Book Review: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte (Five Stars)

Book Review: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18 by Joseph Loconte

Five Stars

“For a generation of men and women, it brought the end of innocence … and the end of faith.”

An extraordinary and deep exploration of how the Great War, which we call World War One, impacted the lives and works of two of the twentieth century’s greatest writings of epic fantasy. “All the horrors of all the ages were brought together and not only armies by whole populations were thrust into the midst of them,” Winston Churchill. Not unflawed, the work nevertheless demands Continue reading

In Defense of Reading Fiction 103. Minds Meeting

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In Defense of Reading Fiction 103. Minds Meeting

Previously we discussed how reading helps us live longer and improves our minds. This essay discusses how reading fiction helps us meet and befriend new people: authors. Authors similar and different from ourselves. Authors living and dead. Authors who may have shared that same crazy idea you had last week. You know the one.

As mentioned earlier, watching television, movies, even stage plays is essentially passive, certainly derivative. We watch how someone else–often several someones else and a bunch of technology–received, remixed and re-interpreted the author’s story. When we read a book, we engage the author’s mind with our minds.

When we read biography or history we look through the writing as through a filter at the reality behind the words. Reading fiction, we look through the words like a lens Continue reading

Book Review: The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Five stars)

Book Review: The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien

Five stars out of five.

“It is a curse having an epic temperament in an overcrowded age [1944] devoted to sappy bits!”

A treasure trove of insightful material into the life and writings of Tolkien, but not for everyone. Readers uninterested in Tolkien’s writings need not waste their time.

Where to start? With the negatives, since they’re so few. J. R. R. Tolkien is opinionated, peevish and pedantic. He hated the appellation “professor.”

Among these letters covering most of his adult life, we learn how he viewed his world, his writings, his friends, his religion and his invented languages and history. That is how he saw Middle Earth as history he had discovered as much as created—or, as he would say, sub-created. The letters begin just after publication of The Hobbit and cover the production of Lord of the Rings and the aftermath of its unexpected popularity, and his futile struggle to complete and publish The Silmarillion, which his son Christopher succeeded in publishing five years after his father died.

For those, like myself, who count Tolkein’s works as the gold standard of epic fantasy, these letters give insights only alluded to elsewhere. It’s slow and difficult reading in some cases, partly because context is missing. But the payoff is deeper appreciation of Tolkien’s life and world (real and imagined). We learn the origin of the world, names and characters of the fantasy, and his struggle to keep others from reading alien ideas into the works. Though he admitted (in 1939), “The darkness of the present days has had some effect on it.”

“A most amusing and highly contentious evening, on which (had an outsider eavesdropped) he would have thought it (the Inklings) a meeting of fell enemies hurling deadly insults before drawing their guns.” Sounds like fun.

Now I’ll the only logical thing: re-read The Lord of the Rings. Again.

Book Review: J.R.R. Tolkien by Wyatt North (Two Stars)

Book Review: J.R.R. Tolkien: A life Inspired by Wyatt North

Two stars out of five.

Modern authors have the idea that biographies must be at least seven hundred pages long, even if they don’t have seven hundred pages of material. often resulting in a bloated mess of myth and rumor.

Therefore, a tight, well-written biography of barely one hundred pages is refreshing. This work is the perfect companion to Tolkien’s works, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

That said, there must be more fruitful information which modern readers would enjoy knowing about the professor who birthed modern epic fantasy. This volume only refers to fellow Inklings C. S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson in a literary context, while Tolkien and Dyson played decisive roles in the re-conversion of Lewis to Christianity.

Can you imagine, reader, having read the two mentioned volumes when the Professor still lived, and feel as I did the hope of more? It was not to be, but I have re-read those volumes once a decade since. They are the gold standard for all light and epic fantasy since.

North seems to specialize in hagiographies of Roman Catholic persons, of which this is definitely one.

Are Audio Books Books?

Of course they are. Modern technology improves over records, tapes (even cassettes), and CDs. Bluetooth streaming frees the listener to move about and perhaps pursue other activities while listening. Purists might quibble whether the reader really appreciates a book heard rather than read.

My question, however, lies in a different direction. I recently listened to an Arthur Conan Doyle tale read by an accomplished artist. In the course of this particular story within a story, the reader managed English, Scottish, Irish, American, male and female, high- and low-classed accents, even adjusting his narration to the assumed voice of Dr. Watson and an ambiguous American gangster as the setting required. And he was good, except for the women’s voices. He even managed dialogues between clashing accents. The point is: he did so well that the story, in a sense, became as much his as Doyle’s. The “reader” entered the story through his interpretation of the various characters’ voices.

Professor Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” famously argues that drama (and presumably cinema) is “not imagined but beheld” and therefore is “an art fundamentally different from narrative art.” The interpretation of the story Continue reading

Reading for Pleasure

A friend recently called reading a “fictional dream.” I totally agree. I liken it to the writer casting a spell upon the mind of the reader, which the reader welcomes.

Incongruities or just plain dullness can break the spell. (In science fiction, it’s most often crappy science. In fantasy, it’s often internal inconsistencies.) Then, no matter how good the setup or the storytelling, it’s hard to stay engaged.

Verisimilitude (following the thinking of Karl Popper) is critical at that point, making possible what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief.” While the suspension takes place in the reader’s mind, it is the responsibility of the writer to maintain the “spell” not waking the reader from the “dream.” J. R. R. Tolkien called it an “enchantment” which “produces a secondary world into which both designer and spectator can enter.” As distinguished from “magic” which “produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World” (from his essay “On Fairy Stories”).

I want to lose myself in the story. I want, for a short time, to be transported to a different time or place and be totally involved in the story.

“You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.” C. S. Lewis

Movie Review: Frozen (3 Stars)

Frozen Frozen

(3 out of 5 stars)

BEWARE: Spoilers

(Seen twice: once in theaters, once on Blu-Ray)

Whoever writes liner notes for Disney must be illiterate. “Walt Disney Studios presents a chilly twist on one of the most humorous and heartwarming stories ever told.” Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen”? I don’t think so. The original Snow Queen was more like the White Witch in C. S. LewisNarnia than the older sister of this adaptation. In fact, this entire story is pretty much cut from whole cloth. (Not that that’s a bad thing, and not that Disney hasn’t turned fairy tales inside out before–often to good effect.)

Making the protagonists sisters was genius. Continue reading