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Posts Tagged ‘JRR Tolkien’

No other imagined world has generated as much illustration as The Lord of the Rings. Considering the sheer amount of artistic material to draw from, however, even before the live action adaptations came out in 2001, we already had a consensus “look” for Middle Earth in John Howe and Alan Lee’s paintings. Why the collective consensus for what Middle Earth should look like coalesced around these two has a host of factors, one being how prolific they were, how often they appeared on book covers and ancillary material, and the last being their obvious skill. Most later-day Tolkien artwork tends to follow their template. But there are multiple ways to interpret the text and it’s always a pleasure to move out from the soft edges and predominate greens of Lee and Howe to see alternative visions for the world.

Probably the best place to find these is A Tolkien Bestiary (1979). Quibble all you want with the content from David Day, who often gets criticized for poor research and making stuff up, but the bestiary is his finest work and is lavishly illustrated by artists who are not really known for their work representing Tolkien. The wildly differing styles manage to complement each other because they are so carefully-chosen to match their subject matter: meticulous stippling for the Riders of Rohan, jagged baroque ink for the landscapes of Mordor, flowing loose lines for the elves. This is a gorgeous showcase of very personal artistic takes on Middle Earth and I would love to see more like it – it left a huge impression on me as a teenager and remains my go-to example for impeccable art direction. The text is largely a secondary thing – there’s more colour to the descriptions than the thematically similar (and more accurate and exhaustive) Complete Tolkien Companion, but its real edge over other books of this type lies in layout and design.

The Tolkien Bestiary’s prime place in David Day’s career is evident from just how many times it’s been released under different titles (at least 8 from my last count) or repackaged through abridged editions that shuffle around the content and add maps or make formatting changes (An Atlas of Tolkien, The Heroes of Tolkien etc.). None manage to quite match the production excellence and beauty of the 1979 and 1984 editions.

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Semitic Dwarves

John-Rhys Davis played Gimli with a Scottish accent in The Lord of the Rings films, thus feeding into the analogue of Dwarves as stout Scottish coal miners transferred to fantasyland that has wormed its way into so much fantasy since the 1970s.  In Tolkien, the analogue is a false friend: there’s not much of the Scots in Gimli, Gloin, or Thorin; Tolkien didn’t draw from Dungeons & Dragons but from a wide range of myth and folklore.  Scandinavian dwarfs served as the primary source for the characteristics of Tolkien’s Dwarves.

Their language, however, was not derived from Old Norse, but from Hebrew.  “Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic”, Tolkien said in regards to Khuzdul, the language of the Dwarves.  In other interviews Tolkien also drew connections between the dwarves and Jews on a vaguer level.  On the cultural side of things, those references cast Dwarvish history in a new light: the fall of Moria roughly mirrors the fall of Jerusalem and subsequent diaspora—leading to the rather tough imagining of Balin as a Zionist.  Certainly the secretive names and language Dwarves speak exclusively amongst themselves also fits. 

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Middle Earth in Eastern Europe

The Last Ringbearer…is meant for sceptics and agnostics brought up on Hemingway and brothers Strugatzky, for whom Tolkien is only a charming, albeit slightly tedious, writer of children’s books. (Kirill Yeskov, “The Backstory of The Last Ringbearer)

I will freely admit that I initially resisted plunging into Kirill Yeskov’s The Last Ringbearer (first published in Russia in 1999).  Yisroel Markov’s clumsy English translation is not an easy read; though I should say that translating Slavic languages into English is a hair-tearing task.  However, the modest success of The Last Ringbearer in Russia and Poland, as well as the recent article “Middle Earth According to Mordor” by Laura Miller, raise some interesting issues around the development of fantasy in Eastern Europe post-Communism and post-Tolkien—an obsession with “realpolitik” in fantasy fiction that Yeskov’s work represents quite well.

Poland has a long tradition of fantasy literature, more so than Russia—yet Tolkien still acts as a springboard in more recent fantasy. I find Slavic appropriations of Tolkien-style fantasy more common than those building on previous Slavic works.  The result of English cultural dominance in the fantasy field, I guess, or literature in general: on my last trip to a bookstore in Poland I struggled to find a book not translated from English.

As the top text of the cover (pictured above) tells us, The Last Ringbearer is “a tale of Middle Earth from the eyes of the enemy.”  It is also, I think, the ultimate expression of “Tolkien revisionist” fantasy in Eastern Europe; to the point where many see Yeskov’s novel as a viable alternative to The Lord of the Rings.

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ETA: I don’t hold many of these opinions anymore–I cannot, in all seriousness, call myself a postmodernist (and I wasn’t much of one even back then). However, I still think the below article is interesting enough to leave online, and it addresses some issues that are worth further exploration. – November 2013

For a long time, I considered myself an adversary of postmodernism.  Mostly, I think, because the word and ideology got obscured with overuse, appropriated by the sorts of people who wear scarves in the summer and tartan-patterned berets.  Postmodernism and pseudo-intellectualism seem to go hand in hand.  It is only quite slowly that I came to realize, much to my own horror, that I am a postmodernist, both in my approach to history, and in my views on fiction.

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I dedicate the following post to Robert E. Howard scholar Rusty Burke, who back in February, 2010 wrote this response to one of my posts on the REH Forum: “I wonder if it might be worthwhile for someone — you, Taran? — to specifically tackle Alpers’ essay and the seeming effect it had on attention to heroic fantasy in SFS, in an essay for SFS or, if they aren’t interested, some other journal, or even a website?” (To clarify, I post under the name “Taran” on public forums)

Spacesuit, Blaster and Science(!):

Confronting the Uneasy Relationship between Science Fiction and Heroic Fantasy

by Michal Wojcik

 But fantasy is, almost by definition, consolatory and escapist literature. Pure fantasy doesn’t really tell us anything about the world we live in, and I fail to discern any huge new movements sweeping the field as symptoms of the cultural neuroses of one country or another. (Charlie Stross, Genre Neuroses 101)

The above thought is neither new nor shocking.  A significant number of science fiction authors have denigrated fantasy for years.  What is surprising, and to my mind slightly disturbing, is the bleed of genre superiority into academia.  Imaginative fiction has only recently found acceptance in universities; but even the mass of literary criticism available on J.R.R. Tolkien or Philip K. Dick cannot convince some that science fiction or fantasy deserve any serious study.  Yet, in the work done on imaginative literature, it seems as if those studying science fiction have to legitimate their academic interest by taking the accusations of escapism, adolescent wish fulfillment, sexism, or just plain silliness and shifting those long-held prejudices to fantasy.  We’re not like them, they seem to scream, what we study is serious.  The relationship becomes oppositional, and nowhere do we see this more often than the general dismissal of one subset of fantasy in particular: heroic fantasy, or as some may know it, sword & sorcery. (more…)

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