Tag Archives: Tolkien

Love and comfort in fantasy, or why George R. R. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien

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I totally stole this image. I honestly have no idea where it originated, but I really like it. So many, many props to some unknown but sincerely appreciated artist.

First, I am really enjoying HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I was enjoying the books, immensely, until I realized I was forgetting so much between volumes that it just made more sense to wait until the entire series is finished to dive into them again. My “to be read” stacks are perilously high, and having to re-read an entire series of not exactly concise tomes every time a new volume is released takes a lot of all-too-scarce reading time away from other books, any one of which might become a new and beloved favorite.

Overall, though, I’m a fan. I mention that because what follows might be perceived as throwing shade on Mr. Martin’s books, or on HBO’s adaptations, and I don’t mean it that way. This is, in fact, not a review at all. It’s just a series of thoughts that occurred to me about my own writing, specifically in my Widening Gyre series, as I was watching the most recent episode of A Game of Thrones on HBO.

Sure, Professor Tolkien’s and Mr. Martin’s books have a lot in common … on the surface.

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Also, both Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin introduce heroes of smaller stature. I stole this image, too, by the way.

I often hear Mr. Martin called “The American Tolkien.” I can see why people say that. (Was Lev Grossman the first?) Both write (or wrote) extremely complex fantasy novels, both have very passionate fan bases (with a great deal of overlap), both have created British Isles-inspired worlds rich with invented history and languages, and, well, both authors have the initials “R. R.” in their names.

But honestly, I think the resemblance ends there. The similarities are superficial at best.

Mr. Martin’s books are grounded in, well, the rather unpleasant realities of a world at war. Mr. Martin has made no secret of the fact that his books are inspired by true history, most notably the War of the Roses. When his books are brutal, it’s because, well, history was brutal. In fact, Mr. Martin has criticized Professor Tolkien, pointing out that his wars aren’t like the wars of history (they certainly aren’t), and even pointing out that The Lord of the Rings never bothers to address Aragorn’s tax policy. (For more, read this article and this one.)

To be fair, I think Mr. Martin’s complaints have more to do with how Professor Tolkien has become a template for lesser writers than with any real issue with The Lord of the Rings, but I think the point is an interesting one.

You see, Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin are writing books in the same genre only to the extent that it makes it easier for bookstores to know where to shelve them. Mr. Martin writes grounded, historically-based fantasy that appeal largely (I think) because they are so grimly real. The famous shocks and twists come from the harsh brutality of a world at war. Even the famous Red Wedding is based on two different historical events. (For more information, read here and here.) To a large (and often uncomfortable) degree, Mr. Martin is writing history, with a few ice zombies and dragons tossed in.

Professor Tolkien, on the other hand, is writing myth.

In his book The Inklings, biographer Humphrey Carpenter recounts a significant and now famous conversation between Tolkien and a then-atheist C.S. Lewis. The two were walking among the colleges in Oxford on a September evening in 1931. Lewis had never underestimated the power of myth. One of his earliest loves had been the Norse myth of Balder, the dying god. All the same, Lewis did not in any way believe in the myths that so thrilled him. As he told Tolkien, “myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though (they are) breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” 

Tolkien went on to explain that early man, the creators of the great myth cycles, saw the world very differently. To them “the whole of creation was myth-woven and elf-patterned.” Tolkien went on to argue that man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his ideas into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideas. Therefore, Tolkien argued, not only man’s abstract thoughts, but also his imaginative inventions, must in some way originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth.

When creating a myth, a storyteller is engaging in what Tolkien called mythopoeia (myth-oh-pay-uh). Through the act of peopling an imaginary world with bright heroes and terrible monsters, the storyteller is in a way reflecting God’s own act of creation. Human beings are, according to Tolkien, expressing fragments of eternal truth. Tolkien believed that the poet or storyteller is, then, a sub-creator “capturing in myth reflections of what God creates using real men and actual history.” A storyteller, Tolkien believed, is actually fulfilling Divine purpose, because the story always contains something of a deeper truth. Myth is filtered through the artist’s culture, experiences, and talents, but it is drawn from a deeper well.

By Tolkien’s argument, all myth is a response, a reaction to the force of creation occurring all around us. Granted, this calls for a slightly different definition of myth — and ignores the perhaps (probably) different intentions of the storytellers — which, of course, we can never know in any case. But a story can be myth, Tolkien would argue. Indeed, it could scarcely be anything else, because any act of creation is a reaction to the call of the Divine. Tolkien and the Inklings were responding to the same “shout” that the creators of myth have been responding to throughout the ages — the utter magnificence of a beautiful, dangerous, and impossible universe.

I’ve written more on that topic here (in fact, I stole the preceding five paragraphs from myself).

I bring that up because I can’t help thinking that anyone who reads The Lord of the Rings and comes away asking about Aragorn’s tax policy has completely missed the point. (Although again, I think Mr. Martin is actually ranting against the clichés that sprung up from Professor Tolkien’s imitators, rather than the books themselves. The Lord of the Rings was groundbreaking … but I certainly can’t blame Mr. Martin for wanting to break the template. In fact, I applaud him.)

The twin ideas of mythopoeia and eucatastrophe are at the heart of Professor Tolkien’s work. Indeed, the deeply mythic concept of eucatastrophe, a sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the hero does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom, is antithetical to the core of Mr. Martin’s work.

Professor Tolkien formed the word eucatastrophe by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used in classically-inspired literary criticism to refer to the “unraveling” or conclusion of a drama’s plot. For Tolkien, the term had a thematic meaning that went beyond its literal etymological meaning. It was at the very core of Christianity and his love of myth and art. It was a part of his very DNA.

Eucatastrophe is the blessed conclusion we all crave; it’s something we long for deeply in the heart — a time when wounds are healed, the broken are mended, and rights are made wrong. That longing, I think, is key.

In that sense, Mr. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Professor Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are polar opposites, matter and antimatter.

Let me ask you this. Would you really want to visit Westeros?

There’s quite a few variations of this meme floating around on Facebook and Twitter:

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There’s something in the mythopoeic works of Tolkien and Lewis that calls to that deep longing within us. There’s a part of us, somehow, that knows that the fantasy landscapes are a metaphor for something beyond, something more than the fields we know. It makes us feel almost homesick for a place we’ve never been.

I image that most of Mr. Martin’s fans can relate to the Hunger Games fans. A visit to the world of A Game of Thrones is … well, less appealing.

(Although I think there’s another blog to be written about the appeal of The Hunger Games. Stay tuned.)

This idea struck me when I was watching the most recent episode of HBO’s A Game of Thrones with my wife, Carol. The episode happened to feature two absolutely stunning shots of the castle Riverrun. Carol and I turned to each other with wide eyes and just said, “wow.” The shots were lovely. It was, in fact, the first time I can remember that a location in A Game of Thrones had made us want to visit that place. The fact that there was a siege going on quickly damped our enthusiasm, but still, I was struck with the idea that A Game of Thrones is almost utterly devoid of any kind of wish fulfillment, key elements of fantasies like the Harry Potter series or, say, Star Wars.

It made me wonder if anyone would want to visit the locations in my books, or spend time with my characters. I hope so. I really do. At very least, I hope readers would long to visit the Renaissance festival in Blackthorne Faire, or the Commonwealth pub in The Widening Gyre. I try to ground things, solidly — a lesson I’ve learned from Mr. Martin — but mythopoeia and the longing for eucatastrophe are in my DNA, too.

Another thought struck me soon after.

Both the television and the novel versions of A Game of Thrones are short on love. I don’t (necessarily) mean romantic love, but love. Love of family, love of place, love of friends, love of partner. When love is there, it’s usually broken in some way … think of the late King Robert’s lost love for Ned Stark’s sister, Lyanna. Think of Jamie and Ceresi Lannister (but not too much, because ewwww). Think of Tyrion’s love for his prostitute, Shae. Perhaps the purest love in the story is that of Ned Stark’s family, and look how that turned out.

By contrast, The Lord of the Rings is bursting with love, even though it is (almost) completely devoid of romantic love. There are certainly deep and loving friendships — Merry and Pippin for Frodo, Sam and Frodo, Gandalf and Bilbo, Gimli and Legolas. There is also a deep love of place … think of Frodo’s love for the Shire, all the walks he takes. Think how heartbreaking it is when Frodo’s ultimate sacrifice isn’t his life, but rather the life he has known and loved in the Shire. When he returns, his battles won, the Shire is lost to him, but not his love for it.

Indeed, the whole story turns on the role of Providence, the divine love that leads to eucatastrophe, that dearest of all loves.

The Narnia stories, too, are rich with love. So are the Harry Potter stories. They shine with love and grace.

Last — and this is something that the films missed for the most part — The Lord of the Rings, the novel, holds precious moments of comfort, even in the midst of terrible war and danger. There’s Bag End of course (who wouldn’t want to visit Bag End?) — which, to be fair, the films absolutely nailed. But Bree, a port of (at least temporary) safety in the books, is a frightening place in the films. Ditto Lóthlorien, that precious place of unfallen paradise. Gone utterly are Tom Bombadil’s house and Crickhollow.

The dear and comfortable places make Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth come to life. It makes us long to visit, just as (for example) Cair Paravel and Beaver’s Dam make us want to visit Narnia, and Hogwarts makes us long for an owl-delivered letter.

For the most part, the Lord of the Rings films miss these moments of comfort, and the moments of the numinous. I think that’s why they’re less likely endure the test of time, as the books certainly have.

These moments are, at best, rare in A Song of Ice and Fire. Mr. Martin seems to be crafting more of a puzzle box, closer to, say, Lost than to The Lord of the Rings. When was the last time you heard someone talking about Lost? (To be fair, I expect a much stronger resolution to A Song of Ice and Fire.)

I wonder … when the last shock has shocked and the last twist has been revealed in all its gory glory, will we still turn to A Song of Ice and Fire?

Probably. I certainly think so. I think Mr. Martin’s achievement is a remarkable one that will continue to find new readers for generations. I hope writers will learn the right lessons from it … break the templates, don’t just imitate the new ones.

I think A Song of Ice and Fire will gain as many new readers as The Lord of the Rings does. When all the mysteries are unfolded, and there’s no need to go back and scour the text for clues, I wonder if A Song of Ice and Fire will have as many re-readers? I don’t think so.

I wonder, too, if A Song of Ice and Fire will inspire the same enduring love, and longing, that The Lord of the Rings kindles. Time will tell.

In the meantime, both have lessons to teach writers like me. I’ll ground my fantasies. I might even think about the tax policies of my own (metaphorical) Aragorns. But I’ll always season my stories with love, place, and comfort, even in the moments of darkness.

Mr. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien. He’s the American Martin. That’s more than good enough.

Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part Two: Iconic Imagery

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One of the most iconic images in all of fantasy literature: The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings.

If you read Part One of this series, you already know that some partners and I are starting a new publishing company, ePic Adventures, Inc. As I mentioned, we’ll be doing print books, both hardcover and paperback, but our emphasis is on eBooks designed to stretch the capabilities of smartphone and tablets and redefine what an eBook can be in the age of transmedia. Again, think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

As we build the ePic Books brand, we’re focusing on a single genre (or range of subgenres, I guess), at least for the first year or two: fantasy. A part of our strategy involves looking for certain elements that the very best and most successful fantasies share in common. When I say “most successful,” I’m talking about the classics of the genre, the most beloved and enduring works that stand out, across years and even generations. These are the works that shine above the rest, when as works of equal, or arguably even greater, quality dim into obscurity.

One of those elements that most enduring and successful works seem to share, Iconic Imagery, is very closely related to the Iconic Locations detailed in Part One. If you haven’t read it, skip back. It’s okay. we’ll wait.

Back? Okay then.

Absolutely iconic.

Star Trek is a terrific source of iconic images: the famous badge, the bridge of the Enterprise (always recognizable, generation after generation), tribbles, and, of course, Spock’s ears and Vulcan salute. Bladerunner? Don’t even get me started.

Speaking of the bridge of the Enterprise, how is an iconic image different from an iconic location? I admit the line is thin. In fact, at least three of the examples I mentioned in Part One, the Lamppost in Narnia, the Starship Enterprise, and the Death Star from Star Wars, might better be called iconic images rather than locations. The lamppost especially … our first view of it includes two characters, Lucy and Mr. Tumnus with his umbrella and bundles; the characters are as much a part of that scene as the lamppost and the snow-covered trees. So whether you consider it a location or an image, the point remains; it’s iconic and unforgettable. You want images like that in your story … assuming that you are striving for one of those enduring, unforgettable classics. And if you aren’t, seriously, why the hell not?

I should also point out that iconic images, at least as I’m thinking of them, aren’t always exclusively visual (which makes me think I have likely picked the wrong word, but there you are). Consider the Lightsabers in Star Wars. Those glowing laser swords are unforgettable—and are even, I think, a part of why the first film was so astonishing successful. But as iconic as that image is, most of us, I am willing to wager, can recognize a lightsaber even without the visual. The sound, that unmistakable hum, is as much as part of the integral lightsaber-ness as the visual design. If someone plays you a clip of a light saber activating or deactivating, you’ll know it at once. Go head, give it a try.

Star Wars is another gold mine for iconic images: The Millennium Falcon, the X-wing, Yoda, Wookies, the creatures in the cantina, Princess Leia’s hair buns, R2 and 3PO…. In fact, that’s one of the differences between the original trilogy and the prequels. The original trilogy is chock full of iconic images. The prequels have far more incredible and imaginative designs. But how many stand out? How many are memorable? Of those, how many didn’t appear in the original trilogy first? Off hand, Darth Maul’s character design is about all I can come up with. Could you sketch him? Or even describe him in a sentence?

Tolkien’s ring is one of the most iconic images in all of fantasy. So are his hobbits, with their pipes, their small stature, and, of course, the furry feet. What would the Harry Potter books be without, say, the wands or the moving paintings? I can honestly say that I remember more about the visuals of The Wind in the Willows, from the characters to the locations, than I can about the story itself (which means it’s probably time to revisit it).

Captain Hook’s hook is an iconic image that helps define him as a character. without it, he’s a generic pirate.

Personally, I think the best and strongest iconic images are related closely to a character if only because they have the effect of making that character iconic almost by consequence, although of course the image alone won’t do that. But at a glance, they give the character a very specific look, and they tell us a little something about the character. More, the character just won’t be the same without it, like the Dread Pirate Roberts without his black shirt and mask.

Some examples? Remember how Darth Vader’s iconic black helmet and cape stands out from that sea of white-armored Stormtroopers the first time we see him in Star Wars. Think of Indiana Jones with his jacket, whip, and hat. He’s still Indy without them, of course. He’s wearing a white dinner jacket in the opening scenes of The Temple of Doom. But when I saw the film on opening night, the first real spontaneous round of applause from the audience came when Indy pulled on his familiar “uniform” on that little plane.

If you see a poster—or read a description—of a muscled man wearing a loincloth in the jungle, chances are you’ll assume it’s Tarzan. If you see a stern male figure smoking a large pipe and wearing a deerstalker, you’re probably not thinking Nero Wolfe or James Bond. When you see a man on a white horse wearing a white hat and a mask, you won’t have to ask, at least not with a straight face, who was that masked man? It’s the Lone Ranger.

Bob Kane’s original concept for The Batman, before Bill Finger suggested the dark knight we know today.

The colorful uniform made Superman stand out from his pulp-era forefathers like Doc Savage and The Shadow, themselves iconic. When Bob Kane created Batman, he originally envisioned a bright red body suit, bat wings, and a domino mask. Bill Finger contributed a different look … the brooding cape and cowl. Would Batman have worked either way? Maybe. But I doubt it.

Granted, iconic imagery is a pretty shallow way to define a character, and it takes far more than a distinctive look to make a character truly classic. The icons help us recognize a character at a glance (Harry Potter’s glasses and scar); they don’t make us care. It’s at best just one layer, the surface one, but it’s a good place to start.

Iconic images present a challenge to the writer. It easy to show an iconic image in, say, a film or a comic. On the page? Not so much. I include the screenplay page here, too. Strong visuals help a film sell. Regardless of the medium, iconic images have to be described in sufficient detail that we can see it, sure, but the best resonate through the other senses as well. When you’re reading or writing, think of sound (remember the lightsabers), smell, and weight. The icons have to be real. In this case, the written word has an advantage. You can’t smell a film, but a writer can make a scent real. For better or for worse. A film can show us a magic sword, but the written word can show us what it feels like to hold that power pulsing through the palms of your hands.

They present challenges, but they have advantages. They make your character (or prop, or location, or vehicle, or…) a part of the collective zeitgeist. Just about any man, woman, or child can recognize Superman or Mickey Mouse at a glance. Most of them can recognize Harry Potter, Spider-man, or a lightsaber. If you want to have your work adapted for the screen, or illustrated, iconic images give the interpreters a strong foundation from which to start.

And finally (this may sound a little crass), iconic images are merchandisable. You can make toys, t-shirts, costumes, posters, mugs, trashcans, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Just look at what Patrick Rothfuss has been able to do. That’s a way to keep people talking about, and promoting, your work. And it’s a pretty good way to make it attractive to studios and publishers. And it’s certainly something that’s on our checklist at ePic.

Any thoughts, writers and readers of the world?

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Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part One: Iconic Locations

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When asked to picture Narnia, you probably think of something rather like this, don’t you?

If asked to close one’s eyes and picture Narnia, I am willing to bet that just about everyone will picture a snow-covered wood surrounding a clearing where a lamppost sheds a soft, golden light … just beyond a wardrobe door. Something about that image, that specific location, is iconic. It’s a strong, concrete, visual image. It’s something we almost can’t help responding to, almost like it, that one place, was a character in a story. When we revisit, years later, it’s like meeting an old friend.

As many of you know, some partners and I are starting a new publishing venture, ePic Adventures, Inc. We’ll be doing print books, sure, but our emphasis is on eBooks. Magical eBooks. Think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

In short, ePic Books present a platform that stretches the idea of what an eBook can be. The original idea was to focus on a narrow selection of genres — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, paranormal romance, and young adult. Our investors and advisors talked me out of that. So we’re focusing on fantasy, at least for the first year or two, and expanding once we’ve built our brand.

Quick, what’s this? Once answer: it’s utterly iconic.

That still doesn’t narrow things down a whole lot. So we have developed a sort of checklist of things we’re looking for. Some of them have to do with the medium … books we we purchase (yes, we’ll be paying advances and royalties) have to have elements that fit the technology we’re developing. That’s obvious enough.

And, of course, we’re looking for the usual: strong characters, excellent writing, surprises, unique ideas, well-structured stories. all that stuff. I would have mentioned that first, since ultimately those are most important. But they are kind of obvious, and most publishers, even small ones, have literally hundreds of manuscripts that meet those criteria on their desks at any one time.

Beyond that, we took a heuristic look at story, trying to identify elements that the truly successful works in the genre, regardless of medium, share in common. That’s not to say that we’re trying to be formulaic. Far from it. But certain elements are at the heart of successful stories, especially in the fantasy genre. There are things many share in common. Those are the elements we’ll be looking for next year.

The first? Iconic locations. Think of some of the most beloved and successful fantasy works. Almost without exception, they feature absolutely forgettable locations: places that everyone who has ever experienced the work can describe in a minute. Think of Charlie’s Chocolate Factory or the cantina in Star Wars. In the Harry Potter books, Hogwarts is almost as much a star as Harry himself, and it stands out in a series that is absolutely packed with iconic locations.

In fact, I am at a loss to think of a truly successful fantasy that has endured the test of time that doesn’t include at least one absolutely iconic location. The Wizard of Oz? Think of that first color shot Munchkin Land, or the Emerald City, or even the Yellow Brick Road. Field of Dreams? The baseball field in the cornfield. The Name of the Wind? The University, of course, and its library in particular. A Song of Ice and Fire? I think the Wall is likely the best example.

If you’ve read the works of Charles de Lint, think of his Tamson House or his city of Newford. Speaking of cities, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol might be an exception, although you can argue (convincingly, I think) that the snow-covered London is as much a part of the story as Scrooge and the ghosts.

Now, picture scenes from the best of the Disney animated films. They are rife with iconic locations, from the cottage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the castle, the pub, and the lonely tower in Tangled. Picture Pleasure Island or the Fairies’ House from Sleeping Beauty. Chances are, if you’ve seen any of those films, those places are locked away somewhere in the attics of your brain. They are beautifully realized.

Professor Tolkien’s Bag End, one of the most iconic fantasy locations of all.

Or maybe the most perfect example of all: Bag End in Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth books. Tolkien even begins with a description if Bag End in The Hobbit … it is described in loving detail long before we learn one single fact about the main character (aside from the fact that he lives there, which now that I mention it does tell the reader rather a lot about Bilbo Baggins) or the story. We know about that hole in the ground long before we learn of wizards, dwarves, or dragons.

Of course, Professor Tolkien’s works are full of iconic locations, and many of them are places you long to visit. LothLorien. Rivendell. The Lonely Mountain. Beorn’s House. The Prancing Pony in Bree. Minas Tirith. Mirkwood. Gollum’s cave.

Gormenghast. Amber. The Swiss Family Robinson’s treehouse. Dune. Treasure Island. 221 B Baker Street (although as with Mr Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle’s London might be a better example). The Hundred Acre Wood. Ray Bradbury’s Greentown or Mars. Barsoom. Callahan’s. Neverland. Prydain. The Commonwealth (yes, the whole damn thing) from Silverlock. The Batcave. The starship Enterprise. Even the secret junkyard headquarters in the Three Investigators books.

Mentioning the Three Investigators may be a cheat, since they are mystery rather than fantasy, but looking back at my love of reading, I honestly think it begins with my longing to visit that secret headquarters (through Tunnel Two, naturally) or Charlie’s chocolate factory, that amazing creation of Mr. Wonka and Mr. Dahl. The place was a part of the appeal. If you’re lost in a story, isn’t one of the reasons that some part of you wishes, deeply in the heart, to visit those places you’re falling in love with?

I won’t say that is rule is universally true. But again, I am at a loss to think of an exception. I’m sure one will occur to me the instant I hit “publish,” but it’ll be the exception that proves the rule. I am also not saying it’s the only element that makes these stories work, or even that it’s the most important one. (We have a whole list of key elements that I’ll be talking about on this blog over the next few weeks.)

So what makes an image iconic? Four things, I think.

First, an iconic location is utterly unforgettable. Once seen, it lingers.

Two, it’s distinctive. If you’ve experienced the story, you should be able to name the location at a glance or describe it in a sentence or three. It must be utterly unmistakable. There’s no confusing Bag End or the Emerald City. Both were described perfectly, and later realized brilliantly on screen. Ideally, one should be able to sketch it (although you’d need a green crayon for the Emerald City).

Third, it’s an integral part of the story. After all, where would the Arthurian legends be without Camelot? One of the reasons the ending of The Lord of the Rings (the real one, not the awful movie ending) works so well is because we’ve come to share the characters’ love of the Shire.

What makes a location iconic? A good map never hurts.

Finally, and most importantly, an iconic location inspires emotional response independent of the audience’s response to the character or story. Iconic locations evoke strong emotions … usually wistful longing (who doesn’t want to visit Bag End or the Beaver’s Dam for Tea?) or dread. The Death Star and Orthanc are both unforgettable and utterly unmistakable, but really, who wants to hang out there?

By the way, my friend Angela Still has pointed out that iconic locations are also a key part of gothic literature, too. I think more than a few of these key elements are also important in other genres, too. I should also point out that iconic locations are very close to, but not quite the same as, the next criteria on the list: iconic images. But I’ll talk about that next week.

So what do you think? Are iconic locations a part of what you respond to? If you are a creator, how important are iconic locations to your story? I’d really love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

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Game Review: Falling into a Story with The Lord of the Rings Online

A fast note: versions of this article have been published before, most notably in the amazing Silver Leaves, a scholarly journal focusing on J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and the Inklings. It is a terrific publication, a must for both the causal and the obsessive fan. Best of all, the proceeds go to charity. Please give it a try if you can.

Play The Lord of the Rings Online

My character, Jack Rowenstaff, visits Bag End in the Shire. Click any image to enlarge.

While there are, of course, many virtues in fantasy, it’s not hard to argue that one of the chief appeals is wish fulfillment. I’ve known many readers who lost themselves utterly when visiting the charm of the Shire hills, the welcoming comforts of the Prancing Pony in Bree, or the golden, enchanted magnificence of Lothlórien. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen a person look up, blinking, from a tattered paperback of The Fellowship of the Ring and realize, suddenly, that they are in a doctor’s waiting room, or a school cafeteria, or on a train. Each time, whether I’ve actually spoken to them or not, I’ve smiled an inner smile and thought to myself … friend. There sits a kindred spirit.

I don’t think I am the first to have been so lost in a story that I’ve almost forgotten I’m reading, and that there’s a world around me that will, all too soon, require my attention. I am probably not the first to long to vanish into a story for a longer period, to hear forgotten tales at the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, or raise a pint with the Gaffer in the Ivy Bush. And I don’t think the desire to go left, when the author took the characters right, is necessarily a lonely one. What might have happened then? What paths were left unexplored? What surprises did the author not reveal? Is the beer at the Golden Perch really that good? What of the Forsaken Inn, a day’s journey east from Bree, that Strider hinted at so tantalizingly? What is that like? Or Staddle, the hobbit town outside of Bree; could it be as charming as our beloved Hobbiton?

The Prancing Pony Inn in Bree

Critics, of course, would be quick to dismiss that longing as puerile escapism. And they are, of course, quite right, the smug rascals. But as Professor Tolkien himself noted, who objects to escapism? Jailors. The master wrote in On Fairy-Stories: “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” Since Tolkien is careful to distinguish between the escape of the prisoner and the flight of the deserter, the question arises: what’s wrong with wanting to escape into a story, to wander the hills of unknown shores, now and again?

Unfortunately, books have endings, the hidden roads remain lost and secret gates unopened. As much as we might want to, we can’t wander north to see what is beyond the Shire, or linger in Lórien’s golden wood, and Fornost remains forever only a dread rumour.
Until now.

The dread Barrow Downs by night

The Lord of the Rings Online is a computer game that actually captures the feeling of falling into a story. There are some limits, of course, but by and large, Middle-earth is yours to explore at will—from Thorin’s Hall in the west to Lórien and perilous Mirkwood in the east. Using the arrows on your keyboard, you can send your character wandering through the towns and forests of the Shire, or through the dangers of the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs (both deliciously creepy), or even all the way to Bree and Rivendell, where old friends will be waiting. The experience of the game is astonishingly immersive—sounds, voice, and music blend seamlessly with the visuals. Every environment is lovingly—at times even astonishingly—rendered. Even more than Peter Jackson’s films, the game feels like Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

The eastern gate of the Mines of Moria

Everything you recall from the books is there—even things only mentioned in passing, like the taverns at Frogmorton and Stock, or the mysteriously-named Forsaken Inn. Barliman Butterbur welcomes you to the Prancing Pony, and you might happen upon an abandoned Elf camp in the Shire, just before you come to Farmer Maggot’s farm. Wander through Bag End itself (although you’ll have to endure the shrill complaints of the thrice-dratted Sackville-Bagginses) or brave the dread halls of dark Moria or (now) Dol Guldur in Mirkwood.

And, of course, there are a few smiles and in-jokes for the more dedicated fans of Tolkien and the Inklings. The Inklings met regularly at an Oxford Pub called the Eagle and Child, or “the Bird and Baby,” as they affectionately called it. In the game’s version of Michel Delving, just below the famous Mathom House, you’ll find a pub called The Bird and Baby. The painted sign will be familiar to any fan of Tolkien, C. S. “Jack” Lewis, Owen Barfield, or Charles Williams, who has visited Oxford. If you wander to the back room of the game’s version, you’ll find a group of lively hobbit friends raising pints, arguing literature, and wondering about the whereabouts of their friend Ronald Dwale. Their names are Jack Lewisdown, Owen Farfield, and Carlo Williams. What fun to spend a lively few minutes, even virtually, with the Inklings!

Indeed, it’s tempting to ignore the “game” play and simply wander and take in the sights, or simply to stand on the porch of your very own Hobbit Hole or Bree house and blow a few virtual smoke rings as you chat with the neighbors. But then, the game itself is terrific fun.

Sunrise over the Golden Wood of Loth Lórien

I should issue a fast disclaimer. I’m not a computer gamer. At all. Well, at least not until I discovered my virtual passport to Middle-earth. I pretty much went straight from mobile phone Solitaire to The Lord of the Rings Online (or LOTRO, as the experienced gamers say). I’m not sure how this game compares to others, save that I’m told the interface is similar to World of Warcraft. That said, I’d often heard how these games could be incredibly addictive. I used to shrug and scratch my head when players of games like Everquest called it EverCrack and NeverRest. I now get the joke. If you’ve ever stayed up way too late, flashlight under the covers, to finish a wonderful book, you’ll know the feeling.

The first thing to understand is that this is a multi-player online game. As you wander Middle-earth, you’ll constantly bump into other players—Hobbits, Men, Elves, and Dwarves. The hobbit you meet at the Moria gates may be your neighbor; that Gondorian warrior in the North Downs may be huddled over a computer in France or Africa.

It’s the social aspect that makes the game so utterly charming. Need help? Ask, and someone is sure to give it. And you’ll find yourself doing the same, even when the laundry needs folding or bed is calling in the last hours before an early morning. And you’ll find that, by and large, the people you encounter are kindred spirits. They, too, fell in love with a certain story. And, just like you, they longed to be a part of it: to share the adventure.

You begin by creating a character. Select the gender and the race—a female Elf or a male Hobbit, for example—and then choose a class: minstrel, warrior, burglar, captain, or lore master. Each has their own set of skills and attributes. Next, customize the appearance—hair colour, body type, even the shape of the nose and the size of the lips. Finally, choose an occupation. The game has an economy, and you’ll find it useful to craft a weapon, grow a crop of pipeweed, stitch a cloak, or even cook a tasty breakfast to make your way in the world. Choose a name. You’ll find that your characters become, well, characters. I play the mighty Jack Rowenstaff, warrior of Bree, Nickollas Windsong, minstrel hobbit of the Shire, and Nedberry, burglar—or rather, expert treasure hunter. There’s something rather Tookish about those latter ones, I dare say. Much to my very great surprise, I’ve come to care about them almost as much as I care about characters in a favorite story. Hmmm. I wonder if the idea of Mythopoeia can apply to a computer game. Why not?

My character, Jack, in front of his house in the greater metropolitan Bree area

Once you’ve created your Dwarf or Elf, explore the world. Wander anywhere you like. Sure, there are a few “barriers” here and there—a cliff too steep to climb or a locked gate—but for the most part, the whole of Middle-earth is open to you. And more is opening all the time. The most recent additions opened Moria, Lothlórien, and Mirkwood. In the months since Moria opened for play in the spring, I’ve barely scratched the surface. Middle-earth is, after all, big. Remember how long it took to get anywhere in the book? Part of the charm, and, I’ll admit, the frustration, of the game is that it takes a while to get from, say, the Shire to Rivendell. But as you advance, travel gets faster. You can buy a pony or horse ride from the stable masters in most towns, and eventually acquire your own mount.

Players can undertake quests—anything from delivering pies in Hobbiton, to finding Bilbo’s lost buttons in Goblin Town, to slaying an army of Orcs in Moria, or even trying all the beer in the Shire. That’s the object of the game. The more quests one completes, the more experience your character gains. With more experience, characters gain new abilities. Quest completion also nets rewards—nifty items or money to save for buying those horse rides and Hobbit holes.

The game takes place concurrently with the events in The Fellowship of the Ring. For all players, the game begins about the time that Frodo and Sam leave the Shire. This means that your story parallels the one you know so well. And, indeed, you provide some unseen help. For example, when you arrive in Bree, a strange Ranger called Strider asks for your help. That begins a game quest. By the time you’ve finished, you race back to learn that Strider has left in a hurry with four Shire hobbits. In his place, you speak to Gandalf the Grey himself, who is eager for your news. And another quest begins. Later, you find an abandoned pony just outside the Moria gates, and save him from ravenous wolves. This is, of course, poor Bill and you help him return to the safety of the Elves.

You can’t alter the familiar events, of course. But your aid, given “off screen” as it were, fits seamlessly with the story you know so well. Perhaps best of all, you get to witness, first hand, some key events: the reforging of the sword Narsil and the departure of the Fellowship from Rivendell, for example.

Evening at Tom Bombadil's house

Along the way, you interact with familiar characters—including, just to name a few off the top of my head, Gimli, Gloin, Elrond (along with his sons and daughter), Gandalf, Aragorn, Barliman Butterbur, Nob, Bob, Fatty Bolger, Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Boromir, Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, Radagast the Brown, the Sackville Bagginses, Gollum, the Gaffer, Ted Sandyman, Legolas, Galadriel, and old Bilbo himself. There are many, many others. All right where they should be, doing exactly what they should be doing, and acting just as you would expect them to act. You’ll find yourself grinning, as though you’ve spent a weekend at a monumentally grand party or reunion, smiling at each new meeting with a dear old friend.

For the most part, the game truly feels like Tolkien. Sure, there are a few more monsters than you remember from the books—but none that would seem out of place in the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon sagas that Tolkien loved so deeply. And yes, some of the quests can be redundant and, at times, even tedious. But no worries. You can skip those, or find some new friends and complete them as a fellowship, sort of making a party of it.

The Bird and Baby Inn in the Shire ... where old friends wait.

Some of the quests are difficult, taxing the brainpower and the strength of your hero. But again, don’t worry. There’s usually someone happy to help. And before the night is done, you just might surprise yourself by thinking of them as friends—met unexpectedly—just like the helpers that appear in a fairytale, and are suddenly, instantly dear. The storyline is terrifically engaging, and complements the familiar story in the books beautifully.

I do have a few complaints about the game, and I fear this first especially is one shared by many.

I discovered the game when my wife started playing it for business research. She was immediately hooked and insisted that I give it a try. I used her account to create a character of my own. Now, I too am hooked, and have opened my own account. But my main character is trapped on her account. We’d love to play together, but since I can’t transfer that character to my new account, that option isn’t available to us. It is available, for a fee, on many other games, so I hope the folks at Turbine will offer it soon. I know many other couples and families in this same very frustrating boat, and Turbine’s inability to accommodate them is costing them customer loyalty and good will.

In their defense, Turbine spokesman Adam Mersky says that this service is not offered to prevent fraud and to protect the game play experience for the majority of their subscribers. But bluntly, speaking as someone who has worked in new media, e-commerce, and even game development, I can think of at least a dozen simple solutions without breaking a sweat. The resources required, of course, aren’t trivial, but speaking from experience, honestly, it’s a fairly simple matter all told. More, people seem more than willing to pay a premium for this service. In this economy, when someone wants to pull out the old credit card, find a way to accept it.

The other complaint is a bit more serious, and it involves customer service.

Recently, I joined a group of friends for a very long (something like four hours) adventure, which was supposed to lead to some nifty items to better equip your character. We fought through and completed the adventure … only to discover that the chests were bugged. We couldn’t open them. No loot. The four hours was vanished forever.

Now of course, I understand that software, but its very nature, it occasionally buggy, and in the case of The Lord of the Rings Online, problems are extremely rare. In any business, problems arise. It usually can’t be helped. The best you can hope for is to make problems as rare as possible (Turbine gets an absolute A+ here), and to make every effort to make things right when they do arise. In the latter case, Turbine failed, and miserably.

When we reported the problem, we were informed that there was nothing Turbine could do to correct the problem, which is understandable. But Turbine’s customer service rep made no effort at all to address the issue. The rep wasn’t even especially polite about it.

Again, problems arise in any business. But all the same, when you pay for a product, it’s not unreasonable to expect that product to, you know, work. When it doesn’t, you expect the company you’re doing business with to make some effort to make things better. If you buy a new television and find it doesn’t work, you expect to have it replaced. If you check into a hotel and find that the shower doesn’t work, you expect to move to another room. If you go to a movie and the film breaks, you expect the theater to make a repair, and probably hand out a few free passes if the delays stretch on too long. If your steak is overcooked, you expect to get a new one. Usually with a heartfelt apology from the manager.

Turbine offered … nothing. No attempt to mail the items we’d just one, or something else. No apology. No coupon for free play to offer a friend. Not even an apology. We were just told, tersely, to try the instance again.

Speaking only for myself, four hours of time is a pretty precious commodity, and it’s not very easy to come by. Not by a long shot. I truly haven’t had it available in the weeks that passed. While the costs of the game are fairly insignificant, I do value my money, too. Turbine should have made some customer service outreach. Something. Even if it was just an apology.

From another company, I might understand. You don’t, for example, expect the same service from a $14 a night no-frills motel that you get at, say, the Ritz Carlton. But Turbine has always, always been a first-class organization. I expected better from them, and I am deeply, deeply disappointed.

On the other hand, it is a rare experience. That’s something.

To play The Lord of the Rings Online right away, you’ll need to purchase the game (either on disc through Amazon, Best Buy, Target, or any other affiliated stores) or download from the Internet. You’ll also have to purchase a monthly or lifetime subscription. Subscription rates are reasonable, and start at around $9.95 for unlimited visits to Middle-Earth. I purchased a lifetime subscription, so I have no monthly fees. A free trial is also available. If you wait a month or so, the game will be free to play, with very attractive additional content available for (surprisingly reasonable) cost. The free to play sounds like a great way to try before you buy, but I imagine that most players will want to upgrade fairly quickly.

For more information, please see: http://www.lotro.com.

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In Good Company: “The Company They Keep” by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Read The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community

Until the publication of Diana Pavlac Glyer’s new book The Company The Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, I hadn’t realized how strong was my urge to be a “completist.” A new book out on the Inklings? By all means, I had to have it, period. This is fortunate, because if I paused to remind myself that I’d already read Humphrey Carpenter’s superb biography The Inklings, and then to ask if I really, really needed another book on the subject, the rational part of my brain might have said “no,” and (it’s not completely impossible) might have carried the day. And that would have been too darn bad. Glyer’s book makes a wonderful companion to Carpenter’s more well known volume, and stands very well on its own. Carpenter’s book is a biography; Glyer’s is an examination of the very significant ways in which, as a community, the Inkings challenged, inspired, influenced, and supported one another. The Company The Keep is a terrific and insightful read.

Carpenter’s The Inklings tells a rollicking good story. When Carpenter describes the group’s meetings at The Eagle and Child Pub, you can almost hear the glasses clinking merrily; you’d swear that, now and then, you catch, almost the faint and fading scent of sweet pipe smoke. You feel that you know Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Barfield, and the others, a privilege as welcome as it is rare. Carpenter’s recreation of the now-famous conversation between Lewis and Tolkien on mythopoeia and the deeper truth hidden in the “lies” of myth is moving and profoundly beautiful.

By contrast, Glyer mentions this conversation only in passing. Her purpose isn’t to tell a story. It’s to explore. In her introduction, Glyer notes that early critics, from Gareth Knight and Lin Carter to Mark Hillegas and Carpenter himself, tend to downplay the influences the writers had upon one another. Glyer reminds us that Carpenter claims that the Inklings has, for example, no influence at all on the development of The Lord of the Rings. Glyer argues that this claim is at best unfair. Why would the men have continued to meet and critique one another’s works in progress if they perceived no value in the exchange? More, Glyer points out that common sense alone suggests that any group that meets over a long period of time — some seventeen years — is bound to change its members in ways both subtle and obvious.

So why would critics argue that the Inklings had no influence on one another’s work? Glyer builds a convincing case that Carpenter, Carter, and the others were reacting to earlier critics who accused the Inklings of a sort of group think, marching in almost corporate lockstep, writing interchangeable, virtually indistinguishable works. Confronted with such preposterous accusations, it seems natural that more sympathetic critics would have been quicker to defend each individual’s personal achievement and genius.

To start her study of the Inklings, Glyer looked at other communities of working writers, and was stuck by how both members and critics readily acknowledge the groups’ influence without diminishing individual achievement. More, Glyer found that members of writer’s groups and communities tend to influence each other in very specific ways: as resonators supporting and encouraging progress, as opponents issuing challenge, as editors, as collaborators working together, and finally as referents writing about each other. Glyer devotes long chapters to each, using letters, interviews, essays and other evidence to show how the Inklings filled each role for one another.

Glyer concludes that writers don’t create in a vacuum; every artist’s work is inevitably embedded in the work of others. Community doesn’t stifle creativity or individual expression. Rather, it fertilizes and nurtures it. For anyone interested in how a favorite book came to be, and especially for artists exploring their own craft, The Company The Keep is a must read. Her conclusions are well supported and her arguments thorough. Best of all, her book is fascinating and a joy to read. Any fan of Tolkien, Lewis, and the others absolutely must have a copy of Carpenter’s The Inklings. The shelf is equally bare without a copy of The Company They Keep.