A Beautiful New Version of The Hobbit

Hobbit_sunflowers

I have seen the new edition of The Hobbit illustrated by Jemima Catlin, and I enthusiastically declare that it is a splendid thing! I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins UK) in the mail the other day—and getting it felt like Christmas.

I have many editions of The Hobbit in my collection, from Alan Lee’s handsomely illustrated edition, to the bizarre Rankin and Bass animated film book tie-in, to the one with Michael Hague’s sumptuous paintings. All of them have a place in my heart for one reason or another, along with my favorite Tolkien artist Pauline Baynes’s work. (She created an amazing cover for the Penguin edition of The Hobbit but, sadly, never did an illustrated version).

And now I have this magnificent new version of The Hobbit from Ms. Catlin to sit beside the others on my shelf of Tolkien books.

There’s something about Catlin’s inspired work that filled me with a childlike joy—the same joy that I had the first time I saw an edition of The Hobbit with Tolkien’s own line drawings and watercolors. Catlin has created whimsical pictures that capture the innocent wonder of a reader first entering Middle-earth and going along on Bilbo’s journey. Kids will love these pictures because they’re clever, moving and funny. And adults will love them for the same reason.

And what a Smaug-like treasure trove is to be found in this handsome clothbound hardback! There are 150 of Catlin’s pieces in this book. Most of them are neat little watercolor, ink and pencil pictures that appear in random places throughout the story, oftentimes with text wrapping around the image.

Because there are so many pictures in this edition (the most of any edition of The Hobbit in print) we get to see little tidbits that usually get overlooked by artists—Gollum recalling a vision of “eggses” (Catlin shows blue robin eggs inside a sinister looking thought bubble); goblins picking up Bilbo’s buttons with humorous expressions on their piggy-bat faces; Bilbo dreaming of dancing black bears while asleep at Beorn’s; a flash forward (described by Tolkien) of Smaug’s bones on the bottom of the Long Lake; the crown of red leaves and berries in Thranduil’s hair; a sign announcing the sale of Bilbo’s belongings that you can read in a flowing script “Messrs Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes would sell by auction the effects of the late Bilbo Baggins,” etc.  I could go on and on about these glorious little details.

There are over a dozen full page illustrations too, and they are marvelous. There is one showing the trolls after they’ve been turned to stone that evokes the fanciful work of Cor Blok; and the dinner party at Beorn’s with his animal waitstaff (a sheep’s back makes an excellent stand for a serving tray). The image that I like best is a lovely close up of Smaug, snoozing smugly atop his heaps of gold and jewels, crowns and caskets.

Some of the more unconventional pictures are my favorites. There’s one of Thorin as he’s floating down the Forest River—and we know it’s him inside because we get to see through the side of the barrel, as though with X-ray vision, to the cramped and grumpy Dwarf crammed inside. I also like the way she illustrated Bilbo whenever he puts on the One Ring: he’s drawn in black and white, as though he were a ghost.

Catlin did a masterful job of capturing the personalities of Bilbo and Gandalf. The wizard is especially expressive and I love the picture of him displaying the map of the Lonely Mountain to Thorin & Co. and Bilbo at Bag End. There’s also a cool image of Gandalf in disguise at the camp of the Elvenking, and another of him smoking his pipe and blowing colored smoke rings with a perfectly roguish look on his face.

If I haven’t already convinced you to buy this version of The Hobbit and add it to your collection, then I give up. All I can say is that I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien himself would have loved these illustrations because they are in the same spirit as his own pictures for The Hobbit (and even his Father Christmas Letters). Catlin has done herself proud, and publisher David Brawn of Harper Collins UK made an excellent choice when he picked her to illustrate this beautiful edition.

The Hobbit illustrated by Jemima Catlin will be available in the United States on October 1st.

You can follow Ms. Catlin on Twitter @jemimacatlin

Geek Dad Interview

I recently did a Q&A with the supreme demigod of Geekiness–Ethan Gilsdorf. Ethan is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, my favorite memoir of all time. In this interview for Geek Dad I talk about my new novel Sons of Zeus, and the influence of Tolkien as well as Dungeons and Dragons on my writing.

The photo above is a still life taken on the bookshelf in my office. I bought the statue of the Greek guy when I was twelve years old at a used bookstore called The Blue Dragon. I hand painted the Elf and dragon lead figurines around that same time. (Those are Dungeons and Dragons gaming dice, by the way.) The boxed set of The Lord of the Rings (with the covers by Tolkien) were the ones that I read back in the early 80′s when I fell into the glorious portal that leads to Middle-earth.

To read the interview on Geek Dad, click here.

The Food Train

(Wild berries picked by my son)

Tolkien doesn’t really write about kids much in his books. There’s only one child in all of Middle-earth who actually has any dialogue (and the answer to this little bit of Tolkien-trivia is at the bottom of this blog post). But that doesn’t mean that Tolkien didn’t like kids. The Hobbits are, in a way, the manifestation of children in Middle-earth. They’re childlike without being childish, if you know what I mean. Bilbo was the first stay-at-home dad in literature, after all, teaching Frodo (and Sam) how to read, write and even speak a foreign language–Elvish!

Tolkien loved his own kids. He wrote them warm and loving letters throughout his life. They were his original audience, starting with his The Father Christmas Letters and all the way through The Lord of the Rings. During World War II, when Tolkien’s eldest son Christopher was away at war, he wrote to him saying that it was difficult to work without  ”my amanuensis and critic near at hand” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #59). And one of the most interesting relationships in the history of literature is Tolkien’s lifelong friendship with Rayner Unwin (the lad responsible for vetting The Hobbit for his publisher father, and then the man who finally got The Lord of the Rings in print).

At the end of The Return of the King, after Sam has sprinkled Galadriel’s magical soil all over the Hobbiton, the Shire-folk experience one of the most “marvellous” summers ever.

“The fruit was so plentiful that the young hobbits very nearly bathed in strawberries and cream; and later they sat on the lawns under the plum-trees and ate, until they had made piles of stones like small pyramids or the heaped skulls of a conqueror, and then they moved on. And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass.”

The above passage is one of my favorites in all of Tolkien’s works. All of the terrible sacrifices that Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin made on their quest to destroy the Ring were rewarded with this scene of happy, healthy children. And the final moment in The Lord of the Rings, if you will recall, is Sam putting his little daughter on his lap. It’s a beautiful symbol of peace and contentment.

This summer has been “marvellous” for us in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve had the perfect mixture of sun and rain, and my kids have been able to gorge on berries every day just like those kids in the Shire. (And the grass, alas, must be mowed much more than I would like.) These long happy days, where nobody is sick with a cold, are a blessing and a gift.

The other day our friends gave birth to healthy twins. They already have two young children in the house, and not a single relative in town. So my wife and some friends put together a “meal train.” They have divided up days of the week to make hearty meals for this family that suddenly doubled in size. Right now my wife is cooking a gigantic dinner of her delicious homemade macaroni and cheese. And I pulled some fat red beets from our garden and boiled them up for our friends’ beet-loving kids.

If you’ve ever had kids you know that the first days after your child (or children!) are born are utterly and insanely exhausting. Making food is the last thing that you want to think about, but eating well is one of the most important things to do, especially if you have other hungry kids in the house.

What my wife and her friends are doing with the meal train is exactly how I imagine the inhabitants of the Shire helping out with newborns. Can’t you just imagine everyone on Bagshot Row pitching in and feeding Rosie and Sam after the birth of their first child, Elanor, as well as their next dozen kids!

It’s hard on parents in this modern age, when families are spread out thousands of miles around the country (or even the world), for people to raise kids. It’s important to create strong friendships, especially with other parents, otherwise you can really feel isolated.

And hungry.

(Trivia answer: The only child character in Tolkien’s Middle-earth books to have dialogue is Bergil, son of Beregond of Gondor. He is ten at the time of the War of the Ring.)

 

 

Tolkien and the Ancient Greeks

[Image credit: The Fall of Númenor by Darrell K. Sweet]

I had to take a hiatus from writing my Shire Wisdom blog for about five months. I had a weird and scary thing happen to my heart (and I’ll write about that in a blog post soon). But I’m all better now, thanks to my family and the fact that I followed what I had learned while writing The Wisdom of the Shire! (Author, heal thyself!)

I was also deep into writing the second book in my Warrior Trilogy. The first book hit the stores on June 11th, and I just got back from Greece where I was finishing up research for Book 3 and meeting with my Greek publisher. You can read about my amazing trip to the very real place where my story takes place here. (I took the photo below this May at the ruins of the citadel of Plataea in Boeotia, Greece.)

A lot of people have asked me why someone like me–a lover of Tolkien and fantasy–would write a historical fiction series. What does it have to do with Tolkien? Well, reading Tolkien as a boy piqued my interest in ancient Greek mythology. I had a teacher, a priest in fact, who told me that the fall of  Númenor from The Silmarillion was based on the legend of Atlantis. It intrigued me to think that Tolkien had learned a story (probably when he was very young) that grew inside him like a magic tree and evolved into something uniquely his own.

Delving into Homer for the first time (which I did so after reading my own version of the Iliad, aka The Lord of the Rings) I was struck by the similarity in the “high style” of some of Tolkien’s writing, especially the battle scenes. In fact, if you read The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien there is this wonderful quote in Letter 142: “I was brought up in the Classics, and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer.” –J.R.R. Tolkien, 1953

In The Wisdom of the Shire I wrote about the Greek legend of the Ring of Gyges and how this story–a ring of invisibility that brings with it a terrible curse–most likely influenced the invention of Sauron’s One Ring.

Tolkien even coined an important literary word using Greek roots: Eucatastrophe. It means “good catastrophe”–a turn of events for the protagonist where everything suddenly goes from utter crap and doom to rainbows and awesomeness (think the finale of The Return of the King and the fall of Barad-dûr).

When I was in college I started reading the ancient Greek playwrights, and then the histories of Thucydides and Herodotus. The real world of ancient Greece, especially the so-called “Golden Age” of 5th century BC Athens, started to pull me in. For years I read everything about the Greeks that I could get my hands on, scouring used bookstores for obscure tomes and scholarly treatises.

About ten years ago I was hired to write a treatment for a documentary set during the Peloponnesian War (the bloody 30-year-long battle between Sparta and Athens). While rereading Thucydides I came across a story that I had glossed over the first time I had seen it. It was the tale of an independent and democratic city-state called Plataea that was invaded in a sneak attack at the outset of the Peloponnesian War. The heroic and clever way that the Plataeans fought off the invaders, and the subsequent epic siege of their citadel (which became the longest siege in the history of the world) struck me as a story that needed to be told. And so I started working on my novel Sons of Zeus.

Ten years later that book is sitting on the shelves in bookstores and libraries around the country. And I am incredibly proud of this story of love, courage and sacrifice. I never would have written this series if I hadn’t read J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. So that’s how a fantasy author influenced me to write a work of historical fiction. And I could rewrite Tolkien’s quote about the Classics like this: “I was brought up in Middle-earth, and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Tolkien.”

Sons of Zeus is available at public libraries in the US and Canada, at Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble, indie booksellers, as well as ebooks and unabridged audiobook.

Missing Wizards

For a perfect example of Tolkien’s wildly creative genius, one needs to look no further than the Istari—his Wizards.

What were the Istari exactly? Quite simply they were angelic creatures whose souls had been deposited into corporeal vessels—bodies resembling old men. Their memories of their lives in the Blessed Realm (from whence they had come) were virtually wiped from their minds, leaving only a dim recollection of their former divine selves and life amongst the demigods called the Valar.

Even though the Istari were created as old men, they aged very slowly. When Gandalf showed up at Bilbo’s door at the start of The Hobbit, he’d been living in Middle-earth for two thousand years. (No wonder he needed that staff!) The Istari were no “conjurors of cheap tricks,” however, as Gandalf said to Bilbo in a moment of anger after Bilbo’s “eleventy-first” birthday party. They had been chosen by the Valar to come and serve the Free Peoples Middle-earth in their fight against the growing power of Sauron—the wicked servant of an even wickeder master named Morgoth (himself a fallen Vala).

The Istari were forbidden to reveal their true powers and were supposed to merely guide Men, Dwarves and Elves with good advice (and some occasional magic). And all of the Istari had been given free will to act in the ways they each thought best to achieve their mutual goal of destroying the creator of the Ring of Doom.

There were only five of these Istari in the history of Middle-earth: Gandalf the Grey, Saruman the White, Radagast the Brown and two others who are briefly mentioned but not named in The Lord of the Rings. (These two “missing” Wizards names were revealed in the posthumously published Unfinished Tales.)

Each of the Wizards reacted to their new home quite differently. Radagast became enamored of the flora and fauna of Middle-earth and eventually forgot his quest. Saruman became intoxicated by power and headed down the same crooked path as Sauron, and was eventually ensnared by the Dark Lord himself. Only Gandalf remained true to the distant memory of the Valar “a vision from afar off,” and died fighting one of Morgoth’s ancient creations—the Balrog—in the Mines of Moria. And then he was resurrected…brought back to life by the Valar and given another body (the corporeal form of Gandalf the White).

This is all visionary stuff. Spiritual beings placed into bodies manufactured by demigods, like avatars in a videogame. A main character killed off and reincarnated back into the tale—something I don’t think had ever been done in the history of literature until Tolkien’s epic. The concept of the Istari is especially inspired when one keeps in mind Tolkien conceived all of this in the middle part of the 20th century—nearly three quarters of a century ago.

In my opinion, Tolkien could have penned an entire book based on Gandalf and Saruman alone. Wizards are fascinating. Peter Jackson & Co. must have felt the same, because they’ve written both Saruman and Radagast into The Hobbit Trilogy (you can see Radagast in the film trailer being pulled in a sleigh by a gigantic bunny rabbit—a vision of inspired lunacy).

The tales of the two missing Istari would have made a great story as well. The only time a reference is made to these other two Wizards is in The Two Towers (in the chapter “The Voice of Saruman”) when, after the Ents have destroyed Isengard and trapped Saruman, the corrupted Wizard rails at Gandalf, accusing him of wanting to take control of all of Middle-earth, including seizing hold of “the rods of the Five Wizards.” Three of these “Five” Wizards are Radagast, Gandalf and Saruman himself. The other two Istari are never mentioned again, not even in the Appendices.

After Tolkien died, however, his son Christopher put together a collection of his father’s writings called Unfinished Tales that revealed selections of J.R.R. Tolkien’s notes and stories about Middle-earth that had never been published before. In the chapter concerning the Istari we learn more about these two missing Wizards. They were certainly called the “Blue Wizards” and they may have even been named Alatar and Pallando (a great subject for starting a heated debate between Tolkien geeks).

Soon after the two Blue Wizards arrived in Middle-earth they passed into the East on a mission alongside Saruman never to return. The “East” here means the distant lands of Harad (and Far Harad)—the realms populated by evil Men under the thrall of Sauron. (These are the same Men who join Sauron’s forces and attack Minas Tirith in The Return of the King.)

Did Alatar and Pallando go on a mission to study the ways of the Enemy? Were they ensnared by Sauron and become his servants, intending to do good but falling into evil? Or were they betrayed by their travelling companion Saruman out of jealousy or fear, thus starting Saruman’s downward spiral into villainy? We will never know, because Tolkien didn’t write their tale. It’s interesting to speculate, however. Perhaps Saruman killed them and absorbed their power. Or maybe they were captured and destroyed by The Dark Lord, their sprits sent flying back to the Blessed Realm. Whatever the case, by the time the events of The Lord of the Rings begin, the missing Istari are nothing more than a passing reference in Tolkien’s vast sub-creation.

Fortunately for Middle-earth there was Gandalf, the wisest Istari who never gave up hope, who always returned at the turn of the tide, the divine being sent in “human” form to help defeat Sauron and who—once his mission was accomplished—happily boarded a ship for the Blessed Realm. Before departing Middle-earth for his true home, he imparted sage advice to Merry, Sam and Pippin: “Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep: for not all tears are an evil.” This Wizard would be missed.

Tolkien Throwdown Transcript: I Scour The Shire


Read transcript here

I was invited to participate in a live Facebook debate with David “wordboydave” Dickerson (author of How Tolkien Sucks). David hates The Lord of the Rings with a passion many people reserve for stinky things stuck to the bottoms of their shoes (or the loathing Gollum has for cooked food), although he admitted during our conversation that he actually loves The Hobbit.

Tolkien’s writing style, plotting, characters and use of alternate languages are anathema to David. His screed How Tolkien Sucks is actually pretty funny, but I think he’s missing a few important points about Tolkien’s conscious effort to write in a “high style” and the context in which the books were written. I made my best effort to scour him from the Shire and set him straight.

When David went off in the debate about how much he despises the long prologue to The Lord of the Rings, this was my response:

“I loved that slow entry into Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings would never get published today. And if it did it would have to start with Ringwraiths attacking Hobbiton on the first page and burning it to the ground. Bless Professor Tolkien. An orphan at the age of 12, a survivor of the trenches of WWI, an obsessive fantasist and lover of languages who created a world that millions of people around the world have inhabited in their hearts and minds. People will still be reading his books hundreds of years from now.
”

To read the entire transcript click here (and be sure to click the “View Previous Comments” button on the Facebook page). I look forward to more debates with David, and I’m convinced one day we’ll sit around drinking beer together, reading our favorite passages of The Lord of the Rings out loud. Maybe we’ll even sing one of Tom Bombadil’s songs! Errr…maybe not.

Over a hundred people followed this debate live. Thanks for coming!

 

Break Bread Like A Hobbit


Are meals at your house a hasty and chaotic event? Do members of your family fight at the table? Have you ever made a meal and not been thanked for all the hard work you put into it?

If so, you and your family might want to take after the Shire-folk and break bread like a Hobbit.

Hobbits love to eat. But they especially love eating together. Meals for them are a pleasant, joyful time and they’re thankful for every meal they get, especially during those times of respite from the turmoil of their adventures.

When the Hobbits arrive at Tom Bombadil’s house after their harrowing time in the Old Forest, they’re welcomed inside and taken to a bedroom where they can wash up (just like little kids coming in from playing outside). Then they’re given a “long and merry” meal with Tom and his wife Goldberry, and are stuffed by the end of it (which is quite a difficult thing to do with a Hobbit).

When Frodo and his friends get to Bree after the terrors of the Barrow Downs and the threat of Ringwraiths on the road, they check into The Prancing Pony and are shown to a cozy little room with a cheerful fire burning on the hearth, and a table spread with a white cloth where they proceed to stuff themselves with cheese, cold meats, bread and soup. They feel “refreshed and encouraged” afterwards, which is how you should feel after a meal.

If anybody can tell me a work of fiction that mentions food and eating more than The Lord of the Rings (along with The Hobbit) please let me know. Food is, without question, one of the more important themes of Tolkien’s stories. We learn what Gandalf devours when he returns to Beorn’s house after a little jaunt (two loaves of bread smothered in butter, honey and clotted cream plus a quart of mead); what’s on the desert menu at The Prancing Pony (it’s blackberry tart); and the provisions Merry and Pippin manage to scrounge from Saruman’s storerooms (salted pork, rashers of bacon, bread with butter and honey, wine and beer).

Tolkien was, apparently, obsessed with food. He was orphaned at the age of twelve, and must have been deprived of many a home cooked meal. Then he had to live in the squalid trenches during WWI where men existed on a few ounces of stale (or rotten) food each day. By the time he was working on The Lord of the Rings, England was at war again and even tea, god forbid!, was rationed (Tolkien liked his tea with honey, by the way).

Hobbits are the original foodies. They are obsessed with mushrooms and the best beer (The Golden Perch, we are told, had a legendary ale). They make themselves sumptuous birthday party feasts, and going away part feasts, and probably even party planning feasts.

But they’ll take what they can get and they’re happy for it. They actually love the delicious and nutritious lembas, the Elven waybread given to them in Lothlórien (which is like the Middle-earth version of a Luna Bar). Merry and Pippin aren’t above scrounging through the flotsam and jetsam of Isengard for a meal (and a good smoke to boot). And Sam even brings along his own camp cooking gear including pans, a wooden spoon and a precious box of salt. He makes a stew of some rabbits (captured by Gollum) with some scrounged herbs thrown in, and this meager meal “seemed a feast.”

That’s because the Hobbits are grateful for whatever they can get, and even though they’re greedy by nature, they’re happy to share. They would never eat alone when they could eat together, talking merrily and enjoying one another’s company.

“Peaceful, Happy, Grateful.” That is what’s written in crayon over the entrance to our dining room. My son inscribed the words one day while I lifted him up so he could reach that high place. We’d decided, as a family, that those three words were really important to us when having a meal together. And we wanted to remember them every time we sat down.

Peaceful because life is hectic and meals should be a time to relax.

Happy because we’re all together.

Grateful because there are a lot of people in the world who don’t have enough to eat.

We try as best as we can to always eat as a family. And we make every meal that we’re lucky enough to share together something that nourishes our souls as well as our bodies.

The Wisdom of the Shire Tells Us… “A meal is a sacred thing to be shared in joy and calm and gratitude.”

Rush and Rivendell



Back in the day (and I’m talking about the early eighties) Rush fans like me used to get a lot of crap from rockers about Rush’s song “Rivendell” which was considered to be a very lame tune by people who listened to bands like AC/DC or Ted “Cat Scratch” Nugent. Every Tolkien fan I knew, however, loved “Rivendell.” The boys–Geddy, Neil and Alex–weren’t afraid to let their Middle-earth freak flag fly, and we loved them for it. The song was on the album Fly By Night (1975), which also featured the classic fantasy rock song “By-Tor & the Snow Dog” which my friends and I still belt out in our bad Geddy Lee voices when we’ve had a few pints. It’s been over 35 years since that album came out, and Rush is still going strong. My three childhood buddies, all of whom were Tolkien enthusiasts, are going to see Rush live with me in Seattle this November. And Rush’s new album is an awesome blend of speculative fiction storytelling, genius arrangements, and kick ass musicianship. Rush is an inspiration. They’re doing some of their best work as they’re heading into their sixties. Maybe they’re like long-lived Hobbits and they’ll still be around when they’re in their hundreds, just like Bilbo (who left Rivendell for the last time when he was 131 years old).

We feel the coming of a new day

Darkness gives way to light a new way

Stop here for a while until the world

The world calls you away

Yet you know I’ve had the feeling

Standing with my senses reeling

This is the place to grow old ’til

I reach my final day

–From “Rivendell”