Novel Thoughts: On Finishing and Revising a Rough Draft

Well, since it’s been a while since I’ve checked in on the status of the novel, I thought I’d set out some thoughts on how the revision process is going. I have to say, I’m happy with the novel as a whole. I think it’s got good bones, though I do have to totally rewrite one character’s entire story arc. And let me quite honest: it’s just thrilling to have actually finished a rough draft of an epic fantasy novel. The only other creative project of this magnitude that I finished was an historical novel, and that was 8 years ago. So, yeah, I feel accomplished.

However, as I’ve reread the rough draft, I’ve noticed some aspects of my writing that I really want to work on curtailing as I compose more material. It’s always hard to take a good look at your own composition process, but it can also be very healthy.

First of all, I like to pile clause upon clause upon clause. I’m not sure why I do this, other than that it’s the way that my writing processes my complicated thoughts. This definitely hamstrung some parts of my dissertation, but it is even more distracting in fiction.

I also tend to have my characters ask too many questions, either to one another or in their own minds. This is, of course, related to the clause issue, and again I’m not sure why I do it. As I’ve embarked on revision, I’ve tried to take the majority of those interrogatory sentences and convert them into declarative (when I don’t delete them outright).

Speaking of character thoughts…I tend to spend too much time in my character’s heads in third person. To try to correct this I’ve focused more on action. After all, while it’s good to let readers get to know your characters and what motivates them, excessive navel-gazing isn’t very interesting to read. Perhaps my tendency to spend so much time in my characters’ heads reflects my own introspective tendencies. Or maybe my characters just don’t have enough to do yet.

I have to say that working on this revision is both exciting and frustrating. It’s exciting to be able to sculpt and craft the rough clay of a draft into something that really sparkles. But man, it takes so long, and it’s very alienating (and dispiriting) sometimes to see all of the mistakes that you made as you were floundering your way through the plot.

So, I’ve now made it through Chapter 6 of the draft, and I’m pretty happy with how they look. There’s still a long way to go, though, given that the rough draft was almost 60 chapters. And then there’s that pesky character who finally decided to reveal his real plotline. Still, I’m going to really, really try to get a revised draft done by the end of March and thus be ready to start querying agents by April.

These goals are definitely ambitious, but I am nothing if not determined to see this book in print, come hell or high water.

So, onward we go!

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Weekly Rant: Barbara Ehrenreich, et al. and the Banality of Racism

Ugh. Some days.

I didn’t start Monday thinking that I was going to be struggling with rage all day; I figured that would come Tuesday, when the country would once again be subjected to the inane blatherings of Trump during his State of the Union.

Then, while playing on Facebook to avoid doing work, I happened to notice a frame capture of a Twitter exchange among Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, and Elaine Showalter. You can see it below.

Now, I would hope that most of you would recognize why this caused so much anger, hurt, and sadness among the Twitter left. Here we have these three giants of feminist thought openly trading in Orientalist language, at once dismissive and condescending. Ehrenreich’s crude neoconservative pining for the days of “American greatness” and Pollitt’s and Showalter’s patronizing language referring to Kondo as “fairy-like,” as a “pretty little pixie” and “Tinkerbell” are breathtaking in their offensiveness. I had to double-check to make sure that these weren’t trolls out to take down noted feminists.

Unfortunately, the exchange was all too real.

What astounded me the most about the exchange among these three feminist giants was how banal it all seemed. Nothing about the way they were talking suggested that they saw what they were saying as problematic, no awareness that they were participating in long-standing means by which white people have dismissed Asian culture, Asian people, and Asian traditions. How was it possible, I wondered (and still wonder) that these prominent intellectuals could be so complicit in this system of power and not even seem to know about it? How could they be having this conversation on Twitter for the world to see as if they were merely having tea in their parlors?

The answer, of course, is that their white privilege shields them from having to think about these issues, or they think it does (because it once did). Ensconced in their ivory towers, they think they can get away with this kind of language because they always have. One can’t help but wonder how Showalter’s casual racism has affected those of her students who aren’t white or, for that matter, how much it has influenced every aspect of her research and her pedagogy.

I suppose what really frustrated–frightened, me really–was how shocked I was by all of this, even though I know that white feminists have a long history of being dismissive of the concerns of women of color. I was also deeply angry, because even though I realized some time ago that Ehrenreich was a bit of a hack, I had continued to look up to Katha Pollitt and Elaine Showalter (Showalter’s feminist criticism was hugely inspiring to me as a young undergraduate). To find these two women trading in racist and Orientalist language was, for me, a profound betrayal. I particularly expected more of Elaine Showalter who, as a feminist academic, should absolutely know better. I guess you could say that I felt like my trust had been betrayed in some deeply personal way, even though I know that that makes me sound hopelessly naïve.

But then again, perhaps it’s a good thing that all of this played out on Twitter, so that we could at least have a public accounting. One can’t help but wonder, though, if this is the kind of racist trash they peddle in public, what do they say in private? It almost doesn’t bear thinking about.

And all of this on the same day that Liam Neeson admitted (apropos of nothing, really), in an interview with The Independent, that at one point after a friend of his had been raped he had gone out hoping to violently assault a random black man (you cannot make this stuff up).

And all of what I have just described took place during the same few days when it was revealed the Virginia’s governor has a racist past of dressing in blackface.

Sometimes, you just have to admit that the world is broken.

Book Review: The Frustrating Pleasures of “Fire and Blood” (by George R.R. Martin)

Let me preface this review by saying how frustrated I am by this book’s publication history. For almost 8 years I have waited very impatiently for The Winds of Winter to finally see the light of day, and when I heard that instead we were going to get the first part of a two-part history of the Targaryen Dynasty, I was quite annoyed. I even contemplated not even buying this book as a (undoubtedly futile) form of protest.

Unfortunately, for all of his flaws, Martin is one hell of a world-builder and, since I really did enjoy both The World of Ice and Fire and A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, I found myself drawn inexorably toward Fire and Blood.

Though I am still deeply frustrated, I have to admit that this book was a true pleasure to read. I, like many other fantasy aficionados, always find that the histories of secondary worlds are (all too often) more interesting than the actual stories sent in those worlds. Fire and Blood succeeds precisely because it shows us the sinners and saints, the benevolent monarchs and cruel tyrants, that shaped, and continue to shape, the destiny of those living in Westeros.

This history reveals that the Targaryens are some sort of unholy combination of Julio-Claudian and Ptolemaic Dynasties, with all of the associations those two families in the ancient world possessed. We also are left with the distinct sense that, in Westeros as in the real world, the actions of one generation continue to influence their descendants, often in ways that they could never have predicted. Just as importantly, Fire and Blood reveals that this universe is one of both great beauty and unspeakable cruelty.

Some have criticized Fire and Blood for being too much like a history textbook (and thus boring). For me, that’s precisely what makes it so much fun to read. It also reveals just how vast Martin’s creative vision is, how much effort he has put into his secondary creation. Whatever the flaws of A Song of Ice and Fire (and they are substantial), there is no doubt that this is still a world with its own internal consistency and its own contradictions.

Indeed, that is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. Gyldayn (the book’s fictional narrator) seems, at first blush, to be merely transmitting information to us, his readers, but he also makes clear at several points that our understanding of the past is necessarily shaped (or misshaped) by the sources available to us. In his case, he has to rely on both eyewitness accounts of the events of the past as well as less reputable reports (some of the most amusing snippets come from the fool known as Mushroom). History, as Gyldayn reminds us, is ultimately written by the victors, and it would be a mistake (or, at least, Martin wants us to believe it would be a mistake) to view anything in the volume as the absolute truth.

That being said, I do have a few critiques. First, while I appreciate that the people of Westeros have a very biting sense of humour, it gets a bit repetitive to continue hearing about the sundry nicknames that they grant their superiors. Unfortunately, this tendency to find a device or turn of phrase and beat it to death with overuse has become something of a thing with Martin (see also “where do whores go?” in A Dance with Dragons). When it’s used sparingly it can be very effective and conveying the particular characteristics of the Westerosi, but in Fire and Blood it starts to become rather irritating.

Likewise, the (to my mind unnecessarily) convoluted family true of the Targaryens makes keeping them all straight something of a chore. This unfortunate problem is exacerbated by the bewildering similarity of their names. If you want my advice, focus on the absolute major characters (mostly the regnants), and you should be fine.

The larger criticism is that much of this material is a retread of what we’ve seen before in various places, both in A World of Ice and Fire and in the numerous edited collections to which Martin has contributed over the years. Admittedly, it’s been supplemented, but it does lead a cynical mind to wonder whether this is just another cash-grab for Martin while he flounders his way through the narrative morass that is the main thread of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Because I hate ending a review with a negative, let me reaffirm that this is definitely a must-read for fans of the novels who want to gain a richer, deeper understanding of the blood-soaked past of Westeros and its most infamous dynasty.

Screening History: Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

For some time now I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the newest film to focus on the tumultuous and tragic life of Mary, Queen of Scots and her tempestuous relationship with her cousin Elizabeth I.

The film focuses primarily on the fraught relationship between Mary, Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Once Mary returns from her youth in France, she finds herself confronted by her scheming Scottish lords, a disloyal husband, and by the machinations of her cousin and rival Elizabeth. Despite her best efforts, Mary is ultimately deposed by her lords (who are egged on by David Tenant’s fiery and bigoted John Knox), flees to England, and is ultimately executed for her participation in a plot against Elizabeth’s life and throne.

While the film is more historically accurate than some, it does contain what has become something of a requirement in films about these two feuding monarchs: a face-to-face meeting that never (so far as we know) actually occurred. In this meeting, arguably the film’s climax, Elizabeth finally reveals the truth: that she has long crafted her own persona around her fear of her cousin and rival queen. However, and just as importantly, she also asserts that it is precisely Mary’s most noteworthy qualities–her impetuousness, her heightened emotion, her youth–that have ultimately brought about her downfall. Elizabeth, meanwhile, continues to hold onto her throne and her power.

Ultimately, the film seems to agree with Elizabeth. Mary is passionate and intelligent, but she refuses to put her duty to country above her own wishes and desires. What’s more, she tends to be far too naive to be able to survive the cutthroat world of her Scottish nobility, who balk at her efforts to bring them to heel. She also allows herself to fall perilously in love with Darnley and indulges her fondness for her Italian secretary David Rizzio to a degree that leaves her open to an attack from her disaffected brothers, particularly her brother Moray. (Somewhat implausibly, the film suggests that Mary is totally okay with Rizzio’s explicit queerness).

The film is visually  splendid, and the costumes rustle and glitter with the wealth of the era. There are also some truly splendid shots of the Scottish scenery. Having just returned from an all-too-brief sojourn in that country, I can assure you that the films’ cinematography does it complete justice. Yet Mary struggles to make this beautiful land her own, her many years in France creating a distance between herself and her nobles that she proves incapable of effectively bridging.

What really makes the film shine, however, are the performances. Ronan does an excellent job as the youthful Queen of Scots, bringing her signature brand of fiery passion and steely determination to the role. Ronan’s Mary is a woman determined to forge her own path, regardless of what others advise her to do. She does a fine job at conveying the inner strength that motivated and sustained Mary through some of the darkest moments of her life, though at times her portrayal gives the doomed Scottish queen a bit too much credit. (I’ll try not to nitpick her accent, which still sounds more Irish than Scottish, and yes I know the real Mary would most likely have sounded French and not Scottish in any case).

As great as Ronan is at capturing Mary’s fiery spirit, it is Robbie who truly shines as Elizabeth (full confession: I’m Team Elizabeth, now and forever).  Though at times she is wracked by her sense of vulnerability in the face of Mary’s charisma, youth, and beauty, in their last fateful encounter she finally bares her true self to her cousin. In doing so, she reclaims the agency and assurance that she almost lost and proves once again that she is the queen most willing to sacrifice her own personal emotions and desires–particularly her love for her dear Robert Dudley. Unlike Mary, who refuses to acknowledge political reality, Elizabeth always has her pulse on the real world. She knows, and ultimately accepts, that she will have to give up her some essential parts of herself is she hopes to rule as a wise and just queen in a man’s world. And Elizabeth, even more than Mary, recognizes that there is room on their isle for only one of them.

The script, however, has some major weaknesses that the film struggles to overcome. For one thing, it is too short to adequately explore the various plot threads that it puts into play. For someone who is already well-acquainted with the history and politics of the period this isn’t too significant of a handicap, but I can see how someone who doesn’t know much about the depicted events would quickly become lost.

More significantly, the rushed nature of the script means that some of the key players–particularly Darnley and Bothwell–are woefully underdeveloped, their motives and actions left largely unexplained. A number of pivotal points of character development–Darnley’s betrayal, Bothwell’s rape of Mary–seem to come out of left-field. Had the writers either trimmed out these portions or had the director given some more time for the story to flex its muscles, it would have made a stronger drama. As it is, the performances of the two leads are definitely the best part about it.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Mary, Queen of Scots, despite some of its flaws. Is it as strong a film as some of the other fictional tellings of the doomed Scottish queen? Probably not. However, it does reveal the extent to which this tragic tale continues to hold on the imagination, and how extraordinary these women were in their efforts to rule in a man’s world. What’s more, it does at least attempt to convey the complicated politics of the era (hardly surprising, given that it is based on John Guy’s very popular and applauded biography of Mary) . For both of those reasons, it deserves a great deal of credit, and I look forward to seeing it again.

Screening History: The Fraught Pathos of “The Favourite” (2018)

If you know anything about it me, it’s that I’m an absolute sucker for a good costume drama. It’s been a while since I saw one that really blew me away, so when I saw the trailers for The Favourite, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a very irreverent take on the genre, particularly as it seemed like it was going to be as humourous as it was opulent. I have to say, I was very impressed by the film (except for the ending, to which I shall return shortly).

In brief, the film tells of the declining years of Queen Anne of Great Britain (Olivia Colman), who as the story begins is under the domination of the formidable Lady Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Their dysfunctional relationship is soon interrupted, however, by the arrival of Churchill’s impoverished cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) who soon sets her own sights on becoming the queen’s favourite. She succeeds, though she soon finds that being so close to the font of power comes with its own price.

It is sometimes very difficult (if not impossible) to really capture the strangeness of earlier historical periods, to convey to modern spectators the oddities and foibles of the past. Some filmmakers have succeeded at it (Peter Greenaway is one example), and clearly Yorgos Lanthimos deserves to join that select group. Between the outlandish makeup and wigs worn by the male characters and the (sometimes heavy-handed) use of the fisheye lens and shots taken from below, we are led to see this as a very disturbing world quite unlike our own.

At times, Olivia Colman (who’s becoming quite adept at playing queens) threatens to steal the show. Her Anne is at once imperious, pathetic, endearing, and Colman manages to wring every drop of morbid pathos from the role, leading us to feel sorry for Anne even as we condemn some aspects of her personality. She is clearly a woman who has long struggled to develop her own sense of self (with the confidence that entails), and so she relies on Sarah Churchill. There are moments when Colman’s performance slides into the grotesque, but even then Colman doesn’t let us lose sight of the queen’s essential frail humanity. It’s hard not to feel a profound sympathy for this queen who, by the time the story begins, has already lost 17 children and a husband. Small wonder that she pours all of her emotional frustrations into her small hoard of rabbits and into the women who maneuver for her affection. And, to be honest, it’s rather nice to see Queen Anne get some screen time, as she usually gets neglected by popular culture.

By contrast, Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill is a formidable and indomitable personality. She is not afraid to tell Anne exactly what she thinks–as when she tells the monarch that her new makeup style makes her look like a badger–but she is also subject to Anne’s vicious jealousy. Weisz manages to capture Churchill’s biting wit and scathing commentary, at the same time as she makes it clear that this was a woman who cared deeply about the well-being of her country at both the domestic and international level. Weisz also deserves a great deal of credit for allowing a few moments of genuine vulnerability to creep into her characterization as well. We thus come to understand her as a woman quite out of place in her own time and ultimately punished for her unwillingness to conform to the expectations of others, even the queen.

The relationship between Anne and Sarah is as as refreshing as it is contentious. It’s very rare these days to see a film really delve into the complicated relationships between and among women. It’s clear to me at any rate that the film’s Sarah has genuine love and affection for Anne, though it’s somewhat less clear if their erotic encounters stem from genuine attraction or whether it is a rather twisted manifestation of their social roles. I strongly suspect that it is some combination of the two.

I have to admit to some skepticism that Emma Stone (much as I love her) would be able to pull off playing British, but she does it surprisingly well. What’s more, she imbued Abigail with a certain steely strength forged in the crucible of her troubled youth and her abuse at the hands of numerous men in her life. Abigail is not, strictly speaking, a sympathetic character–indeed, she is quite cold, malicious, and calculating–but she is comprehensible. The film allows us to see her as the necessary product of a culture that values women so little and largely views even the most powerful of them as expendable. Cruel as she might be, Stone lets us feel at least a measure of grudging respect for Abigail’s ability to not only survive her harsh environment, but to thrive in it.

Each of these characters, as different as they are, are hefty and complex and textured. Indeed, for all of its visual artistry (which, at times, becomes distracting), the film succeeds most as a character study of three women negotiating the dangerous waters of desire and royal politics. The Favourite doesn’t really want us to like these characters, but it does attempt to understand them. The three leads give some of the finest performances of their careers, and there is an unmistakable chemistry among them.

At a broader level, Lanthimos’ direction is at times distracting, and he seems a bit overly fond of the fisheye lens (which, to my mind, sometimes undercuts the opulence and grandeur of the film’s locations). The film’s truly significant flaw is the ending, which I found far too clever for its own good (in fact, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what it was supposed to signify, if anything). Those flaws aside, The Favourite still manages to take the conventions and contours of the costume drama and turns them on their head. The film is ultimately a biting, scathing, and slightly acidic musing on the nature of power and pleasure in the world of royalty and politics.

Film Review: Surrendering to Feeling in “A Star is Born” (2018)

Warning: Substantial spoilers for the film follow.

I went into the most recent version of A Star is Born with great trepidation. I’ve seen both the 1930s and 1950s versions, but have steered clear of the 1970s one because of its notoriously bad reception. However, something drew me to this one. Perhaps it was my long-standing love of Bradley Cooper’s beauty or my queer appreciation of Saint Lady Gaga. Or perhaps it was hearing “Shallow” come on my Sirius XM and feeling profoundly moved by the performance. 

Whatever it was, something drew me in to see this film, and I have never looked back.

Unsurprisingly, this film follows the narrative pattern of its predecessors: ingenue and aspiring (musical) artist Ally (Lady Gaga) is discovered by country-rock star Jack Maine (Bradley Cooper). Very quickly, her career begins to overshadow his, and he begins his descent a descent into addiction and despair that ultimately results in his suicide. The film ends with Ally singing in her late husband’s memory.

Fortunately for me, I was prepared for the ending. I mean, it is A Star is Born, and so you sort of know how the whole thing is going to end up. The one thing that remains the same in every iteration of the story is Maine’s decision to end his own life rather than continue to drag his successful wife down with him into his own private darkness. Nevertheless, it still felt like a gut punch when Jack takes his own life by hanging himself with his belt–a method that had failed him when he was a teen but has now become devastatingly effective. 

What surprised me as I watched the film was how easily I was overwhelmed by feeling. How was it possible, I wondered, that I could be so invested in a story whose ending I already knew? At least part of this is due to the star power of Cooper and Lady Gaga, both of whom positively ooze charisma. Gaga proves that she has the acting chops to convey vulnerability, while Cooper, with his rakish good looks, serves as the ideal embodiment of a country rock star struggling with his own inner demons.

Yet it is also due to how deftly the film handles the feelings of its characters. Some of this stems from the soundtrack. I dare you to listen to songs like “Shallow,” “Is that All Right,” and “I’ll Never Love Again” without being reduced to an absolutely soggy mess. Of course, we all knew going in that Lady Gaga is one of the most talented musicians of her generation, but MY GAWD. Her performance of the film’s finale (I’ll Never Love Again”) drew sobs from me that I didn’t even know were there. Admittedly, I’m very prone to weeping during melodramatic films, but even as I was watching that final performance I was astounded by just how much feeling was being wrenched from me at this moment. It was one of those rare occasions when my entire body and soul seemed to be caught up in the currents of emotion on the screen.

An equally strong part of the powerful feeling of this film, however, comes from the film’s willingness to display men showing emotions other than anger. Bradley Cooper manages to convey Jack’s genuine sense of remorse at the shame he has brought Ally, and when he breaks down and weeps while in rehab it’s hard to maintain your own composure And let me tell you something, there is nothing that will make you weep like seeing Sam Elliott–the paragon of a certain type of western/cowboy masculinity, who plays Jack’s brother –tear up after what turns out to be his last parting from his brother. Emotional response aside, it really is refreshing to see straight men allowed to be outwardly expressive of feelings other than rage and violence.

At the formal level, A Star is Born is a remarkably intimate film. The camera frequently moves in for tight shots of its characters, and it its movements are graceful and fluid. As a result, we are constantly drawn into the world of these characters, invited to inhabit their states of feeling. By the end, it’s hard not to feel the same pang of loss that Ally does, as we nevertheless experience the soaring, exquisite joy of her ultimate success. 

Sometimes, you just have to give yourself up to the pleasures of feeling.

 

Book Review: “Beren and Luthien” (by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Anyone who’s ever read anything about Tolkien knows the story of Luthien, the tale of an Elf maiden who fell in love with the mortal man Beren and ultimately sacrificed her immortality to be with him. Their sage is, of course, intertwined with those fantastic gems known as the Silmarils, one of which they managed to steal from the crown of Morgoth, the first Dark Lord. Shadows of this tale appear in The Lord of the Rings (and the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen is modeled upon it), and it is told in relatively full form in The Silmarillion.

Now, however, Christopher Tolkien has brought us this marvelous book, which details the evolution of this tale from its beginnings, showcasing both its prose and poetic forms. Throughout, we get to see again how complex, and often frustrating, Tolkien’s composition process was. Given the many permutations this single narrative underwent over Tolkien’s creative life, it’s small wonder that he was never able to craft it into a form with which he was ultimately satisfied. 

Unlike other recent volumes of Tolkien’s posthumous work (such as The Children of Hurin), Beren and Luthien is not a cohesive narrative. Instead, it is more of a hybrid, part narrative and part textual history.

In it, when learn a great deal about how Tolkien’s conception of the story changed throughout its development. For example, in one early version Beren is imprisoned by a cat king (yes, you read that right). While we all mourn the excision of this fascinating character from the Beren/Luthien narrative, it does come across as being a little more whimsical than The Silmarillion proper. We also learn that Beren was not originally a Man was instead an Elf (which, as you can imagine, quite changes the dynamic between him and Luthien).

What is truly remarkable, however, is how much remains the same, both thematically and narratively. The fundamentals of the story of a pair of doomed lovers that nevertheless strive to remain together are there for the beginning, as is the profound sense of melancholy that is so much a part of the Elves’ existence. Again and again, we find them fighting against defeat and contending with the one inescapable fact of their reality: their immortality. What makes Beren and Luthien such a fascinating tale is precisely that Luthien was willing and able to transcend that immorality in order to be with her.

It is also striking–and worth noting–that in each iteration of the story it is Luthien who possesses the traits we most associate with the male hero of the epic. It is she who must repeatedly rescue Beren from his imprisonment, and it is ultimately her actions that make the claiming of the Silmaril from Morgoth’s iron crown possible. While Tolkien wasn’t always able to craft female heroes with the same sort of depth as his male ones, there’s no question that Luthien is the more compelling of the two heroes of this tale. 

I have one small quibble with the volume, and it’s the same one that I have with a lot of Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work. I’ve written elsewhere that we owe a tremendous debt to the younger Tolkien for his excavation of his father’s work, but man, does he have the most lumbering prose I’ve ever encountered. In this particular volume, this sometimes leads to a bit of repetition, as he tends to cite his work in the very volume that we’re reading. Nevertheless, when it comes to knowledge of his father’s manuscripts and the mindset behind them, no one holds a candle to Christopher.

Overall, however, I tremendously enjoyed reading Beren and Luthien. I’ve always found this tale to be one of the most profoundly moving in the entire legendarium, and it’s a fascinating experience to see how it grew and changed. While casual fans of Tolkien might find this volume a little rough to read, those of us who are a little more invested will find this a truly delightful treat. 

What Tolkien Taught Me About Writing

As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I am both a fan of Tolkien and an aspiring writer of epic fantasy. In fact, it was first reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that in part inspired me to try my own hand at not just writing an epic fantasy, but undertaking the work necessary to create an entire world–with its own histories, mythologies, religions, etc.–in which to set that epic. Even now, so many years later, I continue to find much about Tolkien’s process that I find inspiring and motivating. 

Those who have read the History of Middle-earth published by Christopher Tolkien know that he has laboriously and meticulously excavated his father’s voluminous manuscripts no doubt know how much LotR changed as Tolkien fiddled with it, often clinging to names long beyond the point where they didn’t match the characters to which they belonged. Reading these history books, one also sees just how complex Tolkien’s process was, how he allowed the story to grow and develop rather than adhering to some strict vision.

What’s more, you have to admire the profound depth of Tolkien’s legendarium. This is a man, remember, who created a world with its own internal consistency: replete with languages, histories, genealogies, and the like. And, taking a rather meta stance for a moment, it’s also true that his work has a textual history as rich and varied and contradictory (and frustrating) as any real-world mythology. There are still vagaries and inconsistencies that trouble those of us who like things to arrive in neat packages.

For the past two years now I’ve been working on an epic fantasy novel, and you know what that entails. Not only do you have to keep multiple plot-threads straight in your mind–for both the novel you’re working on and for the series as a whole–but you also have to develop your own world and make sure that it is both internally consistent and that it comes out properly in your novel. Neither of those is very easy to do, let me tell you, but the rewards are so satisfying. 

Just as importantly, you have to make sure that your characters have a depth and richness to them that makes them become something more than stand-ins for epic archetypes. While some have criticized Tolkien for not giving his characters a great deal of interiority or self-reflection, I think that grossly underestimates how much we get to see into the minds of the hobbits, particularly Sam and Frodo. 

In the end, I suppose that the greatest lesson I’ve taken from learning about Tolkien’s process is to allow yourself the time to revise what you’ve written. Very rarely does an epic spring fully-formed from its creator’s mind. There are going to be missteps, and that’s okay. At the same time, I’ve also learned that there comes a time when you simply have to let it go, that no matter how much you revise you are not going to reach a state of perfection (trust me, that is much harder than it sounds).

I’m now reaching what I believe to be the end of the first draft of my first novel, and I hope one day be worthy of following in Tolkien’s footsteps. Only time will tell!

The Pleasures of Re-Reading “The Lord of the Rings”

Much as I love reading (and books), there are very few works that I read more than once. I’m not really sure why that it is; maybe it’s just my relentless desire for something new, some exciting frontier to explore. There are a few books, however, that I return to again and again (and sometimes again and again). 

The Lord of the Ring is one of those.

Ever since I read it way back in…’95 or ’96…I’ve repeatedly returned to Tolkien’s magnum opus, losing myself in that fantastical world of Elves, Dwarves, Men, Hobbits, and Rings of Power. Going over these familiar words and chapters is oddly comforting, a ritual of sorts that not only brings me pleasure, but also inspires to continue working on my own fantasy writing adventures. There’s just something deeply satisfying about the established patterns that I know so well that I can recite parts of it in my sleep. 

In recent years, I’ve endeavoured to do a full re-reading of LotR in its entirety, and while I don’t always succeed, I never cease to find myself experiencing some of the same emotions over and over again. I still feel the same shudder of fear when the Hobbits first hear the wail of the Nazgûl, the chill when the Ringwraiths are revealed in their spectral glory when they are attacked on Weathertop, the same sense of devastation when the Fellowship meets its ultimate end at the Grey Havens. 

I’m currently in the midst of my umpteenth reading of The Lord of the Rings, and as always I am astounded by the ability of Tolkien to evoke a landscape. No matter how many times I read it, I continue to feel that sense of wonder at the world of Middle-earth, which we encounter in the same way that the characters do. This is a world that has deep roots (in many different senses of the phrase). 

At the same time, each time that I read it, I find new things to enjoy, new facets of the history, the languages, and the lore that I didn’t fully appreciate before. As you read more of the history of the composition of LotR (courtesy of the exhaustive work of Christopher), you come to realize just how much work went into the creation of this world and everything connected to it. Sure, you can enjoy it on its own, but how much sweeter and richer and deeper is that pleasure as you see more of Tolkien’s mind and the sheer scale of his creative genius.

There’s a subtlety to this, I think, that you really do miss if you only read it once, or if you read it in isolation. I don’t want to cast aspersions on those casual Tolkien fans who have only read Lord of the Rings, but I would definitely encourage you to explore some of the other work. For those who don’t necessarily want to take the real plunge and read The Silmarillion, I would suggest instead Unfinished Tales, which contains some fascinating material germane to Frodo and Company.

I have to confess, sometimes I worry that re-reading Tolkien’s work will reveal that I’ve grown bored with it, that somehow I’ve managed to outgrow it and lost that sense of wonder and magic that I first encountered all those years ago. And every single time, it manages to cast its spell over me. Maybe some of this stems from my own tremendous emotional investment in the work, but an equal part I think is due to the power of the work itself. 

Of course, on the flip side of all of this, re-reading Tolkien’s great work also reveals some layers of complexity that are not quite so pleasurable. There’s no question that there are aspects of The Lord of the Rings that do read as distinctly racist (to take just one example). As a devoted fan of Tolkien’s, it does require a level of negotiation on my part, but to me that is one of the benefits of reading our fan objects as critically as we do anything else. 

So, no matter how many times I read The Lord of the Rings, I find new and varied reasons to keep coming back. Tolkien has taught me so much about writing and about my love of the fantasy genre, and I continue to learn from it, all these years after my initial reading. I look forward to keeping up the tradition.

So here’s to the pleasures of re-reading The Lord of the Rings.

Reading History: “The Splendor Before the Dark” (by Margaret George)

Ever since I finished Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero, the first part of her two-book exploration of Rome’s most notorious emperor, I’ve been eagerly waiting for the second half. Thankfully, the wait is finally over!

The Splendor Before the Dark picks up where Confessions left off, with Nero racing back to the city Rome, now engulfed in flames. Though he does his best to help with the fire, much of Rome is destroyed. In the aftermath, he attempts to rebuild parts of the city to provide green space, but his efforts are misunderstood by the senatorial elite. Surrounded by those who would see him brought down, he eventually resorts to acts of brutality, cementing his reputation and ultimately bringing about his downfall.

George makes the convincing case that Nero never wanted to be emperor; he had the heart and soul of a poet, not a ruler. Just as importantly, she also ably demonstrates the extent to which Nero’s psyche was (mis)shaped by his family, particularly his ambitious mother Agrippina, but also by all of those other branches of the tangled Julio-Claudian tree that yearned so desperately for the ultimate position of power. Growing up in such a viper’s nest, is it any wonder that he turned at times into a monster? 

As George aptly paints it, Nero himself recognizes that darkness that lives inside him. In her telling, he sees himself as comprised of three Neros: the Nero who wants to be an artist, the Nero who recognizes his responsibilities as an emperor and leader of his people; and the ruthless shadow Nero, the one responsible for protecting the other two. It is this last that leads him to lash out at those he suspects–often rightly–of conspiring against his life, as when he strikes down the schemer Piso and his confederates, including the philosopher Seneca.

With her usual incisive eye, George peers behind the invective and myth that has shrouded Nero since at least the time of Tacitus and Seutonius. As she rightly points out, our understandings and perceptions of Nero have been so clouded by hostile Roman historians and by almost hysterical Christian narratives that it is hardly surprising that characterizations like that of Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis (1951) have become so dominant. George helps us to see Nero as a fundamentally flawed person, but one who genuinely sought to make good on his promises to the people of Rome, who saw himself as an artist, yes, but also as a champion of the people and the subjects over whom he was appointed to rule.

At the same time, she allows us to see the extent to which Nero’s naiveté is his own undoing. He cannot, or will not, understand that his artistic aspirations are fundamentally at odds with what those in power believe a ruler should be. Thus, his decision to go to Greece and compete in the Games is in many ways pivotal to his undoing, as it allows those who despise him to drum up support for their own plots. 

Of course, Nero’s life is full of other tragedies besides his death at his own hand. He loves Poppaea with a passion bordering on madness, but a drunken accident results at her death at his hands, a death preceded by their unborn child. His beloved Acte refuses to return his affection, believing (probably rightly) that an open romance between them would endanger him even more. No matter how hard he tries, Nero cannot seem to find the romantic fulfillment that he desires, a tragedy that persists until the very end. 

In terms of style, George (as always) has a keen eye for period detail, and we are treated to lush descriptions of food, sights, and sounds. This is Rome at the height of its glory, when the world seems bathed in the golden light of the emperor and all of the grandeur he enjoys. Small wonder that the people of Rome were said to love him, for he was one of those figures who was truly larger-than-life. Small wonder that so many of the men (and some of the women) who surrounded him sought to cut him down to size in the eyes of those that followed.

It seems to me that The Splendor Before the Dark is fundamentally a melancholic text, in keeping with so many other recent depictions of antiquity. Nero represents something of a utopian vision of how the world might be–full of beauty, sexual freedom, and a surrender to the senses. Of course, such a world can never be fully realized, for the demands of pragmatism and of history always intercede. No matter how much we may enjoy the world of plenty and joy that Nero creates for us, we also know that it is doomed to be temporary, that it will be consigned to the ashes of history.

As important as Nero’s perspective is, George also provides us two other important viewpoints that act as something of a Greek chorus: Locusta the poisoner and Acte the freedwoman. Locusta has a keen eye and sees aspects of Nero that remain invisible even to him. Her status as someone outside of the respectable parts of society ensures that she can feel the political pulse of the world around her even if, ultimately, she doesn’t survive Nero’s fall for very long.

It is really Acte, however, who is the novel’s heart and soul. She loves Nero completely and unequivocally, and this is both her greatest joy and her greatest tragedy. It is she who remains steadfastly loyal to him, in life and in death. The novel gives her the final word, as she visits Nero’s tomb and promises him that she will join him soon. As she always does, George imbues the novel’s final words with a profound sadness mingled with a little bit of joy, a yearning that lovers separated by death might once again be reunited. 

It is this, finally, that gives The Splendor Before the Dark it’s raw emotional power. George proves once again that she truly is the grand dame of historical fiction.