Etc.: Leonardo's apocalypse, Hobbit style, and something Sherlockian

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: Leonardo and his era knew all about apocalypse. THE END OF THE WORLD, AGAIN: How many of your friends on Facebook posted "Well, I'm still here!" as their status update on Friday, Dec. 21? It was funny the first or second time, but the joke got old pretty quick, didn't it?

That joke would have been even less amusing to the people of 15th-century Italy. The opening of a recent book about Leonardo by Ross King, which I talked about earlier this week, begins with a passage that's incredibly apt for all the Mayan expectations this year:

"The astrologers and fortune-tellers were agreed: signs of the coming disasters were plain to see. In Puglia, down in the heel of Italy, three fiery suns rose into the sky. Farther north, in Tuscany, ghost riders on giant horses galloped through the air to the sound of drums and trumpets. In Florence, a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola received visions of swords emerging from clouds and a black cross rising above Rome. All over Italy, statues sweated blood and women gave birth to monsters.

These strange and troubling events in the summer of 1494 foretold great changes..."

Every age, it seems, thinks that it's the final one.

hobbit-book-coverTOLKIEN'S METHOD: There's a moment in "The Hobbit" -- the novel, not the Peter Jackson movie -- when the band of adventurers seek shelter from a giant named Beorn. It's always struck me as being an unexpected insight into Tolkien as a storyteller of fantasy tales. The key to a tale's success, and its believability, seems contained in Gandalf's strategy for approaching Beorn and asking for his hospitality:

" 'You had better wait here,' said the wizard to the dwarves; 'and when I call or whistle begin to come after me--you will see the way I go--but only in pairs, mind, about five minutes between each pair of you. Bombur is fattest and will do for two, he had better come alone and last. Come on Mr. Baggins!' "

A large group, Gandalf thinks, will overwhelm Beorn: It is far better to introduce the group gradually, piece by piece, so that he has time to absorb and accept them.

That does seem, to me at any rate, an ideal method for introducing a world of fantasy to readers.

great-pearl-heist-coverSHERLOCKIANA: The holiday season not only inspires people to pick up their novels of Dickens; it's also a time for old-fashioned English detection. That's the impulse behind "The Great Pearl Heist: London's Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard's Hunt for the World's Most Valuable Necklace" (Berkley) by Molly Caldwell Crosby. Caldwell tells an intriguing story of a master criminal, down to the details of life in Edwardian England, and a phenomenal heist that readers will savor alongside their collections of Conan Doyle adventures.  What's even more phenomenal is that it's all true.

What to bring with you when you join Bilbo & Company: new in bookstores

The dragon Smaug circles the Lonely Mountain; illustration by J.R.R. Tolkien Followers of J.R.R. Tolkien know what "The Hobbit" is: It's a prelude. A delicious dish, but not the main course. The adventures are wonderful, but the story plays out on a much smaller canvas than "The Lord of the Rings" -- though you wouldn't know it from watching the first installment of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" trilogy. (That, by the way, is not a complaint: Jackson's version is amazing -- it's just not the same story).

If Jackson's movie has inspired you to take down your old thumbed copy of the tale and get reacquainted, several new books will also serve as sturdy companions as you join up with Bilbo, the dwarves and Gandalf the wizard on the journey to the Lonely Mountain and Smaug's hoard.

A few years ago, John D. Rateliff brought out an extraordinary edition of "The History of 'The Hobbit' " (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) -- which features "The Hobbit" along with two annotated volumes of early drafts in a beautiful slipcase. At a price of $95, it is well worth every penny -- I especially love Rateliff's discussions of the Necromancer (Sauron) and Bladorthin/Gandalf, who evolves from a little firework-wielding old man into "one of the five Istari, bearer of the Ring of Fire..."

A pleasurable, insightful collection that easily steals an hour (or six) if you're not careful.

More agreeable with the wallet might be  "Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' " by Corey Olson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), an English professor at Washington College in Maryland who provides a flowing, accessible presentation of the narrative that will please newcomers and old visitors to Middle-earth in equal measure.

For me, however, the real treat this Hobbity season is "The Art of 'The Hobbit' " edited by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Tolkien was a gifted amateur artist who expressed his mighty vision in paintings and sketches, and this book collects these images (some of these have never been seen before). He gives us, for instance, a quaint, bucolic portrait of life in the Shire in the painting of "Hobbiton-across-the-water"; he also creates detailed paintings of Rivendell, the Misty Mountains, and Smaug in his hall.

One of my favorites is this map of Mirkwood, which is a haunted, tainted place:

An imagined world that seems real: Tolkien's Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain.

Tolkien's efforts to bring this story into being took so many forms -- invented languages, paintings, maps, songs and poems. I appreciate how this collection of art demonstrates the lengths to which a great artist will go in order to give his world tangibility -- and heft -- in ours.

Take it from Frodo

The arrival of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" series of movies translates into two ... no, make it three ... kinds of related books this season:

1) Reissues of Tolkien's best books, including "The Hobbit" (no surprise there)

2) Scholarly works for the deeply obsessed fan of Tolkien's work (like Verlyn Flieger's "Green Suns and Faerie," which I wrote about not long ago)

3) A mixed bag of books, ranging from interesting movie tie-ins to silly, slight works hoping to sell a few units while the movie is in theaters

When I received my advance galley of Noble Smith's "The Wisdom of the Shire: A Short Guide to A Long And Happy Life" (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's), I groaned. "Here's one of the silly, superficial examples of category 3!" I thought. "Ugh. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins on leadership!"

The closer I looked, the more I realized I was wrong. The conceit of this book does seem a bit silly, a bit shameless in its packaging -- to see our lives in terms of the values of Tolkien's little fellows -- but is it?  Hobbits love the simple things in life: food and beer, friends, a good night's sleep. Isn't that like most of us?

If you've read Tom Shippey on the matter, you know Tolkien intended them to reflect us in his mythic cycle of tales -- so Noble Smith's book makes sense. And it's worth a look.

I especially appreciate his chapter on "bearing the burden of your ring." Sauron's awful ring can only be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, and Frodo nearly dies in the effort. It slowly taints and corrupts him but he never surrenders it even though he has so many chances.  Plenty of people will gladly take it from his finger. Not just Gollum. Give it to Aragorn. Let Gondor take it. Give it to Gandalf. Let the elves deal with it, Frodo. Head for the Shire. Drink a beer and have a warm, long night's sleep.

Frodo refuses, knowing that the ring is poisoning him.

Noble Smith praises Frodo for his focus and dedication. I'd add that Frodo displays a quality most of us lack today. He acts on behalf of a larger community of living beings who are counting on him -- not simply in terms of what is best only for him. Frodo knows there will be terrible consequences for Middle-earth if he surrenders the ring just to save his own skin. So he doesn't. He makes the hard choice that most people wouldn't make today.

I wonder what he'd think of us if the Supreme Ring had somehow teleported him into our world.

(More Hobbity posts to come as Peter Jackson's movie get nearer.)

Glimpses and sightings of an epic

Dipping into the pages of a new poetry collection by David Ferry, "Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations" (University of Chicago Press), makes me feel as giddy as I do when I hear that a new trailer of Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" is about to be released.


Ferry is an acclaimed poet in his own right -- check out "Of No Country I Know" -- but what I've eagerly followed over the years are his translations from Virgil.  His "Eclogues" and "Georgics" translations (both published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux), are beautiful songs of the Earth, of prophecy, of pragmatism and protest.  Reading them has always made me wonder, When is Ferry going to tackle the big one?  What about Virgil's "Aeneid"?

His new collection "Bewilderment" gives the answer: He's working on it.

Along with the sharp clarity of original lyrics "Coffee Lips" and "Street Scene," there are long passages from books II and VI of the Mantuan's masterpiece.  I'm more than giddy, however; I'm also humbled by it. Ferry's book is dedicated to his late wife, critic Anne Ferry, and near the end of this collection, his version of Aeneas' departure from Troy feels informed by Ferry's own grief.

After he evokes the image of Aeneas hoisting his lame-legged father onto his back:

I take up the tawny pelt of a lion and

Cover my neck and my broad shoulders with it,

And bowing down, I accept the weight of my father...

he then continues on with Aeneas' grief when he fails to find his wife at a reunion site before the fugitive Trojans escape from their burning city:

When all of us,

At last, had gotten there, we all were there,

But she had vanished and she wasn't there.

Gone from her people, gone from her child, and her husband.

That final line is searingly painful to read. Anyone who's lost a loved one knows what this is. Everyone is Aeneas in their grief.

Glimpses and sightings of Virgil's epic -- I feel a little like Palinurus with Carthage behind and the deep sea ahead.  Can't wait for the rest of Ferry's project.