Saturday, June 23, 2018

An amusing take on things

Not that I am an avid fan of Twilight either, but in my opinion it was not even true Epic Fantasy; rather it was Dark Fantasy blended with Romantic Fantasy and thus could never have challenged Tolkien.

The original
My rewrite

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

I would live in Dol Amroth

Sometimes I am asked where in Tolkien's Middle-earth, or any Fantasy world for that matter, I would like live. Naturally barring worlds of my own creation, I think the answer would be Dol Amroth in southern Gondor.

As Ted Nasmith's illustration shows, it is a scenic place with both natural and human-made wonders. Human and Elf, that is, for the place is also steeped in the lore and tradition of the Elder Kindred;  indeed, the first people to live the region were the Sindar (Grey Elves) escaping south from the wars against Morgoth that characterized the First Age. As to the inhabitants during the War of the Ring, the people of Dol Amroth are tall, grey-eyed, dark-haired, and the most skilled harp players in all of Gondor (playing at the coronation of Aragorn). Furthermore, and going back to Elf-lore, the inhabitants of Dol Amroth and in the lands nearby are some of the few people of Gondor who speak Sindarin (one of the two primary Elf languages) on a daily basis, and are generally regarded as having Elvish blood in their veins.
The Banner of
Dol Amroth

One may also recall Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth from The Return of the King. Bringing a company of his Swan-Knights and 700 infantry to Minas Tirith, he led the sortie that rode to the aid of his nephew Faramir whose warriors were retreating from Osgiliath when Sauron overran the Pelennor Fields, personally rescuing Faramir himself. He then aided Gandalf commanding the defenses, perceived that the Nazgul-stricken Éowyn still lived, and recognized that Aragorn was the rightful King. Finally, Imrahil led the city for a while himself before Aragorn's crowning, took part in the Battle of the Black Gates, and was recognized by Legolas as being of Elvish descent.

So there it is. I would live in Dol Amroth, the peaceful yet strong and noble, even idyllic, province of Gondor. I have always liked the sea, love music, and cannot think of a place that better blends the beauty of civilization at its best with the wonder of the natural world; all augmented by the lore surrounding the place. Also and on a side note, Prince Imrahil is one of my favorite secondary characters in The Lord of the Rings.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin Documentary (and trailer)

Few writers deserve a Documentary more than she does, beyond doubt. Behold the trailer for the Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. (It is also of note that the film director's name is Arwen Curry, leading me to think that her parent's were considerable fans of the Fantastic)

Ursula K. Le Guin meant much to me. Tolkien shaped my inner language, yes, yet Le Guin helped chisel it into strong, philosophical clarity.

As I said when she died in January, She was one of the best. I remember first reading The Earthsea Cycle in elementary school, hearing Ogion of Re Albi say “To hear, one must be silent.” And I still remembered those words when I took the series up for a second and third time. While the rest of my generation went to Hogwarts with Harry, (after I left Tolkien's Middle-earth) I traveled by ship to the School of Roke with Ged.
Some say that Rowling was the first master Fantasist author who dealt with death and the those who will burn the world if need be to cheat it. They are wrong; for, long before Voldemort fashioned his horcruxes, the wizard Cob's reckless quest for immortality halted the words of power, tearing a rift between life and death - endangering the living. Long before Harry the Chosen One fought Voldemort, Archmage Ged fought Cob.
And she remains one of the few master Fantasists whose primary world and cast of characters are non-White (with the exception of Tenar from the Kargad lands). Indeed, Le Guin has criticized what she describes as the general assumption in fantasy that characters should be White and that the society should resemble the Middle Ages.

I owe Ursula K. Le Guin my own Fantasy series, the one I wrote and am still in the process of editing, for without Earthsea it would never have existed.
"It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end." - Ursula K. Le Guin

"People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within." - Ursula K. Le Guin

Saturday, June 2, 2018

I have just started The Return of the King

Started I have again and to my joy The Return of the King, third and glorious final of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Where, at last, one in introduced to arguably the most famous city in Fantasy genre: Minas Tirith.

"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
a light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
the crownless again shall be king."
- A verse written by Bilbo in reference and tribute to Aragorn.

Friday, June 1, 2018

I have finished The Two Towers

From the plains Rohan and the Battle of Helm's Deep, to the wondrous Ents and the fall of Isengard, to the dark terror of Shelob Ungoliant's Daughter up the Stairs from Minas Morgul.

One again I have finished The Two Towers, second of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

"The treacherous are ever distrustful." - Gandalf the White to Saruman

Friday, May 18, 2018

Gandalf lives

Recall how George R.R. Martin believes that J.R.R. Tolkien should have killed Gandalf permanently because he had such a great death scene in Moria and because the characters should have been made to go on without him? (In fact I just finished reading that part again today.)

Well, that dependence on Mithrandir was exactly why Professor Tolkien had him fall in Moria and constantly otherwise vanish on some errand or another. In The Hobbit, Gandalf disappears before a certain scene with three hungry trolls, swiftly returning, and then again left Bilbo and Dwarves as they entered Mirkwood to appear again just before the Battle of Five Armies. 
Then, in The Lord of the Rings, he fails to meet Frodo as he sets out and is thus gone for the better portion of book one (until Rivendell), falls in Moria and does not reappear until Fangorn in book two, and leaves again until after the battle of Battle of Helm's Deep. Being Gandalf, he is always doing something of critical import that is usually revealed later, but the point is that the characters are constantly forced to go on without him. Indeed, Frodo and Sam believe him to be dead from Moria to after the Ring is destroyed. 

The lesson? That Tolkien found an ingenious way to counteract any over-dependence on Gandalf without having to kill him. George R. R. Martin, on the other hand, seems to rely on killing to remove such characters; goodness knows any and all Gandalf-figures in A Song of Ice and Fire are cold and buried or cold in anOther sort of way (with the possible exception of Doran Martell, who was introduced fairly recently). Indeed, I have little doubt that GRRM would have found it more fitting if the wizard had come back as Gandalf the Wight.

Monday, May 14, 2018

My father and I just finished The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip.

My father and I just finished The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip.

Enter into a dream born upon the tides... Where a dark-haired prince watches and hears the call of the sea; where a sea-dragon wearing a chain of gold emerges to watch the humble fishers at works; where a pale-and-tangled-haired tavern girl who walks with bare feet finds herself in the midst of a grand mystery born of love and anger out of the depths.
Enter into a fairy tale of the sea, not the forest. One which proves yet again that Patricia A. McKillip ranks alongside the great J.R.R. Tolkien. This a true classic. An epic out of the ocean that surpasses my wildest dreams. Long have I sought a book that captures all the wonder and power of mystery of the sea. This book ended that search.

Farewell and lots of love to Peri, Prince Kir, Aidon, mage Lyo, Mare, Carey, Enin, the King, and the sea-woman.

“It’s an odd thing, happiness. Some people take happiness from gold. Or black pearls. And some of us, far more fortunate, take their happiness from periwinkles.” - Patricia A. McKillip

“Love and anger are like land and sea: They meet at many different places.” - Patricia A. McKillip

“What a dull place the world would be if all the mysteries in it were solved.” - Patricia A. McKillip

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

I have just started The Two Towers

“'Do I not say truly, Gandalf,' said Aragorn at last,
'that you could go whithersoever you wished quicker than I?
And this I also say: you are our captain and our banner.
The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, mightier than they:
the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss,
and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads.'”
Started I have again and to my joy The Two Towers, second of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Home to arguably my favorite scene in all of Fantasy, the unlooked-for return of Gandalf the White.

"Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon."

Monday, May 7, 2018

I have finished The Fellowship of the Ring

I have read them half-a-dozen and more times and still the skill and majesty and wit of the Founding Father of Fantasy amazes me. Frodo and Sam depart East to Mordor, while Aragorn and the rest desperately seek the Ring-bearer upon Amon Hen, the Seat of Seeing.

One again I have finished The Fellowship of the Ring, first of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” - Haldir of Lothlórien

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

MtG Deckbuilding

So, as is well established by this point, I am an avid fan of the Magic: the Gathering (mtg) card game. Avid fan and avid player who now has many decks built in all colors and color combinations save for anything Black-related, Colorless, and Red-Blue; Fantasy morality forbids me from necromancy (i.e. Black) and I have not gotten around to building the others. So say around eight decks in total.

As the game's website confirms, "each color has its own strengths, weaknesses, and personality" and "one of the coolest aspects of Magic is its unlimited freedom. With so many cards and combinations to explore, a huge part of the fun is discovering your own decks and using them to confound your opponents. Fewer things are more satisfying than playing a deck that nobody’s ever seen before, especially when you win with it!" 

Any mtg player worth their planeswalker spark knows this to be an incontestable truth, yet I have found a special Deckbuilding approach (for the 60-card standard format) that works for all colors and color-combinations – one which has won me far more games than lost. Hence I thought it would be nice to share it:
  1. A minimum of 23 lands (24 if a two-color deck, with 12 of each color).
  2. No more than three cards with a mana-cost of 5 or above.
  3. Exactly seven cards with mana-cost of 4.
  4. The remaining cards are all of 3 mana-cost or lower.
  5. Several creatures with Flying and/or cards capably of stopping flyers.
  6. Make sure every card has a special ability (i.e. no throwaways).
  7. Unless one is building a Swarm Deck, all creatures must have a toughness of at least 2 (unless, like the Dauntless River Marshal, it has a passive ability that strengthens it). This is so that, when fighting a Swarm Deck, your opponent's 1/1 token-creatures cannot kill your creatures in a single hit.
  8. (It is not strictly necessary, but, if possibly, a couple cards capable of destroying Enchantments & Artifacts can be helpful.) 
My overall rule? A clear majority of low mana-coast cards as, if nothing else, they will defend you well and for long enough until you can get your big ones out. Frankly, though, I prefer to give my rank-and-file warriors a wing up and let them carry me to victory, but that is another story. The key to these guidelines is that, again, they allow for all the diverse strategies that make mtg so much fun. My Red (dragon) swarm, Blue mill, Green lifegain, and all my other decks were built using these. As was my first and main White deck, which is arguably built around the cards at the corners. 

Anyway, just thought I ought to share this and end by saying that this Deckbuilding style is based off something I learned from John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series: In battle it is better to do a few simple things really well than count on the success of a long and/or complex strategy. The enemy will not wait for you.
(The four cards at the corners are those that I consider to be my signature cards, though some might argue that the Preserver should be replaced by a certain Lunarch Marshal. More to the point, thought, the one that has annoyed by friends most often is, at face value, the weakest of the lot: Dauntless River Marshal.)

Friday, April 27, 2018

My father and I just started The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip

My father and I just started The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip.

McKillip, of course, is a master of the first order, with a writing style that literally forces readers to slow down and feel like they are hearing a distant voice echoing across time from beyond a foggy ocean. But this, even by her standards, rings of something special...for within four pages we were utterly enchanted as if by a siren; unable to believe that it was four pages instead of forty and ten minutes as opposed an age of the world. Truly we wandered around for the rest of the evening, clutching our heads, pretending like we had aged a millennia, feeling almost as if world history could be divided into two epochs: before and after those first four pages. Truly McKillip has bound us with a spell beyond the usual even for her as, while in her other a few of her other books invoke the ancient mystery and power of the sea in part...she has never dedicated a whole book to it. Yet if this is such a book...

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

My father and I just finished the Howl Series by Diana Wynne Jones

My father and I just finished House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, the third and final book of her Howl Series.
So as usual a certain moving castle brings both chaos and good fortune in equal and mixed measure. So as usual Jones writes a book of unutterable complexity beneath a deceptive layer of charming simplicity...the climax resulting in us gaping in shock and me pounding my fists against the bed. Nothing new and different about that. Diana Wynne Jones is truly no less a genius than Tolkien - but in a wholly different way. And this time she showed her hitherto unknown ability to craft an insectoid terror.

Goodbye and best wishes to Charmain Baker, Wizard Howl & Sophie & Calcifer (neat work, as always), Peter, Great-Uncle William, the enchanting dog Waif, the kobolds, the royals of High Norland, and Jamal and his dog.
As always, our faith in Jones is well rewarded.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

I just started The Fellowship of the Ring

"The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say."
Imagine being able to read your DNA as a piece of literature. Imagine being able to read the root out of which grew many of your basic interests as well as patterns of speech and thought and writing style.
Luckily, I do not have to imagine. I can do it.

I just started The Fellowship of the Ring, first of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

And upon starting I am amazing yet again and the simple charm and inexpressibly subtle and cunning nature of this timeless masterwork. For why not? This is the book that not only shaped me, but is the seed out of which grew the vast wonders of the Fantasy genre. From Harry Potter to the heretical A Song of Ice and Fire, to Ranger's Apprentice to Abhorsen to the Inheritance Cycle to Shannara. We owe it all to a groups of hobbits who went on the most extraordinary adventure.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Just finished The Healer's Keep by Victoria Hanley

Just finished The Healer's Keep by Victoria Hanley, companion to The Seer and the Sword and part of her Healer and Seer series.
Hanley may not write long or complex epics, yet she seizes fast to your heartstrings and keep you on emotional tenterhooks the whole time with simple tales of love and heartbreak, tragedy and victory; and simple magic does not mean unsophisticated.

Ellowenity and a Dreamwen's peace to you, Maeve, Princess Saravelda, Dorjan, Jasper Thornetree, and Evan. Sing and love well (and free the slaves), my dear friends.

"I have lived on the borders, my real face unseen,
but where I go now has no boundary but dreams.
Walk with me, walk with me out of this night,
for you are my love, and you are my light."

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Fall of Gondolin

Amazing how, even from the Halls of Mandos, J.R.R. Tolkien continues to have books published.

Gondolin. Fairest city of the High Elves upon Middle-earth, a hidden fastness against the implacable and uttermost evil of Morgoth who was Sauron's master in the First Age. Ruled by Turgon, whose sword Glamdring was found and wielded by Gandalf during the War of the Ring. Home of Glorfindel, the Elf-lord who rescued Frodo from the Nazgul. Felled by pride, jealousy, and treachery the second to last of the great tragedies that defined the War of the Jewels.

This is the story of Tuor son of Huor, the (Human) grandfather of Elrond. This is the story of The Fall of Gondolin, to be published August 30th this year. (A delightful event because, before, this tale was split between The Silmarillion and The Book of Unfinished Tales)

Friday, April 6, 2018

A baby Elf

We all know what Elves look like, from Fantasy books to illustrations to movies, yet until I saw this picture it had never occurred to me that, while Elf children are sometimes shown, infant Elves never are. Thus how could I not post the first illustration of a baby Elf I have ever seen:

"Midwife to mothers and leader to all"

Shown on Magic: the Gathering's Dominaria Trailer and with a card to call her own, this image of Marwyn the Nurturer is a Fantasy first for me and, as of now, baby Elves are adorable.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Females in Fantasy

A very long time back (two years to be exact) I noted briefly on the various Archetypal Heroines in Fantasy, commenting on how Goodreads forgot to mention the female mercenary, the tomboyish warrior princess, and the bookish & unwilling warrior maid. Now, perhaps, it is time to go deeper into why female protagonists in Fantasy literature are so critical and prevalent.
To start, as the Fantastic is typically only written and read by the open minded, strong female protagonists attack sexism directly – showing women/girls as every bit as strong and brave as their male counterparts; and often wiser, being largely free of the masculine need to prove one's strength. Often, and when not they have something to prove indeed: their strength to the men who are determined that a woman's place is in hearth and home.

“All your words are but to say: you are a woman,
and your part is in the house.
But when the men have died in battle and honour,
you have leave to be burned in the house,
for the men will need it no more.”
Lady of the Shield-arm
And no greater example of this, there is, than Éowyn, White Lady of Rohan from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. A royal of the House of Eorl and the niece of King Théoden of Rohan, she was one of Tolkien's few female characters and yet was arguably the first sword that Fantasy drew upon the cross-eyed monster that is sexism. An orphaned daughter of kings raised by her uncle, Éowyn watched orcs ravage her lands and age & evil council the King's mind, all while her warrior brother Eomer rode at the helm of the Rohirrim. As Gandalf later says to Eomer: "My friend, you had horses, and deed of arms, and the free fields; but she, being born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on." In fact, the White Rider utters these words no less than after Éowyn has beyond hope slain the ancient Witch-king of Angmar at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields; the lady have come in secret, unable to watch all those she loved ride to battle and death while she remained at home. A home she views as a cage, far from honor and glory and the opportunity to do great deeds. It is no secret that most of Tolkien's characters are male, the only other one of import being the Lady Galadriel, and some might scoff saying that Éowyn is not enough. Yet she was the first great woman warrior in Fantasy and exemplifies all that is noble and expected in humanity, the arguable basis for the archetype of the woman who refuses to conform to a patriarchal society. She is not a tomboy, much of her plot revolves around her unrequited love for Aragorn, yet this tragic air provides strength as opposed to weakness. A fact Aragorn confirms: "When I first looked on her and perceived her unhappiness, it seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel." So that is that and, given that The Lord of the Rings was published in the mid-1950s, Tolkien deserves great credit not only for founding modern Fantasy literature but for leading its charge against sexism. He, via Éowyn, showed that women deserve equal respect and privilege as men and that the two must needs come as a package deal. (For while the White Lady was deeply loved and honored by kith and kin, she was not given equal privilege)

Yet even with Éowyn therein still lies the fact that, however noble her arm and heart, she still falls into the princess category – and most readers, while they love and admire her, are not royals. Luckily, finding royal female Fantasy characters is more of a challenge these days and the next great heroine to lead the charge against the chauvinist male chimera bore not a sword but a wand.

"Yes, Miss Granger?"
Harry: "But why's she got to go to the library?"
Ron: "Because that's what Hermione does. When in doubt, go to the library."
I guess talking about the relevance/importance of Hermione Granger is next of kin to preaching to the converted here in Fantasyland, but how can I ignore the brightest witch of her age? To start, Hermione is the opposite in royalty in the Wizarding World – the daughter of muggles and thus sometimes called "Mudblood" (a racial slur) by people like the Malfoys. Well, blood clearly has little relevance to brains and ability which is Miss Granger's claim to Hogwarts fame. There has always been is idiotic notion that women are not supposed to be smart compared to men and should only speak when spoken to. Making Hermione a direct and brilliant attack upon the idea because, as the above quote implies, she can think and thus usually spellcast circles around her pureblood friends (such as Ron) and enemies (like Malfoy). Crucial points because, unlike Éowyn, Hermione does not live in a male dominated world and thus she has nothing to prove in that regard. Called a "know-it-all" who raises her hand in class as if trying to catch the sun, she is a strong, brave, loving girl who is easily the smartest character after Professor Dumbledore (and even that is an unfair comparison because he is an ancient sage with a full life of reading and experience behind him). All this may sound a tad disjointed compared to Éowyn, and this is because what made Hermione Granger a brilliant Fantasy female was not directly connected to the the battle against Lord Voldemort. It was just her personality, a compulsive bookworm wise in matters of the heart who blasted sexist notions with a barrage of spells most beyond the ability of most. Hence, unlike the justly admired White Lady of Rohan, Miss Granger is someone who ordinary girls (and boys too, for that matter) can look up to without craning their necks quite so high. She shows that smart girls who care about and do well in school are as worthy or admiration as warrior princesses for, though I am loathe to quote GRRM, "A book can be as dangerous as a sword in the right hands." Or, in Hermione's case, a wand. (Not to say that Hermione is not a warrior but, in battle against sexism, it is not what makes her really special. And yes, I know that she is hardly the only inspirational female in the Harry Potter series, but Pottermore beat me to the punch on that one.)
Horace Slughorn: "Oho! 'One of my best friends is Muggle-born, and she's the best in our year!' I'm assuming this is the very friend of whom you spoke, Harry?"
Harry Potter: "Yes, sir."
Horace Slughorn: "Well, well, take 20 well-earned points for Gryffindor, Miss Granger."      
— After Hermione impresses Slughorn with her potion knowledge

Lyra and her leopard-formed
dæmon Pantalaimon
In all honestly I could go on and on as while Éowyn and Hermione are undoubtedly the most famed females of the Fantastic, they are far from the only ones. (For my full treatise on the subject, see the new Females in Fantasy page). Indeed, Fantasy literature now has more woman/girl protagonists than otherwise and does its absolute best to skewer sexism. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings may have center male protagonist but they are now the exceptions to the rule. Truly if this were not such a long post already I would bring the great Lyra Silvertongue to the fore! And Sabriel! And Maerad! And Seraphina! And Karigan and Calwyn and Kethry & Tarma and Alanna and Talia and Nepenthe and so many more!
Maerad of Pellinor
And this does not even touch the realm of TV, for how many unforgettable females are there in Avatar: The Last Airbender?! Male protagonists are far from gone (just ask Will), yet they always have strong female companions whereas the female do not always have strong male ones. In fact, there is a good argument that the trend has been flipped: rather than a female being introduced to serve as the male's love-interest, now the male drops in (usually in an unflattering fashion) to serve as the female's. Granted this last is a bit of an oversimplification but, in general, it is near enough to the mark.

Also and on a side note, did anybody notice that Fantasy is filled with Dark Lords and generally lacking in Dark Ladies? If not, then rest assured that the great Diana Wynne Jones (Mistress of the Multiverse and Lady of Endless Surprises) did. Indeed, the fact only came to my attention upon reading her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Her books – each as different as night and day from each other as well as every other book you will ever read – are filled with female chief villains. 

Anyway, I shall end with the words of Actress Anna Graves, who flawlessly articulates why female representation in Fantasy and beyond matters: “Fictional characters have the ability to make the impossible seem possible,” Graves said. “And for young women who lack strong female role models in their life, it’s important to see a girl or woman in a situation where their character is problem-solving, fighting for good and can survive situations that are difficult. All young women need female heroes to look up to and female villains that can teach them what they shouldn’t be.”