Paul Latham


The Unexpected Journey back to the Lord of the Rings

I finished Lord of the Rings recently and the Hobbit soon after and I have to admit that I have reassessed my opinion of Tolkien and his universe.

I read the books when I was a teenager and was unimpressed by the extraordinary length of the paragraphs. Tolkien loved words and language and he used them a lot.  And for a teenager who cut his fantasy teeth on Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, it was a bit much.  I pretty much skipped to the action sequences like a soccer mom sitting on the couch with a copy of Fifty Shades and skimmed the rest.

Fast forward to the eternal now and my interest in things medieval and especially viking in nature has been rekindled by Skyrim. The art and design and obvious Celtic, Viking and Saxon influence had me digging out my copies of Beowulf.  I browsed and read and found a forward that mentioned Tolkien and his love of Beowulf.  As a matter of fact, he wrote an essay in defense of the poem as a literary achievement and a work of art.  He would even dress in armor and recite the poem’s intro in the original old english when he was teaching class on the subject.

That got me to thinking about old english.  At one time I had a goal of reading Beowulf in the original old english but, like many of my lofty ambitions, it fell to wayside as life happened.  But now my interest is rekindled and I found a handy guide with accompanying CD’s that may actually have me on my way to at least reading the language.

Now somewhere in all of that I was making connections to Middle Earth and Saxon and Viking history (for instance, not many are aware that there was a historical Gandalf). I think it was on a “if you like this, then try…” website or article that I found The Saxon Chronicles Series of books by Bernard Cornwell which is historical fiction that covers the time of Alfred.

Now I am hard on writers.  I demand lot and tolerate little. I say that and I will tell you that Bernard Cornwell is a solid storyteller and you should own every thing he writes. Piss poor writers are a dime a dozen these days and solid writers that weave a story that makes you forget the time and stay up way too late are far too rare.  I would buy every book he has written but he’s rather prolific and I’m an artist of the underfed variety and so the responsibility falls to you, gentle reader, to buy every book this man has ever written.

Anyway, the Saxon Chronicles covers the time period when old english was in its prime and so the aforementioned handy guide was coming in very handy as a guide for the pronunciation of proper nouns within the stories. I also stumbled onto a mod for Medieval 2: Total War that actually converts the entire game into a semi-historical representation of the era in question.  The game was cheap and the mod was free so I loaded it up and spent a day or two fighting rebel Saxons and Vikings and reaching for my old english language books so I could curse at my computer driven opponents in the appropriate language. I recognized place names and unit types and I may need to read Cornwell’s chronicles again now that I have an appreciation of the geography and the costumes of the time. And, after playing Wessex, I have all manner of respect for Alfred the Great.  Raiding Danes by sea and land and petty lords nipping at his heels and yet he basically created Britain. I’m on the hunt for a worthy biography of the man to learn more.

So I’m reading the Chronicles, playing the game, butchering the language and beating up Wikipedia for historical information. And Tolkien’s name keeps coming up. Tolkien was a fan of Norse and Germanic myths and they had an influence on the Lord of the Rings. Some reports suggest the created the saga to bolster the missing myths of the English people. The connections to the material I was researching were solid and worthy of attention.

But as I said, I’ve always held Tolkien and his mythos at arms length, leaning more towards the heroic fantasies, the Heavy Metal style of sword and sorcery with spraying blood and nearly naked wenches. I have always given Tolkien his due as the godfather of modern fantasy.  His influence or even birthing of a genre cannot be contested. But nearly naked wenches have won me over and held my loyalty more times than I care to admit.

But I even hold Peter Jackson’s movies to be in my top five movies of all time. That’s three slots out of five. But I could argue that the movies, with all there coolness, were a bit soft.  A bit chewy even. Certain characters exhibited a lack of commitment to an obvious cause. It annoyed me. The wrath of the Balrog, the defense of Helm’s Deep and the charge of the Rohirrim more that made up for these minor annoyances. But still, to a certain extent, the movies made my point about the differences between Tolkienesque fantasy and heroic fantasy.

So here I stood, some years later, rethinking my stance as I picked up a version of the The Lord of the Rings that had all three books in one volume. With all the bad-assery present in all the media I was absorbing as of late that covered the Saxons and Vikings and such, had I missed something in the saga written by the champion of early Saxon literature?

So I began to read. And I read a lot. And I read some more. I did skimmed the appendices mostly because, at that point, I wanted to move on to The Hobbit.  I finished it a bit faster and now I stand on the other side of an epic literary journey and looking back I realize I was right about a few things and wrong about the rest but I don’t think I’ll bore said gentle reader with my analysis. Suffice to say that my opinion of the movies has not lessened but if you forced me to choose between the extended versions of the movies and the books, at this point, I would choose the books.

I’m curious to see what Jackson will do with The Hobbit and I’ll try to keep an open mind but I think it’s dissolving in a CGI quagmire at a whopping 48 frames per second.  He’s tapping the appendices for material but honestly that stuff is in the appendices for a reason. So maybe I’m skeptical.  But we’ll see.

Besides. I can always go back and read the books.

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