Some of the mystery surrounding Amazon’s upcoming Middle-earth television series has been cleared up – we’re not looking at Rings on TV or some First or Second Age material (grumble, grumble). Rather, we’re looking at the Adventures of Young Aragorn.
To clarify, there’s the following material to work with:
I suppose this could work, assuming that the Aragorn arc is purely a one season thing. The difficulty is resisting the temptation to hike the stakes into melodrama territory (this is not Fate of the World stuff) – something more sword-and-sorcery flavoured and low-key would be preferable over a more epic treatment. There’s some potential for an interesting Aragorn/Denethor rivalry too, though I’m not holding my breath for a favourable treatment of the latter, since he’ll potentially be one of the season’s major antagonists. Very likely, it’ll be yet another character assassination of one of Tolkien’s most underrated creations – would it be too much to ask for Denethor to be portrayed as competent?
I also think if Amazon’s after its very own Game of Thrones, it’s barking up the wrong White Tree here. There’s a story in there somewhere, but it lacks the scope of Rings or even The Hobbit. Unless they go full fanfiction with invented characters, no-one significant is going to die, and they can’t very well give Aragorn additional love interests, since, well, he already has Arwen. If there’s a manufactured love triangle with Random Gondorian Woman, I am going to scream very loudly – if they wanted Thrones-style sexual content, they would have been better off doing a decadent interpretation of Númenor or something. Or better yet, they could have adapted another series altogether.
Today I thought I would do a thematic compare-and-contrast between the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and those of George R.R. Martin, focusing specifically on the portrayal of courage. How do these two authors, coming as they do from radically different backgrounds, and differing so markedly in intent, answer the question “what is bravery?” It turns out that both Tolkien and Martin tackle this theme in their own way, and, no, I am not going to argue that Tolkien’s treatment is inherently superior. It’s a distinction I would personally summarise as one of endurance vs rebellion – though, as we shall see, it’s an imperfect summation.
(i). Tolkien: Bravery as Endurance
If I were to compile a list of the bravest characters in Tolkien, it would be topped by the likes of Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Húrin, and Fingolfin. Honourable mentions would include Éowyn, Beren, Lúthien, Beregond, Haleth, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins (yes, really), Feanor, and Nerdanel. What to make of such a list?
Well, for a start, the four at the top are characterised by their fundamental determination to keep going in the face of extreme adversity. A quote commonly attributed to Winston Churchill sums this up very well – “if you’re going through hell, keep going,” though whether a Tolkien character actually emerges from this author-inflicted hell depends very much on the individual story.
Looking at each of these four characters in turn, Frodo endures torment both at a physical level (stabbings, stings, and the Orcs of Cirith Ungol) and a psychological level (the Ring) – with the latter ultimately being more serious:
“I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing–no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes.”
The courage of Frodo is internal willpower – we see this initially with the Morgul Blade, but once in Mordor, Frodo’s awareness of the world reduces to himself and the Ring, locked in a struggle for mastery. In the end the Ring wins, as it inevitably must, but Frodo’s efforts get him close enough to allow for the intervention and fall of Gollum. Frodo’s courage is one person’s attempt to resist the impossible for as long as he can, and while he fails, there is a eucatastrophe waiting for Middle-earth, if not for Frodo himself.
Sam never endures the same level of internal suffering – his brand of courage primarily involves confronting and overcoming external obstacles. Shelob, the Silent Watchers, the Orcs of Cirith Ungol, managing food and water, carrying Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom: Sam Gamgee is committed utterly to his friend, and the practical necessities of getting to the Mountain. Even after the Ring’s destruction (where he knows they both are doomed by the volcanic eruption), it is Sam who suggests going back outside, at least – a last gesture of defiance against the inevitable. In the event, Sam is also the only one of the four characters I have identified who fully emerges from his literary hell, the only one who lives to enjoy the fruits of his bravery.
Turning from The Lord of the Rings to the bleaker world of The Silmarillion, we encounter the immense – and ultimately futile – bravery of Húrin Thalion (‘the Steadfast’). Húrin first fights on in a doomed cause at the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, then after capture, he resists Morgoth for twenty-seven years. At first, the struggle is physical: Morgoth tries to torture him into revealing the location of Gondolin. Later, the struggle becomes psychological, with Húrin trapped in a chair upon Thangorodrim, watching helplessly as his family destroy themselves.
While Húrin – like Frodo – endures primarily mental torment (far more terrifying than the mere physical), unlike Frodo, Húrin is not subjected to a temptation of power, but rather a temptation of despair. Part of this is difference in Dark Lord modus operandi: Sauron (via the Ring) tries to seduce his victims, whereas Morgoth tries to break them via raw, destructive power. Húrin’s choice is basically whether to co-operate, or not, with his captor – and Húrin, being extraordinarily brave, opts for defiance. In the end, defiance is all he has – it is truly a hopeless situation, but in the style of the Northern Theory of Courage, he does not take this as refutation. He will not give Morgoth a victory.
It is not, however, a battle Húrin can win, except insofar as he never surrenders to Morgoth. He finally emerges from Angband a bitter old man, whose bitterness is accentuated by the misinformation spread about him. On release, he accidentally assists in the destruction of Gondolin and Doriath, and eventually throws himself into the Sea, broken at last by suffering. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, Húrin’s tale lacks final eucatastrophe – his is a bleak, defiant, courage that is admirable all the more because dawn never comes. Moreover, whereas I think Tolkien’s narrative encourages the reader to identify with the courage of Frodo and Sam, Húrin’s is treated more distantly – we are in awe of this character’s bravery, of his endurance for twenty-seven years, but we can only regard it as remote observers. Even thinking about the mechanics (did he need to eat and sleep while in the chair?) is to ponder out-of-place questions.
The fourth of Tolkien’s courageous figures, Fingolfin, is a misleading proposition. Fingolfin’s courage is generally associated with his duel with Morgoth – we are talking a character who basically rides to the gates of Hell, challenges the Devil himself to single combat, and wounds the Devil seven times before dying. How is this not immeasurably brave? Well, I think in terms of Tolkien’s story, Fingolfin’s bravery – however epic and glamorous – is the wrong sort of bravery. Fingolfin’s deeds (like Éowyn’s from The Lord of the Rings) are simply despair, dressed up as something greater – suicide by Dark Lord, if you will. Had the High King of the Noldor not snapped, had he bided his time rather than surrendering to despair, it is entirely possible that the sort of animosities that undermined Maedhros at the Nirnaeth may have been avoided. As it is, Fingolfin’s death is the cherry atop the disastrous cake of the Dagor Bragollach.
In my opinion, Fingolfin’s best qualification for the list is not his challenge to Morgoth Bauglir, but rather his crossing of the Helcaraxe, after he and his people have been abandoned by Feanor:
Then Fingolfin seeing that Feanor had left him to perish in Araman or return in shame to Valinor was filled with bitterness; but he desired now as never before to come by some way to Middle-earth, and meet Feanor again. And he and his host wandered long in misery, but their valour and endurance grew with hardship; for they were a mighty people, the elder children undying of Eru Iluvatar, but new-come from the Blessed Realm, and not yet weary with the weariness of Earth. The fire of their hearts was young, and led by Fingolfin and his sons, and by Finrod and Galadriel, they dared to pass into the bitterest North; and finding no other way they endured at last the terror of the Helcaraxe and the cruel hills of ice.
According to the timeline in the History of Middle-earth, this crossing took some twenty-seven years – in perpetual darkness, beneath the stars. Whereas Húrin’s courage is that of Frodo (internal), Fingolfin’s courage is that of Sam (confronting and overcoming external obstacles), and like Sam, he had others to care for along the way. As with Húrin, however, we are dealing with a much more mythological and remote treatment of bravery, as befits the nature of The Silmarillion.
(That his journey takes as long as Húrin’s confinement is a coincidence I find interesting. Twenty-seven is three to the power of three. Recall also that Melkor was imprisoned for three ages).
(ii). Martin: Bravery as Rebellion
Switching authors, if I were compiling a list of brave characters from A Song of Ice and Fire, it would be topped by Qarlton Chelsted, Theon Greyjoy (hear me out), Davos Seaworth, and Samwell Tarly (again, hear me out). Honourable mentions to Waymar Royce, Bowen Marsh (yes, really), Maester Cressen, Syrio Forel, Jaime Lannister, and Tyrion Lannister. What to make of this list?
Well, if Tolkien’s characters exhibit bravery by enduring suffering in the face of doom, Martin’s characters exhibit bravery by challenging unjust power. It might be a futile challenge – but it is a challenge nonetheless. It might be disruptive or detrimental to wider concerns, but, well, fiat justitia ruat cælum. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall – or, in this case, let justice be done, though Tywin Lannister’s favourite son jump into a bear pit to rescue a woman.
Lord Chelsted, I think, is the purest example of this spiritual rebellion. His refusal to go along with Aerys Targaryen’s plan to blow up King’s Landing – a completely futile action – is arguably the bravest moment for any character in Martin’s series. Chelsted does not act in expectation that Aerys will listen to him – he has already tried reason at this point, unsuccessfully. Rather, Chelsted stands before the Mad King, daring to say “no”, and knowing what the consequences will be. The point is that there are some things even the threat of being burned alive cannot force a man to accept.
Chelsted’s example also represents a thematic variant of what TV Tropes terms What Are You In the Dark? – the idea that it is easy to do the right thing when someone is watching, and if there are very real benefits to doing it. It is much harder to do the right thing if there are no benefits to doing it, and if no-one is going to call you up on not doing it. In Chelsted’s case, we have already established that the Mad King was not about to listen to reason, so challenging him was pointless – but I would also point out that Chelsted did not have to confront his monarch at all. He was not in on Aerys’ plan, and only noticed it later – turning a blind eye would have been perfectly acceptable in the circumstances. If he feared for his own life, he could have found some excuse to get himself out of the city. But he didn’t – he made a moral stand, and was cooked for it.
Theon Greyjoy – not a character who previously endears himself to most readers, but then Martinian bravery comes from unlikely sources – serves as an interesting contrast between Tolkien and Martin. Theon, more than any other character in A Song of Ice and Fire, is subjected to brutal torment at both the psychological and physical level: while in the books the nature of this torment is unspecified (unlike the TV version, it is unclear if book Theon has been castrated), we certainly do see the end result, with Theon reduced to a contemptible Reek figure.
However, whereas Tolkien would have written a character who does not break under torture, who resists everything the captor can throw at him – a Húrin, who remains staunch in his righteous martyrdom – Martin takes a different course. Theon’s courage is not in withstanding Ramsay’s torture (he doesn’t withstand it, nor can he), but rather his decision in A Dance With Dragons to help rescue Jeyne Poole. It is a simple, small-scale choice, without grandeur or wider implications – but for Theon, to rebel against Ramsay in this manner, to defy the man he fears more than death itself, who has reduced him to a quivering wreck – it is pure, unadulterated bravery.
Chelsted and Theon rebel against the injustice of villains. Davos Seaworth rebels against the injustice of a man he serves with all his heart. I refer to his rescue of Edric Storm.
Recall that Melisandre believes that burning Edric will grant Stannis victory. Is this belief accurate? Neither the reader, nor Davos, nor Stannis himself has any idea. Davos, however, is adamant that killing a child is wrong, even if it saves the world – so he smuggles Edric out before Stannis can burn him. Philosophically, Davos is taking a Kantian view against Melisandre’s utilitarianism, but for the purposes of Stannis, the Onion Knight is straight-out defying him – indeed, it is arguably treason. The bravery here is that Davos risks his own neck, the war-effort, and the potential fate of the world in the name of not crossing a moral line, the murder of a single child. As with Chelsted, it would have been easier and safer to look the other way, but Davos, like Chelsted is made of sterner stuff.
(For his part, Stannis is actually very understanding of his friend’s decision. One can only speculate on what Tywin Lannister would have done in this situation… and, well, we know what Aerys Targaryen does).
The fourth character in Martin’s list, Samwell Tarly, does not fit tidily into my thesis. His endurance during the flight from the Fist of the First Men is an achievement unto itself, and as such is more Tolkien than Martin, while his killing of the Other represents the sort of overcoming of obstacles one sees with his namesake, Sam Gamgee (c.f. Tolkien’s Sam wounding Shelob). However, on balance, I would still argue a case can be made for Samwell’s bravery being a rebellion of sorts.
Specifically, Samwell’s entire life has been spent in an abusive environment – from his earliest days, his father drills into him a truly disturbing notion of masculinity, while at the Wall, he is nicknamed Ser Piggy, and suffers accordingly. Apart from Jon Snow, Samwell has never heard a supportive voice, only the voice of people hell-bent on undermining his self-worth in the name of his “own good”. Samwell’s endurance, and his desperate struggle with the Other is not simply the overcoming of physical obstacles, but also an overcoming of the way he has been treated. It is an assertion of self-worth against his father, and every other bully in his life – as much a spiritual defiance of them as Theon defies Ramsay for Jeyne Poole.
In any case, Samwell does represent one specifically Martin idea of courage – Ned Stark’s assertion that one can only be brave when one is afraid. Samwell Tarly, who cries at the death of a chicken, but who ends up killing an Other, is by that standard the bravest character in the series. One does not see this emphasis on overcoming fear so much in Tolkien, where fear is but one part of the cocktail of adversity.
I mentioned earlier that the distinction between Tolkien and Martin on the subject of courage is fuzzy, and that my suggestion of endurance vs rebellion is an oversimplification. We have already seen this with the example of Samwell Tarly, who in some ways is closer to his Tolkienian namesake than the sort of rebellious interfering do-gooder one sees in Martin. Martin is also capable of exploring the endurance and survival of Sansa Stark under the reign of Joffrey, albeit that I do not think A Song of Ice and Fire necessarily equates Sansa’s endurance with conventional bravery (the situation is a bit different in the TV version).
For his part, Tolkien can portray rebellion as a potentially heroic act, after the manner of Martin. Beregond the Guard, who defies Denethor in order to save Faramir, is presented within the narrative as a hero. It is, of course, still rebellion against lawful authority, as Aragorn later notes, but it was done for the best of reasons – as Aragorn also notes. Meanwhile, Isildur rescuing a fruit from Nimloth the White Tree, is in a sense a justified rebellion against an unjustified one. The one hundred year-old Lobelia Sackville-Baggins attacks a Shire Ruffian twice her size with an umbrella.
An interesting case is where Tolkien combines bravery and rebellion with moral reprehensibility – I am thinking of Feanor’s reply to Mandos, during the Revolt of the Noldor:
“We have sworn, and not lightly. This oath we will keep. We are threatened with many evils, and treason not least; but one thing is not said: that we shall suffer from cowardice, from cravens or the fear of cravens. Therefore I say that we will go on, and this doom I add: the deeds that we shall do shall be the matter of song until the last days of Arda.”
Feanor is exhibiting genuine bravery here, and not merely in the Fingolfin/Morgoth despairing sense. He is defying Mandos, in the name of doing the right thing – but, of course, he is horribly wrong about that, just as he is wrong about many things. Which potentially raises an interesting counterpoint to the notion of bravery being a rebellion against injustice – who gets to determine whether something is unjust? To draw comparisons with Martin’s text, it is all very well to suggest Syrio Forel is brave for his protection of Arya (I do), but what of Maester Cressen, who tries to poison Melisandre, or Bowen Marsh, who stabs Jon Snow? Are these brave acts? I personally think they are, and not simply because of my distaste for Jon Snow – but we are getting into murky waters, unless one runs with the idea that bravery is not inherently admirable in its own right.
Do Martin and Tolkien treat bravery as inherently admirable? A tricky question, not least because there is a distinct ambiguity in the word “admire” – one can admire something without necessarily promoting it as a moral positive.
Tolkien is already cautious enough to distinguish, for example, the quiet struggle of Frodo Baggins from the death-seeking heroics of Éowyn – indeed, as discussed earlier, we see this very distinction within the single character of Fingolfin. Húrin goes through immense suffering, but an unanswered question is – was it worth it? We can certainly recognise Húrin’s defiant actions as worthy of admiration, but are they to be emulated? Certainly, asking Morgoth for mercy would have achieved nothing – but then defying him achieves little either, save for only a cold and grim satisfaction as Húrin’s world collapses around him. Meanwhile, bravery shorn of morality (Feanor) can be awe-inspiring in one sense, even as we recognise the vanity and tragedy lurking behind it.
By contrast, Martin does seem to treat the overcoming of fear (Ned Stark’s interpretation) as something inherently positive, on the basis that those who fear are likely to be vulnerable to start with. We are obviously supposed to cheer for Samwell. If we broaden the discussion to the idea of whether rebellion against unjust power is inherently positive, we can obviously cheer Chelsted, Theon, and Davos (or at least judge them sympathetically), but I do think we are forced to make… interesting assessments about Bowen Marsh and Maester Cressen. Basically, we run into the very Martinian notion that everyone is the hero of their own story, and bravery from a character we like will be interpreted differently than bravery from a character we hate. Morality also depends heavily on context, and incomplete information (c.f. Jaime killing Aerys).
Generally speaking, J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin are concerned with different themes and ideas – one has produced an epic, the other a series of novels – but they both consider the meaning and nature of courage. Tolkien, as I have illustrated, takes great interest in brave characters who suffer, who resist the savage machinations of Arda Marred through innate strength of character. Such characters generally do not have happy endings, of course, but the point is that they tried – the potential flipside being grand despair that some might wrongly mistake for bravery. Martin, I think, tends to portray brave characters who are not willing to tolerate the unfairness of the world, and who want to do something about it, if only at the micro-level; for such characters, the flipside is not despair, but rather a shrugging acceptance of unfairness (it’s too hard!). This is not a hard and fast line, however – both authors explore characters who stray into the other side of the endurance/rebellion divide, and both feature courageous acts from characters of questionable morality. Such is one of the perennial themes of fantasy.
Completed reads for April:
Another quiet month, though I have also been working my way through a fairly meaty biography of the Marquis de Sade.
I recently read A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, for the first time. It’s a story best known as the 1971 Stanley Kubrik film (which I have seen many times), but it started life as a short novel from 1962, and let’s just say Burgess did not like what Kubrik did to the book. Not at all. In the edition I read, there was a quite scathing authorial foreword on this very subject, a foreword that has inspired my rant today.
Burgess has two major complaints: the first is that he actually doesn’t think much of the book, and is grumpy that Kubrik’s film has given this “lesser work” such immortality. The second – and more interesting – point is that Kubrik’s film uses the American edition of the story, rather than the British one. The American version cuts the twenty-first chapter, where Alex decides that he is too old for this sex-and-violence lifestyle, whereas the British version has it. The American version is accordingly darker, and it feeds through into Kubrik’s adaptation. Burgess is upset that this upends the themes of his text, going so far as to complain that a static protagonist invalidates the point of the novel (or indeed any novel).
Basically, Burgess has no business writing this as a foreword.
Firstly, there’s the comment on quality. No reader wants to be told they’re wasting their time by a book’s own preamble. Gregory Benford’s foreword to Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men makes the truly inane suggestion that the early chapters ought to be skipped, and then takes an irrelevant potshot at Stapledon’s politics. Jeff VanderMeer apparently has an introduction to a Clark Ashton Smith collection where he attacks Smith’s prose style. In either case, it is a mystery why the publisher included a hatchet job within the covers of the actual book – and in the present case, it is doubly a mystery because this is the author doing the bashing. Burgess may have thought he was expressing honest frustration, but for me as a reader it backfired. The author telling me A Clockwork Orange isn’t worth reading makes me less inclined to try his other works. It also makes me think they’re a tad pretentious.
More importantly – and this is where Burgess’ foreword truly irritates me – it is not the author’s job to tell me how to interpret the text. Interpretation is the job of the reader, not the author. I actually prefer the American version (and Kubrik’s film) because as a reader, I do not buy Alex’s change of heart in the twenty-first chapter – it feels like a cop-out, rather than an organic development of the character. Yes, Burgess is making the thematic point about the supremacy of choice – Alex chooses to do terrible things, then has his ability to choose taken from him, then he suffers for it, then he finally emerges, and decides to “become an adult.” It is just that, based off what Alex is, I do not feel he would have made that final choice.
By contrast, cutting the story off at the twentieth chapter leaves Alex as an evil little shit – but an evil little shit that has undergone character development from “rebel” to “government salary-earner.” Moreover, if Burgess is emphasising the role of individual choice, Kubrik emphasises the role of social institutions in limiting that choice. The film also sets Alex’s fondness for sex and violence against the darker underpinnings of his own society (brutal prisons and police, and copious implied perversions. Et cetera). While I normally regard themes as the most important element of adaptation, in this case, I genuinely appreciate the contrasting views presented in film and book – a dialogue worth having.
In short, my own reading of the text differs from what the author wants me to think. Serves him right, really.
Nor is Burgess alone in producing a foreword to his own text that really has no business being there. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a book I actually think is the author’s best (primarily because I hate Kvothe) – but Rothfuss does not help himself by producing both a foreword and afterword that add absolutely nothing except page-count. It screams cynical padding when an author keeps patting themselves on the back for how uncharacteristically literary they are being. Oh, and there is J.R.R. Tolkien, who at least uses the foreword of The Lord of the Rings to remind his readers that the book is not allegory. Tolkien’s foreword, in contrast to Burgess,’ is basically telling the reader that interpretation is up to them – an admirable sentiment, but it has done little to discourage the inevitable Second World War analogies it tries to pre-empt. Also, while I understand Tolkien’s reasoning for his foreword far better than Rothfuss’, a foreword that tells readers to think for themselves arguably serves the same basic purpose as no foreword at all.
More generally, I think forewords can be justified in situations where the text is of great historical significance – where the reader may appreciate some historical background on the book, without being told what it means – or where the casual reader really does need a bit of hand-holding before starting the book (i.e. it’s James Joyce or something). Otherwise I think forewords do more harm than good. If the author or commentator can’t help themselves, and really need to comment on content, I much prefer an afterword – which the reader will encounter having already reached their own conclusions. An afterword allows reader and commentator to be on the same page, so to speak, whereas a foreword does not.
The anthology has made a decent splash with local media:
I have also written a guest blog post for SpecFicNZ, giving some background to how the story was created.
It’s a hundred and three years to the day since the Gallipoli Campaign got underway, which in New Zealand means a public holiday, with shops shutting until 1 p.m.. It also means a day of wreath-laying, dawn services, and tributes to the New Zealand servicemen and women who have fought around the world. Having criticised a public holiday previously, today I’m going to double down…
I myself do not attend the services. Not because I don’t care, but because I find the manner in which the New Zealand of 2018 expresses itself on ANZAC Day to be a tad creepy. New Zealand is not a particularly nationalistic country (we’re a good deal more reserved than Australia at a cultural level), so it grates a little to hear people going on about sacrifices and freedom every 25th April, as though the Wars in question were somehow Glorious. They weren’t. They were tragic, wasteful clusterfucks of epic proportions. The soldiers who died at Gallipoli, and on the other nightmarish battlefields of the First World War, were not fighting for freedom. Leaving aside the fact that 1915 notions of King and Country had copious critics at the time (“a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends”), and would be downright alien to 2018 sensibilities, these soldiers were, first and foremost, victims. The best tribute we can give them is not wreath-covered stone monuments – desperate post-hoc attempts to give a point to pointless tragedy – but a world where we are not sending another generation off to die.
My great-great-uncle, John Ewen Sharp, was one of those killed at Gallipoli (9th August, 1915):
Killed on the other side of the world, in a poorly-conceived strategic blunder (one conceived by Winston Churchill no less). It actually gets worse, however: John had been destined to inherit the Sharp farm in South Otago. His death seems to have accentuated his father’s (also called John) black and morose moods… moods that would eventually lead to the Rongahere Tragedy of 1920, where John Senior in a fit of paranoid anger beat one of his daughters to death with a stick of manuka (yes, my great-great-grandfather was a convicted child-murderer. An ugly little piece of family history, and potentially a forgotten social scar of the War’s aftermath).
More generally, New Zealand had barely over a million people at the outbreak of the First World War; a hundred thousand men served during 1914-1918 – ten percent of the country’s entire population. More than half of those men were killed or wounded, with goodness knows how many silent tragedies for the families… so why on earth is ANZAC Day in 2018 regarded as a point of New Zealand national pride, rather than national outrage? In an age when the United States is revisiting the issue of Confederate monuments, why the hell does New Zealand still have a university named after the red-baiting Orangeman Prime Minister who got us into the War on a blood for butter arrangement?
But if the First World War was an unmitigated human disaster, what of the Second? That really was a desperate fight for civilisation against the darkest of horrors. Well, yes. But the Second World War was created by the First, and by the economic and social effects of the inter-war period: Depression, Versailles, a political class unwilling and unable to learn from its mistakes. Adolf Hitler and his fellow demons did not spring out of a hole in the ground in January 1933.
Speaking of the Second World War, my paternal grandfather, Albert John Stride (a Welshman), served in the Royal Navy. He saw a fair bit of the War, surviving the Sinking of the Prince of Wales in December 1941, and the German attacks on the HMS Havant at Dunkirk in June 1940. After the War, he returned home to his family in Rosyth, Scotland, worked as a coal-miner, and lived quietly until his death in June 2002, aged 90. But here’s the funny thing: despite seeing all this history first-hand, my grandfather never talked about it. He literally threw his medals in the rubbish bin on being demobilised after the War, and that I know any of this stuff is a combination of the newspaper cuttings that my grandmother kept, and the childhood memories of my eldest aunt (born in 1939). Oh, and my grandfather hated Churchill with a passion too: it was the votes of people like him that led to the landslide victory of Attlee’s Labour Party in 1945. Granddad didn’t want wreaths and memorials – he didn’t even want his medals – he wanted a world that would never go through that ever again. A world where he wouldn’t have to remember the horrors of 1939-1945, and where his children and grandchildren wouldn’t have to experience them.
That is the lesson I take out of the sorry mess that was the first half of the twentieth century, and why I don’t go to dawn services on 25th April. My great-great-uncle and those like him didn’t die for some noble cause, to be celebrated and paraded by his descendants; he died, and the onus is on us to learn from that. Lest We Forget… what war is, and who is responsible.
To clarify, I don’t advocate for the abolition of ANZAC Day. Having a designated day of remembrance is perfectly fine – indeed, allowing people to spend time with loved ones via a public holiday strikes me as a poignant antidote to militarism. I just wish that ANZAC Day as currently practised would tone down the Sacrifice and Glorious Dead thing – that sort of creepy ceremonial war-mysticism is exactly what my grandfather was fighting against…
The legal atrocity of the to-be-repealed Hobbit Law is (belatedly) getting international attention via the world of Youtube:
Lindsay Ellis may be surprised to learn that the situation was actually worse than she realises. Namely that Peter Jackson was trying to reverse a certain inconvenient court case, and that Warner Brothers and the union had already reached an agreement at the time John Key’s Government rammed through these employment law changes – and the Government knew about it.
So, yes, Jackson and Key are worse than the video makes out. It’s still worth watching though.
Denethor II, Steward of Gondor, has had ill-luck on screen. Commonly misinterpreted as a cruel and gibbering nutjob, he is butchered in the Peter Jackson adaptation, to the point where he becomes an incompetent shorn of any positive characteristics: Jackson implicitly invites us to cheer when Gandalf hits him with his staff, while the Steward’s final dash–on-fire represents one of the lowest points of the 2001-2003 trilogy. Denethor is even robbed of the palantír justification for his behaviour: rather than snapping under unnatural psychological pressure in service to the realm, film-Denethor is so hung-up on the loss of Boromir that he becomes deaf to the impending War, and then finally snaps when he regrets his own mistreatment of Faramir. Jackson’s Denethor is a fundamentally cowardly and selfish man, who gets his “deserved” comeuppance. Meanwhile, Denethor’s treatment in the 1980 Rankin-Bass Return of the King (“He’s gone loony, I tell you!”) is not great either – but it’s at least better than Jackson’s. Here we are given a figure worthy of pity, together with the palantír that eats at his mind:
A shame Rankin-Bass introduces him by narration, and never shows him before he despairs, so he is defined entirely by his final madness.
Neither Jackson’s contemptuous coward nor Rankin-Bass’ despairing lunatic adequately capture the Denethor from the book, a situation made all the more painful by the fact that Denethor is one of Tolkien’s finest character studies. Less iconic than Gollum admittedly, less grand than Fëanor, his story is nevertheless one of fascinating tragedy, with some rich thematic undertones. Hence today’s character analysis.
(i) The Númenórean Conservative
Denethor is simultaneously a throw-back to the darker and more dangerous side of Númenórean greatness, and the single most conservative character in The Lord of the Rings. Unlike Aragorn, Faramir, and Imrahil, who essentially fit the mould of latter-day pious Elf-friend, or Boromir, whose delight in arms is more typical of the Rohirrim, Denethor is something else: a reminder of the mighty Empire that once ruled the world, with all the pride, cultural arrogance, and implied cruelty that comes with that. Théoden may be a kindly old lord with a desire to fight and die alongside his men, but Denethor plays chess with other men’s lives – and all for the good of Gondor. Shorn of the insanity plot, Denethor is what Aragorn might have been, had Rings been written by a more cynical author – indeed Tolkien is sufficiently pessimistic to imagine Aragorn’s successors turning out like him.
Moreover, just as the Númenórean Empire becomes defined by its obsession with life unchanging, and Tolkien’s go-to analogy for Gondor is Ancient Egypt, so too this last relic of dark (not black!) Númenor is characterised by his adherence to the old ways of doing things, as determined by prior generations. Denethor takes an almost perverse delight in not being King: Boromir may find it frustrating, but Denethor knows that a Steward becoming a monarch would not fit with the traditions of his culture, which dictate that he cannot use the royal throne, crown, or even the heraldry. This is not some lesser realm – this is Gondor, where ten thousand years would not suffice to make a Steward a King! This is Gondor, where the dead White Tree must be left standing, because everything from the glorious past must be preserved… or mummified. Gondor’s best days are well behind it, which Denethor knows full-well, but like the crusty caretaker of a crumbling mansion (or a Mervyn Peake character), tradition defines everything for him:
“What then would you have,” said Gandalf, “if your will could have its way?”
“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,” answered Denethor, “and in the days of my longfathers before me : to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me…”
Part of this is self-interest, of course: Denethor genuinely likes ruling (and is genuinely good at it), and does not fancy stepping down to become “the dotard chamberlain of an upstart.” But this also speaks to both Denethor’s Númenórean pride (one does not put the hillbilly descendent of Romulus Augustus upon the throne of Constantinople!), and to his personal conservatism. The Stewards have ruled Gondor for a thousand years, Minas Tirith has rejected the House of Isildur before… therefore, that is the way things must be. Denethor’s dream is a future that does not deviate from the past or present: it is life unchanging, a world without growth, with only the slow and silent decay of a dead White Tree.
(ii) Gondor über alles
Tolkien’s own analysis of the character contains this interesting paragraph:
Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and apposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a “political” leader: sc. Gondor against the rest. (Letter 183)
“Preserve” and “as it was” speaks to Denethor’s previously-discussed conservatism, but the rest of the paragraph marks Denethor as almost a sort of pseudo-nationalist. The interests of Gondor have, for him, taken on a imperative of their own, to the point where they displace the considerations of actual morality, and if calling Denethor a nationalist is anachronistic (and slightly misleading), calling him a practitioner of realpolitik is perfectly appropriate. In the title of this essay, I refer to Denethor as the Richard Nixon of Middle-earth, and indeed this sort of cynical Realism is the hallmark of old-school Great Power diplomacy. Certainly, Tolkien himself has little time for it, and in referring to “cruel and vengeful” treatment of the Haradrim and Easterlings, he likely envisages Denethor reviving that other dark Númenórean tradition: imperialism.
With regard to Númenóreans seeing Sauron as an amoral political rival, rather than as an immoral and monstrous foe, the obvious in-universe comparison is Ar-Pharazôn. This last and most powerful ruler of Númenor does not hate Sauron on moral grounds – he hates him as a competing imperialist, and when the Dark Lord dares call himself the King of Men, Pharazôn launches a (successful) attack on Mordor. However, whereas Pharazôn is motivated by personal self-aggrandisement and gigantic ego, Denethor’s concern is for Gondor’s aggrandisement (or at least its safety). From Unfinished Tales:
Denethor was a man of great strength of will, and maintained the integrity of his personality until the final blow of the (apparently) mortal wound of his only surviving son. He was proud, but this was by no means merely personal: he loved Gondor and its people, and deemed himself appointed by destiny to lead them in this desperate time.
If Denethor were merely another Pharazôn, he also would not show the same obsessive deference to tradition: the last King of Númenor has no issues with launching a palace coup, and then marrying his first-cousin in defiance of the law; Denethor, by contrast, will not countenance seizing the throne for himself. In short, if Denethor, as per Tolkien’s letter, were to become a tyrant, he would at least be one motivated by more than personal selfishness. This gels well with Tolkien’s opinion later in Letter 183 that unsavoury leaders can still have good motives.
(An interesting flip-side to the Denethor and Pharazôn comparison is to recall that Pharazôn is incredibly popular, charismatic, and brings his realm to a zenith of political and economic power – before perishing, whereupon Númenórean civilisation is preserved by Elendil. Denethor, for all his intelligence, competence, and dedication, is decidedly uncharismatic, and earns respect but little love from his people, even as he struggles to govern a realm at its nadir – before perishing, whereupon Gondor is preserved by Elendil’s Heir. Oh, and there’s some nifty elemental contrast between the pair too, with the destruction of one being associated with water, and the other fire. But I digress).
Denethor seeing the events of the War of the Ring through the prism of Gondorian national interest has, as Tolkien also notes, the unfortunate side-effect of damaging his relationship with Faramir. Faramir himself has acquired a degree of binary thinking (“there are no travellers in these lands, only servants of the Dark Tower or the White”), but is flexible and wise enough to understand Frodo’s predicament. Denethor is not, and accordingly regards anyone not working for him with suspicion. Denethor is no fool, however: he has held off Sauron for a long time, using every weapon (magical or otherwise) at his disposal, and as such he considers himself the hero of the piece – why then shouldn’t the most powerful weapon in Middle-earth go to Minas Tirith? To deny him this “mighty gift” (i.e. the Ring) is to deny Gondor the chance to defend itself against its foes – and hence a personal and political affront. That Faramir is friendly with Gandalf is an aggravating factor, since Denethor knows that Gandalf is allied with the upstart Heir of Isildur – the wizard who plots against the Stewards now conspires to deny Gondor what it needs. In such soil, paranoia grows.
(iii) The Prudent Rationalist
In contrast to Gandalf, et al, who place their faith in a higher supernatural power, or the Rohirrim, who take comfort from the Northern Theory of Courage, Denethor’s cold commitment to reason presents no way out of Gondor’s predicament. That is not to say that Denethor does not try everything at his disposal:
This is a highly intelligent and highly competent man who tries everything humanly possible to stop Sauron, save “coming to terms/selling out” a la Saruman. Emphasis on “humanly” – because in the context of a fantasy story written by a devout Catholic, Denethor’s rationalism is a decided flaw, what with his lack of faith in anything greater. One sees an interesting comment on this in Rings, during the post-Pelennor Fields debate:
“You have only a choice of evils; and prudence would counsel you to strengthen such strong places as you have, and there await the onset; for so shall the time before your end be made a little longer.”
“Then you would have us retreat to Minas Tirith, or Dol Amroth, or to Dunharrow, and there sit like children on sand-castles when the tide is flowing?” said Imrahil.
“That would be no new counsel,” said Gandalf. ‘Have you not done this and little more in all the days of Denethor? But no! I said this would be prudent. I do not counsel prudence. I said victory could not be achieved by arms…”
Gandalf’s dig at Denethor is a tad out of line, but then he’s a wizard, not a diplomat. The point is that Denethor is prudent – not in the Vichy-esque “Sauron will win, so let’s make the best deal we can” sense of Saruman, but in the “Sauron will win, but we must delay his victory the best we can” sense. Denethor is sensible enough to see that Sauron can neither be negotiated with nor beaten on the battlefield, but he is too prudent for a situation that (in-story) requires an irrational belief, a trust in the impossible.
For, in the absence of any supernatural support, Gandalf’s plan is impossible. The reader has known this since Frodo failed to cast the Ring into his little fire at Bag End – the Ring cannot be destroyed by human action. Denethor, in his earlier dismissal of the “witless halfling,” applies what may be termed “real-world” logic to this story – indeed, if this were a real-world situation, I suspect many people would see things his way. Sauron certainly does, which is the only reason why the Ring Quest gets as far as it does: Sauron, a rational being, cannot comprehend the idiocy of rejecting the Ring, therefore does not expect Gandalf’s plan.
Denethor’s own plan for the Ring is a good deal more nuanced than Boromir’s. Whereas Boromir sees the Ring’s usage as straight-forward, Denethor sees it in terms of cost-benefit. If the Ring can be used, it ought to be used by Sauron’s chief oppositon (Gondor). If the Ring is too perilous to use, at least it ought to be kept out of reach of Sauron by Sauron’s chief opposition (Gondor). Denethor morbidly points out that this latter choice is optimal, since it means Sauron can only gain the Ring after all his opponents are dead anyway – by which point no-one will care. By contrast, sending the Ring into Mordor simultaneously deprives Gondor of even the possibility of using it, and greatly enhances the possibility Sauron will regain it. It’s only logical.
(As an interesting footnote, Gandalf earlier notes that Denethor treats the expression “until the King returns” as mere lip-service, a traditional habit shorn of belief. Indeed it is: Denethor simply doesn’t believe).
(iv) The Paranoid
Quite apart from his adherence to political Realism, the other famously Nixonian trait that Denethor possesses is his paranoia, his belief that he must keep tabs on his internal enemies. From Unfinished Tales:
During the end of the rule of his father, Ecthelion II, [Denethor] must have greatly desired to consult the Stone, as anxiety in Gondor increased, while his own position was weakened by the fame of “Thorongil” and the favour shown to him by his father. At least one of his motives must have been jealousy of Thorongil, and hostility to Gandalf, to whom, during the ascendancy of Thorongil, his father paid much attention; Denethor desired to surpass these “usurpers” in knowledge and information, and also if possible to keep an eye on them when they were elsewhere.
With regard to the palantír, Appendix A further notes:
In this way Denethor gained his great knowledge of things that passed in his realm, and far beyond his borders, at which men marvelled…
I do wonder if Tolkien is perhaps being a tad naive in his portrayal of Denethor here. A paranoid ruler with access to a palantír is not going to evoke wonder in his people – he is going to evoke fear. Rather than marvelling at Denethor’s abilities, an average Gondorian would perhaps be wondering about some sort of spy network or secret police (and it would not be out of character for Denethor to have used just such an organisation). Certainly, given Denethor’s well-known disfavour towards Gandalf, one would have thought the inhabitants of Minas Tirith would choose their words with extreme care in talking with either the wizard or Pippin, lest someone be watching.
But to back-track a bit: why does Denethor fear Aragorn/Thorongil and Gandalf? What is the root of the paranoia? One word: displacement. Denethor in his youth is sidelined in the hearts of his people, and even in the heart of his father, by a mysterious charismatic figure – Aragorn/Thorongil is the Kennedy to Denethor’s Nixon (a comparison I keep coming back to, but one I feel is pertinent, even though Tolkien was writing long before those events). One can certainly imagine Denethor hovering in the background of Ecthelion’s rule, muttering darkly that it is his destiny to lead Gondor in its time of need, so why is he taking second-place to an upstart? Given that, as time goes on, Denethor’s worldview solidifies ever more into a single struggle between himself and Sauron, he would also certainly have agreed with Stannis Baratheon’s comment that Kings have no friends, only subjects and enemies: Gandalf is not a subject, therefore he is an enemy (or at least someone to be distrusted).
This paranoia then culminates in Denethor’s angry confrontation with Gandalf:
‘With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me.
‘But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.’
Denethor sees himself (not without reason) as having done the heavy-lifting in terms of fighting Mordor, and is (again, not without reason) incensed that all this hard work will merely see him removed from leadership. Denethor, had he lived, would certainly have been incredibly sceptical of Aragorn’s credentials – even mild-mannered Faramir’s immediate response on learning of the claim is “prove it!” – and Denethor certainly sees the Ranger (true claim or no) as Gandalf’s political puppet:
Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west…
Even considering that historical precedent is on Denethor’s side – the House of Isildur has been rejected before, and Denethor is a stickler for tradition – the idea of letting a wandering wizard dictate the affairs of Gondor is too much for his Númenórean pride.
(v) The Lonely Father
In addition to his obvious fear of displacement, it is worth remembering how personally isolated and lonely Denethor has become by the time of the War of the Ring. His wife, Finduilas, whom he loved, dies young, and in a climate of raw political calculation, all alone in those cold marble halls, in a city of stone and tombs and a dead White Tree, there is so little alive. For companionship, Denethor has only his servants – and his sons. Small wonder then that he showers so much affection upon Boromir – it represents a vanishingly rare outlet for expressing actual human emotion, one that is perhaps even accentuated by the personality difference between them (maybe Boromir reminds Denethor of Finduilas?). Denethor’s grief at his son’s death is genuine, a flicker of warmth and vulnerability in a man whose image is so cold and stern. And then there is Faramir…
The Denethor/Faramir relationship is, at Denethor’s end, a study of how the political clashes with (and warps) the personal. As an innately political creature, Denethor instinctively sees everyone else as chess pieces – someone’s value is directly proportional to how he can use them to promote his own agenda. He cheerfully ignores Gandalf while interrogating Pippin. But this runs into problems when applied to his own family – while Denethor boasts he can use Boromir and Faramir in the cause of Gondor, it turns out that even the mighty Steward of Gondor has fatherly instincts – his grief at Boromir’s death is tinged with guilt at having let Boromir go to Rivendell in the first place, while his decision to send Faramir to contest the crossing at Osgilliath results in Faramir’s nearly-mortal wounding – an event that hastens Denethor’s final madness. Note that in contrast to Jackson’s Denethor, who orders a clear suicide mission/Charge of the Light Brigade, Tolkien’s Denethor at least shows tactical sense. It’s just that spending one’s son in the name of tactical sense has consequences. That Denethor has mistrusted Faramir for his friendship with Gandalf, and earlier condemns him for letting Frodo go – again, political considerations warping personal ones – only magnifies Denethor’s sense of remorse.
Tolkien’s Denethor also does not resort to the sort of abusive parenting seen in the Jackson adaptation. Jackson’s Denethor snaps because he is a selfish, stupid man who sends others to their deaths while being too cowardly to “stand and fight” himself (all that matters in Jackson’s Rings), then realises too late the eminently foreseeable consequences of his actions. The viewer does not pity him – the viewer condemns him. Tolkien’s Denethor, on the other hand, snaps because the personal consequences of his (on paper, justified) political decisions have come back to haunt him. As with any true tragedy, the character is brought low by a fatal flaw, which in other circumstances may be considered admirable. The result on the part of the reader is pity, not scorn, and while the mood in the film may be one of action and black comedy, the Pyre of Denethor in the book can only be sorrow and horror: a horse kicking Denethor into the flames has no place in Tolkien. Nor does Denethor running while on fire.
In rounding off this subsection, I think it is worth considering comparisons between Denethor and another “Lonely Father” figure of the fantasy genre: George R.R. Martin’s Tywin Lannister. Both Denethor and Tywin are stern, competent lords (but not Kings!) utterly committed to realpolitik. Both lose their (loved) wives early – which hardens their personalities – and both utilise their children for nakedly political purposes. Both prefer their elder, more martial son over their younger, more bookish son, even though the younger child more closely resembles they themselves. And both come to bad ends. Where Denethor and Tywin differ, which is why the reader feels sorrow at Denethor’s death, and schadenfreude at Tywin’s – is that Denethor still has personal feelings, as well as political ones. Denethor is still capable of guilt, love, and genuine sorrow. Tywin is not. Tywin’s heart is cold and unyielding – the heart of a monster, whereas for all his many faults, Denethor retains the heart of a father.
(vi) The Despairing
The most memorable Denethor moment will always be the manner of his death, one of the most iconic death scenes (if not the most iconic) in all of Tolkien. Having concluded that Faramir’s death and Sauron’s victory are both imminent, Denethor loses his mind, and attempts a horrifying murder-suicide with his own son. He fails to kill Faramir courtesy of the intervention of Pippin and Beregond, but succeeds in burning himself alive, still clutching the palantír.
What drives Denethor to these extremes, and how does his death fit thematically into Tolkien’s story?
The impending death of his last surviving son is, as mentioned, the catalyst for Denethor’s madness, but it has been building for some time, as the character is subjected to inhuman levels of stress. Denethor, via the palantír, has a better intellectual grasp than nearly every other character of what Middle-earth is up against – it is all very well for, say, Sam Gamgee or Théoden to know that a Mordorian victory is “bad”, and that they face a mind-boggling challenge, but neither quite grasp the totality of the situation. Denethor, who actually has seen the hordes of Mordor, does grasp it – perhaps even more so than Aragorn and Frodo. Save for Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond, the only comparable character to Denethor here is Gollum – who has had the dubious pleasure of the Dark Lord’s hospitality first hand, and who warns Frodo that Sauron with the Ring will “eat the world.”
Faced with this, faced with losing the country he loves and the son he loves (and whom he guiltily thinks he has sacrificed for his country), together with the psychological drain of the palantír, and the knowledge that even if he wins he loses (via Aragorn), Denethor teeters on the edge. What pushes him over is the sight of what he thinks is the fleet of Umbar sailing up the Anduin. Denethor, like Aegeus from Greek mythology (who kills himself after his son Theseus fails to replace black sails with white ones), misreads the situation – he does not know that this is actually Aragorn coming to the rescue. The rest is history.
While it is impossible to feel anything other than pity for Denethor here, in terms of Tolkienian Catholic-flavoured cosmology, he has just committed the unforgivable sin: suicide, the rejection of grace. Worse, unlike Tolkien’s First Age suicidal characters, who at least despair in the context of a more overtly ‘pagan’ setting, Denethor has an actual minor angel on hand, in the form of Gandalf, to try to talk him out of it. This is where Denethor’s failure to believe really does come into play – because he really cannot accept anything higher than raw politics, he abandons hope altogether. Hope, for Denethor, is a foolish illusion that distracts one from the cold mundane reality – so he has none.
Nor does he find solace in the Northern Theory of Courage. This, you may recall, is the traditional Germanic notion (much explored by Tolkien) that defeat does not mean refutation, and that fighting on in a lost situation is the true measure of heroism. Compare Denethor’s reaction to the Umbar fleet with Éomer’s. In the style of the Germanic pagan, Éomer does not despair – he only thinks of defiance, and of performing heroic deeds upon the fields of Pelennor before he inevitably falls. Théoden too is a good example, and indeed within The Lord of the Rings serves as a literary foil to Denethor – an old man, who has lost his son, who also faces the impending end of the world. The difference is that Théoden faces the end of the world with courage, and dies a hero, whereas Denethor faces the end of the world with despair, and dies a proud and pitiable fool.
This concludes a lengthy character analysis of Denethor. Tolkien’s work explores other tragic characters, of course, but rarely in such exquisite detail, and whereas the likes of Húrin and his family are trapped by a cruel and pitiless wyrd, and Maedhros pursued to his death by a terrible and bloodthirsty Oath, Denethor is less a Norse-style figure, and much more a character in the tradition of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy: he is not brought down by curse or fate or oath, but by his own innate personality flaws. There is certainly a bit of both Aegeus and King Lear in Denethor (though he stands very much on his own), and were Rings a ‘real’ history, one imagines both Sophocles and Shakespeare having a field-day with him, even if modern film-makers simply can’t be bothered.
Through this single character – who is not even one of the story’s actual protagonists – Tolkien thematically explores the fall of a talented and masterful man unwilling to bend before the inevitability of change. A man who loses his moral compass to the amorality of realpolitik – and then regains it only to be destroyed by the resulting guilt. A man who fails (understandably) to make a leap of faith, and who then fails altogether. A man whose paranoia alienates friends and allies, precisely because he equates his own interests with his country’s, and his country’s interests with moral righteousness. A man who loses what he loves – his country and his son – even though neither are dead yet. Denethor is a deep and fascinating study in failure. A true tragedy.
So HarperCollins are putting out a Fall of Gondolin volume in August. Part of me is excited, part of me is shrugging, and part of me is profoundly curious.
You see, The Fall of Gondolin is rather like the Holy Grail of Tolkien geekdom – it was his first mythos story, conceived and written during the First World War, but despite it being the dawn of his invented mythology, Tolkien never actually completed a rewrite of it (though he attempted one in the 1950s). Meanwhile, the 1917 version, while epic in scope and conception, fits badly with the material that was later rewritten – it’s a tale famously featuring mechanical dragons, while early Balrogs are utterly expendable. If this volume actually contains something genuinely new, like, say, an unfinished continuation of the 1950s rewrite, then this is monumentally exciting. It’d be like the Tolkien equivalent of a recovery of 1960s Doctor Who episodes.
On the other hand, this might well be another Beren and Lúthien: a useful compendium of rewrites and commentary within the covers of one book. If so, that’s excellent for those who have not read beyond the 1977 Silmarillion – it makes some difficult material accessible – but for those who have read the History of Middle-earth series, it would just be a presentation of previously released material.
I think everyone is hoping for something new, but expecting the compendium of rewrites. This is where things get curious.
You see, the book is listed as having 304 pages. If this is merely another Beren and Lúthien, there are four candidates for inclusion:
The original, including commentary, takes up pages 144 to 220 of The Book of Lost Tales Volume II. So 77 pages inclusive.
The rewrite, including commentary, takes up pages 23 to 74 of Unfinished Tales. So 52 pages inclusive.
The Silmarillion chapter is page 287 to 295. 9 pages inclusive.
The aforementioned and unfinished Lay of the Fall of Gondolin is short.
Now that total of 138 pages – which includes Christopher Tolkien’s commentary – plus a short poem, leaves lots of empty pages to get to 304. Short of the book being published in massive font, with the mother of all new introductions from Christopher… the page count issue suggests that there might well be some new material coming down the pipeline.
Fingers crossed for August…
It has been a while since I took a pot shot at genre clichés, but today the stars are right, and I find myself looking for an excuse to rant.
Today’s rant is about Mary Sues. Specifically their male incarnation, the Gary Stu. And even more specifically, about Jon Snow, so spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire.
Why am I focusing on Gary over Mary? Is not Mary Sue the far better-known character trope, one that has been hovering over fanfiction for a good forty years? Well, yes. Which is precisely the point: while the female variation has been discussed to death, it is rarer for someone to talk about Gary. If I am going to attack a cliché, it ought to be rather more than flogging a dead equine. I am also more interested in criticising actual published texts than in hacking apart some hapless teenager’s fanfiction – Mary Sue may be famously common in the latter, but Gary Stu is more common in the former.
(My hypothesis: fanfiction is generally written by women, while male authors make up a much greater share of published fantasy. As I have said before, I think there is an unconscious tendency for people to identify more closely with characters of their own gender, so women will tend to produce Mary Sues, and men will tend to produce Gary Stus. Which means you will find more Marys than Garys in fanfiction, and more Garys than Marys in published texts).
So what is a Mary Sue/Gary Stu? There are various descriptive definitions floating around, all of which come back to the same basic idea. Authorial wish-fulfilment/self-insertion, a character without flaws whose overwhelming perfection destroys tension and annoys the reader… these are generally considered the hallmarks of Suedom. It’s a fair enough definition too, but I think it runs into the problem that this sort of character can still be written well, whereas a genuine Gary Stu is inherently damaging to a story. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Bilbo Baggins, in the original Hobbit, is clearly a wish-fulfilment character. He’s a bored, middle-aged, middle-class man, who would like nothing more than some dwarves from Norse myth to sweep him away on an adventure – much like his author, in fact. Bonus points if you recall that Bilbo’s maternal grandfather was the Old Took, who lived to a great age and had three daughters, and that Tolkien’s maternal grandfather was John Suffield, who lived to a great age and had three daughters. Is Bilbo a Gary Stu? If one were simply going by wish-fulfilment criteria, then probably. But Bilbo also happens to have his limits: he’s no fighter, no predestined hero who gets the girl (c.f. my issues with the 1966 Hobbit movie), and he complains a lot. The character growth he experiences does not turn him into a fighter or hero either: it’s his resourcefulness and moral choices that win the day. In short, Tolkien’s wish-fulfilment does not create something which is annoyingly idealised, and the entire point is that the character remains grounded. It would not be stretching things to see The Hobbit as a literary ancestor of self-insert fantasy deconstructions.
More awkward is Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Here we find a character who isn’t just wish-fulfilment, but idealised wish-fulfilment. He’s strong, an excellent fighter, doesn’t take any shit from anyone, and has women falling all over him (once he’s rescued them from the Mad Wizard of the Week anyway). In contrast to more modern stereotypes, he’s not a muscle-bound idiot either, but actually highly intelligent, with a gift for languages. Is Conan a Gary Stu? Much online ink has been spilled over this, with misplaced attempts to invoke Mary Sue Tests – as though one can somehow quantify fiction by numbers. In reality, I would say that the debate misses the point – which is that if Conan is a Gary Stu, he is not a problematic one. Of all the things a modern reader might question about Robert E. Howard’s stories, Conan being annoyingly perfect is not one of them. The reason for this is twofold:
(1) Conan stories are plot-driven, not character-driven. One reads them for the action and adventure, not for Conan’s inner thoughts.
(2) More importantly: the world does not twist itself to suit Conan.
This second point gets to the heart of why a Mary Sue/Gary Stu is annoying in the first place: stories require tension and conflict. We read to see how tension and conflict will get resolved, so a fictional universe that contorts itself in order to favour a particular character is literally the author cheating the reader. An author can get away with this as a special, one-off event – I am thinking of Harry Potter surviving Voldemort’s Killing Curse as a baby – but once the internal rules are in place, they generally have to be adhered to. Gary Stus don’t follow the internal logic of the setting, which is why they and their Mary Sue sisters are such a problem. Fortunately, whatever else one may say of Howard, he does not rig the game to suit his protagonist, no matter how perfect Conan may be.
This gives us a working definition of a Gary Stu: a character who warps the story from within. Whatever their associated levels of authorial wish-fulfilment, neither Bilbo nor Conan qualify. But I mentioned Gary Stus existing in other published texts – perhaps we could look at some examples?
An often-cited one is Kvothe, from Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller books. Kvothe is a multi-talented genius and musician, naturally adept at anything he puts his mind to. He twists the reality of Rothfuss’ world to a spectacular degree, culminating with him sexually impressing a millennia-old goddess as a sixteen year-old virgin. Now Rothfuss’ method for dealing with his Gary Stu is to basically make it part of Kvothe’s unreliable narration: our protagonist is telling his own story, so of course he is going to be a bit self-aggrandising (and we know from the framing story that Kvothe ends up a washed-up bar-keeper, so things didn’t quite go as planned). However, in the absence of Rothfuss’ concluding volume, it is rather hard to judge the level of unreliable narration, and even if Kvothe is spinning us a yarn, it is the internal logic of his story we actually have to deal with. We are either reading a Gary Stu, or we are reading a story where the narrator makes himself a Gary Stu – and while, as a reader, I like Rothfuss’ worldbuilding and his prose, I can’t stand Kvothe for this very reason. It is actually why I think Rothfuss’ best book is The Slow Regard of Silent Things – Kvothe isn’t in it.
Then there is Jon Snow, from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a character who I genuinely do believe betrays the internal logic of the story. I am fully aware that much of what follows is contentious, so that’s why I am now going to drop any pretence of objectivity, and go into full-scale lengthy rant mode. I’m a reader – I can do that.
(Please note that I am only specifying the book character here – I am perfectly fine with the TV version).
Jon Snow, I would suggest, is the one gaping hole in a series populated by a fascinating collection of flawed human beings. He is a walking cliché who time and again gets unearned reward while facing straw-man opponents, and if he ends up anywhere near the throne at the end of the series, I shall scream very loudly.
In the very first chapter, Jon is established as a deeply perceptive character, when we see him making all sorts of commentary on the royal visit to Winterfell. Now this, in itself, is not a problem: Tyrion is also very perceptive, and we are similarly treated to various character judgements through his eyes. But Tyrion is established as highly intelligent, educated, and politically savvy fellow; Jon is a 14 year old who has little experience or knowledge of politics. And whereas Tyrion’s flaws are there for all to see, Jon is emphatically not ugly and crippled and afflicted with a seriously warped family environment. Jon, it seems, is just gifted.
Then Jon winds up on the Wall. And sulks a lot. He makes a enemy of a cartoonish villain (Thorne), and courtesy of being in the right place at the right time, ends up getting his hands on a Valyrian Steel Blade. Bearing in mind that Longclaw has been in the Mormont family for centuries, and that Tywin Lannister would have killed to get his hands on Valyrian Steel. If the Wall really is this tough, unyielding place, Jon should have received polite thanks, and perhaps a few nods from the old hands. A 14 year old non-Mormont has no business running around with that sort of sword, but Jon gets a cool blade to go with his cool wolf. This is why I read him as a Gary Stu.
Jon also angsts about being allocated to the Stewards. In a series where Arya and Sansa are dealing with psychopaths, and where Ned is getting his head cut off, Jon’s whinge is that he hasn’t got into his desired class. And even that turns out to be a silver lining, since Jon ‘gets-everything-on-a-silver-platter’ Snow is being groomed for the Lord Commandership (which, of course, is supposed to be a democracy. Mormont could groom him all he likes, but it’s the Watch’s decision, not his. Except that Snow is now destined…).
Oh yes, and Jon gets prosthetic wit courtesy of hanging out with Dolorous Ed, which sets the general precedent for the rest of the series: the character and action in Jon’s storyline comes from the supporting cast, not the hero. Jon himself is a passive reactor to events, but hey, he’s probably the hidden son of Rhaegar, and he’s earned it all with his excellent choice of parents.
Finally, the book presents us with the first of Jon Snow’s patented dilemmas. Which in pretty much every case are actually choices between making a right or wrong decision. Other characters may be faced with scenarios where every choice is bad, but as we’ll see in future books, if Jon ends up in such a situation, a deus ex machina rides to the rescue to get him out. In this case it’s a choice between deserting and riding to help Robb, or staying true to his vows. Which isn’t really a dilemma at all in this context, though fortunately for Jon, he’s protected from the consequences of his actions through the timely intervention of the supporting cast (Lord Commander Mormont is also very forgiving). A shame we couldn’t have had Robb beheading Jon as a deserter. Damn you, Sam…
We’ve got Jon singled out for a dangerous mission under Qhorin Halfhand. Now bearing in mind that Qhorin had far more experienced rangers at his disposal, and that all Jon Snow has going for him is the fact that he’s got a nifty sword, a cool wolf, and the author’s favour. I’ll be a bit forgiving here, and acknowledge that Jon had to go on an expedition some time, but when viewed in terms of the overall story, it’s a clear contrivance to get Jon into the clutches of the Wildings (put yourself in Qhorin’s shoes: would you have taken Jon?).
More serious though is Jon letting Ygritte go. Ygritte is an enemy to the Watch, and will let the the Wildings know where the rangers are: in this life or death situation, Jon should have been severely reprimanded. But instead, Qhorin waves it away as a ‘test of character’. Ugh. If one’s honour means no more than one’s life, so long as the realm is safe (as Qhorin says later), besmirching one’s honour by killing Ygritte takes precedence over letting her inform the realm’s enemies. But Jon is never called up on it.
Recall that Jon, having been picked by Qhorin, was forced by Qhorin to kill Qhorin, because god forbid Jon Snow actually show some agency on his own accord. Well, in A Storm of Swords we have Jon similarly being pushed along his storyline by other characters.
First off, there’s Ygritte. Who obligingly bails him out in front of Mance. So far so good, except that she puts Our Hero into one of his patented dilemmas. To help the Watch, obey Qhorin’s orders, and have sex with the hot Wilding chick, or to get his head sliced off and help no-one? It is, of course, no choice at all, and meanwhile Ygritte provides Jon with a prosthetic penis in much the same way as Sam and Edd constitute prosthetic brain and wit: she temporarily obscures Jon’s mind-numbing blandness and ensures he isn’t a virgin when he hooks up with Daenerys, because a virgin guy just isn’t Man Enough to save the world in this story. Then she dies, thereby solving the pesky problems of a potential pregnancy (a death that is fortunately anonymously-caused – we can’t have Jon killing his own lover, can we?).
Then there’s Stannis’ contribution. Slynt and Thorne, post-graduate students of the Snidely Whiplash School of Moustache-Twirling Villainy, actually manage to put Jon in a genuine dilemma: to kill Mance or not to kill Mance? Honour clashes with orders, and there’s no clear way out for Our Hero. But not to worry. Before Jon has the chance to resolve things, Stannis Baratheon conveniently turns up just at the right moment, and solves everything. Once again, we see the world of ASOIAF warping itself to suit Jon Snow, the defining characteristic of the Gary Stu trope.
But this is a mere entrée of cliché, an appetizer for the main course, before Jon’s passive, dull, bland nature comes to full flower. I refer of course to the Lord Commandership. The backstory is bad enough. Lord Commander Mormont takes leave of his senses. deciding to take all his other potential successors with him on a suicide mission, and to no-one’s surprise gets them (and himself) killed. Then the two leading replacement candidates are oh-so-conveniently at such loggerheads they can’t possibly put aside their rivalry for the good of the Watch, and are oh-so-conveniently stupid, they can’t be bothered to check the veracity of Sam’s story. But at least Sam is trying. Which is more than Jon is doing.
But let’s run with this. You’re the Night’s Watch. You’ve lost your Lord Commander and most of the elite men, and there’s a deadlocked election. Winter is coming on, and the Wall faces its greatest ever threat. What do you do? Well, if you want a compromise candidate, you pick someone non-controversial, someone who sort-of makes everyone happy. Someone old enough to act as a reasonable placeholder so everyone can try again in a couple of years (this is what happens in papal elections). You don’t pick someone with desertion charges hanging over their head, someone who is the bastard brother of a wrecked dynasty, someone who will piss off the most powerful man in the realm before he actually does anything. You don’t pick a teenager, who, if they’re ultimately incompetent, will nevertheless be ruling the Watch for the next sixty years, without the back-up of a friendly Winterfell. You don’t pick Jon Snow.
But who am I kidding. Neither common sense nor internal rules apply to Gary Stus.
N/A (Jon is not a point of view character in A Feast for Crows).
The great cliff-hanger, of course (resolved in the TV series, but as yet unresolved in the books) -Jon Snow, stabbed in the back by his own men, after he resolves to march south to Winterfell with Wilding support. No-one actually believes that Jon will stay dead in a series that specialises in fake deaths, but a highly memorable moment nonetheless.
How do we fit Bowen Marsh stabbing Jon into this analytic rant?
On one hand, after all that has gone before with Jon, this is a nice change of pace: at long last, Jon actually has to face the consequences of his actions. He spends his time as Lord Commander alienating that faction of his men who (justifiably) dislike the Wildings, while simultaneously sending his allies away. Then he decides to break the Night Watch’s convention of neutrality by attacking Ramsay – which provokes the attempted murder. The internal logic of the world has finally reasserted itself. Does this mean that we can acquit Jon of Gary Stuism?
Unfortunately, no: as mentioned before, Jon will not stay dead. Death has become rather cheap in Martin’s world of late, and there is no reason to think the Gary Stu won’t similarly benefit. Bowen Marsh, treated in-story as a figure of ridicule (I prefer to read him as a hero) will be punished, and Jon will be free to hook up with Daenerys and save the world. In fact, by “dying” in this manner, Jon escapes the letter of the Watch’s Oath: it arguably frees him up to assume the throne and marry his aunt completely free of guilt. This would explain why Martin has Jon bizarrely throw away thousands of pages of character development by deciding to attack Ramsay at all (recall his attempted desertion back in the first book?). If so, ugh: we have a Gary Stu who benefits from (temporary) death.
So, yes. Returning from the lengthy side-tangent about Jon Snow, Gary Stus are very real in published fantasy, even if they rarely receive the attention the more fanfiction-centred Mary Sues get. Part of the reason for this double standard, I think, is that published fantasy tends to be better quality than fanfiction (it is, after all, edited), which means readers can overlook the flaws in a way that would not be an option in fanfiction. I myself may dislike Kvothe and Jon Snow, but I enjoy Rothfuss’ prose and Martin’s characterisation of Tyrion, Theon, and Stannis. Potentially though – and here we get into seriously murky waters – there may also be an issue of gender expectations among the readership. One wonders whether Kvotha and Joanna Snow, as written by Patricia Rothfuss and Georgina Martin, would have been taken as seriously as their male equivalents. Is it harder for people to spot a Gary Stu than a Mary Sue? I don’t know. I really don’t.
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