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kottke.org posts about J.R.R. Tolkien

“Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” Exhibition in NYC

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 28, 2019

The “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” exhibition at NYC’s Morgan Library & Museum is “the most extensive public display of original Tolkien material for several generations”. Running from January 25 through May 12, the exhibition includes drafts, drawings, maps, and memorabilia related to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, including hand-drawn maps done by Tolkien of Middle-earth.

Tolkien Exhibit

Tolkien Exhibit

Tolkien Exhibit

I’m totally going to this the next time I’m in NYC.

Update: Note to those who are heading to exhibition: cosplaying your favorite LoTR character at the Morgan Library is totally permissible.

Tolkien Exhibit

But all Gimlis, Legolases, and Gandalfs, leave your weaponry at home. (via @arbesman)

Letter of Recommendation: Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, read by Martin Shaw

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 31, 2018

fingolfin-the-silmarillion.jpeg

So for the past year or two, almost nonstop, I’ve been reading and rereading JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the great, weird pseudo-prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Or rather, I’ve been listening to it, since the version I’ve been rereading is the audiobook read by Martin Shaw. If my digital counters are correct, I’ve listened* to the whole thing at least 40 times (where “listened*” includes dozing off and barely paying attention, but those count too). I recently described it on Twitter as my favorite book of any type, and that’s the kind of big talk that requires some elaboration, which I’ll try to give here.

The Silmarillion is a weird-ass book. You could call it a book with a book up its own ass. I called it a pseudo-prequel because while it was published after The Lord of the Rings and to a certain extent presupposes it, much of it was written well before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings was published. It also doesn’t really tell you (except for a comparatively short bit at the end) what happened just before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings that led up to it as it does what happened centuries before that set the entire universe into motion. So it’s not so much “Young Aragorn goes on adventures” as “who were Elrond’s parents and grandparents exactly?” It’s a much deeper cut.

It includes some of the oldest material Tolkien ever wrote that had anything to do with Middle Earth, as well as later revisions he made. You could see it as a kind of historical/mythological background for The Lord of the Rings, or as a set of connected stories that are interesting in their own right. There are no hobbits, but plenty of elves, dwarves, humans, and angelic and demonic monsters and gods. It’s all told in a high, historical style, with relatively little direct dialogue or internal monologue. There are very few routes into the material by way of consistent or relatable characters. But despite all this, it’s a remarkably moving, cinematic, and powerful piece of fiction.

Oh, and it also wasn’t exactly intended for publication, and was sort of a mess when Tolkien died, so his son Christopher did a lot of work assembling and condensing the material and making it consistent. It’s been through the blender a couple of times.

While there are great examples of narrative within it, it’s not really a narrative. It’s a combination of narratives and architecture, or taxonomy. Some of the chapters tell stories, and others explain who everybody is, where they live, and how they’re related to each other. It stops and starts in time, telling different stories from different points of view. Some of the chapters are much richer in narrative details than others, giving you the impression that it’s been condensed from heterogeneous materials (which it kind of was). The books it’s closest to are anthologies of classical mythologies (which it kind of is).

None of this sounds like it should be a great book, let alone a great audiobook. But I’m telling you, somehow, it works. The stops and starts, the catalogs and stories within stories, give it a modular quality that is especially good for listening for twenty minutes or an hour at a time. You can pick it up and leave it off anywhere, and you haven’t necessarily missed anything. Something new is always starting.

What it actually reminds me of is modern serial storytelling, especially in prestige TV dramas. Every episode builds towards the whole, but can also stand on its own. There’s a huge interconnected cast of characters, and a high bodycount, which means narrative focus tends to drift between different characters as focal points as people come and go. It just happens over centuries rather than years, because they’re gods and elves and shit.

There are also a few self-contained stories in the book that are given longer treatment that represent Tolkien’s best attempts to imitate the kind of older storytelling he was trying to revive. The two most noteworthy stories are Beren and Luthien, which sort of prefigures the Aragorn and Arwen story but also channels old folktales and myths in a way that none of The Hobbit or LOTR can really touch, and then the story of Turin Turambar, which was expanded and released on its own as The Children of Hurin. The Turin story is high Germanic operatic tragedy. (A third story, The Fall of Gondolin, never really reached a final form, and it gets a rather cursory telling in The Silmarillion).

The rest of the stories are told pretty quickly. It’s written more like a movie treatment than a novel. And I think this helps the book work as an audiobook as well — you have to work a little harder to generate the characters and their interactions in your mind, so you do it, mainlined from a relatively brief audio description, so you don’t have that dragging feeling like you’re already ahead of the text. It’s just one brisk scene after another.

Now, all this means that there’s huge potential in The Silmarillion as a high-end TV series, especially now that Amazon owns the rights to the Tolkien legendarium. There’s also huge potential to screw it up. And — I think — Amazon is not necessarily wrong in thinking there might be more commercial potential in writing the adventures of a Hot Young Aragorn from more-or-less scratch than there is in bringing the stories of Elrond’s grandparents to the screen for a bunch of hard-core Tolkien fans who aren’t ever going to really be happy with what they’re given.

But if you are a hard-core Tolkien fan, or want to be, or want to get a jump on the stories that might or might not be the next Game of Thrones, or just want to experience a very different but exciting kind of high fantasy storytelling, then I strongly recommend the Silmarillion audiobook. I don’t know how I would have fallen asleep or killed time typing blog posts for the past few years without it.

Update: For some reason, Audible won’t let you buy or download the Shaw audiobook in the United States. If you’re in the UK, you’ve got better luck. This link for Kobo audiobooks seems to work in the US, although I didn’t go all the way through with a purchase. (And it might be less appealing than if Audible just did what it’s supposed to do.)

Update: The Fall of Gondolin was just released as a standalone book, in hardcover and e-book. It’s still in an unfinished state, and presented in multiple versions, but it sounds like Christopher Tolkien made the best of it he could. (Thanks, @RLHeppner!)

Stephen Colbert connects Chance the Rapper & Childish Gambino to the Lord of the Rings

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2018

Stephen Colbert is a *huge* J.R.R. Tolkien nerd. When Rolling Stone asked the late night host to break a song down, he chose “Favorite Song” by Chance the Rapper (feat. Childish Gambino) and connected a verse in it to both Gilbert & Sullivan and Lord of the Rings.

Whether or not you know it, Chance and Childish, you wrote a song that includes in it this really kind of rare rhyme and rhythm scheme that Tolkien used in the poem that actually influences all of the rest of Lord of the Rings.

I wonder about the “rare” bit though…rappers packing songs with internal rhymes is not a new thing nor is referencing Gilbert & Sullivan in hip-hop. Still, this is superbly nerdy. (via craig)

J.R.R. Tolkien reads from The Hobbit

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2017

In 1952, a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien showed him a tape recorder, which the author had never seen before. Delighted, Tolkien sat for his friend and read from The Hobbit for 30 minutes “in this one incredible take”. The audio is split between these two videos (with visuals and music added later):

Given the circumstances, the clarity of this recording is pretty remarkable. Give it a listen for at least the first two minutes…hearing Tolkien do Smeagol/Gollum’s voice is really cool. (via open culture)

The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 22, 2015

Someone called TolkienEditor has cut the three Peter Jackson The Hobbit movies down into a single 4-hour film and put the result up on BitTorrent. Their goal was to make the film hew more closely to the book, put the focus back on Bilbo as the main character, and to quicken the pace of the narrative.

The investigation of Dol Guldor has been completely excised, including the appearances of Radagast, Saruman and Galadriel. This was the most obvious cut, and the easiest to carry out (a testament to its irrelevance to the main narrative). Like the novel, Gandalf abruptly disappears on the borders of Mirkwood, and then reappears at the siege of the Lonely Mountain with tidings of an orc army.

The Tauriel-Legolas-Kili love triangle has also been removed. Indeed, Tauriel is no longer a character in the film, and Legolas only gets a brief cameo during the Mirkwood arrest. This was the next clear candidate for elimination, given how little plot value and personality these two woodland sprites added to the story. Dwarves are way more fun to hang out with anyway.

I enjoyed PJ’s The Hobbit, particularly the second one, but my main criticism was the lack of focus on Bilbo. I couldn’t rustle up any interest in the dwarves or their quest…they were a bunch of ex-rich dudes trying to get their money back. Bah! Martin Freeman was an amazing Bilbo and we just didn’t get enough of him. (via @tcarmody)

Update: There is also a three-hour cut of the film that keeps even closer to the spirit of the book. (via @cdwarren)

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2014

I really liked this bit from Rolling Stone’s interview with Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin:

Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone — they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

(via mr)

Tolkien family not impressed with Peter Jackson

posted by Aaron Cohen   Jan 09, 2013

In a profile this summer from Le Monde, Christopher Tolkien, the 88 year-old son of J.R.R. Tolkien blasted Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit movies. (If you can’t speak French, you should see the translation of the profile.) Tolkien, who drew the maps for the Lord of the Rings books, has spent most of his life protecting the legacy of his father’s works, and the movies are, apparently, a bridge too far.

Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”

This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”

(via ★Stellar)

Kubrick directs The Beatles in Lord of the Rings?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 05, 2010

Possibly the worst idea in the world: a movie version of Lord of the Rings starring The Beatles (with Lennon as Gollum) and directed by Stanley Kubrick. According to Peter Jackson, this was a possibility but JRR said hells no.

According to Peter Jackson, who knows a little something about making Lord of the Rings movies, John Lennon was the Beatle most keen on LOTR back in the ’60s — and he wanted to play Gollum, while Paul McCartney would play Frodo, Ringo Starr would take on Sam and George Harrison would beard it up for Gandalf. And he approached a pre-2001 Stanley Kubrick to direct.