Tag Archives: Tolkien

A HIGH FANTASY HIJACKING: JACKSON’S HOBBIT

I saw that the first Hobbit movie was going to be on TV recently. I decided to watch it (never having seen it at the cinema) and put aside my misgivings (accumulated through watching The Lord of the Rings movies) in order to give it a fair go.

I really, really tried.

It’s a mistake for a blogger, especially an occasional one like me, to criticize a popular movie franchise. Undoubtedly, there are masses of people possessing a sharply different point of view, and they might well express it. Forcefully.

But I’ll stand up for what I believe in.

And I believe this: if a book is worthy of being adapted to film, the filmmakers should respect it. Likewise the author who poured his soul into it.

I understand that the mediums of novel and film are different and require different treatments. I understand (but don’t condone) the commercial tactics of certain changes to enhance marketability. For instance, the appearance of Frodo at the beginning of the movie. He’s not in the book, and his appearance is nothing more than a marketing strategy to maintain continuity between the box office hits of The Lord of the Rings films and the Hobbit spinoffs. His unexpected, and plot irrelevant, presence also plays a part in stretching one short book into four films.

So, now to my claim of hijacking. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of hijacking goes something like this: to illegally seize (an aircraft, ship, or vehicle) while in transit and force it to go to a different destination or use it for one’s own purposes.

We can dispense with any legal definition, just as we can ignore aircrafts and ships. What’s relevant here is “… force it to go to a different destination…” To do that to a book is not to adapt it to film, but to break it and remake it according to the filmmaker’s own personal tastes and preferences.

I don’t deny Peter Jackson the right to his own tastes and preferences, but I would say this to him: if you want to express them, write your own story. Pour your own soul into it. If you dare.

Anyway, back to the adaptation.  The book has such a wonderful opening, but it’s all gone in favor of backstory drawn from the latter parts of the book and the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.

So many things made me cringe. The worst of it was Thranduil, the Elven king, paying homage to the Dwarf king after the discovery of the Arkenstone. As if! And why, in the name of God, did Jackson think it was a good idea for Thranduil to ride a stag rather than a horse? That’s not adaptation. That’s hijacking.

I’m not even going to discuss Radagast caring for an ill hedgehog called “Sebastian”or Gandalf sending a moth to ask Gwaihir, Lord of the Eagles, to rescue him.

The worst sin of the lot though was this: it was boring – mind numbingly, yawn inducing, coma producing boring. As much as I hated what Jackson did to The Lord of the Rings, at least those movies had narrative drive. I guess it shows what happens when you take a smallish book and try to spread it over four movies.

I didn’t watch to the end. It was nearly an hour before Bilbo even left Bag End to catch up to the Dwarves. That’s when I went to bed, being three quarters asleep already.

For me, it only had one redeeming quality. The rendition of the Dwarf song, We must away ere break of day. That was well done.

One final note.

I’m calling Jackson out for having total disrespect for Tolkien. He’s taken some of the greatest works of English literature, and, well, broken them. And he’s done it for financial profit. Not only has he disrespected Tolkien, but he’s disrespected the viewing public. We don’t need four Hobbit movies, where the story is dribbled out in unrecognizable bits and stretched like the life of a Ring-bearer. What we need is one good film. So, Mr. Jackson, not only have you disrespected Tolkien, but you’ve also disrespected the viewing public. At least this representative of it.

One day, sometime in the far future, another filmmaker will adapt Tolkien to the screen. Whoever that is, I wish them luck. In the meantime, I have the books – and that’s all I need.

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WHAT MAKES A BOOK WORTH REREADING?

I loved The Da Vinci Code. I turned each page in a fever of excitement that excluded thoughts of the outside world. When done, I placed it on my bookshelf, weary with the fatigue that only a long book read at breakneck speed can brew. It sits there now, many years later, just where I left it. It’ll probably stay there, untouched, until I sell it secondhand or give it to a friend. And yet I have other books on that same shelf, books that I do reread year after year. Some of them, decade after decade.

Why?

I have an answer. At least, I have an answer that applies to me. It’s nothing to do with the quality of the book, as such. Dan Brown is a fine author (I like all his novels). It seems fashionable in some circles to shoot him down because he’s had enormous success. Good luck to him, I say. He earned that success.

There are many reasons for his popularity. The aforementioned page-turning fever of excitement is one. He’s a master of suspense, and plot twists, and a bunch of other things that I (and as it turns out, a few other people around the world) like.

So, why won’t I read The Da Vinci Code a second time? Is it because I already know what happens, where the plot twists are and how it all ends? I don’t think so. I know the same things about all the books I reread, and that doesn’t stop me.

I do think it’s part of the problem, although only a small part. Dan Brown relies on these things more than most authors. Suspense, thrills, twists and theme are the chief attractions of his books. Once these elements are taken away, there’s not that much left.

So, what is left to any book when those elements are taken away? In Dan Brown’s case – a simple prose style. Clear, efficient and similar to most other thrillers. How does this differ from the books I reread?  These call me back by the sheer delight of their prose.

Good writing has a rhythm: each word, each sentence and each paragraph rings with music. It can lift me like poetry. It can bring goosebumps to my skin like a singer whose voice makes the air sweet. It can strike a chord in my heart like the glance of a girl across a crowded room. Good prose is a guide that leads me, step by step, without fault or jar, right into the heart of the story.

If a book has that, there’s something to fall back on when you already know what happens. Because while you’ll remember the details of the plot for a long time, the wording becomes fresh again in a matter of months. Prose of high quality works together with the story. Words, plot and character entwine and become one. Tolkien had that gift, and Ursula Le Guin, and David Eddings.

With some writers, the prose is a character, or it reflects the character’s dialogue so well that you don’t need to be told who’s speaking. There’s no mistaking Silk’s dialogue in The Belgariad: his deep intelligence, his dry wit, his bravado, the hidden but underlying depth of his feelings. All of these things drip from his every comment. It’s the same for Tolkien. He can convey a world of meaning by a simple name. Gollum. Moria. Mordor. Ithilien. You know who’s good or bad, what’s beautiful or fowl, just by the resonance of the name.

When prose, names, characters and story are one, there’s no limit to the number of times you can reread a book, because the reading is as much a pleasure as the story.

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DAVID GEMMELL, HEROIC FANTASY AND LITERARY FOILS

David Gemmell was one of the great fantasy authors. He chose to write heroic fantasy, rather than high or epic, and he mastered his preferred form. He remains, probably, the finest writer in that field. Nor is he likely to be surpassed. But what lifted him to the top of the genre?

Certainly, his books are page turners. Like any good writer, he knew how to hook a reader into a story and then to keep them in suspense. He filled the pages with excitement and then finished with a rousing bang. But many writers know how to do that.

He also deployed the full range of characters: good guys, bad guys, bad guys who turn good, good guys who turn bad – and most, just like ordinary people, aren’t really one or the other. They have traits of both. But lots of writers do this, too.

Regardless of the strong fantasy elements of his books, his stories are grounded in reality. In fact, he seemed to take great pleasure in grinding the reader’s face into it. Here, he’s a bit different from many, but hardly alone.

He also matches his characters external conflicts with internal counterpoints. That raises him a few rungs up the ladder, higher than many, but by itself doesn’t make him the master of heroic fantasy.

What sets him apart is that his stories resonate with depth. Not the depth of world building (languages, histories, appendices etc.) found in The Lord of the Rings, but something else that Tolkien also used: the power of contrast. They say conflict is king in storytelling. If so, contrast is queen, and she is an equal ruler.

In The Lord of the Rings, contrasts abound everywhere. Most things have a counterbalance – or an outright opposite. Think Gandalf/Saruman, Moria/Lothlórien, the hope of Théoden/the despair of Denethor. This is a trait shared by some of the great English storytellers. Shakespeare used opposites: comedy in tragedy/tragedy in comedy. Charles Dickens used contrast a different way in one of the best selling books of all time – A Tale of Two Cities. This is how it opens: 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . .

Small wonder that this is one of the best known literary quotes in the English language. It’s right up there with that other ultimate of opposites, “To be, or not to be…”

My point with all this is that contrasts (foils if we want to get technical) are powerful tools. They throw light on things in the same way that deserts taste sweeter after eating something sour.

Gemmell concentrates on his characters, which is fitting in heroic fantasy, and that’s where his contrasts are most at work.

Let’s take just one example and study how he uses the technique. I could choose any of his books and find a similar effect, but I think it’s most pronounced in Waylander.

The book takes its name from the main character. Waylander tragically lost his wife and children many years ago and has since lived the life of an assassin. Haunted by anger and guilt, he seeks revenge against his family’s murderers. In the process, he became a killer for hire. His last mission was the assassination of the Drenai king, and it’s shortly after this that the story begins.

Early on he meets the mystic, Dardalion. Dardalion is a Source Priest: kind, gentle, pure and a pacifist horrified by violence.

Waylander saves him from torture and death at the hands of outlaws. He achieves this with ruthless efficiency, for his skill at fighting is far superior to ordinary men. After the rescue, Dardalion travels with him, and they interact. Waylander’s ruthlessness washes off on the priest, and Dardalion’s goodness washes off on Waylander. Over time, he regains his conscience, though he loses none of his deadly skills. He puts them to use no longer as an assassin for hire, but to fight a great evil, and he transforms into a hero. And Dardalion, under Waylander’s influence, realizes that pacifism in the face of annihilation is not the only, perhaps not even the best, way to serve the Source. Ultimately, he forms a band of warrior-priests who also fight evil.

The two men are not only opposites of each other, but their futures are opposites of their past. They transform into something new, their change not only inspired by the other party but by the part of themselves that they realized was weak. They each find a balance – with the world and with themselves.

This is a kind of literary yin and yang. One force gives birth to the other. By their synergy, the whole becomes more than its parts.

The blurb to Waylander foreshadows this yin and yang contrast. Most tellingly in this:

Stalked by men who act like beasts and beasts that walk like men, the warrior Waylander must journey into the shadow-haunted lands of the Nadir to find the legendary Armour of Bronze. With this he can turn the tide.

Here, we have the men/beasts opposites, the shadow-haunted lands/(shiny) bronze armor opposites, and the tide, which is always in a state of flux; a perfect symbol of yin and yang harmony.

Gemmell could easily have told the story without Dardalion. But he was a master of his art, and he brought them together so that their contrasts would throw a sharper light on Waylander’s heroic struggle.

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SHANNARA AND ORIGINALITY IN FICTION

Terry Brooks is sometimes criticized for a lack of originality in The Sword of Shannara. Detractors claim it’s nothing more than a poor clone of The Lord of the Rings.  But is this fair, and what is originality in fiction?

Certainly, there are obvious parallels between the books in terms of character, setting and structure. Here are just a few:

  • The Shire / Shady Vale
  • Frodo and Sam / Shea and Flick
  • The Wizard Gandalf / the Druid Allanon
  • Elves / Elves
  • Dwarves / Dwarfs
  • Frodo begins his journey without Gandalf / Shea begins his journey without Allanon
  • Gollum / Orl Fane
  • Orcs / Gnomes
  • The Black Riders / The Skull Bearers
  • The Dark Lord / The Warlock Lord
  • Underground tunnels (Moria) / underground tunnels (Hall of Kings)
  • The siege of Gondor / The siege of Tyrsis

There are more, but what do shared plot points and archetypes really tell us about The Sword of Shannara?

Not much.

To appreciate a story, it must be experienced as a story, not broken down into a list.

Stories often appear similar on the surface. Just like a glass of Coke looks like a glass of Pepsi. But if you actually taste them (rather than merely note that they’re fizzy, dark and wet) you find that they’re not the same. Books are no different. Reading them, as opposed to summarizing them, is an emotional and psychological experience – one that’s created by the mind of the author and that sparks to life in the mind of the reader.

Terry Brooks is far a different person from Tolkien, and the emotional and psychological effect he invokes is different. This is because stories are more than character, plot and setting: they have a voice, the author’s voice, and this resonates (or fails to resonate) with the emotions of the reader.

So, what is originality in literature? Stories have been told since hunters and gatherers first sat down around a campfire – probably even before they discovered fire. Storytelling is based on real life, the emotional things that drive us such as fear, courage, hate, love, greed, generosity, resentment and forgiveness. Those emotions haven’t changed in the six thousand years of recorded history. And because there are only so many emotions, there are only so many stories. You can’t tell a story about a rock – inanimate objects don’t have emotions.  But you can tell one about a man who first discovers the secret of smelting iron ore and who forges weapons to protect his homeland from invaders.

Let’s examine one parallel between the The Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Shannara, and see how it effects us emotionally.

Both stories have a wise mentor: Gandalf /Allanon. In both, their absence at crucial points allows the hero to grow. Otherwise, The Lord of the Rings would be a story about Gandalf rather than Frodo, and The Sword of Shannara would be about Allanon. In both books the mentors are hooded, wise, mysterious, secretive, sometimes grumpy, and more powerful than they at first seem. But these are all superficial characteristics. What are they like as people? What’s at their emotional core?

Gandalf has an overriding mission. He’s an emissary sent to help the inhabitants of Middle-earth resist evil. He has enormous power, but won’t use it to influence those he helps. He’s swift to anger, but shows kindness to the small and great alike. He’s a kind person with a massive task, and his heart has deep stores of compassion, mercy and pity.

So much for Gandalf, but what about Allanon? Who is he really? He could be all the things that Gandalf is. He probably is all those things, but fate and circumstance drive him down a darker course. He keeps a deadly secret from Shea. He does this because he must, because it’s ultimately what’s best for the Four Lands and Shea himself. But he’ll never be thanked for it. His burden is to serve, to do what’s right, and to be mistrusted for his personal sacrifice.

At heart, these two mentors transcend their superficial characteristics. Or rather, both authors transcend the common archetype that they use. As readers, we like and admire Gandalf; we marvel at his store of wisdom, understanding of human nature and his capacity to help those for whom he feels pity. Our reaction to Allanon is different. It’s for him that we feel pity.

Despite superficial similarities, Gandalf and Allanon are worlds apart, and their emotional effect on us is just as distinct. They speak to us in a different way. Originality is to take something and to infuse it with your own voice. For there is nothing new in storytelling, not since before that first camp fire.

I could say something similar about all of the parallels. Instead, I’ll finish on this point. The voice of both authors is entirely different. The Lord of the Rings is heavily laden with a sense of loss, of the passing of much that is good, even in victory. The Sword of Shannara is filled with fear that humankind might repeat their past mistakes, but also a quiet hope that they’ll rise above their baser emotions, and that the future is full of promise.

As I said, Tolkien and Brooks are as far apart from each other as possible. So too are their stories.

 

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HIGH STYLE, POETIC PROSE AND ELEVATED DICTION

I argued here that one of the hallmarks of high fantasy is poetic prose. But how do the great writers achieve their “high style?” And what exactly is high style, or as it’s more officially (but less beautifully) called, elevated diction?

Fantasy stories (at least those of an epic flavor) are a natural home for this kind of writing. The genre tropes lend themselves to it: light against dark, heroes against villains, courage against despair and the great sweeps of time during which the fate of people, nations and even worlds hang in the balance.

I’ll give some examples of high style because it’s one of those things that’s hard to describe but easy to recognize when you see it. But first, I’ll run through what it isn’t.

David Eddings uses the term in his introduction to The Rivan Codex. He says, “Next came the question of how to tell it. My selection of Sir Perceval (Sir Dumb, if you prefer) sort of ruled out ‘High Style’. I can write in ‘High Style’ if necessary (see Mandorallen with his ‘thee’s, ‘thou’s and ‘foreasmuche’s), but Garion would have probably swallowed his tongue if he’d tried it.”

I don’t want to disagree with a master of the genre, but in this he was wrong. Is Mandorallen’s speech archaic? Yes. Is it formal? Yes. Does it provide contrast to the earthy dialogue of Belgarath, the witty observations of Silk and the sarcastic tones of Ce’Nedra? Yes. But it’s not high style. It’s everyday speech from a few hundred years ago. Would the people who spoke that way have considered it high? Not at all. For them, it was ordinary. Something more than archaic formality is needed to lift writing to the status of “high.”

Some people group high style together with purple prose. According to Wikipedia, “Purple prose is written prose that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context.”

Well, that sounds like a good definition. However, what does “beyond the requirements of its context” mean? It means nothing at all, for whether or not the context requires ornate prose is a matter of taste. It’s like saying good food is unnecessary because the human body can survive on stale bread and gruel. Apologies to stale bread and gruel aficionados.

The great pulp era writers like Robert E. Howard (author of the Conan stories) were sometimes accused of purple prose. But much of Howard’s writing was true high style (to my taste). And I suggest that his critics simply didn’t care for sensually evocative writing in any context. Howard was also a great user of adjectives, a habit mistakenly frowned upon by some critics.  My thoughts on that are here.

So, what exactly is high style?

High style is a simple style. It uses the right word in the right place. It uses specific nouns, shuns weak adverbs, uses active verbs, prefers an unusual verb to a common one and uses adjectives to invoke strong imagery. Above all, it’s terse. Actually, that’s just good writing. High style, in addition to all that, adds layers of poetic technique such as simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration and resonance. In short, the words have a ring to them, for words, whether spoken or read, are musical.

Of course, there’s a time and place for everything. An author wouldn’t use high style to describe two bugs crawling up a wall (although the writer in me is twitching at that challenge). Prose, like music, needs variation to work. It should rise to high style when the emotional impact of the prose reaches a crescendo.

Showing is better than telling, so here are some examples.

This is the beginning of Robert E Howard’s The Phoenix on the Sword.

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

Now, to my taste, that has a ring to it. It’s exquisite. I won’t attempt a detailed analysis (which would take far more room than I have here) but I’ll draw your attention to a few of Howard’s techniques.

Some of the most powerful phrases are personifications (the giving of human-like characteristics to inanimate objects): the oceans drank Atlantis . . . shadow-guarded tombs . . . the proudest kingdom . . . the dreaming west. Also, note some of the adjectives that provide vivid imagery: gleaming cities . . . dark-haired women . . . spider-haunted mystery . . . jeweled thrones . . . sandalled feet.

This is another example. It’s from Tolkien’s The Silmarrillion. Fingolfin has just challenged Morgoth to combat.

Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable on-blazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star; for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his blue shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil, that glittered like ice.

This is the work of one of the great masters of the English language. The paragraph is thick with similes and at least one metaphor: like thunder . . . like a tower . . . like a stormcloud . . . as a star . . . glittered like ice. Not to mention the adjectives again: subterranean throne . . . black armour . . . iron-crowned . . . vast shield . . . And there’s personification in the rumour of his feet. Also, note some of the alliteration: feet, forth, black, before, clad, king, iron-crowned, cast, stormcloud.

Let’s rework that paragraph without the sensually evocative prose.

Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne. His feet trod loudly on the stairs. And he issued forth clad in armour; and he stood before the King, and his vast shield cast a shadow over him. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it, for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil. 

That just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? And I didn’t even remove the alliteration.

So, to all the haters of poetic prose who would have me eat only stale bread and gruel, a thousand poxes upon your houses, and may you be flooded by a ceaseless tide of ever-more-vivid adjectives. And if that’s beyond the requirements of context, I’ll find a way to live with it.

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EPIC FANTASY AND AUTHOR BRANDING

Branding is important. It’s important in the commercial world of buying and selling. It’s important in politics. Religions have been doing it for thousands of years. Sports stars do it. Your local bakery does it. But what about epic fantasy authors?

First of all, what is branding?

A brand is something that represents a product. It might be a gimmicky logo, or perhaps a pithy catchphrase. More often than not, it’s both at the same time. Whatever it is, the best ones have an instant recognition factor. You see it, and it invokes a feeling for the whole product: what it stands for, how it’s different from its competitors and what it means to you emotionally.

There are two sides to this, which are often confused. The brand, and the brand experience. The two work together, and the more seamlessly they do so, the better the results.

S0, the brand of an author includes things like their name, the titles of their books, the look of their covers and, most of all, their blurbs. The brand experience starts from the first sentence and continues through to the last page. And more than that, it also includes an author’s website, newsletter, their correspondence with fans and comments during interviews.

To an author, the brand is important. It helps fans discover a newly released book from a writer that they like. It’s also a vital part of attracting new readers, especially if it can trigger that sudden recognition that this might be the type of book they like. More on that later.

Once purchased (or borrowed) the most important thing for both author and reader is the brand experience. This is the feel of the story, the mood and emotions it invokes. Most of all, it’s the author’s voice and how the reader reacts to it.

The voice of David Eddings is unique. So too Robert Jordan. They both wrote classic epic fantasy, reveling in its archetypes, plot cliches and tried-and-tested tropes. And yet they’re cheese and chalk.

Here’s a question. If the most important aspect of author branding is the brand experience, and a reader doesn’t know what this is until they’ve read at least some of the book, how can an author capture it in a few pithy words?

Well, blurbs do it all the time. So do leitmotifs and epigraphs. Whether you’re scanning a product description on Amazon or the back cover of a paperback in a store, those tantalizing few paragraphs foreshadow the brand experience. The better they do that, the better they give insight into the author’s voice and the mood of the whole book.

For now, I’ll have a look at how some of the great fantasy authors used recurring leitmotifs for their books. I’ll tackle blurbs in a future post.

 

A magnificent epic of immense

scope set against a history

of seven thousand years of the

struggles of gods and kings

and men – of strange lands and

events – of fate and a prophecy

that must be fulfilled!

This appears on the back cover of all five books of The Belgariad. At least, on my paperbacks bought in the 1980’s. The current editions have lost it, much to to their detriment.

Now, I can actually remember one bright morning, on the way to school, stopping at the local newsstand and looking for something to read. I found Pawn of Prophecy. It was the leitmotif that sold me – I didn’t have time for anything else. It sold me because, having read The Lord of the Rings for the first time only a few months previously, I recognized that this new book was the kind of epic story I wanted. That’s a brand at work. And as I read the series, waiting eagerly for each book to come out, the initial foreshadowing was met. The brand experience lived up to expectations.

Now, how about this?

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and go, leaving

memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and

even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth

returns again . . .

This appears on the back cover of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books. At least, just as with David Eddings, on the paperbacks I bought in the 1990’s. Once again, the current editions have lost it. I can’t help but think that great authors know how to sell books better than publishers. Anyway, once again, it screams epic fantasy – and that was just what I was after.

And the high master of them all?

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky. . .

No need to quote Tolkien’s ring verse in full. Most of the English speaking world has heard it. Just like the others, this serves to foreshadow the entire story – to give a feel for it: elves under the sky, dwarves in their halls of stone, mortal men doomed to die, one ring to rule them all. In its own poetic way, it’s a plot summary.

So, the next time you’re looking for a new author to read, have a think about how they handle branding. Does it foreshadow the story and the author’s voice? Does its mood resonate with you? If so, you could be onto a winner – just as I was one morning before school in the early 80’s, on a day that was full of promise.

 

 

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EPIC FANTASY: THE MAGIC OF ADJECTIVES

Stories of epic fantasy bring the reader to another world. There may be dragons, strange beasts, combat between dark sorcerers and hard-pressed wizards. The land itself may be enchanted, and several moons might hang in the sky. In short, magic is at play.

But all stories bring the reader into the world of the main character, no matter that the setting is Middle-earth or Manhattan. In order to work, fiction must make that world come to life, and the author has to conjure a sense of reality from mere words on a page. Magic indeed.

An author might write, “The dragon lifted its head and eyed the warrior.” But the reader is entitled to ask, “What sort of dragon? Is it winged? Is it long and sinuous? Is it reptilian? Is its tail barbed? Does flame flicker deep in its cavernous mouth? Or is it a cold drake?” But if the reader has to ask those questions, the spell is broken, for they are no longer seeing images in their imagination, but trying to construct a picture by rational thought. That is the death of epic fantasy – or any fiction.

Writing experts, writing teachers, style guides and the self-appointed literati advise to avoid adjectives. But if you read the above paragraph again, and remove the adjectives, you’re left with little more than the dragon.

If I had to construct a mental picture myself, I would make him a winged creature with two curls of smoke rising from his long snout. You, on the other hand, might see a barbed behemoth never to be airborne, hard-plated scales undulating as he writhed over the ground like a snake. All very good until the author has your dragon take to the sky, and then the spell is broken.

So, while the experts proclaim rules, the best writers go about telling stories their own way and working a spell on readers. Few would serve as a better example than Tolkien, so I’ll quote The Lord of the Rings. The scene is in Rohan, and Gandalf is speaking to Wormtonge.

“Thus Gandalf softly sang, and then suddenly he changed. Casting his tattered cloak aside, he stood up and leaned no longer on his staff; and he spoke in a clear cold voice. ‘The wise speak only of what they know, Gríma son of Gálmód. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.’ He raised his staff. There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers. Only Gandalf could be seen, standing white and tall before the blackened hearth.”

If that doesn’t convince you of the magic of adjectives, nothing will.

A word of warning though: not all passages should be so epic, even in epic fantasy. Adjectives are potent, but the magic soon fades if used too much, or worse, when the noun they modify doesn’t need it. For instance, saying, “They walked over the green grass,” is superfluous.

Try not to prove the experts right.

 

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HIGH FANTASY, WHY DOST THOU THUS?

Why do many high fantasy books have an element of archaism?

Certainly, the genre is archaic by nature, and the pages of its books are full of lightning-fast swordsmen, the slow but deadly maneuvering of armies, the desperate clash of steel on shield and the siege of thick-walled fortresses.

But that’s not what I mean.

Epic fantasy and heroic fantasy share these elements. And yet these stories are often told in a modern manner. The dialogue, sharp and witty, is just as we would speak today. The characters are people we can easily relate to. In fact, they’re so contemporary that it’s easy to picture them standing around in faded jeans and smoking cigarettes.

This quote from Magician’s Gambit, book three of David Edding’s Belgariad series, shows you what I mean:

“He’s not dead, is he?”  Durnik’s voice was almost sick.

“Not yet,” Yarbleck replied, “but Taur Urgas plans to correct that when the sun comes up in the morning. I couldn’t even get close enough to that pit to drop a dagger to him so he could open a vein. I’m afraid his last morning’s going to be a bad one.”

This is as modern as it gets, both in wording and worldview. Please don’t misunderstand me though – David Eddings is one of my favorite writers.

Yet one of the hallmarks of high fantasy is a poetic prose style, and archaic language, if used just right, is one of the most useful implements in a wordsmith’s tool box. Its use can evoke mood, setting and temperament. It can enrich a story.  Most of all, the language itself, given impetus by its very strangeness, speaks with rare clarity and vigor. It rises above the white noise of a thousand other books, of TV and Radio, of day-to-day speech itself.

The question is, how can it be used just right?

The problem with authors who occasionally use thees and thous is that readers often find those passages jarring. The archaism appears out of the blue, and disappears just as quickly. It’s not a natural part of the created world and disrupts the flow of a story that’s otherwise told in modern language.

Alternatively, if they’re used throughout, they become wearying to the ear.

So, how do the best writers do it? For them, the archaism is a natural part of the prose, from beginning to end. It might intensify during certain scenes or when certain characters speak. It flows and ebbs, but it’s always present. And subtlety is their friend. It’s often not the words they use, but the order in which they appear. Sometimes, they’ll use an archaic word too, but rarely a cliche like thee and thou, and they’ll choose one whose meaning is apparent from the context.

Cast your eyes over this, from The Lord of The Rings:

“For each of the hobbits he chose a dagger, long, leaf-shaped, and keen, of marvellous workmanship, damasked with serpent-forms in red and gold. They gleamed as he drew them from their black sheaths, wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. Whether by some virtue in these sheaths or because of the spell that lay on the mound, the blades seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, glittering in the sun.”

This is modern English, and yet it isn’t. It’s not how the guy on the phone trying to sell me health insurance talks.

The main difference lies in the inversion of normal word order. Also, contemporary English is clipped – we like short sentences nowadays. Additionally, some of the words, like damasked, though not really archaic, are rarely used.

This is the same passage without the Tolkien magic.

“He chose a dagger for each of the hobbits. They were long, curved, and sharp. They were also of fine workmanship, decorated with red and gold snakes. He drew the blades from their black sheaths. They gleamed. They were crafted of some strange metal that was light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. The blades were unrusted and sharp, and they glittered in the sun. Time had not touched them. Possibly, some magic in the sheaths protected them. Or a spell lay over the mound.”

There’s nothing wrong with this – but the subtle unusualness of the true version stands out more.

It’s high fantasy at its best.

It’s poetry.

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HIGH FANTASY: FACT OR FICTION

One of the best things about fantasy books is their ability to take the reader into another world. This is a great strength. At the same time, from some people’s perspective, their greatest weakness.

A large number of readers only like “real” books – things to do with the world as we know it and historical events: memoirs, histories, self-help books and the like. I read a post on a writing forum recently where someone showed this attitude. He said that he was happy to charge high prices for his books because they were non-fiction and useful. The fiction writers, he suggested, were welcome to discount their novels as they were only made up things of no value.

I  certainly enjoy non-fiction books, but are they any more real than, say, the high fantasy of A Wizard of Earthsea?

Let’s take a closer look.

I’ve read the memoirs of many famous historical figures and sports people. Most of them were entertaining, some were enlightening, a few downright inspiring. These people had interesting stories to tell about their lives.

But telling a story is exactly what they did. It just happened to be their story. They presented a recollection of events, as seen through their eyes, and as such their reminiscences were filled not only with personal insights, but also their prejudices and misunderstandings. Who among us is free of those?

In short, a memoir is a record of how things happened, from a particular person’s point of view. Other people may have experienced those identical events, or reviewed the same set of facts, yet arrived at vastly different opinions.

For instance, I might argue that Tolkien is the greatest writer to have ever lived, but William Shakespeare need not agree (nor, for that matter, my English teacher). Likewise, some doctors say a daily glass of wine is good for you. Others argue that it’s poison. The truth is that the more you try to pin facts down, the more slippery they become.

So, what perspective do we gain on things looking out of the fictional eyes of Sparrowhawk while he sails the uncharted waters of Earthsea? Certainly, we learn a lot about pride, humility and the responsibility of power. Ultimately, these perspectives all derive from the author, because it’s the writer who breathes life into the character. But are the perspectives and insights any less real for that?

No.

And what about Sam and Frodo as they trudge across Middle-earth. Their struggles show us a lot about sacrifice, courage and loyalty. You can read a dictionary (one of those useful non-fiction books) to find the meaning of these words, but in The Lord of the Rings you feel them in your very bones.

Which is truer? Which more real? The desperate grit of Sam as he carries his master up the broken slopes of Mount Doom, empty of all hope but filled with determination anyway. Or the dictionary definition of the word: courage, toughness, resolution.

But as I say, it’s all a matter of perspective.

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TOLKIEN AND THE MAGIC GRAPE JUICE

The Lord of the Rings is the second highest selling book of all time. It trails A Tale of Two Cities, although I note that Charles Dickens had nearly a century head start. Tolkien’s masterpiece was consistently voted as the best book of the last century during a series of large-scale reader polls. For myself, I agree. But I have one question.

Why?

Undoubtedly, Tolkien was a great storyteller. He created memorable characters. His plotting was seamless, his prose fluent and poetic. But many authors can claim similar skills. What makes Tolkien different?

A blog on high, heroic and epic fantasy could do worse than attempt an explanation. And I do have one.

I think there are many reasons for Tolkien’s success, and I’ll come back to the subject in the future. For now, I’m going to focus on just one aspect. But first – a detour into history. It will, in the end, clarify my point.

The earliest archeological record for wine making dates to the late Neolithic period in the Caucuses. The people of that time (about 6000 BC) discovered that wild grape juice transformed into wine when buried in clay vessels through winter. And glad would they have been who first drank it.

Grape juice is nice. Its bold flavor is raw, fresh and vibrant. Its sweetness competes with its tartness. But it’s not wine. Wine is more subtle. Wine is refined. Wine is luxurious. The magic of fermentation turns grape juice into something entirely different. The flavors of the crushed grapes and the special characteristics of the yeast on their skins, which begin the process, come together as a whole and meld into something new. Just as soups and casseroles taste better the next day, so does wine improve over weeks, months or years. The flavors interact with each other and work together rather than compete.

The Lord of the Rings is like that. Everything works together as part of a greater whole. This gives the story depth. It makes it seem that things happen for a reason, rather than because of arbitrary chance, or author convenience. It makes things seem real. And that feeling of realness, of reading recorded history rather than fiction, of depth, is something that distinguishes Tolkien from other writers.

Many fantasy authors think that by adding appendices to their work, providing name lists, using a prologue establishing the mythological background, by giving dates for historical events in their fictional world, that they’re emulating Tolkien’s depth. But what they’re doing is tipping distilled spirits into a glass of grape juice and hoping for wine.

Tolkien’s depth comes from the melding of events, characters, names, languages and artifacts, rather than a mere dumping of raw information. If you pull on a single thread of his story, you find that the whole tapestry twitches. Shall we look at just one example to see what I mean?

When Tom Bombadil rescues the hobbits from the Barrow-wight, they retrieve some daggers. Tom explains their history and something of the Men of Westerness, foes of the Dark Lord, who long before had been overcome by the evil king of Angmar. Nearly a thousand pages later we see one of those weapons in use. Merry has stabbed the Witch-king, who was once that same evil king of Angmar. When the Black Rider is dead, Merry watches the blade wither away on the grass. Tolkien gently reminds us, “But glad would he have been to know its fate who wrought it slowly long ago . . .  and chief among their foes was the dread realm of Angmar and its sorcerer king.”

In this way Middle-earth’s past, Merry’s more recent past, and the present are connected. Just as in real life, events have repercussions, and they reverberate through the world.

But that’s not the only link. All through the novel is a sentiment that “Oft evil will shall evil mar.” This is reinforced by the fact that had the Barrow-wight not taken the hobbits, Merry would not have had the blade, and the Witch-king would not have been slain.

This is only one example. Take just about any event, character, name, sentiment or artifact, and think about how it’s connected to something else, and you’ll soon see that very little stands in isolation in The Lord of the Rings. The whole novel is like one of those buried clay vessels. The past is always bubbling up to the present, the fermentation always working its magic.

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