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

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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

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (Five Stars)

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Five stars out of five

I assume that few readers have not read the book (the second-best selling English-language novel of all time) or seen the movie series (the biggest, most expensive film project to that time). If you haven’t; do. Even those who don’t like fantasy will find thought-provoking drama and character development.

(There be spoilers beyond, though nothing none of you don’t already know.)

This is my fifth reading of this epic fantasy classic. It improves with age. I first read it in the 1960, skipping the poems and appendices. When I read it again in the 1970s I slowly went through the whole. For my 1980s reading, I read the story of each set of characters (after The Fellowship of the Ring is broken at the end of the volume by the same name) straight through until they were reunited. (That was a spoiler.) Read straight through, the trials of Frodo and Samwise leave a different impression read consecutively than if dispersed among the tribulations of the others. Just before the first movie was released, I read the entire volume through again—poems and all—as I did this time.

I have to admit, Continue reading

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

Book Review: The Allegory of Love by C. S. Lewis (Five Stars)

Book Review: The Allegory of Love by C. S. Lewis

Five Stars out of Five

Reader beware. This book was probably C. S. Lewis at his worst: an academic tome about his day job written in 1936, long before he’d reached his peak as a communicator.

However, the payoff is modern readers’ greater understanding of a time and place which served as the background for many contemporary fictional fantasies. (See below)

It traces the rise and decline of the love allegory as a mainstay of European literature in the late Middle Ages. Read it to mine the nuggets of Lewis wisdom scattered through the dry strata of Latin, Greek, French and Middle English. The footnotes, when they weren’t the usual op. cit., lop. cit., and ibid. silliness, were even in Latin and Greek. (No, I don’t read those languages. Paradoxically, it only slowed rather than prevented understanding.) Try this Middle English which often graced later tombstones (sound it out; it’s not as bad as it looks):

O mortall folk, you may behold and se
How I lye here, sometime a mighty knyght.
The ende of Joye and all prosperite
Is dethe at last through his courses and myght;
After the day there cometh the derke nyfght,
For though the day be never so longe
At last the belles ryngeth to evensonge.

Progress is slow and something of a love-hate affair. In addition to the nuggets identified below, you will develop an appreciation, if not an understanding, of a realm of literature long lost. Courtly love, as we all think we know, is Continue reading

Movie Review: Hobbit 3 (Three Stars)

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (AKA Hobbit 3)

Three Stars out of Five

This movie hewed closer to Tolkien than the other two Hobbit movies. I did like it. Three stars is a good rating.

For folks concerned about the length of the battle scene, I direct them to the title of the movie. Don’t go if you’re not ready to see dozens of different ways to slay orcs and humans, and elves and dwarfs. (But no non-sentient creatures were injured, I’m sure. Well, you know, except orcs.)

Some of the added characters had big roles in this movie (especially Legolas, who is not identified by name in The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien), but the identified characters followed the story arc of the book, except of course for Fili’s love connection with an elf (also extra-Hobbit). As in the book, Gandalf did next to nothing, and little old Bilbo Baggins saved the day.

Plenty of tie-ins to the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies which follow the Hobbit chronologically.

The technology is better, but the story telling was not quite at a level with the LOTR movies, perhaps because Peter Jackson et al. had less to work with.

Book Review: C. S Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath (Four Stars)

Book Review: Book Review: C. S Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath

Four Stars out of Five

A welcome addition to my shelf of books about C. S. Lewis, just below my shelf of books by C. S. Lewis. While perhaps not a definitive biography, A Life gives the reader insights to how and how badly Lewis was injured during World War One and the enigmatic Mrs. Moore. McGrath also proposes a new chronology of Lewis’ famous conversion to Christianity. Lots of good insights. Did you know Lewis nominated J. R. R.Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in Literature?

McGrath’s thesis is that it is hard for us to know this Oxford don and Cambridge professor who died just over fifty years ago because Continue reading

Book Review: Smith of Wootton Major by J. R. R. Tolkien (Five Stars)

Smith of Wootton Major by J. R. R. Tolkien

(Five Stars our of Five)

A visit to Faery. Beware. It may touch your soul.

Unlike Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien famously labored over for decades, Smith came to him in a flash, and he dashed it off whole. It has a rough quality which betrays both that inspiration and that lack of refining. Nonetheless, it should entertain and enrich any reader who appreciate other Tolkien short stories, such as “Farmer Giles of Ham” or “Leaf by Niggle”.

An excellent companion for his essay “On Fairy Stories” from The Tolkien Reader, since Continue reading

Beowulf by J. R. R. Tolkien (5 stars of 5)

BeowulfBeowulf by J. R. R. Tolkien

(5 stars of 5)

Beowulf is a unique work in the history of English literature. By chance—or providence—this single Old English tale survives, giving moderns a window into a world, and a language, very different from our own. And yet a culture and language which was our direct antecedent. More than you want to know about this epic poem can be found on Wikipedia.

J. R. R. Tolkien undertook this prose translation early (1920s) in his tenure as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford. The accompanying commentary was drawn from his later lecture notes. Tolkien did not publish this translation for reasons explained in his 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Translating Beowulf.” In short, Continue reading