Book Review: “Swords and Deviltry” by Fritz Leiber

Swords and Deviltry
by Fritz Leiber

Image from Goodreads
  • Goodreads
  • Series: Volume 1 of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, chronologically arranged
  • Pages: 254
  • Published: 1970
  • Spoiler-free Synopsis: Three stories to launch a series of epic adventures. “The Snow Women” introduces the young barbarian Fafhrd as he seeks to leave his oppressive and narrow-minded Snow Clan (and its women) for the glamours of “civilization” to the south. “The Unholy Grail” is the dark, painful tale of young Mouse’s escape from an evil duke and his transformation into the Gray Mouser. And “Ill Met at Lankhmar” sees the two meet and join forces to oppose the decadent city’s powerful and brutal Thieves’ Guild.
  • Reason for Beginning: Fritz Leiber is one of the founders of the sword and sorcery genre, and had a huge influence on Dungeons & Dragons. Figured I should read him for familiarity, and hoped he’d provide some good, old-fashioned adventuring.
  • Reason for Finishing: Mostly out of obligation, although the stories improve as they go.
  • Story Re-readability: None of them were good enough for me to care to reread, although “Ill Met at Lankhmar” is the best of the bunch. If you’re already a fan of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, then I could see you returning to it once in awhile.
  • Author Re-readability: Leiber’s prose is easy to read, though sometimes clunky. Most of the time his vocabulary is fairly simple and modern, but he’ll keep trying to slip in bigger words or attempts at archaic-sounding sentence structures that never quite work like he wants to. When he’s good, he’s fun and effective to read. When he slips up, he provokes groans and cringing. He is not a beautiful or subtle writer. The total effect on me is that I wouldn’t mind reading some more of his books, but neither would I be too sad if something prevented me from ever reading him again.
  • Recommendation: If you want to explore the origins of the sword and sorcery genre or Dungeons & Dragons, or if you have read later Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories but not their origin stories, then yes, this is a worthwhile book. If you’re only looking for a good fantasy adventure, then my recommendation is more muted, as you will see below. This book, I could take it or leave it.

Key Thoughts

The best part of this volume may very well be the blurb on the back cover. Behold:

Image by Me

What bombast! What stirring confidence! It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I hear it in the voice of an enthusiastic bard, with brazen trumpets blaring heroically as he proclaims the title. Of course I want to read a book with that description!

And for the most, part, that is the tone Leiber maintains throughout most of the book. These are Adventures Stories with Swords and Strange Magic. They are not deep epics like The Lord of the Rings, nor are they profound fairy stories like Lord Dunsany wrote. They are Conan the Barbarian with a better sense of humor and a lust for life.

And that’s fine! That’s what I wanted from this book. And to a certain extent, I was satisfied with the tone of these stories. There’s a focus on clear conflicts between characters and their actions that keeps the plot moving. Characters are allowed to make jokes, be funny, or just plain screw up in amusing ways. And yet it never descends completely into farce. The characters all deal with serious issues in their lives, and have genuine pain and grief behind them. At times the trauma is allowed to bubble to the surface where the characters can either vent it or try to bottle it up, and these moments encourage our sympathy. I can sense a genuinely great story ready to drop from Leiber’s pen (or typewriter) at any moment.

You may notice that I’ve been qualifying my praise so far. The tone is one thing, plots are another. Well then, let’s dig into the three stories, shall we?

“The Snow Women”
Published 1970

Fafhrd is a strapping 18 year-old bard, his mother is the domineering matriarch of the Snow Clan, and the leader of its witches, the Snow Women. The story chronicles Fafhrd’s struggles to honor his envious, controlling, and tradition-bound mother against his desire to break free and explore the delights of civilization, which is embodied by the actress-prostitute Vlana who is visiting the Snow Clan with a troupe of actors and merchants.

There just isn’t much to like in this story. All the characters are petty, jealous and selfish. The Snow Clan is ruled by their women, who all seem to be witches who will use their snow magic at the drop of a hat to attack their own men or any foreigners they don’t like. And the foreigners who visit are either unscrupulous merchants, conniving slave traders, or hedonists with no respect for local traditions.

Most disappointing of all is Fafhrd himself. Frankly, he’s a selfish, lying jerk. I can take all the other characters being bad sorts if our protagonist, who I’m supposed to be rooting for, is at heart trying to do the right thing. But in this story, I don’t think he is. There’s a pragmatism to him that I sometimes like: he isn’t afraid of a fair fight but has no interest in stupid displays of machismo that could get him uselessly killed, even if others call him a coward for running away. But his main reason for escaping his home is that he lusts for the glamour of “civilization,” which he sees embodied in the actress-prostitutes who visit with the merchants. He’s already gotten his local girlfriend pregnant, but wastes no time in lying to her so he can abandon her and her unborn child for Vlana. Vlana is an older actress; she expresses some mild concern over his cheating on his girlfriend, but ends up seducing him with few qualms anyway. And I get the sense that Leiber wants us to be sympathetic to Fafhrd and Vlana’s “love”…

Amidst all this, not even the plot is very good. There’s some intrigue and action surrounding a scheme to sell Vlana as a sex slave, which Fafhrd finds some inventive ways to interrupt. But much of the plot feels repetitive, unfocused, and never very much fun. It leans too much towards farce without quite landing its jokes. And Leiber’s imagination comes across as rather tawdry and vulgar: he seems to lust after the young women in this story every bit as much as Fafhrd does, and it’s gross.

I do not recommend this story.

“As for civilization, it stinks.”

“The Unholy Grail”
Published 1962

Poor Mouse is trying to learn white magic from a kindly wizard, but feels himself interested in black magic as well. Then tragedy strikes, in the figure of the evil Duke. The story is about Mouse’s struggles to avoid the Duke’s wrath while taking revenge against him. Complicating matters is Mouse’s love for the Duke’s daughter, who betrayed him but has also been terribly abused by her father. As Mouse takes his terrible revenge, he changes his name to Gray Mouser: no longer the prey, now he is the hunter.

First off, there’s no grail in this story. Not in the literal sense of a cup, not in the symbolic sense of a special object the characters are seeking. So the title is a cheap fake-out. A lot in these stories feels cheap (although one could argue that enhances the “pulpy” nature of the genre).

Secondly, this is a sharp pivot in tone from “The Snow Women.” Lacking humor, it is a grim, gruesome, and tragic tale. Almost sadistic, even. Murder, fathers abusing daughters, broken hearts, betrayals, black magic being used for revenge…even our “hero” mostly desires to inflict a painful death upon his enemy than to right any wrongs or save anyone. In this short story, the “hero” knows no joy except the pain of his enemy, and is rewarded for using evil magic to fight an evil person.

The characters of Mouse, the Duke, and the Duke’s daughter are far more compelling than any in “The Snow Women,” but I still can’t say I enjoy or recommend the story.

“There are laws of hate in the universe, shaping even its loves, and it is time I made them work for me.”

“Ill Met at Lankhmar”
Published 1970

Set mere months after the two previous stories, we see Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in the great and corrupt city of Lankhmar. They meet up by accident, immediately become friends, introduce each other to their girlfriends, spend some pleasant time faffing about, and eventually decide, in a drunken contest to impress the girls, to wage grand war against the city’s all-powerful Thieves Guild. This does not go well.

As a story, this is a vast improvement upon the previous two, and mostly the sort of story I was hoping would fill the book. It’s not a masterpiece, by any stretch. But it has charm and a sense of purpose and adventure that keeps you reading until the end and enjoying much of it. It’s like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign where the barbarian and the rogue team up to cause mayhem in the big hub city, and the Dungeon Master lets them have their fun, until he suddenly pulls the rug out from under them (almost literally with the rugs, as it happens) as punishment for trying to mess with the game world’s social structures.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are much more fun as a team than individually. They joke, jostle, and compliment each other. Their skills complement each other, too. They enjoy each others’ presence apparently more than they enjoy their girlfriends. (Fritz Leiber certainly likes them more than he likes any of the women in his stories.) Take for example, their meeting. They each had made separate plans to attack some thugs, and once the thugs are lying in the street they find themselves staring surprised at each other:

Fafhrd said, “Our motives for being here seem identical.”

“Seem? Surely must be!” the Mouser answered curtly, fiercely eyeing this potential new foe, who was taller by a head than the tall thief.

“You said?”

“I said, ‘Seem? Surely must be!’”

“How civilized of you!” Fafhrd commented in pleased tones.

“Civilized?” the Mouser demanded suspiciously, gripping his dirk tighter.

“To care, in the eye of action, exactly what was said,” Fafhrd explained.

So Leiber’s style is a mix. Sometimes it’s focused and fun, as in the above excerpt, or when Fafhrd explains how to spell and pronounce his name (“Just Faf-erd.”). Other times, it’s tangled and awkward, and doesn’t seem to fit the characters. For example, occasionally their internal monologues will include phrases like “what the deuce” and “clever little chap,” which sound like they are suddenly characters in an Agatha Christie mystery rather than an illiterate barbarian and a lower-class rogue in a faux-medieval fantasy city. Still, these are fairly small complaints. Not everyone can be Tolkien, or McKillip, or LeGuin. Not everyone needs to.

The ending got extremely gruesome, though, far more than I like, although I know some fantasy fans like that sort of gruesome horror mixed in with their adventures. I saw it coming and was hoping that it would be prevented, but alas. “Ill Met at Lankhmar” isn’t just the first proper adventure of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, it’s also an origin story for them as a team, and origin stories require a terrible tragedy to send the hero(es) away from home out to where they can quest and becomes famous. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser each have two, it seems: one tragedy to send them away from their original homes, and another to send the two of them away from any other friends who might tie them down. As such, the tragedy has a purpose, but I still wish it weren’t so ugly and macabre.

Closing Remarks

There are certain patterns in Fritz Leiber’s writing which I don’t like. For one, none of the women are admirable or even much likable. I hesitate to accuse any writer of misogyny, as I think it is too easy and too often used an insult, but the best you can say about any of these female characters is that you can at least understand where they’re coming from, and some of them are fairly smart. But they’re always weak of character or are in some way unworthy, and if they’re not sexual objects they’re cold, domineering matronly types. Leiber doesn’t seem to like them very much, as he either insults them or kills them off, or has his characters dismiss them as unimportant. It’s a genuine pattern and it’s tiresome.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have potential as a heroic duo, so long as future stories focus on their good and noble qualities rather than their base lusts. I have another book about them, and plan to read it eventually. But Swords and Deviltry hasn’t put it very high on my To-Read List.

What about you, fair readers? Have you read the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories? What do you think of them?

Review: “Letters from Father Christmas” by J.R.R. Tolkien

  • Letters from Father Christmas
  • by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Goodreads link
  • Pages: 110
  • Published: first in 1976, this edition 2004
  • Spoiler-free Synopsis: From 1920 to 1943, the children of J.R.R. Tolkien would write letters to Father Christmas. Every year, Father Christmas answered them, often with accompanying pictures. These are those letters and pictures.
  • Re-readability: I do believe this will be an annual tradition for me, from now on. It is highly rereadable, both for its relative brevity and its abundance of charm and invention.
  • Recommendation: If you have children, this book can quickly become a beloved yearly tradition for your whole family, as it was for Tolkien’s. I think I would have loved it as a boy, as much or moreso than I do as a man. However, I imagine that if I become a father one day, and read this to my children as I plan to, it will set an impossibly high bar for what my children would expect from their father! I’m a writer too, and occasionally a doodler, but I’m no Tolkien! But I enjoy this book so much that I’d read it to them anyway.

Key Thoughts

I knew this book would be charming and inventive, and it absolutely was. What I didn’t expect was how hilarious it could be, and, nearing the end, a bit bittersweet.

We meet a family of lovable characters at the North Pole in these letters. Father Christmas is, as we expect, quite generous and affectionate towards the children he writes to, but he’s often exasperated when things interfere with his busy preparations for Christmas and is quick to complain about his helper, the North Polar Bear. The P.B. (everyone gets abbreviations in these letters) is really a good bear, but a bit foolish and clumsy; he gets to make his own comments in the margins and post-scripts, defending himself against unfair accusations or making other remarks, often funny. Late in the book (16 years into the letters), Father Christmas gets an elf secretary, Ilbereth, who writes for him and carries on a truly amusing banter with P.B. in the margins.

It has gone on being warm up here, as I told you – not what you would call warm, but warm for the North Pole, with very little snow. The North Polar Bear, if you know who I mean, has been lazy and sleepy as a result, and very slow over packing, or any job except eating. He has enjoyed sampling and tasting the food parcels this year (to see if they were fresh and good, he said).

Somebody haz to – and I found stones in some of the kurrants.

But that is not the worst – I should hardly feel it was Christmas if he didn’t do something ridiculous. You will never guess what he did this time!

December 23, 1931 [bold script is the North Polar Bear, regular is Father Christmas.]

There are other characters and many interesting stories that serve to make the North Pole feel like a real, lived-in place, though never mundane or un-magical. The letters tell of mending broken roofs and silly accidents that P.B. has as often as they do battles with evil goblins.

Most of the letters are accompanied by Tolkien’s drawings and paintings, ostensibly in the hand of Father Christmas or one of his helpers. It must be said, Tolkien was an outstanding artist, and his drawings of the North Pole are a delight to behold.

ABOVE: The Polar Bear shows his bravery in defending the North Pole from a goblin horde. BELOW: Father Christmas’ bedroom.

With each letter or two, a year ticks by, and we realize that Tolkien’s children are growing up. Some are no longer receiving letters. Baby Priscilla is now quite a big girl. And that’s where the bittersweetness comes in. It can’t last forever, and Father Christmas knows it; so does Father Tolkien. The final letter is for 1943: the “horrible war” is making rations tight even in the North Pole, and some of Father Christmas’ messengers haven’t come back. But he tells us not to worry. He assures Priscilla that even though she will soon be too old to hang her stocking at Christmas, he will continue to serve other children, and he’ll be happy to write again once she has children of her own.

And that is why this is a perfect Christmas book — at least insofar as it doesn’t address the religious meaning behind the holiday (which I’m a little surprised it doesn’t, considering how Tolkien passionately wove his faith into his Middle-Earth mythology). Christmas culture in the West is a potent mix of peaceful beauty, reverent magic, and affectionate humor, but also has a streak of melancholy in its winter air. We grow older, and so do our kids. The old magic is hard to recapture. Sad memories accumulate around the holidays that are hard to shake. But it remains a time to remember hope, and beauty, and family. “Letters from Father Christmas” gets all of that, and I love it.

Very much love from your old friend, Father Christmas.

Christmas 1943

Classic Remarks: Which classic book should have a sequel?

Which classic book do you wish had a sequel, and why?

In trying to brainstorm a list for this post, I was assaulted by the feeling that I have not read enough of the classics of world literature. Which classic book do I wish had a sequel? First off, which classic books have I actually liked? Well, let’s see.

  • The Hobbit? Already has a sequel.
  • The Three Musketeers? Ditto, and more than one.
  • Anything from Shakespeare? No, he ends his stories properly, they don’t need to be continued.
  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson? Already has a sequel.
  • Treasure Island? Hmm…one could argue that there is a story to be told in what happens to Long John Silver after he rows away, or that perhaps Jim Hawkins has another adventure when he is older. But I can’t imagine such stories being worthy of Treasure Island, which ends rightly without any clear hook for a new story of any significance.
  • The Iliad? What is The Odyssey if not a sequel to that?
  • To Kill a Mockingbird? It has lately received a sequel, the reception of which has been controversial, to say the least.
  • Crime and Punishment? Again, Dostoyevsky ends it perfectly. A sequel would be pointless.
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Twain already gave it a sequel, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Wait a moment. Let’s consider Huckleberry Finn again. I haven’t read it since childhood, but I do remember that the book ends with Jim recognized as a freed man, and left to make his own life. I like the book, and I like the character of Jim quite a bit. No doubt there is a worthwhile story to be told about his struggles to make a good life as a freed man in pre-Emancipation Proclamation America.

“Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and a body ain’t got no business doing wrong when he ain’t ignorant and knows better.”

Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Where would Jim go? Would he remain in the South, with slavery still legal there, or would he try to make a new life in a Northern state? And where would he be when the Civil War breaks out? Would he enlist in the Union army? Would he try to avoid the conflict altogether? His story seems only beginning when Huckleberry Finn closes out his book. It would provide an excellent way for Mark Twain to confront the difficult lives of free blacks in America, through Jim’s own unflinching perspective, with no childlike filter to cover up the nastiness of racism.

Honorable Mention

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is already recognized as something of a modern classic. Set in an alternate Victorian England where magic and Faery are making their belated returns, it is a long, elegant, and at times wild novel. I loved it. Its ending was excellent and satisfying, and yet left me begging for a sequel.

*SPOILERS for the ending of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke*

The book ends with both magicians, Strange and Mr. Norrell, trapped in the magic tornado called the Darkness, which was the result of a curse that a malevolent Faery gentleman had put on Strange. The Darkness follows them everywhere, but also, it seems, makes it possible to travel to other worlds. The final page of the novel has Jonathan Strange bidding passionate farewell to his wife, Arabella. She wishes to go with him, but while he wants to be with her, he is unwilling to submit her to the possible dangers that lie in wait for him and Norrell. So he kisses her goodbye, promises to return to her once he and Norrell have found a way to lift the curse, and departs into the Darkness to explore new and magical worlds.

The Darkness representing eternal night, as depicted in the BBC series “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell”

What an ending! And what a great hook for a potential sequel! Where does the Darkness take Strange and Norrell? What new worlds do they explore? What new magic do they learn? Such a quest would surely be filled with wonders. The two magicians would also change and grow throughout it; their character arcs, both individual and that of their relationship, are far from over at the end of the book. Clarke would have her work cut out for her in matching the success of her debut novel, but I do not think I am the only reader who would welcome her attempt.

What about you, dear reader? Would you be interested in a Mark Twain-penned story that told of Jim’s attempts to make a free life in slavery-ridden America?

Or perhaps, in a sequel to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell?

Short Film: “Scarecrow” by Jake Viramontez

I’ve shared the work of director Jake Viramontez before, with the minidoc “Killing the Rock“. That beautiful documentary profiled a victim of the Syrian civil war who deals with his grief through sculpting. Now Jake Viramontez is back with a moody thriller called “Scarecrow.” And I don’t want to spoil anything, but unlike “Killing the Rock,” this short film actually fits the genre of my blog.

Also a minor disclaimer: I went to high school with Jake, but I’m sharing the film purely on its own merits. Enjoy!

Intriguing, isn’t it? I thought so. I like the conceit and would love to see the story expanded in the future.

If you like me showcasing short films like this, let me know. And if you liked “Scarecrow” and “Killing the Rock,” keep track of Viramontez’s work on his Vimeo page. And consider voting for “Scarecrow” at the Musicbed Challenge! I already have.

Review: “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway

This is a bit of a departure for The Warden’s Walk, as Ernest Hemingway‘s famous novella “The Old Man and the Sea” is not properly fantasy, science fiction, or historical adventure. It is set in 1950s Cuba and busies itself with the daily and realistic concerns of a humble old fisherman. I hope you will forgive me this detour. I do not expect it to become a habit for this blog. However, in my defense, the story has about it the aura, and some of the sensibilities, of a folk tale.

An ordinary man wages an extraordinary battle against a force of nature, equipped with only his wits, his hands, and his hope. As in much of fantasy and mythological literature, the forces of nature are only partially personified; the ocean is wild and unpredictable, but makes life possible on earth. Nature and humanity are at once separated by an unbridgeable gulf, and also linked in an unbreakable symbiotic relationship. And though Hemingway may not have seen it the way I do, I see in this an acknowledgment that both Man and Nature are subject to their common Creator.

It is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.

Santiago, the old man

But enough of grand themes. I do not love this story for any themes. I do love it somewhat for the atmosphere — the lapping of the waves, the slapping of fins on water, the salt breezes, the hot sun, the patched nets and stacked harpoons. But mostly, I love this story for its characters.

I may not be as strong as I think, but I know many tricks and I have resolution.

Santiago

*Minor spoilers for an old, short story*

I do not know how this story could be a better version of itself. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and in the process helps me to understand, sympathize with, and even love a person in very different circumstances from myself. After all, how similar am I to a poor old Cuban fisherman from the mid-20th century, who would rather die than lose the last great fight of his life? I would have cut the fishing line long before the first day was up. But I am not a lifelong ocean fisherman like Santiago.

He rested sitting on the un-stepped mast and sail and tried not to think but only to endure.

I love this old man, and his friend, the boy Manolin, who is competent and compassionate beyond his young years. I love how they consider suffering to be gain when in the service of each other. I love how their hands are rough but their voices tender. Kindness overflows in their interactions, and it is the sort of kindness that breeds strength, hope, and endurance.

And when the great battle ensues, in which Santiago stubbornly allows the great marlin to pull him dangerously out to sea rather than admit a long defeat by cutting the fishing line, I admired him even though I would never advise anyone to do what he did. His choice and reasons are his own. They were written believably and compassionately.

If the others heard me talking out loud they would think that I am crazy. But since I am not, I do not care.

Santiago

While the battle was costly, and in the end Santiago considers himself defeated, he nonetheless returns with his life, finds his home and Manolin again, and is content. And so was I, with them.

“Tolkien”: The Monsters and the Critics

Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics

Audiences seem to have ignored Tolkien at the box office, but it raised quite a noise among the Tolkien fandom. Many regard its inaccuracies and dramatizations as a kind of betrayal of the man, whereas its supporters say that its accuracies and artistic truths make it a beautiful and moving tribute to the Professor and much that he valued.

What I caution is this: it simply isn’t helpful or honest to be polemical. For one, Tolkien is a drama, and to demand that a drama be instead a documentary is ludicrous. Likewise, to demand that the film be either a perfect success in all areas biographical and artistic, or else be judged a vulgar failure and disgrace, is to apply a standard so hideously unfair that nothing not divine could satisfy. Any good standard must acknowledge the imperfection of every human work and counter that with, as Christians ought to know, grace. Some films, even after this grace, will seem bad. In others, we begin to marvel at the good that flourishes in spite of the flaws. And this is how I see Tolkien. It is not a great biography, nor artistically a truly Great Film, but it is a good and unique film that deeply loves J.R.R. Tolkien the man and tries very hard to do right by him. Its stumbles are disappointing, but when it stands tall, strides purposefully, and finds deep meaning in dancing, it manages to evoke and celebrate much that I love about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and his work.

Plot summary, please

Plot summaries are boring and have little to no place in a review because they reveal next to nothing about the story’s quality. Reviews should be concerned primarily with a story’s quality.

Getting curt with your section titles, are you? Seems a bit self-indulgent, but it’s your blog, I suppose. Still, what’s actually in this film?

Tolkien covers J.R.R. Tolkien’s teenage and young adult years, ending before the publication of his famous novels. A wise choice, I think, as his later years were fairly sedate, to my understanding, and would have been difficult to dramatize. Instead, the film specifically examines his relationship to his future wife Edith Bratt, his deep friendships with the club known as the T.C.B.S., and how his love of and affinity for languages fed into his desire to change the world through art.

Opinion summary, if it ain’t too much trouble, guv

While not a definitive exploration of the themes or events of Tolkien’s life, Tolkien is very good and I strongly recommend it for fans of the man. The film is sincere, good-hearted, and often beautiful, though it sometimes stumbles and loses sight of the real man at its heart.

But is it ACCURATE?

Did you know that the famously tweed Professor was an avid rugby player in his youth?

The film does alter or gloss over some details of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life, which is simply a thing that all biopics do for their subjects, and frankly Tolkien changes far less than most. I commend it for including so much:

  • his hatred of his childhood move from the English countryside to dirty Birmingham
  • his early interest in languages
  • the stern but generous help from Father Francis
  • his lack of academic diligence and direction until his meeting with Professor Joseph Wright (who provides two of the film’s best scenes)
  • the loyalty and idealism of his early friendships
  • the ways in which he and his romantic interest Edith gave each other a unique support in difficult times
  • the way he was kind of an obsessive nerd, but also was an aggressive rugby player
  • that he also was a passable artist who illustrated his own work
  • the fact that this period of his life was characterized by some benign trouble-making and testing of boundaries (i.e. the scene where he and friends “steal” a bus is based on a real incident)
  • that he was a somewhat lower social status than his three friends in the T.C.B.S., being a poor orphan living on scholarships and charity whereas they were all from rich families, and yet they all not only accepted him as a brother, but counted him as the most worthy of their number for academic and artistic success
  • and so, so much more detail and nuance from Tolkien’s biography that the film portrayed quite nicely

The film plays with the chronology of real events as it attempts to emphasize certain themes and relationships. Sometimes I think the result was less effective than the real history; for example, its alterations to the timeline of Tolkien and Edith’s relationship felt less meaningful and were awkwardly conveyed, whereas the account in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography was clear and moving.

What about his Christian faith and the Catholic Church?

One notable glossing is in the area of religion: the role of the Catholic Church in Tolkien’s life is mentioned a handful of times, and positively, but he is not shown to personally participate in it. I’ve heard people complain about this, as though there was some attempt to erase or downplay Christianity in the film. And while I get that complaint, I think it is also based on some misunderstandings.

The real Tolkien at 24, a lieutenant with the Lancashire Fusiliers. Image from Wikipedia.

On the one hand, I would have loved for the film to address his spiritual development directly, and to have shown how it influenced his relationships and work. But in actuality, this period of Tolkien’s life is one that he himself regarded as spiritually weak. He went an entire year without once hearing mass, and Dr. Corey Olsen, a Tolkien scholar, believes that the religious influence on Tolkien’s writing at this time was pretty slight. From what I can tell, the film’s portrayal is a much smaller deviation than many reviewers seem to think. It wasn’t until later that he began attending mass every day and taking an active role in his own spiritual development.

The film’s representative for Catholicism, and indeed for any Christianity, is in Father Francis, Tolkien’s legal guardian. It’s a very fair portrayal, quite in line with what we know. He was stern, but very generous and sincere in his concern for Tolkien. He forbade Tolkien from seeing Edith until he was an adult, partially on account of Edith being Protestant but also because Francis knew, correctly, that romance would distract the easily-distracted Tolkien from his already struggling studies at Oxford, and could seriously endanger his future. Rather than fashion Father Francis into a symbol of a repressive and unforgiving Church, the film acknowledges his generosity and the perfectly valid reasons he has. It’s a refreshingly true, even-handed portrayal.

The other thought to keep in mind has to do with the art of adapting someone’s life for a dramatic medium. You simply can’t cover every aspect of the subject’s life, you have to choose which threads are most relevant to the story you want to tell. And since Tolkien’s religious practice was weak both outwardly and inwardly during this period, it makes sense for the filmmakers to leave it at the barest mention and spend more time on the aspects of his life which were dominant. If a film wanted to examine Tolkien’s faith and its relation to his life and work (and I very much want to see that film), it would probably choose his later years with the Inklings.

How is the portrayal of Tolkien himself?

“Not all who wander are lost…”

Nicholas Hoult is excellent as the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and this sentence is a relief to type. He has a sort of nervous energy, as though his intelligence is itching for the chance to express itself creatively but hasn’t quite found the right outlet; which is fair, because while Tolkien was in fact already writing and studying languages by this point, his imaginative ideas hadn’t quite coalesced in the way we think of them now. He is brilliant with languages but slacks off at school. He plays rugby confidently but his words stumble over themselves when he tries to express himself. He adores Edith, but also sometimes overlooks her until she stands up and demands his attention. And he is deeply loyal to his friends, even though it was they who sought him out rather than he them. All of this is close enough to the Tolkien I met in Carpenter’s biography and in the earliest of Tolkien’s letters.

If there is one part of him I wish they had portrayed more, it is Tolkien’s humor. His earliest letters have a light, wry touch even when describing unpleasant circumstances. “I had to pay a duty call to the Rector in the afternoon which was very boring,” he writes to Edith in Letter 1 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. “His wife is really appalling! I got away as soon as possible and fled back in the rain to my books.” I was also disappointed to see no reference in the film to the time at university when Tolkien acted in a student play and made his role, a grumpy old battleaxe of an aunt, the most hilarious and memorable part on the stage! Hoult’s Tolkien is too serious for all that, able to enjoy his friends’ jokes and silliness without offering much of his own.

But Hoult does portray Tolkien’s passions, loyalty, and intelligence quite well. It’s a nuanced portrayal that held my interest the whole way through.

And the others?

This is one of those films that will make you fall in love with Oxford.

Tolkien’s friends made for the strongest thread in the film. They met each other at King Edward’s School and formed a club they called the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (or T.C.B.S.), after Barrow’s Stores where they took their tea and discussed art, literature, and the future of the world. The actors all do fantastic jobs, portraying young men intoxicated with the possibilities of the future, with the strength of their education, with their own artistic talents, and especially with the bonds of brotherhood that were growing between them. They have a natural charisma as a group, and the growing realization that their fellowship is destined to be torn apart by a world war that none of them wanted or anticipated is upsetting.

One unforgivable inaccuracy: where is the mustache? WHERE IS THE MUSTACHE?

Edith Tolkien, as portrayed by Lilly Collins, is a sharp-witted, beautiful young woman who is frustrated at being trapped in a boring life of servitude to an old woman, and who challenges Tolkien to think more carefully about the meanings of words and how they affect people. We don’t actually know much about Edith from history, as the Tolkien Estate and family have elected to keep much of that information private. Collins’ spirited portrayal is pretty close to what we know of her, and makes for a good dramatic foil for the more stoic Tolkien. My one complaint is that in their attempt to have her contribute to Tolkien’s intellectual development, the filmmakers give Edith credit for certain ideas about language and story that I’m pretty sure Tolkien already was espousing before he met her. Still, it’s a fair enough change in service of the greater story: she did support his writing in reality, even though she didn’t share his enthusiasm for languages.

What of those “stumbles” you mentioned?

I can think of three main areas of the film that felt weaker than they should have been. The first is his relationship with Edith. The movie fumbles their first meeting by not really showing it! We see him get a first glimpse of her while she plays the piano, unaware of him. Then later we see them sit down to dinner at the house they both live, which is presumably the first time she’s seen him—but no acknowledgment of that is made. And then it literally cuts to a scene of them having a private, familiar talk together, as if they were already past introductions and into a fast friendship. By making their first meeting confusing this way, we lose the impact that meeting her really had on him. There are more pacing stumbles in the later parts of their relationship, too, where the timing of events becomes a little unclear to the point where the movie forgets to actually show their wedding.

Another concerns the T.C.B.S. – we needed to learn more of what really made them tick as a group, what their ambitions really were, especially regarding Tolkien himself. I loved watching them interact and encourage each other, but the film didn’t really show us how the four of them might have been able to change the world together, had they all survived World War I. And they never really let Tolkien himself share his writings with the group. The film will leave you thinking that Tolkien barely wrote anything of his own during this period, where in reality he wrote quite a lot of poetry (some of it gorgeous) that he was sharing with his friends and occasionally publishing.

The T.C.B.S. were Tolkien, Smith, Gilson, and Wiseman – Tolkien writes in Letter 5 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that they had believed they were “destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war.” He wrote that in a 1916 letter to Smith, after they had both received news of Gilson’s death. The way he writes to his friend sounds very much like the friendship portrayed in the film, with the exception that in the letter Tolkien is more explicit about his ambitions for the future than film made clear, and more confident in his beliefs as he tries to make sense of his friend’s death.

Scenes like this felt too on-the-nose for me, as a desperate attempt to shoehorn in allusions to “The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien was nowhere near inventing the character of Sauron at this point in his life.

Which brings me to my final frustration with the film: its portrayal of Tolkien dealing with the horrors of war by hallucinating fantasy creatures on the battlefield. I think the filmmakers were trying to show how Tolkien’s trench fever and shell shock were causing him to process the battlefield in terms his imagination already understood, as a way of shoring up Tolkien’s belief in the ability of fantasy and myth to help us understand the real world. But because the film hadn’t showed Tolkien writing any of his own fantasy yet, nor even talking much about it, these scenes instead conveyed the idea that he got his ideas for stories from the hallucinations themselves. This all contradicts what Tolkien himself said about his experiences at war and writing his first fantasy stories in the trenches, it trivializes the process of art creation, and it also ends up downplaying the real horrors of the Somme.

Summation

This conversation alone is almost worth the price of admission for Tolkien fans.

And yet even as I acknowledge these genuine problems, I can’t help but remember all the stuff I loved in the film. The T.C.B.S. especially, but also Hoult’s performance, and his genuinely romantic chemistry with Edith. There are at least three brilliant conversations in the film: one where Edith chastises Tolkien for a moment of selfishness, one with Prof. Joseph Wright discussing the importance of the history of words, and a final, heart-wrenching conversation with the mother of Smith, who was killed in the war. Then there is fact that the movie portrayed a world in which platonic friendship could be one of the most passionate and pure forms of love, and in which even romance was stronger when it was moral. It is an essentially Christian worldview, and that a film today would advocate for such a worldview by showing it stoking healthy passions, self-sacrifice, and creativity is, in its own way, wildly, dangerously radical.

Image Credits

All film images from IMDb. Photo of the real Tolkien from Wikipedia.

My Books of 2018: “Bone” by Jeff Smith

Rat Monster 1: “Please, comrade! I just want to chop him up for the stew!”
Rat Monster 2: “And that’s another thing! I’m tired of stew! I want to put him in a crust and bake a light fluffy quiche!”
Rat Monster 1: “QUICHE?! What kind of food is THAT for a monster to eat?!”

Bone: Vol. 1

Jeff Smith’s Bone is correctly described as “a cartoon epic.” Not only is it a graphic novel, but its three main heroes are round-featured cartoon creatures in the style of the classic Pogo comic strip, complete with vague anatomy, exaggerated quirks, and a relaxed adherence to the rules of physics. They stumble out of their presumably silly and gag-based homeland into a mystical valley populated by medieval humans, talking bugs, elusive dragons, and other strange creatures, which is being menaced by a dark sorcerer and large, vicious rat-creatures.

You might fear that these two genres wouldn’t mix well: that either the cartoon humor would undercut the epic’s gravitas or that the epic’s gravitas would dampen the lightness and optimism of the cartoons. Yet for the most part it does work, and delightfully well. Bone is an engrossing fantasy saga with enough sweep and scale to thrill, and enough wit and lightness to keep you laughing and hoping for the best.

I read the nine issues of Bone in a one-volume, 1344-page book. It might be the fastest 1000+ pages I’ve ever read, finishing it in under three weeks; it could have easily been faster. Smith’s art is alternately beautiful and hilarious, and well-suited to the balance that his writing achieves.

Some have compared the story’s epic sweep to The Lord of the Rings, although I think that is far too enthusiastic. It has nothing of the deep history and carefully-designed symbolism of Tolkien’s worldbuilding and stories. The characters are lively and have enough emotional depth to give the story some worthwhile meaning and emotion, but there’s no one so awe-inspiring and life-affirming as Sam Gamgee, Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn. But that’s okay, because Bone has as much as it needs. Enough sword-and-sorcery adventure and clever worldbuilding details to intrigue, but leaving it light enough that it is accessible to a wide variety of readers and can be digested fairly quickly.

My Books of 2018: The Crime of Galileo

“A great and rigid authoritarian administration with a thought police which is supposed to know all should at least keep its records straight.”

De Santillana, The Crime of Galileo. 1955. Page 263

The Crime of Galileo by Giorgio De Santillana (Goodreads)

“Galileus Galileus Florentinus” by Ottavio Leoni. Painted 1624. Source: Wikimedia

In school I only learned the most basic information about Galileo: that he was a genius scientist and polymath who sought to prove that the Earth orbited the Sun, at a time when the accepted view was that the Sun went around the Earth. That the Roman Catholic Church opposed him, and when he would not recant, employed the Inquisition to see that his writings were banned and he himself was put under house arrest. The reality is far more complicated. For example, at first the church had little problem with his writings; rather, it was other academics who first became hostile to Galileo and who were suspicious of applied mathematics. Throughout his life there were certain groups, especially, it seems, of the Dominican Order, who declared themselves his enemy and worked tirelessly to turn the Church bureaucracy against him, even when he often had the support of powerful church officials, and sometimes even of popes. Galileo himself bent over backwards to avoid getting in trouble with the Church; he had no fear of controversy so long as the authorities granted him the right to debate on equal footing, but he took care to avoid needless provocation. Still, drama and frustration seemed unavoidable. His life was full of mountains and valleys, and it’s something of a wonder how much data this book is able to collate and make into a single, understandable story.

“…it was clearly established among all concerned, with the possible lone exception of the Pope himself, who stood there in the solitary unawareness of despots, that Galileo’s trial was based on a judicial forgery, although it could not be stated explicitly without bringing about a diplomatic crisis.” (297)

Giorgio De Santillana’s examination of Galileo and his world is packed tightly with extracts from letters, legal documents, private memoirs, contemporary published works, Inquisition files, and many other primary documents. With an impressive attention to detail, and a strong belief in the humanity behind each historical character, he stitches together a saga based on fact, that reaches beyond the narrow confines of the Florentine scholar’s books and touches not only other aspects of his life, but the many aspects of the lives of every significant player in his story. So we learn not only what Galileo Galilei wrote about the movements of the sun and earth, but also of his personal friendships, his relationships with the Catholic and Protestant denominations, his health problems, his hopes and desires and disappointments. And then when another major character enters the picture, say the Duke of Tuscany or Cardinal Bellarmine, we dive into their own life to try to understand just who they were and why they did what they did at the time of Galileo’s story. I was continually surprised by just how much contemporary evidence there is for all of this. De Santillana will quote from characters who were very minor in history, who perhaps made only one or two important contributions to Galileo’s life, and yet De Santillana has found this person’s diary, and in it something which sheds new light on these events. It’s a dense approach, to be sure, and makes for heavy reading. Heavy, but riveting.

“Moralist historians do not seem to notice that their perspective is that of believers in another religion…They forget [Galileo] was a member of the Apostolic Roman communion and had to submit in some way. Quite apart from the personal inconvenience of being burnt at the stake…” (278)

My Books of 2018: “Frontier Wolf” by Rosemary Sutcliff


“If we break faith with thee, may the green earth gape and swallow us, may the grey seas break in and overwhelm us, may the sky of stars fall and crush us out of life for ever.”

“Frontier Wolf” by Rosemary Sutcliff

This historical adventure novel is pure Sutcliff: a young Roman commander making up for a disaster early in his career, a lonely British frontier fort, and a first half of thoughtful character drama followed by a second half of a long, thrilling chase through wet Scottish hills and valleys. These elements make Frontier Wolf feel like a companion piece to The Eagle of the Ninth, and fortunately the core narrative is different enough to make the similarities complementary rather than repetitive.

Alexios and his band of “half-wild” auxiliaries called the Frontier Wolves are an engaging group, with Romans, Greeks, Germans, Celts,pagans, Christians, veterans, and green recruits all mixing, clashing, and bonding in the tense atmosphere and rain-soaked landscape. There’s a coming-of-age strand to the plot, as young Alexios tries to overcome his past of privilege and failure to be a worthy leader of the rowdiest, roughest bunch of soldiers in the empire. There’s also a political strand, as the conflicts between Rome and the various Celtic tribes prove rather tricky to navigate, especially when the Roman fort itself is split by various ethnic, cultural, and philosophical divisions. The disaster that kicks the climax into gear is scarily realistic in how an impossible-to-predict event ignites very predictable tensions, and creates a scenario where even doing what you know is right won’t avoid deadly conflict. There’s also a lesson in changing one’s view of victory and defeat, as sometimes it’s simply more important to save the lives of the soldiers under one’s command rather than to maintain a certain flag over a particular spot of dirt.

A great illustration of the supporting character Hilarion, with one of the kittens adopted by the soldiers at the fort. Art by Leyna. 2012. https://archiveofourown.org/works/471830

Frontier Wolf was my “comfort” read for 2018, in the sense that I always come to a Sutcliff historical novel with a sense of delighted familiarity, even on a first reading, knowing that I will be able to immerse myself in a satisfying,richly-written tale. I will definitely revisit this one.

Goodreads

My Books of 2018: Carpenter on Tolkien

Humphrey Carpenter met with J.R.R. Tolkien once before the Professor’s death. He made an appointment, showed up promptly, and was ushered into the man’s cluttered study, which was in a converted garage separate from the main house. It is some time before he is able to state his business, as Tolkien seemed to treat a new pair of attentive ears much the same as he would a blank page: as an opportunity to talk at length about things that interested him.

“He says that he has to clear up an apparent contradiction in a passage of The Lord of the Rings that has been pointed out in a letter by a reader… He explains it all in great detail, talking about his book not as a work of fiction but as a chronicle of actual events; he seems to see himself not as an author who has made a slight error that must now be corrected or explained away, but as a historian who must cast light on an obscurity in a historical document.

Disconcertingly, he seems to think that I know the book as well as he does. I have read it many times, but…” (Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography, 4-5)

…but The Lord of the Rings and its multifaceted legendarium is vast enough for even the most ardent explorer to get lost in from time to time. Such was my thought when I read that passage in Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, the only such biography authorized by Tolkien’s family. I’ve lived with Tolkien’s works for so long, and read through many other books about his world produced by other authors, that I think I know it all fairly well. But I fear if I too were face-to-face with the Professor himself, listening to him ramble delightfully to the air around me about all sorts of minute details of the world of Arda, I too would soon be lost. Happy and fascinated, but at least a bit lost!

But part of what makes Carpenter’s biography so excellent, is that it at least never loses sight of the real, human man behind the legends. Here was an excellent man, a good man, but not a perfect one. He could be overly stubborn and picky, and seems to have gotten moreso as he aged. His marriage was imperfect, though loving. His friendship with C.S. Lewis became strained in later years, and it seems to have mostly been Tolkien’s own fault (though his grief at Lewis’ death is a very moving thing to read about). But he was generous, often very patient, and devoted to his friends. While he treated Faerie seriously, he had quite a roguish streak in him as well—in college he acted a crossdressing role in a comic play that apparently got rave reviews as the most hilarious performance of the evening!

Many other studies have been published about Tolkien’s life, which I hope to delve into before too long. The Authorized Biography, however, remains an essential and warm-hearted starting point. Each page of Carpenter’s book gave me a better understanding of the man whose writings have shaped so much of my own life. He is less a pristine statue in my mind, and more a real human whom I cannot wait to meet in heaven.