“The High-Spired Splendidness of Old”

Then suddenly fire burst from the Meneltarma, and there came a mighty wind and a tumult of the earth, and the sky reeled, and the hills slid, and Númenor went down into the sea, with all its children and its wives and its maidens and its ladies proud; and all its gardens and its halls and its towers, its tombs and its riches, and its jewels and its webs and its things painted and carven, and its laughter and its mirth and its music, its wisdom and its lore: they vanished for ever.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Akallabêth

Atlantology, which boasts a Donnelly and a Donovan, is also blessed with a Donald, Donald Sidney-Fryer. Cimmerian readers know him as one of the journal’s triumvirate of poets laureate alongside Richard Tierney and Darrell Schweitzer, a translator, and an essayist who won a 2008 Hyrkanian Award for his “Robert E. Howard: Epic Poet in Prose.” Students of weird fiction know him as a contributor to The Dark Barbarian, the editor of the Timescape Clark Ashton Smith collections The City of the Singing Flame, The Last Incantation, and The Monster of the Prophecy, and the author of The Sorcerer Departs: Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961), the founding document of Klarkashtonian Studies. His website heralds him as “the Last of the Courtly Poets & Northern California’s Only Neo-Elizabethan Poet-Entertainer.” And The Atlantis Fragments, which collects Mr. Sidney-Fryer’s three sets of Songs and Sonnets Atlantean, confirms that he is a direct descendant of mythohistorical figures like Atlas I, called Pharanomion (“the founder”, the Northron-harried Poseidon II, and Atlantarion the poet-king.

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All Disquiet on the Western Front

In an earlier post I jokingly mentioned historian Martin Gilbert, who in addition to his titanic biography of a titan has written often about the Holocaust and the First and Second World Wars. In 2006 he published a book about the Somme, with Verdun one of the two 1916 Golgothas where, after the preliminaries of 1914 and 1915, Western civilization industriously and industrially set about killing itself.

By now even those who know or care to know little about J. R. R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings are probably aware that in creating the Dead Marshes through which Frodo, Sam, and Gollum pass he was sharing something of his experiences at the Somme: enduring fantasy crafted from nigh-unendurable reality. In an August 25 article, Gilbert recalls Tolkien sharing more of those experiences not in print but in person:

J.R.R. Tolkien and the Somme were inextricably linked. I learned this forty-four years ago, shortly after I was elected to my first university appointment, at Merton College, Oxford. I was twenty-six years old.
In those days there was a strict seating order at college dinners. The head of the college sat in the centre, the senior fellows on either side of him, and the junior fellows at the far ends of the table. Also at the ends were the Emeritus Fellows, long retired, venerable, sometimes garrulous guardians of the college name. Several of them had served in the First World War. When they discovered a historian, new to his craft, filled with the keenness of a youngster amid his elders, they were happy to talk about those distant days, already more than forty years in the past.
Some enjoyed singing the songs of the trenches, in versions far ruder than those sung today. Tolkien was more reticent, yet when he did open up, full of terrible tales. There was never any boasting. The war’s scars were too many, its reality too grim, to lead to self-glorification, or even to embellishment.
In 1916, the twenty-four-year-old Tolkien was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. On the evening of July 14 — two weeks after the start of the Battle of the Somme — his battalion went into the line. He had never seen action before. What he later called the “animal horror” of the trenches was as yet unknown to him. But he already knew that one of his closest friends, Robert Gilson, had been killed on the first day.

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Never Bored of the Rings

Came across a couple of wickedly funny satires on YouTube, which both use The Lord of the Rings to skewer their targets, filmmakers Michael Moore and George Lucas respectively (and oh so effectively). I give you:

Fellowship 9/11: The beloved, saintly, indefatigable, scrupulously honest redresser of America’s wrongs visits Middle-earth and quickly discovers a sinister plot by corrupt elven, dwarven, and human bureaucrats, zealots, and pampered elites to demonize the poor, peaceful, third-world peoples of Mordor and steal their oil. This film not only inoculates the viewer from ever taking the Man from Flint seriously again, it also (perhaps unintentionally) tars and feathers the many film and book critics who used the appearance of Jackson’s (awful) trilogy to portray Tolkien as a closet cultural supremacist hiding behind a thinly veiled allegory of metrosexual good guys and dreadlocked, Ebonics-braying monsters.

Lord of the Rings by George Lucas: What if the sage of Skywalker Ranch had been the one who tackled the Rings trilogy on the big screen? Using hilariously on-point parodies of actual Star Wars prequel DVD supplement footage, along with animation that eerily captures the real life quirks and ticks of the people involved, the makers of this little gem demonstrate how vacuous and absurd Lucas’ insufferably pompous latter-day pronouncements have been in the face of his abysmal products.

Many such attempts at satire quickly lose steam and degenerate into bad Saturday Night Live sketches, but these two manage to maintain their momentum and become classics.

After Aquilonia and Having Left Lankhmar: Sword-and-Sorcery Since the 1980s

[When Howard Andrew Jones writes about sword-and-sorcery and the desirability of “putting a new edge on an old blade,” it behooves those of us as protective of the subgenre as he is to pay attention, and perhaps pay him the compliment of trying to put our own thoughts in order. To that end, and with a bemused glance at a June 22 post by Gary Romeo, who never loses an opportunity to generalize about Howard purists even if he did lose the chance to celebrate the centennial of his nearest and dearest, I’m rolling out the following article, originally written in 2006 for an anthology that apparently could not be more snake-bitten were it to traipse barefoot through Stygia]

The subgenre of modern fantasy with which Robert E. Howard is nearly synonymous died down in the mid-1980s but did not die out. Far from it; sword-and-sorcery proved to be as difficult to kill as many of its protagonists. But before we can celebrate Howard’s legacy by following the subgenre’s fortunes for the last several decades, we need to establish what we mean by sword-and-sorcery. For starters, what is meant at least for the purposes of this article is an approach to heroic fantasy that became aware of itself when Howard decisively expanded on the promise and premise of Lord Dunsany’s 1908 story “The Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth” with “The Shadow Kingdom” in 1929.

The verb “expanded” is chosen with no disrespect whatsoever intended toward Dunsany’s story; it is possible that during his much-debated involvement with sword-and-sorcery, L. Sprague de Camp never did the subgenre more of a favor than when he selected “The Fortress” for his anthology The Fantastic Swordsmen (1967).

(Here, on the other hand, Leo argues that the only place for poor old “Sacnoth” in an S & S muscle car is: the ejector seat)

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Postcard From The Edge

Reuters reports that a man preparing a house for demolition in England has discovered a postcard hidden behind the fireplace address to J.R.R. Tolkien, who once lived there. The sender of the postcard? Apparently it’s none other than Howardom’s own resident whipping boy, Lin Carter.

The report goes on to mention that Carter is the writer of Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, a book that has as poor a reputation in Tolkien fandom as Carter’s Conan pastiches do in our neck of the woods. My favorite capsule dismissal of the book comes from Tom Shippey, who wrote in his masterful The Road to Middle Earth that Carter “prepared for his commentary on Tolkien by looking up ‘philology’ in ‘the dictionary’, to little profit — maybe it was the wrong dictionary.”

Reuters goes on to describe the postcard as perhaps being worth a “small fortune.” That’s going more than a bit too far, but it’s a cool find nevertheless. In REH’s case, I think we are far from exhausting the number of Howard items left to be unearthed in various people’s basements and garages. New pictures still crop up (witness the young Dr. Howard picture from The Cross Plains Review found in 2006), as well as new typescripts (as recently as last December, The Cimmerian presented a previously unknown version of Howard’s poem “Cimmeria”).

Long Ago, Far Away, and So Much Better Than It Is Today?

I think it’s fair to say that during 2007 we here at TC‘s Centcom were both anniversary-minded and Tolkien-minded, but fell down on the job when it came to being Tolkien anniversary-minded. In other words, we celebrated the diamond jubilee of “The Phoenix on the Sword” and the miracle of filial piety that saw The Children of Húrin into bestselling print as a near-novelistic standalone, but we spaced on the 30th anniversary of The Silmarillion, that gateway to the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth. Unfinished (but unbeatable) tales, false starts better than the true finishes of most fantasists, and all the priceless detritus of what Tom Shippey termed “intense and brooding systematization” would follow, but the 1977 book came first — as it also did, in its earliest form of The Book of Lost Tales, in Tolkien’s creative life.

The Simarillion‘s thirty years at large in the world have played out as something of a Thirty Years War. Ted Nasmith’s painted realizations of Silm.-scenes are far more vivid than the poor-visibility-or-soft-focus efforts of certain mistier Tolkien illustrators, but he was fairly mild-mannered when he described the work as “magnificent but underappreciated.” It occasionally seems to me that Mein Kampf hasn’t been reviewed as vitriolically and vindictively as The Silmarillion. Much-purchased upon publication but anecdotally little-read, dismayingly “like the Old Testament,” “as boring as the endless legalistic pedantries of Leviticus,” “a telephone directory in Elvish,” or “a stone soup of the most mouth-mangling names ever seen in print.” One worthy speculated that someone capable of reading The Iliad “for pleasure” might just about be able to enjoy The Silmarillion — his disbelief that any such freak existed, or should be permitted to exist, was so tangible it might as well have been in Braille. The Time reviewer back in October of 1977 bemoaned the absence of “a single, unifying quest” and “a band of brothers for the reader to identify with.” As it happens The Silmarillion‘s central narrative does indeed feature a single unifying quest, and it’s the stuff of nightmares, the nightmares endured and perpetrated by a band of literal brothers hagridden by an overbold oath sworn in haste and repented at sorrowful leisure.

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The History of the Hobbit Gets Millerized


John Rateliff, author of the endlessly useful and fascinating History of the Hobbit, gets interviewed in a podcast over at National Review Online as part of John J. Miller’s Between the Covers feature. Go for Tolkien and stay for the many other fantasy-related subjects awaiting your discovery, including Otto Penzler on pulps, Dean Koontz on horror, Paul Sammon on Conan, and George R. R. Martin on sci-fi, horror, and fantasy.

An Example for Howard Fandom


I recently ordered the magisterial collection The History of the Hobbit, a three-volume set available in slipcase. Those of us who treasure Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle Earth in twelve books have always lamented that, for various reasons, he failed to publish the same substantial analysis of The Hobbit that he undertook for The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings, and most of Tolkien’s other writings. Author John D. Rateliff has now rectified that oversight in spades.

Rateliff spent well over a decade analyzing the manuscripts for The Hobbit in a fashion that anyone familiar with Christopher Tolkien’s work will appreciate: sifting through drafts, dating manuscripts and typescripts, undoing many of the mistakes of earlier scholars, and offering a bewitching look into the creation of a modern classic. The set contains a great copy of the novel, complete with Tolkien’s original drawings, maps and color illustrations reproduced as plates on glossy paper stock, a pleasantly large font suitable for reading, and of course the latest corrected text. Two accompanying volumes, titled Mr. Baggins and Return to Bag-End, comprise Rateliff’s meticulous research, featuring not only a mountain of notes and other scholarship but Tolkien’s entire story in draft form, which gives us all sorts of strange and wonderful glimpses into a Hobbit that never was. When you get through the introduction and find out that Thorin began as a dwarf named Gandalf, it’s clear that you’ve dropped down a particularly beguiling rabbit (hobbit?) hole.

There is much here to inspire Howard fans. Might not our field someday get a History of the Hyborian Age, that charts the creation of REH’s body of fantasy work, reprints all the drafts, offers extensive commentary and notes, and contains an encyclopedia (or “glossography,” as Gary Gygax referred to the material underlying his Greyhawk campaign world) of all the people and places that make up the legendarium? Some of the work has been done, appearing in various journals and editions, but much remains for the enterprising scholar. I’ve always wished I had time to collate a Complete Guide to Hyboria the way Tolkien fans have Robert Foster’s Complete Guide to Middle-Earth. It’s volumes like these that go a long way towards captivating fans, and if one was written for REH I’m guessing it would vastly increase the respect for his world-building achievement.

Coming up in the October issue of TC (almost ready to ship) is a great letter from Steve Tompkins that speculates on various aspects of Aquilonian realpolitik, and reading that offers a small taste of the unexplored depths of Howard’s creation, namely how much realistic complexity those four years of brilliant story-writing generated. The usual know-nothings often assume that Howard gave little thought to realism and consistency — not true, as Tompkins amply shows in his letter. One of the most startling revelations Rateliff makes is that, far from Tolkien slowly composing his children’s story in languorous stretches of cautious composition, the manuscripts show that in all likelihood The Hobbit was written at white heat during vacation breaks from his teaching duties. This directly contradicts most of the favored images of Tolkien burning the midnight oil for leisurely years on end, and indeed sounds much more like the writing habits of a pulpster like REH than some would care to admit.

I have only begun exploring this spectacular effort on behalf of Tolkien scholarship, but already it has generated all sorts of thoughts about how REH scholarship could benefit from applying this Tolkienian example to our bailiwick.

Gibbets and Crows!

Just as an irritant to those who think this site is afflicted with too much Tolkien content already, it’s worth mentioning that, all due respect for “Black Vulmea’s Vengeance” notwithstanding, the most unforgettable modern appearance of the word “gibbet” is in Chapter Ten of The Two Towers, “The Voice of Saruman.” On the front steps of the tower of Orthanc Gandalf, accompanied by Théoden, Éomer, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, summons the former head of the White Council to account for himself. From his high window Saruman strives to cozen Théoden with a mellifluous offer of “peace and friendship,” but the king of Rohan has learned a hard lesson extremely well:

‘. . .You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts. You hold out your hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor. Cruel and cold! Even if your war on me was just — as it was not, for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit, as you desired — even so, what will you say of your torches in Westfold and the children that lie dead there? And they hewed Hàma’s body before the gates of the Hornburg, after he was dead. When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc. So much for the house of Eorl. A lesser son of great sires am I, but I do not need to lick your fingers. Turn elsewhither. But I fear your voice has lost its charm.’

The Riders gazed up at Théoden like men startled out of a dream. Harsh as an old raven’s their master’s voice sounded in their ears after the music of Saruman. But Saruman for a while was beside himself with wrath. He leaned over the rail as if he would smite the King with his staff. To some suddenly it seemed that they saw a snake coiling itself to strike.

‘Gibbets and crows!’ he hissed, and they shuddered at the hideous change. ‘Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs. Too long have they escaped the gibbet themselves. But the noose comes, slow in the drawing, tight and hard in the end. Hang if you will!’

Memorable invective is a joy forever, whether it be that exchange or Moira’s scornful rejection of Thorfel’s offer to make her his lawfully wedded wife in “The Dark Man.” Churls will complain, as they always do, that words like “elsewhither,” “dotard,” or even “gibbet” itself discriminate against the 21st century reader, render Tolkien’s meaning inaccessible to the great unwashed or the borderline unlettered. Too bad. Howard and Tolkien were master dramatists when they wanted to be (which is why any REH adaptation that doesn’t revel in his dialogue is foredoomed, which is why no Germanic bodybuilder will ever pass muster as Conan), and their kings and malign beings regularly scale rhetorical Himalayas.

Like [redacted], I’ve devoured J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, but one place where she falls down hard without any cushioning is Voldemort’s dialogue. His each and every utterance is from a broken-spined, jaundiced-with-yellow-highlightings copy of The Supervillain’s Phrasebook. In a steelcage deathmatch or Thunderdome showdown to determine Most Hackneyed, I might bet on Voldmember even against the de Camp/Carter Thoth-Amon, who couldn’t verbally intimidate Scooby-Doo. When the worst of the worst achieve true immortality despite being killed deader-than-dead, (not just Dark Lords, a “human” character like Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop works as an example) it’s often because a language-kindled nimbus of hellfire blackens the edges of every page on which they appear.

Tolkien Purists Strike Back!


A few weeks ago I finally read — inhaled is more the word — J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin, which turned out to be everything I hoped for and then some. What a joy to encounter characters in full bloom that were mere hints and wisps in previously published versions of the tale in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle Earth.

In a few places an extra sentence or two has been added to paragraphs I idolized in the old sources, which feels a bit incongruous warring as they do with long-memorized quotations in my head. It’s the same way I feel whenever I read the new version of REH’s “The Dark Man” in The Ultimate Triumph, which restores an extra final paragraph that was accidentally left off all appearances published since its original Weird Tales debut in the 1930s. I actually prefer the bastardized version that I’ve known for so long, finding it a more poetically succinct denouement, and deliberately used that iteration for my coda to “The Reign of Blood” in The Barbaric Triumph.

All of this is small potatoes, though, compared to the biggest purist disappointment I’ve experienced in my life: the criminal mangling of Tolkien’s meticulously crafted plot in the Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson and his partners in permutation, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens. The changes are well documented on the Internet and in deference to my blood pressure need not be rehashed here, save to say they are distressingly numerous, pointless, irreverent, and — from this purist’s point of view — ultimately unforgivable. I find it difficult to think about those movies, much less watch them — strong words coming from a major cinemaphile and hopeless Rings romantic. For awhile now I’ve grudgingly accepted that Tolkien on the big screen is something I will have to go through life actively avoiding.

Enter The Two Towers: The Purist Edit.

Some fans out there decided to expand on the achievement of The Phantom Edit, which was an attempt by a Star Wars fan to re-cut Episode I: The Phantom Menace into a much leaner, more serious film, minimizing the presence of the hated Jar-Jar Binks and making other wonderful choices that made the film far more watchable than George Lucas’ painfully hackneyed original. This time out, some Tolkien purists used modern computer editing technology to re-cut Jackson’s second and most popular Rings installment into a film that adheres as closely as possible to the original book. Well over a hundred changes were made, both major and minor, with everything seamlessly blended and integrated back into a Hollywood-quality edit. Over forty minutes ended up being cut from the film, but the result is rumored to be glorious. As the trailer on You Tube says:

No elves at Helm’s Deep….

No Dwarf jokes….

Ents make the right decision….

Arwen stays in Middle-Earth….

No Osgiliath Detour….

Other changes listed at Wikipedia sound even more dear, such as Faramir once again resisting the Ring as Tolkien so poignantly envisioned. I also hope that Théoden is less a grumbling and bitter contrarian and more the noble and wise lord that in Tolkien’s book prompts Pippin’s charmingly understated evaluation: “A fine old fellow. Very polite.” In any case, while there is still far more wrong with Jackson’s vision than can be cured with a re-edit, I’m going to download this version and give it a fighting chance to win me over. Just watching the montage in the new trailer of a deadly serious Gimli reaping his grim axe-harvest at Helm’s Deep was enough to stir my blood in a way I thought Jacksonian imagery never would. And if this new Two Towers does it for me, perhaps I’ll hunt down the re-edit of the entire expanded trilogy that’s supposedly floating around out there somewhere.

I have every confidence that The Lord of the Rings will be remade someday by a director with more noble sensibilities than Jackson and his estrogen-fueled co-scribes, but until then this purist is mighty happy to see some anonymous shield-brothers striking back against the “long defeat” of the past few years.