Saturday, July 28, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog X: The Two Towers IV: 1-5

Funny how things change. When I was a kid, I tapped my foot very, very impatiently through the first, Samdo-free, half of The Two Towers, annoyed at all the new characters introduced and all the military stuff that happened. I enjoyed the stuff with the Ents because what is there not to like about Treebeard and company? But other than that, I was quite annoyed.


This time around, I reveled in those chapters (except, maybe, for all the running) and when I got to Samdo in Emyn Muil, I won't lie, I had a hard time even getting started. My eyes just kept sliding off the screen. I'm pretty sure because I was inwardly sighing at how tiresome this part of the film is.

But Book-Sam is nothing at all like Movie-Sam! That's what I all but chanted to myself as I finally got a start on these chapters. And vive la difference!
I haven't changed my mind. But it's only sense: put the one lowest as is most likely to slip. I don't want to come down atop of you and knock you off. No sense in killing two with one fall.
Sam here is explaining why he is going first down a steep gully among the rocks that looks to get the pair of them a fair part of the way back to proper country instead of lost in climbing hell. Any newbie freeclimber who has eagerly and perhaps recklessly scrambled up some rocks they don't know well (yo!) knows what this can be like, looking down every few minutes wondering if that jump is a) survivable b) survivable without being injured c) suicide or d) any more so of any of the above than the last downward prospect.
Before Frodo could stop him, he sat down, swung his legs over the brink, and twisted round, scrabbling with his toes for a foothold. It is doubtful if he ever did anything braver in cold blood, or more unwise.
Frodo talks him into coming back up until morning, when they can maybe at least see the bottom. They debate the wisdom of this a bit, realizing that if they guess wrong about a downward progress and reach a point with no further hand- or toe-hold, they'll have to climb back up to where they started, which would be terribly weary and dangerous work. How well do I know it!

I wonder when that busy don and philologist, J.R.R. Tolkien, had the time to go rock-climbing like this, or whose brain he picked to get these passages so very, very right.

 Hell's Half Acre in central Wyoming, which is pretty much how I always imagined Emyn Muil. 
Lots of more images depicting its fractal degree of difficulty can be seen at this blog.

Oh, and then they get caught in a thunderstorm! Great! We're back in the kind of opus contra naturam territory we haven't really seen since Caradhras. But worse than there, not just the terrain and weather are against them: here there be winged Nazgul, most likely. The sound of one startles the hobbits and sends Frodo bumping down a bit, and he winds up more or less trapped there until Sam remembers he's got a coil of elvish rope (light and strong, doesn't take up much space in the pack, silky to the touch... I always basically figured it was Middle Earth paracord)! Hooray! And a little more rope otaku-ry ensues, and I found myself wondering what kind of plant provides the fibers for such stuff, as is my wont.

Nor is that, of course, the only moment where that sorta-magical rope (it unties itself from Sam's knot around a tree stump high above them, after all) is important; once Smeagollum comes along after a wonderfully creepy scene of him sticking to the sheer cliff face like an insect, crawling head downwards, it is an integral part of keeping the creature under control. Once Smeagollum has "sworn upon the Precious" to be good, Sam ties the rope around Smeagollum's ankle (amid much thrashing and crying out that the elvish rope "burns") and they're off on Smeagollum's secret way through the Dead Marshes.

Ah, the Dead Marshes, where at the end of the Second Age the Last Alliance of Elves and Men fought Sauron's forces on the battlefield called Dagorlad. The corpses -- or at least the images of the corpses -- of Men and Elves and Orcs now lie in the mucky, smelly water that crept over the rotting bodies over the centuries. I always kind of thought of this as a giant field of peat mummies. Marsh gases or something more sinister occasionally gives rise to puffs of white misty light like will'o'the wisps, and the footing is treacherous. It may be that only little folk like hobbits and former proto-hobbits could really cross here now, though supposedly Aragorn caught Gollum here once. Samdo and Smeagollum make their careful way through, their progress only sort of hampered by the passage overhead of a winged Nazgul, dispatched from Mordor in response to Pippin's having looked into the Palantir on the way out from Isengard. The decoy hobbits have maybe taken their job a little too seriously, eh?

And the reminder of the Nazgul and the Precious boots a lot of the Smea out of Gollum. UH OH! And for his part, Frodo definitely starts feeling the burden of the Ring, even to perceiving it as a physical weight growing heavier the closer the trio gets to Mordor. And they're heading into nastier lands:
"Even to the Mere of Dead Faces some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness... They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor; the lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing, unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion."
Sounds like a post-nuclear wasteland, almost, doesn't it? But we who have read Wormwood Forest know that to the landscape after a nuclear attack or accident much nature can return, whereas this territory would seem to have no hope at all. So it's more like a landscape after the coal-bed methane people have had their way with it.

I imagine a whole landscape that looks like the lower half
of this picture, from a CBM play in Wyoming.

And through this our trio has to pass. Nobody likes it, least of all Gollum, who has been here before and has not-so-fond memories of his visit to Mordor on his mind as he starts having those famous arguments with himself that the movie people chose to depict as a case of MPD. Hey, worked for me. Gollum wants to take the Ring for himself and make the hobbits grovel, among other things*; Smeagol at least wants to be nice to Frodo, who has been nice to him. But how to get it? Oh wait, yes!


Whom he so far refers to, within Sam's earshot anyway, only as She.

I love Em's observations in her guest-post over at EssJay's blog about how things go down on the way to the Gate of Mordor, casting Gollum as one of those super-annoying NPCs in text adventures and other early command-line based computer games who take one's commands super-literally. "Bring us to the Gate," Frodo says, and so that's what Gollum does, more or less willfully misunderstanding of Frodo's true wishes: get us into Mordor, preferably undetected. But hey, he asked for the Gate, he gets the Gate, in all its over-the-top intimidating glory. Sneaky Gollum is softening up the hobbits for his alternate route, via Cirith Ungol and the lair of Shelob. "Smeagol very good, always helps, indeed."

While Frodo dithers, an army of Easterlings enters by way of the Gate, further depressing everybody and deciding Frodo; he will trust Smeagollum some more and take this other way into Mordor. But, Frodo will brook no nonsense from him; if need be, he'll put on the Ring and command Smeagollum to kill himself. Sam, who up to this point has thought Frodo was maybe too blind, too nice, is pleasantly surprised. Smeagollum is cowed but not so much so that he can't gin up a fair amount of salesmanship, making sure all the ways into Mordor sound terrible except for the way he wants the hobbits to choose.

Who's the tricksy one, again?

So now the trio turns south, into slightly nicer territory, where Smeagollum at least looks forward to being able to catch some nice fish from clean water again. They travel alongside, rather than on, the road and see nature reasserting itself over the ruins left by Men and again I think of Wormwood Forest and the town of Pripyat. I may never not think of Mordor as the Zone of Alienation now, of Ithilien as Polissa. But hey, it's spring, and the former Garden of Gondor keeps "a dishevelled dryad loveliness." The landscape actually sounds a lot like I've always heard Italy being described. And next thing you know, Sam has set Smeagollum coursing after hares for their supper and finally gets to use the cookware he's been lugging all these miles! Smeagollum, of course, thinks cooked meat is gross.

Alas, the creature's right about one thing, though as disasters go, there could be worse. Sam's cooking fire attracts the attention of four Men, and so enters into our story Faramir**, brother of Boromir, son of Denethor, Man of Gondor. 

With firm application and determination...

>And with him are some of Aragorn's people, Rangers of the Dunedain. They're in the territory hunting some of those evil Men who are marching to join the Enemy in Mordor, and are very interested in the hobbits but have work to do and a skirmish to fight.

Nonetheless, these Men are not done with the hobbits, and after they defeat the Sothrons (and send an oliphaunt off masterless and blundering north, to Sam's awe and delight), the hobbits are detained. Faramir had the dreams first, remember, that Boromir talked about, about seeking the Blade that was Broken and halflings and Isildur's Bane. So yes, Chapter Five is pretty much more dueling exposition, though it's Frodo and Sam who have most of the news. Aragorn lives and carries the Blade, Gandalf does not live and perished in Moria. Boromir is also not so good, by the way, Faramir says for his part, and expects Frodo to know that already and how he died, since they were such good friends and all.

I love how Sam stands up to him for this. "See here!"

Faramir is suitably intimidated by Samwise not taking his "sauce".

Faramir backs down, sort of, and tells Frodo and Sam how he and his men heard Boromir's horn from afar the day the Fellowship split, and how they later found Boromir's body in the boat in which Aragorn and Gimolas launched him down the falls at Rauros. And from this news, Frodo jumps to the depressing conclusion that all of the rest died too, that day, even his cousins the decoy hobbits. Sad, illogical Frodo is sad and illogical.

There follows much more talk in which the Ring is a big shiny oliphaunt in the campsite, as it were. More trust needs yet to be won. Strangely, this is won by Faramir's conducting the hobbits (but not Smeagollum, who has been missing since just before the Men found them) to his secret hideaway and making them wear blindfolds for the trip. Because yeah, nothing makes me trust a guy more than his ordering me to put on a blindfold. Um.

But at least Henneth Annun is a pretty place, when they get there. And they get a safe place to sleep, a good dinner, and a history lesson for their having come. And then they get to talking about the hobbits' own trip again, and in the heat of his defense of Galadriel (who seems to need a lot of defending, verbally anyway), Sam lets slip that she saw through Boromir and furthermore that Boromir went after the Ring!

Ring? What Ring might this be, Faramir asks. D'oh. But then he gets a chance to prove his quality, which is higher than that of his brother, at least in terms of not taking what doesn't belong to him, like a good younger brother.

And there we leave them, until the next chapter.

*Gollum's desires, even at his most self-aggrandizing, are suprisingly modest, aren't they? "Lord Smeagol? Gollum the Great? The Gollum! Eat fish every day, three times a day; fresh from the sea." Here we perhaps see why hobbits getting their hands on the Ring actually wound up being quite a good thing. Even had Bilbo known its true power, he might well have still mostly used it to hide from annoying neighbors... hobbits and proto-hobbits don't seem to offer the Ring much in the way of vices for it to work on and through. Now perhaps if Lobelia had gotten the Ring... best not to think about that, though. Shudder.

**By the way, I am quite relieved to find that I am not the only person among us who thinks that David Wenham is a dead ringer for Danny Kaye. Even to hear him speak!!! I'm hither and yon, I'm there and gone, I'm Johnny not on the spot!

David Wenham as Faramir of Gondor

Danny Kaye dressed as the Black Fox in The Court Jester.
Glynnis Johns is every bit as pretty as Miranda Otto, too, and just as badass!


It is one of the disaster's paradoxes, but the Zone's evacuation put a stop to industrialization, deforestation, cultivation and other human intrusions, making it one of Ukraine's environmentally cleanest regions - except for the radioactivity - Mary Mycio in Wormwood Forest

Reading Mary Mycio's Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl may be likened to spending several hours listening to the Talking Heads' hit song "Nothing But Flowers" over and over again, but that would be selling the experience a bit short.

I had no idea, before reading this book, that so many people had equated the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant with the biblical Book of Revelations. I was 16 at the time it happened, eyeball deep in Michael Moorcock and Piers Anthony and Jack L. Chalker and research for Lincoln-Douglas debates on the topic of: "Resolved: that the United States is morally bound to promote democracy in other countries." So I felt badly about the disaster, worried about the fallout, but didn't have time for the wingnuts.

I still don't, but I do find interesting the biblical/botanical coincidence that led to so many people, including, apparently,  Ronald Reagan, to equate the accident with a Sign of the Apocalypse. The Russian name "Chernobyl" (actually "Chornobyl") is widely translated to mean "Wormwood" which is the colloquial English name for a plant common to that part of the Ukraine/Belorus/Russia, and also for the star that will shine like a torch at the beginning of the bibical apocalypse. But the plant we know as Wormwood is one they call Pollyn, Artemsia absinthium (so named because it is the source of the thujone that supposedly makes absinthe more than just another green liqueur), is not the plant they know as Chernobyl. That's Artemisia vulgaris, a related but less noxious plant that we know as Mugwort. Ain't the devil just in the details?

Wormwood Forest is full of interesting little nuggets like that as it describes how the natural world has overtaken and overgrown former towns like Pripyat, which town first came to my attention last year when I saw the film Land of Oblivion, set there 25 years after the disaster as stubborn former residents start coming home despite government warnings not to. And there are similarities to that film; the author's guide is a woman who lived there before the disaster, her memories haunting the account of Mycio's visit with a botanist at her side (Land of Oblivion's main character was a woman whose wedding day was the day of the accident, and whose bridegroom died in the first wave of emergency response efforts, and who comes to work, decades later, as a guide for foreign disaster tourists). Since that film affected me deeply, this book, which I believe was a primary inspiration for the film if I am remembering the director's Q&A after the screening I saw, too, bestowed chills along with its fascination and surprises.

Wormwood Forest explores not only Pripyat (actually it doesn't spend that much time there) but the town of Chornobyl, where some 2500 people, tour guides, maintenance workers (it takes a lot of minute and patient work to, for instance, keep pine saplings from growing on top of landfills full of radioactive debris and equipment sealed in clay to prevent leaks; tree roots would crack the clay and release the radiation back into the world) live on a rotating temporary basis; the Red Forest, where winds brought some of the most intense radiation and killed the trees, turning them red, now home to plenty of green "radiomorphic" ones that show bizarre growth patterns (the name Red Forest has stuck, though, and denotes one of the most radioactive places on the planet); villages where lawless squatters live in defiance of the government ban on permanent human habitation, who might take a fancy to attacking explorers like Mycio and her companions; the hidden cemetery of the small village of Novoshepelyechi, where oak trees show a higher incidence of Crown Gall disease than anyplace else and Mycio contemplates the hyphae of fungi thriving there, and how far those hyphae might carry radionucleotides because fungi can be pretty big, under the soil... and that's just in the Ukraine. And it was Belarus, now home to a thriving and diverse population of aquatic birds, that got the most radiation, possibly due to cloud seeding sending particles down in rainfall before they could reach Moscow.

Nor is it just plants and fungi that are now calling the Exclusion Zone (or the somewhat more poetically translated "Zone of Alienation") home. Moose and red deer (that North Americans call elk) and roe deer and wild boars are plentiful, and two endangered species, the European bison and the Przewalski's horse, have both been introduced there and are thriving, largely because human activity has all but ceased there.

And there are more surprises, like the news that actually, as far as insects that could survive after nuclear disaster go, cockroaches are pretty wimpy. And that you don't find a lot of mutant animals like the famous eight-legged pony that appeared on the cover of Time magazine, because in the wild, mutated animals mostly don't survive; a bunch of partially albino swallows, for example, aren't doing too well in the Darwinian sweepstakes because they can't attract mates.

Some people are doubtless going to find this book rough going. There is a lot of science, of almost every kind - nuclear physics, chemistry, classical physics, biology, biochemistry, geology, hydrology, anthropology, botany, mycology, soil science, heck, even astronomy if you want to count the odd mention of the biblical Wormwood star. And it's densely presented, this science; where other authors might (as I kind of wish Mycio had done) choose to define radiological and other terms in a handy glossary, Mycio informs the lay reader via digressions in the middle of her anecdotal narratives, a tic I occasionally found intrusive when she was in the middle of describing, e.g., weirdly growing pines in the Red Forest. I would urge those readers who do find the science daunting to stick with it, though; around and through the rads and curies and Grays and becquerels is a realm of strange beauty, wonder, tragedy and terror, a glimpse of another world existing within our own that stands as a warning to us all while still showing a small glimmer of hope.

Though not so much hope that we should continue ripping atoms apart willy nilly just to power our hair dryers and server farms. I was never a big nuclear power fan before (having grown up in the age of Three Mile Island, glimpsed smugly from afar in a way that only a hydroelectric power customer can) reading this, and I watched Fukushima** with as much horror as anybody, but now, now that I know, for instance, that particles of radioactive isotopes as cesium and strontium mimic nutrients that pretty much all life uses to build and maintain itself (cesium mimics potassium and strontium, calcium), there to sit inside of plant and animal and fungal bodies for years emitting alpha and beta and gamma rays that tear bodies apart slowly from the inside, and that they just keep circulating through the food chain for, in some cases, unimaginably long spans of time, well, I'm really not a fan of nuclear power now.

*I remember being shocked at all the houses and public buildings Land of Oblivion depicted, with large and healthy birch trees growing right in the middle of former living rooms and offices and storefronts. It didn't seem like 25 years was long enough for that kind of growth. Shows what I know about botany. Which is a severe failing on my part, especially given how much I know about and love insects and fungi!

**Which wasn't as bad, we're told, as Chernobyl was, but still plenty bad, thank you very much.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog IX: The Two Towers: III: 6-11

Up till now, whenever speech and eloquence have  been employed, they have been so with high purpose and kindly, if not noble, intent. There has been poetry to celebrate, amuse or mourn, there have been prophecies to warn, and grand orations and friendly pieces of advice.

Now as we approach the halfway mark, we're getting a different view of the power of speech, eloquence in the service of deception and treachery. It's an interesting place for a word-drunk philologist to go, isn't it?

Along with the darkening of the power of words comes our first real look at how Sauron and Saruman's efforts are affecting mere mortals. The people we meet in these chapters are bravely trying to go about their daily lives but are grown mistrustful, even fearful. The first human kingdom we have visited since Esgaroth back in The Hobbit seems like a miserable place even though its setting is beautiful and highly civilized.

And all because of evil words!

Gandalf, Aragorn and Gimolas make mighty good time through the pretty wet meadows of Rohan, and Gandalf warns everybody to watch what they say around Theoden. Gandalf visited this king on his get-well tour and borrowed a horse, but not just any horse: he took Shadowfax, the greatest horse ever, a veritable Fatty Lumpkin of horses. And Theoden wasn't happy.

So Gandalf choosing to revisit the city of Edoras and the hall of Meduseld so soon after that last encounter seems kind of foolish, but, as Galadriel told us last novel, nothing Gandalf does is needless. Saruman is probably going to take out his rage at not getting the Ring on Rohan, and the king needs to get ready.

Alas. The king Gandalf and the fellas find is even more sunken into gloom and despair than he was last time the respawned wizard visited. The hall of Meduseld is dark, everyone is subdued and a little frightened, and, as Theoden will soon observe, dark have been his dreams of late.* Theoden accuses Gandalf of always being the bearer of bad news and a demander rather than a giver of help.

Thus begins a serious and subtle argument over how it's not always bad to bring bad tidings, in which Grima Wormtongue, who seems to have become Theoden's sole counselor, delivers a hell of a tirade. After Theoden exclaims that ill news is an ill guest, Gandalf says that yes, he often brings bad news but it's important bad news, and with the news he has brought help this time, really! Look, here's the heir of Gondor and an Elve and a Dwarve! I mean dude, it's like we've already won! Then Wormtongue has his say: "But there is a third kind [of person who brings bad news]; pickers of bones, meddlers in other men's sorrows, carrion fowl that grow fat on war."

Now, from a certain perspective, is Wormtongue entirely lying? Though his words could perhaps more accurately describe himself than Gandalf, he is very effectively planting a suggestion in which he doesn't make anything up so much as put a slight spin on the truth, as he's clearly been doing for some time now. He has, after all, convinced Theoden to shut himself up in his darkened throne room and ignore the state of kingdom except when something important needs done, like agreeing to impose tighter restrictions on his hall and his subjects. Aren't people like Gandalf just the sort of thing Wormtongue has been warning about?

Gandalf, of course, is having none of it, and busts out his staff that he persuaded Hama the guard to let him keep when Hama confiscated everybody's weapons. There are flashes of light and Gandalf glows tall and white and next thing we know, Wormtongue is sprawled out on the floor and Gandalf is leading the king outside to partake of the healing power of his still-beautiful and well-ordered and healthy kingdom. "Look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!"

Talk is cheap; reality trumps it every time.

But seriously, how awesome is Brad Dourif? 
I <3 him and we have the same birthday.
P.S. Aliens suck!

And then! It turns out that while Aragorn and Gimolas were whooping it up at the edge of Fangorn and then playing catch up with Gandalf, Eomer and his men returned to Edoras, but not to much of a welcome. Indeed, Gandalf has to shame Theoden into letting his nephew out of the dungeon! Soon Eomer joins them and puts his sword at the king's feet, and once Theoden has that in his hands his cure would seem to be complete. Forth, Eorlingas!

For the present, though, "forth, Eorlingas" chiefly means "evacuate Edoras." The women and children and elderly have to go into hiding when the menfolk ride forth to war. As these orders are being given and Theoden is considering who to send to keep order among the evacuees, Hama brings Wormtongue out into the light; Wormtongue had been keeping the king's own sword in hiding, but of course, the king had given it into his keeping, hadn't he?

You've got to admire this in Wormtongue: he's got the balls to keep trying until the very last. He lays it on thick in a last attempt to convince the king that he's too old and sick to be playing warrior and it's just Gandalf's having bewitched him that makes him want to. At the very least, the king should hang back and let younger men do this nasty work. Theoden, of course, bawls him out and tells him to "go clean the rust" from his sword; Wormtongue's coming to fight with the men, by god!

But no, Wormtongue wants to be left in charge, the cheeky bastard. But Gandalf loses his temper, accuses Wormtongue of working for Saruman, and tells Theoden to give the "snake" a horse and let him go wherever he wants. D'oh!

And as everybody gets ready and has dinner, they meet Eowyn, who has already been checking Aragorn out, of course, so when she is formally introduced, she is a bit giddy. Poor Eowyn! Thank goodness Tolkien wrote you and not some jerk who would just let your unrequited love define you, though, you badass!

But then, sadz. Someone from the royal family needs to stick with the evacuees, and guess who gets that job? I mean, it's great that she gets to basically be Theoden's regent while he rides off to take on Saruman, but she's a shieldmaiden of Rohan! She wants to go fight, too! Sigh.
Sister-daughter, you're just more valuable in the original packaging.

At last everyone is off, heading for the Fords of the Isen and, more or less, the border of Saruman's and Theoden's territories. The plan is to join and assist the Rohirrim who are already there, fighting Saruman's forces. It was these whom Theoden's son Theodred led until he was killed, and there aren't many of them left when our heroes arrive. They learn the battle at Isen was lost and the men's commander, Erkenbrand of the Westfold, has tried to draw the host of Orcs and evil Men to the fortress of Helm's Deep, where the Rohirrim might stand a chance. So! Off to Helm's Deep! Well, everybody except Gandalf, who suddenly remembers an errand he has to run. Um.

For once we're spared a journey, though not a description of Helm's Deep, which sounds like one of the most impressive structures we'll see in Middle Earth, at least until we get to Minas Tirith and the Gate of Mordor next novel. It is lavishly described, but what matters is that it's very, very defensible. Erkenbrand has tried to lead the Sarumanians into a trap. But first it's almost a trap for Theoden and co., who have to fight their way through the enemies that are already there harassing the garrison. Meanwhile, an enormous army "bringing fire" is not far behind them. There is going to be BATTUL, the first we've gotten to witness in Tolkien (The Hobbit had the Battle of Five Armies, true, but we only got that as told to Bilbo, who missed it all, invisible and unconscious).

Except, er, none of Erkenbrand's men (formerly Theodred's men, i.e., most of the clean-limbed fighting men of Rohan) seem to have made it, so it's just the guys Theoden brought and the old men and boys already at the fortress. UH OH.

And as they get ready, another tender moment for Gimolas. This time, Gim feels good because he's in some mountains again, and Olas is uncomfortable, but says to Gim "You comfort me, Gimli, and I am glad to have you standing nigh with your stout legs and your hard axe." Get. A. Room.**

They don't have long to wait once they're arrayed, the Helm's Deepers. Saruman's host quickly chases the valley defenders back up to the fort, and in the darkness, Orcish arrows start flying and battle is joined! Eomer and Aragon ride out into a sortie and are driven back, narrowly escaping because Gim followed them out "to shake off sleep" and kills two Orcs, saving them. And thus starts Gimolas' famous body count competition. Olas has a pretty good lead, though. Gim has two notches on his axe, but Olas claims to have shot 20 dead with his bow. Hoom.

But this is a siege, and the Rohirrim and their allies are way outnumbered. There is only so far they can fall back, even in their own fortress. So as dawn approaches, Theoden has one last desperate notion: he's going to ride out himself with whoever will go with him and take it to the enemy. Of course Aragorn will go. As for the rest, Gim and Eomer are unaccounted for and Olas is off hunting for more arrows.

So out ride Theoden and Aragorn and what Eorlingas could be rounded up. And, as if they knew the plan all along, out come the men from the caves to attack the Isengarders from the sides. They break through and, well, how about that, overnight the forest got a LOT closer to the Deeping Coomb, didn't it? And Erkenbrand! Gandalf found him and got him through. But he's not really needed; the relocated forest so freaks out the Orcs and Evil Men that they run away and disappear into the woods, never to be seen again.

The sudden appearance of these woods is not explained, within the narrative, for quite a long time. Of course we readers who benefit from the omniscient third person Tolkien know how the trees -- the Huorns! -- got there, but Gandalf is ever coy and tells everybody that if they want to know about all that, they should come to Isengard with him, but for a parley rather than a fight. They take care of their dead (Hama! Sniffle...), then head out, passing the trees of this new forest, which are Old Forest Creepy: "The ends of their long sweeping boughs hung down like searching fingers, their roots stood up from the ground like the limbs of strange monsters, and dark caverns opened beneath them." I wonder, indeed, if the Old Forest isn't a similar tree army the Ents rustled up for the defense of the Shire, or who- or whatever the Shire was at that time, in the long long ago -- or to pen up another wizard gone bad, with a mind full of metal and wheels? Parallels!

Along the way, Gimolas argues about woods versus caves, and Gim has a suggestion that I'm sure would give many a stump-humper the vapors: the caves around Helm's Deep are marvelous, he has discovered, and many a Dwarve would pay gold to visit them. ARGH! Middle Earth's first tourist trap?

Available in the gift shop. Buy one for a pal!

Next thing you know, Gimolas is planning a honeymoon for after the war, a tour of the caves of Helm's Deep (aka Aglarond) followed by one of Fangorn (aka something hideously polysyllabic it would take a year to say). Awww!

And then the party comes across some Ents, but these do not deign to notice our heroes; they're just calling out to one another and keeping an eye on the trees they herded to Helm's Deep. Thus Theoden learns he has allies, but not ones that care so very much about the fate of his kingdom; they just have a common enemy. Nonetheless, in the dark of night, the Ents take care of a lot of stuff behind the scenes, including the giant pile of Orc corpses that the Eorlingas could not burn without cutting down trees, so left in a heap. And they also free the waters of the Isen from whatever nefarious dam-type-contrivance Saruman has had built to divert the water for his own steampunky purposes. That's right, I said steampunk. Prove me wrong!***

Alas for Saruman! By the time our heroes arrive at his tower of Orthanc, it is pretty well trashed; the water Saruman was abusing has been turned against him, to the ruin of everything. And in the rubble: Hobbits! Merry and Pippin, chillin' after dinner with a pipe full of weed. This reunion is one of the happiest scenes in this whole trilogy, for my money, as is the hobbits' first conversation with Theoden, which threatens to become a discourse on the history of smoking! For there is tons of pipeweed to be had, of the very best quality. So any remarks Saruman might have made about Gandalf's love of the leaf sound a bit hollow now, eh?****

What follows is a sort of mini-Council of Elrond, really. Again. So I guess Rivendell doesn't quite have all the exposition. How unfair of me. Pippin, by the way, is a way more exciting expositor than Elrond, but then again, he's talking about the Ents' attack on Isengard, which WOW, even though we're getting it second-hand, just like when Bilbo missed the Battle of Five Armies.

Soon it's time to confront Saruman, and here we get our second, greater example of speech as a means to work evil. Like a Bene Gesserit adept's, Saruman's very voice can bewitch people, we've been told; only Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel might be able to withstand it (so it's completely wonderful that Christopher Lee, whose own voice is so marvelous I'm glad he doesn't do advertising voice-overs, was cast as Saruman in the films!). Curiously, Gandalf counsels everyone who comes with him not to jest or approach Saruman with a light heart. Talking to him requires willpower.

I admire Tolkien for not just letting these declarative statements and descriptions of Saruman's power do the work here. Saruman's actual speeches are kindly and reasonable in and of themselves, carefully wrought with just the right touch of rhetoric. Lesser writers would, and have, let the "magic" do all the heavy lifting.

And I love that it's Gim, of all people, who shoots this rhetoric full of holes: "In the language of Orthanc, help means ruin and saving means slaying." Theoden busts out with a speech against Saruman, too, and maybe his is the more heroic for having been under the influence for so long, but Gim was first. Go, Gim!

By the time Gandalf gets his verbal licks in, they just seem cruel, really, though they come only after Saruman has managed, very subtly, to convince everyone that what was going to happen next was a private council between these two lofty Istari to which the rest would not be privy. Perhaps the cruelty was needful. Perhaps. At any rate, Gandalf -- now calling himself Gandalf the White -- announces that Saruman is cast out of the Order and proves that his own voice is powerful, too: "Your staff is broken," he says, and CRACK. Saruman crawls away, and -- UH OH -- Wormtongue chucks a Palantir (as always for this old, old stuff, check out Essjay's posts on the Silmarillion for more on that, if you don't want to read the Silmarillion yourself, though Gandalf does tell a bit of their history later on) that almost hits Gandalf in the head! Which Pippin picks up! But Gandalf snatches away! Foreshadowing!

And so Saruman is left with the Ents to keep him prisoner in his impregnable, but now tree- and water-surrounded tower. And so is established The Watchwood. Hoom hoom. Again, I wonder about the Old Forest, and TomBom, perhaps Treebeard's counterpart in the West?

It is not very hard to guess which finger from the White Hand that used to adorn the pillar is really lying athwart the path of our heroes as they depart, is it? I imagine it sticking right up. I mean, Tolkien says "forefinger" but come on.

Camping that night, Pippin sneaks a peek at the Palantir, which has been gnawing at his imagination since he first picked it up, and gives Sauron his first eyeful of Hobbitve. Oops. Fool of a Took... (he even calls himself an "idiotic fool" -- has he internalized Gandalf's impatience? Because of course he's no more a fool than is Merry, whatever PJ and PB may have done to him cinematically). What follows is the only time, I think, that Sauron actually speaks in these books. At first Sauron thinks it's Saruman, but when he realizes it's a hobbit, he says "Tell Saruman that this dainty is not for him."

So now the mystery of how Sauron and Saruman have been communicating is solved! And since it allows its bearer to communicate by sight, sound and thought with others who have Palantirs (pretty much all of them lost except for maybe one that wound up in, TA-DAH, Mordor), it is also probably how Saruman was corrupted. Here is where an object can actually make people evil. I do not buy in the slightest that the Ring has this ability, especially not as an ambient generator of evil the way the films depict it. Since the films, it seems everyone reads the books looking for signs that the Ring is corrupting people. I do not remember playing those games before the films, and neither does EssJay. I find them tiresome and beside the point. The Ring is a weapon that can enable and magnify the ill intentions of its user, and pervert the good intentions, if there are any. Take SmeaGollum; he is a greedy creature to begin with, who covets a pretty bit of gold, and it takes a good while after he kills Deagol before he gets kicked out of proto-Hobbit society. And then its the long, slow work of years (and having to survive on his own, catch-kill-cook-eat) to turn him into the creature that's stalking Frodo. Boromir was consumed with the notion of defending Gondor and correctly saw the Ring as a weapon that might aid in that effort (and perhaps had the common failing of being too sure that he, of all Men, would be strong enough not to be corrupted by the Ring and the power it bestowed). Bilbo kept the Ring for years and the worst thing he ever did was be reluctant to give it up and maybe once, out of what really just seems like withdrawal symptoms, get grabby after it with Frodo in Rivendell.

The Palantir, though? I totally buy as a means of magically turning people evil.

ANYWAY, sorry for the rant, but it's been coming for weeks, Tolkiephiles.

For safer-keeping, Gandalf gives the stone to Aragorn, who declares that it probably once belonged to Elendil and thus is actually part of his inheritance.

If I had an awesome artist like Meggiggles over at The Snobbery, I would totally insert a picture of Aragorn and the Pokemons here, because Aragorn has got to catch them all. Anduril. Check. Elessar. Check. Palantir. Check. Banner. Being made by his awesome Elve babe. Things are looking mighty good for Aragorn. But he doesn't think he's ready for Sauron to know about him yet; far better the Dark Lord be obsessed with Pippin for a while.

And then OMG WINGED NAZGUL. Run away! Run away! Gandalf and Pippin make for Minas Tirith on Shadowfax at Mach 1.

*When Rohirrim are present,Tolkien has a tendency to slip into a weird pattern of word order in sentences that we mostly associate with Yoda, putting the adjective first. He goes into overdrive on this when describing Eomer's sister, Eowyn, for the first time: "Grave and thoughtful was her glance", "very fair was her face", "Slender and tall she was... but strong she seemed..." And then again when describing Orthanc: "A strong place and wonderful was Isengard." Tolkien has, of course, taken care to establish that the Rohirrim have their own language that is no longer mutually intelligible with that of their kindred in the North, so I'm sure this is just his way of conveying that difference, but oh man, has this gimmick led to a lot of bad imitators who have cranked out reams of this kind of crap in their turgid multivolume Tolkienian pastiche. Thud.

**Also, does this sound like the kind of guy who is going to surf down some castle steps on a shield soon? Of course not. It does, though, sound like the only Elve at the Battle of Helm's Deep, which is as it should be.

***In your heart, you know Saruman was striving to turn into this:

As Pippin says of him, "I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean."

****Perhaps also this is foreshadowing/explanation for Saruman's destination after being chased out of Orthanc, hmm? "Those bastards smoked  up all my weed!"

Sunday, July 22, 2012

100 Books #68 - Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S TIGER

Is the amazingly prolific Bernard Cornwell capable of writing a bad book? The evidence mounts sky-high against. Even this first story in his most famous and lengthy series, which could have been a tedious origin story for his scruffy but shrewd hero, Richard Sharpe, is freaking masterful.

I've long had a weakness for books set during the Raj -- Britain's long occupation of the Indian subcontinent that started as a mere commercial domination but ended with India (which at that time comprised India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) as the "jewel" in Queen Victoria's crown -- especially the works of M.M Kaye (basically historical romances with a strong military/adventure element, to which I was passionately attached as a teenager), Paul Scott (his socio-politically challenging Raj Quartet is a series I re-read almost as frequently as I do the Lord of the Rings) and Theodore Dalrymple (check out White Mughals sometime, a history of British officers who "went native" in Muslim India), so when I realized that this first Sharpe novel was set then and there, it leaped up to near the top of my "to be read" pile. I had thought myself Cornwell'd out for now, you see, or at least feeling guilty that I wasn't paying more attention to newer releases.

But damn! Bernard Cornwell's most famous hero got his sergeant's stripes in India? I am officially put out with pretty much everybody for not telling me this.

Though of course the risk would come up of my not reading anything but Sharpe once I had this one under my belt. That's what happened with Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin books, into which most of the year 2000 disappeared, after all. So everybody gets a pass this time.

But so, Sharpe! As Sharpe's Tiger opens, Richard Sharpe is a private in India, planning to desert from the British Army (here acting as pretty much the strong-arm proxy of the British East India Company), taking his lover, Mary, with him. Mary, however, is the widow of an officer, a half-caste who looks like a white woman and a very pretty white woman to boot. Hence she is coveted by all, including Sharpe's malevolent sergeant, who outmaneuvers Sharpe and looks to have succeeded in getting him killed but for a junior officer's having other plans for him. That could also get him killed. Plans that involve a ridiculous espionage-and-rescue mission that would seem completely doomed from the start (Cornwell is very good at stacking the deck against and putting the screws to his protagonists) but for the reader's knowledge that Sharpe has another 23 novels and short stories ahead of/behind him.

All loaded with action, adventure and pure badassery.

I always maintain, though, that any story that relies solely on surprise twists to be interesting is not a good story at all. Cornwell doesn't write those kinds of stories, though; while I know Sharpe is going to survive this adventure, and the terrible Siege of Seringapatam, I don't know how he's going to, and that's always a bigger mystery for my money. Says so in the scriptures.**

And the prose itself, describing all the action, intrigue and danger is, as always, superb and memorable:

The Scots colors were unfurled, the drummer boys sounded the advance, the pipers began their fierce music and the brigade marched into the rising sun. The sepoys followed. Rockets streaked up from the tope, but the missiles were no more accurate in the morning than they had been at night. The four brass field guns fired shell after shell, only stopping when the Scotsmen reached the aqueduct.
And this isn't even a major scene!

And don't even get me started on the scene when [REDACTED] happens and Sharpe and Colonel Gudin exchange a round of serious and sincere compliments to one another. I believe I still have a lump in my throat. I have the same problem in Patrick O'Brian's fiction whenever Aubrey or Maturin is a prisoner of war or otherwise have one-on-one dealings with the enemy. There is something about Men of Honor in Napoleonic War fiction that just gets me, every time. I'm not a sucker for a man in uniform, but sure am one for a man who can recognize the humanity and worth of a foeman, oh yes!

Indeed, even the major bad guy, the Tippoo Sultan (an actual historical figure), gets some moments of staggering awesomeness and is a fully fleshed-out character, whose motives we understand and almost come to share, as seems to be a characteristic of Cornwell's work. We're not getting George R.R. Martin-style "moral complexity" but we do come to understand him well enough to admire his stunning ballsiness in the novel's climax. Respect. But you're still an evil sonofabitch, Tipoo.

And then there's that damned Frenchman, Colonel Gudin:
Look after him, Lieutenant... An army isn't made of its officers, you know, though we officers like to think it is. An army is no better than its men, and when you find good men, you must look after them.
And the lump gets bigger. Damn. But lest we think Sharpe some kind of paragon, well, in the end he proves himself as flawed and human as any of us. With a little bit of tiger thrown in. Damn.

I still haven't gotten to all of the other amazing characters in this story, some real, some fictional. Colonel Baird. Lieutenant Lawford. Colonel McCandless. Appah Rao. Kumindar Singh.Colonel Wellesley (the future Iron Duke). They're all completely fascinating and the fact that some of them are on the opposite side from others makes pretty much the whole last third of the story a rush from anguish to anguish, with a little bit of OMG thrown in.

For those who might ask, I have made a conscious decision to avoid the television adaptations of these books and stories until I've read them all. I'm grateful they exist, though, for without them we'd have a lot less Sharpe, because the shows spurred Cornwell to write more. Glory!

Oh, and for the record, if someone were ever to develop some Sharpe video games, I would play the Snape out of them. The living Snape.

*I say "ahead of/behind" because while this is the first Sharpe novel in historical order, set in 1799, the first Sharpe book Cornwell wrote was Sharpe's Gold, set in 1810. I'm reading them in historical order because I'd probably go nuts any other way.

**Wink wink.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog VIII: The Two Towers III: 1-5

From some discussion we've been having, it seems I'm not the only one who is always a little shocked to be reminded that the resolution of Boromir's story does not occur in the last chapter of Fellowship of the Ring, but rather in the first chapter of The Two Towers. Part of this is, no doubt, because of the films, who also directly show us Boromir's last stand rather than just presenting us with its aftermath to pick over like technicians with CSI: Middle Earth.

I tend to applaud that choice; George R.R. Martin especially has trained me to mistrust deaths that happen offscreen, as it were. Pics or it didn't happen!

But of course, it did.

Equilibrium at last!

Of course, it's not precisely Boromir's corpse that Aragorn finds; Boromir (Oh, Boromir!) gets a few last words, a chance to confess and be forgiven before he dies. So Aragorn finds out that some Orcs have Merry and Pippen, but d'oh! Boromir (Oh, Boromir!) dies before Aragorn thinks to ask about Frodo. Not that Boromir knew where Frodo had gone anyway, but still.

And then we get a gloomy soliloquy, or rather the continuation of one, from Aragorn, who is working himself up into quite a frenzy of despair. It's like pessimism is a disease and Boromir infected him just before dying. Fortunately, Gimolas shows up to shake some sense into the Future King of Gondor and insist that before Aragorn expends anymore time and energy grieving and wailing and gnashing his teeth and failing to decide which way to go now, they do something about Boromir's body. Remember, as far as Gimolas knows, Boromir simply died fighting; only Aragorn knows he tried to take the ring. But even so, now that he's dead, it's important to honor who he was rather than who he almost became.

In 1986, I saw a film that finally made me understand what people meant when they said they loved film -- film for its own sake, and not just a particular movie or a kind of movie. That film, which I still think should have won the Academy Award for Best Picture (which went to Platoon. Grr), was Roland Joffe's The Mission.

Why do I mention that film now? Because, of course, its opening scene immediately ripped my head off with its arresting beauty, its dramatic power, and how it reminded me of the way Aragorn and Gimolas sent Boromir down the falls of Rauros in a boat with his own weapons and a heap of Orc weapons -- he killed some 20 before they took him down.

Anyway, that scene from The Mission, like the Ennio Morricone score, like the performances by Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro (and yeah, Liam Neeson too, in a small part), like the amazing cinematography of Chris Menges, still gives me the chills and still makes me think of Boromir:

In addition, we are treated to some sort-of -impromptu poetry as part of the sendoff. I don't think Aragorn and Legloas are making this up on the spot, but as educated men of a civilization that still partakes very much of the oral tradition, they probably, like any good bard or prince, have a certain stock of heroic lines and verses committed to memory, ever a the ready for adaptation into a new epic or, in this case, lament. Think of Homer's "wine-dark sea" and "rosy-fingered dawn": "What news from the North, O mighty wind, do you bring to me today? What news of Boromir the Bold? For he is long away." Any hero's name, with an appropriately alliterative epithet, could fit those lines, and doubtless has many times before now.

This is one of the most moving scenes in the whole of Tolkien's milieu, for me.

And then, decision time. Aragorn's tracking skills have already told him where Frodo and Sam went -- to the boats, Mordor or Bust. They go into danger, most likely, but Merry and Pippen are for sure in danger. Orcs got 'em. And not just any Orcs, but the monstrous goblins-on-steroids we will come to know as Saruman's Uruk-Hai.

I always wondered how Saruman created those guys. The movie rather cleverly has him rattling off the history of how Sauron created the original Orcs, by torturing and degrading and corrupting captive Elves until they produced offspring with the desired traits. Did Saruman start from scratch, as Sauron did, or did he just start his own pea farm captive breeding program? Did he sit down and make Punnet Squares?

Let T = sunlight tolerance and t = sunlight intolerance.. 
how many generations until Uruk Hai?

And he's gone and developed his own heraldry and everything. Which I love. But, so, it's these guys, who can walk in the sunlight and use man-sized weapons and armor, a new thing in Middle Earth, who have Merry and Pippen, the Decoy Hobbits of Book III. So of course Aragorn and Gimolas are going after them.

After a whole lot of running, they find out that they're not the only ones who stop the world to have arguments over where they're going. All signs at a place just within the border of ROHAAANNNN point to a huge fight, with lots of Orc-on-Orc action. The ordinary Moria/Mordor Orcs had just assumed they were taking the hobbits to Sauron, but the Uruk Hai (who basically win), are taking the hobbits to Isengard. And yes I know about the song. Of course I do.

More running. So much running. EssJay has pointed out that they run 135 miles, chasing the Uruk Hai. How many people can actually do that? But these are not ordinary people, of course. Aragorn is of an all but superhuman race of kings, Gimli is a Dwarve and famous for stamina, and Legolas... Legolas is even stranger:
In the waybread of the Elves he found all the sustenance that he needed, and he could sleep, if sleep it could be called by Men, resting his mind in the strange paths of elvish dreams, even as he walked open eyed in the light of this world.

Please tell me I'm not the only one who is thinking of the Cylons' "projections" in Nu Battlestar Galactica. Please? Or perhaps it's just that, being immortal and ridiculously old, the Elves really have been there, done that, everywhere, many times over, and don't have to pay attention to where they're stepping? But no, Legolas had never been to Lorien before. So maybe he just pre-figures the posthuman dreams of those who look at the eight or so hours of sleep our bodies require every day to function as a waste, and hope to find a way to make the time we're given more productive.

Anyway, neat trick.

An end finally comes to all the running when come the Riders of ROHAANNNNN, at least the household of Eomer*, nephew of King Theoden of ROHAANNNNNN, who almost starts a fight with Gimolas when he repeats what he's always been told, that Galadriel is a witch who ensnares everyone who comes into her land, but, being a reasonable and awesome person, backs down when they do and everybody exchanges news. Eomer and co. killed all the Uruk Hai/Orcs but never saw any hobbits; Aragorn tells them who he is and everybody is friends. But alas! Eomer is more or less an outcast because he sticks to the old ways, old alliances and old promises, but Theoden has been listening to counselors with other ideas, like doing what Saruman wants.

Oh, and that tribute of horses to Mordor is total horse-pucky. Orcs steal black horses from time to time.

But so, the running is at an end. Some of Eomer's men did not survive the battle with the Uruk Hai, so he just happens to have some spare horses. He hopes Aragorn and Gimolas will come back to Meduseld to help Eomer's people get ready for the coming war (and maybe get Theoden to wake up and smell the stench), but no, our boys want to make absolutely for sure that Merry and Pippin are truly lost before they give up on them, so off they go!

And what's that they spy at the edge of Fangorn? Near the site of Eomer's giant Orcbecue? An old man that appears and disappears and seems a little weird? Whoever could that be?


This is the first time Tolkien's done this kind of split scene storytelling, for as Chapter III starts we're going back in time four days or so to catch up with Merry and Pippin and the Uruk Hai (the very same Uruk Hai whom Eomer went all Gandalf with the pinecones on), on the running march from the Argonath to Isengard. This was all very disorienting for me as a young reader, because I was not expecting a storytelling device like this, so I assumed that either Aragorn was wrong about where the hobbits were/were being taken or that the Uruk Hai who had them had managed to escape the Riddermark's men somehow. I opted to believe the latter until I knew better, but then whoa!

Anyway, Pip wakes up from a bad dream only to realize his actual situation is far worse. He and Merry have indeed been taken by Uruk Hai, and they are well trussed. But he remembers that Merry, at least, fought them off pretty well even before Boromir arrived - Merry "had cut off several of their arms and hands." Who's a badass? Merry's a badass. Just a small one.

Pippin ponders his uselessness thus far on the mission and totally fails to see that the Uruk Hai think that he and/or Merry are THE Halfling, i.e. the one with the Ring, and so right now he and Merry are the most useful people on the whole mission right now (with the exception of Frodo and Sam themselves, of course). Poor Pip. Your time is coming.

Meanwhile, commence fighting, all you Orcs and Uruk Hai. Like you ordinary Orcs have a chance. Ha! And I kind of love Ugluk, you guys. He's a bastard on the wrong side, of course, and he eats man's flesh and all, but he is... well, maybe I've just been reading too much military/historical fiction lately, but he reminds me of Richard Sharpe a little. He's got his orders, and he's going to follow them, by god. And since he's the best soldier of the lot by a great margin, well, he gets a name, doesn't he? I mean, so does Grishnbkh, but Ugluk is the baddest.

During the fight, Pip manages to cut his hands loose but shrewdly reties them loosely so his captors don't catch on. And later, he lets drop his brooch from Lorien as a clue for the CSI: Middle Earth team, in case they're following. See? He's already doing well. Hobbits freaking rule. And it gets better still: later on, when Grishnbkh is basically rolling Merry and Pippin looking for the Ring, Pip totally messes with his head with a bang-up Gollum impression. Like a boss.

Never once in any of the books are any of the Hobbits this lame.

Meanwhile, Merry, who was injured in the fight when he and Pip were seized, is getting a dose of Orcish medicine courtesy of Ugluk. I'm sure the salve is smelly, and the drink he's forced to take yucky, but it totally works.

And then they're off! The Uruk Hai insist on running day and night, which the little goblins from the Misties don't like. Merry and Pippin, fortified by and possibly high on some awful Orc drink, have to run, too, or get whipped. Or dragged. Yow!

Soon another disagreement breaks out. "Where's your Nazgul now," Ugluk taunts. "Has he had another mount shot under him?" See? Ugluk!**) and most of the Northerners leave the company for good, leaving Merry and Pippin to the Uruk Hai because by now they all know that the "Whiteskins" (Rohirrim) are coming for them. Which they do! Many of them shooting arrows from horseback! And now all I can picture is a contest, Rohirrim vs Dothraki! Except I also love to picture Eomer vs Ugluk. That would have been something to see.

And in the chaos and slaughter, Merry and Pippin escape into Fangorn! By the power of Lembas!

I need to make a batch of this for the next drinkalong!

Well, and also Merry's memory of all the maps he studied at Rivendell while Pippin was just sort of hanging out. Merry has all the geography.

Ah, Fangorn. Dim and stuffy home of Treebeard!*** This is another part that is revealed to kind of drag on a bit. Part of this is because Treebeard takes a long time to do anything, and part of it is just because it's contrasting immediately to the breakneck pace of the prior chapters, which have been all about running. Ents do not run. They are the orphan race of Middle Earth, unable to breed new generations because the females are gone (see my FOTR posts for stupid speculation about the Entwives). I have talked about Ents to death already, I feel. Hoom. At any rate, our Hobbits do not get off on quite the right foot with Treebeard, when he hears Pippin say he almost liked the forest, but again, our boys display considerable political/psychological acumen and (eventually) divert Treebeard's attention to his real enemy.

But first, more traveling! But this time Merry and Pippin just sort of ride on Treebeard's shoulders for 70,000 Ent strides, which sounds pretty far to me but who knows, maybe every movement of his seven toes counts as a stride and maybe it's just a few miles? Anyway, Treebeard's house! Where the Entdraughts are! More strange liquids for the Hobbits.

Well, I'm sure it will taste better than that Orcish liqueur...
Again, I can totally see why the stoner crowd loves these books.

Anyway, Treebeard gets positively hasty after hearing the Hobbits' story, but he calms down and decides he needs to confer with his brothers, Finglas and Fladrif and the rest of the gang. Except wait, not those two; Finglas is sleepy and hairy, and Fladrif has gone way up high to hide out with the birches. But there are other guys, younger guys. Yes. But later. First Treebeard has to talk about the Entwives, all about the Entwives, and if his talk doesn't make you want to go for a long walk in the forest or the nice green countryside (I believe there still is some, somewhere, but all the countryside around me is blonde and brown. Stupid drought) then there is something deeply wrong with you because OMG scenery porn. And also, if you don't feel incredibly sorry for the Ents, there is something really really wrong with you and your ancestors might have been part of the breeding program when Saruman was messing with his Punnet squares.

"Soon" in Ent terms, there is an Entmoot at a place called Derndingle (tee hee) at which the decision is taken: Saruman, with his "mind of metal and wheels" who "does not care for growing things" has been messing with their forests for too long.**** The Shepherds of the Trees are going to war! "We come, we come with horn and drum, ta-ryna ryna ryna rom!"


Aragorn and Gimolas are arguing over the old man they think they saw. Gim thinks it's got to be Saruman but Olas isn't so sure. It's the horses, you see. Were they scared or glad to encounter whatever they encountered? Of course we know this is the respawned Gandalf the White and Shadowfax. But Aragorn is still in full-on tracking mode.

Here is a mallorn leaf of Lorien, and there are small crumbs on it.

Everybody trades conspiracy theories. And then they head into the forest. Yes, into Fangorn. And Gim says the sweetest thing yet to Olas. Olas likes the feel of Fangorn even though it's old and stuffy, so Gim is willing to go "You comfort me," the Dwarve says to the Elve. "Where you go, I will go." Did they just get married?

But that's not important now because


Who defeated the


in an epic off-screen fight and came back as "Saruman as he should have been." Tolkien really does a fine job of stringing out the question of his identity, by the way. When I was a kid, I was sure this was Saruman and he was going to git 'em. I was totally gobsmacked when it turned out to be Gandalf. I believe my mother came running into my room to ask me what the Snape was wrong.

I believe I have said before that it is probably totally my fault she won't read fantasy. Science fiction, OMG yes, but not fantasy.

Anyway, so


has had Gwaihir the Windlord (the chief of the Eagles from The Hobbit, who also was the one who rescued


from Orthanc, and rescued him again from Celebdil, where he showed up naked after defeating the


out scouting for him, and so he knows that Frodo got away ("he was saved from a great peril, but many lie before him still") but apparently not that Sam went with him? But so then INFODUMP. Everybody catches everybody up on what's going on in very great detail. Very great. Not quite Council of Elrond great, but still. I guess the literary device of "and they exchanged news" wasn't suitable here because...?

Uh, I got nothin'.

But hey, this is the chapter where the title of this novel comes into focus. Mordor (Barad-Dur) knows that Isengard (Orthanc) is also after the Ring, and everybody else is caught in between. It's a metaphor, and yet not! Clever, clever Tolkien!

So the big chase (I am still laughing at EssJay's interpretation of said chase, by the way) was kind of pointless, although


assures them that it wasn't, even though the Hobbits are safe by their own efforts, and now they have to kind of backtrack a little because just as the Ents are coming for Saruman, Saruman is coming for Rohan (in case somehow Theoden has gotten his hands on the Ring) and Sauron is coming for Gondor, so no matter what, Aragorn and Anduril need to make themselves known and rally the troops. Stand, men of the west!

To Edoras! No, that is not a toast. Maybe on Friday, though.

*Eomer is one of my favorite characters in The Two Towers. And here this time around is the first time I noticed yet another reason to love him: the people of ROHAANNNN and the Beornings (i.e. Beorn and his family) are related, and many of the Beornings are tall and fair like the people of ROHAANNNN, which I guess is the excuse Peter Jackson is going to use for giving us a Fabio-tressed Beorn. A Fabeorn, if you will.

**Ugluk also makes several remarks to the effect that the Uruk Hai are always left to do the dirty work. So apparently there have been joint missions between the Misty/Mordor Orcs and the Uruk Hai in the past? Orc politics, man. It's a helluva thing.

***Who, by the way, did not read the Silmarillion, apparently, because when he rattles off his "Lore of Living Creatures" he names Elves as the oldest of all. Hoom! Though later when he starts (slowly) reciting his own story, possibly a Common Speech translation of his name, he sounds very Silmarillionesque, no?
 ------- But then later Gandalf says that Treebeard himself is the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle Earth. Wha---?

****By the way, how much do we love Bregalad? He made up his mind right away, because his part of the forest is already being affected (love his laments for his rowan trees) so gets appointed the Hobbit-sitter, and takes them to all the prettiest places in the forest. Sigh.

Friday, July 20, 2012

100 Books #67 - Simon Reynolds' RETROMANIA

"History must have a dustbin, or History will be a dustbin, a giantic, sprawling garbage heap." - Simon Reynolds in Retromania
Well, Mr. Reynolds, you surprised me. I tucked in to Retromania expecting a nice, long, curmudgeonly rant, about how pop finally has eaten itself, but what I got was a history lesson as much as anything, and a case made for the notion that pop has been eating itself all along.

I must admit I felt as though I was clinging on to the tail end of Reynolds' arguments with my fingernails through much of this book. I've heard of maybe half of the bands he mentions, and have actually heard the music of maybe a third of said bands. This is a book that could have benefitted from the very technology that he somewhat decries; I would have loved to be able to just click on a band name and play some samples. As it was, I found myself throwing down the Kindle and taking up the laptop to hit or YouTube to get an idea of what he was talking about. Which was very educational, but also very inconvenient.

I thought, too, that 496 pages was rather a lot to spend with any writer who was basically telling me something I already kind of knew: that popular music has largely stopped trying for the fresh and new and has instead gone the way of sartorial fashion, raiding its closets and collections for old stuff that can be tweaked and reworked a bit and presented as something hot and new. What I hadn't counted on, though, was Reynolds' thorough and thoughtful approach to figuring out why and how that had come to be.

A lot of the usual culprits come up, of course: the quest to step out of or stand athwart the mainstream (just because the Music Industry says this is what I should like now doesn't mean I have to), the advent of Mp3s and digital music players that mash everything up and level out the playing field (it's fun to hear a brand new Magnetic Fields Track one minute and Cleoma Breaux and Joe Falcon the next; no music ever goes away just because it's old, now), in general the sheer weight of the past of recorded music (the Industry's decades-long strategy of throwing up everything to see what would stick means there is a hell of a lot of old music still around on vinyl, just waiting to see a turntable again), and of course the roots of nostalgia and that longing for times that seemed free and full of possibility instead of fettered with responsibility, infirmity and age.

But of course the music that makes you feel that way again is different for every age group, isn't it? Because that's just an accident of what was popular when you were young -- or, in many later cases, what wasn't popular. I still run screaming from a bar if I hear too many hair metal songs in a row, because to me, that's the music of my oppressors, most often heard from the trunk of a car or the interior of some frasshat upperclassman's locker. I clung to my parents' music, to Andy Williams and Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash and the Kingston Trio, stuff that is now regarded as timeless and classic and is all but revered but in the '80s was considered worse than passe.

Your mileage may vary.

Where Reynolds really gets interesting on this subject, though, is when he takes up the idea of "curation." Curation is a much-used term these days. All the hip kids are doing it. You're probably doing it, if you have a blog or a YouTube page or are a DJ on something like And it's being done at the highest levels by people with real resources, too, of course. The people who plan all those revival and reunion tours, the brain trust behind the "I Love the ___" shows, the issuers of B-side compilations and deep track collections marketed to those who want to think of themselves as real connoisseurs of style X or period Y. It's all very interesting, because, of course, rock 'n' roll started out as deliberately primitive and barbarous, a Whitmanesque yawp, cacophonous and sexy and loud and parent-frightening, the very antithesis of highbrow. But somewhere along the way, the people who loved it weren't satisfied with things as they were and wanted to get highbrow, and by the time that impulse was born, there was plenty of raw material over which to paw and put down or praise, to classify and connect into geneaologies, to resurrect and revive...

...And the thing is, with so much recorded music out there in the world*, still perfectly playable, and with so many would-be experts and appraisers out there, too, for every single that only got pressed one time in a run of a dozen copies that no one originally wanted, there is somewhere a small tribe of people who will, if given a chance, drone on at one for hours about how it is the greatest record ever and how only the elect can appreciate it.

And, as Reynolds points out, some form of this has been going on for pretty much as long as there has been recorded music. People latch on to something and won't let it go, or dig up something old from the dustbin and since it's new to them they don't think it's retro if they borrow from it for something of their own.

That's the key right there, I think: everything, however old, is always new to somebody.** And sometimes that somebody is very brave to stick to his or her original enjoyment and enthusiasm in the face of the many who can't wait to jump in on the party and tell him or her that the music they've just found is stale or used up or just plain bad. And every once in a while, that somebody finds a way to make their old find feel new for other people, usually people who are younger than the ones who yawn and say "been there, done that, bought the tee shirt."

But has pop, or rock'n'roll, ever been for the kind of people who are capable of saying that?

Meanwhile, there is more old music in the world than there ever has been before. Every day there is more. And maybe it's like a teetering stack: to put something new on top, one has to make the effort to climb up past all the old stuff at the bottom, in the middle, near the top. And maybe not everyone has the energy to make that effort.

And then of course there are those who insist that originality is overrated anyway. My parents are kind of like that: both of them still insist on finding it bewildering when we speak of "a Clash song" or "a Cure song" or (my sister, lord love her) "a Quarterflash song". They're just songs, Mom and Dad have told us, again and again. When they were young, singers and bands played each other's songs all the time. If a song was good, lots of people wanted to perform it.

Now people talk about covers and samples, some sneeringly, some adoringly. My parents would just say again, if a song is good, lots of people want to perform it.

If a style is good, lots of people want to get in on it. And in this day and age, doing so is easier than ever. It's almost easier than not doing so. People might not even realize what time machines their iPods, their CD or vinyl or (me!) cassette collections are. It's all music that we like, which is why we have it. And maybe the only thing it all has in common is that we like it.

So is it "retro" or "nostalgia" or is it just the recognition that music is music, whenever it was made?

So yeah, I have some problems with Reynolds, though I lack his staggering erudition on the subject of pop to go toe to toe with him, I am sure. But as you'll see from the second footnote below, I have rather a longer view of musical history than he does. At least I suspect so.

But he does have a point about the fin de siecle nature of the 21st century so far. The petroleum economy is running out of steam, but its impact on our climate and health is only beginning to be felt. A lot of the systems our ancestors built for running the world have proven to be less robust and trustworthy than we thought (though if one insists on kicking all the pins out from under them *cough* Ronald Reagan and Alan Greenspan *cough* should one be surprised when they collapse?). The space program that inspired so much innovation in high and pop culture has also gone into decline, as Reynolds does rather eloquently describe. The future's brightness probably still requires us to wear shades, but that brightness is proving to be glare off the deserts we're creating. In such a time, how innovative do you feel like being?

Especially when there's still all that old music out there that you haven't listened to yet, just a click away...

*There is, too, an elephant in Reynolds' room, I think: the Baby Boomers. Now, Reynolds was born in 1963 (and thinks, not out of narcissism or so he claims, that that's the year that rock'n'roll really got started as something that could be considered art, blah blah blah ma gavta la nata), which makes him one of the early Gen Xers but, well, he's a lot closer to those Boomers than I am. He remembers the Moon Landing, which I only experienced a gleam in Dad's eye (or more likely Mom's), at any rate. And he does go on, Reynolds does, about how much innovation the '60s and '70s saw, musically. Well, of course it did. There were more young people than ever before, then, all wanting to define themselves against their biological and musical ancestors as much as possible. There was a critical mass, then, that may never happen again. And it's just possible that all the possibilities that rock had to offer all got explored at once, then. Every permutation imaginable is on a 45 somewhere. So of course everything afterwords looks derivative. Add to this discussion the fact that the Boomers have categorically refused to let go of popular culture -- it was for them, not my parents, that "oldies radio" became the unstoppable hose truck that it is -- and thus have forced both their immediate successors (us Xers) and their own children to grow up in their musical shadow, listening to their records and constant reminiscences and assertions that we're nothing compared to their greatness and is it any surprise that most musicians today sound a lot like those of decades past?

**I'm as guilty of this as anyone. In the '90s I lived in Boston and jumped into the "third wave" ska revival with both dancing feet. I never went as deep as some of my friends, who were constantly striving to outdo each other with rare finds from flea markets and record stores, where Skatalites 45s seemed to have been seeded just in time to part these new young fans from their money; competing, too, in pedantry about old two-tone bands and how they didn't need the subtitles to understand the dialogue in "The Harder They Come." I got bored with that pretty quickly, though, because at one trip to a cool old record shop that I'm sure no longer exists in the gentrified replacement for Cambridge's Central Square, I found and fell in love with... are you ready for this?

Byzantine secular classical music.

I swear I wasn't trying to outdo anyone, be the most retro or anything like that. I just thought it was the most amazing, haunting, beautiful, sexy and strange music I had ever heard. I still do. I listen to these discs of Christocoulos Halaris' interpretations (oh you should see the liner notes, all about the reconstruction and musicological effort that was undergone to produce these recordings. I've never managed to read all the way through them. I'm not a musicologist. I just want to hear the tunes) all the time, probably more than any other music I own or have access to. In a world where the latter category consists of everything, ever, now, that's saying something.

I'm still waiting for some mad genius to come along and bust some of these moves in something "new" and "fresh." Of course, there's always Arab hip-hop until then.

But see, I've just pretty much proved all of Reynolds' points, haven't I?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

100 Books #66 - Jasper Fforde's THE EYRE AFFAIR

Time travel! Cloned animals! Nineteenth century social novels! Exclamation marks! Most of those last from me! These Thursday Next novels, in other words, are a hell of a lot of fun! And this is only the first of seven extant so far! It's as if Lavie Tidhar and Tim Powers became devout Catholics* and got married and had a whole lot of children together! I don't know which one of them gets to be the mom by the way!

More than anything, The Eyre Affair, and, from what I'm hearing, all the rest of the books in this series, is a novel for a certain kind of person: the kind who crows with delight at the idea of children trading Henry Fielding bubblegum cards and arguing over what is a fair exchange for a rare Sophia (answer: an Allworthy, a Tom Jones and an Amelia). I am that kind of person.

It is also for the kind of person who thinks The Sandbaggers (a 1970s British TV show about a very small unit of very covert Cold War operatives) was one of television's greatest achievements. I am also that kind of person.

Ditto for the kind of person who dreams about what it would be like if radical Baconians (people who think Francis Bacon was the actual author of Shakespeare's plays) and Marlovians (people who think Kit Marlowe was better than Shakers, or even that he was the real author) engaged in various forms of combat in the present day, said combat/competitiveness including door-to-door solicitations like so many Mormon teenagers on Mission. Oh  yes, I am one of those as well.

If you're reaching the conclusion that I would have liked this book even if the characterization and plotting were crap, you are right. Fortunately, those elements are of a quality almost as worthy of praise as all these schticks that Fforde has combined here. I say almost only because really, I'm pretty sure no plot, no characters, could ever be as awesome as Richard III (the play; I do feel the need to emphasize that it's the play rather than the actual king, as we are dealing with some time travel here) being heckled, Rocky Horror-style.

And I'll stop just dropping bits now, I promise. But gosh, are they fun. The temptation to share all of my favorites is really hard to resist.

At heart, the Eyre Affair is a detective novel, one that, probably, counts as a cozy mystery. Thursday Next, a veteran of the Crimean War (that is still going on in this alternate 1985), works in "LitTec", a sort of crime squad dedicated to, e.g., stamping out the trade in fake original Byron manuscripts purportedly brought through time. It's not very exciting work, and she is tired of it and longs for adventure, but when she gets sucked into a high level investigation for which she is uniquely qualified, she gets more than she bargained for. As well she should, in such a world!

Soon she's on the trail of a supervillain who can't be photographed or filmed, which means no one knows what he looks like - except our heroine, who happens to once have had him as a professor. And not appearing in photos is just one of his powers. He has a lot of powers.

So yes, this book is lots of fun, but there are some quirks, some of which feel a bit amateurish, that bugged me from time to time. Like our narrator's** tendency, when relating flashbacks to other characters, to include the kind of dialogue tags, complete with adverbs, that are natural for a first person narrator of a piece of fiction, but which real, normal people -- or characters in most quality fiction -- do not use in ordinary conversation, and especially not when reporting to superiors in an official capacity. Think about it. If your boss had called you in to ask you about something bad that happened, would  you say things like "Acheron smiled admiringly. He would have continued his brutal game for as long as he could, but the distant wail of police sirens hastened him into action. He shot me once in the chest and left me for dead" would you? No, you would say something like "we heard sirens, and then Acheron smiled, shot me, and took off." Or at least I would.

I can almost, almost, accept this as a very clever stylistic choice on Fforde's part; this is a world that takes classic literature extremely seriously, and our narrator is someone who spends a lot of time up to her eyeballs in it (literally, but I'm trying to avoid major spoilers), and so maybe, just  maybe, she would actually talk that way.

To police and higher ups in the secret service.

In a disciplinary/investigative setting.

 OK, no, I just talked myself out of that completely. It's official: I consider this a flaw, and a fairly annoying  one.

I'm inclined, though, to forgive Mr. Fforde this tic, not just because of the amusing bits the flavor of which I suggested above, but for the interesting conceit he has cooked up for these books: novels have a real and tangible existence, and each reading of one activates it as a sort of rigidly performed stage play, the characters and creatures performing their roles perfectly, identically, every single time, down to the smallest gesture. As it is written, so shall it be, over and over until nobody reads the book ever again -- except for special cases when a reader somehow penetrates the printed page, enters the story and interferes. Then, not only can that "performance" change, but so can the original text. Forever.

See? Interesting! Even when it's not combined with time travelers and cloned pet dodos and interagency politics and star-crossed love stories! But here, it is!

As the title of this novel suggests, the book getting picked on by both villain and heroine is Jane Eyre, with which the villain interferes to a disastrous degree and which our heroine must repair by foiling the villain and minutely supervising the course of the plot once the villain is foiled. Which is to say that, while I can't imagine anyone who wasn't already a fan of Jane Eyre picking up this book, heaven help that poor soul, especially if he or she is spoiler-averse.

For the rest of us, this is, as other reviewers have put it, a silly book for smart people, at least the kind of smart people who wish that art and literature were taken as seriously in this world as in the one Fforde has imagined. And yes, of course, I am one of those, too. Aren't you?

Oh, and Doctor Who fans will probably like this, too.

*And hey, Tim Powers already is one, I think.

**And well, as long as I'm taking pot-shots at the narration, Thursday is a awfully omniscient for a first person narrator. Awfully.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog VII - Fellowship of the Ring II: 6-12

Why yes, I'm numbering these like biblical citations now. Isn't that blasphenomenal of me? But let's be honest, Tolkien fans, at least all the ones I know and take seriously as Tolkien fans, probably know these books better than they know the Bible, like them better, and probably consider them more important, too. I know I do.

I took a day or two off from reading Fellowship of the Ring to clear my head and recover from a really bad idea that EssJay and I had, that being the Lord of the Rings cinematic drinkalong. It was loads of fun, but this original rule set definitely needs revision; most of us were half in the bag before Galadriel was done with the introduction. The deplorable results are on display for all to see at the storify that EssJay made.

But get a load of what we were working with:

I think we're definitely ditching the scenery porn rule. Some have argued that we were lumping too many shots that were there to establish location as scenery porn, but it's hard enough to keep up with the film, drinking, and tweeting, without spending extra cognitive effort on making that kind of nice distinction. I have spoken.

Now, on to the book, which we left in a very exciting and distressing moment. "Fly, you fools" indeed. And fly they do, spilling out into Dimrill Dale like so many cheezy poofs from a bag. The sound of the Orcs' drums is still echoing in our readerly ears as Aragorn grabs the spotlight for a small, gloomy soliloquy of the kind we'd more likely expect from Boromir: "Farewell, Gandalf... What hope have we without you?"

That little speech, and his follow-up, admonishing everybody to get going "We must do without hope" always puzzle me. For you see, Aragorn's nickname while he was growing up at Rivendell was Estel, which is the Sindarin (Elvish) word that means "hope, trust, a temper of mind, steady fixed in purpose, and difficult to dissuade and unlikely to fall into despair or abandon its purpose". Aragorn literally is hope.

See? Even Deviant Art says so.

And no, I don't think I'm reading too much into this. Tolkien is all about wordplay and plumbing the depths of his made-up knowledge. This is not just a throwaway line. It's a paradox that Tolkien planted here, deepening Aragorn's character for those who care to explore it, and still displaying, in the rest of his speech, those very characteristics for which Aragorn/Estel was named; he, like everybody else, is grieving, but he knows they must keep to their purpose as Gandalf would have wished. They can grieve on the run. I love this.

I also love this essay, or collection of essays, which I found while considering this question. I've pointed to a lot of silly speculations and crackpottery in these posts; it's good to remember that there's a lot of good and serious work to explore as well. Scroll down to the section, though, on Aragorn and Sam, which insists that Aragorn had a different Elvish word in mind, amdir, "hope based on reason" or "looking ahead" and that solves the paradox. I don't buy that; it makes even less sense, unless one takes the contorted position that what Aragorn is saying that they must do without reasonable hope and blunder on unreasonably?

Might as well take off the question mark and ignore the word order a bit and turn it into a positive statement, emphasizing the hope: "What hope we have!" Late at night this time around was when I came around to this passage, and that's what my tired mind did. I thought it was very clever, and further found myself musing about how perhaps Aragorn was regretting the loss of Gandalf, sure, sure, but also maybe a little glad that they'd be doing without the crutch of Gandalf's magic and lore; it was good they were going to have to Manve/Elve/Dwarve/Hobbitve up and take care of things themselves, good practice for the day, not far off, where even if the quest succeeded, there wouldn't be much magic in the world anyway. They'd best get used to it.

Like I said, I was tired. But even awake and properly hydrated, I find myself still liking this idea. Perhaps we'll discuss it further in comments, here or elsewhere. But onward!

Once everyone has bucked up and is ready to go, we find that Gimli isn't quite done playing tour guide. I love the moments he gets here, from shaking his fist at the Misty Mountains* to getting everybody to stop for a moment so he can admire Kheled-zaram, Durin's stone, a crumbling stone column that marks the spot from which Durin, the eldest of the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves, first looked into the Mirrormere, where his reflection showed a crown of stars over his head -- pretty much the first time any created being ever beheld his reflection. I always took this as a sort of (premature!) dawning of self-awareness in Middle Earth.** As origins-of-consciousness-stories go, I like this a hell of a lot better than Adam and Eve and the Forbidden Fruit. But then, as I've already expressed above, I like Tolkien better than the Bible anyway.

But so Gimli wants to recreate that magic moment, and drags Frodo along to share the experience, but unlike Durin, all they see is reflected scenery. Frodo is going to have to wait until he meets Galadriel to get revelations from the water. More parallels!

And speaking of Galadriel, onward to Lorien! Ah, Lorien, the stump-humper's paradise, where the mallorn trees (I always think of them as like really nice aspens) leaf out, the leaves turn golden in autumn, but don't fall until spring when the new leaves push them off. Where everyone lives in a really nice treehouse and is absurdly good-looking and always has enough to eat. Where Legolas is welcomed as a distant relative and Aragorn is well-known and the hobbits are treated as an interesting curiosity but Gimli is the fart in church, because as far as the Elves are concerned, his people's delvings in Moria are what brought evil (back to) the world. Which, sure, the


might still be sleeping way down deep under the mountains if no one had ever, ever mined there, but then the Elves wouldn't have all that beautiful mithril and other stuff that they prize. But their enjoyment of the goods the Dwarves have provided over the centuries is outweighed by their annoyance that there's a


down there, so, in a leap of logic that leaves this reader tumbling into the Cracks of Doom every time, they accept Legolas' and Aragorn's and Frodo's vouching for Gimli, but... insist that he be blindfolded when they conduct everybody through Lorien. Gimli says fine, but then Legolas has to be blindfolded, too. Legolas has a fit about this but soon it's decided that, to be fair, everybody will go blindfolded through the prettiest scenery Middle Earth has to offer. Sadz.

Fortunately, the blindfolds come off in the evening for camp, and everybody gets to see a little of the fairest of all the lands. Haldir lets everybody see some views from up high, and Aragorn has suddenly cheered up: he is in the land of Arwen's mother's people (Galadriel is Arwen's grandmother) and pretty much everything in that land makes him think of her: "Here is the heart of elvendom on earth... and here my heart dwells ever" he says, twirling a yellow elanor flower in his fingers. Has he regained estel and amdir? I think he has. Or if he hasn't yet, he soon will. Kind of literally. In his own quest, to re-establish the realms of Gondor and Arnor and to rule over them (with Arwen at his side), if not in Frodo's.

But even there...

Ah, Lothlorien. I was stymied to imagine it as a child, and even into young adulthood. Really, it was only when I came across Simon Schama's amazing Landscape and Memory and learned about the wonderful Bialowieza National Forest in Poland and Belorus that I even came close. I dream about visiting there someday, and walking under the hornbeam trees and pendunculate oaks that are so big they have names, and maybe seeing some wisent (European bison) while I'm there.

I'm pretty sure Caras Galadhon is right past that stand of trees.

But I digress. Again. You're used to that by now, though, right? Anyway, I would totally live in a giant treehouse in that forest, as Galadriel and Celeborn do. Especially if it's as beautiful as it looked in the film. OMG so much eye candy you'll get eyeabetes, the films.

And here's where we get the first idea of just how old Aragorn is. "It is eight and thirty years of the world outside since you came to this land," Galadriel says by way of welcoming him. We later learn that Aragorn is around 80 years old at the time of these novels, but he looks about 38. But even at his true age, he's still "a sapling beside a beech of many summers" compared to Galadriel's granddaughter and his future queen, Arwen. Still a kid as far as Galadriel and Elrond are concerned, a mayfly. But since he's the one who is going to inherit pretty much all of the troubles of Middle Earth after the Elves all go to the Grey Havens, they do their best to take him seriously, and in turn Aragorn seems to gain new strength and vigor and, yes, hope from this visit.

But here I am blathering about Aragorn, when this bit should be all about Gimli, who is about to single-handedly begin to heal the breach between Elves and Dwarves by pretty much falling head-over-heels for Galadriel (as Frodo pretty much did for Arwen back at Rivendell). And about Gandalf, whom Galadriel and Celeborn just now learn has been lost; they were expecting the whole party, in that smug, knowing way that Elves do, but where's the Wizard? Even Galadriel, a fellow wielder of one of the Elvish Three, can't figure out what has become of him. The reaction elicited here is our first real and direct experience of just what a big deal Gandalf is and has been in this world; he's not just a wizard, not some Man who has learned a lot of magic and obscure knowledge, but a demigod, older than the Elves, older than pretty much everything we'll see except maybe the


or Tom Bombadil.

And here Celeborn and Galadriel quarrel just a tiny bit. Celeborn is angry to hear what has become of Gandalf, says he was a fool to go to Moria and that had he known the Dwarves had managed to awaken the


(because, you know, there's no way that all the goblins infesting the place could ever have managed that, right?), he would not have allowed any of the party to enter his land. Galadriel disagrees, points out that Gandalf never did anything needlessly, and tells Celeborn to chill about the Dwarf already, and observes that "Dark is the water of Kheled-zaram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nvla, and fair where the many pillared halls of Khazad-dum in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone." And then she looks down at Gimli, who is pretty much sporting wood to hear the prettiest lady he'll ever see rattling off words in his own language: "and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and there saw love and understanding." And he does his best to bust out some flattery of his own, basically flirting with Galadriel right in front of her husband. PLAYA!

It's a little-known fact that all Dwarves are pimps.

Then Galadriel goes on to tell them what they pretty much already know, that they've taken on the most dangerous quest ever but maybe they'll prevail if they stick together. And then she undresses everyone with her eyes, according to Sam. While that happens, everybody is given the choice between sticking with the quest and getting something they really, really want. Apparently everybody made the right choice, though, because on we go!

The company spends an unknown number of very pleasant days resting up in Lothlorien. Legolas starts bringing Gimli along on all of his outings around the place, I guess because if the Dwarf is good enough for Galadriel, he's good enough for Legolas. Freaking snob.

Meanwhile, the Elves sing lots of laments for Gandalf, and Frodo makes up one of his own, which is quite nice, and everybody is surprised, because this is the first time Frodo's shown any poetic tendencies, but hey, he did drink the Kvasir at TomBom's house, you guys! And then Sam dispenses wisdom like a firehose dispenses water. Oh, Sam!

And then the MIRROR. Where Galadriel reveals to Frodo that she has one of the Three Rings and lets him and Sam look into a big basin of water that is enchanted to show "many things", past, present and potential. It's hard now not to think of the first time Luke uses the Force to check up on his friends and freaks out over his vision when Sam looks and sees the Shire enslaved and burning (which "may not come to pass" Galadriel warns him, but we know that it does, not at Sauron's hand, but Saruman's, after he is expelled from his stronghold at Orthanc). Galadriel reminds him that "the Mirror is dangerous as a guide of deeds," though, and Sam is way smarter than Luke, thank goodness!

Meanwhile, Frodo gets a look at a figure who looks like Gandalf, except he's wearing white. Or is it Saruman? Or is it Gandalf?  No foreshadowing there!*** He also sees, among other things, Minas Tirith, the Grey Havens, Aragorn's Black Ship flying the banner Arwen is (at the time of this viewing) still making for him back at Rivendell****, and then, finally the vagina Eye of Sauron! Which can suck the Ring into the water that nobody's supposed to touch!

And then comes the famous bit where Frodo offers Galadriel the ring. Man, he sure does want to give it away. He has offered it to Gandalf, Aragorn, and now her, and none of them want it. Poor Frodo.

And finally the time has come to leave Lorien, but not without a boatload (hee) of gifts. Cloaks woven by Galadriel and her handmaids themselves. Brooches shaped like leaves. Lembas bread. Really good boats, so they don't have to decide for a while which side of the Great River to travel along -- one side goes to Gondor, where Boromir wants to go, and where Aragorn was going to go, too, except for losing Gandalf; the other to Mordor. Here the Fellowship first starts to weaken, for Boromir announces that he's going to Gondor "alone if need be." Oh, Boromir.

Nah, not alone. Pretty sure Mrs. Karenin will come with me.

And Sam, who has been fretting about not having packed rope from the beginning, is delighted that everybody also gets awesome Elvish rope! And reveals himself as a bit of a rope otaku, which sends the Elves over the moon! I love bits like this, you guys. Love.

And then everybody gets boating lessons, which, if you've never tried to handle a kayak or canoe, you want to know what you're doing before you're turned loose on the biggest, fastest river in the world, I think.

And then they're off. But wait, there's more! Like Ron Popiel, Galadriel can't stop sweetening the deal. She and Celeborn show up in a Swan Boat (Hello, Lohengrin!)****** and more gifts for everybody! Aragorn gets a sheath for Anduril, which will make the sword unbreakable from now on, and, after a bit of teasing, the Elessar/Elfstone*****, a beautiful green stone that has been fashioned into a brooch depicting a great eagle, that is an heirloom of Galadriel's and Arwen's family and for which Aragorn will be named when he is crowned. And Boromir and Merry and Pippin get blingtastic belts. And Legolas gets a new bow. And Sam gets the box of magic soil with which he will someday heal the Shire from Saruman's depredations, and a mallorn nut, with which he will replace the destroyed Party Tree. And Gimli gets a lock of Galadriel's hair, a shockingly intimate gift. I don't even want to get into her remarks about the skill of Dwarves with hands versus tongues. NO!******* And Frodo gets a phial that may or may not be one of the Silmarils, containing the light of Earendil's star. I've said elsewhere in this blog that I kind of buy it as a Sillmaril, but right here Galadriel as much as claims to have made it, trapping the starlight in some water from her mirror. So I guess if it's not an actual Silmaril, it's a good Silmarilcrum.

And there is also a great deal of journey foreshadowing, courtesy of Celeborn, whom I totally want to be my guide if I ever get to raft the Grand Canyon. Especially if we're in a Swan Boat.

And so begins the greatest float trip ever not chronicled by Stephen E. Ambrose or Wallace Stegner. Except Gimli and Legolas, now firmly established as an interspecies bromance, seem set to yammer through the whole thing. STFU, Gimolas!

I realize I'm probably the only person doing this PtBiB thing for whom The Great River is pretty much my favorite part. Hey, I'm from Saratoga, WY. Floating the North Platte River is pretty much why we live there. I would still live there if I could find a way to float the North Platte River for a living. It's just that there are a lot of other people who are better at it than me who are doing so, and the market is saturated. Also this year we're in epic drought mode and the floating season ended in May instead of August. Plus, nobody likes a river guide who basically has to wear a full-on chador on the boat. Oh, you would not believe my talent for sunburn. But anyway, yes, I would totally float the Anduin. Even after the trees fail and they start passing the Brown Lands.It's entirely possible that the main reason I fell out of love with fantasy was I could find no other fantasy stories that had Epic River Trips in them (and even this one doesn't really have enough). But I'll spare you further rhapsodizing on this subject, because I know this particular float trip is not really fun, especially not for my beloved Samwise: "He felt that the company was too naked, afloat in little open boats in the midst of shelterless lands, and on a river that was the frontier of war." Or for Merry and Pippin, stuck in a boat with Boromir, "who sometimes sat muttering to himself, sometimes biting his nails, as if some restlessness or doubt consumed him." Remember what I said about how there's always one jerk who has a really bad idea and won't let go of it...

And then, UH OH, we have what is probably at least our third crypto-Gollum sighting. He was in Moria, and he was dogging them outside Lothlorien... And now he's floating behind them on a log. Later on, Frodo catches a glimpse of him in the night (it's a pity that Smeagollum's devolution from proto-hobbit into whatever-he-is-now came with eyes that shine like dim little lamps in the darkness), and then Aragorn confirms that he's known about their stalker since Moria but didn't want to alarm anybody. WHA---???? Anyway, from then on out, at least until the river gets interesting, they decide to travel by night and sleep by day -- Gollum can't abide the sun, nor can most of the other nasties he might have alerted to their progress.

And then we come to some rapids, just in time also to come into the range of some hostile archers! Fortunately, it's night time, so our company make very poor targets, in grey cloaks floating past in grey boats. There are some near misses, and these rapids aren't too terrible, and it looks like a clean escape, but OH, something big and dark and cloudlike flies up to menace them from the air! Probably the first of the flying Nazgul! But Legolas shoots it down! Close shave!

And then it's argument time. First it's how much time actually passed in Lorien. Then it's whether Frodo should have blabbed that Galadriel has one of the Three Rings. And then... Oh, Boromir... it's where to go next. There are some serious rapids and waterfalls and such ahead, on the way to Mordor. But if everybody goes to Gondor (there to use the Ring as a weapon against Sauron per Boromir. Oh, Boromir), then they don't have to mess about with boats anymore, soon. Nobody else wants to do this. Aragorn finally gets Boromir to temporarily pipe down by promising that he'll decide one way or the other once he has stood and seen the view from Amon Hen above the Argonath, to which the river will bring them soon enough. A big deal for Aragorn is Amon Hen. And soon it will be for everybody else, too.

But first, portage time, because there are some rapids that even experts aren't dumb enough to shoot in a boat, and the Fellowship are not experts. Well do I know what that's like. You've been all mellow in the boat, drinking a beer, maybe doing some fishing, and suddenly you're out of the boat, carrying it and everything with it, usually making more than one trip back and forth, over usually rough terrain (because Murphy's Law), slapping at mosquitoes when you can get a hand free, getting dive bombed by hummingbirds if you're dumb enough to take off your hat and expose your red hair, ugh. But now add Orc Patrols. There is not enough ugh in the world for that.

It seems to me, though, that the mist-shrouded "sharp shells and stony teeth of Sarn Gebir" (the rapids they're skipping) are probably awful pretty. Sigh.

And so they finally make their way to the Argonath, where stand the giant statues of Isildur (not Isildur of the Ring, but an earlier ancestor) and Anarion, glaring defiantly at the frontier beyond the ancient borders of Gondor. In the presence of these images of his ancestors, Aragorn suddenly sits taller and seems to realize for real that he is the heir to a proud lineage and a mighty kingdom. "Under their shadow," he says, "Elessar, the Elfstone, son of Arathorn of the House of Valandil Isildur's son, heir of Elendil, has nought to dread." Dude, when I type sentences like that, I tremble at their progeny. So much pseudo-Tolkienian crap, full of nonsense-sounding place names and risible speechmaking hath these books spawned. Oy.

Anyway, well, Aragorn/Elessar/Elfstone/Strider may feel he has nothing to fear, but, um, he does, because Orc attack. Well, not until the next novel, but soon. Aragorn senses its inevitability in the night, and Sting, Bilbo's Orc-detecting sword that he gave to Frodo along with his mithril coat, confirms it. But first, the sun comes up, and everyone sets to trying to make the decision they've been putting off, pretty much since Gandalf fell in Moria: where next, guys? Nobody wants to speak up, so Aragorn puts the burden on Frodo, who asks for an hour to himself to think about it. By all means, wander off alone, Frodo. Great idea.

And so in the most scenic place we may have yet seen (yeah, yeah, Rivendell, yeah, yeah, Lorien. Give me a big river and a huge waterfall and giant historic statuary any day), Boromir, Oh Boromir, finally has the chance to show his quality (wink). He stalks Frodo up the big stone steps to Amon Hen and, to give him credit, tries to reason with Frodo before he tries to take the Ring by force. There's some nice irony in his speech before he gets grabby, isn't there? "True hearted Men, they will not be corrupted," he says. "We do not desire the power of wizard lords," he says. And then all the sudden he's making a grab for it, and Frodo, no match for the big guy, can think of only one way out of his pickle, which is using the Ring to disappear. Which brings Boromir back to himself a little bit -- enough to realize he's failed anyway. "What have I done?" But Frodo is gone, up, up, up to Amon Hen, the "Seat of Seeing." And with the Ring on, he sees a LOT. And is Seen.

Frightened more than he ever has been before, Frodo decides he's got to go alone, that he can't trust anybody anymore, after Boromir's performance.

Meanwhile, everybody else is wondering what Frodo is going to choose to do. Boromir slips back into the discussion, and tells a version of what happened, in which Frodo took off unprovoked, of course. And everyone freaks out and decides to tear off looking for Frodo. Aragorn, who doesn't trust Boromir or his story, assigns Boromir to keep an eye on Merry and Pippen as they go one way.

Sam, meanwhile and famously, the best player of WWFD, thinks of checking where the boats are. Frodo is already taking off in one. Sam tries to jump aboard, misses, and goes into the water. Frodo yanks him out and onto the boat, amused and all but laughing at poor Sam, and dismissive even now, but Sam eventually wears him down with a masterful display of servile bullying. Off they go, Mordor or Bust!


*Like a disappointed fanboi who has finally gotten to meet his idol in person, only to discover said idol is kind of a jerk, Gimli is maybe not so enthusiastic about these peaks anymore.

**This event took place before Aule, who created the Dwarves without permission, was forced to put them to sleep until Illuvitar could get around to making Elves, because Middle Earth was supposed to be for the Elves.

***We never do get an idea, from the books, just how much the Istari look alike. PJ made one choice, casting Ian McKellen (!) and Christopher Lee (!!) and Sylvester McCoy (!!!) (the number of exclamation marks indicates my level of gushy approval of the choice, and even McKellen's mere one mark still represents about a half hour's worth of Snoopy Dance), but I always thought they were pretty damned hard to tell apart, visually, and so on my very first read of these books as a little, I was sure he was seeing Saruman. How I miss that blank slate innocence in reading them!

****Oh man, the banner. What a masterpiece of iconography Arwen makes for her man. The White Tree of Gondor, seven stars (representing the Seven Ships that brought everybody from Numenor [Middle Earth's Atlantis], probably, though there has been lots of speculation about that. LOTS) It asserts his heritage, his status as the Hope for the West and his overwhelming presence to anyone who sees it. Arwen is a smart cookie.

***** From Tolkien's Unfinished Tales: "There was in Gondolin a jewel-smith named Enerdhil, and he was the greatest of that craft among the Noldor after the death of Fë came into his heart to make a jewel within which the clear light of the sun should be imprisoned, but the jewel should be green as leaves. And he made this thing, and even the Noldor marvelled at it. For it is said that those who looked through this stone saw things that were withered or burned healed again or as they were in the grace of their youth, and that the hands of one who held it brought to all that they touched healing from hurt." Remember what's been said earlier (by which I mean later) about how "the hands of the King are the hands of a healer." Aragorn is slowly assembling, or repairing, all the tokens of his heritage that he'll need to demonstrate his claim to the throne of Gondor.

******I love Lohengrin. And I grew up hearing a story mom loves to tell about Lohengrin, a performance of which, one time, the prop guys screwed up and the Swan Boat left before Lohengrin could get aboard, and the singer, with the unbelievably awesome name of Leo Slezak actually sang "Wann geht der nächste Schwan?" (When does the next swan leave?). Which, trust me, if you're an opera fan, that's a hilarious story.
And this is totally going to be my next messenger bag, you guys.

*******I'm sure there's fanfic out there somewhere depicting Gimli someday using the hair to clone her for his personal enjoyment, though. God, sometimes I hate my brain.