Posts Tagged ‘fantasy fiction’

A friend had recommended some Tolkien resources, including Matthew Dickerson’s books such as Following Gandalf and A Hobbit Journey.  So, I’ve purchased and am now reading through Following Gandalf; since then I’ve realized that the second book, A Hobbit Journey, is similar content, with most of the same chapters, an updated version of Following Gandalf.

Dickerson’s writing is interesting, with a lot of good details, and so I’ll start with the content in chapter 1: Epic Battles.  Here, Dickerson looks at Tolkien’s view of battle and war, by noting the four battles (one in The Hobbit, and three in Lord of the Rings) plus the skirmish that Sam witnesses (where he sees an Oliphaunt)  and how they are described, to show that — contrary to a colleague’s perception — Tolkien does not glorify violence and war.  The battles of course are mostly told from the hobbits’ perspectives:  Bilbo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin — with one exception, Helms Deep, that the hobbits are absent from.  Each narration from the seemingly most unimportant character (a hobbit), one that is not a participant in the battle, along with descriptions about misery and being uncomfortable, and sad and sorrowful (especially in Merry’s experience at the “Battle of the Pelennor Fields”), shows Tolkien’s view of the unpleasantness of war.  For instance, the words of Sam after the fight between Faramir’s men and the Southrons:

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.

Dickerson brings out interesting details regarding the Rohirrim as like the Anglo-Saxons (with the addition of a love of horses not known of Anglo-Saxons).  Certainly the general impression of the people of Rohan is that of northern Europe, such as the Vikings.  But a literary reference to Beowulf makes the connection to the Anglo Saxons.  The “welcome” from the guard to Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in book three of The Two Towers, follows the pattern of the welcome given to Beowulf and his warriors by the beach guards, a scene where they visit Hrothgar.  Dickerson shows us the wording of the two speeches, with the same basic wording, sentence structure and sequence, with just a few words changed, in relation to the specific plot points.

We also have good analysis of the complex character of Eowyn — Tolkien’s Eowyn, not the Peter Jackson movie “dumbed-down” young woman who just has a crush on Aragorn.  Keeping to the battle theme, Dickerson points out more specifically that her desire for death in battle was an Anglo Saxon ideal.

In sparing her from death, Tolkien gives his reader the opportunity to see the healing she later finds.   It is by the author’s grace that Eowyn does not die but is able to learn that the type of glory she sought earlier is not the answer.”  Eowyn’s “illness” is a desire for glory.

Tolkien, in his caring, thoughtful portrayal of Eowyn and her later healing, also makes it clear that it not “solely a womanly virtue to abandon the glories of the battlefield, and turn instead to the house and garden and the pursuit of peace, but as a manly virtue as well.”  The later chapter in book 6 of Return of the King, “The Steward and the King,” is a great conclusion to the healing of both Faramir and Eowyn.

Dickerson’s commentary on the “Contest” at Helm’s Deep between Legolas and Gimli is also worth reading, for any who might still think that Tolkien glorified war.  It is interesting that the Helm’s Deep chapter is where we see several friendships developed and/or strengthened: Aragorn and Eomer, Gimli and Eomer, and especially the strengthening of the friendship between Gimli and Legolas, as we see their real concern for each other.

I’m now nearing the end of Following Gandalf, with lots of additional thoughts on many more topics in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.


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A reader recently recommended a few George MacDonald fantasy fiction and longer length novels for my reading.  Interestingly enough, one of these titles, The Wise Woman, is the current monthly free offer at Christianaudio.com.  For the last few years I have collected the monthly free audio books at ChristianAudio, and have read several of the more interesting ones.  The George MacDonald title is a little over 5 hours, and good audio quality.

MacDonald’s books are in the public domain, here at Project Gutenberg in several formats, as well as at Librivox.org, a great source for free audio recordings of books in the public domain.  Since Librivox works with volunteers, not all the recordings are of the best quality, but many I have listened to over the years have been good quality.

As is well known, George MacDonald’s stories were a great influence on several 20th century authors, especially C.S. Lewis, and others such as G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle, such that he is now known as the “grandfather” of the Inklings.  See this article regarding Tolkien’s earlier and later views regarding George MacDonald

The Wise Woman is a parable (as indicated in the full title), a story about two very spoiled and undisciplined little girls, one a wealthy princess and one a rural commoner, and how a mysterious character, the wise woman, takes them away from their surroundings, to her cottage, and through many lessons teaches them self-control and character.  It reads as much closer to allegory, at places reminding me of the “Pilgrim’s Progress” type of allegory; it is not quite in that pure, formal form of allegory, but at many places the characters and events clearly have a particular meaning, about our actions and behavior.

MacDonald is also much more focused on morality lessons for children.  This story certainly fits in the tradition that had been established earlier in the 19th century by the efforts of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, including the morality tracts and books of Hannah More.   The fantasy elements are within the context of this world, not fully developed into a separate world such as Narnia or Middle Earth, and C.S. Lewis clearly improved on the fairy story in his generation.  I recall some of the children’s moral lesson aspect in Chronicles of Narnia, but in Lewis’ writing this is toned down compared to MacDonald.  But as an influence on Lewis’ imagination, MacDonald can be appreciated in his own right, and as a step along the way to the 20th century fantasy writing.  Another key feature of MacDonald’s The Wise Woman, which Lewis and Tolkien also continued, is the use of poetry and songs and appreciation for beauty in nature.

The Wise Woman is certainly worth reading, a short read and especially in a good audio recording.


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Christian themes in Lord of the Rings:  It is sometimes said that Tolkien’s fiction is not “Christian” because it does not show people in a church context with worship and prayer to God.  The answer is more complex, and subtle — we see types  (that is pictures, examples), of the prophet, priest, and king roles, plus many other Christian themes.  The background history told in The Silmarilion is where we find the more direct Christian teaching of Iluvatar (God) along with Middle Earth’s creation story.  In Lord of the Rings (see boxed set for sale at Abebooks) itself, one event often mentioned is that of Faramir and his men standing, facing west, in a moment of silence before dinner is served — “so we always do,” said Faramir — “we look towards Numenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

In my current re-reading, I’m nearing the end of The Two Towers, and again impressed with Faramir.  In particular, in my reading up to this point, is the importance of oaths and vows, of promises that are made by something greater than the person making the promise.  In book 2 of Fellowship of the Ring, Elrond gave his final words including the charge to the ring-bearer — and for the others in the fellowship “no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will.”  Then earlier in book 4 of The Two Towers, Frodo requests of Gollum a promise that Frodo can trust.  Smeagol says he will swear on the Precious — and Frodo presents Gollum with the solemness of oaths, and the important distinction between swearing “on” something versus swearing “by” it — and will only accept Smeagol’s swearing by the Precious.

Oaths and vows are one feature that give Middle Earth its flavor of ancient, legendary times.  We know that in our world, oaths and vows, and the concept of one’s integrity and making trustworthy promises, was a characteristic in ancient times, as seen in the earliest history in the Bible, in the early chapters of Genesis, as well as among the pagans.  Biblical history soon after the Fall, shows God making covenants — which include oaths, promises — first in the Protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15), and later with Noah and Abraham.  The Gentile nations, all descendants from Noah’s three sons, and though fallen still Image Bearers of God, retained among their basic moral values, the importance of trust, oaths, and vows.  This article from a secular viewpoint, tells about oaths taken by soldiers in ancient Rome.  Oaths and vows continued in our history through medieval times, and again Lord of the Rings has a medieval feel.  Who can read the scene of the hobbit Pippin swearing fealty to Denethor the Steward of Gondor, without thinking of the medieval knights?

The actual word “prayer”  is also found in Tolkien’s Middle Earth — though only twice.  The first use is near the end of The Hobbit, when the Elvenking heard the the news that Smaug the dragon was dead;  “the king, when he received the prayers of Bard, had pity, for he was the lord of a good and kindly people”.  The next time occurs in The Two Towers, from Faramir, referring to Frodo’s prayer to accept Gollum as his servant and to have Gollum under his charge.  In this context, the meaning of prayer conveys the idea of a request from a lesser person to one of a higher social station, and in this same scene Frodo calls Faramir “Lord.”  And such a type of request is certainly part of what is involved in prayer.

In a key scene, Faramir tells Frodo what his response would be to finding the “heirloom” that belonged to the Dark Lord.  He does not actually use the word oath or vow or swear, but says:

“But fear no more!  I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway.  Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory.  No.  I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo.”

Later, when Faramir finds out that “this thing” is the enemy’s ring, he attests to what he had earlier said: We are truth-speakers, we men of Gondor.  We boast seldom, and then perform, or die in the attempt.  Not if I found it on the highway would I take it I said.  Even if I were such a man as to desire this thing, and even though I knew not clearly what this thing was when I spoke, still I should take those words as a vow, and be held by them.

Faramir shows great qualities of character, truth, and integrity, and yet he is just one example of such in the Lord of the Rings.  Often, when I read through Lord of the Rings, I think about which character I am most like, and which character I would aspire to be like.  In the Frodo and Faramir story, I generally identify with Frodo, the introverted traveler who does not easily trust others, keeps things to myself and slow to trust.  But I certainly would want to be like a Faramir, an encourager and able to help others in need, as providence brings such situations into my life.  What about you?

Questions and “food for thought” for Lord of the Rings fans:

  • What are some other positive character traits seen in Faramir?
  • What are some other examples, with other characters, of showing their integrity and keeping promises?


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