordained with some notable exercise of free will by one of the characters involved in it” (40). An example that is given is the encounter of Bilbo and Frodo with Gollum. Both hobbits are said to have been chosen as Ring-bearers. This is where they have no choice in the matter. However, when either one of them comes across Gollum, they have had at least one chance to do away with the evil creature that is driven insane by a mad longing to possess the Ring, and passed it up. They spared Gollum’s life.

This free will that both Bilbo and Frodo have shown in their decisions to spare Gollum, and throughout the rest of their adventures, is something that Tolkien has believed in since he was a child. It was taught to him at an early age by his mother when she was teaching him the basic convictions of the Roman Catholic Church. As the scripture says from the Book of Joshua, “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (NIV Bible, 225). Even after all that God had done for them, the Israelites still had a fundamental choice to make. It is this ability to choose that Tolkien places in Frodo’s character.

This choice that Frodo makes inevitably has a great impact on the outcome of his adventure. At the Cracks of Doom the Ring seems to finally gain power over Frodo. He, like many of the bearers in the past, cannot stand the thought of parting with the Ring, and slips it on his finger. Frodo’s salvation ends up being the mad creature, Gollum, who leaps out of the shadows and wrestles with the invisible form of Frodo until he manages to bite off his ring finger. And then, while dancing about in triumph, with both the ring and Frodo’s missing finger, he slips on the edge of a cliff and falls into the flames below.

I believe that Tolkien has done a wonderful job of mixing the use of intervention by a divine force, and the free choice of the characters to drive his narrative forward to its conclusion. The divine force, which represents God, watches over Frodo as he willingly makes the decision to carry the Ring of Power to Mordor and the Cracks of Doom. He also seems to take part in the story at those times when Frodo and his friends are most in need of help. Some examples include, the apparent resurrection of Gandalf after his fall with the Balrog, and the narrow escapes that Frodo has from the Black Riders. And we cannot forget the timely appearance of Gollum at the end to steal the Ring away from Frodo, who is unable to bring himself to destroy it in the volcano’s fire.

Tolkien uses these to drive home one of his great themes: that good shall triumph over evil. Richard Mathews says, in his book Lightning From A Clear Sky, “free will is of paramount importance in Tolkien’s moral scheme” (20). And Burton Raffel comments on the continuous appearance of deus ex machina like rescues. He says that these rescues are “part of the delight that we take in the story…discovering for us how Good is to prevail over Evil” (241). And the story of The Lord of the Rings is, ultimately, a story of a small force of Good against an extraordinarily powerful force of Evil, and how that Good came to triumph. In no way does the use of divine luck and intervention take away from the narrative that centers around the free choice of a small halfling to carry the greatest power in Middle-earth to its destruction.


Auden, W.H. “The Quest Hero.” Tolkien and the Critics. Ed. Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press1968.

The Bible. New International Version.

Kocher, Paul H. Master of Middle-Earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972.

Manlove, C.N. Modern Fantasy: Five Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Mathews, Richard. Lightning from a Clear Sky. California: Borgo Press, 1978.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954.

An Introduction

Because I am proud of this paper I feel I have to introduce it properly. In the next post you will have the opportunity to read the Agnes Hyde award winning essay, "The Choice of the Ring" by Michael I. Colwill. I hope you all enjoy it.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Postponement

I know. Another blog post with no real content. The world is rich with more than enough of these. However, after my sparse beginnings with nearly a month going by between posts, I wanted to insure everyone that I've gone nowhere.

The bronchitis (the doctor confirmed it's presence on Friday) is still holding on tight. And, since I cannot afford to miss any work this week I am performing light duty with my personal projects.

I do intend to publish the third chapter in the Tolkien Papers sometime this week. This coming chapter, titled "The Choice of the Ring", is probably the best out of the four. It is with this essay that I won first place in the Anges Hyde Writing Contest for the essay section. After reviewing it for this blog I've realised that I am quite proud of this one. I hope that you all will find it equally thought-provoking and enjoyable.

I hope that my praise of Chapter Three does not prepare you for a disappointing Chapter Four. Chapter Four was a lot of fun for me due to the sources I had available. You see I wrote to a few best-selling authors in the Fantasy genre to find out what they thought of Tolkien. And I received letters back from two of them. These two men happen to be among my favorite authors. It is with their novels that I first started venturing into the realms of fantasy fiction. The authors are Terry Brook and R. A. Salvatore. I hope that wets your appetite for the fourth installment. Don't worry, there's plenty to enjoy between now and then.

Also, I wanted to encourage everyone to let me know if you have something to say about your personal writing, a particular genre that you enjoy, or a good book that you are reading or have read recently. I would love to open up some discussions and see what everyone has to say out there. For example, I just finished "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" by Gregory Maguire. Wikipedia calls this a parallel novel. I think it could also be referred to as fan fiction. At any rate, there are some wonderful themes and topics for discussion in that book. Let me know if you've read it. As my tastes tend to jump around I am also reading "The DaVinci Code", by Dan Brown, and "Guns, Germs, and Steel", by Jared Diamond. The latter book was referred to me by my good friend Jason Heath of Jason Heath's Double Bass Blog. Check him out in the links section for a great variety of articles. Jason has a talent for writing that I'm sure you could all appreciate.

Well, it's time to take my medicine...I mean that literally, you know. I hope to give you more information on writing, and on Tolkien in particular, in the near future. And while I'm working on that, tell your friends and neighbors about me. And if they aren't interested ask them for a list of everyone they know who might be interested. Well, you don't need to go to that extreme...but it would be nice. I'll be typing to you all real soon. In the mean time, enjoy a good book.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Tolkien - Chapter Two

The Man That Was Tolkien

by Michael I. Colwill

What is a legend? According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, a legend is “1 a story handed down for generations among a people and popularly believed to have historical basis, although not verifiable; 2 a) a notable person whose deeds or exploits are much talked about in his or her own time b) the stories of his or her exploits” (771). This can help us to understand who Tolkien was and how he came to be a legend in the hearts and minds of children and adults alike.

Tolkien is a name that will live on in the world of literary fantasy. He is a man that will long be remembered by scholars in the areas of philology and medieval studies. What causes a man to stand out in his field as Tolkien did? Possibly it was the childhood and life that he lived. But, as Kathryn Crabbe put it, “Tolkien could have found abundant material in his own life to provide plots and incidents for novels in the mold of Oliver Twist, or, in a more modern vein, for ironic little stories of men who lead lives of quiet desperation” (1). I like to think that it was the fanciful nature in Tolkien that always had him looking towards that dreamy world of escapism.

Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien by his parents, the young boy was the first son of Arthur and Mabel Tolkien. Tolkien’s dreamlike nature seemed to stem from his mother who didn’t like South Africa as a home for her family. She disliked “the oppressively hot summer and cold, dry, dusty winter” (Carpenter, 12) which seemed to try her nerves far more than she cared to admit to Arthur. The oppressive weather that Mabel disliked also seemed to get the best of Ronald at a young age. So it was that in April 1895, Mabel, Ronald, and the youngest child, Hilary, born on February 17, 1894, left South Africa to spend some time in Birmingham. The change in climate did wonders for Ronald’s health and Arthur longed to join them. Unfortunately, after a bout with rheumatic fever, Arthur suffered a severe hemorrhage and died on February 15, 1896, in Bloemfontein.

It was at this point that Mabel knew she would have to be strong in order to give her children the very best. Being knowledgeable in several areas of literature, she tutored the boys in Latin, French, and German. Mabel hoped that she could prepare them enough so that they would be able to pass the entrance exam to King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Mabel wanted them to attend this school for two important reasons: it was the school that Arthur had attended, and it was the best grammar school in the city. Ronald’s mother seemed to instill in him the good study habits that would carry him through school, and eventually help him in the creation of Middle-Earth.

During this time of study, Mabel decided to find lodging for the boys in the country. She moved them to the hamlet of Sarehole, a mile or two south of Birmingham. This would give them a chance to enjoy the fresh air and countryside. The boys would have something to make them happy despite the family’s poor financial situation. This was probably one of the greatest things to happen for Tolkien’s imaginative mind. Ronald and Hilary spent much of their time running around the countryside playing games of pretending. It is this landscape that is reflected in many of Tolkien’s countryside descriptions in his novels.

During his education from his mother it seemed that Tolkien’s favorite times were those spent on languages. Even though he learned several languages, the sounds of Latin and English seemed to appeal to him the greatest. It was also during this time that Ronald became talented in drawing, which later helped him when he decided to illustrate his own novels.

Mabel gave Ronald all kinds of books to read when he wasn’t studying. He read such books as Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, and many others. He never seemed to enjoy them as much as the stories about Red Indians. And even more than these stories he was pleased by the ‘Curdie’ stories of George MacDonald. Although he would be less pleased with the moral allegorical content of these book later in life, it was in these stories that Tolkien discovered remote kingdoms and goblins that lurked in the shadows. Best of all the books that he read, though, was the Red Fairy Book of Andrew Lang. Lang was best known for his collections of fairy tales for children, named for various colors. He was also an important force in the folklore that came out in the nineteenth century. It was in Lang’s Red Fairy Book that he read the tale of Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir. It was this tale that introduced him to the Norse mythology, which would later have an enormous effect on his studies and writing. It also brought him closer to the fantasy stories that would appear in his own books. Tolkien wrote in his essay On Fairy Stories, from his collected works entitled The Tolkien Reader, “I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood…But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost” (64).

It was shortly after reading these stories, in fact, that Tolkien began to compose a story of a dragon himself. The most significant thing that Tolkien can recall about this story was a philological error that his mother had pointed out to him after reading it. Although he couldn’t recall the error made, Tolkien thought that this may have been a significant occurrence, for it sparked his interest in the structure and mystery of languages.

Tolkien’s interest in languages was only encouraged after becoming a student at King Edward’s in September of 1900. The family was forced to move closer to the school and took up residence in a small house in Moseley. The view was not an improvement over Sarehole. One sight caught Tolkien’s eye right away. He was caught up by the roar of the nearby railway line and the trucks that rushed past from the coal-yard not far away. He was also interested in the strange names that he read on the side of the coal-trucks as they drove by. It was through the study of these new words that Tolkien discovered the Welsh language. For Tolkien this was very exciting. He had stumbled across a language that he had never encountered before, “a language that was old and yet alive” (Carpenter, 26). During his schooling Tolkien also discovered Greek and Middle English, both of which were great contributors to his own philological pursuits.

On November 14, 1904, Ronald and Hilary were struck a blow that scarred them deeply: the death of their mother. A dear friend of the family, Father Francis Xavier Morgan, took it upon himself to help care for the children and find them lodging. He became like a father to them in the following years. Ronald was hurt greatly by the loss of his mother, whom he had loved dearly. The recipient of this love seemed to become the Catholic church after his mother died. She had always been a very devout follower of the church. Ronald himself had grown to be a devoted Christian because of his mother. This is a love that Tolkien kept for the rest of his life, and indirectly reflected in a lot of his writing.

As his studies continued, Tolkien dove deeper into the languages that he was learning. Instead of just knowing the Latin, Greek, and other languages, he wanted to understand why they were what they were. It was at this time that one of his professors, George Brewerton, introduced him to Anglo-Saxon. Tolkien immediately jumped into the history of where his own language had come from. From here he looked once again at Middle English and further researched why his language had come to be.

Two of Tolkien’s younger cousins had some influence on his love of creating languages. They had come up with a ‘private language’ with which they could talk to each other and adults would not understand them. When the older of the two cousins lost interest in this game, the younger cousin and Ronald, now in his late teens, came up with a more sophisticated language for them to use called Nevbosh, or the new Nonsense. As he grew older, Tolkien found himself making up many Greek-style words. It occurred to Tolkien that he would like to attempt a language much more organized and serious than the childish Nevbosh. Through the discovery of several new languages, Tolkien worked on a number of different languages, some of which he never finished. He would often find another language to study that intrigued him more than the one that was influencing his current work.

Later when Tolkien stumbled across a language that would have an enormous effect on him, Finnish. Tolkien was already familiar with many of the tales told in the Kalevala, a Finnish heroic epic. But he had never heard what they sounded like in their original language. He learned enough of the language to start working his way through the Kalevala. “The effect was exhilarating: ‘It was like discovering a wine-cellar filled with bottles of amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before.’ Later, he [Tolkien] invented a new language based on Finnish, which eventually appeared in The Lord of the Rings as High-Elven” (Crabbe, 12).

Tolkien soon found another interest that intrigued him more than his languages, Edith Bratt. Edith was a roomer who lived directly below Ronald and Hilary when they resided at Mrs. Faulkners, a lady who had small musical gatherings for several of the Fathers in Birmingham. Father Francis thought that this was the perfect place for the boys to concentrate on their studies. He didn’t count on a romance blossoming between the 19-year old roomer and the 16-year old Ronald. During this time “Ronald was supposed to be working for an Oxford scholarship, but it was hard to concentrate on classical texts when one half of his mind was occupied with language-inventing and the other with Edith” (Carpenter, 40).

Although Father Francis did not approve of this relationship, and even went so far as to send Edith away so that Ronald could concentrate on his studies, he could not prevent the love that had taken root in the hearts of Ronald and Edith. At midnight on January 3rd , 1913, Ronald celebrated his 21st birthday by writing a love letter to Edith. In this letter he explained that he was 21, the age of majority, and could now legally marry. In their separation, Edith thought that there was little hope of them being allowed to get back together, and so she had accepted a marriage proposal from a man named George Field. Tolkien’s love for Edith was strong then, as it would be all his life, and so he was determined to win her back. He caught a train and traveled the 50 miles to where she was in order to spend the day with her. As David Collins said, “By the end of the day, her [Edith] engagement to George Field was broken. Ronald Tolkien had won her back” (50). And although Father Francis disapproved of Ronald’s decision, he did nothing to alter that which Tolkien pursued with his heart and soul. And it was a good thing, too. For Edith’s love would prove a great support for Tolkien’s literary and scholarly work in the future.

In 1914 England declared war on Germany, and Ronald Tolkien signed up to join the British war effort. He would go through the military training while finishing his education at Oxford University. After he graduated from Oxford with first class honors he became a second lieutenant in a British regiment called the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was assigned to train and drill incoming soldiers. This work always seemed to bore Tolkien. He was never a great fan of war. “There was nothing enjoyable about activities focused on ‘the art of killing’” (Collins, 58).

Tolkien enjoyed his work when he began to learn signals for the military. Being a lover of languages he found this especially intriguing. He would often spend hours improving his ability with light signals and flag signals. He even worked with carrier pigeons as a form of communicating his messages. It was shortly after all this that Tolkien knew he was going to be sent to France. The continuing news of those that had been killed in action frightened Tolkien. Ronald and Edith decided to be wed before his departure. And so it was that on March 22, 1916, at the age of 27, Edith Bratt became Edith Tolkien.

Tolkien was lucky in that he came down with the dreaded “trench fever.” This fever caused high temperature and dizziness in the troops. When treated a soldier could normally return to his post in two weeks. However, Tolkien’s illness persisted beyond two weeks and he was transferred to a Hospital back in England. Tolkien’s fever seemed to come and go a lot. He would just seem to be recovering from it when he would be hit hard by dizziness again. This lasted long enough to keep Tolkien away from further fighting in France. But even so, the pictures that scarred his mind stuck with him and seemed to have some influence on his war descriptions throughout his novels.

After he finally recovered, Tolkien searched for a teaching job. He began by returning to Oxford and attempting to find a position there. Unfortunately, all of the departments seemed to be doing fine for staff. However, Tolkien’s old teacher of Icelandic, William Craigie, offered a small position. Craigie was working with the staff of The New English Dictionary. Tolkien readily accepted the position that Craigie offered him and began work seeking out the history of several words. Tolkien found it to be fascinating work. His love of languages and their histories grew even more during this period. He also earned money to feed his wife and newborn son by tutoring some of the students of Oxford.

Tolkien took the position of Reader of English at the University of Leeds for about 4 years before he was accepted as the Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He served this position for twenty years and was then elected Professor of English Language and Literature.

It was here that Tolkien established many of the lasting relationships that would be most meaningful to him during his life. One of these relationships was with a newcomer who had recently been elected Fellow Tutor in English Language and Literature at Magdalen College, Clives Staples Lewis. Although C. S. Lewis could be considered a rival of Tolkien’s, the two soon became good friends and spent many hours talking and drinking beer together.

Tolkien and Lewis had a profound effect on each other. Theirs was a friendship that was built out of a longing for the company of others and common interests that they both held to be important. Some of these interests included the importance of Christianity, myth, and literary study. Lewis was very humble when describing the effect of his life on Tolkien’s. We find a quote of his in Crabbe’s J.R.R. Tolkien:

In 1959 Lewis wrote to an American scholar who had proposed to study his influence on Tolkien, saying, ”No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.” And Tolkien agreed: “The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.” (19)

This ‘stuff’ that Tolkien refers to is his work on giving his invented languages an origin in myth and story. Tolkien decided to give his new mythology a home in England. He had a great love for his homeland and felt bad that it did not possess its own rich history of myth and folklore. Tolkien knew that it would not be an easy task, but he was longing for the opportunity to create new words, characters, places, and events. And so began Tolkien’s work on “The Book of Lost Tales,” which would later be known as The Silmarillion.

Twelve years after that moment, in 1929, Tolkien gave birth to a new character that was to become known and loved world-wide: the hobbit. The hobbit came about one Summer’s day when Tolkien was sitting by a window marking School Certificate exam papers. One of the candidates had left a page blank. Tolkien saw the blank page and decided that something belonged on that page. As Carpenter quoted him, “I wrote on it ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like. But that’s only the beginning” (172).

And so it was that the foundation had been laid to tie together the fascinating stories that Tolkien often told to his children before bed. He had begun what would become the world’s introduction to hobbits, and to a form of fantasy unlike any they’ve ever been exposed to. Allen & Unwin published The Hobbit in September of 1937. It was instantly recognized by the public as a wondrous story to be read by children and adults alike. A reviewer in The Times wrote that everyone “should take note that a new star has appeared in this constellation. To the trained eye some characters will seem almost mythopoeic” (182).

After the popularity of The Hobbit, Allen & Unwin requested another story about hobbits. And even though Tolkien longed to publish his mythological work, he agreed to begin work on another hobbit story. However this one took on a much darker and serious tone. Tolkien found the opportunity to include much more of his mythology in this creation.

Sadly enough, one of Tolkien’s greatest loves, The Silmarillion, never saw publication during his lifetime. It was only after his death on September 2, 1973, that his son, Christopher, finished putting together all of his father’s notes and stories so that his mythology might be read by the country to which it was dedicated as well as the world.

This man, this legend, that was J.R.R. Tolkien has truly proven himself as a contributor to the structure of the fantasy genre. He has shown us the wonders of being able to create your own world and mythology. He has given us wonderful contributions through his great scholarly work that he did throughout his lifetime. He is remembered for the creation of a being that easily comes to mind whenever his name is mentioned, the Hobbit.

His contributions can perhaps be summed up in a segment from his short story Leaf by Niggle. A segment that was read at a memorial service held by some of his American Admirers.

“Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt and guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

‘It’s a gift’ he said.” (Tolkien, 113)


Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Collins, David R.. J.R.R. Tolkien: Master of Fantasy. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1992.

Crabbe, Katharyn W.. J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Continuum, 1988.

“Legend.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Third Edition. 1996.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.

Ahead of Schedule

I'm sick. I have a severe cold that is bordering on bronchitis. Along with this my family and I unexpectedly have to leave town for a few days to take care of an unforeseen circumstance. All in all, not the best series of events that could be transpiring right now. I'm not looking forward to driving a car for more than four hours while trying to keep my head mucus free, or at least to a normal level, and also trying to prevent my germs from spreading to my wife, my son, or my mother, all of whom will be traveling with me. I actually purchased some medical face masks to wear while I'm in the car.

In America we don't take very many precautions to prevent the spread of our germs to those around us. We take our medication, stay home from work if we have to, and try to cover our mouth when we cough or sneeze. We would never think of wearing an unsightly mask over our nose and mouth all day long as we work and go about the rest of our daily routine. I learned that this is exactly what people in Japan do. If you are sick, or even have a case of the sniffles, you simply have to go to your medicine cabinet where you will have these face masks well stocked. A cold is no excuse to miss work, so this is the most polite solution. It's those little details that made me fall in love with Japan.

But I digress. Due to everything going on in my own life I decided to get Chapter Two of the Tolkien Papers published on the blog for you now so you don't have to wait until I'm feeling better and everything else has been taken care of. This is the biographical chapter in the papers, where you will learn about the man's life and loves. I hope you enjoy this chapter.

I will hopefully have the opportunity to publish Chapter Three sometime this coming weekend. Of course, that means I need to get to writing as well. I don't want to run out of material for you. I'll make you a deal. If you keep reading, and telling other people about what you're reading, I'll keep worrying about the material and the writing. Deal? I was hoping you'd say that. May you read good words, my friend.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Tolkien - Chapter One

Fantasy and Tolkien

by Michael I. Colwill

When people talk about the fantasy genre of literature it is not uncommon for them to think about J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact, it is in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that we see a catalyst for shaping a lot of contemporary fantasy today. Tolkien has had a profound influence on the fantasy genre and writers in that genre. However, it is also true to say that fantasy has had a profound influence on Tolkien. To see the relationship between to the two we will examine fantasy as a genre and look at other’s opinions before discussing the effects of Tolkien’s masterpiece on the genre.

It is difficult to find a definition of fantasy as a genre that fully encompasses all that it is. The Oxford English Dictionary lists no less than seven separate meanings with many additional subdivisions. According to Dieter Petzold in his Modern Fiction Studies article, Fantasy Fiction and Related Genres, “The definition ‘a genre of literary compositions’ appears only in the 1972 supplement” (12). In Webster’s New World College Dictionary, we find fantasy to mean, “a) a work of fiction portraying highly imaginative characters or settings that have no counterparts in the real world b) such works, collectively, as a literary form; specifically, those works dealing with dragons, elves, ghosts, etc.” (491). Even this definition is rather broad compared to how a lot of experts have defined fantasy.

It should be expected that writers and workers in the field will not come to a consensus as to what the definition should be. As long as we are aware that every author is likely to have his or her own concept of fantasy we will be able to enter a discussion of the topic and not get confused.

Dieter Petzold shares some of the problems that people face in attempting to define fantasy. He tells us that fantasy “cannot be defined in terms of subject matter, form, or function. Though all of these aspects are certainly important for an understanding of the genre, they are secondary insofar as they do not provide categories that can be used in a rigorously systematic way. Any list of ‘typical traits’ will be in danger of appearing arbitrary” (13). Whenever taking a particular trait to define the genre, one will always be forced to exclude certain works that are normally considered fantasy simply because they do not meet the requirements in the description. Take, for instance, the descriptor of magic. If we consider the presence of magic to be the key factor in what is and isn’t fantasy, look at all of the fantasy works that would no longer be considered part of the genre. Two that come to mind right away are Doktor Faustus and Watership Down.

John H. Timmerman has attempted to define and describe the fantasy genre in his book, Other Worlds: the Fantasy Genre. In this study Timmerman has identified “six traits which must be present to some degree to characterize the work as fantasy…. These six traits are the use of traditional Story, the depiction of Common Characters and Heroism, the evocation of Another World, the employment of Magic and the Supernatural, the revelation of a Struggle between Good and Evil, and the tracing of a Quest (4).

Timmerman’s process of determining if a work is fantasy or not is an acceptable one to an extent. However, we must keep in mind that he did express the fact that each element only has to be present to some degree. In Tolkien’s creative world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings we are experiencing an environment that is foreign to us. However, throughout the narrative we discover that the world we know is simply the age that follows that in Tolkien’s story. So Tolkien has included elements of another world, but only in the way of describing our own world so that we can’t recognize it.

The purpose of fantasy is another area where opinions differ. Sometimes authors stress the use of allegory in fantasy as a means to share their own ideals, or enlighten their readers. Others describe fantasy as a form of escapism. And then there are those who say that it is simply a story, something for personal pleasure and enjoyment.

Tolkien has first and foremost stressed the fact that he wrote his books and tales for the sake of the story. It was not with the purpose of influencing the reader or impressing his personal opinions on the reader through any form of allegory. In fact, Tolkien has often expressed his dislike of allegory in literature. He writes for the sake of creating a world for the wonders of his imagination to take breath in, for the sake of his readers’ enjoyment.

One thing that Tolkien does not place the highest importance on in his fantasy is the believability of the story. For him it’s not a matter of whether or not the story is true, as he describes in his essay On Fairy-Stories:

at no time can I remember that the enjoyment of a story was dependent on belief that such things could happen, or had happened, in ‘real-life.’ Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded (Tolkien, 63).

One of the things that Tolkien believes a person should get out of reading a Fairy-story is recovery. According to Tolkien himself, “Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves. (Tolkien, 77). This, in a sense, could be like renewing the prescription of the lenses in your glasses. We’ve spent so much time in this world with so little change that all the common things in our lives have fallen out of focus.

When we read a fantasy novel we see these common things set against some very uncommon characters and stories. We begin to notice them more and realize what it is they are. The success of a fantasy novel could, in one way, be judged by how much you notice the trees and flowers and grass when you put down the book. Not to mention the very nature of humanity as is moves about you. “Actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting…It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine” (Tolkien, 78).

Another element of the Fairy-story that Tolkien touches on is escape. He speaks of how fairy-stories, though not the only form of escapist literature, is probably the most obvious and outrageous form. Escapism in literature is not always looked highly upon. This is mostly true with those who believe literature should be a tool which allows people to reach a higher level of human understanding. In fact, there are several people that believe the use of fantasy, and other literature, for escape can be harmful to one’s personality. In fact, Ursula K. Le Guin recalls a story in her collection of essays, The Language of the Night, that one of her good friend’s told her. “All right, I’ll tell you something fantastic. Ten years ago, I went to the children’s room of the library of such-and-such city, and asked for The Hobbit; and the librarian told me, ‘Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection; we don’t feel that escapism is good for children’” (39).

Tolkien defends the use of escapism with a couple questions, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” (Tolkien, 79). Like the prisoner, there is no reason to scorn the sub-creator of a fantasy for wanting to break though the prison-walls of real life. Nothing can offer as great an escape from real life as the fairy-story that carries its reader to another world where, though real life may influence the events, a happy ending is a more likely occurrence than not.

There are people who would say that using forms of literature for escape is not healthy. We can already see this from the story that Ursula K. Le Guin shared above. But when you take this combined with the recovery and consolation that one receives from fantasy literature you find that it is not a dangerous thing. It is not harmful to dream, or fantasize of a place that is different than our own lives. Sometimes we need that change to bring about a recovery from the everyday routine that has become boring to us. And some people may long for the consolation that is to be found in fantasy. Readers realize that they are not physically departing from the world around them. But for a few brief hours they can dream about their world becoming a fantastic place, where their imagination learns to see things from a different point if view.

This brings us to an explanation of the third element that Tolkien claims we receive from fairy-stories, consolation. This is the resolution of the fairy-story that lets the reader know that everything will turn out right in the end. As Tolkien puts it,

the ‘consolation’ of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story (85).

Tolkien has termed this happy ending Eucatastrophe; being the sudden joyous turn in the story where everything starts to bring the ending together through a kind of grace. This is the turn that can never recur in the narrative, it is the pinnacle of the story. Tolkien claims that this is not simply denial of the existence of dycastrophe, being sorrow and failure. In fact, he says that it is the possibility of failure in the narrative that is necessary for the so called deliverance brought about by the eucatastrophe. It is this that readers rely upon when looking for consolation in the fairy-story. It can bring to the reader a feeling of deliverance. Even though the deliverance they read about is in an imaginary world it can give them something that may relate to their own world. They realize that happy endings are not a myth, they have occurred in the past and will occur again in the future. One must simply be patient and enjoy the journeys in between.

Tolkien often related things to his personal faith as a Christian. He was a very devout Roman Catholic and he saw the Fairy-story as a way of looking at the Christian story:

in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian still has to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed (89).

These are the things that a reader will find in a truly great fairy-story. The recovery of everyday creation, the escape from the prison-walls of everyday life, and the consolation that is brought about by the joyous deliverance at the end of the fairy-story. All of this is brought about by the sub-creation that every writer experiences when their fantasy world is first given birth in their minds. Brian Attebery discusses this in his book, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature,

Coleridge divided the imagination into two parts, a primary imagination that perceives and a secondary one that invents. J.R.R. Tolkien postulates a similar division in the power of belief. Using Coleridgean terminology, Tolkien describes a ‘primary belief,’ which can be applied to a tree, to the laws of entropy, or to a myth, and a ‘secondary belief,’ which is applied at will to the creations of the (secondary) imagination (34).

“What really happens is that the storymaker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a secondary world which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside” (Tolkien, 60).

When you have entered this secondary world you live by the rules that apply to that world. You see and experience many of the things that are common to real life, yet with them is combined those extraordinary characters, events, and elements of the secondary world that help to make the fairy-story so fantastic. While ‘inside’ this secondary world the common things that are so familiar will help to strengthen the reality of the writer’s narrative, causing the reader to believe the events that are taking place in the world. As Timmerman states, using Tolkien’s words, “fantasy is that ‘power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality’. Fantasy arranges the image, and the artist’s vision and beliefs, into a perceptible form” (51-52).

And so we see the things that Fantasy can bring to us through the Fairy-story. We see the effects of having been recovered, and having escaped, and having been consoled. But these things are more things felt, emotions that are the effects of the fairy-stories. As C.N. Manlove puts it in his book, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies:

The only way we will really know that ‘Recovery’ has worked is by going out for a walk and seeing whether trees, grass or stones have a new fullness of identity. The only proof of our having been ‘consoled’ is a form of mystical experience; of our having ‘escaped’, a shiver of delight down the spine; of our having ‘turned’, ‘a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by )tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality’ (169).


Attebery, Brian. The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979.

Manlove, C.N. Modern Fantasy; Five Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Petzold, Dieter. “Fantasy Fiction and Related Genres.” Modern Fiction Studies. 32 (1986): 11-20.

Timmerman, John H. Other Worlds: The Fantasy Genre. Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary. 3rd Ed. New York, Macmillan.

A Precursor to the Tolkien Essays

As I mentioned in a previous post, the essays on J.R.R. Tolkien, the first of which I will be publishing today, were originally written in the Spring of 1997 for an Advanced Expository Writing course. I took this course at Dakota Wesleyan University, under the tutelage of Dr. Joseph Ditta. Dr. Ditta was a great influence on the quality of my writing while I was at Dakota Wesleyan. And the skills that I learned from him, though not practiced as regularly as they should be to remain sharp, still linger in my mind and emerge from my fingertips in the writing I do today.

The essays were written in standard MLA format. Due to this I will be including the Works Cited section at the end of each paper. This should take you back to those research paper days of yore. I hope that you enjoy the posts on Tolkien, and I would be grateful of any comments or questions you might have. I would be especially grateful of any corrections that you find need to be made. I did a lot of research, but my words, like any writers, are not guaranteed to be the gospel truth.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

A Birthday Celebrated

Happy Birthday, Christopher! My son turned three years old today. In the time-honored tradition of all parents who have walked before us, my wife and I held a birthday party for my son. We had eight adults and five children attending as guests, not counting family. Despite the fact that four of the children visiting were toddler boys, we managed to get through the evening with no blood stains on the carpets. My son, being an only grandchild, was spoiled rotten as usual. All in all, it was a very fun afternoon, and I'm glad to have it over with.

You can all be thinking of me tomorrow morning. I will be attending a job interview that kind of fell in my lap earlier this week. I don't know a great deal about this business, as my name was given to them by a third-party (a friend's brother), so this will be as much an interview of them as it will be of me. The exciting thing about this is I'd be in a field where I'd have more opportunity to use my English and writing skills. No, it's not a direct link to selling my own writing, but it could be a positive step for my family and I. I'll keep you posted on how things turn out.