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, Barnes&Noble, indie booksellers, as well as ebooks and unabridged audiobook.

Your Own Personal Gollum

Is there somebody in your life who drives you insane? Who sucks the air out of a room when they enter it? A psychic-vampire who brings a black murky cloud into your world?

That’s your Own Personal Gollum (OPG).

Gollum wasn’t always such a heinous wretch. Once upon a time he was a happy-go-lucky Hobbity sort of person who had at least one friend (whom he ended up murdering on a riverbank, sadly) and who loved playing riddle games. Gollum even fondly remembers having a grandmother! Someone like that couldn’t be completely evil, right?

But poor Gollum was corrupted by the Ring, and this constant craving hollowed out his soul. He’s a husk of the Hobbit he used to be. He’s like a meth addict craving another hit, and he will do anything to satisfy that terrible emptiness.

Gollum makes Sam’s and Frodo’s life a living hell. He’s manipulative, hateful and bad company on a very long road trip. (Can you imagine driving across America with Gollum in the backseat? You’d want to toss him into a cornfield somewhere around the middle of Kansas.)

Gollum is so awful he pushes even the kindhearted mild-mannered Sam to violence. And Frodo, who recognizes a kindred spirit tainted by the Ring of Doom, is both repulsed and drawn to Gollum as he tries in vain to redeem him, calling him by his old Hobbit name of Sméagol.

Your Own Personal Gollum might not be as horrible as Tolkien’s Gollum. Your OPG could be an annoying classmate, or someone you work with who’s constantly grating on your nerves, or even a relative who makes you cringe every time you see them. (Many people have told me their OPG is their mother-in-law!) You probably won’t have to make a trek with this person to the fires of Mount Doom, but sometimes it might feel that way. Because people who are obsessed with their own problems, like most OPGs seem to be, want everyone else to feel their pain.

So how do we deal with somebody who makes us this miserable? We can’t tie an Elven rope around their necks, give them a good yank and call them “stinker” like Sam does. That just lowers ourselves to their level (and it’s also illegal in most states). Frodo’s sympathy and kindness is admirable, but in the end Gollum ends up biting off his finger. Do you want your OPG to bite off your finger? Even metaphorically? Because I sure don’t.

A year before The Lord of the Rings begins (according to Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales) Aragorn captured Gollum and led him nine hundred miles to the Elven-king’s home in Mirkwood. The journey lasted fifty days, making Aragorn the unofficial winner of the “I spent the most time with nasty old Gollum” award. I can just imagine how the stoical Ranger would have dealt with his OPG: He would have tuned out the vile Gollum’s whining—utterly ignoring him—and strode onward with a fixed look of determination in his steely eyes until he’d reached his destination and delivered Gollum to the Elves. Then he would have turned around and walked away without giving Gollum a second glance.

It’s Gandalf’s advice to Frodo that’s most meaningful when dealing with your OPG, however. Months before Frodo sets out on the quest to destroy the Ring, Gandalf tells the Hobbit that the only way of dealing with Gollum is to pity him. It’s Frodo’s pity that keeps him from killing Gollum when he has the chance, and this mercy is what ultimately saves Frodo from his own failure to destroy the Ring. He learns about compassion the hard way.

In the end we really don’t have any way of controlling the relationship with our OPG. We can control, however, the way we react to them: With pity and self-control. And if those tactics don’t work, sometimes we simply need to give up and go our separate ways.

The Wisdom of the Shire Tells Us…“Have pity on the self-centered Gollum in your life, for they are sad creatures; but do not allow them to pull you onto their dark path.”