Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett—a review

The Sword of Rhiannon (1949) was my first experience reading Leigh Brackett, one of the grand dames of science fiction along with C.L. Moore, and I must say I was quite impressed. Although it may sound like heresy to the Edgar Rice Burroughs fans Brackett’s depiction of Mars might be the best I’ve read. While not as action-packed, I thought it created a more convincing alien atmosphere than A Princess of Mars, although it certainly owes a huge debt in terms of form and genre elements to Burroughs' earlier work.

The Sword of Rhiannon tells the story of Matthew Carse, an archeologist from Earth who’s spent 30 of his 35 years on the red planet, an arid, dying world that at one time was home to a vibrant environment and an advanced alien culture. One day a wealth-seeking Martian leads Carse to the tomb of Rhiannon, in which a cursed, godlike figure from Mars’ ancient past is rumored to lie in deathless sleep. Carse enters the tomb and is swept back via some form of wormhole into Mars’ ancient past, before its seas dried up and when all was green and beautiful. Carse takes with him the jeweled-hilted sword of Rhiannon as well as a dark sentience from the tomb. He soon finds himself emeshed in an ancient conflict between the militaristic nation of Sark and their evil serpent-like allies, the Caer Dhu, who are at war with the Martian free peoples under the Sea Kings.

Despite its fantasy trappings, The Sword of Rhiannon is firmly in the sword and planet genre. While the protagonist wields a sword and ancient Mars is decidedly low-tech (transportation is by sail or rowed ships; combat is with medieval-style weapons), Mars was once home to a race of advanced beings called the Quiru. The Quiru abandoned the planet but left behind relics of their advanced civilization, incredibly powerful technology that includes time-travel devices. There is no overt magic in the story, save perhaps for a form of telepathy. The Quiru’s artifacts are sufficiently advanced to seem like magic though Brackett does describe them as working according to scientific laws.

More than its fun story (which rigorously follows Burroughs’ sword and planet formula), The Sword of Rhiannon succeeds due to its style and atmosphere. Bracketts’ writing makes Mars feel, well, otherwordly. She succeeds in creating a vivid contrast between the arid waste of the new Mars and the beauty of the old, and we as the reader feel the pang of loss of a great civilization that once was. Here’s an example, a scene in which Carse, chained to the oars of a Sark ship, awakes at his post and looks upon a sunrise on the sea that makes him momentarily forget his enslavement, so different is it from the dry wastes of Mars that he previously knew:

Through the oar port he watched the sea change color with the sunrise. He had never seen anything so ironically beautiful. The water caught the pale tints of the first light and warmed them with its own phosphorescent fire—amethyst and pearl and rose and saffron. Then, as the sun rose higher, the sea changed to one sheet of burning gold.

Whenever I finish a book I typically scour the web to see what others think about it. In my travels I was pleased to find a nice essay on Brackett by Michael Moorcock, “Queen of the Martian Mysteries: An Appreciation of Leigh Brackett."

As readers of this blog may know I don’t have a lot of love for Mr. Moorcock for his harsh and rather personal criticisms of J.R.R. Tolkien. But I freely admit that Moorcock’s piece was a nice read, informative and infused with some illuminating personal anecdotes about Brackett the person and the writer. It also manages to steer entirely clear of the spite-filled tangents into which Moorcock’s criticisms frequently seem to veer. I was surprised to find that many of his observations of Brackett were the same as mine, formed during my limited exposure to Brackett (which consist of The Sword of Rhiannon only).

I must say however that some of Moorcock’s commentary caused me to do a positive double-take. In particular I was flummoxed to find that some of the very characteristics he finds most admirable in Brackett’s romanticism-infused science fiction are the selfsame qualities that imbue his most hated of books, The Lord of the Rings. From his essay:

Yet Brackett has less in common with Mervyn Peake than she has with Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler and other superior writers of popular fiction. Yet common to all these writers is the sense of yearning loss, as of innocence, a nobler, irredeemable past and an uncertain future. Her heroes are often deeply aware of some moral transgression which everyone forgives them for except themselves. At the time these stories were written we had seen our sense of our history, of our progress towards real civilisation, blasted to bits before our eyes. By the time these stories were appearing in the pulps, Germany’s Nazi armies seemed unchallenged in their conquest of Europe. All those idealistic aspirations for world peace and the rule of civil law had collapsed before the cheap rhetoric of a bad journalist like Mussolini or a mediocre painter of postcards like Hitler.

Wow, where to start…at last check The Lord of the Rings is infused with a sense of “yearning loss, as of innocence.” It certainly draws the readers’ attention (even without benefit of The Silmarillion) to a “nobler, irredeemable past,” and transitions the reader with its heartbreaking, equivocal ending, to an “uncertain future.” When LOTR was written progress was being “blasted to bits” before Tolkien’s eyes, which he witnessed first-hand in the trenches of WWI and later in the rise of Nazi Germany. Yet Moorcock somehow finds these traits admirable in Brackett and execrable (no exaggeration on my part) in Tolkien. Is it because Tolkien’s hobbits are too British and countrified for his tastes, or perhaps because Tolkien offers the possibility (not the guarantee) of consolation/salvation?

Moorcock even comments that the hard science fiction in vogue during Brackett’s time (her stuff shares more in common with science fantasy) fails as lasting literature because of its lack of humanism and inability to portray technology as anything less than progressive. Writes Moorcock, "We were beginning to realise that controlling [the world] might not produce the effects we desired."

Hmm, sounds conspicuously like the point Tolkien made with that whole One Ring bit.

But enough Tolkien digression. In short, The Sword of Rhiannon=highly recommended.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Robert E. Howard in his own words

In honor of what would be his 105th birthday, I thought I’d let Robert E. Howard’s own words do the talking.

Here’s a few of my favorites culled from his Conan, Kull, and Solomon Kane stories. There’s so many to pull from but I chose these because they capture the ferocity, humor, and poetic qualities of Howard’s writing.

If you got any favorite passages to share, post ‘em here.

There comes, even to kings, the time of great weariness. Then the gold of the throne is brass, the silk of the palace becomes drab. The gems in the diadem and upon the fingers of the women sparkle drearily like the ice of the white seas; the speech of men is as the empty rattle of a jester’s bell and the feel comes of things unreal; even the sun is copper in the sky and the breath of the green ocean is no longer fresh.

–"The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune”

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

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gemmell’s Legend remains a rousing call to arms

I love pre-battle speeches. Arnold’s “Than to hell with you!” prayer to Crom before the battle of the mounds, and Theoden’s exhortation to the Rohirrim just before their charge on the Pelennor Fields (“spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered!”), to name two, make me want to pick up spear and shield and wade into the fray (of course Kenneth Branagh’s Band of Brothers/St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V remains the best). Even though I’d never want to fight in a real shield wall, the power of these speeches admittedly give me second thoughts.

That’s probably why I loved reading David Gemmell’s Legend (1984) so much. Gemmell’s debut novel is more or less a buildup to (and execution of) a monumental battle scene, and its rousing, inspirational speeches don’t disappoint. In terms of the printed page Legend ranks right up alongside Steven Pressfield’s spectacular Gates of Fire for galvanizing battle-speeches.

Here’s one sample as delivered by Druss, the eponymous “legend” from whom the novel derives its name. Druss is an aging warrior and a veteran of innumerable battles who dusts off his axe Snaga and treks to the defense of the fortress Dros Delnoch, like an aging athlete coming out of retirement to prove he can still play. On the eve of the final battle, he rouses the outnumbered Drenai to stand with him, one last time:

“Some of you are probably thinking that you may panic and run. You won’t! Others are worried about dying. Some of you will. But all men die. No ever gets out of this life alive.

I fought at Skeln Pass when everyone said we were finished. They said the odds were too great, but I said be damned to them! For I am Druss, and I have never been beaten, not by Nadir, Sathuli, Ventrian, Vagrian, or Drenai.

By all the gods and demons of this world, I will tell you now—I do not intend to be beaten here, either!” Druss was bellowing at the top of his voice as he dragged Snaga into the air. The ax blade caught the sun and the chant began.

“Druss the Legend! Druss the Legend!”
If you like the above monologue, you’ll probably love Legend. If not, well, there’s always Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold.

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

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Donnie Darko

As I noted in my last post, some of the unfortunate elements/scenes in The Lord of the Rings films appear to be financially driven. In contrast, Donnie Darko (2001) never "plays to the gallery." That's one of its many endearing (although some might argue maddening) elements.

I'd be curious to hear what others think of this film (like it? hate it? indifferent?) I watched it a second time last night and while I still haven't grasped everything going on the movie, it's one of those rare pictures you can return to again and again and take something from it each time. It's a haunting film that resists easy analysis (there's a web site dedicated to its explanation, but I've resisted looking at it in depth, as I would prefer not to atomize the film). Normally films featuring time travel and the implications of such give me a headache; for some reason this one worked.

Also, thanks to Donnie Darko I can't listen to Duran Duran's "Notorious" anymore without thinking of Sparkle Motion.

(The geek in me was proud to immediately recognize the identity of the unnamed "linguist" who noted that"cellar door" is the most beautiful pair of matched words in the English language, per Drew Barrymore's conversation with Donnie. Readers of this blog should be able figure it out).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Roots and Branches by Tom Shippey: A review

Unlike like a lot of literature that you read in school—the kind that requires you to pinch your nose to swallow—you don’t have to be told to enjoy The Lord of the Rings. You can love its sheer storytelling and that of works like The Silmarillion first, and perhaps only for that reason. But The Lord of the Rings is also a deep work worthy of study, and waiting behind the tales is a wealth of literary criticism for the further explorer.

Tom Shippey’s Roots and Branches (Walking Tree Publishers, 2007) ranks among the best Tolkien criticism I’ve read, which should come as no surprise, given that the author is the pre-eminent Tolkien scholar of our age. While I wouldn’t rate it as highly as Shippey's The Road to Middle-Earth or J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Roots and Branches is a similarly illuminating and engaging read.

Roots and Branches collects 23 of Shippey’s essays and includes some previously published as well as newer/updated material. It takes a much broader focus than just Middle-earth: The essays include analyses not just of Tolkien’s fiction, but also his love for Old English poetry and Northern myth, his academic reputation then and now, and his lesser known works like “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth.”

In particular I enjoyed “Tolkien and the Beowulf-Poet,” which sheds a tremendous light on Tolkien’s love and fascination with that poem (in many ways he considered himself a reincarnation of the anonymous writer of Beowulf). “Tolkien and Iceland: The Philology of Envy,” is a wonderful summation of the influence of the Northern myths on Middle-earth and is another favorite.

Like Tolkien Shippey is a philologist, so there’s a lot of discourse about the roots of words and how Tolkien derived his inspiration by extrapolating words like the variant forms of “elf” in Germanic. It may sound dry but it’s not: Shippey writes his essays like he speaks. They’re lively and he injects humor and personal commentary throughout, especially into the footnotes.

My favorite essay was “Orcs, Wraiths, Wights: Tolkien’s Images of Evil.” Fantasy has often been labeled as lightweight escapism by its critics, but Shippey demonstrates how fantasy actively grapples with real evil in ways that works of “serious” literature avoid or fail to address. “Tolkien, Lewis, and Wolfe demonstrate between them that one of the major advantages of fantasy in the modern world is that it effectively addresses the major threats of the modern world, like work, tedium, despair, and bureaucracy,” Shippey writes.

For example, Shippey lays out a convincing case that orcs reflect our own characteristics of selfishness and self-centeredness. Orcs know what’s fair and unfair (they use the term “regular elvish trick” to describe Sam’s “abandonment” of Frodo, after Sam mistakes him for dead), and they exhibit a loyalty to their mates. But they refuse to apply morality evenly and lay it aside when it interferes with their own self-interests. “Orcish behavior is human behavior, and their inability to judge their own actions by their own moral criteria is a problem all too sadly familiar,” writes Shippey.

What about the Ringwraiths; are they pure evil? No, says Shippey. They’re an absence, a twisted thing, which Shippey demonstrates by showing us the philological roots of the word wraith (which derives from wreath, and writhe). Modern-day analogues can be found inside corporations or big government, Shippey says, in the soulless behavior of executives or the shuffling figures of cubicle workers who sacrifice their humanity for advancement or material gain. “No one is secure from the prospect of being a wraith,” Shippey writes. I myself have seen wraiths walking the halls in the (half) flesh in corporate America (and sadly at times feel like one myself).

Overall the essay is a brilliant refutation of critics like Richard Morgan who label The Lord of the Rings as a simplistic struggle of stainless good vs. irredeemable evil: it demonstrates that evil is not just some abstract presence or created by Sauron on some factory-line, but is “an element of goodness perverted, of evil as a mistake, something insidious,” to quote Shippey.

Shippey also wades into the Lord of the Rings films with “Another Road to Middle-Earth: Jackson’s Movie Trilogy.” As some may know Shippey was a consultant for the screenplay of the Jackson films (assisting with the proper pronunciation of Elvish, primarily) and was interviewed for the extras on all three discs.

Overall Shippey has a mixed but, in the main, a positive opinion of the films. He does lament some of the changes and notes in places how they strip The Lord of the Rings (the book) of some of its complexities. Shippey describes some of the cruder alterations as financially driven: Tolkien, working on his spare time, had no-one to consider but himself, while Jackson had a budget of hundreds of millions and had to consider popular appeal. He describes elements like Legolas’ shield-surfing, Gimli’s dwarf-tossing, and Arwen’s transformation into warrior princess as “playing to the gallery.” He says Jackson is guilty of “democratization” and “emotionalisation,” meaning he succumbs to a need to inflate the roles of minor characters, and also needlessly inserts a triangle situation into the journey of Gollum, Sam, and Frodo, in which Gollum competes with Sam for Frodo’s love. He has other criticisms as well, including the films' removal of Tolkien's conception of the workings of divine providence.

But Shippey says Jackson and his screenwriters were well-versed in the material and gives them credit for taking bits of Tolkien and using them in different places than they appear in the book to great effect (for example, moving parts of “The Shadow of the Past” and “The Council of Elrond” into the arresting prologue). He also thinks the film gets much of the broader themes and narrative core of the book right, including “the differing styles of heroism, the need for pity as well as courage, the vulnerability of the good, [and] the true cost of evil.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

Godspeed, Major Dick Winters

When people asked whether he was a hero, [Winters] echoed the words of his World War II buddy, Mike Ranney: "No, but I served in a company of heroes."

I love to read about fantasy heroes, but last week a real one (despite his self-effacing comment above) passed from the earth.

From USA Today: "Band of Brothers" inspiration Dick Winters dies at 92.

I can't recommend Stephen Ambrose's "Band of Brothers" highly enough, nor the HBO miniseries of the same name. A member of the 101st Airborne Division, Winters and his unit were in the first wave of soldiers into Normandy via parachute, bailing out of low-flying planes over occupied territory and through flak and small-arms fire. I can't even imagine what was going through their minds (it's one of the most harrowing and well-done scenes in the miniseries). "Thus did 13,400 of America's finest youth, who had been training for this moment for two years, hurl themselves against Hitler's Fortress Europe," wrote Ambrose.

They then fought their way across Europe through the Battle of the Bulge and the end of the war.

Winters was a leader in every sense of the word, a role model, a brave man, a tough SOB, and a member of a generation that saved the world from tyranny. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Tolkien and Howard still The Two Towers of fantasy

Not to beat the subject, like Fingon, to death, but neither writer is trod into the mire by a comparison to the other. The shortest distance between these two towers is the straight line they draw and defend against the dulling of our sense of wonder, the deadening of our sense of loss, and the slow death of imagination denied.

–Steve Tompkins, “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers”

With my first Black Gate/Silver Key post of 2011 I thought I’d kick off the New Year with one of those big, bold, declarative, prediction type posts. So here it is: J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard are firmly ensconced as the two towers of fantasy, and as the years pass they will not only remain such, but perhaps will never be dethroned.

Although they arguably did not blaze the trail, Tolkien and Howard set the standard for two sub-genres of fantasy—high fantasy and swords and sorcery, respectively—and no one has done either better before or since.

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