Following Tolkien's Footsteps
Tehanu's First Note
ecently I was leafing through a book about Tolkiens artwork, which was
pretty interesting, and if I could remember the name of it Id tell you. He was no mean
draughtsman. What struck me most, though, was one little sketch of a sign or sigil, something
like the seal that Beren might have used, perhaps. This kind of thing:
Not that the drawing itself was so interesting, but I noticed the way it and
others like it were done on the backs of envelopes, the blank corners of newspapers. I had a
sudden image of Tolkien dawdling over breakfast or listening to somebody dull on one of those
old bakelite telephones; reaching for a pencil
Almost unconsciously he starts to draw on
the nearest thing to hand. His mind never stops working, and before the end of the converstation
he has formulated a set of rules about the design of seals in Middle Earth, male and female,
lowborn and highborn.
I imagined him spending decades of his life where every idle moment he had,
he dropped with unconscious ease back into his imaginary world, playing with ideas and stitching
them together into a vast structure. It could take no less to create something like The
Lord of the Rings.
Every time I walk into the library it looks like the SF&Fantasy
collection is outgrowing its shelf-space faster than the system can cope; thousands of people are
out there trying to create fantasy worlds and most of their books have written on the back
a worthy successor to Tolkien," or words to that effect. Hmm. I think
unless somebody is willing to spend decades of their life totally obsessed with their imaginary
world, theyre unlikely to even get the depth of field for a book like The Lord of the
Rings, let alone the sense of mythology Tolkien had.
We must be just dying for a bit of fantasy in our lives at the moment. Besides
the burgeoning trade in SF and fantasy books, (which stand proudly displayed in the same New
Releases stand in the bookstore as mainstream literature, have you noticed lately? They used
to skulk out the back in their own ghetto) it only takes a look at the local cinema to make you
aware of the same thing. Here this randomly selected week: Films about aliens at your local high
school, futuristic alien machines in your computer, your favourite Martians, aliens and people
coming soon from a galaxy far, far away. I wonder why?
Were living for the first time in a world where we know too much to be
able to send our imaginations to Darkest Africa (or the Bermuda Triangle, or in Shakespeares
case, Verona) and call it a long trip. Nothing on this earth is mysterious in that sense any more,
so we invent new worlds.
I wanted to go and find what sources Tolkien was drawing from when he started
creating his new world.
Operating on the usual random search method, I found a copy of
Njals Saga, thinking that Medieval Icelandic sagas were something Tolkien would
have been familiar with.
Somebody from Iceland please write in and defend your national literature,
because Njal was dull,dull dull! How can anyone write a story with hundreds of
characters all called Thord, and the main characters die about two-thirds of the way
through? Every few chapters, somebody gets killed in the following manner:
"Thjostolf raised his axe a second time and drove it into Thorvalds
head, killing him instantly," and variations of thereof. Sometimes you get more detail about
collarbones shattering, legs being severed, and blood gushing into lungs. I rather preferred lines
"He snatched up a spear and hurled it at Hruts ship. The man who
was in its way fell dead." Deadly understatement.
Then every summer everybody meets up at the Law Rock on the Rangriver Plains
to take part in tortuously detailed lawsuits about the previous years killings. Theres
no resemblance to Tolkien and and unfortunately no resemblance to John Grisham either. Yawn.
No monsters, except one that was reported by Thorkel Braggart which doesnt enter the story,
There were instances of battle panache that reminded me of the way
Legolas and Gimli talk at times like in the battle of Helms Deep. In Njals Saga,
Thorgrim the Easterner climbs up onto the roof of Gunnars house, which he is beseiging.
Gunnar strikes him with his halberd through the window. Thorgrim drops his shield, slips, and falls
off the roof. He strides over to where the other beseigers are sitting.
"Is Gunnar at home?" one of them asks.
"Thats for you to find out," replied Thorgrim. "But I know
that his halberd certainly is." And with that he fell dead.
Coolness was important back then, I guess. Heroic coolness. It has a certain
flavour of Middle Earth about it.
Next week Ill ramble on about Beowulf, which is a lot more
Feel free to challenge, inform, argue and criticize anything Ive
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