Harper Collins has just released a preview of its forthcoming Tolkien book The Nature of Middle-earth.
The Nature of Middle-earth reveals for the first time J.R.R. Tolkien’s final notes and essays, covering topics ranging from “the metaphysics of Elvish immortality and reincarnation, and the Powers of the Valar, to more earth-bound subjects of the lands and beasts of Númenor, the geography of the Rivers and Beacon-hills of Gondor…” (according to the publisher blurb).
And a quick flip through shows that this is the case. I do wonder whether the information here about the nature of elves will come to supplant what’s in The History of Middle-earth‘s Law and Customs of the Eldar. Time will tell, I guess.
If you’ve read The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, or The History of Middle-earth, you’ll want to check this out. Just click the book cover image to head to the Harper Collins preview site.
This is part one of a two part interview with Julia Golding, founder of Project Northmoor and the Oxford Centre for Fantasy, which is dedicated to creativity and the study of Oxford’s most famous fantasy writer, J.R.R. Tolkien. Like Tolkien, she studied at the University of Oxford where she received a Doctorate in English Literature. Her CV includes British diplomat and Oxfam policy adviser, as well as multi-award winning author of children’s and young adult novels, with over a half a million books sold worldwide, which have been translated into many languages.
Mithril: What is your first memory of reading Tolkien?
Julia: Your question reminded me that I had a first unsuccessful attempt at reading The Hobbit too young on my own (around 6 or 7) which put me off Tolkien. I wish someone had read it to me – or steered me towards a recording –because it took me a long while to rediscover The Hobbit. But then came the summer when I was ten. I decided to try Tolkien again but started with The Lord of the Rings. I have a vivid memory of lying on a sofa in my childhood home in Essex, suburban Southeast England. I can even conjure up the feeling of the sofa fabric and the cool room with the sunny road outside. I was enchanted, completely lost in his world. I got to the end, and immediately went back to The Fellowship of the Ring, because I couldn’t stand for the experience to end – so I carried on lying down reading. It really was a turning point for me; ever since then he has helped inspire my passion for creating worlds in fiction.
Mithril: You’ve written over 60 novels, and once said “[Tolkien] is a key influence over the way I write and the reason I became an author.” Can you delve into this a bit more?
Julia: It is connected to his example as a creator of myth. He wrote about us being sub-creators, how we can be a little like a god to our own worlds. I love the idea that we each have the ability to create these microcosm universes, decide the rules and nature of the worlds, invent the peoples, their behaviour, culture and languages. Tolkien led by example. His enduring appeal to me is as a uniquely creative mind whose subcreation has unrivalled internal consistency, length, breadth and depth.
I was also inspired by how he wrote about the things that mattered to him by using them to power the structure holding up Middle-earth. He didn’t come at you with an obvious allegory and bash you over the head with the application; he famously wrote in the Preface to The Fellowship of the Ring that: ‘I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.’
That doesn’t mean, of course, there aren’t values or messages to be drawn, but these are those connected with the reader’s experience. You can be a person of faith, no faith, and from the whole range of world cultures, and still there will be something important there for you. He found great power in such stories as those where the hero sacrifices themselves, displays humanity to the enemy, or fights a battle where victory is also a kind of defeat – all of which can be linked to source stories ranging from the Bible to George MacDonald and William Morris, via Old Norse sagas and Anglo-Saxon poetry. This method of using the things you find powerful as a code underlying your own story showed me how to draw on what I care about to create something uniquely mine – and hopefully the reader senses this and cares too.
Mithril: You hold a Doctorate in English Literature from the University of Oxford. While there, did you study Tolkien’s works?
Julia: I studied Tolkien when I did my undergraduate degree, which was in [the University of] Cambridge back in the mists of time. I wrote a final year paper on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis looking at their different approaches to mythopoeia. I didn’t become a professional writer for another fifteen years, but that third-year thesis stayed with me.
Mithril: You are the founder of Project Northmoor, a center for creative studies with a focus on fantasy and J.R.R. Tolkien. How did the idea for this come about? Can you talk about the process of pulling it together?
Julia: This all came out of the attempt to buy Tolkien’s house, which began in November 2020, launching in December that year – all in super-quick time as we were trying to buy it before anyone else did. I live close by the house. When I cycle past, I have always thought it would make a perfect creative writing centre and would be a wonderful way to honour Tolkien’s legacy. There isn’t anywhere like that in the UK, which is astonishing considering his global importance as a writer. When we started the campaign to buy it, we decided the idea of having a literary centre in Oxford was a valid goal even if we didn’t achieve our aim for the house. We wanted to provide a place for those who love Oxford fantasy to come for inspiration. When we didn’t make the target in the first three months, we had to stop as the vendor wanted to take another offer. Such a shame as we really gave it our best shot! Many Tolkien fans around the world were really generous but there just weren’t enough of us to get us over the line. We then went to plan b and began looking for another venue for the centre. However, that meant we started off online. That was a blessing in disguise as it made us think outside the box of what residential creative centres usually offer. We could be global from the outset, building a wonderful community of creatives who are inspired by Tolkien and other Oxford fantasy writers.
In the second part of this interview, we’ll share a video where Julia visits a barrow which may have helped inspire the Barrow Downs scene in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Here we are, at the final day of TORn’s Advent Calendar. We hope you’ve enjoyed our 24 days of posts: exploring Amazon’s new cast announcements, day dreaming about visiting New Zealand, taking a closer look at a seasonally appropriate work of the Professor’s, and even releasing some merchandise, to bring hope for the coming year!
It just remains for us to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas. We know that lots of people are alone this year, and that the holiday season will be very different for many. You may feel that you are ‘the furthest away from home you’ve ever been’; but we hope that you always find yourself at home in Middle-earth, in the pages of Tolkien’s books, in Peter Jackson’s movies, and here at TheOneRing.net. We are a Fellowship of Fans; one big, happy, geeky family.
For something extra special to end our Advent Calendar, a few actor members of our family wanted to send greetings to you all. These three charming dwarven fellows are sending love to everyone.
“A palace with a thousand and one entrances, J.R.R. Tolkien’s world can be explored through a thousand and one doorways … doors and corridors leading into often unexplored aspects of his universe.” – tolkienestate.com
If you’ve never visited the Tolkien Estate website, you’re in for a wonderful treat – one of seemingly endless discovery and learning about everything Tolkien. If you’re one of the lucky ones who have already discovered this gem of a site, it’s time to revisit it!
Speaking of translating Tolkien’s world to TV and cinema, we dug into our archives to find a rather relevant masterpiece from Green Books staffer Ostadan – originally posted November 4th, 2004. Enjoy!
“Translation is like chewing food that is to be fed to others who are unable to chew themselves. As a result, the masticated food is bound to be poorer in taste and flavor than the original.” [attributed to Kumarajiva, translator of Buddhist texts into Chinese. Translated.]
Unu Ringo ilin regas, Unu ilin prenas, Unu Ringo en mallumon ilin gvidas kaj katenas.
Let us look at this translation more carefully. If we were to take each word and translate it to English directly, it would read,
One Ring them rules, One them takes, One Ring into darkness them guides and chains.
Esperanto’s word order is more liberal than English, especially in verse; a more grammatically correct English translation would be “One Ring rules them, One takes them, One Ring guides them into darkness and chains them.” Those familiar with the English text will see many evident differences — the use of present tense; the reduction of “them all” to simply “them”; the change of “find” to “take”, and so on. Why should this be so? The main reason is that Bertil Wennergren, who translated the verse, was attempting to retain not only the sense of the text, but the rhyme scheme and general meter of the original. Esperanto, which uses suffixes as markers for such things as tense and part of speech, has few single-syllable words. In contrast, there is only one word of more than one syllable, “darkness”, in the entire English version of the Ring couplet (and few, indeed, in the entire Ring-verse). If any semblence of the poetry of the original is to be retained, then the meaning of the text must be altered somewhat to fit the restrictions imposed by the verse form and the language of translation.
Of course, within the story, the famous couplet is itself only a translation, with a slight change in meter, of the Black Speech found on the Ring:
Gandalf says that his rendering in the Common Speech is “close enough” to what is said on the Ring. So the question arises: is the Esperanto translation similarly “close enough”? A “purist” might say, no: there are too many details lost or even changed by this translation, and Tolkien’s linguistic work has been undermined; someone reading the Esperanto text would come to very different conclusions about the vocabulary and grammar of Black Speech from those reached by English-speaking readers. But someone of a more “revisionist” bent sould say that the Esperanto Ring-inscription tells, probably as well as possible given the constraints of a verse translation in Esperanto, the same story as the original English. After all, it is certainly plausible that Celebrimbor, hearing these words spoken from afar as Sauron first took up the One Ring, would indeed know just how he had been betrayed and what Sauron’s true purpose behind the Rings of Power was.
In a real sense, any translated work is a collaborative effort between the original author and the translator, much as a symphonic performance is a collaboration between the composer and the conductor. In a work as complex as The Lord of the Rings, the translator must be aware of the stylistic and linguistic techniques that Tolkien is using, and create them anew in the language of translation. For the result to have any artistry at all, the translator has to be as creative and capable in the language of translation as Tolkien was in his own. The result will not be pure Tolkien; it will be Tolkien as interpreted and re-told by the translator. Arden Smith’s irregular column in the journal Vinyar Tengwar, entitled “Transitions in Translations”, has documented a wide range of successful and unsuccessful translations. In some, little care is taken in style or nomenclature — one might be reminded of the infamous Japanese subtitles for the Fellowship of the Ring movie. In others, the translator may go as far as inventing Tengwar and Cirth modes for the language of translation and will re-draw the title page inscription in translation, as well as re-lettering the translation of the West-gate of Moria in the illustration. But in all cases, the result is not, and cannot be, identical to the experience of reading the original English text.
A “purist” might therefore conclude that because a translation necessarily loses some of the nuances and richness of the original, nobody should read Tolkien’s work in translation, and that the translators themselves are wasting their time in a futile exercise at best, or a fraudulent representation of their own works as being J.R.R. Tolkien’s at worst. To the purist, Tolkien’s original work is the only “true” account of events in a world that seems nearly as real as the ancient history of our own world, and deviation from that account seems to be somehow a distortion of a primary truth. But most people would agree that, given a certain minimum quality of translation, the defects inherent in reading a work in translation are outweighed by the availability of the book to people who cannot read it in English and would not be able to experience Middle-earth in any form without the translation, like the unfortunate soul in the quotation from Kumarajiva, who requires someone else to chew their food if they are to avoid starvation. Some of these people may even be motivated by a good translation to search out an English edition and laboriously work through it.
By now, the reader has probably anticipated the author’s conclusion from these musings about translation: the art of the filmmaker has much in common with the art of the translator. The requirements of film — or at least an artistically and commercially successful one — dictate particular rhythms and modes of expression in the storytelling that the original author contemplated no more than Tolkien considered how the Ring-verse would fit the rhythms of Esperanto or other languages. Even more than a translator, the filmmaker is a collaborator with the author, reinventing and recreating the author’s work so that it can be expressed as artistically as possible in the “language of film”. The result will not be purely Tolkien’s work, and will inevitably lose much of the delicious “flavor” of the original. It may even have serious defects in several particulars; but the real question is whether, like the Ring-verse translation, it tells the same essential story, “close enough”. If it does, then it does what any good translation does: it brings a great work to people who otherwise would not read it on their own.
“I cannot read the black and white letters,” he said in a quavering voice.
“No,” said Jackson, “but I can. The letters are English, of a narrative mode, but the language is that of the Epic Romance, which I will not utter here. But this in the Cinematic Tongue is what is said, close enough…”
If you have a Tolkien/Middle-earth inspired poem you’d like to share, then send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. One poem per person may be submitted each month. Please make sure to proofread your work before sending it in. TheOneRing.net is not responsible for poems posting with spelling or grammatical errors.
Just a reminder that the incredible Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition is still on at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. You have until October 28th to see this astonishing collection of manuscripts and artefacts from Tolkien’s work and life. American fans will then have the opportunity to see most of the exhibition, together with some new additions, at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, from January 2019; and from October 2019 to February 2020, an even bigger collection (which will include some of this current display) will be on show at the Bibliotheque nationale de France. (This will be the first time that the French national library has ever curated an exhibition about a non-French author, and will include items from their own collection, setting Tolkien’s works in the wider context of fantasy literature.)
Earlier this summer, TORn staffer greendragon had the opportunity to sit down with the Bodleian’s Tolkien archivist, Catherine McIlwaine, to find out some more about the behind-the-scenes work which went into creating this exhibition. McIlwaine was already a big fan of Middle-earth herself, so it has been the perfect job for her; as she put it herself, she was in the right place at the right time! Originally hired to create a detailed catalogue of the library’s Tolkien collection – a job which she thought would last for a couple of years – McIlwaine never expected to find herself, fifteen years later, curating such an extensive exposition of the Professor’s life and work.
The Bodleian owns a very large collection of material relating to J.R.R. Tolkien, totaling approximately 500 boxes of manuscript items! Much was donated by the Tolkien family in 1979; though manuscripts for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Farmer Giles of Ham had been sold to Marquette University by Tolkien himself in the late 1950s, the rest of his manuscripts, academic and personal papers reside with the Bodleian. The current display features over 200 items, roughly half of which have never been seen by the public before; fascinating doodles on the back of completed crossword puzzles, and scribblings such as the opening lines of Beowulf written in tengwar, are amongst the treasures.
Marquette University have been very supportive of the exposition, and have allowed many items from their collection to be included; McIlwaine said that the highlight of planning the exhibition, for her, was the opportunity to travel to Milwaukee twice, and to get to know the staff at Marquette. The ‘Maker of Middle-earth’ show sees some of Tolkien’s manuscripts and original art works being reunited for the first time since the 1950s!
Also featured in the current display are Tolkien’s own writing desk, chair, and some of his pipes, exclusively loaned by the Tolkien family, who have been very supportive of the endeavour. Christopher, Tolkien’s son and the editor of many of his works, was unfortunately not able to travel to visit the show, but his wife attended, and was delighted by it.
This enormous exposition (which still only reveals about three-quarters of the Bodleian’s current Tolkien archive – which is still growing!) was five years in the planning, with 18 months of full-time work in the run up to opening. The release of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies was the chief impetus, prompting the Bodleian to think that the time was ripe for such a showing; and the Tolkien Trust were eager to support it, to give something back to the fans. (Tickets to the exhibition are free!) Much of the content on display is usually only available to researchers – and access is closely restricted. Here, fans have the opportunity (in many cases, for the first time) to peer closely at Tolkien’s tengwar scrawl on an academic paper; and to gain an insight, through personal letters, into his family relationships.
For me (greendragon), highlights of the exhibition included Tolkien’s letters from his mother. I had no idea that she had taught him his beautiful calligraphy – I always assumed it was something he dreamed up himself. When you see the letters from his mother, however, it is very clear whence that unique script originated. Another family touch I loved were the sketches Tolkien created for his son Michael, to help him deal with nightmares. There was a recurring ‘monster’ which tormented Michael, and following his description, his father drew the beast – now named ‘Owlamoo’ – to help Michael confront and defeat his fears. I love the rather cross-looking owl-creature; and this display of fatherly affection is very touching.
Throughout the run of the exhibition, there have been various lectures and events in Oxford. A self-guided walking tour of ‘Tolkien’s Oxford‘ has been very popular, and many of the evening lectures have been sold out. Some exhibition tickets, however, have deliberately been held back for each day, so that there are always some available.
For anyone who can’t make it over to Oxford, I heartily recommend the exhibition catalogue. It is the biggest catalogue the Bodleian has ever produced, and it even includes archival items not seen in the display! As the exhibition website states, the book ‘brings together the largest collection of original Tolkien material ever assembled in a single volume. Drawing on the archives of the Tolkien collections at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, and Marquette University, Milwaukee, as well as private collections, this exquisitely produced catalogue draws together the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien – scholarly, literary, creative and domestic – offering a rich and detailed understanding and appreciation of this extraordinary author.’ Worth every penny; visit the exhibition shop to see some of the other goodies on offer.