Thursday, January 27, 2022

Tolkien’s Modern Reading: A review

Tolkien: Not just for medieval scholars, anymore.
Given that Tolkien was not the first to write secondary-world fantasies for adult readers, nor the first to popularize traditional stories for modern audiences, we should ask what it was that made The Lord of the Rings so startling. Part of the answer, at least, is that Tolkien, like a scribe of the kingdom, brought out from his storehouse treasures both old and new.


--Holly Ordway, Tolkien’s Modern Reading


J.R.R Tolkien has been described as harder to influence than a Bandersnatch, and commonly believed to be utterly uninterested in any literature written after the Canterbury Tales. As it turns out, these claims are largely untrue. Tolkien was indeed an ardent medievalist, but the “leaf mould” of his imagination was far deeper, and richer, and broader, than just an amalgamation of ancient works. Despite what many commonly believe, Tolkien also read and enjoyed modern literature, too.


The person to blame for this inaccurate characterization? The late Humphrey Carpenter, author of the only authorized biography of Tolkien and the only outsider (still!) ever permitted complete access to Tolkien’s complete letters. We now have Holly Ordway to thank for setting the record straight with Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-Earth Beyond the Middle Ages (Word on Fire, 2021). This is one of the better works of Tolkien criticism I have read. Nothing can (or likely ever will) compare to Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-Earth, and I’ve also got a great respect and admiration for John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, but Ordway’s book is both highly readable and illuminating, which is what I look for in literary criticism.


Ordway’s book studies fiction that Tolkien would have considered “modern” (published 1850 to his present day) and that had some influence, glancing or readily apparent, on his main legendarium (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion). Ordway restricted her work only to those authors whom Tolkien definitely interacted with, as can be traced to notations or references in his public writings, letters, interviews, from reports from other people, or in his work in academia. Ordway’s work lists a total of 148 authors and more than 200 titles. These include the likes of a few authors that should be familiar to readers of this blog: Poul Anderson, Algernon Blackwood, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, James Branch Cabell, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, H. Rider Haggard, Robert E. Howard, Henry Kuttner, Andrew Lang, Fritz Leiber, C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft, George MacDonald, C.L. Moore, William Morris, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Louis Stevenson, and T.H. White, among many others. Many of these seem to have had negligible influence (Tolkien read the likes of Howard and Smith for example in the L. Sprague de Camp collection Sword & Sorcery, and has little to say about it), but other authors made an impact, sometimes profound. 


Ordway does a fine job tracing these influences and matching them up, thematically or stylistically, with passages from Tolkien’s texts. For example, from MacDonald’s Lilith he may have drawn inspiration for his themes of death and deathlessness (MacDonald was father to 11 children, but was predeceased by six of them, including his eldest child Lilia). Both MacDonald and Tolkien were “men much acquainted with grief.” Tolkien also credits MacDonald’s goblins as a direct inspiration for his own underground dwellers in The Hobbit. MacDonald looms large enough to get his own chapter, as does, unsurprisingly, William Morris, whose Goths from The House of the Wolfings are stamped all over the Rohirrim. Interestingly, Ordway makes a good case that Morris’ imperialistic, militarized Romans may have inspired Tolkien’s orcs. 


Haggard might be a surprise to some: Tolkien read so voraciously of old HRH him that Ordway devoted a whole chapter to his influence (“Rider Haggard: Fresh Ore from Old Mines”). We know that the eponymous She of Haggard’s wildly popular novel was an influence on Galadriel, and that he loved King Solomon’s Mines, but Ordway also reveals that Tolkien read the likes of the lesser-known The Wanderer’s Necklace. As late as 1961 he was still reacting positively in interviews to the name of Haggard. Dunsany was like Tolkien a veteran and wrote the preface of Tales of Wonder while recovering from a war wound, just as Tolkien began writing of his legendarium while recovering from trench-fever. Ordway also includes some deep cuts, noting that Tolkien borrowed elements of a pitched wolf battle in the pines from S.R. Crockett’s The Black Douglas (1889) for Bilbo’s escape from the wargs in The Hobbit. The striking art from this book bears it out. Not all of Tolkien’s reading was fantastic: One of the books that apparently inspired him greatly was J.H. Shorthouse’s John Inglesant, widely read in Tolkien’s day though largely forgotten today.


There is much, much more to recommend from this book, including coverage of writers such as Matthew Arnold, Sinclair Lewis, even a handful of science-fiction authors like H.G. Wells (Tolkien read them, too). If you’re a Tolkien fan, seek it out and read it.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Latest Rogues in the House podcast is up: Deathstalker 2, and Flame and Crimson too

The Ultimate Sword-and-Sorcery podcast
The latest episode of the Rogues in the House podcast is now available for your listening enjoyment. The cast and crew of Rogues were kind enough to ask me on the show, and I have to say I had a BLAST. I mean, I spent last Thursday evening drinking a couple beers and talking sword-and-sorcery, Deathstalker 2, and the zaniness of the 1980s in general. 

We had way more fun than we had any right to, but if you can't laugh watching Deathstalker 2 you were obviously born without a sense of humor.

Check out the episode here. We also talked Flame and Crimson quite a bit as well.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Rogues in the House: Deathstalker 2!

You won't find this level of beefcake ...
Any fans of this fun podcast, the only program wholly dedicated to sword-and-sorcery? I’m one of them, and tonight I get the pleasure of guesting on an episode.


The topic? Deathstalker 2: Duel of the Titans.


Somehow I had never watched Deathstalker 2. I look back upon my many years of renting the most exploitative videos I and my high school buddies could find, idle time spent scrolling YouTube, the additional (painful) video research I conducted for Flame and Crimson, and I wonder how this one eluded me. The only explanation I can come up with is that Deathstalker 1 is so outrageously awful, near irredeemable, that I wanted no further part of the series. 


In addition, I’ve consciously avoided the S&S films of the 80s. It got too depressing to see a subgenre that gave us Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, The Dying Earth, Conan and Kull, Elric, etc. handled so badly on the silver screen.


But, in recent years I’ve made peace with sword-and-sorcery films. I view them now as a cornball corner of pop culture history to enjoy as guilty pleasures. And, I’m already glad I got the opportunity to guest on Rogues because Deathstalker 2 is fun. Sword-and-sorcery fans will find their subgenre treated with about as much subtlety and reverence as Animal House did for undergraduate education. I would describe it as objectively a bad film, but subjectively awesome. It knows what it is, and while not a true parody like Men in Tights for example it is entirely a tongue-in-cheek take on S&S. 


Make no mistake, this is by any measure a bad movie. Really bad. The acting is below the level of a soap opera, the plot barely a thread, the script full of holes, and the sets and props are cheap and flimsy and entirely recycled. It lacks proof of having been backed by anything resembling a budget; in fact, there really wasn’t one. If there was, it was spent by the cast and crew in Argentinian dive bars. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s a poor man’s Army of Darkness.


You can currently find Deathstalker 1 and 2 on Tubi, a free movie service. My advice: Skip the first and head straight to the sequel. And look for our insights and analysis of this fine film on an upcoming episode of Rogues in the House.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Starting 2022 with Michael Moorcock’s The Swords Trilogy

My latest post, and first of the year for DMR Books in 2022, is now up: Starting 2022 with Michael Moorcock’s The Swords Trilogy.

I love The Book of Swords and think the Corum stories are perhaps on a par quality-wise with Elric. If you haven't read them do yourself a favor and get to it. And while you're at it, be thankful we still have Mr. Moorcock on the planet. I sent him an email a while back and he was kind enough to respond. 82 years old and 60 years of S&S is a pretty good run, and I suspect we'll see a few more stories from his pen.

This line made me sit up when I read it: “The nearest we ever come to knowing truth is when we are witnesses to a paradox.” Tanelorn, the city of equilibrium at the center of so many of Moorcock's stories and a refuge sought after by his Eternal Champions, is one such example. How can such a place exist; how can such a state exist in the heart of a species so divided and unreasoning and passionate as our own? How can fate and free will exist simultaneously and serve to explain our ultimate fate?

The answer is, they can. We are all Mabden, and Vadhagh, simultaneously.

Also, a castle made of blood? Yeah, it's in there too.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

I, Black Sabbath (with incredible Conan imagery)

Metal Friday has come early this week because I just can't resist sharing this awesome video for Black Sabbath's "I," with the late, great Ronnie James Dio supplying the lyrics. This one is off the little regarded Dehumanizer (1992).

I don't know how much time went into the creation of this video, but Crom, is it awesome. A flood of great, classic Conan comics images, perfectly matched with the lyrical content and timed to the music. Well done, anonymous internet dude.

This might be the most sword-and-sorcery video I've encountered. Check it out, and be prepared to headbang, or behead someone with an axe.