Reader’s Corner: Tolkien on the Battlefield

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In 1916, a 24-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien went off to fight for his country. He arrived in France just as the Battle of the Somme was about to erupt. At the end of the first day of fighting, almost 20,000 British soldiers were dead. The butchery went on for months. It would be a transformative experience for the young scholar.

lordoftherings1Joseph Loconte writes in the Times that Tolkien actually started writing The Lord of the Rings by candlelight at the front. It’s not hard to see the inspiration of the Somme’s blasted landscape, reek of poison gas, and corpses, in his descriptions of the Siege of Gondor and particularly Mordor.

Of course, the battles of Tolkien’s trilogy were quite different from what he saw at the Somme. His alliance of hobbits, elves, dwarves, and men were combating a complete and all-encompassing evil that threatened the entire world. The German soldiers being faced by all those young men in the muddy trenches cut through the devastated French countryside were closer to mirror images than existential threat.

Loconte concludes:

Tolkien used the language of myth not to escape the world, but to reveal a mythic and heroic quality in the world as we find it. Perhaps this was the greatest tribute he could pay to the fallen of the Somme.

Weekend Reading: October 30, 2015

New in Theaters: ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’

Martin Freeman as Bilbo in 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies' (Warner Bros.)
Martin Freeman as Bilbo in ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’ (Warner Bros.)

hobbit-posterSix films and who knows how many gajillion dollars of revenue later, Peter Jackson’s monumental, exhausting adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring novels comes to an end with the third film in the second Hobbit cycle. Love it or loathe it, this is the end—and it’s going out with a bang.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens in all known territories next Wednesday. My review is at Film Journal International:

Amidst all the clashing armies, fell spirits, and talk of destinies and dynasties that fill J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological adventure novels, the author’s eye never drifts far from the plucky little hero who finds unknown strengths in terrifying times. Peter Jackson dutifully sounded the same tune in his films of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But where Tolkien was a humanist, Jackson is a strategist, ever marshaling his forces for grander victories. There’s no denying the films’ quality as battle-ready spectacle of the first order. But the final installment, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, is just about all Jackson and precious little Tolkien. In other words, if you like orc-killin’, and lots of it, this is your film…

Here’s the trailer:

Readers’ Corner: America’s Top Ten Books

"Reading the Bible," Currier & Ives (Library of Congress)
“Reading the Bible,” Currier & Ives (Library of Congress)

The Bible is still the number one book in Americans’ hearts. At least, that’s according to a new poll by Harris Interactive that surveyed American adults to find out what their favorite book was. The rest of the top ten books are all fiction (insert atheist gag here), starting with the somewhat curious inclusion of Gone with the Wind at number two. Here’s the list:

  1. The Bible
  2. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  3. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
  4. The Lord of the Rings (series) by J.R.R. Tolkien
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  6. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  7. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The poll further breaks down the list by ethnicity, politics, age, geography, and gender. Conservatives and moderates preferring Gone with the Wind while liberals’ fave was the Harry Potter series; either way, everybody likes fantasy.

The last time Harris conducted the same poll was in 2008. Interesting, among the books that dropped off in the intervening six years were Atlas Shrugged, The Stand, and two Dan Brown novels. New on the list since then were a couple classics deserving of the name (The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath), possibly showing that Americans’ tastes are improving. That, or people who really like Ayn Rand and Dan Brown either just aren’t reading anymore, have started to die off, or are sticking with pretending to have read the Bible.

(h/t: New Republic)

Screening Room: ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’

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So, granted, the first installment of The Hobbit was something of a letdown even for those who weren’t a little exhausted with Peter Jackson by the time The Return of the King ground to an end. But, the trailer for Jackson’s second—and most likely just as bloated episode—has thrills and beauty aplenty.

In the plus column: Benedict Cumberbatch voicing Smaug, and a Mirkwood that looks as much of a thrilling mythological darkland as Tolkien described it.

In the minus: romance for Legolas, the fact that there is still one more film to come.

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Sci-Fi Goes to War

slaugherhouse5The 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).

Reader’s Corner: Tolkien Family Correspondence

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In late 1944, J. R. R. Tolkien’s son Christopher–who would later prove so industrious in the keeping-up of his father’s legacy—was away from home, serving with the Royal Air Force in South Africa. J. R. R. had published The Hobbit seven years earlier, and was still in the process of writing his Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring wouldn’t appear in print until 1954). J. R. R. would post draft pages to Christopher as he wrote.

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In this letter sent three days after Christmas, J. R. R. talks about his new chapters:

I am glad the third lot of Ring arrived to date, and that you like it—although it seems to have added to yr. homesickness. It just shows the difference between life and literature: for anyone who found himself actually on the stairs of Kirith Ungol would wish to exchange it for almost any other place in the world, save Mordor itself. But if lit. teaches us anything at all, it is this: that we have in us an eternal element, free from care and fear, which can survey the things that in ‘life’ we call evil with serenity (that is not without appreciating their quality, but without any disturbance of our spiritual equilibrium)… I am afraid the next two chapters won’t come for some time (about middle of Jan) which is a pity, as not only are they (I think) v. moving and exciting, but Sam has some interesting comments on the rel. of stories and actual ‘adventures’. But I count it a triumph that these two chapters, which I did not think as good as the rest of Book IV, could distract you from the noise of the Air Crew Room!….

More of the letter can be found at the American Reader‘s “This Day in Letters” feature.