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Jeff LaSala

Philosophers and Plough-dwarves, Each Must Know His Part in The Nature of Middle-earth

The long-awaited book The Nature of Middle-earth, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has newly awakened into the world like Quendi by the shores of Lake Cuiviénen! Fans hungry for more Middle-earth are scooping up their copies and… making Aragorn beard-memes? Just what is this new posthumous Tolkien book exactly, how “canon” is it, and what things do we learn about J.R.R.’s legendarium that we didn’t know before? Here is everything you need to know…

Fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings who aren’t much into Tolkien’s other Middle-earth stories may only find a few curiosities here. Answers to burning questions like: Were there any ursine entertainers on Númenor? Could Legolas talk to horses? Who in the Fellowship actually had facial hair? Come 5 o’clock, did a shadow gather about Aragorn’s cheeks and chin? Did Gollum actually go about buck naked? Was Galadriel a natural blonde? CELEBORN TELLS ALL!

[A quantum leap forward in time and space . . .]

Tolkien’s Orcs: Boldog and the Host of Tumult

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoMe) books.

What are little orcs made of?
Heats and slime
And Utumno’s vile grime
That’s what little orcs are made of

Maybe? Well, only at first.

This, then, is my final installment on the topic of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Orcs, whereas the professor himself was never final about it. Orcs were, for him, the subject of “prolonged interior debate” (so wrote his son, Christopher) after the publication of his most famous work. This time we’re leaving The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales all behind and going right to the 12-volume series known as The History of Middle-earth (or HoMe), to see what information we can scare up.

Let’s hunt some Orc-lore!

[‘Death to light, to law, to love! Cursed be moon and stars above!’]

Tolkien’s Orcs: The Din-horde of Morgoth

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoMe) books.

Previously, on Tolkien’s Orcs…

I concluded in part 1, which covered the monstrous hoi polloi of Middle-earth as presented in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings, that Orcs are driven to mayhem—and frankly, the will to do anything substantive—by the power of Sauron. Which is to say, when there’s no Dark Lord in the neighborhood to give them some moxie, they become idle (relatively speaking) and their numbers stay down. But what about before all that? What happened before Sauron even became the head honcho of evil?

In this installment, I’m going to look at the role of Orcs in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, which are like the uber-prequel and the deleted scenes (respectively) to Tolkien’s more famous works. But to fans of the legendarium on the whole, they are also essential reading.

[‘Rouse the Orcs and I leave you.’]

Tolkien’s Orcs: Bolg, Shagrat, and the Maggot-folk of Mordor

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoME) books.

Orcs, amirite? The shock troops of the Dark Lord’s armies. The rank-and-file of the bad guys in Middle-earth. Called a “hideous race” bred in “envy and mockery of the Elves.” Everyone’s got feelings about them. Feelings… and differing facts, maybe.

[‘It is the orc-work, the wanton hewing. . . without even the bad excuse of feeding the fires, that has so angered us’]

Tolkien’s Dark Lords: Sauron, Dark Magic, and Middle-earth’s Enduring “Melkor-ingredient”

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoMe) books.

Whenever the works of J.R.R. Tolkien come up, my immediate nerd-impulse is to ask: “Hold up! Are we talking about just The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit?” Followed by, “Are we talking about the films or the books (since they’re quite a different thing)—or somehow both?” But what I’m really getting at is, can we discuss the legendarium at large? Because that would rope in The Silmarillion and the History of Middle-earth books. And that’s even more fun.

If it’s just The Hobbit and LotR, then we’re only talking about the Third Age and the War of the Ring (with a possible glance back at the Second Age since that’s when the Rings of Power were made). In which case Sauron is the de facto face of evil on Middle-earth and that’s all that really matters. But if we can talk about the big picture—the entire world—in which Middle-earth is merely center stage, then I can go right to the top shelf for the real bad guy, Morgoth ( Melkor), and the stain he left behind. Gross.

Sauron. Morgoth. Just who are these clowns, who’s actually worse, and why?

[‘Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary.’]

Let’s Celebrate Tolkien Week (By Force of Hobbit)!

Hobbits, amirite?

When they’re not avoiding anything that makes them late for dinner, they’re pilfering ancient artifacts, accepting age-ending quests, sticking with their friends through thick and thin to the bitter end, testing the patience of wizards, getting kidnapped by Orcs, befriending tree-shepherding giants, sitting on the edge of ruin while discussing the pleasures of the table, swearing their service to kings, stabbing smack-talking lords of carrion and voracious giant spiders…and even carrying their masters up the faces of active volcanoes. Hobbits are, when it comes down to it, just a bunch of irrepressible lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures.

And a lot of people are very fond of them. Accordingly, on September 22nd, the in-world birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, we celebrate Hobbit Day. It’s Tolkien Week, in fact, which has been a thing since 1978. Far too short a time.

[In un buco nella terra vivena uno hobbit.]

Mortal Men Doomed to Die: The Giver of Gifts and the Wise-women of Middle-earth

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoME) books.

By and large, J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium hammers into us—as if on Aulë’s own forge—the fact that when Men kick the can, they don’t come back. Quite unlike their Elven counterparts, for whom “no sickness or pestilence brought death,” Men shuffle off their mortal coils with ease. In our present time, in the real world, where illness is often in the forefront of the news, I’ve personally found that it’s easier than ever to think about the death that all Men must face.

But even in Middle-earth, Tolkien’s secondary world, you sometimes have to wonder: was it supposed to be like this? Well, YES, insist the Elves and even the oft-omniscient narrator of these stories. Ahhh! But that’s not how Adanel—mortal Wise-woman of the First Age—tells it!

[‘So I learn from Adanel. They say plainly that Men are not by nature short-lived . . .’]

“Infinite and Transcendent” — Artist Kip Rasmussen on Depicting Tolkien’s Silmarillion

When I first came across Kip Rasmussen’s work, I knew it was exceptional, and that I’d probably like everything he made. His paintings present all the best components of high fantasy: long hair flowing from beneath helms, brazen swords, gleaming spears, fire-breathing dragons, primordial godlike beings, imposing pinnacles of rock, and an insanely huge spider. Yup—these were scenes right out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, instantly recognizable as features of Middle-earth. But curiously, only a few of them depict characters in The Lord of the Rings itself. Here was a Silmarillion-leaning artist. Oh, hell yeah.

When I contacted Kip to ask permission to use some of his work in my Silmarillion Primer, he just happened to be mulling over three ideas in his mental queue and he was quick to ask me to choose which subject he’d tackle next. I chose “Tulkas Chaining Morgoth,” so when he finished it later, it was right on time for the War of Wrath segment of the Primer. That made me very happy. And now, once again, I’m debuting a new painting in this article: Kip’s take on that legendary conflict between a certain lionhearted shield-maiden and a certain overconfident lord of carrion.

[In light is her power and her joy…]

Happy Little Ents: The Middle-earth Landscapes of Artist Ted Naismith

If you’ve ever picked up an illustrated book written by J.R.R. Tolkien, or spent time clicking around on the internet in fantasy circles, or if you’d seen the posters on my dorm room wall years ago—or, heck, scrolled through any of the posts of The Silmarillion Primer—basically, if you’ve lived on Planet Earth over the last few decades, then you’ve surely chanced across the scenic, brilliant, and exceedingly prismatic illustrations of Ted Nasmith. I mean…if chance you call it.

Ted is a luminary, an artist and illustrator of…well, many things, but he’s best known for depicting Tolkien’s world more or less how we’re all imagining it. Or maybe you’re imagining it, in part, due to Ted’s work. From official Tolkien calendars to illustrated editions of the professor’s books to The Tolkien Society’s journal covers, he’s dipped his toe and his brushes into Tolkien’s mythology so many times there’s just no keeping track of it all. You know, I’m going to come right out and say it: Ted Nasmith is basically the Bob Ross of Middle-earth.

[Read more]

Mortal Men Doomed to Die: Death as a Gift Is Debatable in Middle-earth

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoME) books.

As Tolkien-reading humans, we already know that even in Middle-earth, all Men die at some point. Obviously. But it’s not unless we read Appendix A in The Lord of the Rings that we see mortal death referred to as something other than a tough break. The narrator calls it “the Gift of Men” when speaking of the long-lived Númenóreans. Arwen Undómiel calls this fate “the gift of the One to Men” at her husband’s own deathbed, where “the One” is essentially God, a.k.a. Eru, whom the Elves named Ilúvatar. And this all might seem strange at first, for nowhere else in Tolkien’s seminal book does he explain why death might be seen as a gift.

[‘What about my memories? Will I get to bring them into any halls with me?’]

In Memory of Neil Peart: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the Mystic Rhythms of Rush

News broke last Friday about the passing of Neil Peart, the drummer, lyricist, and philosophical heart of the Canadian band Rush. His departure from the circles of our world far, far too early (he was a mere 67) has left many of us grieving in ways that celebrity deaths normally do not. There’s a kind of shockwave effect running through the fandom. And here’s the thing: the guy was extremely private (in a band known for its privacy). It’s hard to miss the man himself—none of us knew him personally. Peart himself wrote, speaking of his adoring fans, “I can’t pretend the stranger is a long-awaited friend.” But losing that secluded presence of a man who produced what he produced—that we can grieve.

But wait, what business does this tribute to a rock legend—yea, even one counted among the greatest drummers of all time—have on a site devoted primarily to science fiction and fantasy? If you’re familiar with Rush, you already know why. And if you don’t, please indulge me.

[“When I heard that he was gone / I felt a shadow cross my heart”]

Tolkien’s Elves: Married With Eldar Children

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoME) books.

Elf-kids these days! They’re so soft. They don’t know how good they’ve got it. Just Sauron, not Morgoth, is their big bad, and they can just hop on a boat at any time to escape the troubles of Middle-earth. That wasn’t an option for their parents. But then, war, love, and family have always been part of the Elven condition in Arda Marred—from the Elder Days to The Lord of the Rings days.

In the book Morgoth’s Ring, in the more-delightful-than-it-sounds section called “Laws and Customs among the Eldar,” the first thing Tolkien talks about is Elf-children. Which should immediately make us say: Wait! Why do we never read about them? Like, any of them. Are there any Eldar tykes in Middle-earth at the time of The Lord of the Rings? Might young Estel, a.k.a. Aragorn, have had one or two immortal playmates in Rivendell? Well, as with many things in his legendarium, Tolkien just doesn’t say. But we can infer some things based on Elven culture and reproductive conventions.

[The union of love is indeed to [Elves] great delight and joy, and the ‘days of the children’, as they call them, remain in their memory as the most merry in life…]

Tolkien’s Elves: How the Eldar Half Lives (and Lives, and Lives, and Lives)

In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoME) books.

What is the deal with Elves in The Lord of the Rings? Are they supposed to be as severe as those we see in Peter Jackson’s film trilogies? Questions inevitably arise around these mysterious people, who’ve inspired pretty much all fair-faced, pointy-eared*, woodsy folk in the fantasy genre. J.R.R. Tolkien may not have invented the Elves as a concept—Germanic folklore did—but he sure did popularize them.

But even in his own legendarium, what does it mean, in practice, to be immortal? What’s with all the talk about fading, and the leaving? Why can’t they stick around? Are there any female Elf-warriors, and how many kids can an Elf-mom have, anyway? Are there any Elf-kids? Well, Professor Tolkien didn’t answer all of our world-building questions in his seminal work, but you’d be surprised to see how many of these points he did address. In this discussion, spread out over two parts, I’ll talk about the Elven condition as Tolkien sorted it out, and how those details might apply to the stories we do know.

[For the Elves die not till the world dies, unless they are slain or waste in grief…]

The “Fellowship” of Amazon’s Middle-earth

On Saturday, Amazon introduced us to its “Fellowship” of creators via Twitter in a short video. These are the writers and other key subcreators at the helm of their ambitious new show-to-be, which now even more clearly takes place (at least in part) in the Second Age of Middle-earth. Which in turn almost certainly confirms that Amazon has secured the rights to Unfinished Tales, if not necessarily the larger Silmarillion text. That was the theory so far.

So much is at stake, but at this point I’m still more than happy to remain optimistic and excited. Wanna talk about who’ve they’ve got?

[“What does it mean by speak, friend, and enter?”]

Artist Justin Gerard on Tolkien, Golden Age Illustration, Noble Crocodiles, and Balrog Wings

Do Balrogs have wings? Does Carcharoth, the personal watchdog of the Dark Lord, have a big leonine mane? Are Gandalf’s eyebrows really longer than the brim of his hat? (That’s crazy!) Sometimes the answer is yes, but usually the answer is…only if an illustrator wants it so.

This interview started with a wolf: Carcharoth, the Red Maw, the Jaws of Thirst, is the “mightiest wolf that would ever walk the world” in Middle-earth, and he features prominently in that classic Tolkien love story of monstrous cosplay and dismemberment that we know as the tale of Beren and Lúthien. When I reached that chapter in The Silmarillion Primer, I wanted to show the dread Wolf of Angband, so I reached out to studio artist Justin Gerard because I came across his version of the beast. It was fortuitous timing, since he was just then working on another version of Carcharoth, and he even allowed me to weigh in on it before it was finished.

It took a few emails with Justin to realize that this was a guy I wanted to know more about and possibly interview for a future piece. He’s an easygoing and friendly-as-all-heck painter who’s done some excellent Tolkien—and plenty of non-Tolkien fantasy—art with a style all his own. And I’m betting some of you have certainly seen his work before (such as in the annual Spectrum anthology of contemporary fantasy art). There’s a storybook quality to his work that I struggle to articulate but love all the same. Meanwhile, we got to debut his dramatic action piece “The Hunting of Carcharoth” in that Primer installment.

[Along that narrow way their march was strung, when they were ambushed by Orcs, for Morgoth had set watchers all about the encircling hills; and a Balrog was with them.]

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