Tolkien & Me

The spark for this short memoir comes from the recent speculation that Amazon’s new Tolkien-based show will be set during the Second Age of Middle Earth; a sort of “Young Sauron” if commentators who know far more than me are to be believed.  The speculation seems based on the inclusion of certain locations on the teaser map that Amazon has released; places that were gone by the time of the Third Age (in which The Lord of the Rings was set).  I find this announcement both exciting (who wouldn’t) and scary (as I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do).

I’ve managed to get through life up until now, knowing virtually nothing of the vast history and mythology that J.R.R. Tolkien created for Middle Earth over the course of his career.  I read The Lord of the Rings when I was twelve years old, in the summer holiday between primary and secondary school.  It took me a month, reading for many hours each day.  I enjoyed it hugely – certainly it made a lasting impression on me and helped shape the person I am today.  But I never developed the urge to get into Tolkien any deeper.  I never even read The Hobbit – having come to Rings first, I filched enough of the backstory from there, for me not to want to.

There are two reasons that the rest of Tolkien passed me by – the first is that almost none of the Middle Earth background was available at the time (and my budget copy of LotR came without all-but-one of the appendices that had seen print).  The Silmarillion, the first post-Tolkien standalone door wedge, didn’t come out until four years later.

The second, and probably more compelling reason is that a bare six months after reading LotR, come that Xmas, I’d started playing Dungeons & Dragons, when one of my school friends obtained, hot off the presses, the Original D&D rule books from the US (indeed it’s only recently that the penny has dropped that I was without doubt, one of the very first D&D players in Europe).  As an adolescent, what attraction is there reading the dry history of balrogs, when you can fight your own?!  And for many years after, balrog was slang for ‘toilet paper’ in the circles I moved in, the word being almost but not quite ‘bog roll’ Spoonerised.  Adolescent indeed.

So for me Tolkien has stayed largely at arm’s length.  Shortly after LoTR, I did read some of his smaller pieces; Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of HamTree and Leaf, et al.  The very attraction of these was that they were more Langland than Lothlórien.  Over the years, I’ve enjoyed the Bored of the Rings parody (the tolls payable at the ford and the hairy-toe-besotted elf maiden still make me chuckle today), been impressed by the Ralph Bakshi animated movie of the first half of the story and loved Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the whole.  Almost mirroring my choice of decades earlier, I steered well clear of Jackson’s bloated Hobbit trilogy that followed it.

Relatively recently, I have become somewhat more familiar with other aspects of Tolkien’s life and works.  When I was researching for my biographical sketch of Gerald Ravenscourt Hayes, for example, I delved into the world of the Inklings, and from there received my first, gobsmacking revelation of Middle Earth’s initial raison d’être, as a kind of vast philological laboratory.

As an aside at this point, I might add that like most critical thinking fantasy aficionados, I dismiss as ludicrous the oft-quoted assertion that George R.R. Martin is the American Tolkien.  I don’t care how much time Martin has spent on world building (and less than we think is the probable answer, given how much the Westeros fan base seems to have to keep him on track) it can surely be only a drop in the ocean, in terms of both scale and intellectual rigour, as compared with what Tolkien engineered for Middle Earth.  Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a huge fan of Martin’s series, I just think this particular comparison is unjustified.  As I’ve written elsewhere before, if the Seven Kingdoms has an antecedent, it rather inhabits the low magic, high political intrigue world of E.R. Eddison’s Three Kingdoms, the setting for his Zimiamvian trilogy.

Tolkien’s Weltanschauung was profoundly shaped by two world wars and he was a vocal opponent of Nazism.  So it makes me sad, these days, when the authoritarian bigots who increasingly plague our hobby, seek to denounce Tolkien as fascist or racist: presenting his great tale as an alliance of northern white Aryans, doing battle with all of the peoples of colour, united under Sauron.  And don’t get me started on what some assert the appearance of the eye of Sauron says about Tolkien’s attitude to women.


Great Con: Shame About the Rebellion

So Octocon 2016 has come and gone and what a good one it was!  As a long-time Tomb Raider, Russian mythology and Zimiamvia nut, I couldn’t have put together a better Guest of Honour line-up to suit my interests than Diane Duane, Peter Morwood and Rhianna Pratchett, if I had been running the con myself!

But of of course having the right guests is only part of the picture and one could not but be impressed by the gusto with which the Duane/Morwood double act threw themselves into the programming; indeed it is eminently plausible that they had to bring some android avatars with them so as to be in several places at once.  Rhianna Pratchett was equally engaging and it was very pleasing that the focus was very much kept on her own achievements and avoided the (presumable) temptation of reminiscing on those of her late father.

Often I seem to be the only Worm Ouroboros/Zimiamvia fan at a con so I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to ask Diane about her own interest, during the GoH speech Q&A.  It was an absolute pleasure to hear her enthuse about Lord Gro, Fiorinda and all the rest of Eddison’s wonderful characters, even if I got the sense that no-one else in the room bar the two of us had much idea of what she was talking about.  Of course Eddison’s cod-Elizabethan prose can be a barrier to the reader but like the lady said, there’s no better time to overcome that than the present, given the number of fantasy TV shows and movies that are now getting made and of course, with Game of Thrones meets Downton Abbey, the Zimiamvian trilogy now has a ready made killer tag-line.

I went to a lot of the panels this year and the quality of the panellists was uniformly high.  Another nice innovation (I suppose it may have been done before but I only became aware of this year) was the Octocon table in the dealer’s room, where self published authors could deposit their works to be sold, in return for a modest fee.  Hopefully I’ll be availing of this facility next year, if my Irish Tales is ready on schedule.

The con did make one inexplicable choice.  Obviously someone decided it would be a good thing to give 2016 the theme of Rebellion on foot of it being the centenary of the Rising.  This was a fine idea BUT WHERE WAS THE CORRESPONDING PROGRAMME THREAD???  Of course there’s only one of me and I can’t attend everything – maybe there were panels that dealt with this that I didn’t go to, in which case my apologies.  But surely it wouldn’t have been too much to expect one dedicated, so-named panel on the Rising and Republicanism in SF&F, to convey the re-creation of the shelling of the Four Courts from Pigeon Irish, Jack O’Halloran’s flying suit from A Modern Daedalus and much more to a new generation of readers.

[Update: 17/10, 14:00: Octocon has pointed out to me that a panel on the above was initially planned but fell through and that two panels I didn’t attend – Dystopia & YA and Space Opera included discussions on Rebellion.]

Time for Some E.R. Eddison

It’s a constant source of amazement to me that in a time of big screen Tolkien and Narnia adaptations and quality fantasy all over our TVs, the third corner of England’s big ‘between-the-wars’ trinity should remain so unexplored.

One can understand why E.R. Eddison’s books have had a limited readership over the years; some readers find his faux-archaic prose difficult, others fall asleep within seconds of Doctor Vandermast opening his mouth to deliver another philosophical treatise, still more have a job getting their head around characters that seem to morph into each other.  Well, it seems to me that these are all reasons for adapting his stories for the screen rather than the opposite.  Coupled of course with the fact that they’re amongst the finest fantasies ever written.

The opening of The Worm Ouroboros is famously lame.  A narrator dreams his way to Venus and is quickly forgotten.  Thereafter it is fantasy gold,  describing a glorious war between the witches and the demons, with an ending to die for, all delivered in flawless cod-Elizabethan; a device which after the first fifty or sixty pages, you’d think you’d been reading your whole life.  Don’t believe me?  Try it!

If Worm is Eddison’s masterpiece, then the later Zimiamvian trilogy (Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, The Mezentian Gate) is the most heroic of failures.  A book is hardly the best medium with which to pull off what Eddison is attempting but he almost manages it; maybe if he had lived to complete the third volume, he would have done so.  The plot is simple enough – an early twentieth century English industrialist escapes the tragedy of his own life to live out a second life as an adventurer in a fantasy world that intersects with ours.

The masterful trick that Eddison pulls off is that he makes Lessingham (same name as the narrator of Worm but maybe not the same guy; Zimiamvia is mentioned in Worm as being visible in the distance from the high mountains of Impland but those two links are as far as the connection with the trilogy goes), the hero we’re clearly to root for, into the brilliant, incorruptible and courageous right hand man of one of the principal villains.  For Lessingham to triumph, the good guys have to lose and Eddison finds a classic bittersweet way of resolving this.

What makes the trilogy complicated is that the principal heroes and heroines are archetypes who can become inhabited by the gods.  Thus when Lessingham  notices the similarities between Mary and Fiorinda, he is seeing the common characteristics of the goddess who inhabits them both.  When he sees himself through Barganax’s eyes he is seeing what the god, who can inhabit both of them, is seeing.  It’s a difficult philosophical trick to pull off through the written word – it aches to be filmed.

The Zimiamvian trilogy has a wonderful ready made tag-line – Game of Thrones meets Downton Abbey – that alone ought to be enough to get it made.  The Three Kingdoms of Zimiamvia pre-date the seven of Westeros by fifty years as the original low-magic, high political intrigue fantasy world.  Boy-king Derxis of Akkama makes Joffrey Baratheon look like Peter Pan and the Vicar of Rerek could out-Tywin Tywin with one hand tied behind his back.  As for Vandermast, just think Pycelle on acid, constantly surrounded by a bevy of nubile lycanthropes in vintage underwear.

Eddison relates the Zimiamvia story backwards, so a good ploy might be to tell it in straightforward chronological order instead.   And of course any adaptation would have a lot of work to do fleshing out the big parts of the third book that only exist as Eddison’s outlines.  And as for those difficult characters who blur identities with each other from time to time – well just ask David Lynch to direct.  Problem solved.