Thursday, August 28, 2008

Some cool bits rediscovered while re-reading The Lord of the Rings

So in case it's not already obvious, I'm currently in the middle of re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. I'm not exactly sure how many times I've read it cover to cover, but I'd probably guess somewhere in the neighborhood of six or seven times at least, which includes a few occasions listening to it on audiotape.

Yet every time I read The Lord the Rings (I get the urge every few years, and seemingly more often as time goes by) I always find something new or remember bits and pieces I've forgotten. Here are a few "finds" from my latest trip into Middle-Earth, of which at the present time I'm currently standing with the fellowship at the gates of Moria:

The battle with the wargs outside Moria. I may have forgotten this because it was not included in Jackson's films, but it was neat to read about the Fellowship kindling their small fire into a blaze, and standing back-to-back in a circle of stones to defend themselves against an attacking pack of wargs. Gandalf, who always gets criticized by D&D geeks (like me) for his inability to cast fireball or chain lightning, shows off a few powers in this battle that I had forgotten:

In the wavering firelight Gandalf seemed suddenly to grow: he rose up, a great menacing shape like the monument of some ancient king of stone set upon a hill. Stooping like a cloud, he lifted a burning branch and strode to meet the wolves. They gave back before him. High in the air he tossed the blazing brand. It flared with a sudden white radiance like lightning; and his voice rolled like thunder.

"Naur an edraith ammen! Naur dan i ngaurhoth!" he cried.

There was a roar and a crackle, and the tree above him burst into a leaf and bloom of blinding flame. The fire leapt from tree-top to tree-top. The whole hill was crowned with dazzling light.

Earlier in the Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf also puts out some serious flame in his battle with the Ringwraiths on Weathertop.

By the way, Tolkien's wargs are wolves, save more bestial and intelligent and perhaps slightly larger. Jackson's wargs always struck me as too oversized, hyena-like, and comic-booky to wholly take seriously.

Three (and perhaps four) of the seven dwarven rings of power remain intact. In the chapter "The Council of Elrond," Gloin reveals that an emissary of Sauron came to Dain and the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain to enlist their aid in finding the One Ring. The emissary says that Sauron will return these three rings to the dwarves if they find the hobbit who stole the One:

"As a small token only of your friendship Sauron asks this," he said: 'that you should find this thief,' such was his word, "and get from him, willing or no, a little ring, the least of rings, that once he stole. It is but a trifle that Sauron fancies, and an earnest of your good will. Find it, and three rings that the Dwarf-sires possessed of old shall be returned to you, and the realm of Moria shall be yours for ever.'"

Also, a fourth dwarven ring may yet survive in Moria, as it was on the hand of Thror when he was slain during his ill-fated adventure in the mines. Only three were actually destroyed, consumed by dragon-fire. My faulty memory had me thinking they were all annihilated.

Beorn (of The Hobbit fame) has a son named Grimbeorn, who is now the lord of many sturdy men and guards the land between the Mountains and Mirkwood. I always liked Beorn and I was pleased to see his name mentioned again.

Tom Bombadil raises Sam, Merry, and Pippin from the dead after they are slain by the barrow-wight. Previously I always assumed they were under a spell, or simply drained of life and cold but only deep in sleep. Now it seems as though they were actually dead when Frodo found them.

Here's my reasoning: The three hobbits disappear into the Barrow Downs mysteriously, "with a long wail suddenly cut short." All three are deathly pale and clad in white with a naked sword across their necks when Frodo finds them lying in the barrow. When Bombadil "awakes" them, he sings:

Warm now be heart and limb! The cold stone is fallen;

Dark door is standing wide; dead hand is broken.

Night under Night is flown, and the Gate is open!

This verse carries a double meaning. First the literal one: Tom breaks down the door of the wight's barrow to rescue the hobbits and destroys the wight's still writhing hand. Then the figurative one: The "cold stone" is a grave stone that Tom overturns; the "dark door" is the door to the afterlife which Tom opens with his singing, and the "dead hand" is death's grip.

Adding more weight to this argument, Merry remembers how the men of Carn Dum came on them at night, and one thrust a spear into his heart. Later he thinks that this may be a dream, but I'm not so sure. I think he, Pippin, and Sam were dead.

This line from Gandalf's letter to the hobbits, delivered at The Prancing Pony: I hope Butterbur sends this promptly. A worthy man, but his memory is like a lumber-room: thing wanted always buried. If he forgets, I shall roast him.

Frodo leaving dirty dishes for Lobelia after eating his last meal at Bag End, and also drinking up the rest of the Old Winyards. I laughed out loud to see Frodo stick it to the old crone.

... and some scenes I remembered but are nevertheless cool upon re-reading

"Come back! Come back!" they called. "To Mordor we will take you!" This famous line of the Ringwraiths uttered at the Ford of Bruinen I of course remembered (it's one of my favorites), but it was nice to read it again. I really missed this one from Jackson's films, and I give points to Ralph Bakshi's animated version for including it.

Fear! Fire! Foes! Awake! Awake! The Brandybucks were blowing the Horn-call of Buckland, that had not been sounded for a hundred years, not since the white wolves came in the Fell Winter, when the Brandywine was frozen over. Tolkien had the history of Middle-Earth largely mapped out long before he began writing The Lord of the Rings, and it shows in cool details like this.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Free will in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Choice and persuasion in a fine balance

Note: I was driven to write the following (lengthy) essay out of my struggles with a simple question: Did Frodo succumb to the One Ring’s overbearing power at the cracks of Mount Doom, or did he falter because he lacked the will to complete his task? This debate will probably live forever amongst readers of The Lord of the Rings, but here I offer my perspective on the matter.


“Now at any rate he is as bad an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.”

Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least.

When Bilbo and Frodo’s instincts cry out for vengeance upon the creature Gollum, their heart—and Gandalf’s good counsel—stays their hands. This combination of free will and outside influence enables the destruction of the One Ring, saving Middle Earth from enslavement and destruction at the hands of Sauron.

J.R.R. Tolkien was deeply Catholic and The Lord of the Rings, despite its absence of God or modern conceptions of Heaven and Hell, is a religious work (Tolkien himself says as much in an oft-quoted letter to a friend). And just as God imbued his creations with free will, so too are Tolkien's denizens free to choose their own destiny.

But the hobbits, elves, dwarves, and men of Middle Earth do not operate in a vacuum. There are great powers at work that influence their choices for good or ill.

Manichaen vs. Boethian
In The Road to Middle Earth, a seminal analysis of Tolkien’s act of world-building, author Tom Shippey examines this tension of free will vs. larger forces in a discussion on Manichaen and Boethian views of good and evil. Shippey explains that the Manichaen view is one of palpable good and evil forces in opposition with one another. The Boethian view holds that evil is simply the absence of good, and because men are blank slates with no inherent good (or evil) qualities, evil acts are choices. More accurately, in the Boethian view, “evil” is a weakness of character since evil actions are committed by men who give in to their lesser, animalistic state.

Which view does Tolkien espouse? Shippey offers no answer and neither does The Lord of the Rings. Both are supported in the text. There is ample evidence that the Ring and its master, Sauron, are powerful evil forces able to assert their dominance and will over lesser beings. For example, in “The Shadow of the Past” we learn that even someone like Gandalf—very strong and possessed of the best intentions—will sooner or later be devoured if he should wield the ring. The One Ring seeks to enslave its wearer, violating the God-given (or, in Tolkien’s world, Iluvatar-given) gift of free will. These are all Manichaen forces.

And yet, those of sufficient strength and character can resist the Ring. Faramir and Galadriel resist it. And when Frodo chooses to keep the Ring instead of casting it into the fires of Mount Doom, note Tolkien’s deliberate use of the word “choose”:

“I have come,” he said. “But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!”

But even if it cannot dictate will, the One Ring is nevertheless a powerful and seductive weapon of evil. Opposing this evil are powerful forces of good such as Gandalf (who is actually a Maiar, a sort of angel sent to Middle Earth by the Valar) and the Dunedain, the rangers at the borders keeping out the encroaching forces of evil. (It’s interesting to note that good beings in Tolkien’s universe seek to uphold tradition and sameness, while “evil” forces bring about change). Many races of Middle Earth succumb to the evil and join Sauron’s side, swayed by power or fear, but others fight for the light.

An example of this larger, external clash of powerful forces is told in the creation and finding of the One Ring in “The Shadow of the Past,” the critical second chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring. When the One Ring abandoned Gollum and threatened to return to Sauron, a force of good intervened, causing Bilbo to pick it up. Says Gandalf:

"Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought."

One issue I remain unclear on is: who or what is the force of good that directs Bilbo’s hand to the Ring in the darkness of Gollum’s cave. The implications of it being Iluvatar, the maker, are enormous, as it implies that Tolkien's universe is essentially good and controlled by a beneficent God. I'm not entirely sure of that, given the tragedies of earlier ages and the departure of the elves. But that's for another post.

Regardless, Gandalf tells Frodo that one of these forces has chosen him to be the Ring-bearer. Although Gandalf doesn’t know who or what selected Frodo for this monumental task, or why, he explains that fate has dealt Frodo a hand that he must work with, for good or ill: “But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have,” Gandalf says.

Free will and fate
Thrust into the middle of these warring forces of good and evil is the free peoples of Middle Earth. Despite the fact that they live in a world of literal angels and demons in strife, the people of Middle Earth are possessed of free will.

Some have criticized Tolkien for creating unrealistically clear divisions between good and evil, but I would argue that The Lord of the Rings presents a much more complex and interesting dynamic. For example, even the iconic wicked characters—the Nazgul—are corrupted men, fallen under the influence of the ring due to their pride. They were not born into evil. Likewise, Gollum wrestles with his dark half—Smeagol—and nearly throws it off, but chooses the path of darkness after a harsh rebuke by Sam on the stairs to Cirith Ungol. Very few creatures, save perhaps the orcs and Balrogs, creations of the dark lord, are clearly wicked.

Because strife in Middle Earth is inevitable (“Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again,” Tolkien writes), everyone—even the sheltered and peace-loving hobbits—must eventually take sides in the conflict.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Note Gandalf’s use of the word “decide” in this seminal passage. There are times and circumstances thrust upon us beyond our control. Forces exist that try to exert or impose their will for good or ill. It is our lot to join the dark tide, or resist.

But while these forces can influence, they cannot wholly divest control from beings of free will. Bilbo and Frodo choose to let Gollum live, acts of Mercy that are beyond the striving wills of even the greatest powers. “For even the very wise cannot see all ends,” Gandalf says.

Predisposed toward good and evil?
So can the peoples of Middle Earth simply pick good or evil? This matter is complicated. Take Gollum: Even before he finds the One Ring, when he was still Smeagol, Tolkien depicts him as having some sinister characteristics: “He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunneled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-top, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.”

This seems to imply that Gollum was predisposed to the evil influence of the Ring, and indeed he murders his brother, Deagol, shortly after the latter finds it.

Contrast Gollum’s traits with Bilbo and Frodo. Unlike Gollum the two hobbits are fond of the open air, and gardens, and good company. Although they love home and hearth have a deep-seated love of adventure and foreign people and places (their Tookish) side. As a result Bilbo and Frodo are able to possess the Ring for years, suffering very little despite the Ring’s dark power. Possessiveness and worry for the Ring slowly influence them, and the Ring’s ability to confer long and unnatural life affects them physically. But they are not driven to commit evil acts.

Nevertheless, The One Ring’s power eventually proves too strong for even the good-natured Hobbits: Bilbo needs the strong urging (and borderline threats) of Gandalf to rid himself of it, and its influence proves too great for Frodo in Mount Doom.

There are weak people on Middle-Earth (just as there are in our own world), who are easy prey for charismatic, wicked leaders, or else commit crimes motivated by their baser instincts. Even the strong can falter. Are those who fail morally or spiritually to be pitied or cast out? Tolkien’s belief is quite clear.

Frodo’s “failure” and the choice of pity
An obvious yet often overlooked fact of The Lord of the Rings is that Frodo actually “fails” in his quest: He gives in to the temptation of the Ring at the (literal) precipice of the quest and refuses to destroy it.

If you are of the Manichaen view, Frodo failed because the Ring’s power (amplified by its location at the heart of Mount Doom) was simply too great: it will eventually corrupt even the greatest, as noted by Gandalf. The choice in the end was not Frodo’s to make. You can even argue that Frodo’s words “I do not choose now to do what I came to do” are the words of the controlling Ring; Tolkien mentions that Frodo speaks with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use when he utters that line.

If you are of the Boethian view, Frodo gives in to his own inherent weakness, the weakness in us all to covet. In this view, Frodo simply wanted the Ring and its power too much; he did not have the strength of will to cast it into the fire because he desired its power to fill a void within himself. In other words, his selfishness prevailed over the larger good.

My own opinion? I tend to side with the latter. There is too much evidence to suggest that free will cannot be wholly subsumed in Tolkien’s world, even by the strongest powers.

But I cannot fault Frodo for his ultimate “failure”—he had managed to bring the Ring further than any had dared hope. And he had already sewn the seeds of success by his mercy for Gollum, an act of free will influenced by good counsel from Gandalf, the avatar of good. Because Bilbo and later Frodo let him live, Gollum is there to tip the balance when he bites the Ring from Frodo’s finger, destroying it when he tumbles into the fires of Mount Doom.

“What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hail to the King, baby: Army of Darkness still holds up

A couple days ago I re-watched Army of Darkness with a buddy of mine (Scott of Scott's Thoughts). Scott had never seen the film previously and it had been years since my last viewing. I didn't know if he'd like it or if it was actually as funny as I remembered.

Man, was I thinking this one through way too much. I'm glad to say that this 1992 cult classic of comedic horror/action remains as hilarious and as quoteable as ever. It's no surprise that Scott is now corrupted: I've yet to meet someone who watches Army of Darkness without latching on to at least one of actor Bruce Campbell's famous one-liners. Sure enough the next day Scott was dropping lines like "that's just pillow-talk baby" and "You ain't leading but two things right now--Jack and shit," into casual conversation with our confused wives.

Mission accomplished.

I have a long history with the "Evil Dead" trilogy, of which Army of Darkness is the third (and arguably the best, though Evil Dead II with its Lovecraftian vibe is in the running). Although I'm not the type to shout "there first" with cult films and other media that become popular only years after their release, I can (and will) stake that claim that with the Evil Dead trilogy.

Travel with me back in time to 1989 or thereabouts. Neither I nor any of my friends had ever heard of The Evil Dead, nor the name of Bruce Campbell. One night while watching HBO late at night with my father, we happened upon a scene of a unconscious man on a dirty kitchen floor being dragged, painfully, on his face through a pile of broken plates--by his own possessed hand. We paused and watched. Seconds later the man--Campbell, of course--proceeded to plunge a knife through through his hand, pinning it to the floor.

"Who's laughing now?" he asked, grinning/grimacing through the pain. I was certainly laughing--howling, in fact--and by the time Bruce chopped off the infected member with a chainsaw, I was hooked. I watched the rest of the film in laughter and awe, and when the credits rolled I wrote down the name of the movie on a scrap piece of paper--Evil Dead II.

That weekend I hurried to the local video store (remember those?) and was thrilled to find a VHS copy of Evil Dead II in the horror section with its grinning skull-head on the cover. Soon I showed it to all my friends, and our own local chapter of the cult of Bruce Campbell was born. Needless to say I was pleased when these films became "cult classics" years later, and could smile inwardly knowing that I had been in on their coolness long before most of the horror underground discovered them.

Although I like all three movies in the Evil Dead trilogy, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness are my favorites because of their bizarre humor. These latter two films' success owe a great deal to the talents of Campbell, who may not be a great (or even good) dramatic actor, but succeeds remarkably at playing Ash, a wise-cracking, arrogant, unlucky yet tough and resourceful anti-hero. Campbell can play other roles (he was great as "Elvis" in Bubba Ho-Tep), but he'll always be Ash, just like William Shatner will always be Captain James T. Kirk. And that's good enough.

Indeed, while watching Army of Darkness I was struck by how much this film's success depends entirely on Campbell. He's in virtually every scene, and has to carry Army of Darkness' mostly awful special effects (stop-motion animation? The 7th Voyage of Sinbad used this technique better in 1958). But he succeeds remarkably well, in my opinion.

No one's ever been better than Campbell battling the undead with a chainsaw and a sawed-off shotgun. Which gives me a lot of hope for My Name is Bruce.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Heavy metal heresies

Courtesy of my heavy metal (electric) eye in the sky, Falze, here are two recent items of metal interest too juicy to pass up.

1. Dio-slagging Black Sabbath review.

I'm normally a pretty level-headed guy, but there are a few commonly held misconceptions out there that are so wrong that I can't resist stomping them out whenever I see them rear their misguided heads. These include:

1. Fantasy is for children
2. Bruce Campell is not the best actor of his generation
3. The Dio Black Sabbath years sucked

It's the latter of these three which has my current ire, courtesy of this wrong-headed review of Black Sabbath: The Rules of Hell by AP writer Chris Talbott.

Now, I can't say I disagree with Talbott's central premise: that another best-of Sabbath album is not necessary. The only band less in need of another best-of album is probably KISS. So I'm good with the first two paragraphs.

Then we're hit with this monstrous stupidity:

Five-disc "The Rules of Hell" covers the overbaked Ronnie James Dio years, an exercise that wasn't really necessary for posterity's sake. By the time the band fired Osbourne, there wasn't much of interest left musically and Dio mostly disappoints.

Excuse me? Dio "mostly disappoints?" Has this dude heard of Heaven and Hell, for my money Sabbath's best album ever, or Mob Rules? "Wasn't much of interest left musically?" Dude, Sign of the Southern Cross and Children of the Sea were an evolution in structure and sound from the Ozzy years. They're musical marvels.

This next quip caused by blood to boil:

But there's no need to lob insults at the ever worshipful camp of Dio fans. Like those Van Halen fans who prefer Sammy Hagar over David Lee Roth, just smile and nod your head when they talk.

I don't know how to respond to this one, only to state the obvious: Dio is a metal god. If you think otherwise we will duel at dawn. With broadswords, of course.

I've got two words for anyone who thinks the Dio Sabbath years were overrated: Die Young.

Disclaimer: that's not a threat, it's a title of an excellent, Dio-fronted Sabbath tune.

2. Lindsey Lohan in an Iron Maiden t-shirt.

I'm conflicted about this. I don't know a darned thing about Lohan or her music tastes. She may be a raging metalhead for all I know, in which case she has every right to walk around with Eddie on her bosom.

But I seriously doubt that's the case. Come on, you expect me to believe that Lindsey Lohan belts out Hallowed be thy Name while tooling around L.A. in her sportscar?

Here's what I really think. Iron Maiden has become one of those "retro-cool" bands that

a. Are hip to reference; and
b. Are a fashion statement (in an emo-sense)

Of course, you must do both ironically. You can name-drop Iron Maiden or wear their t-shirts, but you have to laugh it off. And, you must not under any circumstances actually listen to their music or admit to really liking Iron Maiden, because, well, that would make you decidedly "uncool."

I get the strong feeling this is why Lohan is wearing this t-shirt.

On the other hand, she looks so damned good in it, twice as good as any chick I've ever seen at an Iron Maiden concert (or any heavy metal concert, for that matter), that I'm willing to give her a free pass.

Lindsey, rock on. I'll meet you at 22 Acacia Avenue.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Hobbit: Awakening the Took in us

Note: This is the first of a few essays I plan to write about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s hard to express the impact Tolkien’s writings have had upon myself but I hope to explain at least some of the reasons why on The Silver Key.


This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained—well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

--J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Did Bilbo Baggins “gain” anything in the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit? Of course, the answer is yes. On his adventures over the Misty Mountains, through the gloom of Mirkwood forest, and to his eventual confrontation with Smaug in Lonely Mountain, Bilbo accumulates great personal wealth and earns eternal honor and stature amongst the great peoples of the Third Age.

But Bilbo returns to Bag End with more than just treasure and fame. His adventure with the dwarves ignites a spirit that he never knew he had, one that lies dormant in us all. His personal gain is the true treasure of his journey, and this (among a host of other reasons) is in my opinion what makes The Hobbit a truly special book.

A bit of Bilbo in us all
The Hobbit succeeds as an adventure story and a world-building creation, introducing us to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. But I also think it’s so successful and accessible because of its central character: it’s easy to identify with Bilbo. Like him, we’re fond of food and cheer and peace. Dangerous adventures are not the lot for most of us. For every “uncrowned king in waiting” (i.e., Aragorn) or “displaced grandson on a singular mission of revenge” (e.g., Thorin) there are a thousand Bilbos, whose struggles are with weeds in the garden or bothersome and nosy neighbors. The lot of men are actually hobbits at heart, if not in stature.

There is no shame in our Hobbit-like nature. It’s sensible to stay at home and out of the cold and wet, to favor hearth and home over sword and strife. The wide world is full of adventures, but many are dangerous and often do not end in happiness. Adventures also involve displacement—a shaking up of our comfortable, safe routines. It’s simply not easy to strike out on The Road.

But, as The Hobbit demonstrates, the rewards for such undertakings can be quite great.

At the start of The Hobbit Bilbo is living a comfortable, safe, nondescript existence at his home in Bag End. He seems content to smoke his pipe, enjoy his food and his garden, and live peacefully until the end of his days. But something stirs the pot: Gandalf comes knocking, carving a symbol on Bilbo’s round green door with his staff:

Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward.

Bilbo initially says he wants no part of Gandalf’s adventures. But the song of the dwarves in the dark of Bag End—one of my favorite scenes in all of Tolkien’s writings—stirs something in him:

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.

When Thorin finally reveals what the adventure will entail—crossing leagues of dangerous ground and recovering an ancient treasure possessed by the dragon Smaug—Bilbo is naturally scared out of his wits. He thinks the mission is crazy and wants no part of it.

However, despite his love of the comforts of home and the frightening prospect of the unknown, Bilbo yearns for something more. Part of him is not satisfied with his home and hearth. When he awakes to find that the dwarves have left without him, his reaction surprises him: Relief mixed with regret.

Indeed he was really relieved after all to think that they had all gone without him; and without bothering to wake him up… and yet in a way he could not help feeling just a trifle disappointed. The feeling surprised him.

“Don’t be a fool, Bilbo Baggins!” he said to himself, “thinking of dragons and all that outlandish nonsense at your age.”

Gandalf arrives and hustles Bilbo out the door and onto the road, famously without his pipe, tobacco, or pocket-handkerchief. But don’t be misled: Bilbo is not forced to undertake the journey to Lonely Mountain. Although he is swayed by song and shamed by cowardice, the choice is his. When opportunity (literally) lands on his doorstep in the form of a wizard and a tumble of dwarves, it wakes up a spirit of adventure that, if not nascent, is part of his fiber; Bilbo possesses the potential for great deeds and actions. This is his “Tookish” side.

When Bilbo overhears Gloin questioning his bravery the words set a spark to this heady mixture of fuel. He makes his choice right here:

Will he do, do you think? It is all very well for Gandalf to talk about this hobbit being fierce, but one shriek like that in a moment of excitement would be enough to wake the dragon and all his relatives, and kill the lot of us. I think it sounded more like fright than excitement! In fact, if it had not been for the sign on the door, I should have been sure we’d come to the wrong house. As soon as I clapped eyes on the little fellow bobbing and puffing on the mat, I had my doubts. He looks more like a grocer than a burglar.

Then Mr. Baggins turned the handle and went in. The Took side had won. He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce. As for little fellow bobbing on the mat it almost made him really fierce. Many a time afterwards the Baggins part regretted what he did not, and he said to himself: “Bilbo, you were a fool; you walked right in and put your foot in it.”

Bilbo soon has legitimate reasons for regret: his adventure nearly comes to a crashing end when he and the dwarves are captured by the trolls, only to be saved by Gandalf. But he proves his bravery when he drives off the spiders of Mirkwood, his resourcefulness when he frees the dwarves from the wood-elves, and his selflessness when he steals the Arkenstone to deliver it to Bard and the elves, sacrificing his share of the treasure and his friendship with the dwarves in a desperate attempt to forge a truce. He has experienced war and grieved the loss of some of his beloved companions. This is not the same Bilbo who thinks only of his personal comforts; he is awakened to a larger world of accountability.

When at last he returns to Bag-End to “Look at last on meadows green,” it is with a new vision, with “Eyes that fire and sword have seen, and horror in the halls of stone.” This is not the same Bilbo who went stumbling onto the Road; he is changed for the better, less innocent but also not as naive, wiser and self-sufficient and with a deeper appreciation for peace.

Chance, choice, and fate
So is Tolkien’s message in The Hobbit that we are in control of our own destiny, and that the future is purely what me make of it? I don’t believe it’s that simple. After all, had Gandalf not come along and knocked on his door, Bilbo likely never would have left Hobbiton.

At first glance, capriciousness seems to play a part in the events of The Hobbit. Gandalf, introduced in as a wandering wizard with a reputation for mystery and fireworks, arrives in Hobbiton to seek out a suitable burglar. Bilbo, middle-aged and leaving a bachelor’s existence, seems like a sensible choice on Gandalf's part, but little else.

But Tolkien offers early hints that Gandalf’s arrival is more than coincidence. He knows about Bilbo’s Tookish background and that there is more to him than meets the eye. Indeed, Gandalf selected Bilbo for this task:

“Of course there is a mark,” said Gandalf. “I put it there myself. For very good reasons.”

“Chance” is not the random series of events that it first appears to be in The Hobbit. There are much larger forces and powers at play that have a hand in fate’s shaping. Says Gandalf:

Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

Clearly there is a combination of choice and fate in The Hobbit. Middle-Earth is a world where larger forces and prophecies interact with men (and Hobbits) possessed of a free will. Which leads to the next question: Who is Gandalf and why has he chosen Bilbo, when he could have chosen many other great heroes of the Third Age? What led him to Bilbo’s door and why did he leave his mark? And how is free will and fate reconciled in Tolkien’s great myth, being The Lord of the Rings?

I’ll try to tackle these questions another time.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Three reasons I'm staying out of the 4E fray

So for all the hype, wailing, gnashing of teeth, criticism, and praise I've seen heaped upon the newest version of Dungeons and Dragons, I've yet to join the fray. Why? I haven't so much as glanced at a single page of the 4E rules, let alone purchased a copy.

Until now I've kept up with each new iteration of D&D: Starting with Moldvay basic back in 1981-82 or so, I played that for a short while and then switched to AD&D 1E, dabbled briefly in 2E, went on a prolonged roleplaying break, then resumed playing again in 2001 after picking up 3E. Currently I play in two 3.5E campaigns with the same group. So basically, I have purchased at least the core books of every edition of D&D that TSR and WOTC have published since 1981. It stands to reason that I should own a copy of fourth edition, at least for the curiousity factor. But I don't.

Why? I'm not sure myself. A touch of apathy, perhaps. But more likely its due to the following three reasons:

1. 3E is far from played out in our group. Our group has alternated two campaigns for seven years or so, but with our busy schedules we probably average one game every three weeks. In this time I've managed to advance one character (an elven ranger) up to level six, and another character (a human figher/rogue) up to ninth level. That's it. Not only have we not played a truly high level campaign, but we haven't even tried out all the character classes. Heck, I've never cast a spell in anger in 3E.

2. From what I've read, 4E seems like a pretty radical departure from the D&D I know. It still sounds like fun, just a different kind of fun: A lot more like a tactical miniatures exercise than past editions. Since I like miniatures games--and enjoy breaking out the battlemat in our 3.5 game--I'd probably like playing 4E. But whether or not it would scratch my D&D/roleplaying itch remains to be seen.

3. Wizards of the Coast's business strategy to release a regular stream of "core" rulebooks. This is the one that really irks me. Our group has gotten 7+ years of enjoyment out of 3E playing nothing but straight three book core, with all classes taken right from the Player's Handbook. I'm a bit uneasy about having to buy a stream of "core" player's handbooks to keep up with the rules. This may not bother hard-core D&Ders, or folks who want maximum character options, but for casual/occasional gamers like me it's a major turn-off. For example, I enjoy purchasing modules, but if they can't be used unless you own multi-volume core rules I won't be bothered.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Fargo Rock City is hair metal heartache

Give Chuck Klosterman a lot of credit: It takes talent to write a book that is so compulsively readable, intensely personal, and relentlessly engaging it's almost impossible to put down, and at the same time is so close-minded, indecisive, and well, flat-out incorrect on some matters that you also want to toss it through the nearest window.

These were the emotions I wrestled with while reading Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota. Would I recommend the book? Absolutely. The nostalgia and Klosterman's insights are worth the price of admission.

But if you're a fan of "real" heavy metal, be prepared to get angry.

Let me start by saying that Fargo Rock City is mistitled. For one, it's not actually set in Fargo, but details the author's years as a teenage rocker in the nearby town of Wyndmere. But that's hardly important. What is important, is, well, it's not really about heavy metal. It's about hair metal, and for anyone who knows a damned thing about metal, there's a big difference.

Klosterman's purpose for writing Fargo Rock City was to write a book about the cultural impact of heavy metal from a fan's perspective. It's a great concept, except that Klosterman only likes bands like Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Poison, Warrant, Def Leppard, and Cinderella. He does a terrific job explaining why their music deserves greater recognition and played a huge role in his formative teenage years, and continues to do so. He takes long overdue shots at pretentious music critics who turn up their noses at metal and try to pretend the whole damned genre never existed. He exhorts fellow metal fans, now in their 30's and 40's, to shed their guilt and proudly proclaim their love for metal.

Awesome! I'm on board!

But then Klosterman essentially slags all of the rest of metal, the real stuff at its best. Bands like Judas Priest, Motorhead, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Slayer, and Megadeth, not to mention death metal, power metal, black metal, etc. are either overlooked or treated with outright contempt. Which kind of groups Klosterman in with the same types of pretentious music critics that he himself takes delight in skewering.

Still, I do highly recommend this book as a fun, lively, engaging read. It's certainly $12 I don't regret spending. As I read it, I felt compelled to jot down or highlight some of the stuff that got my head nodding in agreement or my blood pressure soaring (which is generally a strong sign of a worthwhile read). Here are a few:

The Good

It evokes intense bouts of nostalgia. For the record, I don't hate hair metal. Far from it. I'm a big fan of KISS, and there's lots to love about Guns and Roses, Def Leppard, and Motley Crue. Klosterman's passion for this style of music is contagious, and his recollection of the 1980's small-town metal lifestyle--cruising aimlessly around in cars, listening to tapes (not CDs or records, but tapes, damn it), feeling bad-ass without actually being bad-ass, being on the "inside" of a genre of music reviled by not only your parents, but radio stations, mass media and all "those people" that just didn't get it--rings true. I remember those days with fondness.

He nails the definition of glam metal. Klosterman calls it an appeal to an unspoken lifestyle, that of living the life of a bad-ass, hard-partying rocker. I'm still convinced that metal fans were as much in love with the image and the idea of metal as they were the sound.

He has a good taste in glam metal. Klosterman sings the praises of Cinderella and Guns and Roses, undoubtedly the two best bands in the hair metal genre. His favorite album and one he feels best represents what glam metal is all about is Appetite for Destruction (agreed). He says Long Cold Winter may have been one of the best albums of the 1980s in any genre. Again, no quarrels from me.

His criticisms of alternative music are dead-on. The "Seattle wave" may have knocked metal off of its pop culture pedestal and sent it sprawling on its bloated ass, but the grunge/alternative message that replaced metal was, at its core, hollow and phony. And, unlike Poison and Winger, it wasn't even fun: Says Klosterman:

"Bret Michaels was important because he never tried to be; he just wanted to be cool, which was once the single biggest goal in my life. Too many of those indie bands were consumed with the misguided belief that their destiny was to recalibrate the American mind; they tried to hard to seem significant."

The Bad

He consistenly conflates hair metal with heavy metal. Klosterman: "Every style of music has its own philosophy of ethics. Heavy metal's philosophy was about getting wasted as possible and walking into a room with a bimbo on both of your arms." Um, excuse me? Not that I'm opposed to that philosophy, and it may be true of hair metal, but it's not true of a great number of heavy metal acts. I love to party and act stupid, too, but I like to think that metal--or at least some metal--is about something more than "Don't need nothing, but a good time." But it seems that bands who don't drink themselves into oblivion or bang everything that moves are beneath the author.

He misunderstands and often trashes real heavy metal. Klosterman describes Iron Maiden as "boring and self-consciously complex," and the lyrics "more comedic than poetic." He also claims that Maiden became an elite band due to Eddie, their mascot. He cannot seem to grasp what makes Maiden a great band, and why they've been at it successfully for 30 years while burying his favorite bands (GNR, Def Leppard, etc.) in the process.

Sure, Klosterman admits to liking the occasional Priest, Sabbath, and Metallica song. But you know it's all an act when he makes statements like "The Mob Rules was the only decent post-Ozzy Sabbath tune." Tell that to the crowds still turning out to see Heaven and Hell, Klosterman.

...and the Ugly

He has bands like Warrant and Bon Jovi on his "desert island" list of must-have albums. Remind me to bring a straight razor the next time I take a cruise, in case I ever get marooned with this guy. Suicide is preferable to "Down Boys" anyday.

This statement: Klosterman actually wrote that "Idiots always say that Metallica "sold out" between ...And Justice For All and their eponymous 1992 Black Album, but that's nothing compared to their evolution from 1983's Kill 'Em All to 1984's Ride the Lightning."

This is so dumb, I don't know where to begin. First of all, Metallica did sell out on the Black Album, and it's not even debateable--it's a goddamned scientific fact that can be proven in laboratory tests. Second of all, there is a big difference between an evolution in sound, which is the result of maturity (Metallica was extremely young in the 'Kill Em All days), and a conscious decision to abandon one's sound and metal roots in a blatant attempt to sell more records. Which is exactly what Metallica did in 1992.

He is a mass of contradictions. Klosterman sets out in Fargo Rock City to elevate heavy metal as a genre as worthy of study and respect as any other era/style of music. He has no problem psychoanalyzing Ozzy or Axl Rose, and at one point he even compares (seemingly without irony) GNR Lies to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But he backtracks on this stance several times, often settling for weak and ironic self-deprecation. For instance, he claims "serious" metal fans are unlikeable. He takes shots at the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBM) movement, claiming it was not fresh, not likeable, and needlessly complex. He claims hair metal is superior because it's more fun and more rocking.

In other words, when you get right down to it, Klosterman frowns on the act of applying rigor to an analysis of metal. He later ridicules most rock fans for being idiots, because they don't understand that they're consuming a form of media made to appeal to the masses. What we have in the end is author who undercuts his own high-minded arguments for why he wrote the book in the first place. And finally:

He thinks Animalize is the best non-makeup KISS album. Enough said.


In summary, how can Fargo Rock City claim to be a treatise on the defense of heavy metal while completely leaving 3/4 of heavy metal out of the discussion, save for taking a few cheap swipes at it? Klosterman is brilliant when he writes about hair metal and its appeal--the girls, the booze, the fun, the empowerment, and the idyllic, wild lifestyles of singers like Axl Rose and David Lee Roth. But he totally whiffs on what makes bands like Maiden and Dio great. If glam brought the fun, the real metal bands delivered fantasy, imagery, power, storytelling, incredible singing, and superb musicianship--in other words, a very different form of entertainment than that offered by hair metal, but certainly no less worthy of respect or analysis.

It's really too bad, and in the end it's a severe shortcoming of a book that could have/should have struck deeper power chords.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Cimmerian sightings

Nothing earth-shattering to add with this post, just a "heads up" for fantasy fans to head on over to The Cimmerian to check out some recent interesting posts by Steve Tompkins. The former is a recap of recent sword and sorcery fiction, and the latter a critique of recent fantasy films:

Also, I recently received Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard (pictured here) in the mail from Borders. I'm really looking forward to reading this and will post a review once I do. I have (gulp) never read a full biography of Robert E. Howard and I hope to rectify that soon.