Published: 10:42, June 10, 2024
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What these cards say about Tolkien
By Yang Yang
The cover of the card set. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Chinese translation of Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, published recently by Horizon Books, comes with an unusual set of five cards showcasing an ingenious transcultural design that will be of interest to many readers, at home and abroad.

The cards bear a short self-introduction of Tolkien, English writer and the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The introduction is curiously written in an ancient Chinese calligraphy style. It almost looks like it was photocopied from ancient Chinese books.

Last year, when Dai Guqiu and Mu Dong were working on the Chinesetranslation of the book, Dai shared with Mu his idea of inserting, in the books, a set of cards, on which they could print a brief introduction of Tolkien in ancient Chinese style.

“Dai has a hobby of collecting photographs from ancient books,” says Mu, the 38-year-old translator of the book. “He said we could use ancient Chinese script to write a short introduction of Tolkien and he would find all the ancient Chinese characters of the script from his collection, so that in the end we can put together an entire passage in a style taken from ancient books.”

Dai, a Tolkien fan, also revised the translation.

Mu was assigned the task of writing Tolkien’s profile. “I was thinking how to write it and it occurred to me that I had come across Tolkien’s very famous self-introduction, where he says he was actually a Hobbit, and he liked English cuisine and non-mechanized farmland,” he says.

Mu “translated” this self-introduction into ancient Chinese, by referring to Wuliu Xiansheng Zhuan (The Biography of Master Five Willows), a self-introduction by Tao Yuanming, a poet in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), because he thinks “their spirit and temperament are somewhat similar”.

The short self-introduction of Tolkien created in classic Song Dynasty style by Dai Guqiu and Mu Dong, which has become a rage online. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Dai was able to find most of the characters of the ancient Chinese script in photographs of the best-preserved copy of Records of the Three Kingdoms, which was engraved and printed in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). But there are several characters that Dai couldn’t find in the copy. To keep the style uniform, instead of trying to look for the characters in other versions, Dai took parts from different characters in the same copy of the book to create the ancient Chinese characters including yan (smoke or cigarette) in yandou (pipe), which did not exist during the Song Dynasty.

After Dai put all the characters on one page, the great visual effect it had urged him to create a version in the style of Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) inscriptions. When he posted it online, it became popular in no time, impressing even calligraphy enthusiasts.

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“A lot of people said that since we want to promote and carry forward our traditional culture, it seems to be a right way,” Mu says.

Since there were versions in classic Han and Song styles, it seemed necessary to have a classic Tang Dynasty (618-907) version, so Dai referred to the Buddhist manuscripts found in Mogao Caves in Dunhuang to create a version in classic Tang style. To imitate the signatures of those eminent monks, the two had to invent a lot of quaint names.

When they posted their creations on international forums for Tolkien fans, they received compliments there too.

Tolkien (fourth from right in the third row) poses with 14 other members of the first football team of King Edward's School, Birmingham, England, in a photograph taken sometime in 1909 or 1910. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Mu says that this set of cards is one of the highlights of the Chinese version of the biography. Another noteworthy content is the more than 100-page annotations they added to the book.

Before translating the book, Mu read the encyclopedic three-volume The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. The first volume focuses on Tolkien’s life and the remaining two on his creation. Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien was first published in 1977, but the last volume of the set came out in 2016, which means it includes many new opinions and discoveries, Mu says.

Based on more research and with the help of Dai, who was familiar with the first several volumes of The Complete History of Middle-earth, Mu added the annotations to the original text to provide new and comprehensive information to Chinese readers.

For example, he gives details about the Hobbit party Tolkien organized during a trip to the Netherlands and includes the four reviews by British writer C.S. Lewis on the books of Tolkien. “I’m very proud to say that the annotations in the book are leading in the international Tolkien studies,” Mu says.

Translator of the biography, Mu Dong (middle), editor Lu Ming (left) from the publisher Horizon Books, and Fan Ye, associate professor of Spanish language and literature from Peking University, attend a book event in Beijing in April. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Besides, they also re-created a map about Tolkien’s path of life based on the existing ones and The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.

As the only biographer who actually interviewed Tolkien and had access to his personal writings, Carpenter’s work has been regarded as the most authoritative biography of Tolkien. The Chinese version has also been well received by readers, especially Tolkien fans.

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On Douban, a major Chinese review aggregator, a fan named Norloth commented, “I’m not a fan of biographies. However, this biography is very engaging because the writer has described an incredibly vivid Tolkien, which lets us see clearly the connection between his daily life and experience and his creation. … It's such a refined translation”.

For example, Mu says, readers can read what motivated Tolkien to create the Middle-earth.

On July 6, 1916, in the middle of the Battle of Somme, notoriouslythe most devastating and protracted battle during World War I, in northern France, 24-year-old Tolkien was “overwhelmingly relieved and delighted” to see one of his best childhood friends Geoffrey Bache Smith, turn up alive and uninjured.

A photograph taken sometime around 1936 featuring J.R.R. Tolkien and his four children is included in the Chinese version of the biography. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Smith was one of the four members of The Tea Club, Barrovian Society, known as TCBS, an organization that met regularly since Tolkien’s middle school years, its members drinking tea, smoking pipes, talking about literature and their aspirations, “to hope that together they might achieve something of value” and “to kindle a new light”.

That July, the four, Tolkien, Smith, Christopher Wiseman and Robert Gilson, were sent to the front line.

In northern France, the two old friends, Tolkien and Smith, met and talked as often as they could. They talked about poetry and the future, besides the war. Once they walked into a field and saw poppies flying in the wind, although the battle was turning the countryside into a barren land of mud.

The book cover of the Chinese translation of "J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography" written by Humphrey Carpenter, translated by Mu Dong and proofread by Dai Guqiu. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

When Mu came across this paragraph, he was deeply moved.

“Even amid what must have been like hell, they longed for the most beautiful things. It brought tears to my eyes, especially when you think that Smith actually died later in the war,” he says.

Tolkien survived the war, but lost two close friends. The war, Mu says, became an important turning point in his life, one of the major motives for him to create the legends about the mythical world of the Middle-earth, which has been hailed as one of the greatest creations of the 20th century and been read by generations of readers across the world, inspiring many other writers including American writer George R.R. Martin, the writer of the A Song of Fire and Ice series.

According to Mu, in the chapter The Breaking of the Fellowship, Smith said in a letter to Tolkien he wrote not long before he died, “My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight — I am off on duty in a few minutes — there will still be left a member of the great TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the TCBS. … my dear John Ronald (Tolkien), and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them.”

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A portrait of Tolkien when he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters by University of Oxford in June 1972. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Back in late 1914, after a gathering of the TCBS, Tolkien decided to become a poet because the meetinghelped him find “a voice for all kind of pent-up things”.

Gradually, Tolkien wanted to find a connecting theme for all his poems, which he later wove into a

larger story in early 1915. As a language enthusiast, Tolkien invented languages and the more he invented, the more he felt the urgency to create races of people speaking the languages and recording their history in poems.

After the war, in 1917, within a year of losing his two best friends and his experience in the ruthless war, he

completed the basic settings for the stories taking place in the Middle-earth, as if “all his inspiration burst forth” henceforth, Ma says.


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