Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

February 20, 2011

Some common myths about JRR Tolkien

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:27 pm

There are a couple of immutable truths about any discussion of fantasy subgenres. Someone will talk about “rewriting the Lord of the Rings”; and someone will completely misunderstand what Tolkien was writing about. So I’ve listed a few common myths about his work, with refutations. This shouldn’t need saying, but it does: I’m talking only about the books here. The films are good in their own way, but they are not the same artistic entity and not aimed in the same direction.

Myth #1: The Lord of the Rings is purely consolatory fantasy. Everything gets better in the end.

This is arrant nonsense. The book has four endings, because it needs them; the message is that winning is hard, and protracted, and there are more battles to fight beyond the final push, the secret weapon, the big resolution. And that there will always be scars. Some things just don’t get better. Frodo and Sam are genuinely resigned to death after Mount Doom, before the sheer kitschy wonder of Iluvatar’s own SAR squadron coming down out of the north; while we were off destroying one evil abroad, another evil was destroying and corrupting our home; and when we’ve beaten that, despite all the rejoicing and celebration, some people don’t recover. Lobelia is frail and humbled; Will Whitfoot is starved thin; the Gaffer’s own home is demolished; and Frodo’s wound never quite heals. And in the fourth ending, the Ringbearers go over the Sea to Valinor, but that’s hardly an unmixed blessing. Deathlessness is not given to mortals unless they really, really need it—Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam need to spend time there to rest and heal.

It extends to a larger scale, too. The Elves are sailing westwards, taking the Rings of Power with them, and the Wizards too. Magic is going out of the world. (That may or may not be a Bad Thing; personally, I think it isn’t, and that it’s a necessary development. I also like to think that the Professor agreed with me.)

Myth #2: The main plotline of The Lord of the Rings is the battle against Sauron, and his destruction.

Sauron is a sideshow, really. He doesn’t do anything himself during the course of the entire book; his entire MO is to corrupt others and to make them do his work, even when they oppose him. (Denethor, for instance.) So it’s not as though destroying him would do very much to prevent the current apocalyptically bad spread of evil.

Instead, the quest is to destroy the Ring, into which Sauron placed the essence of his corrupting power and control—it’s a reified metaphor, and the heroes refuse to be mastered by the glamour of evil. (Incidentally, that’s a truly dreadful stealth pun. I love the Professor for so many reasons.)

Myth #3: All the good guys are Aryan.

The Rohirrim are certainly tall and blonde (since they’re Anglo-Saxon Cossacks), but the descendants of the Númenoreans are generally fair-skinned, dark-haired and grey-eyed. In Letter 211, Tolkien actually described the Gondorians as Egyptianate—that would certainly explain the tall stepped architecture. (Tolkien’s Middle-earth doesn’t look like Medieval Europe – Michael Martinez) I don’t think we can entirely get away from picturing the Men of Gondor as white people, but they’re certainly a mongrel race of some sort; nine ships full of colonists, in one wave, are not going to make a country without significant intermarriage.

Tolkien’s Dwarves are well-known to be influenced by Semitic cultures—in fact, they’re quite a blatant Jewish stereotype, progressive for its time but still problematic. Clannish, conservative, and magnificently bearded, the men keep their women to themselves and love gold and beautiful things. They do not serve the Enemy in themselves, but can in extremis be corrupted through their greed. They’re ferocious (The OMT is “doughty”) warriors; Israelite—and Israeli—armies had a fearsome reputation for a very good reason. And the Dwarves are very definitely, implacably on the side of Good.

Myth #4: Tolkien’s aesthetics are clear; beauty is good, and evil is ugly.

Denethor loses none of his grandeur and nobility in his despair, and Saruman’s voice is still utterly beautiful. The Silmarils, the most beautiful pieces of craftwork ever made, turned kin against kin, race against race, and set off tragedy after tragedy. Fëanor so loved his work that he doomed the world to live forevermore without the light of the Trees.

As for Good, nobody ever describes Dwarves as pretty—or Hobbits, for that matter! Strider, when he first appears in the Prancing Pony, is never described as handsome or even clean, and the hobbits take against him for his looks; he describes himself as having “rather a rascally look”; and even says, “I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.

Myth #5: The countless imitators are somehow accurate representations of Tolkien’s work.

Like whom? The ones most often cited are Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, David & Leigh Eddings, Robert Jordan, and George RR Martin. Brooks & Goodkind have no similarity beyond swords-and-horses, cool-stuff-happening-in-secondary-worlds superficialities. Eddings was very specifically a Campbellian formula writer; Jordan’s entire fantasy oeuvre is an unnecessarily extended artistic response to Eddings; and Martin is not discernably descended from Tolkien at all, but rather from Shakespeare’s versions of the Wars of the Roses. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry is in some ways similar, but it’s a portal-quest trilogy, bringing in 20th century Americans; the idea of modern people ever being able to interact with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is just bizarre. It would be like transporting Sir Orfeo and Ysbaddaden Chief Giant to Deptford.

Fundamentally, if anyone ever mentions Tolkien on the cover of someone else’s book, it’s marketing fluff. Ignore it.

Myth #7: The Lord of the Rings is wish-fulfilment fantasy.

It’s not written in a boulomaic modality (ie. “things are not this way; they should be”) at all; it’s an elegiac might-have been, an alternate distant past that might have led to this future. Also, and this is vitally important: it is a text, not a world. The epistemic modality we’re given is not that of the events of the story, or the people; instead, we are asked only to pretend that this book exists, that there is a history called the Red Book of Westmarch, and to treat it in the same light as we do Herodotus’s Histories or the History of the Kings of Britain.

Fantasy readers are almost universally extremely bad at that. We have the ingrained reflex of trust, of epistemic acceptance (suspension of disbelief)—we take it merely as a convention that these things did not happen, never happened, could not happen, but are nevertheless written about. It is hard for us to see the text for the story, the telling for the tale. To preempt a sadly obvious quibble—this is, of course, not to say that SF readers are any better. We don’t see the text any more than we look through a window and see the glass. But in the final analysis, a book is not a window, any more than it is a world.

November 23, 2010

NK Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Filed under: rereading,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 5:12 pm

I first read this quite a while ago, and for some reason I was under the impression that I’d reviewed it then. However, when I went looking for the link to my review I discovered that it didn’t actually exist. Looking back on my first reading I suspect I knew then that I’d need to read it once more, with the ending in mind, before I could do it justice.

Once more was yesterday, so here we go.

This is a deceptively easy book to read—Jemisin’s style is so open and readable that it’s really tempting to rush through it, but that would be a mistake. There are enough layers and hidden motivations that so many of the story elements only reveal themselves in retrospect, and the story repays careful reading.

In some ways, it’s a classic Family Story, with the relative raised outside the Ancestral Home coming to visit, and also a classic story of survival in a Deadly Decadent Court. On the other hand, both are shown to us through a point of view that’s very aware of race & gender politics.

Fittingly, then, it’s about power structures: about the struggle for control of them, and different peoples’ perspective on them. It’s about a contest for control of the world, and two family squabbles. Nothing in this book happens on a small scale. Yeine, our half-blood protagonist, is a leader amongst the matriarchal jungle-dwelling Darr before she goes to join her pale-skinned mother’s family—the literal rulers of the whole world—in their magical palace high above the city of Sky. Once there, she has to unravel the mysteries of her own heritage and of the War of the Gods while keeping herself alive.

It sounds like a portal quest, but it isn’t, really. We don’t see Yeine leaving her homeland; the novel begins with her arrival at Sky. She’s very much the captain of her own fate—within the bounds that her heritage sets up—and the Wizard character (you know the one; the old man who knows what’s going on but doesn’t explain it properly, with potent but mysterious powers) is ambiguous at best and creepy-unpleasant at times. Incidentally, Yeine is mixed-race and nearly everyone else in Sky is so white they’re practically Tesco Value.

Instead of plot coupons and battles, the story progresses through shifting relationships, and through Yeine’s own understanding of her family history. Knowing herself subjugated, jerked about at the whim of her grandfather (significantly, the uncrowned king of the world), and stigmatized for her barbarian heritage, she allies with the family’s “weapons”—cast-down gods, bound to serve the Arameri family. Despite having the power to control and order them herself, she makes a point of not doing so.

This could so easily turn into the anti-racist Mary Sue, but it’s saved from that by a couple of important points. First, she isn’t Arameri-white; she straddles the fence between them and the brown-skinned barbarians (she uses that term herself) who are her people of birth, and so she’s neither Nobly Changing Sides nor using mixed-race privilege. Second, sometimes she fails. She does use some of the powers she’s been given, but not in the ways her family expect. Indeed, several times she has her unwillingness to do that thrown back at her—not a true Arameri—as an insult.

There’s a strict limit to how far I can evaluate the identity politics here, because I’m quite thoroughly white-male myself, but I’m getting a distinct whiff of Audre Lorde. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t at all academic or preachy—quite the reverse. Those don’t belong in fantasy, and for good reason. If you don’t know who Lorde is, you’ll enjoy this book just as much, but having that cultural context will add a layer of richness to the text in the same way that Marx does Miéville, or Rand does Goodkind.

In summary: if you read fantasy for action scenes & epic battles, this isn’t for you, but on all other counts it works well.

October 11, 2010

Fiona McIntosh – Royal Exile

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:05 pm

Book 1 of the Valisar Trilogy. Voyager, 2008, 450ish pp paperback.

This is one of the most compelling pieces of extruded fantasy fluff I’ve read for a long time. I kept snatching moments for a few pages through the day, and then finished it on a long bus ride home. But that said, it’s still extruded fantasy fluff. It’s about royalty, it has a set of bog-standard fantasy kingdoms, it has barbarian invaders (complete with a warlord who’s smarter than he seems), it has legendary magic, it has swords with names, and it has Lost Heirs.

On the other hand, it also reads like a Greek tragedy, rather than the feudal-fetish wankery so many fantasy novelists succumb to. The royalty are uniformly barking mad: King Brennus is as arrogant and as self-important as Denethor, and with very similar consequences. Prince Leonel is clearly going the same way, and the family charisma (which may well be the mysterious genetic magic) draws otherwise sensible people into taking them seriously and going along with their stupid plans.

It’s clearly set in the far future (eight generations or so down the line) of a foreign despot’s conquest, and here comes another one with his horde of tattooed barbarian tribesmen. In the meantime, though, there are rivers of blood, and the number of dead bodies is destroying the economy and the farmland… not that that’s given more than a passing mention in the text, of course.

McIntosh can write teenage boys pretty well, but that’s more or less where “good writing” stops in this book. It’s full of people telling each other things they already know, in unnecessarily formal ways, and quaffy upon quaffy for pointless fantasy flavour. “Anni” means a year, and “tatua” are tattoos, according to the glossary at the back.

Unfortunately, the book also fails the Bechdel test – and not just that, but only one sympathetic female character survives the book. She’s only introduced very late on, at that. The others all meet some grisly and avoidable death at a man’s hands, for the sake of a man.

It’s extremely grisly throughout, in fact, and most of the characters are rather ruthless… in that they’re always eager to sacrifice others, whether a newborn baby or a half-dozen countries. We never see anyone sacrificing themselves.

Part of the reason it was compelling, I think, was that I wanted to keep reading and see if the plot points turned out as I expected. I had to keep waiting and waiting for some of them, but they were all there, and all just as expected. One thing did surprise me, but only because I’d forgotten that in extruded fantasy product women are disposable.

August 12, 2009

Tigana, part 1 – A Blade in the Soul

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 2:19 am

To begin at the beginning, with the author’s acknowledgements. He cites a number of scholars; the three I know offhand are Joseph “Hero’s Journey” Campbell, Robert “White Goddess” Graves, and Johan Huizinga. So altogether, a nice mix of “ooh, interesting”, “hm, could be entertaining if he doesn’t take Graves too seriously”, and “oh, god, not Campbell again”.

Next we have one of the most traditional markers for Fantasy of all; a pronunciation guide. This particular one consists of “most of it is Italian”. And speaking of traditional markers, here’s the map. The Palm looks very much like Italy turned upside down; across the water there’s what looks like the edge of a continent, Khardun, and Ygrath and Barbadior indicated by arrows pointing west and east respectively. To the south is Quileia, and we have no clue what any of these places are like.

And now the text, with the Prologue. The land is lit up by two moons, and a falling star arcs across the sky. We’re in a battle camp by the River Deisa, on the eve of a war, and “the dark-haired Prince of grace and pride” is giving the boys a touch of Harry in the night. They know perfectly well they’re going to lose, against the sorcerer-king of Ygrath; but that isn’t going to stop them. “The one thing we know with certainty is that they will remember us.”

Part 1 – A Blade in the Soul. Chapter 1 opens in a khav room, thus proving once again Diana Wynne Jones’s adage in Nad and Dan adn Quaffy that there’s always some variant of coffee around. A bit of background; the Palm is divided between two tyrants now, Alberico of Barbadior and Brandin of Ygrath. Given the Interestingly Cryptic nature of the scenes with a particular musician, he’s clearly one of our heroes. The chapter ends on the words “he’d forgotten to ask the musician his name” – and this is, of course, a theme we’ll be seeing over and over again. It’s all about names.

The other thing it’s all about, of course, is the sea, and the next chapter opens with one Devin getting drunk in a bar by the docks. Devin is a lot smarter, more resourceful, and emotionally useful than the typical 19-year-old we meet in the early stages of Big Fantasy, and that’s a refreshing change. Apart from a bit of Golden Bough background, and an introduction to a couple of people who will later become important, that’s it for this chapter – except that we learn the name of the musician from earlier, Alessan di Tregea.

The third important theme is music, and they’re all working together – Alessan, Devin, and a young redheaded singer named Catriana who resents Devin for making it look so easy. The fourth is sex, preferably illicit, kinky, and/or socially unapproved sex – and from the text, I can’t decide whether bisexuality falls into that category or not. It’s worth noting that just about all the sex anyone has, for most of this novel, is very much for a purpose – it’s to distract someone, to get close to them so they can die, as a hopeless beacon of protest in the darkness. We’ll see more about that when we come to Part 3.

In Chapter 4, it looks like Devin’s stumbled into the intersection of two complicated conspiracies – the Duke of Astibar has taken the Juliet Drug to make sure he and a few others have time to talk unobserved by Alberico’s agents. Alessan crashes the party before the Duke wakes, and points out that getting rid of one tyrant won’t do; the other will just take over the entire Palm. So here we have yet another theme, that of compromise with the stubborn imperatives of pride. More gnomic comments about names, and then – cave! Alberico’s coming. Someone betrayed the party; everyone dies before they can talk, except the Duke’s son Tomasso. Whom, it turns out, is gay and sadomasochistic, and wears makeup, and who “would leave nor ever a name to be spoken, let alone with pride”, and who is Secretly Very Competent. What a surprise that was! Seriously, though, it’s good to see a fantasy book that doesn’t immediately jump on any of those things as signifiers of Evil.

Outside, the conspirators test Devin out by telling him a story. The map shows a province called Lower Corte; the people of that province killed Brandin’s son during the conquest. In revenge, the sorcerer took their name away, so that no-one who was not born in that province could hear and remember the name of Tigana. They can speak it, but nobody will hear.

That’s really horrible – I find it an incredibly cruel revenge, to erase the identity of a people like that, and give them no way to represent themselves to others, no voice. To force them to use another’s name for their land, and to know that their children will be strangers, foreigners, that their home is lost and will die with them. And unlike most instances, this was done to them deliberately. I’ve got a particularly strong viewpoint on this one, of course, since I’m Cymraeg. Both in my country and in Scotland, the native languages were abandoned, the English names were the “real” ones, children were beaten for speaking Welsh or Gaelic at school – and the worst, saddest thing is that we did that to ourselves, to our own children. We told them to go and be English, because it was the only way they’d get on in the world, the only way they had to be better than they were.

Devin, on the other hand, was born in Tigana and can hear the name – and these passages, again, are full of water metaphors. We hear throughout the book that there’s a special connection between Tigana and the sea, even when it’s not stated outright as it is here. “If something could be remembered, it was not wholly lost” – and that shard of hope, those few people who remember and care, is all they’ve got. It doesn’t look like much, but that’s no excuse – and Alessan, it turns out, is the Prince of Tigana, child of the prideful Prince of the prologue.

The section ends as the Duke wakes, and joins with Alessan’s band because it’s the only revolutionary game in town; and when he admits to being a wizard, and uses his powers to visit his son Tomasso in prison and take him poison. The last words are “The difference between the spoken and the unspoken ceased to matter any more.”

July 29, 2009

The Grey King

The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 4.

Very Welsh, and feels right to me. Given that I spent a lot of my A-level science lessons looking out of the window at Cader Idris, if I’m happy with it then anyone should be.

I can’t find any Welsh spelling mistakes – though Welsh is a language with a lot of stratification and regional variation – and Bran’s Welsh pronunciation lesson to Will is pretty much spot on.

It does well on Welsh mythology, too; at one point, Bran and Will are asked riddles, the answer to which are Triads – Who are the three wise elders of the world?[1] Who are the three generous men of the Island of Britain?[2]

As far as plot goes, this one lives out the first prophetic verse we heard at the end of Greenwitch, and emphasizes very pointedly that the Light is Not Nice. Unpleasant things have to happen to good people, or the Dark will win and everyone will be vastly more unpleasant to each other. To be more specific, the Light has to do unpleasant things to good people, and there isn’t any mention in the text of alternatives being considered & rejected – the things the Light do are the right things to do because the Light did them. On the other hand, victory is by no means predestined[3], so the idea of just treading out the predestined steps is a little problematic. Of course, it’s not the only problematic thing – it’s heavy on the “birthright” angle. Anyone trying to reach the plot coupon who wasn’t born to do so will be killed, and all that.


[1] The owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the eagle of Gwernabwy, and the blackbird of Celli Gadarn. Oddly, the romance of Culhwch and Olwen lists five – the ouzel of Cilgwri, the stag of Rhedynfre, the eagle of Gwernabwy, the owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, and the salmon of Llyn Llyw.
[2] Nudd the Generous, son of Senyllt, Mordaf the Generous, son of Serwan, Rhydderch the Generous, son of Tudwal Tudglyd. And Arthur himself was more generous than the three.
[3] Well, except in the sense that we’re reading 1970s children’s fantasy.

June 1, 2009

Acacia

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 6:03 am

I’ve started reading David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Part 1: The War with the Mein. Will probably finish it today, but I wanted to post some preliminary thoughts first.

Let me get one thing out of the way first – it’s pretty good. I’d recommend it to all fans of secondary world fantasy series about kings and wars. Which sounds lukewarm, but then they’re generally not my cup of tea overall.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading this if it hadn’t been for the post-RaceFail emphasis on recommending BME SF & fantasy authors, but that would’ve been my loss, really. It’s good on the race issues, with actual diversity, sensibly placed skin colours, an explicit statement that they’re all the same people (none of this mucking around with pointy ears or green skin), and both some racial tensions and some resolutions to them. Of course, the cover’s still got a vaguely Celtic white chick in a red dress on it (along with a bunch of LARPers) but you can’t have everything.

It’s got a map in the front, which would be a strike against it if it didn’t already have a title including “Part 1″, the word “War”, and the name of a fantasy race, which renders the map somewhat redundant as a signifier. And yes, we will be visiting everything on it.

The character names are a bit odd in places – King Leodan Akaran, for instance. Which would be fine, if his Chancellor (“born within a few months, and from a family nearly as royal”) wasn’t named Thaddeus Clegg.

Right from the get-go, it’s like being beaten about the head with the infodump stick. We keep getting pages of stuff about history or character background, then someone notices they’ve drifted off into reverie. It’s like he’s heard of “show, don’t tell” and decided that meant “tell them then tell them it’s what a viewpoint character is thinking”. Omniscient narrator is pretending to be invisible.

The narration is – I won’t say dull and lifeless, because it’s not in the slightest, but it’s rather distant, as though he’s putting a glass pane between us and everything. That’s not helped by the way he keeps introducing us to interesting people, building them up for a large role, then zooming out and telling us how they died.

I suspect he’s still finding his pace as a writer, working out what to show us & how, but he’s got a lot of good stuff going for him – there are some unforgettable images in there, and he cares about material culture (what people wear, how they live, how they build) which is always a plus for me.

The plot follows the classic “does what it says on the back of the book, then some more stuff” arc – rebels attack Empire, Empire falls, heirs go into hiding, the counter-rebellion starts up. Nothing the slightest bit unexpected, but he carries it off.


Part 2
Part 3

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