Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holy Shit, Tolkien!

I went to see The Hobbit this weekend, and it reminded me of just how god damn amazing J. R. R. Tolkien was. Yeah. This is gonna be one of those.

But seriously, holy shit Tolkien was incredible. He's generally remembered (and rightly so) for his fantasy fiction, which pretty much single-handedly defined the genre as we know it. I could focus entirely on that accomplishment and feel completely satisfied with this post, but it wouldn't do the man justice.

First of all, he didn't just write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He wrote a world into existence. He started developing the mythology of his fantasy world in 1917, and The Hobbit wasn't published until 1937. That means he took a good twenty years just to build the world's culture and history. In fact, The Hobbit was sort of an afterthought to his world-building. What he really wanted to do was create a pantheon and accompanying canon of lore that would fit what he saw as a void where British mythology should be.
Tolkien's Arda
Not one inch of this map is filler, and you probably only knew about the little chunk in the middle of the Eastern Continent.

I'm worried that's not going to sink in properly. Let me put it this way: folklore is created by entire cultures over many generations. It has to be that way, because it has to tap into the collective cultural psyche in a way that can only be accomplished through the combined efforts of a civilization. Then along comes Tolkien, who just does it all by himself. You could argue that he never finished, but he got pretty god damn far.
His son picked up where he left off

He had a creation myth, a Creator, a pantheon of demigods, a Destroyer with a cadre of demon servants, a vast array of stories from the dawn of time to the departure of magic from the world, and even a way to connect his mythology to reality. He put himself in the role of a translator (a role with which he was intimately familiar, as he fluently spoke somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 languages) who discovered a lost chapter of human history.
Red Book of Westmarch
Fans later physically created the lost chapter for themselves

I can objectively say, given the utterly insane amount of detail that went into his work, that Tolkien's writing makes modern world-building efforts, from J. K. Rowling to George R. R. Martin, look like an infant got a hold of a small box of Legos and just barely managed to not choke on them. That's not to say they aren't tremendously talented writers -- it's just that Tolkien set the world-building bar somewhere in the upper atmosphere.

Despite his extraordinary dedication to his writing and his fantasy world, Tolkien also found the time to be an active and respected member of society. He was married at 21 and passionately loved his wife throughout their 50 years of marriage. He had four children and showed incredible devotion to them, inventing characters like Tom Bombadil for their sake and painstakingly writing and illustrating letters to them from Father Christmas.

Oh, and remember when you read Beowulf in high school? Or maybe you saw the movie a few years ago? If it weren't for Tolkien's seminal essay on the subject, you would almost definitely have never read or seen it. Critics at the time saw Beowulf as a way to gain insights about Anglo-Saxon history. It was not good for that, so they were generally dismissive. Tolkien proved them wrong by striding confidently to a podium and reciting the opening verse in a booming voice, the way it was intended to be heard. A hush fell on the audience, and it suddenly became clear that Beowulf was a beautiful piece of dramatic poetry, not a history book.
Beowulf and Dragon
"Thanks, Tolkien!"

J. R. R. Tolkien, an upright family man, invented a genre, changed the course of an academic discipline, learned 35 languages (not counting the ones he invented), and personally created a uniquely British mythology.
J. R. R. Tolkien
"No big deal."

Holy shit.

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