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The Chronicles of Prydain: A Disappointment

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I picked up the Chronicles of Prydain on a whim. I knew they had won several Newberry awards, so I thought they ought to be good. I started the first book and read it to the end. It seemed mediocre to me. I thought that the rest of the series was probably better. So I picked up the second book, which had won a Newberry Honor. Blah, I decided. I tried the third book. I liked it a bit more–it had stronger plotting–so I tried the fourth. Blah again. Well, I decided, the fifth was the Newberry Medal winner, so it had to be extremely good. I read it, finished it, and have spend the last few days irritated at Lloyd Alexander.

On one hand, I feel a bit guilty. The Prydain Chronicles have won medals. They have a lot of diehard fans, including one of my younger brothers. And I don’t like them. At the moment, I feel like a book heretic. But I haven’t changed my mind.

On the other, I can write a long list of the things to dislike. Eilonwy’s chatter is annoying, which makes it hard for me to consider her a strong heroine, even if she does love adventure. The dialogue often seems stilted, especially Taran’s. The plots are often loose at best, and frequently problems are solved by deus ex machina. The characters are underdeveloped. Some things don’t make sense–why would Dallben, Taran’s guardian, let Taran go off on a wild goose chase to find his parents when Dallben already knows what happened to them? If he wants Taran to develop more as a person, he could tell Taran the truth and then ship him off to wander.

I don’t want to be too hard on Lloyd Alexander, largely because of the fact that he wrote the series nearly fifty years ago. There weren’t nearly so many Dark Lords populating the fantasy scene back in those days, or orphan boys with secret destinies being raised on farms by old enchanters. Things that now appear as cliches were fairly new. So far as I’m aware, almost no one–Tolkien’s Hobbit being the exception that comes to mind–had written epic fantasy for children until Alexander came along. If I had lived fifty years ago, perhaps I would have been as impressed by Alexander as the Newberry Committee.

But I think a major part of the problem is that Alexander wrote his fantasy strictly for children. Many people who read the series as children seem to have retained their fondness for it after growing up. But adults who come to the series for the first time often have a different experience. Some people would argue that that is not a weakness–children’s books and adults’ books are separate categories. I disagree. And I have C.S. Lewis on my side. Lewis believed that high quality children’s books should be able to appeal to both children and adults. Good books should grow with their readers. If only children can enjoy a book, then it is not really worth being read by anyone.

Two authors come into my mind when I think of fantasies with which to compare the Chronicles of Prydain. One is The Lord of the Rings–a book to which the Prydain series seems to owe many of its themes. Even its ending seems like a poor (not to mention abrupt, disappointing, and rather strange) copy of Tolkien’s conclusion. The other is the Harry Potter series, which was written decades later and also owes a debt to The Lord of the Rings. All three series include a hero of humble origins who has an important calling, as well as a Dark Lord of sorts. I love The Lord of the Rings. I like Harry Potter (although I wish that he would stop lying to his friends and teachers, and also that J. K. Rowling’s writing style were better). Both series, however, seem more inventive than the Chronicles of Prydain–despite the fact that Tolkien’s work is decades old and that Rowling borrowed some major ideas from him. However “low-brow” Rowling is, many adults are able to appreciate her books, despite not having read them as children. And Tolkien has certainly grown with me since I first read him as a teenager. Prydain–not so much.

My final word? The Chronicles of Prydain are okay. Just okay. Many kids will like them. But I can think of many other children’s fantasy authors that I would sooner recommend.

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Posted by on March 25, 2015 in Children's Literature, Fantasy

 

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Why the Silmarillion?

When I planned a paper around J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology and told my professor that I wanted to use The Silmarillion as a source, his reaction was one of confusion. Why would I need to use The Silmarillion? Wasn’t The Lord of the Rings enough?

Note to any Tolkien lovers who are about to rise up in arms. This professor is no idiot (some professors are). He likes good literature. He also did not have a prejudice against fantasy as such; in fact, he was quite familiar with The Silmarillion. He just didn’t see the point.

He’s not alone. While Tolkien’s more devoted admirers consider anyone who does not appreciate The Silmarillion a “fake fan,” many of the accused would insist they aren’t fake fans. They are fair-weather fans. And fair weather is a good thing. The sun is nice. Also puffy white clouds, and birds that chirp happily.

So. Paper aside, is The Silmarillion really that important? A short Q&A for the uninitiated might help:

What is The Silmarillion about?

The Silmarillion is the history of Middle Earth up until the beginning of the Fourth Age. It starts out with a creation myth and ends up in heroic legend and, in places, history. It is from an Elvish perspective and mostly concerns events related to the Elves, with the exception of a few humans who became involved in Elvish affairs. Most of those humans are ancestors of Aragorn and Elrond. (Yes, Elrond is in here. So is his twin brother. So are Galadriel and her brother, Finrod.)

Did J.R.R. Tolkien think I should read it?

In a word: yes. Although The Silmarillion as we know it was not published until after his death, Tolkien hoped to publish an earlier version along with The Lord of the Rings. His publishers refused, but Tolkien’s letters reveal that he often had to dip into Silmarillion material in order to answer the questions of people who wrote him. To really understand some things in The Lord of the Rings, you have to know more about the Elves. And you can only find that in The Silmarillion.

Isn’t The Silmarillion boring?

No. But you have to understand how to approach it. A lot of people come to The Silmarillion expecting a second Lord of the Rings. So they end up disappointed. The Silmarillion simply cannot be read as an adventure story. It isn’t one. But if you start out realizing that you are reading a book of mythology, then your perspective changes. Understand what you are getting into and don’t try to rush your reading. Good mythology is meant to linger around in your head.

I feel like I understand The Lord of the Rings. Are there any other reasons to read The Silmarillion?

Yes. If you are into mythology, Tolkien’s mythology is a delight for its own sake. But it also shows the complexity of human (and Elven) nature even more than The Lord of the Rings. Not all Elves are good, and some of the Elves are only good sometimes. Young Elrond and his twin brother are raised by the man who attacked their settlement and kidnapped them. They even have a good relationship. And that’s only the beginning.

I still don’t like The Silmarillion….

Okay. Just so long as you understand why you don’t like it. Mythology isn’t for everyone, and not everyone likes every mythology. That’s fine. But understand—The Silmarillion is mythology. It’s not a second Lord of the Rings. And some of us prefer it that way.

Is there a more interesting book that includes some of the stories from The Silmarillion?

Well, for a general overview, there’s this video. But your best bet, for a real taste, is to try The Children of Húrin. While it’s more depressing than The Silmarillion considered as a whole, it reads more like The Lord of the Rings. It covers the story of Túrin Turambar, which appears more briefly (and with a few conflicting details) in The Silmarillion. If you like flawed heroes and evil dragons, it’s the place to go.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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Reading Upward–for Pleasure

Imagine this scenario: someone writes a book called Why Don’t People Read Anymore?

That was supposed to be a joke. 

Actually, NPR published an April Fools’ Day article called “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” earlier this year. Many people didn’t actually click on the article, instead posting angry comments below it–“I do too read!”–before NPR revealed the prank. The real question, as Jay Hathaway later observed, isn’t why we don’t read. It’s why we comment when we’ve only read a headline.

It was a walk through a bookstore earlier today that got me into this train of thought. There were lots of books on reading–how to read literature like a professor, etc. The bad thing is that I’ve known professors who probably never read anything worthwhile. If you have to read like a professor, don’t read like those professors.

Alan Jacobs, a professor at Wheaton College, doesn’t think you should read like a professor, either. In fact, he says, he began to lose his ability to read for pleasure because he was so used to scanning what he read for important information. His book is The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. It is a mostly pleasurable read, fortunately.

Jacobs takes on people who argue that you should read what is “good for you.” That, he says, is precisely what you should not do. If you only read what’s good for you, regardless of whether it interests you and even whether you can understand it, then you’ll lose the ability to read for pleasure. (You also may not understand what the book in question is talking about. In sum–you’re wasting your time.)

Yet Jacobs also suggests reading upward. What he means by that is, if you like The Lord of the Rings, try reading Beowulf. Don’t read downward, to cheap fantasies that have none of Tolkien’s power. Read for pleasure! Poorly written stuff simply isn’t as rewarding. And if you like Jane Austen, read other novelists of her era. Don’t read downward to all the Jane Austen “sequels.” They aren’t nearly as pleasurable as Austen. If you turn to them out of a love for Austen, you’re cheating yourself.

Above all, enjoy your reading time. Jacobs apparently considers lying about what you have read a lesser evil than never reading anything for pleasure. Personally, I’d rather know someone who forced themself through Plato’s Republic to no benefit than someone who would prefers seeming intelligent to being honest. A comment like that makes me wonder whether Jacobs has ever known a pathological liar. Short version–it makes you hate lying.

So read upward–for pleasure. And if admitting that you read for pleasure embarrasses you in front of your friends, ditch the friends.

Please.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2014 in Nonfiction

 

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What’s with All the Stupid Fantasy?

I recently picked up a book about why manners are important. That may have been the title; I can’t remember now. It was sold in a shopping complex where about the only thing I could afford was a sandwich. Which was all I wanted, fortunately. But I did page through the book. It was exactly what it said, and I could appreciate most of it, even though etiquette was always my sister’s hobby, not mine. But one section gave me pause.

The author evidently loves novels of manners because she likes realistic characters who have to work through their flaws and mature. So far, so good. But she finds the current taste for fantasy disturbing. Imagine, she says, a fourteen-year-old girl who reads fantasy exclusively. Most of the time she reads stupid, caricatured descriptions of people who like to swing swords around. What little good fantasy she reads involves black and white moral dilemmas with characters so elevated that they are unrelatable and teach little about how to live in the real world. (I can only assume the author was thinking of Tolkien.)

I sympathize with some of the author’s complaints. Although I consider fantasy my favorite genre of literature, I actually do not read it very often. I don’t like the stupid characters, either. Especially the warrior elf queens who feel like they were invented to prove that women can be tough. And there are other problems with fantasy stories beyond those that might irritate a Jane Austen fan.

C.S. Lewis complained about people who wrote “science fiction” stories with perfectly ordinary plots—spy-stories, romances, and so forth—which have nothing to distinguish them as fantastic but the unusual setting. There are still a lot of stories like that. Whatever fantastic elements are there feel arbitrary. The wonder and sense of strangeness are missing. If you read fantasy for “otherness,” then the pickings are very slim.

I’m not going to comment on the author’s shallow interpretation of Tolkien except to say that if she thinks Boromir, Denathor, and Saruman fit neatly into black-and-white categories, she hasn’t been reading carefully. And The Silmarillion includes characters even more complex than those in The Lord of the Rings—if complex is what she really wants. (Sometimes I think that what people mean when they object to “black and white” characterization is that they don’t like reading about a world where a clear good and a clear evil exist, even if both are complex. But I would say, with Tolkien, that the real world is like that. Good and evil may be complex, but no one will be talking about shades of gray at the Last Judgment.) As for relatable, I think that in some ways Tolkien’s characters are more relatable than “realistic” ones. Frodo is an Everyman—as is Gollum. Archetypes are relatable precisely because they are archetypes. And archetypes can be complex.

The truth, I think, is less that fantasy characters are not relatable and more that the author could not relate well to fantasy characters. Well—that’s fine. Everyone has a favorite genre. I would rather relate to Frodo, or Faramir, than to Elizabeth Bennett. (In the past, I have even tried to deal with difficult people by trying to imagine them as Gollums, who, if evil, are also pathetic and in need of compassion.) It’s a personal preference. People who like good fantasy (scarce as that is) are not inferior to people who like good novels of manners (and I’m sure there are bad ones). It’s a difference in kind of taste, not necessarily quality.

But I recently re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” and it brought another problem into view. Tolkien believed that fairy stories were the hardest form of literature in which to write. To produce something that attempts to show what reality is really like, while simultaneously rearranging that reality, is extremely difficult. Thus, someone attempting a novel of manners has an immediate advantage over someone attempting a fantasy. In Tolkien’s words:

Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Another potential misunderstanding comes because, over the course of the last century, literature has grown more and more like drama. “Show, don’t tell” is the instruction I was given when I took a creative writing course in college. It works well—for realistic fiction. In fantasy, things don’t work quite the same way. My English professor warned our class, “Showing is not always superior to telling.” She was right. Of course, a fantasy can tell too much, but the point is this—realistic fiction and drama may be able to grow together, but drama and fantasy have no such luck. Even modern fantasy movies, with all their special effects, cannot exactly reproduce the feeling of “otherness” that a good fantasy story creates. I like The Lord of the Rings films, with a few reservations, but I don’t go to them for “otherness.” To fully appreciate the Elves, and Lothlorien in particular, you need the books.

Fantasy is hard to write. Flannery O’Connor once remarked that so many people had learned to write a “competent” short story, that the short story was in danger of dying of competence. Fantasy has no such problem. And your creative writing class may not help you—“show, don’t tell” injunctions only go so far.

If you love novels of manners, then go read them—by all means. Beyond reading a few fantasy classics, most works in the genre aren’t worth your time. But don’t blast the genre. Competent fantasy is harder to write than competent realistic fiction. Keep fourteen-year-olds away from the warrior elf queens, please. But introduce them to the good modern authors of imaginative fiction: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engel, Ray Bradbury. And if they run out, try going back in time to Beowulf. Or The Kalevala. Or The Niebelungenlied.

Jane Austen would be okay, too.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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To People Who Write in Books

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Note: I found this slipped under my door one morning. But since there is a bookcase near the door, I’m afraid that it didn’t slip under the door, and was slipped off the shelf instead by a badly treated copy of The Lord of the Rings. In which case I have at least one literate and very grumpy book in my bedroom. I’m borrowing my sister’s dagger. It’s not sharp, but a book wouldn’t know.

Dear poltroons, fiends, and knaves,

(and also some very nice people with poor study habits):

I write in defense of books—pure, clean, involiate. We realize that accidents happen. Little children want to read about Frodo, and they aren’t of an age to understand reprimands like Don’t read with dirty fingers and Don’t leave the book lying open for six weeks. We feel the pain of those mistakes, but we understand them. It is the adults who are the true problem.

My cousin lives in a library. It’s a hard life, but he tries to be understanding. His cover gets sticky, and the librarians are too busy to clean it off. His pages are torn, and there is nothing he can do. But he says the day that sticks out in his memory is the day a mature adult scrawled Frodo lives! across his title page.

Don’t get us wrong. We love to see people writing Frodo lives! on appropriate targets, like pigs, and bedspreads, and other people’s privacy fences. But writing in a book—a book!—is unconscionable.

We have feelings. We also have pages that are white where they aren’t black (or purple, red, orange, etc.). We would like to keep them that way.

Please, we beg of you. By all that you hold dear on this good earth—alarm clocks, styrofoam, and the little plastic microbeads that are currently poisoning fish in the Great Lakes—we charge to control yourselves. Restrain your pencil.

Better yet, burn it. There ought to be a pencil-burning occasion in revenge both for book-burnings and for all the damage we suffer when pencils are applied to our pages by people who ought to know better.

Many illustrious people have written in books. Some of them were monks. Those monks wrote notes in copies of the Bible. And since that time Bible scholars have been fighting tooth and nail about which words count as original text. People who write in books enjoy stirring up conflicts that can last for generations to come.

You may be thinking, “But I write in cursive. Nobody would confuse my pencil marks with actual text.” Try to remember that not everyone who wrote in books was a Gothic-scribbling monk. Vikings probably wrote in the books they stole, after they stripped all the gems off. And they probably wrote in the Viking equivalent of cursive. So by writing in books, you are joining with people of ill repute. (Or boring people–Alexander Pope wrote in books.) Also remember that there might be a dark age in the future. All elements of our culture will be forgotten. The archeologists of future generations might not know that you markings are not part of the original text. You could start a war.

You say, “Well, I want to stop writing in books, but it’s hard not to. I’ve developed a habit. What should I do?

First, try taking notes about the book somewhere other than in the book. That is the proper way to record ideas from a text, or your feelings about those ideas. Second, remember that there are nerve endings located within our pages. We feel pain when a pencil touches us. That pain leads to stress, which can lead to severe spinal injuries, which can lead to our untimely deaths. By writing in books, you may become guilty of bookslaughter. Third, bear in mind that we have feelings, including pride in our appearance. And many of you have bad handwriting.

If you ignore this warning, beware. You may have books in your house. And they never sleep.

Yours,

A Very Resentful Volume

 
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Posted by on August 4, 2014 in Humor

 

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Fell and Fair: The Fall of Arthur

FallOfArthurJ.R.R. Tolkien is one of those authors who tends to inspire either love or hatred, and even those who love him hate him every so often. The man was brilliant—and hardly finished anything he started. Thus the loving hatred. Christopher Tolkien has done wonders in editing his father’s unfinished projects, but sometimes even his efforts fall short in the face of half-done manuscripts and illegible writing.

The Fall of Arthur, published last year, is one of those manuscripts with which Christopher Tolkien could only do so much. J.R.R. Tolkien launched the poem intending to describe Arthur’s final conflict with Mordred in alliterative verse. Unfortunately, he became distracted by The Lord of the Rings. Christopher Tolkien writes, “At the victorious end of the sea-battle…my father ceased to work on The Fall of Arthur: in my view, one of the most grievous of his many abandonments.”

Grievous, indeed—at least for those of us who love epic poetry. Very few poets have been interested in writing epics for the last hundred years or so. C. S. Lewis dreamed of doing it, but he eventually realized that poetry was not his calling. Tolkien’s narrative poetry was brilliant, but it was his hobby, and his most famous poems are the shorter ones in The Lord of the Rings. Fortunately his son’s work has left us with some of them, not least The Lay of Sigurd and Gudrún published in 2012, which (fortunately) is a complete story, unlike The Fall of Arthur.

Don’t pick up The Fall of Arthur because you like The Lord of the Rings; it has only a tenuous connection with Tolkien’s mythology. Don’t pick it up because you like Arthurian stories, because it isn’t a complete story. The poetry, however, is worth reading, even if it isn’t complete. Tolkien’s word choices, as always, are exquisite.

Some have criticized the manuscript for its negative portrayal of Guinevere: “As fair and fell   as fay-woman/ in the world walking   for the woe of men/ no tear shedding.” Of course, with the manuscript unfinished, we have no way of knowing how nuanced Tolkien’s final portrayal of Guinevere might have been. Beyond that, however, we do know that Tolkien goes beyond his source material in describing Guinevere’s feelings at all.

Unless you’re a hard-core Tolkien fan, you probably don’t need to own The Fall of Arthur. Try badgering your interlibrary loan librarian instead. It will save you money, especially since the book is a hardback.

My final opinion on The Fall of Arthur? If Tolkien were alive, I would kill him for not finishing the poem. Sadly, he’s dead.

That is the source of this problem—along with many others.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2014 in poetry

 

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The Hobbit, Second Time Around

The worst moment of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films was not when they cut out Tom Bombadil. It wasn’t what he did to Faramir. It was not eliminating the Scouring of the Shire. No—the worst moment in the films was one that a lot of fans liked—when Aragorn sliced off the Mouth of Sauron’s head.

I realize that many people found that moment enormously satisfying. Unfortunately, Tolkien would probably have been furious. According to the rules of civilized warfare, you don’t kill someone during a parley, however strained. And in Middle Earth, the good side follows the rules of civilized warfare. If their morals become muddy in regard to how they fight, they are muddy the entire way around. So I was extremely relieved to find that when, in the second Hobbit movie, an Orc prisoner is killed, it isn’t treated as honorable. Aragorn’s killing was portrayed as justified; Thranduil’s, on the other hand, is bluntly criticized by Legolas.

Let me clarify one thing. I refuse to judge the new movie because it isn’t as “lighthearted” as the book. The Desolation of Smaug is The Hobbit plus The Lord of the Rings appendices. What else do you expect?

The Hobbit

However, I do have a few complaints.

  • The Kili/Tauriel thing. I don’t mind Legolas having a girlfriend (well, much), but a love triangle with two Elves and a Dwarf is just odd.
  • The humor. It’s really junior highish in places. The Hobbit is humorous, all right, but it isn’t this kind of humor.
  • The goofier fight sequences. Legolas hopping from Dwarf head to Dwarf head pushes belief, even for an Elf.
  • Bringing in modern political ideas. Wasn’t there some a way to talk about the Master of Laketown’s selfish rule without mentioning elections and democracy? I’m sure the dialogue sounds funny to the average moviegoer, but that sort of language never shows up in Tolkien—a Tory with anarchist tendencies.

As for what the movie got right:

  • Beorn. He isn’t what I expected, but I look forward to seeing more of him.
  • Bolg the Goblin. According to the Appendices, Azog the Defiler was definitely dead, and I still think that Bolg would have been a sufficient foe for Thorin, without the need to make changes from the book. But at least this is a nod to all the fans who have been whining about Bolg’s replacement by his father.
  • Smaug. The dragon scenes are far more involved than those in the book, but they are necessary, I think, for Smaug to seem sufficiently ferocious on-screen.
  • Bard. Peter Jackson got this one perfect—kids, fish, and all. Willing to stand against the Dwarves for the good of Laketown, Bard is also the only man in Laketown willing to shelter the injured Kili. I look forward to seeing him in the third installment.

Overall impression? The Desolation of Smaug is better, as a movie, than An Unexpected Journey. It also takes more departures from Tolkien’s writings and—more seriously—his viewpoint. I am hesitant to set out a final judgment, however. When the third Hobbit installment comes out, that will be time enough to decide exactly what Peter Jackson has, or has not, accomplished with these films. Film three will be the most difficult in many ways—there is nothing lighthearted or humorous about the Battle of the Five Armies, its preceding events, or most of its aftermath. In that vein, I wish Peter Jackson good luck and sound judgment. He will need both.

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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