Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien

The cover of the 1973 hardback edition

The cover of the 1973 hardback edition

The Lord of the Rings – where do I start? It turns out to be a rather large subject, and is probably the book that has had the greatest single impact on my reading habits. It has not been an obsession, but my interest in the book has been very long, from 1958 to the present day.

(By the way, all the images in this post come from Tolkien books I actually own. And I find that I own rather a lot of them.)

Perhaps the verse that epitomises the theme of the whole saga is appropriate here. I am not an admirer of Tolkien’s verse, but this piece of doggerel actually works very well in context and underpins the purpose of the quest.

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all. One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

I remember when I became aware of Lord of the Rings as a complete work. I was still at school, but moonlighting at the Little Theatre in Edinburgh as assistant props, offstage chorus member, and occasional scene shifter. You probably get the picture of a chaotic theatre company, and you would be correct. The production was a musical Cinderella – The Slipper and the Rose. I mention all this only because it is totally ingrained as a part of my memory of the book. One of my fellow thespian dogsbodies spent every spare moment reading his father’s copy of Lord of the Rings, and was obviously enrapt by it. The year would be 1957, and, at that time, it was a very niche read. It was first published in 1954-55. On my friend’s recommendation, I applied to Morningside library for it; there was no way I could afford the three volumes – only available in hardback. As an aside, I mention that my usual book haunt was Bobby’s Bookshop in Morrison Street, which bought paperbacks for next to nothing and resold them for a shilling (5p), or less, if damaged. I still own a few Bobby’s purchases, but most were sold back to Bobby’s to fund new buys.

Anyway, I read The Fellowship of the Ring with a growing enthusiasm. Even on first reading, I had little time for Tom Bombadil – the spirit of the woods, or whatever he was – and that has not altered with time. I gather that quite a bit of the poetry in Lord of the Rings was written by Tolkien long before the book was even thought of, and that he seized the opportunity to include the verses in his saga. Bombadil was one such opportunity. I also found Merry and Pippin a bit of a pain.


A portion of the pull-out map of Middle Earth

However, I was suitable cheered by Gandalf and Strider and chilled by the Nasgûl, excellent royal zombies that they were. By the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, I had real interest in the developing drama of the Ring Bearer and his cohorts. The action to come, hinted by the elaborate pull-out maps was also very encouraging.

The Two Towers contained lots of action. The book was broadening from a simple quest into an interesting Middle Earth-wide war, and changing from the Frodo-centric narrative to multiple threads. But I was conscious, all the time, that the story couldn’t end here, so I read on in haste, frequently confusing Rohan with Gondor, and becoming a little impatient with the plodding pace of Frodo and Sam.

On to The Return of the King, a thoroughly satisfactory conclusion, as expected, let’s face it. But what really transformed Lord of the Rings from an entertainment to a classic were the huge appendices (incomprehensibly omitted from some editions), covering everything from notes on racial types through imagined history to spoken and written language. Such detailed background really enthralled me.

farmerI should make it clear that other background texts – Farmer Giles of Ham and The Silmarillion, for example, left me cold.

All in all, Lord of the Rings is a brilliant piece of work, and set a standard that has since been copied, often all too slavishly, so that Lord of the Rings begins to look hackneyed, despite the fact that it pre-dates all the pulp fantasy with which we are inundated these days.

The narrative of the books is mostly straightforward tale-telling, with very little of the artificial gravitas that often infests works of high fantasy.

For example, from The Fellowship of the Ring:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.
‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’

From time to time, songs and poems make an appearance, an unwelcome appearance, in my opinion. On the other hand, there are also inspirational passages and verbal fanfares of great majesty.

From The Return of the King:

‘We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless —as we surely shall, if we sit here—and know as we die that no new age shall be.’

From The Two Towers:

The sky now was quickly clearing and the sinking moon was shining brightly. But the light brought little hope to the Riders of the Mark. The enemy before them seemed to have grown rather than diminished, and still more were pressing up from the valley through the breach. The sortie upon the Rock gained only a brief respite. The assault on the gates was redoubled. Against the Deeping Wall the hosts of Isengard roared like a sea. Orcs and hillmen swarmed about its feet from end to end. Ropes with grappling hooks were hurled over the parapet faster than men could cut them or fling them back. Hundreds of long ladders were lifted up. Many were cast down in ruin, but many more replaced them, and Orcs sprang up them like apes in the dark forests of the South. Before the wall’s foot the dead and broken were piled like shingle in a storm; ever higher rose the hideous mounds, and still the enemy came on.
The men of Rohan grew weary. All their arrows were spent, and every shaft was shot; their swords were notched, and their shields were riven. Three times Aragorn and Eomer rallied them, and three times Anduril flamed in a desperate charge that drove the enemy from the wall.

I have indicated earlier my enthusiasm for the appendices, but they have to be read to be fully appreciated. They comprise fully imagined history, geography, anthropology, multiple languages and scripts.


Text from the appendices

Such was my enthusiasm, that when I started to work in the adult world, for pay, I bought the 1964 hardbacks, at some sacrifice, since I wasn’t earning a great deal. Within six months I had lent them to someone I trusted, but never saw them again. This was a traumatic experience.


This price for the hardback looks reasonable now, but at the time, it was twenty times the price of a typical paperback.

Subsequently, I replaced the lost 1964 editions with the 1973, and was later given the onion-skin boxed editions of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by my excellent wife. The de luxe Lord of the Rings manages to compress all three volumes of the trilogy with appendices and fold-out maps into an octavo (approx. 9″ x 6″) just an inch thick. The deluxe edition of The Hobbit is illustrated.


The deluxe editions of Lord of the Rings (left) and The Hobbit (right)


Rivendell - an illustration from The Hobbit

I also bought a paperback Lord of the Rings as a working copy.


The paperback edition 1995

In addition, I have a Tolkien Bestiary and a Calendar.


And… the book of the first Lord of the Rings movie, a modest but well-imagined animated version, the first part of which was released, with the promise of a second instalment that never appeared. I always felt the Gollum character was beautifully animated, and it bears a resemblance to Andy Serkis’s version in the Jackson movie.

For my part, in 1989, I designed a play for marionettes, based on The Hobbit, including set and puppet designs and costumes (never performed).

Then in 1998, I built a website which was an illustrated travel book of Middle Earth, in the style of Three in Norway by Two of Them, about which more in another blog entry.

So you can see that the ouevre really took a hold of me. I am mostly over it now, partly because the Jackson movies were so good, closely resembled my inner visualisation of the book, and eliminated much of the padding while tightening the plot. Although the plot was very slightly changed in the Jackson’s movies, it was forgiveable, in my opinion.

Some of the reputation of the book has suffered because RPGs and Tolkien fan sites have spewed a great rash of puerility, bad fanfic, cloyingly sickly artwork and much alien calligraphy, Elvishness, Orcishness and Dwarvishness upon the still-breathing corpse of Tolkien’s trilogy. Every adolescent, for a while, was sporting a Tolkien avatar.

Lord of the Rings has probably inspired more writers, plagiarists, artists, detractors, satirists, textual analysts and musicians, myself included, good and bad, than any other works except The Bible and Shakespeare, and, for that reason, it stands as a great monument of English literature. And it’s much more readable than most such monuments.

Tolkien’s area of study was philology, and the appendices demonstrate his interest in language. Much has been made of the symbolic or allegorical nature of Lord of the Rings. For example, that it is religious in intent, following a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress as Frodo overcomes this and that obstacle and the temptation of power in the ring; or that it represents the Great War, or the Allied defeat of Hitler’s Nazis; or that it is a Freudian journey through various mental complexes. In reading it, I detected none of that. To an extent it is derivative of the European/Teutonic/Nordic myth, folklore and fantasy canon. How could it not be, with its dwarves and elves and wizards and trolls and goblins? It is known that Tolkien first conceived Lord of the Rings as a follow-up to his successful children’s book, The Hobbit, until the plot took over and the book became an epic trilogy, and I prefer to think of it in that light. Certainly, it can stand on its own merits, with or without the scholarly appendices, and with or without hidden significance. Tolkien himself always denied any allegorical content, though his experiences in the Great War and his Catholicism might have exerted some influence on the tale.


A manuscript page reproduced in Christopher Tolkien's document describing the development of The Lord of the Rings

Even I, a fairly dedicated fan of The Lord of the Rings, never found it necessary to study in detail what are, I believe, known as “J R R Tolkien’s Laundry Lists” – a painstaking assembly and disembowelment of Tolkien’s draft manuscripts, illustrated notes and experimental maps – compiled by his son, Christopher, though I own two volumes of the twelve-volume work. In truth, I think I think I am content with the published books. It is often rather dispiriting to delve too deeply into the origins of a work you admire.

In conclusion, I would commend Lord of the Rings to readers of any age. At the very least, it is a great fairy story, a narrative tour de force, an imaginative prodigy and a cornerstone of modern fantasy. And some of us read it at an early age and treasure the experience for the rest of our lives.

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Neuromancer – William Gibson

neuro I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Neuromancer to any serious reader, whether he was a science fiction fan or not.

Neuromancer, William Gibson’s first full-length novel, written in 1983, rightly occupies an important place in Science Fiction.

It forms a loose trilogy with Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, and the three books are often called “The Sprawl Trilogy”. It is the work which started the so-called Cyberpunk movement, though Gibson himself never uses the expression, and has moved on to more conventional writing. Many writers have mimicked Gibson’s style without the same success. Rather than attempting to define Cyberpunk, let me enumerate the main components of Neuromancer:

  • The main protagonist, Case, is what we would now call a hacker. He is also a criminal, having stolen from his employers and killed a number of fellow criminals. He is no stranger to drugs.
  • Case’s partner, Molly, is a professional strong-arm woman with artificial implants to enhance her deadly capabilities.
  • Cyberspace (Gibson’s invention) is a sort of virtual reality version of the worldwide web. Gibson anticipates the web by about a decade. It is the medium in which Case’s work is performed.
  • Body implants are commonplace in the world of Neuromancer. Implants range from organs to hardware, computing devices and weapons.
  • Inhabited satellites circle the Earth.
  • Computers with considerable Artificial Intelligence exist, kept under control by the “Turing Police”.
  • EEG-type devices permit emotions and experiences to be recorded, mass-reproduced and sold as recordings.
  • Exotic weapons abound.
  • An expert system, based on an actual person, living or dead, can be encapsulated on a ROM and used as though the person were actually present.
  • The action takes place in Japan, in Istanbul and in orbit.

Neuromancer is set in a worn and grubby future like the movies Bladerunner and Alien. The themes and atmosphere of the Matrix movies are sometimes said to be inspired by Neuromancer, but I don’t see it myself. However, I do often spot two-dimensional shadows of Neuromancer’s influence leaking into other science fiction, especially cyberpunk. Violence is also an important feature of Neuromancer, a feature that becomes less prominent in Gibson’s subsequent work. The plot is played out as a single third person account from the point of view of Case. Most of Gibson’s later books, including the other two novels in the trilogy, are told from multiple points of view. The plot is nevertheless complex. There are a number of memorable characters in it, notably Dixie Flatline, who is not actually present, and Finn – the ultimate gomi collector and professional nerd.

Of course, science fiction often flourishes only by virtue of cool ideas, and Neuromancer is not short of these. But that is not the whole story. The language is also spell-binding. For example:

He’d found her, one rainy night, in an arcade.
Under bright ghosts burning through a blue haze of cigarette smoke,
holograms of Wizard’s Castle, Tank War Europa, the New York skyline….
And now he remembered her that way, her face bathed in restless laser
light, features reduced to a code: her cheekbones flaring scarlet as
Wizard’s Castle burned, forehead drenched with azure when Munich fell
to the Tank War, mouth touched with hot gold as a gliding cursor struck
sparks from the wall of a skyscraper canyon. He was riding high that
night, with a brick of Wage’s ketamine on its way to Yokohama and the
money already in his pocket. He’d come in out of the warm rain that
sizzled across the Ninsei pavement and somehow she’d been singled out
for him, one face out of the dozens who stood at the consoles, lost in
the game she played. The expression on her face, then, had been the one
he’d seen, hours later, on her sleeping face in a port side [hotel room], her
upper lip like the line children draw to represent a bird in flight.

Gibson’s style has been called ‘verb-light’, but that may be because he is ‘description-heavy’. There are characteristic rhythms and repetitions in his descriptions which render his prose so very recognisable.

The antique arm whined as he reached for another mug. It
was a Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback
manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic.

a flat lozenge of vat grown flesh that lay on a carved pedestal of imitation jade.

she lit it for him with a thin slab of German steel that looked as
though it belonged on an operating table.

Neuromancer did not appear from nowhere. Gibson’s early short stories, for example: Johnny Mnemonic, Fragments of a Hologram Rose and Burning Chrome, foreshadowed the background.

However, back in the 1980s, Gibson professed no particular expertise with the cyberspace technology about which he wrote so fluently, and the tale that he wrote his early books on a battered portable typewriter is at least partially true. This unfamiliarity with computer technology actually freed him to invent concepts that still feel fresh and original even to a life-long software engineer like me. Case’s interface with cyberspace more resembles spaceflight than it does the Web of today.

The same lack of detailed knowledge has the additional advantage that Neuromancer is not filled with technical explanation. The technology is presented as a fait accompli and the reader just has to accept the ‘what’ without knowing the ‘how’.

Having said that, Gibson is an accomplished observer of society, and has a knack of knowing how people at large – ‘the street’ as he calls it – will find a use for new developments.

What of the future for Neuromancer’s reputation? Hollywood keeps threatening to produce Neuromancer – the Movie. I shudder at the thought. Everything but the fight scenes would be ditched, and so much gratuitous gung-ho would be added as to render it unpalatable.

I re-read Neuromancer again recently. For me, it has lost none of its quality over the quarter century since it was written. Let’s keep it in book form, set it as a school reader, respect it for the classic it undoubtedly is.

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