Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: Three is Company

Chapter 3 of The Fellowship of the Ring

In Chapter 3, Frodo finally sets out on his quest. But in this Chapter and beyond, Tolkien shows us that this is not just a journey through space. It is also a journey through time... and more specifically, a journey back in time. The fuzzy nature of time is an aspect of The Lord of the Rings that is not often discussed. 

This realization about time travel dawned on me when I read the following passage from Chapter 3, in which Gandalf and Frodo discuss escaping the Shire:
"As for where I am going," said Frodo, "it would be difficult to give that away, for I have no clear idea myself yet."
"Don't be absurd," said Gandalf, "I am not warning you against leaving an address at the post-office! But you are leaving the Shire--and that should not be known, until you are far away." 
The word that arrested my attention here is "post-office". Post-office? Think of what it means to have a post-office (and especially a post-office that offers a mail-forwarding service). It means that there is a high degree of literacy in the Shire (something, in fact, we already know from Chapter 1, where Tolkien mentioned that Bilbo sent out hundreds of invitations and received written replies like Thank you, I shall certainly come.) What does literacy mean? Education. What does education mean? Schools. Schools require prosperity. And prosperity generally requires trade and government.

There are a thousand ways that Tolkien tells us that the Shire is not merely an enclave of subsistence farmers. Rather, it is a civilized, educated and materially complex society, with luxuries that would be unheard of in a medieval setting. Look back again at Chapter 1, at Bilbo's going-away presents to friends and family. These gifts include an umbrella, a set of silver spoons, and a waste-paper basket. Before the Early Modern period, few people owned cutlery, let alone silverware. All Bilbo's presents require sophisticated craftsmanship, but the waste-paper basket is especially remarkable. Until the 19th century, paper, parchment and vellum were rare and expensive commodities in Europe -- so precious that they were reused compulsively. Before the advent of steam-powered paper mills, a waste-paper basket would be like a waste-money basket: a contradiction in terms.

Among the parting gifts, there's also a reference to "a strong red wine from the Southfarthing, and now quite mature, as it had been laid down by Bilbo’s father." This means the bottle in question was at least 75 years old by the time of Bilbo's party, because Bungo Baggins died in 2926. (Incidentally, did you know that Bungo had a brother named Bingo?). In a previous life, I was a wine-critic. So I found Tolkien's throw-away line about this vintage fascinating. Making wine is really hard. For most of the middle ages, wine couldn't keep for more than a few months. Creating a wine that can age for almost a century demands tremendous agricultural know-how, investment and planning. In other words, it's the act of an advanced society.

Perhaps you think I'm taking these details too seriously. Perhaps. But if Middle-Earth has so much linguistic, mythological and historical integrity (and it does), it should also have integrity in the sphere of culture and economics. Tolkien certainly thought it did. In one of his letters, he writes about "the game of inventing a country" and states:
I am more conscious of my sketchiness in the archaeology and realien [German, technical facts] than in the economics: clothes, agricultural implements, metal-working, pottery, architecture and the like. Not to mention music and its apparatus. I am not incapable of or unaware of economic thought; and I think as far as 'mortals' go, Men, Hobbits and Dwarfs, that the situations are so devised the economic likelihood is there and could be worked out... (Letter 154, Sept. 25, 1954)
So when Tolkien inserts post-offices and silverware into the Shire, he's doing it with great care

Put this all together, and what do you have? The Shire begins to resemble a district of England during its mercantile heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, you don't have to take my word for it. In another one of his letters, Tolkien observed to his publishers that the Shire "is in fact more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee" (Letter 178, Dec. 12, 1958). Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee was in 1897.

1897?! That makes the Shire closer to steampunk than to classical fantasy. But if the book starts out in an advanced time period, it certainly doesn't stay there. And that's why I say that Frodo's journey is a trip through time as well as through space. One of his first stops, Bree, seems more like a medieval village than a Victorian countryside. And after that, Frodo enters into the unpopulated wilderness belonging to the Dark Ages.

I'm not trying pin the world of Middle-earth to a specific period (or periods!) of real-world history -- that was clearly never Tolkien's intent; he wanted Middle-earth to stand as its own independent creation (or, as he would call it, a subcreation.) However, I do think it's important to appreciate that the world of The Lord of the Rings is not as homogeneous as we might think (or as homogeneous as its portrayed in movies and role-playing games). Rather, Tolkien had a playful and elusive sense of time and technological advancement. The Shire is Victorian, Rohan is Beowulfian, and Isengard is industrial. The beauty of Tolkien's vision is that these disparate settings cohere into a single mosaic.

There's also an important story-telling function to these shifts through time. By starting his story in a semi-modern setting, Tolkien was making it easier for his readers to identify with the Hobbits (an important technique that I've written about before). Along with Frodo and company, we venture out of our own comfortable home into a strange and perilous world -- a different time and a different place. That journey begins in Chapter 3. For me, there's no better moment to see this shift take place as when (in this chapter), Frodo, Sam and Pippin meet the company of Elves led by Gildor. The Hobbits hear the elves sing a song about the great Valar queen Varda:
O stars that in the Sunless year
With shining hand by her were sown,
In windy fields now bright and clear
We see your silver blossom blown!
What struck me here was the line about the stars being created in "the Sunless year". Anyone who's read The Silmarillion will recognize this as a reference to the ancient period thousands of years before the War of the Ring -- a period predating even the creation of the sun and the moon. This is not just a poetic image: Varda literally placed the stars in the sky to help the fight against the dark lord Morgoth. With this song, Tolkien tells Frodo (and us!) that we too are leaving familiar things behind and stepping into a mythic age.

[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "The One Ring" Acrylic on Board.]

You can find my commentary on Chapter 2 here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Mon Calamari Saboteurs: Conversions for Imperial Assault

As I feared, Fantasy Flight Games is releasing miniatures at a glacial pace for Imperial Assault, their Star Wars skirmish game. I am not by nature a patient man  -  just ask Mrs. Oldenhammer in Toronto as the cocktail hour approaches. And so I've decided to take matters into my own hands and create some new miniatures of my own.

I'm not much of a sculptor, so this was an adventure for me. I started with a unit of two Rebel Saboteurs. I chose them because after a few weeks of competitive play, it's become clear that they are the best troops in the Rebel's roster. Screw the Force: if you're going to stop Darth Vader, you need the withering firepower of these commandoes. In fact, the only time I've seen Darth go down, it was because my opponent fielded 8 Rebel Saboteurs who swarmed the Sith Lord like a plague of locusts on the coasts of Egypt. So my plan is to use these conversions as the heart of my own Rebel strike-force.

The Original Saboteurs
Rebel Troopers
Out of the box, the Rebel Saboteurs are bald Duros aliens. I decided to re-create them as Mon Calamari (the least felicitously named race in the Star Wars universe). Slicing the Duros heads off was the work of a moment. Then I replaced them with the heads of two Admiral Akbar figures from Wizards of the Coast's old Star Wars range (these soft plastic figurines sell for just a couple dollars each on eBay - they often go by the name WotC Star Wars. There are so many miniatures in the range that they provide a nearly endless source of conversions.)

Next, I wanted to replicate the distinctive hands (fins?) of the Mon Calamari. So I shaped a little Greenstuff into their swollen, rubbery fore-arms and garnished them with tiny polyps. Finally, I refashioned the Durosian hands into claws. Presto! A new miniature.

I painted the Mon Calamari with the same colour scheme as my other Rebel forces - a buff, blue and black uniform based on the troopers aboard the Tantive IV at the beginning of A New Hope. The Mon Calamari skin is Terracotta, highlighted with ruddy fleshtones and capped with some dark brown spots, like port-wine stains.

Mon Calamari in their native environment

I've ordered a heap more Wizards of the Coast figurines, so I'm looking forward to more conversions in the future: Quarren, Aqualish and Ithorians... oh my!

Imperial Assault Rebel Saboteur, Mon Calamari Conversion

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads...

Imperial Assault Rebel Saboteur, Mon Calamari Conversion (rear)

Thanks for looking! If you've made any Star Wars conversions of your own, please let me know in the comments and I'll happily update my post with the link!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Reading along with The Lord of the Rings: The Shadow of the Past

Chapter 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring

In Chapter 2, we encounter two shadows of the past. Gandalf tells Frodo that Sauron "has arisen again" to menace Middle-earth. And Tolkien reveals to us that he is haunted by the shade of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), composer of the opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (better known in English as "The Ring Cycle").

Jean de Reszke (1850-1925) in Der Ring des Nibelungen

The influence of the Ring Cycle on The Lord of the Rings is so obvious that it barely needs to be stated. Both works are closely linked to Norse and German myths, but much of the Ring Cycle is wholly Wagner's. The opera revolves around a magic ring that grants its wearer the power to enslave minds and rule the world. Importantly, this ring is accompanied by a magic helm (the "Tarnhelm") that makes its wearer invisible. The ring was first forged by the evil Dwarf Alberich from enchanted gold he stole from the Rhine river. But when the ring is stolen from Alberich, he places a heavy curse on it:
Whoever possesses it shall be consumed with care,
and whoever has it not shall be gnawed with envy!
Each shall itch to possess it,
but none in it shall find pleasure!
Its owner shall guard it profitlessly,
for through it he shall meet his executioner!
Forfeit to death,
faint with fear shall he be fettered;
for the length of his life
he shall long to die,
the ring's master
to the ring a slave!
This death-curse is so central to the plot that it even has its own recurring musical theme. For the rest of the Ring Cycle, we see how this curse ensnares all the characters in a tragic cycle of hubris and betrayal. It is inexorable. The giant Fafner clubs his brother to death so he can claim the ring. In turn, Seigfried kills Fafner and seizes it. Finally, Seigfried is treacherously stabbed in the back by the villain Hagen, who himself drowns (in a Gollum-like scene) when trying to grasp the ring as it is reclaimed by the flooding river Rhine.  

There are, of course, many other parallels between the Ring Cycle and The Lord of the Rings, including a sword that was broken, and a heroine that relinquishes the world of the gods for the love or a mortal man. But the central similarity is key: ultimate power (in the form of a ring) warps the hearts of all who would possess it, leading to an evil cycle where each owner is killed by his successor. 

And in The Shadow of the Past, Gandalf gives us Tolkien's version of this story: how Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron's hand but drowned in the Anduin River; how Smeagol killed Deagol; and how Bilbo stole the Ring from Gollum. Throughout it all, Gandalf makes it clear that the Ring has its own kind of curse:
"A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades... Yes, sooner or later - later if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last - sooner or later the dark power will devour him."
Just as Albrich sang, "for the length of his life, he shall long to die." Although Gandalf doesn't say that one of the Ring's owners will always be killed by the next, his brief history of Isildur and Gollum make it clear that possession  of the Ring is a kind of death sentence.

Now I wrote up above that the similarities between the Ring Cycle and The Lord of the Rings are so obvious that they don't need much elaboration. Just so. What interests me most is not the parallels between these works but the areas where Tolkien parts company from Wagner -- for it is the dissimilarities that are most revealing.

Most importantly, in Chapters 1 and 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring, we see that, unlike in Wagner, the curse of the ring can be interrupted. It is interrupted by Hobbits. A hobbit is a sort of anti-hero (certainly an anti-Wagnerian hero). Instead of beefy, ill-fated and oath-bound warriors like Seigfried and company, they are (in Gandalf's phrase) "soft as butter", but "full of surprises". The first rupture in the curse of the Ring occurred when Bilbo forbore from stabbing Gollum in the back during the events narrated in The Hobbit, and revisited at length in The Shadow of the Past. Here Gandalf makes it clear that Bilbo's decision to spare Gollum ultimately saved Bilbo from the curse:
"It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."
The second time that the curse was foiled is in Chapter 1, when Bilbo voluntarily gave up the Ring (60 years after his encounter with Gollum). It's easy to overlook the drama in this scene because it is so underwritten. But by my lights, it is one of the climaxes of the book (albeit a climax in the first chapter) -- and an example of Tolkien's writing at its finest. JRRT excels at portraying how characters struggle unconsciously against evil influence, from the dragon-greed in The Hobbit, to the voice of Saruman in The Two Towers. The understatement in Chapter 1 is delightful:
"Very well," said Bilbo, "it goes to Frodo with all the rest." He drew a deep breath.  
"And now I really must be starting, or somebody else will catch me. I have said good-bye, and I couldn't bear to do it all over again." He picked up his bag and moved to the door. 
"You have still got the ring in your pocket," said the wizard. 
"Well, so I have!" cried Bilbo.
After a long fight, Bilbo is finally able to let it go. It is this triumph that sets the rest of the plot in motion. But how did he do it? Tolkien doesn't quite tell us. His writing, as I say, is too understated to provide obvious answers. What we do know, however, is that Tolkien is infinitely more optimistic than Wagner. For Wagner, the tragedy of the ring is inescapable . But from the very beginning of his trilogy, Tolkien signals that there is something that can resist the death-curse of power. Something subtle and easy to miss. For the rest of The Lord of the Rings, we will discover more about what that something is.

You can find my commentary on Chapter 1 here.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Reading along with The Lord of the Rings: A Long-Expected Party

Chapter 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring

What makes The Lord of the Rings a fathomless book? Re-reading A Long-Expected Party today, my eye caught on a passage that I think I've previously overlooked -- a passage that captures something essential about Tolkien's magic. Here's the scene. Bilbo Baggins has just sneaked away from his eleventy-first birthday party. At the end of a long, painful conversation with Gandalf, he's managed to give up the Ring. He prepares to leave Bag End:
"Well, that's that," he said. "Now I'm off!"
They went out into the hall. Bilbo chose his favourite stick from the stand; then he whistled. Three dwarves came out of different rooms where they had been busy.
"Is everything ready?" asked Bilbo. "Everything packed and labelled?"
"Everything," they answered.
"Well, let's start then!" He stepped out of the front door.
It was a fine night, and the black sky was dotted with stars...  "Good-bye," he said, looking at his old home and bowing to the door, "Good-bye, Gandalf!"
Wait, what. Who the hell are these dwarves? Where did they come from? To our surprise, they were just hanging out and labelling crud while the wizard and hobbit were arguing about a magic ring. Earlier in the chapter, Tolkien mentioned that some dwarves helped Gandalf unload his firecrackers a few days before the party, but nowhere are we told whether these are the same dwarves, why they're here, or what their names are. Are they some of Bilbo's companions from The Hobbit? Traders? Hirelings? Adventurers? Your guess is as good as mine, because Tolkien never tells us in The Lord of the Rings.

With just a few throwaway lines, Tolkien is able to kindle all of these questions in the imagination of a curious reader. These are questions he was happy to raise, but felt no particular need to answer. Why not? I think because he trusted his readers and let them fill in some of their own particulars. This trust in his readers is part of his art. It gives his books their expansive feel. It's the opposite of that style of writing where every element in the story is stitched directly to the plot --  an approach summarized by the rule of Chekhov's Gun: only essential details have a place in the story.
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there. (Anton Chekkhov, quoted by S. Shchukin, Memoirs, 1911)
This rule has no bearing on Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings is filled with details, some vital to the plot, some colourful background and some (like Bilbo's dwarves) mere glimpses of a larger world that vanish almost as soon as they appear. Instead of Chekhov's gun, Tolkien gives us the Frameless Picture. This term comes from a letter he wrote in 1971 to one of his fans, and it encapsulates his approach to The Lord of the Rings to a tee:
Of course the book was written to please myself (at different levels), and as an experiment in the arts of long narrative, and of inducing 'Secondary Belief'. It was written slowly and with great care for detail, & finally emerged as a Frameless Picture: a searchlight, as it were, on a brief episode in History, and on a small part of our Middle-earth, surrounded by the glimmer of limitless extensions in time and space.
The overall effect of Tolkien's approach is a living, three-dimensional world. The half-explained details give Middle-earth a sense of depth by offering us shadow as well as light. 

In fact, there is more shadow than light. The Lord of the Rings will take us to just a few places on his vast map of Middle-earthAs Tolkien says in his letter, on the edges of the story are "limitless extensions in time and space" -- lands that his books never visit, characters mentioned in passing, deeds that come to us just as rumours or guesswork. But it is precisely this shadowplay that makes Middle-earth so engrossing. By holding information back, Tolkien gives us the fabulous luxury of deciding for ourselves who those dwarves really were and why them came to Bag End.

Incidentally, I think the Frameless Picture also explains the success of another grand fantasy world that I often write about: the Star Wars universe. In the original trilogy of movies, Lucas and his team were also able to create the sense that they were merely shining a seachlight on a brief episode in a much larger history. As a result, just like in The Lord of the Ringsby leaving many things unexplained, they induced their fans to invest themselves into that world. What were the Clone Wars? How did the Jedi fail? Who's Boba Fett? These were the questions that kept me dreaming when I was a child. (The tragedy of Episodes I, II and III, of course, is that they patiently explained all these mysteries, and sterilized that world from further intrusions of the imagination).

[Top image from The Art of the Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, 2012]