Talking Tolkien: A New Black Gate Series
Possibly because Black Gate leans more towards sword and sorcery than to high fantasy, the varied works of Robert E. Howard are a lot more discussed here than those of J.R.R. Tolkien. But there are quite a few devotees of both, and the writings of the two fathers of fantasy are favorites.
Back in the summer of 2015, writers from all over waxed eloquently on various aspects of REH’s life and works in a series we called Discovering Robert E. Howard. Some fascinating stuff was covered, and the final essay was posted in March of the following year!
Because I never know when to leave a good thing alone, we took things a step further in 2019. From January through June, a different writer looked at every original Conan story (randomly assigned to them) written by REH, for Hither Came Conan. It was, quite simply, a spectacular series with some amazing essays. It was so good, that it was incorporated along with a blog series by Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward, into a new book from Rogue Blades, into THE definitive guide to the Conan Canon. With some new essays added, Hither Came Conan belongs on every REH shelf – right alongside the terrific Del Rey Conan trilogy, on mine.
Well, since the Black Gate firewall still hasn’t figured out how to block me, I decided why not expand the Tolkien footprint here at BG?
Joe Bonadonna, Gabe Dybing, Rich Horton, David Ian, Ruth de Jauregui, James McGlothlin, Thomas Parker, Fletcher Vredenburgh, and myself (the only way I get included in these types of All Star things is to put it together myself…) are going to spend the next couple months talking about different aspects of Tolkien’s life and works. And it’s not just Middle Earth (though of course, much of it is).
I discovered Tolkien as a middle-schooler getting into Dungeons and Dragons. Tolkien, Moorcock, Lieber – I didn’t know what high fantasy or sword and sorcery were. I just knew these cool tales about magical worlds and awesome heroes were a huge expansion of my love of Greek mythology. In high school, and beyond, I came to appreciate the epic scope of Tolkien’s world-creation and epic sagas, in The Silmarillion. That remains my favorite of his books, and I browse through random parts of The History of Middle Earth for geeky fun.
And of course, Peter Jackson’s films – OMG!!! I grew up longing for something like The Fellowship of the Ring. I saw Kull, and Ator, in a theater. From such slim pickings, The Sword and the Sorcerer was my favorite fantasy film during my high school years. I watched the kiddie Rankin-Bass The Hobbitt every time it came on TV (I still own the VHS), and wished for something like the books that painted my imagination.
Last year, I had a long run playing Lord of the Rings Online; I have a pretty decent Tolkien shelfie that goes beyond Middle Earth; I listen to the radio plays sometimes: I’ve been a Tolkien fan longer than of any other fantasy author. I find the actual Lord of the Rings books slow reading, and I’m not a huge fan of The Hobbit – I’m not a total fanboy. And I think that Rings of Power was more fan fiction than legitimate Tolkien.
But his face is on my Fantasy Mt. Rushmore, right next to Howard’s. His is the first name in any discussion of fantasy – just as Dashiell Hammett’s is for the hardboiled pulp school. So, we’re gonna spend the next few months talking about various aspects of Tolkien.
I’m currently up to my elbows in a couple other projects, but I hope to do a post at least touching on the various podcasts and youtube channels out there – growing up in the seventies as I did, it is unfathomable how much Tolkien there is out there. You could do a couple pod/vidcasts a day and fall soooo far behind.
But join us here this Spring and into Summer as we Talk Tolkien. And somebody else is gonna have to step up and volunteer to write about Tom Bombadil – the best part of Jackson’s movies was that he left BomBadil entirely out. He’s the Jar Jar Binks of Middle Earth.
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made its Black Gate debut in 2018 and has returned every summer since.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’ He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series. Which is now part of THE DEFINITIVE guide to Conan.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.
He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.
Awesome! And yes, Bombadil . . . wise move on Jackson’s part.
Ha ha ha!! He was a quest giver in one chapter of Lord of the Rings Online. I wanted to attack him, but couldn’t.
Only we got Radagast instead – swings and roundabouts, swings and roundabouts….
I was always a little interested in Radagast, as the third wizard. I had no use for Jackson’s version. He was a doofus.
I honestly do think I have Bombadil figured out, that is, why that episode is an important part of the music in the symphony that is The Lord of the Rings. I’d want to make two points, about the love between Bombadil and Goldberry, and about Coventry Patmore’s “point of rest in art.” It’s kind of too much for a response in a comment box.
For those interested in Tolkien’s “world-building” (a term that I don’t think actually fits what Tolkien did terribly well), Tolkien’s Cosmology: Divine Beings and Middle-earth by Sam McBride should not be overlooked. I wrote a 3500-word review of it, again something too long for a response in a comment box.
Tolkien preferred the term ‘sub-creation’ himself – I think the analogy was a religious one? (ie, God being the ultimate creator, with artists, writers etc essentially mimicking what he did)
“World-building” has connections, I suspect, with roleplaying games. There the idea seems to be (I don’t play the games) that someone first figures out detailed features and rules within which the story will then unfold in ways contingent on the skill, attentiveness, etc. of the players. Tolkien’s fantasy is much more like a great poem, in which the whole is present in all of the parts and everything contributes to the finished work of art. Yet though it is finished, it is alive. The reader needs to submit to the work, reading attentively and receptively (e.g. by knowing what the words mean, by “hearing” the sounds of the prose, and so on). A poor reader is the one who wants the book (in this case The Lord of the Rings) to set loose his daydreams, amuse him in the way he wishes to be amused, etc. Readers like this complain about the “walking bits,” which are actually integral to LotR.
Bob, you promised me that I could do the piece on the Rankin-Bass Hobbit. If you back out, I’ll cast you back into the fiery chasm from whence you came!
Oops. I forgot. So, if you could send me said piece….
I would happily read said piece!
I learned my patience from Veruca Salt.
i know how influential and important Tolkien is, but i have never been much into reading him. i have tried about 7 times, multiple with the hobbit a few with the lord of the rings, but they just dont grab me. the first contact i had with Tolkien was the animated hobbit movie, and i still enjoy it. then my mother had a nice slip case of the whole series which after how much i liked the animated hobbit, tried it then. i think i was probly still too young at the time because i didnt start really reading till a few years later and i started with Asimov and sci fi.
i am going to go into this with an open mind and with hopes all these people and you can change my mind a little so i can get into and read the full stories.
thanks for doing it!
I find Tolkien to be a slow read, in general. I prefer watching the Peter Jackson’s movies to reading the LotR books. But the entire mythology, and the history of events (which are often depressing) is absorbing to me.
I’m way more into just reading various bits from HoME, than the actual novels.
I was into ‘pop’ Norse mythology as a kid/teen, and reading the Sigurd book last year was really cool. Seeing the old Nordic sagas – and their influence on MIddle Earth – was a fun read.
The Fellowship of the Rings has a slow start, but once it gets going it really gets going. I also tend to skip over the songs which annoy me because they interrupt the narrative. (I don’t even bother watching musicals.) So tLotRs has its faults, but so does everything really. I think on balance it is an amazing book.
Lord of the Rings (which, when I say it, is generally shorthand for The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings proper) is my favorite series bar none and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read them over the years, although I admit I’ve not dived into the Histories of Middle-Earth &c.
Jackson’s LotR films had some very high highs, but also some pretty low lows. And his Hobbit films, despite Martin Freeman’s best efforts, pretty much skipped the highs and found even lower lows to plumb.
The audiobook of Unifinished Tales is terrific. I listen to chapters at various times, just to get a taste of Tolkien. Really good one.
How do we join the discussion? Just post here?
Howdy! Yep. Any Black Gate post can be commented on and often gets responses.
Hello I would be interested in talk about Tolkien stuff, it’s amazing how he was actually a language expert and developed the elfish language along with others to be a fully functional language or script like the dwarfish script.
Tolkien was a brilliant man. His mix of scholarly knowledge and ability; with imagination, is amazing.
Speaking of Tolkien audio, the best I’ve ever heard was a Nicol Williamson (Merlin in Excalibur) reading of The Hobbit. It’s been out of “print” (or whatever the term for an audiobook is) for decades, but it’s well with seeking out. (I think it was originally put out on vinyl in the 70’s – that may be the only format it was ever released in.)
Just checked and the whole Nicol Williamson Hobbit can be listened to on Youtube.
I felt challenged to “explain” Tom Bombadil, until I pulled out my sources this morning and, cross-referencing that content with the digest of information on the Internet, found that Wikipedia summarizes Bombadil’s meaning and function quite well, as does Tolkien himself in his Letters.
So now I don’t feel the need. Is there more to be said other than reader frustrations about Bombadil not being “important” to the narrative, as Tolkien himself addresses? (Letter 144, p. 178).
Perhaps I should reread those passages from The Lord of the Rings anyway. As a young reader, I absolutely LOVED the “Fog on the Barrow-Downs,” and I endeavored to translate that experience to my players in Middle-Earth Role Playing. I remember that I started one adventure with the PCs trapped in a barrow, just as the hobbits were in the book. But I don’t remember how it turned out for the PCs.
Incidentally, this very year, Colbert celebrated what some regard the “slowest” portions of The Lord of the Rings. Not sure how many caught that.