May 24th, 2013

megaliths

May Books 15) A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor

Telling history through things is what museums are for.
This brilliant book accompanies the brilliant series of podcasts which I listened to a couple of years ago. It is the same hundred objects from the British museum's collection, but this time in dead tree format. The individual talks, which were 11-14 minutes on the radio, are down to 5-7 pages here, so I think quite substantially cut; but what we get in return is pictures of the actual objects, which radio cannot give. Actually in most cases I felt I actually had got a fairly good impression of the objects' appearance from listening to the audio version, but there were a couple where the picture does make a big difference - the sexually explicit Warren Cup, and the extraordinarily detailed mechanical galleon of Augsburg. Anyway, it is all very nicely done (though I did notice as I browsed the maps at the end that none of the objects is from, er, Ireland).

earthsea

May Books 16) Grandville: Bête Noire, by Bryan Talbot

Short listed for this year's Hugos, this is another in Talbot's alternate history of Grandville, where most people are anthropomorphised animals and England is only now recovering from two hundred years of French rule after defeat at Waterloo. As well as taking us to the dark heart of political conspiracy, with overtones of Tintin (and also, frankly, Dangermouse), Talbot reflects art history too in his distorted gaze; the character here illustrated is one Jackson Pollo, and he refers in an afterword to the CIA's funding of Abstract Expressionism. It's a witty, absurd and also rather bleak story. I will find it tough to choose between this and Saucer Country for the Hugo.

tardis

May Books 17) Tip of the Tongue, by Patrick Ness

"Honestly," Nettie said, shaking her head again. "The lies people tell themselves and call it the truth."
These wee Puffin Doctor Who ebooks are having a good run right now. Here we have the celebrated Patrick Ness, delivering a very solid tale of two marginal teenagers in wartime Maine, finding themselves dealing with a peculiar fad for truth-telling gadgets which turn out to be alien tech, with a mysterious celery-wearing stranger and his scandalously dressed companion all mixed up with it as well. This is the first of the books in this series which is not told from the tight narrative viewpoint of Doctor or companion, and all the better for it.

tolkien

May Books 18) The Peoples of Middle-earth, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

Since the ceaseless 'making' of his world extended from my father's youth into his old age, The History of Middle-earth is in some sense also a record of his life, a form of biography, if of a very unusual kind. He had travelled a long road. He bequeathed to me a massive legacy of writings that made possible the tracing of that road, in as I hope its true sequence, and the unearthing of the deep foundations that led ultimately to the true end of his great history, when the white ship departed from the Grey Havens.
So I have come to the end of The History of Middle-earth, with this volume. The first two-thirds are about the composition of the appendices of LotR; the rest brings together some short essays, mostly unfinished. Two of these are rather interesting. "The Shibboleth of Fëanor" looks at how the original 'þ' became 's' in Quenya but remained 'þ' in Sindarin, as in the name Sindacollo, the Quenya version of Thingol; Sindarin itself is a Quenya word, the Sindarin calling themselves the Egladhrim. There is also an intriguing late set of thoughts on the true identity of Glorfindel, who appears in quite different contexts in both LotR and the fall of Gondolin; one fascinating possibility is that he actually was killed in the First Age but allowed to return from the Halls of Mandos to accompany Gandalf on his mission, which would explain why the Nazgûl are particularly perturbed by him.

There is also the fragment of The New Shadow, a sequel to LotR which clearly wasn't going anywhere; it is a story of boyhood orchard-robbing near Minas Tirith which didn't quite come together. It's been rather instructive to see the number of false starts Tolkien made on what might have been substantial works - The Lost Road, The Notion Club Papers, and his various attempts, all pretty unsuccessful, to tell the story of Ëarendil. These are not journeyman pieces; they were mostly written when Tolkien was already a published author. Fortunately, of course, he had the luxury of abandoning lines of writing that were just not working out (though he went back to Ëarendil several times over). But it's worth remembering that  many good pieces of writing have quite a lot of less good writing from the same pen behind and below them, most of which we readers will never see.

Most people will either buy all twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth, or none of them. My recommendation for the curious is to try the tenth of the sequence, Morgoth's Ring, with its essay on elf sex among other interesting fragments. As for me, I've got John Rateliff's two volumes about The Hobbit on the shelf, and a few other bits of Tolkieniana; so I shall not get bored.