Tuesday, January 3, 2012

J.R.R. Tolkien, born January 3, 1892

(Full-size view available at Strange Maps)

Today would have been the 120th birthday of author, linguist and professor J.R.R. Tolkien. W.H. Auden was a student who listened to Tolkien read Beowulf at university in the 1930s; Anthony Burgess would later write about Lord of the Rings that "Tolkien loved Anglo-Saxon literature because there were no women in it." Burgess was one to know; his own A Clockwork Orange (1962) described a modern dystopia with its own hyper-masculine psychological topography.
Both authors, it seems, were interested in myths created by stories told after the battles are over, and both had ideas involving a previous golden age, if more vicious one, of gods and monsters.

As Roger Lewis writes in his controversial biography, Anthony Burgess: "Tolkien ... maintained it was all downhill after the Norman Conquest -- all that Frenchification despoiling the Old English -- and Burgess had a similar racist philosophy, except he went back further still, wanting to purify us from the influence of the Angles, from the Danish peninsula, who invaded in the fifth century, and of the Germanic peoples, who migrated to our shores at a similar period. ... 'In principle, I'm in favor of Welsh nationalism,'" Lewis quotes Burgess at one point, "'and the Celts recovering England, too."

Quoting Burgess further: "Excalibur would be a rallying cry to drive the bloody Anglo-Saxons out. They are the invaders. But it will never happen." At another point Burgess (who saw himself as a Welsh writer) makes his point by naming Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas as three writers who surrendered their gifts "to the Anglo-Saxon gods of dullness. ... I will beat the Anglo-Saxons yet."

The mythological European setting of Tolkien's trilogy was no accident. Burgess commented on some of Tolkien's themes in The Lord of the Rings: “the flavor of the book is feudal rather than democratic: the theme is loyalty and the willingness to combat pagan enemies. ..." These are admirable sentiments for any tale of victories remembered around the campfire, but for Tolkien they might have had a contemporary resonance.

When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings in post-World War II Britain (1954/55) the lessons of a world-under-threat and a recently-vanquished Third Reich, with its own mythological Wagnerian framework, would have been a strong creative agent. To Burgess, there are other echoes in the action of the story: "... The great epic poem Beowulf is entirely masculine, all warriors relaxing in meadhalls before going off to fight fearful enemies. Beowulf’s supernatural enemy is Grendel, a frightening monster, but Grendel’s mother is worse.”

Frank Jacobs, in Strange Maps, posts the work of Peter Bird. Bird, professor of geophysics and geology at UCLA, overlays the current map of Europe with Tolkien's original sketch of imagined land, to locate the "long-gone" geography of the Third Age. Here's part of Jacobs' post, which features Bird's map (above; a full-size version is available at Big Think):

... Created by Tolkien somewhere in the 1930s, the map shows the ‘mortal lands’ of Middle-earth, which according to Tolkien himself is part of our own Earth, but in a previous, mythical era. At the time of the events described in ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Middle-earth is moving towards the end of its Third Age, about 6,000 years ago.
... The Hobbits are described as inhabiting ‘the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea’, and therefore it’s tempting to associate their home with Tolkien’s own, England. Yet, Tolkien himself wrote that ‘as for the shape of the world of the Third Age, I am afraid that was devised ‘dramatically’, rather than geologically, or paleontologically.” Elsewhere, Tolkien does admit “The ‘Shire’ is based on rural England, and not any other country in the world.”
Tolkien at least compares his ‘Old World’ with Europe: “The action of the story takes place in the North-West of ‘Middle-earth’, equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean (…) If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.”
But, as Tolkien states in the prologue to ‘The Lord of the Rings’, it would be fruitless to look for geographical correspondences, as “Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed…” And yet, that’s exactly what Peter Bird attempts with the map here shown.
Jacobs's post is complete with a kind of Rough Guide to the real Middle-earth, a list of geographic approximations where the action is laid, from the Shire to Mount Doom. As Brian D'Sousa comments elsewhere about The Lord of the Rings, "Sometimes a book or film tells us more about the era in which it was made rather than the fictionalized plot or setting."
After an ultimate triumph over the Nazis in a wracking, bloody, six-year war, It's probably no surprise that in Tolkien's Middle-earth, the imagined Mordor would be geographically located in the dark forests of Transylvania -- the medieval and superstition-filled haunts of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

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