Tag Archives: Tolkien

Lords of the Skies

16 Dec

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the eagles were immense flying birds that were sapient and could speak. Often emphatically referred to as the Great Eagles, they appear, usually and intentionally serving as agents of eucatastrophe or dei ex machina, in various parts of his legendarium, from The Silmarillion and the accounts of Númenor to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Ents are guardians of plant life, the giant eagles are the guardians of animal life. In The Silmarillion, they were described as the noblest of the winged creatures of Arda, for they were brought forth by two mighty Valar: Manwë, Lord of the Air, and Yavanna, Queen of the Earth. The Great Eagles were numbered among the most ancient and wisest of races. These birds were always messengers and servants of Manwë. Over all the azure world they flew, like lords of the skies – for they were the eyes of the Valar, and like thunderbolts fell on their foes. In the First Age, a mighty breed of this race lived in Beleriand. These Eagles were far-famed for their deeds in the War of the Jewels. Their lord was Thorondor, said to have been the greatest of all birds, whose wingspan was thirty fathoms and whose speed out-stripped that of the fastest wind.

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The Trees are Waking…

7 Dec

The race of tree-like beings known as Ents are one of J R R Tolkien’s most original and beloved creations. When first he appears in The Two Towers, the lord of the Ents, Treebeard, is described as “a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck”. Treebeard himself describes his people thus: “Ent the earthborn, old as mountains”. Elvish histories tell of how in the Elder Days the Ents awoke in the great forests at the same time as the stars were rekindled. They came from the thoughts of Yavanna, Mother of the Earth, and were her shepherds of the trees, created to protect the forests from those who would despoil them. In one sense the creation of the Ents can be seen as a form of wish-fulfillment by Tolkien, who had a deeply personal love of trees and green things, as well as a horror of the industrial world. The Ents are also Tolkien’s riposte to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which he “disliked cordially”, remembering especially the “bitter disappointment and disgust… with the shabby use made… of the coming of ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill'”. Thus the ‘march of the trees’ motif is re-worked brilliantly in the stirring last march of the Ents on Isengard. Today, with the natural world disappearing around us in the face of the relentless march of technology, the concept of the trees waking to battle those who would despoil the green earth is an undeniably potent one, perhaps more so than ever before.

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Riddles in the Dark

17 Aug

Although like everyone else I’m very much looking forward to The Desolation of Smaug, the first part of Peter Jackson’s cinematic Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, left me a little cold. It was overlong, self-indulgent and sorely lacking the absorbing quality which made its predecessor trilogy such a delight. It’s probably not surprising, therefore, that for me the stand-out scene in the first Hobbit film involved one of the most triumphant elements of the Lord of the Rings movies – the character of Gollum, realized onscreen. In truth, though, I’ve always had a soft spot for Gollum, ever since I encountered him on the page when I first read The Hobbit years and years ago. The chapter Riddles in the Dark works on so many levels – a superb two-handed character study of both Bilbo and Gollum, an ingenious riddle contest, a prelude of sorts to The Lord of the Rings, and a moral lesson concerning the importance of pity. As the years went on and I began to study seriously the fabulous world of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Finnish legend from which Tolkien drew much of his inspiration, my appreciation for Riddles in the Dark only grew. It became clear to me that Tolkien was not simply making this stuff up – he was drawing upon the tradition of ancient and aristocratic literature of Northern Europe where the whole idea of testing by riddles came from. Gollum asks five riddles and Bilbo four – of these nine, several have definite and ancient sources. As Bilbo (and Tolkien himself) knew: “the riddle game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it”.

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The Long Defeat

3 Jan

The Elves of Middle Earth, also known as the Eldar, the Quendi and the Firstborn, stand at the absolute heart of Tolkien’s legendarium. Even though the word ‘Elf’ existed long before anyone heard of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, today the Elf is a very different creature because of Tolkien’s writings. The oldest and wisest people of Middle Earth, the Elves possess great nobility and power. They do not age, nor do they die, unless wounds, grief or some artifice of the Enemy takes hold of them and ends their existence. To other peoples they seem at once aged and ageless, possessing the lore and wisdom of experience, together with the joyful nature of youth. But above all, they are the only race never to have willingly served the Shadow. For they revel in the wonders of nature, the beauty of songs and tales, the glimmer of the stars, and the voice of the waters. But in their hearts, they also possess great sadness, knowing that all things pass, and that they cannot preserve them. It is this melancholic aspect of the Elves which makes them so central to Tolkien’s mythology, for they seem to encapsulate one of the major themes of his writing – the passing of ‘The Elder Days’, of a more enlightened and spiritual age, and the loss of its ideals in the face of the relentless rise of man and modernity. But this characteristic also links them with the Elves of folklore who, as depicted in fairy tales like The Elves and the Shoemaker, at first appear very different from Tolkien’s firstborn – smaller and more frivolous in every way. However, it is possible, however unlikely, to link the two conceptions of Elves, if one takes into account Tolkien’s explanation for their literal and metaphorical ‘dwindling’ – an explanation which involves them fighting the inevitable extinction of their species, better known as the ‘Long Defeat’. For this, however, we must go back to the very beginning, and Tolkien’s earliest inspirations for the children of Varda.

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Concerning Hobbits

19 Dec

Today, just seven decades after the publication of J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit, hobbits are as convincingly a part of the English heritage as leprechauns are to the Irish, gnomes are to the Germans and trolls to the Scandinavians. Indeed, many people are now unaware that hobbits were invented by Tolkien, and assume that they have, more or less, always been with us. Almost everyone, whether or not they have read Tolkien’s books or seen Peter Jackson’s films, can form a picture in their mind of a hobbit’s characteristics. In Tolkien’s world they were a burrowing, hole-dwelling people, measuring between two and four feet in height. They were long-fingered, possessed of a well-fed and cheerful countenance, and had curly brown hair and peculiar, shoeless, over-sized feet. An unassuming, conservative people as described by Tolkien, the excesses of hobbits were limited to dressing in bright colours and consuming six substantial meals a day. Their one eccentricity was the art of smoking pipeweed, which they claimed as their contribution to the culture of the world. But where did Tolkien’s hobbits come from and were they solely his creation?

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