Read Meditations on Middle-Earth Online

Authors: Karen Haber

Tags: #Fantasy Literature, #Irish, #Middle Earth (Imaginary Place), #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Welsh, #Fantasy Fiction, #History and Criticism, #General, #American, #Books & Reading, #Scottish, #European, #English, #Literary Criticism

Meditations on Middle-Earth (9 page)

I read
The Hobbit
and the trilogy obsessively. In the year after finding them, I must have gone through them, appendices and all, six or eight times. This was, of course, my freshman year at an academically demanding institution. Falling head over heels in love with The Lord of the Rings isn’t the only reason I flunked out of Caltech. It isn’t even the most important reason. But the time I spent with Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin was time I didn’t spend—and should have spent—with physics and calculus and chemistry.

Nor was I the only one at Caltech caught up in Tolkien’s spell. There were about ten of us, three or four, as luck would have it, in my residence house. We would get together when we could to try to stump one another with obscure quotations, to seek to work out the meanings of elvish words, and to argue about things as abstruse and unprovable as how well a Roman legion suddenly transported to the universe of The Lord of the Rings might fare: of this last, more anon.

We searched through the books for hints about how the unwritten history of the Fourth Age might go as diligently as fifth-century theologians went over the New Testament for clues as to the nature or natures of Christ. I came to the conclusion that the chief evil power of the Fourth Age would be the Lord of the Nazgûl. This is, no doubt, heresy of the purest ray serene, but, like the Arians or Nestorians of early Christendom, I had some texts on my side.

Consider: The Fourth Age is to be the Age of Man, with the elves and other ancient races vanished or much reduced in power. The Nazgûl, proud men ensnared by Sauron’s schemes, are the great bane of mankind. When Merry hamstrung the Lord of the Nazgûl, he did so with a blade from the Barrow-downs, a blade specially made with charms against Sauron’s chief lieutenant, who had been the Witch-king of Angmar in the north. But when Owyn struck the blow that finished the Ringwraith, what sword did she use? Only an ordinary weapon of the Rohirrim. And when the Nazgûl’s spirit left him, it “faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up and was never heard again
in that age of the world
[italics mine].” Not in the Third Age, certainly. But what of the Fourth?

I may also note that, having thus been disembodied, the Lord of the Nazgûl was not caught, as were the other eight of his kind, in the incinerating eruption of Mount Doom after the Ring went into the fire. And, in a footnote to letter 246 in Carpenter’s collection, Tolkien, who had been talking about how Frodo would have fared had he faced the remaining eight Nazgûl, writes, “The Witch-king [the Lord of the Nazgûl] had been reduced to impotence.” Tolkien does not say the Ringwraith was slain, so I have, at least, a case.

Such was my reasoning. I should also note at this point that I was already trying to become a writer. I’d tried to write three different novels, and had actually finished one (none of this work, I hasten to add, came within miles of being publishable). The summer of 1967 was among the blackest times of my life. I had no idea how to cope with academic failure—thinking I could excel without studying much, as I had in high school, was a contributing factor, and not such a small one, to my flunking out of Caltech.

And so I plunged into a new novel. It was, of course, an exercise in hubris, complete and unadorned. I realize that now. I did not realize it when I was eighteen. There are a great many things one does not realize at eighteen, not least among them being how very many things one does not realize at eighteen. Taking some of the arguments from the Caltech dorms, my own growing interest in history, and my belief that the Lord of the Nazgûl survived, I dropped a couple of centuries of Caesar’s legionaries (and one obstreperous Celt) into what I imagined Gondor would be like during the Fourth Age.

God help me, I still have the manuscript. The one thing I can truthfully say is that I meant no harm. (I take that back. I can say one other thing: I am not the individual mentioned in letter 292 of
The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
, the chap who not only aimed to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings but sent Tolkien a detailed outline of it. That letter dates from December 1966, before part of the same bad idea occurred to me.)

I wrote it. I finished it: something close to 100,000 words, far and away the longest project I’d ever undertaken up till then. Even had all the inspiration come from my own mind, I couldn’t have sold it. Neither the style nor the characterization—such as that was—measures up to anything anyone else would ever want to read. To this day, though, I can say the plot was not disastrously bad. I had a tolerable story, but I didn’t yet know how to tell it or where to set it.



The Fellowship of the Ring

Chapter X: “The Breaking of the Fellowship”

A dozen years passed. I did a lot of the things most people do going from eighteen to thirty. I found something that interested me and pursued it. (In my case, it happened to be the history of the Byzantine Empire, which I admit is not a subject reckoned universally fascinating.) I fell in love several times. Sometimes this was mutual, sometimes not, which is also par for the course. Once, when it was, I got married. That lasted a little more than three and a half years. Not too long after my first wife and I broke up, I met the lady to whom I’m married now. In short, I grew up, or started to.

After I got my doctorate in Byzantine history, I taught for two years at UCLA while the professor under whom I’d studied had a guest appointment at the University of Athens. I had kept writing, and I began to sell an occasional piece: a science-fiction novelette to a magazine that expired before the piece saw print; a fantasy novel that owed nothing to Tolkien except, of course, a debt of gratitude for vastly broadening the market for fantasy novels of all sorts.

In the autumn of 1979, I was engaged to the woman now my wife, and unemployed—a combination always especially endearing to a prospective father-in-law—and hoping to find a job, any sort of job, before my savings ran out, and I faced the ultimate indignity of my generation: having to move back into the house where I’d grown up. Being unemployed, I had time on my hands. I decided I would go to work on another fantasy novel. If all went extremely well, that would even help me pay my bills.

In pondering what to write, I remembered that novel I’d worked on in an earlier time of crisis, the one that dropped Romans from Caesar’s legions into Fourth Age Gondor. By the time I reached thirty, I was smart enough to figure out that using someone else’s universe—especially without his permission—was not the right way to go about things. I’d also spent all that time and effort acquiring specialized knowledge of my own. This time, I dropped the legionaries into a world of my own creation, rather than Tolkien’s. I should have done that in the first place, but better late, I hoped, than never.

The world I built was modeled on the Byzantine Empire in the late eleventh century, at the time of the crucial battle of Manzikert, except that magic worked. Into it I brought my Romans—and one obstreperous Celt. The broad outlines of the plot of what became The Videssos Cycle are the same as those of my earlier act of unauthorized literary appropriation. This is why
The Misplaced Legion
, the first book of The Videssos Cycle, is dedicated to my wife, to the professor under whom I learned Byzantine history, to L. Sprague De Camp (whose
Lest Darkness Fall
first interested me in Byzantium) . . . and to J. R. R. Tolkien. My own cast of mind and my work usually resemble De Camp’s far more than Tolkien’s, but I felt I needed to note all the origins of the series. Attention must be paid.

Stretching and cutting the plot to fit the new situation wasn’t that hard. I had envisioned Gondor in the Fourth Age as being in a situation the Byzantines would have understood: ancient; proud; diminished in territory from earlier days; in constant conflict with neighboring peoples, some of them nomads off the plains. (To this day, that seems reasonable to me. Tolkien himself, in letter 131 of the Carpenter collection, writes, “In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Númenór, and then fades slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.” The analogy was in his mind, too. The difference is, it had a right to be in his, but not in mine, not in his universe.)

One problem I had with The Videssos Cycle was the nature of my villain. The Lord of the Nazgûl was, as I mentioned, the chief evil power in my imagined Fourth Age. When he appeared among men, he necessarily went veiled and masked, as he had no face he could present to the world. I incorporated this feature of his appearance into the new world I was building: incorporated it without first asking myself, Why are you doing this?

By the time I did think to ask myself that question, my masked and veiled villain had become an integral part of the world I’d created. That meant I had to devise some reason for his concealing himself, and one that needed to be far removed from the reason the Nazgûl never showed themselves. I hope I succeeded in this. Had I not transposed quite so thoroughly from the Tolkien-based world to the one I was creating myself, the difficulty never would have arisen. And, indeed, it shouldn’t have.

Aside from strip-mining my unpublishable homage to The Lord of the Rings to help form work I might legitimately show the world, I’ve used Tolkienesque motifs only once that springs to mind, in a short story called “After the Last Elf Is Dead.” There, the borrowing was intentional and, I believe, necessary. Tolkien and many of his lesser imitators depict the struggle of Good and Evil, with Good triumphant, at some cost, in the end.

This is, of course, how we want the world to work. The question I looked at in “After the Last Elf Is Dead” is, what happens if it doesn’t work that way? What does the world look like if Evil defeats Good? Turning common tropes on their ear is often one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking things a writer can do.

One of the more profitable things a writer can do, however, is to repeat those tropes. Tolkien’s influence on fantasy since the publication and enormous success of The Lord of the Rings has not been altogether beneficial. This is not his fault, I hasten to add. But he has had many imitators, and imitators of imitators, and imitators of imitators of imitators, until some heroic-quest fantasies resemble nothing so much as blurry sixth-generation photocopies of his great work, borrowing not only structure but bits of background such as noble, immortal elves, and wicked, bestial ores as if they sprang from lore long in the public domain rather than from the imagination of a writer not yet thirty years dead!

One very successful imitator—at least in financial terms—stated quite openly in an interview that his method was to emulate all the elements of adventure in The Lord of the Rings and to suppress the mythological, theological, and linguistic themes: every bit of the lore and scholarship and depth that informed the original. I read his words in astonished disbelief and dismay. And yet, he proved a shrewd judge of what a substantial part of the reading public wanted, or was willing to settle for. His books outsell those of all but a handful of other writers in the field.

The essential difference, I think, is that Tolkien created his world for himself first, and for others only afterward. He began building the lays and legends of Middle-earth more than twenty years before even
The Hobbit
saw print. Almost twenty years more passed before The Lord of the Rings appeared. Everything in these books is a product of long reflection, long refinement. It shows. How could it help but show?

Because of that, it is unique, and is likely to remain so. Most books come into being far more quickly, and with at least one eye toward the market. It has always been so, ever since the earliest days of the printing press. Several of Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, were first published as what we now call Bad Quartos—hasty, pirated editions designed to make a printer a fast buck. If we had only the Bad Quarto of
, the Prince of Denmark’s immortal soliloquy would read:

To be, or not to be. Ay, there’s the point,
To die, to sleep, is that all? Ay, all:
No, to sleep, to dream, ay marry there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we awake,
And borne before an everlasting Judge,
From whence no passenger ever return’d,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damn’d.
But for this, the joyful hope of this,
Who’d bear the scorns and flatteries of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the


The difference between that sorry text—probably set in type relying on the shaky memory of one of the actors in the play—and what Shakespeare actually wrote is the same sort of gulf that lies between those who would imitate Tolkien and the man himself. It is the difference between haste and care, between commerce and love. (I don’t mean to suggest that Tolkien was immune to concerns about commerce; any examination of his letters proves otherwise. But he had built his world long before commerce became a concern. It is not often, and cannot often be, thus.)

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