The military has ever been one of the structural supports of much American science fiction. Whether they’re heroically battling off alien invaders or corrupting scientific research for their nefarious and war-mongering needs, the boys in green have a long history in the genre.
That’s why it’s particularly interesting whenever you run across a science-fiction writer who actually served in the military and then brought that sensibility to their writing. The responses can vary widely, from the jingoistic Reagan-era militarism of Jerry Pournelle to the ironic action of David Drake to the highly satiric and jaundiced Kurt Vonnegut.
Over at i09, Charlie Jane Anders does a superb job of studying all of the ways these authors brought their experience of war to bear in their fiction, as well as other fantasy and sci-fi authors who were less vocal about their military service (from Tolkien to Clarke).
Several years before hobbits were a gleam in J. R. R. Tolkien’s eye, he was deeply involved in another massive literary undertaking: The Oxford English Dictionary. Tolkien worked on the OED staff from 1919 to 1920, concentrating primarily on words in the “W” section. (The image of the tweedy young scholar beavering away at his obscure assignments at the dawn of the Jazz Age calls to mind an Oxbridge version of Ball of Fire; only sans Barbara Stanwyck.)
According to Peter Gilliver of the OED, Tolkien was put on to certain words — like walnut, walrus, and wampum — particularly because of their difficult etymologies:
Other words, such as waistcoat, wake (noun), wan, and want, posed rather different challenges. Teasing out fine distinctions of meaning is a key part of a lexicographer’s job, as is the selection of words to convey precisely the connotations, as well as the simple meaning, of a word: Tolkien evidently took great pains over both. He relished the task of distinguishing the different garments denoted at different times by waistcoat (as he later grew to relish the garment itself) … His biggest challenge, however, must surely have been want, one of the commonest of all verbs, which eventually required nearly thirty separately defined senses and subsenses.
Many years later, an editor at the OED who had been a student of Tolkien’s wrote asking for his opinion on the definition of a new word gaining popularity: hobbit. Tolkien happily obliged. Mithril and orc are now also ensconced in the dictionary as well.
Filed under Books, Nota Bene
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Deadline reported yesterday that Peter Jackson is considering making The Hobbit into a trilogy. Jackson is considering taking the Appendices that were published at the back of The Return of the King (which he calls essentially notes for a planned rewrite of The Hobbit which would have incorporated a lot of material that Tolkien came up when writing his later trilogy) and using that as a basis for the third film.
For Lord of the Rings film junkies, this might be good news; more the better. And the studio would certainly be delighted. For those of us who are fans of the mythos as a whole and didn’t necessarily think that Return of the King was enriched by its fourth ending, it could be a potential sign of trouble: empowered auteur on the loose! Jackson’s artistry as a whole has been terrific, but it does begin to wear on one after a while in a way that Tolkien’s dense style never quite does. The films are never quite able to hit those light, cheery notes as well as the books can, focusing over-much on the battles and melodrama.
Maybe instead of a third Hobbit film, they should be talking about doing something with The Silmarillion? Yes, it’s more mythology than fiction, but plenty of story to go around. And let’s be honest, it would be incredible to see what Jackson could come with for the sacking of Gondolin and the tragedy of Beren and Luthien.