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Archive for June, 2012

I’ve seen two bits of criticism of The Lord of the Rings pop up repeatedly on various forums, and thought they deserved a final response. Not only because I decided on doing some Tolkien defence today but because I’ve seen the same claims show up about various other recognized classics of somewhat higher pedigree than The Lord of the Rings and…guys, this needs to stop.

1. “The Lord of the Rings breaks every rule of novel writing.”

Rules? What rules? I can pull any “write that novel” book off the shelf, or visit any writing blog, and the hard, unbendable rules will be different. Even widespread ones, like “show, don’t tell”, aren’t very helpful when you start thinking about them (surely to show something I’ve got to tell you about something else?). The rule “never start stories with dialogue” appears constantly, but guess which novel, often considered the greatest novel of all time, starts with dialogue? War and Peace.

There are no set rules to writing novels. To take it further: There are no set rules to writing fiction besides those involving basic grammar, and writers can break those every once in a while too. There are helpful guidelines, sure, but just because a writer ignores Elmore Leonard’s rules of writin’ doesn’t automatically make that writer bad (in fact, Leonard’s rules are only useful if you want to write books like Elmore Leonard’s). I’ve questioned traditional rules of “good” writing before because, if you followed them to a “T”, you’d end up with fairly generic prose, the sort of stuff you’d read in any forgettable thriller/mystery/other piece of mass-market fiction.

That doesn’t mean the prose, characters, and pacing of Tolkien’s work or other classics are above criticism; it’s fine to say why you personally found something clumsy, awkward, ill-defined, over-described, just don’t act like there’s an objective set of “rules” governing how to write a novel because there isn’t.

2. “If Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings today it would’ve never been published.”

Let’s get counter-factual, shall we? But this assumes that if Tolkien (or insert any other long-dead author in his place) wrote the novel today he would’ve written it in exactly the same manner, despite a much-changed cultural and literary environment. While I doubt Tolkien would’ve ended up with A Game of Thrones, I also don’t think 21st-century The Lord of the Rings would’ve looked exactly the same as the book we got.

Next, this claim assumes that publishers are somehow more discerning what novels they publish now than they were in the 50s. The same contemporary publishers who’ve printed Eragon, Twilight, Modelland and 50 Shades of Gray, which are just so much better than *insert work by long-dead author here*.

Let’s try this for something else: “If Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales today it would’ve never been published.” To which the only response would be: “Well, yes. So?”

In other words, statement (2) is meaningless.

Classics aren’t above criticism. But they are above petty, ill-considered criticism, just like any other work of fiction from whenever. You’re free to rip into The Lord of the Rings or Frankenstein or Crime and Punishment if you want, but please, put some thought into it first.

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Sometimes I am asked if I know “the response to Auschwitz”; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response.

Elie Wiesel, Preface to Night

This is a difficult article to write, for me. I had initially wished to clarify my earlier comments on John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and victim appropriation (and I suggest reading that post first). Boy has won numerous awards, and the blurbs on certain copies proclaim Boy is as powerful as The Diary of Anne Frank. Boy has also quietly replaced Anne Frank on many elementary school reading lists. Both instances trouble me for obvious reasons. I don’t think a work of fiction and an actual account are remotely comparable in such fashion, especially for an event so difficult and painful to explore and still so dominant in western historical memory.

I decided to read Night and Boy consecutively as a direct contextual experiment. I’ll readily admit this isn’t fair, just reversing the favourable comparisons of Boy to Anne Frank that so often appear. But Night gives an account of Auschwitz, the setting of Boy, and Wiesel confronts the problems of writing the Holocaust in a way, I think, that’s important in understanding what exactly is wrong with Boy.

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If you hadn’t realized already, Young Adult fiction (YA) is kind of a Thing, with several well-known authors dipping in to write books for younger readers. We can blame Harry Potter for the uptick, I suppose. Twilight and The Hunger Games have also cemented that new section’s place in the bookstore.

We’ve had novels aimed specifically at younger readers since the nineteenth century, with boys’ adventure stories and the like. This is where we got Treasure Island, Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates, Around the World in Eighty Days (although Jules Verne’s scientific romances weren’t specifically meant for young boys, it was a natural fit). Then there was the era when the Newbery Award reigned supreme—the 50s to the 70s, when Lloyd Alexander, Rosemary Sutcliff and Ursula K. Le Guin wrote classic works for younger readers. To tell the truth, my interest in YA lies mostly with works from before YA was a Thing, with those boys’ adventure novels and the “Newbery Era.” Yet those both had younger readers in mind than YA supposedly aims for.

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I don’t often post with the sole intention of sharing a link, but this is one of those rare occasions when I think it’s worth it.  CBC Radio’s Ideas ran a documentary about the Holy Orders and the concluding segment (aired on June 6th) centred on the Teutonic Knights.  The Story of the Teutonic Knights – The Iron Fist gives an excellent overview of the Teutonic Knights’ establishment in the Holy land, its height during the Baltic Crusades, and the continued significance of the Order to the national identities of Poland and Germany long after its fall.

I have a long…er, history with the Baltic Crusades, starting with watching the Polish film Krzyzacy (1960); my fascination culminated with a paper I wrote for a seminar during the final year of my undergraduate degree.  While the paper focused specifically on Paul Vladimiri’s submission to the Council of Constance (1417) arguing against the continued existence of the Teutonic Knights’ Ordenstaat in Prussia, I devoted a great deal of time to considering the ideological underpinnings of that particular Order.  If you’re interested in my ramblings about the Baltic Crusades, you can find some here.

In 2010 I attended the anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, fought in 1410 between the Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania and the Teutonic Order. So, in lieu of analyzing the importance of Grunwald in Polish historical memory, I provide you with pictures to accompany the documentary (all photographs copyright me &c.):

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I’m resigned to the fact that post-2001, computer games based on The Lord of the Rings will look to the films for inspiration. I recently watched the game trailer for Guardians of Middle Earth with a touch of sadness at this state of affairs. I like seeing different visual interpretations of Tolkien’s books, and now they’ve become a homogenous blend of John Howe and Allen Lee. More to the point, I have a kind of fascination with older Tolkien-based games and the wildly different styles between them.

When I was 12 I bought my first computer, and I didn’t have an internet connection until I was 17. However, I would drop by the school library at lunch with a floppy disk and download abandonware off Home of the Underdogs to play at home. I also had something of a Tolkien obsession, so when 13 year-old me stumbled across the Tolkien Computer Games page I ended up trying to get my hands on all of the games listed. Thus began my DOS-based adventures in Middle Earth.

I often at least attempted to play these games straight to the end, even the bad ones, and if I didn’t finish it usually had to do with glitches caused by running DOS games on a Windows machine. Why? I’m not sure, now, but rather than let all those hours spent playing go to waste I thought I’d review them all here.

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