Today would have been the 121st birthday of C.S. Lewis. A week ago today marked the 56th anniversary of his death, which was, at the time, overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy.
To celebrate his birthday, I decided to read the second essay found in the 1969 edition of Selected Literary Essays by C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper. Interestingly, the copy I checked out from the Kansas City Public Library may be a first edition. If not, it’s been in circulation for fifty years, as evidenced by date stamps through early 1996, after which, I assume, the Library moved from analog to digital (card catalog to barcodes):
I originally checked out this volume specifically to read the 21st essay entitled “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism” which was referenced in a footnote in an essay I read recently in A Tolkien Compass. For today, though, I wanted to celebrate the friendship between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, so I read, instead, the second essay entitled “The Alliterative Metre.”
The essay covers many of the rules governing alliterative verse, including these definitions:
The half-line consists of Lifts and Dips. Every half-line must contain neither more nor less than two Lifts.
A Lift is either (1) one syllable both long and accented (as the first syllable of ogre or mountain); or (b) two syllables whereof the first is short but accented, and the second unaccented (as the first two syllables of merrily, vigorous, melancholy, evident).
A Dip is any reasonable number of unaccented syllables whether long or short.
Despite my best efforts, I quickly got sidetracked by yet another footnote. It all began with a short example alliterative verse, composed (I’m assuming) by Lewis.
We were TALKing of DRAGONS, | TOLkien and I In a BERKshire BAR. | The BIG WORKman Who had SAT SILent | and SUCKED his PIPE ALL the EVEning, | from his EMPTy MUG With GLEAMing EYE | GLANCED toWARDS us; "I SEEN 'em mySELF', | he SAID FIERCEly
Note: Syllables printed above in capitals are Lifts, the rest are Dips.
The first and most distracting footnote followed the word ‘fiercely’ and read:
Partial Synopsis: Contributors analyze Gollum’s character transformation, the psychological journey of Bilbo, the regime set up by Saruman at the end of Lord of the Rings and its parallels to fascism, the books’ narrative technique, and Tolkien’s rich use of myth and symbol.
I found most of the essays collected in A Tolkien Compass to be intriguing and thought provoking. At least three of them added twenty new books, journals and articles to my to-be-read queue. The notes alone on a couple of the essays were three or four pages in length and sent me down fantastic research rabbit holes. I can’t decide which essay is my absolute favorite, so I’ll list my top five here (in author alpha order):
Huttar, Charles A. “Hell and the City: Tolkien and the Traditions of Western Literature”
Miller, David M. “Narrative Pattern in The Fellowship of the Ring“
Rogers, Deborah C. “Everyclod an Everyhero: The Image of Man in Tolkien”
Scheps, Walter “The Fairy-tale Morality of The Lord of the Rings“
West, Richard C. “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings“
Honorable Mentions include Agnes Perkins’ “The Corruption of Power” and U. Milo Kaufmann’s “Aspects of the Paradisiacal in Tolkien’s Work”
A Tolkien Companion, originally published in 1975, amazed me with the depth of insight and scholarship gleaned from the then available works published by Tolkien and about Tolkien’s writing. I saw at least one reference to the manuscripts archived at Marquette University in Wisconsin. Yet, these essays still pre-date the publication of The Silmarillion and the volumes of The History of Middle-earth. Unlike Master of Middle-earth, however, I did not gain any new revelations about Tolkien’s Legendarium, but I did experience profound and thought provoking moments. If I had to choose my favorite essay from the collection, it would probably be Richard West’s “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings” because I had to restrain myself from recording the entire essay as an audio excerpt.
I recommend this to people interested in delving deeper into Tolkien’s writing.
As is the case with all great works of art, J. R. R. Tolkien‘s masterpieces generously repay close attention and study. In this thoroughly entertaining and perceptive volume, winner of the prestigious Mythopoeic Society Scholarship Award, Professor Kocher examines the sources that Tolkien drew upon in fashioning Middle-earth and its inhabitants-and provides valuable insights into the author’s aims and methods. Ranging from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion and beyond, Master of Middle-earth opens the door to a deeper and richer appreciation of Tolkien’s magnificent achievement.
I became aware of this out-of-print book recently while listening to Season Three of the Prancing Pony Podcast. For my birthday, I decided to ‘splurge’ and purchase actual print books (which I haven’t done regularly in years because I prefer ebooks and audiobooks; the former because I can control the size of the font as my eyes age and the latter because I spend ninety minutes in a car five days a week). I found a reasonably priced used paperback edition if The Master of Middle-Earth along with a used paperback edition of A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell.
In Meditations on Middle-earth, sixteen bestselling fantasy authors share details of their personal relationships with Tolkien’s mythos, for it inspired them all. Had there been no Lord of the Rings, there would also have been no Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin; no Song of Ice and Fire saga from George R. R. Martin; no Tales of Discworld from Terry Pratchett; no Legends of Alvin Maker from Orson Scott Card. Each of them was influenced by the master mythmaker, and now each reveals the nature of that influence and their personal relationships with the greatest fantasy novels ever written in the English language.
If you’ve never read the Tolkien books, read these essays and discover the depth and beauty of his work. If you are a fan of The Lord of the Rings, the candid comments of these modern mythmakers will give you new insight into the subtlety, power, and majesty of Tolkien’s tales and how he told them.
Meditations on Middle-Earth is a 2002 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Related Work.
My Favorite Essays
If you read only one or two of these essays, I highly recommend Michael Swanwick’s “A Changeling Returns” and Donald A. Anderson’s “Tolkien After All These Years” – both of which brought tears to my eyes for very different reasons. The latter also added to my TBR by referencing many non-fiction titles not yet gracing my shelves.
“What he [Sean] heard was the same book I had discovered that sleepless night . . . the single best adventure story every written. As an adult, however, I found that during my long absence it had transformed itself into something else entirely. It was now the saddest book in the world.”
Michael Swanwick, “A Changeling Returns” p. 35
“From experience, Tolkien knew that there are only two possible responses to the ending of an age. You can try to hold on, or you can let go. … Tolkien’s vision of the combined horrors of the twentieth century ended with hope and forgiveness. This is a book of sad wisdom.”