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So Close, Yet So Far

I will now put forth a premise that I shall seek to support:

You cannot love both The Hobbit and The Silmarillion in the same way.

I don’t mean to say that you cannot enjoy both – it is possible, and indeed I myself do enjoy both. I am saying you cannot love both in the same way and,

You like the guy, face it.

You like the guy, face it.

arguably (though I am less certain on this score), you likely cannot love them the same amount. The reason for this is narrative distance.

In The Hobbit, you are right there with Bilbo every step of the way. You learn his quirks, his thoughts, his every move. You are tired when he is tired, full when he is full, and so on and so forth. The narrative distance is small. Granted, Tolkien does maintain a certain distance from his character (the narrator often has little asides to the readers about this or that), but for the most part you are deep in there, in the trenches of Bilbo’s adventure. It begins and ends with him, and it is told in that way. Heck, the name of his memoir is There and Back Again. Indeed, one could argue that at least half the uproar against Peter Jackson’s…well, let’s just say indulgent adaptation is that so much of the story eclipsed Bilbo’s journey, his growth, and his triumph.

Cool picture. Who cares about these people, though? (yes, I know the picture is from Warhammer)

Cool picture. Who cares about these people, though?
(yes, I know the picture is from Warhammer)

In The Silmarillion, things are different. This is not the story of an individual (though there are many important individuals to like). It is not the story of a single act or battle (there are numerous to choose from). The Silmarillion is a epochal tale, spanning a full Age of the Middle Earth (or two). The characters, though personified, are not people. You don’t know how Feanor likes to drink his tea. You don’t know what it was like for poor Galadrial to walk across Helcaraxe with the other Noldor when the world was young. Was she cold? Frightened? You have no idea. The story doesn’t tell you and, what’s more, doesn’t treat such details as important. The Silmarillion is a book of history and myth for a fictional world and, therefore, the individual is subsumed beneath the tides of peoples and ages. You are observing the world from an extreme narrative distance granting you unparalleled breadth and scope of narrative, but no intimacy. When Gothmog smites Feanor down, you couldn’t give a shit.

You’ve probably noted that I have a bias, here, but I’m trying not to. There is nothing wrong with a broad, mythic approach to storytelling. Many wonderful stories are told that way – The Iliad, much of the Old Testament, and many modern fantasy and science fiction novels, as well. It’s a totally different flavor, though, than the intimate tale. I contend that you can’t love them the same way, because they are fundamentally different things.

 Recently, I read Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem and, following that, read Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings. Both of these stories maintain a pretty healthy narrative distance between the reader and the characters. Even though Three-Body Problem runs a fairly close Third-Person Limited point of view, you don’t feel close to the characters. Your connections with them are mostly businesslike, with the exception of one character (one of the first ones you meet). Likewise, The Grace of Kings tells a sweeping saga of rebellions and empires and battles and politics, but only one character really captures your attention and, even then much of what he does is held at a distance from the reader. You do not live in Kuni Garu’s shoes. His struggles are not your struggles. You like the guy, sure, but you are only mildly disappointed at his setbacks and modestly gratified by his victories.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, personally speaking, such styles are not for me. I am in it for the character, ultimately, and the character alone. I can extend my concern to a group of characters, certainly, but there is only so close I can get to so many. One of the reasons why I am drifting away from George R.R. Martin these days is because there are so many POV characters in Westeros that I’m losing interest. Martin, to his great credit, has spent about five books having his cake and eating it too – telling a sweeping narrative of historical proportions while also keeping you emotionally connected to (most) of the protagonists. That, however, is a slippery tightrope, and he’s losing his footing for me. I don’t think I’m alone there.

My closest inspirations for my own fantasy work are the likes of Robert Jordan (who wound up having much the same problem as Martin is struggling with at the end), Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch. For them, character – the individual – is the key to the story. Tell as many generational tales as you like, but I want to be able to feel at home with the protagonist. I want to hear Kvothe sing, I want to trade dirty jokes with Locke and Jean, I want to get in arguments with Nynaeve and watch her tug her braid in frustration. If I can’t have that – if I can’t make a personal, intimate connection with the characters I’m supposed to be caring about – I’m not going to get invested in the story. I might enjoy the story, but I’m not going to love it the same way.

EDIT: Apparently WordPress ate the start of a paragraph. It has been replaced.

The 2nd Annual Hobbit Awards

Last year, after I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I handed out prizes rather than a review. I intend to do the same, here, but before I do, here is my brief review: It was a fun movie and I liked it. Is it true to Tolkien? No. Well, not really. They’ve decided to change the overriding tone of the story. They’ve made it more adult and more complex so they can fill three movies and have it still be interesting. In that sense, it works. I am interested and I had fun. I like the original book better, in that I feel it is a better self-contained story. This, though, wasn’t terrible. Not great, but certainly not bad.

Enough of this, though. To the awards!

Spoilers Below!

(though, if you haven’t read the book and don’t basically know everything that happens already, how on earth did you come across this blog, anyway?)

The Walt Disney Memorial Award for Outstanding Theme Park Advertising

movies-the-hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-dwarvesRecipient: The Barrel Scene

Screenwriter: Okay, so now the book says the dwarves get sealed into barrels and float down the river for days and days while Bilbo hangs on. Everybody comes out weak and miserable.

Producer: That doesn’t sound like much fun. Why don’t we have them ride in open barrels? That way they can fight while going down rapids.

But…why wouldn’t the elves just shoot them? Why wouldn’t they tip over and sink? Why wouldn’t the barrels sprout leaks after being shot by arrows? How the hell do all those dwarves manage to choreograph tossing swords around without dropping any? Where the hell did the goblins come from? Why is the fat dwarf suddenly dangerous because he’s stuck in a barrel?

Awww…who cares? It was fun. And we’re all going to be sitting in barrels in a theme park someday while holographic goblins shoot at us with arrows and we’re going to love the hell out of it, so let’s just all stop complaining.

Runner-Up: Gold Surfing with Bilbo

The Homer and Langley Collyer Award for Poor Housekeeping

The-Hobbit-Smaug-4Recipient: Thror, King Under the Mountain

Look, I understand that Smaug wrecked the place, but let’s face it – Erebor had some serious organizational problems long before the dragon kicked in the door. Why the hell did they mint so many goddamned coins, anyway? Even assuming this was a good idea (I’m not an economist), why didn’t they store it all in boxes or something? You can’t expect me to believe that Smaug spend the last century or so wheedling out boxes of gold from tiny rooms and piling it all up – he doesn’t have the manual dexterity. No, the dwaves must have piled all that crap up already, to the point where it obscured architectural features and probably killed people in stupid gold avalanches. The more I think about it, the more I’m forced to say that Thror was the Scrooge McDuck of Middle Earth and tried to go swimming in the stuff. This, oddly enough, makes Smaug the Beagle Boys. Weird.

Runner Up: Laketown or, as I call it, ‘Fire-hazard-burg’

The James Bond Prize for Stronghold Infiltration


Traps are called traps because they are traps. If you walk into a trap, you are not smart unless you have a plan for getting out of the trap again. You are also not smart unless, by walking into the trap, you gain something from being temporarily trapped. The only thing Gandalf seems to learn is that Sauron is secretly Andy Warhol, and who is he going to tell? Probably some moth, I guess. You know, for an old guy, Gandalf really is a fan of the ‘let the bad guys beat me up for a few days just on the off chance they tell me their evil plans’ strategy. No wonder he needs that staff to walk around.

Runner Up: Bilbo ‘I can’t seem to keep my invisible ring on my finger’ Baggins

The Toddler Prize for Extremely Poor Attention Spanthe-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug-130207104

 So, you have travelled across the world for months, undergone untold harships, angered elves and goblins alike, made promises you can’t keep, stolen things you shouldn’t have, and climbed a damned mountain all to get yourself to this place and then, after about three minutes of trying to get in, you give up and go home? The fuck?

I mean, seriously guys – the hobbit you dragged along really shouldn’t be the guy who decides to stick around and solve the riddle. He doesn’t have skin in this game. It isn’t his blood oath he’s trying to fulfill. Sheesh. Show a little patience.

Runner-Up: Tauriel (OMG isn’t he DREAMY) the Elf

There you go, folks – tune in next year!

The Hobbit Awards

Spoilers Below

Saw the Hobbit on New Year’s Eve; I very much enjoyed it. I didn’t think it was the Greatest Movie Ever, really, but I fundamentally don’t understand the folks who are tearing their hair out with rage over the film being split into three movies. Seeing as Peter Jackson is doing every single thing in the book plus some stuff that can only be found in some ancillary Tolkien sources, filling 9 hours shouldn’t be a problem. What I’m mostly curious about is to see how the whole thing with Dol Guldur can be lumped in with the rest of the Hobbit once Gandalf takes off – the stories don’t really intersect again. Well, whatever.

My main reason for posting this is not to give a full review (which has been done plenty of times elsewhere and strikes me as rather tedious; it’s enough for me to say “As a great fan of the book, I liked it, and so probably will you if you are the same.”), but to point out the specific parts of the film I found most amusing, either positively or negatively. Here we go:

Thror Memorial Prize for the Advancement of Dwarfkind

Hello, ladies...

Hello, ladies…

Recipient: Thorin Oakenshield

You know what always frustrates me? Dwarves being depicted as filthy, stupid, ridiculous comic relief. That dwarf in the atrocious Dungeons and Dragons movie was just awful. Like, ‘If Dwarves Were Real This Would Spur a March on Washington’ awful.

Then, in this movie we get Thorin Oakenshield (played by Richard Armitage). He’s tough, he’s good-looking, he’s reasonably intelligent, he’s a leader. Yeah, he’s got a massive chip on his shoulder, but he, along with Kili and Fili, at last give us some dwarves who seem like actual people rather than ridiculous cartoons. Do you remember how silly the dwarves were in the Rankin/Bass animated Hobbit (shudder)? I’m glad that didn’t happen here.

On a side note, anybody else notice that when the White Orc smacks Thorin in the cheek with his gigantic mace, Thorin winds up with a small cut? That is one hard head Thorin’s got. He should have wound up looking more like Quasimodo after that hit.

Honorable Mention: Kili and Fili

Carrottop Foundation’s Award For Outstanding Use of Prop Comedy

Recipient: Dori

So, for the whole movie we noted that one dwarf who needed the horn to hear properly. As ear-horns are inherently amusing, we chortled lightly at the ridiculous dude with the antique hearing aide. Then they go to Goblintown, and poor Dori loses his horn and has it smashed beneath the heavy tread of a goblin. At that point, I desperately wanted someone to say something to him and have him say “What?” Stupid joke, yeah, but still. The movie, though, goes one better:

In the last scene, as Bilbo is talking to them, Dori lifts the flattened horn to his ear. I thought this was hilarious, in that it would be fundamentally true to an old dwarf’s character to not only retrieve his busted horn in the midst of a battle, but still insist on using it even though it clearly won’t work now. Comedy gold.

Runner Up: Radagast the Brown’s Bird-Poop Hat

Galadriel_Hobbit_PosterAudrey Hepburn Crown For “How Do You Even Do That?”

I imagine a casting director sitting down with Cate Blanchett and having the following conversation:

CASTING: “Cate, we’d like you to play Galadriel.”

BLANCHETT: “Who is she?”

CASTING: “She is one of the eldest elves in the world and the most heartbreakingly beautiful, inhumanly graceful, wise, warm, and wonderful person on the planet. She’s the kind of woman who smites men with a glance and, with a simple touch, can hold the hearts of kings and princes on a leash as strong as steel. She is, basically, a goddess.”


I’m a big fan of Cate Blanchett – always have been. She’s a phenomenal actress, but I think we need to take a good look at her Galadriel performance to really grasp how good she is. I mean, seriously – how do you encapsulate the character of Galadriel in a human body? Well, I don’t know, but somehow Blanchett pulls it off. It is simply amazing – she manages every movement to be perfectly graceful, every word to be somehow beautiful, and her smile is simultaneously warm and unattainable. I have no goddamned idea how an actress does that. Simply amazing.

The Terrence Malick Award for Pointless Cinematography

Recipient: Peter Jackson

You know what Peter Jackson likes? The long, slow close-up of a character while they go through a dramatic character shift. Do you know how I know this? The three thousand times it happens in every LoTR movie! Seriously, those things really drag; they last a full five seconds longer than they need to, sometimes more. How long did we really need to stare at Gollum’s pores while Bilbo considers killing him? How long did Thorin and the White Orc need to stare at each other longingly before finally fighting? Jesus! I felt like I was watching an episode of Dragonball Z at some points. Still, it was better than having to watch the dumb ship sail out of the Grey Havens for something like twenty minutes at the end of The Return of the King, or, as I like to call it, “The Movie that Never Ended.”

The Passive Aggressiveness Medal (warning, Medal may be radioactive. Maybe. Your call.)

Recipient: The Giant Eagles

The dwarves are half-dead, exhausted, injured, and carried to safety and spared from death by the Eagles thanks to Gandalf pulling in a few favors. If you thought the Eagles were okay with this, think again. Consider where the Eagles dropped the dwarves off: at the top of a hundred-foot high, narrow stone outcropping. Sure, the view is great, but how the hell are they supposed to get down? Thanks a lot, eagles. Yeah, maybe I won’t be eaten by wargs, but now I’ll get to break my neck as I negotiate an eight-story vertical climb. The eagles, of course, just fly away. They have plausible deniability, you know. “What? Oh, that’s right, you can’t fly! Our bad – everything on the ground looks pretty much the same height from up here. Oh well. Catch ya later, shorty!”

What a bunch of jackasses. Seriously.


Speculative Literature’s Best Duels

I don’t know about you, but I love a good duel. The hero and the villain (or, perhaps the hero and anti-hero, or two villains, or what-have-you) facing off, one-on-one. It’s been done thousands of times and, yet, there are still so very many ways to make it fresh, to get us on the edges of our seats, hearts in our throats, waiting to see how and if our favorite characters will make it through alive. Love it. So, for this post I’ve decided to list off my top five favorite duels in scifi/fantasy literature. first, some stipulations:

Duels Not Battles: Duels are events of single combat (or nearly so). Big battles where it’s one guy against many or two big groups of people having a free-for-all don’t count.

Books Only: This is a list of duels present in books. No movies, no graphic novels, no video games, no television series. Books. The first guy who comments ‘but what about Vader/Skywalker in Empire!’ gets a giant, metaphysical dope-slap. Yes, yes – that duel was iconic. Heck, it’s probably why I love duels in the first place. It isn’t, though, what I’m talking about here.

Gotcha? Okay, let’s go:

#5: Rand al’Thor Vs High Lord Turak and (later) Ba’alzamon At Toman Head

Book: The Great Hunt, Book 2 of the Wheel of Time Series

Author: Robert Jordan

Among the interminable tales of badassery that is The Wheel of Time, there is that first time – that very first time – you realized that Rand al’Thor is, in fact, a stupendous badass and likely only to become moreso. Up until Rand crosses swords with Turak, he’s been toting around a heron-mark blade, which marks him as a blademaster. Thing is, though, he isn’t. He sucks, actually. For the first two books, Rand is, essentially, living a lie. We, the readers, are worried about him. I mean, sooner or later, his luck is going to run out and he’s actually going to have to tussle with a serious swordsman. Then he’s screwed, right?

So then Turak draws his own heron-mark blade, except we know he’s earned it. A collective ‘oh shit’ moment ensues. Will Rand’s training with Lan be enough? Jordan then treats us with a vivid swordfight told in metaphor, essentially – the descriptions of all the moves Rand’s been taught by Lan – and he wins! But that’s not enough! Then he has to fight, essentially, Satan Himself in a damned duel. Seriously, it’s awesome! What’s more, everybody else sees it and knows it’s awesome, too. Yay! This, of course, is only the beginning for Rand, but what a start, right?

#4: Bilbo Baggins Vs Gollum Beneath The Misty Mountains

Book: The Hobbit

Author: JRR Tolkien

Not all duels are fought with weapons. This one ranks as one of my favorite duels of wits ever: Bilbo, lost, alone, stuck in the dark, finds himself accosted by the sinister and creepy Gollum in his underground hideaway. They engage in a game of riddles, with the stakes being Bilbo’s escape or his being devoured by the hungry Gollum. Thinking outside the box, Bilbo wins by simply exploiting the rules of the game: “What is in my pocket?” Brilliant. Unexpected. Wonderful.

Well played, little guy. Well played.

#3: Paul Muad’Dib Atreides Vs Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen on Arrakis

Book: Dune

Author: Frank Herbert

This duel is as much dance as fight. Everything in Paul’s long quest leads to this, and all the political ambitions of the galaxy are wrapped up in it. Tricks within tricks, feints within feints, treacheries over treacheries. Paul’s eventual victory is fitting, given that it, itself, is a trick within a trick. “I will not say it!” tells Feyd-Rautha that Paul knows, but that Paul need not use. It is still enough; death on Arrakis is often sudden.

#2: Bronn Vs Some Knight of the Vale at The Eyrie

Book: A Game of Thrones

Author: George RR Martin

Martin’s successful and expansive series involves a number of memorable fights, but this is, perhaps, the most memorable for me. First off, if you don’t love Tyrion Lannister above all other characters in that series, there is something wrong with you. So, when Fly-Off-The-Handle Catelyn Stark hauls the little guy off into the Eyrie on a bunch of nonsense charges and he finds himself faced with the lunatic Lysa Arryn, we feel pretty bad for the guy. His trial by combat looks pretty damned hopeless, but then here comes Bronn, the mercenary. Standing up for the little guy (and for his own paycheck, no doubt), so good for him.

But wait, Bronn’s not wearing any armor? Huh? What? Oh no! But…oooohhhh. I get it. Smooth, Bronn. Smooth.

#1: Dappa (w/Otto Van Hoek) Vs Sir Charles White (w/Woodruff) at Tower Hill, London

Book: The System of the World, Book 3 of the Baroque Cycle

Author: Neal Stephenson

What’s better than a former slave dueling a former slave owner/present day bigot on the field of honor? A former slave and former sailor/pirate hunter dueling a bigot and swordsman with cannons. Yes, cannons; it’s a cannon duel. Suddenly, smarty-pants swordsman/bigot needs to know math to kill his enemy, the supposedly ‘inferior’ African man who has been taunting him for years now. Yes. Yes and yes.

This was among the most amazing, hilarious, wonderful, and satisfying duels I’ve ever read. I really can’t think of any that top it at the moment. It is worth wading through the umpteen thousand pages of the Baroque Cycle just to get here. Trust me.
Well those are mine. What are yours? I’m curious to hear.

Fantastic Geography

One of my favorite things about a fantasy novel is the map of the world included in the front (or back) that gives me the lay

If you look closely, this map is stupid. It looks cool from far away, though.

of the land. Ever since I read The Hobbit in second or third grade, I’ve loved fantastic maps of alien worlds, continents, cities, and even buildings. My favorite part of the Greyhawk: From the Ashes boxed set? The maps, obviously – the giant hex map that covered a dining room table and could tell you exactly how far it was from Dothrakaa to the forests of Celene was simply awesome, and I loved every inch of it.

As I got older and I started making maps myself, I started to realize how much thought can (and I think *ought*) to go into map-making for your fantasy world. It’s all very well and good to create a map that directly suits your narrative purposes, but such places look artificial and weirdly convenient (the first D&D campaign setting I devised in 7th grade had a whole series of impassable mountains and uncrossable rivers/chasms designed to restrict where players can go – it was foolish). Then again, if you make a map too complicated and too realistic, it becomes difficult to keep it all straight or describe it to the reader as they are going through the book. There’s a balance of detail that needs to be struck, I think, to make a map work right.

Middle Earth–where it all began

The reason this is all so important is that geography affects culture. It does in our world, and there is no reason to expect it to do otherwise in another world. If you have a society that evolves on the open steppes, they are going to likely behave one way, whereas a society evolving in dense woodlands or mountainous highlands is likewise going to behave differently. Furthermore, the proximity and disposition of one’s neighbors will make a big difference on how a people will act towards strangers, how militaristic they will be, and exactly what kinds of things they will trade or have in abundance. This kind of thing is what history is built from, and it has relevance and importance in a fantasy setting.

Failure to appreciate this and just slap things wherever you choose means you lose out on a huge opportunity. Every fantasy author wants his or her world to be as ‘real’ as possible, and constructing a reasonably realistic geography is a great place to start. Furthermore, geography can beget drama. Remember the attempt to climb Cahadras inThe Fellowship of the Ring? That was a function of geography – they couldn’t risk the Gap of Rohan, which was in the great wide open, so they took the more dangerous path in the hopes of evading the enemy. Managing geography was one of the things Tolkien did very well, overall. Even when looking at the map above, you can see how the mountain range splits to create Mordor – a geological possibility that, furthermore, could indicate the kind of tectonic activity that would result in Mount Doom. Now, did Tolkien consider this when crafting Middle Earth? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.

One of the things that dissapointed me from the beginning of The Song of Ice and Fire is that, for all the time we spend across the Narrow Sea, we never once get a map of the damned place. I can’t place Mereen or Braavos in my head, and it makes it hard for me to understand where it is in relation to where the characters have been and where they can go next. Qarth may be right next to Pentos, or it may be half a world away – I just don’t know. It’s frustrating; it’s like navigating a new city without a map or any street signs.

The West of Alandar (click to enlarge)

The West of Alandar (click to enlarge)

My own fantasy setting, Alandar, has a lot of maps associated with it and, furthermore, has been through several geographical revisions and will likely have more. Here’s one of the current ones to the right. You’ll note the giant mountain range down the eastern edge – the Dragonspine – which constitutes a major feature of the world and has major social and cultural and economic repurcussions the world over. Likewise, the oceans and their disposition as well as the rivers have another large impact on the locations of cities and the arrangement of nations. All of this filters down to my characters, who grew or are growing up in various corners of the world that have been shaped by the geography around them. This, I see, is my duty as someone trying to shepherd a new world into existence. To do any less is to acknowledge that Alandar is ‘artificial’ and, therefore, reduce the story from ‘fantastic’ to merely ‘absurd’.

Maybe I’m a little crazy, but hey, I’m a grown man wanting to write stories about imaginary places and times and hoping, one day, to make a living off it. You certainly shouldn’t expect me to be entirely sane.