The Voice of Saruman, Speaking the First Age Into Being


Marvel Comics initiates are well aware that the madder the Hulk gets, the stronger the Hulk gets. Similarly, the older Christopher Lee gets, the cooler Christopher Lee gets. Long before Saruman and Count Dooku (alas, a role as a nefarious guest star on the cover of Band on the Run had more substance to it than Lee was granted in the Lucasverse), n’er-do-wells were never done so well as Rochefort in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (I sob openly when Michael York runs him through), Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (Lee, a cousin of sorts to Ian Fleming, was on the author’s wish list of perfect Dr. Nos) and Lord Summerisle in the original The Wicker Man (actually the only Wicker Man that need concern us). Lee was Flay in the BBC’s Gormenghast miniseries, worked with members of Steeleye Span on a musical adaptation of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and once confessed to John Carpenter that his career-worst misstep was turning down the role of Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween. The expanded and splendidly retitled 2004 version of his autobiography, Lord of Misrule, is required reading.

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A Tolkien Curmudgeon’s Prayers Answered


As you may recall, I wrote a post awhile back complaining about (among other things) the omnipresence of Alan Lee art on various Tolkien volumes. At the time I wished aloud that a version of The Children of Húrin would appear sans the usual fey-and-grey assault of the ethereal Lee palette.

How gratifying it was to recently visit the webpage for the book and discover that a slipcased deluxe edition is now slated for release on May 16, 2007, a month after the regular edition debuts this morning. At only $47.25 the copy I consider it a bargain. The Lee plates are preserved within, but the cover and slipcase contain only the elegant symbols conceived and drawn by Tolkien himself.

What I would give to have all of Howard in uniform slipcased editions with heavy paper and a large font without art and other editorial apparatus, books that put the lover of words and text and reading first. Currently, out of all the Howard books in my collection, I’m liking the Bison Books hardcover REH set best. The font is a bit small and hence hard on the eyes, but no more so than the Wandering Star books, and the Bisons are uniform, jet black (my favorite color for binding Howard, as Cimmerian readers know) and contain a wealth of great reading. Very classy and elegant in their simplicity — Bison could have done far worse.

I’ve been thinking of purchasing some new editions of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion as well, and will have to see if more-or-less matching slipcased editions of those are available. I’ve seen some that come close, but will have to investigate their textual integrity. I also prefer The Lord of the Rings to be broken down into three physical volumes, or even better the seven physical volumes of the Millennium set that came out circa October 1999. That set, and most of the editions that have come after, feature textual restoration and an essay concerning same by occasional Cimmerian reader Douglas Anderson.

I was also pleased to see a short essay at Amazon by Tolkien’s grandson Adam Tolkien titled “On the Children of Húrin,” which delves into the genesis of the book and the efforts of his father, the inestimable Christopher Tolkien, to edit the full story into being. Adam seems a man of my own heart, with all of his talk of “this tragic tale of brutal conquest and flight, of forest hiding-places and pursuit, of resistance with lessening hope, and of a huge wingless dragon of fire” and “a larger world, an ancient land of heroes and vagabonds, honour and jeopardy, hope and tragedy.”

Looks like I’ll be waiting an extra month before delving into this volume, but to tell the truth I’ll have little trouble resisting its siren call with all of the latest Cimmerian work piling up. The Cimmerian Library Volume 4 is printed and ready to soon take the TC readership by storm, and V4n2 should be ready to go within a week or two. Then the V3 Index and the V3 slipcases should be hot on their heels. I’m looking forward to getting all caught up so that I can do some blogging and post some more stuff about the forthcoming Howard Days.

Hells of Iron and a Worm of Irony

Every so often, when Bastards HQ isn’t paying attention, life can be pretty good. Here’s Christopher Tolkien on The Children of Hurin, due to hit bookstores and pluck heartstrings on April 17:

There are tales of Middle-earth from times long before The Lord of the Rings, and the story told in this book is set in the great country that lay beyond the Grey Havens in the West: lands where Treebeard once walked, but which were drowned in the great cataclysm that ended the First Age of the World.

In that remote time Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, dwelt in the vast fortress of Angband, the Hells of Iron, in the North; and the tragedy of Turin and his sister Nienor unfolded within the shadow of the fear of Angband and the war waged by Morgoth against the lands and secret cities of the Elves.

Their brief and passionate lives were dominated by the elemental hatred that Morgoth bore them as the children of Hurin, the man who had dared to defy and to scorn him to his face. Against them he sent his formidable servant, Glaurang, a powerful spirit in the form of a huge wingless dragon of fire. Into his story of brutal conquest and flight, of forest hiding-places and pursuit, of resistance with lessening hope, the mythological persons of the God and the Dragon enter in fearfully articulate form. Sardonic and mocking, Glaurang manipulated the fates of Turin and Nienor by lies of diabolic cunning and guile, and the curse of Morgoth was fulfilled

The earliest versions of this story by J.R.R. Tolkien go back to the end of the First World War and the years that followed; but long afterwards, when The Lord of the Rings was finished, he wrote it anew and greatly enlarged it in complexities of motive and character: it became the dominant story in his later work on Middle-earth. But he could not bring it to final and finished form. In this book I have endeavoured to construct, after long study of the manuscripts, a coherent narrative without any editorial invention.

Let’s hope Christopher “Eragon, Son of LucasFilm” Paolini is so traumatized he quits “writing” fantasy and competes on American Idol next season instead.

This Happy Breed of Men, This Little World/This Precious Stone Set In A Silver Sea

Most of us will recognize the following:

There is not one foot of British ground, not one handsbreadth of soil in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales that has not been drenched with blood — my own blood — the same that courses through my veins. In every war, I have had kin on both sides.

All over the Isles they have marched and countermarched, fought, bled and died, or conquered — men whose blood is in me: Gael, Briton, Saxon, Dane, Norman; Irishmen, Scotchmen, Englishmen.

Along comes an Oxford geneticist, Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer, to assert that all of the Britannia-bloodying tribes and peoples Howard listed were in fact “immigrant minorities compared with the Basque pioneers who first ventured into the chilly, empty lands so recently vacated by the great ice sheets.” His article “Myths of British Ancestry” serves as a calling card for his 2006 book The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story , which occasioned a New York Times article this week, “A United Kingdom? Maybe” by Nicholas Wade.

For Oppenheimer, author of the earlier Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World, the British Isles are “a genetic time capsule of southwestern Europe during the ice age.” He regards the notion of “a grand iron-age Celtic culture in the center of the continent, which shrank to a Western rump” once the legions marched north and westward, as hopelessly outmoded, and drop-kicks “migrationism,” that war-fueled motor of “The Hyborian Age,” on the basis of fact-gathering employing Y chromosomes and maternally bequeathed mitochondrial DNA. Prior to its repopulation by far-striding Iberians, Oppenheimer posits an unpeopled Britain “wiped clean of people by glaciers that had smothered northern Europe for about 4,000 years.” (But can we be sure? What about the ancestors of the Worms of the Earth?) He speculates that the possibly non-Celtic Belgae who straddled the Channel may have been responsible for English as “a separate, fourth branch of the Germanic language before the Roman invasion,” and draws upon the work of Dr. Peter Forster of Anglia Ruskin University, who, as the NYT article puts it, sees “the Angles and the Saxons [as] both really Viking peoples who began raiding Britain ahead of the accepted historical schedule.” Ahem–score one for Robert E. Howard!

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The Deathliest Hallow


Fans of Sword-and-Sorcery have cause to rejoice at the impending release of The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien, an author I hold in unparalleled esteem for reasons largely beyond my ability to explain.

Tolkien was my first and my best, the man who set me atop a sorcerous, literary Lonely Mountain from which I have blissfully viewed the world ever since. He taught me that history was magical, and that myth was but truth under another name. To this day I marvel at the fell majesty and cadence inherent in even his most mundane passages, how every word chimes like notes from a perfectly tuned instrument. He was a master at enclosing whole worlds within outwardly innocuous words — in The Road to Middle Earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, two of the most revelatory volumes written about Tolkien, philologist Tom Shippey demonstrates to devastating effect how precise the author was in choosing words with fascinating etymologies that point like bony fingers towards long forgotten historical deeps. As a fantasist’s fantasist, his legendarium contains seemingly endless layers of rich literary sediment and mythological substrata, with ages of fallen cities and relics and histories and theology waiting — sometimes for decades — to be unearthed by a perceptive reader. More than any other author I’ve read, his work defies attempts to subjugate it, to feel as if you have gathered its full measure and discovered all its secrets. The scope of the various tales he wrote of Arda and Middle Earth can only be compared to the near infinite and daunting immensity of real history — perhaps because so much of Tolkien’s work is tied not to fantasy but to reality, with deftly utilized words chosen for deep-seated philological reasons that resonate often unconsciously in our minds, each of them Wonderstrands as intricate as they are beautiful.

You see, I told you I couldn’t explain it. Suffice it to say that Tolkien reached literary heights that most fantasy authors haven’t even dreamed of, much less accomplished. Oftentimes the “high fantasy” genre that has sprung up at the feet of his achievement feels so desiccated precisely because he set the bar so unfathomably high. Knowing this, it is no small matter that The Children of Húrin is on its way to bookstores this April 17, for the tale housed within constitutes the Englishman’s most bloody, war-torn, and tragic story, one that virtually demands comparison to Howard’s gloomy dreamscapes in the sister realm of Sword-and-Sorcery.

Most of what we’ll read in The Children of Húrin has been published before, either in The Silmarillion or in sundry volumes of The History of Middle Earth. The difference here is that for the first time all of these disparate gems are now to be united into a towering, 320-page masterpiece that threatens to bring the pathos of the story home with a forcefulness not seen since The Lord of the Rings thundered onto the scene fifty years ago. The tale contains some of the very best things Tolkien ever wrote, passages that (to use an analogy oft employed by fellow blogger Steve Tompkins) perform open-heart surgery on the reader, scenes that I cherish above all others in literature. My gut tells me Howard would have valued them, too. Listen:

Then all the hosts of Angband swarmed against them, and they bridged the stream with their dead, and encircled the remnant of Hithlum as a gathering tide about a rock. There as the sun westered on the sixth day, and the shadow of Ered Wethrin grew dark, Huor fell pierced with a venomed arrow in his eye, and all the valiant Men of Hador were slain about him in a heap; and the Orcs hewed their heads and piled them as a mound of gold in the sunset.

Last of all Húrin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and wielded an axe two-handed; and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered, and each time that he slew Húrin cried: “Aure entuluva! Day shall come again!” Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive, by the command of Morgoth, for the Orcs grappled him with their hands, which clung to him still though he hewed off their arms; and ever their numbers were renewed, until at last he fell buried beneath them. Then Gothmog bound him and dragged him to Angband with mockery.

I’m hoping that this new release serves as an Athelas salve of sorts for me. The last few years have been bitter ones for this Tolkien fan, as the Peter Jackson movies methodically reforged the Englishman’s masterpiece into a often silly and irreverent roller-coaster ride for audiences addicted to a Six Flags level of momentum and excitement. The arguments I’ve heard in favor of Jackson’s vision — epic widescreen compositions worthy of Kurosawa or Leone, actors who bring a Shakespearian eloquence and grandeur to the proceedings — seem to be hopelessly offset by the reductio ad absurdum of Jackson’s painfully offensive ghettoizing of Tolkien’s meticulously constructed story. Trash-talking dialogue (“Let’s hunt some Orc, yo!”), hip-hop battle tactics (Legolas bustin’ moves on Oliphants and poppin’ caps into cave trolls and Uruk-hai) and hobbit fart jokes mix uneasily with Fabio-inspired romance to create a Frankenstein’s monster Rings that occasionally wows or moves but in the end fails utterly to convey the grand themes that were Tolkien’s life’s blood. Say what you will of John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian — even at his worst he directed the material with a refreshing seriousness, and his attempts at comedy and battle prowess grew organically out of a fundamentally grave story and characters. By the end (the sixth consecutive end, by my count) of Jackson’s Return of the King I felt insulted not only for Tolkien but on behalf of legions of dead lying forgotten under poppy-strewn fields and ancient Saxon ruins. One of the few assuagements to be had in a post-Jackson world dominated by Armani Aragorn and Aerosmith Arwen is knowing that Christopher Tolkien shares my dismay in spades, a hollow triumph to be sure, but one which helps reduce my feelings of loneliness whenever the Moviegoing Majority sings the praises of travesties like Jackson’s predacious Faramir or his puffed-up and self-important Théoden.

I’m also tired of the artistic talent dominating modern Tolkien publishing — Alan Lee doesn’t do it for me, never has. His desaturated and dreary vision too often transforms Middle Earth into a chilled morgue viewed through a pale shroud. For all of the perceived faults of the greeting card school of Tolkien illustration — Darrell K. Sweet, the Brothers Hildebrandt — at least their work overflows with color and vibrant emotion, both features of Tolkien’s prose that I delight in. In my mind’s eye Tolkien’s universe is awash in primary colors: orange torchlight and campfires, stunningly green woodlands, and skies the rich blue of lapis lazuli. Above all Lee fails the Elves, a race haunted by sadness and loss, yes, but who for all of that remain hopelessly devoted to a beauty the likes of which we might only see today in a particularly exceptional National Geographic photo essay. The pseudo-Celtic, Enya-esque conception of the elves as envisioned by Lee — ghostly hypnotic figures sleepwalking through monochromatic woods of perpetual torpor — make the Elves seem less like God’s Elder Children and more like phantoms from a 70s “be-in.”


Take a good look at the frowning, severe, and morose Lee-and-Jackson-designed Elves above, and then ponder Tolkien’s lighthearted exchange between these selfsame Elves and Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring, after Bilbo has recited a poem for their amusement in Rivendell:

The chanting ceased. Frodo opened his eyes and saw that Bilbo was seated on his stool in a circle of listeners, who were smiling and applauding.

“Now we had better have it again,” said an Elf.

Bilbo got up and bowed. “I am flattered, Lindir,” he said. “But it would be too tiring to repeat it all.”

“Not too tiring for you,” the Elves answered laughing. “You know you are never tired of reciting your own verses. But really we cannot answer your question at one hearing!”

“What!” cried Bilbo. “You can’t tell which parts were mine, and which were the Dúnadan’s?”

“It is not easy for us to tell the difference between two mortals,” said the Elf.

“Nonsense, Lindir,” snorted Bilbo. “If you can’t distinguish between a Man and a Hobbit, your judgement is poorer than I imagined. They’re as different as peas and apples.”

“Maybe. To sheep other sheep no doubt appear different,” laughed Lindir. “Or to shepherds. But Mortals have not been our study. We have other business.”

Imagine that: Elves laughing and joking and smiling and applauding! The above scene, along with so much else in Tolkien’s original epic, remains inconceivable in Jackson and Lee’s stylized, reductive renderings of Middle Earth. The cover to The Children of Húrin, revealed just this morning, is one of Lee’s less objectionable efforts, but I’m dreading the moment when I have to view the interior plates, and hope that there will eventually be an illustration-free hardcover edition. I yearn for something different: set Darrell K. Sweet’s often artificial fantasy work aside for a moment, and take a gander at his outstanding western paintings — that’s the full spectrum and sweeping majesty that Middle Earth demands. Or consider another artist likely to elicit groans from the Frazetta-lovers of Howardom: Thomas Kinkade. The self-proclaimed “Painter of Light” has seldom demonstrated a facility for painting characters or portraits, but his unsurpassed ability to tinge outwardly mundane landscapes with innate magic and immortal beauty is perhaps the closest any artist has come to hinting at what Tolkien’s Rivendell, Lórien, Vales of Anduin, or Grey Havens should look like. Such artists, their abilities properly channeled, would provide a welcome antidote to Middle Earth’s decades-long, Lee-conjured cloud cover.

I love how declares that Húrin is “the first complete book by J.R.R. Tolkien in three decades,” as if the redoubtable professor were still alive and hunched at his desk, methodically teasing and conjuring new stories from his invented world. Of course that’s not far from the truth, because Tolkien’s work yet seethes with passion and sorrow and tears unnumbered, attracting readers both new and old to black axes and white flames, to starlit hopes and mires of blood, to armies “ten thousand strong, with bright mail and long swords and spears like a forest.” His tales ever remind us of both our need for heroes and our penchant for hubris — of the power of evil, and the redemption of sacrifice:

By the command of Morgoth the Orcs with great labour gathered all the bodies of those who had fallen in the great battle, and all their harness and weapons, and piled them in a great mound in the midst of Anfauglith; and it was like a hill that could be seen from afar. Haudh-en-Ndengin the Elves named it, the Hill of Slain, and Haudh-en-Nirnaeth, the Hill of Tears. But grass came there and grew again long and green upon that hill, alone in all the desert that Morgoth made; and no creature of Morgoth trod thereafter upon the earth beneath which the swords of the Eldar and the Edain crumbled into rust.

April 17 can’t come soon enough.