Cultured Wednesday: Giancola’s Tolkien

“Look again. There’s a lot more to see.”

J.R.R. Tolkien appears to have viewed his sub-creation as a world that others can and probably should add to.

Surely plenty of artists have tried their hand on themes from The Professor’s stories: Names such as Alan Lee, John Howe and Ted Nasmith come to mind.  Today, we were introduced to another contemporary painter who appears to love Middle-Earth: Donato Giancola.  Here is an example of his art:

The Hobbit Donato Giancola

One of the things I like particularly about Giancola’s work is that the characters from Tolkien’s books do not look like the actors that portray them in Peter Jackson’s movies.  Precisely because they have all done a terrific job portraying all those wonderful Tolkien’ian characters, they have made it quite hard to sever one’s imagination from their faces and voices.  Mr. Giancola does not seem to have this problem and I am very thankful for it.  Look at this example of Gandalf and Frodo:

Frodo and Gandalf

Now, I am no expert, so don’t take my word for anything concerning art, ask John Howe!  Here’s what he says, quoted from Mr. Giancola’s website:

“There’s more to Donato Giancola’s art than just a pretty face. Underneath the incredibly meticulous surface of his paintings is concealed a love of perspective and form, an intimate understanding of the human body, a historian’s knowledge of costume and armour, an infallible sense of implicit narrative, visual storytelling and mythical history. It’s just that you’re so rapt gazing at all the mind-blowingly pretty bits that you tend to miss it. Look again. There’s a lot more to see.”

-John Howe, concept designer, artist, historian

One last example, this time not from Tolkien’s world but from the Magic: The Gathering game cards.  It is titled ‘Amber Prison”:



Our Own Dear John Ronald: Discoverer of Legend

“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,

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through the Mirkwood Forest,

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and across the Long Lake to the base of the Lonely Mountain.

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~ 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.

The Road Goes Ever On and On

This day in 1892, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, to Mable Suffield and Arthur Reuel Tolkien.  His father’s name would be the name J.R.R. would become famous under some 60 years later, but his heart was in the ancestral home of the Suffield’s in England’s West Midlands.  Mabel and Belladonna Took surely bear some resemblance, and so do the Tolkien’s and the Baggins’, but John Ronald’s sub-creation grew out of the leaf mold of much more than ‘mere biography’.

For John Ronald, the Road started in a windy, dusty yet strangely beautiful foreign country, far away from what would become the home of his heart.  It ended in the heart of Oxford, seventy-some years later.  And in between, something wonderful grew.  Read his Mythopoeia poem to peek behind the scenes.

the grey havens

And for us, the Road still goes on, from the Door where it began to wherever our feet, willing or weary, will eventually lead us.

Happy Birthday, dear John Ronald.  And Thank You.  You have given us so much…

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Dvergatal

In the original Old Norse, the Dvergatal contains rather more than sixty names, mostly strung together as a simple rhythmic list.

Tolkien found the dwarf-names in the poem ‘Völuspá’, ‘The Sybil’s Vision’, one section of which is called the ‘Dvergatal’, ‘the Tally of the Dwarves’.  (…)  Tolkien did not just copy ‘the Tally of the Dwarves”, or quarry it for names.  He must rather have looked at it, refused to see it, as most scholars do, as a meaningless or no longer comprehensible rigmarole, and instead asked himself a string of questions about it.  What, for instance, is ‘Gandálfr’ doing in the list, when the second element is quite clearly ‘álfr’, elf, a creature in all tradition quite distinguished from a dwarf? (…)


In early drafts of ‘The Hobbit’ Gandalf was the name given to the chief dwarf, while in the first edition what Bilbo sees that first morning is just ‘a little old man’.  Even in the first edition, the little old man’s staff soon comes into the story, while by the third edition (…) Gandalf has become ‘an old man with a staff‘ (…).  This seems highly suitable.  Even now the ‘magic wand’ is the common property of the stage-magician, while in all popular and learned literary tradition, from Shakespeare’s Prospero to Milton’s Comus or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the staff is the distinguishing mark of the wizard.  It looks as if Tolkien sooner or later interpreted the first element of ‘Gandálfr’, quite plausibly, as ‘wand’ or ‘staff’, while the second element, as said above, obviously means ‘elf’.  Now Gandalf in Tolkien is definitely not an elf, but then it turns out that he is not just an ‘old man’ either; one can see that to those who knew no better (people like Éomer in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ much later on) he might well seem distinctly ‘elvish’.  Tolkien seems to have concluded at some point that ‘Gandálfr’ means ‘staff-elf’, and that this must be a name for a wizard.  And yet the name is there in the ‘Dvergatal’, so that the wizard must in some way have been mixed up with dwarves.  Could it be that the reason the ‘Dvergatal’ had been preserved was that it was the last fading record of something that once had happened, some great event in a non-human mythology, an ‘Odyssey’ of the dwarves?  This is, anyway, what Tolkien makes of it.  ‘The Hobbit’, one might say, is the story that lies behind and makes sense of the ‘Dvergatal’, and much more indirectly gives a kind of context even to ‘Snow White’ and the half-ruined fairy-tales of the brothers Grimm.

~ Tom Shippey:  J.R.R. Tolkien. Author of the Century.

entering Mirkwood

Our Dear Own John Ronald: Riddles

Alive without breath, / As cold as death, /Never thirsty, ever drinking, /All in mail, never clinking.

“Sssss” said Gollum, and became quite polite.  “Praps ye sits here and chats with it a bitsy, my preciousss.  It likes riddles, praps it does, does it?”  He was anxious to appear friendly, at any rate for the moment, and until he found out more about the sword and the hobbit, whether he was quite alone really, whether he was good to eat, and whether Gollum was really hungry.  Riddles were all he could think of.  Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago, before he lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down into the dark under the mountains.

“Very well,” said Bilbo, who was anxious to agree, until he found out more about the creature, whether he was quite alone, whether he was fierce or hungry, and whether he was a friend of the goblins.

“You ask first,” he said, because he had not had time to think of a riddle.

~ J.R.R.T:  The Hobbit: Riddles in the Dark

bilbo and gollum.jpeg

Hobbits (…) ‘have a fund of wisdom and wise sayings that men have mostly never heard or have forgotten long ago’.

Bilbo’s riddle exchange with Gollum actually falls into the latter category, of things forgotten, for the whole idea of testing by riddles, and some of the actual riddles, come from the ancient and aristocratic literature of the Northern world rediscovered in the nineteenth century by Tolkien’s professional predecessors.  (…)  Gollum’s riddles, unlike Bilbo’s tend to be ancient ones.  Thus his last riddle, delivered when he thinks ‘the time has come to ask something hard and horrible’, derives from a poem in Old English, the riddle game, or more precisely the wisdom testing exchange, between Solomon and Saturn.  In this, Saturn, who represents heathen knowledge, asks Solomon, ‘What is it that … goes on inexorably, beats at foundations, causes tears of sorrow … into its hands goes hard and soft, small and great?’  The answer given in SOLOMON AND SATURN is, not ‘Time’ as in Bilbo’s desperate and fluky reply, but ‘Old age’: ‘She fights better than a wolf, she waits longer than a stone, she proves stronger than steel, she bites iron with rust: she does the same to us’. (…)

Gollum’s fish riddle (…) is echoed by a riddle set in the Old Norse wisdom contest in THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREK THE WISE (to be edited many years later by Tolkien’s son Christopher), and has a further slight analogue in a medieval poem from Worcestershire which Tolkien admired, LAYAMON’S ‘BRUT’: in this dead warriors lying in a river in their mail are seen as strange fish.  (…)  Gollum’s riddles, cruel and gloomy, associate him firmly with the ancient world of epic and saga, heroes and sages.

But Bilbo can play the game too; though his riddles are significantly different in their sources and their nature.  Three of them (…) come from traditional nursery rhyme.  But where, one might ask, does traditional nursery rhyme come from?  Tolkien certainly had asked himself this question (…).  In 1923 he had published a long version of the familiar ‘man in the moon’ nursery-rhyme, ‘Why the Man in the Moon Came Down too Soon’ (…).  In the same year he published ‘The Cat and the Fiddle: A Nursery Rhyme Undone and its Scandalous Secret Unlocked’ (…).

It may seem surprising that anyone should find nursery-rhymes worth quite so much time and trouble, if it does not quite extend to taking them seriously.  But behind all these rewritings and reminiscences lies the philologist’s conviction that, just as the children’s fairy-tales of elves and dwarves had some long-lost connection with the time when such creatures were material for adults and poets, so modern playground riddles and rhymes were the last descendants of an old tradition.  (…)

The difference [between Bilbo and ordinary people] is that he has not quite lost his grip on old tradition.  Nor, of course, have all ‘ordinary people’.  But they have downgraded old tradition to children’s tales and children’s songs, become ashamed of it, made it into ‘folklore’.  Bilbo and hobbits are in this respect wiser.  [His] unforgotten wisdom puts Bilbo (…) on a level with a creature from the world [of heroic saga and fairy tale] into which he has ventured.

~ Tom Shippey: Author of the Century: The Hobbit: Reinventing Middle-Earth

Our Own Dear John Ronald: 1066 and the Sackville-Bagginses

The Norman Conquest of England, led by William the Conqueror, was carried out between 1066 and 1071 AD. The conquest saw the death of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the replacement of the Anglo-Saxon elite as William was crowned king and redistributed land to his fellow Normans.

There is in fact a word which sums Bilbo up, often used of the English middle-class to which he so obviously belongs: ‘bourgeois’.  This is not an English word but a French one, and Tolkien does not use it – he regretted, again for professional reasons, the medieval takeover of the English language by Norman French, and always tried to reverse it as far as he could.  But he may well have been thinking of just that word, as is indicated by a couple of running private jokes.  Later on, in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, it will be disclosed that the road Bilbo’s hole is on is called Bag End: very appropriate for someone called Baggins, perhaps, but an odd name for a road.  And yet in a sense a very familiar one.  As part of the ongoing and French-oriented snobbery of English society in Tolkien’s day (and later), municipal councils were (and still are) in the habit of indicating a street with no outlet as a ‘cul-de-sac’.  This is French, of course, for ‘bag end’, though the French actually call such a thing an IMPASSE, while the native English is ‘dead end’.  ‘Cul-de-sac’ is a silly phrase, and it is to the Baggins’ family’s credit that they will not use it.  The Tolkien family’s, too, for his Aunt Jane Neave’s house was down a lane with no exit, also defiantly called ‘Bag End’ (see Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R.TOLKIEN: A BIOGRAPHY, p. 106).  It is a very bad mark for the socially aspiring branch of the Baggins family that they have tried to Frenchify themselves and disguise their origins: they call themselves the Sackville-Bagginses, as if they came from a VILLE (or villa?) in a CUL-DE-SAC(K) (Bag End).  They, then, are real BOURGEOIS.  Bilbo is just heading that way.

Gandalf means, however, to turn him back, and that is why he makes him a ‘burglar’. (…)  The root of ‘burglar’ is in fact the same as that of ‘bourgeois’, Old English (and probably Old Frankish too) BURH, ‘borough, town, fort, stockaded mansion’.  A BURGULATOR, as the OED points out, is someone who break into mansions, a BOURGEOIS lives in one.  They are connected opposites, like Sackvilles and Bagginses.  Gandalf means to move Bilbo from the one side, the snobbish side, to the other.  In doing so, Bilbo will not become less English, but more so.  (…)

We should note, in view of the bad press which ‘Englishness’ has had for most of the twentieth century, that Tolkien was quick to point out some of Bilbo’s native virtues (…).  The narrator comments, once Bilbo has recognized Gandalf and responded with genuine excitement and interest, ‘You will notice already that Mr. Baggins was not as prosy as he liked to believe, also that he was very fond of flowers’.  Hobbits, then, like the English middle class to which they so clearly belong, may aspire to be bourgeois and boring, but it is not natural to them.

Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

Incidentally, the German “Sackgasse” is quite close to ‘bag end’, with ‘Sack’ being a sack or bag, and ‘Gasse’ a lane.



Featured: Bayeux Tapestry, scene 51: Battle of Hastings; Norman knights and archers

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Nothing Else Really Happened

The inner life, the life of the mind…

And after this, one might say, nothing else really happened.  Tolkien came back to Oxford, was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon for twenty years, was then elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, went to live in a conventional Oxford suburb where he spent the first part of his retirement, moved to a nondescript seaside resort, came back to Oxford after his wife died, and himself died a peaceful death at the age of 81.  It was the ordinary unremarkable life led by countless other scholars; a life of academic brilliance, certainly, but only in a very narrow professional field that is really of little interest to laymen.  And that would be that – apart from the strange fact that during these years when ‘nothing happened’ he wrote two books which have become world best-sellers, books that have captured the imagination and influenced the thinking of several million readers.  It is a strange paradox, the fact that THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the work of an obscure Oxford professor whose specialization was the West Midland dialect of Middle English, and who lived an ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden.

Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien.  A Biography. 1977

John Tolkien

But what this summary misses out (as Carpenter recognizes) is the inner life, the life of the mind, the world of Tolkien’s work, which was also – he refused to distinguish the two – his hobby, his private amusement, his ruling passion.

If Tolkien had ever been asked to describe himself in one word, the word he would have chosen, I believe, would be ‘philologist’.

Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien.  Author of the Age. 2000


The remark about ‘philology’ was intended to allude to what is I think a primary ‘fact’ about my work, that it is all of a piece, and FUNDAMENTALLY LINGUISTIC in inspiration…  The invention of languages is the foundation.  The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.  To me a name comes first and the story follows.

J.R.R. Tolkien.  1955

Our Dear Own John Ronald: Baggins

What’s in a name?

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. (…) This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins.

~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Bilbo in Bag End.png

As for Mr. Baggins, one thing he is more partial to than another is his ‘tea’, indeed anything eaten between meals but especially afternoon tea ‘in a substantial form’ as the OED says, is called ‘baggins’. (…)  He likes flowers; he is proud of his ancestor the Bullroarer; if not quite ‘as fierce as a dragon in a pinch’ he is at any rate no coward; and like his name he is ample, generous, substantial, if undeniably plain and old-fashioned.

~ Tom Shippey: The Road to Middle-Earth

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