Thursday, 8 January 2009
The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
I've just finished this book, a collection of Tolkien's correspondence spanning the years 1914-1973 and concentrated on the years spent writing The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. I'm a great fan of collections of letters, perhaps mainly because I never manage to write letters myself and see the process as a dying art. But they also provide fascinating insights into how authors viewed their own work. Raymond Barthes might protest all he likes, but I still find that worth investigating.
What I think is most interesting about Tolkien's thoughts on The Lord of the Rings is his idea of the trilogy's main theme. It surprised me to learn that he didn't consider it to be friendship, adventure, exploration, the triumph of good over evil, or hope - which are the things that come to my mind when I think about the books. In fact, he states on several occasions and to several different correspondents that the trilogy is at root about Death. That strikes me as highly unusual, and isn't very well explained. Next time I read the books (which I do about once a year), I'll have to give it some thought.
Another example: Tolkien seemed to consider Frodo to be a rather boring cipher and in the final analysis a failure. He believed strongly that the true hero of the piece was in fact Sam. This is something that I had felt was true for years, and it was both pleasant and surprising to find that the man himself had the same idea. It was Sam, after all, who managed to resist the temptation to take the ring for himself, who saw Gollum for what he was, and who saved the day (and the world) when the entire quest was at its bleakest moment. All Frodo did was carry the ring - and then, crucially, give in at the last minute.
Tolkien also felt that he had made a crucial mistake in making The Hobbit too childish. He regretted that it became relegated to a "children's book", and only originally submitted it as such because he wasn't sure what other category it could go into - given that "fantasy" as a genre barely existed at the time. This wasn't due to churlishness about children - he even notes on a few occasions that children often wrote to him to complain about the book's most 'childish' aspects - but because all the stuff about Bullroarer Took inventing golf etc. clashed with the verisimilitudinous nature of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.
These days it's often said that The Lord of the Rings wasn't nearly as much an influence on the development of fantasy role playing as were the writings of Howard, Moorcock or Leiber. This may be the case. But where I think Tolkien directly influenced play was in his love of world building and tinkering with races, geography, language and history - and his absolute denial of allegory. D&D and its like draw a direct bead from that; the creation of a consistent reality different from our own. Even if he is not the spiritual father of The Game as he is with fantasy fiction, he's certainly the one who made it all possible.