Friday, October 31, 2008

Annabel Lee

By Edgar Allan Poe

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee--
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love--
I and my Annabel Lee--
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me--
Yes!--that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we--
Of many far wiser than we--
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:
And so, all the night-tide, I lay down by the side
Of my darling--my darling--my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea--
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fright Night: 1980s + vampires=fun

You won't see Fright Night, a semi-obscure, fun little vampire flick from 1986, on many "best of" horror movie lists. Nevertheless, it's one of my personal favorites. Fright Night packs into it all the elements I ask of a good horror film: A decent plot, some reasonable acting, a little mayhem, some monsters, a handful of nice visual effects, and a little bit of skin. On all these requirements, Fright Night delivers.

You can tell that writer/director Tom Holland is a horror fan. The film is very much an homage to Hammer Horror, a UK-based series of classic monster films that ran from roughly the late 1950's to the early 1970's whose line included such memorable titles as Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein. Fright Night is also a love-letter to the once-prevalent late-night horror celebrity-hosted movie shows such as Elvira Movie Macabre and Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs. In fact, the movie derives its name from a fictional and self-referential B-horror television program.

The basic plot of Fright Night is as follows: Main character Charlie Brewster is up late watching Fright Night while making out with his girlfriend Amy (pretty much a perfect horror movie beginning). Glancing out his window, Charlie sees two men carrying a coffin into the basement of a vacant house next door. The next day, a stream of gorgeous prostitutes begin to show up at the house, followed shortly by evening news reports of a series of murders.

Charlie begins to spy on the going-on at the house, and late one night he sees his new neighbor, Jerry Dandrige, kissing a beautiful woman in the window. Dandridge leans in to kiss her neck and opens his mouth wide--to reveal a set of wicked fangs. He's just about to bite the woman when he looks up and sees Charlie watching, wide-eyed. Dandridge pulls down the shade to complete his feast.

Convinced Dandridge is a vampire and behind the string of murders, Charlie seeks out the services of Peter Vincent, Vampire Killer and host of Fright Night (and an obvious 1:1 correlation to Hammer Horror's Peter Cushing). Vincent has just been fired from Fright Night, which has fallen sharply in the ratings due to the public's current thirst for "psychotic ski masked killers." But Vincent, thinking that Charlie is just a crazy kid, refuses his appeal for help.

Desperate, Charlie decides to sneak next door and drive a stake into Dandridge's heart. Amy and Charlie's friend Ed Thompson (another horror fan appropriately nicknamed Evil), don't believe Charlie's claims that Dandridge is a vampire, but in order to stop him from committing murder they recruit Vincent to perform a phony "vampire testing" ceremony on Dandridge. "Just like in Orgy of the Dead!" says Evil. Dandridge drinks holy water (tap water) supplied by Vincent and passes the "test." But Vincent, exiting the house, notices in a handmirror that Dandridge casts no reflection. The action really picks up from there.

Some of my favorite elements from Fright Night include the following:

Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandridge. Dandridge must have done some film study of the 1979 film Dracula when prepping for his role, as he reminds me of a funnier, more self-deprecating Frank Langella. Dandridge is not in the mold of a frightening Nosferatu, a-la Kurt Barlow from Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot. Rather, he's a handsome seducer and pours on the sex appeal to charm his way into his victim's lives.

Dandridge is introduced in a great scene that starts when Evil tells Charlie that a vampire cannot enter someone's house unless he is invited inside by its rightful owner. That night when nailing his bedroom window shut Charlie's mother calls him downstairs. "I had someone over I'd like you to meet," she says. The look on Charlie's face when he sees Dandridge reclining in his living room easy chair is priceless.

Classic vampires--with a twist. Fright Night has all the standard vampire trappings I like: An aversion to crosses and holy water, sleeping in coffins, avoiding daylight, inhuman strength, shape-shifting ability, etc. I don't like stories that mess too much with the old tropes. But Fright Night makes subtle tweaks to the formula that work. For example, instead of a broken down, Gothic-style home or a haunted Transylvanian castle, Dandridge lives in a not too out of the ordinary home in the heart of a suburban neighborhood.

Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent. McDowall is the best actor in the film and his transformation from a phony, self-absorbed small TV star to real-life heroic vampire killer is a joy to watch.

1980's nostalgia. Fright Night is very much a period piece and has all the trappings (the distinct clothes and hairstyles, even a cheesy nightclub with synthesizer music) that those who grew up the decade know and love.

Fright Night isn't without its flaws. One subplot in particular (Dandridge is drawn to Amy, Charlie's girlfriend, because she looks like a woman he used to love ages ago) is not at all developed and wholly unnecessary. But overall it's another film that, along with The Lair of the White Worm and An American Werewolf in London, treads the horror and humor line just perfectly. It's certainly given me great enjoyment over the years and has held up to multiple October viewings.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

An American Werewolf in London: Lycanthropy has never been so fun

"Stay on the road, keep clear of the moors... beware the moon, lads."

--Unnamed patron of the Slaughtered Lamb, from
An American Werewolf in London

In his non-fiction study of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King lays out the case that evil in fiction can be broken out into three archetypes--the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Thing Without a Name. According to King, the Werewolf archetype includes stories that explore the evil lurking within mankind, "something vicious in the human makeup that has not yet been bred out."

But when it comes to actual on-screen depictions of the beasts themselves, werewolves have received a middle child's neglect--or worse, outright abuse (see most of The Howling series, the miserable An American Werewolf in Paris, etc.). One of the few and notable celluloid exceptions is the terrific 1981 film An American Werewolf in London, for my money still the best werewolf film of all time and a true standout in the horror genre.

An American Werewolf in London opens with sweeping views of the moors of Northern England. The sinister and mist-shrouded landscape is ringed with steep hills that seem to conceal something terrible, a hungry creature watching the land for potential victims. There is nowhere to hide or to run. Civilization (such as it can be called) consists of small towns huddled in vales, points of light in the darkness.

Over this opening visual sequence comes the song "Blue Moon" (with its ominous line, "Now I'm no longer alone.") This juxtaposition of light-hearted music and dread-filled imagery sets the tone for the remainder of this underappreciated horror classic. Director John Landis' skillful balancing of comedy and horror is in large part what makes An American Werewolf in London so enduring and memorable.

As the film opens, Jack and David (played by actor David Naughton), two young American travelers hiking their way across europe on an ill-fated vacation, are hitchiking on the back of a farm truck with a load of sheep, and are unceremoniously dumped at an intersection in the heart of the moors. The two walk into a small village and, seeking comfort from the cold, enter an inn ominously named The Slaughtered Lamb. Jack makes the mistake of asking about a pentagram on the wall and the mood in the inn immediately turns hostile and sour. Finding themselves unwanted, Jack and David prepare to leave into the moonlit light. As they depart a local issues an ominous warning: "Stay on the road, keep clear of the moors... beware the moon, lads."

In a terrifyingly effective sequence, David and Jack are stalked on the moors and savagely attacked by a werewolf. Jack suffers a horrible death and David is left wounded and bleeding... to himself become a werewolf at the next full moon. While recouperating in a London hospital, David and his nurse, Alex, become romantically involved. But their idyllic romance is interrupted by David's horrible dreams, which include sequences of himself running nude through the woods, transforming into something monstrous, as well as visions of wanton destruction inflicted on those he loves. This is the lycanthrope lurking inside David, dark porents of the horror he will soon unwillingly inflict on the people of London.

Once again Landis injects levity back into the story with the reappearance of Jack. Though he's now undead, and horribly mauled to boot, Jack retains his wisecracking, self-deprecating personality (in fact, the two chat about Jack's funeral service back in the United States, with Jack complaining about his grief-stricken girlfriend finding solace in the bed of another man). Jack tells David that the only way the curse of lycanthropy can be broken--and Jack's soul laid to rest--is to end the werewolf's bloodline, of which David is now the inheritor. "Take your life David. Kill yourself--before you kill others," Jack urges.

Like the voice of David's conscience, Jack returns again and again throughout the film, his visage growing worse and worse with each appearance due to the onset of rot, each time imploring David to take his own life. By the end of the film all the flesh has fallen away from Jack's face, leaving a grinning skull. In a memorable scene, David meets the heavily-decayed Jack in a sleazy adult movie theatre along with six other victims of his first murderous rampage in London. Their mauled corpses offer suggestions as to how David can best kill himself as the grunts and sighs of a porno flick drone on in the background.

All in all, this is one of my all-time favorite horror films and one that I find myself returning to annually each Halloween.

I won't spoil the ending, but I'd be remiss if didn't mention at least a few other of my favorite scenes/elements from the film:

The werewolf transformation sequence. Done prior to the advent of CGI, this is a masterpiece of latex, fake hair, and camera tricks that, 27 years later, remains the best werewolf transformation ever put to film. Naughton does a great job of conveying the agony of changing into a werewolf as his body is wracked with unnatural growths, including lengthening leg bones, a snout bursting through his face, and hands and feet that stretch and sprout claws.

David's attempt to get arrested. When David discovers to his horror that he is a werewolf and responsible the murders of six London civilians, he attempts to get arrested and thrown behind bars to prevent himself from killing again. He runs up to a policeman and begs to be taken to jail ("I want you to arrest me you asshole!"). When the officer refuses, he shouts at the growing crowd, "Queen Elizabeth is a man, Prince Charles is a faggot, Winston Churchill was full of shit, Shakespeare was French!" This is laugh-out-loud funny.

The subway scene. In his werewolf form David pursues a businessman in the subway tunnels beneath London. Landis wisely takes a cue from Jaws and keeps the werewolf largely off-screen, which proves very effective: Its deep, bestial growl echoing in the cavernous mouth of the subway tunnel is terrifying, as are the few glimpses we get of hate-filed eyes and gray fur. In the businessman's panicked looks over his shoulder we can see the approach of his own horrible death (I note that when Landis does show the werewolf in the full light of the London streetlamps at the end of the film, it's not nearly as scary).

I also have to give props to the soundtrack, which includes the aforementioned "Blue Moon," as well as other appropriate werewolf songs (Van Morrison's "Moondance" and "Bad Moon Rising" by CCR).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The perverse underbelly of horror: A review of The Lair of the White Worm

Note: I have a weakness for horror films of all types--good and bad, classic and B-grade, you name it--that the approach of Halloween always brings out. The following is the first review of a couple of lesser-known horror films that also happen to be among my favorites.

Funny, gruesome, sexy, campy, hallucinogenic, uneven, and twisted are just a few of the adjectives I'd use to describe The Lair of the White Worm. Directed by Ken Russell, this 1988 horror film is supposedly based on a Bram Stoker novel of the same name, and I say supposedly because, although I've never read Stoker's novel, the plot summaries I've reviewed bear almost no resemblance to the movie.

The basic plot summary is as follows: A visiting student archeologist (Angus Flint) uncovers the skull of an enormous snake while excavating the buried remains of an ancient Roman temple in the quiet, pastoral village of Derbyshire. His find lends weight to the old Derbyshire folklore that a knight named John D'Ampton slew a great man-eating-worm/wyrm (i.e., dragon) that terrorized the countryside centuries before.

Angus is staying in the home of two comely lasses named Mary and Eve, whose parents disappeared a year earlier while walking along a wooded path near the home of the mysterious Lady Sylvia. Sylvia is soon revealed to be a vampiric snake-woman and worshipper of the ancient snake god Dionan. Sylvia later captures Eve as a living sacrifice for Dionan, and it's up to Angus, Mary, and James D'Ampton--the many-times great-grandson of the legendary hero John D'Ampton--to stop Sylvia and destroy the ancient evil dwelling in the dark caverns overlooking Derbyshire.

I strongly urge highly religious people (and, in particular, devout Catholics) to steer clear of The Lair of the White Worm since it contains some sadistic, fever-dream flashbacks of cruelty, murder, and worse inflicted on nuns and other religious symbols/personages. But if you can overlook these elements, and a couple of other bizarre and mostly nonsensical cut-scenes/dream sequences (which include an erotically-charged lesbian wrestling match in the interior of a Concorde jet), The Lair of the White Worm has a lot to offer.

For all its faults, I find The Lair of the White Worm compulsively watchable and enjoyable. Here are some of the reasons why:

The Lovecraftian vibe. The Lair of the White Worm has a strong "Thing that should not be," mythic, elder-evil feel to it, starting with the opening credits, red letters superimposed over a menacing cave mouth that portends something evil lurking within. Russell smartly and humorously inserts snake-like imagery and serpentine allusions into the film, building up to the "big reveal" at the end. He also succeeds in infusing the action with the dark history of Derbyshire, a small town that nearly two millennia ago was the site of a Roman-era cult dedicated to the worship of the snake-god Dionin. You could run a great (albeit half-slapstick) Call of Cthulhu game following this script.

Amanda Donohoe. To say that Donohoe (Lady Sylvia) chews scenery in this film is an understatement. She is absolutely stunning and sexy--and plays a wonderfully wicked vampiric snake woman to boot. Donohoe also manages to display a lot of flesh, which is definitely part of the film's appeal.

Hugh Grant. I liked Grant in this, even more so because the actor who went on to star in safe, family comedies like Nine Months doubtless would like to forget ever being in this film.

The camp. For all its gore and scary scenes, you're not supposed to take The Lair of the White Worm seriously. Russell lays on the campiness pretty thick--and it works. One of my favorite scenes has D'Ampton telling Angus about the legend of the D'Ampton worm as the latter shoves forkfuls of pickled earthworms into his mouth while attempting to talk with his mouth absolutely overflowing.

The biblical allusions. These are at times a bit ham-fisted but they do add another dimension to the film. We have Eve, the pure and virginal maiden, kidnapped by Sylvia, the serpent, who seduces her from a tree a-la the Garden of Eden. James D'Ampton is in the middle of the conflict, drawn to the sluttish Sylvia by his lust and to the chaste Eve by his heart. This tension is drawn out in a truly bizarre dream sequence/lesbian wrestling match I alluded to previously.

The bad effects. Most of the "special effects" in this film aren't so special, but I like them all the better for it. One of my favorites is a scene in which James D'Ampton cuts a snake-woman in half with a sword, leaving her legs and upper body writhing a pool of blood. Only it's painfully obvious that the two halves were created with two actors sticking up their legs and upper body through the floor of the set. It's a scene that's sure to bring to a smile to fans of schlock horror.

To read more about this fine (?) film, I recommend this Web site:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard: A review

The echoes of Robert E. Howard's life can be found in the places where he best lived it--in his copious amount of fiction and verse. And while that is a good place to start forming a complete picture of Howard, eventually the Lone Star State will rear its ungainly head and bellow, "Well, what about me?" You can always take the man out of Texas, but it's impossible to take Texas out of the man.

--Mark Finn, Blood and Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard

It's hard for me to compare Mark Finn's Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard, with any other biography of Howard, for the simple fact that it's the first full-length treatment of Howard's life that I've read. But over the years I've picked up a lot of detritus on the life of the man who brought us larger than life, pulp heroes like Conan of Cimmeria and Solomon Kane, gathering enough scattered bits of information to form what I thought was a pretty accurate picture of one of my favorite writers: Immensely talented, yet socially malajusted, overly dependent on his mother, with paranoid and schizophrenic tendencies.

Fortunately, Finn has set the record straight on Howard's character with Blood & Thunder, presenting an alternative view that brings Howard into focus as a colorful and misunderstood young man who took his own life largely due to circumstances beyond his control. Finn admittedly wrote his book as a counterpoint to the only other full-length biography of Howard, L. Sprague de Camp's Dark Valley Destiny, which according to Finn is responsible for many of the inaccurate myths surrounding Howard's life. "I tried to think of everything that I didn't like about de Camp's effort, and then I tried very hard not to do that," writes Finn. This is both admirable and, in a few places, limiting.

Blood & Thunder's strength to me is its claim that Howard was very much a product of his environment. The creator of Conan of Cimmeria and Kull the Conqueror was born and raised in early 20th century Texas, one of the last vestiges of American frontier life. Howard's father, a physician, moved Robert and his mother from small town to small town, following work that spilled over from the boom-and-bust cycles of oil speculation. These small towns were wild and violent places, Finn writes, and Howard the elder's services were needed to stitch men back together. Into this potent mix of brawling, wealth-chasing men, towns that knew untapped wealth and crushing poverty in a span of days, and the wide open plains of sand and scrub of rural Texas, Howard's career as a writer was born.

Finn's insights in these chapters are unique and insightful, as its easy to write off that Howard's "weird tales" were entirely products of his own imagination, and sprang, fully formed, from the recesses of his mind. Writes Finn, "To ignore the presence of the Lone Star State in Robert E. Howard's life and writing invites, at the very least, a few wrongheaded conclusions, and at worst, abject character assassination."

However, I don't agree with all of Finn's conclusions, including one of his boldest: that Howard had no choice but to commit suicide. Finn posits that Howard's death by self-inflicted gunshot "was the one, the only, thing he could do, given his circumstances." Finn paints a grim picture of those circumstances, which included constant brushes with poverty (due to the Great Depression and the whim of the pulp magazine editors, who often went months without cutting Howard a check), an overbearing and terminally ill mother, and a nomadic upbringing that left Howard unable to make lasting relationships. But to say that suicide was the only thing Howard could do in his situation absolves him completely from blame. There's always a choice to soldier on, no matter how grim our circumstances. Surely better times were ahead for Howard, and now we can only sadly speculate on the great works that would have flowed from his pen in his middle years. But, as Finn does state, the only one who truly knows why Howard pulled the trigger was Howard himself.

But Blood & Thunder is much more than an analysis of the how and why of Howard's death. There's some well-researched biographical material here, including a review of some of the odd jobs Howard worked, a look at his friendships and his brief relationship with Novalyne Price, his fascination with boxing and physical conditioning, and an overview of his correspondence with famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. One of my favorite chapters is "Mythology," the last, which provides a great overview of the post-Howard years, including his resurgence in the Lancer paperback series of the 1960's and 70's, the "Conan the Barbarian" boom sparked by the comic books and the movie of the same name, and the growth of critical studies dedicated to Howard's works (unlike Finn I happen to think that Conan the Barbarian was a terrific swords-and-sorcery film, if nothing at all like Howard's character).

I was particularly intrigued by "the trunk,"a huge collection of unpublished miscellaneous material that lay largely unopened from Howard's death until 1950, as well as the early days of Howard publishing by the likes of Gnome Press. Much of this material was new to me.

Finn also spends some time in this chapter refuting the claims about Howard's character circulated by the likes of de Camp and Hoffman Reynolds Hays, the latter a reviewer for the New York Times. De Camp's assessment of Howard is a doozy: "The neurotic Howard suffered from Oedipean devotion to his mother and, though a big and powerful man like his heroes, from delusions of persecution. He took to carrying a pistol against his 'enemies' and, when his aged mother died, drove out into the desert and blew his brains out." This is certainly unfair and, as Finn points out, in many places simply inaccurate. I do think Finn is quick to dismiss all of Dark Valley Destiny, even the interviews it contains from people who knew Howard. Finn says that de Camp's interview questions were leading in nature and evoked the negative responses about Howard for which de Camp had come looking, and already believed to be true. This may be true, but I'd like to read Dark Valley Destiny and formulate my own opinion.

In the end, however, this is another strength of Finn's book: It opens up the wider world of Howard's books and other material about his life that may not be so widely known. After reading Blood & Thunder I feel inspired to go back and read more of the Howard I've overlooked, such as his boxing stories and his historic fiction. The now-defunct Amra, a small-press fanzine dedicated to Howard's life and writings, sounds particularly intriguing.

Finally, Blood & Thunder contains a glowing foreward by Joe Lansdale, an underrated and very talented horror/suspense writer. Lansdale is a Texas native and is highly complementary both of Howard and Finn's book. Like Finn, Lansdale states that Howard is an author of worth and deserves wider recognition for his considerable talents as a writer of visceral action, adventure, and atmosphere; I happen to agree strongly with both men.

In summary, Blood & Thunder is highly recommended for any Howard fan.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Some final thoughts on The Lord of the Rings

As I finish re-reading The Lord of the Rings, I'm reminded that, as an adult, I continue to enjoy this book as much as or even more than I did when I was a child. Rare is the book that you can pick up time and time again and find something new in its pages. But The Lord of the Rings seems to get better as I grow older, which speaks volumes for its breadth, depth, and multitude of meanings.

My first experience with Tolkien occured some 25 years ago when, as a fifth-grader, my teacher had us listen to the audio version of The Hobbit in class. I was hooked. Later I asked my mother to check out The Hobbit from its (misplaced) location in the adult section of the public library so I could read it again on my own.

It wasn't until I reached middle school that I graduated to The Lord of the Rings. I enjoyed it very much, although I remember skimming certain chapters and even skipping entire passages ("The Council of Elrond," "In the House of Tom Bombadil," the songs/poetry, the Appendices, etc.), since I was mostly interested in the adventure. So when I re-read The Lord of The Rings in high school it was like I was experiencing it for the first time. Although I missed many of its deeper themes during this second reading, I gained a greater appreciation for the world Tolkien had created, which seemed weightier and more real than the other fantasy I was reading at that time.

However, after high school I took a long (and not entirely voluntary) break from Tolkien. In college I became absorbed in my required English syllabus. Writers like Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Euripedes, etc., filled my time, and my "casual" reading suffered. My battered paperback copies of Tolkien sat on the shelf, and waited.

It was in 1996 or so, a span of 7-8 years from my last reading, when I finally returned to Middle-Earth. I had decided to change my path of becoming a high school teacher, a difficult decision that I reached during long, solitary walks through a town forest with Tolkien as my companion. Around this time I started to understand and appreciate the deeper meanings of "The Road," of which mine had certainly taken some unexpected turns.

Later, while working the third-shift as a security guard, I recall walking the grounds of an under-construction condominium on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont with The Fellowship of the Ring tucked into my coat pocket, a chill wind blowing through the skeletal structure of the unfinished building. The courage and fortitude of the hobbits helped get me through that and another, equally awful job as an insurance salesman. Sam and Frodo's trek through Mordor made me realize that my lot in life wasn't so bad, and that, if I saw it through, something better would be waiting at the end.

During these and other rough times in my life, the escape and wisdom I found within The Lord of the Rings was a blessed salve. So too were its lessons. Here are a few:
  • From Sam, I learned the value of sacrifice and loyalty. And how to face grim times with a smile and a sense of humor.
  • From Frodo, I learned the importance of seeing your assigned tasks through to the end, disagreeable though they may be, and the virtue of self-effacing heroism.
  • From Aragorn, I learned that assuming the crown of responsibility is required of grown-ups, and that retreat from obligation is dishonorable.
  • From Theoden, I learned that dying on a battlefield to stave off the forces of darkness is preferable to wasting away in old age :).
Tolkien's intent in writing The Lord of the Rings was to construct a mythology for England, which suffered the dilution of its language and the loss of a great many of its foundational myths and stories during the Norman conquest of England. From my own perspective I can say that he succeeded. Middle-Earth has weight and authenticity, even if the characters and events in the tale are larger than life.

Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, once remarked that his famous barbarian "stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures." Likewise, Middle-Earth feels like a real place, and The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion historic texts. Instead of a creator of a fictitous universe, Tolkien to me seems to be a chronicler of some dim and remote, and yet actual, "once upon a time."

For although my head assures me that The Lord of the Rings is of course just fiction, and that Middle-Earth is a place that never was and never can be, my heart whispers that maybe, just maybe, Tolkien saw a glimpse of the truth, beyond the great gray rain-curtain of this world. And in a sense, he did.

Monday, October 6, 2008

"The Scouring of the Shire": Accounting for the price of victory

“There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”

Gandalf did not answer.

--Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings is about the journey of four hobbits that go “there and back again.” But Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry are not the same after their journey, nor is the Shire to which they return unchanged. Although the four hobbits are in many ways grown up, and evil in the Third Age is defeated, it’s hard to weigh the changes wrought by their “victory." For much has also been lost.

There is no going home again. I hesitate to write that phrase, so clichéd has it become. Yet it is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings and is largely the point of the book, as demonstrated in the wonderful, penultimate chapter of the story, “The Scouring of the Shire.”

In their journey the hobbits have experienced a wider world outside of the insular boundaries of the Shire. Their travels take them through the magic realms of elves and into dark pits of evil. Their eyes are opened to lands and peoples they likely would never have seen were it not for the War of the Ring.

On their long road back to the Shire the hobbits’ mood is gay, and rightly so. Sauron is defeated. The roads, once perilous for the unwary traveler, will soon be open to peaceful commerce. The King has returned to his rightful place on the throne of Gondor. Order is being restored to the land.

But with order comes other evils. Mobilizing for war can unite a country, but the expediency of victory can wreak havoc on the simple and the familiar. Old woods and fields, once fallow and beautiful, are torn up and furrowed to make way for crops. Familiar paths are paved over and widened into grey highways, and lazy mills are converted into busy factories belching smoke and producing weapons of steel.

And people pay the price. Increased regulations and restrictions result in curfews and rationing where there was once freedom and plenty. World War II had its brownouts and blackouts to hinder Nazi bombing raids; in “The Scouring of the Shire” hobbits are forbidden from lighting candles and fires after hours.

The hobbits soon discover the ill changes wrought by the long arm of war, which reaches all the back from the battle-scarred eastern front to the (seemingly) untouched western lands. Where once there was an open, inviting road to the Shire, gates and ugly barracks and suspicious guards now bar their way. Though more food is being produced, there is less to go around in the Shire’s sinister new reality of social engineering. Hob, a border guard, tells the hobbits that, “We grows a lot of food, but we don’t rightly know what becomes of it. It’s all these “gatherers” and “sharers,” I reckon, going round counting and measuring and taking off to storage. They do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again.”

Once they pass through the gates the hobbits realize the full extent of the damage. The Shire itself is under siege. Trees are torn up, ancient homes and the old mill have been flattened, and ugly, modern, utilitarian structures have been raised in their place. And the Chief and his “Shiriffs” are in control.

A maturity bred in conflict…
War is a complicated matter for Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. It breeds death and destruction and is the antithesis of mercy, which is so central to the story. Mechanization and loss of personal freedom are, as we’ve seen, its unfortunate by-products. But the stern trials and hard choices it forces on its participants can also bring out their best traits.

In “The Scouring of the Shire” its plain that war has made men out of Sam, Merry, and Pippin. They have grown from their experience, gaining strength and wisdom and surety of purpose. Without their experiences at Minas Tirith, could they have hoped to drive out Sharkey’s men? Not likely (as an aside, would Tolkien have ever written The Lord of the Rings were it not for his life altering experiences in World War I? I’m not so sure of that, either.)

At the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and the hobbits looked to Gandalf for help and guidance, like young sons clinging to the wisdom of their father. This is in marked contrast to their behavior after the War of the Ring. In “Homeward Bound,” chapter 7 of The Return of the King, Gandalf tells the hobbits that he must leave, and it is now their responsibility and duty to clean up the evil that has taken root in the Shire. But the hobbits do not indulge self-pity or beg Gandalf for his help. As boys they left from the Shire; back from war, they are men:

I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear for any of you.

Gandalf’s faith proves justified. Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin firmly and decisively restore order, as they raise the hobbits and defeat Sharkey’s men decisively at the Battle of Bywater. In “The Scouring of the Shire” they display leadership and bravery hardly to be believed of the same timid hobbits that left the Shire on their long journey less than a year previous.

This is a good thing.

…and the terrible losses incurred by war
But “The Scouring of the Shire” is not a mere coda or a simple homecoming for heroes. If that was its only message, The Lord of the Rings would be a much simpler (and lesser) book.

Balanced against the assuredness and strength of Merry and Pippin is Frodo, whose wisdom serves as the moral compass of the story. Whereas Pippin and Merry are larger and stronger, Frodo is paler and thinner, the result of great wounds suffered from “knife, and sting, and tooth, and a long burden.”

When Frodo returns to the Shire he looks upon it with eyes that are no longer the same. Even the familiar has become strange to him; when Merry remarks that the events of the War of the Ring feel “like a dream that has slowly faded,” Frodo experiences the opposite reaction.

“Not to me,” said Frodo. “To me it feels more like falling asleep again.”

Wounded soldiers return with traumas seen and unseen, and this is evident in Frodo, who bears wounds that are deep indeed. Some essential part of him has been left on a foreign field, and his wounds are too grave to allow him to enjoy the peace he has so dearly bought:

I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.

This is the great sadness of The Lord of the Rings—there is home and hearth for some of the victors, but not all of them, and perhaps not even for most. When Frodo departs for the West it’s on a full ship: Gandalf, and Elrond, and Galadriel, and the main of Middle-Earth’s elves are sailing away, too. Magic has left the world. The great evil of the Third Age is defeated, but its void will be filled with other, more banal but equally sinister incarnations of evil. In the wake of the likes of the elves and of Gandalf (and yes, even Saruman and the Balrog and the orcs) comes the vagaries of men, and with them their propensity for both great good and unspeakable evil.

The Lord of the Rings ends on a beautiful but complicated note, joy and sadness together, and all tinged with melancholy, in a final line heavy with meaning:

“Well, I’m back,” says Sam.

And he is. Sam returns from the Gray Havens to yellow light and a fire and a meal waiting for him in Bag End. He has his Rosie and Eleanor, and a fulfilling life ahead of him. He will be mayor, and his name will be preserved in honor in the pages of the Red Book.

But all the same, his home at Bag End is a bit emptier. For it is bereft of Frodo, his best friend and master.

No more will Sam see Gandalf striding down the garden path on some great, mysterious errand. And never again will he catch a glimpse of the wonderful, grey shapes of elves flitting through the trees, nor hear their singing.

Was it worth it? Yes.

But is the victory and the end of the Third Age a cause for celebration, a black-and-white, simple happy ending as critics of The Lord of the Rings like to charge? That answer should also be fairly clear.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"And the joy of battle was upon me": My favorite moments from the battle of the Pelennor Fields

Peter Jackson once said that he agreed to make The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers solely for the opportunity to make The Return of the King. I can sympathize with that. In many respects, although I love the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King holds a special place in my heart.

My passion for this book is due in large part to the battle of the Pelennor Fields. There's so many poetic, inspiring sequences that occur during the battle that it's difficult to mention them all without simply re-typing entire chapters. I'll try to restrain myself and mention a few of my favorites:

Orcs flinging heads of slain Gondorians over the walls of the city. I liked this chilling touch by Tolkien as it adds an additional streak of unexpected cruelty to the orcs. "They were grim to look on; for though some were crushed and shapeless, and some had been cruelly hewn, yet many had features that could be told, and it seemed that they had died in pain; and all were branded with the foul token of the Lidless Eye." This reminded me of the old medieval battles in which corpses were pitched over city walls in an attempt to breed disease among the beseiged populace. Only here the heads are thrown to break Gondor's will.

The trenches of fire. Tolkien never explains how the orcs accomplished this feat ("though how it was kindled or fed, by art or devilry, none could see"), but its a great visual image and needs no explanation. Something about this detail reminds me of modern warfare, as the great flaming trenches are the ancient equivalent of shell-holes and the leaping flames of artillery blasts, perhaps.

Dread and despair of the Nazgul. Fear is the Nazgul's chief weapon. As a combat veteran, Tolkien understood that winning and losing in battle depends more on mastering your fear and hoping that your enemy's nerve breaks first, rather than inflicting huge casualties. His inclusion of the Nazgul, and Gandalf tirelessly walking the walls of Gondor rallying men from despair, captures this important truth.

The Prince of Dol Amroth. Imrahil is a late arrival on the scene and it's easy to see why Jackson cut him out from the films, but I did miss seeing him. Behind Aragorn he's arguably the best fighter on the field, and wherever he and his picked knights ride on the battlefield the enemy parts like water.

The Witch-King's confrontation with Gandalf at the gate. When the gates of Gondor are burst asunder in rides the Witch King, looking very much like one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. All the defenders are stricken with fear and fly before him. All save one--Gandalf. I love the Witch-King's reaction to Gandalf, whom he treats with outright disdain:

"Old fool!" he said. "Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!" And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.

Grond. What's not to love about a 100-foot long ram, with its great head carved to resemble a slavering wolf's head? This is a great image by Tolkien:

The drums rolled louder. Fires leaped up. Great engines crawled across the field; and in the midst was a huge ram, great as a forest-tree a hundred feet in length, swinging on mighty chains. Long had it been forging in the dark smithies of Mordor, and its hideous head, founded of black steel, was shaped in the likeness of a ravening wolf; on it spells of ruin lay. Grond they named it, in memory of the Hammer of the Underworld of old. Great beasts drew it, orcs surrounded it, and behind walked mountain-trolls to wield it.

Theoden's speech.

Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

...which leads to...

The Ride of the Rohirrim. After Theoden gives his rousing speech, he blows such a loud blast that he bursts the great horn asunder. Then he charges, not caring who is following him. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Orome the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young.

Who is Orome? Does it really matter? This is awesome stuff, as is the host of Rohan bursting into song, singing as they slew for the joy of battle. The charge is also my absolute favorite sequence from Jackson's film.

And Theoden does not stop after this initial charge. More foes begin to form up, including the men of the Haradrim, who rally around a standard of a black serpent upon scarlet. "The drawing of the scimitars of the Southrons was like a glitter of stars," writes Tolkien. But Theoden spurs his horse in again, heedless of his own safety:

Right through the press drove Theoden Thengel's son, and his spear was shivered as he threw down their chieftain. Out swept his sword, and he spurred to the standard, hewed staff and bearer; and the black serpent foundered.

What a great image; as I read this I can picture Theoden lancing the chieftain and impaling him/knocking him from his mount, tossing down his shattered lance shaft, then in one sword stroke hewing the thick wooden shaft of the standard and the poor fool holding it. Great stuff.

The Witch-King vs. Eowyn. Although I liked this sequence in the film I wish Jackson had retained more of the original dialogue, if for nothing else than for the fans like me who wanted to hear Miranda Otto say "dwimmerlaik:"

"Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!"

A cold voice answered: "Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in they turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and they shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye."

Tolkien's description of Eowyn ("Maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel blade, fair yet terrible") is a joy to read, and Theoden's death is stirring. I felt a lump in my throat when Theoden tells Merry to think of him when he sits in peace with his pipe, "for never now shall I sit with you in Meduseld, as I promised, or listen to your herb-lore."

Eomer's fey mood/battle lust. Tolkien had a soft-spot for the pagans of old, the mighty Danish warrior-kings whose ultimate desire was to die not peacefully of old age while in bed, but on the battlefield clutching a sword. This is the Ragnarok spirit. Men in its grip cease to fear death even as it looms inevitable, for the joy of battle and of killing overtakes them. Their behavior is likened to that of a death-wish.

This exact spirit overtakes Eomer towards the end of the battle when all hope seems lost: His father and sister are both (apparently) slain, his men are scattered, the enemy is rallying, and to strike the final death-knell for the West, the black-sailed ships of the Corsairs of Umbar are coming down the river to bring yet more reinforcements to the enemy. Eomer's reaction when he sees the ships is not a wail of despair or a retreat behind the safety of the walls; instead he utters lines that could be taken straight out of Beowulf:

Out of doubt, out of dark to the day's rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope's end I rode and to heart's breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!

These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.

Aragorn's arrival. Tolkien repeatedly pushes the characters and events of The Lord of the Rings to the brink of ruin, only to have some unexpected, last-second hope arrive to avert disaster. Aragorn coming up the Harlond on the black ships of Umbar with the Dunedain and the men of the south is a prime example, the "Return of the King" that changes the tide of battle. When Aragorn unfurls his standard of the White Tree and the seven stars and the high crown you can't help but cheer (well, at least I couldn't).