Thursday, January 31, 2013

Altars Dripping With Blood

I've been watching a TV series about pre-Columbian civilisations of South America (highly recommended, by the way — Lost Kingdoms of South America).  The popular image of pre-Columbian civilisations, largely due to the Aztecs, tends to involve a lot of human sacrifice.  That hasn't come up much in the cultures the series is examining, but it has reared its head once or twice, and it set me thinking about how this is generally viewed by people with no understanding of the culture that practiced it.

Human sacrifice is a staple of fantasy adventures.  It usually takes place in the sinister temple to a psychopathic elder god, where shaven, skull-faced priest cackle as they slaughter hundreds of innocent virgins.  At least, they would if the hero didn't turn up just in time to put a permanent stop to the disgusting ritual.

Now, there's nothing wrong with using this trope.  I've used human sacrifice as something practiced by the acolytes of the power of evil, where it's suggested to true offering to the evil god is the worshippers giving up their humanity.  But does this really reflect human sacrifice in the real world?

Well, it depends, of course.  It's tempting to see all societies that perform blood sacrifices, human or not, as evil, but often that's missing the point.  When the Greeks sacrificed animals to the gods, for instance, all they were really doing was slaughtering the animal as normal, but in a special place.  A portion was set aside for the god, and then the people had a feast.  As simple as that —  there was really no difference from a butcher slaughtering the animal purely for meat.  We might wonder at the concept of gods who enjoyed the blood, but there was nothing unusually cruel.

When it comes to human sacrifice, there certainly have been societies whose religions wade in blood, but they're in the minority.  Roman authors accused the druids of human sacrifice; and, although this can be put down to propaganda justifying the conquest of Britain for entirely economic reasons, some archaeological evidence has been found for it.

"Some" being the operative word.  A couple of cases, over centuries and over the whole of Britain, and it's only speculation that these were sacrifices rather than, say, ritual executions for sacrilege.

This is true of the majority of societies that have had human sacrifice — it was rare, and possibly only happened in special circumstances.  Imagine a people constantly on the edge of extinction if the harvest fails.  There's been a drought for three years — the gods are angry, and if they don't relent, everyone will die.  These people genuinely believe that they can send a messenger to the gods to plead their case.

Why wouldn't they do it?  It's quite likely the victim would be a volunteer, proud to be the people's saviour.  In any case, what society isn't willing to "sacrifice" its individual members — often in numbers that would flabbergast the Aztecs — when there's danger to the whole?  We call it war, and that somehow makes it different, but it's the same thing.

It's easy to look at another society and condemn it for what looks like barbarism.  Those Roman writers who were so shocked at the druids performing human sacrifice, perhaps in great need, would have happily gone and watched human beings slaughtered in the arena in the name of entertainment.

And what about the tradition of the summer king being sacrificed annually and ploughed into the soil?  Well, maybe it happened, maybe it didn't.  There's always a problem when outsiders try to understand a religion's descriptions of its rituals, because most religions tend to describe them in very symbolic terms.  Many Romans (again) were deeply shocked by the early Christians because it was "well known" their central ritual involved eating human flesh and drinking human blood.  In the modern west, even if we're not Christians, we instinctively understand the symbolism involved in this, but it wasn't so obvious to the Romans.

So maybe the king was sacrificed annually, or maybe it was never anything but a symbolic ritual.  Maybe it was real in some places and symbolic in others — we'll probably never know for certain.

I hope, though, this has made you think, as it's made me.  We don't necessarily have to like customs and religious practices in other societies, and we can certainly be glad we don't have some of them, but they usually make sense in context.  And maybe they'd be just as shocked and disgusted at us.  It's always worth remembering that.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I first read Tolkien ― Lord of the Rings first, then The Hobbit ― several decades ago, and it was one of the great turning-points in life of my imagination: an explosion of inspiration.  I approached the Lord of Rings films with a mixture of hope and trepidation, having experienced the less-than-stellar animated version in the 70s, but overall I loved them.  I have some issues with the changes Peter Jackson made with the story, but far more of it worked than didn't.

I'd heard mixed views about the first of The Hobbit films, and the fact it was being stretched out into a trilogy gave me misgivings, but I found myself loving the film.  I saw it in 3D, which I generally enjoy, and it seemed to enhance the experience, without becoming all about the 3D.

It's apparently filmed in a new format, and the technical film buffs argue about whether that works or not.  I know very little about these issues, so all I can say is I didn't notice anything different, good or bad.  It just looked great.

Of course, like its predecessors, the film largely starred the New Zealand landscape, but there was plenty else to enjoy.  Martin Freeman was perfectly cast as Bilbo, approaching his adventures with a dazed determination.  I could completely believe he was dreaming all the time about Bag End, but also that he chose not to turn back.

There were several returns from Lord of the Rings ― some a little out of context ― Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm and Elijah Wood all picked up as if they'd finished the previous films mere weeks before, and Andy Serkis (or at least his CGI version) made Gollum's one scene unforgettable, as well as doubling as 2nd Unit Director.

Still, much of the film focuses on the dwarves.  I've seen criticism that most of them don't come over sufficiently as individuals, and certainly some of them fade a little into the background, but it would be difficult to avoid that in a group of thirteen characters.  Seven of them have enough to do that they're memorable: Balin, Dwalin, Dori, Bofur, Fili, Kili, and of course Thorin, their king.  As played by Richard Armitage, he's an arresting, complex character, and has enough charisma that it's believable he can persuade the others to follow him, and his relationship with Bilbo was a welcome extra dimension.

The film has considerably more action than the equivalent part of the book.  In fact, very little happens in the book until the party reach the Misty Mountains; but, by making the conflict between dwarves and orcs more personal, Jackson has set up the possibility for chases and fights at more regular intervals, and those in the book ― the fight with the goblins in the mountains and the stand-off when the party take refuge in the tree ― have been turned up to eleven.

On the whole, the additions to the story make sense.  The film starts with the older Bilbo writing his book, in between preparing with Frodo for the Party, morphing into a flashback to Erebor, Dale and the coming of the dragon.  It's a different approach from the book, where we gradually learn with Bilbo how much the quest means to the dwarves, but I think having that up front works better in the context of a film.

As mentioned above, an extra strand has been added between the dwarves and orcs.  This takes the form of the orc-chieftain Azog, who in the book was killed long before, having been maimed by Thorin and being out for revenge.  Azog, portrayed in CGI by Manu Bennett, is a chilling figure and provides a contrast with Barry Humphries' Great Goblin, a gross, disgusting figure.

The biggest strand of additions, though, concern the events leading up to the White Council and its confrontation with Sauron, which here is treated as a parallel plot, rather than as background.  The party's stay at Rivendell is complicated by Saruman and Galadriel's presence and discussions with Gandalf and Elrond about the presence in Dol Guldur, which here is presented as a new development.

The best part of this strand, though, revolves around Radagast the Brown.  Ironically, Radagast's appearance in Lord of the Rings was cut from the films, whereas he's added here where he was only mentioned in passing in the book.  He's splendidly and eccentrically portrayed by Sylvester McCoy, who has the advantage of a character where there's no such thing as being too over the top, but who still manages to balance the insanity perfectly.

Not everything works perfectly.  As in Lord of the Rings, the history behind the story is simplified, and not always for the better.  For instance, the reference to the Witch King of Angmar having been killed and buried makes nonsense of the whole "no living man can kill him" that's so important in The Return of the King.

On the whole, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I look forward to the next two, although I'd still be intrigued to see how they manage to stretch it out into three long films.  Some of what's to be come has been foreshadowed ― glimpses of the halls within the Lonely Mountain and the elven king Thranduil, for instance ― but we still haven't had a good look at Smaug the dragon, who's going to be voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.  I can't wait.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 and 2013

So, another year over, and a new one just begun.  2012 was a mixed year for me, but mainly good on the writing front.  Early in the year, issued an ebook version of my novel At An Uncertain Hour (still also available in paperback as well).  

A lot of good news for my short stories.  Still far more rejections and acceptances, of course, but that's always going to be the case, unless your name happens to be Stephen King or George R. R. Martin.  Quite a few successes, though, with eight stories published.  Of those, three appeared in publications that are rated professional and one that subsequently upgraded to professional, and the year culminated in the publication of my short-story ebook from Musa.

To give full details:

Nemesis: The Case of theHell-Hound in Penumbra June 2012
The Cell in Bards & Sages Quarterly July 2012
Nemesis: The Case of theHeadless Lady in Wily Writers July2012
Aslahkar in Plasma Frequency August/September 2012
Witch in Aoife's Kiss September 2012
The House of Dreams in Lore November 2012
The Treason of Memory from Musa Publishing

Several things were particularly pleasing, including The House of Dreams, which had racked up so many rejections that I almost gave up on it.  I still believed it was a good story, though, and hey presto!  It was accepted at last by a professional magazine.

I was also surprised, as I mentioned in a recent piece, that three out of the eight stories (both Nemesis stories and The Cell) were comedy, something which I'm only gradually coming to believe I can do.  I'm hoping to develop this further.

And I was delighted by the way The Treason of Memory turned out, especially that stunningly atmospheric cover by David Efaw.

My articles on classic fantasy have continued to appear monthly, featuring authors as diverse as Chr├ętien de Troyes (12th century) to Michael Moorcock (1960s).  Hopefully I've sent a few readers back to the fantasy that was around before the 80s, excellent as many of the newer authors are.

There were other great things related to writing, including Fantasycon, where I had my first, if very minor, experience of being invited as a guest.  This was because, more years ago than I care to remember, I had a story in The Thirteenth Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories, edited by Guest of Honour Mary Danby.  I was invited to be there for her talk and join her for the signing session.  A few people actually asked for my autograph, and I got to hang out with Mary, who was delightful.

The live writers group I run, East Herts Fantasy Writers, has had mixed fortunes - we've lost two valuable members who moved away (but are still members at a distance) and our quiet room in the pub, but acquired an excellent new member.  We're now in the middle of putting together an anthology, which will hopefully be out next year.

So that was 2012.  What's in store for 2013?

One of the most exciting things is that A Deed Without a Name has been selected for the first Best of Penumbra anthology, which will appear this year, which is even more awesome than getting into the magazine in the first place. 

Otherwise, I have one outstanding publication for 2013 - The Flowers of Kebash (a short story covering 10,000 years) which is due out later in the year from Aoife's Kiss.

I have several things on my immediate to-do list, starting with an overdue Fantasy Faction article (er... when I've finished the book).  After this, though, I have a series of nine articles, which I just have to finish and polish, on a completely different topic.  This is something I've been meaning to write for some time, and I'm looking forward to getting it done.

I have two short stories to revise and polish, before they go out seeking gainful employment, and I'm currently writing a story for an upcoming Penumbra theme - hopefully I'll have it ready before the deadline. 

And after that, I'm finally going back to Dreams of Fire and Snow, the third part of my trilogy, which I put... er, on ice a while ago.  I started the original (almost unrecognisable) version of this more than 43 years ago, so I really think it's about time I finished it.

That's the plan; but, as John Lennon pointed out, "life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."  So is writing.  I've no doubt 2013 will throw me a few curve balls.