Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ronnie James Dio: Putting the sword to the dragon of cancer, still defying the ravages of time

—The best steel goes through the fire

Ronnie James Dio, Hide in the Rainbow

If you’re a fan of heavy metal music, you’re probably aware that legendary frontman Ronnie James Dio, 67, is in the midst of a grim battle against stomach cancer. On November 25, 2009, Dio’s wife broke the news and announced that he was starting immediate treatment at the Mayo Clinic. Her message: Dio was ready to fight back, tooth and nail, to achieve victory against this dreaded disease:

After he kills this dragon, Ronnie will be back on stage, where he belongs, doing what he loves best, performing for his fans. Long live rock and roll, long live Ronnie James Dio. Thanks to all the friends and fans from all over the world that have sent well wishes. This has really helped to keep his spirit up.

Fortunately for metal fans, it’s a battle Dio appears to be winning. The latest news according to Dio’s web site is that the man who made the sign of the horns a household symbol recently had his seventh chemotherapy treatment, and that the main tumor in his stomach has shrunk considerably. I hope it’s a fight he ultimately wins and that one day we’ll see him back on stage, belting out Holy Diver while wielding a two-handed sword.

At this point you may be thinking, that’s cool and all, but why write about Dio on a web site devoted to the works of Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other authors?

To which I would answer: Have you ever listened to Dio’s lyrics? They’re fantasy fiction set to music, man.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Closing the book on The Silmarillion

Re-reading The Silmarillion was a lot of fun—as I knew it would be. From the Dagor Brallogach to the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, from The Fall of Gondolin to the Voyage of Eärendil, how could it be otherwise? The Silmarillion might not be for everyone, but it never fails to awe, inspire, and move me. Telephone directory in Elvish my ass (okay, that particular description makes me smile, inaccurate though it may be).

I found my most recent trip through Tolkien’s legendarium particularly rewarding because blogging as I read forced me to organize my thoughts and get them down on paper. Committing to a series of posts had the byproduct of making me think more deeply and rigorously about the subject at hand. I hope you enjoyed Blogging The Silmarillion and I want to thank you all for the great comments.

I do feel obligated to mention the edition of The Silmarillion I used to write this series, in part because I borrowed so much of its artwork. It’s a hardcover published in 2004 by the Houghton Mifflin Company containing 45 gorgeous, full-page color illustrations by artist Ted Nasmith. This isn’t just a book, it’s a work of art, one of the gems of my bookshelf. I’m a reader, not a collector, but I am proud to own this particular volume (you can find it pictured above).

While he may not be as well-known a Tolkien illustrator as John Howe or Alan Lee, Nasmith is perhaps my favorite artist of the trio. He’s particularly good at painting detailed landscapes and broad vistas, which makes him a natural fit for the epic, scenic sweep of the stories contained in The Silmarillion.

One of the most affecting images that I’ve ever experienced in my mind’s eye is a young Tolkien on the battlefields of the Somme, wreathed in the reek of cordite and blood and fear, hope for survival minimal, writing down the tale of The Fall of Gondolin. Some combination of chance or fate allowed him to survive those horrors and deliver his wonderful tales of Middle-earth to us, posthumously, with the 1977 publication of The Silmarillion. I’m glad we have it.

Critical works referenced

Carpenter, Humphrey, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

Flieger, Verlyn, Splintered Light

Garth, John, Tolkien and the Great War

Shippey, Tom, Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth

Zimbardo, Rose; Isaacs, Neil: Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism

Thursday, March 18, 2010

REH and other omissions aside, Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature a worthy listen

Slowly—too slowly and decades overdue, in my opinion—fantasy literature is gaining a foothold in colleges and universities. Long ignored and/or the subject of sneering intellectuals and defenders of the literary “canon,” works like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are finally starting to appear on a handful of college syllabi. (To geek out a moment and quote Gandalf the Grey, “that is an encouraging thought.”)

For this slowly building acceptance of fantasy literature in academic circles, one has to acknowledge the work of the college professors who have cajoled, pled, or insisted that it be allowed into the hallowed halls of academia. These include men like Tom Shippey (former Chair of Humanities at Saint Louis University and author of J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth), Corey Olsen, aka., The Tolkien Professor, an English Professor at Washington College, and Michael Drout, Chair of the English Department at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

Drout is editor of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics and a co-editor of Tolkien Studies. At Wheaton he teaches Old English (Anglo-Saxon), Middle English, medieval literature, fantasy, science fiction, and writing. He also writes a blog, Wormtalk and Slugspeak, which is definitely worth adding to your list of links.

Drout also wrote and narrated a fine entry in The Modern Scholar audio book series, Rings, Swords, and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature, which is the subject of this post. I recently had the pleasure of listening to it during my commute to work and found it immensely enjoyable, lucid, thought-provoking, and ambitious. It offers prima facie evidence for why fantasy literature deserves to be the subject of academic study.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Blogging The Silmarillion: Closing the book on the Third Age

Part nine of Blogging The Silmarillion concludes with Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

“Many are the strange chances of the world,” said Mithrandir, “and help oft shall come from the hands of the weak when the Wise falter.”

–J.R.R. Tolkien,
The Silmarillion

A recurring theme in The Silmarillion is Elves and/or Men meeting force with force, the result of which is endless cycles of war and ruin. In the Quenta Silmarillon Melkor steals the three Silmarils, and their maker, the Noldorin Elf Fëanor, vows to recover them at all costs. Fëanor’s destructive oath sets in motion a millennia-spanning series of conflicts that continue until the Valar intercede in the War of Wrath, another horribly destructive affair which mars Arda forever and ends the First Age of Middle-earth.

But even after Morgoth’s defeat in the War of Wrath, evil is not destroyed, nor are possessiveness and pride stamped out of the hearts of Men. In the Akallabêth the Númenóreans fall victim to the same Fëanor-like sins of pride and overreaching when they try to wrest immortality from the Valar. The result is the destruction of their civilization.

Thus far it’s been pretty bleak stuff from Tolkien, and with only one section of The Silmarillion left it’s still very much an open question whether Men and Elves will ever learn from their mistakes, or whether Middle-earth is doomed to ever more destructive wars of possession. And so we arrive at Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Blogging The Silmarillion: A straight road is bent and Men suffer punishment divine

Part eight of Blogging the Silmarillion continues with the Akallabêth.

According to scholar Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien struggled to reconcile his belief in a Christian heaven with the uncertain fate of the pre-Christian heroes he so adored. Un-baptized and living in a pagan age, where would the spirits of great Northern heroes like Beowulf dwell after their death? Likewise, what would be the fate of his Middle-earth creations, for example the slain Elven heroes Fëanor, Fingon, and Fingolfin? And where would their living, immortal brethren ultimately take up residence? The answer as explained in The Silmarillion is twofold: The Halls of Mandos, which houses the spirits of Elves slain in battle, and Valinor, the Blessed Realm, a paradise on earth removed from the darkness of Middle-earth.

Valinor and the Halls of Mandos serve as halfway houses for pre-Christian souls, or as Shippey notes in The Road to Middle Earth, a “middle path” where they remain until the Ragnarök-like ending of the world. While the Halls of Mandos can perhaps be thought of as a less rowdy Valhalla, Valinor makes a wonderful, shifting metaphor: The Garden of Eden; a lost time of innocence; a dim remembrance of a better time in our own lives; a loved one separated by death but who we hope to rejoin one day; they’re all applicable ways of assigning meaning to the Undying Lands.

Of course Valinor is sadly beyond not only our reach, but the reach of the denizens of the Third Age of Middle-earth. It’s a divide not merely between heaven and earth, but a split on Middle-earth itself. This is Tolkien’s myth of The Lost Road, an impossible straight path on a curved earth that leads to a land of magic and deathlessness. Frodo, en route to the Grey Havens, sings of this myth in the final pages of The Lord of the Rings:

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

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.