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

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

OK so what does ‘Kindle Unlimited’ author payment by the page really mean?

I’m not sure yet what to think of the Amazon plan to pay authors enrolled in their Kindle Unlimited programme on a page-basis. This system doesn’t replace the sale model –it runs alongside it and makes books available for Kindle readers, free. Amazon pays authors instead from an undefined ‘pool’.

Essential writing fuel!

Essential writing fuel!

This latest amendment simply changes the method of payment from a “10 percent” threshold to a “pages read” measure, in which Amazon defines the page length.

That concept of paying authors ‘compensation’ for royalties lost when books are provided free isn’t original to Amazon. A number of governments – including New Zealand’s – run schemes to provide compensatory royalties to authors that have been otherwise lost via public library borrowing. But it’s not defined on a ‘pages read’ basis.

I can’t help thinking that one outcome of the Amazon initiative will be a reduction of literature to a relentless succession of eight-word advertising jingles and characters dangling off cliffs because, in the author’s mind, they HAVE to get the reader to turn that next page so they’ll get another one half of one cent or whatever it is the Amazon ‘pool’ devolves.

I don’t like the idea that authors who want to join that scheme also have to be ‘exclusive’ to Amazon. That’s not original to Amazon either – I’ve written books that way for a major book chain in the past. But I made sure I was properly paid for it – a defined, up-front figure which I negotiated. It wasn’t dependent on sales. And nor should it be; a shop wanting to be the sole stockist of a particular item should be prepared to buy that monopoly. The difference with the Amazon scheme is that the return is undefined, and to me that’s wrong.

The other objection I have is that in order to pay authors by page, Amazon need to know which pages their customers have read. And they do, because Kindle phones home. A lot. This, my friends, is the age of Big Data and Big Intrusion into ordinary things we do. And on one level, who really cares if Amazon know what, how much, and when you’re reading, and on what device? But the collection of this little bit of trivia, or that, by a variety of service providers, has been normalised in all our dealings with the information age. We don’t know – can’t know – where that might go in a couple of generations. The risk is that the future dystopia we face isn’t George Orwell’s, it’s Aldous Huxley’s. The worry is that it will then become Orwell’s.

It’s not clear to me, yet, where this is heading for authors and readers. I think schemes such as Kindle Unlimited are symptomatic of the fact that we’re in the early days of a revolution in the way books are published and sold. It’s riding on the back of a bigger general change driven by the information revolution, which I think – certainly sociologically – will be in the same league as the industrial revolution 250 years ago.

Amazon are leading the pack at the moment, as far as books are concerned. But the more important outcome, I think, isn’t so much which company dominates as the systems and expectations that flow from the way that information revolution is applied to reading and writing.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How J R R Tolkien became a best-selling author

I posted the other day about how J R R Tolkien’s  The Lord Of The Rings broke the rules of writing – yet, eventually, became an icon, and justly so. But it shouldn’t have, all things being equal. By usual standards, Tolkien’s characters  were cyphers. He broke his narrative in ways that obscured dramatic tension. And he got away with it. Spectacularly.  The book is fantastic.

The Lewis River - very Tolkienish view with wonderful blue skies.

The Lewis River – very Tolkienish view, albeit with wonderful blue skies, which seldom featured in his work.

How did it happen? The first answer is that – initially – Tolkien didn’t get away with it at all. Or even later. As late as 2001, for instance, the book was described in the New York Times as ‘pedantry’ and ‘death to literature’.

In some ways this isn’t surprising. Tolkien began the book as a sequel to The Hobbit, but it had – as he said himself – ‘grown in the telling’. This, I think, goes quite a long way towards explaining the structure, which reflected that evolution. At times he ran flat out of ideas, stalling – for instance – at the point where the Fellowship reached Moria, not knowing where to take the story next.

There were also issues flowing from the fact that Tolkien was a tinkerer – he constantly re-thought, revised and re-cast, making it almost impossible to keep consistency across the work.

Time didn’t help; Tolkien plugged away at it during the Second World War, but not quickly. It was broadly finished by 1949, about 11 years after he began, and he turned up at the Allen and Unwin offices with a monolithic typescript that Rayner Unwin, his friend, publisher and former student, was reluctant to publish in one go. It didn’t seem saleable.

So they insisted it had to be broken into three – hence the trilogy. It’s ironic: the book – and specifically the ‘trilogy’ aspect – became the model for a LOT of fantasy that followed. But the fact that it was a trilogy was purely accidental.

The first of them, the Fellowship Of The Ring, was published in July 1954 with a run of just 4550. The second, The Two Towers, followed 18 months later on an even lower run – 4250. By the time The Return Of The King was published in October 1955, the publishers felt able to up the run to 12,000. These were minimal even by UK standards, and although the book was reprinted a number of times, the runs always remained low. It was very much an average book in that sense. Figures are unusually vague, but the net total seems to have been less than 80,000 copies over 15 impressions by 1966, variously issued by Allen and Unwin or Hodder and Stoughton, not including foreign translations.

Then something happened. The book had been sold in the US, but Ace books believed they could issue their own unauthorised edition in the US. Allen and Unwin objected; the upshot was that Tolkien produced a second edition – materially revised for detail – which became the one we continue to read and enjoy, mostly, today. And it began selling like hotcakes. In the parlance of the 1960s, readers ‘grokked’ it. Without that commercial boost, I think the book would have had a place in fantasy literature – alongside classics as Dunsany’s The King Of Elfland’s Daughter and such like. It would also have been recognised in literary circles for what it was (more of this anon). But it would never have become the defining fantasy, as it did.

In 1994, with editorial input from Christopher Tolkien, a slightly revised version of the Second Edition was produced to incorporate and rationalise some of Tolkien’s minor variant revisions during the process of preparing that second edition, and to mop up some niggling small corrections and consistency matters – but the changes didn’t materially affect the story.

So – Tolkien had produced a rule-breaker, and it took off. The question is why. But those reasons are not hard to find. More next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

The paradox of Tolkien’s ‘The Lord Of The Rings’

The other day I posted about the importance of written structure – particularly the way authors looking to write ‘epic’ tomes often end up stretching their plots out way too thin, like Tolkien’s One Ring did for the life of its bearers.

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 of the 2012 Hobbit Artisan Market, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in ‘Prince Caspian’.

That prompted one of my readers to post a question about Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, the novel that basically defined the ‘epic’ fantasy genre for the twentieth century. Her husband reads LOTR annually – and loves it. Whereas she finds the story slow and punctuated with side-lines, like the songs. So, what gives?

I think both are right.

Let me put it this way. I am a colossal Tolkien fan. The book is fantastic – and so is everything else about Tolkien’s amazing imaginarium. It’s over a decade since I last read the trilogy, but that’s because I read LOTR so often in my youth that even now I can basically quote all 600,000 words. It is a masterpiece, a complete re-definition of ‘epic fantasy’ that provoked a multitude of follow-ons, all to much the same scale, but none (to my mind) with anything like the depth.

Yet equally, as a writer, I can’t believe how Tolkien overturned normal literary structure and got away with it. Most obviously, he kept pausing the action to reproduce songs sung by the characters, verbatim and in full. Some of the songs were interlopers, adapted from his other work – the ‘Stone Troll’, for instance, first featured in the 1936 short-run volume Songs For The Philologists, to which Tolkien contributed 13 items. Either way, they were death to narrative pace.

But there was more than that. By conventional literary measure, the structure was berserk – the opening chapters broke the rising tension that could have been gained from the pursuit of the hobbits by the Black Riders, interposing an interesting but plot-irrelevant diversion in which they met Tom Bombadil. Two-thirds of the 600,000 word epic comprised a stop-start succession of plot streams, obscuring the fact that Tolkien was weaving a vast, complex tapestry of events. That was odd by literary standards and didn’t work when Boyens, Jackson and Walsh had to adapt it into a movie, which is why The Two Towers movie (especially the directors’ cut, which was different from the first cinematic release) is so different from the book.

Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of the three 'life size' trolls. Cool.

Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of Tolkien’s trolls. Cool.

What’s more, many of Tolkien’s main characters, especially Aragorn, were cyphers. Aragorn was the classic mythic hero, but far from even the mid-twentieth century notion of literary character – and certainly well removed from our own. Tolkien also didn’t write female characters well, and one of the key plot elements – the romance between Arwen and Aragon, which explained and drove Aragorn’s actions throughout – was relegated to a brief appendix.

Add to this the stylistic change in the latter half of The Return Of The King, where Tolkien changed from an unadorned plain English narrative to Biblical-style rhythm and phrasing, perhaps better attuned to narrative poetry – and the book, on the face of it, was a recipe for commercial disaster.

That was also the judgement of Rayner Unwin, who was leery about publishing LOTR for those reasons – pace, structure and scale. Tolkien wrote LOTR as a single volume, divided into six books. Allen & Unwin published it as a trilogy to spread the commercial risk in the mid-1950s, and their assessment proved basically correct – it was produced in a succession of low-run editions for about a decade.

Then, suddenly, it took off – this on the back of a US edition issued without permission. Tolkien produced the second edition (the one we know today) for the US market, and it took off like a rocket. To me the explanation breaks down into several issues, which I’ll cover off in the next few weeks.

Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015