Tag Archives: J. R. R. Tolkien

Finding an Old Friend

Cover to the 1937 first edition, from a drawin...

Cover to the 1937 first edition, from a drawing by Tolkien (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’ve followed this blog, or gone back and some of the old posts, you know that I hold The Hobbit in particularly high esteem. If you haven’t, the reason for this—in a nutshell—is that I had a science teacher in sixth grade (way back in the dim, dark seventies), who read this book to us over the course of the year. I hadn’t really been a serious reader before that, but I see that teacher, a man named Robert Croddy, as being at least partially responsible for me eventually wanting to be a writer.

Thing is, I haven’t picked The Hobbit up in years. Literally. I read it so often when I was a teenager that I kinda burned myself out on it. I remember picking it up to read it one time and getting to about the point where the first movie ends and giving up. I’d just read it far too many times. The excitement was gone out of it for me.

Then, this past weekend, I picked up my hardcover edition that has the illustrations by the author (it’s a Houghton Mifflin edition) and read the first chapter.

I was enthralled.

By modern standards, Tolkien makes a lot of mistakes. For one, he writes in the omniscient mode, and he jumps around in his POVs. He also keeps us at arm’s length from the characters by telling us what they feel or see rather than showing us.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter because his writing is so lyrical, especially in The Hobbit. Probably because he wrote it for his children. LOTR seems to get more heavy and biblical in approach, but The Hobbit is very much an exciting read. His language is more of the everyday variety.

Unfortunately, I have a lot of other reading to do, books I’ve checked out from the library, plus some I own that have been waiting ever so patiently for me. And then there’s the fact that I’m back in school, which requires a lot of soul-stealing reading about things like PHP and JavaScript. Not conducive to creative writing, I can tell you.

But it was good to rediscover the joy and wonder I felt all those years ago when I first heard and read The Hobbit, to immerse myself in Middle-earth again and completely and totally believe it exists as long as I’m reading those pages. Like Bilbo as he listens to the Dwarves tell tales of their history, I too wanted to see the caves and waterfalls. Something distinctly Tookish woke up in me, too. It did it when I was in sixth grade, and it did it again this weekend when I read the first chapter.

I don’t think I’ll completely put this book away. I might not read it consecutively, but I’ll dip into it on a regular basis and re-acquaint myself with the wonders of Middle-earth and the quest for Dwarven gold.

It’s not often we get to rediscover that kind of wonder in our lives.

From inside on of the hobbit holes, on locatio...

Later,
Gil

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Thinking Out Loud

I know, I know: I’ve been inexcusably absent for the past two weeks. I apologize. But sometimes, coming up with anything for this blog is more difficult than writing stories is. The fact is, I just plain drew a blank for two weeks when it came to thinking up something to talk about—and keeping it interesting. I thought of a few things, but I wasn’t even sure if they could maintain my interest, let alone anybody else’s. I’m not 100% sure this one will, but it’s something to write about and let you know I’m still alive and know how to use a keyboard.

 
I like to watch movies. I think I’ve mentioned that before. But I rarely go to theaters to do it. I prefer sitting at home, because I can pause the movie and go to bathroom without missing anything. And it’s cheaper in the long run.
Of course, the downside is that I don’t belong to anything like Netflix, so I can’t rent movies. I’m at the mercy of whatever the library happens to have, and they don’t often get new releases of the type I like. And, since I don’t actually buy many movies—I discovered I have a bad habit of watching most of them only once or twice, at best—that means I miss a lot.

 
All that is to explain why, in the past six months or so, I’ve only seen two movies in the theater: The Hobbit, which I watched in 3D (my first since the awful Jaws 3D), and Iron Man 3 just a few weeks back.

 
But I’ve watched a lot of movies on DVD. I was finally able to see Goodfellas, a picture I’ve wanted to see for a long time. It makes me hope I can find the book Wiseguy that it’s based on. I’ve also watched The Usual Suspects. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it. You won’t regret it. I suspect I’m one of the few people who hadn’t seen it soon after it came out, though.

 
I also recently watched Menace II Society, which took inspiration of sorts from Goodfellas, at least in how it was

 

structured. And, today (Friday, May 31) I watched the original Conan the Barbarian. Yes, the one with Schwarzenegger. I’ve also seen the new version.

 

 

 

This is a very well-known photograph of Robert...

Now, as a Robert E. Howard fan, I’ve read all of his original Conan stories. I own the three-volume set of trade paperbacks published by Del Rey. They have organized these stories (and all of Mr. Howard’s work, as far as I know) in the order they were originally published, even going to the trouble of making sure they are as originally published.
And since I know these stories, and have since I was a teenager, I’m not in full backing of either movie version. I wish someone would come along and treat them with the same respect Peter Jackson treated the J.R.R. Tolkien stories.
Here’s something I realized, though, as I was watching the original: even though it doesn’t follow the Howard stories, it at least has a story. In pursuing Thulsa Doom, Conan has a goal that might have been written by Mr. Howard. For all I know, he would have approved of the movie. But there’s a story there, even if the effects look a little cheesy to us these days, with all the CGI and other slick effects the studios have at their disposal now. And the further back in time you go with movies, the cheesier they look, but the better the stories tend to be.

 
Take something like the Transformers franchise. Sure, you watch these spectacles and you’re taken in by the effects. But if you start really examining these movies, there’s not a lot of substance there. I mean, why are humans even involved? About all they manage to do is run around and try not to be crushed in the battles between the Autobots and the Decepticons. Beyond that, they’re not much good, really.

 
And the stories? I’ve seen all three movies. They have great effects and impressive titles, but I’m not sure if I could tell you the plotline of any of them. They serve a purpose: they’re good to watch when I want to see a movie I don’t have to think about much. Problem is, I’ve seen them when I was in a mood to be critical and thinking, and all kinds of snags pop up then. I won’t even go into them in this post.

 
On the other hand, movies such as The Lord of the Rings series are highly polished when it comes to effects and production, but they also have the story to back them up. So I watch them again and again and enjoy the hell out of them.

 
And yet it’s movies like the Transformers series that get all the big bucks (don’t even get me started on disasters like G.I. Joe and Battleship).

 
I know I’m saying what we’ve all thought, especially writers. Movies for us are exercises in getting a lobotomy, for the most part. On the other hand, sometimes we’re jealous because, guess what? A movie doesn’t have to worry whether or not it wrote in enough sense of place. It’s a visual medium. Sense of place kinda comes with the territory.

 
But then…think back a moment. Did you read Old Yeller as a kid and cry? For that matter, did you feel sadness or even shed tears when Thorin Oakenshield died at the end of The Hobbit? (Sorry if I spoiled that for anybody.) How many books have you read that moved you in some way or another? Now, how many movies have done the same thing? How many movies have left you reconsidering what you think of the world? Menace II Society did that with me, but not many manage it.

Cover of "Menace II Society"

 
I’m not sure I have a real point here (kinda like some movies I mentioned above). I guess this is more in the nature of a rant, and one that’s gone on too long now. But maybe it’ll also make you think about what you elect to be entertained by. I admit I watch movies like Transformers at times because I do want only to be entertained. But more often than not, I look for the other kind, the kind that move me in some way. And they’re damn rare, in books and movies.

 
Let me know if you have any that moved you.

 
Later,
Gil

 

The Way of Shadows

I’ve had a hard time coming up with relevant and fresh topics lately, and I’ve been giving thought to putting my review of books I’m reading on here, so I think I’ll start that tonight. I doubt this will be a real regular feature on here simply because I’m not a professional critic, so I don’t know how to do it very well. But I think I can manage to talk a little about some of the ones I’m reading, if only to give you an idea of the kinds of books I like.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

The first one I want to talk about is The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks. It was published in 2008, and it’s the first part of The Night Angel trilogy. It’s my understanding that all three books were already written and were published a month apart by Orbit, and they’re New York Times bestsellers. I can see why.

Shadows is a fantasy, and the cover was what intrigued me in the first place. Ever since I saw Shogun back in the Seventies as a mini-series, I’ve had a vague interest in things like this, and seeing a fantasy about an assassin made me pick the book up. And when I read the back, I knew I had to have it.

It’s the story of Azoth, a street urchin who lives in Cenaria City in Midcyru. When the book opens, he is approximately eleven years old, living on whatever he can find in a run down section of the city known as the Warrens. This alone should tell you this is not a Tolkienesque fantasy of elves and dwarves and battles of good and evil. Yes, there are good guys and bad guys, but when the protagonist wants to become an assassin, you have to anticipate a somewhat more gritty book. And Shadows delivers just that.

Actually, the most skilled assassins feel it is an insult to be called an assassin. Anybody can be an assassin, because all they do is kill people. The kind of assassin Azoth wants to become is known as a wetboy, and they use magic to help them take out their deaders, as they term their victims. Azoth, naturally, wants to apprentice to the best wetboy in the city, Durzo Blint, a man known to have no conscious, who can hide in shadows and not be seen unless he wants you to.

Through a convoluted series of events, he manages to achieve this goal, only to find out being a wetboy isn’t exactly what he thought it was. It’s lots of hard work and training, and Weeks takes us through this in the middle of the book roughly a chapter at a time, skipping several years each time. In order to become a wetboy, Azoth has to leave his past live behind, becoming Kylar Stern, with a cover story of being a minor noble from the far edges of the country whose lands have been taken away due to debts or some such. He is sponsored by a minor count whose last name is Drake, who has a few secrets of his own that I won’t reveal here (this is a review, but I won’t throw in spoilers).

Suffice it to say that, if you like stories full of intrigue, where every layer of the plot reveals yet another layer underneath, read this book. I’ve started on  the second in the trilogy (just finished Shadows this morning), and it’s looking to be every bit as good as the first. The characters are authentic and definitely have individual personalities, including a king who’s not smart and is prone to long strings of profanities that are all versions of the same word (“Shit on you, you shitting shitters,” is one of his utterances, or something close to that). He’s laughed at behind his back, pretty much an ineffective “boy king,” as he’s referred to by some of his more charitable critics. Of course, with a king this weak, there’s an impending invasion and many of the characters have to make choices between bad and worse.

Magic in this world is authentic and consistent. Wetboys use what they call a Talent to help them, which aids them in such things as hiding in shadows and adopting more effective disguises. One of Kylar’s problems throughout his training is that his Talent doesn’t seem to be manifesting itself, and without that he will always be doomed to being a simple assassin. The Talent is what makes wetboys different. Oh, and for those of you who are wondering, yes there can be female wetboys.

Weeks’s world of Midcyru is also well-realized, with different cultures and religions and magic working, or at least interpreted, differently in the various cultures. Despite most of the characters being the kind of people we might normally find distasteful at the very least, they can still be sympathized and identified with because each of them is flawed and conflicted, even the seemingly cold, callous Durzo Blint. In fact, it’s the more “noble’ characters you end up despising because they tend to be spoiled royalty of one sort or another who are oblivious to what many of the characters are going through. Granted, in the case of Kylar, that’s just as well because he’s a wetboy living undercover, but there are still many in here you’d like to see Durzo or Kylar chop up just because they’re wasting good air.

So, without taking the risk of revealing some spoilers, I’ll finish off by saying: go get this book and it’s sequels, because if it’s any indication, Brent Weeks is a good writer who’s bringing us a little different type of fantasy.

Later,

Gil