Reading Tad Williams: “To Green Angel Tower: Part 1” (Book 3 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”)

I must apologize for taking so long to finish up this post. I have been on the road quite a lot that past couple of weeks, and have just now (finally!) finished the first half of To Green Angel Tower  (yes, I still have the mass market paperback, which split the final volume into two halves). Having done so, I can now offer a few remarks on what constitutes one of the greatest works of fantasy of the latter half of the 20th Century.

First, a brief word about the artwork for the cover. From the moment I bought these books at Waldenbooks all those years ago, I have loved the cover. There is just something piercing and perfect about Michael Whelan’s renditions of Miriamele and Simon, paired with Jiriki and Aditu. It is very rare that I find a cover that captures my own mental image of a character, but this one seems to capture the world-weary mortals and the continuing intensity of the Sithi. I would even go so far as to say that this is my favourite cover of a fantasy novel, showcasing the best of Whelan’s always-extraordinary talents.

I won’t spend too much time reciting plot summary, other than to note that the novel starts bringing all of the characters together. While the Sithi finally ride forth and return the control of Hernystir to its people, Simon, Binabik, and the others overcome significant obstacles to cement Josua’s position of strength, while Miriamele, Isrgimnur, and Camaris finally make their way to the Stone of Farewell.

This novel, perhaps more than the ones that preceded it, shows us in full measure the powerful sweep of historical events that often pick humans up in their midst and hurl them against the rocks of fate and chance. All of the characters, both major and minor, bear the scars of their travails, and it’s hard not to feel at least a stab of pity even for Elias, whose own folly and poor judgment have led his father’s kingdom and all of his accomplishments to the edge of ruin (and perhaps beyond). They are all of them, even the Storm King and his ally Utuk’u, bound by historical forces that they cannot quite control or name. The true tragedy, to my mind, is that so many of them can’t even recognize the limits of their own agency. History is a prison from which none can ultimately escape.

For all of its attention to the grand sweep of history, however, it is at the level of the personal that the book truly succeeds. Williams has a deft and deep understanding of what makes people work. Both Simon and Miriamele have been through some of the hardest and most trying encounters a human being can endure, and while they clearly have feelings for one another, they do not yet know how to express them in a way that is mutually satisfying. Each of them remains locked in an emotional prisoning not entirely of their own making, afraid to really render themselves vulnerable to one another and thus express their love.

Other, more minor characters also have their own tragedies. The princess Maegwin has become trapped in her own mind, wandering the lonely roads of madness, while Count Eolair, the man who loves her and whom she loves in return, can only look on and hope for the best. Like Simon and Miramele, the seemingly grand history in which they are caught up has begun to take a tremendous toll on both their physical and emotional well-being, and in staging this drama Williams manages to show us the costs of history, the way in which it affects the lives of those who, so we might think, are those who are in the middle of the story.

However, while the younger heroes are of course the center of the narrative, it is also worth pointing out that Cadrach, at least as he is revealed through the eyes of the princess, is also a tortured and mutilated soul. He struggles against the darker and baser parts of his nature, and yet he always manages to come up short. It is hard to know precisely what to make of him, considering that the only access that we as readers get of him is what Miriamele thinks and believes, but even that is enough to tell us that he cannot escape his deeds in the past. While the full extent of his complicity remains something of a mystery, enough has been revealed to show us that, in some way, whether large or small, he has been pivotal to all of the events that have unfolded.

Though the entirety of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is, of course, an epic, it is also, I would argue, an embodiment of the highest aspirations of the tragic mode. The great schism between the Sithi and the Norns is one of the great and terrible events of the series, and while it lies back in the mists of time for humanity, it is one of those signature events that still dominates the fortunes of those living in later days. Indeed, had the two families not been sundered, it’s possible that the events that are even now taking place might have been prevented, and a great deal of bloodshed and brutality avoided. And yet that is precisely what makes the events of the novel so heartbreaking. So much pain might have never have happened, so many lives could have been saved if only certain events had not transpired. And yet, like all tragedies, the events keep us moving ahead, helpless to stop what is about to happen.

I’m currently hard at work reading the second part of To Green Angel Tower, so I’m hoping to have my thoughts on that ready for public consumption by the end of April. I have to say that I’m really enjoying both re-reading these novels that played such a large part of my youth, as well as sharing my thoughts about them with those of you out there in the dark. As always, I invite you to comment and reflect on your own reading encounters with “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.”

Reading Tad Williams: “Stone of Farewell” (Book 2 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn)

Today, I continue with my reviewing of the corpus of the fantasy author Tad Williams, and today’s entry focuses on the second volume of his series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” Stone of Farewell.

The book begins where its predecessor left off. Simon and company are held by Binabik’s fellow trolls, with Binabik himself and the Rimmersman Sludig under a sentence of death. While they are eventually released, their trials and tribulations have just begun. Gradually, the pieces begin to move in their necessary directions. Josua and his band of survivors make their way to an old Sithi place named the Stone of Farewell, where they are joined by Binabik and Sludig. Simon, having been separated from his companions, finally makes his way to the Sithi stronghold of Jao e-Tinukai’i, where he is reunited with his old friend Jiriki and encounters the ancient Amerasu. Unfortunately, the Norn queen Utuk’u sends the hunter Ingen Jegger to kill her, and he succeeds (though he dies in doing so). Simon is permitted to leave and rejoins his friends at the Stone of Farewell. Meanwhile, Tiamak struggles with his own quest, Miriamele falls prey to the predatory Count Aspitis, and Maegwin tries to lead her people in exile.

By the end of the novel, the pieces are in place for the final throws of the game, in which the outnumbered Josua, the League of the Scroll, and their scattered allies must begin their attempt to beat back the vengeful plot of the Storm King (the full extent of which is still unclear). The novel is, unsurprisingly, full of Williams’ lush and often heartbreaking prose–there were several points where I actually shed a tear–and the characters manage to persevere through some of the worst trials imaginable. Indeed, their wanderings bear more than a striking resemblance to those of other heroic figures in epic literature, ranging from Odysseus to Aeneas. Their wanderings and setbacks allow us to get a stronger sense of the stakes of their struggle, and the growing conflict between Miriamele and Aspitis in particular reveals the subject position that many women occupy in this world. However, she also reveals her strength and her ability to persevere through trials that would break a weaker person.

As compelling as Miramele is, however, she is not, in my opinion, the strongest and most powerful of the novel’s female characters. This honour belongs to Amerasu, the eldest Sithi still living. While she is only ever glimpsed through Simon’s eyes, Amerasu emerges as one of the novel’s most tragic characters. Hers is a terrible burden, for she must choose between bringing about the utter destruction of the being who was once her son and the choice to preserve the world that he will stop at nothing to destroy. This is itself part of the larger tragedy faced by the Sithi as they attempt to determine whether they should partake in the coming conflict or hunker down and hope that the storm passes them by. After all, in many ways they have more in common with their cousins the Norns–who are, after all, leading the charge in the destruction of humankind–than they do with the mortals who have been responsible

One of the most distressing and heartbreaking scenes comes during the council that the Sithi hold, in which Amerasu states that she will reveal to those gathered the designs that she believes that the Storm King has in mind in his efforts. When she is ruthlessly slain by Jegger, it is hard not to feel that something has been irrevocably lost as a result of the vengeful spirit that has begun to sake shape in the North. It is rendered all the more tragic in that she is stopped before she can give the gathered Sithi the vital information that they can use in their battle against one who once belonged to them. Knowledge has once again been denied the very people who could use it most.

Similarly, it is hard not to feel the potent tragedy of Elias. While we have yet to learn what he was promised by Pyrates that led him to this dreadful pass, there is nevertheless something almost despicable about it. We get the feeling that Elias would not have done the things he did without the malignant influence of the red priest. Further, through the eyes of his Hand Guthwulf, we are led to believe that Elias has even begun to tip over the edge into outright madness. We also get the sense that, for all of his personality flaws, Elias might have been a decent king had he not let himself be led astray. He would not, perhaps, have been as wise or as great as his father (and neither would Josua, who is as moody and tormented as any Romantic hero), but he would at least have been able to hold the kingdom together and would not have sacrificed the well-being of his people.

Like many middle volumes, Stone of Farewell shows that the tides of evil are cresting while those of good have seemingly been pushed to the very cusp of defeat. We are consistently led to feel a sense of powerlessness each of our heroes struggles to overcome events and powers that are so much greater than they are. These are, after all, conflicts that are centuries in the making, and the power of the Storm King in particular is such that it seems that nothing short of a miracle can bring hm low. Yet that is precisely the pleasure of the epic genre, is it not? The sense that the powers of evil–and whether they can be so easily defined–is one that Williams is adept at articulating. However, we also know that, eventually, the forces that we have come to identify with shall eventually triumph, though the cost they pay may be very high indeed.

I’m currently making my way through the first half of the next and last novel, To Green Angel Tower. Stay tuned to this space to my review!

Reading Tad Willams: “The Dragonbone Chair” (Book One of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn)

A recent piece in The Guardian made the trenchant point that Tad Williams, author of the fantasy epic series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” hasn’t really gotten the respect he deserves for both the achievement of his epic series in itself as well as the influence he has come to exert on generations of fantasy writers. In keeping with the spirit of that Guardian article, I have embarked on an epic quest of my own, to make my way through his corpus. Given that he has published three complete series (“Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” “Otherland,” and “Bobby Dollar,”) along with sundry other works, this may take me a while.

Nevertheless, I plan to keep at it, and to post my reviews of his work here, starting with The Dragonbone Chair.

Now, a brief word about my history with Williams and his work. I first discovered him when I was a teenager and, as I was prone to doing at the time, I just browsed through the aisles of the fantasy section at Waldenbooks (back when that was a thing) and, I believe at my Dad’s suggestion, picked up To Green Angel Tower:  Part 1. Again, being the foolish person that I was back then, I went ahead, read it, and and bought the second part, and it would be several years before I would get around to reading the series from beginning to end.

Now, I’m on my second time around, and I find that I love it even more. There is a lushness and a maturity to Williams’ prose that I find is very rare indeed in a lot of even the highest-quality fantasy writing. Every time I read his work, I take pleasure not just in the plot (though those are surprisingly tightly-woven for works of epic scope), but also in the way that he engages us as readers, giving us a world at once brilliantly realized and familiar yet also sometimes disconcertingly strange.

The novel follows several primary characters, primary among them Simon, a young scullion who is apprenticed to a scholar named Morgenes. Gradually, he becomes embroiled in both struggles both political and cosmic, as it gradually emerges that the dynastic struggle between two princes, Elias and Josua, is but part of a much larger struggle between the undead Sitha Ineluki (the elf-like creatures of this world) the Storm King and the humans who he sees as his enemy to be utterly destroyed.

I have found that the most compelling and enjoyable epic fantasies typically contain something of the disturbing about them, something that makes an essential human part of your body and psyche recoil. Terry Brooks has it with his Reaper and his Shadowen, Tolkien had it with the Nazgûl, and Robert Jordan had it with the Myrddraal. Williams has an uncanny ability to convey, primarily through Simon’s eyes, the absolute otherness of Ineluki and the Norns who are his primary allies. The scene in which Elias gains possession of the unearthly and destructive sword Sorrow, in particular, is one of the most viscerally unsettling that I have ever read in a fantasy novel, equaled only (I think) by the revelation in Martin’s A Storm of Swords of Catelyn Stark’s eventual fate.

While Simon fits neatly into the fantasy archetype of the reluctant hero, he’s actually far more complex and contradictory than that designation might imply. He is by turns likable and insufferable, and he is driven by a burning desire to know. His descent into abjection after he is forced to flee the castle known as the Hayholt is frightening, and Williams’ great genius is that he allows us as readers to feel Simon’s sense of fear and alienation, as he struggles throughout the novel to make sense of of the forces that continue to move him along and, as importantly, attempt to assert his own agency in the face of those titanic forces.

There is much else to love about this novel. The world is vast yet understandable, with a rich history that suffuses every aspect of the novel. Ancient history comes bubbling to the surface in all of its terror and its suffering, and it is up to the flawed mortals of these latter days to attempt to piece together the tatters of knowledge that have been left in order to make sense of the threat and attempt to combat it. As readers, the novel forces us to dwell in as much ignorance as the characters and to feel with them the terror of the unknowable, even as we hope (perhaps without justification) that a new day may yet dawn. Even in the face of incredible suffering–the death of companions, the destruction of the strongholds of good–hope springs eternal. In The Dragonbone Chair, and indeed in Williams’ epic fantasy work more generally, the beautiful and the tragic remain inseparably intertwined.

I’m sure that most of this sounds like slavish devotion, but let me assure you that it is heartfelt and genuine. Fantasy as a genre is rarely celebrated for either its aesthetic beauty or its philosophical depth, and that is truly a shame, because Williams does both. Is it possible to have human agency in a world where titanic forces threaten to overwhelm those who would resist it? Is there such a thing as good and evil to begin with? How much can we truly know, either about the world in which we live or about the history that precedes us? Who, for that matter, gets to write history and how are we to make sense of the tangled skein of competing narratives that constantly struggle for supremacy? Of course, there are no easy answers to these, and the novel doesn’t try to provide them.

Just as importantly, though, Williams’ work continues to serve as one of my models. He, along with others such as Terry Brooks, is a potent and important reminder that epic fantasy can be vast and scope and still wrap itself up in either a trilogy or, at most, a tetralogy. He continues to inspire me with his work.

It will be a while before I finish Stone of Farewell (dissertation and all), but when I do I’ll be commenting on it here. Stay tuned!

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Choices of Master Samwise”

We have finally come to the concluding chapter of The Two Towers, and one of my very favourite chapters in the entire The Lord of the Rings. In it, we learn that Sam, confronted with the awful reality that his master has been struck down by the horrid spider Shelob and that the task of taking the Ring to its destruction in the fires of Mount Doom has at last fallen to him.

The way that Tolkien describes this decision on Sam’s part, with Sam keeping an inner dialogue and debate with himself, is one of those moments when Tolkien offers us a compelling view of the terrible toll this Quest has taken on all involved in it. Sam is faced with an impossible choice, but in the end he hardens his heart with resolve and takes the Ring, knowing that he is the only one who can do so now that Frodo is apparently dead.

Yet it also reveals the extraordinary power of the Ring to corrupt even the purest soul, and even at this early moment we get hints of the power of the Ring over Sam. At this point, it has grown so greatly in power that it seems to hang like a great weight around his neck, and afterwards he finds himself immersed in an unsettling world of shadows and half-light (one can’t help but be reminded here of Jackson’s memorable interpretation of this dynamic in the films).

Given this extraordinary struggle–and the immense bravery and strength of spirit that Sam has in being able to overcome it–it is no surprise that we learn in the Appendices that he was eventually allowed passage out of Middle-earth as the very last of those who had born the Ring. To me, this has always been one of the most heartwarming anecdotes, especially since the reader knows just what a struggle it was for Sam to both put the Ring on in the first place and then actually take the step away from his master and undertake the journey (“the heaviest and most reluctant he had ever taken,” the narrator tells us).

Of course, in this chapter we also learn that Frodo is alive, but that only makes Sam’s choice to go on bearing the Ring all the more exemplary. After all, he (and the first-time reader) has no way of knowing that Shelob’s terrible sting has merely sent Frodo into a deep coma. Yet still Sam goes on, driven by nothing more than his own innate sense of rightness and his determination to do right by his master and ensure that the Quest is completed (after which, he says, he will try to return and stay by him forever).

In Tolkien’s universe, this is what true courage, compassion, and love look like, and it never fails to move me to tears. Given the fact that Sam has always been a source of humour in the book, his ability to not only defeat Shelob but to take the Ring upon himself with no one else’s guidance allows him to really shine forth as the true hero of the novel. The fact that the entire Quest would have failed were it not for his choice at this pivotal moment makes his victory all the more significant.

As compelling and powerful as the Sam portions are, however, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the rather extraordinary exchange that takes place between the Orc captains Gorbag and Shagrat. Their banter, obscene as it is in some ways, also makes them strangely relatable. They are like any set of disgruntled industrial labourers grumbling about their bosses, whom they refer to with mingled disdain and fear. It’s almost (almost, mind you) possible to forget that they are actually cruel and vicious, both to their own kind and to those who are the opponents of their masters. We also get a brief glimpse into how horrid their really are; they are basically no more than cogs in the ghastly war machine that Sauron has made of Mordor and all of his servants. As such, their terrible behaviour and their cruelty is as much a result of their own torments as it is any innate evil on their parts.

I am hoping (though this may be ambitious) to keep this going this year a little longer than usual. Hopefully, in a few days I’ll post about the siege of Minas Tirith, which has always been one of my favourite portions of LotR. Fingers crossed!

Tolkien’s Heirs: Tad Williams

When I heard the news that Tad Williams, one of my very favourite fantasy authors, was returning at last to Osten Ard, the sprawling setting of his epic fantasy series “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” I was overcome with happiness. While I haven’t yet read the short novel The Heart of What Was Lost, I have begun to re-read MST in anticipation of doing so (a full-length novel, The Witchwood Crown, is apparently due out this summer).

As I do every so often, I would like to suggest that Tad Williams belongs to that elite cadre of fantasy authors who truly deserves the title of “Tolkien’s Heir.” In terms of the richness of his world-building, the complexity of his characters, and the emotional depth of his achievement, Williams has truly ascended into the ranks of the great fantasy authors of the late 20th Century.

Now, I know that a comparison to Tolkien’s work is thrown about in review circles anytime a new epic fantasy series sees the light of day. It’s become so extensively used that it’s little more than a meaningless cliché. However, Williams’ work really does deserve comparison to the grand master of the form, the man whose own The Lord of the Rings is truly a masterpiece and one that succeeds as a piece of literature not in spite of but because of its form and content as fantasy.

In my estimation, the same can be said of all of Williams’ work, both the epics (MST and Shadowmarch), as well as the other fantasy works that he has published over his career. Williams constantly shows that there is a certain explanatory and experiential power in the fantasy genre that renders it a uniquely effective way of addressing some of the questions that continue to press us as human beings in a complicated and contradictory world.

Of course, Williams is one of the finest world-builders working in the genre today, and his invented nations seem to leap off of the page into breathing life right in front of us. Whether it is Osten Ard or the many warring nations that comprise the world of Shadowmarch, one can see that the worlds of his imagination of a phenomenal amount of internal consistency. Further, there are histories in these worlds, wells that run deep and troubled and contentious pasts that shape and determine what happens during the novels themselves. The titanic struggles the characters face are often not of their own making, but that does not mean that they don’t still bear a significant amount of responsibility for what occurs.

This, in turn, allows Williams to engage with the thornier questions of morality, justice, and who really gets to claim the high ground in the sort of larger-than-life disputes that are the lifeblood of epic fantasy. For all of Tolkien’s strengths, he was a product of his troubled times, and for him the question of race is, to put it mildly, a vexed one. His portrayal of people of colour is, with a few exceptions, quite negative (though not as repugnantly racist as his colleague C.S. Lewis), but Williams takes care in many of his works to depict people of colour who do not fit comfortably into established stereotypes. This is certainly true of Shadowmarch and sequels, which feature a number of characters that come from cultures that are not typically “white” or European.

Finally, and largely as a result of all of this, reading a Williams novel (or series) is an intense and sometimes overwhelming emotional experience. Beloved characters do die, and sometimes even the deaths of villains are more heart-wrenching than you might have expected. Death is very much a part of Williams’ novels, and you should never become too attached to some of your favourite characters. However, I would also like to point out that while you may feel emotionally wrung-out at

As I embark on my re-reading of Williams’ oeuvre (I hope to have read all of his works by the time the new novel is out this summer), I am astounded again at the richness and power of his prose. Truly, this is an author upon him I hope to model my own writing of fantasy. If I can accomplish but half of what he has, I shall consider myself fortunate indeed.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Window on the West” and “The Forbidden Pool”

Having met the noble Gondorian captain Faramir and his men, we now get to see them in more detail, as Frodo and Sam are welcomed into their abode and treated as guests of honor. They are also treated to the beauty of the land of Ithilien, including the cave where Faramir and his company have set up their camp.

I have always found Faramir to be one of Tolkien’s finest creations, a fitting complement to his brother Boromir. Unlike his elder brother, who seems to spring from the mold of men like Rohan (which, for all of their valour, are of a somewhat lower order then their neighbours), Faramir seems to have something in him of not just the nobility of the fallen lands of the West but also a measure of their Elvish wisdom. It is precisely this wisdom that allows him to turn away from the temptation that brought low his brother. In that sense, he seems to have more in common with Aragorn than he does with either his father or his brother.

It is the changes to Faramir’s character in the film version The Two Towers that I find the most vexing, in large part because he is just such a wonderful character in the novel. It is precisely his ability to resist the pull of the Ring that makes him so compelling and that suggests that he will one day make an exemplary steward in his father’s place. While I don’t want to spend too much time belabouring the changes made to Faramir’s character in Jackson’s interpretation, it is worth noting that this Faramir is much more steadfast from the outset than his film counterpart. He is both wise and a powerful leader of men, and it this particular combination of traits that makes him such a compelling hero.

What stands out to me the most about this chapter, however, is the description that Faramir gives of the men of Gondor. According to his narration, the heirs of Anarion gradually lost their way and gave into the faults that had long plagued the men of Númenor:  the obsession with death and its deferral, the fixation on the past and their ancestors rather than the children of the current world, the gradual but inexorable slipping into decline. It is a rather heartbreaking rumination, and it is (I think) reflective of the novel’s overall view of humanity. We may build works of great power and grandeur, but in the end we always seem inclined to let those slip away into obsolescence and a seemingly inevitable decay.

This in part will explain the behavior of Denethor in later chapters. He, like so many of his predecessors among the men of Númenor, yearns for a day when his rule was unquestioned, and he spends more time thinking about the past than he does the present, much to the detriment of his son Faramir. Thus, he is blind to the qualities that make his son such an excellent and superb commander and future steward, blinded by his love of Boromir. He wishes for the way that things were in the past, whereas Faramir is wise enough to understand that the future is what matters the most and that it will ultimately be up to him to shoulder the burdens that his father still bears (and which have already begun to to drive him slowly mad).

And then of course there is Gollum, who feels deeply betrayed by the fact that Frodo leads him into a trap set by Faramir. Once again, Frodo showcases his essential morality and pity, for once again he refuses to strike down Gollum when he has the chance. Of course, the powerful and almost tragic irony here is that Gollum doesn’t recognize this fact, and it may well be this incident that continues to cement his determination to see his villainous plans for Sam and Frodo through to their ultimate conclusion.

Next up, we follow the brave Sam and Frodo as they encounter the city of Minas Morgul as well as the dreadful spider Shelob. Stay tuned!

Through a Glass Darkly: The Diminution of Heroism in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy

After recently rewatching Peter Jackson’s rightfully famous and well-regarded The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, it occurred to me that Jackson’s heroes are remarkably less lofty than their counterparts in Tolkien’s novel. If Tolkien’s heroes seem to exist in a time wherein heroes were larger than life figures that seem to defy the laws of humanity, Jackson’s are made of somewhat humbler stuff, plagued with doubt and required to go through the traditional hero’s journey in order for their personalities and their journeys to have meaning for their very modern audiences.

These changes range from the relatively minor to the significant, and some that appear to be the latter but are in my view the former. The shattering of Gandalf’s staff by the Witch-king at the gates of Minas Tirith might seem to be a relatively minor change in the context of the film as a whole, but it signifies that Gandalf, even in his iteration as the White, is far more vulnerable and susceptible to the power of his enemies than his novel counterpart. He is also plagued by doubt as to the fate of Frodo, and it is only Aragorn’s wise words that bring him back from the depths of despair during the events of The Return of the King.

Aragorn also suffers from this crisis of doubt. Unlike the Aragorn of the novel, for example, he does not at first set out with the intention of claiming the throne of Gondor for himself. It is only after fighting in the Battle of Helm’s Deep and gradually realizing the necessity of coming to Gondor’s aid does he seem to finally give in and accept the necessity of ascending Gondor’s throne as the rightful air. Admittedly, Viggo Mortensen does a magnificent job bringing together the essential nobility and world-weary aspects of Aragorn’s character, but there can be no doubt that, except in the very final scenes in which he appears, he definitely skews more toward the latter than the former.

The greatest casualty of this phenomenon, however, is the Steward Denethor, who definitely does not come out very well in his appearances in either The Two Towers or The Return of the King. This Denethor is not the proud throwback to the days of Númenór as described by Tolkien, not some lofty lord who has been slowly led into madness by his wrestling with Sauron through the palantír, but instead something of an arrogant and extremely deluded fool. Since the film does not really emphasize the fact that Denethor possesses one of the old seeing stones, we don’t get the sense that he has spent many long hours wrestling with the Dark Lord. Even his death is robbed of its rather tragic nobility, replaced instead with a disturbing scene in which Shadowfax kicks him into the pyre he had put together for himself and his son Faramir, after which Denethor runs screaming and plunges from the lofty tower into the burning city below. It’s visually striking, certainly, but not nearly the dignified and tragic ending envisioned in the novel, an ending that was more in keeping with Denethor’s lofty, if ultimately tragic, persona.

For Jackson, then, it appears that heroism is something far more bound to the foibles of mortality and the humble world of the flesh than is the case with Tolkien. His heroes are, for the most part, denuded shadows of their novel counterparts, cut down to a size that Jackson (for better or worse) deems more palatable and appropriate for a late-20th/early 21st Century audience.

Of course, part of this no doubt also has to do with the medium in which Jackson is working. While Jackson’s films certainly operate in the idiom and within the paradigm of the epic, there is still only so much detail, narrative complexity, and character development that can be squeezed into 3 hours. In order to get a full sense of Aragorn’s growth as a character, we can’t rely on pages of exposition and information revealed in the Appendices; instead, we must see the doubt that troubles him throughout his journey. We must be shown that he still bears the heavy weight of Isildur’s fatal weakness.

Just as importantly, the hero’s journey (so memorably outlined in the works of the mythologist Joseph Campbell in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces) has proven to be a remarkably durable and ubiquitous blueprint for Hollywood filmmaking. In that sense, it’s not surprising that Aragorn in particular becomes one of the people, in particular during the Battle of Helm’s Deep (in which he several times almost loses his life). It is worth pointing out that the release of Jackson’s film coincided with the resurgence of another type of film featuring somewhat larger-than-life heroism, the historical epic. Inaugurated with Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator, this genre also expressed a certain measure of ambivalence about the nature of male heroism, as Russell Crowe’s Maximus has to enter into the realm of the abject and the outcast in order to fulfill his historical and political mission (Robert Burgoyne makes a compelling argument about this in his book The Hollywood Historical Film).

While I may sound critical of Jackson’s film, I actually think it works well for what he is trying to do, and he definitely deserves credit for his portrayal of Boromir and Faramir, both of whom are compellingly drawn characters. In fact, I would say that Boromir, at least, is one of the characters whose characterization matches fairly closely between the book and the film. While the same cannot entirely be said of Faramir–who, after all, decides to take the Hobbits to Osgiliath in the film rather than unequivocally denying the Ring–he does emerge in The Return of the King as an essentially noble and heroic figure.

Clearly, Jackson has a different agenda in his vision of Tolkienian heroism for the 20th and 21st Centuries. That doesn’t mean that one is any less valid or intriguing than the other. It does, however, allow us to see the very different uses to which Tolkien’s work can be put in the visual imaginary.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit.”

As we make our way again through The Lord of the Rings, we come at last to the fateful encounter between Frodo and Sam and Faramir, Boromir’s younger brother and the leading captain of Gondor. We also get a glimpse, albeit briefly, of the fragrant and peaceful glades of Ithilien.

Among his many strengths as a writer, Tolkien was unparalleled in his ability to evoke the atmosphere of place. Every time I read these portions on Ithilien, I feel as if I am there in that mild clime, drinking in the sights, sounds, and smells of this little paradise on the doorstep of Mordor. Unlike the Black Land and its environs, which the text specifically states will never know spring again (so deep and lasting is its destruction), here there is still a glimpse of what was no doubt true of many of the debased lands that have fallen under Sauron’s shadow. This is truly one of those places in Middle-earth that seems to leap off the page and into our imaginations.

This is, in many ways, a chapter full of respite and reflection, and affords Sam the opportunity to view his master and to express his love. As he says: “I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.” While this definitely lends itself to a queer reading, for me it is even more resonant when considered in the purely platonic sense, a signifier of the profound affective and companionate bonds that exist between Sam and Frodo. Just as noteworthy is the fact that the noble prose that precedes it is related in the narrator’s voice and Sam, finding words inadequate to his feelings, utters the line above.

Another compelling parts of this narrative is Sam’s reflection on the dead warrior that falls in their midst. His words are worth quoting in full:

“He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

It is fitting that this reflection should come from Sam. More than almost any of the other characters, the novel seems to identify most with his homespun wisdom. Certainly, he is often painted as more than a little foolish (and sometimes his mouth gets him into trouble, as when he blurts out the truth of the Ring to Faramir). However, he also utters some of the most sensible words in the entire novel. In that respect he shares a great deal in common with Ioreth, the old woman who remembers that the hands of a king are the hands of a healer and thus sets in motion Aragorn’s healing of Merry and Éowyn in the Houses of Healing. For Tolkien, it seems, the wisdom of those lower in class may seem to be beneath the notice of those who occupy the loftier helms of heroism, but this only makes their observations all the more essential and powerful.

Such is certainly the case here, as Sam is plunged, once again, into the midst of a war that he doesn’t entirely understand. Indeed, there is a certain parallelism here, and it is a rather unsettling reminder that the seemingly-neat divisions between good and evil are not nearly as stable as some critics would like to believe. Tolkien, as a product of one great war and a witness of another, had a particularly nuanced view of the tactics that brutal dictators use to bully and batter their subjects into submission and ultimately slavery.

The centerpiece of these chapters, however, is the character of Faramir. To my mind, he remains one of Tolkien’s most genuinely heroic characters, second only (among humans at least) to Aragorn himself. While I will discuss him in more detail in a subsequent installment, for now suffice it to say that Faramir, more than his brother, seems to exhibit the characteristics that Tolkien identifies most with the lost kingdom of Númenór.

Next up, we’ll discuss the character of Faramir in greater detail, in particular Sam’s comment that he seems to have an air of wizard-ness about him.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Taming of Smeagol,” “The Passage of the Marshes,” and “The Black Gate is Closed”

For a long time now, I’ve always preferred the first part of The Two Towers to the second. Maybe this has to do with the way in which I remain profoundly dissatisfied with Jackson’s interpretation of it in the film version, or perhaps because it lacks the big action set-pieces of the other half. Whatever the reason, I’ve always found it rather a chore to read.

As I’ve begun to reread it this year, however, I’ve been reminded of why I should like it and why it is so absolutely central to the development of the rest of the book.

For one thing, there is the menacing presence of the Nazgûl, who have now taken to the air on their winged steeds. For some reason, the image of one of those terrifying creatures hovering against the moon or blotting out the stars has always filled me with a dread very similar to that felt by Frodo and Sam (and even Gollum) as they cover in the Dead Marshes or even when they first encountered them way back in the beginning if the book.

Indeed, the whole passage of the Dead Marshes has always been a particularly disturbing and compelling one for me. There is something deeply, viscerally haunting about the idea of the dead faces in the water, of those Men, Elves, and Orcs that fought for the future of Middle-earth on the plain and have since fallen into a strange liminal space that is not quite life and not quite death. As with so much of The Lord of the Rings, we don’t really know who these creatures are nor why their restless spirits would still haunt the places where they perished all those long centuries ago.

Of particular note in these chapters is, of course, the nature of Gollum and just how far he has been redeemed by and through his service to Frodo. When we first meet him, his spirit and soul have been so corrupted by the Ring and by his hatred that he cannot even bear to eat Elvish food nor to have the Elvish rope bound to him. This signifies not just the ontological goodness of the Elves within the frame of Tolkien’s work, but also shows that the Ring, and all that it touches, remains antithetical to that goodness.

There is some measure of ambiguity about the nature of the oath that Gollum is forced to swear, and it hinges upon the word that Frodo chooses to define Gollum’s relationship to the Ring. He forbids Gollum to swear on it, but he does tell him that he can swear by it. In so doing and saying, Frodo suggests that the power of the Ring is such, and its tendency for corruption so great, that it will eventually corrupt him and turn it to Its purposes rather than his own.

Indeed, Frodo’s words, as so many others in the novel, prove prophetic, as it could be argued that it is precisely Gollum’s oath on the Precious that ultimately leads him to his own death. Looked at in just a certain light, it could be argued that Gollum’s tumble into the fires of Mount Doom is the ultimate fulfillment of his vow to do everything in his power to make sure that the Ring does not fall into the hands of Sauron.

Yet, for all that he is a treacherous and awful creature, there is still something remarkably sympathetic about Sméagol/Gollum. Every so often, Tolkien offers  us a glimpse into the tortured psyche that writhes beneath the surface of this most repulsive of characters. Tolkien shows us that he remains caught on the cusp of wanting to be free of the Ring that has caused him such terrible pain and suffering–and led him to murder his friend and so many others–and yet also desiring it ever more. It is hard not to feel at least a modicum of pity for him and even, dare I say it, to harbour hope that he will one day be able to gain redemption (even if, as savvy and experienced readers, we know that he won’t).

Next up, we at last meet the younger brother of the warrior Boromir, in the process learning a great deal more about how the men of Gondor think and behave in these latter days.

Why Are Tolkien’s Villains So Compelling?

Every time I re-reard The Lord of the Rings, I’m struck anew by how absolutely compelling Tolkien has made his villains. In many ways, these formidable foes–Saruman, Sauron, the Witch-king–threaten to overshadow the protagonists of the novel. While we know a great deal about the heroes, their motivations, their ancestries, a great deal remains shadowy and unknown about their evil counterparts, and it is precisely this lack of detail that imbues these characters with such an irresistible allure, constantly drawing us to them even as the text denies us the full understanding that we desire.

Take the Witch-king (and, for that matter, the rest of the Nazgûl). We know very little about them, except that they were a mixture of kings of Men who were seduced by Sauron’s promises of power that could be gained from his gift of nine Rings of Power. In fact, we know the actual name of only one of those figures, Khamûl the Black Easterling, and even of him we know only that he was second in power to the Witch-king, that he commanded Dol Guldur, and that he was the Ringwraith that the hobbits saw standing on the dock of Bucklebury Ferry. Everything else is merely speculation, and while there is certainly a great deal of pleasure in such an activity, it can never quite take the place of the authoritative word of Tolkien himself.

Of course, Saruman, for all that he is one of the most corrupt and despicable of the villains that appear in the novel, also hovers just out of full sight. Sure, we know a great deal about him through Gandalf, but we never really get to see the workings of his mind in his own right. We don’t know, for example, how he set about his destruction and industrialization of the Shire, and we don’t get to see his interactions with Wormtongue (though Jackson’s film does provide some of the exchanges between the two of them). We don’t even know that much about his activities as a Maia in the West.

And then there is my all-time favourite villain, the Mouth of Sauron, who appears at the Black Gate to taunt the armies of the West when they arrive to demand that Sauron come forth. Here is how the novel describes him:

The lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr he was, and his name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron.’ But it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Númenoreans.

This brief paragraph ultimately raises more questions than it provides answers. What, for example, was his relationship with the Witch-king of Angmar? Were they of equal rank, though occupying different roles in the Mordor hierachy? (Perhaps the Mouth was responsible for the domestic side of things and the Witch-king was responsible for activities outside?) How old, exactly, was he? We know that he was of the Numenoreans, so it’s entirely possible that he was far older than any other man (even Aragorn). We aren’t even given his name, and the passage tells us that not only was it never written down by any tale (I love how coy the text is, by the way); the Mouth himself has become so enmeshed in Sauron’s service that he has given up his very identity. For that matter, we don’t even know whether he escaped from the destruction by the Ring’s oblivion. Certainly,

Tolkien was, as has been amply acknowledged, a genius at sub-creation. Yet he also knew that there were some things that should remain unknown, sometimes even to the author himself. The media scholar and theorist John Fiske, in his book Reading Popular Culture, notes that part of what gives enormously popular texts their appeal is textual poverty, and that certainly seems to the case with Tolkien. Indeed, there are quite a number of fan fiction texts surrounding the Mouth (I wrote one myself as part of a class ages ago), and these texts exploit this gap in Tolkien’s mythology to give the text even greater relevance, emotionally, intellectually, affectively.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Tolkien would be have to be one of the most flattered authors of the modern era.

And that flattery, in my mind, is well-deserved indeed.