Friday, October 30, 2015

Orctober: Bob Olley's (later) Giant Black Orcs

Squeaking in at the last minute is a final Orctober offering: three Giant Black Orcs by Bob Olley. Yes, that's right... they're not just Orcs, they're not just Giant Orcs... they're Giant Black Orcs. That phrase should strike fear into your heart. It's like hearing your doctor say, it's not just herpes, it's not just antibiotic-resistant herpes... it's antibiotic-resistant genital herpes.

One of my arsenal of personality defects is that I am an obsessive completionist. Once I start collecting something, I have to collect it all. So last year, I was proud of myself when I finished collecting and painting all 12 of Bob Olley's Iron Claw Black Orcs (sculpted in 1988). I was proud of myself. I stopped being proud when someone on the Oldhammer Forum helpfully/unhelpfully pointed out that Olley sculpted three more Black Orcs in 1989. These three additions were grouped with the Iron Claw originals in the 1991 Catalogue as "Giant Black Orcs".

An Iron Claw Black Orc
Hearing this triggered my mania. Sleepless nights. Bitten nails. Long, solitary walks. However, the goddess eBay eventually smiled on me, and a few months ago I was able to pick up all three in one fell swoop.

I've written before about how much I love Olley's sculpting style. The original Iron Claw Black Orcs are like no other orc: hairy, big-lipped and wrinkled. Sadly, these three later specimens are not so odd. They replicate the conventional features of orcs in the age of Kev Adams: lots of muscles, a comic under-bite and a bald, triangular skull with deep-set eyes. That being said, these are quality models with strong dynamic poses. As with all Olley miniatures, the faces are full of character.

To mark the end of another Orctober, I'm adding a new Miniature Gallery to those gathered on the right of this page: the complete Bob Olley Giant Black Orcs. At least, I hope it's complete...

Giant Black Orc Axe 2, Citadel (sculpted by Bob Olley, 1990)
Citadel "Giant Black Orc Axe 2"
Giant Black Orc Mace 2, Citadel (sculpted by Bob Olley, 1990)
Citadel "Giant Black Orc Mace 2"
Giant Black Orc Axe 1, Citadel (sculpted by Bob Olley, 1990)
Citadel "Giant Black Orc Axe 1"

Happy Orctober!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Chapter 9 of The Fellowship of the Ring

On an intercity bus ride a few nights ago, I woke from a sleep to overhear two strangers chatting in the dark about fantasy novels. I gathered one was a theology student, and the other had worked for a church. They seemed super-humanly earnest. They discussed C.S. Lewis ("wonderful!") and J.R.R. Tolkien (not so wonderful), both agreeing that The Lord of the Rings was "hard going" and "like history". 

CS Lewis: Theologian approved.

The whole scene reminded me of this week's chapter: a nocturnal journey, a hushed conversation, a hidden eavesdropper. In At the Sign of the Prancing Pony, the hobbits arrive in the town of Bree and try to evade the pursuit of the Black Riders. But before the action begins, Tolkien administers a heavy dose of background information: the architecture of Bree, race-relations in Bree and ancient migration patterns. No wonder some readers find this "hard going" and "like history".

Other readers (like myself) eat this stuff up with a spoon. De gustibus something something something, as dear old dad likes to remind me. But the strangers' conversation pointed me to a larger question. The Lord of the Rings contains so much lore -- but what is it missing?

It is missing a lot. We can see this from the description of Bree in the present chapter: "In those days no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire." The lands are empty. 

More specifically, there are three main things surprisingly absent from Middle-earth: people, government and religion. Let me take each one in turn:

  • There are no people. Middle-earth generally, and especially the northwest, is severely depopulated. Bree and the Shire (which only have a few thousand people between them) appear to be the only settlements between Rivendell and the Grey Havens, a distance of about 500 miles (or the distance between Paris and Berlin). Indeed, we're told in the first sentence of this chapter that the lands are "empty" -- and this dominating wilderness is a huge theme in The Lord of the Rings
    But this depopulation not very plausible, whatever the cause. It's not how humans work: we fill up spaces, especially nice temperate spaces like north-west Middle-earth. For example, even after the Black Death carried off 25%-33% of the population of Europe, recovery was
     swift, with "prompt" economic, agricultural and political recovery. And although the population took a long time to fully bounce back, Europe did not become a wasteland.
  • There is no government. Bree and the Shire appear to exist in a state of anarchy (in the original sense of that word - "without leaders"). We're told that the Shire has a mayor but that he's really more of a toastmaster:

    "The only real official in the Shire at this date was the Mayor of Michel Delving (or of the Shire), who was elected every seven years at the Free Fair on the White Downs at the Lithe, that is at Midsummer. As mayor almost his only duty was to preside at banquets, given on the Shire-holidays, which occurred at frequent intervals." (FotR, Prologue)

    So, on the one hand, we have a complex society (a postal network, inns and trade) but no way of resolving disputes, no authority figure, not even a local warlord (until Sharkey comes along). Frankly, this is freakish. In the world as we know it, prosperous villages can't spend hundreds of years in harmonious anarchy. Although there were some self-governing communities in the medieval world, they were not stable or long lasting (even Iceland had its chieftains and a complex system of government). The absence of any state in northwest Middle-earth is not plausible.
  • There is no church. The topic of religion in Tolkien is fascinating, and probably deserves its own post. Here I'll simply say that devotion, ceremony and even faith are absent from The Lord of the Rings. There are no houses of worship, no clergy not scriptures. Nothing in the Shire, and nothing here in Bree. So far, the closest we've gotten to the Supreme Being is when Merry cries out "Lawks" (i.e. "Lord!") in Chapter 5 as he sees what a mess Pippin is making with his bath.

    This is a huge rupture with the way that humans generally behave. Before modern times, no human society existed without some form of spiritual belief. And the Middle Ages were especially bananas for religion. At the heart of every medieval village and town was a church with its steeple rising into the sky. This was an age "drenched in mysticism", with religious belief impregnating every aspect of life.

I don't mean any of this as a critique. After all, Tolkien was writing a fantasy novel. He's entitled to bend reality as much as he pleases. And by leaving out these elements, Tolkien is able to focus on things he really cares about: the Edenic existence of hobbits in the Shire or the vastness of the wilderness (to give two examples).

I just want to point out how fantastic Middle-earth really is. It's nothing like our world as we know it, and certainly nothing like medieval Europe. To conceive of a temperate continent without a thriving population, without a state, and without any religion is an act of pure imagination, more audacious than giving us elves, dragons and magic swords. 

Indeed, it's a mental leap that many Tolkien fans have trouble making. You see this especially in role-playing or computer games set in Middle-earth. In an effort to make the game more digestible, the lands fill up with little cities and local potentates, or characters take on classes like priests and animists. I can understand this from a game-play perspective, but sometimes these extraneous works distract us from Tolkien's unique vision. Middle-earth is a strange place with strange absences that make it nothing "like history."

To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 10. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 8 here.

[Image credit with kind permission: Ted Nasmith "At the Sign of the Prancing Pony" Gouache on illustration board (1990).]

Friday, October 9, 2015

Orctober 2015: Man O'War Orc Fleet

General Krapfang eyed the sea with a sour expression. "Gorblymee," he observed, "It shur looks wet." 

He stood on a low promontory, overlooking a long and desolate beach. Behind him, the remnants of his orc army were bivouacked among the dunes. The pursuing Skaven horde was only a day behind. The ratmen had chased Krapfang and his troops for almost fifty leagues, apparently with the design of pushing them right off the edge of the Black Peninsula and into the sea. The wet, wet sea.

Man O'War Orc Hulks

"Git dat fire blazen, boyz," said Krapfang. There were no trees on this awful spit, so he had ordered the Man-Mangler to be broken up with axes for fuel. The engineers had protested, so he ordered them broken up with axes too. "Da Mangler can't 'elp urse where's weez gota go." Krapfant knew that his only hope lay in kindling a signal fire big enough to attract the great orc pirate, Commodore Stonker Flegmaticus.

Orcs do not take naturally to the sea. The naval historians of Marienburg have theorized that the first orc ship was in fact a poorly constructed wooden keep that was swept into the Sea of Claws by a flash flood. Indeed, the orcs seemed to have walked backwards into several important naval innovations. 

So, for example, their use of boiler engines arose from the simple fact that orcs enjoy burning coal because the fumes and soot relax them. It was left to a dwarven prisoner aboard one vessel to point out to his orc captors that the coal furnace was not merely a recreational device, but could be used as a form of propulsion.

Man O'War Orc Drillakilla squadron

A true passion for the sea was only lit in the orcs once they noticed that every time they built a ship, some officious elf or human would try to sink it. With surprise and delight, orcs realized that naval combat is significantly more violent than land battles; loud noises, lots of war-machines and ramming are the order of the day. Boarding involved claustrophobic melees, "like a knife-fight in a barrel" (to quote one early orc admiral). And once a boarding action was joined, there was nowhere for anyone to run. In a theological sense, this is the orcish definition of paradise.

Amid the various orc sea-masters who have terrorized the Old World, none are as feared as Commodore Stonker Flegmaticus. He has rampaged from Erengrad to Araby, raiding ports, seizing slaves and sinking fleets. His tactical genius is a byword. He was the first to note that, in a pinch, a drunk dwarf can be fired from a catapult as an incendiary missile. And at the Battle of Bilbali, it was Flegmaticus who sank the Estalian flagship by ordering grapples to be thrown at the top of its mast, allowing an orc Hulk to tip the vessel over in a hideous tug of war.

Man O'War Orc Bigchukka squadron

Krapfang's wizard, Grogeye, had advised him that Flegmaticus was pirating around the Black Gulf. A naval evacuation was now Krapfang's only hope. Surely the Commodore would be looking for a few good marines. And surely he would have heard of Krapfang's exploits... that is to say, his successful exploits. They would meet as peers. Surely. Maybe it would all work out... after all, could it get worse?

Man O'War Orc Wyvern Riders

Thanks for looking!

The flagship of Commodore Stonker Flegmaticus, "The Grunder"

Friday, October 2, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: Fog on the Barrow-Downs

Goldberry, acrylic on board, Brothers Hildebrandt (1977)

Chapter 8 of The Fellowship of the Ring

In this chapter, Frodo and the hobbits leave the hospitality of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry. Almost immediately, they get lost in the hills east of the Old Forest. In a dream-like sequence, they are trapped by wraiths and entombed in one of the burial mounds, where Tom rescues them in one last timely intervention.

The line in this chapter that struck me hardest comes near the chapter's opening, as the hobbits depart from Tom's house and turn for one final look at Goldberry:

There on the hill-brow she stood beckoning to them: her hair was flying loose, and as it caught the sun it shone and shimmered. A light like the glint of water on dewy grass flashed from under her feet as she danced.
Think about that last word: danced. Danced? Goldberry isn't waving goodbye, or blowing kisses. She is dancing so that the grass "flashes" under her feet. Is she tap-dancing? Pirouetting? Cakewalking? Well, your guess is as good as mine. In any case, it's an extraordinary image. But it's not an outlier. This one word made me realize how much song and dance play a role in the chapter and the book as a whole.

Consider: So far, the book has been liberally salted with songs/poems (Eight by my count, plus numerous musical numbers delivered by Tom). Hobbits frequently dance, like when Frodo's companions dance for joy when he decides to take them on his journey or when Tom dances at the beginning of the present chapter. And, most significantly, in the first paragraph of this chapter, Tolkien tells us that Frodo "heard a sweet singing running in his mind" as he lay dreaming. This beautiful music seems to give Frodo a connection with the higher powers.

But it isn't merely the forces of good that sing. As Frodo lies in the barrow, even the wraiths break out into song:
Suddenly a song began: a cold murmur, rising and falling. The voice seemed far away and immeasurably dreary, sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan from the ground. Out of the formless stream of sad but horrible sounds, strings of words would now and and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable.
Music is equally essential to the rescue of the hobbits in this chapter. Frodo summons Tom with a song that Tom taught him. And Tom triumphs by entering the tomb and out-singing the wraiths:
Tom stooped, removed his hat, and came into the dark chamber, singing: 
Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight! Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!
The barrows are alive with the sound of music! 

I have a suspicion that most readers politely blot most of this singing and dancing out of their minds as they read. Certainly, this is the route taken by filmmakers like Peter Jackson, in whose films the music is kept on a short tether. After all, if you take all the music and dance at face value, The Lord of the Rings becomes a cross between a novel and a musical. Like in a musical, characters dance and (especially) sing in order to express strong emotions.

From the Lord of the Rings musical
Now I know that song is central to Tolkien's mythology -- after all, his creation story in The Silmarillion is a vast piece of music. It's clear that Tolkien saw music as intrinsic to both magic and holiness. But today I'm not so much interested in Tolkien's myths, as I am in taking a step back and looking at the structure of his book, laced as it is with musical interludes.

It's easy to forget how unusual all this poetry really is. I was recently at a book launch for Giles Blunt, the thriller writer. One of the characters in his new book is a poet, and he included several of her poems in the book. At the launch, he especially thanked his editor at Random House for keeping these poems in the text, since most publishers have a strict "no poetry policy" (in his words) for all novels. Now of course, Tolkien wasn't writing a thriller -- but it's fair to ask, what sort of book does include so many characters who are ready to sing when they walk, bathe, or suck the life out of hobbits?

I have trouble finding clear precedents in literature. Greece and Rome bequeathed to us a a sharp division between poetry and prose; something was either a poem (like The Aeneid) or it was prose (like The Annals) -- so classical epic isn't much of a precedent. Similarly, chivalric epics (which were a big influence on Tolkien) were sometimes written in prose and sometimes in verse, but they don't mix the two. Norse Sagas, of course, have poetry interspersed in the text -- but I'm not sure that this poetry was actually sung by the characters, as much as it was composed and then recited. And certainly, there's not a lot of dancing in the Icelandic Sagas. 

The Hebrew Bible is the only book I can think of where song and dance are often incorporated into the text as the natural behaviour of the characters. For instance, look at these passages from Exodus:
Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying,
I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously:
the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.
(Exodus 15:1)
And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. (Exodus 15:20)
Also famous is King David, whose singing and harp-playing a central to the story of his life. Think of his haunting lament at the death of Saul and Jonathan:
The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph. (2 Samuel 1:19-20)
But even in the Bible, this mix of song and prose narrative is primarily a result of the way the Bible was written: many hands over time stitched together folk tales, folk songs, courtly histories, and hymns into a patchwork quilt. As a result, you will often get songs jumbled together with stories. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, was written by one man as one coherent work. 

Where does this leave us? Well, my main point is a simple one: don't let familiarity mask how unusual The Lord of the Rings actually is. The characters often sing and dance in ways that are highly unrealistic. This is not normal for a novel, and certainly not a fantasy novel. It's an approach to portraying reality that resembles a musical more than an epic. 

Why? Musicals are such a popular genre of performance because song and dance can deliver a powerful emotional punch -- a punch which is much harder to deliver with nothing but the spoken word. Although breaking into song isn't true to life, audiences in a theatre leave this aside because the music delights them and heightens their experiences. I think it is this heightened world that Tolkien wanted to create with his own songs. He envisioned a hyper-real world, where the colours were more vivid and the landscape throbbed with strange life. In this fantasy world, wizards cast spells and elves live forever -- and people sing to express their feelings. It's all part of the same magical and fantastic world.

To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 9. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 7 here.

[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "Goldberry" Acrylic on Board (1976).]