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Another Road to Middle Earth

15 Dec

Fifty years after its first publication, The Lord of the Rings found a new and even larger audience in a new medium, the three films directed by Peter Jackson and released in successive years 2001–2003. These are some of the most successful films ever made. The three between them had taken some £1,279 million at the box office, a figure certainly multiplied by VOD and DVD sales, especially of the extended versions which will give a final total running time of close on twelve hours. It is impossible to estimate how many viewers this will represent, since one DVD can be seen by many people, and conversely the box office takings are inflated by repeat viewers, but it is safe to say that hundreds of millions of people have seen or will see the films. There will almost certainly be more viewers than readers (though of course they are often the same people). In light of this it may seem bizarre that while Peter Jackson was making the films, the moguls of Hollywood, alarmed at the ever-increasing scale and cost of the production, sent to New Zealand a ‘script doctor’, whose job it was to get the films back on track. The ‘script doctor’ immediately saw the faults in the Tolkien plot. Having heroes riding (or in this case walking) to the rescue of a threatened people was of course perfectly familiar and acceptable, as in The Magnificent Seven: but there was no need to have two threatened peoples, Rohan and Gondor. One of them could be cut out, which meant that the battle of Helm’s Deep could be amalgamated with the battle of the Pelennor Fields. A love-interest for Aragorn was also clearly vital, but once again there was no need for two of them: either Arwen or Éowyn should go, preferably Arwen, and Aragorn should then marry Éowyn instead of politely dissuading her. One could then make a further saving by eliminating the figure of Faramir. Meanwhile, though there was some doubt about the wisdom of having such small and unheroic figures as hobbits as heroes, they might be retained as a gimmick: but four of them were one too many. And it was absolutely vital that one of the hobbits should die. With changes like these, The Lord of the Rings could be converted into a perfectly acceptable, run-of-the-mill movie script–at the expense, of course, of cultural contrast, originality, emotional depth, and a few other inessentials. The script doctor’s advice was ignored, and Jackson’s films perhaps convinced even the moguls in the end that there was something they did not know about popular appeal. Nevertheless, the changes proposed do say something about the individual and even eccentric nature of Tolkien’s work. So often it does not do what one might expect. But the success of the films does raise a more important issue. For many people, The Lord of the Rings now means the film version, not the books. In what ways are the two versions different, and would Tolkien himself have approved of the difference?

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Saga

11 Aug

Saga is an epic space opera/fantasy comic book series written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples, published monthly by Image Comics. A tree that doubles as a rocket ship. Aristocratic villains in 18th-century military dress with televisions for heads. A hairless cat who growls “LYING” at any knowingly untrue statement. A planet-sized bordello hosted by a pair of women’s heads on fishnet-stocking-wearing legs. This is but a dash of the unbelievable imagery you encounter in just the first six issues of Saga – a comic-book epic proves there’s still room for originality in the over-franchised world of sci-fi. The space opera—a sub-genre of science fiction that tends towards vivid, romantic fantasy and swashbuckling action and away from “harder,” more speculative sci-fi—has never really gone fully out of vogue since the success of Star Wars. But it’s gotten pretty stagnant, recycling the most universally recognizable tropes. What Saga is doing feels different and invigorating. It’s inspired by a fictional universe Vaughan created as a child and never stopped revisiting, and its core elements have the kind of loopy, fearless freshness only a young mind could generate.

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Lords of the Skies

16 Dec

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the eagles were immense flying birds that were sapient and could speak. Often emphatically referred to as the Great Eagles, they appear, usually and intentionally serving as agents of eucatastrophe or dei ex machina, in various parts of his legendarium, from The Silmarillion and the accounts of Númenor to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Ents are guardians of plant life, the giant eagles are the guardians of animal life. In The Silmarillion, they were described as the noblest of the winged creatures of Arda, for they were brought forth by two mighty Valar: Manwë, Lord of the Air, and Yavanna, Queen of the Earth. The Great Eagles were numbered among the most ancient and wisest of races. These birds were always messengers and servants of Manwë. Over all the azure world they flew, like lords of the skies – for they were the eyes of the Valar, and like thunderbolts fell on their foes. In the First Age, a mighty breed of this race lived in Beleriand. These Eagles were far-famed for their deeds in the War of the Jewels. Their lord was Thorondor, said to have been the greatest of all birds, whose wingspan was thirty fathoms and whose speed out-stripped that of the fastest wind.

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After the King: Tolkien’s heirs

22 Oct

It is something of a relief, having looked last month at his critics, to turn this time to Tolkien’s many admirers. It would not be true to say that there was no such thing as epic fantasy before Tolkien: there was a tradition of English and Irish writers before him, such as E R Eddison and Lord Dunsany, and a parallel tradition also of American writers appearing in pulp-magazines such as Weird Tales and Unknown. The Lord of the Rings however altered reading tastes rapidly and lastingly. Several hundred English-language fantasy novels are currently being published annually. The influence of Tolkien on them is often apparent from their titles – Guardians of the West (David Eddings), The Fellowship of the Talisman (Clifford D Simak), The Halfling’s Gem (R A Salvatore) and so on, to name just a few. Most writers do better at concealing their literary ancestry, but the first works even of authors who have found their own highly distinctive voices, like Stephen Donaldson or Alan Garner, habitually betray deep Tolkienian influence. Terry Pratchett, whose works have now been reliable best-sellers for almost forty years, began with what is obviously in part an affectionate parody of Tolkien, The Colour of Magic. Tolkien furthermore provided much of the inspiration, the personnel and the material, for early fantasy games and for role-playing games of the Dungeons & Dragons type. Spin-offs from these into computer games are still developing and multiplying. Middle-earth has become a cultural phenomenon, a part of many people’s mental furniture. Any full study of Tolkien’s legacy would have to be at least book-length – and will not be attempted here – but there is some interest in recording what at least a few of his most evident emulators have found most inspirational in Tolkien.

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Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics

24 Sep

“This is not a work that many adults will read right through more than once.” With these words the anonymous reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (25 November 1955) summed up his judgment of J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It must have seemed a pretty safe prophecy at the time, for of course in those days very few adults (or children) read anything right through more than once, still less anything as long as The Lord of the Rings. However, it could not have been more wrong: of all popular best-sellers, The Lord of the Rings is the one most likely to be read over and over again by readers eager to immerse themselves in Middle Earth. This did not stop critics continuing to say the same thing. Six years later, after the three separate volumes had gone through eight or nine hardback impressions each, Philip Toynbee in the Observer (6 August 1961) voiced delight at the way sales, he thought, were dropping. Most of Professor Tolkien’s more ardent supporters, he declared, were beginning to “sell out their shares” in him, so that “today these books have passed into merciful oblivion.” Five years afterwards the authorised American paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings was moving rapidly past its first million copies, starting a wave which never receded and has in the 21st century reached levels Toynbee could not have dreamed of. This general phenomenon of intense critical hostility to Tolkien in the face of his undeniable popularity is open enough; however, the reasons for it often remain unexpressed, hints and sneers rather than statements. Several attempts have been made to explain this deep and seemingly compulsive antipathy. This is the first of two linked posts that deal, firstly, with Tolkien’s critics and, secondly, with his legacy in the form of his many admirers and emulators.

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The Witch of Wicken Fen

6 Mar

Click to read my short story The Witch of Wicken Fen in Aphelion, the Webzine of sci-fi and fantasy!

An Interview with William Horwood

19 Feb

I’m delighted to post today an exclusive interview I recently conducted with William Horwood, author of the Duncton Wood series. Dedicated followers of this blog will be well aware of the high regard in which I hold William and his Duncton novels in particular, so it was a real pleasure to chat with him about a range of topics, including what got him into writing in the first place, inspirations for his work, the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of being a writer and, perhaps most interestingly, the potential forthcoming re-publication of the Duncton novels with Unbound, an award-winning crowdfunding publishing company. As you’ll see from the interview William was very open and incredibly generous with his time, giving answers that were sincere, full, interesting and, often, quite amusing! Read on for more…

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Songs of Earth and Power

22 May

Greg Bear (born August 20, 1951) is an American writer best known for science fiction. His work has covered themes of galactic conflict (the Forge of God books), artificial universes (The Way series), consciousness and cultural practices (Queen of Angels), and accelerated evolution (Blood Music, Darwin’s Radio, and Darwin’s Children). Greg Bear has written 44 books in total. His most recent work is the Forerunner Trilogy, written in the Halo universe. Greg Bear was also one of the five co-founders of the San Diego Comic-Con. While most of Bear’s work is science fiction, he has written in other fiction genres. Songs of Earth and Power is an omnibus edition of two classic fantasy novels from the eighties. In The Infinity Concerto (1984) Michael Perrin endures years of captivity and deadly struggles in the Realm of the Sidhe, a fantastic, beautiful and dangerous world. In The Serpent Mage (1986) he returns to Los Angeles – but the Sidhe are following him. Greg Bear’s land of elves is not the pretty, enchanted place of so many fantasy novels but is an oppressive, menacing land of cruelty and fear, ruled by the unfeeling fair folk of Celtic mythology. His brilliantly descriptive narrative draws the reader in until you feel part of this world. Songs of Earth and Power isn’t an easy or comfortable read but it is one that is well worth the effort.

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Of Wood Woses and Wild Men

24 Apr

In The Lord of the Rings a strange and primitive folk named the Woses came to aid the men of Gondor in breaking the siege of Minas Tirith. These wild woodland people lived in the ancient forest of Druadan, below the White Mountains. In form they were weather-worn, short-legged, thick-armed and stumpy-bodied and they knew wood-craft better than any man. The men of Gondor called the Woses the Wild-men of Druadan and believed that they were descended from the even more ancient Pukel-men of the First Age. These Wood Woses or Wild-men were an example of J R R Tolkien’s seemingly boundless capacity to invent plausible and memorable fictional races from the gaps and errors in ancient literature – in this particular case the mysterious medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For Tolkien was by no means the first author to make use of the literary and mythical archetype of the Wild-man. This is a mythological figure that appears fairly frequently in the artwork and literature of medieval Europe, comparable to the satyr or faun type in classical mythology and to Silvanus, the Roman god of the woodlands. Tolkien’s skill is in adapting this archetype to the landscape of English folklore through his fantasy masterpiece.

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Spawn of Ungoliant

13 Sep

Among the foulest beings that ever inhabited Middle Earth were the Great Spiders. They were dark and filled with envy, greed and the poison of malice. First of the beings that took spider form was Ungoliant, mother of the evil race that plagued the world thereafter, as well as a close ally of the first dark lord, Morgoth. Her origins are unclear, as Tolkien’s writings do not explicitly reveal her nature, other than that she is from “before the world”. Ungoliant fled after devouring the light of the Trees that once lit the world in its springtime and it is not known what ultimately was her fate, although it is suggested in The Silmarillion that her unremitting hunger drove her to devour herself. At some point, however, she gave birth to a race of Great Spiders, including the character Shelob in The Lord of the Rings and the spiders of Mirkwood in The Hobbit. Unlike many of Tolkien’s other creations, such as Smaug, Beorn, ents, orcs, hobbits and so on, even the most eminent experts on his work have struggled to find clear sources for the Great Spiders of Middle Earth. It is, however, possible to begin to explain the origins of these terrifying creatures by reference to Tolkien’s earliest inspirations (and fears) as a child.

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