Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Wizard of Earthsea: A review

The finest fantasy fiction isn't necessarily that with the most detailed worlds, the biggest and bloodiest battles, the flashiest magic, or the most terrifying beasts. Instead, the best fantasy (like all great literature) has something profound to say. And A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels certainly fit that description.

At the time I read it, A Wizard of Earthsea was unlike any other fantasy I'd encountered up until that time. Short, especially for a fantasy novel (182 pages in paperback), it centers around a young wizard named Ged as he matures from a boy into a man and learns the secrets of true knowledge. It and its sequels are quiet, thoughtful, and deep, and whatever they lack in action they make up for it with much to say about growing up, finding meaning, and confronting and living with death. Author Ursula LeGuin is an acknowledged great in the fantasy/science fiction genres and deserves that praise for the wisdom she confers through the Earthsea stories.

At the outset of A Wizard of Earthsea we're introduced to Ged, the son of a metalworker living a poor farmer's life on the isle of Gont. But Gont is known for its wizards, and Ged is destined to become the greatest of them all. He shows early promise when he helps save his village from a band of viking-like marauders by weaving a sorcerous mist, and in so doing attracts the attention of Ogion, the isle of Gont's resident sorcerer. Ged leaves home to train under Ogion but chafes under the taciturn wizard, who teaches the values of silence, patience, and humility instead of flashy displays of magic. With the impatience of youth, Ged leaves Ogion's tutelage to train in a wizard school on the isle of Roke (and yes, author J.K. Rowling acknowledges the debt her Harry Potter books owe to Earthsea, which was written in 1968).

It's a decision that will ultimately come to haunt Ged and provide the impetus for the remainder of the story. In the wizard's school Ged learns quickly, growing in leaps and bounds beyond the ability of his older classmates. But he is ultimately undone by his greatest weakness: Pride. Jasper, an elder classmate and rival, dares Ged to enter into a forbidden contest of magic in which Ged summons a spirit of the dead. The spirit, a shadow from the netherworld, attacks and nearly kills the young wizard, tearing into his face with his claws and leaving even deeper wounds upon his soul.

Ged eventually recovers but is left scarred and broken from the experience, and the rest of the tale is about his long road back to redemption/wholeness and his passage into maturity.

The shadow, a creature called a gebbeth, hunts Ged ceaselessly thereafter and he flees before it in mortal fear. But after a series of adventures Ged returns to Ogion and learns that his only chance is to confront the gebbeth and best it, or die trying. Says Ogion:

You must turn around... if you keep running, wherever you run you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. you must hunt the hunter.

In other words, Ged must learn to conquer his fears (of mortality, of past failures, of assuming the heavy mantle of power/leaving behind his boyhood and its freedoms) by doing what most of us fear and never truly accomplish: Take an honest look at ourselves in the cold, harsh light of truth, confront our past, accept responsibility for our mistakes, and grow.

Ged pursues the shadow to the literal edge of the world, beyond the easternmost islands to the open sea. Far more than a wizard vs. monster confrontation, Ged's showdown with the gebbeth is the culmination of a spiritual quest, and the shadow he confronts is the blackness of his own soul. It's a bitter battle and one he expects to lose, but he grimly presses on.

When Ged "wins" the conflict and his friend, the wizard Vetch, sees his his friend freed from his inner darkness, "weeping like a boy," its a truly great moment in fantasy literature. Ged has achieved inner peace, struck a balance between darkness and light, and realizes that he can live with the ultimate knowledge of his own death:

And he began to see the truth, that Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life's sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark. In the creation of Ea, which is the oldest song, it is said, "Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk's flight on the empty sky."

WHOA-OA! Run from the valley of the evil witch

Here's a nifty little Web site that should bring a grin to fans of the immortal Ronnie James Dio: The Ronnie James Dio Lyric Generator.

Give it a try (that's how I got the title of this post) and let me know what the power of the Ronnie James Dio Lyric Generator conjured up for you.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Presenting...Scott's thoughts

So a couple weeks back, I happened to e-mail a buddy of mine named Scott (last name withheld to protect the innocent) with the news that I started a blog. His reaction was:

"Hey, that's interesting. What the hell is a blog?"

Then, after I explained to him what a blog is (basically a place to blow gas online), and he read through some of my posts, he said, "Hey, I'm still not quite sure what a blog is but I have to say you must have a tremendous amount of time on your hands. Maybe you could help out around the house more. Your writing is very impressive though. You should write a book or something. Maybe Fantasy for Dummies. Or The idiots guide to living in your mothers basement."

Eventually he came around to the idea of blogs and asked if I could post something he wrote. So without further ado, I present to you, Scott's thoughts. And if you like them (or would like to let him have it for slagging KISS), please let him know.

And Scott, I'm still waiting for that post about The Kipper.

Top 3 Arnold movies
1. Conan: Gay as it sounds, you can't keep your eyes off of him. James Earl Jones as a snake is cool too.
2. Predator: The quotable lines are endless. We spent months quoting this in college
3. Terminator: Arnold is such a bad ass in this movie

Top 3 Stallone movies
1. First Blood: Great story. Brian Denahey is awesome
2. Cliffhanger: Fantastic climbing sequences. Lithgow is great bad guy
3. Rocky III: I know part 1 is a better movie but I want fight scenes. You get Thunderlips and two Mr. T fights

Top 3 Metal albums
1. Operation--Mindcrime: I don't listen to it as I use to but this one blew me away when I first heard it in college
2. Tyranny of Souls: Dickinson's best solo work. Maiden should kick out Janick Gers and get Roy Z
3. Any Kiss album: I honestly can't tell one song from the next. They are all equally terrible

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The key to the gate of dreams

Someone asked me the other day why I named my particular bit of cyberspace "The Silver Key." As you can see from the quote at the bottom of my home page, I took the title from a short story of the same name by well-known horror/science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937).

"The Silver Key" isn't one of Lovecraft's better-known tales, nor is it accorded one of his best. Famous for creating tentacled abominations from deep space (The Cthulhu mythos) and an evil sanity-blasting tome (the Necronomicon), Lovecraft is better known for stories like "At the Mountains of Madness," "The Call of Cthulhu," and "The Dunwich Horror."

Yet "The Silver Key" grabbed me from the moment I read it. It was unlike any other story in the particular collection (The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre) in which I first encountered the tale. Most notably, "The Silver Key" is not about horror. Aside from a few mentions of witches, mad prophets, and strange, unexplained disappearances (relatively tame elements for a Lovecraft story), "The Silver Key" explores one man's search for meaning in a vast, uncaring, and empty universe.

At the outset of the story we're introduced to Randolph Carter, a dreamer whose imagination has fossilized due to the humdrum routine of daily life, and the onset of middle age:

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key to the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt those liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.

Carter's plight is common to that of all adults: We are taught life's facts and realities until mystery and wonder goes out of the world, and become chained down to things that are. Teachers and politicians and clergy instruct us that science and politics and traditional forms of religion are the only pursuits worth following, and that the stuff of dreams is for children. Gradually, our imaginations are choked off.

Carter tries to assimilate himself into society and embrace earthly pursuits, but without success. He eventually comes to discover that all of these "worthwhile" values and systems are empty and ugly next to the stuff of dreams:

...he could not help seeing how shallow, fickle, and meaningless all human aspirations are, and how emptily our real impulses contrast with those pompous ideals we profess to hold. Then he would have recourse to the polite laughter they had taught him to use against the extravagance and artificiality of dreams; for he saw that the daily life of our world is every inch as extravagant and artificial, and far less worthy of respect because of its poverty in beauty and its silly reluctance to admit its own lack of reason and purpose.

Carter is even more disgusted with people who abandon earthly pursuits for "barbaric display and animal sensation." Finally, he comes to realize that "calm, lasting beauty comes only in a dream, and this solace the world had thrown away when in its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence."

Note that by "dream," Lovecraft does not mean the literal act of the mind while sleeping, but instead the dreams born of imagination and journeys of the waking mind. This is where I throw my support behind Lovecraft: I too wish there was more room in the world for fantasy and the stuff of dreams. I find much of what life has to offer rather shallow, unfulfilling, and spiritually empty.

Carter ultimately finds release by using a great silver key, an heirloom handed down by his grandfather and a literal "key to the lost gate of dreams." Here the tale takes a true turn into the supernatural, as Carter uses this key to pass through a strange cave in a forest slope near his family's ancestral home in the woods of Arkham, Massachusetts (Lovecraft's fictional setting for many of his stories). He disappears forever and is presumed dead by the authorities, but the narrator, one of Carter's heirs, knows otherwise:

He wanted the lands of dream he had lost, and yearned for the days of his childhood. Then he found a key, and I somehow believe he was able to use it to strange advantage.

I shall ask him when I see him, for I expect to meet him shortly in a certain dream-city we both used to haunt. It is rumored in Ulthar, beyond the River Skai, that a new king reigns on the opal throne of Ilek-Vad, that fabulous town of turrets atop the hollow cliffs of glass overlooking the twilight sea wherein the bearded and finny Gnorri build their singular labyrinths, and I believe I know how to interpret this rumor. Certainly, I look forward impatiently to the sight of that great silver key, for in its cryptical arabesques there may stand symbolized all the aims and mysteries of a blindly impersonal cosmos.

As I see it, the silver key from Lovecraft's tale is a symbol for the escape our dreams can offer from a mechanistic, material universe. Just as this space on the web is for me.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Heavy metal and the frauds that abandoned it

Heavy metal as I see it: An irregular series about the highest form of music known to man.

Today marks the start of a semi-regular series of posts I plan to write about heavy metal, the greatest genre of music ever recorded (in my opinion, of course, and my opinion may well be flawed and for crap). I've chosen to call this first entry "Heavy metal and the frauds that abandoned it" because there's something I've wanted to get off my chest for a long, long time--circa 1992 or so, I'd say. (Note that from here on out, this is the "angry me" talking.)

Here it is: Grunge sucks, it always has sucked, and it always will suck. It's a fraudulent genre of music, from Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Alice in Chains all the way down. In hindsight, it and its spawn will be remembered, if at all, as a very tiny, very lousy asterisk in music history, a nadir of creativity, right down in the cellar with other fads like disco and breakdance music.

There, I said it.

Why am I so pissed off about grunge? Need you ask? Well, its not for the reason you might think.

As everyone knows by now, Nirvana's Nevermind, released in September of 1991, basically sounded the death knell for metal (or, at least metal as a mainstream form of music). Nirvana and the grunge scene stuck a lancet into metal's bloated rear-end, and more specifically, the careers of a host of phony "hair metal" bands (Poison, Warrant, Winger, etc.). These hair bands grew fat, making money like blood-sucking parasites off of the careers of legit, talented metal bands (e.g., Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Slayer, etc.), while serving to undermine metal as a legitimate form of music. But I'll save that rant for another day.

But that's not why I'm pissed. Not really. Metal was getting stale and bloated and frankly, needed a good kick in the pants, and Nirvana provided that boot at a good time.

What I am pissed off at are the legions of "fans" that abandoned heavy metal at this time and chose to throw in their lot with grunge. And from someone who spent four years in college watching this mass exodus up close and personal, believe me, the defection happened. It's not sour grapes talking, it was a real, bullshit phenomenon.

Suddenly, metal fans threw out or hid their Dio tapes in boxes in the attic, pulled down their Iron Maiden tapestries, put away their Metallica t-shirts, and more or less pretended as if the whole metal era had never happened. If they did talk about heavy metal, it was with a sneer and a look down their sanctimonious, hypocritical noses at this lesser form of music they had "outgrown." Metal, suddenly, was for losers.

I now have history and truth on my side to prove how wrongheaded these spineless morons were. But lest anyone still harbors any myths about the "purity" and "honesty" of the grunge movement, let me dispel a few myths for you.

Here's what sucks about grunge: everything. The instrumentation (murky, distorted guitars with no artistry or technical style) was awful, the vocals (whining and/or growling, not singing) forgettable, and the look (baggy, tattered pants, ski caps, and plaid shirts) just plain dumb. Most unforgivably of all, the content of the lyrics (annoying, angst-filled themes of alienation, cynicism, and apathy--grow a pair and shut the fuck up, please), is gratingly awful, the stuff of high-school essays. Really, if I want deep, soul-searching lyrics, I'll pick up a poem by John Keats or T.S. Eliot. These guys on their worst day had more to say than Eddie Vedder ever did.

Basically, the whole grunge phase was a pretentious mess, more so because its adherents and practitioners made ceaseless fun of heavy metal while it was going on--all the while stuffed full of more self-awareness and preening pretension than Poison on its worst day. At least Poison never took itself seriously and admitted it was all about getting laid and drinking.

It's a telling sign that metal existed long before, survived during, and has buried and pissed on the grave of the grunge era. Black Sabbath's self-titled first release, generally regarded as the first metal album, debuted in 1970, decades before grunge. When Kurt Cobain blew his head off and Pearl Jam stopped writing relevant albums (both in 1994), metal was still there, albeit underground. Now bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest have re-emerged and continue to tour worldwide and sell albums and fill arenas, while grunge is largely, if not entirely, forgotten (good riddance). The good metal bands had much, much, longer careers, spanning three and four decades in some instances, for a good reason: They're more talented, and that translates into staying power. Grunge has none.

In summary, to the hordes of flannel-wearing jackasses who crowded the bars and dorm rooms in colleges nationwide from roughly 1991 through 1995: How's that working out for you now? I hear that Alice in Chains is playing the local phone booth, and there's plenty of room still available. And to the critic who claimed that Pearl Jam was the next Beatles (I'm not making this up, folks): Not On Their Best Day.

Postscript: I realize that people's tastes change, mature, and grow over their lives. Many people have legitimately moved on from metal. But I also respect people who stick to their guns and don't waver in the wind and latch on to the latest trends for popularity and acceptance's sake. For those fans who stuck with metal through thick and thin, and wave the metal banner proudly even now, I salute you. You are my brothers.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Eye of Argon: Plan 9 meets swords and sorcery

Did you ever watch something so bad that it's good? A movie that's so poorly plotted, with special effects so awful and dialogue so artificial, that it ceases to be annoying and crosses over into a fun investment of time? If you've ever seen Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Well, fantasy fiction has its own equivalent of Plan 9: The Eye of Argon , a howlingly-bad swords-and-sorcery tale supposedly written in 1970 by a 16-year-old author named Jim Theis. I say supposedly because, although Theis' authorship is reportedly genuine, I have a hard time believing that a tale so deliciously awful is the result of any young writer's honest effort. To me, Argon smacks of satire, a well-done internet hoax by a fan or fans of both Robert E. Howard, from whom the tale draws obvious inspiration, and Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

But regardless of the truth of its origins, The Eye of Argon is a delight to read. Chock-full of misspellings and incorrect word choices, it contains passages so loaded with (unintentional?) humor that they can't be read with a straight face. According to Wikipedia, the story has been used as a party game at Science Fiction conventions, with readers challenged to recite passages out loud without laughing.

I wouldn't last more than 10 seconds trying to read The Eye of Argon out loud. Some of my favorite passages include:

The engrossed titan ignored the queries of the inquisitive female, pulling her towards him and crushing her sagging nipples to his yearning chest. Without struggle she gave in, winding her soft arms around the harshly bronzed hide of Grignr's corded shoulder blades, as his calloused hands caressed her firm protruding busts.

"You make love well wench," Admitted Grignr as he reached for the vessel of potent wine his charge had been quaffing. A flying foot caught the mug Grignr had taken hold of, sending its blood red contents sloshing over a flickering crescent; leashing tongues of bright orange flame to the foot trodden floor. "Remove yourself Sirrah, the wench belongs to me;" Blabbered a drunken soldier, too far consumed by the influences of his virile brew to take note of the superior size of his adversary.

...and this one...

"All that you hear is less than I hear! I heard footsteps coming towards us. Silence yourself that we may find out whom we are being brought into contact with. I doubt that any would have thought as yet of searching this passage for us. The advantage of surprize will be upon our side." Grignr warned.

...more goodness....

"What are you called by female?"
"Carthena, daughter of Minkardos, Duke of Barwego, whose lands border along the northwestern fringes of Gorzom. I was paid as homage to Agaphim upon his thirty-eighth year," husked the femme!
"And I am called a barbarian!" Grunted Grignr in a disgusted tone!
"Aye! The ways of our civilization are in many ways warped and distorted, but what is your calling," she queried, bustily?
"Grignr of Ecordia."

...and another...

"Your sirenity, resplendent in noble grandeur, we have brought this yokel before you (the soldier gestured toward Grignr) for the redress or your all knowing wisdon in judgement regarding his fate."
"Down on your knees, lout, and pay proper homage to your sovereign!" commanded the pudgy noble of Grignr.
"By the surly beard of Mrifk, Grignr kneels to no man!" scowled the massive barbarian.
"You dare to deal this blasphemous act to me! You are indeed brave stranger, yet your valor smacks of foolishness."
"I find you to be the only fool, sitting upon your pompous throne, enhancing the rolling flabs of your belly in the midst of your elaborate luxury and ..." The soldier standing at Grignr's side smote him heavily in the face with the flat of his sword, cutting short the harsh words and knocking his battered helmet to the masonry with an echo-ing clang.
The paunchy noble's sagging round face flushed suddenly pale, then pastily lit up to a lustrous cherry red radiance. His lips trembled with malicious rage, while emitting a muffled sibilant gibberish. His sagging flabs rolled like a tub of upset jelly, then compressed as he sucked in his gut in an attempt to conceal his softness.

I encourage you to follow the link above and read more of The Eye of Argon. It's easily the worst (and among the most entertaining) pieces of fantasy fiction I've ever read.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Lord of the Rings: Three films to rule them all

Part 10 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

Okay, so I'm cheating a bit here, capping off my "top 10 favorite films of all time" list with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But just like Tolkien's novel, which was one book artificially broken into three parts for publishing purposes, I consider the LOTR trilogy to be one (albeit very long) film.

And a damned good one. In fact, I will unequivocally state the LOTR films are my favorite.

Unlike most of my reviews, which dwell on the reasons why I "love my favorite films so," I feel like I must spend some time defending Jackson's version of LOTR. Although these movies were met with tremendous commercial and critical success (Best Picture and Best Director awards, great critical ratings on RottenTomatoes, etc.) a sizable community of detractors exists.

For the most part, I think the righteous anger (and that's how I would describe some of the reaction I've seen, usually by Tolkien "purists") of some of these outspoken critics is misguided. Particularly, I don't agree at all with the notion that Jackson failed to capture the "spirit" of Tolkien's work. As I see them, the key points of Tolkien's novel include:
  • Frodo "fails" in his quest, but is redeemed by his act of pity towards Gollum--check, that's here.
  • The friendship and undying loyalty of Sam, the true hero of the tale, and how that friendship and unexpected bravery allows Frodo to succeed in his quest--check, that's here.
  • The terrible toll that war and sacrifice can take on the victors of a conflict--check, that's here.
  • The departure of the elves and the passing of a magical, timeless age into a time of mortal men--check, that's here.
  • Tolkien's preoccupation with death and the problems inherent in our pursuit of immortality, and the possibility of something greater--i.e., God--behind the great grey rain-curtain of this world--check, that's here.

In fairness, however, I do agree with some of the criticisms of these films. I don't think they are perfect, and here are my own:

The generally poor/shallow treatment of Gimli and Legolas. The former is almost wholly reduced to a comic device, while the latter is obnoxiously uber-powered. I loved Jackson's subtle early touches with Legolas (walking on the snow in the Pass of Caradhras, rapid-fire arrows in the battle with the orcs on Amon Hen), but hated the dreaded shield-surfing at Helm's Deep and his single-handed dispatch of the Mumakil in the battle of the Pellennor Fields. Gimli and Legolas weren't fleshed out, major characters in the books, but they deserved better.

The green ghost army. This, to me, is the most unforgiveable misstep in the Walsh/Jackson screenplay. By having an army of the dead sweep away all the orcs and mercenaries before Minas Tirith, Jackson undercut one of my favorite moments--the charge of the riders of Rohan. Had the brave men of Rohan waited just a few minutes longer, they could have watched as the undead army won the day without loss of life. Essentially, the ghosts negated Theoden's great moment of sacrifice and valor on the battlefield. And on top of that, I thought this was one of the rare unconvincing pieces of CGI in the trilogy. It almost appeared as if the budget had run dry by this point.

Too much artificial tugging at emotional heartstrings. This is just an overall feeling, but upon rewatching these films there's a few too many shots of Arwen's grief, Frodo's tears, etc.. The Lord of the Rings has enough built-in pathos and certainly doesn't need Jackson's heavy-handed reminders.

The exclusion of the Scouring of the Shire. I dearly wanted to see this filmed, and I think its message--that war touches us, everywhere, and that one can't simply "go home again"--is an important one and a central theme in Tolkien's work. But, to defend Jackson, this would have stretched the ending of The Return of the King--already quite long--to an interminable degree.

However, these criticisms are quite minor. Consider that, prior to 2001, the general consensus among movie buffs and Tolkien fans alike was the Lord of the Rings was "unfilmable." Jackson showed us otherwise, producing what I consider to be a stunning achievement and a work of lasting art.

There's so many good moments in these films, both large (the battles, the set pieces of Moria and Minas Tirith) and small ("It comes in pints? I'm getting one!"). Some of my favorites include:

The charge of the Riders of Rohan. This might be my favorite moment in all of cinema. Starting with the fear on the riders' faces after seeing the sprawling horde of orcs massed at the gates of Minas Tirith, to Theoden's stirring speech ("Forth, and fear no darkness! Arise! Arise, Riders of Theoden! Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered! A sword day... a red day... ere the sun rises! Ride now!... Ride now!... Ride! Ride to ruin and the world's ending!") to the slow-panning back of the camera, revealing rank upon rank of Rohirrim, who scream "Death!" in unison and surge forward into a wedge, then watching the stunned looks on the orcs' faces as they realize this wave is not going to stop, until it parts their ranks like a hot knife through butter....that is some good stuff. If I live another 30-plus years I may never see its equal.

The casting/acting. Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Ian Holm as Bilbo, Sean Astin as Sam, and Sean Bean as Boromir are my favorites. All of them deserved awards. Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Miranda Otto, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill (Theoden), Billy Boyd, Cate Blanchett, Brad Dourif (a great bit part as Wormtounge) all deserve accolades as well.

Sam's speech at the end of the Two Towers. This was a beautifully written/filmed sequence, and Astin pulled it off with great conviction: Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something...that there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.

You bow to no one. Enough said. I cried (just a bit) at this line.

Hobbiton. It's obvious that a great amount of effort was expended to make Hobbiton appear to be a lived-in, realistic place, and it shows on the screen. The attention to detail and the effort poured into this set piece are remarkable. I still recall sitting in the theatre back on opening night of The Fellowship of the Ring, and watching Frodo under the tree, reading a book, and the first view of The Shire. I knew right then that Jackson had nailed the look I had imagined in my mind all those years, and that I was in for a great ride.

"For Frodo." That look when Aragorn turns back to the small force at the Black Gates, with all hope gone, eyes heavy with grief, before charging in with Narsil drawn...I still get a shiver down my spine just thinking of it.

Theoden girding up for the battle of Helm's Deep. His speech: "Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?" as he slowly straps on his armor with the bright beam of light shining through a narrow aperture is poetry on film.

Boromir's death. Bean brought Boromir to life, and his performance bettered Tolkien's depiction of the character from the books. After his death speech ("I would have followed you to the end. My brother; my captain; my king") I couldn't see the screen clearly until my eyes cleared. Must have been a dust-mote.

Into the West. What a beautiful song, performed magnificently by Annie Lennox. My kids and even my wife, no LOTR fan, are big fans. Really, the whole score (by Howard Shore) is a marvel.

Sam carrying Frodo up Mount Doom. This, folks, is what heroism is all about. Small steps taken by an unassuming, unimportant figure, beyond all endurance, with no hope to buoy him, up Mount Doom. Astin/Sam was a titan in this scene, carrying the weight of his master, the Ring, and the very movie itself on his back. All the special effects, the money, the casting, depended on the believability and sympathy evoked by Sam and Frodo, and Sam in particular. And Sam succeeds, as do the films, in brilliant fashion.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, an illuminating look into the author, part 3

After chipping away at it for the last couple weeks, last night I finished up The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. My one line review? It's not hyperbole to say that, if you're a fan of this man's great works of fiction, you owe it to yourself to read Letters.

Over the course of this book I developed a much deeper appreciation not only for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion, but also for what a unique individual Tolkien was. For example, unbelievably, even towards his last days while continuing to chip away at The Silmarillion, Tolkien regularly answered fan mail. And not just in a cursory, "thank you for the kind words" manner. Letters contains dozens of detailed, multi-page letters on the history of the elves, the derivations of words and names, and the various historic ages of Middle Earth, which Tolkien composed and sent off to bog-standard readers and fans.

Take a moment to think about that: A man who is now regarded as the single greatest influence on not just fantasy literature, but the entire fantasy genre, taking an hour or two out of his busy day to write an eight-page explanation to a reader commenting on Frodo's failure to surrender the Ring in the Cracks of Doom (Letter 246), or to a woman wanting to know whether Shadowfax went with Gandalf across the sea (Letter 268), or to answer a fan's request for a translation of the opening words to one of Treebeard's song (yes, this is in here too--Letter 168).

A few times I actually found myself getting angry: Tolkien died in 1973 at age 81 before he could complete The Silmarillion, which he considered to be his life's work, and a book he continued to chip away at, unsuccessfully, until his death. His son, Christopher, published it posthumously in 1977, but I can't help but think how much more Tolkien could have fleshed out the legends and mythologies of Middle Earth if he spent those hours writing instead of corresponding with fans. But that's who he was.

While Tolkien was quite private about matters of his own life, Letters reveals some personal details which I found quite touching. For example, the fact that he asked to have his wife's headstone engraved as follows (Letter 340):


Tolkien himself had "Beren" engraved on his own gravestone (Beren and Luthien were a mortal man and immortal elf-maiden, respectively, who were the first-age equivalent of Aragorn and Arwen). "She (Edith) was, and knew she was, my Luthien," he wrote.

Tolkien lived and breathed Middle Earth, and spent the majority of his life thinking about it and expanding upon its legends. His devotion to his creation is apparent everywhere and even bleeds through into casual correspondence. For example, he described his relationship to his friend and publisher Rayner Unwin, "like that of Rohan and Gondor... and for my part the oath of Eorl will never be broken, and I shall continue to rely on and be grateful for the wisdom and courtesy of Minas Tirith." Middle Earth was no silly outlet for Tolkien--it was him, and he was it. This is probably the greatest reason why it remains (in my opinion) the most convincing act of sub-creation in all of fantasy literature, one that countless other fantasy authors have sought to imitate, but without the same success.

Other of Tolkien's letters reveal his sense of humor. For example, Tolkien tells that he received a drinking goblet from a fan, "which proved to be steel engraved with the terrible words seen on the Ring. I of course have never drunk from it, but use it for tobacco ash" (Letter 343). When a reader wrote to ask for Tolkien's help with an academic project about his works, Tolkien rebuffed him with a quote from Gandalf: "Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." (Letter 346). When another fan asked Tolkien to sign her copy of The Hobbit, he did, but also sent her a postcard written in elvish runes.

There are tons of other great details in Letters, too many to tell here. But just a few nuggets:
  • Tolkien "began a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall of Mordor, but it proved both sinister and depressing" (Letter 256);
  • Frodo's "failure" as a hero: "Frodo 'failed' as a hero"... but "had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed" (Letter 246);
  • Tolkien actually "welcomed the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization" (Letter 198);
  • Tolkien more or less told a German publisher in 1938 to go screw himself when the latter wrote to inquire whether Tolkien was of Aryan descent (Letter 3o)

In short, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is highly recommended for any serious Tolkien reader.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Tolkien estate sues New Line Cinema

The Tolkien estate dealt what could be a fatal blow to the film adaptation of The Hobbit today, suing New Line Cinema for failing to share any profits from The Lord of the Rings films. This according to a story in Variety today:

According to the article, the complaint seeks in excess of $150 million in compensatory damages, punitive damages, and (selfishly, the big one for me), "a declaration from the Court that the plaintiffs have a right to terminate any further rights New Line may have to the Tolkien works under the agreements, including The Hobbit."

If this story is correct, it sounds like more sleazy, underhanded work by New Line. Remember that this story comes just months after director Peter Jackson sued the studio for allegedly cheating him out of his fair share of the profits for the LOTR films, and then failing to turn over its books.

I give New Line all the credit in world for backing Rings, and for being the one studio in the world that ponied up the money and the creative license for Jackson to make all three films as he'd wished. But these latest incidents are putting New Line in a very bad light. With worldwide gross receipts of almost $6 billion dollars, are these tactics really necessary? Let's hope the damage and ill-will doesn't put any early end to The Hobbit.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

An edible Minas Tirith?

Okay, this is just plain silly (and awesome): The Battle of the Pelennor Fields, done up in cake and candy.

I have no idea how much cake mix went into that creation, but whatever the cost it was worth it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Eaters of the Dead: A review

Given my huge love of fantasy in general, and viking/dark age-influenced tales in particular, you would think that the 13th Warrior, the film upon which Michael Crichton's fine novel, Eaters of the Dead, is based, would be a personal favorite of mine. It is not. But of Crichton's work I am most definitely a huge fan.

Eaters of the Dead is a retelling of the supposedly authentic travels of an Arab, Ibn Fadlan, and his experiences among the Northmen circa 922 A.D. Several reviews state that much of Eaters is fiction; I myself thought as much after noting both the quality of the narrative and two much more obvious clues: The fact that the book is marked "fiction" on its cover, and the inclusion of The Necronomicon as one of the general reference works listed among its sources. But apparently Fadlan is a real figure from history who did spend time among the vikings as an ambassador.

Regardless of its authenticity, Eaters is a terrific read, made all the more compelling by Crichton's skillful "adaptation" of Fadlan's journal. The viking culture among which Fadlan finds himself is dirty, bloody, and graphic, but oddly appealing if you're a fan of orgies, death-duels, and animal (and occasionally human) sacrifices. These are laid out before the reader without judgment, with only Fadlan's disgust serving as a moral compass. Yet the incredible heroism of the Northmen shines through, as Crichton portrays them as unwaveringly honest and possessed of a steadfast and admirable belief in a warrior's code. Though he's at first appalled and disgusted by the rude, uncivilized behavior of the northmen, Fadlan learns to love their bravery and even comes to embrace their culture.

Fadlan is taken in by the Northmen and becomes an unwilling participant in their mission to save a viking tribe from the attacks of the mist-people, otherwise known as the eaters of the dead. In a scene with strong parallels to Beowulf, Fadlan experiences a terrifying night raid by the mist-people in the hall of Rothgar, the Northmen king. The mist-people, which appear as hairy, brutish monsters, are later revealed to be some form of surviving Neanderthal tribe, wielding stone axes and wearing animal pelts. Though it sounds silly, I found that this explanation added even more realism, and Crichton in the afterword makes a convincing case that perhaps Neanderthal man existed long past his presumed extinction date (commonly believed as 20,000-30,000 B.C).

Later, Fadlan and a small band of northmen led by Buliwyf (read--Beowulf), a mighty warrior, undertake a perilous journey to the home of the mist-people to slay their wendol-mother and stop the source of the attacks.

Equally or even more so than the fun story it tells, I found Eaters of the Dead a fantastic read due to its examination of viking culture, religion, and philosophy. And its eminently quoteable, too. Following are some of my favorites:

The deeds of dead men are sung, and also the deeds of heroes who live, but never are sung the deeds of ordinary men.

There is too much that man does not know. And what man does not know, that is the province of the Gods.

Each person bears a fear which is special to him. One man fears drowning and another fears a close space; each laughs at the other and calls him stupid. This fear is only a preference, to be counted the same as the preference for one woman or another, or mutton for pig, or cabbage for onion. We say, fear is fear.

Praise not the day until evening has come; a woman until she is burnt; a sword until it is tried; a maiden until she is married; ice until it has been crossed; beer until it has been drunk.

A hero's great challenge is in the heart, and not in the adversary.

And finally, when Fadlan tells Buliwyf that that he is afraid, the latter replies, That is because you think upon what is to come, and imagine fearsome things that would stop the blood of any man. Do not think ahead, and be cheerful by knowing that no man lives forever.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

White Dwarf: Remembering a great old magazine

The recent demise of Dragon and Dungeon magazine (in paper form-- both have since gone electronic) has gotten me a bit nostalgic for the old days of print-supported role-playing game magazines. With a few small print run exceptions, including Kobold Quarterly and the bi-monthly The Crusader, the days of widely circulated, glossy, print RPG publications are gone.

While I miss to some degree Dragon and Dungeon, both fine magazines in their own right, these days I find myself remembering and looking back most fondly at the Games Workshop (GW)-published White Dwarf magazine, "the voice of British adventure gamers."

Eh, you role-players say? Doesn't GW still publish White Dwarf every month? For the record, they do. But for me, the magazine died roughly around issue #100, when it became a mouthpiece for GW's profitable miniatures wargames line.

Pre-issue 100, White Dwarf was a fantastic magazine. Whereas Dragon very quickly evolved into a house organ for TSR and later Wizards of the Coast, and eventually covered strictly D&D, White Dwarf was a rarity in that it covered all role-playing games. Within its pages you could find articles on Dungeons and Dragons sandwiched in between Runequest columns, Call of Cthulhu adventures, Champions role-playing advice, and Traveler comics.

This model has its problems, since you're much less likely to find value in an article about a game that you don't own. Nevertheless, I derived great enjoyment as a youth examining Champions or Traveler articles and trying to puzzle out their rules based on stat blocks or descriptions. And more than any real gaming value, the pleasure in reading these articles alone made it worth the purchase. The best example I can think of is issue #53 (the cover of which I've included above), which contained Minas Tirith, a scenario about the battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Lord of the Rings. The game system was Warhammer, which I didn't (and still don't) own, but I loved reading about the background, the turns and what events would occur in each, the behavior of the Mumakil if they recieved an eye wound, the Gondor and Witch-King of Angmar army lists, and more.

White Dwarf had columns on minatures painting, scenarios and mini-campaigns, system-free articles on incorporating undead into your games or designing logical campaigns/fantasy worlds, reviews of RPGs popular and obscure, and much more. Here were some of my favorites:

The Castle of Lost Souls. Between issues 52-55, White Dwarf published a four-part choose your own adventure story that drew inspiration from the old Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Remember those? Like Lone Wolf, The Castle of Lost Souls required you to create your own character, resolve combats with dice, etc. It was a great little romp that kept me busy in between games.

Tabletop Heroes: A regular column devoted to minatures painting. It contained lots of great advice not only on how to paint, but also caring for figures, building terrain, castles, and dungeons out of household products, and more. The color illustrations of finished figures were great, although I was left with an inferiority complex when comparing these to my own.

Treasure Chest: A great column of odds and ends, neat little ideas for treasure and devices, alternative rules, and more that you could pick up and drop into your game. Examples: The dungeon cart (a practically-designed, easily-transportable cart specifically designed for underground adventures), drowning rules, the sword of thunder (a +2 intelligent sword that allowed the user to deflect lighting bolts and absorb their charges into the blade; the clear pommel would glow blue when so charged), dragon shields (magic shields made of dragon scales/hide that confer complete protection from that dragon type's particular breath weapon), hints for creative spell uses, halfling-specific magic items, nunchucks in Runequest, and much more.

British style and humor. The letters and reviews in White Dwarf were full of that particular brand of British wit that I find endearing. Example: Issue #63 reviewed XL1: Quest for the Heartstone, a notoriously bad D&D module, with the following: Quest for the Heartstone was at first reading no more than a sales exercise for AD&D Action Toys, and is very reminiscent of everyone's first dungeon: a collection of randomly placed monsters with a random selection of Good Guys going off after some magic item and having to hack through favorite is 'You may use the five-headed Hydra Bendable Monster for this encounter.'

Fun comics. My favorites were Groo, a little three or four-panel strip about the sick adventures of a thick-skulled goblin, and Thrud, which followed the adventures of a massive-bodied, small-headed barbarian that invoked all the worst Conan cliches.

Crunch-less articles. One of the reasons I stopped buying Dragon was that it seemed in the latter days too preoccupied with "crunch," aka. new prestige classes, feats, magic items, etc. This stuff gets real old, real fast. White Dwarf had its share of crunch, but devoted lots of page space to thoughtful columns and features about topics like roleplaying characters after death, discussions on how fast or slow to level, how to colorfully roleplay clerics in D&D, how to create campaigns and worlds with depth and versimilitude, etc.

Sure, White Dwarf wasn't perfect. In particular, my eyes glazed over at "Microview," a bi-monthly computer column about how to write computer programs to aid your tabletop RPGs (issue #50, for example, contained the code for creating a Taurus III striker vehicle, using BASIC language on a TRS-80. Yuck.). But nevertheless, White Dwarf was an invaluable resource from the heyday of RPGs and a vanished member of a species of magazine that, sadly, is all but extinct.