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‘It was on this precise spot, as I remember it, that Calica stood to address the senate, urging caution in the Empire’s eastern expansion. It was down there that Juvens replied to him, arguing boldness, and carried the day. I watched them, spellbound. Twenty years old, and breathless with excitement. I still recall their arguments, in every detail. Words, my friends. There can be a greater power in words than in all the steel within the Circle of the World.’

‘A blade in your ear still hurts more than a word in it, though,’ whispered Logen. Jezal spluttered with laughter, but Bayaz did not seem to notice. He was too busy hurrying from one stone bench to another.

A few months ago I came across this very interesting discussion by Joe Abercrombie. I had become a fan of the writer since my review and his account of how he was unfavourably compared to J.R.R. Tolkien by Leo Grin raised a grin. This notion of moral relativism in fantasy is quite an amusing one, particularly since the last thing The Lord of the Rings is about is righteousness (Hobbits being made of much softer stuff than warriors and kings, yet in the end winning the day). The comparison was playing on my mind when I began reading this book though.

After the events of the previous novel, Logen Ninefingers finds himself trekking into the wilderness in the company of a legendary wizard, Bayaz First of the Magi, chasing after a long-lost weapon. Colonel West has been handed the unenviable task of ensuring the foppish Crown Prince Ladisla achieves a safe military victory in the Northern territory of Angland. To the south Inquisitor Glokta has been assigned to protect the city of Dagoska from an implaccable foreign army. His mission is hopeless, but he is spurred on by his hatred for the people who broke his body under torture, leaving him a bitter and twisted shell of a man with a razor sharp mind.

With the business of introducing the cast of this series done by The Blade Itself, Abercrombie concentrates on delivering sizable conflicts on a grand scale. The siege of Dagoska in particular is horrific, with Glokta using every trick he can think of to stall the Gurkish army in their progress. West finds himself in the centre of a rout when the arrogance of the Crown Prince, and a peculiarly wily enemy who outmaneuvers the main body of the army, forces him to flee a devastating assault. In the company of a motley gang of Northmen exiles he desperately tries to hang on to his civilized bearing and perform his duty in protecting the life of Ladisla. Unfortunately nothing would make him happier than to take the selfish prig’s life.

To all intents and purposes it is Logen’s sections of the series that supposedly describe the central narrative. Abercrombie gives us a sense of scale with the different outbreaks of war, but Ninefingers and his fellow adventurers are evidently on a quest, of the sort most common in fantasy novels. This is where I began to think of the comparison made by the uppity Grin. As it happens much of the material was disturbingly familiar. Bayaz is a flawed and occasionally unreliable magus, much in the way of Gandalf the Gray. The group visit the devastated city of Aulcus, which reminded me a little of Moria with its ominous shadows and incredible grandeur gone to rot.

My worry is that fantasy novels invariably begin to plough the same furroughs. I could mention that Robert Jordan also echoed Moria with his Shadar Logoth, yet another haunted city. Just how many wizards and weather-beaten warriors have traipsed before our eyes on the page over the years. The author here has a running joke that the magi all speak in riddles and circumlocutions, which few of the other characters have any patience for, a welcome criticism of the genre.

Abercrombie’s theme though is that the characters in this series The First Law Trilogy are in effect all monsters. Some are simply better at hiding it than others.

Perhaps the material is familiar, but Abercrombie still invests his writing with far more bite than most out there. Plus these books are very entertaining and deliciously black humoured. I cannot wait to read the next entry.

Before They Are Hanged Joe Abercrombie

“What to my mind is so interesting in this case is that we have none of the facilities afforded to the police. We cannot investigate the bona fides of any of these people. We have to rely solely on deduction. That, to me, makes the matter very much more interesting. There is no routine work. It is all a matter of the intellect.”

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the filming of the ‘First Tuesday Book Club‘ at the ABC studios. The opening discussion focused on fantasy fiction. It was quite enjoyable to listen to writers debating the merits and possible disadvantages of books with elves, dragons and magic.

As interesting as all of this was, I have to say though I am sick of people discussing The Lord of the Rings exclusively when my favourite genre is the topic of discussion. Half a century has passed since that tome was published and much has happened since. No mention was made of New Worlds (which launched many a morally ambiguous fantasy novel), let alone the New Weird. One point that was made though, by Lev Grossman, was that fantasy and genre fiction in general have become more popular because they actually trade in plots – unlike novels that struggle with the literary heritage of Joyce and Woolf.

What a wonderful thing it is to read an entertaining page turner? Which brings me to today’s book, Agatha Christie’s classic ‘whodunnit’, Murder on the Orient Express.

Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is actually en route to England when he finds himself swept up in an unusual series of events. Firstly he is approached by a vulgar American businessman Mr. Ratchett while boarding a train from Istanbul. Poirot turns the man down, despite his claims that his life is in danger. Instead he concentrates on enjoying the train journey and observing his fellow guests. His friend Bouc, the director of the train company (and the means by which he was allocated a berth on this unusually packed train)  draws his attention to the extraordinary mixture of people on board. Hungarian aristocrats, an American widow, a German maid and an English nanny, numerous class distinctions and backgrounds arranged side by side in the small travelling compartments of the train. Then after one night when the Orient Express became delayed by large amount of snow in the ‘Jugo-Slavian’ countryside, Mr. Ratchett’s body, with a dozen stab wounds, is discovered in his room.

Bouc is desperate to save the reputation of his company and enlists his good friend the famous detective to investigate the crime. Poirot sets about interviewing all the guests in first and second class, as well as the staff. In his own irascible way, the detective indulges in his patented form of inquiry, baiting those who are reserved, placating and gaining the trust of the more alarmed travellers and generally remaining inscrutable despite the repeated pleas of Bouc to explain exactly what is happening.

Half of this book’s pleasure is seeing how Poirot unravels the mystery from such a morass of complicated relationships and air-tight alibis. What is more when the true identity of the murder victim is revealed, few can argue that he did not deserve to die. For Poirot, however, it is a question of intellect, a puzzle which requires his preceise attention.

This book is a delightful puzzle box, one which has a surprising theme underlying the action. What Christie has fashioned is an intelligent outsider’s perspective on America and its unique contemporary multicultural mix. The contrast inferred with sleepy Old Europe is wittily observed. In many senses the book is quite self-aware – often the characters scoff at how the events resemble a detective mystery from a cheap book – and ultimately resolves itself into a ‘whydunnit’, instead of a ‘whodunnit’.

A classic detective mystery with a surprisingly subversive streak.

“I didn’t believe her when she told me stories of the wood, what a strange place it is – but she’s gone there, and she’s gone for good. Four days ago she went away. She won’t come back. And I’m a dead man, as good as. I’ve seen what’s happened to her”

“She’s been gone for a year and a half, Jim. She was gone a year when you turned up again.” Richard felt awkward. “You were gone for a year yourself…”

As the much harassed cat in Pépé Le Pew cartoons used to exclaim “Le Sigh”. Folks, some days are tougher than others. I never expected to still be doing this on the cusp of December, with Christmas only a short few weeks away. When I resigned from my job back in Ireland, just before we took off for our new life here in Australia, I fully expected to have found myself new employment by now.

But here we are and I still have not heard anything about my status. Tis wearying.

That’s probably why I was in such a bad mood while reading this book.

Richard Bradley came home one rainswept evening to witness a woman leave his family’s home, carrying what looked like a bow and running off into nearby Ryhope Wood. This is only the first of a number of strange events that effect the Bradley, all appearing to centre around Richard’s precocious son Alex. After a school stage production of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the family’s car nearly runs over the presumed dead James Keeton, wearing nothing but a bathrobe. Mysteriously Keeton has been missing for over a year. He disappeared shortly after his daughter Tallis, a close friend of Alex’s, also vanished. Yet Keeton shows no signs of having aged. Even his bathrobe is almost brand new, not the tattered rag it should have been after a year of sleeping rough.  What’s more he claims he has only been gone for several days.

The wildeyed Keeton whispers to young Alex cryptic babble about his missing daughter, insisting that she is still alive, but elsewhere, in another world. During one of Alex’s visits to the hospital Keeton is seized by a vision of his daughter, now old and dying in this other world and dies, with the boy left in a near catatonic state by the experience. Soon Richard is forced to commit his son to the same son Keeton was recovering in. Then he too vanishes.

Unable to comprehend what has happened Richard retreats into himself, having accepted as the years pass that Alex is dead, refusing to dwell upon the uncanny circumstances of his disappearance. Then a team of explorers studying the nearby wood attempt to recruit Richard. They claim that Alex is still alive and living within the wood itself, but refuse to divulge any more than that. Also the woman he saw leaving his house in 1959 is among them, but she has no memory of this event.

What follows is a journey into the collective unconscious of Britain, the wood itself housing a number of archetypes from British mythology, including a shapeshifting ur-Jack The Giant Killer, a trickster god similar to the sylvan Puck and Robin Hood. When the team reveals they are following the notes of a researcher of the wood named ‘Huxley’, who was a contemporary of Carl Jung’s, this information being relayed to Richard by a Frenchman named Lacan, I have to admit I let out a groan. It turns out the explorers are not so much interesting in the Bradleys out of sympathy for their plight, but because the mind of Alex has begun to manifest new elements, or ‘mythagos’, within the wood. In effect, they see the child as a corruptive influence on the dreamworld Huxley studied.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has a lot of writing about trees. Of course, he saw his books as an elegy to an England lost, with both its mythology and countryside overrun by the modern world. Holdstock seems to be attempting a similar project and while I applaud its sincerity, I found it too derivative. Revealing that Jason and the Argonauts are actually a bad bunch of boyos is I guess meant to be shocking, but the idea that childhood heroes are actually too good to be true is hardly original. What’s worse it undercuts the pretense of Jungian themes.

Overall I found this book dull and pretentious.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us’.

One hundred books! Oh my eyes are tired. To celebrate I chose to re-read for the umpteenth time the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit and then its larger sequel while I was still in school towards the end of the 1980’s. In many ways the experience defined my taste in reading ever since, so I felt the choice for today was appropriate. What’s more returning to this book I find much that is familiar; but also many elements of Tolkien’s writing that I did not notice before.

As this is a sequel to the popular novel The Hobbit, Tolkien begins by returning to the Shire, where a race known as hobbits once lived centuries ago during a time known as Middle-Earth. Bilbo Baggins the hero of that book is celebrating his 111th birthday and has chosen to travel once more on the open road, leaving his home and possessions to young Frodo Baggins. His old friend, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, arrives in the Shire to see him off. Before Bilbo leaves the wizard asks that he bequeath his magic ring to his heir, won during his adventures in a contest of riddles with the creature Gollum. At first the old hobbit refuses, shaking with anger, but he eventually relents. He leaves the Shire, suddenly feeling as if he has been unburdened.

Years pass before Gandalf returns to Frodo’s home in Bag End, revealing that the magic ring hidden for all this time is in fact The Great Ring, forged by the Dark Lord Sauron to command all the races of Middle-Earth. Frodo decides to flee the home he loves so well, knowing that as long as he stays all his friends are in danger. Gandalf encourages him to leave in secret, for there are spies from the east, the land of Mordor, abroad looking for news of the Ring.

Accompanied by his trusty man-servant Sam, and friends Merry and Pippin, Frodo leaves the Shire just in time. The party of hobbits have several close escapes from mysterious Black Riders hunting them, even at one point seeing one sniffing the ground like an animal. They are also faced with other dangers during their journey, such as the powerful Old Man Willow and the dread Barrow-Wights. Eventually they meet a ranger who is known as Strider, who offers to help them travel to the safe haven of Rivendell. Only after a terrifying chase do they make it to the house of Elrond Half-Elven. There a final council is held to decide what to do with the Great Ring and Frodo realizes he has little choice but to bear it into the kingdom of Mordor itself. Only there at the volcano where it was first forged can it be destroyed.

In my opinion The Fellowship of the Ring is the best of the three published books that make up Tolkien’s epic story The Lord of the Rings. For one it bridges the charming tone of The Hobbit with the increasingly more grandiose quality of its sequel. The Shire is shown to be sheltered from the greater dangers of Middle-Earth and Tolkien’s love of the bucolic lifestyle of hobbits is unfeigned. Years after reading this book I discovered a painting by Pieter Bruegel The Land of Cockaigne, which perfectly captures this contrast.

This almost childlike innocence of Frodo and his friends is threatened by the malign evil of the Black Riders. They appear in each of the three books, yet I never found them as frightening as when they were chasing hobbits down country lanes. Evil is a great concern of Tolkien’s, here identified as the corruptive influence of power. Sauron exists to pervert life and cheat death. The Christian subtext in the novels favours the worthiness of innocent hobbits over mighty warriors.

It is also a book about the passing of things, representing Tolkien’s idyllic vision of his childhood. Repeatedly he describes how magic is leaving the world of Middle-Earth, leaving the world of men behind.

Like a warm blanket, I enjoyed sinking into it for a day.

The air became cold, then bitter, but he kept up his painful pace, avoiding the roads wherever possible, though they would have been easier to walk than the ploughed and seeded ground. This caution proved well founded at one point when two police vehicles, book-ending a black limousine, slid all but silently down a road he had a minute ago crossed. He had no evidence whatsoever for the feeling that seized him as the cars passed by, but he sensed more than strongly that the limo’s passenger was Decker, the good doctor, still in pursuit of understanding.

When I was ten years old Clive Barker’s Nightbreed was released in cinemas. I have never seen this movie, but I can still remember how fascinated I was with the press stills released to magazines and newspapers at the time. They featured grotesque creatures, bulbous limbs and scarred faces, the stuff of nightmares. I was too young to see the film and so desperately wanted to, wanted to find out what these creatures inhabiting an underworld kingdom of Barker’s invention called Midian were. Cabal is the book that inspired the film Nightbreed. I have always thought the film had a better title, a more intriguing hook. Just what are the Nightbreed?

Boone is a young man tortured by visions of violence and death. He is a paranoid schizophrenic, who has finally achieved a kind of peace, leaving the days of endless nightmares and self-harm behind him. All thanks to Lori, a beautiful and understanding young woman, whose patience has given him hope of a life he can share with someone else. Until that is his therapist, Decker, shows him a collection of horrific photographs and tells him that he is in fact a killer.

Under hypnosis Boone apparently began to speak about things and events that only the killer of these people could have known. Decker offers to help him uncover his memories and prepare his defence. Horrified at what he has done, Boone cuts off contact from Lori and attempts to take his own life. He survives and winds up in hospital, where he meets a madman named Narcisse. The stranger whispers to him of a place called Midian, where the freaks and rejects of society are welcomed. Boone sets off to find it, pursued by the police for the eleven deaths Decker assures him he caused. After an encounter with some of the strange inhabitants of the underworld city, and a sudden death, Boone finds himself transformed into a new kind of being. When Lori finds him, he has returned from beyond the grave, more beast than man, a member of the Nightbreed. She has problems of her own though. The police are hunting her undead lover and a madman killer called Button Head is on her trail.

I am putting my cards on the table here. I found this book to be a bitter disappointment. Like the worse kinds of disappointments, this is due to Barker raising my expectations to a height, just before they come crashing down. The novel itself has a fascinating subtext relating to the oppression of homosexuality by mainstream society. Midian itself is a place where dualities thrive, male/female, life/death, beauty/horror. What’s more the characterisation of the Nightbreed as freaks is in keeping with the marginalisation of homosexuals, with numerous illustrations by Barker interspersed through the text resembling demonic Rorschach tests. The implication is clear, the tools of reason being used to oppress the most vulnerable members of society.

It’s important to note that up until very recently homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. The Guardian recently ran an article about the antagonistic relationship between the gay community and psychology. As fascinating as this is, I just wish Barker was less obvious in his symbolism and ironically more direct in his language. I found myself in the unusual position of admiring his visual imagination, yet finding the prose dreadfully dull. This could have been Michel Foucault meets The Lord of the Rings! Instead it is a thin novel stuffed with grotesque violence and underwhelming sex.

I am very sorry this was the case.

‘As for your stay here, you must not cherish any hope of leaving this place. Escape and death are the only ways. I do not imagine you want to die, and, as for escape, the nearest settlement is Dartnor, some leagues from here and off the main road – a mining town. And of course there is the tainted ground which the highlanders prefer to call badlands. I’m sure you noticed them in your journey here. On all sides of Obernewtyn lies the wilderness. Do not imagine that you have seen wilderness before, perhaps even roamed in it, for this is true wild country, untamed by men. The forests are filled with wolves of the most savage kind and there are still bears living in the heights. Even stranger things dwell in these shadow-pocked high mountains.’

The very first line of this book describes a nuclear holocaust. Aha, I thought to myself, post-nuclear apocalypse. Something of a common enough trope for a long period of time and I note that Obernewtyn was published in 1987, so still during the dying embers of the Cold War. Isobelle Carmody reverses expectations by going on to write something that’s more akin to Tolkien-inspired fantasy though.

Elspeth and her brother’s parents were killed by the tyrannical Council for the crime of ‘sedition’. Both of their children still do not know what exactly this involved. They find themselves orphaned in a land ruled with an iron fist by a religious hierarchy that worships a god called Lud and rejects all technology. The few remaining fertile lands are controlled by the Council, who employ an enclave of clergy known as Herders to enforce their belief that the holocaust was a punishment from god and they are his chosen people. Some children are born with mutations due to radiation. The Council hunts them down and sends them to work on labour farms. Less obvious mutations can leave the child undiscovered for many years. These hidden mutants are referred to as Misfits and are greatly feared, for the Herders teach that they are possessed by demons.

Elspeth is a Misfit. Her brother is unsympathetic, as over the years he has begun to confuse keeping them both safe from harm, with gaining power and prestige. He wants to become a Herder and is more concerned that if his sister’s secret is discovered, it may rob him of his chosen career. Despite the danger, Elspeth enjoys the abilities she has gained as a Misfit. Sometimes she has premonitions, she can hear thoughts and even, she learns after meeting an old cat named Maruman, speak telepathically to animals.

Then one day an agent from the secretive institution known as Obernewtyn arrives at the orphanage, hunting Misfits. Elspeth is denounced and taken across the blasted countryside to a mountainous fortress where a mysterious Dr. Seraphim is said to perform experiments on children born with mutations. There Elspeth is forced to endure endless days of hard labour, but she also discovers a sense of liberation through being in the company of her own kind. No one has ever seen the strange doctor who is said to run the institution, but occasionally children disappear from their bunks, only to be found later delirious and weakened. Elspeth and her new-found friends decide to plot their escape from Obernewtyn, fearing they will be next. The villainous Madam Vega and her pet Misfit Ariel have other plans for her though and soon she finds herself caught in a struggle between the forces of Obernewtyn and the hidden rebel army of Henry Druid.

Right, first things first, when I announced Children’s Literature Week, I mentioned in the comments that I wanted to get away from the books I had read as a child, primarily Tolkien and Lewis. Seems I have fallen at the second hurdle. Isobelle Carmody riffs shamelessly on Tolkien, even lifting whole lines from The Lord of the Rings and Germano-Celt names. At one point Elspeth has a vision of a giant eye searching for her. At times the book seems derivative of A Canticle for  Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (dytopian religious fanatics) and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (nuclear holocaust creates fantasy world).

So I am sorry to say there is nothing here I have not read before. I could damn it with faint praise by saying it’s readable (Obernewtyn is like Hogwarts but more realistic, i.e. depressing), but it pains me to do so.

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