Book Meme Day 4: My Favorite Book of My Favorite Series (except not really)

In my previous post, I created for myself a minor conundrum, unintentionally yet not entirely unwittingly. By categorizing The Lord of the Rings as a series, rather than as a singular complete story, I am now faced with the impossible task of “choosing” one of the three parts to be my favorite. But it can’t be done! Any position I take would be untenable. Can you just see how horrible it would be if I tried to say one part was better than the others? Tolkien would roll in his grave and curse my fantasy-writing efforts, Fëanor would cross space and time to hunt me down and burn out my heretical eyes with a Silmaril, and hobbit children everywhere would weep in horror at my hideous offense.

So I won’t. I refuse this ludicrous memetic dogma! I reject the meme’s reality and substitute my own. So it is that by the power of independent online publishing invested in me by the makers of WordPress, I mightily declare that the meme topic for Day 4 is hereby modified to “my favorite story by the author of my favorite series.”

So there! Now I just have to pick my favorite story by J.R.R. Tolkien. Ha! Easy as lembas. Easy as eating lembas. Easy as eating lembas with fine wine while relaxing in Lothlórien after a hard day’s journey listening to elven musicians jamming sweetly under the mallorn trees at twilight while the fairest voice of the forest sings the ballad of…

Of Beren and Lúthien.

by Ted Nasmith
Lúthien escapes the treehouse where her father had imprisoned her, so she can find and (hopefully) rescue Beren, imprisoned and tortured in Morgoth's dungeons.

“Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that come down to us from the darkness of those days there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under shadow of death light that endures. And of these histories most fair still in the ears of the Elves is the tale of Beren and Lúthien.” (The Silmarillion, 195)

This may be the best love story ever told. Beren and Lúthien love more passionately than Romeo and Juliet, overcome more obstacles than Paris and Helen, and are truer to each other than Lancelot and Guinevere. It is the model for the romance of Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, and it is utterly beautiful. (And if you want to boggle your mind with the complex lineages that arise in Tolkien’s world when elves and men intermarry, remember that Arwen is the great-great-granddaughter of Beren and Lúthien, whereas Aragorn is also their descendent, but hundreds of times removed!)

Now, I could argue that this story is in the same “series” as The Lord of the Rings¸ seeing as it involves the ancient history of Middle-Earth and serves as the inspiration and ancestor of the romance of Aragorn and Arwen.

The version I am going by – since there are several which have been compiled by Tolkien’s son Christopher in various books – is the “classic” one in The Silmarillion. Beren son of Barahir, a Man of great warrior lineage now hunted like a beast by Morgoth, stumbles into the magically warded forest kingdom of Doriath and finds dancing among the trees Lúthien, daughter of King Thingol and Queen Melian, and the fairest elf ever to have lived or danced. They fall in love almost immediately, but Thingol is furious when he finds out. How can a mortal human possibly dare to love or touch his daughter? The very suggestion is such an extreme insult that he would have slain Beren, had he not promised Lúthien not to kill or harm him. Instead, in mockery, he sets before Beren a quest: if Beren wants the treasure of Lúthien, then he must obtain for Thingol a Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth himself. Surely that will kill this foolish, filthy little man!

For those of you unfamiliar with Tolkien’s mythology beyond The Lord of the Rings, Morgoth is basically Satan. Sauron, later the Dark Lord, is his lieutenant, and even in LOTR is considerably less powerful than his master once was. Morgoth defeats or at least delivers Pyrrhic victories to numerous alliances of Men and Elves. His fortress Angband is far in the north, beyond many dangerous wastelands and wildernesses, and is guarded not just by hordes of orcs, but by legions of Balrogs, giant evil spiders (ancestors of Shelob), and dragons. Note the plurals of each of those, and then remember that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings put together only had one dragon, one Balrog, and one giant evil spider (well, Mirkwood had some dangerous dog-sized ones, but only Shelob was truly evil and approaching sentience). Also, there is Morgoth himself, who is Satan in physical form, a towering giant and sorcerer and warrior and more cunning and vicious than any single Elf or Man. Entire alliances of Men and Elves have struggled and failed to get past Angband’s massive walls, and none of them have seen a Silmaril for hundreds or thousands of years.

Beren’s response to King Thingol?

“But Beren laughed. ‘For little price,’ he said, ‘do Elven-kings sell their daughters: for gems, and things made by craft. But if this be your will, Thingol, I will perform it. And when we meet again my hand shall hold a Silmaril from the Iron Crown; for you have not looked the last upon Beren son of Barahir.’” (203)

And so he sets out, despite having already weathered more perils and battles with evil creatures than most men.

The many threads that Tolkien weaves into this story are mesmerizing and awesome, giving the story a feel and power unique to it. On the surface it sounds simple: man on quest to prove his worth to the father of the woman he loves. The details make it original and memorable. Lúthien defies her father to join him on his quest, even while most other Elves think she is foolish. But the lovers are joined by some surprising allies: King Finrod Felagund, High King of the Noldor (High Elves), Huan the great and heroic dog (perhaps the single greatest dog in fiction!) who overpowers Sauron single-handedly, and even, on occasion, the great eagles.

There is the shadow of great doom over the story, which Tolkien loved to put into his tragedies (and most of his stories outside of his novels are tragedies), and yet it rises above that to become something beautiful, and even uplifting. Our heroes are beset and betrayed at every turn, it seems, and suffer much torture, both physical and mental, even after escaping. They fight and run to the end. They strive by force and by cunning to win the right to love each other. And, though it cost them their lives, they overcome.

I highly recommend this story to everyone. It benefits from some knowledge of the rest of Tolkien’s mythology, but I don’t think it is necessary to read all of The Silmarillion that precedes it first. If the whole book intimidates you, but you’re interested in Beren and Lúthien, then skip straight to their story. You will not regret it.


Book Meme Day 3: My Favorite Series

Argh! There are so many overlooked and underrated book series out there, and I spent some time searching my bookshelf for a hidden gem to showcase. But if I am to be honest – and I fully intend to be honest – there is only one series of novels that can truly be termed my favorite. For over a decade it has influenced the way I think about the fantasy genre, about mythology (both historical and modern), about the purpose of writing fiction, about languages, about what exists beyond the edges of a map, and even about faith and Christianity. And it is so famous that I hardly know what more to say about it.

I speak, naturally, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

My father read the series to me when I was in elementary school, intending it to be a fun project by which we could spend more time together. Neither of us knew much about it beforehand; my dad claims he was completely oblivious to the cries of “Frodo Lives!” and “Gandalf for President!” that swept American counterculture in the 1960s and ‘70s, while he was studying engineering at a state university. Curled up on the couch, listening to my dad read, I had no way of knowing what I was getting into. The plot minutiae was often a bit too complex for my pre-teen mind and the long sections of poetry sometimes put me to sleep. I don’t think I was even aware of just how much I loved it, at the time. But as I began delving deeper into the fantasy genre, The Lord of the Rings was the story by which all others were judged. It still is, in fact.

The saga endures beyond all others of its kind. Tolkien’s love and respect for his characters, his world, and his readers comes through on every page. Neither pandering nor literary arrogance towards the readership have any place in The Lord of the Rings. It all holds together, for all its myriad characters, plot threads, city names, weapon names, fantastical creatures, songful interludes, and references to other pieces of invented mythology. It is lovely, epic, thrilling, charming, heartrending, uplifting, ecstatic, grim, dignified, merciful, amazing…

For Tolkien’s sake, I wish I could find the words to express just why his effort rises above everyone else’s. At the moment, the words are failing me. What can I say that has not already been said time and time again? If you ask me what is an epic fantasy story, I point to The Lord of the Rings and say “There, that is it. That is what is essential about the genre. All other such novels and series are the attempts of the rest of us to understand the depth of what Tolkien did.”

Book Review: “Taliesin” by Stephen R. Lawhead

Title: Taliesin
Series: Book One of The Pendragon Cycle
Author: Stephen R. Lawhead
Pages: 486
Published: 1987
Spoiler-free Synopsis:Taliesin is the remarkable adventure of Charis, the Atlantean princess who escaped the terrible devastation of her homeland, and of the fabled seer and druid prince Taliesin, singer at the dawn of the age. It is the story of an incomparable love that joined two worlds amid the fires of chaos, and spawned the miracles of Merlin…and Arthur the king.” (Back cover)
Reason for Beginning: Arthurian fiction! Plus I’d heard of it before and just wanted to try it out.
Reason for Finishing: Good book!
Story Re-readability: Maybe a couple years from now. I’m more interested in getting to the other books in the series than in rereading this. But since it seems that a lot of little things are being set up that will have huge payoffs later on, maybe when I’m done with the series it would be neat to reread Taliesin and understand more of them.
Author Re-readability: Yeah, I like Lawhead’s style, for the most part. It’s straightforward, detail-driven in most of the right ways, and fairly textured and colorful. Lawhead doesn’t reach the level of sharpness and poetry of someone like Guy Gavriel Kay, nor the mythic resonance of J.R.R. Tolkien, nor the textured grace of Rosemary Sutcliff (though he tries). At worst he can skirt the edge of purple prose in a way that brings you out of the story a little bit. His handling of especially dramatic character arcs is a bit rocky. But most of the time his writing style works well for the story he is telling. His integration of historical research is top-notch. He’s written a bunch of other books on topics ranging from Robin Hood to St. Patrick, and even some urban fantasy ones, apparently, and I definitely want to try them all.
Recommendation: Fans of Arthurian fiction will especially want to check this series out for its genuinely interesting take on the legend, but fans of high fantasy in general will probably appreciate it too. Continue reading “Book Review: “Taliesin” by Stephen R. Lawhead”

TV Show Review: “Tales from the Neverending Story” Episode 1.5

Series Title: Tales from the Neverending Story
Episode: 1.5 “The Gift of the Name” (2001)
Director: Giles Walker, Adam Weissman
Lead Actors: Mark Rendall (as Bastian Balthazar Bux), John Dunne-Hill (Coreander), Noël Burton (Michael Bux), Stéfanie Buxton (Fly Girl)
Length: 44 minutes
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Bastian tries to figure out who stole $63 from his locker at school, while in Fantasia Atreyu and his new friend Fly Girl try to find the Southern Oracle, which they hope will tell Atreyu how to heal the Childlike Empress.
Reason for Beginning: I know, I know I said I wouldn’t watch any more of these after the catastrophe that was the first episode, but I saw that my On-Demand service had replaced Episodes 1-4 with 5-8, and I decided to try again. Which does mean that I have not seen episodes 2, 3, and 4. So in lieu of the fact that I cannot judge how the story has developed thus far, I will try to go a little easier on this episode.
Reason for Finishing: I think I finally learned to grin and laugh at the campiness this time around. It’s still terribly made, terribly acted, and just plain terrible on so many levels, but I have to admit that some parts were distinctly enjoyable in spite of themselves.
Episode Re-viewability: Maybe a little, for the entertaining overacting of two of the side characters.
Recommendation: Meh…only if you watched some of the previous episodes and found them enjoyable in their campiness. Otherwise, still no. I’m going to try to watch more of the series because it’s veering into “so bad it’s good” territory, but that’s hardly a recommendation. Continue reading “TV Show Review: “Tales from the Neverending Story” Episode 1.5″

Book Review: “Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay

American 2008 reprint cover

Title: Tigana
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Format: Novel, stand-alone
Pages: 673
Published: 1990
Reason for Beginning: Recommended to me by numerous sources as one of the truly great fantasy novels of recent times.
Reason for Finishing: It’s one of the most engrossing and well-written books I’ve read.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the Peninsula of the Palm, eight of nine kingdoms have been conquered by two sorcerer-tyrants from across the sea, Emperor Brandin of Ygrath and Alberico, a minor noble of Barbadior trying to make a name for himself, the land split politically between them as they eye each other warily. Young Devin, an excellent singer for a famed music troupe, finds himself drawn into an extremely covert conspiracy to overthrow the oppressors and unite the Palm in freedom. Things, however, get much more complicated than anyone could have predicted. Great sorrows are revealed and inflicted, amazing mysteries discovered, surprising friends are found, expectations are dashed and resurrected and twisted around, and everything builds to a conclusion that is really, outstandingly good. Continue reading “Book Review: “Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay”