All Creatures Great and Small

Facts, trivia and corrections of common misconceptions

As you probably know, I love James Herriot’s books and the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small. But reading posts online, from random comments on social media to actual newspaper articles, made me realise that not everything said about the books and especially the series is exactly correct, or at least not complete. And then of course, there’s also the usual questions askwed and answered (not always correctly) over and over again. So this post will address some of these things, simply because I care about it all.

James and Helen, Chris and Carol

The most common untruth spread about the series is that Christopher Timothy, who played James Herriot in the BBC series, left his first wife for an affair with Carol Drinkwater, who played Helen in the first three seasons, and that she was fired from the show because of it.

It was actually quite different. First of all: Carol was never fired! The show was cancelled after three seasons, as the books had finished at that time, and Carol returned for two following feature-lenght specials. It was only when, due to the books’ and the show’s popularity, Alf Wight (the real Herriot) decided to write new stories that the show was revived, and Carol, unhappy with a role that she liked but thought to limited, chose not to return.

As for the affair, that was different as well. There was a lot of bad press, especially for Carol, but Chris Timothy never left his wife for her. In fact, they didn’t even like each other at first: Carol had a mild crush on Robert Hardy, which she never pursued because he was married at the time, and didn’t get along with Christopher Timothy at all. Then, near the end of the first run of the show, they had to wait together in a car for a scene to begin filming, and they started to talk. His married had just ended at that time and he was very distraught, though he was not yet formally divorced, and she had just gone through a painful break up herself. They bonded over that, and got together. Chris was still married at that time, but seperated, and she was never the reason for his divorce. The press painted a different picture, one that is still spread nearly fourty years later, but it’s not true at all.

The Yorkshire farmers

Were all actors. People like to claim otherwise, but it is not true. Many people like to say that the farmers look too authentic to be played by actors, but that isn’t true. The actors were just very good at playing farmers, and not so famous as to be instantly recognised. Many were regional actors, from little theatres and comedy troupes, others were rather familiar, but not too well-known faces from television shows. They were not real farmers, they just did their work and did it well.

What about the vets?

The big question of the arms inside the cows. Did the actors really do the dirty work? Long story short: Yes.

But they didn’t do things on their own! No, no. The BBC hired to veterinarians, one for pets and studio scenes, one for farm animals and outdoor filming. The real vets trained the actors, helped them, and sometimes traded places with them for close ups on their hands. They even found sick animals to be treated for the filming, either by the actors under their guidance, or by themselves, depending on how difficult or serious the respective procedure and ailment were.

Some things, such as stitching wounds and helping with the calfing and lambing (the latter being rather normal for “country bumpkin” Robert Hardy, who was used to a lot of the work he had to do on screen) were done by the actors, including the (in)famous arms in the cows’ backsides. But never anything that could harm the animal! In fact, many animals were saved by the show, as the BBC paid for all treatments on set, which caused the real evts to take the pets of poor clients to the tv sets, even if they were never used for filming, and made the BBC pay the bills.

Fun fact, though: There’s a scene in which Peter Davison literally screams with his arm in a cow’s backside. That’s because his arm was tightly squeezed inside and he was in real pain. But don’t worry, he got out alright, and the cow was okay too.

Science and progress

The illnesses and treatments were very accurate. People also like to claim otherwise, but that isn’t true. Many things, of course, are outdated now (and, ironically, many things that were seen outdated back then have become rather common again!) but the medical treatments are absolutely accurate for their time, and so is the portrayal of the scientific progress from the 30s to the 50s.

There are, of course, very individual cases, and unconventional treatments, but that happens if you base things on real life and memory, rather than textbooks. Those special cases are either things that really happened and worked a bit different than usual, or things that are very similar to real happenings (like real cases “blended” to make one fictional one, etc.) and not, in fact, pure invention. The books are, after all, written by a real vet, based on his own memory, and the show adopted all these cases very accurately.

Fact and fiction

Alf Wight still chose to make things up for his stories. Many details are changed from real life, such as changing Helen’s background very much from Joan’s and putting aquaintances from different decades into one setting. He also kept things from his perspective—things he didn’t know about his friends, were things he didn’t know, at least at that time, and that is how things stay.

Now the writers and actors of the show dug a bit deeper, and talked to Joan (Helen), the Sinclairs (the Farnons) and other people who play necessary parts. They added details that could give more depths to the stories, but also respected specific wishes for privacy, especially coming from Donald Sinclair.

Which brings me to:

What happened to Caroline?

Siegfried marries Caroline in the first Christmas special, but she is only mentioned (and sometimes briefly seen) in later episodes. Many people wonder if that means that their marriage ended or wasn’t good, but it’s very much different.

Caroline is based on Donald Sinclair’s real wife Audrey, whom he loved incredibly much. They had two children, which are also sometimes mentioned but never shown in the series. That is because Donald valued his privacy very much and wanted to protect his family from public attention.

Alf Wight first met Donald Sinclair as a young “bachelor” (actually widower, but he also kept that to himself) with many flings with pretty young women, and that’s how Siegfried was portrayed at first. But it couldn’t be kept like that always—it would have been silly for a middle-aged Robert Hardy to always invent visits to his mother to cover up various dates, and a character based on Donald, whose world revolved around his wife, could only be a bachelor in the very first few years of his acquaintance with Herriot. Donald Sinclair was unhappy with being shown dating various women, which he did before he married Audrey, even after three seasons, and he also didn’t want Audrey to be used for the show.

So it was decided that Siegfried were to have a wife, and children, and be very happily married in the later (initially unplanned) seasons, and that there were not to appear in television storylines. They lived off-screen, in their own big mansion, while Siegfried was working in Skeldale House. A woman-who-could-be-Caroline was sometimes seen when a partner was needed, and that’s it.

Donald’s first wife was never mentioned, also out of respect to his privacy, but Siegfried was portrayed to have a severe fear of loss and separation, and to cling very strongly to all his loved ones, as well as to have strong depressive and maniac episodes, which is said to be accurate to Donald Sinclair’s personality. This portrayal was, however, done very subtly.

Character and actor

Alf Wight said to Christopher Timothy that he was the Herriot that he wrote about. They got along very well, and Chris Timothy was considered the perfect actor for the part by him.

Donald Sinclair was, true to Siegfried’s character, always unhappy with the way he was portrayed, and the better and more accurate the portrayal got, the more dissatisfied got he. Robert Hardy was, according to people who knew Donald, absolutely perfect at playing him, and Donald himself was of a very different opinion. But he liked Robert very much, they became very close friends, and Robert actually worked as assistant in his surgery and sometimes their families lived together for filming and holiday periods. Both Alf Wight and Robert Hardy insisted that they “toned him down” while writing/playing him, even people who didn’t know him thought him “too much”.

Brian Sinclair was very happy about the way he was portrayed, and about the books and the show in general, and very relaxed about it all. He also really liked Peter Davison.

Joan was very critical of Carol Drinkwater at first, and thought she made her look like a tart, but warmed up to her later and talked well of her performance in retrospect.

The second girl to play Rosie Herriot, Alison Lewis, was friends with Rosie’s real-life daughter Emma. Rosie didn’t expect her to play the part, and was very surprised to see herself played by her daughter’s friend on TV!

Marjorie Warner, the inspiration for Mrs Pumphrey, was one of the first people to recognise herself on the page while reading the books, and was very happy about the way she was portrayed. It is, as far as I am informed, unknown whether she liked the tv series, but she was still alive when the first seasons were made.

As for the actors

It was Robert Hardy who made much of it all possible. His fame allowed the BBC to cast the relatively unknown Christopher Timothy in the lead role, which they first wanted to cast a famous actor for, and it was him who insisted on making Tristan a larger character, because he greatly enjoyed Peter Davison and set his mind on making the young man a star. He also threatened to leave the show if it were filmed anywhere but Yorkshire, and he also forced the BBC to treat the actors and animals better, and insisted on the necessary safety around the animals. After Chris Timothy’s accident, he insisted that he shouldn’t be re-cast and took up some of the work he couldn’t to, and made Peter and Carol do the same. That aside, he edited, revised and changed some of the scripts, and wrote some of his own scenes. When some younger writers messed up Siegfried in the later episodes, he largely took over himself.

Robert Hardy and Peter Davison actually grew extremely fond of each other. Robert insisted that Peter looked exactly like one of his brothers at that age, and he loved the way Peter tried to impersonate his mannerisms to make them feel more like a family.

Christie the whippet was Robert Hardy’s real dog, the other dogs belonged to producers and other crew members. Some sources claim that all dogs were his, but that isn’t true. SIegfried’s horses were usually actor-horses but he sometimes rode his own on screen.

Mary Hignett was the balancing force between the actors. Everyone loved and admired her, and whenever there was a bad mood between the others, she quickly got them all calm again, just as Mrs Hall used to do. Her sudden death shortly after the (original) end of the show was a great shock to all of them, and Mrs Hall died with her. She was greatly loved by everyone.

Margaretta Scott was also very respected and beloved. She always insisted on carrying the various dogs who played Tricki-Woo on set, and she would only have her make up done by the chief make up artist.

Robert Hardy’s was usually called Tim, as his real first name was Timothy, which he was also occassionally called, and which caused some confusion on the set.

Christopher Timothy had a car crash at the end of the filming of the first season, in which he broke his legs, which is the reason he walked on a stick and had a very stiff walk for some time.

Robert Hardy’s daughter Emma had a very serious riding accident before the filming of the first season, in which she was badly injured, and which made her father rather sensitive to the horse-related safety on set, and insist that everything must be done right and no risks taken. She fully recovered, and actually played the small part of Rosemary Brocklehurst in the series, thirteen years later.

Lynda Bellingham was pregnant during the filming of season five, which is the reason for the slipped disc storyline. Andrea Gibb, who played Deirdre, was also pregnant at that time, but her part was smaller and was simply away for some episodes, and wore some covering clothes.


A Note to Film Makers

If you want to make movie or TV series of a semi-autobiographical novel, be careful how you use your own background research. It is, after all, still a novel, and the author has made the deliberate choice where to write fiction and where to include events and experiences and people from their own life.

I see a trend in more recent adaptations, for instance the newest adaptations of Little Women and All Creatures Great and Small, but also many others, to blend in historical facts that don’t actually fit in with the author’s own blend of fact and fiction, and thus loses its actual impact.

If you want Jo March, whose personality is based on Louisa May Alcott herself, to be Louisa, she will be an alien to the world she created, because Little Women is still a novel, and because all other characters still exist in their fictionalised form. Just because she Ms Alcott made the decision to weave in her own happy and unspeakably unhappy memories into her stories, does not mean that you can equate her with a fictional character. Just because Jo is very much like Louisa, she is still Jo, as written by Louisa.

If you want to express that Siegfried Farnon, like Donald Sinclair, was already a widower in the beginning of the story, a fact Alf Wight (James Herriot) and the writers of other adaptations left out out of discretion, then you can do it, but if you cast him as a man in his 50s (which is actually a very good thing, because he felt and appeared so much older than he was) and make him a widower of four years, for everyone to know, then the fact that he lost his wife at the age of 24, and began an entirely new life afterwards, will get lost, and with it the whole inclusion will lose its “point” beyond “look, we dug up some angsty trivia!”

You wouldn’t make Amy March marry a younger man in her late 30s, rather than Laurie. And you wouldn’t make Helen Alderson a town-bred secretary which James’ parents didn’t approve of. Because authors know what they include from their real lives, and what they make up.

Or take the 1999 Mansfield Park. If you want to adapt a novel, and find its heroine to be a bore, you might rather choose a different novel, rather than turn her into Jane Austen. Even though Jane Austen drew on some personal experiences, it does not mean that Fanny is Jane, or that Fanny is so unsuitable a protagonist that she has to be made Jane.

Because a semi-autobiographical novel (or a fictionalised memoir) is not an autobiography.

(Note, please: I do not mean that these films are bad because of this, or anything of that sort. They are just good examples of what I mean, and whether I like them or not or whether they are otherwise good or bad is in no relation to this. And the first two are also very recent, and a good example of that current trend. The third, however, shows a different way of doing this, which is also not a good idea.)

And there are many, many other examples, but I think you see my point. If an author includes things from their life, then they know why and what and how, and it is only up to them. Especially if the finished work is, after all, a work of fiction.

Learning about some more background is lovely, being really invested in such a work is a brilliant thing, but if you want to include that knowledge in an adaptation you must be really, really careful.

You might include some allusions, or some sort of little nod to this or that. Some detail that those who know will recognise and appreciate. That sort of thing is lovely. And there’s a lot of possibilities there, one can hide a good deal of Easter eggs in a movie, as long as one stays subtle and respectful, without trying to re-invent the original work. A little comment here, a design choice there, and people can really enjoy it.

But crude info dumping, random blurts of this and that to cause angst or drama, pseudo-intellectual blends of fact and fiction that subvert the authors’ intention, or the inclusion of intimate details that the author (or other involved persons) never wanted to be included to begin with, do not improve your adaptation. It’s just insensitive, pretentious, and in many cases off the mark.

On a random note

I used to think it a pity that while The Little White Horse got two adaptations, Elizabeth Goudge’s other novels (safe for Green Dolphin Country) got none, and technically I still think so, but now I also think we really need another adaptation of The Little White Horse.

One that doesn’t suddenly disappear, and one that actually gets the book right.

I want a Christian (or in this respect very tolerant and sensible) director and screenwriter. No, seriously, I want it to be a piece of Christian media in the same way that The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are. In a good way. And I mean in a really good and sensible way, not a sort of low budget production from a vaguely cult-ish American production firm nobody ever heard about and that also includes “Christian” things that were never intended by the author (that is, sadly, the downside of a certain kind of Christian media).

I want all the things included that don’t fit the mainstream Hollywood taste—the “middle aged love” as a Guardian article once called it, the blend of history and faith, the creative approach to magic, the way the backstory really works. I want all the characters to really look the way they were described in the book, I want a fat and jolly Benjamin, and a Puck- or Peter Pan-like Robin, I want the parson and the villagers, and Miss Heliotrope as a serious character, and Marmaduke Scarlet as a mysterious character, and all the little animals. I want the writers to understand that the characters are not separated into the categories “dark and mysterious” and “comic relief”. And I want Maria to be flawed and grow as a character.

I want all the odd and strange and silly aspects played straight. Wrolf is not a black dog who magically turns into a lion, he is a big golden lion that is somehow accepted by everyone to be a dog. The pink geraniums are a very, very important plot point. Maria’s spiritual connection to the very real boy Robin is an important part of their relationship.

I want the movie, from an aesthetic point of view, to be the ultimate dream fantasy of your average little girl. Pretty dresses, pony riding, lots of glorious food, flowers, enchanted rooms, the whole of it all. But I want the spiritual and emotional themes to be addressed in a very mature, serious manner, and with all the depth of the book. No toning down. None of that terrible business of children’s book adaptations making the tone darker and more mature, and the themes and values sillier and easier.

We need that. I think, in some ways this really might work better nowadays than just a few years ago: the cottagecore trend could help with the style, and older romantic couples are slowly and steadily becoming more acceptable again. A mini series might work better than a movie-they usually do—but I think a movie could capture it neatly, too.

On reading comprehension

There are so many posts online claiming that decent reading comprehension and critical thinking would cause a reader to interpret all sorts of things into writing that were never intended to be there, and would also cause them to have a negative opinion of any book they read.

But in my experience, and with the many bad reviews I have read, and annoying discussions I have participated in, only show that in most cases, the opposite is true. The amount of nonsense people read into books, and false claims they make while discussing them beggars all belief.

I have read numerous reviews that describe and criticize things that never appeared in the books in meticulous detail. I have argued with people whose interpretation of the author’s intentions and the characters’ actions are so unfounded that it makes one wonder if they have ever learned to read or think. I have seen people run down books based on aspects of them they have made up themselves.

And it’s not only a matter of (a lack of) formal education—many people who act as though being an English major were somehow their identity can hardly understand even a simple text. And reading is, after all is (and should be!) a widespread interest, and accessible and available for everyone.

The real problem lies with the individual approach to reading, the way many readers decide what would happen in a book beforehand, and the arrogant conviction that one could break down an individual literary work into a simple set of tropes, upon which to decide whether a book is good or bad, problematic or not.

And people often find exactly what they are convinced to dislike in a book, and, given the chance, often choose the most negative interpretation.

And because of all this, actually learning to read properly is important. Not only to know when a blue curtain means depression, but also when it doesn’t, and not only to know when a story is terrible and problematic, but also when it isn’t, and not only to know that when a pleasant story is actually only shallow and stupid, but also when it actually is good.

The Lizzys and the Darcys

I think it’s rather funny, how in the discussion about the adaptations of Pride and Prejudice from 1995 and 2005, it is so very frequently claimed that those who prefer the 1995 version do so because of Colin Firth, whereas those whose main concern is Lizzy prefer Keira Knightley and the 2005 film…

whereas I just absolutely adore Jennifer Ehle, while I don’t care very much for Knightley’s Lizzy (though I don’t dislike her—she’s Lizzy all right, just without the brilliance of Ehle’s performance) and I actually find Colin Firth’s performance as Darcy—though certainly very good! as he is an expert actor—to be one of the weaker aspects of my otherwise favoured adaptation. In fact, I nearly prefer Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy… simply because I prefer his vibe.

On the other hand, his performance, though I generally like him a lot, is comparably bland, just like Keira’s. But my critique of his performance is the opposite of Firth’s: Darcy needs a balance of actual mean snobbery and well-meaning awkwardness, and Firth is mostly the former, Macfadyen the latter. That is, I think, also the reason why both appear to specific, different groups of fans. Both are good Darcys, but with distinctly different appeal.

I actually think the 2020 version of Emma is in many ways like 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice—though not as good—and equally popular on the internet, because the characterization of the leads is so very adjusted to the taste common, modern taste. (I suppose I am an exception!)

As for Mr Darcy, I would even go so far and say that Laurence Olivier’s version had quite a good snob-awkward-nice balance, maybe better than any other Darcy I’ve seen. And Greer Garson is a very lovely Lizzy, even outshining him, though only almost as perfect for the role as Jennifer Ehle.

Anyhow—I really like both the 1995 and 2005 versions in different ways, and all four leads, too. It’s just that my preferences and reasons for them don’t really align the way that people usually claim they always would.

That Thing about Narnia

I find very often that readers of The Chronicles of Narnia, even fans, who complain about the religious aspects of it, have a very, very limited, and more than that, prejudiced understanding of them.

It seems especially that those who read or re-read them at an older age, with full awareness of the existence of these themes, have already made up a very clear idea of them and of how they influence the stories, and it shows.

I mean—there are obvious ones, like the Deeper Magic in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which everyone will get, and about which people usually don’t complain, but otherwise it seems that the ideas readers have of the influences and themes are extremely off.

I need to say here, that I don’t claim to have a superior understanding—most things go over my head, I’m often surprised about what I still find, and whenever I read books or articles about Narnia, I am amazed how much there still is to find and to learn about.

But I do understand the basic way in which Christianity and Religion work in Narnia. And it’s not what most non-religious (and even some Christian) readers think it is.

The first thing is: the Narnia books are not missionary work. They are not books that try to convert things to Christianity—only kids who are raised in Christianity or have in some other way studies its basics (in school, for instance) will even figure out some of the parallels, and even that isn’t a given. The books will not in any way make a child after reading think “Oh, boy, I sure need to become a Christian now.” Religion, in that sense, is not even a subject, and only sparsely referenced as a normal everyday thing, just like in most pieces of western media.

The next thing is: these books don’t teach the world view of modern day American alt-right Protestants. A lot of people, especially on the internet, seem to think so, which is rather odd, considering the books were written in the 50s, by an English (Northern Irish, actually) atheist turned Anglican, whose own unusual religious development, and whose (academical) interest in Paganism and other non-Christian religions certainly kept him open-minded in these respects.

And then there’s all that talk about the Problem of Susan, of course, and about how the Scrubbs were actually woke people, and how everything was sexist and all that “because of those evil Xtians who try to convert the children”.

I see so many posts about how people just ignore the religious themes, and how people who like the books despite them, and that’s all fine and well, but they often have no idea what they are. They are not a case of “hurr hurr white old man wrote bad old-fashioned worldview”, they are on an entirely different level, in certain references and images and quotes that they may actually like a lot, and more general in the Fight for Good and everlasting Hope.

And if you get rid of the religious aspects, you get rid of all that you like about Narnia, and be left with only a shallow little bit won’t appeal to you at all, and probably a good deal of what you think is that annoying Christian influence.

On “cottagecore” and those against it

You know, I’ve been thinking of this before, and now I thought about it again… I am really, really tired of those “disillusioning cottagecore” posts.

I mean yes, a lot of cottagecore is taking it to far—it’s the same with all aesthetics and trends on tumblr, that things that are just supposed to be fun and games and pretty to look at are taken a little to seriously, both by the people who like them, and by the people who dislike them, and people actually worry about “practising” their aesthetic enough, etc.

But for the most part, the general approach and point of very basic “cottagecore” is neither unrealistic, nor difficult, and also not bad.

I don’t know why, but there’s so many spoilsports on here claim that there is little no alternative to either living in a skyscraper in a huge city, or all alone in the wild, with no other human being within reach of an hour’s drive. I suppose that’s largely an American thing, but even for America it’s an overexaggeration.

The simply term cottagecore implies that the distant wild is not even meant. It’s about a rather simple life, in a small house, with a garden, maybe a few plants and animals, etc. in smaller town or village. That’s reasonable, that’s often (again, depends on the region) more affordable than living in a big city, and it has nothing to do with the challenges of either large-scale commercial farming or suddenly becoming a pseudo-pioneer hermit. And many, many people live like that their normal everyday life, without ever even having heard the word “cottagecore”. It is entirely normal. It’s a normal thing normal people do.

You don’t have to get up at 4am in the morning. There’s other people, even shops and restaurants, if not in your place, than in one nearby. You’re not likely to get hunted by large wild animals your backgarden. Seriously. You’d do your work, go grocery shopping (but maybe need less things from the store), get to go on walks in the nearby area, take care of whatever animals or plants you choose to adopt. It wouldn’t an ideal cutesy fairy tale life. No. But city life isn’t as glamurous as it is shown on tv—everything has its ups and downs, and it largely depends on personal preference for a person to feel comfortable in a place.

There are, of course, regional differences. Depending on the country or province you live in, if you’d actually wanted to move out into the countryside, it could be difficult to find actually smaller towns and villages or similar settlements, and I am not denying that. I know there are many places where there’s really little “in-between” cities and wilderness. But that doesn’t make a preference for, or an interest in rural living somehow invalid.

Nobody who likes the idea of living in a rural area, or leading a simple life, or having a garden and some pets, maybe even small livestock, and nobody who considers actually doing that, is somehow proven unrealistic and deserves to have all their dreams shattered, just because some grouches on tumblr keep insisting that the only alternatives to a fast-paced metropolitan live were moving out into the prairie and living entirely off what you find in nature, or else owning a million-dollar factory farm.

Villages exist. Small towns exist. Small houses with gardens exist. Small farms exist. Not exactly everywhere, and also not for everyone. But it is a comparably realistic and archieveable dream, or goal, or interest, whatever you may call it. It’s not precisely cottagecore, but you also wouldn’t say that, just because they are not precisely dark/light academia, that universities, and libraries and museums don’t exist or couldn’t be attended/visited, would you?

On Sally and Mary and Love

A discussion (actually, just my rambling addition to someone else’s very wise words) about Lord Peter Wimsey’s love for Harriet Vane and Wodehouse romances, made me think of Elizabeth Goudge and of Sally Adair’s and Mary O’Hara’s approaches to falling in love, and now I have to make a post with two scenes about which I have often wanted to write something, yet somehow never did.

Here’s Sally, seeing David for the first time, or rather, for the first time in person:

Sally stood very straight and still, looking at the face that she had felt she had always known when she had seen it in her father’s drawing. Only this face was not quite like the face of the drawing. That had been an unmasked face. This was the same face, but masked. She didn’t feel anything very particular; only rather odd and tired. She wondered vaguely if this was falling in love. They said in books that one felt so wonderful when one fell in love. She wasn’t feeling wonderful at all; just odd and a bit sick. Books were very misleading.

And also, immediately afterwards:

They went back to the smoke-filled room, and there was such a noise that they could say good-bye only wordlessly. David’s gesture of farewell, in the brief moment before the crowd absorbed him, was memorable for its grace, but so mechanical that Sally felt he had pushed her straight out of his mind and slammed the door. She went at once, and all the way home, though the sun was shining, she hugged herself in her fur coat because she still felt cold. She made no plans for seeing David Eliot again, though with such a famous father that would have been easy. She did not even mean to question her father about him, or about the portrait in the studio. Sally had too much pride to batter against a door that had been shut.

And here’s Mary, when she first meets Michael:

“Is she so extraordinary?” asked Mary.

“Very extraordinary. She gave me the job, though I had no reference, and when I told her I’d been in prison she never asked why.”

It seemed to Mary that the room was tipping over. The table in front of her seemed to be on a slant and she braced her shoulders. But the earthquake was in her own mind, where recent thoughts and phrases were falling headlong one over the other… . Human nature is fundamentally odd. Ruined, but so lovely. One is 10th to pass on. I always wanted to marry a hero, but I would give my life for one of the children… . The room steadied about her again and she found that he was helping her on with her coat. She had not looked at him. Why all this melodrama in her mind? No one was asking her to give her life. Nothing was required of her at present but common politeness and not to pass on. She turned round and smiled at him. “Are you in a hurry to get back to Josephine, or shall we walk as far as Farthing Reach, where the swans are? It’s up-river a little way. Not far.”

“Yes, I’d like that,” he said. 

And… these scenes mean so much to me. They are the subversion, and yet true essence of “love at first sight” and so pure, in the sense of… of clearness, so real and even raw.

Sally falls in love with David the moment she sees him, and she accepts it. Not happy, not sad, but also not doubting or analysing or hoping for anything in particular. She realises who he is, and that she loves him, and, assuming that nothing could happen of their love (which is, of course, not right, but that’s a matter for later in the story…) she accepts it. And this… this is so much different from the usual love at first sight. It is even rather unromantic, in the usual sense. It is so quiet, and yet also so blunt, so clear and accepting. Sally loves him, and though she doesn’t really like it, or want it, or build any hopes on it, she takes it as it is. David, of course, will later on work on loving her, and even more so on allowing himself her love, on being worthy of it.

And Mary? Mary is even more clear and blunt about it. Mary always wanted to marry a hero, she always expected a rather simple and pleasant romantic life. And when she met Michael, also falling in love quite immediately, and had her first shock at learning that he was in prison, her reaction was not “Oh no, this man I fell in love with was in prison, so now I will back away” but “Oh no, I wanted to marry a hero, but now I fell in love with a man who went to prison, so I will have to marry him”. And then, of course, she got back to the ground a little, wondering why she felt such a pressure, and she, like Sally, accepted that there was probably nothing even expected of her. But she loved him. And he, like David, made up his mind to be worthy of her love.

Bright blue is his jacket

Who is Bombadil? He is. According to his wife, Goldberry, and his creator, J. R. R. Tolkien, we are to be content with this. I, for one, am, because I trust the author about his own intentions and take his words as the final word about them.

But that doesn’t mean that I cannot have my own thoughts regarding such a particularly mysterious, and intriguing figure. And, as it is, I like Bombadil. Though most readers of Tolkien’s work will agree that he is a mystery, he is often found to be annoying, disruptive and, even, incongruous with the story’s style.

Tom Bombadil by Anke Eißmann

[…] and even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter #144

Tom Bombadil is an enigma, and that is just right as it is. There is no need to explain.

I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’ […] and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyse the feeling precisely […] Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter #153

Bombadil is a comment, a symbol of what is good and ought to be preserved, and a thing for itself, outside the story. Yet, despite his apparent immunity to major powers, such as the Ring itself, he would not be left unaffected by the actual destruction of his environment. This is of consequence, but I will come to it later on.

A common theory about Tom Bombadil’s true identity is that he is supposed to be Eru Ilúvatar himself—or at least, his incarnation in Middle-earth. Tolkien denied this, and I don’t see why I or anyone should dispute this. It is an understandable theory, as Tom Bombadil is ancient, of incomparable power and nature, and inexplicable. But he is a being for himself and his surroundings, not involved or interested in the dealings the rest of the world and its peoples.

And I, personally, don’t think it would suit Tolkien to portray his creator of Arda in such a manner—though I don’t want to make assumptions about him in that regard, just as I don’t agree with those who argue that Bombadil would not fit Tolkien’s style and narrate, because what an author includes in his work suits his style and narrative. But, aside from Tolkien’s own denial of this particular theory, I have another reason for my own thoughts regarding it: Tom Bombadil is, though older than all of Arda, not necessarily older than anyone or anything else.

“Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the Little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”

The Fellowship of the Ring

Tom Bombadil lived before the world was created, or, at least, before it was as one knew it. He knew a time before “the Dark Lord came from the Outside”, which might refer to Sauron or Morgoth, although it isn’t clear whether or not he lived before their rebellion, or even before their creation.

All this does not mean that Bombadil is the great creator himself. Nor does it mean that he is one of the Ainur, as is another popular theory. As the Maiar are not immune to the One Ring’s influence, and all Valar are named and known, I consider this unlikely. Nor would it be in accordance with his singularity, and his deep connection to the place his is in.

Now, there’s a few who like the idea of Tom being evil. But it doesn’t appear to be in his nature, it doesn’t agree with Tolkien’s own comments, and wouldn’t explain what made him so different from all other life in Middle-earth. A special evil being or spirit, of greater power than is otherwise known—yes, that might be an appealing idea if one finds a jolly old man to be too boring without a sinister background, but it would still leave us where we are. Who is he? What is he? Why is he—like that?—so other?

But one of those evil theories, that he is indeed the evil spirit of the forest, comes remarkably close to my own thoughts about him.

Tom Bombadil, as Goldberry said, “is”. He represents himself, and his right to be in the story does not need an explanation, nor an apology, as it was only up to the author to make this decision. He existed, in a way, before many a part of the Legendarium, and in that sense, his own explanation of himself and his great age might be even a nod to the reader. The Lord of the Rings is, after all, a fictional translation, and many a thing just a means for the reader from our world to understand the going-ons in another. Who knows what his counterpart in the “original” Red Book of Westmarch would be, with no Dutch doll to inspire the “translator”? But I should not dive too deep into a story which, in this sense, doesn’t exist.

Shoving the art of writing and the science of stories aside for a moment, and look at the story from within, as if it were real. What could explain Tom’s nature?

I assume my idea is not better than most. But it does appeal more to me. It has so for a while, though I just now got around to writing it down.

He is older than all that is known and seen in Middle-earth, though not likely older than anything else. He is not affected by the One Ring as any mortal (or even immortal) man or otherwise sentient being would be, yet “there would be nothing left for him” under Sauron’s rule. His wife is “the River-woman’s daughter” and likely a spirit. He claims the land does not belong to him, but to itself, yet it seems also inseparable from him. He is not evil, it does not appeal to him or have immediate power over him, yet it does also not agree with him. He is not precisely good, nor does he care much about the dealings and doings of other people and beings.

His demeanour and nature are lively, earthly, and robust. And thoroughly physical—although apparently a spirit or spiritual being, he is exceedingly bodily and alive, concerned first and foremost with his wife, his land, and his food and drink. So physical, indeed, that no supernatural power seems to appeal to him so much as to fall for it, so different is his own interest, his own nature incompatible with a thing such as the One Ring.

Now I get to the tricky part—because I don’t want to make any sort of assumption about J. R. R. Tolkien’s own ideas, nor would I claim my theory to be in accordance with his intentions. But I want to say what my own idea is anyway, and I like it, because, even though I don’t think that that’s what’s supposed to be true in the book, at least not directly so—not clearly, specifically, though possibly, just possibly, at the edge of it—it is beautifully fit, compatible so to speak, not really wrong.

Tom Bombadil is Middle-earth. In one way, or another. Its spirit, perhaps, or its man-like form, its protective soul, or a representative, for the reader only, or even for its inhabitants. He, as Verlyn Flieger said, does not desire to dominate, and hence cannot be dominated. I think that is, perhaps, because he dominates all that is in his nature to dominate, and is dominated by all that his in his nature to be dominated by. Not more, nor less.

He came to Middle-earth with its creation, and he is Middle-earth in all its states and stages. He does not want more than Middle-earth, but he cannot have less than Middle-earth, because it is he and he is it. He is. Mind you—not Arda, not Eä, only Middle-earth. But Middle-earth, in its entirety.

Made and sent by Eru, but not as a person, but as a place, he cannot exist in accordance with pure evil—there would be nothing left for him—but not intervening in the doings of and dealings of his own inhabitants. At least, not going further than nature itself, in the shape of a jolly old man, could or would do.

So much for my theory.

But in truth and canon and fact, Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow, bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow. None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the Master: His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster. That, I suppose, is all we ought to know.

Superficial replacements of what is Most Natural

It is quite symptomatic for people today, especially young people on the internet, on tumblr in particular, to replace natural and necessary, yet recently (and not-so-recently) rejected human behaviour and interest with superficial and very limited reproductions. And, to be quite honest, it worries me.

Take political correctness, for instance. I am in no way speaking against politically correct behaviour—on the contrary, I think it necessary. However, the form of political correctness we know and use today is an insufficient replacement for proper manners and considerate behaviour. Manners, of course, were rejected a short time before extreme political correctness came into fashion, as outdated and classist. For a short time, people roamed freely across the internet, being just about rude and offensive, and then the opposite came into being.

The problem with this Opposite is that, rather than becoming a renaissance of manners, it became much more of a perversion of them. It is all the more classist, despite being used most fervently by those who claim to fight classism, and it is strict and limited, and always out of date. Rather than intending to always treat all people courteously and with consideration of their very feelings, one intends to treat only a few groups of people with such consideration, and without much care for each person belonging to any of these groups as an individual. In fact, it seems that for many people the point of political correctness is to be always as rude and misbehaving and unfriendly as possible, except to a few chosen peoples, as a collective entity, who might not in any way be offended. These offences are changed regularly, and can only be properly known by the initiated, contemporarily educated, young (or trying to behave as a young person would) who spend most of their time online.

No matter how good the intention, if a person isn’t perfectly up-to-date in their language or their understanding of specifics, they are made the villain of the play. I have addressed this before, and I have to say again, that it is a better aim for one’s behaviour to be unspecifically and unconditionally good, rather than overspecifically and exclusively perfect. To treat people with consideration and friendliness is not as difficult as it might appear, and even if one may struggle to do so, it is worth training. There is nothing classist even about more elaborate manners, in fact, as those can be acquired through simple consideration of one’s own actions and through watching well-behaved people, it is much less classist than expecting people to behave in a way that requires specific education, access, and social environment.

Now of course, many argue that there’s too many well-mannered people who behave very much politically incorrect and offensive towards people’s feelings. This is due to the fundamentally wrong idea of manners that many (especially young) people have nowadays. The behaviour employed by a great many rich and privileged people is often equated with traditional manners, even if said people behave terribly, and every sort of inconsiderate behaviour towards more modern sentiments is associated with older generations. But the thing is actually quite simple: If people behave in a way that they know hurts another’s feelings, offends another’s personal sensibilities (not to confuse here with polite disagreement!) then they are, in fact, not polite, not well-mannered, not considerate or courteous.

If your aim is to be good to people, as individuals, and all people, then you don’t do things that hurt them, at least not intentionally. You respect them both in regards to socio-political (race, gender, class, etc.) as well as purely personal matters and feelings. And this according to each human being. That’s not speaking against political correctness in the least—but one should remember that a stilted consideration towards specifically chosen people, without much regard to their individuality, and with absolutely no care for anyone else, and no effort to behave decently, is not worth much. If applied in such a way, then political correctness is merely a protection for those who want to treat others badly without being exposed.

(It helps, of course, to view humanity as a whole, interconnected and inseparable, with smaller, overlapping, open-boardered inside, yet each human being an individual, rather than, as it is so often now done, divided into many small, impervious groups which, in case they overlap, form even stricter, smaller groups.)

And take social constructs. A current trend online is memes and comics and shorts stories about how “weird humans are”—often from the perspective of aliens, sometimes of pets. How humans care about each other, how they do nice things, even if they don’t appear necessary in a commercial, efficient way, etc. Also posts about how people in history and pre-history have always been people, and have always cared about each other. The appreciation for all of these things is quite wonderful, and long-needed. However—not all, but a large portion of those things are, in fact social constructs. But of course, social constructs are considered bad things, so they are not called that. Instead, we learn that “humans are weird” whenever they do something that is not either selfish, or efficient, or both. Even if appreciative, we learn it in a negatively-tinted way. How weird it is! To think that humans are indeed—well, what? Humans.

But you see, social constructs are not fundamentally bad things. Nor good, either. Being a social construct doesn’t make a thing bad. It does not make it good, but it does very much make it human. The idea to say, “this does not exist in biology, it is a social construct and therefore bad/fake” is a way stripping humans of their humanity. We are social, and we ought to be social. That does not mean that we have to stick to every social construct there is. In fact, questioning, examining, changing and adjusting, even abolishing social constructs is as much of a socially constructed behaviour, and it is surely necessary at times, and it has always been done.

To consider unselfish, good, caring, or playful and creative behaviour to be “weird” is, even when meant positively, not the right way to approach it. It is not weird. It is not unnatural, it is purely natural, and necessary. It is also not exclusive to human beings, though of course, according to our understanding particularly developed among us. And it shouldn’t cease to do so—after all, wouldn’t it be much better to stand against those who claim that only selfishness and efficient work are necessary? No! There’s many bad or outdated social constructs, but humans are social animals, and we change, and the things we create and construct and develop change with us. Different social constructs in different cultures and eras do not prove that social constructs are fundamentally bad and unnatural, they prove that they are, in fact, natural, and that they can be altered.

But the derogatory way of talking about good and necessary things brings me to the subject of education. It’s a pity that what used to be considered general knowledge is now called “useless facts”. Despite pointing out that they are the best-educated generation of all time, and much smarter than older people, today’s youth is victim of a very strict, career-oriented education. This, of course, has been created by older generations, and is often criticised, but that doesn’t change its effect.

Knowledge needs to have a use, otherwise it is called, deliberately, “useless”. The studium generale is of the past, so is any form of general and recreational knowledge and education. And this surpasses class. Whether its the studies of rich people not intending or needing to put them into practical use, or the underestimated, wide knowledge of common and tradespeople.

Fortunately, nowadays people have a better access to university education than they did in the past, even if they don’t come from a privileged background—academia is not as strictly reserved for the rich and privileged as it used to be, although there is still a lot to be worked in that direction. However, as strange as it might sound, knowledge becomes more and more a privilege of the academic, regardless of their background.

If you don’t gain knowledge for a career, and if it is not a commercial career, then it should at least be an academic career, then why earn knowledge at all? And why learn anything out of your field? And why in a way that cannot be put to use, even if the knowledge you have gained is just the same?

What is now called, rather apologetically, “useless facts” and considered a waste of time to read, are, in a much more accessible form, thanks to the internet and easily available books, what used to be sought-after knowledge, just for the knowledge itself by earlier generations. Not centuries, but just a few decades ago. Very often, people who are now deemed to have no use of academic interests, learned about things for personal use, and people who worked in academic fields studied things entirely unrelated, and people who were not going to have a career learned for the sake of learning.

But now knowledge needs to be monetised, or at the very least certified, even if it is not supposed to be used in a professional environment. All other knowledge, all personal knowledge, is deemed useless, a waste of time, (and insufficient to put into conversation with better-educated people, even if they are less informed on the chosen subject—but that is an entirely different matter and unrelated to this) and as such even immoral, as people are made to feel guilty for enjoying knowledge without putting it into professional use.

This is helped by the popular idea that in the past only professionals and academics, and a certain kind of rich people, and then only men, knew anything. But as a matter of fact, very often people who worked in handiwork, women with no intention or prospect of a career, and even rather poor people (though that depended heavily on time and place) were quite well and diversely educated. Knowledge was not deemed useless, but valuable, even when people could not assume to earn money or esteem through it.

And “useless facts” and all the non-fiction and documentaries, as well as free online courses and all that is so often looked down upon as a past-time for people who don’t know what to do with themselves, are proof that people still long for knowledge, and for an intellectual occupation, no matter how unproductive and inefficient it might be. And that should be supported, not degraded, and not apologised for. Reading books and articles on things that interest one, visiting university lectures without being enrolled, even reading little tid-bits of funny and obscure historical or scientific facts, should never be something to feel ashamed of.

And even more so, even if many older people did not have the same opportunities as young people today, it would be very foolish to assume that they are uneducated, just as it is very foolish to assume that people in earlier times were only sitting in the mud, thinking the earth were flat.

“Useless facts” of course, are just like “humans are weird” an apologetic degradation of a thing actually liked, and valued. It seems a common reaction nowadays. A sort of fear, “Look at that silly thing I made, it’s really not good!” — “Why, it’s fabulous!” This is not a reproach, much rather a caution. Because in such cases, there’s not many to call it fabulous, the derogatory name will be adopted by the majority, and the good thing painted badly.

And now for Kindness, the most exhausting subject for a little composition like this one, and thus, appropriately, with a capital K. We all want Kindness, we all want to be kind. So far, so good. But kindness is not conditional. Friendliness is, politeness is. Kindness, like Love, is not.

So many people explain why you cannot be kind to everyone, why kindness to some people is evil to others. But that is wrong. You are mistaking kindness for friendliness, and for support. Kindness is unconditional. If you want to be kind to some people, but think others undeserving, then you don’t really want to be kind, you want to be nice, to be friendly, to be polite, to be politically correct, or to be supportive. All necessary and valuable by themselves, all, at least to a degree, selective and conditional. And all, for the receiving person, pleasant.

Kindness is not necessarily pleasant or opportune. You are not kind to a person by supporting their bad actions and intentions. You are not kind to a predator by supporting the harm they inflict. On the contrary, if you fight against the bad a person does, you do them an act of kindness, inflict kindness upon them.

We can and we should try to act kindly towards everyone. We should practise kindness, train it, nourish, and cultivate it, and plant where it lacks. That does not mean that we should always be nice, that we should support everyone’s wishes and goals, or to be always compliant. To practise kindness means very often to oppose.

But if your approach to kindness is conditional, if you want to exempt certain people from it, if you want to do them bad, than you contribute to the Bad rather than the Good, and only half-heartedly, superficially to the Kindness the world needs.

But a necessary fight against the bad a person does is not the same as self-indulgent malevolence towards the people who are made the symbol of what one considers, or even what might really be, what is bad, or a part of what is bad in the world.