Has anybody got ‘Bored of the Rings’?

In the last few posts I’ve been exploring how Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings became a major part of mainstream culture. The transition began in the mid-1960s on the back of the counter-culture, and the place of Tolkien’s imaginarium was cemented by the mainstreaming of fantasy and science fiction in the 1970s – a transition Tolkien’s own popularity helped drive, further buoyed that decade by Star Wars and Star Trek.

This is the edition I own (image via Wikipedia).

This is the edition I own (image via Wikipedia).

Long before that, though – in 1969, in fact – Tolkien was mainstreamed in a very different way, in Henry N Beard and Douglas C Kenney’s parody Bored Of The Rings. Being targeted by the Harvard Lampoon was a fair sign that Tolkien had ‘made it’ – and his imaginarium wasn’t the only thing they skewered along the way. They also took on the ‘bog’ Irish, hippie culture, drugs, Disneyland, frozen vegetables, Cinderella and the Lone Ranger, among other things.

The book was filled with battles fought by ambulatory pumpkins, over-sexed elves, evil black riders cavorting about on flatulent pigs, and a gonzo wizard named Goodgulf. There were places and characters named after everything from soft drinks to well known laxatives. Indeed, laxatives were a bit of an – er – running gag through the whole thing. As was potato salad (don’t ask).

The cover itself parodied the artwork of the 1965 Ballantine edition. It also featured a map at the front that didn’t correlate with anything in the book, but which echoed the “2.5 dimensional” cartographic style adopted by Tolkien – and by his son Christopher, who drew the master Middle Earth map.

Some fans, I don’t doubt, were horrified at the skewering of their sacred cow. I wasn’t. When I first read Bored of the Rings, around 1978, it was laugh-out-loud territory. And it still is today. The late 1960s pop-culture references are a little dated, but that doesn’t reduce the cleverness of it, especially the way Beard and Kenney used product names as homophones for Tolkien’s (Frito/Frodo, Spam/Sam, Pepsi/Pippin, Arrowroot/Aragorn, Orlon/Elrond, and so on).

I always thought it was rather apt. There’s a form of Russian literature in which long and deeply serious saga stories are usually wrapped up with a brief comic coda. And this was Tolkien’s, after a fashion. Not written or authorised by him, but a comic coda nonetheless. So – to close this series on Tolkien, a question.

Have you read Bored of the Rings? Were you offended – or did you roll around on the floor laughing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Pastoral folk or Wagnerian metal – which music best suits Tolkien?

In the last few posts I’ve been exploring the way J R R Tolkien subverted twentieth century literature, creating a whole new form of fantasy – and why The Lord Of The Rings in particular was such a runaway success. Today I’m wrapping the series up with a few thoughts on the way people reacted emotionally – through music.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

Tolkien himself worked with composer and pianist Donald Swann – the musician half of the Flanders and Swann comedy duo – to put some of the many songs from his imaginarium to music, notably ‘The Road Goes Ever On’.

But he wasn’t the only one. In 1968, Swedish composer Bo Hansson wrote a whole album – Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings. It basically pioneered the prog-rock concept album, though it wasn’t released outside Sweden for several years. The music was instrumental, largely built around some astonishing tone colours and sounds that Hansson was able to extract from a Hammond B3 electric organ.

In many respects it was of its time, a product of the way the youth generation of the 1960s questioned their world. Today I find it almost unlistenable. But when I heard it in the 1970s I thought it amazing. Looking back, I think Hansson had – conceptually, through music – captured the intersection between the subculture of his time and Tolkien’s mythos. It wasn’t going to work quite as well a generation later.

Other music based on the book was folk-ish or pastoral, again drawing conceptual inspiration from the world of The Shire. But there was far more to LOTR than that. The deeper side of Tolkien’s mythos demanded a different interpretation – darker, more powerful – which emerged in the form of heavy metal during the 1980s and 1990s, particularly from Germany and Scandinavia where Tolkien infused material and related fantasy-driven music became a whole sub-genre dubbed, predictably, ‘heavy mithril’. The pattern was set by the German prog-metal band ‘Blind Guardian’. This is their Nightfall in Middle Earth:

This – and a lot of what followed – was music of Wagnerian proportion in blending brutally heavy metal with orchestra and choir, creating monolithc sound-scapes, all steeped in the same Scandinavian tradition that had influenced Tolkien in the first place. The lyrics were often studded with Tolkien references – typified by Nightwish’s  Wishmaster, where there were explicit call-outs to Lorien and Elbereth.

To me this broad musical response to Tolkien captured the reality of his imaginarium, with its layers of meaning – and particularly the dissonance of the pastoral, homely Hobbits set against huge and heroic symbols of deeper mythology. Pastoral folk-rock or Wagnerian heavy metal? Both are appropriate for Tolkien’s world, I think.

Your thoughts?

This series wraps up with the next and final post – watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

If in doubt, throw it out – a motto for writing

Quite a bit of what’s written – certainly in this day and age – is really practise, like a pianist running through those interminable Czerny exercises. And like those exercises, the result isn’t really intended to see the light of day.

Essential writing fuel!

Essential writing fuel!

I suspect a lot of it does, though – courtesy of the fact that in this age of self-publishing, anybody can publish anything. And a lot of people do. There’s often a mood in writing circles about the preciousness of words. ‘My babies’.

Actually, I’m a great fan of writers throwing stuff away. It’s important – surprisingly so, in fact. Words are merely a tool for expression. If they’re not right – or if the author is on a learning curve – then the best thing, sometimes, is to chuck out the old and re-write. That’s also good practise, because it forces authors to think about how they’re expressing themselves – and to work at tackling the problem from a variety of angles.

It’s a technique that even practised writers – the ones who’re ‘unconsciously competent’ at the art – have to use. Jack Kerouac, allegedly, wrote On The Road in one massive pep-pill fuelled burst. What we might not realise from the “scroll” that poured in one huge sellotaped roll out of his typewriter is that he’d already had several attempts at the book.

They weren’t failures. Kerouac abandoned them because they weren’t capturing what he wanted. But if hadn’t taken the time to get his thoughts into line by writing them, he wouldn’t have been able to then write the “scroll” as he did.

My axiom? Words are easy to assemble. Moulding them to the intended meaning is a lot harder. That’s why I say: if in doubt, throw it out. And (of course) start again. This time having had the practise of expressing the idea once. It’ll work better the second time.

Or the third.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Thanks to E L James’ publicity fail I might have to write Proust fan-fic

In what has to be classed as an epic publicity fail, E. L. James’ Twitter Q&A this week turned into farce when the feed was bombed by people who – well, they didn’t exactly like her books.  Or her.

I have to ask. What were her publicists thinking? Sure, Grey is one of the fastest-selling books of all time, following up the previous trilogy. And sure, there have to be a lot of, shall we say, gratified customers out there. But those sales have happened on the back of a repute for those books being very, very badly written porn, reportedly derived from ‘Twilight’ fan fiction.

I have to say ‘repute’ because I haven’t actually read any of James’s work – nor will I. Still, the fact remains that sales are skyrocketing and James is reportedly worth anything from $38 to $58 million, depending on which site you look at. And what did the late Phineas Taylor Barnum once say about nobody ever losing money by under-estimating the taste of the public? Obviously this is where the market’s at, so I now have to decide which famous novel to redo as very, very badly written porn fan fic. Maybe you can help. Which should I pick?

  • Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
  • John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
  • Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time.

My vote’s with the last, but that’s just me. I always did want to summarise Proust.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How I went into single combat on TV, intellectually speaking, with Antony Beevor

It’s a decade since I took on Anthony Beevor on TV, over his comments about Bernard Freyberg and his role in losing the 1941 Battle for Crete.

Wright - Battle for Crete - 200 pxI wasn’t able to get a face-to-face interview, but I was able to appear on Mike Hosking’s Sunday show in riposte to remarks Beevor made on the same show a week earlier.

The battle for Crete remains one of New Zealand’s legendary military near-misses, a battle lost by a hairs-breadth – keying into the national inferiority complex by which New Zealand was always able to punch above its weight on the world stage, but always just managed to miss the grand prize. This mind-set does much to explain the soul-searching that followed the evacuation – and the arguments that raged after the war, in the pages of history books, usually over who to hold responsible.

The fault has been levelled variously at the New Zealand brigadier running the defence of Maleme airfield, at the battalion commander on the airfield, and on the New Zealand commander, Major-General Bernard Freyberg, in charge of island defence. In 1991, Antony Beevor excoriated Freyberg, considering he had misread an intelligence signal and so lost the island. It was, at best, specious – Freyberg actually did a tremendous job, and battles don’t pivot on a single signal. Beevor also never used the primary documentation available in New Zealand.

near_runI first looked into the battle for Crete in 1999, when my publishers, Reed New Zealand, asked me to write a history of those dramatic days. They specified a short book for the general audience – not the specialist academic military-historical community – and with a maximum length of 30,000 words the text was, deliberately, intended as a brief account.

crete2I called the book A Near-Run Affair: New Zealanders in the Battle for Crete, riffing on Arthur Wellesley’s quip after Waterloo. The book sold very well into its intended audience, and was acclaimed by independent reviewers.

In 2003, Reed reissued the book with revised title – Battle for Crete: New Zealand’s Near-Run Affair. This edition also sold well.

Battle for Crete became the first volume in a trilogy I wrote covering the Second New Zealand Division from their first battles in Greece to the dramatic dash to Trieste in the closing days of the war – the other two are Desert Duel and Italian Odyssey. I did talk with Penguin about releasing them as an omnibus seven or eight years ago, but that came to nothing.

Now, all three are being reissued by Intruder Books, starting with Battle for Crete, which has been revised and is in its third incarnation. Not too shabby for any author.

The book’s out with an introductory price for $US 3.99. Get it now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Deep magic from the dawn of humanity: the real appeal of Tolkien

In the past few posts I’ve been explaining why Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings struck such chords with the western world, despite breaking all the rules of the twentieth century novel.

We’ve seen how, on one level, it ‘broke through’ a decade after being published, on the back of the way the counter-culture identified with the pastoral aspects of hobbit life. But there was something more going on – something that Tolkien very deliberately wrote into his whole imaginarium, which struck to the heart of the human condition, and to western cultural tradition – and this is what made his work so epic.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Gandalf: 85 percent Odin, 15 percent Merlin. This is Weta Workshop’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Tolkien – a philologist, expert linguist and academic par excellence – didn’t just want to write a fantasy story. He had in mind something bigger, one around which his imaginarium was organised. A mythology. England didn’t have one in the same way the Norse had, or the Germans – so he went out to write it, drawing on those traditions to create something new.

When it came to the novel based on that imaginarium – well, this had to be part of the tradition of epic literature, like Beowulf. It was this that gave LOTR – and the whole Middle Earth mythos – such fundamental power, and allowed Tolkien’s creation to capture the imagination of a very wide range of people in western culture, across generations.

Heroic literature demands a very different organising principle than what is required for an everyday novel. And The Lord Of The Rings is built around it, with its plot-points involving temptation, heroism, sacrifice – and a relentless testing of the characters by the dark forces swirling around them. In this sense, characters such as Aragorn – who, by twentieth century novel values was a cliché – were, in fact, spot on. Necessary.

The Lord Of The Rings, in short, was the literary equivalent of a Wagnerian opera: huge, suffused with vast themes of good versus evil, reaching directly to the heart of the human condition and displaying it on a mighty canvas that revealed just how vast an imagination Tolkien had. And, like Wagner, Tolkien made sure those themes gained credibility through depth – pushing a vast cultural tapestry and back-story into his work, knowing it interrupted the plot in twentieth century terms – but also knowing that it gave the mythic theme vastly more power.

The comparison is direct: Wagner’s stories drew from Norse/Germanic mythic tradition to produce stories of epic quests for rings, filled with jealousies over the power they gave, temptation, and greed. Tolkien drew from that same mythic tradition to build his own imaginarium. The difference was that whereas Wagner steeped his tales in blatant Germanic nationalism, Tolkien imbued his with a quiet, subtle and quintessential Englishness – something that shone through at every level, but particularly with his hobbits.

It is here, I think, that the second aspect of Tolkien’s genius shone through. The hobbits were everyman; they were ordinary, familiar, likeable characters that everybody could identify with. By making Hobbits the centre of the narrative, Tolkien gave LOTR the means to connect with the twentieth century reader – at first, as we saw in a previous post, the ‘hippie’ generation; then a much wider swathe of western readers. Blend that with the deep mythology he was producing and the result was irresistible – once it had been discovered.

As we saw in previous posts, LOTR didn’t sell well in its first decade. That changed as soon as it was discovered by an eager market. And that issue – discovery – is still with us today. But that is entirely another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Beyond epic – how Tolkien broke the rules and wrote a winner

I’ve been posting about why J R R Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings broke all the rules – yet, ten years after publication, took off commercially to become a defining icon of twentieth century fantasy literature.

Rohan. No - central Otago. No, Rohan...oh, I give up...

Rohan. No – central Otago. No, Rohan…oh, I give up…

As a huge Tolkien fan who used to read The Lord Of The Rings multiple times a year, as a kid, I can see the appeal. And yet the fact remains that Tolkien broke the rules of plot, structure and literature. So what was happening? Why did the book take off?

I think a large part of it came about because – partly by coincidence – Tolkien’s themes and setting meshed with the values of the counter-culture that rose during the mid-1960s, and in general with the values of the ‘baby boomer’ generation. It was this meshing that gave the book such impetus and appeal to a new – and very large – generation.

Tolkien himself apparently declared the fandom and much of the hippie sub-culture enthusiasm for his work a ‘deplorable cultus’. Still, the reasons for that meshing seem clear enough. Tolkien’s Shire imagery and culture – with its deliberate evocation of a lost English rural paradise – keyed closely with counter-culture fantasies of a lost and spiritually superior pre-industrial world, largely because the origins of both philosophies were much the same; Tolkien echoed the Arts and Crafts movement, which had pursued much the same thinking in the nineteenth century. He also wrote jokes into his hobbit world that were lost on others – apparently Hobbiton society was a specific satire on Midlands village life from the 1890s.

Still, the broader themes of a ‘lost Merrie England’ coincided with counter-culture priorities. Add to this Tom Bombadil, to Tolkien a faerie sprite; but to the hippies an archetypal drop-out (nicely lampooned in Bored Of The Rings as ‘Tim Benzedrine’), and the groundwork was set.

This was not the only appeal The Lord Of The Rings had. Tolkien deliberately set out to present a clear morality: good versus evil. There was little that was complex about this world – few shades of grey. People were good; they were tempted; they fell.  Evil often appeared as good, as a device for deceit. His world also portrayed many of the trappings of industrial society – the pollution, the scale – as dark, aligning it with evil in ways that had immediate appeal to a generation who were trying to shuck off the legacy of the world-engulfing wars that had dominated the first half of the twentieth century.

Tolkien had drawn much of this implicit anti-war, anti-industry sentiment from his First World War experience – reflecting the ‘war poets’ of the 1920s – but it was appropriated by a new generation in a new context. And everything took off from there. The appeal broadened as time went on; the book enviegled itself into mainstream culture – becoming, along with Star Trek and Star Wars, one of the vehicles by which fantasy and science fiction were mainstreamed. There was no looking back after that.

Which brings me to the next part of this series – why, despite all the rule-breaking, The Lord Of The Rings was such a wonderful, fantastic and utterly amazing work. Why it was, in fact, a structural work of genius – and why has such genuine and timeless appeal. Next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015