Thoughts on The Two Towers

Like my post on The Fellowship of the Rings, spoilers abound for both the books and the movies!

Now that The Two Towers is in the bag, I have some more comments, comparing the movie (my favorite of the trilogy) with the book.

 

Helm’s Deep
In the books, Helm’s Deep, while intense, is a much shorter event, and is done within the first third of The Two Towers.  While enjoyable, it’s certainly not my favorite part of the two books I’ve read so far.

The movie’s depiction of the battle is far more exciting.  They did a wonderful job of creating tension, stretching out the battle to encompass much of the second film, and the battle is one of my favorite moments in any movie.   Theoden and the few remaining warriors charge forth to certain death, to die nobly and honorably just to buy their loved ones a few more precious minutes to escape.  Just before their blaze of glory is extinguished, when it looks like all is lost, Gandalf and the Rohirrim arrive, turning certain death into certain victory in a mater of moments.  Light pours over the battlefield, and suddenly dead men walking have new life.

But it comes with a downside: the movies does such a good job of making the situation feel dire that the rest of the trilogy never really compares.  After the Uruk-hai are defeated at Helm’s Deep, the tides have turned, and the peril is never quite so dire again.  The road is dangerous, but the momentum is in the heroes’ favor as the final third is entered.

Which brings us to my next point…

 

Sauron and Saruman’s Relationship
While a shorter event that’s over in the first their of the book, Helm’s Deep is such a turning point in the movies partly because The Two Towers makes it the focal point of the entire second story, and partly because Saruman is depicted as being a willing servant of Sauron, his forces a part of Sauron’s own army.  Therefore, the defeat at Helm’s Deep is a direct defeat for Sauron.  While a necessary change to justify the sustained focus on Helm’s Deep that finishes with the film’s climax, it does carry the flaw discussed above.

This is avoided in the books by giving them a tenuous alliance, with Saruman clearly portrayed as a scheming rival of Sauron.  It’s an alliance of convenience moreso than servitude, with both Saruman and Sauron willing to play nice with the other as long as they share enemies.  Saruman makes his own power plays, but they pale in comparison to the might of Mordor.

This negates the “tides turning” issue of the movie, because Sauron’s might is undamaged by the defeat at Helm’s Deep.  Meanwhile, Helm’s Deep is handled quickly and Isengard falls (relatively) easily, showing them to be much smaller threats than Mordor.  The chase outside of Rivendell was dangerous, the mines of Moria even moreso, and Isengard yet more dangerous still, but none come close to Sauron.

More succinctly, the book does a much better job of portraying the grave threat of Mordor.

 

“Gandalf the White” Means Something in the Books
After watching the films, I felt like the whole “Gandalf the White” thing was left hanging.  His big return brings with it a new name and title, but it seems to mean little more than a symbolic gesture implying that Saruman has lost his claim to the moniker.

Not only does the book explain what this means–that he is now the head of the Council, and more powerful than Saruman–but his character undergoes a clear change.  Merry accurately describes him as “kinder and more alarming, merrier and more solemn than before…”  Gandalf the White is a more intense Gandalf, something I felt was lost with the films.

 

Faramir
Faramir is a stronger character than in the movies.  He feels every bit as notable as Boromir.  He’s strong, confident, and wise, whereas in the movie he suffers both from lacking confidence and some of the same rashness as his brother.

Your mileage may vary, but I prefer the book Faramir.

 

Frodo and Sam Feel Like the Main Attraction
Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve noticed yet again ties in with the movie’s focus on the battle of Helm’s Deep: in the book, Frodo and Sam are the real stars.  The movie’s focus on Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli makes them feel like the standout characters, with Helm’s Deep the standout storyline (with Frodo’s quest being set up as the focus of The Return of the King).

The book, however, puts them front and center.  Without the tense, exciting, high-stakes battle of Helm’s Deep constantly winning over my interest and focus as in the movie, I found myself far more engrossed with them and their adventure.  Never have I previously been so interested in them, having always preferred the rollicking adventures of Aragorn and company when watching the movie.

Is that better?  I suppose that depends on what you prefer, but it’s certainly more true to Tolkien’s intended purpose!

 

In Conclusion…
It might sound like I’m favoring the books thus far, but they do have their flaws, and I still have one last leg of the journey to go.  The Two Towers is my favorite of the movies, but perhaps not of the books.

I’m hopeful that I’ll be done with The Return of the King within the week.  The joys of vacation!

“Good” Versus “Great”: A Matter of Nuance

I’m increasingly of the mind that, when discussing the quality of a work, it’s the little things that actually push it from “good” to “great” (and before that, maybe even from “decent” to “good”).  I think back to my favorite movies or games, and it’s the ones that really pay attention to detail that stand the test of time.

Morrowind is good because of it’s gorgeous graphics and interesting questline.  It’s great because of the little adventures here and there, the side stories, the personalities of the people who have nothing to do with the focus, and the little details, hints, and callbacks scattered throughout.

Going from “good” to “great” might actually be a bigger challenge than making something “good” (and that might even apply to going from “okay” to “good”).  It’s not about creating likable characters: that’s a far easier task than creating deeply nuanced characters.

And that’s my biggest challenge as a writer.  I can form a sentence.  I can occasionally deliver a decent metaphor or a solid line of prose.  The story fits the structure, the pacing is acceptable, the characters are likable enough or dislikable enough–and all of this was after the first draft or two, more than two years ago.

I certainly had a book two years ago, and it was not the worst thing an avid reader would ever read.  Since then, it’s become a grind to work out all the little kinks, to try to tweak everything to bump it up to the next level.

But increasingly, as I read, watch, and game with a keener eye, I think the payoff for that time and attention to detail is real.

Living the Fantasy through Morrowind

My fascination with fantasy was never limited to just novels, but nothing could ever match the immersion of a good book–until 2002.  No, I’m not talking about the brilliant Lord of the Rings films, as great as they are.  I’m talking about the video game The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind.

Gaming is the only passion I have that predates reading, and the both dovetail into that favored genre, fantasy.  Role playing games like Dragon Warrior (née Quest), Final Fantasy IV, and Final Fantasy Legend II were immersive and exciting, but it wasn’t until I got my hands on a copy of Morrowind for the Xbox that I felt truly a part of a fantasy world.

Morrowind was the first time I can ever recall being a part of a fantasy world, not just a traveler following behind the Pevensies in Narnia, or a divine hand manipulating Cecil and Rydia from afar.  After creating a character–customizing their looks, their species, even their abilities and talents–Morrowind thrust me into a beautiful, three-dimensional fantasy world, and then… let go of my hand completely.

No novels, or even the RPGs from before, had ever let me create myself, and then let me decide how to handle the fictional world in front of me.  Morrowind does require you to do anything.  The entire world is open, immediately, and you can cross the entire island, dotted with dozens of towns and hundreds of camps, caves, shrines, travelers, hidden treasures, dungeons, ancient ruins, cemeteries, and farms, with a myriad of factions, foes, friends, monsters, and wildlife between any two locations (with more to come from the two additional expansions that were released).

All the same, the world has laws, both natural and man-made.  Magic comes in limited supply, and the early going for a new adventurer is incredibly difficult and dangerous.  The world is not yours to mold and smash like sandcastles: the laws of physics apply, and steel will still sunder flesh and bone.  You could kill an innocent bystander, but the guards and townsfolk would not take the offense lightly.  Games like Grand Theft Auto allow for relatively easy massacres which betray just how dull and lifeless their worlds actually are, populated by cookie-cutter human-shapes that squish and are replaced shortly afterward, with few repercussions.  Should you succeed in wiping out a town in Morrowind, gone are numerous personalities, quests, adventures, and treasures, and in turn, permanent enemies may be made–a massive, realistic penalty for what would ultimately amount to a few baubles and a pittance of gold.

No, Morrowind‘s Vvardenfell province is a living, breathing world, with the true freedom that can only come with the existence of genuine consequences and life that has real value.  It is a real fantasy world that welcomes you to be a part of it, with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies that define you.

You can follow the main quest of good versus evil, but the little goods–and evils–are all over the place.  There are hundreds of quests unrelated to the main plot line, with numerous people who need your help, from poor farmers to goddesses, from the good to the bad to the shady.  There is no shaggy wizard telling you to hurry up or slow down: you can wander the streets of the gorgeous, multi-tiered holy city of Vivec for as long as you like, or you can charge ahead with reckless abandon.

To the very end, you’re never forced into becoming “the Chosen One”, “the Ring Bearer”, or “the Dragonborn”; you still decide who you are.  Imagine Shannara’s Allanon halting everything so that Shea can help the poor guy hiding in waist-deep water who’s pants were stolen.  Making it worth reading or watching within the scope of the wider adventure might not be impossible, but it would certainly be a challenge.  Yet, Morrowind gives you that choice, and it’s as entertaining and fulfilling as it could be in real life.

That’s why Morrowind was such a transformative experience, and its successors can continue to be so for future generations: only in the video game medium can you come so close to truly being a part of the fantasy.

Revising is Miserable, Learning is Great

With my “Wednesday” goal passed without a champagne cork flying across Twitter, I’m not letting any secrets out when I note I’m still not quite done revising.  I’m painfully close to having a work done that I feel ready to put on Amazon, and yet, I’m so far from it.

In 2014, I finished a complete first draft of my first novel.  Within a year, I had finished the first draft of a second, significantly better novel.

And then things dragged to a crawl.  My first draft of my first book was an incredible learning experience, but it needs so much work that it’s almost worth starting with a blank page.  My second book, on the other hand, is entirely salvageable.  But man, is salvaging time-consuming and difficult!

I’m a big gamer, and I feel like what makes the difference between a “good” game and a “great” game is often a matter of nuance–and I can’t help but feel that applies to books as well.  Presently, the story is coherent, is writing isn’t the most bland I’ve seen, the structure suffices, the characters grow and change, the major plotholes are smoothed over.  All the same, the story could use a little more tweaking, the prose could be a lot better, the pacing isn’t perfect, the characters could use a little more nuance and a little more growth, and there are still things that could use some explanations and/or retooling.

Combined with knowledge gained from reading other authors and studying books on the craft, it’s a teachable moment: the more you understand your character arcs, story structure, and how to put together a sentence, the better it all comes together the first or second time through.

I’m a far better writer than I was in 2014, but I’m suddenly aware of how much more there actually is to learn.  It makes me think of the classic game Morrowind: when you level up, it’s quick to point out there’s still a ways to go.  There’s quite a bit of wisdom in the pithy quotes of those old level-up screens!

 

MorrowindInspiration

Dollar Store Fantasy: Greyhawk

Going back a few years, another series I indulged in during my formative years were the Rose Estes Greyhawk titles.  With money and options limited, I was thrilled to see Master Wolf sitting there in a local dollar store’s tiny book section.  It was the third book in the Greyhawk series, but as it turned out, an excellent starting point, introducing a new character who starred in the next few entries.

I couldn’t tell you much about it, only that it was enjoyable enough that I wolfed (ha-ha) it down, and excitedly picked up the next two (or maybe three) volumes from the same store.  It didn’t matter to me if the books were a few years old: it was more fantasy.

I haven’t read the books in probably 25 years, not for lack of influence (I can see remember seeing them on the shelves, the excitement of gazing upon their covers for the first time, and even the art and design of the cover art itself), but because anything is foggier years later.  From what I can recall, the series was rather crass, the hero was less-than-honorable, and it was, at times, pretty strange.  I seem to recall a harpy hooking up with the main character at one point (at this point in the blog, my wife is wondering if this is why I still refuse to kill harpies in World of Warcraft, or any other MMO we pick up, and I can only say to her, “There’s a good chance it’s a factor!”).

Thanks to the joys of young internet, I later found out that Estes faced a some amount of vitriol in the 90s.  The first two books were written by the legendary Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, but were apparently rather lacking, and Estes in turn took flak for weakening the series further.  Much of the criticism focused on unfamiliarity with the Greyhawk world and material, things that would hardly matter to young souls taking early, wide-eyed steps into fantasy.  The Greyhawk franchise’s subsequent death around 1994 may have played into that criticism, the anger and frustration at losing your fantasy world understandable, if perhaps misplaced.

(If Wikipedia is steering me right, Greyhawk has since been reborn, killed again, and, from what I can gather, is currently partially-integrated into modern D&D.)

And yet, there’s an area in which Estes undeniably excelled: bringing young readers into the fold.  Many discovered fantasy through her Endless Quest books (think Choose Your Own Adventure with a focus on fantasy), but various reviews and forums show that her Greyhawk titles accomplished the same thing, at an older age of kid.  And for me, when my appetite was at its most voracious, they were a wonderful surprise.

Ms. Estes wrote several fantasy novels after her Greyhawk titles, but now focuses more on academic books and research related to dog breeds. (Coincidentally, the “Boy and his Dog” genre was my favorite, until fantasy usurped its throne!)  While she doesn’t write much anymore, her Greyhawk influence still exists, and I’ll always be grateful for the hours I spent with those pages!

Digitally and Physically, It’s A Golden Age of Reading

As a kid in the 80s and 90s, you had few options for fantasy novels.

Borders was our stalwart, but full-priced fantasy novels easily ran $6-8, a big investment for a ten-or-twelve year old.  You had to analyze them closely (no Metacritic yet!), take few chances, and hope for the best.  The Salvation Army, Value World, and rummage sales might occasionally score you some wonderfully cheap deals, but they were far more miss-than-hit.  I wasn’t without birthday and holiday gifts, but with the way I read, I always had room for more.

Today, books (let alone fantasy) are far easier to come by than they were twenty-five years ago, and that’s not an Old Man Mode complaint!  Internet stores like Amazon, eBay, and Thriftbooks let you pick up almost any mainstream title for $4 or less, and brick-and-mortar stores like Half Price Books offer local, cheap, immediate options for similar prices.  Even places like Ollie’s Bargain Outlet can be surprisingly good for finding titles: for $2.99 each, new, I nabbed two titles I had been waiting for deals on: Robert Jordan/Bryan Sanderson’s A Memory of Light and Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass.

Without those options, I almost certainly wouldn’t have a shelves full of C.S. Lewis,  J.R.R. Tolkien, and Terry Brooks, let alone Robert Howard and Robert Jordan, or nice, inexpensive volumes of The Chronicles of Prydain and The Last Unicorn.

That’s not even getting into the exciting, diverse, ever-growing group of new authors, indie, self-published, and otherwise.  Many of them offer digital books for cheap or even free, books that can be carried around in those supercomputers we carry in our pockets.  (Some people claim those things can make phone calls or something too, but that’s just a rumor.)

And then there’s the wonderful world of Project Gutenberg and public domain.  I have a few nice, incredibly cheap, physical copies of works by Dante, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and G.K. Chesterton, and numerous more free classics on my tablet.

It goes without saying that myself, my wife, and yes, my book-loving daughter have years and years worth of quality books.  It’s a genuine golden age for reading.

Shannara, Ending Soon…!

A week ago I wrote about my completed The Wheel of Time collection.  Robert Jordan passed away before the series could be completed, and, using notes and what he had already written, accomplished author Brandon Sanderson took over and completed the series.  It was a big deal–both the voluminous series itself, and the changing of the guard to make sure it didn’t end without a conclusion–and a somewhat controversial one.

Reading Terry Brooks’s words from a 2016 Entertainment Weekly story when he announced the conclusion of the Shannara series by saying “…I don’t want to be one of those authors whose series, after going on such a long time, gets written by somebody else at the end. So I decided it was time to at least write the ending…”, it’s easy to imagine he was referring to The Wheel of Time.

The Sword of Shannara was my introduction to modern epic fantasy, and it’s had rooted here for more than two decades.  Truthfully, I’ve been away from Shannara for a while.  I gobbled up the original trilogy somewhere around fourth or fifth grade, then battled an agonizing wait for each new volume of The Heritage of Shannara to release–a new release a year feels like a glacial pace when you’re somewhere around ten or eleven.

From there, I hopped over to the Landover series, scooping up the three that had been released at that point from, again, the venerable John K. King bookstore.  That flowed nicely into Landover books four and five–also eagerly awaited–followed by The First King of Shannara.

I managed to make it through Running with the Demon, but my early-teen interest was in fantasy worlds, not “the real world”, and I wandered off somewhere during it’s sequel as I grew increasingly worried over the then-hazy Shannara connection.

So I’ve been away from Shannara for a while, but, like The Wheel of Time, still picking up books here and there when a deal has presented itself with the intent of one day sitting down and getting caught up.

As we move into the final stretch, I find some comfort knowing that we’ll see the epic saga’s conclusion straight from the author’s pen–with the hint that we might still see stories from earlier in the timeline–and I find myself yearning to revisit the world of Shannara, the same one that solidified my interest in writing.

The Black Elfstone: the Fall of Shannara, first of a four-book conclusion, arrives June 13th!