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Me and Sylvia (April 4, 2002)

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The very idea of the (definitive) translation is misguided, Borges tells us; there are only drafts, approximations.

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Friday, March 13th, 2009

The Hobbit

My memory of reading The Hobbit (which happened about 30 years ago) has always been a very positive one, of being into the book in a pre-analytical way and just loving it, and I was always scared to pick it up to reread for fear that quality of the experience would be gone. I am happy to report (a few chapters in) that the quality is not only present but is augmented by seeing the page with a little more experienced (hopefully wiser but certainly more familiar with the world) eye.

Don't miss Tove Jansson's illustrations for a Swedish edition of The Hobbit. (And it just occurs to me, oh yeah! Hobbits and Moomins have certain distinct similarities! Also Hobbits and Hemulens.)

posted evening of March 13th, 2009: Respond
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Sunday, March 15th, 2009

Tolkien's voice

How I come to be reading The Hobbit now: Sylvia and I are pretty close to finishing up The Amber Spyglass now; I was casting about for what book to read next and realized that His Dark Materials is reminding me in some key ways of Tolkien's trilogy. That made me think about how much I had loved The Hobbit as a kid -- if memory serves I loved it much more deeply than the trilogy, it seems like I read The Lord of the Rings less whole-heartedly, with an eye mostly toward keeping up with my D&D-enthusiast friends... Anways -- so I asked Sylvia if she would like to read this next, she said she would (unsurprising -- she's really getting into fantasy novels nowadays), and I thought I would look through it beforehand.

And I'm falling in love all over again. I had forgotten how attractively witty and cultured Tolkien's narrative voice is -- it reminds me a lot of Grahame's voice in The Wind in the Willows. I wonder if this is true of the trilogy as well -- I expect it is, and suddenly I'm looking forward to rereading those books, and thinking I might get a lot more out of them than I did back in my childhood.

posted morning of March 15th, 2009: 4 responses
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Saturday, March 28th, 2009

Tom Bombadil

I stayed up late last night reading The Fellowship of the Ring; it is starting to really come together for me. In the first several chapters I was feeling a little annoyed at the pace -- granted this is a three-volume, 1500-page story that is being set up, so it is only reasonable that Tolkien spend some time setting it up... Around Chapter VII ("In the House of Tom Bombadil") is where the story really begins to pick up and feel interesting to me. For one thing I just love the characters Tom and his wife Goldberry -- "characters" might not be the right word here, they are just quick sketches meant to move the story along; but they are lovingly drawn and engaging.

I see a potential criticism of this book, of the early part at least, that Frodo and his friends are just moving along from one deus ex machina to the next. Compare Frodo and company getting lost in the Barrow Downs, with Bilbo and the dwarfs getting lost in Mirkwood. The two sequences are built up similarly: the characters follow illusions into the wilderness and are separated and black out, then the main character awakens and finds his companions hostage. In The Hobbit, Bilbo rescued the dwarfs by calling on an inner reserve of strength which we did not know he had, fighting off the spiders with his dagger; in Fellowship, Frodo rescues his companions by invoking the song of Tom Bombadil -- Tom comes and destroys the barrow-wight without breaking a sweat. This avoids being lame by virtue of Tom being such a fun presence -- I was happy enough to see him back in the story for a bit longer, I didn't bother about the ease with which they busted out. And of course this is taking place much earlier in the story, than the Mirkwood episode in The Hobbit.

posted morning of March 28th, 2009: 2 responses
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Monday, March 30th, 2009

There and Back Again

Two things about The Hobbit, which I started reading aloud with Sylvia last night: It is a whole lot of fun to read aloud, with opportunities for doing new voices at every turn; and it seems like it will be kind of fun to be reading in parallel with The Fellowship of the Ring.

I'm just at the point in Fellowship, where the party is leaving Rivendell; in a lot of ways this seems like the real beginning of the story, with the first half of the book having been a prologue. I'm interested in Frodo, Sam, and Strider; none of the other travellers has really got my attention yet. (Besides Gandalf of course; but he distinctly does not strike me as a real character, as a human.) Pippin and Merry both have had moments but they are generally in the background so far.

posted evening of March 30th, 2009: 4 responses
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Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Writing a world

As I've been reading His Dark Materials over the last few months, I've been trying to figure out how to tie it together with The Chronicles of Narnia. And now that I'm reading The Lord of the Rings, well... I can see some pretty distinct similarities to the other two series here as well. This post is for thinking about what parallels exist between the three series, and how they are different.

I think in each case, the author is working on three projects simultaneously. Primarily there is the story to be told -- in the case of LOTR and HDM the story is of a few central characters engaged in a quest; in Narnia it is much looser and less directed. But this is what's in front: you get to know and sympathize with some characters, take an interest in what's happening to them. The author's second task is the construction of a world (or in the case of HDM, a number of parallel worlds) to serve as the setting for the story. All three authors take this quite seriously, and all do it well -- though I am tempted to say Lewis' world-building is not on as high a level as Pullman's or Tolkien's, getting involved in the fictional universe is a core part of the experience of reading any of these series. One key difference is that Lewis and Tolkien rely on folklore and myth to build their worlds, where Pullman is trying to express the world (primarily) of Christian myth without relying on superstition. Pullman's is a hugely more ambitions project here, and this bit of it is not always successful. (The portion of HDM that in retrospect I found the most affecting, the descent into the world of the dead, was also the portion where the least attention was paid to science and the most use made of mythology.)

Undergirding all this is an ideological project, what I'm thinking of as an ontological narrative. Lewis is interested in retelling the story of Christian theology -- I have not studied the books closely enough to be more specific than that, there is a lot of writing on the subject out there though. Pullman (whose work can be seen as an answer to Lewis) is interested in creating a world without God, reframing the story of Christian theology into a grasping for power by forces of ignorance. (He does a magnificent job of it, though I was mainly taken with the primary story in HDM, the story of Lyra and Will's quest.) I haven't read enough of Tolkien yet to understand what his ontological narrative is; and it may be that in LOTR the main thing is really the world-building project.

posted evening of March 31st, 2009: Respond
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Gandalf

So here is the nice thing about being a kid -- you don't have to know that Gandalf is "not human" (as I said in comments below -- he seems to me to be without any kind of flaw that would make him human, reachable); so when Sylvia heard him talking with Thorin at the end of Chapter 2, saying that he had been warned about the trolls by elves he met on the road and had come back to make sure the dwarves were not in any danger, the first thing she thought was, "I bet he's just saying that, trying to take all the credit." Now internally I think, well, that doesn't make sense -- Gandalf's character is not that of a seeker after undeserved credit, plus what he's saying matches up with the plot of the rest of the book -- but I love Sylvia for giving me a different window on Gandalf's character, reminding me that I should be suspicious of his motives as much as those of anyone else in the book.

posted evening of March 31st, 2009: 7 responses

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

What do Hobbits look like?

In tonight's reading (Bilbo and company are captured by, escape from, and are recaptured by the goblins who live under the Misty Mountains), Sylvia happened on the question of how tall are Hobbits -- I know Tolkien lays out somewhere in this book their approximate dimensions, but I've forgotten what they are now -- my rule of thumb has been thinking that dwarves are about Sylvia's height, hobbits about a foot shorter. Sylvia hazarded some guesses and I told her what I thought.

Toward the end of the reading, as we were hearing about how Bilbo was better off making his way through the goblins' cave than someone like you or I would be, because hobbits are used to tunneling, when Sylvia asserted that hobbits should look like rabbits. --"But I think they are shaped more like people, just shorter." --"But it's ugly if they look like people. I think they look like rabbits." Hm, well, interesting... and shows that she hasn't got exposed to the cartoon image of Bilbo that is fixed in my head. So we finished the reading, and as I was saying goodnight I asked her what about dwarves, do they look like people or like rabbits? -- And got in response a long, elaborate description of a cartoon dwarf à la Snow White. I'm finding this kind of funny -- a word gets fixed in our heads with the cartoon we watch describing it.

Update: This is kind of funny -- the eagle that carries Bilbo from the ærie to the Carrock, also says he thinks the hobbit looks like a rabbit.

"Don't pinch!" said his eagle, "You need not be frightened like a rabbit, even if you rather look like one. It is a fair morning with little wind. What is finer than flying?"

posted evening of April 5th, 2009: 3 responses

Monday, April 6th, 2009

The Mirror of Galadriel

In this chapter there are two passages that strike me as very cinematic -- I can see them playing out animated on the screen. (Granted Tolkien was writing before the advent of anime, so he probably did not have that style in mind; but I think it is suited very well to his words.)

She lifted up her hand and from the ring she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

This is just great. I can see her holding the ring up, it shining down on her, her transformation into something fearful -- it could be lifted right out of Howl's Moving Castle.

Then there was a pause, and many swift scenes followed that Frodo in some way knew to be parts of a great history in which he had become involved. The mist cleared and he saw a sight which he had never seen before but knew at once: the sea. Darkness fell. The sea rose and raged in a great storm. Then he saw against the Sun, sinking blood-red into a wrack of clouds, the black outline of a tall ship with torn sails riding up out of the West. Then a wide river flowing through a populous city. Then a white fortress with seven towers. And then again a ship with black sails, but now it was morning again, and water rippled with the light, and a banner bearing the emblem of a white tree shown in the sun. A smoke as of a fire and a battle arose, and again the sun went down in a burning red that faded into a grey mist; and into the mist a grey ship passed away, twinkling with lights. It vanished, and Frodo sighed and prepared to draw away.

I'm not as crazy about this. I think it could work really well on screen; but in the text something seems wrong with it. Those images are flashing by quickly, my gut reaction is that Frodo cannot be processing them as quickly as the narrator is telling us, and it makes it seem like a cheat. In the movie you would see all those images but you would not be able to narrate them in real-time like this -- you would have to assemble the narrative after the images had passed -- which is what I think Frodo would need to do, and by serving it up to us like this the narrator is taking us away from the story. Not sure this makes any sense, I'm trying to convey my impression here.

Magic and prophesy are another element that LOTR has in common with Narnia and His Dark Materials -- maybe I did not mention this last time because it seemed obvious, magic and prophesy are sort of defining features of the fantasy genre -- but I think it would be worth a post at some point examining how magic and prophesy in the story, and the characters' response to them, affect my reading experience. I don't read very much fantasy, so I am noticing this part of the reading as something unusual.

posted evening of April 6th, 2009: 3 responses

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Weaknesses in Amber Spyglass

Michael Bérubé has a long post today about His Dark Materials and a few other things (thanks for pointing it out, Levi) -- it is a bit dense but as near as I can tell, he means to defend The Amber Spyglass against critics who think it is the weakest book in the series because it is too preachy, and simultaneously to point out a weakness in the series -- that it is written on too grand a scale -- and to talk about some other fantasy series, like LOTR and C.S. Lewis' science fiction books, in this context.

I'm grateful to Dr. Bérubé for what he says about the world of the dead scene in The Amber Spyglass -- I had been having some cognitive dissonance over the last few weeks from failing to acknowledge the lameness of the Lyra's-hair bomb plot device. I had gotten up on a horse about the great beauty of the descent into the world of the dead, but was having trouble riding it. That said I don't think the idea that the harpies want to hear true stories of the world of the living is as bad as Bérubé does; I kind of like it, and I didn't attach a huge amount of importance to its role in the plot as I was reading.

I'm tentatively working on a response to people who complain about the preachiness of His Dark Materials, and which I think would also work as a response to Bérubé's complaint about Tolkien's stilted language -- making the argument against the church seems to be a huge part of Pullman's goal in writing these books. I did not (generally) find that the pedantry detracted from the story; but he is not only telling a story. Saying that the pedantry detracts from the story is like, well, like saying that Tolkien's archæic usages detract from his story -- I think Tolkien is at least as interested in creating a world where these usages will work, as he is in telling a story about a hobbit's quest. But this needs a fair amount of work before it will actually be an argument of any sort.

Some great discussion in the comments thread over there as well -- particularly from Kathleen, Alan Jacobs, Rich Puchalsky. I'm reluctant to enter into it myself because I like the books so much -- the tone of the comment thread seems to be focusing on the faults of the books, if I join the discussion mooning about how great the trilogy is, I am just going to look silly and thoughtless -- and yet I find my response to the criticisms is mostly just along the lines of "yeah that's true, but still it is a wonderful read..."

posted evening of April 8th, 2009: Respond
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Saturday, April 18th, 2009

Frodo and Sam and Sméagol

I am finding book IV of The Lord of the Rings, the story (so far) of Frodo, Sam and Sméagol journeying towards Mordor, to be the most compelling reading of the first two volumes. I'm really tuned in to each of the three characters and sensitive to what's happening with them. In most of the rest of the book I have been liking it more as a visual experience -- a painting of words -- than as a story. I am very much in awe of Tolkien's ability to create a world, even if the story is not always making it for me -- this is making me feel good about the idea of reading the Silmarillion next, which I understand to be mostly world-creation rather than story.

I found this dialogue between Frodo and Faramir (at the end of Chapter 6) very moving -- suddenly this style of writing dialogue, which has been seeming very stilted to me, is making sense:

‘...Do not approach their citadel. ...It is a place of sleepless malice, full of lidless eyes. Do not go that way!’

"But where else will you direct me?" said Frodo. "You cannot yourself, you say, guide me to the mountains, nor over them. But over the mountains I am bound, by solemn undertaking to the Council to find a way or perish in the seeking. And if I turn back, refusing the road in its bitter end, where then shall I go among Elves or Men? Would you have me come to Gondor with this Thing, the Thing that drove your brother mad with desire? What spell would it work in Minas Tirith? Shall there be two cities of Minas Morgul, grinning at each other across a dead land filled with rottenness?"

"I would not have it so," said Faramir.

"Then what would you have me do?"

"I know not. Only I would not have you go to death or to torment. And I do not think that Mithrandir would have chosen this way."

"Yet since he is gone, I must take such paths as I can find. And there is no time for long searching."

Some bits of the language in the book are coming back to me from my previous reading of it. I seem to remember that when I read Chapter 9 of book III, "Flotsam and Jetsam", that was the first time I had ever seen those terms, and I looked them up in the dictionary and endeavored to throw them into conversation for the next little while. (If memory serves the distinction is that flotsam is wreckage floating away from the wrecked ship, where jetsam is wreckage that was jettisoned from the ship prior to its sinking.) I remember the name "Morgul" but thought somehow it was the name of an evil character or species, not part of an evil city's name... Either way it is certainly a bad-sounding handle.

posted evening of April 18th, 2009: 1 response

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