Tolkien in a Time of Strife
Last week, whilst snowed in with the kids for a day, I decided to introduce them to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. We watched Fellowship, which is about as much as one can ask of a 7 year old and a 4 year old in one day. They liked it and were very engaged in the battle scenes and loved Galadriel and Arwen, especially. I liked it more.
It’s always been my favorite of the three films. It’s the one I think deserved all the Oscars, not the bloated 3rd Act with all the incessant monologues and that damned ship that we watched sail away for, like, ten minutes or something. The Fellowship of the Ring really conveys the full strength of the novels in miniature, and does so with artistry rather than with brute SFX force. I’m not here, though, to debate the films’ comparable merits. I’m here to tell you how the movie affected me this last time in a way it hadn’t before.
Our society – by which I mean the United States – has taken a pretty sharp left turn into dark, disturbing, and destructive territory (yeah, yeah – there’s some politics here. Feel free to tune out.). Times are uncertain. People are uneasy, the world stands on edge. A dark power has arisen, one seeking to devour all that the free peoples have built over the ages. One that sows lies and deceit with every breath. One that values wealth and power above all other concerns – a Dark Lord.
And so here we are. The analogy is pretty clear, and it’s notable that Tolkien wrote these books with this loose analogy in mind. The One Ring was always the symbol of greed and domination, of deceit and lies. It is the Machine – the modern world Tolkien saw as antithetical to everything he loved. Everything green and quiet and simple and good. It doesn’t take a lot of prodding to slip the Trump administration, with its desire to obliterate the EPA and its oil tycoon Secretary of State, neatly into place. We can even see the conservative wing of our government, sitting there in their studies, hugging a book, whilst some disembodied voice whispers “BUILD ME AN ARMY WORTHY OF MAR-A-LAGO.”
As in Middle Earth, the human race (the “Race of Men”) is rolling over before the might of the Ring. As Galadriel says:
And nine, nine rings were gifted to the race of Men, who above all else desire power.
…but the hearts of men are easily corrupted. And the ring of power has a will of its own.
Enter Boromir, who may as well be wearing a Make Gondor Great Again hat, pissed off at the elves for not doing enough to save his people, pissed off at Aragorn for shirking his duty, pissed off that they have this super-weapon ring that might turn the tide and they’re just gonna throw it away.
So the guy is a hand’s breadth from betraying Frodo, stealing the Ring, and ruining them all. But, for all this, he is not a bad guy. He’s just a human being, trying to get by in a world he doesn’t fully understand, observing it through unavoidable filter of his own experience. One can (and I have) written essays on understanding Boromir’s motives – he is the symbol for humanity more than any other in the trilogy. But, of course, he’s still dead wrong. He still seeks to betray.
Here’s the thing, though: he realizes he was wrong. He redeems himself, fighting to defend his friends and dying in the attempt. There – right there – is the cause for hope. The hope that he himself could not see even as Galadriel told him of it. He cannot see it because he is blinded by his own struggles and lashing out at what he thinks are their cause. But he’s wrong.
Boromir joins a long list of hopeless people giving in to darkness for the lack of hope. Saruman is a great example, as is Theoden before Gandalf’s intervention. Even Smeagol/Gollum falls on this spectrum – a being so poisoned by his own greed that he loses all sense of self. There is no hope beyond which the Ring might provide him – that Sauron might provide him. But, of course, Sauron has no intention of doing so. As Gandalf says:
There is only one lord of the ring, Saruman – only one. And He does not share power.
So, okay – what are we to do in the face of all this? We feel powerless to affect the destinies of nations, of peoples, of the world. We, like Frodo, wish it had never happened to us. We are angry with the ones whose fear has brought us to this pass – Frodo wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance. Again, though, Gandalf demurs:
Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them. Frodo? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
We are left, then, with two pieces of wisdom, one from Gandalf and one from Galadriel, to guide us. On the one hand, Gandalf tells us that all people who live in such times wished they were not so, but we cannot make such choices. All we can do is decide what to do with the time that is given us. And then, Galadriel:
Even the smallest person can change the course of history.
I take great comfort in those words. I must – we all must – endeavor to maintain hope in the face of despair and loss. We must seek to be unafraid before that which is fearsome and terrible to behold. Small though we are, we must believe. Because if we give in to fear and lose our hope, if we (to paraphrase Aragorn) sever all bonds of fellowship, then the Dark Lord will have won.
Bilbo Baggins, Geek Hero
I’ve been entirely too negative lately. Granted, there is much to be negative about (waves towards the tire-fire that will soon engulf the US), but I need a break. So, instead of growling about the world, I want to spend some time with something I find completely good: the character of Bilbo Baggins.
In one of my Lit classes, I currently have assigned a paper in which my students need to select a hero (of any kind from anywhere, so long as it is a fictional person) and analyze the reasons they are considered heroic – what do they symbolize, to whom, and why? It usually generates a really interesting batch of papers (some good, some bad) that ideally gets my students to consider the underlying cultural and psychological forces behind the idea of heroism.
Now, if I were to write that paper myself, the hero I’d probably pick is Tolkien’s (and Jackson’s) Bilbo Baggins.
Bilbo Baggins is the hero with whom I most identify in all of literature. He is, at heart, a man who craves adventure while, at the same time, realizing how insane that is. He knows what is really important – what really, ultimately matters – is a good home and good food, a warm bed, and one or two good friends. Adventure is inimical to these things. And yet he needs it anyway.
In this way, I see Bilbo as being the spiritual standard bearer of all of Geek Culture. Geeks are, of course, obsessed with adventure and excitement: they love stories of spaceships and dragons and daring do, and they spend hours pretending to be this hero or that heroine, battling the forces of evil. However, the vast, vast majority of them, if asked to give up the comforts of home to go traveling into the wilderness with a bunch of gung-ho survivalist types, would have a hard time agreeing.
And who can blame them, right? You can just imagine the conversation. This guy shows up at your door, possibly in the middle of the night. He claims to be an agent of some secret international organization. He has with him a bunch of bearded mountain men. He shows you a map. And he says this:
We need your help, (insert your name here), to overthrow a brutal Third World dictator and reclaim the resources he has pillaged from my friends here. We believe you have the skills. Sign here.
That’s crazy, guys. I wouldn’t sign that paper. But you know what? Just like Bilbo, I’d wake up the next day after the mountain men threw their rager and think to myself “did I dodge a bullet, or miss the greatest opportunity of my life?”
Because the thing that makes Bilbo a hero – the thing that separates him from me and you and just about every geek and homebody on the planet – is that he goes. He says yes (late, of course, but still yes). He goes for the whole damned way. What’s more, he becomes more and more important to the dwarves survival. Why? Because he’s a thinking man (err…hobbit). He’s clever. He retreats when he ought to and talks his way out of trouble. He’s smart. And for once, the smart guy – the good, ordinary guy without the bulging muscles – actually comes out on top. Because he’s good at riddles (a geeky pastime outside of some Anglo Saxon hall), because he’s friendly, and because he uses his head.
Bilbo doesn’t slay the dragon. Bilbo doesn’t smite the goblin army. Bilbo doesn’t become some incredible warrior. But he’s an essential part of the adventuring party – he saves their lives several times over – and he comes back having, just for once, lived the adventures he’s always dreamed about. And then, to kick it all off, he writes a book about it – you just don’t get much more nerdy than that. This is what makes Bilbo the quintessential geek-hero – the Sir Gawain of GenCon, the Paradigm of PAX.
Then, to top it all off, he goes on to be an awesome old guy. The guy who tells the stories at parties that enthrall all the kids. The guy who has mysterious sacks of gold in his cellar. The guy who everybody thinks is just a bit off. This, too, is a geek fantasy.
Every nerd wants to end up the mysterious elder statesman – the man who knows mysteries. The guy who can casually discuss that time he looked death in the eye but who, at the same time, isn’t some wacko down by the river. Not a soldier, not a prince or king or leader – just your friendly neighborhood bookworm with secret depths. The guy who stages the best parties at which he manages a prank they will talk about for the rest of time, all so he can go off and retire with his super-awesome friends in the distant mountains.
Everybody talks about how they want their letter from Hogwarts or their development of mutant powers and a visit from Professor X – both cool, granted – but I feel Bilbo’s life is the one I’d actually want. A guy who lives in what amounts to the world’s most comfortable book-nook and who, once long ago, was dragged off to adventure by his ears, had the time of his life, and lived the rest of his days in comfort, surrounded by friends. That’s the life, guys. That’s the goal.
Let’s all go forth and be Bilbos.
Magic Systems: The Rules About the Rules
One of the central hallmarks of any fantasy series is how the author sets up the magic system. This includes a lot of things, obviously. You need to know how common magic is, how easy is it to access, how powerful it is, who has it, how is it used, and so on. All of those topics there are probably blog posts waiting to happen, but today I want to focus on one thing: how magic is supposed to work.
The common misconception about fantasy (and scifi, for that matter, which occasionally strays into the use of ‘magic,’ as well, though in different guises) is that you can “do whatever you want.” You want flying dragon balloons that spit orangutans? Done! You want it to rain fire every Tuesday afternoon? Go for it! You want people to have nipples on their back while being able to spit acid from their nostrils? That’s a-ok! The thing is, though, that there’s more to it that simply that.
Of course you can do any of those things, but you can’t just do them for the hell of it and expect it to work. You need to build the underlying rationale for these things so that we, the audience, accept them as plausible or at least believable. This goes for any aspect of a fantasy setting, but it applies to the magic system in particular. It is especially true when the magic system plays a crucial part in the lives of the characters. So, for instance, Jim Butcher’s magic system for the Dresden Files (which is probably the best one I know of, by the way) is painstakingly laid out because his main character (and only POV character) is an actual wizard. George RR Martin, on the other hand, has magic only existing on the fringes of his world and only barely hinted at, so at present it is rather vague and mysterious (which suits his setting just fine). That said, I am fairly certain GRRM has a pretty solid grasp of how sorcery works in his world – his world-building is deep and robust in every direction – so even in his case, what I’m about to say probably holds true.
In order for magic to make sense and work in your fantasy setting, it needs rules. Magic that can do anything at any time is problematic for a number of plot and conflict reasons, not the least of them being the constant and obvious temptation to allow your characters to escape any danger with the wave of a wand. That’s too easy and too easy is boring. It becomes “why don’t the eagles just fly Sam and Frodo to Mordor” over and over again.
Good rules are clear enough to lay out the potential and guidelines of the powers available to those gifted with them. They should be set up to be exciting and also potentially dangerous. A good magic system, like a good superpower, is something that your readers might actively think would be fun and cool and interesting. Everybody wants to have the Force; everybody would love to have access to the Bene Gesserit’s Voice. Furthermore, a good magic system needs to be understandable enough to allow that kind of fantasizing to take place. We love the fact that Harry Potter can wave his wand and say “Accio Broom!” and his broom will shoot out from wherever it is and arrive in his hand. We love it in part because the power seems fun and interesting, but also because it seems understandable and logical: “If I, too, were a wizard and I, too, had a magic wand then I, too, would be able to reach my coffee without having to get up.”
There is, however, a balance to be struck. A system can be too vague, obviously, and this is problematic in the sense that the magic system soon becomes ignored or unimportant. Naturally, if this is your intention (e.g. Tolkien), then that’s all well and good. Nobody, though, goes walking around trying to imitate the magic of the Elves. It isn’t super clear that they have magic or, if they do, how it works. Like, in the movies did Arwen summon those white-water horses? What the hell did Elrond do to heal Frodo? If Gandalf can make flaming projectiles out of pine cones, why doesn’t he keep a bunch of pine cones in his backpack? No, magic, in the case of Tolkien anyway (and those like him), isn’t so much a system as it is a basic dramatic effect. It lacks detail and, therefore, while it gains mystery, it also loses a sense of concrete fascination for the audience. If that’s your intention, as I said, this is fine (there’s a lot of good low-magic fantasy out there), but if your intent is to create a world where the practice of magic is central to the plot somehow, you’re going to need detail.
Conversely (and perhaps paradoxically), magic systems can become too detailed and too concrete. You need rules, yes, but the rules (in my opinion) should remain sufficiently complex to prevent the audience from completely grasping them. Magic, in other words, shouldn’t seem easy. A system, even an interesting system, laid out with too much specificity starts to feel less like an eldritch code by which to manipulate the universe and more like a series of button-patterns to hit in a video game.
For my own part, in Alandar I’ve created a complex system laid out as the complex interactions of five naturally occurring energies of creation. They interact in a kind of pseudoscientific fashion and can (and have) been harnessed to create all manner of complex “technologies” based upon them. The system I hope is deep and interesting, and being a mage in this world should seem cool. In end, though, it should seem like the kind of thing you’d need to study years to master and the depths of which have yet to be fathomed by the reader and by the characters alike.
We, the World Weavers
In the Gospel of Saint John, it begins:
In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was God.
When I studied scripture (yes, I have studied scripture – both in high school and in college. Go Jesuits!), recall spending a fair amount of time discussing this line. John’s gospel is significantly different than the other three. In it, John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus and, as a consequence, it’s a trifle more abstract in places. It works with certain metaphors the other gospels don’t (as those gospels were more concerned with Jesus as a human being and how he relates to humanity). In the original Ancient Greek, the word we translate as “Word” is logos.
Logos means “word,” but not in the conventional sense (that is lexis). Logos, rather, means something along the lines of “rational basis” or “premise”. In the theological sense, among the ancient Hebrews it indicated “that through which everything was made.” It makes sense, in this context, that Saint John would relate God to logos, as that is literally what God is – the thing through which everything is made. I also think it is profound to think of the metaphor being constructed here, irrespective of your religious beliefs: Word as God.
Neil Postman, the media theorist and cultural critic (and professor of communications and culture at NYU), goes on at some length about the power of words. In his essay “The Word Weavers/The World Makers,” he says:
For whatever we believe in, or don’t believe in, is to a considerable extent a function of how our language addresses the world.
We cannot conceive of things we have no words for. Our words and our language dictates how we interact and understand the world around us and it is very difficult to escape. Even if you learn several languages, our frames of meaning and understanding are still hung upon a framework of words. Now, there is some argument among linguists and biologists and so on regarding how language came about (are we born with it hardwired in or do we learn it/not learn it according to environment), but regardless of that, the simple fact remains that words are the very stuff of creation. What’s more, language is basically just a metaphor – it exists at what Postman says is “at considerable remove from the reality of the world itself.”
Consider any object. Can you see the back of it? Obviously not unless you turn it around, but then, of course, you can’t see the front anymore. Indeed, you cannot ever see all of an object at once without using a series of mirrors, and even then you are only seeing reflections and images of that object’s full self. Nevertheless, if you look at the coffee mug on your desk , you know its shape and its function and its color and, despite no current sensory evidence, you are able to conceive of it without needing to see it. This, Postman insists, is the function words serve. They are metaphors and metaphors, he says, are “organs of perception.”
This brings me, as it always seems to, back to fantasy literature. Magic, as it is commonly portrayed, is almost always somehow verbal in nature: speak the magic words, know the magic incantations, write the magic runes, speak a thing’s True Name, etc.. Tolkien has Middle Earth sung into existence, Le Guin has Ged the Wizard work his magic by speaking the names of things, and Rothfuss’s Kvothe wishes for nothing more than to Speak the Name of the Wind. Historically, this is an ancient belief and custom – we can see it in the Gospel of Saint John just as we can see it in the beliefs of the ancient Hebrew Kabbalists and even the ancient Sumerians who saw names and writing and speech as somehow magical in nature.
What’s interesting about this is that those ancient cultures were right! Words are magical, and not in some mealy-mouthed “inspire you to write and love books” way, either. They are actually magical in the sense that they are what gives the world shape or, rather, enable us to shape the world around us into something understandable. One cannot stare into a void without having a word for void or, rather, if you were to stare into the void (or anything else for that matter) without words, you would have no way to think about the experience outside of dull, animal impressions. Words – how we use them, where we use them, when we use them – have real, actual power over the world around us and the people we meet.
To study words, to understand them, and to wield them is to hold real power. No magic wands required.
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!
(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
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
Recipient: 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 Span
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!
Sounding Out the Words
If you write fantasy or science fiction, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself facing the problem of creating a foreign language. You’ve got a species of aliens or a distant culture and it just doesn’t make sense that they would speak the common tongue of your main characters. Furthermore, even assuming they do speak their language, the odds that the main characters would not encounter nor even pick up a few phrases here or there of the native tongue is pretty unusual. Heck, in many settings, the world is so cosmopolitan that so-called ‘foreign’ tongues are every bit as common as the one the characters speak themselves.
So, what to do?
Now, if you’re Tolkien (or a linguist), making up languages is probably doable. At the very least you are going to be pretty good at faking it. Tolkien, of course, made Elfish into a workable tongue before he even published The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, enthusiastic Star Trek fans actually went to the trouble to invent and fully explore the Klingon language, so much so that it has sold 250,000 dictionaries and is considered an artificial tongue of sufficient sophistication to warrant study from serious academics. Damn.
The sad thing is that not all of us are linguists. Sure, I dabble a bit in speech and language structure (I teach English, so it’s sort of inevitable), but I do not have the skills to make up a believable tongue. Few authors are, to be fair, and they get along just fine. Most just create a working vocabulary of cool-sounding non-words and lay it across a map somewhere. Perhaps they put the words in italics (to make them appear special) and pepper them through common speech to give the dialogue a sense of erudition. This is a tried and true method, and it does in fact work so long as nobody comes along and tries to break it down.
As something of a completest/perfectionist, this isn’t enough for me. I want there to be a rationale behind the words. Sure, I’m not above using the cool-sounding-language thing from time to time, but that doesn’t always cut it. I have, therefore, become something of a language thief. I steal phrases and vocabulary from other languages, but mess them up a bit. The internet is a great tool for this – stuff like BabelFish and Google Translate give you easy access to a wide variety of languages beyond one’s typical ken. I’ve filched a lot of French, Spanish, Turkish, and Dutch for Alandar, and the world of Nyxos is being heavily influenced by what cool words I can dig up from Ancient Greek. The words I pick are usually the confluence of ‘sounds cool’ and ‘actually means something’, which gives the language shenanigans a lot more validity in my mind.
But Wait, You Expect Me To Believe People Speak French in a Fantasy World?
This little language theft idea has run into this criticism before. In Alandar, I typically defend it by saying that various cultures in the West are intended to be funhouse mirror reflections of various historical European cultures, so why shouldn’t they speak a version of the real language? I’ll also point out that I am not the first person to have done this, either. Honestly, I’m less interested in the ‘true’ language than in its stylized cousin. Akrallian is not really French; I don’t actually speak French in any competent capacity, so mostly I’m stealing phonics and accents and sounds. It is no more odd to me than every fantasy world ever being chock full of folks with English or Scottish accents, or the fact that everybody’s ancient dead language sounds suspiciously like a bizarro version of Latin. We all want to create an effect with our imaginary languages, right? Well, why not use the real world to enhance or even inform that effect? It can lead to a lot of interesting ideas and discoveries about your own world you may not have thought about before.
Of course, we’d all rather be Tolkien, but trust me: trying to invent your own language is very, very difficult and likely frustrating unless you possess the proper skill set. Trust me, I’ve tried (and continue to try) to do so. It hasn’t gone very well. I’d even go so far as to point out that Tolkien himself stole a fair amount of Elfish from various real languages, too – Finnish, I think, and some old Celtic and Saxon tongues. In the end, if the purpose of fantasy is to cast a twisted reflection of the real world, why shouldn’t we reflect that in the tongues our world speaks? Just make sure your theft is worth it, is all.
The Sound of Trees, the Softness of the Wind…
And we wept, Precious. We wept to be so alone. And we forgot the taste of bread, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind. We even forgot our own name. My Precious.
The One Ring, for Tolkien, was always meant to symbolize the Machine – the industrial world, and everything that went with it (to Tolkien’s mind). Jackson captures this quite well in his film versions; we watch in horror as the goblins of Mordor tear down the ancient trees of Isengard, dig deep mines, and mass produce crude weapons with ruthless and casual efficiency. Whether we realize it or not, we are watching the psychological trauma of the First World War, filtered through Tolkien’s prose and passed down through the ages. The Shire – green, rural, quietly prosperous – is held in stark contrast to the black and soulless expanses of Gorgoroth beneath the baleful gaze of the Eye. We are also presented with shades of gray in the form of Minas Tirith, standing as it does against the ‘industrial evil’ of Sauron, but also standing as a prime example of man’s conquest over nature and the sickness that (to Tolkien’s mind) rests at the heart of such hubris.
At the heart of this contest between the forces of ‘nature’ and the forces of ‘industry’ is the cautionary tale of the Elves. Feanor, when he crafts the Silmarils, is crafting the thematic precursors of the One Ring. Feanor’s pride, his greed, and his anger nearly destroy the world, with the Elves paying a high price. So it is that we see the elves of the Third Age bearing a heavy spiritual load – few in number, wise in years, steeped in failure – they have retired from the business of making the world a better place and instead pine for what has been lost in the name of pride.
This idolization of the past and sanctification of nature has cast a long shadow in the fantasy genre. It is almost taken as given that the natural world is a force of good, that the great forests of the elves are the definition of beauty, and that the predations of humanity into the natural sphere are inherently abominable. This has become more evident with the increasing advent of environmentalism in the popular consciousness. The technological world is a thing apart from the world of magic, which is almost always closely tied to the ‘natural cycles’ of the world – solstices and equinoxes, day and night, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind.
But of course we live in an industrial society. I would go so far as to say we relish the fruits of our industries and, indeed, the division between what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘unnatural’ is actually a pretty difficult division to make. I will refrain from getting into the inherent logical fallacy that is the Appeal to Nature and, indeed, will spare you my own argued ambivalence for the environmental movement as a whole. Let me just leave it at this: If ‘industry’ and the progress of human technological endeavor is a tautological evil, how is it that humanity has always and consistently chosen to reshape the world rather than submit to it? At some point, way back before humans were even really human, some proto-human got it into his head that he could eat a lot better if he sharpened a rock and stuck it at the end of a stick, and so the whole process was born. We found our niche.
Maybe we’re just evil, I guess. I sort of doubt it, but if the decision is that reshaping nature to suit our needs is somehow ethically suspect, that is pretty much the conclusion at which one is forced to arrive. Of course, given that nature exists outside the scope of ethics and morality (and, for queries, I refer you to this essay by Stephen Jay Gould), really what we’re doing here is beating ourselves up for being so damned successful as a species. Discussions of sustainability aside (and that is a significant issue to be discussed), human civilization as a byproduct of its technological mastery has been a resounding success in the sphere of nature. Good for us, I say.
Fantasy, though, as something of an inherently conservative genre (and I mean that in its more literal sense, though overtones of political conservatism are certainly present and commonplace), often prefers to place the moral center firmly in the heart of the forest with the birds and the nuts and the fuzzy bunnies. The genre, taken in broad strokes, prefers a place where humans are not the top dog, not the big shots they think they are, and where they must fear the wrath of ‘forces beyond their comprehension’. It is important to many fantasy settings to give humanity a healthy dose of humility in the form of whatever ‘natural’ phenomenon or arboreal critters object to their building castles all over the place. We can see this in the coming of Winter in Martin’s work, in the power of the Aiel in Jordan’s Wheel of Time, in Narnia, in Butcher’s Dresden Files, and in almost every fantasy story where the fey/elves of the wood finally get out of their fairy circles and lay waste to the wicked (human) king and his assembled armies.
Need we be this negative, though? Is what humanity hath wrought so vile? Aren’t we, perhaps, whitewashing Mother Nature just a teensy bit? I mean, yeah, we probably shouldn’t burn down all the rainforests (oxygen and what-not), but that doesn’t mean the rainforests are full of adorable little creatures that cuddle up with their little pups in cozy little trees before the big, bad timber machines grind them up. Most of them critters will cut you, man, given half the chance. You don’t owe them shit. Nature, at its most basic level, isn’t a division of who’s right and wrong, but rather a division of who is right and who is left. It is indeed likely that our interference has changed the game, but it isn’t all negative. We are all humans, folks. Let’s get a little more team spirit, okay?
All About Getting There Along the Way
The journey is a sacred trope in the fantasy genre. It dates all the way back to the Odyssey, or perhaps even earlier – the hero’s journey as mirrored in their physical traverse across the hills and dales of their world. Where would fantasy and science fiction be without Frodo’s quest into Mordor, Taran’s quest for the Black Cauldron, Paul Muad’Dib’s journey into the deserts of Arrakis, and so on and so forth?
The hero’s journey, be it quest or ordeal, mirrors something essential in each of us. The metaphor for life here is implicit – hell, occasionally it’s explicit. With every step, we change. Not so many journeys end precisely where you expect them to. As Bilbo once said:
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
When we’re young, especially, this journey seems large and imposing. As we grow older, it changes – our journeys still seem long, but less terrifying. Mystery overcomes majesty; we get lost within our own lives, searching for that magical trinket that got us out here in the first place. Maybe we find it, maybe we don’t. In the end it hardly matters.
I’m in the midst of writing a sequel to a novel I haven’t even published yet. It’s perhaps foolish of me, a waste of my time. Yet I cannot help it; Tyvian Reldamar’s story speaks to me on many levels. Alandar occupies such a defined shape in my mind, it is as though I have lived there. How could I not want Tyvian to wander its wagon-rutted roads and gleaming spirit engine tracks, pondering the possibility and necessity of his own redemption? So, I have spent the past 100 pages guiding him across the fractured counties of Eretheria, hatching his plans and keeping ahead of his responsibilities, his friends in tow. His journey is one that asks just how long can we skate through life before deciding to make a stand. Before deciding that something does matter to us and that something in this world is important enough to fight for.
That’s not all it is, though. No journey is so single-minded, just as no college road-trip is ever really about where you’re going. It’s about the friends you take with you, the stories you tell, the secrets you keep among yourselves, and the way you change your perspective on things. To watch Frodo get worn down by the weight of the One Ring is to also watch Sam rise up and grow strong. Conan’s quest for greatness is eclipsed by his longer, more difficult quest for wisdom and understanding. It does not come with the crown of Aquilonia, nor with the loss of that same crown. It comes in the small places, in the quiet moments. It is not in the achievement, but in the struggle.
This, too, can be said of my own journey. This novel I write, the stories I publish, the queries I send – this is the time of growth, of change. This is where it counts. All of us have such journeys, and we must make them. Step out that door; see where you are swept.
Of Noble Steeds
I saw the end of Hidalgo the other day. I have to say that, even though it isn’t the greatest movie ever, I really do like it. Mortensen’s character’s relationship with his horse is a thing I instinctually identify with; indeed, its something that a lot of people identify with. Domesticated animals and our relationships with them play a large role in many of our lives. They are as important, often, as our relationships with other people and, indeed, often our animals’ welfare can be seen as more important than the welfare of those humans we dislike or have no relationship with (cue Mortensen’s throaty growl: “Nobody hurts my horse.”). We think of them as our family, as our friends, and relentlessly anthropomorphize them. They are characters in our lives, and important ones, too.
It’s just a little bit odd, then, that fantasy novels so rarely depict animals as the real, well-rounded characters we know them to be. Granted, the story is often not about the hero’s horse, but rather the hero’s attempts to destroy the Evil One/rescue his lover/attain revenge, and it may seem as though incorporating their steeds as characters is a waste of valuable time. Truthfully enough, this might be the case in many situations. I’m not that certain, though, that this situation comes up as often as one might think. Perhaps you needn’t personify the horse or dog or what-have-you, but that certainly doesn’t mean you need to objectify it. It’s a living creature; it should get the same consideration any other random minor human character gets, from a shopkeeper to a barmaid to a nameless soldier.
Part of me feels like some of this objectification is a side-effect of our own modern society. Animals aren’t part of our lives on a daily basis, so we don’t always consider them as ‘alive.’ I have encountered a disturbing number of people who purchase dogs and treat them like fashion accessories, then can’t understand why the dogs are out of their minds with frustration and boredom. It’s because they’re alive! Our mechanical world is accustomed to conveyances that do whatever we say, whenever we say it and toys that turn on and off at a whim – no wonder we don’t always think that animals can be characterized. In pre-industrial societies (which includes most fantasy settings), animals and interacting with animals was a daily occurrence. They were required for a lot of the work that needed to be done in both farms and cities. Granted, these people didn’t have the overly-sentimentalized visions of pets and animals that we often do – they were as much tools as companions – but they were probably more aware that animals had attitudes and characteristics that separated them from mere objects.
Some of my favorite moments in some fantasy novels involve a character or characters’ interactions with animals. I love how hard Sam finds it to send the pony, Bill, away outside the gates of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. I love how Kvothe introduces himself to his horse in The Name of the Wind – with a mix of kindness and caution – even though he turns around and sells it shortly afterwards. One of the best is Haplo’s relationship with his dog in Weiss and Hickman’s Death Gate Cycle, which is very nuanced. It is not by accident that the dog winds up being a part of Haplo’s own soul.
Anyway, what I’m getting at here is that animals can – and should – be used as important and interesting characters in fantasy settings, and not just in the ‘my horse talks and isn’t that awesome’ sense that permeates all that young adult fantasy stuffed aimed at girls. They are living creatures that can share in the story and enhance the main character, just like anybody else. Just like our animals do in real life.
False History, Real Power
I’ve always loved history; the story of our species’ activities, decisions and beliefs over the vast span of time and continent is riveting, compelling, and wonderful to know. Understanding history is essential to understanding art, literature, culture, and human beings in general. No artist, in my opinion, can be ignorant of history and successfully depict human societies in any real or convincing way. This is as true of the science fiction and fantasy author as it is of anyone else, perhaps more so, as they must frequently invent new history that, in their world, serves all the same functions as real history does in ours.
Few understand this or use it better than Tolkien. When Rohan rides to help Gondor, it’s a nice story; if you know of the relationship between Rohan and Gondor, their shared history, and their challenges, it becomes an even better story. If you know that Aragorn is the heir to Isildur, that’s fine; if you understand the significance of Aragorn as the last of a thinning bloodline that traces all the way back to the doomed kingdom of Numenor, the pathos of his duty and quest becomes that much more powerful. The Silmarilion, while not a read for everyone, establishes a mythic and historic baseline that colors the whole of Middle Earth; it has resonance in every song the elves sing, in every major conflict that develops, and in every cultural behavior of every people in that world. Even if you haven’t and don’t plan to learn about the history of Middle Earth, you are experiencing its power from the moment Thorin and company sing “Far Over Misty Mountains.”
For the rest of us writing fantasy or science fiction, we can take a lesson from Tolkien that is important to remember: Your world should be bigger than what happens on the pages. Just like you should know your characters like they’re real people, you should also know the history of your setting. All of this falls under David Eddings famous quote about writing 1000 pages about a world before you can write a story set there. This sounds like work, and it is, but if you’re a lover of history, it’s great fun, too. It’s an instance where you can take your understanding of history and try to apply some of those same concepts or, if you like, mess with them. It’s the most thorough kind of ‘what-if’ building you can do.
Take, for instance, the existence and study of magic – elemental forces contained within the fingertips of a special few. How does that change the course of history? What kinds of things does it result in or not result in? What kind of world is one where magic exists? I consider this pretty closely in my world of Alandar, which grows and changes with each passing year as I continue to flesh it out and establish its history. In The Iron Ring, my first novel set in the world, we visit the world almost three decades after the ages-long prohibition of free sorcerous study began to be relaxed. What was once a medieval world of simple people ruled over by the magical elite is beginning to shift. A middle class is being born. Sorcery is being used by the common people with greater frequency. Businessmen and entrepreneurs are taking the once-restricted arts of alchemy and thaumaturgy to new heights, a Reniassance of sorts is developing, and all of it goes back to a war. In this war there were pivotal historic figures (Landar Marik the Holy, General Conrad ‘Mudboots’ Varner, the Mad Prince Banric Sahand), famous battles (Atrisia, the Sack of Tasis, the Siege of Calassa), and events of contention still debated into the modern day (Who really killed Perwynnon? Why did Landar Marik abdicate? Did Banric Sahand really sign the Treaty of Calassa?). This, I hope, should give my world a sense of presence, of legitimacy, and of gravity. It lets me understand my characters better, and hopefully lets the readers understand them better, too.
The trick is, of course, finding a way to tell them about all this without boring them to tears. Some people, as you know, don’t really like history all that much. That, of course, is the ultimate challenge of the fantasist – to bring someone into a world without barraging them with facts like they’re studying for an exam. It is a challenge I believe I have done well at, but I could always do better. For inspiration, I need only gaze at the great world-builders: Tolkien, Martin, Herbert, Jordan. They are the framers of my own personal history, the teachers of myth that shaped my own understanding of the art, and beside whom I hope one day to be mentioned without sarcasm or irony.