Monday, February 18, 2008

The Eye of Argon: Plan 9 meets swords and sorcery

Did you ever watch something so bad that it's good? A movie that's so poorly plotted, with special effects so awful and dialogue so artificial, that it ceases to be annoying and crosses over into a fun investment of time? If you've ever seen Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Well, fantasy fiction has its own equivalent of Plan 9: The Eye of Argon , a howlingly-bad swords-and-sorcery tale supposedly written in 1970 by a 16-year-old author named Jim Theis. I say supposedly because, although Theis' authorship is reportedly genuine, I have a hard time believing that a tale so deliciously awful is the result of any young writer's honest effort. To me, Argon smacks of satire, a well-done internet hoax by a fan or fans of both Robert E. Howard, from whom the tale draws obvious inspiration, and Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

But regardless of the truth of its origins, The Eye of Argon is a delight to read. Chock-full of misspellings and incorrect word choices, it contains passages so loaded with (unintentional?) humor that they can't be read with a straight face. According to Wikipedia, the story has been used as a party game at Science Fiction conventions, with readers challenged to recite passages out loud without laughing.

I wouldn't last more than 10 seconds trying to read The Eye of Argon out loud. Some of my favorite passages include:

The engrossed titan ignored the queries of the inquisitive female, pulling her towards him and crushing her sagging nipples to his yearning chest. Without struggle she gave in, winding her soft arms around the harshly bronzed hide of Grignr's corded shoulder blades, as his calloused hands caressed her firm protruding busts.

"You make love well wench," Admitted Grignr as he reached for the vessel of potent wine his charge had been quaffing. A flying foot caught the mug Grignr had taken hold of, sending its blood red contents sloshing over a flickering crescent; leashing tongues of bright orange flame to the foot trodden floor. "Remove yourself Sirrah, the wench belongs to me;" Blabbered a drunken soldier, too far consumed by the influences of his virile brew to take note of the superior size of his adversary.

...and this one...

"All that you hear is less than I hear! I heard footsteps coming towards us. Silence yourself that we may find out whom we are being brought into contact with. I doubt that any would have thought as yet of searching this passage for us. The advantage of surprize will be upon our side." Grignr warned.

...more goodness....

"What are you called by female?"
"Carthena, daughter of Minkardos, Duke of Barwego, whose lands border along the northwestern fringes of Gorzom. I was paid as homage to Agaphim upon his thirty-eighth year," husked the femme!
"And I am called a barbarian!" Grunted Grignr in a disgusted tone!
"Aye! The ways of our civilization are in many ways warped and distorted, but what is your calling," she queried, bustily?
"Grignr of Ecordia."

...and another...

"Your sirenity, resplendent in noble grandeur, we have brought this yokel before you (the soldier gestured toward Grignr) for the redress or your all knowing wisdon in judgement regarding his fate."
"Down on your knees, lout, and pay proper homage to your sovereign!" commanded the pudgy noble of Grignr.
"By the surly beard of Mrifk, Grignr kneels to no man!" scowled the massive barbarian.
"You dare to deal this blasphemous act to me! You are indeed brave stranger, yet your valor smacks of foolishness."
"I find you to be the only fool, sitting upon your pompous throne, enhancing the rolling flabs of your belly in the midst of your elaborate luxury and ..." The soldier standing at Grignr's side smote him heavily in the face with the flat of his sword, cutting short the harsh words and knocking his battered helmet to the masonry with an echo-ing clang.
The paunchy noble's sagging round face flushed suddenly pale, then pastily lit up to a lustrous cherry red radiance. His lips trembled with malicious rage, while emitting a muffled sibilant gibberish. His sagging flabs rolled like a tub of upset jelly, then compressed as he sucked in his gut in an attempt to conceal his softness.

I encourage you to follow the link above and read more of The Eye of Argon. It's easily the worst (and among the most entertaining) pieces of fantasy fiction I've ever read.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Lord of the Rings: Three films to rule them all

Part 10 of a 10-part series in which I examine my favorite films, and the reasons why I love them so.

Okay, so I'm cheating a bit here, capping off my "top 10 favorite films of all time" list with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But just like Tolkien's novel, which was one book artificially broken into three parts for publishing purposes, I consider the LOTR trilogy to be one (albeit very long) film.

And a damned good one. In fact, I will unequivocally state the LOTR films are my favorite.

Unlike most of my reviews, which dwell on the reasons why I "love my favorite films so," I feel like I must spend some time defending Jackson's version of LOTR. Although these movies were met with tremendous commercial and critical success (Best Picture and Best Director awards, great critical ratings on RottenTomatoes, etc.) a sizable community of detractors exists.

For the most part, I think the righteous anger (and that's how I would describe some of the reaction I've seen, usually by Tolkien "purists") of some of these outspoken critics is misguided. Particularly, I don't agree at all with the notion that Jackson failed to capture the "spirit" of Tolkien's work. As I see them, the key points of Tolkien's novel include:
  • Frodo "fails" in his quest, but is redeemed by his act of pity towards Gollum--check, that's here.
  • The friendship and undying loyalty of Sam, the true hero of the tale, and how that friendship and unexpected bravery allows Frodo to succeed in his quest--check, that's here.
  • The terrible toll that war and sacrifice can take on the victors of a conflict--check, that's here.
  • The departure of the elves and the passing of a magical, timeless age into a time of mortal men--check, that's here.
  • Tolkien's preoccupation with death and the problems inherent in our pursuit of immortality, and the possibility of something greater--i.e., God--behind the great grey rain-curtain of this world--check, that's here.

In fairness, however, I do agree with some of the criticisms of these films. I don't think they are perfect, and here are my own:

The generally poor/shallow treatment of Gimli and Legolas. The former is almost wholly reduced to a comic device, while the latter is obnoxiously uber-powered. I loved Jackson's subtle early touches with Legolas (walking on the snow in the Pass of Caradhras, rapid-fire arrows in the battle with the orcs on Amon Hen), but hated the dreaded shield-surfing at Helm's Deep and his single-handed dispatch of the Mumakil in the battle of the Pellennor Fields. Gimli and Legolas weren't fleshed out, major characters in the books, but they deserved better.

The green ghost army. This, to me, is the most unforgiveable misstep in the Walsh/Jackson screenplay. By having an army of the dead sweep away all the orcs and mercenaries before Minas Tirith, Jackson undercut one of my favorite moments--the charge of the riders of Rohan. Had the brave men of Rohan waited just a few minutes longer, they could have watched as the undead army won the day without loss of life. Essentially, the ghosts negated Theoden's great moment of sacrifice and valor on the battlefield. And on top of that, I thought this was one of the rare unconvincing pieces of CGI in the trilogy. It almost appeared as if the budget had run dry by this point.

Too much artificial tugging at emotional heartstrings. This is just an overall feeling, but upon rewatching these films there's a few too many shots of Arwen's grief, Frodo's tears, etc.. The Lord of the Rings has enough built-in pathos and certainly doesn't need Jackson's heavy-handed reminders.

The exclusion of the Scouring of the Shire. I dearly wanted to see this filmed, and I think its message--that war touches us, everywhere, and that one can't simply "go home again"--is an important one and a central theme in Tolkien's work. But, to defend Jackson, this would have stretched the ending of The Return of the King--already quite long--to an interminable degree.

However, these criticisms are quite minor. Consider that, prior to 2001, the general consensus among movie buffs and Tolkien fans alike was the Lord of the Rings was "unfilmable." Jackson showed us otherwise, producing what I consider to be a stunning achievement and a work of lasting art.

There's so many good moments in these films, both large (the battles, the set pieces of Moria and Minas Tirith) and small ("It comes in pints? I'm getting one!"). Some of my favorites include:

The charge of the Riders of Rohan. This might be my favorite moment in all of cinema. Starting with the fear on the riders' faces after seeing the sprawling horde of orcs massed at the gates of Minas Tirith, to Theoden's stirring speech ("Forth, and fear no darkness! Arise! Arise, Riders of Theoden! Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered! A sword day... a red day... ere the sun rises! Ride now!... Ride now!... Ride! Ride to ruin and the world's ending!") to the slow-panning back of the camera, revealing rank upon rank of Rohirrim, who scream "Death!" in unison and surge forward into a wedge, then watching the stunned looks on the orcs' faces as they realize this wave is not going to stop, until it parts their ranks like a hot knife through butter....that is some good stuff. If I live another 30-plus years I may never see its equal.

The casting/acting. Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Ian Holm as Bilbo, Sean Astin as Sam, and Sean Bean as Boromir are my favorites. All of them deserved awards. Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Miranda Otto, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill (Theoden), Billy Boyd, Cate Blanchett, Brad Dourif (a great bit part as Wormtounge) all deserve accolades as well.

Sam's speech at the end of the Two Towers. This was a beautifully written/filmed sequence, and Astin pulled it off with great conviction: Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something...that there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.

You bow to no one. Enough said. I cried (just a bit) at this line.

Hobbiton. It's obvious that a great amount of effort was expended to make Hobbiton appear to be a lived-in, realistic place, and it shows on the screen. The attention to detail and the effort poured into this set piece are remarkable. I still recall sitting in the theatre back on opening night of The Fellowship of the Ring, and watching Frodo under the tree, reading a book, and the first view of The Shire. I knew right then that Jackson had nailed the look I had imagined in my mind all those years, and that I was in for a great ride.

"For Frodo." That look when Aragorn turns back to the small force at the Black Gates, with all hope gone, eyes heavy with grief, before charging in with Narsil drawn...I still get a shiver down my spine just thinking of it.

Theoden girding up for the battle of Helm's Deep. His speech: "Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?" as he slowly straps on his armor with the bright beam of light shining through a narrow aperture is poetry on film.

Boromir's death. Bean brought Boromir to life, and his performance bettered Tolkien's depiction of the character from the books. After his death speech ("I would have followed you to the end. My brother; my captain; my king") I couldn't see the screen clearly until my eyes cleared. Must have been a dust-mote.

Into the West. What a beautiful song, performed magnificently by Annie Lennox. My kids and even my wife, no LOTR fan, are big fans. Really, the whole score (by Howard Shore) is a marvel.

Sam carrying Frodo up Mount Doom. This, folks, is what heroism is all about. Small steps taken by an unassuming, unimportant figure, beyond all endurance, with no hope to buoy him, up Mount Doom. Astin/Sam was a titan in this scene, carrying the weight of his master, the Ring, and the very movie itself on his back. All the special effects, the money, the casting, depended on the believability and sympathy evoked by Sam and Frodo, and Sam in particular. And Sam succeeds, as do the films, in brilliant fashion.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, an illuminating look into the author, part 3

After chipping away at it for the last couple weeks, last night I finished up The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. My one line review? It's not hyperbole to say that, if you're a fan of this man's great works of fiction, you owe it to yourself to read Letters.

Over the course of this book I developed a much deeper appreciation not only for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion, but also for what a unique individual Tolkien was. For example, unbelievably, even towards his last days while continuing to chip away at The Silmarillion, Tolkien regularly answered fan mail. And not just in a cursory, "thank you for the kind words" manner. Letters contains dozens of detailed, multi-page letters on the history of the elves, the derivations of words and names, and the various historic ages of Middle Earth, which Tolkien composed and sent off to bog-standard readers and fans.

Take a moment to think about that: A man who is now regarded as the single greatest influence on not just fantasy literature, but the entire fantasy genre, taking an hour or two out of his busy day to write an eight-page explanation to a reader commenting on Frodo's failure to surrender the Ring in the Cracks of Doom (Letter 246), or to a woman wanting to know whether Shadowfax went with Gandalf across the sea (Letter 268), or to answer a fan's request for a translation of the opening words to one of Treebeard's song (yes, this is in here too--Letter 168).

A few times I actually found myself getting angry: Tolkien died in 1973 at age 81 before he could complete The Silmarillion, which he considered to be his life's work, and a book he continued to chip away at, unsuccessfully, until his death. His son, Christopher, published it posthumously in 1977, but I can't help but think how much more Tolkien could have fleshed out the legends and mythologies of Middle Earth if he spent those hours writing instead of corresponding with fans. But that's who he was.

While Tolkien was quite private about matters of his own life, Letters reveals some personal details which I found quite touching. For example, the fact that he asked to have his wife's headstone engraved as follows (Letter 340):


Tolkien himself had "Beren" engraved on his own gravestone (Beren and Luthien were a mortal man and immortal elf-maiden, respectively, who were the first-age equivalent of Aragorn and Arwen). "She (Edith) was, and knew she was, my Luthien," he wrote.

Tolkien lived and breathed Middle Earth, and spent the majority of his life thinking about it and expanding upon its legends. His devotion to his creation is apparent everywhere and even bleeds through into casual correspondence. For example, he described his relationship to his friend and publisher Rayner Unwin, "like that of Rohan and Gondor... and for my part the oath of Eorl will never be broken, and I shall continue to rely on and be grateful for the wisdom and courtesy of Minas Tirith." Middle Earth was no silly outlet for Tolkien--it was him, and he was it. This is probably the greatest reason why it remains (in my opinion) the most convincing act of sub-creation in all of fantasy literature, one that countless other fantasy authors have sought to imitate, but without the same success.

Other of Tolkien's letters reveal his sense of humor. For example, Tolkien tells that he received a drinking goblet from a fan, "which proved to be steel engraved with the terrible words seen on the Ring. I of course have never drunk from it, but use it for tobacco ash" (Letter 343). When a reader wrote to ask for Tolkien's help with an academic project about his works, Tolkien rebuffed him with a quote from Gandalf: "Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." (Letter 346). When another fan asked Tolkien to sign her copy of The Hobbit, he did, but also sent her a postcard written in elvish runes.

There are tons of other great details in Letters, too many to tell here. But just a few nuggets:
  • Tolkien "began a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall of Mordor, but it proved both sinister and depressing" (Letter 256);
  • Frodo's "failure" as a hero: "Frodo 'failed' as a hero"... but "had done what he could and spent himself completely (as an instrument of Providence) and had produced a situation in which the object of his quest could be achieved. His humility (with which he began) and his sufferings were justly rewarded by the highest honour; and his exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed" (Letter 246);
  • Tolkien actually "welcomed the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization" (Letter 198);
  • Tolkien more or less told a German publisher in 1938 to go screw himself when the latter wrote to inquire whether Tolkien was of Aryan descent (Letter 3o)

In short, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is highly recommended for any serious Tolkien reader.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Tolkien estate sues New Line Cinema

The Tolkien estate dealt what could be a fatal blow to the film adaptation of The Hobbit today, suing New Line Cinema for failing to share any profits from The Lord of the Rings films. This according to a story in Variety today:

According to the article, the complaint seeks in excess of $150 million in compensatory damages, punitive damages, and (selfishly, the big one for me), "a declaration from the Court that the plaintiffs have a right to terminate any further rights New Line may have to the Tolkien works under the agreements, including The Hobbit."

If this story is correct, it sounds like more sleazy, underhanded work by New Line. Remember that this story comes just months after director Peter Jackson sued the studio for allegedly cheating him out of his fair share of the profits for the LOTR films, and then failing to turn over its books.

I give New Line all the credit in world for backing Rings, and for being the one studio in the world that ponied up the money and the creative license for Jackson to make all three films as he'd wished. But these latest incidents are putting New Line in a very bad light. With worldwide gross receipts of almost $6 billion dollars, are these tactics really necessary? Let's hope the damage and ill-will doesn't put any early end to The Hobbit.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

An edible Minas Tirith?

Okay, this is just plain silly (and awesome): The Battle of the Pelennor Fields, done up in cake and candy.

I have no idea how much cake mix went into that creation, but whatever the cost it was worth it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Eaters of the Dead: A review

Given my huge love of fantasy in general, and viking/dark age-influenced tales in particular, you would think that the 13th Warrior, the film upon which Michael Crichton's fine novel, Eaters of the Dead, is based, would be a personal favorite of mine. It is not. But of Crichton's work I am most definitely a huge fan.

Eaters of the Dead is a retelling of the supposedly authentic travels of an Arab, Ibn Fadlan, and his experiences among the Northmen circa 922 A.D. Several reviews state that much of Eaters is fiction; I myself thought as much after noting both the quality of the narrative and two much more obvious clues: The fact that the book is marked "fiction" on its cover, and the inclusion of The Necronomicon as one of the general reference works listed among its sources. But apparently Fadlan is a real figure from history who did spend time among the vikings as an ambassador.

Regardless of its authenticity, Eaters is a terrific read, made all the more compelling by Crichton's skillful "adaptation" of Fadlan's journal. The viking culture among which Fadlan finds himself is dirty, bloody, and graphic, but oddly appealing if you're a fan of orgies, death-duels, and animal (and occasionally human) sacrifices. These are laid out before the reader without judgment, with only Fadlan's disgust serving as a moral compass. Yet the incredible heroism of the Northmen shines through, as Crichton portrays them as unwaveringly honest and possessed of a steadfast and admirable belief in a warrior's code. Though he's at first appalled and disgusted by the rude, uncivilized behavior of the northmen, Fadlan learns to love their bravery and even comes to embrace their culture.

Fadlan is taken in by the Northmen and becomes an unwilling participant in their mission to save a viking tribe from the attacks of the mist-people, otherwise known as the eaters of the dead. In a scene with strong parallels to Beowulf, Fadlan experiences a terrifying night raid by the mist-people in the hall of Rothgar, the Northmen king. The mist-people, which appear as hairy, brutish monsters, are later revealed to be some form of surviving Neanderthal tribe, wielding stone axes and wearing animal pelts. Though it sounds silly, I found that this explanation added even more realism, and Crichton in the afterword makes a convincing case that perhaps Neanderthal man existed long past his presumed extinction date (commonly believed as 20,000-30,000 B.C).

Later, Fadlan and a small band of northmen led by Buliwyf (read--Beowulf), a mighty warrior, undertake a perilous journey to the home of the mist-people to slay their wendol-mother and stop the source of the attacks.

Equally or even more so than the fun story it tells, I found Eaters of the Dead a fantastic read due to its examination of viking culture, religion, and philosophy. And its eminently quoteable, too. Following are some of my favorites:

The deeds of dead men are sung, and also the deeds of heroes who live, but never are sung the deeds of ordinary men.

There is too much that man does not know. And what man does not know, that is the province of the Gods.

Each person bears a fear which is special to him. One man fears drowning and another fears a close space; each laughs at the other and calls him stupid. This fear is only a preference, to be counted the same as the preference for one woman or another, or mutton for pig, or cabbage for onion. We say, fear is fear.

Praise not the day until evening has come; a woman until she is burnt; a sword until it is tried; a maiden until she is married; ice until it has been crossed; beer until it has been drunk.

A hero's great challenge is in the heart, and not in the adversary.

And finally, when Fadlan tells Buliwyf that that he is afraid, the latter replies, That is because you think upon what is to come, and imagine fearsome things that would stop the blood of any man. Do not think ahead, and be cheerful by knowing that no man lives forever.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

White Dwarf: Remembering a great old magazine

The recent demise of Dragon and Dungeon magazine (in paper form-- both have since gone electronic) has gotten me a bit nostalgic for the old days of print-supported role-playing game magazines. With a few small print run exceptions, including Kobold Quarterly and the bi-monthly The Crusader, the days of widely circulated, glossy, print RPG publications are gone.

While I miss to some degree Dragon and Dungeon, both fine magazines in their own right, these days I find myself remembering and looking back most fondly at the Games Workshop (GW)-published White Dwarf magazine, "the voice of British adventure gamers."

Eh, you role-players say? Doesn't GW still publish White Dwarf every month? For the record, they do. But for me, the magazine died roughly around issue #100, when it became a mouthpiece for GW's profitable miniatures wargames line.

Pre-issue 100, White Dwarf was a fantastic magazine. Whereas Dragon very quickly evolved into a house organ for TSR and later Wizards of the Coast, and eventually covered strictly D&D, White Dwarf was a rarity in that it covered all role-playing games. Within its pages you could find articles on Dungeons and Dragons sandwiched in between Runequest columns, Call of Cthulhu adventures, Champions role-playing advice, and Traveler comics.

This model has its problems, since you're much less likely to find value in an article about a game that you don't own. Nevertheless, I derived great enjoyment as a youth examining Champions or Traveler articles and trying to puzzle out their rules based on stat blocks or descriptions. And more than any real gaming value, the pleasure in reading these articles alone made it worth the purchase. The best example I can think of is issue #53 (the cover of which I've included above), which contained Minas Tirith, a scenario about the battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Lord of the Rings. The game system was Warhammer, which I didn't (and still don't) own, but I loved reading about the background, the turns and what events would occur in each, the behavior of the Mumakil if they recieved an eye wound, the Gondor and Witch-King of Angmar army lists, and more.

White Dwarf had columns on minatures painting, scenarios and mini-campaigns, system-free articles on incorporating undead into your games or designing logical campaigns/fantasy worlds, reviews of RPGs popular and obscure, and much more. Here were some of my favorites:

The Castle of Lost Souls. Between issues 52-55, White Dwarf published a four-part choose your own adventure story that drew inspiration from the old Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Remember those? Like Lone Wolf, The Castle of Lost Souls required you to create your own character, resolve combats with dice, etc. It was a great little romp that kept me busy in between games.

Tabletop Heroes: A regular column devoted to minatures painting. It contained lots of great advice not only on how to paint, but also caring for figures, building terrain, castles, and dungeons out of household products, and more. The color illustrations of finished figures were great, although I was left with an inferiority complex when comparing these to my own.

Treasure Chest: A great column of odds and ends, neat little ideas for treasure and devices, alternative rules, and more that you could pick up and drop into your game. Examples: The dungeon cart (a practically-designed, easily-transportable cart specifically designed for underground adventures), drowning rules, the sword of thunder (a +2 intelligent sword that allowed the user to deflect lighting bolts and absorb their charges into the blade; the clear pommel would glow blue when so charged), dragon shields (magic shields made of dragon scales/hide that confer complete protection from that dragon type's particular breath weapon), hints for creative spell uses, halfling-specific magic items, nunchucks in Runequest, and much more.

British style and humor. The letters and reviews in White Dwarf were full of that particular brand of British wit that I find endearing. Example: Issue #63 reviewed XL1: Quest for the Heartstone, a notoriously bad D&D module, with the following: Quest for the Heartstone was at first reading no more than a sales exercise for AD&D Action Toys, and is very reminiscent of everyone's first dungeon: a collection of randomly placed monsters with a random selection of Good Guys going off after some magic item and having to hack through favorite is 'You may use the five-headed Hydra Bendable Monster for this encounter.'

Fun comics. My favorites were Groo, a little three or four-panel strip about the sick adventures of a thick-skulled goblin, and Thrud, which followed the adventures of a massive-bodied, small-headed barbarian that invoked all the worst Conan cliches.

Crunch-less articles. One of the reasons I stopped buying Dragon was that it seemed in the latter days too preoccupied with "crunch," aka. new prestige classes, feats, magic items, etc. This stuff gets real old, real fast. White Dwarf had its share of crunch, but devoted lots of page space to thoughtful columns and features about topics like roleplaying characters after death, discussions on how fast or slow to level, how to colorfully roleplay clerics in D&D, how to create campaigns and worlds with depth and versimilitude, etc.

Sure, White Dwarf wasn't perfect. In particular, my eyes glazed over at "Microview," a bi-monthly computer column about how to write computer programs to aid your tabletop RPGs (issue #50, for example, contained the code for creating a Taurus III striker vehicle, using BASIC language on a TRS-80. Yuck.). But nevertheless, White Dwarf was an invaluable resource from the heyday of RPGs and a vanished member of a species of magazine that, sadly, is all but extinct.