The Lord Of The Rings – A Safe Place for Dangerous Things


Merton College Oxford, where Tolkien was Professor of Anglo Saxon Studies

It is often the case that practitioners of humble art forms have more freedom of expression than those working at the smarter end of the market.  Until the fifteenth and sixteenth century,  pictorial art was confined to religious themes, and physically restricted to church buildings. The widening of art’s scope took place not in the painting of timeless masterpieces, but in the decoration of tapestries, storage boxes, furniture, crockery and cutlery.  At the National Gallery, fifteenth century storage boxes decorated by Botticelli and Piero di Cosimo are just as important as famous paintings.  It was the lack of expectation surrounding a storage box that allowed Botticelli to try different things in safety.

A similar thing often happens with writing.  Take the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example.  A devout Roman Catholic after converting at a young age, Tolkien’s religion did not naturally admit to change, questioning and ambiguity, but in the safe place of seemingly unimportant children’s stories, Tolkien found a new freedom to explore.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings opens in The Shire, an imagined rural community of hobbits, small, furry-footed folk who like eating, drinking, smoking pipe weed, and pursuing an unvarying farming existence. The Shire, however, is not simply an idealisation of an older and better world. There is much small mindedness in hobbit society. Maps of the Shire show mostly white space beyond its borders. And even within the Shire, hobbits from one area will judge hobbits a few miles down the road as strange folk. It is not surprising that some hobbits feel restless in this stultifying little community. There’s old Bilbo Baggins for example, the hero of Tolkien’s first book The Hobbit, who went on a long journey and never really settled down afterwards.

By the time The Lord of the Rings begins, Bilbo is an old hobbit of one hundred and eleven.  While always considered an eccentric in Shire society, the complicated nature of change is reflected in the way Bilbo has become stuck in his own eccentric rut. Bilbo owns a mysterious magic ring which he picked up on his travels. This ring, as it turns out, has various dark powers, one of which is to keep its owner from ageing. Bilbo is one hundred and eleven but looks much younger. While this might seem like a good thing, the endless youth provided by the ring actually presents itself as a failure to move on. Bilbo makes an important personal step when he manages to heed the advice of his wizard friend Gandalf, and hand the ring to his adopted heir, Frodo Baggins.

Ironically, the ring that kept Bilbo’s life in limbo immediatly creates a revolution in Frodo’s life. Gandalf explains to him that the ring is sought by evil forces, hoping to use its powers to enslave Middle Earth. Frodo and a few friends set off on a journey designed to keep the ring out of enemy hands. On this journey, change remains an overriding theme.  One of the most telling moments comes in an argument between the good wizard Gandalf, and Saruman the White. Saruman, the wisest of wizards, has turned to the dark side. The furious row between the wizards is virtually the conflict between the outlooks of religion and science. Gandalf objects to the fact that Saruman’s once pure white cloak is now multi-coloured. With scientific sophistication, Saruman replies that white can be many things:

“White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be over written, and the white light can be broken.”

The image of breaking white light is clearly inspired by science. Isaac Newton had shown in the eighteenth century that white light is actually made up of coloured light. Passing white light through a prism has the effect of breaking white light into its constituent colours.  Gandalf objects that “he that breaks a thing to find out what it is leaves the path of wisdom.” This is the philosophy of a man who instinctively shies away from the modern scientific world.


Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, where Issac Newton studied light, confirming that white light consists of a spectrum of colour.

We should remember as the wizards argue that Gandalf is called the Grey, with connotations of boredom, colourlessness, and the difficulty of defining clear categories.  Steady old Gandalf does not simply represent good any more than treacherous Saruman simply represents evil. The idea of change in The Lord of the Rings is complex, there are many grey areas, which were lacking in Tolkien’s everyday life bound by rigid belief.  Tolkien claimed that his stories had nothing to do with commenting on real issues.  He tried to keep them a safe place.  The reality is, Tolkien shone the white light of his life through the prism of his books, and it emerged as many colours. Maybe that’s what always happens in great writing.

Books About Trains – La Bete Humaine Meets Thomas the Tank Engine


La Bete humaine reminds me of the Thomas the Tank Engine books.  There are a lot more stabbings, suicides and sexual encounters in La Bete humaine, but essentially Emile Zola and the Rev W. Awdry are writing about the same thing.  They both parallel human life with steam trains and the rail systems they run on.

Awdry presents his engines as having personalities of their own, who have to accept the direction of their driver if they are to find happiness and fulfillment.  The Thomas story that made the biggest impact on me as a youngster was a story about Gordon, the most powerful and proudest locomotive of them all.  I recall one time he had a new paint job, and was so pleased with it that he steamed into a tunnel and refused to come out, not wanting the weather to spoil his lovely blue paint.  Eventually the Fat Controller walls Gordon up in his refuge, and only allows him out when confinement in the tunnel had reduced him to a stiff, grimy, rusty shell of an engine.  That’s one way to punish the sin of pride.

In La Bete humain the trains are also presented as having personalities.  La Lison is a good, dependable engine, who until a terrible night of overwork in a snowstorm, has a loving relationship with her driver.  Engine 608 is a headstrong youngster who needs careful handling.  Like Awdry, Zola draws parallels between the life of steam engines, struggling against or cooperating with their drivers, and the lives of human beings, who struggle against or cooperate with the forces shaping their destiny.  The difference between Zola and Awdry lies in the nature of the driver, the controlling influence.   In the Thomas stories, we don’t really ever get to know the drivers.  They are an anonymous guiding presence whose wisdom in the end has to be accepted.  In Zola’s novel, the drivers can sometimes provide wise and gentle guidance.  At other times, they can be maniacs and drunkards who fight over women on the footplate.  Zola’s novel is much more modern and challenging in that sense.  It’s Thomas the Tank Engine for grown-ups.

However, in the final analysis I still think that Zola can offer the same reassurance as Awdry, the same sense that in accepting life, things can turn out right.  In the early pages, there is a short section where order somehow emerges out of chaos:

“It was all a jumble at that murky twilight hour, when it seemed as though everything should collide, and yet everything passed, and slid by, and emerged all at the same gentle crawl, vaguely, in the depths of the dusk.”

When I got to the end of the book, after Zola had pulled me through the most snarled of jumbles, I like to think the demoralised reader can at least remember those early lines where order somehow emerges out of chaos.

Writing and the Future of Formula 1


Mercedes Pit at the 2017 Australian Grand Prix – photo by Richard Jones

Modern writers have often exploited the drama of powerful machines.  In the 1890s Emile Zola, in La Bete Humain, used steam trains to symbolise the human passions of people living on the line between Le Havre and Paris.  Steam trains fulfilled a similar purpose in Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, roaring by in the night, making manifest powerful emotions in the souls of ordinary English men and women.

In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby drives a cream coloured Rolls Royce with a windscreen mirroring a dozen suns.  This is a car conveying Gatsby’s supremacy as well as conveying him from A to B.

Aircraft play major roles in many modern thrillers, adding a sense of power and glamour to stories by the likes of Frederick Forsyth and Tom Clancy.

Brief Encounter Train

Scene from Brief Encounter

While these machines express drama, technical progress over time leads to greater efficiency, more power, and ironically, less drama.  People think of a steam train as romantic because it gives a visual and audible display of power.  A steam engine ready to leave a station, hissing, burbling and smoking, appears to be working hard just standing still.  Modern locomotives turn all that wasted energy into efficient movement, with the result that they are not as theatrical.  Modern locomotives are a step forward in power, but tell less of a story because we cannot see the power.

The sport of Formula 1 motor racing is facing a crisis for just this reason.  The future for car technology is clearly electrical.  Hybrid technology is already widely used, with fully electric cars ready to break into the mass market.  This is a problem for motor racing, which as a form of dramatic entertainment has not only to use energy, but also demonstrate it.   Formula 1 has always been a place to push the boundaries of automotive expertise, until it reaches a point when that expertise becomes quiet and undemonstrative.  It is more difficult to create a narrative of sporting drama out of efficient, silent electric engines, than from howling V10s.

Formula E Car

A Formula E electric racing car

No doubt, elements of motor racing will stop technically.  Parts of the sport will remain in a nostalgic past, with fans taking their place alongside steam train enthusiasts. For the most part, however, it will make no sense for motor racing to stand still while cars in general move forward into an electrical future.  The sport will have to follow wider trends, just as trains moved on from steam.  Fortunately, most people watch motor racing on television or some other electronic device, where noise doesn’t really register.  Maybe a dominant electric series will find its place in a world of electronic media, using communication technology to express drama in innovative, immersive ways.

The moral of this tale is that technical development prioritises efficiency:  narrative development prioritises wasteful drama.




Rural Rides on the Medway Bike Path


“From Maidstone to this place (Merryworth) is about seven miles and these are the finest seven miles I have ever seen in England or anywhere else.  The Medway is to your left with its meadows about a mile wide… From Maidstone to Merryworth I should think that there were hop gardens on one half of the way both sides of the road.  Then looking across the Medway you see orchards and hop gardens two miles deep, on the side of a gently rising ground.”

This is from the classic nineteenth century travelogue Rural Rides, written in the 1820s by MP, farmer and journalist William Cobbet. Although the hop fields Cobbett wrote about have gone, those mile wide Medway meadows are still there, now given over to pasture, orchards, gardens and parkland.


Cobbett’s route took him along what is now the A26.  Although I often think of Cobbett as we drive along the A26, this busy, modern road makes it difficult to get back to his nineteenth century idyll.  There is now, however, another option.  I would suggest taking the recently opened foot and cycle path, which starting from Aylesford continues through Maidstone riverside, and then runs below the A26 to Barming.  I might not be Cobbett, but I’m going to say that this is a fine seven miles of bike path.  The riding is easy and flowing, the Medway Valley scenery beautiful and varied.  Cobbett would have loved this rural ride.