Posts Tagged ‘Tolkien’

Lists of Best

As the calendar year draws to a close, ’tis the season to draw lists of best this and that.  Lists of the best books or the best films are appearing in newspapers and magazines. I always scan the lists with a certain fascination and then with mounting annoyance, because I really do not put much credence on pronouncements that any ten items cited are the only “bests” in a universe of outstanding artistic production. I have a sneaking suspicion that the works that appear on the makers’ lists can be more accurately described as the most memorable ones of the year to them, for there is something about the experience of reading the book or viewing the film, which sticks in the memory.

There are two movies of 2012 that will stick in my mind: Life of Pi and The Hobbit.  Having read both books several times, I was excited about going to see them on the big screen in 3D; normally, I prefer to watch films at home. The experience did not disappoint, and I’ll join the best-list makers by pronouncing the film adaptations were the best which any director probably could hope to accomplish. Best is never quite good enough when trying to pour the scope of a literary classic into a movie of a few hours. Peter Jackson must have despaired of the task, for the second half of The Hobbit will be released in 2013. What the movies did accomplish is to instill a burning desire in me to reread these two books once again. Last night I pulled out a copy of The Hobbit for my bedtime reading.  After I came home from seeing Life of Pi, I desperately searched bookcases for my copy without success. I knew that was one book I did not give to the Salvation Army. I was perplexed until my sister informed me I had lent the book to her.

Excellent as the film renderings of the tiger Richard Parker, the orangutan Orange, the zebra and the hyena are in Life of Pi, the movie could not possibly include all the humorous passages in which Pi practices three religions or cover the philosophical implications of Pi’s discoveries about animal behavior versus human behavior.  Pi’s examination of the survival manual in the lifeboat also contains some comic relief in a desperate situation. The conclusion offers the viewer two versions of the story. The choice of which story to believe–the more imaginative and fantastic and consequently the more enjoyable version; or the matter-of-fact more realistic one and consequently horrible revelation of human beings as also carnivorous animals–equates with the choice to believe in God or not to believe in God.  The author, Yann Martel, infers the belief in God is a better story.

Life of Pi enshrines story-telling as a fundamental impulse of mankind. Pi’s story is richly layered, funny at times, nuanced with metaphysical speculation on the nature of reality and man’s relation to the animal kingdom. On a basic level, it can be simply read as a riveting fable.  The movie successfully suggests all these threads in the book’s variegated tapestry.  Because the novel draws from literary tradition from around the world and the fable form might engage reluctant teen readers, I selected it for my sophomore English class to read during my year of high-school teaching. I also selected it because there was no movie version out at the time. Half of the class read the book and the other half asked to see the movie.

I have memories of reading aloud Tolkien’s The Hobbit and trilogy to my son before he fell asleep. What a bedtime story it still is!


Please Trespass Here

I read both novels and poetry. Sometimes I combine the two and read a verse-novel (a rare find). An excellent example of a full-length verse-novel that I recently reread is Darlington’s Fall by Brad Leithauser. It leaves me wondering why it did not receive more acclaim than it did.  The novel I just finished reading is 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. Wanting to know about this writer, I read that he died before the novel was published and that he wrote poetry first, but turned to novels to earn money when he had children to feed. That got me to thinking about other novelists who also wrote poetry. Margaret Atwood, D.H. Lawrence, Erica Jong, Herman Melville, John Updike, and Sherman Alexie come to mind. If my readers can suggest others, please share them and offer your opinion of how well they do in each genre. There is also Sylvia Plath, primarily a poet, who wrote her one novel The Bell Jar. And, of course, Tolkien included verse in the form of songs in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy.

From writing poetry, I trespassed into the land of fiction, writing novels and short stories.  In my latest poetry book, Please Trespass Here, I have collected all the poetry I have written since 2001. The collection is divided into five sections: Settings, Characters, Motifs, Novenas for Grandmother, and Playground. The topics span world events in the first decade of the 21st century mixed with humorous takes on daily life and nature. Themes turn to the criminal mind and to literary figures. The title invites the reader to trespass into the poet’s territory and be rewarded, among other things, with sightings of moose, a great grey owl, and a bear.  After completing this poetry book, I have set poetry aside for the time being to begin a new novel. I will never entirely abandon poetry, for I get great pleasure from crafting a poem’s lines and stanzas.

I invite those who only read novels or anyone who left poetry behind when they left school to trespass on the territory of poetry. The rhythm and imagery that jump out at you in your favorite prose passages thrive in the concision of poetry. I offer here the title piece:

 Please Trespass Here

Please Trespass Here Book Cover

The tempo of summer simply slows

Like subtle flutter of warbler wings.

A grasshopper lurches in the lawn,

While I loll, open book, on the deck.

Nothing as serene as a printed page

Spread to the sun in perfect marriage

Of mind and matter—the world soul

Emerson thought of long ages ago

Before my mountain home was born.

Unwelcome cowbird lands on the feeder.

Today I am content to see the intruder.

There’s room for crossbill and grosbeak,

Prettier by far than this dusky wayfarer

Who neither reads nor admits of signs.

Ample is the hour, ample is the sky

For vagrant cloud and flagrant crow.

No circle more sacred than black soil

And no world larger than this moment.

Write What You Know: A Dubious Dictum?

We have heard this dictum from writing teachers–certainly, sage advise for reporters and journalists, but rather nonsensical when it comes to creative writing where the imagination is empowered in the breach of the known, indeed, to venture where no novelist has gone before. The essence of fiction and poetry is to behave and to think as our characters, most of them completely different than we are–different sex, different ethnic background, different traits, likes and dislakes.  This dictum would have me never writing about a farmer because I have never lived on a farm, never writing about a first-person male character because I am female, never writing about Borneo because I have never been to Borneo, never write about ancient Etruscans, and so on. If this was truly sound advice, Jean Auel would not have ventured to imagine Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals of the Ice Age in her novel The Clan of the Cave Bear. Extensive research is the key. Do your research and you can write about anything. Yet there will still be something you do not know; you cannot know. Let your imagination fill in the plot, conflict, characters and the blanks in the historical record.

What if Tolkien had written only philological articles and not ventured into Middle-earth? Assuredly, Tolkien brought his Anglo-Saxon scholarship and his World War I experience to bear upon his mythical creations.  Even a cursory review of the jewels of world literature reveal how bland and prosaic this dictum is, so simplistic, so ordinary that it cannot create the extraordinary.  Taking this dictum seriously demolishes the edifice of not only the fantasy genre, but all fiction.

From the beginning I blatantly ignored the dictum. I had the temerity to describe places where I had never been, bolstered by my research, films, and photographs. That is not to say that an author should not authenticate his fictional reality by visiting his settings, if possible, but it is not necessary unless he has written an article for a travel magazine.  Jean Auel could not buy a ticket to Ice Age Europe. I wrote a short story about Chernobyl, never having set my big toe an inch inside the former Soviet Union. The writing temperament encompasses empathy, desire to get under the skin of other people, suppositions about human motivations and the ability to envision the back story behind whatever is observed. True lies are inescapable. They are imagination–the one indispensable component of the creative process.