Sunday, December 20, 2020

A Book that Inspired Tolkien?

It's got to be the most fundamental question in the entire field of the creative arts.  "Where do you get your ideas?"  A variation of it goes as follows: "Where do the stories come from?"  Most artists tend to answer that a lot of it just popped into their imaginations out of the clear blue.  For instance, here's how the creator of Middle Earth said it all got started, at least when it came to writing the book that first placed him on the map.  "All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting school certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children.  On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'  I did not and do not know why (Collected Letters, 125)".

To be fair, perhaps it is just possible to understand why it happened when it did with a little bit of psychology and hindsight.  Tolkien seems to be conforming to a pattern when those words occurred to him.  He was placing his signature on a number of "red tape" papers.  This was a process his job required him to complete, over, time, and again, ad infinitum.  In another interview, Tolkien described the job as "laborious, and unfortunately, also boring (web)".  In other words, it was just one big, make-work detail,  The task itself might have been a dull, dry run.  However, it seems to have been the very repetitive nature of the task, its inherent monotony, that allowed the surface level of the writer's mind to not so much fall asleep, as go into a kind of holding pattern necessary for the lower levels of his mental activity to stir and awaken.  Once this happened, his imagination took the opportunity to send up a flare.  The result was a character with a funny name in a peculiar dwelling.  

It's a pattern that a lot of other writers have fallen into.  More than that, some authors out there are self-conscious enough to realize they rely on such processes to bring out their best work.  I can remember hearing second hand about a correspondence from a young author who claimed she had difficulty getting stuck on a work while cooped up in a hotel room.  She wished more than anything that she had her vacuum cleaner.  If she had just a bit of cleaning around the house to do, then the ideas just began to flow naturally for some reason.  That reason appears to be the same one at work in Tolkien's case.  Both writers needed to lull their minds into a sort of passive state in order for the imagination to do its thing.

This examination may have given us some insight, however it doesn't answer the full question.  What's been explained to us is just the process of having an idea, rather than the actual art of the craft.  We're no closer to learning about the actual content, or creative idea that makes The Hobbit the kind of story it is, and why the book remains such a perennial favorite down the years.  That's a more involved form of the question, one that takes a longer format than can be provided in just the span of a single article.  What makes a book line The Hobbit so rewarding from the perspective of the average bookworm is that it's the sort of text where several lifetimes have to be spent unpacking all of its narrative and thematic riches.  It's a strange enthusiasm to have for blots of ink on a page.  It's also one a lot of us can offer no apologies for.  It's just happens to be the kind of hobby that can have its own importance on occasion.

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are perhaps best thought of as a giant cauldron of story.  Each book tells its own self-contained narrative.  However both stories are a feast made up of several differing, yet often interrelated ingredients.  Discovering and tracing down the roots of these inspiration elements has been a pastime in Tolkien fandom for a while now.  It's one particular ingredient that I'm interested in for the moment.  If places like Middle Earth are made up from the various strands of folktale and legend, then another legitimate, yet oft-neglected source of inspiration sometimes came to Tolkien from the popular literature of his own timeline.  We like to picture Tolkien as this semi-reclusive old hermit who liked to shut himself away from the world.  If that was the case, then it's a wonder LOTR even exists.  Books like that are never the work of shut-ins.  It takes a great deal of life experience to conjure up the the level of humanism contained within its pages.  Looked at from that perspective, there is a sense in which Tolkien can be described as a Renaissance man.

His tastes were not confined to the medieval or its preceding ages.  It's a basic enough fact that the Professor also liked to dabble in the fantastic scribblings of both the Victorians and the more mythical oriented Modernists of the early 20th century.  Some of the modern authors that Tolkien admired hinted that his tastes were often more eclectic than even the most fervent admirers will allow. The best name that signals this out might have to belong to Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck.  Indeed, the latter raises interesting possibilities about how Tolkien might have viewed his most famous creation.  Another one of these modern names was called Edward Augustine (E.A.) Wyke-Smith, and its his work that  concerns us here.  Perhaps the best way to describe him is to say that he is one of (though by no means the sole) inspiration for the name that cropped into Tolkien's mind one day.  

Wyke-Smith had never heard of Hobbits in his whole life however, and the book we are looking at today doesn't even bother to mention them.  At the same time, it's almost like neither author could avoid creating the subject.  Wyke-Smith and Tolkien shared at least two things in common.  Both were writers who discovered they were pretty good at it.  The second was that they are the creators of a certain type of secondary world character with a remarkable number of physical similarities.  Perhaps that's not all that each of their books share in common.  It's a story that's well worth telling, so there's no better time to start.  

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Disney TV (2004).

The problem with success is that it gives everyone the perfect excuse to ignore you.  That's the one catch of pop-culture that nobody ever bothers to tell you about.  If an artist comes along and is able to leave the kind of impact that seeps rights into the social mainstream, then a kind of curious metamorphosis takes place.  The kind of impact I'm thinking of doesn't happen often.  However, on the few historical occasions when they do occur, the result tends to be a slow burn form of change in the atmosphere of a culture.  The new phenomenon is able to gain such a wide cultural acceptance in a way that is so vast that it's almost hard to notice it when it happens.  There have been just a handful of artists who have left that huge a level of impact on the world's stage.  Shakespeare might have been one of them.  Walter Elias Disney is definitely another.  Walt, or at least the brand and company that he left behind, has got to be one of the current constants in our modern aesthetic landscape.  For better or worse, both the man and the studio remain as benchmarks of pop-culture.  

The tricksy part, however, is what happens when the artist and the art is able to attain a certain high level of cultural ubiquity.  My own experience is that once that happens, there is a real threat that the artist is in danger of achieving what I've heard described as "Mainstream Obscurity".  It's what happens when an artist's fame ironically becomes the very means for his or her partial occlusion in everyday social awareness.  This can have a deleterious effect on their work.  In Walt's case, most people know the Seven Dwarves theme from Snow White ("it's off to work we go").  All well and good.  Now what's the movie about?  I mean can you give, name, or know specific elements about the flick?  Can you name and discuss specific plot points.  Do you even know whether or not the film is based on any kind of source material?  If you haven't got a choice except to answer no, well then I'm afraid that makes you living proof of just how it's possible for Disney to remain a pervasive known unknown.  His efforts have succeeded to such an extent that it's easy to fool ourselves into forgetting there was a time when things were otherwise, or else might not have been at all, if certain things hadn't gone right.    

Stop and think about it for a minute.  The guy writing these words can best be described as an 80s Kid.  I was born the year Orwell made famous.  That means I was just in time for Amadeus, Ghostbusters, and the breakout performances of Eddie Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The trick, however, is that I was in no position to even realize they existed until much later.  This would have been during the 90s for me.  That's when I first saw posters and standup billboard cut outs for something called Terminator 2: Judgement Day.  There was a brief span when I couldn't set foot into a local Blockbusters without having to walk past that same damn thing, time in and out.  Pretty soon, Arnold left, and in his place one day was a black background with the image of a T-Rex skeleton on, painted in shades of black and red.  The irony is I missed Jurassic Park on its initial theatrical run.  The key point about this memory is that one of those touchstones had been around long before I even knew T2 was a sequel.  It had achieved complete and total ubiquity.  The case of Spielberg's film was different.  By that time, I was of an age where I got to observe it starting to leave its impact everywhere I went.  The latter movie had this sense of a fresh, new discovery, while the former one already had this sense that it had always been here from the start.  My experiences with Walt's legacy ran pretty much the same way.

I don't how many others went through the same experience as me.  I think the way it all happened was my parents discovered the Disney Company somehow got its own cable channel.  They showed a lot of the old Mickey and Donald cartoons, as well as some other stuff that looked harmless.  So they plopped me down in front of the idiot box and that channel became my first real experience of both media and the world.  The one person I have to thank for it all is Uncle Walt.  I got to know him through that channel.  What I took a long time catching up with was the realization neither Disney, or his channel were ever "from the beginning".  Heck, Walt didn't even create the cable incarnation of his brand.  That was the work of his successors.  And yet here it is again.  Once more we see the process of an artist whose impact is so big that it's able to keep that ripple effect going long after the originator is shuffled out the door.  This can be good and bad.  On the one hand, we still know who Walt is.  The downside is that both the man, and the history behind him tends to get obscured.  In his case, its not so much due to the passage of time, as it is down to the way the Company has chosen to market its own legacy.

I'm sort of left to wonder how many of the post-2000 Disney fans out there really know just how vast and varied the creative history of their favorite company really is?  It goes back a lot further than just an ear worm like "Let It Go".  That's just a fact of history.  However, these days it seems to be the kind of fact that too many are willing to overlook or deliberately forget.  For some reason, that kind of mindset just comes off as a mistake to me.  It's the kind of social amnesia that sooner or later comes with a heavy price-tag.  I don't know how that must sound, it just seems to be the way history works.  It has a nasty habit of being unkind to any age or person who forgets all the lessons it has to teach.  The good news is that sometimes being a fan of the Mouse House tends to mean you get guys like Joseph L. Telotte.  

He fits into a very interesting category of the fandom.  Guys like don't like to take a copy of Zootopia off the shelf every now and then, just for a few moments of enjoyment.  That's about as far as most of it goes for us, but not for some of the fans, not by a long shot.  They believe it's important to try and dig down into the history of all their favorite films from that studio.  They want to know what were the creative decisions that went into them.  Where did the inspiration come from.  How did they manage to create all the most iconic scenes from the studio's history.  These are the questions that make a particular slice of the fandom tick.  I have no idea how wide or numerous their numbers are.  I'm also not going to lie.  I'm mighty glad they're around.  It's efforts like that which help to keep a good legacy alive.

Telotte's book, is interesting for the nature of the territory it covers.  Rather than focusing in on the making of any one entry in the Disney catalogue, or another re-telling of the history of the studio, Tellote instead decides to train his lens on an oft-forgotten aspect of Walt's career.  His study is called Disney TV, and it chronicles the first time Walt decided to bring his studio into the television age. I said at the beginning that this aspect of Walt's legacy is one of those elements that has gotten overlooked because of how ubiquitous it has grown in the years since its creator's passing.  I also pointed out that wasn't always the case.  It's one of those facts of history that are so damn easy to forget.  The good news is that Tellote's book might be able to help remind us of where some our favorite childhood memories come from.