Pulmenti, Gloriosum Pulmenti – Published

My Catholic Vampire story, Pulmenti, Gloriosum Pulmenti, is now out, as part of the October 2018 edition of Bards and Sages Quarterly:

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The Bibliography page has been updated accordingly.

(Also, if you enjoyed the story, Bards and Sages runs a Reader’s Choice vote).

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Not a Reading Challenge: September (+ Writing Update)

Completed reads for September:

  • The Aztecs, by Nigel Davies
  • The Fall of Gondolin, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Fifth Sun, by Burr Cartwright Brundage

A couple of non-fiction books this month, but otherwise same old, same old. 2018 (and late 2017) just hasn’t seen that much reading done. Writing on the other hand…

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September has been an excellent month for getting projects finished. The following have all been finished and sent off.

  • Pink Unicorns Solvable in O(2) Time. – After editing, this hard science-fiction piece turned out to be a meaty short story, rather than a novelette as I had previously feared.
  • In the Land of the Elephant’s Footprint. – Far future science-fiction, set at Chernobyl two thousand years from now.
  • Gone Fishing. – My Turkish horror story received a revise and resubmit request in 2016, and I had left it because I couldn’t figure out how to make the necessary changes. Well, now I have.
  • Barbara Blue. – A gender-flipped retelling of the Bluebeard legend, as set in Prohibition-era Chicago. It was written for an anthology, and currently has no speculative elements (which might have to change if I want to submit it to other markets).

So several monkeys off the back there. Back to Old Phuul (and I really must allocate more time to reading…)

Review: The Fall of Gondolin (2018)

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The Fall of Gondolin brings Tolkien’s mythos full circle. It was the first story of his secondary world to be written, the earliest version dating from 1917 – and it is the last posthumous story to be released by his son, Christopher, just over a century later. Before I get to the book itself, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Christopher for his forty-five years’ worth of work in managing and editing his father’s creation (one can imagine a less scrupulous heir taking advantage of the situation, in order to push his own “original” work. Not so Christopher Tolkien, who at 93 has now earned his retirement).

So what to make of The Fall of Gondolin, the new book? In one sense, it is a disappointment. There is no new material here – my hopeful hypothesis from April, which attempted a page-count analysis of existing material, and concluded there might be something new, has been thwarted by font and commentary. In fact, it is an even bigger disappointment than I had expected – I had at least assumed that we would see the hitherto unpublished Lay of the Fall of Gondolin included, on the basis that this (short, incomplete) poem would help pad out the length. However, it seems Christopher’s views on it haven’t changed since he made the following comment in The Lays of Beleriand:

I do not give this poem in extenso here, since it does not, so far as the main narrative is concerned, add anything to the Tale; and my father found, as I think, the metrical form unsuitable to the purpose.

Which is a shame, even if it is considered surplus to requirements – it is still Gondolin material, as written by Tolkien Senior.

But enough about what isn’t in there. What is, and what can we make of it?

Apart from Christopher’s notes and commentary, the book contains the following:

  • The complete 1917 original version.
  • The unfinished 1951 rewrite.
  • Another brief re-write of the 1917 version (Turlin and the Exiles of Gondolin).
  • A very brief pre-emptive note leading up to 1917.
  • The 1926 condensed version (Sketch of the Mythology).
  • The 1930 condensed version (Quenta)

Think Beren and Lúthien (minus the poetry), rather than a coherent narrative in the vein of The Children of Húrin.

The heart of this volume is therefore 1917 (previously featured in The Book of Lost Tales Volume II) and 1951 (previously featured in Unfinished Tales). For people who are hesitant about dipping into the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth, The Fall of Gondolin is a godsend in terms of making the original story more accessible.

1917 is the (slightly whimsical) version with mechanical dragons, underpowered Balrogs, and a cowardly overweight Elf called Salgant – Maeglin’s lackey. It also features a throwaway hypothesis that Maeglin has Orc blood (it promptly dismisses the idea), and a certain minor character named Legolas Greenleaf, a re-used name that would have been altered had the thing been re-written in full. As I have said, the piece has a strange whimsy to it – but it is also complete. In fact, it is the most thorough treatment of a Tolkienian battle you will see outside Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields, culminating in Glorfindel’s duel with the Balrog, and given that it is written in a higher style than Rings, the only comparison I can give is E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (which The Fall of Gondolin pre-dates!).

1951 is the darker, more detailed, and more polished re-write, that, alas, remains unfinished. Already featured in Unfinished Tales, this is the story of Tuor from his boyhood, to his adventures in Nevrast, to his encounter with Ulmo, to his winter trek to Gondolin with Voronwe, and then finally his (frosty) initial reception at the seven gates of the city – the story cuts off just as Tuor looks down upon Tumladen for the first time. Tuor the character does not change much from the 1917 version – he is still the pious, decent protagonist of the piece, and everything his darker cousin is not (aforementioned cousin has a cameo). The Elves of Gondolin, however, have more than a bit of paranoia about them when first encountered, which in conjunction with the imagery of the Fell Winter, creates a quite foreboding atmosphere. Excellent stuff – and a literary tragedy that Tolkien abandoned it when he did.

Also included in the book:

  • A follow-up account, following Tuor’s son Eärendil on his pilgrimage across the Sea, and his role in the defeat of Morgoth – which serves to give a sense of closure to the mythology. It’s, alas, a thin account, since whereas at least Gondolin proper has a complete story to go with it, Eärendil’s tale is a matter of notes and sketches.
  • A glossary of names, and a fold-out map of Beleriand.
  • Eight gorgeous colour illustrations from Alan Lee.

So is the book worth getting? Rather depends on who you are. As I have said, this book is really aimed at people who have read The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin, and have at least toyed with Unfinished Tales, but who haven’t read The History of Middle-earth. If you are after a coherent narrative (which we were never going to get) or new material, you are going to be disappointed – for people who have read The Book of Lost Tales, the only real selling point is completeness (this is Christopher’s last hurrah), and Lee’s excellent artwork.

**

(This review is a tad delayed, because I had to wait for the book to be shipped from the UK. It turned out it was significantly cheaper to ship from the other side of the world than get it ordered via a local bookshop).

A World of Straw: Lincoln Michel on Worldbuilding

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Today I ran across a pair of articles by Lincoln Michel on the subject of worldbuilding in literature. He’s opposed. Quite strongly opposed, actually.

The sad thing is, he has absolutely nothing meaningful to say, because he’s constructed a gigantic straw man – as, I have noticed, critics of worldbuilding tend to do.

Some people will argue, tautologically, that all fiction takes place in a world and thus all fiction worldbuilds. But the way most people use the term is similar to what Chuck Wendig’s definition: “[worldbuilding] covers everything and anything inside that world. Money, clothing, territorial boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, imports and exports, transportation, sex, food, the various types of monkeys people possess, whether the world does or does not contain Satanic ‘twerking’ rites.”

Worldbuilding is not merely creating a fictional setting and writing a narrative in it. It is an attempt to flesh out an invented world in way that allegedly feels “real.” In a perfectly executed work of worldbuilding, there would be no gaps in the world for the reader to fill in. Everything from the goblins’ favorite type of baby wipes to the export taxes on Martian ray guns would be worked out (at least in the author’s mind if not on the page). This is not possible, but worldbuilding expects the author to have “rules” that are “logically” followed to their conclusions.

No, worldbuilding is creating an immersive setting through the judicious application of particular details. Show people the tip of the iceberg, and they’ll assume the stuff under the water – which may or may not be there. The trick is avoiding showing them the entire iceberg – no-one needs to know the export taxes on Martian ray guns (normally, anyway), but if your story needs them, you create the impression they actually exist. Fiction is a con-trick, remember?

Michel also puts logically in inverted commas, as though logical consistency in a setting is a bad thing. Well, no. Consistency in a setting is like consistency in a character’s actions – to depart from it without organic development would destroy the willing suspension of disbelief. The comparison with characterisation is also pertinent, since you don’t describe someone’s hair, eye-colour, and middle name to build them as people on the page. You describe their actions, and from their actions, we learn about them. Same with worldbuilding – you don’t write an encyclopedia, but show the world being lived in.

In contrast to “worldbuilding,” I’ll offer the term “worldconjuring.” Worldconjuring does not attempt to construct a scale model in the reader’s bedroom. Worldconjuring uses hints and literary magic to create the illusion of a world, with the reader working to fill in the gaps. Worldbuilding imposes, worldconjuring collaborates.

The distinction isn’t between worldbuilding and worldconjuring. It’s between good wordbuilding and bad worldbuilding. And, as I have said before, illusion requires some consistency to maintain itself.

Worldbuilding is The Silmarillion, worldconjuring is ancient myths and fairy tales. (In fairy tales, we don’t learn the construction techniques of the witch’s gingerbread house or the import/export routes of evil dwarves.) Worldbuilding is a thirty page explanation of the dining customs of beetle-shaped aliens, worldconjuring is Gregor Samsa turning into a beetle in the first sentence without any other fuss.

We don’t learn the construction techniques Turgon used to build Gondolin either. Seriously, has this guy ever read The Silmarillion? The closest you get to worldbuilding infodumps are the Valaquenta, and Of Beleriand and its Realms – both of which are simply setting the scene for later fireworks. The rest of the book is actually pretty light on it, and a terse read generally – we never find out what, exactly, Ungoliant is, never mind what, say, Feanor is wearing on any given day.

What kind of fiction needs such details? A prime example might be A Song of Ice and Fire, where the varying religions, political factions, and regional customs are indeed a huge appeal of the books. It’s also no coincidence the series is massive. As we’ve pointed out before, the current five books (of a planned seven) are 12 times as long as One Hundred Years of Solitude, 36 times as long as The Great Gatsby and more than and 80 times as long as The Metamorphosis. As a general rule, the longer we stay in a world, the more worldbuilding might be necessary.

And yet One Hundred Years of Solitude is longer than The Silmarillion, supposedly the epitome of world over story.

Even in epic fantasy stories, though, it’s questionable how much detailed worldbuilding improves a work. Tolkien is revered among worldbuilding obsessives for going to such lengths as inventing complete languages for his fictional races before even writing the story. Contrast that with George R. R. Martin, who famously describes himself as a “gardener” instead of an “architect,” and who simply makes up some fake words and lets the reader infer the rest. Readers may prefer one series to the other for a variety of reasons, but I doubt one reader in a million prefers The Lord of the Ringsbecause dwarven has more realistic grammar than Dothraki.

Which shows a misunderstanding of why Tolkien invented languages. Tolkien invented languages because language is what he loved. He was not doing it to improve his stories, but because it was his own passion. The connection with the stories arose because, as Tolkien notes in his Letters, he thought a “real” language needed stories to go with it – which means that he invented the stories to improve the language, not the other way around.

Martin’s use of language only becomes an issue when he tries to draw attention to it (the “nuncle”and “leal” nonsense). Otherwise, asking why the Dornishmen and the Wildings speak the same language is like asking what Aragorn’s Tax Policy was (right, Mr Martin?).

And for all the worldbuilding love that The Lord of the Rings gets, Tolkien’s work would fail the worldbuilding guides I’ve linked to here. He may have set the table for high fantasy, but he doesn’t even pass contemporary fantasy author Brandon Sanderson’s first “law’ of magic. The focus on worldbuilding has moved far beyond simply creating some interesting backstories and complex politics to increase the drama of the tale, to expecting a writer to have mapped out every detail of a world as if they were producing an encyclopedia instead of a story. Would the mythic The Lord of the Rings be improved by more discussion of elvish trade agreements and Mordor dining room etiquette?

Yes, The Lord of the Rings would fail Michel’s straw man – though I have no idea what Michel means by Tolkien failing Sanderson’s Law, which refers to the perils of using magic to solve problems. Tolkien doesn’t use magic to solve problems in Rings.

The funny thing is that Tolkien did actually write about Gondorian currency – but cut it from the appendices, because it had zero relevance to the story he was telling. Because Tolkien’s work was just that – story, not encyclopedia.

(As an aside, it isn’t a coincidence that the celebrated SFF “worldbuilders” are Western writers, typically white, while imaginative writers from so many other cultures get lazily lumped together as “magical realism.” Worldbuilding insists on a certain concept of supposedly logical “realism” that pretends it is the only way to see the world.)

Really? I always thought magical realism was fantasy that dare not speak its name.
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My least favorite example of this is the “crazy fan theory.” These normally begin on a site like Reddit, then spread like Kudzu across the internet. Why didn’t the giant eagles simply fly Frodo to Mount Doom? Well, it would be a really boring story if they did! That doesn’t satisfy fans, who instead create fan theories that “explain” and “fix” and “change the way we see” famous works like The Lord of the Rings. (These crazy fan theories exist for basically every popular book or movie that has ever been produced.)
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Good grief. He’s clearly never heard of the distinction between Doylism and Watsonian either. People make Watsonian explanations, not because they are trying to change the text, but because… it’s fun on its own terms. Clearly a terrifying concept.
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But do we need “worldbuilding” as a concept to explain why moral simplicity, characterization without nuance, or a lack of a tactile sense-of-place can be a problem? A work of fiction set in 2017 will also be bad if the characters lack nuance, the political messages are heavy-handed, and the story is wrapped up in an overly-logical bow. Good writing is complex and ambiguous, not simplistic and heavy-handed.
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Because Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is so ambiguous in its message…
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I also love how a “tactile sense of place” has suddenly become important. Because here’s the funny thing. World-building is explicitly about creating a tactile sense of place. If I write a story set in Paris (a place I have never been), I am going to have to build the setting with research. If I write a story set in the Viiminian Empire (another place I have never been), I am going to have to build the setting with imagination.
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Ultimately, the logic of worldbuilding always succumbs to the more important logic of storytelling. George R. R. Martin liked the idea of a planet that goes through decades-long winters, but he also wanted it to seem like medieval Europe with similar wildlife and political structures that would, in “reality,” not survive decades of winter. What matters in a story is the story, and what serves the story is useful. The Machiavellian political struggles of Westeros are the story of ASOIAF, and so the complex politics of the region matter where the grammar of Dothraki or the breeding habits of Westeros mammals do not. 
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Correct. One doesn’t read A Song of Ice and Fire for the world – one reads it for the story. I am vaguely disappointed Martin didn’t do more with his multi-year winters, however – imaginative settings have value unto themselves, because they can be so damn fun to explore. It’s a big appeal of Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia books.
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And so on. One can see where this is going. Michel has simply taken a mistaken idea of what world-building is, dressed it up in a hat, then spent two essays knocking the hat off. Well, if he wants to misrepresent the concept, that’s his business. For me, good worldbuilding is not an encyclopedia, any more than I would try to represent Paris by parroting demographic data. Good world building is character development for the setting.

Wrestling With Blind Spots: Death of the Author From Complications

As I have mentioned before, I generally advocate the Death of the Author position when dealing with literature – the idea that interpretation is a matter for the reader to decide, not the writer. It is why I reject the notion that J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore is gay – not because of homophobia, but because the character as portrayed in the Harry Potter series has no sexuality at all for the first six books, and has an ambiguous relationship with Grindelwald in the seventh (I personally read that relationship as an intellectual one, not a sexual one). Dumbledore, as I read him, has no more sexuality than Gandalf, gay or otherwise – if Rowling had wanted to make the character homosexual, she should have put it in the bloody book.

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All well and good. This is also why I generally baulk at telling people how to interpret Wise Phuul or my short stories – someone else’s interpretation of the published text is as good as mine, since a text exists to be read, not written. The exception is where the interpretation is insane, of course, but then I am human as well as an author.

But today I stumbled across an old Ferretbrain article from 2010, which got me thinking about the subject again. Amongst other things, the article distinguishes between comprehension (e.g. Hogwarts is the name of the school), speculation (e.g. Ron Weasley did job X after leaving school), and interpretation (e.g. Slytherin is an evil House). It further suggests that speculation can only be seen as a worthwhile activity by authorial intentionalists, and that Death of the Author has no use for it. This, I think, is mistaken, since I see speculation as existing outside the authorial intentionalist/Death of the Author divide – this is not about deriving deeper meaning from a text, but from the pleasure of interacting with it on its own turf, an extension of the willing suspension of disbelief (we know what we’re reading is fiction, but what if it were real?). I myself write speculative material on Tolkien as well as interpretive.

So I don’t agree with the article completely… but it did start some soul-searching on how I go about interpreting texts, and, well, I have found myself wrestling with my own potential blind spots. Oh dear.

Because, at the end of the day, is there a substantive difference between Rowling saying that Dumbledore is gay in an interview, George R.R. Martin providing bonus information on Westerosi heraldry and House Words, or J.R.R. Tolkien revealing that Maedhros is a red-head in The Peoples of Middle-earth (bearing in mind that Maedhros’ hair colour never features in the published Silmarillion)? It’s all extra-textual stuff – which under Death of the Author ought to be discarded in favour of what is in the actual text. And while I have been harsh on Rowling, I have never called Tolkien up for the Maedhros hair colour thing, or any of the various interpretative essays he wrote about his invented world. Surely what is good for the Rowling goose is also good for the Tolkien gander?

These aren’t rhetorical questions either. I have been pondering ways of differentiating them… hence this essay. Basically, I think the article’s comprehension/speculation/interpretation divide is a useful place to start – and I would say that Rowling’s statement about Dumbledore’s sexuality intrudes on the reader’s freedom to interpret in a way that Tolkien and Martin do not.

Martin giving worldbuilding details on banners or words belongs very much to the factoid/comprehension side of things – it fuels speculation, but not interpretation. Knowing the Bolton House words does not affect the way one reads A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s just there, as an optional bonus for those who enjoy such things. Same with Tolkien’s note about Maedhros’ hair colour, which is of interest to fan artists and anyone trying to construct a theory of Elvish hair genetics, but which is of zero thematic or character interest in The Silmarillion.

Duel at the steps of royal palace in Alqualonde by EKukanova

Dumbledore’s sexuality, by contrast, does not simply invite speculation. By revealing such an integral part of personality, it invites interpretation – how we read the character’s actions and interactions is affected by the revelation. Someone not aware of Rowling’s interview will be reading a slightly different Dumbledore from someone who is aware, which is simply not the case with the Maedhros hair colour example. Which is poor form, as far as Death of the Author goes.

Well and good, then. But one can choose fuzzier examples. What about Anthony Goldstein, the Jewish wizard at Hogwarts, whom Rowling mentions as being in her original list of students? On one hand, he was in the original list – which makes him a genuine part of the world-building, not a post-hoc attempt to burnish Hogwarts’ diversity credentials. On the other hand, the way Rowling uses him in the Guardian article isn’t quite analogous to the Martin or Tolkien examples – she is using something that isn’t in the published text to shape the way we interpret the text. She is trying to get us to read Hogwarts as full of representation and diversity, when cutting Goldstein from the published book actually creates a different effect.

(A better approach to encouraging a diverse interpretation of Hogwarts might have been to let the readers do the interpreting for themselves. The black Hermione debate from several years ago – something I might actually do a Youtube video on at some point – is a brilliant example of an adaptation using ambiguity in the text, in this case Hermione’s skin colour (which is never specified, and which is utterly irrelevant to her character in any case). Diversity achieved on the stage… without the author necessarily needing to tread on people’s toes. Whether Rowling endorsed the casting, or how she personally imagined the character, is actually irrelevant).

OK, so thus far we have been seeing Rowling using extra-textual information to influence interpretation of the published text, whereas Martin and Tolkien use extra-textual information to fuel speculation and immersion. Totally different, right? So is Tolkien then off the hook? Well, no. Because if revealing Maedhros’ hair colour is different from revealing Dumbledore’s sexuality, we have still yet to establish how Tolkien’s essays and letters are different from Rowlings interviews – since those essays and letters often do stray into interpretation. Raving hypocrite that I am, I even went so far as to use such interpretative tools for my Denethor analysis and my look at Sauron’s motivations – the ideas that Denethor is an excessively political leader, or that Sauronian evil differs from Morgothian evil, are straight-out authorial intentionalism.

Perhaps. I am not going to argue that the subsequent publication of Tolkien’s Letters or the History of Middle-earth series turns such information into part of the text – we are not dealing with story here (draft or otherwise), but rather explicit authorial commentary on the text. It is no different from Rowling’s interviews… except in one important sense. Whereas Rowling seems to want to claim credit for stuff that is not actually in the books (i.e. the wise old mentor figure being an example of queer representation in fantasy), when Tolkien comments on his writings, there is generally at least some textual foundation to his commentary.

Recall that my objection to Dumbledore’s sexuality is that Rowling’s comments (which posit a sexual Dumbledore) contradict the basically asexual nature of the book figure. I am willing to look the other way for Tolkien, in that his Denethor and Sauron comments chime with the published story. They do not set interpretation off on a fresh direction, or put a new spin on the material, only help clarify what is already there. On those occasions when Tolkien’s extra-textual commentary does not gel with the content of his actual fiction – Laws and Customs of the Eldar, for example – I cheerfully call him up on it. Laws and Customs is not useless, of course, since it shows how far Tolkien’s stories were straying from his Catholic intent, but I do not think one should use the essay to interpret The Silmarillion or the other First Age stories. Celegorm and Maeglin simply do not fit. Similarly, I reject Tolkien’s very late Unfinished Tales Galadriel essay, on the basis that it contradicts The Lord of the Rings. It helps that the Rings version is more fun and less whitewashed, so there are aesthetic considerations too – I’m the reader, I can do that, because, well… Death of the Author!

Which brings me full circle. Maybe my literary blind spots aren’t as bad as I feared. Maybe I only use authorial intent in a cautious, supplementary manner, rather than as a stand-in for the text itself. In which case, hooray? I do have to acknowledge, however, that the sin of Rowling, who wants to stamp a particular interpretation on her work, is one that affects us all – authors are human, and it is very human to want one’s work to be the one that exists in a Platonic state in our brains, rather than the one that exists in the imperfect and messy form on the page. But it’s the page version the reader deals with, even if we try to mean what we say, which, in light of the fun of unconscious and unintended themes and ideas, is probably for the best.

A Spring Twilight

Out in the Dunedin Botanical Gardens yesterday:

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2018 was a very mild winter, and spring has got off to a golden start. Damn it – I live in Dunedin. Where’s the rain?

Dunedin Fantasy Writer Event

My first public event as an author. Woohoo!

Genre 8 - Flights of Fantasy 11 October 2018 - for web (1)

Tolkienian Speculative Guessing IV: YOU… SHALL… PASS!

Time for some more Tolkienian alternate history. Today’s topic is one that has bothered me ever since I stumbled across this at the Tolkien Sarcasm Page – yes, it’s a Balrog question. But not THAT Balrog question. Another one:

What if the Balrog of Moria got its paws on the One Ring?

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It is not difficult to imagine how this scenario comes to be – the Balrog knocks Gandalf into the chasm before our wizard can break the bridge, and then hunts down the remaining Fellowship with ease. Much as the Watcher in the Water seems able to sense the Ring (and hence attacks Frodo), it is entirely possible that Durin’s Bane would be similarly triggered by Frodo’s presence, so inspects the charred and mutilated corpse of Mr Baggins, and finds a certain precious piece of jewellery…

What happens then?

Well, there are four possible outcomes, and we shall get to them shortly. The issue is that this question throws up a couple of subsidiary questions:

(i) How intelligent are Balrogs?

In short, we don’t know. They are unquestionably powerful – and get significantly more powerful as Tolkien’s writings go on, until Tolkien envisaged there only being seven of the creatures, but whether they are intelligent or more agents of raw destructive force, is unclear. While the latter view has been popularised by the Jackson movies (try finding an image of the Balrog that was not influenced by those), my own view is that the Balrogs, as Maiar, are intelligent. These are demons of creepy shadow as much as they are demons of destructive fire. Consider Gandalf’s account of the Chamber of Mazarbul:

Then something came into the chamber — I felt it through the door, and the orcs themselves were afraid and fell silent. It laid hold of the iron ring, and then it perceived me and my spell.

‘What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. For an instant the door left my control and began to open! I had to speak a word of Command. 

In light of later events, this “something” is the Balrog, and much like the other known Maiar of Middle-earth, Sauron, the Istari, and Melian, it has a brain. It can detect magic, and perform its own terrible counter-spell, to the point where it nearly breaks Gandalf himself – and Gandalf is no slouch at magic. If Durin’s Bane can do this, I think it has sufficient intelligence to use the One Ring, if it chose – we are not talking a more fiery Shelob.

Also, while Letter 210 points out that the Balrog doesn’t speak, I think there is enough evidence over the course of the mythos that Balrogs are capable of speech if they desire (see here for a compendium of evidence).

(ii) Was the Balrog of Moria on Team Sauron?

Again, the answer to this is unclear. On one hand, we have this quote, from Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age:

“And [Sauron] gathered again under his government all the evil things of the days of Morgoth that remained on earth or beneath it.”

Durin’s Bane is an evil thing from the days of Morgoth. It is beneath the earth. A literal interpretation of the quote says that, yes, the Balrog is one of Sauron’s servants. After all, the Balrogs are used to taking orders from Morgoth – so why not Morgoth’s second-in-command?

This degree of literalism is not something I am happy with, however. In my opinion, the quote could just as easily refer to the fact that the Orcs tend to live underground too. After all, where does this leave the mysterious Nameless Things, assuming one can call them evil, since “even Sauron knows them not”? Sauron can hardly command something he does not know about. Moreover, the text of The Lord of the Rings refers to the Ringwraiths as Sauron’s most terrible servants – the Balrog is a far more terrible entity than any mere Ringwraith, secondary in power to only Sauron himself (and maybe Smaug). Which means the Balrog is not a servant, but a free agent.

My biggest objection to applying “on earth or beneath it” literally, however, is that the behaviour of the Balrog is inconsistent with it being Sauron’s agent in Moria. As mentioned, Durin’s Bane is a monstrously powerful being – able to kill the bodily form of one of the Istari, and adept at magic – so if Sauron had control of it, why waste it on a backwater like Moria? Why not summon it to Mordor, and put it in command of the army? As it is, the Balrog behaves like a mysterious side-line figure to the late Third Age, playing no part in the Orc-Dwarf battles, even though its intervention would have been decisive. It is something that the Orcs themselves avoid…

**

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But back to the question of what would happen if Durin’s Bane found the Ring. As mentioned, I think there are four possibilities:

(1) It ignores it. The least-likely option – I do think that the Balrog, as a magical Maia, would have some appreciation for what the Ring is, but it is possible (after the intruders have been dealt with) that it returns to slumber on the lower levels of Moria. This possibility would be most consistent with Balrogs being unintelligent, or at least having no interest in what the Ring offers, and would likely lead to the Ring falling into the hands of Orcs – whereupon a short-lived Orkish kingdom in the Misty Mountains gets stomped on by a (conventionally) victorious Sauron.

(2) It sits on it, Gollum-style. This would actually be consistent with the Balrog’s behaviour thus far – for a creature of such immense power, it does not seem particularly ambitious, and what could the Ring promise the Balrog? It is corrupted already! Sauron would defeat the West conventionally under this scenario, but actually getting the Ring off an (intelligent) Balrog would be tricky, assuming that the Balrog is a free agent – Sauron might not want to provoke it, which would render his victory amusingly incomplete.

(3) It returns the Ring to Sauron. If you believe the Balrog is under Sauron’s governance, then this is the most likely possibility, though it is also a potentially headache-inducing one. Would the Ring tempt the Balrog into betraying Sauron, or would it, like the Ringwraiths, simply follow orders? Part of the difficulty with this question is that we never actually see how a truly evil creature would react to the Ring’s lure, but assuming the Ring does end up with Sauron, then we all know the result for Middle-earth.

(4) It chooses to use it. The most likely option, I think, and easily the most fun. This requires an intelligent Balrog, and one that is either a free agent or else a servant that has been corrupted into rebelling against its master. Since Gandalf could have used the Ring against Sauron (Letter 246), the Balrog certainly could, which turns the War of the Ring into a deliciously complicated four way struggle – Sauron vs the West vs Saruman vs the Balrog. One could imagine Denethor and Saruman trying to prolong the Sauron/Balrog evil civil war as long as possible, though the Elves might find themselves in a tricky situation, especially since Galadriel lives not too far from Moria.

In summation, scenarios (1) and (3) result in a complete Mordorian victory, (2) an incomplete one, and (4) absolute chaos. (4) may be the only conceivable situation where a (temporary) Gondor-Mordor Pact becomes non-ludicrous, depending on what the Balrog actually wants to do with Middle-earth. Sauron wants to enslave the world, not destroy it, but the Balrog might be more Morgothian there… in which case, yes, Sauron becomes the lesser evil. The actual mechanics of how such a War might play out are otherwise impossible to tell without knowing more about Balrog psychology – the extent to which it can be negotiated with, and how it would go about its conquest.

**

Other Tolkienian alternate histories:

  • Part I – The Ringwraiths don’t run at Weathertop.
  • Part II – Galadriel acquires the Ring.
  • Part III – Fingolfin lives.

German Play Scene – 2018

Play scene

German Play all done for another year.

Features of fantasy that (in my opinion) need to die horribly – A Compendium

I have just noticed that while my fifteen part rebuttal of McGarry and Ravipinto has earned itself a special compendium to keep everything together, my very first blog series, Features of Fantasy that Need to Die Horribly, is not being kept together, despite it now being in seven parts (six from 2016, one from 2018). It is together, in the sense that all the parts are under the Cliche section, but as time has gone on, other posts have found their way into that section too.

So today, I figured I would rectify that, and give the series its own little compendium.

To be updated, of course, as future posts are added to the series.