Thursday, March 31, 2016

Finals Week

I just want to warn you that before you read this, keep in mind it's not my fault I have state testing for the next three weeks!

Also, I went a bit gif-crazy with this post so enjoy :)

How the Lord of the Rings = Finals Week

Little Frodo lives comfortably; spending his time reading during lessons, eating lunch, and laughing with his friends.
Suddenly, teacher Gandalf bursts into his calm and quiet life trying to fill it with adventure and cramming his tiny little hobbit brain with information.



Frodo is at first reluctant to heed the advice of Gandalf telling him all kinds of things, but finally he accepts the fact that testing is just something he has to do.  He is forced to wake up and smell the roses.



He conspires with his friends who are in more or less the same boat and together they plan study sessions a way out of the Shire.  They journey all the way to the library...Elrond's library, to be precise, where they cram all the information they should have been absorbing throughout their lives into a few weeks which leaves them tired and wanting to go to sleep (which they do for awhile).




However, the peaceful quiet of the library must come to an end, and eventually Frodo and his friends are shoved along with the other students questers out into the great unknown where the face dangers such as:

  • balrogs
  • multiple choice questions
  • orcs
  • #2 pencils
  • freezing cold
  • inclement computer lab conditions
  • evil wizards
  • people loudly unwrapping mints
  • Rings
  • scratch paper 
Frodo complains to his teacher, Gandalf, that he wishes this evil had never befallen him.  Gandalf replies, "All we have to decide...is how to use our testing time efficiently."  With that, Frodo falls into deep despair.


Frodo and the rest of his classmates are unused to the hostile conditions of the computer lab, also known as the Mountain Caradhras.  They are overwhelmed by the random shifts in temperature and find that they did not bring a sweatshirt with them.  They suffer through the first day of testing in the freezing cold.  

Eventually, teacher Gandalf throws up his hands declaring that he has given his students all the things they need to know, and falls into a dark abyss after battling the Balrog administrators into allowing the students to have more time to test.

"You're students can't take any longer to test because the computer lab is booked for the rest of the month!  Aggggh!"
Frodo continues the quest alone; the rest of his friends have completed their tests, but he alone must go on.  Sam is there for moral support, but he would be in huge trouble if he actually helped Frodo with the answers.

So Frodo presses on.  About a week and a half in, his vision begins to blur from looking at the computer screen for so long and he has a moment of panic.


Eventually the weekend hits and he falls into a long period of inescapable sleep during which time he neglects all other tasks.


Finally, towards the end of the test, he can't take it anymore and guesses on a few questions, which he gets wrong.  But Gollum, a veteran test taker, reminds Frodo to check his answers.  

"Check your answers Frodo!" Those were Gollum's last words.
Frodo does so and realizes he's made a mistake.  He fixes it, and submits the test.  "It's done."  He says just before collapsing into a delirious state.


Frodo celebrates with his friends.


For the rest of the school year, Frodo and his friends, with their new knowledge, lead happy lives.  But Frodo is haunted by the threat of test scores being released in a few months, and, strained mentally, departs from the school into summer where he can heal and find rest.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Quest Artifact

One of the common tropes in medieval literature is the quest for a certain artifact.  In this case, I mean artifact loosely; that is, something that characters venture after.

Some examples of this include:
  • The Quest for the Holy Grail -Possibly the most famous of all of these examples, it is a prominent tale of the knights of the Round Table featured in Chretein de Troyes' work and, of course, Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur.  Only the best of the best can achieve the quest--only the most pure, strong, and valiant knights can gaze upon the legendary cup used at the Last Supper.  Knights of wobbly character (like Lancelot) are unable to achieve this quest making the Grail the most elite of medieval artifacts.
The Quest is achieved 
  • The Questing Beast -Yet another example of a questing item from the Round Table (can you tell I am currently rereading Le Mort d'Arthur?).  King Pellinore chases after this beast for close to twenty years for (honestly) no apparent reason.  Yet it is a goal of his and he wants to see it through.
  • The Silmarils -These are the precious gems which cause the Sons of Feanor in The Silmarillion to do a lot of things that cause a lot of problems (yes I know that was vague, but really, I have a million posts about this topic so if you're interested, check them out.).
  • The Long Forgotten Gold -"Far over the misty mountains cold/ to dungeons deep and caverns old/ we must away ere break of day/ to find our long forgotten gold."  The gold of the dwarves of Erebor is what causes them to go on quest in The Hobbit.  Of course there are some other tropes at play such as vengeance and the reclamation of their homeland, but they themselves cite the gold as their primary inspiration.
  • In the book Redwall, Matthias the mouse wants to find Martin the Warrior's sword.  Though he does have some other motives in mind, he is convinced that the sword is the key to his success and it represents his prowess as a warrior and his inheritance of Martin's role at the abbey.
  • The Golden Fleece -In the Greek myth, Jason goes through many dangers and perils to recover the legendary Golden Fleece.
  • A Way Home, A Heart, a Brain, and Courage -These are the four items the characters in The Wizard of Oz search for and what ultimately instigates the story and creates the conflict.
These are just some samples of this extremely common plot.  If you think about it, the loss of a certain artifact or desire to see it is a good catalyst for any story and is used in even some modern stories today.

Tolkien kind of reinvented this trope in his pseudo-medieval world of Middle-earth.  We have two examples of this trope clearly displayed, namely in The Hobbit and The Silmarillion (see above) but we also can see the sort of inverse properties of this idea as Frodo ventures to Mordor not to reclaim or find something, but to destroy something.


This is yet another instance of Tolkien innovating and expanding upon already existing and deeply valued ideas.

The first poem I ever wrote, called Centerpiece, was about a girl who wanted to find something she could use as a centerpiece on her dinner table for when her grandmother came over.  It was not the best poem, but it did have a conflict as she struggled to find something suitable, her own "quest item".

3 Quick Tips for Using Quest Items in Writing
I haven't written an actual novel in quite a long time, but I do have lots of thoughts about this topic after reading so many instances of both the success and failure of author's to use this trope.  Here are some of the things I have come to appreciate and despise when using the Quest Artifact.

     1. Have the artifact represent something.
If the artifact the character is searching for is simply just an object, chances are, readers won't care whether or not they find it.  As in The Quest for the Holy Grail, it is always effective to have the artifact represent something, like how the Grail represents holiness and worthiness.  Similarly, the Ring represents Power and it's destruction.  It is always more intriguing to have your characters look for something bigger, like their place in the world, their purpose, or knowledge.

     2. Come up with meaningful motives for the search.
Why does the character want to look for this item?  How will it benefit them and how do they even know about it's existence or importance?  Who tells them where to find it?  I can't tell you how many times I have read about someone searching for something that in reality they should not even realize is missing.  It seems phony and too contrived and bothers me as a reader.

     3. Think of realistic obstacles.
Why can't the character easily achieve their goal easily?  What is holding them back?  A good thing to think about when considering this is: why doesn't the character have this in the first place?  For example, why doesn't Galahad already possess the Holy Grail?  Answer: because he needs to prove that he is pure enough to behold it.  Therefore, he is put to many tests that prove his purity and worthiness which make up the story of the quest.

Those are the three main problems I find when people try to adapt this trope of medieval literature into their own writing.

The Quest Artifact is a very good place to start in a story line.  It was used very effectively by Tolkien himself, and while challenging to do well, can really add to any story.
"X" marks the spot of the pirate treasures which is another common example of a quest item.
Image from navigatemaps.com

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Q&A: Why do you think Saruman Infiltrated the Shire?

Q: Why would Saruman choose the Shire of all places to take over and defile?

A: This is a many layered question and we don't really get a straight answer from the text, that is, The Scouring of the Shire, a chapter in The Return of the King.

We first hear of Saruman (prior to the capture of Isengard) in Many Partings:
As they came out again into open country at sundown they overtook an old man leaning on a staff, and he was clothed in rags of grey or dirty white, and at his heels went another beggar, slouching and whining.  "Well Saruman!"  said Gandalf.  "Where are you going?"  "What is that to you?" he answered.  "Will you still order my goings, and are you not content with my ruin?"
So Saruman is well aware that he has been beaten and he has been reduced to the level of a beggar.   He has apparently escaped (or was released by) Treebeard and has taken Grima Wormtongue with him.  Gandalf continues:
"If you had waited at Orthanc, you would have seen him [Aragorn] and he would have shown you wisdom and mercy."  "Then all the more reason to have left sooner," said Saruman; "for I desire neither of him.  Indeed if you wish for an answer to your first question, I am seeking a way out of his realm."
Photo from Tolkien Gateway
So then, Saruman is travelling North to escape Aragorn and Gondor in general.  What he doesn't realize, and what Gandalf points out in the next passage, is that Aragorn has reunited the kingdoms of Gondor in the South and Arnor in the North so that any way Saruman goes he will be in Aragorn's realm.  The Shire was originally part of the larger realm of Arnor in the days of Elendil, but it was eventually abandoned by the Dunedain.

It would make sense, then, that Saruman, realizing he would not be safe in Arnor, moved into the Shire which was still near his northerly quarters but not quite in Arnor.

The second reason I think Saruman chose the Shire is because of his obsession with Pipeweed.  Merry and Pippin had found pipeweed in The Two Towers, Flotsam and Jetsam.  Saruman must have already had ties to the Shire prior to his journey North.  From The Unfinished Tales:
Saruman and Gandalf argue about pipeweed.
Photo property of Newline Cinema.
Now truth to tell, observing Gandalf's love of the herb that he called 'pipe-weed' (for which, he said, if for nothing else, the Little People should be honoured), Saruman had affected to scoff at it, but in private he made trial of it, and soon began to use it; and for this reason the Shire remained important to him. Yet he dreaded lest this should be discovered, and his own mockery turned against him, so that he would be laughed at for imitating Gandalf, and scorned for doing so by stealth. This then was the reason for his great secrecy in all his dealings with the Shire...."
To recapitulate, the first reason I believe Saruman chose the Shire after Isengard was taken was because he was already headed North and needed a place to go outside of Aragorn's wide realm.  The second reason is because he already had ties within the Shire that supplied his pipeweed habit.

The final reason I suppose Saruman chose the Shire is, honestly, because it supports a theme that is important in The Lord of the Rings.  One of the horrors of war that are so clearly demonstrated by Tolkien, a war veteran himself, is that often times people go off to fight for their homeland but return to find it desolated.  Nowhere is safe from evil.

Also, the rebuilding of the Shire and resowing of the crops parallels and illustrates the healing that Frodo and Sam have to go through; they are changed, but the are not broken.

To summarize, the three reasons I believe the Shire was the target of Saruman's attack was a) he was heading North anyway and couldn't stay in Arnor, b) he already had ties with hobbits and pipeweed in the Shire, and c) it serves a deep literary purpose.

What other reasons do you think Tolkien had for sending Saruman to the Shire?

It must have slowed Saruman's mind too, if he thought he could take over the Shire.  He forgot to take four
important hobbits into consideration :)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Mereth Veren Orthad Eruion!

The title of this post translates to Joyous Feast of the Rising of the Son of God!

























Indeed I wish all of you a joyous day full of good food and family.

As for my Easter, one of the great traditions of my family is getting all together to dye eggs.  We have developed some interesting techniques--ranging from painting the eggs to scratching off die with utility knives, to using stickers to leave negative spaces, to mixing dyes and using tape, string, and a variety of different strategies with one goal in mind: win the competition.

You see, through out this whole time, my dad stays in the basement.  Then, once we are done we present the eggs to him anonymously and he ranks them all.  I don't often get into the top ten eggs, so I wasn't expecting much (and indeed I did not get in the top five, though I was got sixth place!).

I decided to make a theme egg, and looking at the egg I thought to myself: what about the eye of Sauron?

I dyed it orange and then tried to accent it with red and yellow.

It was looking pretty good, but then I added a bit too much red.


Finally, I thought the egg looked pretty good.  My dad didn't know what it was (he has seen the LOTR movies but he didn't like them that much--I guess I had built up his expectations too high) and yet he thought the egg had "an interesting texture" (probably from the millions of layers of paint I put on) and it made it to sixth place before it was eliminated.

Here are the final winners of the egg dying contest.

I hope you have a great Easter!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday

Today is of great importance in Middle-earth.  It is the anniversary of the second downfall of Sauron and also the first day of the Gondorian new year.  It is also a big day in real life because it is Good Friday, the anniversary of Christ's death on the cross.

I was thinking a lot about both these things, and it kind of struck me: they are not that unrelated.

In Middle-earth, the people celebrate the triumph over evil.  They celebrate their innocent hero who went into the worst possible place in order to save them all by destroying evil.  But isn't that what we, here in Regular-earth are celebrating too?



Both Frodo and Jesus were completely innocent.  Frodo "d[id] not know the way" to Mordor--that is, he did not know the terrible things there and was not acquainted with such evil.  It was not even his fault that he had the Ring, in the first place.  But he willingly took up the evil and bore it upon himself.  Similarly, Jesus was completely sinless and innocent.  Nevertheless, he took up willingly the burden of the world's sins.

Frodo marches into the darkness of complete despair in the Black Land, Mordor.  Jesus is cruelly tortured and put to death publicly.

Frodo throws the Ring into the fire and destroys Sauron's power of Middle-earth.  Jesus breaks the bonds of death and resurrects with complete victory over the devil.

Today is the day that Frodo and Jesus are walking through Mordor.  It is a terrible day, walking through "a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash, and dust [Where] [t]he very air you breathe is a poisonous fume."

Tolkien Reading Day




Tolkien Reading day is scheduled (as always) for March 25th which is both the first day of the Gondorian year as well as the anniversary of the second downfall of Sauron.

Here are a few ideas for how you can celebrate Tolkien Reading Day:

  • Read your favorite passages from the books (including all things Tolkien--his essays, letters, and fiction of course)
  • Write an essay about life, death, and immortality, which is the theme for this year (see below)
  • Encourage your library to set up a display or hold an event
  • Take a quiz to see how much information you have actually sopped up over the course of your reading
  • Write some Tengwar and learn how to say your name in Elvish
  • Create your own melody for the poems and songs included in Tolkien's works
  • Leave notes in the Tolkien books at your library wishing readers a happy Tolkien reading day
As I mentioned, the theme is life, death, and immortality.  Certainly this is a huge theme in The Lord of the Rings (and elsewhere in Tolkien's writing).  Tolkien said once:
The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race 'doomed' to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race 'doomed' not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete. (Letters 246)
He commented further in a letter to Milton Waldman explaining his themes:
Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine...[w]ith Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire...this desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it.  It has various opportunities of "Fall".  It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as "its own, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and god of his private creation.  He will rebel against the laws of the Creator--especially against mortality.  Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective..." (Silmarillion xiii)
Other places we can surmise themes relating to life, death, and immortality in The Silmarillion:
But the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers.  Death is their fate, the gift of Illuvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy.  But Melkor has cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness and brought forth evil out of good, and fear out of hope. (Silmarillion 42)
...the Eldar saw for the first time the swift waning of the life of Men, and the death of weariness which the knew not in themselves; and they grieved greatly for the loss of their friends.  But Beor at the last had relinquished his life willingly and passed in peace; and the Eldar wondered much at the strange fate of Men, for in all their lore there was no account of it, and its end was hidden from them.  (Silmarillion 149)
For it was not permitted to the Valar to withhold Death from him, which is the gift of Illuvatar to Men. (Silmarillion 187)
And they [the Numenorians] said among themselves: "Why do the Lords of the West sit there in peace unending, while we must die and go we know not whither, leaving our home and all that we have made?  And the Eldar die not, even those that rebelled against the Lords.  And since we have mastered all seas, and no water is so wild or so wide that our ships cannot overcome it, why should we not go to Avallone and greet there our friends?" (Silmarillion 264) 
"The Eldar, you say, are unpunished and even those who rebelled do not die.  Yet that is to them neither reward nor punishment, but the fulfilment of their being.  They cannot escape, and our bound to this world, never to leave it so long as it lasts, for its life is theirs.  And you are punished for the rebellion of Men, you say, in which you had small part, and so it is that you die.  But that was not at first appointed for a punishment.  Thus you escape, and leave the world, and are not bound to it, in hope or in wariness.  Which of us therefore should envy the others?"  And the Numenorians answered: "Why should we not envy the Valar, or even the least of the Deathless?  For of us is required a blind trust, and a hope without assurance, knowing not what lies before us in a little while.  And yet we also love he Earth and would not lose it." (Silmarillion 265)
 It [Death] became a grief to them only because coming under the shadow of Morgoth it seemed to them that they were surrounded by a great darkness, of which they were afraid; and some grew willful and proud and would not yield, until life was reft from them. (Silmarillion 265)
I'm not going to write an essay about these quotes today because honestly, I don't have time (I am about to be late to violin rehearsal!) but I would love to read what you have to say about this subject.  I also recommend these sources for exploring this and other themes further:

Valar Guild.org -Death in Tolkien's Legendarium
Victorian Web.org -Transcending Death: Mortality and Immortality in Fantasy Literature

Have a thoughtful and productive Tolkien Reading Day!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Top 4 Book Recommendations for LOTR Fans

Do you like The Lord of the Rings?  Then you may also like...

Le Mort d'Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory
If you love the medieval aspect of Middle-earth, you are sure to enjoy the story of the legendary King Arthur and his knights of the round table.  While this book features tons of interesting quests and is one of my favorites, younger readers should be warned that there are certain elements to this legend that are meant for more adult audiences and they should check with a librarian or parent before delving into this story.

I find myself often angry with certain characters (darn you Lancelot and Guinevere!) but sympathetic towards others (oh Sir Gaheris...).  I recommend this book if you like Middle English--here is an example of some writing from this complex tale: Alle the comyns cryed at ones, "We wille have Arthur unto our kyng. We wille put hym no more in delay, for we all see that it is Goddes wille that he shalle be our kynge – and who that holdeth ageynst it, we wille slee hym." And therwithall they knelyd at ones, both ryche and poure.  Don't worry, there are several translations that are easier to read but still retain their old feeling.

The Once and Future King
T.H. White
This is one of the most popular and imaginative reinventions of the Arthurian legend which goes all the way from Arthur's early years with his tutor Merlin through his kingship including new motives presented for the relationship of the notorious knight Lancelot and Arthur's queen, Guinevere.

I read this 700 page book in only three days because it really had great writing.  It was paced well and had great dialogue.  I laughed (King Pellinore was hilarious), I cried (Arthur why?) and overall had a great time reading this and it is very high on my list of favorites.
Drawing by Tolkien
Redwall
Brian Jacques
This is a long series of books which features different animal protagonists including mice, (Matthias, Martin, and Luke) badgers (Constance and Lord Brocktree) and a whole host of interesting characters.

This series has a fun writing style which includes lots of phonetic spellings which add a lot to the characters.  There are plenty of cool places to visit in this very detailed world such as Mossflower Wood, Salamandastron, and of course, Redwall Abbey.  This book excels in compelling conflicts and lovable characters.
           

The Chronicles of Narnia
C.S. Lewis
If the more metaphorical aspects of Middle-earth are what captured your fantasy or if you like Christian stories, The Chronicles of Narnia are where it's at.  Be prepared to get attached to the royal siblings: Lucy, Susan, Peter, and Edmund as well as my favorite lion, Aslan.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were of course very close and you can definitely see how their writing is similar.  While The Chronicles of Narnia has more allegory to it, it is a good read and worth your time.  Similarities between The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia include the fact they are both relatively medieval, occur in fantasy worlds, and have compelling characters.
     

Any other books you would recommend to Tolkien fans?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Lessons to Learn from The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages (like any other time) had its ups and downs, good times and bad.  I feel that this integral time period in our existence often gets a bad rep...that is, it is often portrayed as the "Dark Ages" in which learning and questioning were "silenced by the Catholic Church" and progress was at a standstill; a time of blood and disease.

But what people often don't see, is that actually the Middle Ages had their fair share of great rulers (think Constantine and Charlemagne), theologians (Dante and Aquinas), literature (The Arthurian legends, Beowulf, the work of Bede and Chaucer, not to mention all the scholars at Oxford and Cambridge, translations into Latin of Aristotle and Euclid) and--contrary to popular belief--scientific advances (the early development of the scientific method and the grounds that later scientists would work off of).

Often times this important era is often written off, but looking back, I think there are several things we can learn from this time period.

Photo from mrgrayhistory.wikispaces.com

1. Don't be Self-reliant
The plagues, famine, and warfare of The Middle Ages remind us all how fragile human life is.  With the knowledge that their lives would be short, the people of the Middle Ages put a strong emphasis on what happens after death and oriented their lives more towards the transcendent.  They understood that there was more to life than just waking up, eating, working, and going to bed and lived each day as if it were their last.

2. Literature and Wide-spread Literacy should be Celebrated and Encouraged
It is true: by the year 1500 the male literacy rate was probably between 10-25% according to A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages.  Today, more than half of countries world wide have literacy rates that exceed 95%.  On a day to day basis I hear kids complain about going to school and how much they hate reading--and I will admit, some Monday mornings it is hard to roll out of bed.  But think about what a gift our literacy is and how powerful it actually is.

Somehow I ended up writing a blog every day and getting readers from all over the world who enjoy taking about books--something that never would have been possible in the Middle Ages even if internet had existed.

3. Have a Servant's Heart
Photo from British
 Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection
Too often today, I see people saying variations of "well I have to look out for my own well-being" or "I would help, but I'm going to be late..." or something like that.  What ever happened to putting others before yourself?  It was written, "there is no greater love, says the LORD, than to lay down your life for a friend."  In just little ways, we can all "lay down our lives" whether it's sacrificing reading time to help around the house or helping someone else when they drop their books even if it's not convenient.  If my family is reading this, they are probably laughing because they know that I don't always succeed in this particular area.  I am not saying by any means this is easy to do, but I think we all should give it a try.

In the Middle Ages, people were dedicated not only to their family, but to their kings and their rulers.  Of course hierarchies didn't always work out (what with the repressive tendencies of certain kings) but when a wise and benevolent king aims to serve the people, the people in turn will learn to serve the king.  Think of Arthur, who although is probably partly mythical, is the very model of this, who was certainly was based around other real-life unnamed rulers of the time.

Practicing serving others can ultimately help us learn how to serve God.

In The Lord of the Rings, Samwise clearly puts Frodo's well being above his own and strives to help him, even offering to carry the Ring for awhile.


4. Be Passionate about your Convictions
Something that really grinds my gears is when people are "passive" or "so-so" with their beliefs.  If you're not sure about what your belief is, that is one thing.  But the people of the Middle Ages understood that some things are (to quote the back of the A1 sauce bottle) "that important".  Think of the martyrs and people who dedicated their lives to their beliefs.  Today, people often compromise what they think is right in order to please others, something that leads to the swaying of morality that is not firmly based in objective truth, but rather in the feelings of a person, which is clearly shaky ground.

5.  Appreciate Beauty
Now you can say what you want about the people of the Middle Ages, but one thing is for sure: they appreciated beauty.  I imagine that one of the joys for the people who in a day to do life lived in poor conditions and worked on the farm to feed their families, was to visit the beautiful churches and see the stained-glass.  I am certain this beauty would uplift their spirits and remind them that, as Sam says, "there is some good in this world."

And here we are, in modern times, to busy looking at screens (I sound like such an old person when I say this: you whippersnappers need to stop looking at your gadgets and gizmos!  I also sound like a hypocrite, I am looking at a screen while I type this...but really, it is essential to make your best effort) to notice the beauty that is all around us: in the sunset, in an elderly couple who still remains faithful and helps each other down the stairs, even in the beauty of a city skyline or country road.
Chartres Cathedral is one of the most beautiful structures in the world.  It was built in the 13th century.
6. Appreciate Sanitation
As well as the very good things from the Middle Ages, there were of course very bad things.  Poor sanitation, for one thing, contributed to disease and abhorrent living conditions for many serfs and peasants.  Today we can look back and recognize how lucky we, in first world countries, are to have safe living conditions and also remember how important it is to help others around the world who do not have access to these measures.

7. Appreciate Different Cultures
Yesterday, I went to a university library and spent six and a half hours reading.  I read all of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all of Chretein de Troyes' Lancelot, Knight of the Cart and got a good way through the Queste of the Holy Graal (all stories, I might add from the Middle Ages!).  For the rest of my time I worked on my Latin lesson. Then I had a pizza for lunch and later that day stopped at a Middle Eastern restaurant to try some samosas.  All the while my sister and her husband were speaking fluent Spanish (what they normally speak at home).

None of those things would be possible in the Middle Ages.  I read English literature, worked on Latin, ate Italian food and later Middle Eastern food and listened to Spanish.  Oh, and I had a banana for breakfast which before our time would be impossible (I don't live in a region that grows bananas and via ship--the common method of transportation in the Middle Ages--they would have rotted before reaching me).

Today we live in a world where all cultures can be celebrated and witnessed at large.  We can learn from all different kinds of traditions and we are the richer for it.  This is something not always appreciated by modern people.

8. Remember the Dignity of Human Life
No documentary about the Black Death is going to forget to tell you about how the graves filled up so fast that humans were left to rot in the streets.  Why is that?  It is to shock you or disgust you?  Possibly.  But maybe it is because this is something we should never forget.  Human life is precious and should never be "left out to rot" whether literally, or figuratively.  People in our society are often marginalized if they are different, don't share the same beliefs, or stand out in any number of ways.  We need to be the Mother Teresas of the world, who fearlessly tend to humans even if they are unwanted by civilization or perceived as threats.  We need to remember to respect the dignity of all human life.



9. Never Scapegoat
The method of scapegoating has been around throughout all of history--blaming your problems on someone else and targeting them out of anger of fear.   Remember how I said not everything (far from it, actually) was good in the Middle Ages?  One of the best (worst?) examples of this was during (again) the Black Death.  It was an immense time of fear and a small number of Christians (acting against the orders of the Catholic Church and general Christian populous, I will add) took to blaming the Jews for the disease and killing them for "poisoning the wells".

Of course this was not based in actual facts but was a way for scared people to take out their fear on innocent people.  This happened again (coincidentally to the Jews) in the 1930s, as the Jews of Germany, Poland, and much of Europe were blamed for the widespread poverty of those countries.  Today we need to remember that whenever you point a finger at someone else, there are three others pointing back at you, or we could have a repeat of the persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages or the Holocaust, later on.

10. Learn to Set Aside your Differences
I often get into apologetic arguments (that is in the classical "debate" sense, not the yelling-hair-pulling type common today).  We talk about matters of morality and law, which I care strongly about.  However, at some point, we need to acknowledge that though the issues are important and should be debated out to find their merits, we are friends and need to remember that it is important to respect our differences.

In the Middle Ages, wars raged all the time only interrupted by rare and short spurts of peace.  However, the Pax Dei, or Peace of God, was implemented during times like Lent and Christmas which temporarily put an end on violence particularly for those not directly involved in the feud such as peasants.  Just imagine trying to implement a system like this in today's world!  Do you really think it would keep Liberals and Conservatives from quibbling or nations from standing off?  We are all called to respect others and keep the Peace of God.
From http://www.cnsng.org/

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When considering what we can learn from a certain period in time, we should sit back and think to ourselves: what will people in the future learn from us?  Will they only learn from our mistakes, or will they try and emulate us?  What kind of legacy do we want to leave?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Publishing Announcement

See more from Tolkien's publishers on his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/officialtolkien

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Lay of Eärendil and Elwing

One of the greatest moments in the Story of Eärendil is when Elwing, his wife, flies to him out of sacrifice and love for him and accompanies him on his perilous journey to Valinor.  One of the best lines in the whole story: "For Ulmo bore up Elwing out of the waves, and he gave her the likeness of a great white bird, and upon her breast there shone as a star the Silmaril, as she flew over the water to seek Eärendil her beloved.  On a time of night Eärendil at the helm of his ship saw her come towards him, as a white flame on wings of storm.  And it is sung that she fell from the air upon he timbers of Vingilot, in a swoon, nigh unto death for the urgency of her speed, and Eärendil took her to his bosom; but in the morning with marveling eyes he beheld his wife in her own form beside him with her hair upon his face, and she slept." (Of Eärendil and the War of Wrath).  Below is a short adaptation of the above line I wrote as a lay.  Enjoy!

 -

Eärendil was a mariner strong
who sailed and journeyed far and long;
until at last a silver wave
bore him to the West to save
the Men and Elves of Middle-earth
whose horde of light was one of dearth;
a distant memory from across the Sea
which none now recall save the Caliquendi.

Eärendil rode, a jewel upon his brow,
as bud upon a slender bough.
His dark hair blew into the wind,
its radiant light as yet undimmed.
The salty air about him swirled
as he bade goodbye to the fallen world.

"Farewell," quoth he, his eyes were bright,
"I shall return and bring thee light--
or so I hope--to end our ne'er-ending strife.
I shall miss my people; my beloved wife,
who art dearer to me than mine own life:
whose eyes are deep and face is fair,
I will miss her golden hair."

And even as he spoke these words
he looked up to see that towards
his ship approached a bird on wing,
the sea air upon it glimmering;
whose feathers were pure and white,
as clear as Silmarillion light.

Eärendil watched; the bird it swooned,
as if from exhaustion or a grievous wound.
The mariner looked on in thought,
and to his side the bird he brought.
He closed his eyes and fell asleep
and dreamt of oceans and the deep.

The moon was silver, 
the stars were white,
the Sun arose and hid their light,
and as Eärendil bright looked down
not a bird asleep, but there he found
his wife, pearl-fair, and there
he held her, sleeping, with her hair
across his face, more free than words can declare.

Eärendil, mariner of the deep
and his wife, arose from sleep
and looked to isles off afar
which evil had yet failed to mar 
And Eärendil, mariner, joy undefiled,
looked upon his wife and smiled.

 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Year of Mercy: Lessons from LOTR

Pope Francis declares a Year of Mercy
You may know that Pope Francis declared last November a special Jubilee Year with an emphasis on mercy.  No matter if you are a Roman Catholic or not, it is always good to have a reminder of the important role mercy plays in all of our lives.  After all, where would be without mercy?

This was something Professor Tolkien also recognized and there are several references to the importance of mercy, or pity, in The Lord of the Rings...
A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart.  
"A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror..."
After Gollum has behaved viciously and tried to attack Bilbo, the hobbit resists taking the easy way and stabbing Gollum when he is unaware and vulnerable.  Bilbo instead leaps over the creature and spares him his life.

What is that "sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror" that Bilbo experienced?  The first thing to recognize is that Bilbo would have been perfectly within his rights to kill Gollum.  After all, Gollum was assaulting him and preventing him from escaping even when he had won the riddle game.  But Bilbo doesn't choose to do that.  I think he realizes in that moment that Gollum was desperate for his "precious" and he was probably a bit afraid.  I think he felt bad for this creature that had lived in pain and loneliness for who knows how long in the darkness of that cave and wanted to spare his life.  Bilbo acknowledges that no one is perfect and even in this instance Gollum could be able to reform (as he does briefly in LOTR, you will recall).
". . . What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!"
"Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."
Gandalf spells it out well here.  Bilbo was able to escape without harming Gollum and therefore that is what he chose to do.  Rather than inflict needless pain, or "strike without need", Bilbo showed mercy and empathy towards Gollum and let him go.  In ways that Bilbo never could have never foreseen, he was rewarded for this act.  He never would have known that being compassionate would benefit him in the long run, and yet he chose to act that way anyway.


[Frodo speaking] “I am sorry. But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum. . . . he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death."  [Gandalf speaking] "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not the least.”  
Not only did Bilbo's mercy towards Gollum originally prevent him from succumbing to the Ring so quickly, but of course Gollum turns out to be very important later on in the story--without Gollum, the Quest of the Ring would never have been achieved since Frodo could not give up the Ring on his own.

Gandalf reiterates here that "even the very wise cannot see all ends."  This again points out that it is important to be compassionate and merciful even when there is no obvious benefit to yourself.  Again, Bilbo never could have seen this one act of mercy paying off so well.
[Faramir speaking] “What have you to say now, Frodo? Why should we spare [Gollum]?”  [Frodo speaking] “The creature is wretched and hungry, and unaware of his danger. And Gandalf, your Mithrandir, he would have bidden you not to slay him for that reason, and for others.” 
Here, Frodo passes down his new found pity for Gollum to Faramir and bids him to spare the poor creature because he still has hope that he can change.

Gollum looked at them. A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo’s knee—but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing.  But at that touch Frodo stirred and cried out softly in his sleep, and immediately Sam was wide awake. The first thing he saw was Gollum—‘pawing at master,’ as he thought. "Hey you!" he said roughly. "What are you up to?" "Nothing, nothing," said Gollum softly. "Nice master!" "I daresay," said Sam. ‘"But where have you been to—sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain?" Gollum withdrew himself, and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids. Almost spiderlike he looked now, crouched back on his bent limbs, with his protruding eyes. The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall...” 
Now I think we all like Sam and understand he was acting in the best interest of Frodo in this instance.  However, we can see that Gollum was just on the verge of repenting.  But when Sam wakes up, he does not show Gollum mercy and accuses him unrelentingly which stirs up Gollum's hatred and seals his anger.  Tolkien has mentioned that this is one of the most frustrating and ultimately tragic moments for him, "For me perhaps the most tragic moment in the Tale comes...when Sam fails to note the complete change in Gollum’s tone and aspect."  Of course hope is not lost for the Quest (because without Gollum's recurring anger, again, the Ring would not be destroyed) but hope is lost for Gollum.  It is at that point that his doom is written.
Sam’s hand wavered. His mind was hot with wrath and the memory of evil. It would be just to slay this treacherous, murderous creature, just and many times deserved; and also it seemed the only safe thing to do. But deep in his heart there was something that restrained him: he could not strike this thing lying in the dust, forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched. He himself, though only for a little while, had borne the Ring, and now dimly he guessed the agony of Gollum’s twisted mind and body, enslaved to that Ring, unable to find peace or relief in life ever again...
"...forlorn, ruinous, utterly wretched...only dimly guessed the agony of Gollum's twisted mind and body..."
Here Sam actually does have pity for Gollum and thinks about how terrible it must be to be completely trapped by the Ring.  He must (at least subconsciously) connect his own Ringbearing experience and think of himself in Gollum's position.  It is that thought I think that ultimately causes him to spare the creature.

I think what we can ultimately surmise from this information is extremely important.  Sparing those that are worse off than you and understanding their plight can lead to good things that you could never have foreseen.  No one (save God of course) can see all ends and therefore no one can make the judgement that someone's time is over.

I think we can learn a few things from Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, and Sam and try and put them into practice for the remainder of this year of mercy.

All quotes are from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, both by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Art of The Hobbit

This is the predecessor of the book I reviewed yesterday, The Art of The Lord of the Rings.  The title of this book is The Art of the Hobbit This one is a shorter read but is still packed with valuable information about Tolkien the writer and illustrator.

From Amazon.com:

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, he was already an accomplished amateur artist, and drew illustrations for his book while it was still in manuscript. The Hobbit as first printed had ten black-and-white pictures, two maps, and binding and dust jacket designs by its author. Later, Tolkien also painted five scenes for color plates, which comprise some of his best work. His illustrations for The Hobbit add an extra dimension to that remarkable book, and have long influenced how readers imagine Bilbo Baggins and his world.

Written and edited by leading Tolkien experts Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull,
The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien showcases the complete artwork created by the author for his story—including related pictures, more than one hundred sketches, drawings, paintings, maps, and plans. Some of these images are published here for the first time, others for the first time in color, allowing Tolkien’s Hobbit pictures to be seen completely and more vividly than ever before.

Topics covered include: 

Bag-End Underhill -This section is a collection of different paintings and sketches of Bilbo's front door
The Hill: Hobbiton -A broader view of the homely society Bilbo is reluctant to leave
A Letter to Bilbo -Drafts of script (Tengwar) used by Thorin in his "important" letter requesting Bilbo to meet them so they can get on with their adventure
The Trolls -Tolkien's vision of the three bumbling characters who mark Bilbos first "successful adventure"
Rivendell -Beautiful paintings of my favorite of the Elven realms in the Third Age
Thror's Map -Many, many drafts of a map Tolkien viewed as essential to the story.
The Misty Mountains -Including the fight between rock giants!
Beorn's Hall -Unique drawings of a unique place
Mirkwood -As the chapter title suggests, this is a collection of all of the Professor's work on the creepy forest of Mirkwood
The Elvenking's Gate -This included some sketches of the ancient elven city of Nargothrond (much to my delight!) which Thranduil based his halls around
The Forest River -An unexpected journey in barrels, illustrated fantastically (pun intended)
Lake-town -Maps of the relationship between Esgaroth and the Lonely Mountain
The Front Gate -That is, the entrance used by the dwarves to get into the mountain; it was much bigger than I had originally imagined it
"Conversation with Smaug" by J.R.R. Tolkien is one
of the many illustrations included in The Art of The Hobbit
Conversation with Smaug -The best illustration I can find of a dragon on his hoard by Tolkien, and featuring Bilbo with his Ring on
Smaug Flies Around the Mountain -This section is very ominous and foreboding, but whimsical at the same time
Death of Smaug -Even when a dragon is falling to its death it still looks good when Tolkien draws it
The Lonely Mountain and the Long Lake -This is exactly what it sounds like
Wilderland -Maps of the way between the Shire and the Lonely Mountain as well as a few sketches
The Hall at Bag-End -Finally, back at home in his nice cozy home, Bilbo relaxes
Binding Designs -Allen & Unwin publishers finally agree with Tolkien on one of his original designs!
Dust-jacket Art -The dust-jacket for the first edition is outlined
Portraits of Bilbo -Tolkien stated he had little skill in drawing humans and much preferred landscapes; however, he did venture into doing a few portraits of Bilbo Baggins which are included here


Overall, I felt this book, like The Art of the Lord of the Rings, offered good insight into Tolkien's writing process and the way that he envisioned things.  Unlike it's sister-book, this work has more of Tolkien's illustrations that he actually meant to publish whereas The Art of LOTR included many small pencil sketches he only used for his own reference.  It appears Professor Tolkien did a considerably large amount of artwork for his first real novel--certainly much more than in for his more mature work, The Lord of the Rings.

This was a remarkably quick read and I think the authors put in just the right amount of commentary to balance the pictures without overshadowing the actual illustrations themselves.  One of my favorite things was (similar to the other book) the translation of the runes that Tolkien used in his drawings.  I have often wondered what they might mean, and now I know!  Another thing I really enjoyed was actually the Introduction, which outlined very clearly the process Tolkien went through that ultimately led to him writing and publishing his first venture into Middle-earth (though he didn't know it at the time).

This book is probably best suited for aspiring writers so that they can see some of the strategies that one of the best writers of the twentieth century used.  It also would be a great addition to any art-lovers collection, and for my part, I love it because it is a work of Tolkien and the editors clearly shared my love for his work.

I wonder if they will ever get around to putting together a volume of Tolkien's work based around The Silmarillion stories.  I wonder if Tolkien actually did work based on The Silmarillion.  I know he considered it his greatest work, and for my part, it is my favorite to draw out.  Hmm...