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A Guide to Tolkien, David Day (Octopus 1993)

If someone is a famous writer, then it’s certain they’ll have biographers, critics and other analysts. And it’s likely that they’ll be better writers than those who write about them. Often much better. That’s certainly true of Lytton Strachey and Michael Holroyd or George Orwell and Robert Colls.

But it’s not true of J.R.R. Tolkien and David Day. Whatever his merits – and my readings of Lord of the Rings (1954-5) and The Hobbit (1937) reached double figures long ago – Tolkien just isn’t a very good writer. He’s clumsy, he’s hackneyed and his ambition far exceeded his abilities. And so it turns out that David Day, the author of this short but interesting guide to Tolkien’s world, is a better writer than Tolkien. You could almost say that Tolkien provides the rough gems before Day cuts and polishes them:

Galadhrim

The forest that in the Second Age of the Sun was first named Laurelindórenan, “land of the valley of singing gold”, and later Lothlórien, “land of blossoms dreaming”, and even by some Lórien, “dreamland”, was east of the Misty Mountains by the Silverlode, which flows into the Great River Anduin. It was the Gold Wood, where the tallest trees on Middle-earth grew. They were called the Mallorn trees and were the most beautiful of trees in Mortal Lands. Their bark was silver and grey, their blossoms golden and their leaves green and gold.

Within the forest was the concealed Elven kingdom of the Galadhrim, the “tree-people”, who made their homes on platforms called telain, or flets, high in the branches of the sheltering Mallorn.


Woses

In the War of the Ring a strange primitive folk called the Woses came to aid the Rohirrim and Dúnedain in breaking the Siege of Gondor. These wild woodland folk lived in the ancient Forest of Druadan, which was in Anórien, below the White Mountains. They knew woodcraft better than any other folk, for they lived as naked animals invisibly among the trees for many ages and cared not for the company of other peoples. They were weather-worn, short-legged, thick-armed and stumpy-bodied. […] In the First Age of the Sun, these were the people who lived in harmony with the Haladin in Beleriand, who called them Drûgs. To the Elves they were known as the Drúedain; to the Orcs they were the Oghor-hai and to the Rohirrim the Rógin.


Nazgûl

in the twenty-third century of the Third Age of the Sun, in Middle0earth there arose nine mighty wraiths who in the Black Speech of Orcs were named the Nazgûl, which is “Ringwraiths”. And of all the evil servants and generals of Sauron the Ring Lord, these proved to be the greatest.

David Day writes more crisply and effectively about Tolkien’s world than Tolkien does, but Tolkien’s flaws may be part of his appeal. He’s subtler than I and many others have sometimes given him credit for, but he wasn’t a genius. Instead, he was an intelligent, conscientious and highly knowledgeable scholar who had a penchant for what he himself called “sub-creation”. There is only one true Creator, God, and only one true Creation, the Universe and the creatures that inhabit it.

But some of those creatures have the power to sub-create, that is, arrange the materials granted them by God into patterns of their own. It might be a statue or it might be a story. Tolkien was a sub-creator of stories – and of sometimes powerful art to illustrate those stories. He would have said that he was sub-creating in honour of his Creator and of Catholicism. If so, he wasn’t very effective. The Lord of the Rings is not known for bringing its readers to Christianity, let alone to Catholicism, but it does many other things. This guide condenses its appeal and helps you better understand Tolkien the Sub-Creator. There’s everything here from Gods, gods and goblins to Witchkings, wizards and Woses.

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Miller's Field Guide Glass by Judith MillerMiller’s Field Guide: Glass, Judith Miller (Octopus 2015)

Glass is a magical substance. How can something solid be transparent or translucent? How can it become soft and malleable when heated, so that it can be moulded into infinitely many shapes? Well, glass can and glass has been for thousands of years. This attractive little guide begins with the “Ancient Glass” of the Egyptians and Romans, then moves forward to begin a detailed survey of British glass. There’s a big gap between “ancient” and “British”: “virtually no glass was produced in Britain before the late 16thC and all supplies of glass were imported” (pg. 14).

In talking about glass, it’s also talking about history, because changes in technology and fashion were inevitably reflected in glassware. But glass has its own evolutionary path too: “Lead crystal was developed in 1676 by the British glassmaker George Ravenscroft. It used a high proportion of lead oxide to create a relatively soft, brilliant glass that was suitable for cut and engraved decoration” (pg. 8). New techniques were invented and old techniques re-discovered as glassmakers learnt how to make their glass more delicate and more colourful.

After British glass, the book looks at France, then glass from Holland, Central Europe, Scandinavia and Italy. Finally there are “American Glass” and a brief section on “Chinese glass”. It’s a small book devoted to a big subject full of beautiful objects: glasses, decanters, claret jugs, bowls, candlesticks, candelabra, scent bottles, stained glass, and sculpture. I could have named only two glassmakers when I opened it: Lalique and Tiffany. They’re both here:

Technically challenging and rare, cire perdue (lost wax) casts are the most eagerly sought of the Lalique glass output. A model for the design was made in wax and this was encased in clay or plaster to create a mould. This was heated to allow the wax to flow out of the mould. Molten glass was then poured into the mould. (pg. 126)

Son of the American jeweller Charles Tiffany, Louis Comfort visited Europe and the Middle East, where he was inspired by decorative styles and forms from many countries. On his return he founded the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. in 1892, and in 1902 he became art director of his father’s company, Tiffany & Co. (pg. 189)

But with Lalique and Tiffany are many other designers and manufacturers who have enchanted the world with the magic of glass: Gabriel Argy-Rousseau, James Couper & Sons, Daum Frères, Josef Hoffman, George Davison & Co., Wilhelm Kralik Sohne, Stevens & Williams.

The colours and shapes of their work are beautiful, and so is the fragility. If glass were indestructible, it would be less magical. It’s like a butterfly or flower: beautiful but fragile. Unlike a butterfly or flower, however, it will retain its beauty if it’s handled carefully. Living with glass is like living with fragments of rainbow, brought to earth and sculpted by magicians’ hands. The natural world certainly inspired many of the objects here: Lalique is famous for his dragonflies and fish, of course. He’s famous for his girls too: glass is a feminine substance, smooth, seductive and sinuous.

This book is an excellent introduction to its charms, explaining terms and prices and guiding the novice’s eye with questions:

Does the piece bear a mark of a crowned lion rampant over battlements?

Is there a polished pontil?

Is the glaze similar to Chinese peach-bloom glaze, in shades of cream to light or deeper rose pink?

Has the lampshade been reverse-painted with a landscape?

Is the piece a single colour of glass with carved or incised decoration?

And it notes that glass “is one of the few areas of antiques collecting where items are still relatively undervalued, unlike silver or porcelain” (pg. 6). If you want to live with rainbows, Judith Miller tells you how.

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