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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!

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Film Review: “Moana (2016),” a Fable for the Trump Era

Sometimes, you want a movie that helps you to see that it’s not all hopeless, that there is still some glimmer of hope in the world for those of us who think for a living. It’s really hard to find that these days, as the true consequences of a Trump Presidency loom ever larger in our collective imaginations. While I saw Disney’s Moana before Trump’s inauguration, since then its message, its aesthetics, and its emotional impact have come to be even more significant in hindsight. Since then, I’ve come to see it as essentially a product of its time, yet another entry in my ever-growing archive of works of art produced in the fledgeling Trump Era.

Its hard not to read this film in light of the world that we are currently inhabiting, in which a small cadre of politicians continues to insist that man-made climate change is a myth (or at least that it isn’t as imminently catastrophic as most predictions suggest it is). Moana’s father, admirable and powerful though he clearly is meant to be, cannot quite bring himself to believe that the world they have been so happy living in is coming to an end and, just as importantly, that there is something that they can do to stop it. Theirs is a society turned resolutely inward, refusing to admit the reality of what is transpiring, even as they can feel and see its effects, from the coconuts that have begun to shrivel to the encroaching emptiness of the fisheries.

There is also something profoundly moving about the sequence that restores the world to its basic balance, in which Moana encourages Te Fiti (transfigured into the vengeful lava demon Te Kā) to remember who she really is and returns her heart to her. While it is easy to dismiss this as just another example of reducing women to nothing more than stand-ins for nature, to me it was a proud moment of reclamation on the part of both Moana and the goddess herself. Given that Disney has historically been prone to relying far too heavily on the romantic plot to resolve its narrative dilemmas, it was actually rather nice to see it rely instead on the affective bonds between two women). And, considering the fact that we now live in a world where a man who bragged about assaulting women was still elected to the Presidency, it’s heartening to see the validation of women in the context of a Disney film.

Indeed, so many of the film’s most important relationships are built on the bonds among women. It’s hard not to feel the intensity of the bond between Moana and her grandmother, whose spirit (in the delightful guise of a manta ray) continues to guide her as she attempts to make sense of the world and her quest to restore the disrupted balance of nature. Or the fact that it is her mother who, in a gesture of rebellion against her husband, enables her to escape from the island to undertake her quest. In this world, men are not driven by a ruthless patriarchal drive to oppress women but instead by a slightly misguided belief in the rightness of their own actions. It may be a slight distinction to some, but to my eyes it is an important layer of nuance to the ways in which the film engages with questions of gender.

Thus, the film also has something important to say about masculinity. It is no accident that Dwayne Johnson is the one providing the voice of the film’s primary male character, Maui. “The Rock” has long straddled that line between hyper-masculinity the gender-bending that seems to always accompany the culture and physique of bodybuilders.  And indeed his animated doppleganger also has a similar problem with his own masculine persona, precisely because he is so often too masculine. It is only when he embraces Moana’s wisdom and, just as importantly, joints with her, that they are able to restore the world to its rightful balance.

Moana, like so man other recent films, TV series, and novels, is a product of its time. We are, scientists almost unanimously agree, living in the midst of a truly terrifying climate event, the scope of which many of us cannot begin to appreciate in its totality. And we are, many cultural critics and social scientists would argue, living in a world where men continue to indulge and valourize a particularly toxic and destructive model (see also:  President Donald Trump).

There is, ultimately, an aesthetic of profound and unbridled joy at work in this film, one that helps us to deal with the bleak world that we currently inhabit. The colour palette is rich and helps portray both the exquisite, lush beauty of Moana’s island home as well as the dark, ashy future that awaits it if they continue to turn their faces away from their mutual responsibility. In moments like this, it’s a balm to turn to (of all things!) a Disney film to find at the very least a feeling that all will be well, even if our material reality suggests exactly the opposite.

All in all, Moana is a film very much for as much as it is of our troubled times. While the narrative provides the closure and resolution that we always seek when we watch these types of films, given the rather depressing state of our world–a world in which, after all, the Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight–that doesn’t mitigate its potential. Rather than allowing ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the conclusiveness of the end of the film, we should instead take the film as a whole as a call to action. Though it might seem that our world is draped and overwhelmed in an impenetrable shroud of doom, this film reminds us that it is never too late, that we must always be the change that we want to see in the world.

That, in the end, it is never too late.

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Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “Minas Tirith”

I’ve always found the first half of Return of the King to be some of my favourite parts of the entire Lord of the Rings saga, so I’ll be spending a bit more time dwelling in detail on each chapter than I usually do. Even now I’m not entirely sure why, unless it’s because there is something hauntingly evocative about the fading grandeur of Gondor, so similar to Byzantium after the fall of the Western Empire (if you know me, you know I love me some Byzantines).

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the similarities between Byzantium and the Gondor that we see in The Lord of the Rings. Both are essentially rump states, decayed (yet still magnificent) relics of an empire that was once vast and powerful. They are, furthermore, beset on all sides by enemies who threaten to bring about their end, and that end seems to hover just on the edge of sight and of time, always present and yet never quite intruding into the flow of events.

Minas Tirith, as the novel describes it, encapsulates this similarity perfectly. While it is certainly more vast than anything Pippin has yet seen–and he includes Isengard in that estimation–the novel remarks that there are signs that it is on the downward spiral. The city, vast and powerful as it is, has not even managed to fill its walls full to capacity, and it is strongly hinted that even many of the most powerful families have faded into obscurity, leaving nothing behind but their enormous, empty mansions that stand as mute testimony to their once formidable power.

As Pippin and Gandalf make their way through this enormous city of Men, he cannot shake the feeling (and we cannot either) that this is a city and a culture that has passed its zenith. Like Byznatium in its long decline, Minas Tirith contains echoes of the greatness that it once possessed, but it is somewhat marred by a feeling of elegy and melancholy, for past that is now past any recall. We are left with the feeling that, even when/if Aragorn should win back the throne that is rightfully his, the spiral will be averted but not reversed, and that the restored world will be one that is not as glorious as it was at the height of its majesty.

Despite its decline, this chapter contains some truly beautiful and evocative imagery to convey to us the vast lands that comprise Gondor. These always stand out to me as some of the most powerful, piercing in their exquisite beauty. It’s hard not to feel a sense of overwhelming vastness as Pippin sits on the wall gazing outward, a vastness both complemented and soured by the high wails of the winged Nazgûl that fly periodically over the city.

Even Denethor seems to exhibit this set of characteristics, and it’s easy to see how he could produce sons as different as Faramir and Boromir. On the one hand, he is still a powerful figure with a cunning and deep mind, so deep that he even feels that he has the right and the power to challenge Gandalf in terms of the defense of the city and in the steps that they should take. While he has not yet been driven mad by the despair that will eventually claim his mind, it’s clear even at this point that he has begun to crack under the ceaseless pressure to defend the nation that he clearly (and, I would add, sincerely) loves from the relentless pressure of Mordor. He is flawed, yes, but still noble in his own twisted way, and we are led to have at least a modicum of respect and admiration for him.

Last but not least, no discussion of this chapter would be complete without a mention of Beregond. He is one of those characters that Tolkien creates, minor yet important, utterly compelling. This is a man in whom the best of Gondor is brought to fruition and yet, as we shall see, this places him somewhat at odds with the loyalties that he feels pulling him toward his beloved Faramir.

Next up, we’ll switch gears slightly and rejoin Aragorn as he makes a fateful journey to claim the allegiance from the dead.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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The Pleasures of Reading Tolkien Criticism

Every year, when I embark on my ritual re-reading of The Lord of the Rings (and occasionally The Hobbit), I also take it upon myself to read some Tolkien criticism. I usually try to read at least one new critical text on Tolkien per year, either classical or contemporary, in order to enrich and deepen my appreciation for the richness of Tolkien’s work and philosophy. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about reading a critical appraisal of my favourite author and my favourite book.

While Tolkien Studies is slowly but surely become an established part of the world of academic disciplines, it’s still fairly rare to see a very nuanced and complex discussion of its contours. Imagine my surprise that  a piece recently appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books that took a rather dim view of the contemporary state of Tolkien scholarship. The author, Norbert Schürer has some good points to make. Some fields, Tolkien Studies and Film Studies among them, have a tendency to be populated (at least in part) by those who allow their fan-infused enthusiasm for their love object to cloud their critical apparatus in some unproductive ways. This is not to say that there isn’t some value in those pieces, mind, just that it’s important to find a balance between those two halves of one’s scholarly life (an aspect of being a film scholar with which I still sometimes struggle).

However, as the authors of a response published at Mythgard point out, there is a danger dismissing so quickly this kind of fan-driven scholarship. They raise some compelling points, and to their commentary I would add that sometimes there is both pleasure and emotional reward in allowing your personal enthusiasm for a subject or an author bleed into your scholarship. Just as there is a danger in becoming too emotionally involved in your academic criticism, there is an equally potent danger of leeching the joy and the pleasure out of the act of critical interpretation.

For myself, a Tolkien scholar and critic who combines the best of both worlds is the masterful Tom Shippey. It’s very rare indeed that I read a scholarly book, particularly a work of literary criticism more than once. It’s not that there isn’t something to be gained from such a re-reading. It’s just that I don’t have enough time in my busy life to re-read much of anything. However, Shippey’s two masterful works on Tolkien, Tolkien:  Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth, have been staples of my re-read schedule since I first discovered them as an undergraduate. Shippey is that most masterful of literary critics, i.e. one who combines a deep and rich knowledge and love of his subject with a talented literary critics sharp eye for detail and systematic analysis.There is, furthermore, something both accessible and oddly comforting about Shippey’s prose style. He has a knack which few rigorous academics truly master:  he conveys sophisticated arguments into elegant and readable prose.

In recent years, however, I’ve expanded the reach a bit, and last year I had the distinct pleasure of finally reading Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light:  Logos and Language in Tolkien’s Work. What really makes her work such a special and invaluable one for the field as a whole is that it takes the other parts of the Legendarium that often go ignored in popular scholarship (due in no small part to the popularity of the film adaptations) as an essential part of Tolkien’s philosophical pursuit. As with Shippey, Flieger manages to convey the complexity of Tolkien’s voracious mind with a lively and spirited prose that keeps even the casual reader engaged.

The best part about reading Tolkien criticism as a fledgling literary and film critic and scholar is that reading the best of it serves as both inspiration and model for my own forays into the world of scholarship. Writing work that passes academic muster is sometimes a very daunting task–especially when your object of analysis has only reluctantly been allowed into the echelons of “true scholarship.” However, seeing it done successfully–and, just as importantly, seeing it published by reputable academic presses–gives you a measure of hope that yes, indeed, you can produce scholarship that you enjoy writing and that, hopefully, others will enjoy reading.

While my primary pleasure will always be found in Tolkien’s original words themselves, I continue to seek out new pieces of scholarship that help to deepen my love and appreciation for his genius. This year, I hope to finally get around to tackling Corey Olsen’s Exploring J.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I might also take a look at Tolkien:  The Forest and the City and Light Beyond Shadow:  Religious Experience in Tolkien’s Work. If I can snag it from Interlibrary Loan, I also hope to take a gander at A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien. 

It looks like I’ve got plenty of things to ask for for Christmas this year and plenty of pleasurable reading to do.

Happy Tolkien Appreciation Month to me (and to all of you)!

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Book Review: “The Sorcerer’s Daughter” (Terry Brooks)

Though I finished Terry Brooks’s most recent book some time ago, I’ve just now got around to writing my review of it. This book, The Sorcerer’s Daughter, focuses on two parallel plots:  one traces the adventure of Leofur, the daughter of the malevolent sorcerer Arcannen, as she attempts to rescue her friend Chrysallin. The other, unsurprisingly, follows Paxon Leah as he attempts to save a Druid delegation pursued by Federation soldiers.

There is much to love about this rather slim, briskly paced novel. Most of the characters are ones that we have met in the previous two novels, but it was quite refreshing to see both Chrysallin and Leofur get their own narrative arcs. Brooks has always excelled at blending together firm characterization with well-laid plots, and The Sorcerer’s Daughter is no exception.

I have been reading Brooks’s work for over twenty years, and even now I’m still astounded at his marvelous ability to conjure spaces and places that are truly, viscerally terrifying. The Murk Sink, the lair of a particularly nasty witch, is one such place. Full of monstrous creatures whose size dwarfs anything that we’ve seen in quite some time (Mr. Teeth is a particularly terrifying creation, precisely because he is such an unpredictable and deadly leviathan). Though this world may be our future, it is a terrifying future, one filled with creatures the likes of which we cannot, at this moment, imagine.

All of this reinforces the sense that the world of the Four Lands continues to exist in an unstable relationship between chaos and order. On the one hand, the possibility of a rapprochement between the Druids and their allies on the one hand and the Federation on the other implies that this world might at last find a measure of peace. On the other, forces such as the sorcerer Arcannen continue to pose a threat to this order, the dark lure of chaos always lurking just around the corner.

What interested me most about the novel, however, was its remarkable queerness. I mean this not only in reference to the same-sex couple that appears (albeit briefly) in the novel, but also to Imric Cort’s experience as a shapeshifter. To me, at least, the inner turmoil that Cort repeatedly faces was the emotional heart of this novel, as he struggles with the sense that he is not who he should be, that he always has to keep a part of himself hidden from the rest of the world. Any queer person (by which I mean LGBTQIA+) knows this experience well. We live in a heteronormative world, and we are always conscious that the way we are exists as the flip side of everything that culture tells is “normal.” In this novel, Brooks manages to capture this sense and while Cort is, strictly speaking, “straight,” his experience is certainly not. Just as importantly, his relationship with Leofur does not “cure” him of his shapeshifting tendency; instead, she is an anchor that allows him to be who he is without guilt or self-hatred. It really is a stunningly beautiful relationship that Brooks has crafted here, perhaps one of the most emotionally resonant and complex that he has ever created.

If I have one complaint about Brooks’s latest outing, it’s that I wish there were more of it. In this concluding novel of this informal trilogy he has given us a satisfactory conclusion to a number of the ongoing trials of Paxon, but the ending is bittersweet. I actually find it rather refreshing that Brooks avoided the easier path of a happy romantic ending for his hero, opting instead to show us that, sometimes, life does not quite end up as we would like it to. Instead, we must sometimes rely on our friends to see us through those dark points in our life.

All in all, I would say that The Sorcerer’s Daughter nicely sets the stage for the epic showdown that seems to be looming in the near future. Now that we know, per Brooks’s own words, that the chronological end of Shannara is near, we can get a clearer sense of the final trajectory. Perhaps, finally, the people of the Four Lands may find some level of harmony and peaceful coexistence.

But then again, perhaps not.

Only time will tell.