Tag Archives: William Morris

#amwriting: Tolkien, one-star reviews, and our shifting language

the hobbit movie poster 3Tolkien did NOT use too many words in The Hobbit, and the movie was NOT better.

The book is one thing, and the movies are something else completely. The movies, while they are awesome, exciting, and great fun, do bear some relation to the actual book. The basic plot, some of the high points, and various characters are all taken from the book. However, the movie most certainly does not chronicle the tale as Tolkien originally wrote it.

In the book (for starters) while elves are long lived and it is accepted that he must have been alive at the time, Legolas was not a character. Therefore, he did not have a love interest featured in the book. So, no– Tauriel did not exist in the book, The Hobbit. But she did in the movie, The Desolation of Smaug, and she was a great character there. In reality, no female elves are featured in the original book, The Hobbit, in more than passing, so that pretty much scotched any chance of romance for Kili in the novel.

If you read the credits at the end of the movies, you will see it clearly says “BASED ON” the book, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Now, let me address the concept of “too many words,” a direct quote from one of the many one-star reviews of the book,  The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, and posted on Amazon several years ago:

J.R.R. Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford. That tells us he was educated, but he was writing stories for his children when he wrote The Hobbit and developed the world of Middle Earth. Because of that connection to his children, we know he was writing at a level they could understand. A master of languages, he invented the elfin language. We should assume he had a moderately good grasp of the English language as well.

What modern readers may not realize is this: Tolkien was writing in the early part of the twentieth century. He served in the British army during the First World War, the notorious War To End All Wars. That war was fought one hundred years ago.  Things were different then, he wrote in the literary style of his time.

The problem with the book is not in Tolkien’s writing. It is in the eye of the modern beholder who has no appreciation for the literary style of that era. That is a fair consideration, as reading the literature of this era takes time and persistence, and many readers don’t have the patience. No reader should feel guilty for not enjoying a book their friends loved. It happens to me all the time.

the hobbit movie posterThe Hobbit remains a classic of modern literature because it details that intrinsic thing all great novels consider, the search for self. That quest to discover who we are and what we are capable of is what drives Bilbo to keep going, even in the face of terrible events. Underneath the trappings of fantasy, the elves and goblins represent humanity in all its many imperfections, as does the hobbit himself.

Writers of modern fantasy might try to read what the early masters of the genre wrote, and discover what made their work classics. It will be difficult because the gap between the style and usages of today’s English versus the English of even one hundred years ago is widening with each passing year.

Readers must be patient and set aside their knowledge of what works in today’s literature. In other words, stop looking AT the words as disparate parts that you could write better, and read them in context. You might be surprised at what you will find.

Writers are always readers, and Tolkien often discussed his fondness for the work of William Morris (b.1834 – d.1896). Morris was an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and English Arts and Crafts Movement. Tolkien and many of his contemporaries loved Morris’s prose- and poetry-romances.

Tolkien himself said his own work followed the general style and approach of Morris’s work. The Desolation of Smaug portrays dragons as detrimental to landscape, a motif borrowed directly from Morris. Tolkien had what he considered an accepted canon for how dragons should behave to work from.

But exactly what does “canon” mean in the context of a literary genre?

Wikipedia says, “In fictioncanon is the material accepted as officially part of the story in an individual universe of that story. It is often contrasted with, or used as the basis for, works of fan fiction. The alternative terms mythologytimeline, and continuity are often used, with the former being especially to refer to a richly detailed fictional canon requiring a large degree of suspension of disbelief (e.g. an entire imaginary world and history), while the latter two typically refer to a single arc where all events are directly connected chronologically. Other times, the word can mean “to be acknowledged by the creator(s).”

The modern image and mythology of the elf as he is written into most of today’s fantasy has been directly modeled on the elves of Tolkien’s Rivendell, whether the author knows it or not. Even the elves we find in the onslaught of modern urban-fantasy-romances are created in Tolkien’s image—close to the earth, immortal, and somehow nobler and more clever than we mere humans.

The love of a beautifully crafted tale will always endure. While future generations may have to learn to read and understand English as we speak it today, a true appreciation of Tolkien’s influence on modern epic fantasy literature will live on.

hobbit-battle-five-armies-bilbo-posterWhen I decided to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their original form, I had to take a college class. In that class we learned to read and understand Middle English, and then wrote our own modern translations. It was a lot of fun, but many great modern translations are out there if you don’t have the patience to read the original.

In the future, modern translations of Tolkien’s work will be published, and new fans of his work will emerge, just as in the case of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a novel fully titled The history of the valorous and wittie Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha. It was written in early modern Spanish (the equivalent of Shakespearean English) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Published in two volumes, in 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. New translations are published every few decades.

So, Tolkien didn’t use too many words, and the movies were not better than his books. They were good, but they were different stories, one based on the other, but not following it.


Wikipedia contributors, “Canon (fiction),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Canon_(fiction)&oldid=760595154  (accessed January 17, 2017).

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Books, writing

#amreading: The Well at World’s End, William Morris

TheWellattheWorldsEnd423x630First published in 1896, and now in the public domain, The Well at World’s End by William Morris has inspired countless great fantasy authors. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were students at Oxford when they became devotees of Morris’s work, to name just two. I first read this book in college (back in the dark ages) when Ballantine released it as a two-volume set. The original Ballantine covers are below, at the end of this post.

This fairly unknown literary treasure is available for free, as a download for your Kindle or any other reading device. I got my Kindle version through the Gutenberg Project on Google–and it reminded me of what my true roots as a reader of fantasy are. Give me the beautiful prose, the side-quests to nowhere, and wrap them in an illusion of magic, and I’m yours forever.

First, The Blurb:

The rich, interwoven tapestry of William Morris’s four-volume epic, “The Well at the World’s End”, is brought together in a handsome edition featuring the tale of Ralph of Upmeads. Literally and figuratively, this story is the wellspring that gave rise to both C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia”, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings”. Many elements of the story will be familiar to those who love these and other modern narratives of fantasy and adventure, set in a mythical world.

Ralph of Upmeads is the fourth and youngest son of the king of a small monarchy, and the only one forbidden of his elder brothers from going in search of his fortune. He runs away, but not before his godmother gives him a necklace with a bead on it, which unerringly directs his destiny to seek out the legendary and titular well at the end of the earth. Along the way, he encounters friends and foes in an ever-changing landscape of rolling hills and barren wood, towering mountains and meandering rivers. Through them all pass roads down which many heroes since have sojourned; united in fellowship, or alone on solitary quests.

Great and splendorous cities await, and in between, thriving towns, tiny villages, and protective farms at the edge of vast wildernesses. The further our intrepid wayfarer gets from home, the more he misses the simple pleasures of his hearth, table, and bed. Many have followed in his footsteps since, both character and reader alike.

Its language is that of another age, but its archetypical settings and denizens are the timeless stuff of once and future legend.

William_Morris_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_13619

Portrait of William Morris by George Frederic Watts, 1870

My Review:

William Morris wrote beautifully crafted poems. The prose in this narrative is both medieval and sumptuous. He was born in 1834 and died in 1896. He was an important figure in the emergence of socialism in Britain, founding the Socialist League in 1884, but breaking with that organization over goals and methods by the end of the decade. Famous as a designer of textiles and wallpaper prints that made the Arts and Crafts style famous, Morris devoted much of the rest of his life to the Kelmscott Press, which he founded in 1891. Kelmscott was devoted to the publishing of limited-edition, illuminated-style print books. The 1896 Kelmscott edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is considered a masterpiece of book design.

The Well at World’s End is a real departure for the literature of the Victorian era, in that the morality is indicative of the free-thinking bohemian lifestyle of the famous and infamous artists of the day. William Morris was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and was a man who enjoyed an unconventional lifestyle in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, all of them celebrating musical, artistic, and literary pursuits.

Using language with elements of the medieval tales written by Chaucer and Chrétien de Troyes, who were his models, Morris tells the story of Ralph of Upmeads, the fourth and youngest son of a minor king. The king is wise and his kingdom prosperous, but nevertheless his four sons are not content. The three older brothers set out, with their father’s blessing. Ralph is still young, and his father wishes him to remain at his side.

Not happy with his lot, Ralph departs without his father’s blessing. He yearns to find knightly adventure and is encouraged by a lady, Dame Katharine, to seek the Well at the World’s End, a magic well which will confer a near-immortality and strengthened destiny on those who drink from it. The Dame is childless, and sees Ralph as a son; she gives him a necklace of blue and green stones with a small box of gold tied on to it, telling him to let no man take it from him, as it will be his salvation. She also gives him money for his journey.

The well lies at the edge of the sea beyond a wall of mountains called “The Wall of the World” by those on the near side of them but “The Wall of Strife” by the more peaceful and egalitarian people who live on the seaward side.

Ralph meets a mysterious Lady of the Dry Tree, the Lady of Abundance who has drunk from the well, and they become lovers. Together and separately, they face many foes and dangers including brigands, slave traders, unscrupulous rulers and treacherous fellow travelers. The lady is murdered, leaving Ralph bereft. Later, Ralph meets another lady, Ursula, and with her help and the aid of the Sage of Sweveham, an ancient hermit who has also drunk of the well, Ralph eventually attains the Well, after many more adventures.

Because the main character, Ralph, and a nameless lady become lovers with no thought of marriage, the novel was not well known in its time, until twenty years after Morris’s death when it was discovered by free-thinking university students, to the dismay of their strait-laced parents.

The underlying story is strong, with many twists and turns. The relationship between the Ralph and the Lady of Abundance is well portrayed, as is the jealousy of her former lover, the death of her husband, and the way she is either loved or feared by everyone around her driving the plot forward. She is a woman of mystery, alternately cruel and kind, one minute the Lady of the Dry Tree, and the next, the Lady of Abundance.

Ralph’s story really begins after her death and the intertwined threads of fate and magic are compelling. The characters Ursula and the Sage of Sweveham are both deep and well-drawn.

I freely confess that in the same way as the works of William Shakespeare are hard for a modern reader to translate, the language of William Morris’s work is difficult to follow. A quote will show you what I mean: “But Ralph gave forth a great wail of woe, and ran forward and knelt by the Lady, who lay all huddled up face down upon the grass, and he lifted her up and laid her gently on her back. The blood was flowing fast from a great wound in her breast, and he tore off a piece of his shirt to staunch it, but she without knowledge of him breathed forth her last breath ere he could touch the hurt, and he still knelt by her, staring on her as if he knew not what was toward.”

When you read it aloud, it rolls off the tongue with beauty and grace and is somehow easier to understand.

I was always intrigued by the works of the medieval and renaissance authors whose works I had to work to translate into modern English. Once translated, reading it was like opening a time capsule. It was a window into a lost world of romance and mystery.

The Well at the Worlds End is a foundational work in the canon of modern fantasy literature. All the great works of the twentieth century have some roots in this novel. The hard-core devotee of true fantasy literature will not be intimidated by the archaic prose. A wealth of tales lies within this volume, all of which come together in the end.

The_Well_at_the_Worlds_End_1-2


Parts of this review were originally published  on 31-Jan-2014 on Best in Fantasy

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Fairies, Fantasy

William Morris, Tolkien, and Modern Elves

Pauline Baynes' map poster of Middle-earth published in 1970 by George Allen & Unwin and Ballantine Books.

Pauline Baynes’ map poster of Middle-earth published in 1970 by George Allen & Unwin and Ballantine Books.

Lately I have been ‘guru-ed’ to death on various different writers forums by a few indie authors, whose own work is a great deal less than stellar, harshly criticizing the quality of writing of everyone from J.R.R. Tolkien to Robert Jordan.

Some people–I wonder, do they even read the comments they write? I am going to tell you straight up: Tolkien did NOT use too many words in The Hobbit, and the movie was not better.  Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford, he invented the elfin language and as such, we may be assured he had a moderately good grasp of the English language, and the literature of his time.

He wrote in a lyrical style, with descriptions and side quests, things that enthralled avid readers like me who understood how to set aside a day to just to enjoy a good read.

The movie, while it is awesome, exciting and great fun, bears some relation to the actual book but certainly does not chronicle it. In the book for starters, Legolas was not a character, he did not have a love interest, and neither did Kili.  If you read the credits at the end of the movie, you will see it clearly says “BASED ON” the book, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

the hobbitThe problem with the book is not in Tolkien’s writing. It is in the eye of the beholder who never learned patience, or appreciation of a well-told story.

Fortunately, we now have an emerging generation of young women who consider “Pride and Prejudice” to be their favorite book of all time, and this gives me hope. Pride and Prejudice is about manners, yes–but it is also about that intrinsic thing all great novels consider, the search for self, and underneath the trappings of fantasy, the elves and goblins, so is the Hobbit.

That quest to discover who we are and what we are capable of is what drives Bilbo to keep  going, even in the face of terrible events. I have hope that if Jane Austen’s work is once again considered to be popular reading among young people, then the love of a beautifully crafted tale will never entirely disappear and the true appreciation of Tolkien’s great works will once again be celebrated.

What I frequently see in these forums see is an aggressive type of person who criticizes but lacks an understanding of what he/she is ranting about. They claim to be in writing groups, but if they are, I feel sorry for their fellow writers.  These people are the carrion-eaters, the ones who will pick an author’s work to the bone, and casually dismiss it, destroying a fellow authors sense of self-worth.

What a person who writes fantasy needs to know is what the masters of the genre wrote, and what made their work classics.  In other words,  stop looking AT the words as disparate parts that you could write better, and read them in context. You might be surprised at what you will find!

Well at World's End, William MorrisEven Tolkien had inspiration for his works, and he freely admitted he was a great devotee of the work of William Morris, an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and English Arts and Crafts Movement. He loved Morris’s prose and poetry romances. Tolkien’s own work follows the general style and approach of Morris’s work. The Desolation of Smaug as portraying dragons as detrimental to landscape, has been noted as an explicit motif borrowed from Morris, just as countless fantasy authors borrow the modern concept of Orcs, Elves, and many other high fantasy motifs from Tolkien.

Rivendell_illustrationThe modern image and mythology of the elf as he is written into most of today’s fantasy has been directly modeled on the elves of Tolkien’s Rivendell, whether the author knows it or not. Even the elves we find in the onslaught of urban-fantasy-romances are created in Tolkien’s image.

So, now that I’ve had my rant about internet writer’s forums and the bad apples who occasionally haunt them, you’re probably wondering what  I find that is good out there? A great deal more good than bad, actually.  There are an incredible number of people who are willing to be helpful to aspiring authors, and who regularly share good information. The following is a list of good forums you might want to look into.

Writers Digest

Writers Cafe

Absolute Write

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

I’ve had a lot of fun on these forums and I learned a great deal. I never respond to Trolls, because acknowledging them encourages them to think they have power. How you handle them is up to you. Do your homework, research the great literature of your genre and write because you love it.

Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind, long years numberless as the wings of trees! The beginning of the Quenya poem Namárië written in tengwar and in Latin script, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind, long years numberless as the wings of trees! The beginning of the Quenya poem Namárië written in tengwar and in Latin script, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

7 Comments

Filed under Adventure, Battles, Books, Dragons, Fantasy, Humor, Literature, mythology, Uncategorized, writer, writing