Archive for September 16th, 2012

The Book of Lost Tales

September 16, 2012

 

Cover of "Book of Lost Tales: Pt. 1 (Hist...

Cover via Amazon

J. R. R. Tolkien was the beloved author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The publication of those two books made him rich and famous all over the world, but the work he was really interested in, his magnum opus, was his collection of the legends and history of the Elves titled the Silmarilion. Tolkien worked on these stories his entire life but when he died in 1973, they were still uncompleted. Fortunately his son and literary heir, Christopher Tolkien, took it upon himself to polish the stories and set them in order so the Silmarilion finally saw publication in 1977.

When I said that the Silmarilion was unfinished, I did not mean that the story breaks off abruptly or that the stories were undeveloped. Tolkien was a perfectionist and kept rewriting the legends over and over, never seeming to want to complete a final, definitive version. Christopher Tolkien’s main task was in deciding which details to use and maintaining some consistency throughout the published Silmarilion.

J. R. R. Tolkien also seems to have been a bit obsessive about keeping every scrap of paper he ever used to write down story outlines, experimental dialog, character sketches, etc. Christopher Tolkien was able to sort out and organize this vast compendium of material and publish it as a multi-volume work which he called The History of Middle Earth. The first two volumes included the earliest versions of the legends and were called The Book of Lost Tales. Later volumes presented later versions and early drafts of the Lord of the Rings, as well as Tolkien’s attempts at writing epic poetry and miscellaneous essays Tolkien wrote on various matters relating to Middle Earth.

These books, while they can be tedious in the amount of detail and commentary that Christopher Tolkien provides, are nevertheless quite interesting. You almost have the feeling that you are sitting right next to Tolkien as he writes out the latest revision of the Lord of the Rings. Often he makes significant changes as he writes. For example, the scene in which Frodo and his friend encounter a Black Rider for the first time, began as an encounter with a white rider who turned out to be Gandalf. Tolkien wrote about a paragraph of dialog and then scratched out white and wrote black instead. He rewrote the entire encounter, reusing as many of the details that still fit the new storyline. Tolkien was very conservative and often kept using the same details and descriptions, even when he changed the plot.

There must have been few authors whose writing process a researcher can study in such detail. I am afraid that there will be no more. Today, a writer who wants to make changes in his manuscript can simply delete and rewrite with a few clicks on the keyboard. I don’t imagine there would be any writers so vain as to save every single version of everything they have written for posterity to read. Tolkien wasn’t thinking about preserving his thoughts. He simply didn’t throw any of his papers away.

I am normally a great technophile, but in this case technology has caused us to lose something.

 

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Barack Nero Claudius Obama

September 16, 2012

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, more familiarly known as Nero was one of the most notorious of the Roman Emperors. Many historians have depicted him as a monster of vice and cruelty. He really wasn’t all that bad, though. He reign was actually mostly successful until the end. Still, I wouldn’t call him exactly good either. He did murder his own mother and he was the first of the emperors to persecute the Christians. One of the most prominent and long-lasting stories about Nero is that when the City of Rome nearly burned completely down in 64 A.D., Nero did nothing to try to help anyone and instead played his fiddle while singing of the fall of Troy.

That story is almost certainly fictional. For one thing the violin had not been invented yet, so Nero would have played a lyre. Actually, Nero was out of town when the fire broke out, but rushed back to Rome as soon as he received the news. There wasn’t much anyone could do to fight the fire in those days, but Nero did open up his palace gardens to house the Romans made homeless by the fire. Unfortunately, after the fire finally burned out, Nero decided to rebuild Rome, replacing the old, narrow streets and crowded tenements with a rationally designed new Rome, which included a huge new palace for himself. This started the rumor that Nero had started the fire himself and led to his blaming the Christians and persecuting them.

Whatever the truth of the story, however, the phrase fiddling while Rome burns has become a byword for someone who takes no action or is distracted by trivialities when things are falling apart all around them. Which, brings us to our modern Nero.

The entire Middle East is burning and Barack Obama doesn’t seem to be taking matters at all seriously. Well, he does take fund raising for his reelection campaign seriously.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign is getting a boost from pop stars Beyonce and Jay-Z.

The superstar couple will hold a fundraiser with Obama on Tuesday at a swanky New York nightclub that Jay-Z owns.

Tickets are $40,000, but the campaign says a small donation lands a chance to win two tickets — airfare and hotel included.

Beyonce says in an email to Obama’s supporters that she’s a huge fan and will do whatever it takes to help him win a close race.

This isn’t the first time the Obamas have teamed up with the A-list couple to promote each other’s causes. Michelle Obama helped Beyonce with efforts to promote global humanitarianism, and the president appeared in a pre-recorded video earlier this month at a Jay-Z event in Philadelphia.

Yet, he can’t take time off from his busy schedule to attend daily intelligence briefings, heed warnings that our embassies might come under attack, meet with the Israeli Prime Minister over Iran’s continuing progress in making itself a nuclear power, or even take our looming fiscal catastrophe seriously. He might as well be fiddling.


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