J. R. R. Tolkien is unquestionably the most influential figure in high fantasy, and I think it is not unreasonable to say that he and C.S. Lewis were the originators of the subgenre. The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings were both published during the mid-1950s. Earlier in their respective literary careers, Hobbit was published in 1937 and Perelandra in 1938, the former was not yet the fully-developed high fantasy of Lord of the Rings and the latter would be better described as science fiction. Tolkien and Lewis were good friends, of course, and often discussed their writings with each other.
The roots of Tolkien’s works lie primarily in medieval writings, especially Anglo-Saxon poetry and Norse epics like Beowulf and the Volsung Saga. Influences from farther afield, including the Finnish national epic the Kalevala, show up from time to time in his writings as well. Tolkien was, of course, a professor of Anglo-Saxon (and later of English language & literature) at Oxford, and was interested in poetry and languages since at least his late teenage years. In addition to being one of the all-time best selling authors in human history, he was an accomplished linguist, literary critic, and translator. The Book of Jonah in the Jerusalem Bible was translated by Tolkien, he made a complete translation of Beowulf as well as a highly influential lecture on it entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, he did etymologies of Germanic W words for the Oxford English Dictionary, he wrote a vocabulary of Middle English, and he published translations of three Middle English poems: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. One particularly interesting aspect of Tolkien’s writings, from a meta-literary perspective is that they are framed as a collection of writings which he discovered and translated from Elvish (Silmarillion and related works) and the Common Tongue of Middle Earth (the Red Book of Westmarch, written by Bilbo and Frodo– the former of whom translated some Elvish source material for use in the book). Truly an irrepressible enthusiasm for philology. Also, if you read Lord of the Rings out loud to yourself, you will find many examples where Tolkien wrote sentences that pretty much could have been lines of alliterative verse, the style of Old and Middle English that many poems were written in, including Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.
Tolkien believed the world suffered from disenchantment: that along with the modernization of the Industrial and Victorian eras had come a reduced sense of wonder at the world, and a diminished willingness to believe in the fantastic and the terrible. In his essay, On Fairy-Stories (seriously, read it, it’s great), he explained his views on faery-stories and the importance of fantasy and mythology. He felt that they had been tamed, that the connotation of “fairy” (he often used the spelling “Faery” or “Faerie”–the spelling was important to him, as a discriminating philologist) had become domesticated and defanged, something you would meet in your garden rather than a dark forest, something adorable rather than something which should make you tremble. He felt that such stories described the world on a spiritual plane in a way that mundane stories about the real world could not. (more…)
Tatiana Savicheva (January 25, 1930 – July 1, 1944) was a Russian child diarist who died during the Siege of Leningrad in the World War II. Her diary is one of the most tragic symbols of the Siege of 1941-1945.
Twelve-year old Tanya Savicheva started her diary just before Anne Frank. They were of almost the same age and wrote about the same things – about the horrors of fascism. And, again, both these girls died without seeing victory day – Tanya died in July of 1944 and Anne in March of 1945. “The Diary of Anne Frank” (which was a carefully kept journal over a period of two years) was published all over the world and she has become one of the most renowned and most discussed victims of the Holocaust. “The Diary of Tanya Savicheva” was not published at all – it contains only seven scary notes about the deaths of her family members in Leningrad at the time of the blockade.
Leningrad (modern-day St Petersburg) was in the midst of a devastating 900-day blockade that lasted from September 1941 until January 1944. The German army had laid siege to the city, bombarded it and cut off all supplies in its attempt to ‘wipe it off the map’, as Hitler had ordered.
The Savicheva family had all answered the call to help bolster the city’s defences. Tanya, only 11 years old, helped dig anti-tank trenches. On 12 September 1941, the largest food warehouse, the Badayev, was destroyed, bombed with German incendiaries. Three thousand tonnes of flour burned, thousands of tons of grain went up in smoke, meat frazzled, butter melted, sugar turned molten and seeped into the cellars. ‘The streets that night ran with melted chocolate,’ said one witness, ‘and the air was rich and sticky with the smell of burning sugar.’ The situation, already severe, became critical.
Road of Life
As winter approached, Lake Ladoga, to the east of the city, froze. From December 1941, supplies of foodstuffs, fuel and medicine came through by convoys of trucks, a hazardous journey over thin ice and through enemy bombardment. What was brought in on this ‘Road of Life’, although vital, was only ever a fraction of what was needed.
Within the city, as that first winter progressed, whatever could be eaten had been consumed – pets, livestock, birds, vermin. And whatever could be burnt had been used for firewood. Tanya had kept a thick diary but this, as with every other book in the household, had been used for fuel – except for a slim notebook.
The youngest of five children, Tanya Savicheva’s father had died when she was six. Tanya, her mother and her five siblings, in common with every citizen of Leningrad, suffered terribly from hunger and cold. One winter’s day, Tanya’s sister Nina, 12 years older, failed to return. The family assumed that like so many hundreds of others, she had succumbed and died. In fact, Nina had been evacuated out of the city across Lake Ladoga at a moment’s notice. She returned to the city only after the war.
One by one, the remaining members of Tanya’s family died, and it was recording of each death that constituted the notebook.
The first entry recorded the death of her sister, Zhenya, who died at midday on 28 December 1941. Others were to follow until the sixth and final death, that of Tanya’s mother, on 13 May 1942. A neighbour described the tragic figure of this young girl:
‘When Tanya lost everyone, she became deranged with grief. She would clutch at a small house plant, which had only a few withered leaves left, and was virtually dead. Somehow, it seemed to remind Tanya of her family. She would stand by her stove, swaying from side to side, holding it close to her, in a terrible trance. She was trying to bring it back to life.’
Tanya herself was eventually evacuated out of the city in August 1942, along with about 150 other children, to a village called Shatki. But whilst most of the others recovered and lived, Tanya, already too ill, died of tuberculosis on 1 July 1944.
Her notebook was presented as evidence of Nazi terror at the post-war Nuremberg Trials, and today is on display at the History Museum in St Petersburg.
The text of Tanya’s notebook reads as follows:
Zhenya died on Dec. 28th at 12:00 P.M. 1941
Grandma died on Jan. 25th 3:00 P.M. 1942
Leka died on March 5th at 5:00 A.M. 1942
Uncle Vasya died on Apr. 13th at 2:00 after midnight 1942
“We tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene… Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.”
[Legendary Television writer Dennis Potter’s last interview (not so much an interview… it’s almost a monologue.) It was filmed shortly after he learned that he had pancreatic cancer (which he named “Rupert,” after Murdoch) and was not expect to live more than a few more months. His inflamed hands can barely hold his ever-present cigarette (which he refers to as a “little tube of delight”), and he alternately sips champagne and swigs liquid morphine from an antique hip flask (to ease the pain.) Potter talks of the clarity and beauty of life that impending death gives. He faces squarely into the prospect of his life’s end. No sentimentality. No pathos. Just honesty and integrity and insight. His comments on the basis for his serenity are deeply moving. It’s truly remarkable.]