Wednesday, April 30, 2008

McKellen, Serkis sign on to reprise roles in The Hobbit

Hooray! In case you haven't seen the official announcement, this from Eonline today (read the full story here):

Sir Ian McKellen is going there and back again.

The acclaimed British thespian, who, as the wizard Gandalf the Grey, helped shepherd Frodo Baggins through a perilous journey in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has announced he will reprise his Academy Award-nominated role for the hugely anticipated Hobbit prequels.

"Yes, it's true," McKellen told Britain's Empire movie magazine. "It's not a part that you turn down. I love playing Gandalf."

The twin films will be based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, which of course he published before his epic Lord of the Rings cycle.

Later on the article cites the return of Andy Serkis (Gollum) as well. Good news all around, as McKellen arguably played the most convincing role in all of LOTR (although Sean Bean as Boromir was great, and I'm partial to Sean Astin as Sam as well).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Fight On! has plenty of old-school spirit

The very first article in Fight On!--"A fanzine for the old-school renaissance"--details a method for quickly and randomly generating colorful details for fleshing out dwarf PCs. It's a fun little article and a pretty good indication of the contents to come, and refreshingly, there's no mechanics or feats to be found.

Fight On! is a new quarterly print magazine published and edited by Ignatius Umlaut. You have to order it through , an on-line self-publishing outfit. It checks in at a slim 30 pages, but I can honestly say it feels like there's a lot of content between its covers. It costs $6.00 plus shipping and it took about a week to arrive in the mail after I ordered it--not bad for processing, printing, and shipping.

Although Fight On! caters to original three-book D&D (OD&D) players, its applicable to any of the older versions of the game. I would imagine that 3E players could also find lots of inspiration and ideas here as well. I myself never actually played OD&D, having cut my teeth on the excellent Tom Moldvay basic edition and later AD&D 1E, but I experienced an easy familiarity (and a strong bout of nostalgia) as soon I started reading.

Overall I found Fight On! to be a useful, fun publication. Although some articles falter a bit, throughout it remained very true to old-school campaigning in heart and spirit. The articles have imagination and depth to them, and it's easy to see why--they are taken from the contributors' own detailed campaign worlds, many of which are mentioned by name. The writing style of many of the articles has a Gygaxian ring, incorporating vivid descriptions and language and a Dungeon Master's air of authority and whimsy. For example, in "The Devil's in the Details," the author points out that players should add character to their PCs by using moderate bits of flavor, but no lengthy, complex backstories, lest the "weight of history collapse her into a scripted doom." I miss this style of writing in the 3E manuals, which are far too text-booky and staid for my tastes.

One notable change is that, presumably for copyright's sake, Fight On! does not use obvious D&Disms. Therefore, levels become "ranks," hit points "wounds," armor class "defense class," and so on. I found this slightly jarring at first read but barely noticed it thereafter.

The contents include:
  • Dedication to Gary Gygax. A most appropriate way to kick off the publication.
  • The Devil's in the Details. Adding detail to dwarven PCs. Includes tables (a staple of old-school RPGs) from which players can generate personality traits, unique equipment, and background details.
  • The Swanmay. A new character class, the swan maiden. While this is a bit too high-fantasy for my tastes, I enjoyed the free-wheeling writing style of this article. Example: "I don't begrudge people who want to try an interesting character with a few extra abilities, but if balance is an issue for you or your players you might consider levying a 10% penalty to rank advancement." A perfect example of rules as suggestions, not a straightjacket.
  • Flexible Sorcery. Probably my favorite article in Fight On!, this describes ways to make mages feel more magical, including spontaneous magic (granting mages the ability to summon small spells at will, more for flavor and creativity); counterspelling (a method for negating an opposing magic user's spell as your action); and magical duels (a fun, easy-to-use system for resolving mano-y-mano wizard duels). Includes another fun table that the loser has to roll on, with the results ranging from smoke pouring out of the losing wizard's ears to encasement in amber or outright annihilation. How cool is that? This piece was accompanied by a fun wizard-duel cartoon reminiscent of some of artwork in the 1E Dungeon Master's Guide.
  • The Ruined Monastery. A fun little drop-and-play dungeon crawl that seems like a fun afternoon of gaming.
  • The Tomb Complex of Ymmu M'Kursa. I didn't know what to make of this. It's a description of a tomb with tons of flavor and horror and weird touches, including deathtraps and sci-fi elements, but it's presented without any adventure hooks or level suggestions. This is old D&D at its most extreme--a simple location description at your disposal.
  • Setting up your Sandbox. A great DMing advice article for novice/intermediate DM's about running a free-wheeling, player driven campaign. Ends with a great line that gets to the heart of old-school RPGing: "The stuff of pure gaming joy isn't always what you might encounter in a well-written novel." Amen.
  • Puissant Priestly Powers. New spell-like abilities for clerics. Some cool ideas but some of these effects seem a bit unbalanced (yikes--the dreaded balance word).
  • Enchanted Holy Symbols. Great little sidebar about magical holy symbols.
  • Nature's Nasty Node. A mid-level adventure. I wasn't wowed by the adventure but there's some nice ideas to mine in here, including the Node itself, a corrupted dryad pool.
  • The Space Wizards. A high-level campaign seed that was a bit too crazy for my tastes (space wizards, end of the world scenario, etc).
  • Creepies & Crawlies. This article fell a bit flat for me, unfortunately. The monsters are nothing to write home about and I didn't find its tounge-in-cheek style all that funny. Oh well.
  • In the Time of the Broken Kingdom. A very nice closing editorial by the editor that looks back with fondness on the old days, and discusses the future of old school gaming and its possibilities with optimism.
  • Aftifacts, Adjuncts, and Oddments. A page of magic items. Wyrmdread--a sword forged in the elf-dragon wars--was particularly cool.
There were a few other small, nit-picky things I didn't like about Fight On! Most of the artwork was evocative, although some pieces didn't work for me. I also thought that layout could be improved (the headlines were too small, and a few articles break at odd places). But frankly, these criticisms are small. Fight On! was a blast to read and a refreshing infusion of creativity. Here's hoping that it continues to wave the standard of old-school gaming.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Uh-oh: del Toro hates heroic fantasy?

The bloom appears to be already off the rose of newly-signed The Hobbit director Guillermo del Toro--and the ink on his New Line Cinema contract isn't even dry. Del Toro, who has gained commercial fame and critical acceptance for films like Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, and who seemed like a good fit for the project--although I haven't seen any of his films--apparently does not like nor has ever cared for J.R.R. Tolkien or classic fantasy, according to this Salon article. Here's the excerpt, taken from an interview between Salon and del Toro back in 2006:

I couldn't help thinking of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in this film [Pan's Labyrinth]. Were you a fan of those books?

I was never into heroic fantasy. At all. I don't like little guys and dragons, hairy feet, hobbits -- I've never been into that at all. I don't like sword and sorcery, I hate all that stuff.

C.S. Lewis was another thing. I really enjoyed him as a kid, but he's too Catholic for me. It's not something as an adult I can feel comfortable relating to.

Needless to say this does not bode well for The Hobbit. My first reaction was, "That sucks, but maybe he'll just stick to a by-the-numbers adaptation of a nice script by LOTR screenwriters Philippa Boyens/Fran Walsh/Peter Jackson." But that hope quickly dissipated. A director has to be invested, body and soul, in a film for it to work. Especially a project like The Hobbit and its sequel, which according to published reports will take a hefty four years to complete from writing to filming. That's a lot of time to spend with a film whose source you don't much care for.

Perhaps del Toro will channel his dislike into his own vision of Middle Earth and create something unique and artistic with The Hobbit. But even if it succeeds artistically, it won't be Tolkien. And if it isn't Tolkien, or something reasonably close, I won't be happy. Say what you will about Peter Jackson's LOTR (and it has its share of detractors), but it hewed pretty closely to the books. Where it did deviate in plot or character, it remained true in spirit and intention. I can't see how someone who "[doesn't] like little guys and dragons, hairy feet, and hobbits" can direct The Hobbit with any passion, let alone faithfulness to the source material. Am I missing something here?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Born out of your time

I think about closing the door
And lately I think of it more
I'm living well out of my time
I feel like I'm losing my mind
I should be at the table round
A servant of the crown
The keeper of the sign
To sparkle and to shine

--"Falling off the Edge of the World," Black Sabbath

So here I am on a Friday night after another long, grueling week of work, feeling again like I may have born in the wrong time. Does anyone else believe that they may once have led a very different life: That of a viking raider on a longship, for instance, riding the wind-tossed waves to plunder and battle? Or a solitary knight in the service of King Arthur, wrapped in a wind-blown cloak and mounted on a grey horse, searching Britain for signs and portents of the Holy Grail?

Maybe I'm a little cracked, but there are times when I feel that, while I may currently reside in the body of a soft 21st century American office worker, my spirit is elsewhere--perhaps in a grim, grey-cloaked ranger patrolling the outskirts of The Shire, or a fortunate traveler listening to elven songs in the Hall of Fire, or a hard-bitten mercenary eyeing a tavern wench in the Maul of Shadizar.

In the sober light of day, if pressed, I would admit that this wistful line of thinking is silly, especially when it comes to conditions as they really were 1,000 years ago. Living in the middle ages (from everything I've read) was downright awful. Plague, sickness, and untimely death was commonplace. I certainly wouldn't have the luxury of sitting at a computer with a beer and typing out BS blog posts as I'm want to do. Hell, I'd probably be dead in a ditch with my head caved in by an axe blow.

But that doesn't mean I can't daydream about participating in the Ride of the Rohirrim. After a long, frustrating day in the office, slamming my spear and horse into a wall of orcs with abandon on the plains of the Pelennor sounds downright inviting:

And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.

If you too feel trapped in a time and circumstance of dreary prosiness, well, I've got a barstool I'm saving for you at the Inn of the Welcome Wench. There's an old moathouse that I'd like to explore. Sharpen your longsword, grab a torch, and let's get started.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

It's official: del Toro to direct The Hobbit

From Variety:

In a major step forward on “The Hobbit,” Guillermo del Toro has signed on to direct the New Line-MGM tentpole and its sequel.

The widely expected announcement -- which had been rumored for several weeks -- came Thursday afternoon jointly from exec producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, New Line president Toby Emmerich, and Mary Parent, newly named chief of MGM’s Worldwide Motion Picture Group.

Del Toro’s moving to New Zealand for the next four years to work with Jackson and his Wingnut and Weta production teams. He’ll direct the two films back to back, with the sequel dealing with the 60-year period between “The Hobbit” and “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

This is a bit puzzling to me as I still haven't heard news whether The Tolkien Estate's $150 million dollar lawsuit has been settled yet, but overall I'm very pleased to see The Hobbit back on track. Bring on the Battle of the Five Armies!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Quote of the day: Tolkien's vision of hope

"Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo's hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Conan the Destroyer: Can I get some gravy for this turkey?

Last night I sat down and, without a gun to my head, watched Conan the Destroyer. This was an extraordinarily foolish decision. For all the negativity leveled at Conan the Barbarian--unfair criticism, in my opinion, for what I consider to be a terrific swords and sorcery film (albeit not Robert E. Howard's Conan)--there's not enough outrage directed at this obnoxious turkey. I saw Conan the Destroyer as a kid and remember it as being pretty cool at the time. But upon further and (somewhat) more mature review I found Conan the Destroyer so bad as to defy description. I rate it only slightly better than the D&D movie and in fact, in many ways it resembles a bad session of my favorite role-playing game.

I don't mind mindless action flicks as long as they're fun. Conan the Destroyer is not. To make matters worse, there isn't even any gratuitous sex and violence--Conan the Destroyer significantly drops the level of bloodshed I came to expect from CTB, and also eliminates any nudity in order to garner a coveted PG rating.

Remember the names of Richard Fleischer (director), Stanley Mann (screenplay), and sadly, comic book giant Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway (story). If you see their names associated with another movie, run screaming in the other direction.

Conan the Destroyer actually gets off to an okay start. The opening credits sequence keeps the great "Anvil of Crom" score from the CTB soundtrack. We see riders galloping across the Hyborian plains in slow-motion, cracking whips and wielding wicked maces and hammers, which is cool. Over this scene comes the familiar voice of Mako, who delivers his famous CTB intro speech. Strangely, Mako seems only half-interested, uttering the famous modified Howard lines "Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas," with a decided lack of enthusiasm. After seeing the mess to come, however, I can't blame him.

The first bad sign that we're in for an awful movie is they've given Conan a comic relief sidekick, a weasely thief named Malek. He's easily one of the most annoying characters ever put to film. Subotai the archer from CTB was pretty cool, a man who said little but had style. In Conan the Destroyer we get Malek, a whiny dude who spends half the movie swallowing gems and shying from danger while Conan fights. We also have Jenna, a whiny blonde princess; Zhula, an angry staff-wielding warrior-woman played by Grace Jones, who is definitely no Sandahl Bergman; and Bombatta, a warrior played by towering ex-NBA star Wilt Chamberlain, about as wooden as actor as they come.

As the movie starts Conan and Malek fight some guards who have pursued the pair from the city of Shadizar (the fact that Conan could let a bunch of mounted guards in clanking armor surprise and surround him in a canyon must have had Howard rolling over in his grave). The fighting takes on comic air as Conan has time to joke around with Malek and punch out a horse. Dumb, dumb. Unlike the epic fight at the end of CTB, which was genuinely desperate and dangerous and required Conan to set traps and use guile to win, this fight--like all the others in the film--is silly and utterly bereft of suspense. Never has death by broadsword seemed so banal. Conan kills 20 men with ease, as they conveniently come at him one at a time.

But the fight turns to out to be a set up by a female wizard named Taramis (presumably she sends in her guards to their deaths to see if Conan is up to the challenge. He is). She strikes a deal with the Cimmerian: In exchange for his help, she promises to bring Valeria back from the dead. Conan must retrieve a key called the heart of Arimel, which, as told in the scrolls of Skelos, will allow access to the jeweled horn of the god Dagoth. The key is located in a castle guarded by the wizard Thoth-Amon. Taramis sends along Bombatta to protect Jenna, but tells the hulking warrior to kill Conan as soon as the quest is completed. That double-crossing bitch!

If this sounds like a bad D&D adventure, you'd be right. We have our party of random character classes (fighters, thieves, a wizard), misfits thrown together as if players picked them out of a hat. We also have our linear quest to recover an ancient artifact (why Taramis doesn't just send her army of warriors off to get it is unknown, but then again you don't start poking at the plot of movies like Conan the Destroyer unless you want to see it burst like a balloon).

So Conan rides to Shadizar where everyone knows him and shouts his name. Merchants cover up their jewels as he approaches. Is he a thief, or a celebrity? A Cimmerian Robin Hood is never how I imagined Conan. Later we find out that, in fact, everyone knows him.

Next, our band rescues the wizard Akiro (Mako) from cannibals, which are little more than grunting neanderthals that look like they wandered off a Flintstones set. Says Conan: "I need you." Akiro--"I'm yours." This laughable exchange is another D&Dism--people who drop everything without reservation to join a quest in which they have no stake (From The Gamers: "You seem trustworthy. Would you care to join us in our noble quest?")

Our band next adds Zhula, played by Grace Jones, whose range as an actress runs from glowering anger to screaming rage. Tied to a post by the leg, Zhula is being attacked by an angry mob whose village she and some other raiders sacked. One man is actually saying (direct quote): "Hit her, get her/The others are dead/now it's her turn! /After we have our fun with her/Don't kill her too soon." Not that it needs repeating but this is beyond dumb. Conan rides in, cuts her free from the stake, and she proceeds to kick ass, smashing guys' balls and faces with a quarterstaff. 30 armed men are no match. She happens to know Conan too, and after fighting Bombatta in a half-assed wrestling match, swears to "give her life for him."

Next the party travels to the castle of Thoth-Amon, a great wizard who resembles a one-eyed wino fished off the streets of Washington, D.C., and about as menacing. He also knows Conan. We have some God-awful special effects as Thoth-Amon transforms into a smoke-bird and captures Jenna.

Thoth-Amon's castle is an awful set-piece that looks like it was built from cheaply painted styrofoam. As Conan and crew row across the lake surrounding his castle (a cheap blue screen effect), he watches and says: "Too late my friends, but come, come anyway." (Come anyway? Who wrote this dialogue?) Inside Jenna lies captive on a bed that but looks like a Sealy posturepedic.

Conan then has to battle a red-cloaked creature in a hall of mirrors, a blatant ripoff of Bruce Lee's final duel in Enter the Dragon (it's noteworthy that this scene draws inspiration from a real Howard story, Rogues in the House, which saw Conan fighting a red-cloaked ape named Thak. But that story is far, far superior). Here the creature is an actor in a stiff rubber mask that does not move, save for a tongue the man thrusts through its mouth-hole. Instead of biting or mauling Conan, the monster decides to wrestle him. The creature actually spins Conan around by his ankles before tossing him to the floor. We're talking bad 1970's/1980's pro wrestling here. More to the point of this absurdity: This was Thoth-Amon's plan? To lure the party in and wrestle them to death?

Conan's sword proves useless against the monster until he accidentally smashes a mirror. Wow, how clever--the only way to stop this beast is by smashing any of the 10,000 mirrors in a tightly-confined chamber. Conan charges around smashing mirrors, then hurls his sword through a mirror and into Thoth-Amon. Jenna takes the Heart of Arimel and--in another shocker--the castle begins to fall apart (can this tired Hollywood cliche please stop?) As the big styrofoam blocks fall you can actually see them bounce on the ground. After a narrow escape our heroes paddle away in front of another very obvious blue screen. "All an illusion," says Akiro. Huh, Akiro? That castle seemed pretty substantial to me (if only this movie was too).

The queen then sends her men to capture Jenna and kill Conan. This allows Schwartzenegger to literally flex his muscles in a fight like he's a bodybuilder posing in front of a mirror. In the melee Bombatta takes a swing at Conan: "Why?" says Conan. Bombatta replies, "I thought you were going to hurt the girl." To which Conan looks distrustful. Distrustful? The dude just tried to decapitate you with a spiked mace! Howard's Conan would have gutted Bombatta then and there, but what does the Fleischer/Mann Conan do? Gets stinking drunk with his would-be killer watching him. Sigh.

Next, Jenna tries to make a play for Conan, and (most unforgivably of all) attempts to become a tough women-warrior like Conan's old flame Valeria. We get a 10 minute sequence of Jenna talking to Zhula about how to seduce men. Not only is this an utter waste of film and a pointless time-filler, but why is it even necessary in a film aimed at a PG-audience? And why do I even care?

Next, the party enters an old tomb to retrieve the horn of Dagoth. We get 5 minutes of screen time of Conan and crew walking around in another blantly obvious time filler. Conan lights a torch (where's the 10-foot pole?) as Malek seemingly for the 100th time offers to "go back and stand guard." (Get the comedy? He's scared). Then we have Conan and Bombaata lifting a gate, with a lengthy shot of Arnold's back muscles ("bend bars-lift gates check. I can almost hear the d20 clattering). Then there's another fight as the keepers of the horn come out and fight. Even the leader, presumably living an isolated, monastic existence in a cave, has heard of Conan!

Finally, 3/4 through this awful film, Conan figures out that he has been duped and the Queen's promise is a lie. How did this clod ever become "king of the thieves?"

Now it's back to Shadizar. Jenna is being prepared for sacrifice as recycled music from CTB stolen from the orgy scene plays. Sadly, there's no orgy to be found in Destroyer. Conan and his gang foil the ceremony when Zhula throwns her quarterstaff from about a mile away, clear through the priest, which natually puts a damper on things. Dagoth changes from a handsome god into a creature--more specifically, an angry bipedal walrus (it's vaguely Cthulhu-esque). Dagoth kills the queen but Conan tears out the creature's horn and it dies in a pool of green liquid.

The end of the film is a blatant Star Wars ripoff--in a medal ceremony ripped from A New Hope, Jenna makes Zhula her captain of the guards, Malek her fool (which he accepts without hesitaton), Akiro her advisor. All first look to Conan, who gravely nods his acceptance (this is so BAD). Jenna asks Conan to rule Shadizar by her side, but he declines: "I will have my own kingdom, my own queen." They kiss, there's a crash of solemn music, and Conan turns and stalks away in silence as tears run down Jenna's face. This is tawdry paperback romance novel-bad.

Of note is that the film ends with a shot of an aging Conan on his own throne: "At last he found his own kingdom, and wore his crown upon a troubled brow." If someday the long-rumored King Conan gets made, I hope this piece of trash is mercifully written out of the storyline as if it never occurred. Unfortunately, this still won't be enough to wipe my memory clean of the mess that is Conan the Destroyer.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Tolkien and the Great War: A review

One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth in 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends was dead.

--J.R.R. Tolkien, foreward to The Lord of the Rings

In the years since the publication of The Lord of the Rings, numerous critical studies have followed in an attempt to decipher its meanings and origins. The most famous of these are Tom Shippey's acclaimed (and highly recommended) pair of works, The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

But never have Tolkien's wartime years been so thoroughly excavated and illuminated as author John Garth did in his 2003 study Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth. Using letters written between Tolkien and his friends roughly from 1910-1917, as well as battlefield records and unit histories, Garth lays out a solid case that Tolkien's grim experiences during World War I played an enormous role in shaping his mythology of Middle-earth, delivering heft and emotional impact to the tale of the War of the Ring.

Although I knew going into Garth's book that Tolkien lost two of his best friends during the war--Rob Gilson and G.B. Smith, who along with Christopher Wiseman and Tolkien formed a quartet of bright Oxford undergraduates that dubbed themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), until Tolkien and the Great War I never understood how close this group was, or felt the profound sense of loss that Tolkien experienced when these two bright young lives were snuffed out in the senseless carnage of the Somme.

Central to LOTR is the departure of the elves for the Grey Havens and the sense that magic is leaving along with them, to be replaced by the prosaic age of men. In Tolkien and the Great War Garth says that this tenet parallels Tolkien's own experiences in 1915, when the Oxford campus was emptied of its undergraduates due to the call of war. Melancholy pervades LOTR, the sense that something has been lost: a simpler, more idyllic time. In Tolkien's own case there is nostaglia for his lost childhood (his parents were both dead by the time Tolkien was 12), and later, for his glorious days spent with the TCBS.

According to Garth the TCBS was more than a tight-knit group of friends with common interests of literature and spirited discussion. Rather, they shared an earnest belief that they could change the world for the better. After entering the service they continued to write to each other, believing that their wartime experiences would make them stronger and propel them to something greater. Wrote Wiseman, "Fortunately we are not entirely masters of our fate, so that what we do now will make us the better for uniting in the great work that is to come, whatever it may be."

But the reality of war greatly dimmed that optimism, leaving the TCBS wondering whether they would ever have that chance. Smith foresaw his end in the fields of France, as described in a poignant letter to Tolkien:

My God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.

It is heartbreaking to think what came next: Gilson died in one of the many suicidal advances across the mud-choked Somme battlefield, straight into German machine-gun fire; Smith suffered shrapnel wounds from an exploding artillery shell and later died of gangrene infection. That left only Wiseman and Tolkien to carry on the TCBS' promised great work. Tolkien developed trench fever and had to be evacuated back to England, which in all likelihood saved his life (his unit was later decimated in combat), but he and Wiseman held up their end of the bargain: Wiseman would go on to become a school headmaster, while Tolkien of course would go on to become an Oxford professor and write the greatest fantasy the world has ever known. Writes Garth: "The Lord of the Rings ... stands as the fruition of the TCBSian dream, a light drawn from ancient sources to illuminate a darkening world."

Unlike many of the famous WWI combat veterans whose experience resulted in poems and stories of disillusionment and disenchantment (Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth," Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms), Tolkien refused to believe that the sacrifice of brave young men was a waste. Says Garth: "In contrast, Tolkien's protagonists are heroes not because of their successes, which are often limited, but because of their courage and tenacity in trying. By implication, worth cannot be measured by results alone, but is intrinsic." This is Frodo's lot in a nutshell: Thrust into a larger war beyond his control, his selfless heroism in carrying the ring to Mount Doom--a tiny, insignificant role in the great sweep of combat at Minas Tirith and elsewhere--mirrors the great acts of unrecorded bravery on the battlefields of World War I. Even though Frodo "fails" in his quest (he gives in to the Ring's power, and "succeeds" only when Gollum tries to wrest it from his finger), his courage and tenacity in carrying the Ring to the lip of Mount Doom makes possible final victory.

Tolkien is no fool who believes that war is glorious--rather, LOTR "examines how the individual's experience of war relates to those grand old abstractions; for example, it puts glory, honour, majesty, as well as courage, under such stress that they often fracture, but are not utterly destroyed," Garth writes.

In summation, if you are a fan of Tolkiens' works and wish to achieve a greater appreciation of both the author and the real-world events that helped shape the making of Middle-earth, Garth's book is highly recommended.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Earl Ragnar says: Check out an audio book and listen, or I'll gut you and feed your innards to the dogs!

My passion for audio books is overflowing right now. Today on my usual semi-torturous hour-long commute to work (each way) I finished Bernard Cornwell's The Lords of the North. My God, if that wasn't the most enjoyable commute I've had in years, I don't know what was.

The Lords of the North and the rest of The Saxon Stories are amazingly entertaining tales on their own. But couple them with an amazing voice-over performance by UK actor Tom Sellwood, and, well, you've got yourself a hell of a fun car ride. I happened to glance around on Interstate 95 this morning (tearing myself away from the bloody tale of Danes and Saxons battling for control of 9th century England) to glance at the faces of the commuters around me. Some were pinched and angry, but most simply looked distracted or bored. Given what they were likely listening to--the wasteland that is AM/FM radio--I can't say I blame them.

To hell with radio. Give me a good audio book any day. While the sap in his gas-guzzling SUV next to me had NPR droning away on the dial, I was listening in on the conversation of Uhtred Ragnarson, true Lord of Bebbanburg, and Danish warlord Ragnar Ragnarsson, as they shouted the joys of "Women and War!" while riding on horseback through Northern England circa 881. While the 20-something chick to my front in her Honda was rotting her brain listening to the vapid Destiny's Child, I was "seeing" the clash of shield walls, bloodied axes and swords, and screaming men. In my mind's eye I was watching viking longships under sail in the open sea, the bright light of morning gleaming off shield bosses and helmets, and smelling and hearing great feasting halls flowing with ale and bursting with loud song and the poems of skalds.

And best of all this experience is "free" of charge. Audio books are expensive and the only ones I actually own are The Lord of the Rings (unabridged), as read by Rob Inglis. But you don't have to spend money: I get my audio books from my public library, which is part of a 10-town consortium from which I'm free to interlibrary loan a large number of audio titles. It's a great use of my tax dollars and I've certainly derived a lot of pleasure these last few years on my drive to work. I only wish I had discovered them sooner.

Monday, April 7, 2008

D&D: Suffering a slow death?

Having spent eight years in the newspaper industry working for a small, family-owned broadsheet (which are as commonplace nowadays as milkmen and encyclopedia salesmen, and about as wise a career choice), I know what it's like to see a business suffering from a slow death. Not a death that can be measured in months or even years, perhaps, but in decades, their life blood drained away by a series of innumerable nicks and cuts. The same fate I fear is in store for D&D.

Not that I expect newspapers or my favorite pastime to ever completely die, but rather, I fear they may cease to exist as profitable business lines. They will likely live on as pale shapes--wraiths, to draw a comparsion with the Lord of the Rings, another favorite subject of mine--neither alive nor dead, but living some undead existence, a dim shadow of their past greatness.

Newspaper circulations are indeed decreasing year-by-year as people turn towards the internet and other media outlets for news and information. But what about D&D? Aren't there claims from Wizards of the Coast that the hobby is as robust as ever? Some figures I've seen thrown around are $30 million a year in RPGs sold and roughly six million D&D players playing worldwide last year.

Frankly, I find the evidence that D&D and other RPGs are going strong less than compelling. And although my experiences are of course anecdotal, all indications--at least from my perspective--show an unhealthy trend for its long-term future.

When I was a pre-teen and teenager, the two local malls (Woburn and Burlington) each had a thriving hobby store that made their business selling RPGs and miniatures, along with the usual model trains, cars, etc. Both are now gone. My hometown had a bookstore that also sold RPGs and miniatures. It too is gone. I was shocked to find out that my current neighboring town of Amesbury actually supported two game/comic shops when I moved here four years ago. But in the past year one has gone out of business.

RPGs were everywhere in their heyday (late 1970's to mid-1980s). You could find ads on television, in the back of comic books, and in magazines. D&D had even had its own Saturday morning cartoon. When I was in seventh grade (circa 1985) my middle school had a Friday afternoon, seventh-period Dungeons and Dragons elective (yes, it rocked). And the game itself--I started with the classic Tom Moldvay-edited box set, with its 64-page ruleset and copy of B2 Keep on the Borderlands--was available in all the major outlet stores.

Now, you have to squint to find evidence that D&D is still played. The big bookstore chains (Barnes and Noble, Borders), at least in my area, might have a single, poorly stocked shelf of D&D in the hobbies section or science fiction section. Other games like Call of Cthulhu or Rifts are nowhere to be found. TSR and WOTC have tried to put basic versions of the game in the larger outlet stores, but largely without success. And when was the last time you saw an ad for D&D in any major news outlet?

D&D let slip what could have been a great opportunity for good exposure in 2000 with the release of the film Dungeons and Dragons. Unfortunately, what we got was one of the worst movies I've seen in 10 years. What should have been a nice marketing vehicle turned into two painful hours of my life flushed down the drain that I still want back.

But aside from a bomb of a movie, why are RPGs declining? Like a lot of others familiar with D&D, I blame computer games. World of Warcraft, Everquest, and their ilk--i.e., graphics-heavy, story-based, immersive, computer RPGs--offer experiences that satisfy the cravings of many potential (and former) pen-and-paper gamers. Why bother with the hassle of having to get together a group of 4-6 people with busy schedules, and doing all that pre-game prep work and post-game paperwork, when you can turn on your computer from the comfort of your own home and play whenever you feel like it? The siren song of computer games existed when I was younger with titles like Wizards Crown and Ultima, but the new breed are light-years more advanced, and much more effective at drawing potential players away.

For more great recent discussion on this topic, check out Whither D&D? at Trollsmyth and D&D in the News at Grognardia (great name for an RPG blog, by the way).

Wizards of the Coast is trying to fight back with an online version of D&D, which will reportedly allow players like me--30-something, with demanding jobs and busy family lives--to break down traditional barriers to play by providing a virtual tabletop. This Associated Press article sums up the issue a lot better than I can. It's a model that could work, but it's also fraught with danger. D&D simply cannot do some things as well as a computer, and trying to fit a round peg into a square hole could result in WOTC squandering millions, perhaps leading parent company Hasbro to drop the line.

A unique strength of D&D and tabletop RPGs in general has always been the face-to-face social component. In addition to fun and adventure in imaginary worlds, RPGs allow creative, like-minded folks to gather around a table and enjoy each other's company. While I know WOTC is touting that this face-to-face experience will remain a viable part of fourth edition, part of me has doubts. Remember that WOTC also maintained that 3E can be played without miniatures, but then rewrote the rules to all but cripple a game that doesn't have a tabletop grid and some type of figures.

So should D&D ignore the online space and continue to churn out hardbacks until the line eventually goes the way of the newspaper? That would be the safe route, but also the path of a long, slow, dance with death. I credit WOTC for trying a new approach, but I also fear that traditional RPGs, like newspapers, are by their nature destined to become relics of a forgotten age, played and debated about only by a small, dwindling fan base like me.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Zemeckis' modern adaptation of Beowulf misses the mark

I had high hopes for director Robert Zemeckis' 2007 adaption of Beowulf, the recent film based on the ancient epic poem. Although I'm not intimately familiar with Beowulf (the poem), I have read it years ago, and recently I listened to Seamus Heaney's brilliant audio rendition while driving to work. At worst, I figured a film that hewed close to the poem would provide some solid action and an epic tale to take me out of the usual dull routine for a couple hours.

While I certainly wasn't bored watching Beowulf--and how could I be, with its gory battle sequences and stunning computer generated imagery--in the end it was a bit of a disappointment. Co-writers Neil Gaiman (whose novel American Gods I greatly enjoyed) and Roger Avary put together a script at once too clever and too modern for its own good, greatly denuding the old poem of its epic feel and mythic elements. They made a number of changes to the original text in an attempt to modernize the character of Beowulf and create a new interpretation of the poem--an interpretation that doesn't come from the actual text, hence the need for wholesale changes. Directors have every right to make creative changes when they adapt the written word, and skillful adaptations are welcome, but for the most part the creative license taken by Zemeckis and crew with Beowulf mucked things up.

Despite my problems with it I did find a lot to like in the film, first and foremost the visual effects. Beowulf was shot using a technique called motion capture. I don't know much about it, other than its supposedly accomplished by computer animators digitially recreating the work of real actors, which gives the computer images a very realistic appearance. This works to some degree, capturing motion and sweeping action well, but facial expressions still seem plastic and artificial. Beowulf was an improvement over The Polar Express, which used the same technique, but motion capture still needs work. But I did enjoy the wonderful computer-generated landscape of ancient Denmark, Hrothgar's mead hall, and the entertaining battle sequences.

Beowulf starts strong. Hrothgar's hall is a raucous place of drinking and eating and lovemaking, loud with song and merriment and testosterone. It was fun, and the build up to Grendel's attack on the hall was well-done. Grendel was a striking monster and his vicious assault was suitably gory, with men ripped in half, heads bitten off, etc. I also liked the build-up to the character of Beowulf, who arrives from over the sea with a crew of warriors to kill Grendel and free Hrothgar's hall from its curse. "Played" by Ray Winstone, Beowulf is larger than life, a hero from folklore capable of superhuman feats of arms, and is singleminded of purpose--he is here to crush the enemy and win fame. All this is done with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek approach that works.

But after the epic fight between Beowulf and Grendel in Hrothgar's hall, in which Beowulf tears off the monster's arm and sends it crawling back to its mother with a mortal wound, the movie begins to veer off from the poem. Essentially, it introduces frailty into Beowulf's character. Our hero falls for Grendel's mother (herself a demon, but capable of taking on a beautiful female shape as played by Angelina Jolie). After sleeping with her, Beowulf returns to Hrothgar's hall and perpetuates a great lie that he slew the mother. She later gives birth to a second demon son. And thus, the ancient curse continues.

I found this twist to be unnecessary, and part of the first of what I thought were three failings of the film:

1. In an attempt to "humanize" Beowulf by giving him flaws and failings, I became less interested in the character and the film. Epic and fresh until that point, Beowulf suddenly became very familiar. Why do directors feel like every hero has to be flawed, and must undergo an internal struggle to overcome those flaws ? Why can't a hero just be a hero? Like all Hollywood blockbusters, Beowulf slipped into the well-worn path of a tale about the redemption of its central character. Beowulf is redeemed, but his return to glory feels like a cliche instead of a triumph. In fact, Gaiman and Avary more or less lifted a line straight from Excalibur, one of my favorite films: Beowulf apologizes to his wife, the queen, for his old indescetion with Beowulf's mother, uttering something to the effect of "When I can be just a man," etc. I can't remember the exact words, but it was very much a swiped scene from Excalibur when Arthur delivers near-identical lines to Guinevere in the nunnery (minus the feeling, unfortunately--the same scene in Excalibur is much more emotionally powerful, as it contrasts sharply with Arthur's kingly image of laws first, love second, built up over the duration of the film. There's none of that in Beowulf).

In short, the ancient sagas accomplished what they did with action, not introspection. Beowulf was not meant to be a modern story.

2. A whole bunch of silly and unnecessary phallic and vaginal imagery. I'm not one of these readers who inteprets every cigar as a penis symbol, but Beowulf was an onslaught of beat-you-over-the-head phallus-ness. For example, we have Beowulf, stark naked, holding a long sword perfectly positioned over his manhood. Or Beowulf entering Grendel's mother's cave, which is conscipuously slit-like with curly "shrubs" on both sides. I'm not sure where the writers were going with all this, other than perhaps an attempt to poke fun at the ultra-male warrior archetype whose potency is tied to the size of his sword. Overall it was an unnecessary bit of "wink-winking" to the audience.

3. The film ascribed all the reasons for the curse to a simplistic "sins of the father" explanation: Essentially, that men can't resist hot women. In this version of Beowulf, Hrothgar and later Beowulf both brought the curse of Grendel/Grendel's mother upon themselves because they couldn't keep it in their pants. Hrothgar's coupling with Grendel's mother birthed Grendel, and Beowulf's coupling with the mother results in another unholy son, the dragon. The great "evil" in the story is a beautiful, lustful she-demon who preys on men's weakness. We're left with a cliffhanger at the end of the film as Beowulf's friend and second in command Wiglaf confronts Grendel's mother rising up out of the sea. We don't know whether Wiglaf also succumbs to her beauty, but since the poem and the film end here we can assume that he may have staved off his lustful urges and ended the curse.

In contrast, Beowulf the poem is about the inevitability of fate, and Beowulf's faltering as a warrior through age, which are much stronger themes than sexual attraction.

Ultimately, Beowulf suffers from these elements, and because it didn't know what it wanted to be. You can't have an epic saga that also wants to be an anti-heroic, emasculation of the male warrior myth, all wrapped up in one film. I would have been much more happy with a straight adaptation of the poem itself, shorn of all the modern detritus that Zemeckis, Gaiman, and co. thought necessary in order to bring it to a modern audience.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Quote of the day--Lord Dunsany

"And you that sought for magic in your youth but desire it not in your age, know that there is a blindness of spirit which comes from age, more black than the blindness of eye, making a darkness about you across which nothing may be seen, or felt, or known, or in any way apprehended."

--Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland's Daughter