Monthly Archives: February 2013

On, well, on fellowship between Fellowship and Two Towers

It seems like an appropriate time to update my journey through The Lord of the Rings, given that yesterday the Fellowship broke and, uh, sort of in three days Frodo will meet Gollum. This is the one month that’s weird since every month in Shire reckoning has 30 days. And,well, February doesn’t.

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This is a great time for me to reflect on the differences between the first two books – that is, that’s what I’m going to start talking about. Fellowship is obviously about, well, fellowship. A group of people are slowly drawn together, in part through the loss of a comrade. It is, in a real sense, the story of war veterans. Tolkien served in the First World War, and he would know about foxhole camaraderie, I’d imagine – it’s argued that the Dead Marshes are direct references to his experience in trenches, being forced to crawl over the water-covered bodies of his dead comrades in arms. Yes, most of the actual warfare happens in the last two books, but Fellowship is the book in which everyone gets to know everyone else, and we see the crew draw together, only to break apart in a way that, in hindsight, seems entirely fated.

I was thinking recently about some of the shit these books get, even from fans. The most popular question, of course, is “why didn’t they ride eagles into Mordor?” Of course, this has an equally obvious, in-canon answer of “Sauron would see that shit and burn them alive.” But the books have a lot to say about the nature of fate, or possibly Fate. Gandalf says, more than once, that some other hand is at work in the events leading up to what he hopes will be the destruction of the Ring of Power. He means, of course, the Valar across the water, one of whom he was for the first part of his life (sort of – he’s like a demigod or assistant or something. Look, just read Unfinished Tales I guess). Anyway. What I’m thinking of in particular is “Oh, the Fellowship spends nearly a month in Lorien and still misses Gandalf by a single day.” That is true. But given that Gandalf is given life again by the Valar, it is very safe to assume they would wait until they thought the time right to revive him. And damn it if they don’t seem to make the right choice. The Fellowship wouldn’t have broken up when it did if Gandalf had been with them – particularly if he had come back from the dead and met them, given how much all of them miss his leadership (why else, narratively speaking, does Aragorn need to talk so much about how much he wishes he didn’t need to lead in Gandalf’s place?). If the Fellowship hadn’t broken up, Frodo probably wouldn’t have made it through Mordor, in part because Gollum wouldn’t have tried to jump him and Sam, but also because he wouldn’t have suffered enough. Also, they probably would have died trying to climb over the Black Gate in the night.

Also, though, Merry and Pippin wouldn’t have roused the Ents, Saruman wouldn’t have been defeated, and there would have been more darkness on the land, c.f. argument 1.

So loyalty and fate. That’s what the early portion of this long novel is made of. What about Two Towers? Obviously it continues a good portion of those ideas. But it adds to the series / novel a sense of pacts, of accords. Merry and Pippin reach an agreement with Treebeard, which leads to Treebeard forging an accord among the Ents. Strider and co. make agreements with Eoden, which leads to them finding Gandalf, who reveals the truth to Theoden and allows the ancient accord between Gondor and Rohan to be honored, which it would otherwise not have. Frodo strikes a bargain with Gollum, and Faramir reaches a similar agreement with Frodo and Sam, both to let Gollum live and to help all three leave the environs of Osgiliath. Never mind the battle of the Hornburg, where elves and men ally against an invasion of orcs.

What can we see thus far, then? One book finished and the second barely started, what does The Lord of the Rings seem to be about? That obvious word: fellowship. In mourning and celebration, in war and and in peace, Tolkien’s work is about bringing people together. Elves and dwarves finally get along, men learn about hobbits and what they can do in the world when challenged, wizards, good ones, give up their sanctimonious brotherhood and share their power and wisdom with anyone who asks and is worthy… Basically, so far, we are presented a world in which only through working together can any single thing be achieved. And sure, many books make a similar point, but LotR doesn’t mess around with it. Every single thing functions as a result of companionship and fellowship. Sauron’s single defining characteristic is lonesomeness. He trusts no one, dominates but does not share. There’s only one ring to rule them all. Indeed, had he made more than one, he would have won, since Isildur’s father wouldn’t have taken both. But he refused the idea of multiplicity. Tolkien exhorts us to embrace multiplicity, to accept, to absorb, and to learn from everything and everyone. I have taken to trying to learn again, to stop being an expert all the time and instead try to see what is new around me. Unfortunately I’m not meeting many new people, or else I would try (probably gritting my teeth at first) to meet new people. Maybe I should be anyway.

That’s the lesson, or at least one of them, that these books offer. And it’s there all along, from the beginning. Frodo could never have left the Shire without his cousins and Sam. Where would we be, alone? As desolate as Sauron indeed.

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030 — What wonderful worlds are actually just shadows of sex with a unicorn?

One of my favorite fantasy series. I’m including it in the history posts because, well, it’s important (I think) to the history of fantasy. But it’s not as obviously important as the early stuff we usually talk about. Either way – Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber.

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029 — lesbian vampires! And that’s pretty much all I need to say, right?

Vampires! I can always come back to that well, right? The undead, blood-drinking well. That has bats in it. And cats. And also dogs, and wolves, and basically animals, is what I’m saying, vampires are a lot of animals and stuff and maybe people too, but never good people. That’s what I’m saying. Are we clear? Good. So. “Carmilla” by Sheridan Le Fanu.

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028 — Hypno-Beetles know what’s best for you!

Richard Marsh is really obscure, but he wrote this one book one time you might be interested in. He was a Victorian author, and not particularly crazy, experimental, or genius-y, so like Stoker he has this one book people care about, and then that’s pretty much it. This book is The Beetle. Which doesn’t seem to promise much, right? I mean, it’s a bug. And not a giant one, really. Actually the beetle is actually a priest. Or priestess. I mean, I’m not sure. I guess that’s the point? It’s really vague, is what you should take away from this.

OK, so Paul Lessingham went to Egypt once, got really drunk, and I think maybe kind of slept with the head priestess of a weird cult there. He was drugged for weeks and somehow eventually escaped. All right. Fine. Random, but fine. Except A: he’s in Parliament now and B: the priest/ess came to England to fuck him over. Because, uh, vengeance! For, uh, escaping wrongful imprisonment! Yeah, that sounds good.

The priest is the eponymous Beetle, called so after the insect form she appears to be able to take on at times. She shows up in England, holes up in a ruined building, and makes a homeless guy do stuff for her using hypnosis. He does so, gets caught, a bit, leads people back, but the Beetle’s gone, except not really, except he’s a bug, except really he’s a she, or something? Then she goes to see Paul’s scientist friend who freaks out that she can change into a bug. Except that’s also hypnosis? Maybe? It seemed like a good idea to fool people into thinking she could change into a bug instead of fooling them into thinking God showed up, or she could shoot lightning from her boobs, or whatever else you could hypnotize people into thinking. No, she must have thought, no. Turning into a bug, that’s the thing for me to seem to do sometimes to some people when I make them think that.

Can you already see how fucked up this book is? First, if you hadn’t put this together, the Beetle’s gender is fluid and hard to discern. She appears as a man to some people and some people see him as a woman. And sometimes they see him as a bug.

Of course Paul is engaged to be married and up for a big advancement in politics. Naturally. So the Beetle shows up just in time to screw his life up pretty well. And this is on top of Paul getting freaked out whenever he is reminded of his time in Egypt. That, we learn, happened before the Beetle arrived, but it gets worse when he learns she’s back for him. So he’s pretty much useless in helping out. Naturally the Beetle finds out he’s engaged and starts to fuck with his fiancée as well.

So we have a homeless dude, an MP, an upper class woman, and a scientist, all getting screwed up in the head because of the Egyptian mystic. Do we see where this is going? They sort-of manage to band together, as they piece together bits of the story, and defeat her. Well, of course they do. But what sort of shit does this bring up? Well, that’s a pretty good cross-section of British society, isn’t it? Rich, poor, male and female (well, one female). Professional and monied, that’s about everything. Oh, and the scientist is in love with Paul’s fiancée too, if this weren’t complicated enough. And Paul’s future father-in-law hates him because they have different political philosophies. So this seems pretty obvious. Egyptian power is coming back to screw with the future of British government. This has nothing to do with  English involvement in the region, right?

But why the hell is the Beetle a hypnotist? And why am I writing about it here if she doesn’t actually have any powers? Well, first, I think the Beetle is a hypnotist because s/he has powers over the minds of others, just like the leader of a religion should. Paul gets involved with the Beetle willingly; it’s only after she learns some about him that he imprisons Paul. I could make a political joke about quagmires, but never mind.

This book is one of those weird pieces that qualifies as fantastic under the definition of Todorov. Todorov was a Russian writer who defined the fantastic not as a setting that is unreal, but instead the feeling of rocking between real and unreal. That is, it is possible the events of the story are fantasy (in the standard sense – impossible in the real world) or mundane and explainable. Eventually this novel says everything was mundane – though maybe at this point we’d argue that the hypnosis shouldn’t do what it does? Whatever.

Todorov said one of the best examples of the fantastic in his sense was Turn of the Screw by James. And that book’s really good, actually, we should talk about it sometime. But that feeling of possibility is really good, and The Beetle has it at times. There are fantasy novels where characters wonder whether or not there’s a dragon but they live in a place where wizards help control their weather – of course there’s a fucking dragon. You see what I mean? There’s no sense of tension in the setting. If something gets brought up, it’s going to be in there. More rare is the setting in which things are simply presented and we’re left to wonder what they were, exactly. Maybe that was a dragon, maybe it was just an illusion or some other animal or a trick. Or maybe it’s a dragon!

Basically, apart from this book being very strange (and I know I say that a lot, sorry), this is cool to talk about because it screws with possibility. Fun times.