There Would Always Be A Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien by Verlyn Flieger

My library doesn’t have Flieger’s earlier collection, Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien, so I read this instead. I’m not really sure how to review this, so I’ll start by linking to Megan Fontentot’s review:

These were interesting to read, but I’m finding it difficult to say much about them. I’ll probably come back to some of these later.

“How Trees Behave, Or Do They?” is one of my favorites, a fantastic essay on the nature of trees in LotR. It’s also available online, so you can read it here:

“Eucatastrophe and the Dark” is not really a scholarly essay, but a reflection on Flieger’s experiences teaching Tolkien’s work. She writes about teaching The Lord of the Rings along with two Tolkien essays, “On Fairy Stories” and “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.” As she says, the two essays deal with the opposite poles of Tolkien’s imagination: the fairytale and the tragic epic. I have to admit that when she describes some of her students resisting the bittersweet aspect of LotR, I am completely baffled, because I just don’t share that reaction at all. I do agree with her that the ending of LotR is bittersweet rather than happy. I wonder, though, what teaching The Silmarillion must be like, because I think most people who have read it would say that while LotR is pretty balanced between joy and sorrow, The Silmarillion comes close to crashing the scales on the tragic side. (I love it, but still.)

My introduction to Flieger’s work was her excellent study of The Silmarillion, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. (I reviewed it here.) I have Green Suns and Faërie: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien and A Question of Time: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie on my reading list, but first I want to reread John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, and I’m not sure when I’ll get to it.


Classics Club Spin #27 List

I haven’t reviewed any books in a while, but I’m joining the Classics Club Spin #27! Info here. And I will review The Conference of the Birds soon (my current book for The Classics Club).

  1. The Golden Ass
  2. The Symposium
  3. The True History 
  4. Electra 
  5. The Saga of the Volsungs
  6. Troilus & Cressida
  7. Cymbeline
  8. Songs of Innocence & Experience 
  9. Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy 
  10. The Best of CL Moore
  11. The King of Elfland’s Daughter (reread)
  12. The Complete Cosmicomics 
  13. The Boat of a Million Years
  14. Lyrical Ballads
  15. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  16. The Phantom Tollbooth
  17. The Fifth Head of Cerberus
  18. The First Men in the Moon
  19. The Wild Shore


Notes on “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings”

This is a 1983 essay by fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, published her book Reflections: On the Magic of Writing. I read this essay because of a post from Calmgrove, which is part of a series of posts concerning The Lord of the Rings. I have read a few of Jones’s books (so far Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire & Hemlock, and Charmed Life) and I want to read more by her, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Jones writes that the book is “organized in movements, just like a symphony, but with this difference: each movement has an extension, or coda, which reflects partly back on the movement just completed and partly forward to what is to come.”

Jones has a few criticisms of Tolkien’s style. She thinks he uses “suddenly” too much, and maybe she’s right. She doesn’t like what she calls his “hackneyed high style” in the more archaic passages. I don’t share her reaction at all, but I am a little surprised, because she says some admiring things about The Return of the King (RotK) later in the essay. I think if I didn’t like Tolkien’s use of a higher register then I would like RotK much less, because it’s very prominent in that volume.

She finds Tom Bombadil “supremely irritating” even though she recognizes that he represents something unique in the narrative. I’m with her on that one. She likes the gate of Moria but “once they get inside, I am never as impressed as I could wish.” She notes that the Orcs don’t have personalities here as they do in vol. 2, which is true, but I love the other villains we get here: the Balrog and also the Watcher in the Water. They don’t have personalities either, but I really like the fact that so many of Tolkien’s monsters have an air of mystery, rather than just being minions of Sauron.

Regarding the Elves, Jones says: Legolas makes us think that Elves can be “human and approachable.” She continues: “This is not the case. Tolkien leaves the Elves almost as mysterious and alien as they were before you saw Lothlorien.” I don’t really agree… I think they continue to come across as alien, but they continue to surprise us by undermining that impression too.

She also writes about the contrast between the two sections of RotK, books IV and V. The dreary journey through Mordor contrasts with the uplifting tone in much of book IV: “Though it is odd that the positive side of the action is compounded of killing and politics, and the negative of love, endurance, and courage, this is how it seems to be.”

I have a few other articles on various aspects of LotR that I have saved from the internet to read later. I’m not sure when I’ll have a chance to write about those, but in the meantime you can read my review of Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth.


Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. McKillip

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ombria in Shadow is one of two books by McKillip that won the World Fantasy Award, the other being The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, which I read a few years ago. It is set in the city of Ombria,  where the prince has just died and his great-aunt, Domina Pearl, is acting as regent for the prince’s young son Kyel. Lydea takes refuge in her father’s tavern and receives mysterious help from a girl named Mag, who serves the sorceress Faey. Ducon, the dead prince’s nephew (and Kyel’s cousin), whose charcoal drawings depict the otherworldly counterpart of Ombria; the shadow city. Lydea, Mag, and Ducon are the main viewpoint characters. This book has much more plot than The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; I wouldn’t called it fast-paced but it’s certainly intricate. There’s no obvious single protagonist, but the characters are all interesting, and Domina Pearl is a wonderfully haunting villain. The ending is satisfying, which wasn’t the case for me in Alphabet of Thorn and possibly The Bell at Sealey Head, although I don’t remember that second one well enough to say why.

What really stands out in this book is the setting. The mysterious city of Ombria was great, maybe the most interesting setting that I’ve read from McKillip so far. I think I like this better than The Bell at Sealey Head although since that one is similarly intensely focused on a small setting, I’m now wondering how it would compare if I read it again. I’ll probably read more by this author, but I’m not sure which book to read.

The writing is beautiful; here are some of my favorite bits:
“Faey lived, for those who knew how to find her, within Ombria’s past. Parts of the city’s past lay within time’s reach, beneath the streets in great old limestone tunnels: the hovels and mansions and sunken river that Ombria shrugged off like a forgotten skin, and buried beneath itself through the centuries…”

“There was the gaudy patch of sunflowers beside the west gate of the palace of the Prince of Ombria, that did nothing all day long but turn their golden-haired, thousand-eyed faces to follow the sun.”

“Mag had learned to move through the streets like a musician moved through music, tuning it note by note with every breath, every touch. A rough voice in the dark could render her invisible; at a touch, she was simply gone, up a pipe, down a barrel, down deeper than that, through a shadow or a door. Not being human, she never wondered at what humans did. She had seen them pilfer each other’s watches, slit each other’s throats, break each other’s hearts. She had seen newborns tossed away with yesterday’s rubbish. She had stepped over men snoring drunk on the cobbles; she had walked around women with bleeding faces, slumped in rich, torn gowns, weeping and cursing in tavern alleys. Since she was wax, none of this concerned her; they might have been dreams or ghosts she moved through, until they tried to pull her into their night-terrors.”

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Review: The Road to Middle-Earth

by Tom Shippey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century a few years ago, but The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created A New Mythology is his earlier book on Tolkien, and now that I have read it, I think I should have started with this one. This a great book and I am sure I’ll read it again someday.

The first two chapters are about philology, the comparative study of languages to understand their evolution. These chapters are informed by Shippey’s tenure at Oxford which overlapped chronologically with Tolkien’s and teaching the same syllabus. The third chapter looks at Tolkien’s portrayal of heroism in The Hobbit, or There and Back Again and how he uses different linguistic registers. One of my favorite quotes comes from this chapter:
“There is one very evident obstacle to recreating the ancient world of heroic legend for modern readers, and that lies in the nature of heroes. These are not acceptable any more, and tend very strongly to be treated with irony: the modern view of Beowulf is John Gardner’s novel Grendel (1971). Tolkien did not want to be ironic about heroes, and yet he could not eliminate modern reactions. His response to the difficulty is Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, the anachronism, a character whose initial role at least is very strongly that of mediator. He represents and often voices modern opinions, modern incapacities: he has no impulses towards revenge or self-conscious heroism, cannot ‘hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl’ as the dwarves suggest, knows almost nothing about Wilderland and cannot even skin a rabbit, being used to having his meat ‘delivered by the butcher ready to cook’. Yet he has a place in the ancient world too, and there is a hint that (just like us) all his efforts cannot keep him entirely separate from the past.

Where Bard and Thorin used archaic words (‘Hail!’, ‘foes’, ‘hoard’, ‘kindred’, ‘slain’), he uses modern ones: ‘profit’, never used in English until 1604, and then only in Aberdeen; ‘deduct’, recorded in 1524 but then indistinguishable from ‘subtract’ and not given its commercial sense till much later; ‘total’, not used as here till 1557; ‘claim’, ‘interest’, ‘affair’, ‘matter’, all French or Latin imports not adopted fully into English till well after the Norman Conquest. It is fair to say that no character from epic or saga could even begin to think or talk like Bilbo.

Chapters Four, Five and Six are about LotR. In chapter four of the highlights is Shippey’s discussion of the Council of Elrond, where he looks at the way Tolkien makes each character’s speech distinct. But he also has interesting things to say about the contrasts between the cultures of Gondor and Rohan; it’s great but I’m not going to try to summarize it. And in Chapter Five; Shippey looks at the tension in Tolkien’s work between Boethian and Manichean views of evil. (This section of the later book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century apparently were a revised or abridged version of what’s in the older book. I don’t remember for sure which other parts are like this.)

“A good way to understand The Lord of the Rings in its full complexity is to see it as an attempt to reconcile two views of evil, both old, both authoritative, both living, each seemingly contradicted by the other. One of these is in essence the orthodox Christian one, expounded by St. Augustine and then by Catholic and Protestant teaching alike, but finding its clearest expression in a book which does not mention Christ at all: Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophe… this says that there is no such thing as evil; ‘evil is nothing,’ is the absence of good, is possibly even an unappreciated good, Omnem bonam prorsus esse fortunam, wrote Boethius, ‘all fortune is certainly good.’ …Views like these are strongly prominent in The Lord of the Rings.

Still, there is an alternative tradition in Western thought, one which has never become ‘official’ but which nevertheless arises spontaneously from experience. This says that while it may be all very well to make philosophical statements about evil, evil nevertheless is real, and not merely an absence; and what’s more it can be resisted, and what’s more still, not resisting it (in the belief that one day Omnipotence will cure all ills) is a dereliction of duty. The danger of this opinion is that it tends toward Manicheanism, the heresy which says that good and evil are equal and opposite…”

Chapter Six has more discussion of Tolkien’s style, including interesting readings of the poems in LotR. He also examines how Tolkien viewed his non-Christian characters and how he was influenced by the Beowulf poet’s view of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons.

In Chapter 7 Shippey describes Tolkien’s writing process and his literary influences for the tales that eventually became The Silmarillion. It is probably fine to read this chapter if you haven’t read the book; in fact one of the objectives of this chapter is to make book:The Silmarillion|7332] more accessible to people who haven’t read it. (As someone who has read it, I think the overview he gives goes a little bit too far in its emphasis on fatalism, but the issue is too complicated to get into here.) An important part of Tolkien’s work on these stories was his attempt to reconcile his stories about Elves with traditional theology, and Shippey suggests that a passage in the Middle English text Early South English Legendary (c. 1250) may have provided a source for Tolkien’s core ideas about Elves, which Shippey summarizes as the following“that elves were like angels; that they had however been involved in a Fall; that their fate at Doomsday is not clear (for men ‘shall join in the Second Music of the Ainur,’ elves perhaps not), that they are associated with the Earthly Paradise, and cannot die till the end of the world.”

Chapter 8 is mostly about one of Tolkien’s short stories, Smith of Wootton Major, which is not set in Middle-earth but does involve fairies. Shippey’s analysis will probably make more sense if you have read it before. I have read it, but not recently, and I will probably want to read this chapter again sometime when I reread that story.

Chapter 9 focuses on the earlier drafts of Tolkien’s writing and how his ideas changed in later versions. (Some of these issues are discussed throughout the book at different points as well). Shippey describes the early drafts of LotR and notes that they lack some of the darker elements of the final version. If Tolkien had stuck to his earlier approach LotR would be “a story of much narrower emotional range, with far less sense of irrevocable loss.” (The earlier drafts have been published in the History of The Lord of the Rings, which I haven’t read, but usually Shippey provides enough context that I could follow the discussion anyway.)

I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this. It can a bit technical and dense sometimes but it was very rewarding.

Classics Club Spin #26

Hi! I haven’t been reading much but I have a few reviews planned for the first few books I read this year. In the meantime, I couldn’t resist joining the current Classics Club spin; this will be my second.

Instructions here: https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/2021/04/11/cc-spin-26/

my list:

  1. Songs of Innocence & Experience – William Blake
  2. Idylls of the King – Alfred Lord Tennyson
  3. The Conference of the Birds – Farid ad-Din Attar
  4. Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy (anthology)
  5. The King of Elfland’s Daughter – Lord Dunsany (reread)
  6. Journey to the West volume one 
  7. Troilus & Cressida – William Shakespeare
  8. Cymbeline – William Shakespeare
  9. The Golden Ass – Apuleius
  10. Lilith by George McDonald – I have already read this but I might reread it since I haven’t reviewed it yet
  11. Nibelungenlied – Anonymous
  12. The Best of CL Moore by CL Moore
  13. The Kalevala – Anonymous
  14. The Poetic Edda – Anonymous
  15. Paradise Lost – John Milton (reread)
  16. The Symposium – Plato
  17. The True History – Lucian of Samotsa
  18. The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
  19. The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe
  20. Lyrical Ballads – William Wordsworth & Samuel Taylor Coleridge

review: Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the kingdom of Raine, an abandoned baby is found and raised by the Royal Librarians of Raine. One day the girl, Nepenthe, is given a mysterious book written in a language with an alphabet of letters shaped like thorns. It turns out to be an epic poem documenting the conquests of the emperor Axis and his sorcerer Kane, “the Hooded One,” three thousand years earlier. The young queen of Raine and her mage Vevay also come into the story.

I reread this for the SciFi and Fantasy Book Club here on GoodReads and I don’t quite know what to say about it. The Axis & Kane story was much more compelling than most of the Nepenthe story. And there are too many points of view in the latter; the female characters were consistently more interesting and maybe McKillip should have kept the focus on them. And the ending seemed a bit rushed. If you have not read McKillip before I would recommend The Forgotten Beasts of Eld instead.

Some bits I liked:
“She could not see the sky, only green and shadow woven thickly above her, yielding not a scrap of blue. She breathed soundlessly. So did the wood around her, she felt; it seemed a live thing, alert and watching her, trees trailing wisps of morning mist, their faces hidden, their thoughts seeping into the air like scent. It was, she thought, like being surrounded by unspoken words.”

“Epics are never written about libraries. They exist on whim; it depends on whether the conquering army likes to read.”

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Minireviews: The Drawing of the Dark/Haroun & the Sea of Stories/Hyperion/The Einstein Intersection

This is a repost from 8/26/20 since it somehow got eaten when I transferred to WordPress

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers *** 3 stars

This is one of Tim Powers’s early novels and the first of his secret histories: several books with the shared premise that something supernatural is going on behind the scenes of history as we know it. It is set before and during the 1529 Siege of Vienna. Irishman Brian Duffy is working as a “bouncer” at an inn there when the siege begins. The first few chapters really drew me in, but the middle drags a bit (it is much shorter than Declare but doesn’t feel like it) and the book as a whole didn’t really come together for me. I might give The Anubis Gates another try (I didn’t finish that one) and I want to try The Stress of Her Regard at some point. I was much more impressed with Declare (my review).

 Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie *** 3 stars
A reread of a book I first read in 2012. I probably won’t read it a third time but it was fun to revisit this. Haroun & the sea of stories begins in the country of Alifbay in a city ”so ruinously sad that it has forgotten its name.” Haroun is the only child of the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, and one day his father gets up in front of a huge audience, opens his mouth, and finds that he has run out of stories to tell. Harun sets out to fix that and discovers that the source of all stories is endangered by the villain Khattam-Shud, the Arch-Enemy of All Stories. 

Hyperion by Dan Simmons *** 3 stars

A Hugo Award Winner (1990) about six people on a journey to the planet Hyperion. In the style of the Canterbury Tales, each character tells a story explaining why they are going to Hyperion. I liked the scholar and the poet best I think. And maybe the detective. The soldier’s tale is the only one that didn’t really do much for me. The book has frequent allusions to John Keats, including the poem Hyperion, which is based on the lost epic poem the Titanomachy, which is about the struggle of the Olympian gods to overthrow their predecessors the Titans. That gave me a hint about some of the things that happen in the book. I don’t like it enough to read the sequel right away but I will probably try it at some point.People disagree about whether to stick with the first book, stop after the second book or read the whole series. 

I think I liked the other Delany books I have read better (Babel-17 and The Ballad of Beta-2 / Empire Star).
Here is what Neil Gaiman said about it in The Sandman Companion:“My original plan [for The Song of Orpheus] was to do the equivalent of a series of jazz riffs, all on Orphic themes, spinning off of stories precisely like The Einstein Intersection. It would have been much weirder and more interesting than what I ended up writing.” He says he kept hearing that people weren’t familiar with the original story, so the story he wrote for Sandman was a more literal retelling.
Huh. Now that I’ve read The Einstein Intersection I can say that knowing the Orpheus story ahead of time (I finally read Metamorphoses in its entirety last year) didn’t help. I will probably read something else by Delany someday (maybe Tales of Nevèrÿon but I am not a huge fan of his so far.
I listened to the audiobook read by Stefan Rudnicki from the library service hoopla digital. This book won the 1967 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (2014)

A man visits his childhood home after many years away. His old house is gone but the farm at the end of the road is still there along with its pond. He remembers an eleven year old girl named Lettie Hempstock who lived there, and who had claimed that the pond behind her house was an ocean. He met her when he was seven years old and had since forgotten how they met and what happened when a sinister woman named Ursula Monkton came to look after him and his sister while their parents were away. Everything he has forgotten starts to come back to him.

I listened to the audio this time (read by the author) and really loved the narration. I ended up listening to it twice. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

“Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”

“Nothing’s ever the same,” she said. “Be it a second later or a hundred years. It’s always churning and roiling. And people change as much as oceans.”

“I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”

“Peas baffled me. I could not understand why grown-ups would take things that tasted so good raw, and then put them in tins, and make them revolting.”

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Review: Four Weird Tales

Four Weird Tales Four Weird Tales by Algernon Blackwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Algernon Blackwood (14 March 1869 – 10 December 1951) was an English novelist and short-story writer best known for his stories of the supernatural. Many of his stories are in the public domain and online. I have previously read The Willows and The Man Whom the Trees Loved (online and as Librivox audio recordings). This is another Librivox recording: https://librivox.org/four-weird-tales… I started the collection John Silence but decided not to finish it at least for now; maybe I will try it some other time.) The readers are pretty much professional quality and I highly recommend it. All four stories are variations on a theme: the protagonist sets out to discover the secrets of the universe.

The Insanity of Jones — A man seeks revenge for injustices suffered in a past life. Or maybe he’s just crazy; take your pick.

The Glamour of the Snow — My favorite! A fine ghost story. Like The Willows this story deals with the terror and awe of the natural world. one of my favorite bits:
The world lay smothered in snow. The châlet roofs shone white beneath the moon, and pitch-black shadows gathered against the walls of the church. His eye rested a moment on the square stone tower with its frosted cross that pointed to the sky: then travelled with a leap of many thousand feet to the enormous mountains that brushed the brilliant stars. Like a forest rose the huge peaks above the slumbering village, measuring the night and heavens. They beckoned him. And something born of the snowy desolation, born of the midnight and the silent grandeur, born of the great listening hollows of the night, something that lay ‘twixt terror and wonder, dropped from the vast wintry spaces down into his heart—and called him. Very softly, unrecorded in any word or thought his brain could compass, it laid its spell upon him. Fingers of snow brushed the surface of his heart. The power and quiet majesty of the winter’s night appalled him…

The Man Who Found Out — A man discovers the secrets of the universe and then wishes he hadn’t. This one fell a bit flat for me. But there’s a good post about it as part of The Lovecraft Reread, a project at Tor.com about HP Lovecraft, writers (like Blackwood) who inspired him, and writers who were inspired by him.

Sand — The protagonist travels to Egypt and joins two other travelers exploring the desert. This is the longest story in the collection. I liked the beginning, but I think this one is a bit too long and slow. It drags a bit.

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