Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Fairy Tale Prompt from Spinning Straw Into Gold

Spinning Straw Into Gold (a truly wonderful blog) is hosting it's second Fourth Fairy Tale Prompt. It goes on until the fourth Friday in next month, which is the 22nd of February. Head on over there and participate in the prompt! Be sure to spend some time looking around her blog - you won't be disappointed.

Below is the prompt (the image) and my response (the poem). The image is lovely; even while there is so much going on in the foreground, the background has a sublte-but powerful- presence. So that's what this poem centers on. Remember- the idea of prompts like this is to encourage and challenge creative thinking, so please don't be afraid to let me know what you think!

To Our Dear Moon; A Letter From The Leaves

Through clouds and stars we ever reach 
We reach, we reach and long for speech,
Speech to learn, to love and teach
Teach the Alder and the Beech.

Our hands are knotted, bent, but strong,
Strong we point and sing our song,
Songs of yearning all yearlong,
Yearlong to sing and to prolong.

We take from you all your might,
might we take from you the night?
Night is twisted, but full of light
Light our way and we'll recite:

Through clouds and stars we ever reach 
We reach, we reach and long for speech,
Speech to learn, to love and teach
Teach the Alder and the Beech.

 For Leaves That Linger; A Moon's Reply

  Some things don't always come in words,
But in the forests, trees, and birds.
So sing your songs of merry mirth, 
 of lasting beauty, joy and birth.
I'll light the way and reach for you,
My leaves of ore- my old and true. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Little Mermaid's Change of Heart: A Poem

The Little Mermaid's Change of Heart 

Deep in water and out of sight,
Where fish and coral drift in flight,
Come whispers of a foreign land,
Where sunlight shines and warms the sand.

Forever upward lies the gaze,
Of a girl with scaly arms and legs,
Weeping tears that never fall,
Hearing always the seaman's call.

"Three hundred years we have to live
And never have a soul to give"
She cries in darkness and in fear,
Drifting, drifting, her home so near.

"We burrow in the water deep
The surface never ours to keep,
Where waters break and sunlight dies,
Our heads of wonder ever rise."

Young and eager for a sight,
Of walking men and dancing light,
Up she flew, as mermaids do,
To catch a glimpse of men and women too.

She breathes and sighs the deepest air,
Never having seen a ship so fair.
But thunder claps and hammers hard,
And lightning shows the ship in shards.

The storm rips and shreds the boat,
While men and woman begin to float.
A boy is falling from the deck,
Into the mermaid's arms and neck.

She holds him dear and pats his head,
Her heart screams with words unsaid.
A thousand arms she wished she had
She'd catch them all and would be glad.

Men can swim and kick and pound,
But their fate is with the ground,
And topped with leaves or with sea,
 There the place of resting be.

But the girl can't know what happens then,
Her life, though long, has been with fin.
The sun shines and makes a way
For a hundred souls to fly away

She holds a life, the others drowned,
He is breathing, but uncrowned,
She lets him go into the deep,
His soul arises, never hers to keep.

I feel a bit silly posting poetry, as this is probably only the second poem I've ever completed. I'm under no delusions about it- it's a terribly simple rhyme. But I think the message isn't and I hope that comes through. I re-read The Little Mermaid last night and felt like writing about it this morning. So I did. It's such a powerful story and easily my favorite fairy tale.

P.S. If you don't think it sucks, let me know! If you think it sucks, let me know that too (nicely of course)!

Monday, January 21, 2013

"Busy He Was a Cobblin', A Shoe Without a Sole"

Part Two: Differences

Part One, "Down, Down to Goblin Town" explored some of the similarities in the Goblin race between J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald. You can find it here

  While there are some similarities between the goblin races represented by Tolkien and MacDonald, there are many more differences. For instance, in keeping with somewhat typical Tolkien fashion, there is never any mention of a female goblin in The Hobbit. They certainly exist, for how else would Gollum be able to capture a "small goblin-imp" (128)? But, as John Rateliff states in The History of The Hobbit, "there is nothing in Tolkien's story to parallel MacDonald's indomitable goblin queen, who stomps on her enemies' feet with her great stone shoes"(140). Which brings us to one of the more obvious differences between goblin races: in Princess and the Goblin, the goblins have sensitive feet. Extremely sensitive feet. The goblin queen's stone shoes protect her natural weakness, but also serve as a pretty effective weapon against those who would disagree with her.
  Tolkien admits that he "never believed in"(141) MacDonald's idea of soft goblin feet. And, though the image of a secret, vulnerable soft spot slightly recalls Tolkien's Smaug, it's something that is absent in his Goblins. Tolkien might have disliked how MacDonald's goblins, who are a malicious and intelligent society able to plan a nearly successful attack on the royal castle, are made almost comically vulnerable by their soft feet. One shout from Curdie during battle and the goblins are bumbling fools, painfully exposed and defeated:
 "'Stamp on their feet!' he cried as each man rose, and in a few minutes the hall was nearly empty, the goblins running from it as fast as they could, howling and shrieking and limping, and cowering every now and then as they ran to cuddle their wounded feet in their hands..." (208).

The last major difference is probably the most complex and interesting one. This, of course, concerns goblin song and singing. In chapter 4 and 6 of The Hobbit the goblins sing not one, but two different songs. The first one begins:

Clap! Snap! the black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down down to Goblin-town
You go, my lad!

Tolkien scholar Corey Olsen does a lot of analysis of Tolkien's songs in his new book,  Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. He does a wonderful job pointing out that the songs in The Hobbit reveal a lot about the person or race who is singing it. The goblin song, he states, is "simplistic and blunt" but instead of telling us the goblins are unintelligent and unsophisticated, "the monosyllables that they choose are mostly onomatopoetic...the result is a verse that would sound harsh, ugly, and cruel even if we didn't know what the words meant" (75).
The goblin songs in The Hobbit are not especially eloquent or sophisticated, but they are songs nonetheless. They are a sort of art form, expressing their love for what they do, even if its a nasty and repulsive thing (Olsen, 77). Their first song shows just how much they will enjoy the "swish, smack!" of their "Whip crack!" 
The goblin songs -whether intentional or not- are also a tool, a weapon for intimidation and fear. They sing their second song as a sort of taunt to a frightened Bilbo and company, who have all climbed up trees in effort to escape the goblins:

"Smoke was in Bilbo's eyes, he could feel the heat of the flames; and through the reek he could see the goblins dancing round and round in a circle...he could hear the goblins beginning a horrible song:
Fifteen birds in five fir-trees,
their feathers were fanned in a fiery breeze!
But, funny little birds, they had no wings! O what shall we do with the funny little things? Roast 'em alive, or stew them in a pot; fry them, boil them and eat them hot?
Then they stopped and shouted out: 'Fly away little birds!...Sing, sing, little birds! Why don't you sing?" (151)
   Bilbo is in a horrible situation, but the goblin's song and dance make it a terrifyingly eerie one. The goblin's song continues to show the morbid joy they'll find in killing the dwarves. But their song is weapon of fear just as much as it is of their own personal enjoyment. They do not mean to cook or "roast" the dwarves, but they sing of cooking the dwarves as a "cruel mockery"(Olsen, 118). They are striking fear into the company and relishing it. Their taunt of "Why don't you sing?" is of course, an  invitation for Bilbo and the dwarves to scream in pain.
This is the type of singing Tolkien's goblins revel in- a painful, tortuous singing that only they could enjoy.
     MacDonald's goblins couldn't be more different in this regard. It's not just that the goblins in The Princess and the Goblin don't sing. Singing is actually - perhaps even more so than their sensitive feet- their ultimate and clearest weakness. The narrator tells us, "They can't bear singing, and they can't stand that song. They can't sing themselves, for they have no more voice than a crow; and they don't like other people to sing" (36). But there's more to it. Curdie explains, "If [anyone] gets frightened, misses a word, or says a wrong one, they-oh! they don't give it to them" (37). It's not just the song that wards off goblins, it's the ineffable mixture of artistry and joy. Curdie does not fear the goblins and his songs show it: 

"Hush! scush! Scurry!
There you go in a hurry!
Gobble gobble!goblin!
There you go a wobblin';
Hobble, hobble, hobblin;!
Cobble cobble! cobblin'!
Hob-bob-goblin!-Huuuuh!" (43)

Interestingly, Curdie's songs sound a lot like the goblin's songs in The Hobbit. While some are more complex than others, most are simplistic in rhyme and meter. The crucial difference is their content. Tolkien's goblins sing of fear and destruction, twisting it into a cruel joy. Curdie sings of joy in the face of fear: "We're the merry miner-boys, Make the goblins hold their noise!" 

But Curdie has more complex songs as well. The most interesting one is easily:

'Once there was a goblin
Living in a hole;
Busy he was cobblin'
A shoe without a sole.

'By came a birdie:
"Goblin, what do you do?"
"Cobble at a sturdie
Upper leather shoe."

'"What's the good o' that, Sir?"
Said the little bird.
"Why it's very Pat, Sir -
Plain without a word.

'"Where 'tis all a hill, Sir,
Never can be holes:
Why should their shoes have soles, Sir,
When they've got no souls?"

Again, like the goblins in The Hobbit, Curdie sings of a "little bird", but the bird is not a representation of torture and pain. It's the voice of both reason and spirit, pointing out the futility of a goblin making a shoe without a sole (soul).

In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien asserts that though finding writers' "sources" could be an interesting point of study, at some point, we all must enjoy the soup before us. There's a lot to see when we compare Tolkien and MacDonald, but in the end, both are a wonderful soup.

A little more...

 *As a college student Tolkien wrote a poem called "Goblin Feet". He later grew to really dislike it. You can read it here. Make what you will of the goblin's 'happy little', 'magic', 'padding' feet.  :)

*The 1977 Rankin Bass Hobbit film has a good amount of Tolkien's original songs in it. You can hear the editions of the goblin songs here and here. You can also watch an animated Curdie warding off the goblins here.

*In a rather sad twist, in Tolkien's later life he especially disliked MacDonald, saying "re-reading G. M. critically filled me with distaste". (Quote pulled from an excellent article here.)

*If this subject interests you I heartily recommend John Rateliff's History of the Hobbit, Corey Olsen's Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and Douglas Anderson's Annotated Hobbit. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"Down, Down to Goblin Town": George MacDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien

Part One: Similarities

"Speaking of the history of stories and especially of fairy-stories we may say that the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty. " 
   -J.R.R Tolkien in On Fairy Stories

  Tolkien's mythology of Middle Earth is undeniably and fascinatingly unique. But Tolkien himself might be the first to tell you that his stories could not have been brewed without first sipping from what he called the Cauldron of Story. This now relatively famous analogy describes timeless story elements as having "been put into the Cauldron, where so many potent things lie simmering agelong on the fire" (OFS,10). The elements that make a good fairy story simmer together and when each Cook dips his ladle into the pot, more and more ingredients are added. 
     One 'Cook' Tolkien openly admired around the time The Hobbit was written and published was George MacDonald, author of, among many other great works, The Princess and the Goblin. In On Fairy Stories Tolkien observes that MacDonald achieves "stories of power and beauty when he succeeded...and even when he partly failed" (OFS, 9). A high accolade from such masterful storyteller, and not the only one either. There are several more moments throughout Tolkien's early career where he applauds MacDonald not only as a great fairy tale writer but as a source of inspiration. In a 1954 letter Tolkien writes that his goblins "owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition...especially how it appears in George MacDonald" and that they" do to some extent resemble" MacDonald's (Annotated Hobbit, 108). And earlier in a 1938 letter he states that while his sources do not include victorian fairy tales, "George MacDonald is the chief exception" (History of The Hobbit, 140). 

   The Princess and the Goblin is a great book and its easy to see what Tolkien admired in it. On the surface it is a story about (you guessed it) what happens when a young princess leaves the castle and unexpectedly explores the underground world of the Goblins. But of course, it's much more than that. It's a novel that explores and challenges what we think of magic, faith, belief, and love. And, like so many great works of literature, it is an exploration of what makes us human. The goblin race in The Princess and the Goblin has a big role in that exploration.  In the opening chapter they are described as "a strange race of beings, called by some gnomes, by some kobolds, by some goblins. There was a legend current in the country that at one time they lived above ground, and were very like other people" (PatG, 2). Outraged at the treatment they were getting from the King (high taxes and strict laws, some say) they turned their backs to the sun and drove themselves underground, where they became physically and mentally transformed. Throughout the novel the goblins are cunning, mischievous, and strong. They seek "every opportunity of tormenting" (PatG, 5) the above humans and even come close to overtaking the entire castle.

Artist: Alan Lee
   Tolkien's goblins definitely resemble MacDonald's, particularly those we see The Hobbit. Both goblin races have their own society, leader, and underground home (cf. the scenes of the goblin royal family in Princess with the Great Goblin in Hobbit). In both novels the goblin race is also set up as an irrevocable evil and a formidable threat to the protagonists. There is even a similarity in their history. When we get deeper into Tolkien's legendarium, we find out the orcs and goblins (terms Tolkien used interchangeably for one race) were bred from Melkor's corrupted, tortured, and damaged elves. MacDonald's goblins similarly once belonged a good and kind people and "are not so far removed from the human race" (PatG, 4). Tolkien may or may have not had this idea in mind while writing The Hobbit. Either way, we cannot assume The Hobbit's goblins have this history since there is no explicit mention of it in the text, but it is interesting that his goblin race eventually did have this history. Even more interesting perhaps is the idea that in The Hobbit Gollum, the evil creature who lurks underneath the mountains in close proximity to the goblins, is one of the creatures that "have sneaked in from outside." (History of the Hobbit, 154) Even in the earliest manuscripts of The Hobbit, Gollum is a creature that has lived long in the roots of the mountains with vague recollections of his life above ground: "riddles had been a game he played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long long ago before goblins came and he was cut off from his friends far under the mountains" (History of The Hobbit, 156). Of course, in Fellowship of the Ring, we learn that Gollum was once a hobbit- like creature who was corrupted by the ring and driven into the mountains.
   For both George MacDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien it seems the ultimate evil and the most pitiable sort of creature is the corrupted; the creature that is turned away from his fellow peers, not by their influence, but by his own twisted, corrupted desires.

Artist: John Howe

Part 2 will explore some of the major differences between the goblin race in The Princess and the Goblin and The Hobbit. In the meantime further ideas and questions are always welcome!

Sources Cited and Consulted:
MacDonald, George. The Princess and the Goblin. London: Puffin Books, 2011. Print.
Olsen, Corey. Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Annotated Hobbit: The hobbit, or, There and back again. An. Douglas Anderson.Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company. 2002. Print.
Tolkein, J.R.R. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. The Monsters and the Critics. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1983. Print. 
Rateliff, John. The History of The Hobbit. Part One: Mr. Baggins. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2007. Print. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy Birthday, Professor!

 A very short but heartfelt Happy Birthday to J.R.R Tolkien! Celebrate by hearing him read from The Hobbit above.