Tag Archives: Literature

A Fantasy Review: From The Lord Of The Rings To A Game Of Thrones

I am currently 2/3 of the way through an epic re-watch of the Lord Of The Rings. My band of brothers and I have escaped from out of the very bowels of the Mines of Moria. We have stood, bloodied and yet unbowed, before the Uruk Hai at Helms Deep. We have risked the black fury of Barad Dur itself. And we have taken the hobbits to Isengard.

In case of my death, let it be remembered that with each and every waking breath, I worshipped the Lord Of The Rings, both the books and the films. Let it also be recorded that I loved Tolkien as if he were my own son.

That’s right – Tolkien’s world is so immersive, his characters so complete, and quite frankly his dialogue stirs my loins. The great man is surely the yardstick against which all writing, especially fantasy, must be measured. As one critic puts it, all fantasy writers subsequent to Tolkien must content themselves with shaping the world that he revealed. On a side note, Peter Jackson and co. deserve credit for recreating so spectacularly the monstrous saga on the big screen. Each film is a stunning spectacle, which is nothing less than Tolkien’s genius merits.

Yet in spite of my rather more than casual adoration for Tolkien, there is a crucial element to his work that I believe is sadly lacking. This element is tension. My only problem with The Lord Of The Rings is that the (main) characters are so cool that at no point do you worry about their safety. The one exception to this rule is Gandalf. Fair enough, when he dies you are all like ‘oh no!’ but his dramatic return, unexpected as it might be, only serves to reinforce the growing suspicion that Tolkien has constructed his characters so well that he will not be able to handle killing them off. Indeed, the only characters that do end up biting the dust are characters who have displayed some sort of boorish flaw – e.g. Boromir, the louty yet loveable Gondorian scamp, or Theodin, the feckless leader of a rabble of random horseman.

I have some sympathy for Tolkien here. In my first book I was an absolute mess when confronted with the fact that my favourite character simply had to die. It was only a whole day’s worth of writing under the influence of a firm hangover that allowed me to push through to the end of my story without him.

The unhappy consequence of Tolkien’s (and my own, apparently) unrivalled ability to construct a character is that his books take on the attitude of a carefree jaunt, when really they should be nothing of the sort. It simply isn’t that ‘life or death’ that Aragorn has been surrounded by his enemies, because you know he will be able to fight his way out of it; that’s just how much of a man he is.

Fortunately for those adrenaline junkies out there, modern fantasy definitely has a ruthless edge to it. I defy anybody to watch an episode of Game Of Thrones (for example) comfortably – i.e. without sobbing softly whilst snot drips down their face, having been thoroughly overcome by the whole excitement of it all.

I should confess right now that I have not read George R. R. Martin’s series ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’ (on which the TV series of Game Of Thrones is based). I acknowledge that this is a gross omission for a man who professes to be a fantasy writer, but there we have it. What can men do, eh? To be honest it is probably a good thing I haven’t read it, because I would be a state.

Anyway, my point is this – Tolkien is a hero, of that there can be no doubt. Modern fantasy writers would do well to learn from him. Heck any writer would, (what is this whole disrespecting of the fantasy writer about anyway? Leave us simple folk alone, bra.) But if there is one thing that modern authors do have over their old mentor, it is the savage unpredictability of their plot lines. Some stuff is going down. There will be consequences.

If you haven’t been watching Game Of Thrones, by the way, then where have you been? Sort it out. Honestly.

On a final note, Theodin’s much pondered over question (see the top right of this fantastic post) was finally answered by my dear friend Roberto (like Mancini but more man and less cini) the other day. His response? ‘Little to nothing.’

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A Dab Hand At

The sky was black when first he came to me. A carrier in the night; the last survivor from a long forgotten era. An orphan of chance.

I was standing by the window – cloak misting around my shoulders – gazing out upon the deep when a man’s face loomed out of the fallow fields in front of me and pressed itself against the glass. The birds outside had long since taken up their grisly chorus – far fouler creatures than they would now be stirring, and so I rushed to admit the man into the safety of my abode.

What madness might have driven him to venture out at night? thought I as I strode to unlock the chain. What ill thoughts have led him to my door?

The stranger wasted no time, but burst past the threshold and into the light. From his build he must have been a man from the North; tall and broad as the mighty oak. His face was shaped like a King of Old, with a firm brow and keen eyes that shone in the dark. His nose was bent in ways that whispered ‘magic’ and there was a wiry growth of hair atop his lip. He seemed confused and would not look at me at first. Now here, now there, he roved about the room, in the very depths of some demented nightmare, muttering of secret desecrations, of restless motives and of the fall of man.

Suddenly, as if at last aware of his surroundings, he stopped his pacing. Then he turned to me and at once threw himself upon my mercy. He began to beseech me, first in the tongue of his mother, then in the tongue of mine, that I might be persuaded to aid him in his quest. White-knuckled, he grasped at the foot of my robes. I recognised nothing about his features, but I could not shake the thought that we had met before; that somehow he and I were brothers. I agreed to help him if I could.

Words failing him, the stricken man pressed a dirtied roll of parchment into my hands. Deed done, he sank back onto the floor. With trembling fingers I opened the parchment. It read as follows: Knowest thou the origin of the phrase – ‘a dab hand at…?’

Surprised, I turned to the man for elucidation, but I found a corpse where life had been. In a twisted act of kindness, death had chalked a smile upon his face. He had faded from this life trusting that I, the foremost scholar of the age, would be able to penetrate the mystery and return peace to the Kingdom of Man. It was clear to me what was at stake. I knew I could not fail.

Yet fail I did. I could find nothing of the phrase in the scrolls, save a tenuous mention regarding a link between ‘dab’ and ‘dapper’, scarcely enough to risk a mention. At the fundamental moment my mind had failed me. There seemed nothing I could do.

The sun did not rise that morning, nor has it risen since. Tonight I am to lead the men of Skia, the last great protectors of the Truth, against the forces of Despair. It is likely I shall fail. I give this account that any reading it might know the quest that claimed the life of my brother, and of so many after him, still burns brightly within my breast. I will conquer the Truth, in this life or the next. And then, when all is done, I will at last be able to answer that smile, which has haunted me to the ending of my days.

This fable is based on true events. My friend Tom, whose wonderful poetry can be found here, text me asking if I could shed any light on the phrase ‘a dab hand at’. As you can see, I couldn’t. I hope you can forgive me, and that this ridiculous excuse for a story has sufficed in place of information.

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Sometimes It Pays To Take A Closer Look

It’s frustrating for us writers when a literary agency doesn’t bother to get back to us. Having guarded our work so jealously for so long, at last we send it out and wait with bated breath, only for it to be passed around a room and laughed at by a bunch of jokers, before being unceremoniously consigned to the dustbin of history. At least this is what happens as far as we know – because nobody bothers to tell us otherwise. If my work is not good enough, then it’s not good enough. I do not think I deserve to be published end of. But I do need to know if I am below standard, in order to improve. Telling me nothing is not helpful. Below you will find a short story  (500 words) that I wrote on this subject. It was written for a competition a few months ago… which I haven’t heard back from, of course. Anyway, I hope you enjoy.

Sometimes It Pays To Take A Closer Look

You should have taken that chance, shouldn’t you? Maybe then you wouldn’t be standing on the Strand outside McDonalds – nose pressed, breath misting against the glass, windowed away by poverty from the golden nuggets within.

“Carry on please sir.” An anxious employee, absurdly dressed in a khaki uniform, ushers you away. You continue to traipse along your lonely path. At least he was polite – plenty of them aren’t.

It hasn’t always been like this. Six months ago you were a top dog; a fat cat, to mix the metaphors. Even working for the most powerful literary agency in the country seemed beneath your talent. But a man’s got to earn a living, and the tips weren’t bad.

It was a Friday night; you remember it because it was somebody’s birthday. A girl’s – you didn’t know her name but you knew by the way she’d pressed her breasts together when giving you the invitation that it would be worth your while. You reached for the last file in your tray, humming Loick Essien’s ‘That’s just how we roll’, (although in your mind you’d replaced the first person plural with the singular).

The file was unusually thin; it was if the author expected his work to stand by its own merits. Laughable. The synopsis wasn’t awful, so you turned to the first chapter. That wasn’t bad either. Just as you were beginning to get really involved, Doug stuck his head into your office.

“It’s five mate, you coming?”

You looked up. “Yeah I’ll be there in a bit.”

Doug nodded to the file in your hand. “Onto something?”

“I don’t know. Probably not.”

“Who’s it by?”

You searched the covering letter for the name. You didn’t recognise it. “Never heard of him,” you said.

Doug grinned. “Then bin it. Lets go!”

“Just give us a sec. I’ll meet you there.”

Doug tapped his hands on the door, one after the other in quick succession. “In a bit then,” he said.

“In a bit.”

He left and you turned again to the file. But you couldn’t concentrate anymore. Doug was right – you should bin it.You’d never heard the name before; likelihood was you’d never hear it again. Besides by then it was ten past five. You got your coat and hastened to join the celebrations.

You should have taken that chance. Next month a new book topped the charts. It was written, they said, by a nobody. Your boss soon found out that you’d been the one to let it slip through your hands. It all turned sour from there.

That’s why when I pass you now, on the way to the signing of my second book, you’re ferreting around in the mud for scraps. Seeing you, I stop, and with a generosity you would never have shown me, I take a note from out of my bulging wallet and press it into your grubby, snatching hands. “Here you are sir,” I say, “go buy yourself a meal.”

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Muses on writing (and a little bit about Twilight & Breaking Dawn)

The game of writing has changed. It is no longer the case, as it used to be, that the people reading books are as informed as the people writing them. In the days of Hardy, of Dickens and of the other Victorian masters, for example, only the rich and the well educated reached for their spectacles and, removing their books from their libraries and reclining at ease in front of their fires, placed trembling fingers against the pages’ edges. A shared pool of knowledge and appreciation led to wonderful sprawling tales, decedent language and testing moral questions.

Lest you think I am an Imperialist hankering for the days of British dominance (which I am) let me tell you some American books have made it onto my radar. Of course they are still English, so to speak, in as much as they are written in the Queen’s language, but I’m willing to grant them a certain level of independence. Where now would you find a writer of Steinbeck’s ilk, for instance, whose fantastic Grapes of Wrath opens with a long and languid description of the red dust towns of Oklahoma, where the harsh beauty of the characters’ surroundings resonates fiercely with their struggle to survive the Great Depression? And Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville – how are we now to find a book so intelligently littered with classical references?

All that once was, is no longer now. No more is reading restricted to the hobby of the refined, us plebs can join in too. Of course this can only be a good thing, but, as one finds with Socialism, there are certain disadvantages to the spreading of wealth. As more and more people began picking up books it was inevitable that the delicate balance between writing and reading earlier described could never be maintained. Many new and shiny markets emerged where previously there might have lingered only a few old and dusty ones. In short, reading became popular, the curse of all things once great.

It is simply not feasible to write a book in the style of yesterday unless you are satisfied with the fact that only a very small percentage of the world’s audience will be interested. Books that used to take the fancy of the traditional reader do not take the fancy of their modern cousin, whose tastes are rather more fleeting.The overwhelming majority of today’s readers are all about fast plots and catchy themes.

Of course it is not the case that a book can no longer be beautifully written, indeed it often helps if it is. But the times are long gone where an author might go on for pages at a time about the gnarl in a tree trunk, or move their readers to tears simply by describing the way in which the gentle winter sun catches the shining grief in a character’s eye. Descriptive language is subservient to plot; it must be there for a reason. If it isn’t then the book won’t sell. Simple as.

To my mind, at the moment the books bringing home the most money (not always the best measure of value) tend not to be remarkably written. Indeed it seems there are only two things you need to produce a successful book these days, and neither of these actually has anything to do with writing. The first is a smouldering front cover, preferably featuring some hunky looking young men without many clothes. The second, of course, is an attention grabbing lure along the following lines – “She married him for love, he married her for blood…” The bait is thrown, the fish is caught, hook, line and sinker.

Indeed, this powerful combination, if put to correct use, creates so much hysteria that the fact that the book could have been written by a less than gifted five year old does not appear to matter. The success of the launch can then be measured according to how many screaming teenage girls wet themselves awaiting a signed copy.

To see this phenomenon at work one must look no further than the US box office, where the film adaptation of Breaking Dawn, the final instalment in the disturbingly average ‘Twilight‘ series took $139.5 million on its opening weekend. Now compare that, if you will, to the paltry $5.135 million taken home by the Rum Diary, Bruce Robinson’s take on Hunter S. Thompson‘s Puerto Rican romp. I have not seen either of the films, indeed it might be the case that Breaking Dawn (film) is better than the Rum Diary (film), but as a measure of interest it is clear where the power lies. The books, of course, are incomparable.

Do not take me for a snob. I am one, of course, but I would like to hide that fact. I am not a particularly gifted wordsmith; I am not writing this post out of frustration because I am not able to tell the stories I want to tell – I would not be able to tell them anyway. Rather I just want to highlight the fact that, when standing in Waterstones surrounded by all the books about Vampires and Werewolves, an honest reader can sometimes feel a little lost.

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The frustrating view of the world through the eyes of Harry Potter

That my intentions might not be misunderstood, it is important I state at the very beginning of this post that my ambition is not to discredit J.K. Rowling as a writer. Like so many others, as a child I was a voracious reader of the Harry Potter series and I have always considered J.K. to be a wonderful story teller who has produced a funny and inspiring universe.

But this is not to say she does not have her weaknesses. Most documented are the various loop holes, which range from minor plot issues to near catastrophic oversights. I will not be addressing how the books stand plot-wise. In my opinion, too much has been made of what is essentially an unavoidable consequence of a successful children’s book being required to evolve into something more. There are mistakes, yes, and there shouldn’t be, but there are more important things afoot.

My discussion will focus on J.K.’s writing – more specifically on her writing of the character Harry. Again, I am not aiming to reveal some gross incompetence, but rather to try and tease out an element of the writing that I do not think works.

Harry Potter is written in what is sometimes called the fixed third person. This means that, unlike say Vanity Fair or the French Lieutenant’s Woman, which feature omniscient narrators who are directly telling the reader a story, it is narrated from one character’s view point. Apart from a few exceptions, noticeably those few chapters that follow Snape, we see the world through Harry’s eyes and ears and his eyes and ears alone. We know only what he knows, and if there is something he is unaware of, we are unaware of it too.

Simply put, the magical world is revealed to the reader at the same pace that it is revealed to Harry. In the first few books, this works like a charm (get it?). But as the story progresses it becomes less and less effective. And here’s why.

The problem is two fold. Firstly Harry is too disinterested in what is going on around him to serve as a proper point of contact. Secondly he is too slippery to get an emotional hold of.

In the first place we might expect Harry, with all a child’s curiosity, to try to learn as much as he can about his new universe as quickly as possible. But J.K. isn’t stupid, she knows that she needs to hold a few things back in order to maintain her audience’s interest. The details must be released to the reader steadily and not all at once. This means that they must be released steadily and not all at once to Harry. The problem is that J.K. has not struck the balance quite right and as a result of this failing, Harry comes across a little moronic.

For example, Harry does not make even the merest of enquiries about the Dementors or Azkabam until his third year of school in spite of the fact that the latter has been mentioned in front of him. Likewise, he does not ask anything about St Mungos until he has been surrounded by Wizards for five years. Surely any 14/15 year old kid would have long ago asked somebody something about the Wizarding hospital. After all, Neville has been banging on about his parents for a while now. Weren’t you listening, Harry?

This is just it. Harry is an idiot. Or rather he is intellectually uninterested. He does not seem to bother about the things we might think he would care about.  For instance, having found out that the most powerful Dark Lord of all time is after him, why doesn’t he pay more attention in class, rather than sharing another joke with simple Ron? Why doesn’t he spend all of his spare time learning useful fighting/healing spells, or else those strange enchantments that Hermione knows all about? Without Hermione, Harry and Ron wouldn’t last one second. They are well aware of this, and yet still they do nothing about it! Hermione acts like I would imagine any at least semi-intelligent person in Harry’s position would act, and yet throughout the books her behaviour is not seen as appropriate, but rather it is considered to be geeky and is treated as an object of great ridicule.

In the second place, emotionally, Harry is all over the place. An advantage of the fixed third person perspective is that it makes the story easy to follow. We know what we are supposed to be feeling because it is what Harry is feeling too. But, although this may be true in the beginning, the link between the reader and Harry becomes more and more tenuous, until by the sixth book, nothing he says or does makes any sense at all. At least it didn’t to me. Indeed, were it not for the helpful but woefully unsubtle hints like ‘Harry was angry’ one might be completely lost at sea. The fact that J.K. believes she needs to tell us what to feel surely demonstrates that she does not believe enough in her character to let him show us instead.

It started so well. Through books one to four we started to get a hold on the sort of boy Harry is growing up to be. Then in book five it all changes. Suddenly the past catches up with him. I know teenagers can be cranky, but really, he needs to chill out! Harry – it’s not Ron or Hermione’s fault that your parents died. You knew that last year, why don’t you know it now?

Fortunately for us all, within a year he has settled down a lot – who knows why, because if anything his life has got a lot worse – and now he is into girls. Big time. Again it is a little unclear where the emotion is sprouting from. The fact that Harry is an elusive character is even more of an issue for J.K. as it would normally be because her characters have aged along with their readers. The majority of her readers literally grew up with Harry Potter, this means that they should not be strangers to the sorts of things a young man would be thinking / feeling, even if they have not been subjected to the same hardships as he has. Given that she had seven long books in which to put her reader in the mind of Harry, it can only be regarded as a dismal failure that she has not managed – at least in some cases – to do so.

Pretty much everything I have just said takes nothing away from the standing of the Harry Potter series. J.K.’s talent lies in story telling, not character building. She has produced an thoroughly entertaining and sellable world and should be praised for her success. But  I think that what frustrates writers about the seemingly limitless plaudits the series has won is that, to the extent that writing at its best is arguably above all about character, the books are not terribly well written at all. And what really frustrates them is that, on this score, her fans are completely unaware.

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A Christmas Truce

Pale winter’s sun with her sweet dwindling light, 
To bed crept she and hid her weary face,
Whilst fell around her darkness bleak as space.
What madness might have met that fateful sight,
But for one faint and gentle spec of white?
A single flake of snow with God’s good grace,
Untouched as yet by death or human waste,
Did fair remind the world of wrong from right.
Now to this ghost both friend and foe gave chase,
With haste across the lines that had been set,
And in each other’s hearts they found a place,
To rest, amidst a merry Christmas fete,
So true the violent times could not erase, 
The mem’ries of when warring brothers met.

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