November 17th, 2011


November Books 15) The Treason of Isengard, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Next in line of the series of books exploring the process by which Tolkien created TLotR. The most interesting point for me was that Frodo and Sam's path to Mordor, and even back to the Shire, emerged in Tolkien's thinking much earlier than the story of the others after the death of Boromir. He seems to almost make up the tale of Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn as he goes along, and I must admit it's not the most satisfying part of the book (and was the most messed around with by Peter Jackson for the film). In the middle of this, however, the Treebeard chapter stands out as a coming together of long-simmering ideas for Tolkien, who was fascinated by trees and forests and had been dropping foreshadowing references to Treebeard into his drafts without really thinking them through.

Tolkien took great care over names. It's a bit jarring to read "Trotter" instead of "Strider", "Ingolf" instead of "Aragorn" and "Ondor" instead of "Gondor", but I think it's not just familiarity with the final product - the eventually chosen names are genuinely better. There are a very few exceptions - Tolkien was not happy with "Osgiliath", and I think rightly so, but didn't find a good alternative. Irish readers find it amusing that one of Treebeard's fellow elder Ents is named Finglas; this name is there in the very first draft.

I noted with interest that all the early examples of runes - basically Gandalf's messages left at Bree and scrawled at Weathertop - use the good old-fashioned futhark, rather than what we came to know as the Cirth. The switch was made while composing the inscription on Balin's tomb in Moria, and implemented consistently after that. The development of the runes shows off Tolkien's deep knowledge of phonetics; you would expect him to have some familiarity with the subject as a philologist, but clearly it was a profound fascination. (Do you pronounce the 'o's differently in 'Lord' and 'Moria'? I don't, but Tolkien evidently did, going by his first drafts.)

Anyway, much enjoying this reconstruction of how the classic came to be.

Edited to add: amusingly, two people have responded to disagree with me on the vowels in 'Lord' and 'Moria', one saying that the 'Moria' vowel is longer, the other that it is shorter!

November Books 16) The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland

I got this off Bookmooch several years ago, and have now got around to reading it. I was really a bit disappointed. It was published in 1985, and rather shows its age. While there is a lot of useful detail, the system of two to six page essays with (unnumbered and confusingly referenced) notes placed in the middle gutter is not in fact very clearly structured. To get a sense of the full sequence and significance of crucial political developments, your eye has to dart back and forth across the columns. Norman Davies succeeded with the much bolder step of having what are effectively full-page footnotes.

I also found that the material did not scratch my own itches, and did not really live up to the title. This is a history of England, with a fair bit of Scotland and nods towards England and Wales. History began in 45 AD for those parts of the larger island conquered by Rome; it begins in the twelfth century for the rest. There are some honourable exceptions - Patrick Buckland's piece on twentieth century Ireland is very good; Patrick Wormald (whose ex-sister-in-law worked for me years ago, in a bizarre bit of small-worldiness) brings the Celts into British history a bit ahead of the rest of the programme.

But my jaw really dropped when reading Keith Robbins' complacent framing essay for the entire twentieth century. On decolonisation, he writes "The French experienced defeat in Indo-China and Algeria and the Dutch in the East Indies, but the British beat a dignified retreat - if we are prepared to overlook Aden and Cyprus... There was no major upheaval in a colony close at hand comparable to Algeria in the case of France". I am not sure that Palestine or Rhodesia really qualify as 'dignified retreat' (one could also query the dignity of the British handovers in Kenya, Burma, and India/Pakistan). And I think there may also have been a British-ruled territory fairly close at hand whose internal upheavals had a certain impact on British politics. I accept that Algeria is very different from Ireland, but I think Robbins is lazy and dishonest not to even hint that there might be similarities.

The book closes with a historical Who's Who of (I estimate) about 700 individuals, of whom 50-ish are women and 40-ish are Irish. (And none Irishwomen.) I really think this must have been a bit outdated even in 1985.