Monday, 29 September 2014

Tolkien - J.R.R. Tolkien's Double Worlds and Creative Process by Arne Zettersten

Arne Zettersten is a Swedish lingvist with a special interest for ancient languages and dialects. He became a friend and colleague of Tolkien in the 1960s when they both worked with a collection of medieval manuscripts, the "Katherine Group". Their friendship continued until the death of Tolkien. In this book he tells the story of this friendship and gives an insight into the worlds of Tolkien. The book is rather academic, as maybe can be expected, but gives an overview of what Tolkien achieved during his life time. And it was a lot!

For most people, like myself, he is known for the Lord of the Ring books. The epic fantasy has been voted the greatest book of the 20th century in a reader's poll (by Britain's Channel 4 and the Waterstone's bookstore chain). Tolkien is the father of the modern fantasy books and it seems, that so far, nobody has been able to equal him in quality and popularity.

Reading this book, you realise that for Tolkien, his books are just not books. It is his life. He started reading very early, studied several languages and was fascinated by ancient languages, some of them no more existing. Even as a child he made up secret code languages, and of course, for the Ring books he created new languages. He was one of the most knowledgeable scholars on old manuscripts, stories and myths. He was fascinated by the old Icelandic and Nordic myths, as well as the English, Germanic and Gothic ones. He became an expert of interpreting Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the original medieval manuscript of the Arthur legend.

These old legends and myths occupied his mind during his whole life. Maybe, it is not so strange that he used it to write his big epic books. He used to write Christmas letters to his children each year. They all contained a story and drawings (he could also draw very well) and he loved to tell stories for children. He also used to read for his fellow colleagues (in various groups that he belonged to) like C.S. Lewis who became a life long friend.

What is real and what is fiction? Tolkien lived so much into the world of the myths and legends and the world he created for his books is a "real" world. His whole professional work and private interests have been put into these books. The world and how it is populated, the people or the elfs, dragons, trees and all the other creations he thought up, the nature, the climate, everything is there. He also drew maps of the landscapes, which further gives it a real touch. Maybe his real world was his made-up world?

There were several attempts to put the books into film, which was not a positive idea for Tolkien. He never thought that it was possible. However, with the modern way of making cinema, 30 years after his death it was made into popular films and it visualises everything that he wrote about. He might have like it, had he lived to see it?

There is so much more to read about Tolkien's life and deeds in the book. For those of you who are interested in his work and life, I can recommend it.

I have never read the books, but after reading this book and the background to how they were created, I think I must read them one day. The books I saw always had this very tiny font and it seemed to me unreadable. Not to talk about the size of the books! However, with the e-books there might be hope also for me.

I have seen the films, and have to admit that I found them very dark. It is after all the eternal fight for good and evil, light and darkness. They are very well made and fantastically filmed.

I am full of admiration for this man who managed to create such a world!

Have you read the books? Seen the films? Did you like them?


  1. Yes, I loved The Hobbit 40 years ago and that led me to Lord of the Rings. I never forgot them. I thought they were brilliant. I saw the films thinking they could never replicate the books but I enjoyed the films except the Hobbit. I see no reason why the Hobbit is going to be broken into 3 films except to make more money and that put me off. I definitely think they are a personal choice and I think depending on your taste as to whether you'd enjoy them or not. But this non fiction book of Tolkien's life sounds fascinating.

  2. I suppose it is a matter of money. The original story does not always gain this way. But, if it makes people see movies and then discover the books, I suppose this is a good thing.