This month we take a trip deep into the world of the creator of The Hobbit, find out what all those Celtic myths and legends are about, discover why hydrogen could solve all our energy problems, and meet the team of explorers who literally measured the world…
‘Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth’
by Catherine McIlwaine, published by Bodleian Library, £40, hb
Just as there were two worlds in Tolkien’s life – that of the Oxford professor and his creation Middle-Earth – for the Tolkien aficionado these days there are now two Middle-Earths. First, there is the world of computer graphics and Hollywood plot-lines portrayed in those ghastly films that seem to go on for ever. And then there is the landscape of the imagination waiting to leap off the pages of the books, where the prose is pastoral, heroic, romantic, bucolic, tragic.
Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are marvellous adventures, and the films can’t hold a candle to them. For those wanting to know more about their literary origins and author, there is no better place to start than Catherine McIlwaine’s Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth, a sumptuous anthology of essays and artworks that casts light on the myths and the magic.
As a venerable Oxford don, Tolkien reportedly enjoyed holding tutorials with students eager to learn the complexities of Old and Middle English from the friendly professor. But for a tutor of such standing – an important contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary and one of the world’s great experts in mediaeval languages – he was perhaps a little untutored in drawing. Although he had a decent draughtsman’s eye, Tolkien’s ability to draw people was somewhat lacking, a skill arguably not all that necessary for the world that he had created. And yet despite Tolkien’s shortcomings as an artist, his publisher instinctively knew that only the author himself could illustrate The Hobbit with any degree of authority (or for that matter provide the artwork for its dust wrapper.) As we find out in one of the fabulous essays that make up Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth, as much as he admired contemporary book illustrators, he didn’t really trust them to convey what his creations were all about. The wonderful paintings that Tolkien submitted for the early editions of The Hobbit surpass any interpretations that professional fantasy artists have delivered since, and by a country mile.
This small quintet of artworks – that range from a rather formal view of Hobbiton from ‘across the water’ to the Art Nouveau approach of ‘Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves’ (Tolkien’s favourite) – is delicious beyond words, and for those of us of a certain age who pre-date the blockbuster movies, these will always feel like the keys to the kingdom. Although Tolkien used the sublime talents of Pauline Baynes to illustrate the more important of his smaller works (such as Farmer Giles of Ham), unsurprisingly no-one saw Middle-Earth the way Tolkien did.
And there we have it. This collection of insightful essays, favourite art-works, lesser-known manuscripts and photographs is a treasure trove.
A tribute to one of our most creative and best loved writers, Tolkien: Master of Middle-Earth is a glorious masterpiece.
Imagine a time not too far in the future – perhaps in 2050 – when the news headlines declare that the looming shadow of climate change has been banish-ed for good. The planet has stabilised. Rainforest and reef thrive in a world at ecological equilibrium. This may sound like science fiction, but it could be reality, says Marco Alverà in his thought-provoking and incisive The Hydrogen Revolution. His latest book explores a pathway to Net Zero by embracing element H, atomic number 1. Alverà argues that hydrogen is the missing link between to-day’s energy mix of fossil, renewable and nuclear fuels, and a truly clean energy future. In doing so he makes the case for hydrogen providing reliable, green and consistent power to fuel commercial transport, trains and aeroplanes. Perhaps the reason hydrogen features so little in people’s minds is that for the world of business it has always seemed so expensive. And yet, the price is tumbling.
After all, says Alverà, “hydrogen is just a means of storing solar energy. Simple as that.” It’s not as versatile as electricity, but as the price of solar energy decreases, hydrogen will – or should – play a bigger part in how we power the world with clean energy. For the public, hydrogen could be an even harder sell though. In his chapter on safety, Alverà refers to a poll that confirms when people hear the word ‘hydrogen’ their minds go to the Hindenburg disaster or the nuclear H-bomb. As you read his note explaining, “the tankful of hydrogen in your car is not going to become an H-bomb”, you can’t help wondering how often he’s had to remind people of how science works. Compelling stuff and a must-read for armchair eco-warriors everywhere.
While most of us are content to read books, TV archaeologist (Time Team and Digging for Britain) Professor Alice Roberts reads bones, and with Ancestors we have a suite of seven stories that she has exhumed from the past. We often think that Britain came from nowhere and that the Romans imposed order on a primordial swamp that was simply uninhabited. But this couldn’t be further from the truth, says Roberts. And while the nature of her discoveries is from an epoch before written records (the definition of ‘pre-historic’), there are methods of finding out how we lived back in the mists of time. These ways inevitably concentrate on the bones and funerary offerings our ancestors left behind, preserved in the ground for thousands of years. Readers of Bay will already be wondering if the good professor has included our very own Red Lady of Paviland down by Port Eynon on the Gower Peninsula, which Roberts irritatingly calls ‘the Gower’. The good news is we’re first in her book, and we can excuse her faux pas especially as she devotes almost a fifth of Ancestors to describing the narrative of how science unravelled the mystery behind the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who once lived along the south Gower coast. There’s plenty of informed conjecture and the professor’s imagination gets a decent airing in her interpretation too. She says that the ‘Lady’ (who was actually a man, as we all know), might have been murdered or even a murderer. But she prefers to think of him as a fallen hero, before describing the funeral, and then moving on to some more caves, this time in the Elwy Valley in North Wales. A powerful investigation into our pre-historic past.
They may not be entirely familiar to us, but living here in Wales, we instinctively know that the tales of Celtic myth-ology are part of our cultural heritage, stories that in some way go towards defining the Welsh people, make us who we are. And so, it’s something of a treat to sit down and read a book that comes from an expert in the topic, rather than one of those fuzzy New Age interpretations that sentimentalises the great tales of the past, ascribes significance to them that they don’t have, and often just gets it plain wrong. As professor of Global Medieval Literature at the University of Oxford, Mark Williams says in his introduction to The Celtic Myths that Shape the Way we Think while our classic vision of Celtic mythology is ‘superbly rich in the enigmatic and the evocative’ – all battlefields and melodious birds – we really do need to approach this with something of a clear head. This is because some of the myths aren’t really myths in any technical sense, while the word ‘Celtic’ refers to a family of languages rather than cultures, plus there’s simply not room, he says, to give Welsh and Irish mythology the space and priority they deserve. Also, there is an argument, he continues, that Celtic mythology doesn’t even exist in the way we popularly believe it to.
By the time these ancient tales were first written down in the Middle Ages they were already centuries old. Authors and artists plundered ancient lore and legend giving their characters a rich new lease on life as well as alternative creative purposes. Cú Chulainn, hero of Ireland’s great mediaeval epic the Táin, became a symbol of the reborn Irish nation. King Arthur, who first appeared in early Welsh chronicles and poetry was culturally kidnapped by the English to become their hero. Our very own Blodeuwedd, magically created from the flowers of the oak, inspired the Irish poet W B Yeats. It’s a strange thing to read about how these familiar characters came into being and Williams has done a superb job in explaining it all.
Ever since Dava Sobel’s Longitude became a best seller in the late 1990s there have been those of us wondering if something similar could be done for the equally fascinating topic of latitude. In what the publishers describe as ‘an almost forgot-ten moment in history’ Nicholas Crane has stepped forward with his investigation into nothing less than how we determined the shape of the planet we live on. Crane is well placed to investigate: although most of us will know him as the rather intense and yet kindly presenter on the BBC’s Coast TV series, more importantly he’s a serious geographer, one time president of the Royal Geographical Society and author of the best biography of the legendary 16th century map maker Gerardus Mercator (he of the ubiquitous Mercator Projection.)
Of course, these days we all know that the world is round. Apart from the fact that it isn’t (it’s an irregularly shaped ellipsoid.) Even back in the 18th century, scientists knew that the world wasn’t a perfect sphere. But the problem was that there was no way of telling if it stretched along the polar axis or bulged at the equator. Why on Earth could this be of any importance? Well, without such knowledge, you couldn’t make proper maps, and without this them trade would suffer and lives would be lost. In what was to become thought of as the first modern exploring expedition, a team of scientists was dispatched to measure the world. What happens next is what Crane calls his ‘astonishing adventure.’ He’s picked his words wisely because Latitude is a rollicking tale of derring-do done justice by a superb writer.
Often referred to as the ‘second oldest profession,’ spying has been around since the dawn of time. If you go back to the Old Testament and refer to the Book of Numbers, you’ll find Moses sending out twelve spies, one from each of the tribes of Israel, dispatched to reconnoitre new lands. Unfortunately for Moses, says Phil Carradice in his superb A Hundred Years of Spying, they were rank amateurs – scouts rather than secret agents – whose field skills were such that they simply ‘got it wrong.’ But this isn’t really the sort of espionage that concerns us now, says Carradice, who argues that spying as we know it today, really only started with the Great War, and as a result, he logically titles his investigation accordingly. What we now think of as GCHQ has just turned a hundred a few years ago, so it’s probably a reliable bet to think of the modern incarnation of the phenomenon as being a century old. Of course, a lot of what we think we know about spying comes from the novels of John le Carré and the James Bond film franchise, neither of which do much to get us closer to what spying is: the gathering of information (‘intelligence’) or the prevention of the gathering of information (‘counter-intelligence’). Put like that, it’s a long way from Mata Hari, Oleg Penkovsky or the Cambridge Five. To his credit, Carradice puts all these points front and centre before taking us on a guided tour of what spying was like during the twentieth century.