Book Review: “Lady Hotspur” (by Tessa Gratton)

Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.

Judging by Goodreads, this book has, somewhat to my surprise, been ill-received by those who have read it. Perhaps it’s because of the book’s literary basis, or perhaps it’s the particular type of prose that Gratton uses–which, to be sure, is at times a bit baroque, or maybe it’s just that the author is a woman and the world of fantasy can be a bit unforgiving of female voices.

Allow me to be one of the dissenting voices. I found Lady Hotspur to be by turns moving, beautiful, haunting, and terrifying. It captures what is best about the fantasy genre and, what is just as important, it manages to do all of this in one volume rather than several. While there is pleasure to be had in a sprawling, multi-volume fantasy saga, sometimes you just want to read an epic story in one go.

As she did with her earlier book, here Gratton has reimagined the plays that Shakespeare wrote about Henry IV and Henry V (primarily Henry IV Parts One and Two, as well as Henry V). In the novel, Prince Hal is the daughter of Celedrix, a rebel who has taken the throne of Aremoria for herself. Hal’s best friend and lover is the warrior Lady Hotspur, while her opposite number of Banna Mora, the one-time heir to the throne who ultimately conspires with the folk of the nearby island of Innis Lear, particularly Prince Rowan, to both seize the crown for herself and reunite the sundered realms both politically and magically.

Like Shakespeare’s play, the book is primarily about the fraught relationship between Hal and Hotspur, though though here the gender dynamics are flipped and there is no question that their relationship is intensely physical, indeed sexual. Their love for one another is one of the guiding lights of the story, and I truly enjoyed seeing same-sex love celebrated and for these two women to be given a happy ending.

Indeed, one of the things that I enjoyed most about this book was the fact that not only did it focus on women to an extraordinary degree–still a very rare thing in epic fantasy–it repeatedly emphasized that it is the relationships among and between women that are the most important in this world. Again and again, we are shown how the bonds between women are the glue that hold the various realms together. In addition to her complicated relationship with Hotspur, Hal also has a vexed relationship with her mother Celeda and with the knight Ianta (the novel’s equivalent of Falstaff), while Hotspur has to contend with her own divided nature and her torn loyalties. And, for her part, Banna Mora has to decide whether she wants revenge or justice in her pursuit of the throne of Aremoria.

History hangs heavy on this tale, as the events and characters from The Queens of Innis Lear loom in the background, a reminder of the sacrifices and terrors that have taken place in this world. Some characters that occupied that narrative come back to literally haunt those living in the present, though the novel leaves their identities something of an enigma throughout most of the narrative. However, there’s a unique pleasure to be had in trying to figure out exactly what influence the past is having (some reviewers clearly found this to be a frustrating aspect of the book, but I quite liked it).

The third major strand in the novel is the power of prophecy to determine the actions of those in the present. Do any of us have actual agency, or are our actions always predetermined by the faults in our stars? The novel seems to come down somewhere in the middle. While there are paths that we are fated to tread, and while some of those can have world-shattering consequences, we are also presented with numerous times when the characters forge their own path, when they do what they wish rather than what they are fated to do.

Now, it is true that Lady Hotspur, like The Queens of Innis Lear, can be a difficult read at times. However, I don’t think that this is primarily due to the fact that they reimagine Shakespeare for a modern audience, and there are times when the fit is an odd one. The novel also makes Hal’s shift from reprobate prince to warrior prince a bit abruptly, but that’s also one of the aspects of the original plays. It is also true that there is something slightly strange about Gratton’s prose, a slight stilted-ness that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, it is also true that she has astonishing powers of description, and the novel is a deeply sensual one.

If I have one major complaint to make about this book, it’s that it didn’t include a map. It’s not just that I love looking at maps–both real and fantastical–but because it’s very difficult to orient yourself in space while reading a book without a map to give you guidance. For the life of me, I still don’t have a firm idea of where the various countries in this book are located, and while this might be acceptable in a regular piece of fiction, for a fantasy novel that is relying on a totally made-up geography it is incredibly disorienting and frustrating.

All told, however, I really enjoyed Lady Hotspur. It is a testament to Gratton’s abilities as an author that she manages to make Shakespeare new and fascinating for a new generation. The fact that her own mother passed away during the course of her writing the book gives Hal’s confronting of her own mother’s impending mortality an extra emotional charge. While Lady Hotspur might be everyone’s cup of tea, I definitely recommend it to those who want an epic fantasy that focuses on women and that gives us characters that we can cheer for, weep with, and celebrate. This book provides all of that and more.

Book Review: "A Darker Shade of Magic" (by V.E. Schwab)

Every so often you read a fantasy books that just sort of sweeps you up in its fictional universe, a book that’s told in such a compelling way that you feel like you literally can’t put the book down.

Such is the case with A Darker Shade of Magic.

This novel, the first of a series by V.E. Scwhab, follows two characters, Kell and Lila, as they attempt to stave off the consequences of a dreadful new type of magic that threatens to upend the fragile balance of power that exists in their interconnected worlds. In the process, they discover much about themselves and, by the end of the novel, the stage is set for further adventures with the two of them.

At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why it was that I loved this book so much. Part of it, a significant part, is the setting. In the world that Schwab has created there are four connected worlds. Each of those worlds has a city named London, and each of those is named after a particular color (Red, Grey, Black, and White), and each of which has a different relationship with magic. Though it turns out that this is largely a conceit of Kell’s and not codified in any official way, it remains a useful way to refer to each of the individual locations. Red London is probably the most balanced, with magic present but not destructive. White London has a deeply pathological relationship with magic, and it is ruled over by the sadistic and monstrous twins Astrid and Athos. Grey London, the one that is our world, has almost entirely forgotten what magic is. And Black London has, in the distant past, been so overwhelmed by magic that the other Londons have resorted to walling themselves off from it.

Schwab has the stunning ability to create a richly imagined world without smothering us in detail. Much of the action of the book takes place in both Grey London and Red London, with only occasional forays into the horrifying and dangerous White London. However, the mystery of Black London hangs over the entire book, and while Kell ultimately manages to avoid having to journey there in person, there is a sense at the end of the novel that there is much that we haven’t yet seen from that place where magic has gained such power that it has burned through its hosts.

For that is one of the most interesting things about this book. Magic is not just an inactive force that some can draw upon. It is, instead, a powerful force with its own agency, and one of the gravest threats posed to this world comes when magic gains a power and a will of its own. It’s quite disturbing, really, to think of magic as something that has agency, and Schwab perfectly captures that sense of menace, as this powerful force begins to inhabit the bodies of those that it encounters, using them as its host before ultimately burning through and discarding them (given that I am writing this review in the midst of a pandemic, that particular storyline feels even more chilling than ever).

Next, the characters. Both Kell and Lila are both sympathetic and, at times, frustrating. Kell is in many ways impossibly noble, always willing to do whatever he can to protect those that he loves, including and especially his brother Rhy. Noble as he is, however, he is also rather prideful, and he takes unnecessary risks that put not only his own life in danger, but also those that he claims to care about the most.

Lila, on the other hand, is almost irritatingly unwilling to commit to anything except her own survival. By the end of the novel, of course, she has recognized that there is something more than just her own benefit. What I especially appreciated about A Darker Shade of Magic was that it didn’t go the easy route and force Kell and Lila into a romantic relationship. Though there is clearly a strong connection between them, it was refreshing to see them go their separate ways rather than committing to one another (though, since there are two more books in the series, it’s entirely possible that they might end up together by the end).

Narratively, the story is tightly-woven. Though most of the book is told from the perspectives of Kell and Lila, we do occasionally get glimpses into other side characters, particularly those who are being possessed by the darker magic of the stone. Despite those brief interludes, the novel moves along at a brisk pace, keeping us caught up in its propulsive momentum from the first page to the last. By the time I reached the end, I was almost breathless, and I was a little sad to find that I had to stop. There was so much more that I wanted to know about this world and about these characters, so much that continued to hover just out of view. But, of course, that’s precisely what makes a book like A Darker Shade of Magic such a pleasure to read. The fact that you are left wanting more is a definitive sign that the writer has done something right, that they’ve found the proper balance in their fiction.

What I really appreciated about this novel was the fact that it wrapped up all of the storylines so neatly. Though it is the first book of a trilogy–with the same characters–it still manages to be self-contained, leaving us satisfied with how things have worked out for these characters. At the same time, there are just enough hints scattered throughout the book to suggest that there is a great deal of chaos just waiting to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting residents of the various Londons.

Given how much I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, I’ve already started reading A Gathering of Shadows. I have to say, I’m enjoying it already. I can’t wait to review it!

Book Review: “Children of Virtue and Vengeance” (by Tomi Adeyemi)

When I first read Children of Blood and Bone, I was absolutely blown away. It wasn’t just that I was excited to finally see a young woman of color writing what was, by all accounts, a stunning fiction debut. It was that this extraordinary talent had managed to create a compelling world based on Africa mythology, one that lived and breathed and drew you in from first page to last. Thus, when Children of Virtue and Vengeance came out, I rushed to the store.

I’m glad I did.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance picks up shortly after the previous novel ending, with Zélie mourning the death of her father, while royal siblings Inan and Amari each struggle for the throne in order to bring an end to the war that has already cost so many lives. The novel follows each side as they each go to ever-greater depths of darkness and violence, each side convinced that right is on their side.

One of the things that I’ve appreciated about the books in this series is the way in which they manage to combine all of the elements of fantasy in ways that feel fresh and exciting. I particularly love that the series is drawn from west African mythology and that it pays so much attention to the fact that these characters are definitely not white. Fantasy as a genre has been dominated for so long by whiteness that I’m always looking for a series that breaks out of that mold. It’s clear from the first page to the last that Adeyemi has given a great deal of thought to how to build this world from the ground up, and it’s impossible not to find yourself utterly swept up into it.

The novel keeps moving along at a breathtaking pace, and you’re left never entirely sure when the next twist will happen. There are many twists and turns in this novel, which is appropriate, given that it is in many ways about the destructive power of war and the corrosive impacts it has on even those who begin with the noblest of intentions. None of the three primary characters are angels, and there are moments when it’s possible to dislike any of them. However, Adeyemi does an excellent job of making us appreciate and love each of these characters, even as we also recognize their flaws. All of them, each in their own way, is trying to do what they think is best, and while they don’t always succeed, we’re led to at least appreciate their efforts.

Each of the three main characters finds themselves tested in ways that they never before imagined. Zélie must slowly come to terms with the fact that, whether she likes it or not, she is now a leader of the people who now wield magic. Amari must recognize that, in many ways, she has become far too much like the father that she spent so much of the previous novel loathing and trying to escape. Inan, the boy who has been thrust into a kingship that he never really wanted and is not really prepared for, must contend with the competing forces around him, from his mother’s relentless desire to eradicate magic to his own love for Zélie and desire to bring about peace.

And it’s important to remember just how young these characters are. These young people have been thrown into the midst of a war that none of them asked for, each of them caught up in the web of deceit and death and destruction that was precipitated by their parents and those who don’t have their own interests at heart. You can hardly blame them if, at times, they aren’t able to exactly meet the challenges that they face and if they make choices that are foolish and sometimes dangerous.

The novel ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and at the moment it’s unclear what, exactly has happened and what will happen to these characters that we’ve already come to love and care about. The worst part about finishing a book like Children of Virtue and Vengeance is that we now have to wait for an even longer period of time before the third volume is out! And, given how many twists and turns the first two volumes in this series have taken, I think it’s safe to say that we are about to see these beloved characters go through quite a lot before this whole thing is over. Heartache is no doubt on the horizon, but hopefully so is salvation.

TV Review: “The Witcher” (Season 1)

Being the contrarian I am, I actually put off watching The Witcher longer than I normally would. Though I am, of course, a huge fan of fantasy series and was in need of something to fill the gap left by the conclusion of Game of Thrones (which was a huge disappointment) and the season finale of His Dark Materials, for some reason I just found all the hype around The Witcher off-putting. Eventually, however, I gave in to the pressure and watched it.

I have to say, I’m not disappointed. In fact, I found myself more drawn into the show than I thought I would be, which was a pleasant surprise. The action is propulsive, the characters are strangely likable (for the most part), and there are glimpses of a vibrant world with cultures and conflicts that are as compelling and bloody as anything in Game of Thrones. Somehow, The Witcher manages to grab hold of you from the first episode and doesn’t let you go until the very end, when it leaves you dangling on a cliff-hanger.

It’s rather hard to summarize this show without giving away important plot points, but I’ll give it a try. It focuses on three characters. The first is the Witcher Geralt (Henry Cavill), a mutant warrior who goes about fighting monsters and demons for payment. His fate is bound up with Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan), who is forced to flee into exile when her kingdom is invaded by Nilfgaard. The third is the Yennefer of Vengeberg (Anya Chalotra), a powerful mage who has her own series of journeys to undertake as she becomes ever more entwined with the fates of nations.

Narratively, the series is rather a mess, to be quite honest, but the genius of The Witcher is that it somehow just rolls with its own absurdities and encourages us to do the same. It doesn’t get hung up on the mechanics of its magic system (which seems pretty much to be whatever the plot demands), nor do the pieces of the political jigsaw puzzle ever entirely coalesce into some sort of coherent whole. In fact, the show seems to go out of its way to keep us guessing as to why the characters are doing what they’re doing. Part of this has to do with the fact that it’s told out of order, and it actually takes quite a while to figure that out, and even when you do it can take some time to orient yourself within a given episode.

At times, I found myself getting a little frustrated at how underdeveloped both the magic and the politics were. I’m not one of those people who demands that their fantasy series explain everything to them, but it is hard to get a sense of the stakes of The Witcher when it’s so resistant to providing a birds-eye view of the world and its conflicts. I’m hoping that now that the various storylines have come together at the end of the first season that this means that the second one will be a bit more straightforward.

One of the reasons I think the series succeeds despite these flaws is because the performances are so absolutely compelling. Cavill is one of those actors who is both beautiful and strangely flexible in terms of the kinds of characters he can play. He manages to imbue Geralt with both taciturnity and vulnerability, and while the former definitely dominates through much of the show, the moments when the latter appears are some of the best in the series. His feelings for both Yennefer and his lost mother. You get the sense that he’s been through a lot, and that these experiences have shaped him in some unexpected ways. Tough-as-nails he may be, but he also has a powerful sense of right and wrong.

Likewise, I found myself increasingly drawn to Yennefer. Again, performance has a lot to do with this, as Chalotra does so much with what she’s given. We get to see Yennefer grow from a twisted girl to a powerful sorceress, and if I have a complaint about her role it’s that we don’t get more of it. Narratively, her arc doesn’t quite gel until we get to the very end, but her character is arguably as important as Geralt’s, if only because it’s refreshing to see such a powerful woman take center stage in a fantasy series.

Unfortunately, at this point in the series Cirilla is still something of a blank slate. She spends most of the season running from conflict to conflict, and I’m afraid that I just wasn’t drawn to her in the way that I was Yennefer. A number of other secondary characters, however, more than make up for this, and once again the women get the lion’s share. I absolutely loved MyAnna Buring as Tissaia, the Rectoress of Aretuza (the academy for mages). She managed to own every scene that she appeared in, and I sincerely hope that we get to see more of her in the second season. The same goes for Jodhi May as Queen Calanthe, who is about as badass as they come (even if she is rather shortsighted on some key issues). And, of course, there’s Joey Batey as Jaskier, the rascally bard who appears periodically to make Geralt’s life miserable. There’s undeniable chemistry between Batey and Cavill, and I hope that he returns for the second season.

Overall, The Witcher is tremendously entertaining. If you can look past the flaws in its storytelling, and if you can be patient enough with it to see it through the first several episodes, I think you’ll find it to be a rewarding series to watch. There’s still a long way to go before we get the second season, but I hope that the writers take the chance to iron out a few of the kinks. If they do that, they might just have a truly great show on their hands.

I know that I, for one, will be watching!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “Betrayal” (S1, Ep. 8)

Warning: spoilers for the episode follow.

And so we come at last to the season finale of His Dark Materials. All I can say is: wow, what an episode!

Having finally located her father, Lyra realizes that he is not at all the man that she always assumed he was. In fact, he might be as much of a monster (in his own way) as her mother. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter finds that her own loyalties might be hopelessly divided, even as Lord Asriel commits a heinous act in his attempt to undo the centuries of repression by the Magisterium.

In many ways, this episode is a fitting climax to Lyra’s journey to maturity. For the first time since Asriel abandoned her in Oxford for his own journey north, she must confront the fact that he is, in his own way, as twisted in soul as is Mrs. Coulter. Just as importantly, however, the episode also makes it clear that, much as she might come to hate both of her parents, Lyra is in many ways the perfect mix of her two parents, for both good and ill.

Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of this first season has been its ability to show Lyra’s growth as a character. By the end of this first season, we’ve seen Lyra truly mature from a headstrong girl to a headstrong and intelligent young woman, one who is fully conscious of the choices that she’s made and how that has affected the lives around her. When, at the end of the episode, she steps through that beam of light into an uncertain future, it marks the culmination of all of the choices that she’s made during the season.

Just as importantly, for the first time since the series began, we finally get to see Asriel and Mrs. Coulter in the same scene, and the chemistry is off the charts. Of course, it helps that the two of them are portrayed by actors at the top of their game, but it’s undeniable that the two actors have a similar sort of energy to their characters. I’m truly glad that they decided to include this scene, as it allows us to get a glimpse at the strange, unsettling energy that exists between these two characters, and it really sets up some of the conflicts that will arise between them in the future.

I was particularly impressed by the way that this scene shows us the change that has come over Mrs. Coulter through the course of this season. As much of a monster as she is, there can be no doubt by now that her feelings for Lyra are genuine. She truly loves her daughter, and it is that love that keeps her from going after Asriel and joining in his war against the Authority. And, of course, it goes without saying that Ruth Wilson absolutely shines in this scene, as she has throughout the course of the season.

Of course, this episode is truly heartbreaking, and I say that as someone who has read the book and thus knew about Asriel’s intentions for Roger. Still, to see that poor boy–captured so charmingly Lewin Lloyd–forcibly severed from his daemon is one of the most painful incidents to occur in the entire season, made all the more so by Lyra’s thwarted attempts to rescue him. This incident forces us to recognize the true darkness that lies at Asriel’s heart, a darkness that will have profound consequences not only for all of humanity, but in particular for his daughter.

All in all, I’ve really enjoyed this first season of the show. It’s done an excellent job of adapting Pullman’s work, and I think the decision to start introducing elements from the second book in the first season will work out to the benefit of the second one. I also think that the expansion of Boreal’s role is one of the better choices, though I’m sure that it will upset some fans of the book. However, he has to have something to do through these early episodes, so that his sporadic appearances in the second don’t feel so random. Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what season two will bring, and I hope you’ll join me for my reviews when it finally arrives!

Enjoying “The Silmarillion”: “Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor” and “Of Thingol and Melian”

We arrive now at the point in the narrative where the Elves first appear. Before they do so, however, the Valar undertake an effort to capture and imprison Melkor, so that Middle-earth can be made safe for the Elves. Gradually, the Elves begin their migration westward, and while many do make it to Valinor, many more also tarry or are lost.

I’ll be honest. Keeping track of the various Elf tribes can get a little overwhelming, particularly since their names are, superficially at least, similar. Luckily for us, Christopher has included a diagram at the end of the book that shows in visual form the relationships among them, but it does get a bit cumbersome shuttling back and forth between the main narrative and the supplement. It’s also difficult to keep track of the various royal figures, again because so many of them have names that sound quite similar: Fingolfin, Fanrfin, Feänor. For my own sanity, I’ve decided to simply focus on those characters and tribes that seem to be the most important for a given part of the narrative. I find that each time I read the book I find the lineaments getting clearer and clearer, so it’s important for first-timers not to allow themselves to get too entangled in the weeds on an initial reading.

Even this early in the story, we get a sense of the sorts of character traits that will lead the Elves to both their greatest accomplishments and some of their most spectacular follies. This is most clearly seen in the fact that so many of them turn aside, unwilling to pass out of Middle-earth for one reason or another. This decision will come to have momentous consequences for them as the years progress, and they find that their own way of being in the world–even their very language–is sundered from their brethren. Only those who take the hardest road–a recurring theme in much of Tolkien’s work–will be rewarded by going to Valinor and experiencing the joy of being next to godhood.

One exception to this is, of course, Thingol, whose encounter with the Maia Melian utterly transforms him and allows him to come closest, in my mind, to the radiance of the Elves that do go to the West. Together, of course, they will have their own part to play in the saga of the Silmarils, those precious gems around which so much of the later events of The Silmarillion will revolve.

What’s more, we also get a clearer glimpse of Tolkien’s vision of how evil works. First of all, it cannot create, it can only mock and destroy. Indeed, one of the greatest tragedies that takes place in this chapter is the capture of some of the Elves by Melkor, who then undertakes their torment and torture until they are something altogether different, the brutal and monstrous Orcs. I’ve long thought that these creatures were some of the most fascinating that Tolkien ever created, in their own way just as tragic as their long-lost Elvish brethren. To my mind, one of the greatest tragedies in all of Tolkien’s mythology is the undying enmity between the Elves and the Orcs, two branches of the same tree turned irrevocably against one another by the machinations of another.

It is also interesting to note how deep has been the change in Melkor. From being one of the greatest beings in the created universe, he has become a dark and terrible force. What’s more, so deep does his evil go–in both a metaphysical and a physical sense–that even his defeat by the forces of the Valar is not enough to fully eradicate the damage that he has done. But then, that is the nature of evil in Tolkien’s world. It can never be fully eradicated; somehow, it will always find a way to return. This theme will carry right through to The Lord of the Rings, for the characters know that, while Sauron might be vanquished, someone will almost invariably rise up to take his place. It’s an admittedly rather pessimistic way of looking at things but, given that Tolkien was writing in the shadow of not one but two World Wars, with a possible third on the horizon, this shouldn’t surprise us. He might have been writing of an ancient past, but his works were very much of their time.

Next up, we’ll meet some of the particular Elves whose doings will be such an integral part of the history of Middle-earth.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings”: “The Muster of Rohan” and “The Siege of Gondor”

Welcome to another installment of “Reading The Lord of the Rings,” in which we take a leisurely stroll through J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus, dwelling on the beauty, the majesty, and sometimes even the sadness in these wonderful pages.

In these two chapters, Merry contends with the fact that he’s been left behind by Gandalf. Though he offers his services to King Théoden, his offer is refused and it is only due to the intervention of the mysterious Dernhelm that he’s taken along to the rescue of Minas Tirith. For his part, Pippin must contend with the duties attendant upon serving the Lord Denethor while also witnessing the tightening siege.

Reading it this time, it was hard to put aside my awareness of the fact that Dernhelm is, in actuality Éowyn, to think back to the very first time that I read it and wonder who, exactly, was this young soldier that decides to take an interest in Merry and ensures that he comes to the battle. It’s hard not to feel tremendously touched, both by Dernhelm’s actions and by Merry’s desire to serve his king in whatever way he can. Merry, like all of the hobbits, shows a surprising strength and courage, a willingness to put himself in harm’s way, to do his own part (however small) in the great and terrible deeds that are shaking the foundations of his world.

On the other side, we finally get a more in-depth glimpse of Gondor and Minas Tirith in particular For some reason, I’ve always found myself drawn to the faded majesty and grandeur of Gondor. Perhaps it stems from my love of Byzantium (and Late Antiquity more generally), which the fading might of Gondor so clearly resembles. There is something irretrievably melancholic about this noble city, poised on the brink of utter oblivion yet refusing to give in to the pressure from the East. Relatedly, I’ve also always thought that the chapter on the siege of Gondor contains some of the most visually vivid of all of those in the book. Every time I read it, I can almost imagine that I’m sitting on the ramparts of Minas Tirith, looking out over the fields below. Certainly, my image of this terrain has been shaped by Jackson’s interpretation of the novels. Even before I watched them, though, I always found myself utterly immersed in this world and this city.

Narratively, the sequence of chapters here are some of the most brilliantly conceived in the entirety of the novel. At each conclusion of each chapter, we are left wondering exactly how matters shall transpire. While the Rohirrim come to save Gondor? Will Gandalf be able to save Faramir from the suicidal madness that has overtaken Denethor? Scholar Tom Shippey refers to this as interlacement, and it is a narratively brilliant move, showing us how actions can frequently have unexpected consequences, ones far beyond the ken of those who undertake them.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Denethor. This is a man, after all, who has spent his entire life trying to keep the darkness of Mordor at bay, even as he’s aware that it’s a losing battle. There is a noble spirit in him, but it’s a sort of nobility that has been corrupted because of its inability or unwillingness to see anything beyond itself. This is most conspicuous in his confrontations with Gandalf, with whom he maintains an ongoing antagonism.

These chapters are interesting for another reason. For the first time since The Fellowship of the Ring, we finally get to see the Witch-king in action. As with so many of Tolkien’s villains, the Witch-king draws us to him precisely because there’s so much that we don’t know about him. Even in this, his moment of greatest victory, he remains literally invisible. One of the most fascinating parts of this chapter is the unanswered question of who would have won the contest of wills between Gandalf and the Witch-king. While it’s tempting to think that Gandalf might have done so–considering how he was able to chase away the Nazgûl in other parts of the chapter–I’m inclined to think that the Witch-king would have won. This chapter makes it clear that, in this moment, the power of Mordor is in the ascendant,

Next up, we’ll continue exploring the intertwined fates of the Rohirrim and the Gondorians, and we will also see some of the most beautiful and tragic scenes in an epic that’s full of them.

Enjoying “The Silmarillion”: “Of the Beginning of Days” and “Of Aulë and Yavanna”

I’ve decided to change the title of these blog posts to “Enjoying The Silmarillion,” because I do think that one of the things that people often overlook when they read this book is that, if you approach it in the right way, you can actually find yourself enjoying it, not just appreciating it (though hopefully you’re doing the latter as well).

So, with that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let’s get right into it.

In the first couple of stories of The Silmarillion, we are told of the way that Ilúvatar, the One, created the Valar and the Maiar, great spirits of varying powers and abilities. From the beginning, the vision of the One is challenged by Melkor, the mightiest and most powerful of the Valar. The contest between the Valar who remain loyal to the vision of Ilúvatar and Melkor forms the foundation upon which the other great events of Arda are built.

Even at the very beginning, we are shown of the way that one of Melkor’s greatest desire is to claim for himself the ability to create something from nothing. It is in part of his nature to continue to struggle against the limitations imposed upon him by the One. However, as the text makes clear, no matter how much Melkor tries to fulfill his own desires, he finds that he is merely contributing his own part to the grand vision that his maker had already intended.

Two things have always stood out to me about Melkor (who will later become known as Morgoth). First is the fact that, counterintuitive as it might seem, he is the most natively powerful of his brethren. For me, it’s always a little hard to wrap my head around the idea that evil–if we can describe Melkor in such a way–should be so much more powerful than good. But of course, that has always been a key part of Tolkien’s vision of the world, and it is the very fact that evil is so powerful that makes the attempts to either confront it or to mitigate its actions that much more meaningful.

Second, The Silmarillion also makes it clear that everything that Melkor does eventually feeds into the greater purpose. No matter how hard he tries to enforce his own will upon Arda, to put his own will in opposition to that of his maker, he remains powerless to have any lasting effect. There is, thus, an eternal sort of optimism in this book, that no matter how difficult or terrible the world is or may be, no matter how tremendous the power of evil may be, all of it will ultimately fulfill the purpose of some greater power.

One of the other things that really stood out to me as I was reading was the role of gender. The text makes it clear that the Valar do not have any sort of gendered essence as we would understand the terms. Instead, they take on the guises that seem most fitting to them. There’s something refreshing about a cosmology that doesn’t necessarily see the gods themselves as being essentially male or female, but something more and beyond that.

I was also particularly drawn to the personality of Aulë. Of all of the Valar, it seems that he is the one whose desires and abilities will come to shape the destinies of the people who come after, and it’s interesting to speculate whether Tolkien felt a particular affinity with him. If he did, it would be easy to understand why. After, Aulë is the Valar most interested in the making of things, and given that Tolkien was himself a greater maker (though of words and worlds rather than physical things), it would be easy to see why he, and his avatars in his fictional world, would feel so drawn to him.

Even in these early chapters, we get strong glimpses of the philosophical underpinnings of The Silmarillion as a whole. For Tolkien, the power of creation is, seemingly, the key to godhead. Even Aulë, who actually creates the Dwarves in despite of Ilúvatar’s command not to do so, cannot imbue his creations with a will independent of his own. As subsequent chapters in this great saga will show, the power of making–as well as the tremendous toll that it takes upon those who engage in it–can be both a good and an ill.

As essential as free will and creation are to Tolkien’s philosophy, equally important is the imposition of mortality. For the Elves, life is eternal, and thus they have a very specific sort of burden to bear. They must watch the world go on and change around them, even as they remain the same. For Men, however, the opposite is true. They yearn for everlasting life, yet one gets the feeling that none of them really and truly understand what a burden it is to have to shoulder the burden of the ages. The unfortunate thing for both groups is that neither of them can really and truly understand the other; their ways of being in the world are utterly different. Just as importantly, they each possess a relation to the world that the other, at least to some degree, desires.

Though these early chapters of The Silmarillion aren’t quite as action-packed with deeds both great and terrible that the following ones are, they are nevertheless essential to understanding the events that will later take place across the face of Middle-earth. And, while it is true that the prose here is more than a little portentous and pondering, to me it is only fitting, since we are dealing with the creation of the world and the affairs of gods. Lastly, these early chapters reveal a great deal of the true richness and fertility of Tolkien’s imagination, his ability to take the bare bones of myth and transform them into something different.

Next up, we’ll start diving deep into the affairs of the Elves, whose fortunes will be bound up with the Valar, especially Melkor.

Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”: Beginnings

I recently finished reading Corey Olsen’s excellent Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and I was struck by how easy and conversational Olsen managed to be, even while conveying the rich literary tapestry and meanings of this oft-overlooked book. My finishing of his book just happened to coincide with my beginning a re-read of The Silmarillion, so I thought I’d take a stab at providing an in-depth commentary of what in many ways is the work of Tolkien’s heart.

While it is true that The Silmarillion has grown in popularity as the years have progressed, it’s also true that it is still one of the lesser-appreciated parts of Tolkien’s expansive corpus. Part of this is because, for better or worse, it is sometimes difficult to make headway through the elevated diction and because the names (both of individuals and of peoples) are sometimes bewilderingly similar. It’s small wonder that most people begin it but give up before finishing.

To put all of my cards on the table…that was true for me once, too. In fact, I only read The Silmarillion from cover to cover for the first time a few years ago, and while I’m sad that it took me so many years to really appreciate the beauty and the tragedy of this work (both in terms of its composition and in terms of its subject), another part is glad that I waited until I was mature enough to truly appreciate it. While I still have some difficulty keeping the Elvish names straight (including the different tribes), I feel like I have a firm enough grasp on the narrative to be able to offer commentary.

To those who have never read The Silmarillion, I would definitely recommend starting with the Second Edition. This actually contains a letter that Tolkien wrote that sets out the broad outline of the various stories, and it is enormously helpful as a guidepost for which parts of the true touchstones of the story, both narratively and thematically. That way, even if you sometimes get a little lost in the weeds, as it were, you can always refer back to the beginning to get your bearings. While his letter doesn’t detail every part of the ensuing stories, the higher points are addressed.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention how grateful I am to Christopher Tolkien for all of the intellectual labour he put into making sure that this book saw the light of day at all. Tolkien was infamous for continuing to make adjustments to various aspects of his mythology, right up until his death, and I cannot imagine the tremendous amount of effort it took to bring this book into being. Christopher himself admits that he was only able to attain so much consistency, given the state of the record. In my opinion, what he has created for us is nothing short than one of the greatest works of epic myth-making in the modern world.

In the posts that follow, I hope to take a leisurely stroll through the book, beginning with the creation of the Valar and touching down into all of the various tragedies that befall the Elves as they labour through the many ages of the world. For the most part, I’ll keep my commentary rather light and accessible, rather than allowing myself to get lost in the jargon that is so common to literary criticism. Part of what I enjoyed about Olsen’s book was that he managed to speak in a way that was understandable to many different kinds of reader, and I aspire to do the same with this series.

I do hope that you’ll join me as we embark on this extraordinary journey, and that some of you at least share your thoughts with me. If nothing else, I sincerely hope that at the least this series of blog posts will help you find new ways of enjoying and appreciating Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings: “The Passing of the Grey Company”

Some time ago, I began a series of blog posts (over at Queerly Different) that was a detailed exploration of The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t quite chapter-by-chapter, but it was close. Now that I’ve moved most of my fantasy writing to this blog, I thought I’d pick up where I left off, with the arrival of the Rangers from the north and Aragorn’s journey to the Paths of the Dead, as well as the significant exchanges between Merry and King Théoden and between Aragorn and Éowyn.

I’ve always found this to be one of the most fascinating chapters in The Return of the King, in that we actually get to see Aragorn as a powerful king in his own right. Up until now, much of his most glorious and miraculous powers have lain beneath the surface. Now, we know that he has the power to command the dead themselves to come to his aid. And, unlike in the film version, the dead largely hover out of sight; it is thus the mere description of their presence that inspires horror, both in the reader and in the people in the novel.

Though Tolkien excelled at conveying sweeping grandeur in his description of place, he also excelled at capturing the stifling power of the deep places of the earth, and that is on conspicuous display here. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Tolkien is unmatched in fantasy for his power to describe physical settings in such a way that you feel as if you are actually there.

The emotional heart of it, though, lies in two characters: Merry and Éowyn. I challenge you not to feel at least a little choked up when Merry offers his sword in service to Théoden. Though always the most mature of the four hobbits (next to Frodo) this sequence really shows how far he has come, and how much he has begun to grow into the stature of a true hero out of the old tales. It would be easy to dismiss him as someone who’s gotten a bit too big for himself, but that would be a fatal misreading. There is, I think, an innate bravery and, just as importantly, nobility, in the hobbits that this sequence showcases to great effect. What’s more, it shows that there is a great deal of kindness in Merry’s spirit, a kindness that leads him to see the old king as a father figure that he would love to serve.

Éowyn, of course, is a very different character. She is, without question, one of Tolkien’s finest creations. She’s the only woman who gets to play an active role in the unfolding events of the War of the Ring (Galadriel, while powerful, is in many ways only incidental to the narrative of the story, though obviously her cleansing of Dol Guldur, related in the Appendices, is vital), and as such it is all the more tragic that the men in her life seem determined to keep her at home.

The brilliance of her her exchange with Aragorn is that both of them are right in their own way. Éowyn has every right to chafe at the bounds imposed upon her, which are both gendered and societal (gendered in that women aren’t expected to fight; societal in that, as the king’s niece, she’s expected to take care of the people in the king’s absence). However, Aragorn is right to remind her that even those whose lot it is to stay at home may still perform deeds of valour, even though they may not be recounted or celebrated in song.

For both Merry and Éowyn, their essential nobility of spirit is what drives them ever onward, and it will ultimately prove to be the crucial aspect of their characters, one that will also have profound effects on the doings of the war to come. Though to some they might appear secondary, Tolkien clearly intends for them to be seen as crucial as any others to the fortunes of their world.

Next up, I’ll be discussing the twinned chapters that detail the slowly tightening siege of Gondor and the mustering of the Rohirrim. I do hope that you’ll join me!