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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
What's so great about this Tolkien guy anyway?

demnation
Rohan

Jun 17 2013, 11:54pm

Post #1 of 24 (550 views)
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What's so great about this Tolkien guy anyway? Can't Post

After seeing the comments on the front page article on Stephen Fry descend into a conversation about whether or not Tolkien is even any good, I got to thinking: What is it that (some) people like about Tolkien anyway?

While we may be united in mutual admiration of Tolkien's work, one thing I've noticed is that the reasons for that admiration are different for pretty much everyone. So, what is it about Tolkien that draws you in? Is it because he's genuinely a pretty good writer? Is is the worldbuilding and depth of the universe? Or something else entirely?

Note that I'm not really asking if Tolkien is one of the "greats", mostly because I don't believe in a "hierarchy" of literature and I honestly don't think Shakespeare was any more an important writer than Tolkien was, and vice versa. Of course, feel free to post what you think about Tolkien being a "great" anyway.

My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself- J.R.R. Tolkien


Ataahua
Superuser / Moderator


Jun 18 2013, 12:37am

Post #2 of 24 (289 views)
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For me, [In reply to] Can't Post

it was the hints in LOTR of a much larger history, of which the war of the ring was just a part. LOTR didn't feel like a standard story that was told once-over lightly, but one with great depth and breadth. It felt like I was eating a banquet after years of living off sandwiches.

Then there were the great characters and how they related to each other. And scary Nazgul. A snappish wizard. Role-defying Eowyn. And the looming, dark presence of a very evil Dark Lord.

Celebrimbor: "Pretty rings..."
Dwarves: "Pretty rings..."
Men: "Pretty rings..."
Sauron: "Mine's better."

"Ah, how ironic, the addictive qualities of Sauron’s master weapon led to its own destruction. Which just goes to show, kids - if you want two small and noble souls to succeed on a mission of dire importance... send an evil-minded beggar with them too." - Gandalf's Diaries, final par, by Ufthak.


Ataahua's stories


Elizabeth
Valinor


Jun 18 2013, 12:40am

Post #3 of 24 (287 views)
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Multidimensional greatness [In reply to] Can't Post

Storytelling skill and brilliantly evocative prose, for a start.

His worldbulding is based on a sound, thoroughly thought-out secondary world. Things that many F/SF writers do (e.g. names of characters and places) he did with a theoretical thoroughness which, even though you may not be a linguist or expert on the real-world cultures he borrowed from, still produces an incredibly consistent and believable world.

Fry probably wouldn't have liked The Hobbit if he had read it through, because it is basically a children's book. It's not a good entry point into Tolkien for an adult.








(This post was edited by Elizabeth on Jun 18 2013, 12:43am)


RachellovesLOTR
Rivendell

Jun 18 2013, 1:28am

Post #4 of 24 (268 views)
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My Thoughts [In reply to] Can't Post

I think J.R.R Tolkien was and is a great author because of how much he pulls a reader into his world. I really felt like I was right there in Middle Earth when I was first reading The Lord of the Rings. Some people that I've talked to say that he included TOO much detail but I think his descriptions are really cool.


Brethil
Half-elven


Jun 18 2013, 4:17am

Post #5 of 24 (258 views)
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Great question Demnation! [In reply to] Can't Post

For me the story and the descriptions are wonderful: the complex weaving of the characters and the history, especially post Sil and HoMe, etc. Things that I appreciate even more with time. But really what caught me the first time I read LOTR was the sound in my head of the language, and the way he used it. The cadence and the way he brings a phrase around, sometimes upon itself, like when he describes the gang showing up after Bilbo departs (after he writes such a telegraphically adorable and effective bit about Hobbiton awakening):
"By mid-day, when even the best-fed were out and about again, there was a large crowd at Bag End, uninvited but not unexpected."
Such a simple descriptive sentence, but with that swirl of alliterative irony at the end, and a cadence that rises and falls with such a perfect and pleasing rhythm to the ear. That's where the pairing I think of philology and imagination bear the amazing fruit that is JRRT's writing, in that sensitivity for how words relate to us and to each other.
That's where he differs for me, from other authors. Incomparably.

Manwe, when asked a simple "Yes" or "No" question, contemplated, and responded "the middle one."


wildespace
The Shire

Jun 18 2013, 8:11am

Post #6 of 24 (242 views)
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Not only he created a whole universe with gods, mortals, immortals, [In reply to] Can't Post

languages, and tens of thousands years of history, but he also wrote epic tales set in that universe. LotR is only the tip of the iceberg. My favourite "book" by Tolkien is actually The Book of Lost Tales, although it was never published outside of the HoME series. Unlike the short, dry chapters of the published Silmarillion, BotLT gives a vivid, engaging narrative that allows you to connect with the characters emotionally. The Fall of Gondolin was particularly breathtaking and emotional.

http://www.facebook.com/BookOfLostTales
http://www.facebook.com/groups/jrrtolkiengroup


FarFromHome
Valinor


Jun 18 2013, 1:09pm

Post #7 of 24 (245 views)
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Ask Stephen Fry.... [In reply to] Can't Post

Despite the spin that was put on Fry's little anecdote about The Hobbit, he apparently does appreciate Tolkien as a writer of some importance. Fry wrote and presented a documentary a couple of years ago called Fry's Planet Word and used Tolkien as one of the examples of authors who used language most powerfully in their work. Here's the Wikipedia list of the authors discussed in that episode:

"The Power and the Glory"
The influence of storytelling and literature on language
In fact, Quacking Troll posted a transcript of Fry's conversation with Peter Jackson right here on TORn. The documentary was pitched at a fairly non-challenging level, and some of the choices were obviously influenced by Fry's own connections to them (such as having played Jeeves, for example). And he has a connection to Peter Jackson because he wrote the screenplay for the Dambusters movie that PJ hopes to make (and would have made by now, I imagine, if he hadn't had to take over The Hobbit when he did). But I can't believe Stephen Fry didn't read and enjoy at least some of the work by each of the authors he focused on.

That podcast where he made the claim about not reading The Hobbit, by the way, was a conversation with comedian Richard Herring, in front of a live audience. It mostly features highly-coloured (and often R-rated!) anecdotes, spun for humour not for exactness, it seemed to me. The podcast made the news in the UK because in it Stephen Fry talked about a suicide attempt that he made last year (he's bipolar), so it wasn't all comedy. But I'd take the Hobbit story with a grain of salt - and bearing in mind that he took the flight to New Zealand within hours after hosting the BAFTAs, so he probably wasn't in the mood for "work" just then...

As for Tolkien, I think in hindsight he's going to turn out to be considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. I see a thread running from him through to writers like Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel (Life of Pi). Fantasy is far more than just escapism in the usual sense of the word - it's also a way of "escaping" from the mundane details of life that keep you from seeing the bigger picture, and giving you a clearer view of what life is really about...

Or that's how it seems to me, anyway.

Smile

They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings



(This post was edited by FarFromHome on Jun 18 2013, 1:11pm)


CuriousG
Valinor


Jun 18 2013, 1:21pm

Post #8 of 24 (221 views)
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Tolkien, Atwood, and Martel? [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm not disputing you at all, FFH, but I'm wondering what the thread is through them. Is it their use of language, or plot construction, or characterization? I enjoy all those authors but am too dense to see any connection between them. Seeing Tolkien in JK Rowling was easy with the "formerly defeated Dark Lord rising again," but that was a no-brainer, even for my brain.Blush


FarFromHome
Valinor


Jun 18 2013, 1:42pm

Post #9 of 24 (223 views)
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I just meant the fantasy... [In reply to] Can't Post

Atwood's fantasy thread in The Blind Assassin was what first struck me, but her recent dystopian novels give me a sense of coming from the same place as Tolkien somehow. As for Life of Pi, it's all about the relationship between faith/myth/fantasy and reality, I find. I guess one of the things I most appreciate about Tolkien is the way he makes a mythic world that is fundamentally our world - his story is about a different way of seeing the world, not a different world. That's what I see in a number of modern writers whose work I enjoy, including those two.

They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings



CuriousG
Valinor


Jun 18 2013, 2:22pm

Post #10 of 24 (210 views)
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Ah, connections seen now--thanks [In reply to] Can't Post

Atwood's dystopian novels certainly reflect a suspicion of technology. I need to re-read Blind Assassin. That was one of her best. I don't think it's easy to embed a story within a story, and she pulled it off well.


Faenoriel
Tol Eressea


Jun 18 2013, 4:12pm

Post #11 of 24 (232 views)
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His imagination, based on his love for real, existing things [In reply to] Can't Post

Reading Tolkien is a positive, encouraging, uplifting experience, at least for me. He was such a noble, kind, gentle spirit, and it truly shows in his writing. He has made me appreciate that which is real, pure and lasting; to love life that continues and looks upwards.

This spirit manifests in his love for all good and benefical that exists, even if it wasn't grandeous, or important for the strong and mighty. Language, trees, nature, poetry, memory of the ages past... these are dear to him, and the chief subject of his stories. It's existence which celebrates existence, the love a conscious mind can feel for other beings that are, not because they're useful, but simply because they are.

Therefore, when he tells stories, it's not just about the action, or the plot, or the thrill, or the reader imagining himself in such exciting situations. It's about wandering barefoot in the wide green world and simply admiring in wonder everything that is under and above the heavens.

Also modern fiction is so damn postmodern, and I loath postmodernism. Tolkien was a good old fashioned fella, he wasn't poisoned with this "nothing is real, everything is subjective" nonsense.

But every word you say today
Gets twisted 'round some other way
And they'll hurt you if they think you've lied

(This post was edited by Faenoriel on Jun 18 2013, 4:20pm)


Faenoriel
Tol Eressea


Jun 18 2013, 4:29pm

Post #12 of 24 (225 views)
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Addition: there's something semi-religious about Tolkien [In reply to] Can't Post

The modern Western world has lost its sense and understanding of sacral. But in Tolkien's writings, there's a subtle yet clear undertone of it. There exists things which are pure and things which are impure. Things and beings which are holy, and people who understand and acknowledge that sanctity.

Also his characters aren't reduced to "mere set of influences", as the good doctor Lecter put it: Tolkien hasn't escaped the questions of good and evil into the false safety of behavioralism.

This all makes Tolkien a very appealing author even and especially in a time which is suffering from the aftereffects of witnessing tremendous evil.

But every word you say today
Gets twisted 'round some other way
And they'll hurt you if they think you've lied


CuriousG
Valinor


Jun 18 2013, 5:40pm

Post #13 of 24 (227 views)
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Superb-- [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote
It's about wandering barefoot in the wide green world and simply admiring in wonder everything that is under and above the heavens.


And I have similar difficulties with postmodernism. Will be glad when that fad is in the past ("postpastism").


Bombadil21
Bree


Jun 19 2013, 7:11am

Post #14 of 24 (206 views)
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Tolkien and the sacred [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
The modern Western world has lost its sense and understanding of sacral. But in Tolkien's writings, there's a subtle yet clear undertone of it. There exists things which are pure and things which are impure.



I agree with this analysis of Tolkien's work. Notions of "holy", meaning pure, and impure are important in Tolkien's 'theology'. However I would dispute that the modern West has lost its sense of the sacred, or I would agree only if you equate the 'sacral' with the supernatural. I do think that plenty of people in the modern West have a sense of the 'sacred', if one means an awe for nature and the cosmos and a sense of purpose in life. It is true, however, that fewer people believe in literal cosmic purposes, or the existence of supernatural realms.

Fantasy writer R. Scott Bakker has proposed a theory that fantasy literature partly fulfils the psychological predilection toward the "intentional stance" in human beings (that is, assigning agency to non-agentive phenomena like natural events, or even creating supernatural 'persons') that in the Modern West is no longer fulfilled (by and large; this is not true for large segments of the American population, for example) by religious belief. One does not have to literally believe that fantasy worlds are real, nor is one's post-death fate predicated on such a belief. But when one enters into a fantasy world one can suspend disbelief for a short time and enjoy the immersion in a world alive with supernatural agents and, to some extent, 'cosmic' meaning.

Personally I think this is why Tolkien's work appeals to so many, whether religious or not, because it apparently depicts a world where there is an overarching purpose, plan or meaning and where categories that are ambiguous in reality are more straightforwardly obvious. I think this thesis has been taken too far by some Tolkien fans and scholars, but I certainly think Bakker's theory explains some of his appeal. Bakker's work is interesting because is actively undermines this kind of framework. There are supernatural beings and there seem to be cosmic purposes, but these are ambiguous and they certainly don't necessarily accord with the wishes and desires of human beings. The fantasy of Michaeol Moorcock, and George RR Martin also pursue this avenue. When people talk about the differences between Tolkien and other modern fantasy writers I think this is what they really mean: Where Tolkien seems to have a supernatural "sacredness" in his world, modern fantasy writers have turned that quasi religious notion on its head and instead depict worlds of where there may be no benevolent supernatural beings at all, and where the fate of human beings is never assured.


(This post was edited by Bombadil21 on Jun 19 2013, 7:18am)


Faenoriel
Tol Eressea


Jun 20 2013, 5:54pm

Post #15 of 24 (155 views)
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Great post [In reply to] Can't Post

As for the Western world and sacred, I partially agree that it's also about the lack of faith in supernatural (and in general lack of faith in anything, aka cynicism.) But IMHO the postmodernism I just mentioned has also stripped us from the notion of good and evil; we're told such values don't exist anywhere expect between our ears, and that they're even harmful to us. This denies us from what ultimately separate us from animals (at least in my opinion does), because in everything else animals are like us; they have politics, emotions, intelligence and some even understanding of death.

But every word you say today
Gets twisted 'round some other way
And they'll hurt you if they think you've lied


ltnjmy
Rivendell


Jun 21 2013, 5:08pm

Post #16 of 24 (148 views)
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Professor Tolkien's greatness [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
Reading Tolkien is a positive, encouraging, uplifting experience, at least for me. He was such a noble, kind, gentle spirit, and it truly shows in his writing. He has made me appreciate that which is real, pure and lasting; to love life that continues and looks upwards.

This spirit manifests in his love for all good and beneficial that exists, even if it wasn't grandeous, or important for the strong and mighty. Language, trees, nature, poetry, memory of the ages past... these are dear to him, and the chief subject of his stories. It's existence which celebrates existence, the love a conscious mind can feel for other beings that are, not because they're useful, but simply because they are.

Therefore, when he tells stories, it's not just about the action, or the plot, or the thrill, or the reader imagining himself in such exciting situations. It's about wandering barefoot in the wide green world and simply admiring in wonder everything that is under and above the heavens.

************************
I LOVE this analysis of Professor Tolkien's genius. I agree completely with the above. I believe he was a truly RENAISSANCE man - ahead of his time. From when I discovered him as a child in middle school until almost thirty years later - his wonderful works truly saved me, encouraged me, uplifted me and many other adjectives that I can add. sincerely, ltnjmySmile



Maciliel
Tol Eressea


Jun 23 2013, 2:07am

Post #17 of 24 (113 views)
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agreed [In reply to] Can't Post

 
agreed, ltnjmy : )

i have found personal inspiration and solace in tolkien's works, and am mightily glad we have them in so many forms.

cheers --

.


aka. fili orc-enshield
+++++++++++++++++++
the scene, as i understand it, is exceptionally well-written. fili (in sort of a callback to the scene with the eagles), calls out "thorRIIIIIIN!!!" just as he sees the pale orc veer in for the kill. he picks up the severed arm of an orc which is lying on the ground, swings it up in desperation, effectively blocking the pale orc's blow. and thus, forever after, fili is known as "fili orc-enshield."

this earns him deep respect from his hard-to-please uncle. as well as a hug. kili wipes his boots on the pale orc's glory box. -- maciliel telpemairo


Bombadil21
Bree


Jun 26 2013, 8:07am

Post #18 of 24 (93 views)
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Tolkien and ethics [In reply to] Can't Post

Well, the notion that the Western world is somehow inherently 'cynical' and that our values exist only "between our ears" is a contestable one. Indeed it is arguable whether the existence of values in some 'higher dimension' is such a good thing anyway. Isn't it better to reason our way through ethics? Relating this back to Tolkien, perhaps this is a further reason for his prominence: he also appeals to a psychological need for moral authenticity, and perhaps many readers actually take this to be a true vision of reality, or at least their preferred vision. Unfortunately or not, this conception of ethics is highly contested, and it is not at all clear that a humanistic ethics anchored in the consciousness of thinking beings is somehow less 'real' that an ethical system delivered from 'on high', however you conceive that. However it is undoubtedly interesting to approach Tolkien from a philosophical perspective, and perhaps in a general sense this also appeals to many.


Terazed
Bree

Jul 6 2013, 2:29pm

Post #19 of 24 (73 views)
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Replying to: Tolkien and the sacred [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
Fantasy writer R. Scott Bakker has proposed a theory that fantasy literature partly fulfils the psychological predilection toward the "intentional stance" in human beings (that is, assigning agency to non-agentive phenomena like natural events, or even creating supernatural 'persons') that in the Modern West is no longer fulfilled (by and large; this is not true for large segments of the American population, for example) by religious belief. One does not have to literally believe that fantasy worlds are real, nor is one's post-death fate predicated on such a belief. But when one enters into a fantasy world one can suspend disbelief for a short time and enjoy the immersion in a world alive with supernatural agents and, to some extent, 'cosmic' meaning.

Personally I think this is why Tolkien's work appeals to so many, whether religious or not, because it apparently depicts a world where there is an overarching purpose, plan or meaning and where categories that are ambiguous in reality are more straightforwardly obvious. I think this thesis has been taken too far by some Tolkien fans and scholars, but I certainly think Bakker's theory explains some of his appeal. Bakker's work is interesting because is actively undermines this kind of framework. There are supernatural beings and there seem to be cosmic purposes, but these are ambiguous and they certainly don't necessarily accord with the wishes and desires of human beings. The fantasy of Michaeol Moorcock, and George RR Martin also pursue this avenue. When people talk about the differences between Tolkien and other modern fantasy writers I think this is what they really mean: Where Tolkien seems to have a supernatural "sacredness" in his world, modern fantasy writers have turned that quasi religious notion on its head and instead depict worlds of where there may be no benevolent supernatural beings at all, and where the fate of human beings is never assured.


It seems to me that Tolkien is a bit of a throwback to the 19th century age of romanticism in his fiction. At the time there was a concern that science and the age of reason/enlightenment was quickly disproving the literal truths of religions and that the result would be an amoral world of pure materialism. One of their aims was to preserve the spiritual truths of religion even if no one believed in their literal truth. The enlightenment thinkers of course sought to find spirit in the pursuit of knowledge. You can turn to Hegel's geist and dialectic if you want to pursue that line of thinking. Back to the age of romanticism, here is a Wagner quote from the heart of the age that I think applies to what we are discussing.


Quote
One might say that where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation. Whilst the priest stakes everything on the religious allegories being accepted as matters of fact, the artist has no concern at all with such a thing, since he freely and openly gives out his work as his own invention.


One of the results of this line of thinking in the 19th century was that mythology should not be seen merely as attempts by more primitive cultures to explain the natural phenomena around them, rather it should be seen as an attempt to explain what is going on inside of themselves and their own subconscious.

By Tolkien's day this was already becoming antiquated. Philosophers were looking for new ways to stave off nihilism. The was Nietzsche who's superman was attempt to bring back Aristotle's ethics. Then there were the existentialists and their emphasis on becoming (Heidegger's dasein vs sein). Modern fantasy writers are going to write about the world we live in now rather then views of prior generations.


Brethil
Half-elven


Jul 6 2013, 2:53pm

Post #20 of 24 (64 views)
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Welcome Terazed! [In reply to] Can't Post

You make great points here - I like the definition of JRRT preserving the romanticism through keeping the spiritual aspect of his Legendarium active, very often through his depiction of 'fate' and its importance in the larger plan, unseen by most (though seen more by the Firstborn).

Glad to read your thoughts!

Coming soon!- The first TORn Amateur Symposium, starts Sunday 21st July in the Reading Room. Closing date for essay submission Sunday 14th July, but even if you don't submit, join us for some interesting discussion on some different and personal ways of looking at Tolkien's work.







CuriousG
Valinor


Jul 7 2013, 2:01am

Post #21 of 24 (44 views)
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Roots of mythology [In reply to] Can't Post

Welcome to the Fellowship of the Room, Terazed, and glad to have you here.

Interesting thought:

Quote
One of the results of this line of thinking in the 19th century was that mythology should not be seen merely as attempts by more primitive cultures to explain the natural phenomena around them, rather it should be seen as an attempt to explain what is going on inside of themselves and their own subconscious.

I didn't realize that was a relatively recent approach to mythology (if within the last 200 years is recent; that's nothing to an Elf). Certainly Tolkien's mythological world showed A LOT of what was going on inside of him.


Terazed
Bree

Jul 7 2013, 4:40pm

Post #22 of 24 (38 views)
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re: Roots of Mythology [In reply to] Can't Post

Thank you for the Welcome.

As far as I have able to come up with to date the change to the approach to mythology dates back to Ludwig Feuerbach's 'Essence of Christianity' of 1841. The work is an anthropological interpretation of Christianity in which the human subconscious is mentioned frequently. RIchard Wagner used that anthropological interpretation on Greek and Northern mythology in his works of the 1840s-1880s and made it popular. He also fused Schopenhauer's Western interpretation of Buddhism into his works but that is a story for another day. Tolkien in his own day had his own interpretation on the way things should be done but he did not jettison this anthropological approach to mythology which was standard by his day nor did he jettison the spiritual vs materialistic as good vs evil theme that built up in the 19th century.

Anyway that is a very quick thumbnail sketch of a complicated topic. I know it is a bit heavy but sometimes I feel the need to vent on some of the things I have been working on as a hobby for the past few years. Somehow a simple question of why Tolkien didn't like Wagner morphed into a question of how changes in philosophy influenced the way people viewed the world over time in the past 200 years.


Dirhaval
The Shire

Jul 21 2013, 5:13am

Post #23 of 24 (38 views)
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Tolkien [In reply to] Can't Post

I feel there is nothing for you from Tolkien if you live a holy, uneventful, tranquil, peaceful life.
Tolkien shows you what life can be again after you let go of the lost and find again what was forgotten.
The free do not become blind in the sun, but the prisoner is born again when freed into it.


(This post was edited by Dirhaval on Jul 21 2013, 5:15am)


demnation
Rohan

Jul 21 2013, 7:12am

Post #24 of 24 (38 views)
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Beautifully put [In reply to] Can't Post

I agree completely.

 
 

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