Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Rest in Peace, Nicol Williamson

The actor who gave us the best wizard ever put to screen has died: Rest in Peace, Nicol Williamson, age 75. His son has a few moving words to say about him here.

In honor of Williamson, In The Land of Dreams:

And When a Man Lies:

Monday, January 23, 2012

Why The Lord of the Rings films work: How I learned to stop worrying and appreciate Peter Jackson (or, a review of Tolkien on Film)

It’s easy to pick apart The Lord of the Rings films on the basis of textual fidelity. Anyone can watch Peter Jackson’s movies with a copy of LOTR in their lap and mine for differences. Why did they cut Glorfindel and Bombadil? Why did Aragorn say “let’s hunt some orc” instead of “I will follow the Orcs … My heart speaks clearly at last: the fate of the Bearer is in my hands no longer?” Why did they change the character of Faramir? Why the detour to Osgiliath?

I hear these questions asked all the time and sympathize with a good many of them. But in the end they strike me as complaints about details, the classic purist argument. While the films' deviations are at times annoying and/or pandering (shield surfing, and the overextended bridge collapse sequence in Khazad-dum), and occasionally cloying and seemingly unnecessary (Aragorn over the cliff), the more important question for me is: Do they materially alter the spirit and themes of the book? Which are, as I see them: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The importance of mercy and pity. Fate vs. free will. Exalting the meek and the small over the mighty. Not succumbing to despair or losing hope, but grimly pressing on in the face of adversity. The passing of an Age of Elves and magic into the modern Age of man. Did Jackson get those right?

I would argue that yes, he did. Faithfulness to the spirit and themes of the original work are by far and away the most important part of any adaptation, and Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films succeed in this regard. I believe they retain the core of the original, even though they diverge in many of the details.

I credit Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings for helping to crystallize my thoughts and feelings about the films. First published in 2004 by The Mythopoeic Press (I recently purchased the second edition reissued in 2010), Tolkien on Film checks in at 323 pages and contains 14 essays from a number of academics and scholarly types. The focus of the book is on the film’s fidelity to the source material and their success or failure as adaptations. It also offers analysis of the broader societal impact of the films and ways in which they reflect our changing views on femininity. I found it to be a very enjoyable and in places thought-provoking read, but with a few shortcomings and puzzling inclusions that resulted in a mixed review.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Real vs. the Unreal, Worlds Other Than Our Own, and the Starting Line of Fantasy

Whenever discussions of fantasy fiction arise, the question of “which came first?” inevitably follows. Newbies mistakenly think that J.R.R. Tolkien started the genre, overlooking authors like William Morris and E.R. Eddison who had already begun a rich tradition of secondary world fantasy. The same arguments swirl over the many sub-genres of fantasy, too. For example, most believe that Robert E. Howard is the proper father of swords and sorcery, beginning with his 1929 short story “The Shadow Kingdom.” But others have pled the case for Lord Dunsany’s “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” (1908), and so on.

Once begun, these arguments inevitably reach further and further back in time. George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858) was published before Morris’s The Well at the World’s End (1896), didn’t you know? Oh yeah, what about Malory’s LeMorte D’Arthur (1485)? I’ve got that beat: The Odyssey (8th Century BC). I see your Odyssey and raise you The Epic of Gilgamesh (1300 BC, or thereabouts). And so on. Until it seems that fantasy has always been with us.

But perhaps that isn’t the case. In an introduction to the 1988 anthology Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, editor David Hartwell draws one of the most neatly defined starting lines for fantasy I’ve encountered. Hartwell describes fantasy as a story written deliberately as unreal, and one which does not take place in the real world.

To read the rest of this post, visit the Black Gate website.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Name of the Wind: The Emperor may have clothes, but they don’t fit me

What do you want out of your fantasy? Exotic places? People different than the ones you know? High language? The clangor of battle? Wonders cold and distant and magnificent? The calling of silver trumpets? You don’t get any of this in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. It feels very … pedestrian, and common. Rothfuss’ created world is very much like our own, and is altogether too much with us. Worst of all, its protagonist is annoying as hell. In my opinion.

I was fully prepared to love The Name of the Wind. I knew about the overwhelmingly positive reviews on Amazon, and the rave reviews from bloggers whose tastes and opinions frequently mirror my own. I was excited to see fantasy/SF luminaries like Robin Hobb, Ursula LeGuin, and Orson Scott Card (“He's the great new fantasy writer we've been waiting for,” the latter wrote) singing its praises, and was fully prepared to do the same.

But the long and short of it is this: I didn’t love this book, and for long stretches, I didn’t even like it. Which makes me a bit sad, as I too was anticipating the arrival of a new great hope to emerge from (or rescue, depending on your point of view) the current crop of fantasy writers. As it turns out, I’m still waiting.

All that said, I recognize The Name of the Wind as a pretty solid artistic endeavor. In no way would I describe it as objectively bad, and the more I thought about it, I realized that it’s just not to my tastes. So I thought I would detail in this review why I didn’t like it, and then speculate on a few of the reasons why so many others have found it appealing. Of course, since I didn’t like The Name of the Wind very much, this review will spend much more time on the former, so be prepared.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Some new books received: Styrbiorn the Strong, Tolkien on Film, and more

Purchased with an Amazon giftcard I received for Christmas, here are some new books that I'm really looking forward to reading and reviewing.

Vikings and E.R. Eddison ... how can this fail to be awesome? Also, how many authors would pay to have their cover blurbed by Tolkien?

I've seen better covers, but contents look great, a mix of positive and negative critical reviews by scholar-types. Good food for thought pre- The Hobbit.

Now that's a cover... you can never go wrong with Harlan Ellison. I bought it used and so didn't "pay the writer." Don't kill me Harlan. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Tolkien’s Nobel Snub

The 1961 nominations for the Nobel prize in literature apparently included The Lord of the Rings, and it seems Tolkien was dismissed rather out of hand for the award, according to an article in the online edition of The Guardian today.

I’m not here to argue whether The Lord of the Rings deserved a Nobel that year. Not having read any of its competition (save for a fair bit of Robert Frost), it would be rather presumptive of me to do so. But I can’t help but notice that the reason for its rejection seems rather flimsy. Nobel jury member Anders Österling wrote in a brief commentary that “The prose of Tolkien – who was nominated by his friend and fellow fantasy author CS Lewis – ‘has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality’, according to The Guardian.

Tolkien’s prose—which ranged from the colloquial speech of the Hobbits to the high medieval style—is not to everyone’s liking, certainly. Obviously it was not up to par for the Nobel voting panel nor in particular to Österling (who comes across in the article as the Simon Cowell of 1960s literary academics with his scathing comments about Frost and Lawrence Durrell). But we now know that, as a master philologist, Tolkien chose his words with great care and alternated between prose styles for deliberate effect. As Tom Shippey demonstrated in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tolkien incorporated a modern prose style into Middle-Earth when he chose to do so (for the speech of Saruman and Smaug, for example) as a critique of modernism and the doublespeak of modern politicians. These are contrasted against archaic constructions Tolkien employed to convey deep age and timelessness and a high seriousness to his tale, as in the speech of an Elrond or a crowned Aragorn.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Texan tale-spinner in J.R.R. Tolkien's court

I had my first book review published in Mythprint, the journal of the Mythopoeic Society. The Mythopoeic Society is an international organization dedicated to promoting the study of fantastic literature with an emphasis on Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. My review however was not on one of the works of the Inklings but of Robert E. Howard's Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures.

This is not exactly a barbaric coup of the Mythopoeic Society as Mythprint publishes reviews of a wide range of fantasy and historical fiction. But I am proud to have played perhaps some small part in bringing Howard, and in particular Howard's lesser-known characters like Cormac FitzGeoffrey and Agnes de Chastillon, to (potentially) a new audience.

The review initially appeared in the October 2011 issue of Mythprint but you can also read it in its entirety here on the Mythopeic Society website:

Sword Woman is the last in the Del Rey line and is highly recommended, by the way. In addition to wonderful stories and some fine scholarly essays it features a handful of excellent Howard poems, too. This was my first time reading “The Outgoing of Sigurd the Jerusalem-Farer," and I found it, well, positively Tolkien-ian. In it Sigurd seeks some "doom beyond the dooms" across an expanse of sea, rather like the Númenórean prince Aldarion of Unfinished Tales whose heart may have belonged to Erendis, but whose passion lay with the sea:

The fires roared in the skalli-hall,
And a woman begged me stay—
But the bitter night was falling
And the cold wind calling
Across the moaning spray.

How could I stay in the feasting-hall
When the wild wind walked the sea?
The feet of the winds drew out my soul
To the grey waves and the cloud’s scroll
Where the gulls wheel and the whales roll,
And the abyss roars to me.

Man the sweeps and bend the sail—
We need no oars tonight
For the sharp sleet drives before the gale
That dashes the spray across the rail
To freeze on helmet and corselet scale,
And the waves are running white.

I could not bide in the feasting-hall
Where the great fires light the rooms—
For the winds are walking the night for me
And I must follow where gaunt lands be,
Seeking, beyond some nameless sea,
The dooms beyond the dooms.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Godspeed, Glenn Lord

I'm late to the game on this one, but I wanted to add my condolences to the family of Glenn Lord, father of Robert E. Howard studies, who passed away on Dec. 31 at the age of 80. I never met nor corresponded with Lord but like every other REH fan in existence I'm deeply in his debt.

Mark Finn, author of Blood & Thunder, posted a nice remembrance over on his blog about Lord's incalcuable work as a collector, preserver, and publisher of Howard's life works. There's also a wonderful co-post by John O'Neill and Barbara Barrett over at Black Gate that's worth checking out. Al Harron did a nice job over on the Conan Movie Blog with his post, Glenn Lord, the Greatest Howard Fan.

Rest in peace, Mr. Lord.

Let's hope 2012 is a better year for Howard fans; 2011 was pretty tough all around.