Archives For Lord of the Rings

Lengthening Good Stories

January 15, 2013 — 8 Comments

bayeuxWe’re all familiar with the saying “too much of a good thing.” Because it’s a cliché, most reviewers wisely avoid the phrase, but in reading a fair number of reviews of The Hobbit, I’ve heard this very thought expressed in a number of ways.

Everyone is familiar with Director Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. Most fans were thrilled when it was announced he would also film J.R.R. Tolkien’s much “smaller” tale of The Hobbit. Some were surprised when they learned he would divide it into two parts. Still, the general sentiment was “the more the better” (another tired phrase). However, when it was ultimately announced that Jackson intended to stretch the modest novel into a trilogy of its own, many fans were incredulous.

There is a tad of irony in transforming Tolkien’s beloved adventure of a hobbit assisting dwarves in a regional quest into an epic to rival the high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings with its conflict enmeshing every corner of Middle Earth.

As I write this column, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is doing well. It is ranked sixth at the box office, and held the number one position for three full weeks, against tough competition.

In order to discover sufficient content to expand the story, Jackson has incorporated a number of Middle Earth tales Tolkien had written about its history in other sources. The primary sourcebook was The Silmarillion, a collection published posthumously by Tolkien’s son Christopher in 1977. Some regard the importing of these elements as a sort of corruption of the simpler story of the single volume. Others welcome the elaboration on the essential story, since the additions are certainly “genuine Tolkien,” and they provide a more elaborate portrayal of Middle Earth.

The reactions to the expansion have been mixed. I don’t have strong feelings either way, but I treasure my time in Middle Earth so highly, that I would likely pitch my tent in the camp of those who approve of the increase. (Not to the point, of course, where I would behead those who objected, as we see on the fragment from the Bayeux Tapestry above.)

In the energetic conversation about the expansion of the saga, people frequently interject the name of the author, and offer suppositions about how he would have reacted. I find this interesting, but somewhat futile. Frankly, there is far too much that we simply don’t know about Middle Earth to authoritatively render Tolkien’s judgment on these things. Yes, we know that he was reluctant to see his work on the screen, but he did sell those rights to his creations. Of course we are aware of his lack of confidence in material originating in the colonies.

In a 1937 letter he writes about a possible publisher in the United States: “As for the illustrations: I am divided between knowledge of my own inability and fear of what American artists (doubtless of admirable skill) might produce.” It is in this same letter that he offers his criticism about a Disneyesque presentation: “It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest, to let the Americans do as seems good to them—as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartful loathing).”

In an essay entitled “On Criticism,” C.S. Lewis described the limitations of outsiders attempting to discern the intent of authors.

Nearly all reviewers assume that your books were written in the same order in which they were published and all shortly before publication. There was a very good instance of this lately in the reviews of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Most critics assumed (this illustrates a different vice) that it must be a political allegory and a good many thought that the master Ring must “be” the atomic bomb.

Anyone who knew the real history of the composition knew that this was not only erroneous, but impossible; chronologically impossible. Others assumed that the mythology of his romance had grown out of his children’s story The Hobbit. This, again, he and his friends knew to be mainly false. Now of course nobody blames the critics for not knowing these things: how should they? The trouble is that they don’t know they don’t know. A guess leaps into their minds and they write it down without even noticing that it is a guess.

Learning from Lewis, I won’t hazard a guess about Tolkien’s ultimate attitude towards the cinematic portrayals of his works—which will now, I assume, come to carry greater weight in the public psyche than the novels themselves. Well, at least until the current mode of motion pictures becomes obsolete. Then, once again, the words as Tolkien wrote them will reign supreme.

For those who are interested, I created the faux Bayeux Tapestry scrap at the top of the column using a program that allows manipulation of a variety of the hand-stitched images. Then I simply added the text in a simple graphics program. The Historic Tale Construction Kit is available here.

There is also a more sophisticated software interface that I haven’t tried called the “interactive” Bayeux Tapestry.

Avoiding Fantasy Clichés

November 12, 2012 — 41 Comments

We’re all familiar with that classic paradigm of suspenseful introductions: “It was a dark and stormy night.” While this is not intrinsically poor writing, it has been parroted and ridiculed for so long as a lightweight cliché, that the author’s name has become a byword for writing “purple prose.”

In the same way, there are certain plotlines or story devices that are overused, particularly in genre literature. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s genius in creating Middle Earth cannot be exaggerated. Yet, since his epic, dwarves, elves and orcs innumerable have been written about in chronicles ad nauseum by lesser poets. Many of Tolkien’s inventions seem rather tired when repeated by contemporary writers for the hundredth time. (Hundred thousandth time, if you count fan fiction.)

This literary dilemma has led to the creation of “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam,” designed to be taken by aspiring authors before submitting their manuscripts for publication. (The link for the exam will be found below.)

The purpose of the test is to determine how derivative your storytelling is. If you use too many of the listed elements, you are in danger of composing a parody rather than a masterpiece. Some of the questions posed in the exam are astute, many are glib, and most are humorous. Here’s a sampling, with my responses (speculative, of course, since I haven’t written any fantasy proper).

Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?

How about an anonymous member of minor nobility?

Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawl?

I never visit bars, but isn’t hosting altercations a primary purpose of all drinking establishments?

Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?

Ah, a conundrum. If I know I don’t really know . . .

Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?

You mean they have another role they can perform? (Wait, I’m just joking!)

Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer?”

My Viking ancestors would never forgive me if I did!

Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?

I wasn’t raised on a ranch, but I’m not that stupid.

Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?

Whoops.

As you see, the questions are fun to read, but there’s one that bothered me a bit. Well, not the question itself. It’s innocent enough. But it alludes to a particular scene in The Lord of the Rings films which I find stunning—in the original sense of the word. It strikes me viscerally, almost leaving me breathless.

Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?

Generally, no . . . but if that hero is Boromir, most certainly!

The Death of Boromir

One of the most moving scenes in The Lord of the Rings involves the death of Boromir as he sacrifices his life in a futile battle to allow the hobbits time to escape the Uruk-hai. It’s impact is magnified by the fact that it immediately follows Boromir’s near-betrayal, under the corrupting influence of the Ring.

The irony is that this spectacular scene is not described in detail in Tolkien’s book. It is a tribute to director Peter Jackson’s cinematic brilliance. This is the original telling:

Even as [Aragorn] gazed his quick ears caught sounds in the woodlands below, on the west side of the River. He stiffened. There were cries, and among them, to his horror, he could distinguish the harsh voices of Orcs. Then suddenly with a deep-throated call a great horn blew, and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls.

“The horn of Boromir!” he cried. “He is in need!” He sprang down the steps and away, leaping down the path. “Alas! An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes amiss. Where is Sam?”

As he ran the cries came louder, but fainter now and desperately the horn was blowing. Fierce and shrill rose the yells of the Orcs, and suddenly the horn-calls ceased. Aragorn raced down the last slope, but before he could reach the hill’s foot, the sounds died away; and as he turned to the left and ran towards them they retreated, until at last he could hear them no more. Drawing his bright sword and crying Elendil! Elendil! he crashed through the trees.

A mile, maybe, from Parth Galen in a little glade not far from the lake he found Boromir. He was sitting with his back to a great tree, as if he was resting. But Aragorn saw that he was pierced with many black-feathered arrows; his sword was still in his hand, but it was broken near the hilt; his horn cloven in two was at his side. Many Orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet.

Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.” His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. “They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them.” He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment he spoke again. “Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.”

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!” Boromir smiled.

“Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?” said Aragorn.

But Boromir did not speak again.

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now? Boromir has laid it on me to go to Minas Tirith, and my heart desires it; but where are the Ring and the Bearer? How shall I find them and save the Quest from disaster?”

He knelt for a while, bent with weeping, still clasping Boromir’s hand. So it was that Legolas and Gimli found him. (Lord of the Rings, Book III Chapter 1).

So, we understand that while a single arrow might slay a common warrior, it could well take a quiver full to lay low a champion such as this.

___

If you would like to review “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam,” simply follow this link.

Allow me to once again display my grammatical ignorance. I was reading an online book review and the author used lots of multisyllabic words. (That’s something I actually enjoy.) But then he went and threw in one of those words I had to rush to dictionary.com to define. (That’s another thing I love—learning new words.)

Naturally, I could partially decipher the definition from the context. However, whenever I have a dictionary within reach, that shortcut doesn’t satisfy me.

In this case, the word was anacolutha, the plural form of anacoluthon. It is defined as “a construction involving a break in grammatical sequence, as ‘It makes me so—I just get angry.’” Well, we can all agree that is not a good sentence; it’s a fine example of what a writer should avoid.

Not all grammar rules make sense. Take for example the notion that one cannot end a sentence with a preposition. Some of us literally had our knuckles rapped for scribbling such grammatical “obscenities.” While it’s true that you can avoid using prepositions in this manner, it’s not the great sin we were taught it was. In his Letters to an American Lady, C.S. Lewis writes:

[Regarding] a sentence ending with a preposition. The silly “rule” against it was invented by Dryden. I think he disliked it only because you can’t do it in either French or Latin which he thought more “polite” languages than English.

Well, isn’t that an interesting historical note to become aware of?

But, back to anacolutha . . . let’s see if it’s difficult for a trained pen to sever the ties of logic, and compose this sort of literary construction.

Reepicheep was a great swordsman who, “a tail is the honor and glory of a Mouse” was his creed.

Frodo pondered his options while—the Nazgûl loathed bathing more than once each fortnight.

Wow, that’s a lot harder than it looks. If you can think of better examples (not difficult, I’m sure), feel free to share them in a comment! But only write them here, and don’t allow any anacolutha to slip into your real writing!

The Road Taken

June 19, 2012 — 4 Comments

They are both important. Where we are going, and how we get there.

It’s quite common for analogies about our lives to assume the form of journeys. The journey, in fact, is a fitting metaphor for all human life.

Aging is a journey. Maturing is a journey that should run parallel to aging (though it seldom seems to do so). Learning is a journey. And the image of the “lifelong learner” is something that appeals to most readers and to all who hunger for daily intellectual growth.

Our spiritual lives are journeys of a sort. They follow “paths,” with branches that invite us to travel in myriad directions. Yet all roads are not “equal.” David, the anointed Psalmist prayed, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
 teach me your paths” (Psalm 25:4, ESV).

Even secular poets have recognized the power of this concept. One of the most memorable lines ever penned in English is: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I . . . I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference” (“The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost).

The Inklings expertly used the metaphor of journey to frame their works. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are both propelled, in fact, by vivid journeys. Likewise, Narnia’s Chronicles contain a number of momentous journeys, which ultimately culminate in the final journey which just begins with the close of The Last Battle.

These journeys are, of course, literal trips. Physical traveling from one place to another. Of course, these physical passages occur simultaneously with far more meaningful changes.

The typical contemporary journey of life may take us to varying locales—but it’s possible to savor a rich life journey without ever traveling far from the home of our youth. Indeed, one could be bedridden from birth, and travel the world in terms of experiencing Life. Thanks to God’s gifts of imagination, dream, wonder and faith.

C.S. Lewis also employs this journeying metaphor in his nonfiction works. In The Problem of Pain, he paints a fascinating panorama of our life in this world. He reveals that suffering is actually a blessing, in that it prevents us from growing too attached to this world. Although God graces us with pleasing moments in this life, they are interrupted by moments of insecurity . . . lest we mistakenly believe this finite world is our true home.

Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

May the roads we choose to follow bring us safely to the wonderful home our heavenly Father has prepared for each of us.

___

The beautiful, copyrighted photograph above appears compliments of Craig Sterken Photography at craigsterken.com. Check out his exceptional gallery!

Our Eagle Allies

May 30, 2012 — 3 Comments

Eagles are majestic creatures. Living in the midst of a large bald eagle nesting area is something my wife and I don’t take for granted. Each year we see scores of the graceful raptors courting and then raising their young right here on Hood Canal.

Hood Canal is actually an 80 kilometer long fjord, which lies just to the east of the Olympic National Forest. It features deep blue waters at the foot of an impressive mountain range.

Eagles make a significant impression on nearly everyone fortunate enough to see them. Even though they are birds of prey, they look extremely noble. In light of that fact, it’s no accident many nations include an eagle as part of their coat of arms or national seal. These include: Albania, Armenia, Austria, Germany, Ghana, Iceland, Indonesia, Iraq, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, Nigeria, Panama, Russia, the United States and at least ten additional countries.

Eagles have also figured prominently in literature. For example, both of the preeminent Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, featured eagles as heroes in their fictional classics.

Eagles in the Work of C.S. Lewis

Eagles are among those granted speech by Aslan at the dawn of Narnia’s creation. They reward their Creator’s gift by serving faithfully throughout the entire history of the land. Eagles play a role in virtually every battle that occurs in Narnia. They are always on the side of good.

In addition to fighting in the campaign against the White Witch, eagles are responsible for the rescue of Edmund from her camp. When Aslan calls his army to rush toward the climactic battle in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he says:

And now! Those who can’t keep up—that is, children, dwarfs, and small animals—must ride on the backs of those who can—that is, lions, centaurs, unicorns, horses, giants and eagles. Those who are good with their noses must come in the front with us lions to smell out where the battle is.

The most noteworthy passages relate to Farsight, who is a prominent eagle during the final days of Narnia. He it is who brings to King Tirian the sad news that Narnia’s capital has fallen.

“Sire,” said the Eagle, “when you have heard my news you will be sorrier of my coming than of the greatest woe that ever befell you.” Tirian’s heart seemed to stop beating at these words, but he set his teeth and said, “Tell on.” “Two sights have I seen,” said Farsight. “One was Cair Paravel filled with dead Narnians and living Calormenes . . . And the other sight, five leagues nearer than Cair Paravel, was Roonwit the Centaur lying dead with a Calormene arrow in his side. I was with him in his last hour and he gave me this message to your Majesty: to remember that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.” “So,” said the King, after a long silence, “Narnia is no more.” (The Last Battle)

After this sad entrance, and following the “Last Battle,” Farsight is one of the leaders as the victor’s army enters into the foothills of heaven.

. . . the dogs barked, “Faster, faster!” So they ran faster and faster till it was more like flying than running, and even the Eagle overhead was going no faster than they. And they went through winding valley after winding valley and up the steep sides of hills and, faster than ever, down the other side, following the river and sometimes crossing it and skimming across mountain lakes as if they were living speedboats . . . “Further up and further in!” roared the Unicorn, and no one
held back. . . .

Only when they had reached the very top did they slow up; that was because they found themselves facing great golden gates. And for a moment none of them was bold enough to try if the gates would open. . . . “Dare we? Is it right? Can it be meant for us?” But while they were standing thus a great horn, wonderfully loud and sweet, blew from somewhere inside that walled garden and the gates swung open. (The Last Battle)

Eagles in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien

Similar to Lewis’ distinction between dumb and speaking eagles, Tolkien distinguishes between “common” and Great Eagles. In The Hobbit he writes, “Eagles are not kindly birds. Some are cowardly and cruel. But the ancient race of the northern mountains were the greatest of all birds; they were proud and strong and noble-hearted.”

It is these noble mountain eagles who populate the six books (three volumes) of the Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s other fiction.

At the end of the First Age, eagles fight alongside the Valar, Elves and Men in the War of Wrath. They especially contend against the dragons of Morgoth as recounted in The Silmarillion. The eagles emerge victorious, destroying most of their enemy during an aerial battle.

Near the end of the Third Age, the eagles from the Misty Mountains rescue Thorin’s troop from goblins and wargs, as related in The Hobbit. Without their aid, the Dwarves, Elves and Humans would likely have met defeat at the Battle of Five Armies.

In The Lord of the Rings (including the cinematic version) the eagles feature prominently. They are even capable of clashing head-to-head with the fearsome Nazgûl-mounted dragons.

And, of course, several of them rescued Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee following the destruction of the One Ring.

Two named eagles should be mentioned. Thorondor was the initial Lord of Eagles and according to The Silmarillion was the “mightiest of all birds that have ever been.”

His descendant Gwaihir is the leader of those who aid Gandalf throughout the events of The Lord of the Rings. Not only does he rescue the wizard from the tower, but he returns him after his “resurrection” which followed the battle with the Balrog.

“Naked I was sent back—for a brief time, until my task is done. And naked I lay upon the mountain-top. . . . I was alone, forgotten, without escape upon the hard horn of the world. . . . And so at the last Gwaihir the Windlord found me again, and he took me up and bore me away. ‘Ever am I fated to be your burden, friend at need,’ I said.”

“A burden you have been,” the Eagle answered, “but not so now. Light as a swan’s feather in my claw you are. The Sun shines through you. Indeed I do not think you need me any more: were I to let you fall, you would float upon the wind.” (The Two Towers)

It may be that for this life we must remain content with seeing only the common and mute eagles that populate this mortal world. But even they, are glorious to behold.

Jesus & Gandalf

February 19, 2012 — 10 Comments

Today Christians celebrated our Lord’s Transfiguration. (If you attend a church that doesn’t follow the historic “Church Year,” ask your pastor about it. It can be a healthy and educational spiritual discipline.)

The Transfiguration took place on a mountaintop where God the Father brought Moses and Elijah to speak with Jesus. During this encounter, Jesus and his garments shined with a pure, clear light that dazzled the eyes.

It was quite likely the Transfiguration that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to include one powerful image in his Lord of the Rings tale. (The Lord of the Rings is often referred to as a trilogy, although it is actually a single intricate novel which consists of six “books” plus appendices.)

In the Middle Earth myth, the heroic Gandalf dies in battle with a champion of evil . . . only to be resurrected with even greater power and focus. In this point, the two events differ, since Jesus’ nature never changed. He was incarnate and born as both God and human being. The Transfiguration merely revealed momentarily a portion of his divine identity which was masked, in a sense, by his human flesh.

The aspect in which the accounts are similar comes in the appearance of the glorified Savior and the resurrected Wizard . . . they exude a holy radiance so powerful it even affects their garb.

Thus, Tolkien’s beloved Gandalf the Grey is transformed into the triumphant Gandalf the White.

The Transfiguration of Jesus was one small piece of evidence that he was who he claimed to be. It wasn’t given to the disciples to persuade them of his divinity; in fact, those who witnessed it were enjoined not to share the miracle with others until much later.

Ultimately, what one believes about Jesus does not come down to adding up his miracles and weighing them against the claims of other faiths. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, the promised Messiah, and humanity’s Savior. If he wasn’t exactly that, he should be condemned and his memory forgotten. As the brilliant C.S. Lewis wrote:

Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God because He said so. The other evidence about Him has convinced them that He was neither a lunatic nor a quack. (C.S. Lewis, “The Language of Religion”)

Those familiar with Lewis’ writings may recognize how this quotation echoes others where he discusses his divine trilemma.

The world is full of hypocrites who want to force Jesus into their warped pantheons as a “prophet” or “teacher.” Jesus doesn’t allow himself to be embraced as anything other than who he is—God’s Son. Since he made that claim so clearly, he is either precisely that, or he is a liar. Or, it’s possible as Lewis points out, that he may have been insane. In which case he also falls short of being someone who should be followed.

For those who do not presently know Christ, simply pray in humility that God would open your eyes in a personal epiphany. God desires that no one would remain separated from him. And then, one day we can all look forward to seeing our Lord in the fullness of his glory.