Inspiring culture – the meta-literature of Tolkien

It occurred to me the other day that one of my favourite authors – J R R Tolkien – has probably had more written about him than he actually wrote himself.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to prone to take this picture in the Hobbit Artisan Market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

Certainly that’s true if you consider the books Tolkien published in his lifetime. There were, after all, only two Middle Earth books plus a few other bits and pieces. But even if you add in the endless sequence of ‘first drafts’ churned out of the voluminous Tolkien papers by his son and one or two others since the elder Tolkien’s passing in 1973, the fact remains that the amount of stuff triggered by Tolkien is even larger.

I happened to be prowling the Tolkien shelves of my local bookstore the other day and spotted, apart from various editions of Tolkien’s own work, at least a complete shelf of analyses, of books-about-the-films, of books about the mythology behind Middle Earth, about the artwork – in all its flavours – and at least two send-ups. The Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings (a comic novel in its own right) and a more impenetrable spoof of The Hobbit written by someone else.

That’s apart from the plethora of Tolkien biographies – which, based on what I have in my own collection, range from the ‘definitive’ general biography by John Carpenter through to more specialist studies of Tolkien in the First World War. I also have a semi-biographical snapshot, published as a book, based on the observations of a fan who was so taken by drafts of the Silmarillion that he sought out, and visited, the elderly Professor in the early 1970s.

Not to mention the music. Tolkien himself worked with Donald Swann to set some of his Middle Earth songs to music. Since then his mythos has inspired everything from Bo Hansson’s album Music Inspired By The Lord Of The Rings (1969), through to Led Zeppelin’s Battle for Evermore, and more recently Nightwish numbers such as Elvenpath or Wishmaster. The latter, with some of the lyrics actually in Tolkien’s High Elvish, isn’t exactly subtle. And there are reasons why a lot of Norwegian rock is known, colloquially, as ‘heavy mithril’.

All of which, to me, underscores just what a massive influence Tolkien actually was. And, of course, still is. None of it, of course, was planned or intended; the whole thing grew, to use a Tolkienism, in the telling.

I suppose next we’ll find books discussing the books that discuss Tolkien. Meta-meta literature? Or maybe not.

Do you have any ‘meta Tolkien’ literature – or music – in your collection?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

A glimpse of The Hobbit on its last day

I flew out of Wellington late last week and – as the aircraft climbed into a flawless sky – caught a glimpse of Peter Jackson’s studios, with outdoor green screen, then of The Hobbit set perched atop Mount Crawford.

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'.

I just HAD to do the fanboy thing in the entrance to 2012’s Hobbit Artisan Market, central Wellington.’.

Shooting was wrapping up that day on the last pick-ups for the third movie. Ending, for Jackson, a fourteen year odyssey into J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantastic world that began in October 1999 with the first shooting day on The Lord Of The Rings.

In the process he planted Wellington, New Zealand, firmly on the movie-making map. Today we’ve got major Hollywood blockbusters under way in the capital – and top directors like James Cameron in residence.

It got me thinking. I was introduced to The Hobbit aged 8. It’s a timeless story. I re-read it recently, before I saw the movie – and it’s still got it. My nephew, now aged 8, is a fan and just loves watching the movies. It’s a story for all ages.

A story that, truth be told, Tolkien wrote not for the world, but for his own kids. And in creating something personal, something immediate for those he knew, he created something profoundly iconic – something that speaks to people of all ages, that spans the generations. In a way, it is a product of its time; his writing is firmly 1930s in many respects. But we don’t care.

That makes me wonder. Who do writers write for –  and how far do they get when writing for a specific audience, as opposed to a general one? What counts – commercial product or author satisfaction?

I have my own thoughts on the answers, and I’m sure you do too. I’d love to hear from you – let’s talk.

Copyright © Matthew Wight 2013

Write it now, part 17: Tolkien’s lessons about writing a best seller

How do novels become not just sellers, but best sellers – and hyper-sellers?

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

Hobbit Market, November 2012. I had to lie prone to take this picture. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

Quality’s important, but not always a criteria. Seldom have I read a novel as incompetently researched and clumsily styled as The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said). I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, nor do I want to, but I’m sure somebody’ll comment about what I am told is, well, derivative dribble.

I posted the other week about how genre becomes popular because it keys into changing social ideals – and last week about how types of genre become specifically popular on the back of particular social trends.

The best-sellers are the ones who float to the top of those heaps. The thing is, they’re usually transient. But every so often a book transcends that – becomes not just a best seller, but a lasting best seller. A classic.

Something everybody has at least heard of – even if they haven’t read it – and which stays in the public mind for years – even decades.

Like The Lord Of The Rings. In just a few heady years during the late 1960s,  J R R Tolkien’s epic effectively mainstreamed fantasy. His mythos was embedded in western popular literature even before Peter Jackson’s movies (filmed in my country and my city, bwahahahaha) catapulted his creation to stratospheric popularity.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

Hobbit market, November 2012 – Tolkien, mainstreamed.

An astonishing achievement for a modest and retiring Oxford don who had to be nudged into finishing anything for a publisher.

Tolkien never planned it that way. His publishers didn’t anticipate it either. The book he presented Allen & Unwin with in the early 1950s was barely publishable – they broke it into three parts to spread the risk, and a glance at early print runs reveals it shifted only a few thousand copies.

Then, in the mid-1960s, it took off. Kicked into life by a pirated American edition, followed by Tolkien’s authorised edition. It kept on selling. And on. And on. And on….

What happened?

His themes struck chords with a new generation, particularly the idealised pre-industrial England of the Shire and the hippified, natural Earth-spirit lifestyle of Tom Bombadil. The link between Bombadil and counter-culture values was lampooned with all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer in Bored Of The Rings.

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

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

This was a generation that read a lot of fantasy, partly because fantasy had become an element of their fabric of escape. Tolkien met their need on both counts. Genre tastes, in short, had caught up, though his own motives were different in many respects (eerily, also similar – every generation found reason to object to industrialisation).

Other authors tried to imitate him. Tolkien, in short, had created a new genre, about a generation ahead of its time.

Hutt River or Anduin. Well, maybe the houses are the give-away.

Hutt River or Anduin. Well, maybe the houses are the give-away.

As if that wasn’t wonderful enough, the book gained an enduring public audience. Part of that was due to the way that 1960s youth ideals were mainstreamed. Part of it was the scope of Tolkien’s vision, engaging symbolisms at a fundamental level. And that wasn’t surprising. He was trying to write Britain’s missing mythology; he wrote to fundamental themes – capturing our cultural framework in soaring battles between total good and utter evil; the symbolisms of mythic heroism.

All was given a dimension that ordinary people could identify with, through the ordinariness of the hobbits – little folk who, inevitably, were more heroic than anybody could imagine.

A stunning achievement. And not something that can be easily repeated – certainly, I suspect, not by design.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next time: getting down to the nuts and bolts of novel writing.  More humour, more writing tips – and, well, more. Watch this space.

How J R R Tolkien changed the world

I never stop marvelling at how the mind and work of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien has flowed into everyday life around the western world. Even the lives of those who haven’t read his books or seen the Peter Jackson movie adaptations.

Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of the three 'life size' trolls. Cool.
Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of the three ‘life size’ trolls at The Hobbit premiere. Cool.

Take the word dwarf, for instance. In 1930, when Tolkien began writing The Hobbit, the plural was dwarfs. But Tolkien didn’t like it, and not just because the plural of ‘elf’ was ‘elves’. As a philologist and English scholar he knew that in Old English the word for dwarf was dweorh, pluralised as dwarrows. In old German it was twerg or dwergaz, and in Norse it was dvergr. ‘Dwarf’? Boring.

So Tolkien decided to make a more interesting plural of the English word – dwarves. He was the only one who did it. Just him. It wasn’t an easy one to get through his editors at Allen and Unwin, who kept correcting it back to ‘dwarfs’. But he managed it in the end.

And guess what – that’s how dwarf is pluralised now, always, right down to the point where my edition of Word 2010 doesn’t recognise it as a typo.

I even saw a title of a novel with the word spelt that way.

Technically it’s a neologism coined by Tolkien, but you wouldn’t think so at this juncture. And isn’t that just fantastic. This one spelling alone – now ‘correct’ and universal – shows the power writers have to work their ideas into wider society. The way writers can influence. The way imagination and creativity can spread from a single author’s ideas. And it’s all happened in the two generations since The Lord Of The Rings was published.

And that’s without considering the way his ideas have flowed into our lives in other ways – through music inspired by his motifs, through his influence on literature and fantasy writing, through the ubiquity of his work. Even, dare I say it, through the way the movies have been commercialised, opening up the vistas of Middle Earth to new generations and new audiences, mainstreaming the whole mythos in ways literature alone could not.

I am fairly sure Tolkien never intended it. People who truly change the world never do.

How has Tolkien influenced your world?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012