Children's/Coming-of-Age, Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Tolkien, J.R.R.

Review of Roverandom


What was it about?

A real dog named Rover is transformed into a toy by a wizard he offended. Two boys play with the toy until Rover manages to get away through the help of the sand-sorcerer Psamathos Psamathides. Rover (later renamed Roverandom) meets the Man-in-the-Moon, flies on the back of a seagull, and encounters a ferocious dragon all while searching for the wizard who transformed him into a toy. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantastical adventure riddled with wordplay and literary references.

What did I think of it?

Although Tolkien wrote Roverandom for his four-year-old son Michael, it was published after Tolkien’s death. Tolkien’s writing never ceases to impress me. He has a great mastery of the English language and creates such odd creatures. None of these elements were lacking in this book. However, it was very obvious to me that Roverandom was an unfinished, unedited work. At times, it was hard for me to follow Roverandom’s adventures. None of the characters were developed and there was no rhyme or reason to the magic in the book. It was quite a forgettable story. The illustrations were beautiful, but they were stuck in the middle of the book, so I didn’t always know what scenes they were supposed to depict. I also wish the editor had used footnotes instead of end-notes. I didn’t realize there were notes to the text until after I finished the story. If you are a Tolkien completionist then by all means read Roverandom. I am glad that I read it, but it definitely left much to be desired.

Favorite Quote

“Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man; some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday looking for something to do.”

 

Poems, Poetry

Tolkien’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo

I am not going to review J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo for one simple reason: I cannot. I would give too much away if I were to summarize all three poems. It is better to go into the stories blind. While I enjoyed all three lays, I have neither the background in poetry nor a knowledge of the art of translation to give a thorough review of Tolkien’s work. I will simply leave you with a sample from each poem to whet your appetite. The book includes a reasonably lengthed introduction to the poems. Unfortunately, I have not read it yet. But when I do, I will write a follow-up post so that you are given a proper introduction to Sir Gawain, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

After the season of summer with its soft breezes,
when Zephyr goes sighing through seeds and herbs,
right glad is the grass that grows in the open,
when the damp dewdrops are dripping from the leaves,
to greet a gay glance of the glistening sun.
But then Harvest hurries in, and hardens it quickly,
warns it before winter to wax to ripeness.
He drives with his drought the dust, till it rises
from the face of the land and flies up aloft;
wild wind in the welkin makes war on the sun,
the leaves loosed from the linden alight on the ground,
and all grey is the grass that green was before:
all things ripen and rot that rose up at first,
and so the year runs away in yesterdays many, and here winter wends again, as by the way of the world

it ought,
until the Michaelmas moon
has winter’s boding brought;
Sir Gawain then full soon of his grievous journey thought. (II, 23)
 

Pearl

Both bliss and grief you have been to me,
But woe far greater hath been my share.
You were caught away from all perils free,
But my pearl was gone, I knew not where;
My sorrow is softened now I it see.
When we parted, too, at one we were;
Now God forbid that we angry be!
We meet on our roads by chance so rare.
I am but mould and good manners miss.
Christ’s mercy, Mary and John: I dare
Only on these to found my bliss. (Part 32)

Sir Orfeo

Sir Orfeo was a king of old,
in England lordship high did hold;
valour he had and hardihood,
a courteous king whose gifts were good,
His father from King Pluto came,
his mother from Juno, king of fame,
who once of old as gods were named
for mighty deeds they did and claimed. 
Sir Orfeo, too, all things beyond
of harping’s sweet delight was fond, 
and sure were all good harpers there
of him to earn them honour fair;
himself he loved to touch the harp
and pluck the strings with fingers sharp. (v. 25-38)

Fantasy/Sci-Fi, Tolkien, J.R.R.

Reflections on The Lord of the Rings (Contains Spoilers)

I started reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time while in high school. There has always been a lot of hype surrounding the series, so I wanted to find out for myself what people love about J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. So, I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring and started reading. To my dismay, I did not understand a word of it. This was distressing because I prided myself on being well-read. After all, I had read A Tale of Two Cities as an eighth grader (but probably understood only 60% of it). I just couldn’t get into the story. The plot and language went way over my head. I expected The Lord of the Rings to read like the Harry Potter series, but they didn’t.

Because it is not in my nature to throw in the towel and give up, I decided to try reading The Fellowship of the Ring again a few years later. I finally finished the first book, but I still had no idea what went on. I knew that Frodo and his friends were trying to destroy an invisibility ring. That much was obvious. But there were so many different lands and names. I couldn’t keep track of them all. I never thought to consult the map of Middle-Earth that was so conveniently placed at the start of the book.

During my sophomore year of college, I visited the education library and embarrassingly admitted to the librarian that I found The Lord of the Rings confusing and dense. She suggested I start with The Hobbit, and so I did. People often ask on forums whether The Hobbit should be read before the trilogy. My answer is a strong yes! The Lord of the Rings is not really a plot-driven story. Tolkien created a world, and the more you learn about the world, the more you can appreciate the trilogy. That year, I finished reading Tolkien’s novels for the first time. But I didn’t fully appreciate them. While I enjoyed reading The Fellowship of the Ring, I could not wait for The Return of the King to end. Looking back, I realize now that I did not approach the books with the right mentality.

Frodo Baggins’ journey to Middle Earth is really a pilgrimage. People go on a pilgrimage to reach a particular destination like the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. But if the pilgrims are truly invested in the journey, what inevitably happens is that they come to discover much about themselves and about life. Frodo knew from the beginning that his journey to Mordor would be fraught with peril, but neither he nor his friends understood the sort of evil they were up against. Only Gandalf truly understood. In my most recent reading of The Lord of the Rings, I focused much on the characters themselves. Gandalf is wise because he realizes that he is not essentially different than Saruman. He knows that if he handled the ring, he too would fall under it’s influence. Gandalf does not think he is invincible. I was struck by Tolkien’s commentary on the nature of true wisdom. I have always loved Sam and Aragorn, but I noticed Pippin’s character development for the first time. At the start of the journey, he is quite a foolish, silly hobbit. Gandalf wants to strangle him because Pippin always seems to land the Fellowship into trouble. But while, in Gondor, so many others fall into despair, Pippin shows great courage and selflessness. Thanks to Pippin, Faramir is saved from death.

I have written much about the themes in Tolkien’s books in my previous posts. I did, however, leave out a discussion of the Catholic themes in the books. I did this for a reason. Tolkien was quite clear that The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory. It’s not even a thought supposition like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. There are Catholic elements in the trilogy because Tolkien viewed the world through that lens. For example, I do see the Virgin Mary in Galadriel and the Eucharist in the lembas, but it is wrong to say that The Lord of the Rings is allegorical. God is only mentioned once in the trilogy, and it is not clear who is supposed to be the Christ-figure (if there is one at all). I can’t deny, however, that the books have a special place in my heart because of the themes that are explored – themes that are much a part of my faith. Whether these themes are explored in similar ways in the other religions of the world I can’t say.

Remember that I said that I wanted The Return of the King to end the first time I read it. Well, this time around, I wanted more. In particular, I wanted to learn more about Aragorn and Arwen’s marriage. I tend to shy away from adult fantasy novels because they often include very graphic sex scenes. Even when the sex scenes are brief or not graphic, I usually find romance quite boring. But the romance in The Lord of the Rings is based on love and respect, not lust. How rare is such romance in the fantasy genre and how refreshing!  It is no secret that the love between Aragorn and Arwen was based on Tolkien’s love for his wife, Edith.

I can now say with absolute certainty that The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is the greatest fantasy series ever written. I am so glad that I did not give up on the books. They are truly a masterpiece!

Literary Miscellanea

Literary Miscellanea: On Fairy Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien

TolkienI learned about this essay by J.R.R. Tolkien from M. Landers, a blogger whose blog you should check out because it is excellent. M. Landers is also a cartoonist.

At 27 PDF pages, On Fairy Stories is a very long essay. Although I am generally not a slow reader, it took me 3 hours to read it! I will include a link to this essay at the end of the post so that you can read it in part or in its entirety if you wish. I don’t, however, want to burden you with a long essay on a Saturday. Instead of merely leaving a link to the essay, I will share my personal reflections with you, underlining the salient points.

A Summary + My Thoughts

J.R.R. Tolkien begins his essay by describing what fairy stories are not. Fairy stories are distinct from beast-fables (ex. Peter Rabbit), dreams (ex. Alice in Wonderland), and travelers tales (ex. Gulliver’s Travels). To Tolkien, fairy stories must not take place in a faraway region of the Primary World; that is, the world in which we exist. Rather, fairy stories should take place in a Secondary World created by the storyteller. There are many reasons why a fairy story may be written. Some of these include the desire “to survey the depths of space and time. Another is (as will be seen) to hold communion with other living things” (p. 5 of  the PDF). In short, fairy stories are written for “the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires” (Ibid). 

Instead of exploring the origins of fairy stories like anthropologists tend to do, Tolkien maintains that all fairy stories emerge from a primordial storytelling soup. This soup (more like a witch’s cauldron) contains the symbols and themes that embody all true fairy stories. King Arthur may have been an insignificant king in his lifetime but when King Arthur is thrown into the “soup”, he becomes a legendary hero. While I agree that heroes embody the values of the people who venerate them, it seems to me that as society changes, the storytelling soup can also change- even drastically. Does the soup from which Medieval epic poems emerged  resemble the soup from which Ancient Egyptian heroic stories emerged? Do the symbols mean the same things in both stories? These are some of the questions I asked myself while reading this section of the essay.

According to Tolkien, there are three facets to fairy stories: “the Mystical towards the Supernatural; the Magical toward Nature; and the Mirror of scorn and pity toward Man” (p.9). This essayist is not a fan of modern technology. He decries the ugliness of human inventions. Fairy stories (and fantasy stories in general) are valuable because they explore human desires and challenge the bad aspects of a society that tend to be taken for granted. As such, fantasy is very much like science fiction in intent. The difference between the two genres is that science fiction envisions a world that is extremely technologically-advanced while fantasy embraces the natural elements.

To me, the most valuable part of the essay is the section under the heading “Children”. Like Lewis, Tolkien has much to say to critics of fantasy stories. While these critics think fairy stories are only suitable for young children, Tolkien maintains that fantasy is the highest literary art form. Much of the criticism is based on a false understanding of the purpose behind fantasy (hence the reason why the first half of the essay deals with the origins of fairy stories) and of children. Children don’t hear fairy stories and think that ogres and dragons could live next door. Many adults think that children love fairy stories because they are naive enough to think that they are true. Tolkien admits that he came to love and appreciate fairy stories more as an adult. If children read and enjoy fairy stories it is because they are people (like adults) who have an innate desire for beauty and truth. “A real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war” (p.14).

Fantasy stories are written because the creators are not satisfied with the so-called “real world” that critics so insist on praising. Certain scientists (I’m thinking of Richard Dawkins) cannot see humans as anything more than beasts. Critics blame fairy stories for blurring the line between humans and beasts, but are not scientists doing that now? While I accept the theory of evolution by natural selection (and hope to one day be a scientist) I could never conclude that humans are nothing more than flesh and bones. Without literature and religion I would go mad. Fantasy is escapist, and Tolkien thinks that is the genre’s greatest strength. How can railroads, bombs, and televisions be more real than the wind, sea, and sky? All technologies become obsolete. The “real world” is not as consistent or as real as critics claim. Good fantasy seeks to recover what is true and beautiful in history. It is not content with the way things are. There are ideals.

So many people think that the greatest fantasy stories have already been written, but Tolkien doesn’t agree. New and interesting fantasy can always be written, but he cautions against using more violence and darkness to spice up a story. Here is what he recommends instead:

“But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses – and wolves. This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish” (p.19).  

Here is the essay in its entirety.