Tag Archives: fantasy epic

Novel Weekends (11): Progress

The novel has taken a bit of a backseat this past week, as I’ve geared up to get some hardcore dissertation writing done, but I was bit by the writing bug this weekend and feeling a bit disenchanted with academia (a rejection from a journal will do that), so I wrote quite a lot in my little fictional universe.

I am now in the midst of Chapter 7. The preceding chapters are in various stages of completion, but I hope to get them into shape relatively soon. After that, I’m going to charge full-steam ahead.

So far, I’ve written chapters focused on the POVs of 5 of my principals (Theadra, Eulicia, Arshakh, Talinissia, and Antonius). I have one more major character to introduce and a couple of minor ones, and then the full cast will be there. I’m still not sure if any of them are villains in the typical sense, but I think that’s probably a good thing. There is one character who’s unpleasant, but that’s not quite the same thing.

I also really enjoyed getting to know my character Arhsakh this weekend. He’s a lot more complicated than I had previously thought. He’s a survivor, and a schemer, but he also has weaknesses and foibles, just like anyone, so we’ll see what happens to him. I see a bright future for him, but that could always change.

All in all, I’m happy with both the progress I’ve made and with the general trajectory of the plot. I think I have an interesting story to tell, and I think my story does and says something, so I think that’s a pretty good basis. It’s very easy to write shitty fantasy, but I like to think I’ve at least hit mediocre.

So, with that happy note, I’m off.

Until next week!

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Novel Weekends (7): Good Progress

Well, this was actually a tremendously productive weekend in terms of novel composition. I wrote a total of 2500 words of Chapter 2, as well as some fine-tuning of Chapter 1. The latter is not completely finished yet, but it’s close to it. I’ve made a conscious effort not to leave any big gaps. In other words, I’m determined to work straight through. At this stage in my process, I think that’s really the best way.

Today’s chapter was told mostly from the point of view of the Prefect Antonius, one of my fave characters in the work. He is a straightforwardly queer character, one who lives with his beloved of many years, Trystane. He comes from one of the rural western duchies, from a farming family of modest means. This chapter reveals a lot about him, as well as his sense of loyalty, which at this point is being torn between his acolyte and his duty to the Church.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the way that Chapter 2 is turning out, and I’m excited about some of the research that I’m drawing in. Right now I’m reading a book on the Muslim conquests, as well as one about the way that the senses were understood in the Enlightenment. Everything, no matter how tangential, will prove to be grist for my imagination mill. Given that my series is loosely based on the Muslim conquests and on issues of embodiment and transcendence, these books should be especially useful for me.

I’m hoping to continue the forward momentum, though since I’m going to be traveling that might be a bit difficult. Still, I’m confident that I can eke out at least a couple thousand words before the end of the week. Then it’s back to Syracuse and back into the regular swing of things.

Novel Thoughts (2): On Genre

Some time ago, I thought I would write something “literary,” some great family saga of an Appalachian family torn apart by dark family secrets and juicy gossip. It all seemed quite clever to me at the time, a neat little way of transferring the dynastic politics of the ancient world into the incongruous setting of small town America.

The problem was, I couldn’t quite get the story right. Something about the whole effort rang false, and no matter how hard I tried I simply could not get the narrative to cooperate.

Finally, I determined the problem: I wasn’t writing in the genre that I truly loved. In attempting to forge a “literary identity” for myself, I’d abandoned my efforts to write fantasy, the genre that has always had the strongest hold over my heart. That genre is, of course, epic fantasy.

(A close second has always been historical fiction, but I’m afraid that my efforts at that were also not terribly successful).

Indeed, it was only after I started reading the works of Guy Kavriel Kay that I began to see the ways in which one could combine these two seemingly disparate genres, taking history and turning it slightly to reveal the fantastic elements of it, could be done if you really tried. The more I mused on it, the more it seemed to me that here, at last, were the roots of something I could make my own.

Now, I won’t say that my writing talents are anything close to Kay’s (they aren’t), but I will say that I take him as one of my models. His work, along with that of Tad Williams and Terry Brooks, are probably my greatest influences in terms of fantasy and the creation of worlds that seem to live and breathe on the page. While Kay’s work is large in scope, it doesn’t have quite enough of the conventions of the epic for my own saga, and so I’m really trying to attain something of a mixture between these three authors. (And yes, I know how pretentious that sounds, so I hope you’ll forgive me).

Writing in the genre of epic fantasy allows me, I think, to explore some of the great issues and themes of history, while not necessarily being bound to the historical record that we know. Sometimes, I think, you can actually explore the issues of history–such as agency (or the lack thereof), epochal change, the underlying forces that move nations and peoples forward (or backward)–when you add in some element of the strange, the cosmological, or the magical. Rendering visible that which, in our world, remains largely a matter of faith can lead to some truly fascinating constellations.

So, as I move forward with this novel project, I hope to do some more thinking about what it is that I want to do with the genre that I have chosen to write in. There are certain things that are required, of course, but my hope is that my work, limited as it might be, might add a little something to the genre that I have always called home.

World Building (3): On Korray

There are many competing legends and myths about the origin of the Korray, certainly one of the most intractable groups to inhabit the continent of Aridikh. Some say that they began life in the searing sands of the regions east of the Zakrus Mountains (their current home), but fled into the mountains when the Shahs of Haran began to expand their empire. Others say that they came over the Encircling Ocean, fleeing some unnamed Cataclysm. Still others–among them the more mystical members of the Korrayin priestly castes–have gone so far as to suggest that they are not from this world at all, but are instead visitors from some other world that is beyond this one.

In any case, by the time they enter the histories compiled by those in both Haranshar and the Imperium, they had become so much a part of their mountain homeland that it is part of who they are. They have built a number of small cities and forts in the towering peaks, though some have also taken up residence in the fragrant and fertile mountain valleys as well, and it is there that one is likely to find their largest dwellings. Fiercely independent, they refuse to offer obeisance to any foreign power (and it is often a struggle to even get them to obey their tribal chieftains and kings).

In the wake of the rebellion that split the Imperium off from Haranshar, the tribes that comprised Korray have become a buffer zone. By that time, they were already known for being an independently-minded group, living as they did in the Zakrus Mountains, and so they were the perfect ally for both of the great hegemons that sought to own the world. Members of one tribe will frequently make raids on one or the other great powers and will also use their allegiance with one of the powers to justify their own wars against one another.

Culturally, the Korrayin are loosely united by a sense of identity, though ethnically there are many different divisions and groups that comprise them. Mostly, they are united by their independent streak and by their belief that, despite their differences, they are the true chosen of the god (whichever one that happens to be, as they are as divided in religious adherence as they are in most things).

Despite their mind-boggling heterogeneity, they can be loosely identified along the lines of 4 different confederations, which are comprised of 15 different different tribes. The four confederations are listed below. These tribes are in turn divided into innumerable clans. It does not necessarily hold that members of the same confederacy will be ethnically related to others who are a part of it. Instead, they are usually bonded together through their adherence to one of the four major religious groups (the Faith, the Ormazhites, unaffiliated polytheism, and the Yishurim). However, it should be kept in mind that the first loyalty that any given Korrayin has is to his clan, then to his tribe, and then to his confederacy. There thus exists a complex network of alliances and allegiances that outsiders often find as bewildering as it is infuriating to deal with.

The following is list of the various Confederacies, as well as their constituencies. This list does not include the innumerable clans that make up each of the tribes.

Ivnu Khava Confederacy (The Faith)

Comprised of the following tribes: Harikh; Ghifar; Quarish; Ashakh

Ivnu Ghavaz Confederacy (Ormazhite)

Comprised of the following tribes: E’bash; Kharaj; Lakhim

Ivnu Lakrum Confederacy (various unaffiliated polytheisms)

Comprised of the following tribes: Ashath; Qu’uda; Shutayra

Ven Naftali Confederacy (Yishurim)

Comprised of the following tribes: Vishkar, Zabîr, Shimon, Davith; Bet’yamin

Though the Korrayin are well-known for their skills in warfare, they are also renowned for their devotion to scholarship and for their devotion to their various religions. Those seeking out the most ancient versions of given texts may hope to find them in the hilly fastnesses of the Korrayin. No matter what faith they adhere to, the Korrayin cling to a very conservative model, and they are certain in their belief that it is only in their mountains that the truest, purest form of their respective faiths can be found. While this has rankled no few feathers in the capitals of their larger neighbours, they seemingly do not care. The satisfaction of knowing that they are superior to anyone more than makes up for any political losses.

At the time of the novels, matters have been largely settled for over a century. No significant conflicts have emerged, either among the Korrayin or between the Korrayin and either Haranshar or the Imperium. However, there are already ominous signs that not all is well. Ibrahim, a relatively minor prince among the Vishkar Tribe, has begun to make a name for himself as the Poison King. Dosing himself with poisons, he has assured that he is proof against assassination, even as he has also begun to make designs on becoming the Great Chief of the Ven Naftali Confederacy. More ominously, there are disturbing rumours that some of the mystic priests of the Tribe of Ashath (who have always been known for their strange and unsettling affinity for the occult) have begun to seek out ancient scrolls regarding the lost Art of Binding. The wise know that it was precisely this weapon that almost destroyed the world in the Time Before, but it is not always wisdom that governs the affairs of men, particularly when there is power to be gained.

For real-world historical parallels, think of the status of the kingdom of Armenia as the pawn between the Roman/Byzantine Empire and the Parthian/Sassanid Empire or the similar relationship that existed between those empires and the various Arab tribes that they used in their proxy wars. However, there are also a lot of similarities between these groups and the various Semitic groups that inhabited and continue to inhabit the Middle East, including the various Arab groups, the Jewish people, and others.

Needless to say, the people of Korray will come to play a very significant, indeed a pivotal, part in the events about to unfold.

World Building (2): A Brief Description of the Imperium and the Imperators

At the time in which my novels are set, the continent of Aridikh is divided into three political entities: the Imperium in the west, Korray (a patchwork of tribes) in the mountainous middle, and Haranshar in the east.

Founded roughly 2,000 years before the start of the tale described in the novels, the Imperium has remained surprisingly durable. Though the ruling House has changed several times in its long and venerable history, and while it has maintained a long and tense cold war with its eastern counterpart Haranshar, it has yet to fall or suffer any serious territorial losses.

A great deal of this stability has to do with the structure of the state. Though it is an empire with a strong central government, headed by the Imperator, the actual administration of the various provinces falls to the members of the nobility. At the top of this pyramid are the Dukes, most of whom share a portion of the Blood Imperial, and most can trace with exacting precision their descent from the first Imperators. Then come the Counts who, while most do not have imperial blood, nevertheless possess significant territorial holdings and political power, particularly in the south. Together, the various dukes and counts, along with the leaders of a few independent city-states, represent the Senate of Nobles, who serve as an advisory body on the unlimited power of the monarch.

The territory covered by the Imperium is quite vast, though it is still significantly smaller than the territory occupied by Haranshar. To the north are situated the the kingdoms of Svardö, Varsaïs, and Karthûn, while the far west are the dukedoms of Aspaña, Porçal, and Busqel. The southern parts are comprised of the counties of Ferizi, Eniccio, Melita, Sperezo, and Heleniea. The eastern parts of the Imperium (and the administrative center) are centered around seven duchies: Dūrken, Rhoshk, Maïrin, Colïes, Dérange, Ioliérs, and Aïonis, which contains the capital city of the same name (the Imperator is traditionally also accorded the title of Duke of Aïonis). There are a number of other, smaller city-states that have at various times attempted to assert independence but have so far been unsuccessful.

For a real-world analogue, think of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian and his immediate predecessors and successors, combined with Europe in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (something akin to the first iteration of the Holy Roman Empire ruled by Charlemagne, though with a far greater geographic extent). The Imperator is acknowledged as the supreme representative of the Name in matters temporal, but s/he is also forced to accept the judgment of the Council of Prefects on all matters spiritual. This has, of course, caused significant strife in the past, but it has also led to a gradual hardening of the ways of doing things, with the Church in particular emphasizing a rigid adherence to orthodoxy and the Imperator maintaining unlimited power in the body of the ruler.

At this point, there is an almost-constant jockeying for position among the nobles for access to the Imperator, as even the weakest noble realizes that the structures of the Imperium have become ossified over the course of two millennia, and some have even begun to scheme for an opportunity to shatter those ways and carve out a new world. In the years preceding the events of the novels, there have been an increased number of heresies springing up, along with other, less religiously-oriented revolts. The common people have grown dissatisfied with their rulers, and it remains to be seen how far they will go to assert their renewed sense of sovereignty.

The same designation is used for the ruler of the Imperium, regardless of sex. Unlike Haranshar, which allows women political agency but not direct rule, the Imperium practices strict primogeniture, so that the diadem (in theory) passes directly to the eldest child of the current monarch. This has not always been true for a variety of reasons–there have been no fewer than five coups, six childless Imperators, and seven changes of House–but it is the one rule that tends to unite even the most fractious and scheming members of the Senate. Everyone recognizes, at some primal level, that the overthrowing of a monarch by someone not of the Blood (and even by someone of the Blood) poses an enormous challenge to the stability of the state and, by extension, the cosmos itself).

In the time since its founding, there have been 213 Imperators of both sexes. Through careful cultivation and tending to the imperial bloodline, each of the Imperators could trace their bloodlines, no matter how faintly, back to Yishadra and Herakleios, the very first two to don the diadem. That being said, there are now over 300 individuals who can claim mainline descent, spread across five of the Great Houses (and there are rumoured to be several hundred more with far more diluted blood spread among the more numerous Lesser Houses). Not all of them are brave enough to attempt to seek the diadem for themselves, but the continuing childlessness of the current Imperator, combined with their inborn penchant for scheming, means that it is only a matter of time before they turn their avaricious gaze on the throne.

At the time of the novels, the reigning Imperator is Talinissia. Behind her back, she is known as Talinissia the Black due to her father’s unlikely (and unapproved) marriage to a daughter from one of the kingdoms in Haranshar. Her accession to the throne was far from uncontested, for her younger half-brother, the product of her father’s second marriage to a distant cousin, one who was officially part of the Blood Imperial, decided to rebel. He even did the unthinkable, going to the Shah to ask for material and spiritual assistance, even going so far as to promise toleration of the Faith of the Flames in the capital city itself. Though the revolt was ultimately put down, the damage to the prestige of Talinissia’s throne remains, and her brother’s allies still scheme for her overthrow.

The world is poised for great changes. A

And perhaps even greater chaos.

Novel Weekends (3): Back At It

This was an eventful weekend for the Novel. I wrote a total of 5,000 words, mostly concentrated on three chapters. I also managed to revise part of the Prologue into what I think will be its final form. What’s more, I did some revision on a short story/novelette that’s set after the first novel but before the second. Not too shabby!

I also (you may have noticed) published a short essay on the history of the Church in this world, and I began another short essay on a history of the Imperium. Further, I have several more planned. So keep looking for those!

Given my own interests in history–and on using my novel to explore questions related to history–I also started reading a new book on the connected nature of the ancient world. A great deal of both the world-building I’ve done and the plot arc I have designed has been heavily influenced by the work of historian Tom Holland (in particular his book In the Shadow of the Sword), but I have a feeling this new book will also have a large impact.

As I wrote this weekend, I found myself oddly drawn to one of my secondary characters, a Korrayin named Ibrahim. I know that he is going to be a founder of a new faith, but I wasn’t aware that he would play such a big role in this novel. But then, that’s one of the most exciting things about writing; frequently, the most interesting things are the ones that you find by accident.

This week, I fear, will be a bit sparse on the novel. I have to submit a dissertation chapter this week, so that will suck up a lot of energy. Rest assured, though, that I’ll be right back at it next weekend.

Until then!

Reading Tad Williams: “The Heart of What Was Lost”

I’ve been waiting so long to finally get around to reading Tad Williams’ new novel The Heart of What Was Lost. Having immersed myself in the textured world of his trilogy “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” for the last several months, I had very high hopes indeed for this return to that world.

I was not disappointed.

I do not say this lightly: Tad Williams is one of the most talented fantasy writers out there. It’s not just that his prose is exquisite to read (though it is that), but also that he manages to craft characters who are utterly compelling and who you are led to sympathize with, despite the fact that some of them are not even human. The novel is, above all, about the relationships between and among people and among groups, about how we can make sense of ourselves as communal beings. In that sense, it is a very relevant book for our current social and political moment.

To briefly summarize: the novel takes place in the immediate aftermath of the battle that occurred at the end of To Green Angel Tower. Isgrimnur, the venerable Duke, has been tasked with pursuing the Norns and ensuring that they do not cause any more damage or harm than they already have. In his army are two soldiers, Endri and Porto, who strike up an unusual friendship, while among the Norns the Builder Viyeki strives to do everything he can to help his people make their slow and painful way back to their mountain home.

There is genuine and heart-wrenching pathos in the relationship between Porto and Endri, the two common soldiers whose relationship makes up one significant strand of the novel’s plot. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I’m a queer man, but there was something emotionally resonant about this relationship that went beyond mere friendship, but that’s probably not surprising. The haunting ending, in which it is revealed that a Norn spell was able to resurrect the dead body of Endri is not just horrifying; it’s heartbreaking. It’s bad enough that Porto wasn’t able to save his friend, but to have that youth emerge from the grave and then have to be reburied is almost too much to bear.

Just as compelling, however, are the portions dedicated to Viyeki, the Norn Builder who finds himself caught at the intersection of powerful forces. While the immortals have been defeated and their plans to turn back time have been thwarted, they are far from finished. While the Queen of the Norns rests in suspended slumber, those who hold power in her stead war amongst themselves, each convinced that they know how to best preserve their way of life. As the novel progresses, we get a real sense of the conflicted loyalties that Viyeki feels, as well as the pivotal position that he occupies in the future of his people.

Indeed, one of the things I really loved about this novel was the way in which it shed light on the society and culture of the Norns. While they hovered on the edges of the earlier trilogy, here we get a much more in-depth view of them. They are a society riven by all sorts of conflicts among the powerful nobles, while the caste system enforces a rigid and repressive organization on the entirety of society. However, as the events of this novella make clear, that is all about to change, and it is even possible (indeed even likely) that the Norns may begin intermarrying with their mortal servants. Who knows where that is going to lead?

Of course, no review of this book would be complete without mentioning Isgrimnur, the bluff but affable Duke who played such a pivotal role in the original trilogy. Here he is in all his glory but, I hasten to add, he’s a bit more angry and dangerous than readers may remember. But then, it’s hard to blame him for that, considering how much has been lost to the Norns as a result of the war and their further depredations as they make their way back to their homeland. As the story progresses, he gradually grows more ruthless, until he is determined to basically wipe out the Norns. It is quite striking to see this character, whom we love and remember so fondly, become thoroughly disenchanted with the war that he has been charged with seeing through to its completion. Though he makes it out alive (of course), we know that he will probably never be the same.

The Heart of What Was Lost continues a theme that was subtly hinted at in its predecessors: war, even when it is won, leaves a terrible scar on those who have participated in it. While victory is sweet, there is no question that it also involves tremendous sacrifice. Even when, at the end of the novel, the Norns are saved, there can be no doubt that their former ways of doing things has been irrevocably altered, both by the war itself and by the actions that were taken in the attempt to save themselves from utter obliteration at the hands of their human enemies. I am sure that we will see the consequences of this brought to fruition in the forthcoming trilogy. After all, Williams excels at showing us the consequences of history, and how the actions taken by those desperate to save themselves, no matter how justified they may be, can have far-ranging and sometimes devastating consequences for the future.

I don’t know about all of you, but I am beyond excited about the release of The Witchwood Crown. I’ve already bought it, so I’m just waiting for it to come out, and then I’ll be diving in at the deep end. It’s slated to arrive here on Tuesday, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to wait that long! Stay tuned for my review (as well as those of Mr. Williams’s other works, which will be forthcoming over the next several months). Once I finish The Witchwood Crown, it’s on to The War of the Flowers, then hopefully Shadowmarch. 

Stay tuned!

Novel Thoughts: A Brief Synopsis

So, as some of you know, I’ve been posting for a while about my Novel. However, you probably don’t actually know what it’s about. Hopefully, your interest will be piqued enough that you will want to take a look at it in that far day when I actually finish it and hopefully see it shepherded into print.

The basic plot is this. The cleric Theadra inadvertently discovers a palimpsest that contains one of the heretical gospels that were burned and obliterated during the early days of the monolithic Church. This cannot be tolerated, and her superiors in the Church, including her erstwhile mentor Prefect Antonius and his rival Prefect Eulicia. The latter, having gained permission from the Imperator Talinissia, hires assassins to kill the young woman before the taint of heresy can spread.

Fortunately, Theadra is rescued by the woman known as the Huntress, a half-human/half-Fae youth whose real name is revealed to be Rowena. Together, they flee into the lands of Korray, and after they are captured by a sequence of chieftains, they gradually become lovers, each finding in the other the emotional fulffilment they have long sought.

Theadra’s flight threatens to reignite a long-simmering conflict between the Imperium and Haranshar, the two great powers that occupy the continent. When she flees into the the lands of the Korrayin–who for centuries have served as proxies in the wars between the Imperium and Haranshar–she disturbs the fragile balance that has been the status quo. Soon, the various chieftains, including the Poison King Ibrahim, begin feuding in an attempt to gain custody of her.

In Haranshar, the dubir Osroës, scion of one of a disgraced noble house, serves as the chief minister to the Shah. When word reaches him of the heretic’s flight, he sees in this an opportunity to at last bring the Imperium to its knees. He has long been fostering the Church of the East in the hopes that they would be able to challenge the hegemony of the Church of the West, even as many of his fellow nobles despise them as apostates from the Faith of the Flames. With the Shah’s backing, he sends a group of soldiers to collect Theadra.

In doing so, however, he ignites the flames of war, and the cold war soon ignites into a hot one, and the lands of Korray are engulfed.

This conflict gradually widens until it consumes the Imperator Talinissia, her counselor the Prefect Eulicia, and everyone else. The conniving and belligerent Duke Childerick, aided by his wily aide Count Pepin, manage to leverage their success on the Killing Fields of Korray to a popular uprising against the Imperator who, faced with the will of her people, is forced to resign in favour of her cousin the Duke. Anastatius, along with his lover Trystane, also flee into exile.

The second part of the book follows the fortunes of war and those whose lives are affected. Eulicia, now ensnared and in service to the new Imperator Childerick, helps Talinissia escape imprisonment, hopefully to find sanctuary with the Fae and possibly reclaim her throne. Osroës and the Shah, each working on their own designs, manipulate Theadra into taking up the crown of the Episkopa of the Church of the East, an elevation that strains her relationship with Rowena, who eventually leaves her.

Meanwhile, the Alchemists at the Academy reveal to Childerick that they have recovered the lost Art of Binding from a captured Korrayin and that, using an athame made from the blood iron found in Korray, they can bind the spirits of the daimons–entities of fire and air–into the bodies of human beings and thus forge a powerful weapon.

This radically changes the course of the war, but I won’t go into too much more detail. I have to leave some surprises, right?

At a larger cosmic level, the entity known as the Demiurge, long banished from the material world, yearns to return an reclaim his hegemony. He also seeks to bring together the many worlds that were shattered during the conflagration that erupted between the Name (the male and female godhead) and the Demiurge. To do so, he employs men and women known as Strangers, one of whom wanders this world manipulating those who are in power, hoping to bring the old systems and institutions crashing down into ruin, thus setting the stage for the bringing together of the shattered worlds into a terrible and primal unity.

That’s basic idea of the project. I really want to engage with the larger philosophical questions that motivate the best fantasy. How do people make sense of their historical worlds? How does the body impact one’s ability to move into another realm? Are those who are defeated really the villains that history–and often religion–makes them out to be? How do great powers that bestride the world like colossi come crashing down into ruin? How does love in all its forms–agape, eros, etc.–influence people and even gods to do things that might prove dangerous and destructive, both to themselves and others? Is there, in the final analysis, such a thing as true evil?

Of course, I’m also drawing on some historical parallels, both recent and ancient. In particular, the Imperium and Haranshar are based on the Byzantine/Late Roman Empire and Sasasnian Persia, respectively. However, to be quite upfront, this project was influenced by the 2016 elections, too, so take that for what it’s worth. Note that I’m not intending to write an allegory, but instead a reflection on what it means to live in perilous times.

More details of the project will come as I make my way through the chapters that I’ve already written. The broad strokes of the book are laid out (thank you NaNoWriMo!), and I am pretty happy with it. I envision the project a whole as a a tetralogy but, given how other fantasy epics have worked out, I’m hesitant to make those kinds of limitations.

Stay tuned for more updates as I continue working on it. Though my dissertation must always occupy the front burner, that doesn’t mean that I’m not also going to give my novel the attention that it deserves.

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.