Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Generally speaking, I hate it when stories I love are treated as optional extras in film versions bearing their name.  From a kid who loved Kipling's The Jungle Book and confronted with what Disney had done with it to an adult seeing one of the world's greatest classic stories trashed in Troy, I try my best to avoid such rewritings.  Of course, I accept that these may be great films in their own right for anyone who doesn't know and love the original, but in a way that's the point.  Generations are going to believe these are the actual stories.

In view of that, it's maybe strange that I never had too much problem with the wholesale changes Peter Jackson made to my absolute favourite book ever.  I do have issues with the Lord of the Rings films (I still think the Scouring of the Shire should have been included, for instance) but I tend to think of them not so much as adaptations of the books but a different way of retelling the legends of the War of the Ring.  A film about King Arthur, for instance, might draw heavily on Malory, but would be free to take slightly different routes from A to B.

In general, I felt the same about the first instalment of The Hobbit (reviewed last year) but I have to say that the second stretches my tolerance a good deal further.  I think it's probably fair to say that parts of the fight with the giant spiders, of Thorin's defiance of Thranduil, and of Bilbo's encounter with Smaug are the only bits of the book to make it into this film.

It isn't all bad.  It makes complete sense, for instance, for Legolas to be present in his father's halls, and I suspect that, if Tolkien had ever done a thorough rewrite of The Hobbit in light of Lord of the Rings, he'd have included an appearance.  It also makes sense to give Bard the Bowman more of a story.  I always felt it was a weakness of the book that he pops up from nowhere just in time to save the day, and the narrative backstory given in the book certainly wouldn't work in a film.

Also, as in the first film, it makes sense to use the growing conflict with the power of Dol Guldur as a parallel plotline.  We don't see as much of Radagast this time, but his couple of scenes are enjoyable, and Gandalf's eventual confrontation with the vast, numinous figure of Sauron is stunning.

Similarly, the complexities of Lake-town politics, only hinted at in the book, are presented effectively, if at length, with Stephen Fry excellent as the corrupt Master, and the town itself is wonderfully visualised.  Bard has a role that foreshadows what happens later, although the whole nature and significance of his black arrow has been completely changed.

Beorn and the spiders of Mirkwood, too, are visually arresting, but the film's highlight is, as it should be, the dragon.  Forget the dragons of past films — even the wonderful Draco from Dragonheart — Smaug is everything a dragon should be.  He's visually captivating, and Benedict Cumberbatch (who also supplies Sauron's voice) extracts every nuance of character shown in the book.

Not all of the changes are quite as successful, though.  The film introduces an entirely new character, the elf Tauriel, who has a highly improbable romantic subplot with the dwarf Kili.  I found this not only a very long distraction from the main story but very unconvincing.  Granted that Kili bears very little resemblance to a dwarf (like Thorin, he has the appearance more of a dashing human) it would still be an unthinkable step to take, and somewhat reduces the impact of Legolas and Gimli's later unprecedented friendship.

Another problem is the apparent obsession with turning almost every single scene into action.  This is perhaps most clear in the escape by barrel from Thranduil's halls.  Granted that there's little visual in the original sequence, it seems unnecessary to add an orc-attack and a three-way running battle between dwarves, elves and orcs (not to mention more romance between Kili and Tauriel) to what is already a tense and exciting episode.

Not that the way the escape is presented really makes any sense.  In the book, the dwarves are hidden inside sealed barrels while floating downstream, but here the barrels are open and upright.  Which would be fine if they weren't regularly submerged and tossed around going over waterfalls, without apparently shipping any water at all.

Another somewhat pointless action scene is the battle within Erebor between Smaug and the dwarves, although at least this has the advantage of letting us see more of the dragon.  It's presumably there so that the film can finish in a blaze of action, but it rather undermines Bilbo's role as the party's thief to have the dwarves instantly springing into action.  The sequence is beautifully made and exciting, but I'm not convinced it's good storytelling.

Regardless of the choices about the story, the performances are all excellent.  Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel well, whether or not the character belongs in the film, and Luke Evans as Bard seems to be somewhat channelling Viggo Mortensen, which is fair enough.  The people carried over from the first film remain strong — Thorin is a commanding presence, and Ian McKellan — well, he's Gandalf, and always will be.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo has less centre stage than in the first film, but he continues to handle the transition from home-loving hobbit to courageous adventurer with total conviction.  His confrontation with Smaug (his Sherlock co-star, of course) is delightful.

The film ends with Smaug flying off to attack Lake-town, and I'm sure we're in for plenty more action in the third film, what with the dragon-slaying, the attack on Dol Guldur and the Battle of the Five Armies.  And, presumably, a lot more of Kili and Tauriel.  I just hope there's a bit more of the book present than in this film.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Fantasy and Religion

Religion and fantasy: they go together like "Attila" and "the Hun", don't they?  I'm not talking about peddling a religious message, though some do, but don't all secondary-world fantasies feature religion?

Well, yes and no.  Many feature gods and priests, but that's not exactly the same thing.  In fact, I'd go as far as to say that fantasy works which portray the gods of their world are less likely to involve actual religion than those which don't.  Religion is a human institution, although one that's present in almost all cultures in one form or another — even societies that are militantly secular tend to replace religion with something parallel — whereas as soon as gods are portrayed as individuals who can be spoken to, their religious status tends to take a back seat to their status as characters.  Religion is about belief and worship, not about whether you can share a drink in the pub with your god.

With the presence of priests, we should be on firmer footing.  They are, after all, humans upholding a human institution, which is all very well as long as there's an institution for them to hold up.  Many fantasy writers do portray the religions of their societies, but often priests will appear in isolation, usually performing unspeakable rites involving half-naked female victims which the hero is just in time to stop, but there's no sense of any religious infrastructure.  The focus is on the evil god, who invariably makes an appearance, and the priest is simply a plot device to get the god to materialise.

Now, there's nothing wrong with any of this.  I enjoy it as much as the next person when Conan or some similar hero battles with sinister, black-robed, shaven-headed priests of blasphemous gods.  I enjoy reading about gods squabbling among themselves, or manifesting themselves in the mortal world.  I've used these plot devices myself.

It's just that they're not religion.

The first fantasy writer to take the formal mythology approach (unless we count William Blake, whose pantheon was mainly meant to represent aspects of the human psyche) was Lord Dunsany, whose 1905 book The Gods of Pegana was less a collection of stories than a series of sketches of the various gods and goddesses of a fictional pantheon, worshipped in a secondary world.  He did subsequently write stories about the lands in which those gods were worshipped, but seemed to lose interest in this and moved on to worlds that have complex relationships with ours.

Few authors went quite to this extent, although Tolkien's Valaquenta (included in The Silmarillion) is a similar work, but many invented gods for their characters to invoke — Conan always swears by Crom, for instance.  Other early fantasy writers were content to reuse existing religions.  Those who wrote alternative versions of mediaeval Europe, like William Morris, simply had a Christian background, while others used the Greek or Norse gods.  James Branch Cabell went further, plundering Celtic, Russian and Indian mythology, among others.

More recent authors have often created impressive pantheons for their works, such as Moorcock's Lords of Law and Chaos, but it's less common (though by no means unknown) for the actual religions of those gods to be explored in fantasy.  Tolkien, for instance, created a pantheon of lesser gods (or angelic powers, as he'd probably have preferred to call them) beneath Iluvatar, the One, but he shows no ritual or worship directed towards any of them, beyond occasional Elven songs in praise of Elbereth (whom some of them, of course, would have known her personally).

This probably wasn't an accident.  Tolkien, a committed Christian, would have likely felt uncomfortable if his good characters had worshipped in anything other than a Christian manner, but his setting precluded Christian worship — just as he criticised Lewis for having Christmas in Narnia, which couldn't possibly have the same religious background as our world. Tolkien dealt with the issue by having no religion.

So what is religion?  And what are the most usual forms of its manifestation?

As I said earlier, religion is first and foremost a human institution, consisting of rituals, laws and creeds whose essential purpose is to fulfil the spiritual needs and desires of ordinary people.  Whether you believe that one (or more) of our real-world religions is literally true, or whether you believe with Marx that religion is the opium of the masses, is entirely up to you, and this piece isn't trying to convince you one way or another.

In practice, though, the nature of a religion is essentially the same, whether it's complete truth or complete fabrication.  It's about people.  A bunch of sinister priests skulking in a temple doesn't make a religion — that's made by the beliefs held by the mass of the people affected by it, and the ways in which it affects how they live their lives.  Religion is a communal institution, not an elite one.

Broadly speaking, there are four types of religion: animistic, traditional, revealed and non-theistic.  This, of course, is a gross simplification, and many religions fall between the cracks of these categories, but it's good enough for a general picture.

Animism, put very simply, is the belief that there are spirits everywhere, and they all need to be respected, appeased or defended against.  An animist might need to placate the spirit of a tree he needs to fell or the animal he's hunting, or simply the spirit of a place where he wants to do anything.  And some spirits may be malevolent, and so he needs protection against them.

Animism is usually fairly low on organisation, and it tends to be presented in fantasy among primitive tribes — the "noble savage" who lives in close accord with nature.  There's some justification in this, but animism isn't necessarily simple.  Indeed, it frequently makes far more demands than other religions on the individual, and far more complex ones.  The systems of obligations and taboos arising from the Australian Dreamtime mythology, which is broadly animist, can be complex in the extreme.

A "traditional" religion (my term) is usually polytheistic, involving a pantheon of gods and rituals that have grown up organically over thousands of years.  It's likely to have ultimately grown out of animism, but the big difference is that it features temples, priests and hierarchies, as well as probably more communal worship than animism.  This kind of religion is usually seen (and presented in fantasy) in a very formalised way: you have the god of the sky, the god of war, the goddess of love and so on. 

In fact, this tends to be a late rationalisation by poets of a very much more messy
affair.  The Greek gods (the best-known example) actually all had numerous aspects, names and characteristics, many very different from the familiar ones.  Aphrodite, for instance, is normally thought of as the goddess of love and beauty, but she was originally a sea goddess, an aspect which survived into the familiar story of her birth from the sea-foam. 

It would be difficult for a fantasy writer to fully portray this in a secondary world, and most rationalised pantheons work well enough, but it would certainly give the religion a more realistic feel to make it a little less cut and dried, with conflicting cults in different regions and gods whose remits overlap.  For a feeling of just how messy this can get in reality, try reading The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, which covers all the conflicting beliefs, besides suggesting their origins in cult and ritual.

Polytheistic traditional religions seem to have a way of evolving towards monotheism (whether or not they actually reach it) as the society grows more sophisticated.  Judaism appears to have begun as polytheistic before evolving into henotheism, a belief in one god's superiority rather than uniqueness (Thou shalt have no other god before me, rather than Thou shalt not believe any other god exists).  It appears to have reached a stage of full monotheism around the period of the Captivity in Babylon.  It came into contact at this time with the Persian religion Zoroastrianism, which was evolving from a traditional religion into a dualistic system (Light against Dark), and it's reasonable to suppose they influenced each other.

At around the same time, the more intellectual among the Greeks were gradually relegating their mass of gods to the level of the Judaic angels (who themselves may have once been regarded as lesser gods) and setting up a single supreme being, although they didn't agree on its identity: Zeus, the One or the Demiurge.  It would be interesting to tackle this tendency in a fantasy setting where a society with a traditional religion has reached the sophistication level of, say, classical Greece.  In any case, realism suggests that a society's religion should have evolved over many centuries, whereas many fantasy religions seem to have been stuck since year zero.

Revealed or messianic religions, usually but not inevitably monotheistic, are those founded by a charismatic individual believed to have access to a deeper religious truth than others.  This figure might be regarded as divine or as an inspired mortal prophet — of the two best-known examples in our world, one regards its messiah as god, the other considers that very idea blasphemous.

Revealed religions are likely to have at least as much structure, hierarchy and communal ritual as traditional religions, but they also tend to place a far greater emphasis on the individual, and particularly on individual morality.  On the whole (and, again, this is a broad generalisation) traditional religions are more concerned with rules and taboos than with morals.  This can be seen in Greek attitudes.  Oedipus, for instance, wasn't punished because he'd sinned — his "sins" were, after all, committed in complete ignorance — but because he'd broken two fundamental taboos, and his motives for doing so were irrelevant.  The Greeks didn't really start taking an interest in personal morality until the time of Socrates.

Revealed religion tends to be a lot more rare in fantasy than traditional religion, and when it does occur it's often portrayed in rather simple terms, as a crusade by a fanatical priest.  The best-known example of a full portrayal (lying on the borders between SF and fantasy) is Frank Herbert's Dune series, although Shardik by Richard Adams also tackles this idea.

Most real-world religions are based around belief in one or more deities, although these figures can range from the supreme being of the universe to local tutelary spirits, but some treat gods largely as irrelevant — notably Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.  Such non-theistic religions may evolve beliefs in beings that take the place of gods, such as the buddhas and bodhisattvas of Buddhism, or they may respect traditional gods side by side with their own teachings.  They may also engage in communal rituals, but they're essentially about the moral and spiritual development of the individual, rather than about collective worship.

In some ways, this comes full circle from the animist position, in that both tend to concentrate on the individual's behaviour, but the similarity ends there, for the most part.  Where animism, like traditional religions, is about placating beings in ways that might be entirely arbitrary, non-theistic religions generally regard the individual's behaviour as internally important, whether for their moral or spiritual development.

In the modern world, in particular, non-theistic structures often take the place of god-based religion for individuals or whole communities, whether the belief is in a state, an ideology or a sports team.  It's unlikely that this kind of institution would loom very large in a more traditional secondary-world fantasy, since those kind of societies tend to still retain their more established religions, but the moral/spiritual-based style of religion could be used more.

First and foremost, religion tends to be seen not in its hierarchy and certainly not in its gods, but in the effect it has on people's characters and everyday lives.  Their behaviour, and their reaction to the behaviour of others, will be informed by the rules of their religion, whether those rules are ritualised or morally based.  The round of their lives will be affected by everything from religious duties to festivals and holy days to the very language they use.  A society's religion permeates everything.
As I said at the beginning, I'm certainly not discouraging any fantasy writer from showing us their gods as people, or from having sinister priests skulking in corners and sacrificing virgins.  But the world we're shown will be that much more realistic if we can see the religion itself, not just its trappings.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Review of Love & Sleep by John Crowley

Some time back, I wrote areview of The Solitudes, the first part of John Crowley's Ӕgypt Cycle.  Last year, I read the second, Love & Sleep, and I thought I'd update the review.

Love & Sleep is in most ways a continuation of a single work, and therefore possesses much the same qualities: the blend of rural life, intense academia and historical drama, as historian Pierce Moffatt seeks to show that the world not only changes at crucial stages of history, but changes retrospectively, so that what was once true no longer is.

However, this book doesn't simply pick up where the last broke off.  For about the first third (this, like The Solitudes, is divided into sections corresponding to three of the twelve Houses of the Moon) Crowley examines Pierce's childhood, which was only hinted at in the first book.  We see him growing up with his cousins, reading arcane works of mythology and mysticism, and developing his obsession with Ӕgypt (not to be confused with Egypt) and the Invisible College.  This was a name given to the Rosicrucians, but Pierce forms a gang of the name with his cousins, dedicated to the concept that they're the last survivors of the lost, ancient world.

We also see his relationship with a wild mountain girl called, of all things, Bobby Shaftoe ("And the girl had some sort of nursery rhyme name...") with whom Pierce experiences his first, child's stirrings of sexual desire.  We also, though, see something of Bobby's grandfather, who appears to have mystical, out-of-body experiences (unless, of course, they're just vivid dreams) which tie in with some of the occult themes of the sixteenth century episodes.

These continue the stories of John Dee (left) and Giordano Bruno (below), historical scientists and magicians, though concentrating this time rather more on Dee, taking them from Oxford to Prague, where Dee is commissioned by the Emperor Rudolph to turn lead into gold.  Crowley makes it clear that this much-misunderstood alchemical ideal was not primarily, if at all, for avarice, but meant to aid the mystical aim of creating "philosophical gold".

Dee and his assistant Kelley (pictured togethered below left) are guided by a spirit called Madimi, an intriguing figure who — if not actually a figment of their imagination — may be an angel or something more sinister.  Growing in the course of the book from apparently a seven-year-old girl into apparently a woman, Madimi guides their steps, promising the dawn of a new age.

Meanwhile, the book also explores further Pierce's new life in the Faraway Mountains, in particular his relationships with Rosie Rasmussen and Rose Ryder — two women he originally confused.  We discover a lot more about Rosie through her own POV, almost equal to Pierce's in these sections, and something more about Rose through Pierce's POV, though she remains an enigma for now.  It can hardly be a coincidence that both names reflect the rose at the centre of the symbolism of the Rosicrucians — or the Invisible College.

In among this, Pierce pursues his studies, seeking to understand his mystical theory of history and therefore prepare for the change which, he's convinced, is already underway.  He seeks for the one thing — hidden in plain sight, he believes — which has survived from the former age in which different laws of nature held sway, and magic works.  And, by the end of the book, he's convinced he's found it.  But you'll have to read the book to find out what it is.

The book ends (preparing for its transition into the third volume and the seventh House) with a vast wind storming through both the sixteenth century and the twentieth, perhaps heralding the coming of the new age in both.  And winds blow throughout the book.  In a passage which clearly expresses Pierce's idiosyncratic view of history, there's a discussion of the strange phenomenon of the wind that scattered the Spanish Armada — a wind for which, Crowley claims, there were no reports whatsoever at the time:

Perhaps there was a wind, and it somehow left no trace in the primary records of the time...Or perhaps there really was no wind — until the awesome fortunate power which commentators attributed to it belatedly conjures it up.  Only when the myth of the big wind...settles firmly on the humps of historian's {sic} pens does it begin to blow backward from the later time to the earlier, where kings, popes, and ambassadors can feel it, though sailors and ships do not.

Perhaps...  Crowley constantly teases the reader as whether or not there actually is any magic in the book.  Perhaps Bobby's grandfather just had vivid dreams.  Perhaps Dr Dee's angel was really a trick by his assistant.  Perhaps all Pierce's discoveries are really just an overactive imagination fed by a yearning for the mystical.  And perhaps, Crowley seems to imply, it doesn't greatly matter.  A principle of Renaissance magic was that there's a parallel between the macrocosm (the universe) and the microcosm (the human), and if Pierce's quest is merely one of self-discovery, that doesn't invalidate it.

Like the first book, Love & Sleep is an absorbing but not easy read.  The prose is often dense and the vocabulary send me many times to the dictionary (the word semhamaphore defeated even the uncut Oxford English Dictionary) and Crowley breaks grammatical rules with gay abandon, though only for carefully calculated effect.  Though I suspect the example in the quote above is an honest-to-goodness typo.

Nevertheless, it's a book well worth sticking with, and I'm looking forward to reading the third book, Dӕmonomania.  After a suitable rest.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 and 2014

2012 was a great year for me as far as publication was concerned, but 2013 seemed to slow down a little.  Even so, there's been a fair amount to celebrate.

Perhaps the biggest thing out was The Triarchy's Emissary, issued by a new South African epublisher, Fox & Raven.  This was a story I wrote several years ago for a shared-world anthology that collapsed before it was complete.  We created the world between us, and I've always been proud of the story I wrote for it, even though no-one was accepting it, so I'm grateful to Marius for putting it out and delighted to be helping Fox & Raven get off the ground.  Coincidentally, another contributor to the anthology also had an acceptance for her anthology story at around the same time, which was wonderful.

Following the publication of The Treason of Memory (still available) at the end of 2012, Musa Publishing have accepted The Lone and Level Sands, my secondary-world Indiana Jones style story about archaeologists, desert countries and ancient, haunted temples.  I don't have a publication date for it yet, but I look forward to getting to work on it.

Besides The Triarchy's Emissary, I've only had one story newly published this year — River God in the excellent magazine The Colored Lens, a story that combines fantasy with ecology and owes a little in influence to John Boorman's haunting film The Emerald Forest.

I've also had two reprints, though.  A Deed Without a Name, which featured during 2012 in Penumbra's Shakespeare-themed edition, reappeared in The Best of Penumbra Vol. 1, while Just Deserts featured in Leslianne Wilder's anthology Trespass (available from and  This story about Eltava and the spoilt princess from hell was first published by Quantum Muse in 2007, and I was a little mortified to find they'd published it as "Just Desserts".  Well, there was meant to be a pun along those lines, as it involved cannibals (just like the other pun referring to its setting in a desert) but I'm delighted, among other reasons, that it's now available under the correct title.

On the downside,, who published At An Uncertain Hour, have closed down.  Kris always ran it as a one-man-band, and he needed more time for other parts of his life, such as his family.  I wish him all the best, and many thanks for putting the book out.

The positive from this is that all rights have reverted to me, so I'm free to self-publish a new edition.  I have mixed feelings about self-publication — while it's a great option, much of what's put out seems in dire need of professional input — but as At An Uncertain Hour has already been extensively edited by StoneGarden, I see no reason not to go ahead.  I'm hoping it'll be back in print early in the new year.

Away from fiction, Fantasy Faction published my article series this year on The Chaotic Champion, a concept about the nature of heroes in fiction I began as a book in the mid-1990s but lost to a computer crash.  I've finally got around to writing it, although in a much shorter version than the original concept.  Still, it seemed to go down well, so who knows?  I may yet expand it into a book.  Links to all my Fantasy Faction articles can be found on my website.

On the writing front, the big news is that I've finally finished my trilogy The Winter Legend.  Well, apart from all the extensive rewrites, of course, but it still feels incredible to have a complete version of the project I first conceived nearly forty-five years ago.

I've now started on my next novel, with the working title at the moment The Empire of Nandesh, which is both sequel to At An Uncertain Hour and prequel to The Winter Legend.  Just to make it more difficult for myself, I'm writing it in four separate first-persons, with extensive flashbacks in all of them, in the same sort of style as At An Uncertain Hour.  Well, I wouldn't want to get bored, would I?

I only wrote four shorter pieces this year, though one was a novella — The Dweller in the Crack, a story about Karaghr and Failiu, whose tales could be viewed as my most successful series, since all three of the stories so far have been published, including The Temple of Taak-Resh.  This one, currently 26,000 words, still needs to be stretched and hacked into shape on the Procrustean Bed of revision, but I'm looking forward to having it finished.

So, onward to 2014.  As I said, I'm hoping to have At An Uncertain Hour back in print (physical and virtual) early in the year, and I have one outstanding story to come — The Lady of the House in the February/March issue of Plasma Frequency.

The Tryst Flame, the first part of the trilogy, has been to a few agents and will be knocking on the doors of many more in the new year.  The other two parts will need to be pulled into shape at some stage, but my priorities for now are to finish the draft of The Empire of Nandesh and get The Dweller in the Crack in a fit state for submission.  And hopefully there'll be other story ideas waiting to ambush me.

Happy New Year to everyone.  I hope all your projects turn out to be twice as successful as you planned.