Tunes for a Monday Morning
A winter ramble

Desiring Dragons

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"I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to
have them in the neighborhood  . . . .But the world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir
was richer and more beautiful, at whatever the cost of peril."   -- J.R.R. Tolkien

I had intended to write this post last Tuesday, on the 120th birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien...but I'm only just emerging from three weeks of winter flu, and I'm behind on everything at the moment. And so, one week late: Happy Birthday Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien! Thank you for telling your magical tales. . . which in turn gave birth to the Adult Fantasy genre as we know it, for which I am grateful indeed.

Some Tolkien reading and viewing on the web:

* Anthony Lane discusses "The Hobbit Habit" in a lovely article first published in The New Yorker back in 2001. Lane says:

"There’s no two ways about it, Tolkien fans are a funny bunch. I should know, for I was one of them. Been there, done that, read the book, gone mad. I first took on The Lord of the Rings at the age of eleven or twelve; to be precise, I began it at the age of eleven and finished at the age of twelve. It was, and remains, not a book that you happen to read, like any other, but a book that happens to you: a chunk bitten out of your life."


* Peter Gilliver discusses Tolkien and the Bestiarium of Fantasy in a recent post on Wordnik.

* Alison Flood discusses Tolkien and the Nobel Prize in The Guardian.

* The BBC archive has an odd and interesting little film that includes footage of Professor Tolkien interviewed in Oxford in 1968.

* Flavorwire has posted a collection of vintage Tolkien covers from around the world -- and there are more covers are here, on The Literary Ominvore.

* Tolkien's premier illustrator, Alan Lee, is interviewed here (in the Journal of Mythic Arts archives) and here (more recently, on the John Barleycorn blog). Alan says:

"I first read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit when I was eighteen. It felt as though the author had taken every element I'd ever want in a story and woven them into one huge, seamless narrative; but more important, for me, Tolkien had created a place, a vast, beautiful, awesome landscape, which remained a resource long after the protagonists had finished their battles and gone their separate ways. In illustrating The Lord of the Rings I allowed the landscapes to predominate. In some of the scenes the characters are so small they are barely discernible. This suited my own inclinations and my wish to avoid, as much as possible, interfering with the pictures being built up in the reader's mind, which tends to be more closely focussed on characters and their inter-relationships. I felt my task lay in shadowing the heroes on their epic quest, often at a distance, closing in on them at times of heightened emotion but avoiding trying to re-create the dramatic highpoints of the text."

* Also in the JoMA archives: Ari Berk's gorgeous poem "Lords of the Ring; and my essay/memoir, "On Tolkien and Fairy-stories."

And here's Tolkien himself, discussing Fantasy as a literary form in a letter to W.H. Auden:

"For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Sub-Creative Art in itself, and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story. I propose, therefore, to arrogate to myself the powers of Humpty-Dumpty, and to use Fantasy for this purpose: in a sense, that is, which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of 'unreality' (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the dominion of 'observed fact,' in short of the fantastic. I am thus not only aware but glad of the etymological and semantic connexions of fantasy with fantastic: with images of things that are not only 'not actually present,' but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there. But while admitting that, I do not assent to the depreciative tone. That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most Potent.

"Fantasy, of course, starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness. But that advantage has been turned against it, and has contributed to its disrepute. Many people dislike being 'arrested.' They dislike any meddling with the Primary World, or such small glimpses of it as are familiar to them. They, therefore, stupidly and even maliciously confound Fantasy with Dreaming, in which there is no Art; and with mental disorders, in which there is not even control; with delusion and hallucination.

"But the error or malice, engendered by disquiet and consequent dislike, is not the only cause of this confusion. Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. . . . Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough -- though it may already be a more potent thing than many a 'thumbnail sketch' or 'transcript of life' that receives literary praise.

"To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode."

Alan Lee Tolkien cover

Pictures: Above, a dragon on a hilltop near our village (performed by our daughter Victoria during the filming of "The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heugh" by the Chagford Filmmaking Group). Below, The Children of Huirin cover art by Alan Lee.  Howard posed for this painting a few years ago, wearing a helmet and holding a broom in place of a sword in the back garden of my old cottage.