Saturday, January 31, 2009

Top 10 fantasy fiction battles: Battle at Leidhra

The ‘battle piece’, as a historical construction, is as old as Herodotus; as a subject of myth and saga it is even more antique. It is an everyday theme of modern journalistic reportage and it presents a literary challenge which some of the world’s masters have taken up.

—John Keegan,
The Face of Battle

I read fantasy for the story, for the escape, for the adventure, for the monsters and magic, and for the memorable characters. The best fantasy has the added bonus of examining the important matters in life (God or his lack thereof, mankind’s purpose on earth, society and civilization) and exercises the mind in higher thinking.

But heck, I’ll admit it: I also read fantasy for the fights.

There’s nothing I enjoy more in a book than a well-portrayed battle scene. In the next few posts I’ll be exploring my top 10 favorite fantasy battles. These are epic combats that inspire with their courage, frighten with their ferocity, sadden with their pathos, and occasionally sicken with their terrible carnage and destruction. But above all else they are a joy to read.

These posts will celebrate the mass battles; fantasy has its share of great single combats too (Eowyn vs. the Witch King in The Lord of the Rings, and Gregor Clegane vs. the Red Viper in A Song of Ice and Fire are two that immediately spring to mind), but solo duels or minor skirmishes are for another day. Several of these large-scale battles, however, do feature terrific single combats within them.

Some of this list is borderline “fantasy,” since I’ve included entries from the historical fiction genre and events that really happened. But since the details of these ancient battles are largely lost to the passage of time, and out of necessity must be heavily re-imagined by the author, I have included them here.

So without further ado, and in no particular order, sound the horn, shields at the ready … Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!

(Warning: If you haven’t read these books, be prepared to experience some spoilers).

10. Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, Poul Anderson
Battle at Leidhra

I’ll tell you right off the bat that the final, climactic battle from Poul Anderson's Hrolf Kraki's Saga will be hard to top. It features boar-trolls, attack dogs, shield walls, men in bear form, heroism, slaughter, and ultimate ruin. In brief, the build-up to the battle is as follows:

A great host of evil led by the false King Hjorvardh and the wicked Queen Skuld march through the night to murder Hrolf Kraki and his men, sleeping unawares at the stockade fortress of Leidhra. Fortunately Hrolf’s man Hjalti sees the traitorous host coming and rides his horse at a breakneck pace to rouse his lord. Hjalti’s horse dies from exhaustion as he reaches Leidhra, and, leaping from his falling mount, awakens Hrolf and his men to the danger with a fragment from the ancient Bjarkamal:

Athelings, rise up and honor your oaths,
all that you swore when the ale made you eager!
In foul winds as fair, keep faith with your lord,
he who withheld no hoard for himself
but gave us freely both gold and silver.

Hjorvardh and Skuld’s massive army encircles the fort. They dispatch messengers to tell Hrolf that he can save his life if he kneels to Hjorvardh, but Hrolf answers like every good Viking king should: He extends his middle finger and tells his men to drink up.

“Let us take the best drink we have,” he called, “and be merry and see what kind of men are here. Let us strive for only one thing, that our fearlessness live on in memory—for hither indeed have the strongest and bravest warriors sought from everywhere about.” To the messengers: “Say to Hjorvardh and Skuld that we will drink ourselves glad before we take their scot.”

The next morning Hrolf and his 11 champions and the rest of his men issue from behind the walls to fight the enemy on open ground. The description of their charge is a sumptuous visual simile: “Along their ranks went that ripple as of wind across rye, which bespeaks a peak of training.”

Formed in a great wedge Hrolf’s men smash the enemy’s center, killing countless of the foe. Fighting in front of the press is a great red bear, which none recognize but is one of Hrolf’s men, Bjarki, fighting in bear form. Later Bjarki fights as a man, hewing shields, helmets, arms, and heads, his own arms bloody to the shoulder from killing.

Hrolf and his men have the early advantage, but their charge and crushing advance leaves them overextended and surrounded by the great mass of the enemy. Skuld summons a wolf-gray troll-boar the size of a bull, and later uses undead and a handful of shadowy monsters to attack the Danes.

The battle rages the entire day, and as night falls hope begins to fade. Great are the deeds of Hrolf’s champions, but the enemy are too many. Hrolf’s most trusted friend, Svipag the one-eyed, is thrown and slain by the boar, and Bjarki is gored and slain as he finally kills the beast. The circle of defenders around Hrolf inexorably closes. Grief-stricken by the impending death of his king and the end of the glorious reign he brought to Denmark, Hjalti speaks a lengthy set of staves, including the following memorable lines:

Let us die in the doing of deeds for his sake;
let fright itself run afraid from our shouts;
let weapons measure the warrior’s worth.
Though life is lost, one thing will outlive us:
memory sinks not beneath the mould.
Till the Weird of the World stands unforgotten,
high under heaven, the hero’s name.

At the end, his death at hand, Hrolf leaves the dwindling shield-circle and wades alone into the sea of foes until he too is slain. “Man after man he felled. No one of them slew him; it took them all.”

Friday, January 23, 2009

Celebrating REH with some comic-book savagery

As usual, I'm a day late on the news: Yesterday marked what would have been the 103rd birthday of Robert E. Howard, founder and reigning champion of the swords-and-sorcery genre. But my absent-mindedness didn't prevent me from celebrating Howard's life with a bit of fun reading in his memory--namely, revisiting the pages of The Savage Sword of Conan issue 24.

Re-reading SSOC 24 was certainly a blood-soaked trip down memory lane. This particular issue debuted in November 1977; I bought it second-hand in an old comic book shop for $1.00 probably 10 years after that. It's one of the best dollars I've ever spent, in hindsight.

Was there ever a better comic book/magazine than The Savage Sword of Conan? Only a Turanian boot-licker would say yes. For proof, click on the picture above to reveal the awesomeness of this issue's table of contents:

SSOC 24 includes one of Howard's better short stories, The Tower of the Elephant. It's a great adaptation by Roy Thomas, and is illustrated by perhaps my favorite Conan artist, John Buscema. Here's a great panel in which Conan first encounters the blinded and crippled Yag-Kosha, prisoner in the tower of the evil wizard Yara.

As I wrote in a previous post, one of the reasons I hold SSOC in such high esteem is that it was so much more than a comic book--a more accurate description is probably illustrated magazine. In its early days SSOC contained a wide range of articles dedicated to all things REH, and occasionally took a broader look at other happenings in the fantasy genre. This particular issue includes a review of Amra, a long-running fan/literary magazine devoted to the works of Howard and other sword-and-sorcery authors, plus an article on an event held by the Buffalo, NY chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA).

The SCA photos in the magazine are a howl (there's several more than I've included here). I don't do LARP or dress up in armor (save on a few select occasions), but this does look like fun. Although the guy on the lower left... nice helmet and shield, but the long-sleeve t-shirt and beer gut ruins the effect.

If The Tower of the Elephant, AMRA, and weekend warriors in t-shirts and great helms weren't enough, SSOC 24 also includes a reprint of Howard's epic poem "Cimmeria," as illustrated by the immortal Barry Smith in five glorious black-and-white pages. Here's the last page... nuff said.

If that's not a steal at $1, I don't know what is.

Long live REH!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ranking on Rankin and Bass, and rating Poe's best

Not much to add today, just a few links to point out that I've found interesting.

Over at Black Gate, Ryan Harvey posted a very thorough review of the old Rankin and Bass production of The Return of the King. It's certainly the most comprehensive look at this film that I've encountered. I only wish I was half as fond of the film as Harvey was. There are a few scenes from The Return of the King that I enjoy and found to be well-done (I agree with Harvey's assessment of the Witch King and Eowyn confrontation, and also wish Peter Jackson included more of Tolkien's dialogue. And John Huston does voice the best Gandalf ever). But, overall, I deem Return of the King a pretty poor film, much worse than the flawed, but worth owning and watching, Rankin and Bass version of The Hobbit.

I tried watching Return of the King back-to-back with Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings a while back, and actually thought that The Return of the King suffers in comparison (and I'm no fan of Bakshi). Also, Return of the King fails as a "sequel" to Bakshi's film since it doesn't even pick up in the right spot. Ah well.

Over at The Cimmerian, Steve Tompkins has penned a nice 200 year birthday tribute to Edgar Allan Poe. I really must take note of these important dates as I always seem to forget about literary dignitaries like Poe, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, etc, when their birthdays roll around (but as long as I remember my wife and kids,' I'm okay).

Anyhow, Poe is one of my favorite authors and resides firmly in the top three of my "horror trinity," which also includes H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. If forced to pick a favorite Poe story I'd have to go with The Masque of the Red Death, of which every word rings as poetry and contains one of the best closing sentences I can recall from any story ("And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.") But for chills its hard to top the suffocating brick-by-terrible-brick conclusion of The Cask of Amontillado, which left me with a terrifying visual that has remained seared into my imagination ever since.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A berserk bit of history: The Battle of Stamford Bridge

With my interest piqued by the recent news that HarperCollins will be publishing The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J.R.R. Tolkien in May 2009, I've been doing a bit of reading about norse myths and history. My "extensive research" has included surfing the Web and flipping thorugh a couple sourcebooks on the subject. These include a copy of Time Life Books The Northmen, from a long-extinct "The Emergence of Man" series, and The Vikings, also by Time Life, which is part of a series called "The Seafarers."

I think I paid 50 cents each for these hardcovers at a library sale. At roughly 170 pages each neither is exactly a treasure-trove of information, but they do contain some great full-color pictures of viking artifacts as well as a good overview of viking culture, and also provide inspiration for further reading. From one of these books I started doing a bit more digging on an event called the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which essentially marked the end of the viking incursions into England.

Of all the details of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, I found this bit particularly fascinating and awe-inspiring (you can read it here at Wikipedia) :

The story goes that a giant Norwegian armed with an axe held up the entire Saxon army, and single-handedly cut down over 40 Saxon soldiers. He himself was only killed when one Saxon drifted under the bridge in a barrel and thrust his spear through the latches of the bridge, killing the Norseman.

Now, this account is very likely an exaggeration or a distortion of the truth. After all, the battle occurred in 1066, in the midst of the Dark Ages. Three weeks later William the Conqueror prevailed over the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, starting an age of Norman rule which eradicated much of England's history. It's unclear (or at least, I'm unclear) of who provided the account of The Battle of Stamford Bridge, how it was recorded, and how this particular detail of the battle survived.

Nevertheless, I think it's safe to assume that such a story has some basis in fact. While it's highly debatable whether a viking actually cut down 40 Saxon soldiers single-handedly, or was finally killed by a spear-thrust from below, its likely that some lone berserk viking held the bridge long enough to make an impression on the Saxons and survive into recorded history.

What a sight that must have been!

Historic fiction writer supreme Bernard Cornwell is currently in the midst of a great series about the Danish invasions into England called The Saxon Stories; although his stories are set much earlier in the conflict (the 9th century/early 10th century period, chronicling the stories of historic personages such as Alfred the Great, Ivar the Boneless, and Guthrum the Unlucky), I'd like to see Cornwell eventually tackle this battle and bring to life the tale of this nameless viking warrior who briefly held back the advance of an army.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

300: Sound and pectorals and fury, signifying nothing

As someone who loves books by Bernard Cornwell and Vikings and war in general in all its many forms, 300 appears to be right up my alley. It’s chock-full of bloody combat. It’s got swords, shields, and spears (though oddly, no armor). It tells a classic story of sacrifice and a few standing against many. I wanted to like 300. Hell, I should have loved 300. But in the end, I found it very flawed and largely forgettable.

Part of me thinks it’s because I’m out of the target demographic of 300. I never read Frank Miller’s graphic novel upon which the film is based. Hell, I barely know who Frank Miller is.

But I think a larger reason for my disappointment may have been that I went in to 300 with the wrong expectations. I really, really wanted to see Gates of Fire on film. Instead, what I got was a two-hour orgy of videogame-y violence punctuated with repetitive heroic speeches and Braveheart-like cries of “freedom.” And plenty of posturing and flexing of chiseled torsos and biceps.

300 serves one purpose, and that is showcasing its CGI battle sequences. These started out cool but by film’s end felt pretty monotonous. And this from someone who enjoys a good knock-down, drag-out fantasy fight. For instance, I loved the battles in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, which served as (sizable) set pieces for those films, but were a part of the whole and in my opinion didn’t overwhelm the story. In contrast, 300 has nothing to offer outside of the combat.

I would encourage anyone who enjoyed 300 to read Gates of Fire. In the first 50 pages of Steven Pressfield’s novel I promise you will learn far more about Spartan culture and military training (which were largely synonymous) than you ever receive in 300. According to 300, the Spartans made great soldiers by cuffing around their male children and then throwing them out, naked, to fight wolves in the snow. This is, of course, fairly ridiculous. If you really want to learn why the Spartans were arguably the finest military force in history, you’ll find the answer in Gates of Fire. You won’t find it anywhere in 300.

After watching 300 I poked around some of the comments on Rotten Tomatoes and discovered, not to my surprise, a bunch of testosterone-fueled young men savaging any critic who dared to voice a negative opinion of this film (questioning the sexuality of the critic in question was a favorite insult). However, a few voices among the teenage cacophony raised a valid point in the film’s defense, which is this: 300 was never intended to be realistic. It’s based on a comic book, and it succeeds as an adaptation.

That argument seems to have some merit, and if I had read Miller’s graphic novel maybe I could buy into it. But I also think it lets the makers of 300 off the hook far too easily (this “adaptation” argument is used for defending literally everything that’s wrong with the movie). Also, director Zack Snyder seems to want it both ways: He’s been quoted has saying the events of the film are “90% accurate” to history (a crock), and in other interviews backs off and calls it a fantasy, a mere comic-book adaptation.

More than a nod to historic accuracy, I would have settled for some common sense in 300. But there was precious little of that to be found. In particular, I found myself unable to get past the following gaffes:

The lack of formations and military discipline. We get one great early shot of the Spartans’ phalanx and why it was so effective. But the rest of the film is largely one-on-one, over-stylized, slo-mo combats. There’s a laughable scene where a Spartan captain is singled out for “breaking ranks” when his son is slain and he charges the enemy. I thought to myself: And how is this different from what every other Spartan is doing?

A massive, bottomless well in the center of the Spartans’ city. Presumably this exists solely to throw in arrogant Persian messengers. Surely it couldn’t be there for a water source: Rotting bodies are notoriously poor for a city’s water supply. Regardless of its purpose, I’m still not sure why the Spartans would choose to dig a massive, open hole and leave it uncovered in the middle of an otherwise busy city square. Civilians plunging over the edge, especially at night, is presumably a routine occurrence.

No armor. Just think if the 300 Spartans actually wore a cuirass! They’d still be guarding the hot gates today. No Persian would have ever made it through. When queen Gorgo tells Leonidas to “come back with your shield, or on it,” I wanted her to add, “And put some armor on, damnit!”

The 300 trudge off to war with nothing but their spears, swords, and shields. Food and supplies are nowhere in sight—but these are overrated, I guess. Later on the Spartans manage to manufacture meat and fruit and blacksmithing supplies out of thin air, so no foul. And good thing they all wear those long, encumbering red capes. No one would ever think of yanking a Spartan down by one of those in a fight…

The whole “freedom isn’t free” spiel from the Spartans. This from a society which kept slaves (which, of course, are nowhere to be seen in 300). One of the last lines in the film was laugh-out-loud funny: “We rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny!” says the narrator. Tyranny? Really? I don’t know what this guy calls a culture that demands its families cast their sickly or malformed infants over a cliff, but “tyrannical” is one word that comes to mind.

Xerxes’ army of Mordor, which included giants, orcs, sword-armed crab men, and more in its ranks. Which all proved to be pretty wimpy, to boot. When you saw one of these beasts, the formula was the same. 1. Slo-mo shot of the monster to build up its ferocity. 2. Someone looses a chain, monster kills a bunch of Persians in its path. 3. A Spartan runs the monster through, or knocks it over a cliff, and ends the fight.

The ripoffs of Gladiator. The wheat-field dream sequences with Leonidas and his family, accompanied by mournful pipes playing in the background, seemed awfully familiar. I would think Ridley Scott has a plagiarism suit on his hands if he wants to pursue one.

I’ll close by saying, overwhelming evidence above to the contrary, that I didn’t find 300 completely devoid of merit. I liked some scenes (the arrows blotting out the sun was a nice touch), and some of the fights. It’s certainly not boring. Much of it looks pretty. There’s a great early scene where the Spartans use a phalanx to great effect. But in general, I found it pretty disappointing. If all that you expect out of a film is two hours of mindless, orgiastic hacking and stabbing, 300 is for you. I was hoping for something more and it just didn’t deliver.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

More on Tolkien and RPGs

I’d like to take a moment to comment on a great post over at Grognardia which celebrates the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien and explains some of the reasons why his works are generally avoided, save for their surface trappings, by those playing older editions of D&D. I largely agree with what author James Maliszewski has written there.

In this vein I’d also like to comment upon another related topic that I have personally encountered, either in person or on various RPG message boards. This being that LOTR is too “high fantasy” and not bleak or bloodthirsty enough for the kind of D&D they enjoy. These folks’ campaigns are “serious,” avoid nonsense like “hobbits and elves” and “epic quests,” and don’t have “happy endings” like The Lord of the Rings—or so I’ve been told.

I’m going to climb on a soapbox for a moment here and state that these arguments betray a deep ignorance of Tolkien’s source material. Now, some of these people have read The Hobbit and/or The Lord of the Rings (though I’m frequently surprised by the number of gamers whom I’ve encountered that have not). In some cases they’ve only watched Peter Jackson’s films. Very few of these critics, apparently, have read any deeper.

Now, I’m not being a Tolkien snob here, and I will readily acknowledge that you can enjoy The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as standalone works. Millions of readers have and continue to do so. I did it for years myself. But there’s something to be said for digging deeper and getting at the "why."

James at Grognardia deserves praise for his continued exploration of “the history and traditions of the hobby of roleplaying” (as he describes the purpose of Grognardia). He continually reminds his readers that we cannot claim to understand why OD&D and 1E AD&D are the games they are without understanding their source material, which includes pulp fantasy and authors like Howard and Leiber, Vance and De Camp. These were the authors that informed and inspired Gary Gygax, author of D&D, as he wrote the game.

Now, you can play and enjoy OD&D and 1E AD&D without having read the pulps, and millions have. But before you attempt to “fix” their mechanics or declare them “unfun,” you should make an effort to understand why these games are written and function as they do. The authors of fourth edition D&D, for example, apparently have either not read these works, or have but decided to base their mechanics on other sources.

Likewise, you cannot dismiss Tolkien out of hand without at least making an effort to understand the roots and foundations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These sources include The Silmarillion and its associated tales and myths (i.e., The Children of Hurin, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle Earth), which in turn were inspired by northern mythology.

The history of Middle Earth (its legendarium, as Tolkien called it) was Tolkien’s true love and the work of his life; Tolkien began laying down its origins in 1914, decades before The Hobbit and LOTR. He frequently returned to this legendarium as he wrote those two books and spent the latter portion of his life revisiting his broader creation. It was Tolkien’s great regret that these foundational stories of Middle Earth never saw publication (during his lifetime, of course); Tolkien’s letters and biography reveal his disappointment when publisher Allen and Unwin rejected much of what we know now as The Silmarillion, which Tolkien sent in for consideration following the success of The Hobbit. Stanley Unwin had asked Tolkien for a traditional sequel to The Hobbit, but what he received was very, very different.

These and other sources prove that Tolkien’s greatest love was his legendarium and the northern myths from which he derived inspiration; I would argue that “old school” RPGers who deride Tolkien for being too high fantasy/high medieval/a feel good escapist may feel differently if they spent some time on the origins, tales, and the deeper “whys” behind Middle Earth. Tragic and bleak are a few of the words I’d use to describe these sources. But they’re also a great read and loaded with cool ideas and campaign hooks. In fact, some of Tolkien’s gaming critics who choose to do take a closer look may feel inspired to create a gritty AD&D/Warhammer/Basic Role Playing campaign based on the First Age of Middle Earth.

Who knows—it might make for a heck of a fun game.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Praising Middle-Earth's darkest hour: A review of the Children of Hurin

Warning—some spoilers follow.

Although critical appreciation for J.R.R. Tolkien has increased over the years, fantasy's greatest author has frequently been derided as a spinner of happy-ending fairy tales, a writer of children’s stories and guilty of wish-fulfillment. Back before I began to understand what The Lord of the Rings was all about, but had read some of Tolkien’s critics, I thought, mistakenly, that maybe these guys were right, and my love of these stories was merely a vestigial piece of my childhood, a guilty, secret passion best left behind closed doors.

Of course, it was they who were wrong—so dreadfully wrong. For now, if the time hasn’t already come, we deserve another re-evaluation of Tolkien. So say I after reading The Children of Hurin.

Were they given The Children of Hurin as a companion piece to read alongside The Lord of the Rings, my guess is that Tolkien’s detractors would have experienced an epiphany on the level of a First Age cataclysm. Once I closed its covers I immediately began to re-evaluate everything I had previously known about Tolkien. Suffused with the perspective of the great, bleak, tragic tale that is The Children of Hurin, it's impossible not to. This story casts a long shadow over all the succeeding events of Middle-Earth, back-lighting Tolkien’s world in a grand opera of suffering and cruel fate. My appreciation for the man’s works is now all the more deeper and richer, if that is indeed possible.

Before I get too carried away, The Children of Hurin is not in the same class as The Lord of the Rings. It lacks that book’s tremendous depth, sweep, and sheer imagination. But The Children of Hurin in no way tries to imitate LOTR. It’s a different kind of book, very much inspired by Tolkien’s love of the old Norse sagas.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I picked up The Children of Hurin anticipating another Silmarillion. I’m a big fan of The Silmarillion but I’ve always thought of it as a reference work, something to pick away at and enjoy in small bursts. In fact, it’s not unlike reading the Bible—though that ancient holy text contains some great stories, memorable passages, and poetic sequences, you’re not really supposed to pick it up and read it straight through. The same can also be said of The Silmarillion, which lacks a unifying, coherent narrative.

But if you’ve been avoiding The Children of Hurin for this reason—as perhaps, subconsciously, I had been since I purchased the hardcover—fear not. It is not dry history, but a red-blooded retelling of a tale of the elder days of Middle Earth.

The Children of Hurin could have accurately been titled The Tale of Turin Turambar, since it follows the life of this character, Hurin’s son, from his childhood until his death. It’s a story of cruel, inescapable fate. It explores the great paradox of man’s ambition, perhaps our greatest trait and our greatest flaw, capable of elevating us to perform great deeds and also leading us to ruin.

For The Children of Hurin is, among other things, a cautionary tale about the dangers of pride. In the First Age, the elves (which exist in much greater strength and numbers than they do in the Third Age), repeatedly warn Hurin and later Turin of reaching too far. Theirs is the safe counsel—against the powers of Morgoth, it’s best to take the long view—to fight defensively, to hold on to what is dearest for as long as you can, and to wait for the right time, if it ever comes. In other words, to swallow your pride.

But Hurin and later Turin are men of action, if not entirely rash then overbold, gamblers who believe that you should strike hard and now. Their first and strongest instinct is to meet the enemy on the open field and crush him, or die honorably in the attempt (I myself am sympathetic to this view). But while the elven perspective is (probably) right, Tolkien obviously had a soft spot for the passionate race of men, the Ragnarok spirit, and of the hot-blooded Hurin and Turin in particular. These two great warriors very closely resemble the great figures and heroes of northern myth with which Tolkien felt an obvious kinship. We cannot help but sympathize with their unyielding spirit, even when it leads them terribly astray.

Hurin is a fully realized human—a man of great passions and strengths, but also great flaws, the greatest of which is pride. Turin, being of the same blood as his father, is destined to follow in his footsteps. And thus, very early on we realize that The Children of Hurin is a tragedy of the highest proportions. This is a black book, filled with untimely deaths and bitter defeats. Despite his unparalleled skill at arms and the great victories he wins, Turin is forever hearing the feet of doom creeping behind him.

And yet Tolkien is a writer of many meanings. It is never made explicit whether the doom of Hurin/Turin is self inflicted—the result of their own ill choice—or whether Morgoth, who curses Hurin and his children, is responsible for their downfall. Tolkien is revisiting familiar ground here, as the same argument swirls over the One Ring—is its wielder bereft of choice, consumed by its terrible power, or does the Ring reflect and amplify our own weakness? Turin is indeed cursed with terrible luck, but he does have a choice in how to react to the terrible events that befall him—and his own flawed responses, perhaps more than Morgoth's pronouncement of doom, makes him the “cursed” man that he is.


But ahh, Morgoth. You thought Sauron was evil? Get ready to meet a dark lord of ten times his strength. In The Children of Hurin Morgoth is in full, wicked bloom as a dark demi-god, and more—he is a symbol of all that is twisted in mankind’s soul, all that of which we despair in the dark of night, rolled into a being of unspeakable malice. When he lays his curse upon Hurin and Turin, they are truly doomed. Morgoth evokes the ultimate fear of all mankind: that death is the end, and that nothing—literal, uppercase Nothing—awaits us in the grave. Says Hurin:

    “Beyond the Circles of the World you shall not pursue those who refuse you.”

    “Beyond the Circles of the World I will not pursue them,” said Morgoth. “For beyond the Circles of the World there is Nothing. But within them they shall not escape me, until they enter into Nothing.”

I must warn potential readers that finding light in the gloom and darkness of The Children of Hurin is difficult, to say the least; it is well that the story of Middle-Earth was not told chronologically, else few readers would have the stomach to finish it to the end. The third age, and its victory over Sauron (pyrrhic though it was), is downright cheery in comparison.

Great elven cities fall in The Children of Hurin but seemingly only after they open their gates to men; Tolkien’s message may be that magic loses its wonder when it is examined and exposed; best leave it alone as a shadowy once upon a time. But, fortunately, Tolkien ignored this instinct and produced this time-shrouded tale of the First Age. With the help of his son and editor Christopher, the two have brought to life a brief, enduring moment from that time with The Children of Hurin.

Yet more reasons to read
All the above is my interpretation after a first read, but there’s so much more to commend The Children of Hurin than I’ve mentioned. I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the following, which make it worth reading for simple reading's sake:

Glaurung, a horrific wingless dragon, the wyrm progeny of Smaug. Glaurung is mighty of body but, horribly, his most fearsome power is the wicked lies he spins with his voice, great charisma, and hypnotic eyes.

The fall of Nargothrond, a great elven city sacked by an army of orcs with a fire-breathing Glaurung at its head. Glaurung’s encounter with Turin at the gates of the city is unforgettable.

Turin’s black sword, Gurthang. Steve Tompkins over at The Cimmerian wrote a nice piece about the echoes of cursed blades throughout fantasy literature—two noteworthy examples being Michael Moorcock’s Elric, and Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. The Children of Hurin adds another legend with Gurthang, a black sword made of iron that fell from heaven as a blazing star ("The heart of the smith still dwells in it, and that heart was dark.") Gurthang can be viewed as a metaphor for those mighty weapons whose power is too great to handle and, once employed, are cursed to destroy their wielders.

The Battle of Unnumbered Tears. This brief chapter, which describes the utter ruin of a great army of elves and men and dwarves gathered outside Angband, contains perhaps the best writing in the book. The cover price is worth these (alas, too short) eight pages. My favorite passage in The Children of Hurin is the following description from the battle, which already ranks among the greatest scenes I’ve ever read in fantasy literature:

    Last of all Hurin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and seized the axe of an orc-captain and wielded it two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Hurin cried aloud: ‘Aure entuluva! Day shall come again!’ Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive, by the command of Morgoth, who thought thus to do him more evil than by death.

Seventy times, day shall come again—that sends a chill down my spine, especially knowing the long, long night of Morgoth’s victory, the full extent of which colors every page of this wonderful book. Go read it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Starting off the New Year with ... Tolkien, of course!

I'm going to start off 2009 with a review of The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien (2007), edited by Christopher Tolkien. I still have 60 pages or so to go, but I can say with certainty that reading The Children of Hurin is an incredible experience. I knew within five pages of starting that I was in for a great ride, and now I don't want it to end.

I went into The Children of Hurin anticipating another Silmarillion--interesting and very worthwhile, but dry and staid in tone. But this is no historical tract or textbook. The Children of Hurin is not only a legend of the elder days of Middle Earth, but is a living, breathing story to boot with an engaging narrative flow. It has definitely exceeded my expectations.

Much more on this to come, but here's a favorite early passage:

Then Morwen bade farewell to Hurin without tears; and she said: "I will guard what you leave in my keeping, both what is and what shall be."

And Hurin answered her: "Farewell, Lady of Dorlomin; we ride now with greater hope than ever we have known before. Let us think that at this midwinter the feast shall be merrier than in all our years yet, with a fearless spring to follow after!" Then he lifted Turin to his shoulder, and cried to his men: "Let the heir of the House of Hador see the light of your swords!" And the sun glittered on fifty blades as they leaped forth, and the court rang with the battle-cry of the Edain of the North: Lacho calad! Drego morn! Flame Light! Flee Night!