“He did not see himself as an inventor of story but as a discoverer of legend.”
But most important of all, Bilbo led John Ronald over the Misty Mountains,
through the Mirkwood Forest,
and across the Long Lake to the base of the Lonely Mountain.
~ Caroline McAlister: John Ronald’s Dragons. Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler.
Early in 1915 he turned back to his original Earendel verses and began to work their theme into a larger story. He had shown the original Earendel lines to G.B.Smith, who hat said that he liked them but asked what they were really about. Tolkien had replied: ‘I don’t know. I’ll try to find out.’ Not try to invent: TRY TO FIND OUT. He did not see himself as an inventor of story but as a discoverer of legend.
~ Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien. A Biography.
I think the above quoted children’s picture book biography of J. R. R. Tolkien illustrates rather well what Carpenter points out concerning Tolkien’s attitude towards “story writing”.
Incidentally, I recommend this wonderful children’s book for all who wish to introduce their children to the author and to the genre of biography.
I’m dreadfully busy this year and not very rich; in fact dreadful things have been happening…
It all happened like this: one very windy day last November my hood blew off and went and stuck on the top of the North Pole. I told him not to, but the North Polar Bear climbed up to the thin top to get it down – and he did. The pole broke in the middle and fell on the roof of my house, and the North Polar Bear fell through the hole it made into the dining room with my hood over his nose, and all the snow fell off the roof into the house and melted and put out all the fires and ran down into the cellars, where I was collecting this year’s presents, and the North Polar Bear’s leg got broken.
He is well again now, but I was so cross with him that he says he won’t try to help me again – I expect his temper is hurt, and will be mended by next Christmas.
I send you a picture of the accident and of my new house at the top of the cliffs above the North Pole (with beautiful cellars in the cliffs).
~ J.R.R. Tolkien: Letters from Father Christmas. Excerpt from the 1925 letter
“Lassie Come-Home” by Eric Knight is a classic, and on our oldest daughter’s reading list this year. I guess everyone has heard of the story, more likely because of movies and TV series than because they read the book, but it truly is a novel worth your time.
The actual story line is quickly summed up: Loyal dog is sold but seeks to return home through 400 miles of rugged terrain and crowded cities alike. A similar story line is followed in another novel I strongly recommend for people who do not shy away from children’s books, namely “The Incredible Journey” by Sheila Burnford, but it is not the story line as such that makes the novels good novels, as can be seen by the way in which the plot can be commercialized or turned into nothing much more than comedy or a tearjerker. So, why would I go out of my way to recommend this book?
The main reason is, it is a rich book, rich like a good meal with many courses that you come away from satisfied but not over-stuffed. It touches on many topics that are great for pondering and discussion alike and yet elaborates on none of them to the point where nothing is left unsaid.
The setting is Yorkshire and the Scottish Highlands, and the human characters we meet speak the dialects of the regions, including the inevitable outsider nobody trusts because he sticks out like a sore thumb the moment he opens his mouth. We also meet those who deeply love their home, the hills and the moors, whose characters are shaped by the demands and beauties thereof, and those of the city who cherish the country folks’ opinions and attitudes.
Then there are selfish people and selfless ones to encounter, cruel people, kind people and blustery people, and we hear about their actions and thoughts in a variety of ways that is astonishing for a story of this kind. We read about complex relationships between father and son, mother and son, father and mother, grandfather and granddaughter, master and servant, couples having grown old together, authorities of various degrees with those under and over them, concerned watchers and by-passers and also those who delight in making things even more difficult for their fellow creatures than they already are. We meet shrewd people and honest people, cheats and greedy ones, happy companions and ruthless crooks, in a word, the whole range of people one can possibly put into one little 250-page book. They make the story colorful and give us lots to think about concerning human nature in general, and human behavior in particular.
As if this plethora of characters wasn’t enough already to fill the side-lines of a story, the novel also touches on various social, or socio-political problems, from the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression with their impact on community and family life to country-city differences and environmental pollution, and on to very thoughtful and unsentimental references to WWI. In any and all of these cases, you get the distinct impression that the author is speaking from personal experience, which even a cursory look into his life will confirm, although you wouldn’t think it from his rather superficial Wikipedia entry, had you no read the book first. For me personally, the initial setting of the novel – an impoverished coal-miner community in Yorkshire – is just the environment our not-so-very-distant ancestors lived in on both sides of the Atlantic, and you can get a glimpse into what life would have been like for them, and how it would have formed them.
Last but not least, the novel presents a great deal of insight into the nature and temperament of one specific dog breed – the Collie. Obviously, the author owned and loved, and was loved by a collie, and her name in real life was Toots. In the novel, however, this name is given to a little mongrel who is the companion of a travelling peddler, acting in much the same way as the real-life collie Toots did for the author in his own travelling days. The dog Toots in the novel meets a tragic end just like the author’s mongrel did in real life, and thus this little side-story becomes a lasting memorial for the little mongrel, following The Bard’s line “so long lives this, and this gives life to thee”.
Now, this post is already much longer than what I usually write, and I still haven’t told you (or, if you will, given away) the development of the story, the most moving moments, the astonishing turn of events in the end which is remarkable on many levels, or the most impressive character lessons one can learn from both human and canine main characters. So give it a whirl. I doubt very much that you will regret it.