Sunday, September 28, 2008

A review of Metal: A Headbanger's Journey

As a heavy metal fan I found it a real pleasure to watch Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. Sam Dunn's 2005 documentary is a fun, insightful look at my favorite genre of music and actually manages to do it justice. Dunn is not only a smart filmmaker but he's also a fan, and it shows in the final product.

Unlike the flawed Fargo Rock City, which focused exclusively on hair metal (e.g., Poison, Warrant, Motley Crue, etc.) and gave very short-shrift to real heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Slayer, and Black Sabbath, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey includes all sub-genres of heavy metal. Dunn spends a limited time on the overrated hair/glam period and far more on power, thrash, death, and the new wave of British heavy metal.

I actually found that the most compelling segment was the piece on Norweigan black metal. These bands actually (and terrifyingly) practice what they preach. Black metal bands were behind a string of church burnings in the early 1990s, and the lead singer of one band, Burzum, went so far as to murder a fellow band member. Dunn interviews two members of black metal bands and both coldly face the camera and state unhesitatingly that they support more church burnings and the downfall of Christianity.

Watching Dunn at work made me exceedingly jealous. He somehow managed to score interviews with the likes of Bruce Dickinson, Lemmy, Tom Araya, Rob Zombie, and Tony Iommi, all of which prove articulate and interesting. He gets to spend a night drinking with Lemmy and another day hanging out in the home of Ronnie James Dio, posing with Dio while the two brandish a pair of swords.

Dunn starts by tracing the rise of heavy metal, whose roots can be heard in bands like Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf but was born with Black Sabbath's self-titled release. He discusses its classical and operatic roots, which give it its distinctive sound.

Two of the best interviews were by Zombie and Dickinson. Zombie offers up a memorable quote when he calls metal a "lifestyle music." "No one says, 'I was into Slayer--one summer. I've never met that guy," says Zombie. "I've only met the guy who has 'Slayer' carved across his chest." Dickinson says that metal provides its fans with an alternative universe through which they can vicariously live through the music. He also talks about how he approaches singing and showmanship. Good stuff here.

Dunn next travels to Wacken, Germany for the site of a massive annual outdoor metal festival. Here he has a memorable interview with the (very drunk) lead singer of Mayhem, who ends up telling Dunn and everyone else watching the interview to fuck off.

Next Dunn investigates the metal censorship era. Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider provides a retrospective on his testimony before Congress and Al and Tipper Gore in 1984. I had forgotten how badly the politicians underestimated Snider. It was fun to watch him knock a half-dozen holes in their case that metal was responsible for corrupting the youth of America and deserved censorship. Gore was a joke then (and remains one now).

Although it's been labeled by its detractors as obscene and suicidal, Dunn argues convincingly that metal is in fact the opposite. His claim that metal is empowering (anti-suicidal, in fact) and cathartic rings true. It gives its listeners a release from mundane life and allows them to enter worlds of fantasy, which is a huge part of its appeal for me.

My only complaint was that the film was too short: It could have been 2 1/2 hours instead of its brief 96 minutes of running time. I highly recommend it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Samwise the Brave: Examining the central hero of The Lord of the Rings

I have something to do before the end. I must see it through, sir, if you understand.
--Sam Gamgee,
The Lord of the Rings

You don’t have to squint to find heroes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Splashed across its pages are Aragorn, the uncrowned king in the wilderness, who walks the Paths of the Dead and claims his rightful position on the throne of Gondor; Gandalf, who bests the Balrog of Moria and confronts the Witch-King one-on-one; and Frodo, who suffers as the Ring’s bearer, carrying its weight into Mordor to liberate Middle-Earth from the darkness of Sauron. Theoden, Eowyn, and Faramir also spring immediately to mind. Aragorn and Frodo in particular can certainly be viewed and successfully argued as the central figure(s) in Tolkien’s tale.

But over the course of re-reading The Lord of the Rings I am more convinced than ever that its true hero is Sam Gamgee, without whom the quest to destroy the One Ring could not have succeeded. Though he’s no doughty man-at-arms like a Conan or Launcelot du Lake, by tale’s end Sam’s great deeds and noble sacrifices earn him a place of honor in the roll of great fantasy heroes.

Now, my line of thinking isn’t exactly original: Tolkien in one of his letters calls Sam “the chief hero” of the story, and many others have also made this connection. But certainly others have overlooked Sam because he doesn’t conform to traditional notions of heroism. He’s certainly not a great warrior who battles hordes of enemies, the archetype of the genre of fantasy known as sword and sorcery.

Perhaps it’s because I frequent a lot of Robert E. Howard and Dungeons and Dragons message boards, but it seems like larger than life heroes are the rage these days. Our current heroic archetypes include D&D with its player-characters as powerful supermen (4E, I'm looking at you), Harry Potter/The Belgariad and its ilk (seemingly normal people with great but latent magic powers), or sword and sorcery heroes inspired by Conan, mighty warriors capable of killing a half-dozen men in the afternoon and drinking the night away at the local tavern. Older archetypes include men like Achilles or Odysseus, men of action and martial prowess so extraordinary that they seem demigods among men.

Sam is a very different type of hero: a hobbit with no warrior skill who gets by solely on bravery and devotion to Frodo. Tolkien said his character was inspired by the British rank-and-file soldiers who served and fought and often gave their lives without fanfare in the trenches of World War I, expecting nothing and possessing only the hope of home at the end of it all (which is all Sam really wants). Said Tolkien in a letter, “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”

Certainly Sam can’t compare with a Conan or a Fafhrd in terms of skill-at-arms. Like all hobbits he’s small in stature, possesses no skill with a blade, and is much more at home in a garden than on a battlefield. But Sam possesses undaunted courage when pressed, optimism in the face of impossible odds, and above all else an unshakeable call to duty to serve his master. When he throws himself into the waters of Parth Galen (despite the fact he cannot swim) in order to join Frodo’s seemingly suicidal quest into Mordor and emerges spluttering and half-drowned but with his will unshaken, we are witness to devotion of the rarest kind:

But I am going to Mordor.’
‘I know that well enough, Mr. Frodo. Of course you are. And I’m coming with you.’

The Lord of the Rings is very much a testament to the fact that even the greatest of men can’t solve all the world’s problems on their own. Galadriel’s comment that “hope remains while all the Company is true” (emphasis mine) is Tolkien’s belief writ large that alliances—not unilateral actions—are necessary for our long-term survival. Her words also prove to be prescient within the story: When the Fellowship fails and breaks up, Sam remains as Frodo’s only company on the long trek to Mordor. His presence, every bit as much as Frodo’s act of pity toward Gollum, allows the quest to succeed. It’s a difficult choice for Sam, especially after he peers into Galadriel’s mirror and sees the Shire being torn up and industrialized, and his father, his poor old gaffer, displaced. His decision to remain and sacrifice his personal desire to return home in order to serve the greater good (the destruction of the Ring) is the very essence of heroism.

Sam eventually is thrust into the hero’s role after the Fellowship breaks and he and Frodo trek to Mordor alone. I found myself cheering aloud (well, almost) when Gollum betrays Frodo to Shelob and attempts to kill Sam himself, and gets far more than he bargained for when Sam more or less kicks his ass:

Fury at the treachery, and desperation at the delay when his master was in deadly peril, gave to Sam a sudden violence and strength that was far beyond anything that Gollum had expected from this slow stupid hobbit, as he thought him. Not Gollum himself could have twisted more quickly or more fiercely.

But Sam’s real moment in the sun comes in Chapter 10 of The Two Towers, “The Choices of Master Samwise.” By all appearances Sam is too late to save his master who lies motionless, bound in cords, at the feet of Shelob—a huge, loathsome, horrifying creature from nightmare. But Sam does not pause, attacking the spider in a frenzy:

Then he charged. No onslaught more fierce was even seen in the savage world of beasts, where some desperate small creature armed with little teeth, alone, will spring upon a tower of horn and hide that stands above its fallen mate.

My favorite part of this epic battle is when Sam invokes the name of the goddess of beauty and light (“Gilthoniel A Elbereth!”) staggers to his feet, and is “Samwise the hobbit, Hamfast’s son, again.” He issues a challenge that might have made Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name or Evil Dead’s Ash crack a smile:

“Now come, you filth!” he cried. “You’ve hurt my master, you brute, and you’ll pay for it. We’re going on; but we’ll settle with you first. Come on, and taste it again!”

Shelob, confronted with this three-and-a-half foot tall hobbit of the Shire, turns her ponderous, bloated body and heads for her hole, leaving a trail of fluid from the painful prick of the sword Sting.

But perhaps my favorite Sam moment is when he literally lifts Frodo on his back and carries him up Mount Doom:

‘I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,’ he muttered, ‘and I will!’
‘Come Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well.’

There’s no mistaking Sam as hero here, as at the very end of his endurance he somehow finds the strength to carry the literal weight of Middle-Earth on his stout back. I thought Jackson’s film captured this scene magnificently.

Yet Sam is not perfect. Tolkien in his letters describes him as having “a mental myopia which is proud of itself, a smugness (in varying degrees) and cocksureness, and a readiness to measure and sum up all things from a limited experience, largely enshrined in sententious traditional ‘wisdom.’” Sam’s biggest failure is indeed his lack of wisdom; specifically, he fails to notice Gollum’s act of repentance when the latter was about to abandon his scheme to send the hobbits to their death in Shelob’s lair. With a little kindness from Sam, Gollum perhaps could have buried his evil half and become Smeagol once again, but Sam tragically failed to recognize it (of course, you can argue that without Gollum’s attack on Frodo at the crack of doom, the Ring would not have been destroyed).

Is Sam a “fated” hero?
Tying into my previous thoughts on “fate vs. free will”, Sam’s actions and the circumstances that surround him walk a tightrope between his own free will and the larger forces at work in Tolkien’s world. Is Sam a simple, loyal hobbit who makes tough choices out of the goodness of his heart? Or is he fated to become a hero? I believe the answer is both.

For example, in “The Choices of Master Samwise,” Sam makes the difficult choice to leave Frodo’s body and carry on the quest alone. It’s perhaps his bravest act of all. But even as he walks down the tunnel “something” tells him his choice to leave Frodo’s side was wrong. When the orcs find Frodo he realizes it: “He flung the Quest and all his decisions away, and fear and doubt with them. He knew now where his place was and had been: at his master’s side, though what he could do there was not clear.”

The implication here is that the orcs’ arrival was an act of fate, not chance, and that some higher power perhaps intervened on Sam’s behalf. Certainly the outcome of the story would have been far different had Sam soldiered on alone, for as we later see, no man or hobbit acting alone can willingly destroy the Ring.

I also wonder whether Sam was in fact chosen for his great task by Gandalf. Was fate at work in the seemingly chance act of Sam eavesdropping at Frodo’s window at Bag End and getting caught by Gandalf? Did Gandalf send Sam with Frodo only to punish him? Or did Gandalf send Sam because (as one of the Maiar) Gandalf knew at some level that Sam could play a vital role in the outcome of the quest?

Given what we know of both Gandalf and Middle-Earth's cosmology, the latter seems much more likely.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sanitized fairy tales: News story exposes modern trend of bland safeness

The Boston Globe published a great article on Sunday that I felt compelled to share. The title of this piece by Joanna Weiss says it all:

Fear of fairy tales: The glossy, sanitized new versions of fairy tales leave out what matters: The scary parts.

Weiss' article lays out the case that something important is lost when a child's introduction to fairy tales comes in whitewashed form, and the old classic tales are denuded of anything mildly scary. Writes Weiss:

In toys, movies, and books, the old fairy tales are being systematically stripped of their darker complexities. Rapunzel has become a lobotomized girl in a pleasant tower playroom; Cinderella is another pretty lady in a ball gown, like some model on "Project Runway."

Weiss adds that what makes classic fairy stories timeless are the difficult and often dark elements they contain, which often provide instructive allegory or socially relevant commentary.

I couldn't agree more. As a father of two children I've seen a lot of these kid-friendly versions of the old tales, most of them by Disney. The new rage these days is Disney Princesses, which feature the classic princesses from fairy tales (Cinderella, Snow White, Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid, etc.) living together and spending their days overcoming safe, mundane, and rather trivial obstacles. The result is that kids are entertained, but not challenged. Meanwhile, Disney makes millions selling product-tie ins like costumes, vanity sets, and sanitized books and videos. Writes Weiss:

When the stories intersect with commerce these days--whether in children's books or the endless barrage of toys--they can quickly get reduced beyond recognition. It's easier to sell a Rapunzel playset, after all, as something entirely cheery and safe.

Some parents I suppose will argue that they don't want to expose their children to anything that might potentially scare or unsettle them. I won't argue with that; it's their choice. But the answer is not in stripping classic fairy tales of vitality and meaning. Let them watch Barney or Sesame Street instead. These are fine alternatives (well, Sesame Street is, Barney is Chinese water torture). Although I do think that children are given far too little credit for their ability to distinguish fact from fiction, and fantasy stories from reality. They're pretty smart. For decades and centuries kids grew up on these stories, and most of us turned out all right.

My oldest daugher is six and I plan on reading her The Hobbit soon. Suffice to say that I won't be reading a safe, sanitized version in which Thorin doesn't die, or Gollum becomes a slapstick comic device instead of a slimy, corrupted creature eyeing Bilbo as a tasty meal.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Shelob: A frightening, ancient evil

He may not be Steven King or Edgar Allen Poe, but J.R.R. Tolkien manages to pack a couple scares into The Lord of the Rings. Two chapters in particular send a chill down my spine: One is the "Passage of the Marshes," which I discussed in a recent post, and the other is "Shelob's Lair."

Re-reading this latter chapter made me remember how loathsome a monster is Shelob. She is truly horrifying, a monster that makes Pennywise's true form in King's It seem like a daddy longlegs in comparison. She is old, old enough to darken Middle-Earth before Sauron arrived on the scene, and bloated from drinking the blood of Elves and Men. Tolkien says she cares not for wealth or power, but spends all her time brooding on her next feast. "For all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness," he writes. That's about as nasty and explicit as Tolkien gets.

More dreadful is the knowledge that Sauron knows of Shelob and feeds it with orcs and prisoners:

And sometimes as a man may cast a dainty to his cat (his cat he calls her, but she owns him not) Sauron would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for: he would have them driven to her hole, and report brought back to him of the play she made.

"Play she made?" Jesus, I don't know what's worse--being paralyzed with poison and eaten alive by a monstrous, reeking, millenna old spider, or the thought of Sauron listening to such tales with glee.

Tolkien does a masterful job building up the horror in "Shelob's Lair," primarily by engaging other senses than sight in the reader, particularly smell. As Sam and Frodo approach Torech Ungol (Shelob's Lair), they catch scent of its foul reek, "as if filth unnameable were piled in the dark within." This is a rancid, foetid stench that can only belong to some great, millennia-old carnivore.

Inside Shelob's lair the air is still, stagnant, heavy, and any sounds Frodo and Sam make fall dead. It is pitch black, so dark you cannot see your hand though you hold it inches from your face. The evil and foulness are palpable, and Tolkien describes how a great fear and dread is upon the hobbits, though they do not know its origin. The oppression is so great that Sam and Frodo clasp hands in the darkness.

Our first encounter with Shelob not visual, but conveyed through her awful sounds, described by Tolkien as, "Startling and horrible in the heavy padded silence: a gurgling, bubbling noise, and a long venomous hiss." Then come the eyes, two great clusters of many windows. "Monstrous and abominable eyes they were, bestial and yet filled with purpose and with hideous delight, gloating over their prey trapped beyond all hope of escape."

When Tolkien finally draws aside the curtain for the big reveal, Shelob is every bit as noisome as my mind had prepared her to be. I think there's something particularly hideous about spiders as a species, and Shelob is truly the worst:

Hardly had Sam hidden the light of the star-glass when she came. A little way ahead and to his left he saw suddenly, issuing from a black hole of shadow under the cliff, the mostly loathly shape that he had ever beheld, horrible beyond the horror of an evil dream. Most like a spider she was, but huger than the great hunting beasts, and more terrible than they because of the evil purpose in her remorseless eyes. Those same eyes that he had thought daunted and defeated, there they were lit with a fell light again, clustering in her out-thrust head. Great horns she had, and behind her short stalk-like neck was her huge swollen body, a vast bloated bag, swaying and sagging between her legs; its great bulk was black, blotched with livid marks, but the belly underneath was pale and luminous and gave forth a stench. Her legs were bent, with great knobbed joints high above her back, and hairs that stuck out like steel spines, and at each leg's end there was a claw.

Sam's confrontation with Shelob is also one of my favorite scenes, and it is here and in his actions subsequent to Frodo's poisoning and capture that he emerges as a great hero in the rolls of fantasy literature.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

War and death come to Middle Earth

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.

--Faramir, "The Two Towers"

Although regarded as high fantasy (and thus conflated with "escapism," often by those who should know better), J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is also a treatise on war. Books 3 and 4 of Tolkien's tale (The Two Towers) shift the focus of the story from that of the adventures of the Fellowship to a broader conflict brewing in Middle Earth. The company emerges from the dark pit of Moria and the bright woods of Lorien only to be swept up in the machinations of Saruman and the great battle at Helm's Deep.

In my re-reading of The Lord of the Rings I recently passed through the vast bogs and fens which lie between the Emyn Muil and Mordor. This wide stretch of trackless, treacherous land is home to the Dead Marshes, named for the spectral corpses of fallen men, elves, and orcs that lie beneath its muck and dark waters. At one time their bodies lay on the dry Dagorlad, the site of a great months-long battle of the second age of Middle Earth. In this battle the Last Alliance of elves, men, and dwarves fought Sauron's forces at the gates of Mordor. The forces of good prevailed as Isildur cut the One Ring from Sauron's hand, but only after tremendous loss of life on both sides. Gradually the swamp spread, covering the land and the bodies of the slain.

Tolkien wrote in a letter that he drew his inspiration for the landscape of the Dead Marshes from experiences in the Somme, but it's no great stretch to speculate that this terrible battle made an impact in other, more profound ways on The Lord of the Rings. In the first day of the Somme the British suffered their worst loss of men in a single day in British history; 57,000 casualites, including 19,000 young men whose lives were snuffed out like candles in a hail of German machine-gun fire and shrapnel. Among those to die in the Somme were Tolkien's good friends Rob Gilson and G.B. Smith (for a compelling and complete recounting of Tolkien's wartime years and its influence upon his writings, I heartily recommend Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth, by John Garth).

In the Dead Marshes Frodo, Sam, and Gollum come face-to-face with death as the great fear--that it is simply the end, and that there is no immortal soul. Our lives are simply snuffed out when our bodies fail or are destroyed. All men, good and evil alike, are mingled together in the common lot of corruption, the grave, where good deeds in life are not rewarded by the eternal hereafter--because there isn't one. The images of the dead in the pools reflect this horror, notes Frodo:

They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them.

In another passage from The Two Towers that I had forgotten, Sam, Frodo, and Gollum manage to find a brief respite in the land of Ithilien, still fair and flowering even though it has fallen beneath the shadow. But this peace is only an illusion, a respite: When Sam leaves the path to examine the trees, he stumbles on a ring still scorched by fire, and in the midst of it finds a pile of charred and broken bones and skulls.

Tolkien witnessed too much of this senseless loss of young life in his experience during the Somme, which explains why death weighs heavily on his mind in The Lord of the Rings. Elves alone have the gift of immortality, but men are mortal and "doomed to die." As men dwindle from the greatness of their elder days so too are their lifespans reduced.

Yet The Lord of the Rings is also infused with heroic men and martial victories. Garth posits that Tolkien did not believe that the sacrifice of young men's lives was a waste, if given for the right reasons. Writes Garth: "It [The Lord of the Rings] examines how the individual's experience of war relates to those grand old abstractions; for example, it puts glory, honour, majesty, as well as courage, under such stress that they often fracture, but are not utterly destroyed."

Tolkien personified his feelings about concepts like glory, honour, and courage in the peoples of Rohan. Rohan is at constant war with the orcs and wild men, and like the Dunedain must remain ever alert, guarding against encroaching evil. They believe that death on the battlefield, while sorrowful, is never in vain as long as their acts are remembered. Thus the wistful (and my personal favorite) bit of Tolkien poetry, the Lament for Eorl the Young:

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow; The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

This piece captures Tolkien's ambivalent feelings about war. The poem on the one hand portrays the magnificence of Eorl, resplendent in his war gear and the full flower of his years, using the symbolic language of spring and harvests and growing corn. But the song also mourns his death, asking again and again "Where has he gone?" in a question that cannot be answered. Eorl's passing leaves no trace, like a whisp of smoke. For the living only his memories remain.

The Riders of Rohan remember their dead with songs like these and through the simbelmyne, a small white flower which grows on their graves and tombs. According to the Encyclopedia of Arda, "simbelmynë is translated as 'Evermind': a reference to the memories of the dead on whose tombs the flower grew."

Tolkien does not take war lightly and the men of Rohan, though portrayed in a sympathetic light, are not his ideal. That place is held by Faramir, Tolkien's portrayal of man at his best. Faramir sees war with a keen eye, and tells Sam and Frodo that the high men of Numenor, of which he is a descendant, have "fallen" and are becoming like the Rohirrim, loving valor for valor's sake: "Yet now, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarce claim any longer the title High...For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valor as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end."

Tolkien's clearest view on war is revealed in a famous passage in which Sam views the body of a dead soldier from the south, slain at his feet by arrows from Faramir's men in the woods of Ithilien:

He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies and threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.

In other words, war is terrible and of last resort, and slain foes are, in the end, just men--and therefore to be pitied. War is necessary when "destroyers" like Sauron or Hitler would impose their will on the free peoples of the world, but it is a duty to be carried out, not glorified. It brings with it too much death and sorrow. In his famous foreward to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote:

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

Tolkien never forgot the loss of Gilson and Smith, nor the Somme. At some level it fed into his passion for language and myth, providing fertile ground for a great tale. We have The Lord of the Rings to thank.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Run to the Hills: Bayley back in the news (for his hair)

Somewhere I can hear the singing, "I'm running out of my hair, I'm running out of it..."

I can't rank on Blaze Bayley too much, considering that the photo of his bald spot pre-treatment looks a lot like mine, only smaller. But this ad from Mojo Magazine was too good to pass up. Love the posed hands, as if he were about to invoke some sorcerous power.

Oh, and the sideburns too.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Road: Exploring Tolkien's grand metaphor

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

As a kid one of the many things I loved about The Hobbit was its maps. The map of the Wilderland just inside the front cover of the book (see picture above) had a dotted line that crossed the Misty Mountains, followed the Old Forest Road, and, if you turned North when you reached the River Running, took you past the Long Lake and to the foot of the Lonely Mountain. I recall tracing the journey with my finger and at times letting it wander (not too far) into Mirkwood on either side.

I was fascinated with the idea that, when Bilbo left his small home in Bag End and set off with the dwarves, he was literally stepping onto the very same road that runs all the way to the Desolation of Smaug--and beyond. In The Lord of the Rings Frodo recalls Bilbo telling him that:

'He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river; its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?"'

I still love the thought of the Road as an actual track that you can follow from one end of Middle-Earth to the other. But now that I'm a little older I can also appreciate its metaphors as well.

The Road as life
Tolkien says that the Road can sweep you off your feet, implying that it has an element of wildness and chance about it. It can take you to places you never expected. You may face hardships and perils or death in a foreign land. You may find great wealth, or the last refuges of magic, in realms where time seems to stand still.

But the Road always starts with a simple choice, and that is the decision to set your foot upon it. It starts with humble beginnings, from a single door in Bilbo's case, but if you follow it long enough it will take you to an intersection of many paths and errands. This very much parallels the course of a life, in which a child has but a few options but eventually encounters the many freedoms (and perils) that come with adulthood.

In his walking song Bilbo cannot say where the Road eventually leads, because eventually choice intersects with chance. We can choose our own direction on the Road, for good or ill.

In my "normal" suburban life even I feel a tinge of fear and thrill of the unknown when I step onto the Road and leave my driveway on some long business trip, of which I typically take at least two a year. And I'm always amazed and relieved to find when, after boarding a jet plane and traveling 3,000 miles across the entire country and back again, I find myself once again at home with my family.

It may not be the Misty Mountains or Mordor but it's about all the excitement I can handle.

The Road as death
Of course, eventually we all must reach the end of the Road. Tolkien offers four versions of Bilbo's walking song in The Lord of the Rings; each time the teller (alternating between Bilbo and Frodo) is further along in the Road of his life.

The first time we hear Bilbo's song it's the quote I started with above, and it's full of energy and anticipation of the journey. The second time, Frodo sings the song and he has begun the long trek to Mordor. In place of "eager feet" we get "weary feet." He is feeling the weight of his great task, just as we feel the adult weight of jobs, responsibilities, and age.

In "Many Partings," we hear the song for a third time. Bilbo knows his traveling days are winding down when he sings:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

In The Road to Middle Earth, author Tom Shippey states that Bilbo here is equating the lighted inn with Rivendell, which is his literal next stop, but that he is also referring to his own death.

In "The Grey Havens," the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo sings Bilbo's old walking-song one last time, though the words have changed much:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

In other words, there is a new Road to take at the end of our lives. It is a road hidden to mortal men, perhaps always under our noses ("oft have passed them by") but invisible to our senses. No living man (nor hobbit) has ever started down this road.

According to Tolkien's cosmology, Middle-Earth was once flat, and you could reach the Undying Lands if you sailed far enough out to sea. But the Numenoreans abused this opportunity, and as punishment the Creator gave Middle Earth its present round shape. The straight Road was lost, and now only the elves can find the Grey Havens.

Man has a different final Road to take than that of the elves, one that Tolkien hints in his cosmology may lead his soul, freed from his body, back to the Creator.

My own Road
I'm glad to say that, right now, my Road runs straight through Middle Earth (right now I'm listening to The Lord of the Rings as I drive Route 95/114 to work; hardly Bilbo's garden path or the East-West road running out of the Shire, but it will have to do). Middle-Earth is becoming a well-trodden and familar path but I never tire of taking the trip.

If there is an afterlife, I hope with all that's in me that I will awake at the end of my Road to find myself in Meduseld, the golden hall of Theoden, my current stop in my latest re-read of The Lord of the Rings. Even better, perhaps I may one day find myself enjoying a fine beer at The Prancing Pony, listening to the locals tell a queer tale about a hobbit from the Shire and his companions who fell in with a mysterious ranger from the North. Time will tell.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Pictures on the Web of forthcoming film version of The Road

I recently came across some pictures of the forthcoming film version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. This is an excellent (albeit bleak and quite depressing) post-apocalyptic novel that I reviewed several months ago.

The pictures here look quite good and very much nailed the look I had pictured in my mind's eye while reading McCarthy's novel. Also, I like the choice of Viggo Mortensen for the role of the father. Check them out at

Monday, September 8, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth: A review

In listening to Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, I was struck by how much modern films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and National Treasure owe to this book. Although it was written way back in 1864, while the War Between the States was in full swing and the earth was a very different place, in many ways its thoroughly modern, at home alongside recent sci-fi novels like John Crichton's Jurassic Park.

In summary, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a fast-paced and lively pseudo science/exploration story that manages to be mostly interesting and entertaining. Unfortunately, it also crosses over into unbelievable territory about three-quarters of the way through and ends with a classic deux-ex-machina, but I found I can live with it.

Journey to the Center of the Earth takes aim at the theory that the earth grows hotter the nearer that you travel to its center. Verne posits the idea that the earth's core is inhabitable and houses massive cavities, caverns so huge that you cannot see their roof. At its center is a sea large enough that you can travel across it and lose sight of land all around. Science has of course since proven this idea impossible, but it makes for a fun story if you divorce it from reality.

Journey to the Center of Earth has a compelling opening that reminded me of The DaVinci Code--Professor Liedenbrock and his nephew Axel, the heroes of the story, find a coded note written in runes within the pages of an Icelandic saga. They puzzle through it and discover that it is a note written by Arne Saknussemm describing a passage he has found to the center of the earth. The opening is located in the interior of a dormant volcano in Iceland. Liedenbrock and Axel recruit an Icelandic guide and the three men embark on their journey.

I found Verne's descriptions of overland and sea travel to Iceland interesting, and the first scenes of the descent fascinating. Verne vividly portrays the vast depths and terrifying downward drops of the volcano shaft, and creates excitement and dread in two sequences in which Axel gets lost in the inky blackness and the three men nearly die of thirst.

Unfortunately I thought that the tale started to unravel once the men near the earth's center, which contains ice age creatures, dinosaurs, and even early men. If the story didn't literally jump a shark it certainly started to lose me once Liedenbrock and Axel's small boat passes very nearly over an Ichthyosaurus. I was also puzzled with the abrupt ending--Liedenbrock and Axel gain great fame from their expedition, while others treat their claims with skeptcism. But, inexplicably, no one ever bothers to re-trace their footsteps and verify their claims.

Still, you could do worse than pass the time by giving it the book a listen. It's also skillfully read by English-accented, professorial-sounding narrator Simon Prebble.

Note: This review is also posted on

Friday, September 5, 2008

Pan's Labyrinth: Fantasy illuminates a dark period of real history

Warning: Spoilers abound in this review.

A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a princess who dreamt of the human world.

Two years after its release, I finally got around to watching Pan's Labyrinth. I wish I hadn't waited that long. Although I don't watch a lot of movies these days it's one of the best films I've seen in years.

At the beginning of the film a mother and a daughter are riding in the back of a car. The girl is reading a fairy tale and her mother looks on with disapproval. "Fairy tales--you're a bit too old to be filling your head with such nonsense," she says.

Director/writer Guillermo Del Toro then spends the next two hours proving her wrong, as well as the critics who hold fantasy in a similar regard.

We've all heard it before: Fantasy is for children. It's a tired and wrong-headed belief, yet too many of the literary establishment either ignores or treats works like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronciles of Narnia with outright contempt.

Should we see a few more films like Pan's Labyrinth, however, these arguments might dissipate forever. Pan's Labyrinth is not Narnia or Wonderland. It's concerned with the hard stuff of history, grim and painful and violent and adult, but there is magic and wonder at its heart, too. It's fantasy at its best: Impossible places and beings that, while otherworldly, allow us to see the real world in a sharper focus.

For those who haven't seen it, Pan's Labyrinth takes place in 1944 Spain after the Spanish Civil War. World War II is reaching a fever pitch and it's a time of incredible turmoil and violence in Europe. In Spain, fascists of the Francisco Franco regime are attempting to take control of the country.

In the midst of these violent times, Ofelia, a young girl with an active imagination and a love for fairy tales, and her pregnant mother Carmen travel to an outpost in the mountains where a ruthless fascist force led by Captain Vidal is trying to wipe out a pocket of guerilla resistance (Ofelia's father, a tailor, was killed in the war, and Carmen and Vidal have recently married).

The outpost is located near an ancient stone labyrinth, where Ofelia encounters a faun and some fairies. The faun tells Ofelia that she is a princess of a fantastic underground realm, accessible by a winding stair in the labyrinth's center. But before Ofelia can return she must complete three difficult tasks.

For the rest of the film Ofelia tries to complete her tasks as the bloody and terrible events of the real world unfold around her. A few members of the household covertly provide food and supplies to the rebels and Vidal mercilessly tortures and murders all those he suspects of aiding them. Carmen develops complications from her pregnancy and Vidal tells the doctor to save his son, not his wife, for whom he cares little. Vidal holds Ofelia in even less regard.

My only criticism was that the horrifying real world events at times threaten to overwhelm Ofelia's storyline and the fantasy elements. But Del Toro's master hand provides balance, using Ofelia's fantasy experienes to draw parallels with the fascist movement.

Del Toro never reveals whether Ofelia's "experiences" are the workings of her overactive imagination or real events. But he does hint that her fantasies are real, or at least have real world consquences. For example, Ofelia as one of her tasks has to recover a magic dagger from the hall of the Pale Man, a gruesome child-eating monster who sits motionless at the end of a long table overflowing with food, stirring only when someone eats his food. Ofelia fails to heed the faun's warning and eats two grapes. The Pale Man lurches after her, killing two of her fairy companions. In the real world, Ofelia's mother dies in childbirth and a freedom fighter is captured and killed.

Although the Pale Man is terrifying (it's worth watching Pan's Labyrinth for this scene alone), the real monster of the film is Vidal. Ofelia's struggles with the monsters of fantasy are all reflections of the evil inherent in her stepfather and fascism as a whole. In the end, Ofelia is required to murder an innocent infant to reach the underground fantasy realm. She refuses to follow orders, which is precisely what so many of the rank and file in Nazi Germany failed to do. The horrors of the Final Solution were the result.

Del Toro also includes some homages to his fantasy influences. These include Alice in Wonderland (Ofelia descends downwards into a hole) and the Wizard of Oz (a brief glimpse of red shoes when Ofelia crosses over into the land of fantasy). There's even a nod to Jackson's Lord of the Rings--In one scene nine fascist riders surround a woman working covertly for the freedom fighters, clutching a blade to her own throat as she prepares for suicide over capture. There's others that I probably missed. One viewing is not enough to take in all of the references and allusions in this film.

The end of the movie is heartbreaking, but also uplifting, as Ofelia returns to an underground realm "where there are neither lies nor pain." Is she in paradise, or is this "underground realm" merely the cold comfort of the grave? Del Toro does not provide the answer, but offers plenty of evidence to support either conclusion.

Suffice to say that I am now very much at ease with Del Toro directing The Hobbit. After watching Pan's Labyrinth, I have no doubts he can meet my and the rest of the Tolkien fanbase's lofty expectations for this film.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Through hell and into a vision of heaven: The journey of the Fellowship continues

The world is grey, the mountains old,
The forge's fire is ashen-cold;
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
The darkness dwells in Durin's halls;
The shadow lies upon his tomb
In Moria, in Khazad-dum.

So I have made it with the company (sans Gandalf) out of the long dark of Moria and into the golden wood of Lothlorien. The Great River and Amon Hen awaits.

In re-reading these scenes I was struck by their marked contrast, placed as they are by Tolkien back-to-back in the narrative. We literally go from "A Journey in the Dark" to the golden wood, from pitch-blackness into pure light.

Moria is a vision of hell, full of darkness and pits and of course, the fiery demonic Balrog. But it's also a proving ground, a place through which the fellowship must pass if they are to reach their ultimate goal. Even the bravest members of the Fellowship quaver at the thought of entering its gates, but you can argue that they emerge stronger, wiser, and more determined to reach their goal than ever. This resonates with me strongly: Don't we all have dark paths to trod, a fearful and unwanted voyage through the darkness that is nevertheless necessary if we're to reach our ultimate goal?

Some of my recent favorite scenes/remembered moments from Moria include:

The Watcher in the Water took Oin, according to the record of the fortunes of Balin's folk, the great damaged tome found by Gandalf in Balin's tomb. What an awful way to go for this jovial dwarf from The Hobbit, grasped by a writhing mass of tentacles and likely consumed beneath the dark waters at the Westgate.

The scaly green arm of the cave troll thrust through the door. Unlike the film version, which featured a wild battle against this monster, Tolkien gives us only a glimpse of the beast: A huge arm and shoulder, with dark skin of greenish scales, was thrust through the widening gap. Then a great, flat, toeless foot was forced through below. Frodo stabs the foot with Sting, forcing it back with a bellow, and we never hear from the creature again.

This description of orc laughter: There was a rush of hoarse laughter, like the fall of sliding stones into a pit. Tolkien can occasionally terrify, and this dark simile could be taken from a Stephen King novel.

Gandalf's struggle with the Balrog. Not at the bridge of Khazad-Dum (which is also a great scene), but previously, at the barricaded door of Balin's tomb. Gandalf uses a spell to hold the door and encounters a terrible force of evil will opposing him, one that is actually (and terrifyingly) stronger than his own: What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. For an instant the door left my control and began to open!

Gandalf is mighty but the Balrog is one mean dude. Fortunately the door shatters and the chamber collapses, else Gandalf may have lost this battle of wills and magic. He is later put to the ultimate test in the pit, of course.

After Moria the fellowship enters Lothlorien. Whereas Moria is hell, the golden wood is heaven, the Garden of Eden before the fall. Tolkien writes that evil's influence is felt everywhere in Middle-Earth but not in the land of Lorien. This is the heart of the ancient realm, a last, timeless bastion of the elder days: No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain. Aragorn says that no evil in this land "unless a man bring it hither himself."

Yet even paradise is tinged with melancholy in Middle-Earth. If no sickness touches the earth here, the elves know it cannot last. Says Haldir to Merry: Some there are among us who sing that the Shadow will draw back, and peace shall come again. Yet I do not believe that the world about us will ever again be as it was of old, or the light of the Sun as it was aforetime.

Later Galadriel tells the company of her and the Lord Celeborn's long struggle against the darkness. "Together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat," she says. This is hardly encouraging stuff, but its a point worth repeating and one overlooked by Tolkien's detractors, many of which criticize The Lord of the Rings for its fairy-tale ending. They are wrong. The war against darkness cannot be won, Tolkien wrote. Light is only granted a reprieve.

Winning the war against Sauron will start the march of Time and drive the magic from the world, Galadriel explains. This is Tolkien's view of progress as a double-edged sword: Root out evil and it is replaced by a more prosaic, banal form of evil, perhaps because there is no more need for heroes to stand against the dark.

Galadriel has the power to see into men's hearts and she searches each of the Fellowship with her mind, probing for their true motivations. "Yet hope remains while all the Company is true," she says. Her observation proves correct: Frodo cannot reach Mount Doom and destroy the Ring on his own. Even though the Fellowship breaks, Frodo's staunch companion, Sam, does not. He is Frodo's only "company" in the final stages through Mordor, and ultimately (in my opinion) proves to be the true hero of The Lord of the Rings.

Fair though it may be beyond surpassing, Lothlorien is unfortunately only a respite for the fellowship, whose course leads east.