sartorias: (JRRT)
There are many who say that the middle book of a trilogy is usually the worst—the one to skip—but I’ve often felt that that is true when a story is stretched to three books because trilogies cycled around to popularity again.

This is nothing new. My own theory (which is probably crackpot) is that the three volume novels so popular two hundred years ago were the direct descendant of Aristotle’s Poetics. I think that many who grew up reading books and plays that roughly corresponded with Aristotle’s form tend to storytell in three acts.

However, I believe that many writers who grew up on TV, with its four act structure divided into fifteen minute segments (before commercials ate up more and more time in the one-hour drama, which is now, what, thirty-two minutes?) never took in this rhythm. And so stories that might have fallen more naturally into two books, each with its climactic moments, got stretched to three, with the middle one a whole lot of filler.

Anyhow, whether that is truth or hot air, my point is that this middle book, or pair of books, of LOTR contains some of my favorite arcs of the entire story. I don’t find any of it to be filler.

Which brings me to the next chapter: Faramir.

He’s so complex, and (I think, anyway) could easily have served as the central hero to a story I would very much like to have read. He first seems dangerous, certainly inscrutable, especially when he begins to interrogate Frodo.

“See here, Captain!” Sam planted himself squarely in front of Faramir, his hands on his hips, with a look on his face as if he was addressing a young hobbit who had offered him what he called “sauce” when questioned about visits to the orchard.

There was some murmuring, but also some grins on the faces of the men looking on the sight of their Captain sitting on the ground and eye to eye with a young hobbit, legs well apart, bristling with wrath, was one beyond their experience . . .

Sam chews Faramir out good, which Faramir excepts without anger. He keeps his temper—and his own counsel—and though his loyalty to his brother, father, and Gondor are absolutely unquestioned, he is familiar with a great deal outside those borders: unlike Boromir, he betrays no mistrust of Lothlorien, and he also betrays no surprise when he discovers Frodo’s true purpose—and he makes no motion toward taking the Ring.

In short, the two hobbits are absolutely in his power, but we gradually discover that they are safer with him than they were with Boromir.

Another thing I thought interesting: before he and his rough riders eat, Faramir’s company face west for a moment of silence.

“So we always do,” he said as they sat down. “We look toward Numenor that was, and beyond to Elvenhome that is, and to that which is beyond Elvenhome and will ever be.”

Here again is the numinous glimmering so briefly, hinting at JRRT’s greater paradigm. And I find it so interesting that we never met it with Gandalf, or Galadriel, or even Aragorn.

Final point, he offers a history, and with it this judgment (including himself): “Yet now, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarce claim any longer the title High. We are become the Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things.For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge than only the craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, above men of other crafts.”

So Gollum is captured, and Faramir releases him into Frodo’s company rather than killing him, but warns Frodo not to go to Cirith Ungol.

The three depart again, and once more we get that shifting balance of power as Gollum leads them toward the crossroads.

When they reach it, they get one last brief glimpse of beauty as the sun is sinking in the west: he saw, beyond an arch of boughs, the road to Osgiliath running almost as straight as a stretched ribbon down, down, into the west. There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the sun was sinking, finding at last the hem of the great slow-rolling pall of cloud, and falling in an ominous fire towards the yet unsullied sea.

The last light falls on a statue ruined by violent hands. Graffiti is scrawled over it by “the maggot-folk of Mordor”, and the head knocked off. But the head of this statue of a long-ago king has been crowned by flowers.

“They cannot conquer forever,” Frodo thinks—but then darkness falls.
sartorias: (Default)
Today is release day for REBEL, the third in [personal profile] rachelmanija's and my dystopian YA series, The Change.

The first draft was actually done in 2015, but Rachel got quite ill, and only recently has begun to recover, and so we're back in the saddle. We're hoping to get TRAITOR (which is pretty much writing itself) out this year, too, fingers crossed.

In the meantime, here is this one, which has plenty of action bits, but is really a character book. There are actually several 'rebels' and not all of them are obvious. We also get outside of Las Anclas, which was such fun for us to invent.

As always, I encourage anyone interested in buying it to consider Book View Cafe first, as it's far the better deal for us, but here are the links to the main biggies. It's also at Kobo and iTunes.

Book View Cafe | Kindle | Nook | trade paperback

Great Day

May. 14th, 2017 04:59 pm
sartorias: (Default)
Perfect Mother's Day! Son too me out for banh mi and to see Guardians of the Galaxy--which was only six smackers a head!

What a fun movie! We were cracking up right and left. The villains were even fun, instead of boring, like the first movie.
sartorias: (JRRT)
So the three travelers (I can’t call them companions, as that implies they want to be together, and Sam wants nothing more than to be rid of Gollum, Gollum hates Sam, Frodo is tolerating Gollum and striving to be fair through the lens of pity, and Gollum wants the Ring. That’s not companionship as I define the word) hit the Gate. And of course can’t get in.

“What the plague did you bring us here for?” Sam asked, not feeling in the mood to be just or reasonable.

Aside from that terrible hint that Middle-earth has known plague, this chapter continues to spike the tension, and to demonstrate so brilliantly the constant shifts in the balance of power between the three as they consider the horror of Mordor, such a contrast to the scenery in the end of book two.

Sam tries for a semblance of normality as he quotes the Gaffer even more extensively than usual. I ought to have counted up the times the Gaffer gets quoted—he is Sam’s anchor for Shire-normal, though I think Bilbo, and through him the elves, are his lodestar for the world he is discovering how much he loves.

The world except for Mordor, that is.

and after all he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed. Now they were come to the bitter end. But he had stuck to his master all the way; that was what he had chiefly come for, and he would still stick to him. His master would not go to Mordor alone. Sam would go with him — and at any rate they would get rid of Gollum.

Gollum seems genuinely wretched as he tries to convince Frodo that there is another way past the Gate, a secret way. Sam is extremely skeptical, and watches the inward debate between Stinker and Slinker.

Frodo surprises Sam with his sternness, but Gollum is determined, though he quails at the last at naming the place he wants to take them.

At that point, the narrator steps in briefly and smoothly to orient us: Its name was Cirith Ungol, a name of dreadful rumor. Aragorn could perhaps have told them that name and its significance; Gandalf would have warned them. But they were alone, and Aragorn was far away, and Gandalf stood amid the ruin of Isengard and strove with Saruman, delayed by treason. Yet even as he spoke his last words to Saruman, and the Palantir crashed in fire upon the steps of Orthanc, his thought was ever upon Frodo and Samwise, over the long leagues his mind sought for them in hope and pity. . . .

. . . and here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside, expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go.

They watch an army march to join the Dark Lord—it’s the Southrons, coming to help their allies, orcs, goblins, and trolls. Gollum tells us they have dark skin and eyes, and wear a lot of red and gold. The hobbits go right past the Southrons’ differences to the fraught question: “Were there any oliphaunts?”

That is, Sam is fascinated, and recites a poem. Gollum can’t contain himself—he declares that he has not heard of them, he does not want to see them, He does not want them to be.

He whines at Frodo, who says lead on, and so we come to one of my favorite chapters, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit.” The first half is sheer character interaction, tightly woven as the hobbits run orthogonal to the sleepless watch of Morannon.

Gollum begins to run off from time to time as Sam and Frodo work their way into rough country that at least has green and growing things, as well as fresh water again.

Sam tries to get along with Gollum, but there’s always an edge to his dialogue: “Well, see here, old noser, you don’t like our food, and I’d not be sorry for a change myself. Your new motto is ‘always ready to help.’ Could you perhaps find anything for a hungry hobbit?”

“Yes,” Gollum returns. “Smeagol always helps, if they asks—if they asks nicely.”

And Sam comes right back frankly, “Right! I does ask. And if that isn’t nice enough, I begs.”

So Gollum takes off, and then comes one of my favorite passages.

Frodo is conked out. Sam observes him. Character becomes as stunningly visual as landscape in passages like these: The early daylight was only just creeping down into the shadows under the trees, but he saw his master’s face very clearly, and his hands, too, lying at rest on the ground beside him. He was reminded suddenly of Frodo as he had lain asleep in the house of Elrond, after his deadly wound.

Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiseling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed.

Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured, “I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.”

This passage, back in the late sixties and early seventies, sparked a lot of Sam/Frodo fanfic, veering between more hurt/comfort scenes of cuddling and outright Posturpedic gymnastics.

Everyone interprets character relations according to their own experience—and their own emotional landscapes—but to me, gay Sam and gay Frodo seems a sidestep from their real selves. What I always saw in this and the chapters post-Shelob was the intense relationship of battle-companions, fraught with what we now call PTSD, wherein sex is either a brief and frantic sideshow, to escape the shared hell, or altogether impossible.

I worked with a couple of Vietnam vets back in the late seventies (in separate situations) who both had very tight loyalties and relationships with specific unit buddies that at times seemed to transcend their relationships with women. (Both were unreservedly het.)

That’s what I get from Sam and Frodo beginning with this next and toughest phase of their journey. And note that Gollum comes up while Sam is in this reverie, and “peered over Sam’s shoulder. Looking at Frodo, he shut his eyes and crawled away without a sound.”

Gollum’s relationship with Frodo is exponentially more intense than Sam’s with Frodo, anchored as it is by friendship. But I think I want to save Gollum and Frodo until a later scene that I find strikingly effective, and important.

So Gollum brought rabbits, which Sam is going to cook, and a hilarious dialogue commences between Gollum and Sam, as Sam tries to get Gollum to fetch herbs and veggies to add to the stew, and Gollum is utterly horrified that Sam would ruin a perfectly good meal by cooking it.

And so, when they move on, once more Gollum skips out—and Sam and Frodo fall into the hands of Faramir’s band. But they haven’t had a chance to talk long when battle breaks out, between Southrons and Faramir’s guys.

A Harad warrior falls dead nearby, and Sam sees the man’s body.

Sam’s reaction says so very much about him: It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. 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—all in a flash of thought . . .

I know this is way out of line, but after I began seeing the palimpsest of JRRT’s WW I experience overlaid on the book, I wondered if the young Tolkien had stood in a trench and looked down at a young German, wondering the same things.

Moving on, Sam is gratified by the sight of an oliphaunt, though the narrative voice doesn’t foretell any good end for the poor creature.

And so the hobbits are not left behind, as Sam expected: Mablung predicts that the captain is going to want to see them.
sartorias: (desk)
So today is the last day of the Book View Cafe giveaway. (Below I have attempted my first image here, putting up the nice ad that Mindy Klasky made for me.)

Some of the authors have reported getting hundreds of signups at their newsletter, and have given away many more hundreds of books. My numbers are far more modest, as I expected. The newsletter I sent out was my first (Rachel made it for me--I can't even figure out how to do it) and I am still ambivalent about doing more.

One of the rubrics many of the authors are working on is that "you don't sell books to strangers." But, I am thinking, we actually do. I know very few of the authors whose books I buy. In fact, buying authors (i.e. whatever they put out, the minute it appears) is way down on the list of reasons why I get a book. So maybe I'm an outlier at the gitgo.

It also seems to me that social media is cram packed these days with authors touting their books, many of them feeling they have to do it. My eyes slide past so very much of it, especially when couched in breathless superlatives. But it must work, right? Am I an outlier in that, too?

Do you want newsletters from indie authors you like, giving you recipes and talking up a storm about their personal life and process? My eyes glaze when fellow authors go on and on about a story I know nothing about--the names mean nothing, I don't understand the situation, I want to say, just let me read the book, don't tell me about it. But again, am I an outlier? Does everybody else find that exciting?

It's different if I'm already invested in a series. Then I'm eager for any hints, and news. And of course there are those with such charisma that whatever they say gets an instant audience. I don't want to talk about them. I mean the rest of us, fumbling our way in the dark.

What gets your attention--authors selling themselves, the book itself, some combo of these?

ETA: woo, it worked! But you have to click it to see the full image.

sartorias: (JRRT)
For many of us, the last lines of the Fellowship made us desperate to follow Frodo, but the opening of The Two Towers plunges the reader in Aragorn’s path as he races to the rescue. With the death of Boromir, the focus has shifted firmly to the broken Company.

Then, just as Pippin and Gandalf are heading off, we switch back to Frodo and Sam. It’s a cold shift, calling for a mental readjustment. Over the years, I’ve talked to many who admitted to skipping either book three entirely to follow Frodo, or the reverse. I remember how hard it was to read in order, and yet when I sit back and think on the structure, I believe this is a good spot to switch the narrative over. The arc beginning with the capture of the hobbits and the rescue that led to Rohan and thence to Isengard is a whole.

The focus of the company is going to shift southward for what amounts to the Great Distraction. Aragorn and his doughty heroes, desperate and wonderful as they are, still are a decoy from the most important element of the plan: the Ringbearer.

When I was a young reader, I loathed Gollum, and hoped that Sam would strangle him ASAP. When it turned out he didn’t, for a long time afterward, on my rereads, I skimmed a lot of the Gollum bits.

But in the last reread or so, I’ve come around to a very different view. In some ways, Gollum, and not Frodo, is the true center of the book, in that Gollum embodies the human struggle between evil and good. The balance between Smeagol and Gollum is so very important not just to the quest, but thematically.

One of the pleasures of reading so slowly is the awareness of the relationship between Frodo and Sam. There is the implied hierarchy in Mr. Frodo and Sam, the latter carrying the cooking gear, and quoting his Gaffer, the former making decisions—then the both of them arguing back and forth freely as they slip and slide over the treacherous rocks. When Sam finally remembers the elven rope (“You’re nowt but a ninnyhammer, Sam Gamgee: that’s what the Gaffer said to me often enough”) they banter about it.

Little, vivid moments delineate them as much as their distinctive voices. When Gollum begins to shadow them (Sam loathing his nasty flappy feet), and then catches up, after a fight, it’s going back for Sam until Frodo pulls sting.

Gollum promptly collapses “as loose as wet string.”

Frodo is poised to make a life and death decision, and remembers Gandalf’s words from their first conversation about the ring: ”Deserves death! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.”

I’ve heard that quote excoriated over the years, by those who despise LOTR. It’s that implied greater justice that they balk at. Justice and mercy, such slippery concepts.

Frodo calls on Smeagol for a promise—he has to swear on the ring, which Frodo knows Gollum wants to see and touch, “though it will drive you mad”—and Gollum gives it amid much weeping.

Reluctantly Sam removes the rope, At once Gollum got up and began prancing about, like a whipped cur whose master has patted it. From that moment a change, which lasted for some time, came over him. He spoke with less hissing and whining, and he spoke to his companions direct, not to his precious self. He would cringe and flinch, if they stepped near him or made any sudden movement . . .

Aside from the stomach-turning reflection that JRRT had witnessed the result of much mistreatment of dogs (“cur”), I wonder where or how he was inspired to envision Gollum. The PTSD behavior might be extrapolated from said abused dogs, but what about the direct speech instead of to the precious?

Anyway, the three characters are unnervingly vivid here, the balance between them shifting page by page, paragraph by paragraph sometimes, as the need for sleep engenders worry about whether or not Gollum will betray them, and how.

Gollum shifts identities back and forth, even when he cannot eat lembas, and goes off to find his own food, something Frodo and Sam try not to think about too hard.

Sam forgives Frodo for falling asleep on his watch, and they talk a little, Sam wondering how long Frodo thinks it will take to do the job. He reckons they have enough food for three weeks.

Frodo’s answer is heartbreaking: ”But Samwise Gamgee—my dear hobbit—indeed, Sam, my dearest hobbit, friend of friends—I do not think we need give thought to what comes after that.”

After that, the balance of power shifts: they are wholly in the hands of Gollum as he leads them into the fens, and then the Dead Marshes.

Much has been said about the faces under the water, and how the horrors of the trenches must have engraved this image on JRRT’s memory: ally and foe lying together under the water, their features still young.

In the story, they have been there for centuries, “Before the precious came,” Gollum says. He adds that no one can touch them, though he tried. Sam is revolted: he knows why Gollum tried to touch them.

Anyway, the connection works both ways: I think of WW I memoirs when I read this, but when I read something from the WW I era, I think of this portion of LOTR.

It is this chapter, I think, and the ones after that forked many fantasy writers off into mimicking the surface without thinking too deeply: how many fantasies featured evil guys brooding over a ruined land somewhere in the east of the author’s paracosm, evil kings and wizards ruling over ruined evil lands because that’s what evil guys do, until doughty heroes can smite them?

Anyway, they travel by moonlight, which Frodo and Sam at first welcome, though Gollum is terrified, and sure enough, a ringwraith flies overhead on a scouting run, laying down a concussion of terror in all directions.

After that, Sam notices a change in Gollum, a sneaky, speculative glance, as they push on. When the sun comes up, The hobbits had no welcome for that light; unfriendly it seemed, revealing them in their helplessness—little squeaking ghosts that wandered among the ash-heaps of the Dark Lord.

Sam lies doggo, watching Gollum argue with himself, as if he were two people. When he sees Gollum winning over Smeagol, he fakes wakening.

Frodo is kind to Gollum, telling him that he led faithfully—but there’s a third scouting run by a ringwraith, and Gollum is sure they are toast. He “rose with a snarl, and went before them like a beaten dog.”

Those images always make me wince.
sartorias: (Default)
Birds Eye View, by Elinor Florence

I know that predictions can be hit or miss—they certainly are with me—but sometimes you’ve got to throw one out there, because you feel so passionately that a book deserves wider attention than it’s getting.

I feel that way about Birds Eye View, by Elinor Florence. What it has in common with Code Name Verity and the BBC serial The Bletchley Circle is a story featuring the sort of smart women who really did contribute to winning WW II, but whose work largely went unsung partly for social reasons and partly because their work was heavily classified for the next half-century.

Of course there’s going to be a certain element of modern outlook mixed with that of women born right around the time WW I ended. Code Name Verity is probably the most contemporary of them, with its bitter cynicism and its implied approval setting up its shocker. The TV serial I think got closer to depicting women of the time, but I believe that Florence comes closest to the voices of the women whose memoirs and collected letters I’ve read from that time. But it’s not just the period sensibility that made this a standout, it’s that rare quality of grace in dealing with that most horrible of human endeavors: mass warfare.

The novel begins with an extremely tense moment as female air wardens wait at an isolated air field for reconnaissance fliers to return. The weather over England has just taken an abrupt turn toward ice storm, which is bad news for airplanes . . .

And then our first-person narrator, Rose Jolliffe, is a young Canadian woman living in a tiny prairie town called Touchwood. It’s 1939, and she works assisting a foul-mouthed, snuff-taking veteran named MacTavish, who loathes the British officer corps and thinks Canada is well out of any more wars.

But Rose, as well as most of the other young people in her town, yearn to do their bit. Rose is mostly motivated by a strong wish to get out of tiny, boring Touchwood, away from farming. The first sign she gets that war is not glamorous is watching the faces of the young men going away to be trained—and their anxious parents, who all recollect WW I. The second sign happens comes when the local area is used for pilot training, but she is determined. She signs up for the women’s auxiliary service, knowing that the most they will be doing is scrubbing, laundry, and tea service—however her training with MacTavish’s printing press lifts her out of the regular run.

Before long she finds herself in England, at a newish estate at Medmenham (which amused me, as it was the site of Sir Francis Dashwood’s wannabe devil worshippers two hundred years before almost to the year, that that is not acknowledged in the book), scrutinizing photographs taken by reconnaissance planes for camouflaged artillery emplacements and munitions factories.

She also sees the results of bombings, which includes the collateral damage: cows and pigs, horses and dogs, and the broken bits of civilians. Florence depicts so vividly the toll Rose and her colleagues their work extracts from them, all in various ways. The characters are varied, the female friendships strong. Rose tumbles into love, or what she thinks is love, as she keeps working around the clock to impress her handsome boss.

The grimness of the war is punctuated by letters going back and forth from home: her parents, her best friend, and her neighbor Charlie Stewart all write, each with distinct voices.

The anxiety as younger brothers volunteer jacks up the tension, especially when the inside details of missions are revealed to the photographers. The suave words of newspapers can’t hide what the remorseless camera eye reveals.

The climactic sequence is a real emotional roller coaster, but Florence writes with grace as well as compassion, and here and there, when needed, just enough of a touch of humor. It’s this insight and grace that made the story so memorable for me—that, and her unerring ear for the idiom of the time, not only Canadian but British from various levels of society.

To wind up, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I hope it finds the audience it deserves.
sartorias: (JRRT)
Theoden is delighted to see Gandalf again, but when he and his men eye that unnervingly sudden forest, and Theoden says, “You are mighty in Wizardry, Gandalf the White!” Gandalf says they haven’t seen anything of wizardry from him yet, and the trees are a very old power.

Theoden then says he needs rest because he’s old—it’s not just Wormtongue, but an ill “that no leech can wholly cure, not even Gandalf.”

That he calls doctoring ‘leeches’ is a grim commentary on medical practices in Middle-earth. (Which, I suspect, might have still been in force some places Tolkien lived. Though calling medical practitioners ‘leeches’ was an idiom that lasted long after leeches were no longer in use. In fact, sometimes I hear that now, though the meaning has entirely changed: it is interchangeable with bloodsuckers. For example, a bill we just received for over two thousand dollars for an emergency visit the son made after a covert bean attack that lasted roughly two hours, and all they gave him was more benedryl. Turns out we can't afford epic-pens, because they expire fast, and now the price has been jacked up to nearly a grand for three--you can't order one--which expire at the same time. Bloodsuckers!!!)

Back to the book. The orcs are all dead, but the wild men of Dunland are disarmed and put to work—in direct contrast to the lies that Saruman told them when he raised them as an army.

But what to do about the great mounds of dead orcs, too many to bury or to burn? Gandalf says to let them lie for the nonce. They bury their own, then ride out, following Gandalf through that mysterious forest.

After a hot, weird ride through the uncanny forest under creaking, groaning boughs that create impenetrable shadows (which even Legolas finds disconcerting) they discover no sign of the orcs who had escaped the battle to hide. Creepy!

As they ride away, Legolas and Gimli—still sharing a mount—converse, and here is one of my favorite bits in this entire sequence.

They discuss the weird forest, then Gimli exclaims, “Strange are the ways of men, Legolas. Here they have one of the marvels of the Northern World, and what do they say of it? Caves, they say! Caves! Holes to fly to in time of war, to store fodder in!”

Legalist comments that he would give gold to be excused going into them and double to be let out, if he strayed in. Gimli replies earnestly that he would forgive the joke because the elf has no idea what he's talking about.

And then comes one of the loveliest descriptions in this book:

And, Legolas, when the torches are kindled and men walk on the sandy floors under the echoing domes, ah! then, Legolas, gems and crystals and veins of precious ore glint in the polished walls. And the light glows through folded marbles, shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel. There are columns of white and saffron and dawn-rose, fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-colored floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces! still lakes mirror them: a glimmering world looks up from dark pools covered with clear glass; cities, such as the mind of Durin could scarcely have imagined in his sleep, stretch on through avenues and pillared courts, on into the dark recesses where no light can come. And plink! A silver drop falls, and the round wrinkles in the glass make all the towers bend and waver like weeds and corals in a grotto of the sea. Then evening comes: they fade and twinkle out; the torches pass on into another chamber and another dream.

There is chamber after chamber, hall opening out of hall, dome after dome, stair beyond stair; and still the winding paths lead on into the mountains' heart. Caves! The Caverns of Helm's Deep! Happy was the chance that drove me there! It makes me weep to leave them.”

Bur he is not done.

When Legolas comments that there is little for dwarves to do there, and “Maybe the men of this land are wise to say little: one family of busy dwarves with hammer and chisel might mar more than they made."

Gimli cries out, ”No, you do not understand. No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the spring time for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them.

With cautious skill, tap by tap — a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day — so we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways, and display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock.

And lights, Legolas! We should make lights, such lamps as once shone in Kazad-dum; and when we wished we would drive away the night that has lain there since the hills were made; and when we desired rest we would let the night return."

It's interesting, how much a role light plays in the narrative: here it is again in good earnest.

So Legolas makes a bargain: if they survive they are going to travel together, visiting Fangorn and Helm’s Deep.

They get deeper into the forest, and Legolas exclaims that he sees eyes peering out from the trees, and he wants to go explore. Gimli, the tough warrior who took out 42 orcs, says he wants to get down—“Let me see no eyes!”

Ents stride past, and vanish, and Gandalf points out to Theoden that he has allies, “even if he knows them not.”

The countryside gets nastier, and they come across wolves slinking away. Theoden protests—he doesn’t want to see wolves devouring his fallen men. But Gandalf points out that they are feasting on orcs, adding, “Such is the friendship of their kind.” Does he mean that orcs ate wolves and wolves orcs?

Anyway, they find a great mound raised to the fallen Rohirrim, and as they pass, things get even weirder. First, the horizon is full of fume, then with an eerie mist and susurrus, they are passed by moving shadows—Ents on the way to take care of the rest of the orcs below Hornburg.

Gandalf and company approach Isengard, which was once impressive, but now it’s a wreck. The pillar of the great white hand is bloodstained.

And finally they encounter two hobbits picnicking on the top of a rubble heap. One hops up and declaims,

“We are the door wardens. Meriadoc son of Saradoc is my name; and my companion, who alas is overcome with weariness—” here he gave the other a dig with his foot “—is Peregrin, son of Paladin, of the house of Took. Far in the north is our home. The Lord Saruman is within; but at the moment he is closeted with one Wormtongue, or, doubtless he would be here to welcome such honorable guests.”

It turns out that Treebeard is in charge, and ordered the hobbits to tender the new arrivals a proper welcome. Gimli loses his temper when he spots the tobacco. “Hammer and tongs! I am so torn between rage and joy, that if I do not burst, it will be a marvel.”

Thereupon Merry and Theoden get into a discussion of hobbits, which strays into the history of tobacco. As a young reader, I loved the banter here, after the anxiety of the battle, and I pretty much ignored the tobacco blather (with prejudice, as in the mid-sixties when I first read this book, I was surrounded everywhere there were adults with the stench of cigarette smoke, either fresh or stale every time you sat down on a piece of naugahyde or fabric covered furniture, or entered a room that had been closed off, so the “qualities” of smoking were utterly lost on me.)

But it was later that I realized here was a strong foreshadowing of the Scouring of the Shire: it hints that Saruman was very familiar with the hobbits’ home country, and nothing was beyond reach of his malice. Especially a land that had long been kingless and without army protection.

The next chapter, Flotsam and Jetsam, I remember skimming and skipping partway through as a kid: more about smoking, and catch up as we get summaries of what we've already seen, but then comes the hobbits' vivid description of the Ents taking down Isengard.

Through the middle of the ruin Gandalf pops up—(remember, the hobbits don't know that Gandalf is alive)

Pippin has taken a turn at speaking: Suddenly a great horse came striding up, like a flash of silver. It was getting dark, but I could see the rider’s face clearly: it seemed to shine, and all his clothes were white. I just sat up, staring, with my mouth open. I tried to call out, and couldn’t.

There was no need. He halted just by us and looked down at us. “Gandalf!” I said at last, but my voice was only a whisper. Did he say, “Hullo, Pippin! This is a pleasant surprise!” No, indeed! He said, “Get up, you tom-fool of a Took. Where, in the name of wonder, in all this ruin is Treebeard? I want him. Quick!”

and, a bit later: "But Gandalf," I cried, "where have you been? And have you seen the others?"

"Wherever I have been, I am back," he answered in the genuine Gandalf manner.

Light again—and humor—after the smashing awesomeness of the Ents’ solution to the Saruman problem. Merry finishes the story, including describing the arrival of Wormtongue, whom Treebeard sends inside the tower.

In the next chapter, Gandalf says he has to pay a last visit to Saruman. “Dangerous, and probably useless, but it must be done.”

He doesn’t tell the hobbits why--not until it's over--but sternly tries to get them to be serious, warning them of the dangers of Saruman’s voice, and powers “you do not guess.”

And indeed, Saruman’s voice is enchanting. They might not remember his words, Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in their hearts of those under the spell. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them . . .

the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled, but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. . .

So in trying to be Sauron, was Saruman mimicking a seductive voice? Somewhere, I think it was Gandalf, said that Sauron’s form was once fair. I wonder if Sauron wove magic into his voice, too, to enthrall his hosts. This entire question reminds me of Milton’s Satan.

Saruman does his best to torque everyone there to his will, and Gandalf stands there silent. He gets especially nasty with Theoden after the latter snarls, “When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc.”

Last Saruman turns on Gandalf, who throws back his twisted arguments, and Saruman at last betrays not just doubt, but anguish. For that one moment, in that one word, we can get a glimpse of the good man that was. Unfortunately, when the great fall, they fall hard. As Gandalf says a little later, “He will not serve, only command.”

Gandalf breaks Saruman’s staff—and in retaliation, something is thrown out the window at them, to fall harmlessly down.

“Here, my lad, I’ll take that,” Gandalf says Gandalf crisply to Pippin, who picked it up.

The party begins to break up, with a delightful moment of meeting between Treebeard, Legolas, and Gimli—Legolas speaking up for Treebeard, who gives Gimli’s axe the hairy eyeball.

The next chapter—The Palantir—is the last of the Isengard sequence, and the last chapter in Book Three. It is one of those rare chapters that are character-focused from beginning to end. Not that there isn’t action and landscape. We get both. But we get great moments between the hobbits, between each hobbit and Gandalf respectively, and between Aragorn and Gandalf.

It begins with a ride. Merry gets to go with Gandalf. He’s tired, and asks if the small rag-tag dangling behind Gandalf will get some rest.

“So you heard that, did you?” Gandalf asks. “Don’t let it rankle. Be thankful no longer words were aimed at you. He had his eyes on you. If it is any comfort to your pride, I should say that, at the moment, you and Pippin are more in his thoughts than all the rest of us."

Dire warning!

Merry doesn’t get much out of Gandalf, but promises to tackle Aragorn, who is “less testy.”

When they camp, Merry and Pippin have a good gossip about Gandalf, but Pippin is obsessed with that glass ball that Gandalf took away so nippily.

Knowing he’s doing something that is surely stupid, and probably dangerous, Pippin sneaks up on Gandalf, replaces the palantir with a rock, and then nearly gets nailed by the Eye. After which Gandalf hands off the palantir to Aragorn, and the two have an interesting talk.

Merry waxes sarcastic when Pippin gets to ride with Gandalf, “instead of being turned into a stone himself to stand here for ever as a warning.”

As they ride, Gandalf tells Pippin the history of the palantiri, after which Pippin promptly begins another question.

”Mercy!” cried Gandalf. “If the giving of information is to be the cure of your inquisitiveness, I shall spend all the rest of my days in answering you. What more do you want to know?"

What follows is my favorite bit in this chapter—and incidentally one of my proofs that Pippin is not an idiot. Just young.

He says: “The names of all the stars, and of all living things, and the whole history of Middle-earth and Over-heaven and of the Sundering Seas.” Stupid people are content with ignorance, sometimes even grasp and hold it tight.

Gandalf explains where they are going, and Pippin begins to fall asleep to a strange feeling, that “he and Gandalf were still as stone, seated upon the statue of a running horse, while the world rolled away beneath his feet with a great noise of wind.”
sartorias: (Default)
As a way of reaching new readers and building newsletters (which seem to be the New Thing; naturally, I am way behind and have never sent one) Book View Cafe has set up a giveaway for some books until May 12th. I really like some of these, and hope they all find a wider audience.

Mindy Klasky, who set it all up, made a nice graphic for me, but Dreamwidth seems to be terrible for inserting graphics (It wants a URL and I don't have one) so I'll do a separate post for LiveJournal with my nice graphic that she made for me, which features my own offering.

If you think this is a good idea, please pass the word! Indies really depend on word of mouth. Especially those of us who have a PR budget of $0.00.
sartorias: (Fan)
Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint has now become a shared world, under Kushner's guidance. At BVC I talk about it and about collaboration.
sartorias: (JRRT)
The men ride out of Edoras.

Another terrific passage, slowly setting the mood:

As the second day of their riding drew on, the heaviness in the air increased. In the afternoon the dark clouds began to overtake them: a somber canopy with great billowing edges flecked with dazzling light. The sun went down, blood-red in a smoking haze. The spears of the Riders were tipped with fire as the last shafts of light kindled the steep faces of the peaks of Thrihyrne: now very near they stood on the northernmost arm of the White Mountains, three jagged horns staring at the sunset.

Those spears—when did he see that? Did Snorri write about them, or did he remember firelining along bayonets on the Somme?

At any rate, when bad news comes, Theoden tells the rider that he and the “last host of Eorlingas” has ridden forth. Gandalf then turns to Theoden and tells him to ride out, and he takes off like a comet.

Helm’s Deep is a “green coomb, a great bay in the mountains,” named after some hero. “Ever steeper and narrower it wound inward from the north under the shadow of the Thrihryne, till the crowhaunted cliffs rose like mighty towers on either side, shutting out the light.”

Crow-haunted cliffs. Is that not the tightest, most evocative image?

Anyway, the press of history is here, too, the sea-kings of Gondor having built the high walls with the help of giants. This Hornburg can echo a trumpet call.

The company rides in, as bad news about the orc hordes burning their way in their wake arrives. They meet up with a holding force, including an old geez who says he heads a company of very old and very young. Refugees have been tucked into the caves behind, and as they get ready, we get some talk between Gimli and Legolas.

Gimli maintains that the stone has good bones. Legolas hates it there, but he says he’s glad to have Gimli and his axe by his side. Gimli’s reply is as bloodthirsty as any Urukhai: “Yet my axe is restless in my hand. Give me a row of orc-necks and room to swing and all weariness will fall from me!”

He’s not kidding, either. As the orcs press in, doing their best to slaughter the defenders, Gimli and Legolas begin counting coup.

Below, Eomer and Aragorn lead a sortie, both yelling slogans, naming their weapons: “Guthwinë for the Mark!” and Anduril for the Dunedain!”

Does it work, to name weapons? In fiction it does, of course. In life, I wonder if this sort of shout—any shout—that bound together individuals into a mutually supporting whole, and named that which gave them the courage to charge out and chance possible death worked. Slogans, weapons, names of leaders. History is full of them. Then there is crowd mood: chants can send people into frenzies both good and bad, as emotions unite and intensify.

At any rate, the warriors shout, “Anduril! Anduril goes to war. The Blade that was Broken shines again!”

And indeed, Anduril shines with white fire as Aragorn leads the attack. Eomer is no slouch, and he discovers at the end of the sortie that Gimli has been guarding his flank.

Gimli and Legolas continue to count coup in exactly the sort of quasi-lighthearted, grim humor I’ve read about in countless military memoirs.

Back and forth the fight goes, vividly described, with our heroes increasingly pressured. Things are looking hopeless, and once again Aragorn reveals his kingly side when he parleys with the orcs from the wall, and they threaten to shoot him down:

So great a power and royalty was revealed in Aragorn, as he stood there alone above the ruined gates before the host of his enemies, that many of the wild men paused, and looked back over their shoulders to the valley, and some looked up doubtfully at the sky. But the orcs laughed with loud voices; and a hail of darts and arrows whistled over the wall, as Aragorn leaped down.

The gate falls, and it looks like bad news, but then the horn winds, and Theoden leads the charge. They scatter the enemy, and then rein up.

There the company halted. Light grew bright around them. Shafts of the sun flared above the eastern hills and glimmered on their spears. But they sat silent on their horses, and they gazed down upon the Deeping Coomb.

The land had changed

From the glimmering spears to the land changing: vivid reality to the weird of magic. When I first read that, I got such a thrill along the nerves! The defenders find themselves looking down at a forest, trees “rank on rank,” and the orc host is caught between Theoden’s defenders, and this forest, with Gandalf and the long-looked-for Erkenbrand.

They throw down their weapons, and some try to flee, but none of them ever come out from that forest.

sartorias: (brain)
I am pretty much guaranteed to always be a day late and a dollar short, but even I stumble onto contemporary happenings, mostly through reading blogs, and I discovered that today is Star Wars Day.

It won't last, unless some big gun figures a way to make money off it, but meanwhile we can think back to our experiences. Like standing in lines in 1977, in an atmosphere of exhilaration. My co-writer Dave T. and I would walk over to Hollywood Blvd at around midnight and get into line for the two thirty or four o'clock a.m. showing, as that was when the eternal line got shortest. The air was usually redolent with Maui Wowee, and people passed back and forth cheap bottles of wine, etc. Nobody had thought of working the line as vendors, which I understand happens now: there was a humongoid line for Hamilton tx a few days ago, and I was told vendors were there. Same atmosphere of party and shared expectation and enjoyment.

So there was also a post about Star Wars figures, triggering memory. In 1993, my son's bio dad showed up unexpectedly one day, after two years of silence. (We stayed with him and bio-mom for the two weeks before son's birth, then we drove the 700 miles down here, and he and bio-mom split up. As this was an open adoption, we heard from her often, but not from him until this day.) He carried a shoe box under one arm. He looked around our shabby furniture (most of which, alas, we still have, those that haven't fallen apart) and our wall to wall bookcases, and dominating the living room the gigantic plastic castle we'd bought so Son could climb inside when he couldn't be outside. Eccentric as we and our space is, Bio-dad seemed content (his growing up had been pretty fraught). He stayed maybe half an hour, during which he handed us the shoe box, which turned out to be mostly full of Star Wars figures that he'd played with as a little kid in the late seventies and early eighties. He hadn't had many toys, but those he'd had he'd saved in this box.

We promptly handed them off to the son, who played with them happily for several years. A few of them got chewed up by various rescue dogs over the years, and some got lost, but those that survived years of imaginary battles I scooped up when the son moved on to video games, and now I have that box in the closet, in case some day he has kids of his own.
sartorias: (JRRT)
I’d like to get this out of the way first, as it has irritated me clear back since I was a kid and read “On Fairy Stories,” and saw JRRT clearly and plainly stating that he was not writing allegory.

The Rohirrim are not, not evidence that he “worshipped the Aryan race.” I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that offered as “proof” of his flagrant racism.

There is a northern European feel to the Rohirrim, and most of them seem to be blonds, but they are not remotely stated to be German, Germanic, nor a "superior race.”

In the letters, JRRT says testily, I cannot understand why the name of a country (stated to be Elvish) should be associated with anything Germanic; still less with the only remotely similar O.N. “rann” ‘house’, which is incidentally not at all appropriate to a still partly mobile and nomadic people of horse-breeders!

He goes on to break down all the Elvish components of Rohan and Rohirrim, to suffixes and prefixes.

If anything, the inspiration probably goes back to Snorri Sturluson—with whom, incidentally, JRRT is arguing, as Snorri seemed to think elves were malignant. That would be roughly 800 years before Hitler and his gang of crackpots.

Okay, back to the story—and our friends encountering Hama, the hapless Doorwarden, who ends up caught between a rock and a hard place: Eomer is in disgrace, Theoden apparently refuses to see anyone, and Gandalf insists. Hama compromises the best he can by having his extremely intimidating guests leave their weapons, but Gandalf takes his staff.


JRRT clearly enjoyed inventing Theoden’s house—we get one of the most detailed descriptions that is not landscape that we ever get, right down to the fabulous tapestry of Eorl the Young riding north to battle at the Field of Celebrant.

As Wormtongue does his oily best to turn Theoden away from Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn, his insults about Galadriel spark Gandalf’s temper, and he rams his staff on the ground. Lightning flares, and Wormtongue goes splat, and silent.

Then we meet Eowyn, as she comes forward to help Theoden down the hall.

And for the first time, we get a hint of romantic possibility:

As she passed the doors she turned and looked back. Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; bit strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Eowyn, lady of Rohan . . . And she now was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, greycloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt. For a moment still as stone she stood, then turning swiftly she was gone.

Hoo boy. As a kid of fourteen verging on fifteen, with little interest in romance, I still found that to act powerfully on me. I was totally unaware of the subtle hints that Aragorn’s heart was already given, and thought that these two would be a great pair. Especially after reading so many books with the women sidelined into fragile female passivity, here’s Eowyn, “strong she seemed and stern as steel.”

Instantly she became my teenage self’s favorite character in the entire story.

Faithful, impetuous Eomer shows up, with his sword. Theoden grips it, then he sends for his own, which Wormtongue had squirreled away.

Hama brings it, hinting that Grima has been helping himself to other missing items, and when Theoden says that Grima can ride along with them, Wormtongue “Licked his lips with a long, pale tongue.” Ew! Tolkien is sparse with the physical description, but when he puts one in, it’s visually striking and character revealing.

After unsuccessfully trying to get Theoden back into dodder mode, Wormtongue tries to weasel out of accompanying them, and Gandalf totally calls him on it, adding a line that flew right over my head at fifteen, but crawled over my skin like a thousand slugs when I got a little older, and had to begin fending off creepy guys who would not take no for an answer (and this was back in the day when more often than not people blamed the victim, i.e., “What did you do to make him attack you?”):

”How long is it since Saruman bought you? What was the promised price? When all the men were dead, you were to pick your share of the treasure, and take the woman you desire? Too long have you watched her under your eyelids and haunted her steps.” Ew, ew, EW!!!

So the guys have a great meal, and Eowyn brings the guesting cup around to the guests. She offers it to Aragorn, and as he looks into her face she smiles, “but as he took the cup, his hand met hers, and he knew that she trembled at his touch.”

That is such a subtle bit there, but so very telling when one gets to an age to know what it means. Furthermore, it’s one of the few times we get into Aragorn’s POV, however briefly. I was stunned and horrified on my first read when he rejects her, and in my callow teen self, I loathed Arwen, who did seem to be one of those passive princesses, waiting on the sidelines to be a trophy. It took my adult self to realize that for whatever reason JRRT didn't include her in any scenes until the end, but that end is extremely powerful. More when we get there.

So anyway the men try to figure out who is to stay behind to rule in Theoden’s place. They pick Eowyn. Of course the female is left behind, but at least (my teen self was gratified to see) that she was given a sword and a corselet. Be still my teenage heart!

Legolas offers to share his ride with Gimli—cementing an amazing friendship—and they are off with a thunder of hooves.


May. 1st, 2017 12:25 pm
sartorias: (tallship)
Some kindly person has apparently gifted me with a year's subscription to Dreamwidth. Thank you very much, generous soul!
sartorias: (white rose)
Thanks to [personal profile] rachelmanija, yesterday I got to see Bahubali 2 on the big screen.

Oh, my. If you love myth, bigger than life characters, resonance through history, great action, and jaw dropping beauty (with amazing details), you have to see this one on the big screen.

Because of the structure, I think one could actually begin here, as most of it is flashback, but for the full effect and many emotional payoffs, get Bahubali I (which ends on a staggering cliff hanger, so we waited two years to find out what happened and why!) and watch it first. On the biggest screen you can.

This is a film by the south Indian film community, far less known than the bigger northern community. With this film, I hope that that will no longer be true, and we might be able to see more of their offerings. I want to find this director's other work.

I want to see it again, and I rarely feel that way after movies. It was longer than two hours but it passed so fast!
sartorias: (JRRT)
There is not much action in this chapter, but it is so deeply satisfying in so many ways that at least in my mind it stands alone.

There is one biggie, but I discovered on later readings a whole lot of other zing moments.

It opens with Aragorn showing off his badass Ranger snooping skills as he and Legolas and Gimli examine the battleground by light of day. Also, Legolas mentions that the horses that ran away sounded as if they were greeting a friend. So that was a strike against the mysterious old man being Saruman.

But no sooner are they on the trail than they spy an old, bent man wearing tattered gray rags, and Gimli yells at Legolas to shoot first. Aragorn, as usual says wait, and they do, noting that the oldster wears a hood and a hat. All they can see is his gray beard.

The old man seems to lose his weariness, and Gimli and Legolas find themselves unable to raise their weapons as the man joins them, then asks who they are. A flash of white is seen among his tatters, and all the evidence points to it being Saruman.

But when they as for his name, we get this curious passage:

“ . .As for my name!” He broke off, laughing long and softly. Aragorn felt a shudder run through him at the sound, a strange cold thrill; and yet it was not fear or terror that he felt: rather it was like the sudden bite of a keen air, or the slap of a cold rain that wakes and an uneasy sleeper.

“My name!” said the old man again. “Have you not guessed it already? You have heard it before, I think. Yes, you have heard it before. But come now, what of your tale?”

He tells them who they were seeking, and invites them to talk, but when Gimli attacks, calling him Saruman, he throws off the tatters and stands there in white. Gimpli’s axe falls to the ground, Aragorn’s sword flares with light, and Legolas shoots an arrow into the air, which bursts into flame.

It’s Gandalf! Or, Mithrandir—Legolas greets him with his elven name, and Gandalf recognizes it, but when Aragorn calls him Gandalf, he says,

“Gandalf,” the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word. “Yes, that was the name, I am Gandalf.”

He makes a kind gesture to Gimli, who is sorely abashed to have drawn on him, then he says he is now Gandalf the White. I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been. . . . I have passed through fire and deep water since we parted.

When I was a kid reader, I couldn’t figure out why he was so cagey about his name, and then that business about remembering it. But in later readings I wondered if he fell altogether out of the world, and was sent back in to finish the job. At any rate, he seems less human than he ever did, and his humanness becomes more in question with each reading. I mean, he clearly has human form, but that glimmer of white between the rags of lordship, as it were, represents a lot more than the tatters of old clothes.

Another really important point occurs to me as they begin catching up on each other’s news: Gandalf tells them that the eagles told him of Merry and Pippin’s captivity. I think every mention of the eagles is important: it demonstrates their independence, their alliance rather than their obedience, and so supports what happens at the very end.

And here is where I think he admits that he was helping Frodo to take off the ring in the nick of time, though the wording is vague, and it passed me by on countless readings:

“ . . .The Ring has now passed beyond my help, or the help of any of the Company that set out from Rivendell. Very nearly it was revealed to the Enemy, but it escaped. I had some part in that: for I sat in a high place, and I strove with the Dark Tower, and the Shadow passed. . .”

Another bit that always escaped me, but stands out now. I haven’t wanted to talk about the Peter Jackson films, as I don’t want to derail a reading of the books, but I will say this: when Gandalf says it was a pity about Boromir, but he was glad that he escaped his peril in the end (the peril of being enslaved by the ring, obviously, to which even death is preferable), “It was not in vain that the young hobbits came with us, if only for Boromir’s sake.”

I think in the book that is fairly oblique, but Jackson took that single line and did an excellent job with it, filling out Boromir’s character admirably.

Gandalf catches them up on bigger events, and then tells Aragorn and company that the hobbits are with the Ents. And as they set out together, he fills them in on what happened after his fall in Moria, and his meeting up again with Gwahir—who came at the behest of Galadriel, who has some words in poetry to pass on to the three. The best, by far, was her warm message to Gimli, “wherever thou goest my thought goes with thee.”

The horses catch up with them, and when they see smoke on the horizon, “Battle and war,” said Gandalf. “Ride on!”
sartorias: (JRRT)
Orcs have become a complex subject in the dialogue about fantasy, both critical and fictional. There are numerous authors who have put together stories sparked by the notion that the orcs are the underdog heroes, despised as they are by the hypocritical elves, dwarves, and men. Within an outlook that “good” is meaningless and “evil” is mere propaganda for the other side, the orcs can become protagonists in a crapsack world chockfull of postmodern relativism, ugliness everywhere, and plenty of blood and guts.

Then there are those who consider the orcs, etc, as evidence of Tolkien’s racism. I’ll get to that. Finally, there are those, like me, who think the orcs pretty much act like human beings in their pettiness, enjoyment of cruelty, othering (they do it, too), and relish for violence, but that doesn’t make them heroes. It does, however, make me wonder about their lives away from war.

So all this stuff was in mind as I read this pair of chapters. I thought I’d look for, oh, let’s call them cultural details.

In chapter two we first encounter orcs and goblins up close, initially through a flashback in Pippin's point of view. The first orcs we are introduced to aren’t particularly battle-minded—until Boromir forces them to it.

Thinking back, Pippin reflects on how he and Merry:

. . . had run a long way shouting — he could not remember how far or how long; and then suddenly they had crashed right into a group of orcs: they were standing listening, and they did not appear to see Merry and Pippin until they were almost in their arms. Then they yelled and dozens of other goblins had sprung out of the trees. Merry and he had drawn their swords, but the orcs did not wish to fight, and they had tried only to lay hold of them, even when Merry had cut off several of their arms and hands. Good old Merry!

Then Boromir had come leaping through the trees. He had made them fight. He slew many of them and the rest fled . . .

The second speech we hear is one of them threatening Pippin, offering to ‘tickle’ him with a knife blade. This is an angry and threatening enemy who seems to relish the idea of torture, which he calls “play,” but still I wonder when he learned the concept of tickling as well as play.

We then get an argument, in which it becomes clear that there are two parties loyal to their respective masters, each of whom have orders that they intend to obey.

Then a third speaks up, saying, “Not our orders! We have come all the way from the Mines to kill, and [italics mine]avenge our folk. I wish to kill, and then go back up North.”

Following comes another interesting bit of dialogue: “Maybe, maybe! Then you’ll fly off with our prisoners, and get all the pay and praise in Lugburz, and leave us to foot it as best we can through the Horse-country. No, we must stick together. These lands are dangerous: full of foul rebels and brigands.”

Ugluk says that they have to stick together, then he brags that they are the fighting Uruk-Hai. He is concerned about “his lads” getting worn out—and Grishnakh returns because “There are some stout fellows that are too good to lose.” And finally, they carry at least one first-aid kit, judging by Ugluk’s tending Merry.

So underneath the threat and the ugliness, the dirty bandages, and so forth, we can see evidence of unit cohesion, obedience to orders, a wish to avenge their people, and at some point in their lives, a sense of play.

I remember a long talk on a panel during which an author, in slamming LOTR, pointed out that Aragorn, our noble hero, Legolas, the beauty-loving elf, and the honorable Gimli don’t seem to have any problem with abandoning the enemy dead.

Another person on that panel (which had been put together for the purpose of talking about why LOTR is bad) did not actually rant, but said more mildly, “Look, I totally respect your loving that book, and I know it’s got a lot of great qualities, but it also others people like me—persons of color—and I can’t get past that, even in a fantasy full of magic and dragons and elves.”

"Yes!" proclaimed the first panelist. "One of the many signs of othering is disrespecting the enemy dead." And pointed out later in the last volume an orc claims that ‘the big warrior’ (Sam)’s leaving the apparently dead Frodo lying in Shelob’s lair is a “typical elvish trick.”

Nobody countered it, but I remember wondering as I walked out of the panel if what the orc probably meant that the elves disdained a perfectly good meal, as I could not remember an instance in LOTR in which orcs and their allies respectfully buried anybody, ally or enemy. But there were plenty of references to relishing man-meat.

Anyway, it does appear that the orcs have some social and cultural rules. They are also thinking beings, choosing to follow orders to kill, avenge, and invade.

The other question is a tougher one, the language that equates dark with bad (“swarthy,” “swart,” “black,” “dark”) as opposed to those elves having as one of their beauteous qualities their pale, pale skin and hair.

It’s been pointed out that not all white characters are good: Saruman isn’t (“dark eyes!” someone on the panel noted), Gollum is sometimes described as dark and other times pale, and then there are the Nazgul, who under their black cloaks are “pale kings.” Whereas Aragorn when he first appears is dark of hair and clothes.

In my reading so far, what I think is going on is a light and darkness comparison rather than racial—though the Haradrim and their dark skin are difficult to explain away, as are the sallow and slant-eyed goblins. But to Tolkien light was so very important, going back to the light of the Two Trees, and one expression of evil is reviling that light, or wanting to possess or distort it.

Sauron certainly relishes darkness, what with only trying to buy (and steal) black horses, outfitting his minions in black (which takes a ton of dye work), and of course being a part of the breeding project to raise warriors who prefer to move in darkness, and who developed thick hides rather like armor, that seem by description to resemble elephant hides.

Anyway, my completely boring and wussy conclusion is that Tolkien was a product of his time, betraying certain unexamined assumptions, but what I do not believe is that he set out to write an allegory “proving” that all dark-skinned people are evil.

When I finished the chapter, I went hunting through the letters, and I found a passage when JRRT was writing to Christopher Tolkien during the last year of WW II, who apparently had been undergoing some problems with his military peers, JRRT writes: Urukhai is only a figure of speech. There are no genuine Uruks, that is folk made bad by the intention of their maker; and not many who are so corrupted as to be irredeemable (though I fear it must be admitted that there are human creatures that seem irredeemable short of a special miracle) and that there are probably abnormally many of such creatures in Deutschland and Nippon — but certainly these unhappy countries have no monopoly: I have met them, or thought so, in England's green and pleasant land).

Anyhow, I wondered what orc culture was like when they weren’t on the march to war. Did they marry? Were their children like any other kids until beaten into angry warriors? They definitely have a sense of humor, warped as it is, as is evident in this passage:

"Hullo, Pippin! Merry said. “So you've come on this little expedition, too? Where do we get bed-and-breakfast?"

"Now then!" said Ugluk. "None of that! Hold your tongues. No talk to one another. Any trouble will be reported at the other end, and He’ll know how to pay you. You will get bed and breakfast all right: more than you can stomach."

Did orc mothers wait anxiously for their boys to come home from the war?

Then, how much of their wills have been distorted by the magical influence of their supreme commanders, Saruman and Sauron? We’re going to see evidence of some kind of mass effect in book three.

Onward. We also have have in this chapter Pippin planning ahead, and watching for a chance to leave evidence. When he can, he cuts his bonds, then quickly loops the ropes so that they look convincing. This is not evidence of a stupid hobbit. After the Rohirrim attack, when Grishnakh turns up threatening them, it’s Pippin who does his best to deflect him.

And when Grishnakh is dead, it’s Pippin who was ready with his fake ropes, and after making sure they eat a bit of lembas: “Pippin was the first to come back to the present.” It’s he who cuts their bonds and takes the lead into Fangorn.

Oh yeah. At the end of the chapter, Eomer and his riders make a mound of their fallen, and they do burn the orc dead.

The next chapter is another of Tolkien’s wonderful mood and mode changes: we go from sweat, blood, fire, and sword into the beauty and mystery of Fangorn.

We meet the Ents. For me as a reader, it is somehow more wonderful that it is hobbits, and not men (or even elves) through whose eyes we first meet Treebeard and Quickbeam. I love the humor-veined awe that the Ents inspire in Pippin and Merry. We also encounter Entish magic, which—like the elven magic we have encountered so far—seems to be a natural part of their being.

Ho, hum, hoom, the Ents are on the march, after pages of wonderful, evocative description. Tension rises, after the Entish look at history and the world around them. As the next chapter returns to Gimli and company, that should do it for this round.
sartorias: (JRRT)
Kicking off The Two Towers is mostly action, with great character moments, and of course plenty of blasts back to the past. These two chapters concern meetings between people who know their legends, without being aware that they are embarking on becoming legends themselves.

This is one of the aspects of the coolness factor, the seduction of competence and striving for a sense of right that has always sparked for me.

Not that there won't be questions. But that's coming.

For now:

When Aragorn finds the dying Boromir, the latter confesses, and Aragorn tries to give him peace. When Gimli and Legolas catch up, they find him grieving over Boromir, and over his own failure to keep the company together and safe on their perilous road.

He’s not just grieving but weeping, and I do want to talk about tears, but later. There’s a passage I’ve always remembered where I think it’s important. Meanwhile, the three search the Orcs, but don’t think about decent burial for them as they do Boromir, who gets sent over the falls, Aragorn making a poem and commenting that in Minas Tirith they endure the East wind, but don’t look to it for news.

After finding clues of the hobbits—and of two separate orc forces—they take off in pursuit. Aragorn regrets bitterly turning away from the south, but duty calls, and they start running northwards.

In chapter two, they encounter the remains of dead orcs, also unburied. More about that later: as a kid reader I was not bothered, but later on, I was.

They reach the plains of Rohan, where Aragorn finds Pippin’s brooch lying a little ways off the trail—evidence, I think, that Pippin has quick wits, though he’s still a kid.

They camp, then Legolas gives the ground a listen, after Aragorn comments that the earth must groan under the orcs’ hated feet. They push on, then comes an interesting passage. Aragorn says he’s tired:

"There is something strange at work in this land. I distrust the silence. I distrust even the pale moon. The stars are faint; and I am weary as I have seldom been before, weary as Ranger should not be with a clear trail to follow. A weariness that is in the heart more than in the limb."

"Truly!" said Legolas. “ That I have known since first we came down from the Emyn Muil. For the will is not behind us but before us."

Saruman’s magic seems to reach out beyond anyone being able to hear his voice. Right? I want to discuss Saruman's magic, but later.

On they go, until they meet the Riders of Rohan, who nearly go past them until Aragorn asks them for news.

It doesn’t start out well: when Aragorn says that they had recently come through Lothlorien, Eomer infuriates Gimli by commenting about Galadriel, “Few escape her nets, they say.”

It’s Aragorn the peace maker who comes between Eomer and the other two, who are ready to do battle on the spot. He explains their quest, but then he reveals who he is, and demands that Eomer choose swiftly.

Then comes one of those cool moments that thrilled me chitlins as a kid reader, when Eomer says, “These are indeed strange days. Dreams and legends spring out of the grass.”

I’ve always loved larger than life characters, especially when they live up to the promise.

Anyway, they find out that the orc band that took the hobbits is toast, but no sign of the two prisoners. The Rohan knights are skeptical about hobbits, and when Eomer comments, “Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?” Aragorn comes back with, “A man may do both.”

Zing, more coolness factor. They exchange news—all pretty bad—and Eomer insists that Rohan does not pay tribute to Mordor, nor would they sell black horses to Mordor, for they are put to evil use.

This demand for specifically black horses passed me by when I was young, but it caught my attention this round. But I think that will belong to the discussion of black and white, light and darkness.

They discuss Gandalf, and then what to do. Eomer for the third time comments on the strangeness of these days, but when he wonders how he is to judge what to do, Aragorn says:

"As he ever has judged," said Aragorn. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among elves and dwarves and another among men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house."

They decide to go on, though Gimli feels about horses the way Sam feels about boats. They reach Fangorn, where the trees act oddly, Aragorn saying that Fangorn holds some secret of his own. What it is he doesn’t know.

To which Gimli replies with heartfelt truth, “And I do not wish to know! Let nothing that dwells in Fangorn be troubled on my account!”

Gimli gets the first watch—and their camp is disturbed by an old man. Who vanishes, along with their horses. Aragorn comments that he had a hat, not a hood . . . and they wait out the night.

So, all kinds of setup for later payoff.
sartorias: (JRRT)
Ch 9, “The Great River,” we’re getting set up for dynamic changes, and the introduction of Gollum, who will become one of the major characters of The Two Towers. Actually, I think Gollum is pivotal to the entire book.

But we can talk about Gollum later.

This is a good chapter for character moments as we see the last of the Company of the Fellowship. First, Legolas. So far, Legolas has been appreciative of wood, stone, field, and of course mallorns. We get a hint of Legolas’s prowess in this terrific bit:

Frodo looked up at the elf standing tall above him, as he gazed into the night, seeking a mark to shoot at. His head was dark, crowned with sharp white stars that glittered in the black pools of the sky behind. But now rising and sailing up from the south the great clouds advanced, sending out dark outriders into the starry fields. A sudden dread fell on the company.

. . . a dark shape, like a cloud and yet not a cloud, for it moved far more swiftly, came out of the blackness in the South, and sped towards the company, blotting out all light as it approached. Soon it appeared as a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night. . .

Suddenly the great bow of Lorien sang. Shrill went the arrow from the elven-string. Frodo looked up. Almost above him the winged shape swerved. There was a harsh croaking scream, as it fell out of the air, vanishing down into the gloom of the eastern shore. The sky was clean again. There was a tumult of many voices far away, cursing and wailing in the darkness, and then silence.

Later, he talks about how elves perceive the passage of time. That’s the final melancholy note, a coda to Lorien, before things start hotting up, first with Boromir trying to do his best to get the company—and the ring—heading for Gondor.

They proceed further down the river, Sam miserable as the boats whirl underneath the mighty sentinels of Numenor. Here, Aragorn briefly shows himself as the king who will return as he salutes the statues of Isildur and Anarion, but then he is Strider again as he ponders which way to go.

As it happens, that is decided for him, as The day came like fire and smoke. Aragorn turns to Frodo, who says he needs time to think.

Frodo is alone, but not for long. Boromir confronts him, in a terrific, tense scene—and just when I thought Boromir had turned evil, the influence of the ring passed, and

He rose and passed his hand over his eyes, dashing away the tears. “What have I said?” He cried. “What have I done? Frodo, Frodo!” he called. “Come back! A madness took me, but it has passed. Come back!”

Frodo runs off with the ring on his finger. Everywhere he looks he sees war. His gaze is inexorably drawn toward Barad-Dur, and he feels the Eye. And while he struggles within himself—a harbinger of what we’re going to see in Gollum, who was been struggling with his two natures for centuries—a third voice pierces his turmoil, Take it off! Take it off! Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!

For years I thought that was a third inward voice of his, but now I believe that is Gandalf, who also could tell when Frodo had put on the ring. That sounds like Gandalf at his crustiest.

He pulls off the ring a heartbeat before Sauron finds him; the shadow passes overhead, searches westward, then fades.

And Frodo knows he has to go on alone, as the influence of the ring is increasing the dangers already besetting the company.

Aragorn briefly confronts Boromir, everyone scatters to search for Frodo, but it’s Sam who knows Frodo best, and who is so desperate, and so loyal, that he risks the hated water, and nearly drowns.

Frodo has to come back to find him—and so he is not alone after all. Which is just as well, because there are actually three hobbits on the final trek to Mt. Doom.

June 2017

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