A JRRT Birthday Post From Grognardia

James Maliszewski

Yesterday, James Maliszewski, proprieter of the Grognardia website, as well as a Friend of the Cimmerian, wrote up a thoughtful birthday post regarding Tollers. Primarily, the entry is concerned with the influence of the appendices for The Lord of the Rings upon James’ early role-playing gaming career. It’s a worthy piece and I advise the RPG-inclined to check it out.

However, while not exactly a quibble, I think it worth mentioning that Tolkien did not in reality “box in” or over-explicate his sub-creation of Middle-earth as much as some surmise. If one excludes The Silmarillion and considers only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, then JRRT left vast areas of his world unexplored and saw fit to let many metaphysical questions remain unanswered. The only region given a thorough going-over was north-western Middle-earth and even that had large areas about which little was revealed, whether in the tales themselves or in the appendices.

In contrast, Robert E. Howard had Conan personally visit many more far-flung regions (though it appears Aragorn came close to matching the Cimmerian in his own wanderings). In Howard’s (barely) post-Hyborian Age yarn, “Marchers of Valhalla,” he had Hialmar’s Æsir war-band nearly circumnavigate the globe on foot. In addition, while no official ‘appendix,’ REH’s “The Hyborian Age” essay goes a long way towards fulfilling that function. 

Just something that occurred to me.

“…with bright-gold helmet, breastplate and ring…” (Tollers would have loved this…)

One of the most significant archaeological discoveries ever made on British soil was announced this week. The news? An amateur treasure-hunter in western Staffordshire recently discovered an Anglo-Saxon hoard of unprecedented size and richness. The location of the “Staffordshire hoard” (dated to the half-century betwixt 675 and 725AD) places it within the north-western boundaries of the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Mercia.

J.R.R. Tolkien was deeply interested in the history of Mercia. He traced his maternal (and much of his paternal) line back to that realm. Tolkien spent almost all of his childhood within the bounds of the now-vanished kingdom. He is known to have stated that he felt a sense of instant familiarity and kinship with the distinctive Mercian dialect of Old English when he first encountered it, early on in his philological studies. A good deal of The Book of Lost Tales was localized within what was Mercian territory. He even seems to have believed that Beowulf, possibly the one work of literature closest to his heart, was composed in Mercia at roughly the time that the “Staffordshire hoard” seems to have been inhumed.

Mercia itself ought to be known in some degree by anyone who is familiar with Tolkien’s legendarium. It can be seen, in a very fantasticated form (in much the same way that REH’s envisioning of medieval Ireland resembles Hyborian Age Cimmeria) in The Lord of the Rings. Namely, Rohan; or, as the Eorlingas themselves called it: the Riddermark. Riddermark. “The ‘Mark’ of the Horsemen.” The word “mark” in this instance is derived by JRRT from the Anglo-Saxon word “mearc” (the basis, ultimately, for the name, “Mercia”) which is itself sprung from an even older term for “line or boundary.” By linguistic extension, that noun in Anglo-Saxon came to mean “border” or “frontier” (though only its more common and primal sense survived into modern English). Words such as “marquis,” “Denmark” and “march” (as in the sense of a “Bossonian March”) fossilize this archaic meaning like ancient beasts in amber.


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A Voice From the Deeps of Time: Christopher Lee and The Children of Hurin

children_of_hurin_audio_bookIt was almost two years ago to the day that I first learned of the (then) forthcoming audiobook dedicated to The Children of Húrin. Despite the heads-up from Mr. Tompkins, it was only in the waning days of May 2009 that I finally acquired my own copy. Having some unforeseen time on my hands this last week, and an anniversary to commemorate, I sat back and gave a listen to Christopher Lee’s (and Christopher Tolkien’s) performance on the night of June 22, 2009.

I purchased my copy of The Children of Húrin audiobook for twenty-five dollars and received it still in its cellophane coll, pristine as driven snow. HarperCollins cut no corners with this production. The eight compact discs are sturdily packaged in an attractive box (though, agreeing with others, I find the Alan Lee rendition of Túrin to be underwhelming). Nestled snugly within the box are two CD cases, each of which contain four compact discs. Within the first case is a booklet containing a complete table of contents pertaining to all eight discs. The booklet also presents plates by Alan Lee for the print edition. The second CD case contains an excellent reproduction of Christopher Tolkien’s map of Beleriand. The covers for both cases are derived from Alan Lee’s The Children of Húrin calendar, paintings not found in the print version. All in all, a sumptuous package. (Continue reading this post)

The Long Road to Menegroth: Part Three of “The Wanderings of Hurin”

“But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill-counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.”

Morgoth’s words to Húrin, son of Galdor, upon the Haudh-en-Nirnaeth, from The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien.

In my first post about Húrin, the greatest mortal warrior of Tolkien’s First Age, I looked at his life and deeds up to his sixtieth year. In my follow-up blog, I then summarized the events laid out in the collection of texts which JRRT seems to have intended to call “The Wanderings of Húrin.” In this post, I will trace Húrin’s journey to its bitter end. Much of this is recounted in The Silmarillion, but significant bits of the tale can only be found in The War of the Jewels: The Later Silmarillion.

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‘Tol acharn!’: Part Two of “The Wanderings of Hurin”

He that sees through the eyes of Morgoth, willing or unwilling, sees all things crooked.”

From “The Wanderings of Húrin” by J.R.R. Tolkien

In my first post concerning Húrin, the mightiest mortal warrior of Middle-earth’s First Age, I looked at what befell him before he was released from his imprisonment in Angband. All of that was a prelude to the collection of writings that Tolkien entitled, “The Wanderings of Húrin,” which can be found in The War of the Jewels: The Later Silmarillion.

The tale begins in Angband, the ancient stronghold of Morgoth, wherein Húrin had been held captive for twenty-eight years, all the while being forced to witness Morgoth’s curse upon his family unfold, and always, always, viewing the events through the Dark Lord’s darkling mirror of spite and deceit. A year after the death of Túrin, son of Húrin, Morgoth deemed the time was ripe to unleash the embittered Húrin upon the world…

He feigned that in this he was moved by pity for an enemy utterly defeated, marveling at his endurance. ‘Such steadfastness,’ he said, ‘should have been shown in a better cause, and would have been otherwise rewarded. But I have no longer any use for you, Húrin, in the waning of your little life.’ And he lied, for his purpose was that Húrin should still further his malice against Elves and Men, ere he died.

396px-nasmith34 Hurin/Morgoth

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Hurin the Steadfast: Part One of “The Wanderings of Hurin”


Part Two: ‘Tôl acharn!’

Part Three: The Long Road to Menegroth

My esteemed colleague, Brian Murphy, recently reviewed The Children of Húrin, so it seemed apposite to follow that with an account of what transpired after the death of Nienor and Túrin. Both died that fateful day above Cabed Naeramarth, but their parents, Morwen and Húrin, lived on. The curse of Morgoth upon the House of Húrin had yet to come to full fruition.

The tale of Húrin’s wanderings has come down to us, primarily, in one volume, The War of the Jewels: The Later Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien. Christopher Tolkien traces the evolution of the saga from the “lost continuation” of “The Grey Annals” (an account of the First Age written by JRRT in the early 1950s) to a “substantial complex of writing” which seems to have been composed in the latter half of that decade. The title that the elder Tolkien settled upon was “The Wanderings of Húrin.” All of this “substantial complex of writing” was in service of fleshing out the stories (he did the same, or began to, for his tales of Túrin and Tuor) that Tolkien had first envisioned in the ’20s and ’30s, fresh from the horrors of the Great War.

Tolkien, after the completion of his novel, The Lord of the Rings, went back to The Silmarillion with the intention of expanding it and bringing it into closer accord with his tale of the Fall of Sauron, which was, in many ways, an addendum and afterthought to the previous work. Tolkien had always intended to see The Silmarillion published, and in fact, he had submitted it to a befuddled Unwin-Ryan immediately after the unexpected world-wide success of The Hobbit. “The Wanderings of Húrin” was to play a pivotal part in Tolkien’s projected revision and expansion of The Silmarillion.

“The Wanderings of Húrin” is not The Hobbit. One tale was written (spoken, actually) in the early ’30s by JRRT to entertain his children, Christopher Tolkien chief amongst them. The other was begun by Tolkien in the late 1950s, when he saw “double-speak” (a term Orwell didn’t invent, but should have) and an Iron Curtain, with its attendant gulags (how different were Morgoth’s “Hells of Iron,” really?), spreading their influence across his world.

I will not go into the complexities regarding the composition of “Wanderings” here, other than to say Christopher Tolkien noted that his father, fairly early in the narrative, “came to a clearer understanding” of how things stood in Brethil when Húrin the Steadfast appeared at its borders with vindication and vengeance in his mind. As events would show, the shadow of Angband hung close about him.

Knowing what sorrows and horrors befell the eldest son of Galdor in the preceding six decades might allow the unitiated to better appreciate Húrin’s mind-set. (Continue reading this post)

An Early, Albeit Pagan, Christmas in the Old North

During the weapon’s dark nativity the clangor of coerced swordsmith-toil masked the muttering of murder-curses:

Sigrlami was the name of a king who ruled over Gardaríki; his daughter was Eyfura, most beautiful of all women. This king had obtained from dwarfs the sword called Tyrfing, the keenest of all blades; every time it was drawn a light shone from it like a ray of the sun. It could never be held unsheathed without being the death of a man, and it had always to be sheathed with blood still warm upon it. There was no living thing, neither man nor beast, that could live to see another day if it were wounded by Tyrfing, whether the wound were big or little; never had it failed in a stroke or been stayed before it plunged into the earth, and the man who bore it in battle would always be victorious, if blows were struck with it. This sword is renowned in all the ancient tales.

That’s the introduction of Tyrfing in Saga Heidreks Konungs ins Vitra, The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, translated, introduced, annotated, and backstopped with appendices by none other than Christopher Tolkien back in 1960, when he was a Lecturer in Old English at Oxford’s New College. Nor is this ominous glaive’s renown limited to ancient tales; let’s join Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword already in progress, as the eyeless, dragonskin-aproned Jötun-smith Bolverk is tasked to reforge “the banes of heroes,” which has been snapped in two by Thor himself:

Bolverk’s hands fumbled over the pieces. “Aye, ” he breathed,” Well I remember this blade. Me it was whose help Dyrin and Dvalin besought, when they must make such a sword as this to ransom themselves from Svafrlami but would also have it be their revenge on him. We forged ice and death and storm into it, mighty runes and spells, a living will to harm.” He grinned. “Many warriors have owned this sword, because it brings victory. Naught is there on which it does not bite, nor does it ever grow dull of edge. Venom is in the steel, and wounds it gives cannot be healed by leechcraft or magic or prayer. Yet this is the curse on it: that every time it is drawn it must drink blood, and in the end, somehow, it will be the bane of him who wields it.”

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Lonely Mountain, Crowded Expectations; Or, Prelude as Successor

Too many of my waking hours are given over to thinking about the Hobbit films due in December of 2011 and December of 2012; no sooner is my attention directed elsewhere than the voluble and value-adding Guillermo del Toro is interviewed again and — sproing! — my thoughts ricochet back to the movies he’s about to make. After all, it won’t hurt to have something to which I can look forward after moving to a Hooverville and while shuffling along on Hoover leather (The Internet is of course rendering Hoover blankets obsolete). Admittedly my druthers would have been a movie about the wrath of Fëanor, the wanderings of Húrin, the fall of Gondolin, or the last days of Númenor. But any Silmarillion-based movie would be hobbit-free, and hobbits shift units and sell tickets. Me, I tolerate rather than love them, although I would never go as far as Michael Moorcock, who quipped of Sauron, “Anyone who hates hobbits can’t be all bad,” or the younger Charles Saunders, who once expressed (he has since mellowed) a profound relief that there were no black hobbits. Admiration and affection for Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin I have aplenty; I just don’t love hobbits qua hobbits. But many do; adoption agencies that offered hobbit orphans would be forced to hire extra security for crowd control.

In his magisterial two-volume The History of the Hobbit John D. Rateliff backhands “critics who would prefer The Hobbit to conform to and resemble its sequel in every possible detail.” Guilty as charged; I try and mostly succeed in cherishing the book for its own self, and almost fainted when, in the dealers’ room at the 2006 World Fantasy Convention in Austin, I came face to face with a first edition 1937 Hobbit. But reading-sequence is destiny, and I first read the “enchanting prelude” in the spring of 1971, a few weeks after hurtling through The Lord of the Rings. As a result, what really got my pulse pounding like hammers in dwarven smithies were what Tolkien, looking back from the vantage point of LOTR‘s Second Edition, described as “references to the older matter: Elrond, Gondolin, the High-elves, and the orcs, and glimpses that had arisen, unbidden, of things higher or deeper or darker than [The Hobbit‘s] surface: Durin, Moria, Gandalf, the Necromancer, the Ring.” Although not immune to the beguilingly unique properties of The Hobbit, I responded the most to premonitions and foreshadowings of the later work, the design features of the Eohippus from which the later Arabian stallion could be extrapolated. So for me “higher or deeper or darker” is the way to go in the impending movies, because so many millions of filmgoers will plant themselves in multiplex seats as vividly aware of the previously-viewed-even-if-chronologically-“later” Peter Jackson films as I was of the previously-read-although-chronologically-“later” LOTR back in 1971. Some of the posts at Tolkien-oriented and other genre sites reflect apprehension that Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson will “spectacularize” or “bombastify” the source material, inflate a children’s classic into a swollen epic, and such protectiveness is laudable, but barring an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style memory-scrub, the audience can’t be made to unsee The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Ergo higher, deeper, darker.

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Long Ago, Far Away, and So Much Better Than It Is Today?

I think it’s fair to say that during 2007 we here at TC‘s Centcom were both anniversary-minded and Tolkien-minded, but fell down on the job when it came to being Tolkien anniversary-minded. In other words, we celebrated the diamond jubilee of “The Phoenix on the Sword” and the miracle of filial piety that saw The Children of Húrin into bestselling print as a near-novelistic standalone, but we spaced on the 30th anniversary of The Silmarillion, that gateway to the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth. Unfinished (but unbeatable) tales, false starts better than the true finishes of most fantasists, and all the priceless detritus of what Tom Shippey termed “intense and brooding systematization” would follow, but the 1977 book came first — as it also did, in its earliest form of The Book of Lost Tales, in Tolkien’s creative life.

The Simarillion‘s thirty years at large in the world have played out as something of a Thirty Years War. Ted Nasmith’s painted realizations of Silm.-scenes are far more vivid than the poor-visibility-or-soft-focus efforts of certain mistier Tolkien illustrators, but he was fairly mild-mannered when he described the work as “magnificent but underappreciated.” It occasionally seems to me that Mein Kampf hasn’t been reviewed as vitriolically and vindictively as The Silmarillion. Much-purchased upon publication but anecdotally little-read, dismayingly “like the Old Testament,” “as boring as the endless legalistic pedantries of Leviticus,” “a telephone directory in Elvish,” or “a stone soup of the most mouth-mangling names ever seen in print.” One worthy speculated that someone capable of reading The Iliad “for pleasure” might just about be able to enjoy The Silmarillion — his disbelief that any such freak existed, or should be permitted to exist, was so tangible it might as well have been in Braille. The Time reviewer back in October of 1977 bemoaned the absence of “a single, unifying quest” and “a band of brothers for the reader to identify with.” As it happens The Silmarillion‘s central narrative does indeed feature a single unifying quest, and it’s the stuff of nightmares, the nightmares endured and perpetrated by a band of literal brothers hagridden by an overbold oath sworn in haste and repented at sorrowful leisure.

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An Example for Howard Fandom


I recently ordered the magisterial collection The History of the Hobbit, a three-volume set available in slipcase. Those of us who treasure Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle Earth in twelve books have always lamented that, for various reasons, he failed to publish the same substantial analysis of The Hobbit that he undertook for The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, and most of Tolkien’s other writings. Author John D. Rateliff has now rectified that oversight in spades.

Rateliff spent well over a decade analyzing the manuscripts for The Hobbit in a fashion that anyone familiar with Christopher Tolkien’s work will appreciate: sifting through drafts, dating manuscripts and typescripts, undoing many of the mistakes of earlier scholars, and offering a bewitching look into the creation of a modern classic. The set contains a great copy of the novel, complete with Tolkien’s original drawings, maps and color illustrations reproduced as plates on glossy paper stock, a pleasantly large font suitable for reading, and of course the latest corrected text. Two accompanying volumes, titled Mr. Baggins and Return to Bag-End, comprise Rateliff’s meticulous research, featuring not only a mountain of notes and other scholarship but Tolkien’s entire story in draft form, which gives us all sorts of strange and wonderful glimpses into a Hobbit that never was. When you get through the introduction and find out that Thorin began as a dwarf named Gandalf, it’s clear that you’ve dropped down a particularly beguiling rabbit (hobbit?) hole.

There is much here to inspire Howard fans. Might not our field someday get a History of the Hyborian Age, that charts the creation of REH’s body of fantasy work, reprints all the drafts, offers extensive commentary and notes, and contains an encyclopedia (or “glossography,” as Gary Gygax referred to the material underlying his Greyhawk campaign world) of all the people and places that make up the legendarium? Some of the work has been done, appearing in various journals and editions, but much remains for the enterprising scholar. I’ve always wished I had time to collate a Complete Guide to Hyboria the way Tolkien fans have Robert Foster’s Complete Guide to Middle-Earth. It’s volumes like these that go a long way towards captivating fans, and if one was written for REH I’m guessing it would vastly increase the respect for his world-building achievement.

Coming up in the October issue of TC (almost ready to ship) is a great letter from Steve Tompkins that speculates on various aspects of Aquilonian realpolitik, and reading that offers a small taste of the unexplored depths of Howard’s creation, namely how much realistic complexity those four years of brilliant story-writing generated. The usual know-nothings often assume that Howard gave little thought to realism and consistency — not true, as Tompkins amply shows in his letter. One of the most startling revelations Rateliff makes is that, far from Tolkien slowly composing his children’s story in languorous stretches of cautious composition, the manuscripts show that in all likelihood The Hobbit was written at white heat during vacation breaks from his teaching duties. This directly contradicts most of the favored images of Tolkien burning the midnight oil for leisurely years on end, and indeed sounds much more like the writing habits of a pulpster like REH than some would care to admit.

I have only begun exploring this spectacular effort on behalf of Tolkien scholarship, but already it has generated all sorts of thoughts about how REH scholarship could benefit from applying this Tolkienian example to our bailiwick.