I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Fall of Arthur. I’ve never been a fan of Tolkien as poet and, as a rule, skim through the examples that crop...moreI was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Fall of Arthur. I’ve never been a fan of Tolkien as poet and, as a rule, skim through the examples that crop up in his prose or that are reproduced in the History of Middle-earth volumes. But I was intrigued by the subject and by what Tolkien may have made of the Matter of Britain (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight doesn’t count since it’s a translation of an existing poem).
Unfortunately, The Fall of Arthur is incomplete. Tolkien only completed four cantos (in several versions which Christopher Tolkien exhaustively presents) but what’s there suggests an original retelling of the war between Arthur and his son Mordred. The first cantos opens with Arthur fighting in the unmapped east when he learns of Mordred’s treachery; the second introduces Arthur’s son, his motivations for rebellion, and the queen and her motivations; the third cantos takes us to Lancelot, who languishes in Benwick mourning his fate; the fourth cantos describes Arthur’s initial landing at Romney in Kent and the ensuing battle with the rebels (not Camlann, though; Tolkien never got that far).
I was especially interested in Tolkien’s portrayal of Guinever. As I read the poem, she’s a cold, grasping, shallow woman who even in the face of the ruin of the king’s dreams shows no remorse:
/ His heart returned To its long thralldom / lust-tormented, To Guinever the golden / with gleaming limbs, As fair and fell / as fay-woman In the world walking / for the woe of men No tear shedding….
In her blissful bower / on bed of silver Softly slept she / on silken pillows With long hair loosened, / lightly breathing, In fragrant dreams / fearless wandering, Of pity and repentance / no pain feeling, In the courts of Camelot / queen and peerless, Queen unguarded…. (II.25-30, 32-38)
/ But cold silver Or glowing gold / greedy-hearted In her fingers taken / fairer thought she, More lovely deeming / what she alone treasured Darkly hoarded. / Dear she loved him With love unyielding, / lady ruthless Fair as fay-woman / and fell-minded In the world walking / for the woe of men….
From war she shrank not, / might her will conquer, Life both and love / with delight keeping To wield as she wished / while the world lasted; But little liked her / lonely exile, Or for love to lose / her life’s splendour. In sorrow they parted. / With searing words His wound she probed / his will searching. Grief bewrayed her / and greed thwarted; The shining sun / was sudden shaded In storm of darkness…. / In pain they parted…. (III.49-56, 97-106, 109)
I would recommend this for the Tolkien and/or Arthurian lit reader.(less)
Saying that The Last Ringbearer is The Lord of the Rings told from Mordor’s point of view is not entirely accurate. True, the principal characters are...moreSaying that The Last Ringbearer is The Lord of the Rings told from Mordor’s point of view is not entirely accurate. True, the principal characters are an army medic and scout of Mordor and an erstwhile Ranger of Ithilien but all the action takes place after the War of the Ring. Middle Earth is recast as Europe during the Cold War, with Gondor and Mordor assuming the roles of the superpowers. The “magic” of Tolkien’s vision becomes window dressing, and the novel reads more like John Le Carré fanfic than Tolkien.
Essential plot: The War of the Ring erupts between Mordor (ruled by Sauron VIII) and Gondor (ruled by Denethor of the Anarion Dynasty*) primarily because Gondor wants to choke off Mordor’s trade routes and reduce it to vassalage. More fundamentally, the Elves and the Wizards are using Gondor to destroy the growing power of technology, which threatens to destroy the traditional balance of Nature and power in the world.** Eskov’s background as a scientist and enthusiasm for technology comes through clearly in his description of Barad-Dur:
“…that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle Earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic.” (Chapter 2)
The last survivor of the Order of the Nazgul tasks Haladdin and Tzerlag with destroying the Mirror of Galadriel and the palantiri, which will close off the world of the Elves (the Far West) and prevent them from enslaving Man and condemning the world to an eternal Dark Age. In order to destroy the Mirror, Haladdin and Tzerlag must acquire two palantiri, bring one into the presence of the Mirror, simultaneously throwing the other into the fires of Orodruin (Mt. Doom). The remainder of the novel is a confusing account of their efforts to fulfill the mission divided into four parts that focus on various aspects of the quest. Part I sets up the quest. Part II recounts Haladdin’s and Tzerlag’s efforts to acquire some Seeing Stones and introduces us to the Machiavellian politics of Gondor: Aragorn has spared Faramir’s life but he and Eowyn live under house arrest in Ithilien; Aragorn is trying to get out from under the Elves’ thumb (represented by Arwen, who is his nominal “wife” but whose presence in Minas Tirith is to ensure that Men don’t get out of control). Part III is – as far as I can tell – a largely pointless diversion to Umbar, where Tangorn (the Ithilien Ranger mentioned above) has to do something to advance the cause. I’m not sure why Tangorn has to be in Umbar or what the consequences of his actions are but this is the most Le Carresque section of the novel and the hardest to get through. Part IV moves to Dol Guldur and Lothlorien, and Haladdin’s ultimate success in destroying the Mirror.
There’s an Epilogue written in light of the utterly mundane world that results and has some amusing asides, e.g., Eomer becomes a religious fanatic of a heretical Harad sect and dies fighting in the South.
As a piece of literature, The Last Ringbearer fails at nearly every level. Stylistically, it’s all over the map. In some places, Eskov attempts to write in a lyrical style – emulating Tolkien? – but the results are not good. I reproduce my favorite of the many overwrought and unintentionally comic stabs at description:
“The shrimp were excellent. They sat on the tin plate like battle-ready triremes on the dim morning surface of the Barangar Bay: spiky rostrums in the tangle of rigging (feelers) threatening the enemy, oars (feet) hugging the body, just like they should in preparation for boarding.” (Chapter 36)
Even worse than having the author point out what concrete objects the metaphor is referring to is that this aside serves no point in the narrative.
Other times, Eskov writes in a colloquial, 21st-century idiom that jarringly plops this reader back into his easy chair before jerking him once again into Middle Earth. I can open the book at random and find numerous examples:
As when Aragorn kills the Commander-South (aka the Witch King of Angmar):
“‘Of course they won’t,’ laughed the Dunadan, ‘since they will be kneeling before the new King of Gondor! I beat you in an honest fight, one on one – so it shall be written in all the history books. As for you, they won’t even remember your name. I’ll make sure of that. Actually,’ he stopped in midstride, hunting for the stirrup, ‘we can make it even more interesting: let you be killed by a midget, some tiny little dwarf with hairy paws. Or by a broad… yes, that’s how we’ll do it.’” (Chapter 7)
Or in Umbar:
“The fat man shook and sweated, but remained silent. Having no time to spare – at any moment someone might start breaking down the door – Jacuzzi (sic) made his proposition short and to the point: ‘Ten seconds to think about it. Then I’ll start counting to five, breaking a finger at each count. On the count of six I’ll cut your throat with this razor. Look in my eyes – do I look like I’m joking?’
‘You’re from the Secret Service, right?’ the Senior Inspector mumbled mournfully, gray with terror. It was clear as day that he had not earned his stripes capturing criminals in the Kharmian Village slums.” (Chapter 51)
Or this conversation between two Elves:
“‘Clofoel of the World! You’re under arrest for treason. Stand against the wall!’
They stood facing each other, the Mirror between them; the clofoel of Tranquility had his sword out – he was not about to give that snake any chances, she was mortally dangerous as it was.
‘Unclip the dagger from your belt…now the stiletto in your left sleeve…. Kick them away with your foot! Now, we’ll talk. The magic object that Star fool’s dancers can’t find is attached to the bottom of the “table,” right? One has to drop on all fours before the Mirror to see it – surely no one will think of that. It’s impossible to find it magically – the dancers are like a dog that has to find a perfumed handkerchief hidden in a sack of crushed pepper. An excellent idea, my compliments! By the way, what is it?’
‘Whoa!’ He apparently never expected that. ‘Whose gift is it – the Enemy’s?’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ (Chapter 66)
The attempt to create distinct and memorable characters also falls flat. The most successful effort (relatively) in that direction is Tangorn, who’s given some background and a love interest (a high-priced hetaira in Umbar). Haladdin, who you would expect to be the central character, practically disappears from the narrative after Part I, and only takes center stage again in Part IV when he orders a poor Troll off on a suicide mission and throws the palantir into Mt. Doom.
Eskov is equally ham handed at creating a sense of menace or moral evil in his bad guys. Case in point is an utterly gratuitous gang-rape and murder that establishes the villainous bona fides of Marandil, Gondor’s “chief of station” in Umbar. To Eskov’s credit, the whole vile episode happens off stage but it still reads … wrong!***
The biggest “sin” committed by Eskov, however, is that he misses the point of The Lord of the Rings and myth in general. I have read the translation of his blog post, where he laments at the “unreality” of Middle Earth’s geography and wanted to make it something that could have actually existed but that’s beside the point – and, in this case, reduces it to a novel of the Cold War. But that a limited view of what’s “real.” Myths don’t have to conform to the latest meteorological theories – if our Hero has to cross a blazing desert to find his Princess, then he rides from the Forest of Broceliande to the Sands of Araby in a couple of days. And myths aren’t meant to reflect the “real” world. As Ursula Le Guin writes in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”: “A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you" (emphasis in the original). The Lord of the Rings addresses so many issues – the struggle between doing what’s right and resisting what’s wrong when you don’t know the correct path, the responsibilities of friendship, the promise of redemption, etc. – that when it is reduced to a spy thriller, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.
I have no problem with de-mythologizing LotR (though I’m not sure what the point would be****) but if you’re going to reject the fantasy you have to reject all the fantasy, which Eskov does not do. He removes the magic he doesn’t need and keeps only what’s necessary to justify his storyline.
A retelling of the War of the Ring retains the mythic/fantastic elements of Middle Earth but would look at it from another’s POV or recast the myth into a different tradition. For example, an author could keep the essentially Christian Good/Evil ethic but tell it from an Orc’s point of view, or Gollum’s, or a Haradrim’s (as Sam himself asks in The Two Towers on seeing a dead Haradrim, “He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace...” (“Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”). Tolkien toys with this in “Aldarion and Erendis” and in the fragment “Tal-Elmar.”
Another option would be to recast Middle Earth in terms of another tradition, e.g., Ancient Greece. The Greeks (pre-Socratic certainly) were largely uninterested in our conceptions of Good and Evil, theirs was a mythology of Heroes. The analogy can only be pushed so far but in this vision, Boromir would be an Achilles figure; Gandalf would be Odysseus, the trickster; and the Witch King would be Hector (?). Or, as in Antigone, we could represent the War as a conflict between two admirable but incompatible visions of the good life. Eskov fumbles with this in the theme of preserving a more natural, spiritual way of life vs. the science/modernism and rationalism of Mordor but his clear preference for the latter makes the former a caricature.
In the end, I can’t recommend The Last Ringbearer to anyone. It’s a failed experiment that misses Tolkien’s purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, offering no deeper understanding of that purpose nor anything to replace it.
* This brings up a pedantic point but there are curious lapses in Eskov’s understanding of the original story. Anarion was the younger son of Elendil and his son was the first king of Gondor. The Stewards were descended from Húrin, the steward of Minardil, and thus of the House of Húrin.
Eskov also seems to believe that Middle Earth is an alternate Earth when it is, of course, our Earth. If our myths of Atlantis are a much distorted understanding of the Drowning of Numenor, then the First Age ended around 13,000 BC, Numenor fell around 10,000 BC and the War of the Ring was fought around 6,000 BC. And talk about realism – The drowning of Beleriand was obviously caused by rising sea levels when the last Ice Age ended.
** Cf., Ralph Bakshi’s “Wizards.”
*** Also to Eskov’s credit is that he does not make the mistake of writing sex scenes.
**** I’m reminded of a creative-writing class I took as an undergraduate. I wrote a couple of short stories as SF or Fantasy and the teacher (a grad student) asked the very appropriate question – Why? What is it about your story that requires a nonrealistic setting? (This was before I had done much reading in mythic/fantastic criticism, including Le Guin’s essay, so I didn’t have a good answer but I think now I would say that I wrote in a fantastic style because I liked the genre.) Le Guin makes a distinction in the “Elfland” essay between “daydreaming” (TLR) and “dreaming” (LotR); I was daydreaming not mythologizing.
This brings up yet another reason why I’m not taken with Joe Abercrombie’s work. There’re daydreams with mythical trappings that could just as easily take place in Renaissance Italy or a thoroughly modern 21st Century. In Steven Erikson’s work, by contrast (and to bring in an author whose style is very far from Tolkien’s), the myth is integral to the story. Many scenes in the Malazan Book of the Fallen could be characterized as “daydream” but he also steps between Mundania and Faerie when he passes from the gritty realism of assassins stalking the night or the comic banter of Tehol and Bugg to the Warrens or Kruppe’s dreams, where every word carries portentous weight. And if the journey of Tavore and the Bonehunters isn’t primal myth then I don’t know what is.
FINAL NOTE: I couldn’t figure out where to put this thought above but my GR Friend Tatiana in the comments below mentions that “Orc” is not so much a biological category as a category of behavior, which reminded me of one of the many scenes in Jackson’s film version that really bothered me: The scene where Aragorn cuts off the head of the Mouth of Sauron. My first reaction was exactly that – This is how an Orc would react, not a Man of the West, and certainly not the Heir of Isildur. In the book this scene is so much more subtle and brilliant and the Mouth is cowed without a single violent gesture.(less)
I suppose it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to set a role-playing game in Tolkien's Middle Earth but Iron Crown Enterprises had the moxie and they...moreI suppose it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to set a role-playing game in Tolkien's Middle Earth but Iron Crown Enterprises had the moxie and they actually did a pretty good job of making it possible to play in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings.
This is another in a long line of RPGs my old playing group bought but never played :-) I think it was mostly a matter of temperament; most of us liked Tolkien but our playing personas weren't right for Middle Earth - half of us would have gone over to Mordor :-)
What's of greatest interest to me now and then (and it's why I still have it) is the end paper map of Endor - all of Endor, not just the Western coast. All the lands east of Rhun and south of the Haradwaith. I wish I could find a free-standing copy because the scale is too small to make it easily readable.(less)
**spoiler alert** As I've just finished listening to the audiobook version of The Silmarillion, I thought to take this opportunity to review this volu...more**spoiler alert** As I've just finished listening to the audiobook version of The Silmarillion, I thought to take this opportunity to review this volume of Tolkien's posthumously published works (which I first read 30 years ago). I'll be posting this review here and with the hardcopy version of the book.
First off, specific to the audiobook: Martin Shaw does an excellent job of reading. The only quibble I have is the opening and closing musical interludes, which seem superfluous and don't really add anything to the experience.
Listening to the work, rather than reading it, I was forced to hear every word. In the past, having read and reread the book so many times, I would skip over sections because I "knew" what was there. It turns out that I had forgotten much detail, and I was once again reminded of how much telling detail Tolkien can pack into a paragraph or two. An example of this occurs near the end of the book when Tolkien describes the battle between the Last Alliance and Sauron on the Dagorlad: "Of the Dwarves few fought upon either side; but the kindred of Durin of Moria fought against Sauron." (p. 294) How many casual readers would catch the implications of this? Dwarves fighting for Sauron! Who were they? From what mansion? Were there Dwarves in Sauron's armies during the War of the Ring?
Another example occurs in Chapter 2 of the "Quenta Silmarillion" - "Of Aule and Yavanna." In four pages not only are the Dwarves created but also the Ents. A careless reader, though, might miss that latter incident. (pp. 43-46)
If you've read and enjoyed The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it's a crap shoot on whether or not you'll appreciate The Silmarillion as it is a book of an entirely different species. The closest equivalent would be one of those compilations of Nordic myth or Icelandic sagas - it's a collection of the stories told around the hearth fires of the Numenoreans and her successor kingdoms in Middle Earth. (In one of the later volumes of The History of Middle Earth, Tolkien explicitly writes that these Tales are the lore passed down by Men as best they understood what they received from the Elves, who, in turn, had received much from the Valar.)
Though I was only ten at the time, I had already read the trilogy and was transported when my father bought The Silmarillion for me. It was exactly the kind of information I was craving - the background and histories of the story I had read. Even at that tender age, my favorite section of The Return of the King was the last third of the book - the appendices. I think also, The Silmarillion sparked a life-long interest in linguistics and language as it included a frustratingly small section called "Appendix: Elements in Quenya and Sindarin Names" and I would spend happy hours whiling away the time making up my own names.
To the book itself, however: The bulk is taken up with the "Quenta Silmarillion," the history of the War of the Jewels when the High Elves followed Morgoth back to Middle Earth to wrest from him the silmarilli, which he had stolen. It's preceded by a creation myth (the "Ainulindale") and the "Valaquenta," which recounts how the Valar prepared Arda (the World) for the coming of Elves and Men, and Morgoth's relentless efforts to thwart them. The final two sections tell of the Downfall of Numenor (the Second Age) and the Third Age up to the War of the Ring (which brings us to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings).
Tolkien loathed the subject whenever it came up, but it's clear that Christian theology and myth undergird much of Middle Earth's. In "Ainulindale," - "The Music of the Ainur" - we learn that Eru Iluvatar (All Father) created the Ainur - the Valar and their lesser cousins the Maiar - and he caused them to make a great music wherein they saw the creation and unfolding of the World (Arda). Now the most powerful of the Ainur was Melkor, who would later be named Morgoth, The Black Enemy, by the Elves, and he burned with the desire to create worlds and life just as Eru did. His envy and desire poison the original Music just as it will the World when it's actually created; and, just as in Abrahamic myth, an eternal war between Good and Evil results.
The "Valaquenta" recounts the efforts of the good Valar and Maiar to prepare Arda for the coming of the Elves and Men. It culminates in an apocalyptic battle that ends with Melkor's imprisonment soon after the first Elves wake up on the shores of Cuivienen in the East of Middle Earth. (Men would not awaken for many years yet.) It's too late, however. The entire fabric of Arda has been infected with Melkor's despite so that even the most virtuous actions carry the seeds of tragedy. Thus, the Valar invite the Elves to repair to their home in Valinor in the far West so that they can teach the First Children and protect them from the evil creatures left over from Melkor's freedom. Eventually, that action leads to rebellion, civil war and exile of a large part of the Elves to Middle Earth (in The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel is the last of these High Elven lords to linger in Middle Earth).
As I mentioned, the bulk of the book is concerned with the actions of these exiled Elves in Middle Earth, who have returned to take back the silmarils that Feanor created. Feanor ("spirit of fire") was the most powerful Elf who ever lived. He created three gems (the silmarils) that captured the holy light of the Two Trees (Telperion and Laurelin), which gave light to the Valinor before the Sun and the Moon were made. As you may gather from this enormously compressed synopsis, Tolkien is creating a complex mythology that I won't even begin to elaborate further. Suffice it to say that Melkor weasels his way out of captivity; foments rebellion amongst the Elves; steals the silmarils, killing the Two Trees in the process; and escapes back to Middle Earth pursued by Feanor and the High Elves, who have committed the sin of kinslaying in the fever of their rage and incurred the wrath of the Valar.
Here the interested can read of the three foundation myths of Tolkien's world: "The Fall of Gondolin," "Beren and Luthien," and "The Tale of Turin Turambar." The latter has recently been recast and published as The Children of Hurin. Of the three, my favorite is "Beren and Luthien." Here we have the seeds of an exciting, epic quest for the sake of love (the Sindarin High King Elu Thingol will not allow his daughter, Luthien, to marry Beren until he takes a silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth) and probably the only relatively fully rounded female character Tolkien ever created - Luthien Tinuviel (of whom Arwen Undomiel in The Lord of the Rings is a very pale reflection).
Of the many faults one may find in Tolkien's writing (and there are some, I'll admit), the dearth of female characters can be numbered among them. Of the women mentioned, they often yearn for nothing more than to be men or are the long suffering wives and mothers of heroes. For example, one of Galadriel's names means "man-woman"; Aredhel the White is known for her "tomboyish" ways - she loves to ride to the hunt with the sons of Feanor; Eowyn wishes to be a man so that she can ride to war and earn honor and glory; and then there are the sufferers: Morwen, wife of Hurin and mother of Turin, and her cousin Rian, who bears Tuor; Idril Celebrindal, wife of Tuor and mother of Earendil; Tar-Miriel, forced to marry her cousin Ar-Pharazon, the last king of Numenor; Celebrian, wife of Elrond, captured and tortured by the Orcs; Elwing, wife to Earendil; and Arwen, the passive observer of Aragorn's struggles in the War of the Ring.
Luthien, on the other hand, evinces no desire to be a man yet she plays an active (I would argue dominant) role in Beren's quest. It's she who overcomes Sauron to rescue Beren from his dungeons; it's her enchantments that lull Morgoth to sleep to allow Beren to cut a silmaril from his crown. And it's she who has the strength to accept the fate of mortal men and die with Beren. So the canard about Tolkien and women isn't entirely justified. If one desires further proof, read the stories of "Aldarion and Erendis" and "The History of Galadriel and Celeborn" in Unfinished Tales. And if they're really interested, they can sample earlier versions of these tales and others in the edited volumes of Tolkien's notes (The History of Middle Earth).
The Silmarillion is only for the geekiest of geeky readers :-) - anyone interested in plumbing Tolkien's mind and discovering why he wrote his masterpieces. If you like those works and his other fantasy (Farmer Giles of Ham, for example) you may be seriously put off and confused by this volume but I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from testing the waters.
I finished this Tuesday and since I have to take it back to the library on Friday, I will have a real review by then.
To tide you over till that happy...moreI finished this Tuesday and since I have to take it back to the library on Friday, I will have a real review by then.
To tide you over till that happy day - This is a well-written, fascinating look at a particular moment in Tolkien's life that deepened my understanding of Tolkien's work and made me appreciate them even more.
A little too hagiographic, perhaps, but Shippey's a good author and he can at least make the case that Tolkien has had a near overwhelming influence o...moreA little too hagiographic, perhaps, but Shippey's a good author and he can at least make the case that Tolkien has had a near overwhelming influence on fantasy in the last century (mostly for the better, I think).(less)