Sunday, December 30, 2007
Revelation 1: With Barad-dur crashing around them following the destruction of the ring, Tolkien had originally planned to have Frodo and Sam fighting with the last Nazgul on an island of rock surrounded by the fire of the erupting Mount Doom, prior to their rescue by Gandalf's eagle ... in other words, a little more dramatic than the way things turned out (and perhaps melodramatic, which is why Tolkien ditched the Nazgul bit).
Revelation 2: Tolkien had planned to write a final chapter to the Lord of the Rings, a coda of sorts, tying up many of the loose ends by having Sam read out of an enormous book to his children and answering all their questions about what happened to everybody. I would have liked to have seen this myself, but I can see why he ditched it: Stories work best when you show, and don't tell.
Other interesting bits...
I knew that Tolkien read chapters of the Lord of the Rings as he wrote them to his colleagues, a close-knit circle who called themselves The Inklings. But it's cool to hear their feedback. For example, well before its completion Charles Williams said of LOTR, "The great thing is that its centre is not in strife and war and heroism (though they are understood and depicted) but in freedom, peace, ordinary life and good liking." This is something that the intellectually challenged detractors of LOTR who attack the work for its "lack of gore and battle scenes" (and I have heard this criticism a few times, believe it or not) cannot seem to grasp.
We also know from reading the foreward to The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien "detested allegory in all its forms." But anyone reading the tale knows that its far more than just an adventure story. Tolkien himself used the term "applicability" to readers who wanted to draw parallels between the book and contemporary events in Tolkien's time, such as the World Wars.
For example, take the One Ring itself. Many have speculated that it represents atomic power, or more broadly the advent of scientific reason and the subsequent driving out of magic. But I had never heard Tolkien himself weigh in on its symbolism until I read a letter in which Tolkien admits that he had much more in mind with the One Ring than a mere artifact of a forgotten age:
Of course, Allegory and Story converge, meeting somewhere in Truth ... And one finds, even in imperfect human 'literature,' that the better and more consistent an allegory is the more easy it can be read 'just as a story'; and the better and more closely woven a story is the more easy can those so minded find allegory in it. But the two start out from opposite ends. You can make the Ring into an allegory of our time, if you like: an allegory of the invevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power. But that is only because all power magical or mechanical does always so work. You cannot write a story about an apparently simple magic ring without that bursting in, if you really take the ring seriously...
I'm only a quarter of the way through this book and its loaded with gems like these. Much more to come.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
But being a personal favorite author of mine, I made an exception for Tolkien. And so far (just 90 pages into a roughly 500 page book), I'm glad that I did.
Tolkien was old-school in every sense of the phrase, and one of his and his contemporaries' endearing traits was the act of letter writing. While I'm sure that personal correspondence has increased with the advent of computers and e-mail, there's just something special about the process of setting pen to paper and writing an honest letter, a piece of paper that you can hold in your hand and read. Paper letters seem simultaneously more formal and more personal (if that's possible), and are certainly more tangible than an e-mail that arrives nearly instantaneously when you click "send," can be just as easily deleted. In fact, I wonder how much e-mail correspondence will ultimately survive.
But back to the matter at hand. Tolkien was particularly voluminous as a letter-writer (at least according to the dust jacket of this book), and left a huge paper trail following his death in 1973, a trail which often leads to illuminating revelations about the man.
Take this letter he wrote to his son, Christopher, in the latter days of World War II (dated May 6, 1944). This was a trying time for Tolkien, who was not only teaching a full courseload at Oxford and spending his few remaining free hours trying to write the Lord of the Rings, but was also subject to constant worry about his son who was in the Royal Air Force helping wage a campaign to defeat Nazi Germany.
Tolkien begins the letter sympathizing with the deplorable camp conditions through which Christopher was suffering (the elder Tolkien himself being a WW I veteran with similar experiences), but then ties it into one of the prevailing themes of the Lord of the Rings:
Your service is, of course, as anybody with any intelligence and ears and eyes knows, a very bad one, living on the repute of a few gallant men, and you are probably in a particularly bad corner of it. But all Big Things planned in a big way feel like that to the toad under the harrow, though on a general view they do function and do their job. An ultimately evil job. For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring. And we shall (it seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.
In other words, evil means are often (unfortunately) needed to defeat evil, to the detriment of both the victor and of mankind in general. In this case, Tolkien was referring to how the common soldiers--the Tommies--get ground up in the gears of war, which are set in motion by politicians and madmen.
Later in the same letter Tolkien describes some of his writing process to Christopher:
A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir...
This for me was a fun bit of magic, a glimpse at the divine spark of invention that comes of inspired writing. Actually reading about how a characer like Faramir more or less strode, fully formed like a real person, onto the rough pages of The Lord of the Rings, was inexpressably rewarding. Revelations like this and the one above have made Letters a truly illuminating read.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
As I mentioned in a previous post, Blade Runner was neither a critical nor a commercial success upon its release in 1982. In fact, the critics more or less savaged it. According to the definitive history of the film, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul M. Sammon, it was as if "many of the nation's critics had somehow been offended by the subtlety and care that had gone into this picture."
Among the critics, one Southern newspaper slammed Blade Runner for being "like science fiction pornography--all sensation and no heart." The LA Times warned audiences to not "...let the words blade runner confuse you into expecting a super high-speed chase film. Blade crawler might be more like it." A New York Times critic called Blade Runner "muddled ... gruesome ... a mess." Roger Ebert himself said that "The movie's weakness... is that it allows the special-effects technology to overwhelm its story." There were positive reviews, too, of course, but they were in the minority.
But bad press couldn't keep Blade Runner down. Only with the passage of years, through positive word of mouth, appreciative SF magazine articles, and repeated viewings on videotape (and later, DVD) by a vocal fanbase, did the genius of this film shine through the dark cloud created by its poor critical reception.
Now, 25 years after its release, the critics are all back on board, rank and file, like sheep. I subscribe to the Sunday Boston Globe, and I could barely stifle my laughter this morning when I glanced at a Globe table that compiles national reviews of new film and DVD releases. Every major reviewer in the table--The Globe, Time, Entertainment Weekly, the LA Times, Variety, and more--listed Blade Runner, The Final Cut, as "recommended." Don't believe me? Go ahead and do a Google search--you'll find that there's tremendous praise for Blade Runner from nearly every quarter.
Talk about an about-face. Now that the overwhelming consensus of fans and SF literati have rightly recast Blade Runner in its proper light--as arguably the most influential and best SF film ever made--the critics have hopped back on board.
Alas, it's 25 years too late. The majority of the critics didn't "get" this movie then, and frankly I doubt they get it now. But it's a lot safer to give it their critical stamp of approval now that the tide has turned.
Shortsighted then, and cowardly now.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Picking up where Mad Max left off, 1981's The Road Warrior continues the story of Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a spiritually shattered ex-patrolman wandering the post-apocalyptic Australian roadways. In Mad Max, Max's wife and child were killed by a murderous gang of bikers, and while he exacted revenge, Max crossed a metaphorical boundary at the conclusion of that film, abandoning the rule of law and order for revenge and barbarism.
But events unfold that soon thrust Max back into human contact. Always low on gas, he discovers a fuel depot protected by a group of survivors under siege by a small army of savage looters, led by the massive, iron-masked Humungous. While his initial foray into the depot is driven purely by greed, Max is ultimately forced to make a choice between selfishness--getting his gas and fleeing--and altruism--helping the survivors break through the Humungous' encircling gang and escape to a better life elsewhere.
Max strikes a bargain to bring a tanker capable of hauling the gas out of the compound, in exchange for his own share of the fuel. The leader of the survivors, Papagallo, accepts, but later forces Max to confront his past and his very reason for existence. He challenges Max when the latter spurns companionship and chooses to leave with his car and his gas after fulfilling the bargain, rather than joining the band heading for the coast and a fresh start. "You think you're the only one that's suffered? We've all been through it in here. But we haven't given up," Papagallo says. "We're still human beings. But you--you're out there with the garbage. You're nothing."
But events in The Road Warrior lead him to an epiphany about his place in the world, knowledge that there are still good things worth fighting for, and rekindle his desire to help restore order and peace. Max, bloodied and broken in body but not spirit after surviving a failed solo escape attempt, returns to drive the tanker out of the depot, helping save the survivors and spring them to freedom.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
From the ABC News Web site:
"Director Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios have agreed to make two movies based on JRR Tolkien's book The Hobbit, ending months of legal wrangling.
Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, co-chairmen and co-CEOs of New Line, says Jackson -- the director of the smash hit Lord of the Rings series -- and producer Fran Walsh will both executive produce a Hobbit movie and a sequel, but no decision has been made about who will direct the films.
MGM chairman Harry Sloan, who has been credited by all parties for bringing about the deal, says Jackson found it "impossible" to direct the film and meet proposed release dates in 2010 and 2011 due to other projects on which he is now working.
"He can't get it scheduled and he doesn't want the fans to have to wait for the next two movies," Mr Sloan said.
He says the studios might postpone the films if Jackson changed his mind.
Jackson's representative could not be reached for comment.
Jackson, Walsh and the studios will share approval "on all major creative elements" and will start considering screenwriters and directors in January.
The movies will be made simultaneously in New Zealand, starting in 2009.
Industry experts estimated the films will each cost $US150 million ($174 million) to $US200 million to make, based in part on the $US400 million cost of the first three Rings films and inflation."
You can read the complete story here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/12/19/2122458.htm?section=entertainment.
While I'm obviously thrilled that a live action version of The Hobbit will finally be brought to the screen, two things about this story concern me:
1. Jackson will be executive producing, but not directing, the film. I know nothing about filmmaking, but I'm guessing that, as an executive producer, Jackson will have far less hands-on movie making in this film than he did with The Lord of the Rings. I'm sure he and New Line will find someone quite competent for the job, but nevertheless I find it troubling.
2. A "sequel"? To The Hobbit? I hope this means that they are planning to break the action of Tolkien's book into two parts, and not reinvent some new tale for the sequel. It sounds that way from the above story, but I'm not 100% sure about that. An unrelated sequel could prove disastrous, I fear. All credit due to Jackson, co-scriptwriter Fran Walsh, and crew, but what made The Lord of the Rings films great was that they were based off of a timeless tale, one of the best novels in English (and world) history written by the incomparable Tolkien. Here's hoping that the sequel is indeed either the second half of The Hobbit novel, or at the least heavily draws upon source material from Unfinished Tales or other Tolkien-written canon.
In summary, however, this is awesome news. 2010 can't come soon enough!
Sunday, December 16, 2007
I was not disappointed. In fact, it's safe to say that I was hooked.
At the time, I considered A Game of Thrones and its sequel, A Clash of Kings, to be the best fantasy I had read to that point since The Lord of the Rings. That's high praise indeed, given the pedestal on which I place professor Tolkien's unparalled tale.
While just about every fantasy series these days gets compared to LOTR, trying to draw analogies between A Song of Ice and Fire and the former does not work. Frankly, it's nothing like Tolkien’s trilogy. A Song of Ice and Fire is written in a very modern style, is loaded with graphic, intense battle sequences, scheming kings and noble (and not-so-noble) families, backstabbing, political maneuvering, and treachery galore. There's no fat hobbits, no wistful elves, and no poetry. It's been compared to the historic War of the Roses, and I think that's a very apt parallel.
So what makes it such a great series? Sharp, engaging writing, fully fleshed-out, three dimensional characters, and unpredictable, entertaining, edge-of-your seat plotting for starters. Unlike 99% of traditional fantasy, Martin does not pick favorites and spare them the sword. Anyone, and I mean anyone, is as capable of meeting the Reaper as the next character. Nor is there any obvious sacrificial “red shirts” a. la. Star Trek.
A Song of Ice and Fire is also quite graphic and breaks from the PG-13 level of sex and violence that's the norm in most popular fantasy series (e.g., Dragonlance, Shannara, The Belgariad, etc). This series is NOT for the faint of heart. There’s sadism, murder, cruelties piled upon undeserving characters, heartbreaking betrayals, and worse.
And as great as A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings were, I thought Martin one-upped himself with A Storm of Swords. I won't reveal any spoilers here, but there's a scene in that book ("The Red Wedding") that leaves your mouth hanging open in shock. Once you read it, you realize that Martin has demolished the common conceptions of the traditional epic, multi-book fantasy that chokes the fantasy sections of bookstores these days. It opened a window and allowed some sorely needed fresh air into a genre that many (myself included) felt had grown repetitive and stale. In short, circa 2000, Martin was on top of the world and could do no wrong.
But then something happened. A Storm of Swords came out in 2000, which made sense as its preceeding two novels were spaced just two years apart (A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, and A Clash of Kings came out in 1998). But it took until 2005, five long years, until Martin released A Feast for Crows.
While it proved to be an excruciatingly long wait, the justification seemed reasonable--Crows was shaping up to be very long, longer in fact than the phonebook-sized (900-odd page) A Storm of Swords, and Martin needed extra time to write it. In fact, he ultimately decided to break it up into two books, the second tentatively titled A Dance with Dragons, and release both within a short time frame.
When A Feast for Crows finally came out in 2005, I did something I rarely do--I purchased the hardcover within a few days of its release, so strong was my anticipation. But troublingly, A Feast for Crows (to me at least) marked the first misstep for A Song of Ice and Fire. Already a complex tale with a large cast of characters, and with action occurring simultaneously in multiple areas of Westeros, A Feast for Crows failed to advance the action nearly as much as its predecessors. Mind you, this is a 700-page tome, and while, like the other books in the series, its very well-written, in hindsight, not a heck of a lot occurred between its covers.
By way of comparison, the hardbound The Lord of the Rings I have sitting on my bookshelf checks in at a slim 1,008 pages--all three "books" (Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) combined. To put that in perspective, A Storm of Swords, alone, is nearly as long as LOTR!
While I've never read Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, that series is much maligned for its massive books that seem to accomplish less with every sequel (of which there are 1o books or so, I believe). In fact, the series has gone on for so long that Jordan unfortunately passed away from a rare disease before he was able to complete it.
Unfortunately, comparisons between The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire suddenly don't seem too far-fetched. It's now been more than two years since A Feast for Crows, and there's still no Dance from Martin. And this this is a book that was supposedly (mostly) already written, as it was supposed to consist of material and characters that Martin had to pare away from Crows.
So where does this leave A Song of Ice and Fire? Hopefully just on temporary hold. Hopefully. I don't want to sound like I'm whining as I firmly believe that Martin is a very talented author. If he truly needs this much time to write these novels, so be it. But there are consequences.
In my own case, my passion for A Song of Ice and Fire has cooled. I've actually forgotten many of the plotlines and characters and anticipate having to again re-read large sections of the last four novels to remember what was going on. Martin has said that A Song of Ice and Fire will wrap up in seven books, but at this pace we can expect to see it concluded in 2018 or thereabouts. By that time it wouldn't surprise me to find that many readers have moved on or fallen off the bandwagon.
My lesson? In the future I will likely refrain from reading a series until it's been completed. I still highly recommend the series, but I'll now add a firm "caveat emptor" to potential readers of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Friday, December 14, 2007
Bruce Campbell, playing Bruce Campbell the actor, called on to defend a town from a monster by people who think he's really Ash from the Evil Dead series? I'm so there.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Saturday, December 8, 2007
Thursday, December 6, 2007
I don't read books for the "surprise" factor, which is probably why I have no interest in mysteries. But even so, it's always nice when an author can spring something on you from left field that you never expected. Suffice to say that Card in Ender's Game scored a looping left hand that made it past my guard and into my face. I won't spoil the surprise, but it comes near the end of the book and for me, at least, it was a doozy.
Ender's Game tells the story of Ender Wiggin, a six-year-old who is drafted into military service to help save the world from "the buggers," an aggressive insect-humanoid race from deep space. Humans have twice beaten back the buggers in massive interplanetary wars, the last a hundred years before Ender's time, but a massive third invasion is feared, and the perfect military mind is needed to beat the buggers once and for all. Time is running out.
Enter Ender. While all the children selected for battle school are the best of the best, Ender shows the most promise of all. Accordingly, he receives intense scrutiny and constant, behind-the-scenes survelliance by military commanders desperate to find mankind's savior. Ender is pushed constantly to excel, and has to not only learn tactics, science, mathematics, and military strategy at an accelerated pace, but also is asked to assume command of older, often hostile boys. The training is ultra-intense and nearly breaks him, but against the odds--and despite the fact "the game" is rigged against him by the adults--he succeeds, and surpasses all expectations.
Card's novel explores mankind's predilection for violence, which he portrays as a dark seed within us all that must be controlled. He's simultaneously critical of the brutal methods and conformity inherent in military training, while acknowledging the great heights to which it can elevate its soldiers and commanders.
Card also explores the themes of lost innocence and the morality (if there can ever be such a thing) of fighting a "just" war. From Ender's Game:
The power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can't kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing or no one will ever save you.
It's a frightening view of life, and I'm still never sure whether Card truly believes it himself. Ender is a fundamentally good person, but when push comes to shove he must strike hard and kill his opponent, and he never fails to do so.
Ender's Game isn't without some flaws (in my opinion, at least), and on my five-star rating scale I'd give it a solid four. In a few places it stretched my imagination too far. The worst offender was the extreme level of maturity and intelligence demonstrated not only by Ender, but his brother and sister and the other students in the battle school. Card made a point of stating that battle school students are the best of the best, but when a six-year-old can perform complex mathematics and demonstrate perfect tactics in high-stress simulated battles, all while isolated from friendship and essentially ripped from the arms of his family, it strains credibility.
Likewise, when Ender's siblings, 15-year-old Peter and 12-year-old Valentine, use "the nets" (aka. the internet) to launch sucessful careers as political commentators and influential newspaper columnists, I found it a bit hard to swallow. Although the book takes place in 2135, these are just humans, after all, and children at that.
Card also lets Ender off the hook at times. Although he never fails to provoke our sympathy, Ender is at times so manipulated by the military intelligentsia that his actions cannot be judged as moral or immoral--they're simply not his fault, and it's an easy out. Even the villains--the military minds behind the battle school--can't be blamed, as their actions are influenced by the omnipresent, existential, life-or-death war with the buggers.
Nevertheless, Ender's Game was a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking read and I highly recommend it.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Friday, November 23, 2007
Far more than just the tale of a single battle, Gates of Fire examines the mindset of this society of proud warriors. It demonstrates their brutal methods of training and how they governed themselves, in the process painting a vivid picture of day-to-day life in bronze-age Greece.
- Xeones, the narrator, a non-Spartan who starts his life as a slave but gradually becomes a respected squire, fighting alongside the Spartans and acquitting himself with great glory in the heart of battle;
- Dienekes, the platoon leader, a scarred veteran and natural leader, a salt-of-the earth soldier yet also wise and fearless;
- Alexandros, a young Spartan who loves not battle but the strains of music, a singer and poet who fights not for glory but out of duty and pride;
- Leonidas, the Spartans' king, 60 years old but still a fearless figher, a man who sleeps beneath the stars and enters combat in the front lines, scorning any advantage of his station; and
- Polynikes, a physical specimen and greatest of Sparta's warriors, haughty and merciless, demanding to the point of sadism, who undergoes a transformation and eventually embraces the humanity and valor of Alexandros and Xeones with tears in his eyes.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Monday, November 12, 2007
But recently (and miraculously) one of the Web's most respected fantasy blog sites, The Cimmerian, picked up on The Silver Key and wrote a very flattering review. You can read the post here.
Thanks to author Leo Grin for his very kind words, and as I briefly mentioned in a recent post about Robert E. Howard, please go check out The Cimmerian. The insight of its authors are amazing and, despite its name, it covers an impressive breadth of material, much more than just Howard and his works. For example, a recent post by Steve Tompkins, "An Irish Bard at King Hrothgar's Court", starts out with a preview of the new Beowulf film, but then launches into an erudite study of the history of the Beowulf poem and its recent translation by Seamus Heaney. It's the kind of high-quality article you'd expect to read in a literary journal, frankly. (Yes, that is a sucking up sound you're hearing, but frankly, it's true. They do great work over there).
In conclusion, I started The Silver Key as a sounding board for my own thoughts, but it's nice to know that someone out there is reading. And thanks again to The Cimmerian for the acknowledgement.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Need I say more? I mean, look at the picture I've embedded--that's a Blind Guardian album cover, and it looks like it could have been plucked off the cover of a Robert Jordan novel.
I've always been drawn to heavy metal for its power and grandeur. Narrowing that down further, I prefer bands with a clean, epic sound and soaring vocals. Even more specifically, I prefer those metal bands whose subject matter covers the fantastic, be it dark magic and the occult (Black Sabbath), medieval/ancient history (Iron Maiden), or sci-fi (Judas Priest and The Sentinel, Electric Eye, etc).
Blind Guardian fulfills all those requirements. To get an idea of what they like to sing about, all you need to do is view some of their song titles, of which I've included several in the below list. Note that Blind Guardian doesn't just make oblique or occasional references to Tolkien, King Arthur, Dragonlance, etc., like other bands have done (Led Zeppelin's mentions of "The Dark Lord" and "Gollum" from Ramble On spring to mind), they write songs--nay, entire albums--about fantasy, without a hint of satire:
- The soulforged
- Born in a mourning hall
- Lord of the Rings
- Mordred's song
- Skalds and shadows
- The Bard's song
- The curse of Feanor
- By the Gates of Moria
- Gandalf's rebirth
- A past and future secret
I'm not making this stuff up, folks. These guys are hard-core fantasy fans. Their music may as well be the soundtrack of a Dungeons and Dragons game. In fact, I've seriously considered incorporating some of their lyrics/subject matter into that D&D campaign I'm hoping to someday get off the ground.
In a lesser band's hands, the combination of long hair, electric guitars, and some German dude yelling "Mordor--dark land under Sauron's spell" could be embarrassing. But Blind Guardian is able to pull off this material successfully and with a straight face because a) They're passionate and obviously well-versed in the material; and b) They're damned talented.
Don't believe me? Check out this clip of one of their acoustic numbers, "The Bard's Song," from Youtube. I don't think you'll be disappointed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_tORtmKIjE&feature=related.
The bard's songs do indeed remain alive and well in the capable hands of Blind Guardian.
To read more about Blind Guardian, go to their Web site: http://www.blind-guardian.com/.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
…and thus begins "The Phoenix on the Sword," the first published tale of Conan of Cimmeria.
The first thing that strikes you about Robert E. Howard (who took his own life at 30 years of age) is, Damn, can this man write. It's hard not to spout the cliches when describing his writing: Howard’s prose indeed burns like coals, and yes, his words do leap off the page. Is it literature? No. But if your idea of fun is swordplay, colorful characters, clashing armies, wondrous lands, decadent civilizations, sanity-bending magic, monsters, and voluptuous women, then Howard’s your man. He was and is the reigning champion of the branch of fantasy known as swords and sorcery.
If your only exposure to Conan is the big, dumb brute of the film Conan the Barbarian (which I admittedly liked), get ready to meet a Conan you never knew. He’s smart, ruthless, ambitious, three-fourths savage, and just plain cool. And he’s a barbarian to the core, the walking embodiment of Howard’s philosophy:
“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
You can feel this phrase at the heart of all of Howard's Conan stories, and it's what makes them so different than the mass of "fat fantasy" novels lining the shelves of bookstores today. Howard truly felt that, as a nation became more civilized, it grew correspondingly decadent and ultimately, corrupt. Men who fight and struggle to claim their kingdoms grow soft in times of peace and plenty until greed and sloth set in. Old kingdoms weaken through internal strife until they collapse from within or are invaded from without. Conan knew that tension as he simultaneously sought to rule the great kingdom of Aquilonia while experiencing the ever-constant pull of freedom and adventure, living life as a wild corsair on a ship or a raiding cossack on horseback.
In Howard's works and in the mind of the author himself, the howling "barbarians at the gates" were always waiting to pounce when kingdoms grew weak, and Conan himself was one of the horde. And maybe, Howard believed, rule by might and the axe was for the best. While at times that philosophy seems appealing to me, I can't say I agree with it. But there you have it.
Howard himself was a paradox: While he was a bit of an eccentric, attached to his mother, and wrote out of a small bedroom in his parents' home in Cross Plains, Texas, he nevertheless had no patience for academics and pacifists. He embraced rugged individualism and boxed and exercised himself into formidable shape. And he was a prolific, self-taught writer. Alas, his life ended far too soon, and we can only speculate on what works his prodigious talents may have eventually produced.
My first exposure to the barbarian came as a young boy of 10 or so through the old Conan the Barbarian comic book. While not a bad read, I didn't understand true greatness until I stumbled across a trove of back issues of The Savage Sword of Conan and Conan Saga. These magazines are loving adaptations of Howard's classic tales, and featured some amazing black and white artwork that captured the savage wonder of Hyboria, Howard's setting for the Conan stories. I still have my old back issues and I guard them jealously. One of these days I might even pull them out and read them again.
While great, the old black and white mags aren't as good as the classic Howard texts, and I was lucky to find the whole series of Conan paperbacks next. These helped start me on the path of becoming a lifetime reader and lover of fantasy. Of course, it wouldn't be until 15 years or so later that I realized even these books--published by Lancer and Ace--were in fact heavily modified (some would say mangled and bastardized) by editors L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. Many of the stories were in fact pastiches, or stories told by different authors than Howard, and thus, not "canon." Some were bad. Even so, overall I found the old Lancer and Ace editions to be great reads, at least at the time.
Howard's best stories are the following: "Red Nails," "The People of the Black Circle," "The Hour of the Dragon," "Beyond the Black River," "The Devil in Iron," 'The Queen of the Black Coast," and "The Jewels of Gwahlur." But hell, they’re all good. None are novels; Howard’s longest tale is "The Hour of the Dragon," which checks in at a slim 174 pages.
All of Howard’s stories first appeared in the 1930’s pulp magazine Weird Tales, noted for publishing not only sci-fi, fantasy, and horror between its lurid covers, but also H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories. While Howard had a loyal following in the magazine, it wasn’t until well after his death in 1936 that he and his tales gained widespread acclaim.
Just make sure that if you read Howard, look for the unedited and pastiche-free stories. Real, raw Howard in his own words is fortunately now available in a nicely illustrated collection by Del Rey, which I highly recommend.
Until then, think on this quote from "Queen of the Black Coast":
“In this world men struggle and suffer vainly, finding pleasure only in the bright madness of battle … Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”
Postscript: There's a ton of cool Howard and Conan Web sites floating around the internet. Check out these:
Post-Postscript: If there is a god, and his name is Crom, he will let this movie be made: http://www.conanrednails.com/site/index.html.
Monday, October 29, 2007
Saturday, October 27, 2007
On a side note, Dawn was remade in 2004. Romero was not involved in the project. While the new Dawn is quite enjoyable, and perhaps even scarier than the original (the running zombies are shockingly unexpected and terrifying, and the opening sequence is amazing), it unfortunately loses much of the subtext and themes that made the 1978 version so great.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
It sounds corny, but Pages was a place of wonder for me. I still recall its creaky red floorboards and the smell of old books and newspapers that wafted out onto the street when you opened the front door. The place was dusty and dirty and, in addition to books and comics, contained some odd collectibles and old models stuffed into odd, cubby-like shelves on the walls.
But it was also stuffed full of the stuff of fantasy.
Back in the 80's when I discovered it, Pages had a prominent shelf of role playing games, including Dungeons and Dragons, Star Frontiers, Car Wars, Runequest, and more. It kept a supply of dice and a few racks of lead miniatures. I remember thumbing through issues of Dragon magazine that I couldn't afford and mentally recording variant rules, adventure scenarios, and monster ecologies to feed my game with cool ideas (this was in the pre-internet days, remember).
In the back of the store were a few towering rows of old hardcovers that no one ever seemed to buy, and whose inventory never seemed to change. But Pages also had a nice selection of paperback fantasy and sci-fi novels. I still have several on my bookshelf today. The bottom of each book was stamped with a letter code: A=50 cents, B=85 cents, C=half cover price. It was cheap, and I stocked up on lots of titles from authors like Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and of course, the inimitable Robert E. Howard.
Pages specialized in comic books and had it had a big collection of titles on the front racks, but even better were the seeming miles of long boxes stuffed with back issues. You could buy up old titles for 50, 60, or 75 cents, in most cases. I bought a bunch of old Captain Americas and Spidermans, Fantastic Fours, and other classic Marvel titles.
But my favorite memory was finding two old boxes full of back issues of Savage Sword of Conan. This was a great black and white magazine, featuring Howard's stories adapted for the comic medium but almost 100% true to their source material. The stories were raw, bloody, and not afraid to show female flesh, and illustrated by some terrific artists like John Buscema and Roy Thomas. Each issue was $1. Every week with my allowance I used to buy 2 or 3 issues, then stop off at Berson's pharmacy on the corner for a Pepsi and a candy bar. I relished the long walk home and the anticipation of reading SSOC with my feet propped up on my desk, drinking a cold soda and enjoying every page. Those wonderful black and white illustrations and Robert E. Howard's amazing yarns swept me up, and for a while I was part of another, much cooler world.
Just as sweet are the memories of the times my gang of my friends and I would walk to Pages on Saturday mornings. We'd browse for what seemed like hours, then head next door with our loot to Christy's Pizza. Christy's had small pay televisions, which (if I remember correctly) gave you a half-hour's worth of TV for 25 cents. I remember stuffing in coins and watching cartoons like Thundarr the Barbarian and The Smurfs, eating pizza, and reading comics. Good times.
A few years ago the town demolished the old building that housed Pages and Christy's Pizza. Sadly, "The Bookstore" has been replaced by a decidedly prosaic bank.
Sigh, just what Reading needed.
I'll bet there's a lot of kids now, in Reading and elsewhere, that would have loved to have had a Pages in their neighborhood. I also believe (and I'm firmly up on my soapbox now) that most kids could benefit from having a local bookstore. In fact, I'm of the belief that a town just ain't a town without a place to buy, sell, and swap used books. While the trend now is giant chains, I find it hard to believe that any Barnes and Noble or Borders could pack into it as much cheap entertainment--or as much wonder--as Pages did.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
As you can read about in a previous post, the players in this module are effective "zero level" PCs, or normal townspeople who decide to become heroes by doing battle with an ogre that has kidnapped two townspeople. The PCs gathered information and purchased supplies in the town of Dundraville, then made their way to Skulltop Hillock, where the ogre lives. Sneaking in via a little-used back entrance, they battled their way through some cave denizens, including giant centipedes and a ghoul (the corpse of a long-dead warrior-king), before encountering the ogre Blogg.
After a PC sprang a log deadfall trap which awoke the drugged and sleeping ogre, an epic fight ensued. In the end, one PC was knocked out by the ogre's massive club, but Blogg was dead and the day was saved. Or was it?
The PCs soon found out from Blogg's sniveling captive hobgoblin servant Gurt that the "real master" had charmed Blogg and ordered him to capture the two townsfolk. The master--Suto Lore, a "power thrower," lives in the tunnels below Blogg's cave, said the terrified Gurt. The adventure was about to get a lot bigger and more sinister.
The PCs pushed ahead and made their way down a trapped ladder and a past a trapped hallway to Suto's quarters. There they found Suto's diary and uncovered a diabolic plan: Suto is seeking to locate the Codex Ilyium, a book of great and evil sorcerous power, but can only find it by summoning the demon Frogroth. Suto has created a demon summoning circle and is only a day away from his final preparations.
After battling Suto's enchanted broom(!), the PCs made their way to the temple. Alerted to the PCs presence after they set off a screaming shrieker, Suto prepared himself with a host of spells, including mage armor, obscuring mist, and levitate, and cast summon monster, summoning a fiendish spider to drop on the PCs as they entered the chamber.
Soon a pitched fight began. Suto was well-protected, and all the PCs could see of him was a billowing pillar of smoke. Several arrows were fired too low and went under the levitating wizard. Bec, the party's muscle-bound fighter, was bitten by the spider. Although the PCs slew the critter, it slowed them down enough for Suto to summon a small fire elemental from a brazier in the room. This thing proved nasty, as its blows inflicted both bludgeoning and fire damage.
Soon two PCs were down. Suto then cast hold person on Bec, who was frozen to the spot, and the fire elemental burned him alive (sorry Bec). Three PCs--half the party--were either dead or unconscious, and I was worried that my first time DMing in almost two decades would result in a TPK, or total party kill!
But the PCs proved both heroic and resourceful. Lord Casimir, a snobby son of a nobleman, bravely charged past the elemental and into the billowing smoke to thrust and cut wildly. Even though he was blinded by a glitterdust spell, he ran Suto through with a sword-thrust that had about a 1 in 20 chance of hitting. The few remaining PCs finally wore down the elemental with arrows and magic missiles, and the fight was over.
Truth be told (and if you're reading it here, players, its your bad), the PCs never found the "voice below" hinted at in Suto's diary, a small demon (a quasit) that was in league with Suto, and resided in the bottom of the pit in the summoning room. Of course, we didn't finish until 2:45 a.m. so everyone was tired at that point, including me, and I probably could have done a better job tipping the players off. Ah well, perhaps this could lead to another adventure...
Regardless, the PCs had defeated the evil wizard, rescued the two prisoners, and returned to Dundraville as heroes. The town welcomed them with cheers and kisses, and old Tarik one-arm, a retired fighter who lost his arm battling Blogg years ago, clapped them on the back over a cold ale at the Merry Riot Inn, and had this to say:
"As I've always said--legends are made, and not born, and you have taken the first step on a much larger journey, lads and ladies."
Overall, it was a fun night and a fine example as to why I love this game. The adventure--both the module itself, and my own--was complete.