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.

April 8, 2010

Mark Charan Newton – Nights of Villjamur

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 8:52 am

I’ve been horribly behind on my blogging, because I’ve been incredibly busy with art projects, with preparations for Eastercon, and with the holiday I’m about to take in the Highlands. So I’m going to get even more behind.

I just wanted to do this one quick review, though. Everyone’s been talking about Nights of Villjamur recently, and with good reason—it’s great.

It’s an interesting original vision, with a powerful central image. A glacial period (not an Ice Age as the book copy suggests) is heading for the Empire, and the rulers have to make hard choices to get through it, complicated by all the usual afflictions of internal politics, strange magics from the dawn of time, and invaders from Elsewhere. All of which may be linked…

And that “may” is important. This is very much the first book of a series, and almost none of the plot strands are resolved inside this book. Doesn’t stop it being a good read, but it isn’t a whole text.

Thematically, it’s Erikson-lite, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m not sure the world is ready to cope with two of him. This is definitely quest fantasy[1] rather than city fantasy, but only one of the viewpoint characters has anything even resembling the traditional portal-quest trajectory, and even then he’s rather more independent than the usual farmboy type.

I do have a couple of issues with this book. First, it’s heavy on the infodumping; one of the favourite pastimes of nearly every main character is to sink into a reverie and tell us about their past or what the city’s like[2], and sometimes the narrative voice does this too.

Second, the names threw me a bit. Partly, the clever mix of different styles and cultural origins is a nod to a huge multicultural Empire (we have botanical names like Urtica and Rumex alongside Ghuda and Mewún, and garuda fly above the city while draugr menace it and banshees wail within it) but I still have no clue how to pronounce Goúle, Fúe, or Júula. The best I can do is to imagine that that’s an umlaut instead. Tineag’l, on the other hand…

On the upside, we see a well-written homosexual romance before page 100, and nobody’s being coy about it either.

[1] However, there is no map in the front, and a DeLillo quotation. We are clearly into much more serious territory here.

[2] But only once. We all know these people in real life, and they Just Keep Doing It, over and over again, worrying at the past or clutching it like a favourite teddy bear. We never see these reverie memories repeated, in books…

February 17, 2010

Chronicles of an Age of Darkness

Between 1986 and 1992, New Zealand-based author Hugh Cook wrote a ten-volume series of inventive, grim, exuberant, disconcerting, nonplussing, and downright bloody weird fantasy novels. They weren’t nearly as popular as they should have been – I suspect he was mostly just ahead of his time, given the popularity of work in a similar style now. China Miéville has described them as “intensely clever, humane, witty, meta-textually adventurous and pulp-avant-garde”.

I first read them in my early teens, and I adored them – I think that was one of the things that originally set my standards for fantasy, and I’ve been seeking out More Like This ever since. Luckily, there’s a lot of it around now.

The setting for the world of Olo Malan – whose name, I think, we don’t find out till Book 6 or so – is extremely post-apocalyptic, twenty thousand years after its connection to the intercosmic civilization of the Nexus crashed and broke. There are barbarous tribes, strange races, empires, priesthoods, magic, technological survivals that look like magic, and technological survivals that aren’t magic at all; the malign torturing monster lurking Downstairs below the island of Untunchilamon is an AI employed by the Golden Gulag as a therapist, and The Combat College in Dalar ken Halvar still trains Startroopers for the Nexus, teaching them to pilot spacefighters in the virtual reality tanks, despite not of course having had any actual spacefighters for millennia.

At the beginning of the series, however – with The Wizards and the Warriors – it looks as though the apocalypse was a standard magical one, with plentiful leftover magical weapons and mysterious devices. The books stand alone, but often cover the same events from the viewpoint of a minor character in previous ones – Togura Poulaan, the hero of Book 2, The Wordsmiths and the Warguild, gets caught up in Elkor Alish’s army, which we saw in detail in Book 1; two minor supporting characters, the pirates Drake and Bluewater Draven, appear in Book 4, The Walrus and the Warwolf (Drake, in fact, is the protagonist); and Yen Olass Ampadara, whom Draven describes as “the reason men should always be in charge of women”, is the centre of Book 3, The Women and the Warlords.

I never really rated Book 3 when I was a teenager, but re-reading them recently it’s now one of my favourites. Yen Olass is a female slave in a deeply sexist society, an Oracle whose function is to mediate quarrels between men. The book shows her in an uncomfortable position – in a strange legalistic limbo with influence but no power, and power but no influence (it makes sense in context, honest – as much as anything in these books does), with the Collosnon army but not part of it, caught up in politics and quarrelling, trying to make her own way in the world and never getting to do it for long. At one stage, she does establish a small self-sufficient lesbian utopia in the woods; but the politics of men intrude, and one of the heroes of the first book casually takes away her lover and then kidnaps her and her child for politics yet again.

The Walrus and the Warwolf is more or less the opposite of The Wordsmiths and the Warguild: a long hard journey, indeed, and a quest of sorts, but with an utterly selfish, irresponsible, fantasist as a hero – Dreldragon Drakedon Douay, known as the Demon-son, pirate, rightful king of Stokos, priest of the Flame, slayer of a Neversh and a watermelon stand. It’s wonderful, and self-consciously storied – all of these books do interesting things with narrative and legend, but this one is where Cook starts actively playing silly buggers.

Book 5, The Wicked and the Witless, expands on some of the political developments over the last book, as Sean Kelebes Sarazin, one of Drake’s antagonists (though, to be fair, practically everyone he meets is his antagonist, and for very good reasons) schemes and plots to take over the Harvest Plains. It’s good, but I can’t find much to say about it in comparison to the others.

Book 6, on the other hand – The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers – is definitely my favourite of the lot. It’s much more restricted in scope than the others, set entirely in the city of Injiltaprajura on the island of Untunchilamon, and it marks the point both where Cook starts going for really outlandish imagery (a millennia-old Hermit Crab with gourmet tastes and the powers of sorcery; irresponsible children’s toys from the Golden Gulag, reconditioned from military-grade autonomous robots; fountains of thixotropic industrial lubricant pouring into the sea; the Cult of the Holy Cockroach) and when the narrative tricks really get going. We have not only the unreliable narrator’s manuscript, complete with derisive references to the Redactors of Odrum, but a half-dozen layers of editorial interjections, elisions, amendments, and reproofs to less senior Redactors. The Originator, at that, is explicitly insane – an inmate in the Dromdanjerie, the asylum of Injiltaprajura – but the Foreword, in which yet another (nameless) writer debunks the Redactors, makes no mention of that.

As it endured redaction in the dungeons of Odrum, the Text which follows became encumbered by a full two million words of explication and interpolation. In the interests of convenience, readability and sanity, most of this overgrowth has been cut away.

A previous draft of the manuscript of The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers actually exists as a major plot point in the next book, The Wazir and the Witch – which is narrated by the same historian as the first, but has clearly not fallen into the hands of the Redactors of Odrum. These two books, together, show off one of the other good features of the series – diversity of races, from the grey-skinned Janjuladoola and the redskins of the Ebrell Islands with their flaming hair to the purple-skinned Frangoni warriors of Dalar ken Halvar. This shows up very strongly in the contrast between these two and Book 9, The Worshippers and the Way – Asodo Hatch, of the Frangoni, and a Startrooper of the Nexus, strongly resents the popular depictions of the Wild Tribes in Nexus popular culture as purple-skinned barbarians, given that the proud warrior culture are already looked down upon by the dominant Ebrell Islanders. On Untunchilamon, on the other hand, “Ebbies” are the lowest of the low – considered feckless, irresponsible lowlives. There are some explicitly white-skinned peoples, but generally when others refer to them it’s with some reference to “the disgusting pallor of the natives of Wen Endex” or some such.

Book 8, The Werewolf and the Wormlord, is set in Wen Endex, where the Yudonic Knights only come out at night; it gives us a picture of a complex society built on violence, financial manoeuverings, scheming, and the strategic use of monsters. It’s my least favourite of the books, and I think the weakest. Book 10, on the other hand – The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster – is rather strong, and we finally get to see the story of Guest Gulkan, Emperor-in-Exile, who has been wandering through others’ stories throughout the series in a rather Moorcockian way. Instead of the brooding questing hero we see from Togura’s perspective in Book 2, or the Conanesque thief-hero in Books 6 & 7, we see a spoilt princeling who grows to become a selfish prince, a foolish (and brief) Emperor, a brave and loving son, a cunning guerilla general who uses the magic of wizards to his advantage, and a hater of the irregular verbs with a passion beyond all telling – and the process happens insensibly, as the narrator never tires of telling us after the fact.

Sadly, they’re almost all out of print; The Walrus and the Warwolf is being reprinted by Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories, with an introduction by China Miéville, at the end of March 2010, and the Book Depository claim it’s still available in hardcover from Colin Smythe Ltd. Cook made books 2, 9, and 10 available on his website, where they’re free to download in HTML format (and very sensibly formatted for reading on my phone – I’ve been using those for travel books for the last few weeks, since I don’t have physical copies of 9 or 10), and the Book depository claims they’re also available via Lulu, but Lulu doesn’t. Basically – if you can find a set, you should, but good luck!

December 12, 2009

Misogynist marketing – The Thief of Kalimar

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 1:55 am

By Graham Diamond.

This one is a triumph of marketing, for 1979ish values of “triumph”, and for the kind of marketing that doesn’t involve very much honesty about the book’s contents. In fact, it hits a double word score on the ism front – it’s racist and sexist.

The blurb starts, Ramagar was a thief, and carries on talking about him, mentioning in passing his clever mistress Mariana, the beautiful dancing girl. The front cover shows a very Nordic guy in a short tunic, with a small scimitar; this is not Ramagar. The book has (of course) a map in the front, and the map is a slightly distorted version of Europe with all the names (except Brittany) completely changed. There’s an Aran, but it’s both much larger than either Aran or Arran, and in entirely the wrong place. Ramagar, on the other hand, comes from a city which roughly corresponds to a heavily exoticised Marrakech. It isn’t a case of whitewashing, but what they’ve done is almost as bad; they’ve put a more minor member of the adventuring party on the front, rather than the headline guy they talk about on the back, because the headline guy has brown skin.

Oh, and guess what? He’s not actually the hero, either. 90% of the book is about Mariana, the clever dancing girl, who talks to people, recruits more help for the quest, saves everyone through quickwittedness a few times, gets the long-lost family plotline, and makes the decision to go back to Not North Africa instead of staying in Small North Atlantic Continent when the quest is complete. If they’d written her into the blurb instead, though, goodness only knows what their sales would have been like… someone might have got the idea that this was a book for girls. (Aided, admittedly, by the note in the author’s bio that says “His young daughters, Rochelle and Leslie, were an inspiration for this book.)

July 7, 2009

William Morris – The Well at the World’s End

I’ve had one or the other volume of this sitting on my bedside table for the last six months, since it’s slow, dense reading. Last night before bed, I finished it off, and after that much time spent on it I’m damn well going to write about it.

Morris wrote this in the early 1890s, and it was published by the Kelmscott Press in the year of his death in 1896. It’s an expression of his lifelong love of the mediaeval and of the Matter of Britain, though this text is closer in feel to the numerous accretions than to the “core” Arthurian tales. Fundamentally, it’s fanfic – the devoted craft of someone who can’t accept that there isn’t any more of their obsession, and damn well writes it themselves.

A lot of what I can say about this involves “despite” – it is, overall, good and fresh despite the pseudo-mediaeval style (there’s enough cod in there to restock half the Atlantic) and the interminable dullness of every scene wherein someone shows love or affection to someone else.

I think it has that freshness for two reasons. First, it has a strongly English sense of place about it – Morris may have been unreasoningly in love with the form of the mediaeval epics, but he still understood their matter. When Ralph leaves Upmeads, he goes through Wulstead, the Abbey of St Mary at Higham[1], Bourton Abbas, and the Wood Perilous. Those are all good English place names where today you might find stockbrokers and real ale; and meseems that in the Wood Perilous might one
venture at cheap and hope to behold squirrels, ramblers, and suchlike woodland beasts.

Secondly, it’s mostly free of tired fantasy conventions. Well, technically Lord of the Rings is free of tired fantasy conventions, since it was the wellspring of most of them, but The Well at the World’s End has the added advantage that it didn’t inspire legions of imitators. I’ve a soft spot for books with no non-human characters or antagonists, too.

As for where the breadcrumbs lead next – I’ve some more of Morris’s work on the same shelf, and the next literary heritor on is JRR Tolkien. Large swathes of The Hobbit were inspired by Morris’s depictions of early Germanic life, and in his 20s he wrote self-consciously in the style of Morris. He got better though.

The other apparent followup is early Sheri S. Tepper – her True Game books et seq – though those owe as much to Dunsany as to Morris.

[1] The story is set very much in the far-off reaches of this world – the early pages make mention of “a house of good canons, who knew not the way to Rome”.

June 21, 2009

Dragons from stars in an empty sky – Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 9:45 pm

This is a poetic, deeply affecting book – the story of what it means to kill a dragon, and what it means to be a dragon.

John Aversin killed the Golden Dragon of Wyr to protect his people. He’s a crafty, laughing man, a scholar and an engineer with a magpie mind endlessly fascinated by all the scraps of learning he can glean from the decaying, disregarded books of his far northern province. (And one of the little details that first made me love this book, when I was young? The heroes wear glasses.) The dragon, on the other hand, was just a dragon. It’s when we meet the next one that we begin to understand…

To be a mage, you must be a mage. The power, the control, the understanding that magic stands for is an incredible temptation – either devote yourself to magic and nothing else, or be a failure and live in the messy, confusing, distracting world. Mages – and this is a recurring theme in a lot of Hambly’s work – are outside the law, dead to society, not held by the bonds of human fellowship.

Interestingly, though, Hambly shows us this temptation quite the other way around. Jenny Waynest, our viewpoint character, is forever reproaching herself, and trying not to resent her family, for all the wasted time, all the petty distractions of the world, everything that takes her away from scholarship and power.

That’s power, of course, as an end in itself – the diamond-bright glittering wonderfulness of competence and skill. It’s only the antagonist whom we see wielding power for her own ends, rather than to protect someone else or – the truest measure of magic – because there’s simply no way not to.

Gareth, our third protagonist, is also a scholar – an expert in one very narrow field – but the way he grows through the story is to learn to prize real life, real people, over the heroes of songs. Magic, fantasy, and dragons are all amazing things, but they are perilous as well.

This book is an interesting restatement of one of Nietzsche’s meatier soundbites – when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you. Look into the Perilous Realm, and leave some part of yourself behind. What effect does that fragment of soul have?

June 6, 2009

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu – Zahrah the Windseeker

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 4:59 pm

This is, almost entirely, a delightful book. It’s a little like Stardust, a little like The House of the Spirits, and a little like The Edge Chronicles, but mostly like itself.

It’s classic YA quest fantasy – an early-teenage girl comes to grips with her Special Nature, begins to explore the Forbidden Greeny Jungle (yes, that’s its real name) with her best friend, and then when he’s injured decides to go on a quest for the medicine that will save him.

She lives in a delightful world full of whimsically sketched and pleasantly inadequately explained biotech (genetotech? Techneculture? Clever plants, anyway) with light bulbs that grow in pots and can be transplanted into the walls of your house, CPU seeds that grow into PCs, and flowers as currency. Oddly, there are some others around (non-biological digi-book and compass, and a reference to cars being either hydrogen or flora powered) but no elaboration on them. It’s a very animistic world, too – Zahrah’s compass talks to her, there are Talking Animals both benign and predatory, and we’re left in no doubt that she considers the animals and even some plants around her as intelligent and sapient as she is.

The only problem I have with it is that it’s narrated in the first person by Zahrah herself, and she’s basically not that interesting a person to share headroom with. She isn’t all that curious about what’s going on around her, and rarely initiates anything that the plot doesn’t require her to, and whilst we’re told that she grows and changes it’s hard to see that for ourselves.

For that matter, the promise of the phrase “born dada”, and the name “Zahrah Tsami”, doesn’t seem to be fulfilled – whilst there’s a great deal of Odd Stuff going on, it all makes sense in context. It’s all explicable and can be related to the main plotline.

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