The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Wed, 02 Feb 2005 Christopher Tolkien and the History of Middle Earth

Christopher Tolkien is the son of J.R.R., and considered Tolkien's "literary executor." He's also the guy that edited, and annotated, the enormous body of material that comprises the 12-volume History of Middle Earth.

This was a labor of love. I've heard people criticize C. Tolkien for opportunism, cashing in on Tolkien's material, but I don't think that is the case.

First of all, the History of Middle Earth, a 12-volume set, is not blockbuster sales material. Most bookstores don't even stock the books. I've been attempting to acquire all 12 volumes, in hardcover, and four of them have been difficult to get (out of print or scarce). There are separate paperback editions of volumes 1-5 and 6-9, but I think they are targeted at the wrong audience, and not likely to be big sellers. The small format volumes 1-5 paperbacks with fantasy-painting covers will mislead readers into thinking that they are picking up a prequel or sequel to The Lord of the Rings, when in fact they are looking at drafts and notes from the precursors to the Silmarillion, intermixed with various other extant poems of various quality and a strange framework story that is nowhere to be found in the "official" Silmarillion.

Someone who picked up these books because they enjoyed Orlando Bloom in the Peter Jackson films will likely never get past C. Tolkien's introduction. It is targeted at the kind of person who found the Silmarillion and the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings more rewarding than the story itself -- in other words, English major fantasy geeks who have at one time or another studied Beowulf and Canterbury Tales and who are interested in seeing Tolkien in the raw, so to speak, and of watching over his shoulder while he scratched out his drafts and experimented with forms, and storytelling techniques, not always successfully. These narratives are in "high style" -- that is, in mythological style -- for the most part, although, they are, oddly, in many places much more concrete, detailed, character-driven, and beautifully imagined than the later versions that became the Silmarillion.

No less an authority than Rayner Unwin writes in Tolkien's Legendarium, about the plans for publication of the _History of Milddle Earth, "This time we knew that the books would not be price-sensitive, that there was a hard core of potential purchasers, and even if they never reprinted they could at least expect gradually to sell out and pay their way... Christopher was under no illusions that the work he proposed to undertake would be rewarding on a purely commercial basis."

Secondly, if C. Tolkien he had just wanted to make money off of his father's legacy, surely expanding the licensed properties or authorizing more spin-off works would have netted him a lot more cash. Instead, he put an enormous amount of effort into assembling, annotating, and editing his father's old notebooks, many often nearly illegible, stuffed with loose scraps of paper and containing rough drafts in faint pencil with ink written over top. He made chronological sense of the drafts, annotated and rationalized the names, and wrote painstaking commentary that illustrates the many ways in which the storyline, naming, geography, and even theology evolved. No, this was a labor of love, by a man who was also a scholar, and who knew Tolkien's material deeply.

"Cashing in" would have been writing spin-off novels. Fortunately, C. Tolkien was no Brian Herbert.

So, I don't buy the image of C. Tolkien as a shameless opportunist. However, neither does he seem to be a benevolent ruler of the disposition of his father's legacy. There are disturbing stories coming out of the Tolkien family, appearing in British newspapers. Apparently, when Simon Tolkien, C. Tolkien's son and J.R.R.'s grandson, attended the movie and spoke approvingly of it, even allegedly taking on a small cameo as a soldier of Minas Tirith in shining armor, C. Tolkien disowned him, and now communicates with him only via a lawyer. Simon expected to sit on the board of Tolkien family members that makes decisions about J.R.R.'s materials; he's been kicked off -- all for giving apparent aid and comfort to Jackson's movie project, which C. Tolkien apparently found abhorent, but could not (legally) derail. C. Tolkien's public statements about the movie are more conciliatory, making this move appear even harder to understand. It makes me wonder whether it might also have had something to do with the younger Tolkien publishing a successful mystery novel The Stepmother, which may have been at least partially inspired by his upbringing in a broken home. These days apparently C. Tolkien is a bit of a recluse, although the stories that he keeps wild boars in his garden to drive off visitors may be an urban legend.

It is worth pointing out that C. Tolkien and the Tolkien estate didn't even own the film rights to the Lord of the Rings. J. R. R. Tolkien signed away the rights decades ago. For his part, he approved of the idea of a film, but the scripts he was shown during his lifetime were bizarre and completely lacked any sense of the material. In his writings J. R. R. Tolkien made the interesting and pragmatic distinction between "art or cash" -- that is, he was willing to license his property for film adaptation in exchange for either his direct involvement and artistic control, or his disinterest and a pile of money.

In the end, although he did not live to see Jackson's film, he got a respectful, if not literal, adaptation that in my opinion retained well the "split personality" of the books, in which the high-and-mighty artistic, noble, and mythological coexists very nicely with down-to-earth, populist, and pragmatic hobbits. But C. Tolkien, rather than engaging in a public debate over the movies or maintaining an honorable silence, seems to have taken on the role of an embittered and despairing Denethor, perhaps moved to anger by his inability to keep popular culture and his father's legacy far away from each other. If so, I think his palantir must be on the blink. Tolkien's work was remarkable in blending high and low, noble and silly, and appealing to a wide audience. The films, whether they are as true to the storyline or not, can only widen that audience. Adaptation and translation for new generations is what keeps literary work alive. History will judge in the long run whether Jackson's film version of the story was a worthy one. But it certainly won't be the last one.

In any case, I am slowly working my way through the 12-volume history. I've purchased the first five books, and the rest will arrive soon. Some of the volumes have proven more difficult to get; I've had to order them from Amazon zShops as old/new stock. Amazon has taken several weeks to track down some of the middle four.

It has taken me many years to make the decision to buy these books. I've seen the various volumes in bookstores over the years, usually unsold battered copies, but never bought them. They also listed at about $30 each, while the in-stock volumes at Amazon run me $18 each. It seems reasonable just to get the hardcovers, which will still be readable even if it takes me 20 years to finish them.

I've now finished the first volume. It is even more fascinating than I expected, especially the "framework story" the Cottage of Lost Play, and the "bridge" material that ties it to the pieces of work that became the first few parts of the Silmarillion. It is a shame that the Silmarillion could not have been structured with the framework in place, and a consolidated, organized, and revised Silmarillion interwoven with it. It would have made the material more approachable, but Tolkien seemed to reject this approach in favor of a more abbreviated, formal, and Biblical style.

It is hard to say whether these early tales are better or worse than the versions they eventually became. The tone and style is all over the place. The first version of the story of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel is notable in part because of the details of Luthien's magic, and because of the inclusion of Tevildo, Prince of Cats, and his cadre of evil feline dog-hating lieutenants. This turns the storyline involving Huan into an expression of long-held rivalry between cats and dogs, which is funny but seems to belong in a different story. Beren also seems to be an elf himself, which does not make a lot of sense in comparison with the later version of the story. I am curious to see how this version ends... perhaps with chaos, floods, plagues, and cats and dogs living together?

I am disappointed in one aspect of the book. In several spots Christopher Tolkien has snipped out and paraphrased sections of the work which he apparently felt did not deserve reproduction in full. But these wordier versions of some of the parts of the Silmarillion, such as the story of the origin of the sun and moon, are interesting precisely because of their longer, more character-driven and detail-driven form. I'd at least like to see the original paragraphs in an appendix. I bought these books to "drink from the fire hose" -- I resent having Christopher Tolkien turning off the spigot while I'm still thirsty. Significant chunks of the story -- the tale of the coming of men, for example -- don't even exist in complete drafts, but only in fragments, This makes it seem all the more inappropriate to arbitrarily cut out chunks of some of the stories that do exist in complete form. Perhaps C. Tolkien was embarassed by the quality of the draft text. But it is precisely the process of improvement that is so interesting and inspiring. Tolkien's early poem, Goblin Feet, is godawful, as he himself acknowledged. (Google for Tolkien and "Goblin Feet" if you don't believe me). Not all of his poems are great. But what is amazing to me is how much better he became. Showing the early drafts in full, warts and all, tells that story.

But despite these problems I am still glad to have these stories in their early form, which J. R. R. Tolkien did not get to polish. I'm glad to have the jewels in the rough.

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Five Lakes Grill

To celebrate Grace's 32nd birthday, last night we drove to Milford and ate dinner at Brian Polcyn's restaurant, the Five Lakes Grill.

The space and atmosphere were pretty decent, but not wonderful. I have no love of Muzak, and there was a lot of it, but at least it was not loud.

The food was great. We've been meaning to make the trip ever since reading a review in the Atlantic several years ago. The review has been stuck to our closet door with a magnet ever since then. Now we can take it down!

Grace had the rack of lamb, which she described as the best she's ever had. The only flaw was that the wilted spinach with it was too salty. The salad was good. We split glasses of a house Shiraz, which was quite tasty.

I had a special, marinated skirt steak with a sweetish currant sauce, served with vegetables including blue potatoes and asparagus. The meat and sauce was excellent, and the vegetables excellent, but the combination didn't really sing. Not all specials wind up working out as well as the tried-and-true dishes; that's OK. It was quite good anyway.

We had a charcuterie platter appetizer; it is one of Polcyn's specialties, and he teaches charcuterie. The sausages were all excellent, including a seafood sausage. He also had a great prosciutto.

Isaac had a Greek salad with fried calamari on top, which he enjoyed very much, and a pot pie with pearl onions and duck confit, which was wonderful. He loved it, although he was getting a bit full and had to take some home.

For dessert Grace had creme brulee, which she again described as the best she's had: a great crackling burnt sugar coating on top, fresh berries, and a custard that was not overly sweet. I had a lemon tart, which was excellent, and which came with a little chocolate cup with rasberries that tasted house-made. Isaac had a thick hot chocolate, which was bittersweet and rich, although the combination of caffeinated soda and dark chocolate got him pretty wired up, so perhaps it was not the best thing to give him at ten o'clock at night. The coffee was excellent.

The entire meal cost us $150, before tip, which is quite a bit, but it was one of the best restaurant meals we've ever had, so I don't consider it an unreasonable amount to spend for such a special occasion. We took baby Veronica with us, and that worked out fine; she didn't fuss much, and even slept on the seat of the booth for part of the meal.

It was a good time, and a good reminder of how unimpressive most of the downtown Ann Arbor restaurant have become. I would not be surprised if we were back there soon.

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Paul's Current Viewing

So, we've started up a trial membership with Netflix. Actually, I think it is now a real membership. It has turned out to be a great service! So far, we have borrowed the following movies:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The third. Pretty decent, but not spectacular. I enjoyed the Night Bus. I expected the Dementors to be portrayed more originally. The time-twisting sequence was done much better in the second Back to the Future movie. I could not figure out why Harry and his friends were no longer wearing school uniforms. The kids are getting older; I'm not sure just how they are going to manage doing the next few movies. The movies are not being finished once a year, which means that the cast is aging more rapidly than in the storyline. Will they use a new cast? It was also sad to see Dumbledore replaced; the actor who played Dumbledore in the first two films died. Isaac rated it 4 out of 5, and that seems about right.

Uncovered: the War on Iraq I expected this to be a little better. It is a competently assembled documentary, and has a good selection of people interviewed, but it feels rushed and wasn't edited to a fine point. About 3/5.

Trekkies Grace has never seen the science fiction fandom subculture up close, so she was quite stunned by this. I've been to a convention, so it was not quite a shock, but rather touching. I want to see the next one.

The 1900 House This was great. The premise is that a London home is rennovated (dennovated?) back to 1900 standards: no electricity, only technology and decor available then; the women wear corsets, etc. They hire a "maid of all work." Life hasn't changed as much as we might think. Especially fascinating was how the family members dive into their roles, doing their own research and putting together puppet shows, little plays, and other activities. Amazing how much time is available when you stop watching TV.

Joni Mitchell: Shadows and Light I used to have this album. It's a great show; Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, and Lyle Mays all perform with her, along with the Temptations. I was fascinated by the video clips that were assembled over some of the songs. Mitchell's voice is perfect.

A Prarie Home Companion (it doesn't say, but I think this is the 30th anniversary show from the Fitzgerald Theater). It turns out I've heard this one. It's worth seeing, at least once, just how charmingly funny-looking Garrison Keillor actually is, and how funny it is to see the mundane-looking sound effects guys doing their ridiculous stuff. Once you've seen it, though, you don't need to see it again; listening is better. I'd like to see the "Farewell" show that aired sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s again, though.

Life and Debt This is a great documentary about Jamaica, and why it has failed to thrive economically. The contrast between the Jamaica the tourists experience, and the Jamaica that the natives live in, is staggering. Particularly grim and disturbing is the "free zone," the garment district where neoliberal globalization plays out its "race to the bottom."

Big Top Pee-Wee This was a pick for Isaac. He thought it was very funny.

In order to prevent any allegations of unfairness in selection, and floods of kid's movies, I actually broke our membership into 3 separate queues; they allow that. This means that each of us -- myself, Grace, and Isaac -- can manage a separate queue. The DVDs are addressed to the individual person who chose them. Isaac's is age-restricted. It also slows down the process a bit - since Isaac has to return one and wait for the two-way mail before he has another one to watch. That's not a bad thing, actually; it keeps him from piling on the movies.

Purchases

I spent a little money on the backlog of DVDs that I wanted to buy last month. The bulk of them were the 3 Extended Edition Lord of the Rings movies. The new cuts are much more coherent, although there are some new bits that I dislike. The extras really are worth watching.

We also picked up the second season of Monk. It is off to an uneven start, but "Mr. Monk Goes to the Circus" was one of the best ever. It does, though, have a disturbing scene in which an elephant trainer is killed when the elephant steps on his head. It was rather horrifying. Isaac had to sleep in our room after watching that. It seemed a little manipulative, but the rest of the episode, especially the banter, which had a real ad-libbed feel in this episode, was superb.

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Paul's Current Reading

I used to be able to read about seven books simultaneously and make progress on all of them, keeping a stack by my bed and picking one out as the mood took me. I'm a little more tired these days, especially after cleaning up the kitchen and helping to get Isaac and baby Veronica to bed, but still managing to make slow progress on a few books. This is what is in the pile today:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. This is a hefty fantasy novel. The tone and the overall conceit: that magic is real, but has fallen into disrepute and deperately needs a revival, in early 19th-century England. I love the way she puts together archaic usage. I like the few, dark, and evocative illustrations. I love the digressions told through extensive footnotes. I love the magic: subtle and clever, and far from stereotypical of the genre; very original; it feels somehow true. But the book is starting to drag, and I don't think I'm even yet halfway through it. It is a long story with many subplots. The jury is still out on whether I can reconcile this feeling of length with my enjoyment of the story. Maybe I just need to stick to shorter fare while so much is going on.

The Knight, by Gene Wolfe. Part of the Wizard Knight. I'm a Wolfe fan; I've read the Book of the New Sun books, including the Urth of the New Sun, at least three or four times, and have also read many of his one-off novels including Free Live Free and Pandora by Holly Hollander (that's the title). He writes great short stories, too. I was disappointed, though, by the Long Sun books; they didn't seem to have the depth of the Book of the New Sun, and the story seemed derivative of Phoenix Without Ashes, Harlan Ellison's screenplay for the Starlost, published as a novel in collaboration with Edward Bryant. So far, though, The Knight does not disappoint me. The prose is incredibly tight and evocative. It's written in very short chapters, which works well with the current chunks of time I have available to read. It's like a reaffirmation of just how talented a writer Wolfe really is. I'm very impressed so far.

Radix, by A.A. Attanasio. This is one of his early novels. It is a deeply strange book, filled with neologisms. It isn't a perfectly successful novel. The anti-hero, Sumner Kagan, is a multiple killer, but somehow we are expected to see him redeemed. The neologisms and world-building comes thick and fast, and a lot of it is just too far out there; some strange takeoffs on demonic posession and Zen Buddhism. But the writing is compelling and intriguing and the story, if you can follow it, is at least interesting. I've read this before, but I picked it up again wondering if it would make a little more sense this time. It does, but the ending is still a bizarre mishmash of Kafka and Christ, and I'm having trouble getting through the last few pages. The other books that are part of the Radix "tetralogy," (although they have nothing in particular in common) include Arc of the Dream, Last Legends of Earth, and In Other Worlds. All three are pretty decent, sometimes great, but very different. I should check out his older book Solis. His later work did not look at all interesting to me, but I'm always prepared to be convinced otherwise.

The Broken God, by David Zindell. Zindell wrote Neverness, a standalone novel, and then a trilogy that served as a follow-on; this is the first book of the trilogy. This is big space opera, and detailed world-building in the long "billdungsroman" tradition. I'm re-reading the set. Somehow his main character, Danlo, is very appealing. I've always been a sucker for transcendent, extropian-style stories. Zindell now seems to be writing fantasy, which didn't look interesting, but again I'm always prepared to be convinced otherwise.B

The Complete Roderick, by John Sladek. This is a pair of novels, newly published under one cover. They are deeply satirical, and the characters are fantastic. It reminds me so far of Kurt Vonnegut, but with a more vivid and less dry style.

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. I love Stephenson's writing, including his non-fiction articles for Wired, and I enjoyed Cryptonomicon a lot. This one, I'm sorry to say, is getting the better of me. I may have to set it aside and start over later. I think it is an amazing story, and I love in particular the scenes in which Shaftoe goes mad and starts hallucinating a musical comedy; it reminds me of the Circe chapter of Joyce's Ulysses. But I'm starting to lose track of what is going on, and I've set it aside for too long. By the time I get back to it, maybe the next two will be out in softcover.

What We Do Now, by Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians (editor). A book of essays on the state of America after the 2004 election. A good antidote to the despair I feel listening to the 2005 State of the Union speech.

The Book of Lost Tales, part 1, by Tolkien and Tolken (Christopher, ed.) I have decided to add to my library the entire 12-volume History of Middle Earth. I've picked at it over the years and considered reading the books, but it seems that I'm finally ready, and can extract a lot of reward from the fragments and their history. I'll put some more about these books under the Tolkien topic heading. I have purchased the first five volumes, which cover the writings prior to the Lord of the Rings. I'll probably purchase the rest sometime this coming month.

I'm also working my way through the Fellowship of the Ring, which I'm reading portions of, aloud, as a bedtime story for Grace, Veronica, and Isaac. We're in the house of Tom Bombadil, which is particularly fun to read out loud, especially after the somewhat slow descriptions of the countryside and landscape that cause the first half of Fellowship to drag a little bit.

Finally, I also have Paul Graham's On Lisp in the stack. The book is out of print, although allegedly it will be reprinted soon, but until then Graham has made the PDF available on his web site, so rather than pay $100 or more for a used copy, I took the PDF file to Kinko's and had a copy printed out and bound. I've been studying Graham's examples of the use of continuations. I feel like I understand them better, although this is the kind of thing that will not be really useful until I play with the code.

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