"In these pages many mysteries are hinted at.
What if you come to understand one of them?"

"Words let water from an unseen, infinite ocean
Come into this place as energy for the dying and even the dead."

"Bored onlookers, but with such Light in our eyes!
As we read this book, the jewel-lights intensify."

- Rumi

Friday, April 22, 2011

You can't handle... the best policy!

In this episode of "Words, Words.... Words," we return to the topic of gaming and the crafting of fiction, and this post looks like it's going to be pretty epic, in length as well as topic.  Allow me to warn you right off the bat, part of this post is likely to rise some high emotions in those of you traditional fantasy purists.

One of the problems I see with writers who transition from gaming to fiction, and really, with fantasy writers in general, is they can't portray events that happen to characters with any level of honesty. I can already hear some of the cries of outrage: "But it's fantasy!" "It's not supposed to be honest!"  "We're supposed to be escaping from reality."  This attitude is most likely the reason the literary world sneers at fantasy even more than romance.  I say this because, as a genre, Romance is fairly self away; it collectively understands that it is, for the most part, escapist fluff.  Fantasy writers and fans tend to take themselves way too seriously, and while some fantasy is brilliantly written, with poignant social commentary, most of it is, at it's core, escapist fluff.  So much to the point that a few writers who have sold millions and millions of books around the world have publicly claimed they don't write fantasy.  Yes, Mr. Terry Goodkind and MS. J K Rowling, I am calling you out on my tiny little blog with six followers and less than 350 hits at the time of this post.  (I'm sure at least a quarter of those hits are me.) But I digress.  I will go into the rage and fury these writers have caused to burn deep in my soul, probably when I'm a little more well known and my saber rattling will get me in a lot more trouble.  (I can imagine Robin cringing when she reads this.)

Anyway, back to honesty.  So, for the sake of this post, I postulate that reality and honesty are not the same thing.  Reality is grounded in the hard, honest fact of the nature of the universe.  Honesty is grounded in the truth of human perception, and, much of the time, has very little to do with hard fact.  One of the first missions of any writer of fantasy is to create a new reality, a world/universe where the facts of science and nature are different than our own.  The more honestly the writer can do this, the more the reader is willing to suspend their disbelief and go a long for the ride.

For those of my readers who have never partaken in the activity of a table-top role playing game, let me paint a picture for you of the ominous figure known as the Game Master, or GM for short.  Yes, it's become popular these days for various games to get away from that domineering term, but let's face the truth, that's pretty much what they are.  The GM usually sits behind a cardboard screen filled with charts, figures, and reference materials for the game's mechanics.  Books, dice, and notes for plots and secondary characters are stacked behind this screen, waiting for that moment when the GM will spring his nasty surprise on his poor hapless players.  Actions, happen, dice roll, and... more on that later.

Now, that's not too different from many of the writers that I know.  True, the cosmetics of the situation might be a little different.  The cardboard screen transforms into a laptop, computer, or typewriter - yes, some people still use those, ask Harlan Ellison.  The books might be reference materials, and the notes, well, most every writer has notes.  And, you get the idea.  

The point is, both the GM and the writer are telling a story.  In many cases, they both fail in honesty with the same thing: how they treat the character in that story.  I've done it.  In gaming and in writing, I've failed at being honest.  Almost every GM I've ever known has done it, and the few I'm not absolutely sure of, I'd be willing to put a few bucks down that they have fudged things one way or another.  For the GM, the lack of honesty is easy to see.  We lie about how our dice roll.  See, we have this big cardboard screen in front of us, so the players can't see what our dice say.  Most often, I cheat at the dice to keep one of the players from dying, but I also do it to help out the "bad guys" when it seems that the player characters are having too easy a time of things.  Other GMs I've known fudge things so that the players get screwed.  At a gaming convention, I even saw a fairly well known game designer blatantly kill off a problem player and rip up his character sheet.  That's extreme, but it proves the point I'm trying to make: GM's, as a whole, are dishonest people.

Unfortunately, more often than not, writers are too.  We get attached to our characters, good and bad.  We keep saving them from bad crap that should, in all honesty, happen to them.  We are cowards that hide behind a constant stream of little white lies we tell ourselves and our readers, all to be able to sleep at night knowing our characters are safe and sound and to avoid a deluge of hate mail from readers who hate us for what we did to Ned Stark.... Wait.... err.  Anyway, the point of that digression is that some writers obviously don't have a problem being honest in their fiction, and while we the readers hate it sometimes, well, as another old saying goes, sometimes the truth hurts.

I have an example of how one single writer single handedly began a large part of this honesty mess in fantasy fiction.  This also stems into fantasy role-playing games, because this writer pretty much started both.  He didn't mean to, but he did.  Some of you are going to argue with me, which is good.  Some of you are going to be mad at me; I'm already over it.  Really though, it's what I believe, and it needs to be thrown out there, even on a blog with six followers and less than three-hundred fifty hits.


In JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Frodo should have died in Mount Doom along with Gollum.  Frodo’s survival weakens the overall ending and contradicts  the major themes of Tolkien’s epic trilogy, that order is restored by death.  It also betrays the story’s ties to Catholic and Anglo-Saxon mythic traditions.  I heard this idea from Steven Erikson, author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen at a recent at the World Fantasy Convention in Austin.  When Erikson proposed that The Lord of the Rings would have been better served by more a tragic ending where the fallen hero is sacrificed rather than trying to find some place for himself after his fall, I became an immediate supporter of the idea.

Brandon Sanderson, author of Mistborn and the last three volumes of The Wheel of Time gave this reply when I asked him about it:

“I do believe that Frodo needed to die in order to make this story work.  Tolkien was a Beowulf scholar, and heavily referenced that text in the making of his stories.  Beowulf, as you may know, died during his last battle in the poem.  The metaphor is that one doesn’t REALLY sacrifice if one survives, and true classical heroism always ended in death.

“Frodo was so tainted at the end that killing him may have been the more sympathetic thing to do.  It certainly would have helped the ‘Frodo as Gollum’ theory to have the two of them, together, fall into the fires together.”

Throughout The Lord of the Rings, order in Middle Earth is restored through either literal or symbolic death.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the Gray dies in his battle against the Balrog only to be born again, but not as he was.  In The Two Towers, Galndolf tells us, “Yes, I am white now... Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been…”  In The Return of the King, Strider takes to “The Paths of the Dead” with Legolas and Gimli where he undergoes a spiritual death to be reborn, wholly embracing his role as the King of Gondor and Isildur's hier.  Before Strider undertook this journey, some did call him by his true name, Aragorn, but until walking that path, Aragorn denied his birthright.  Denethor, Steward of Gondor, dies to make way for Aragorn.  At first, Boromir’s death seems to sew chaos into the Fellowship; however, his death makes it possible for Frodo and Sam to part from the Fellowship and to create a place for Faramir to stand as the stronger brother. At the end of Return of the King, Arwen, daughter of Elrond, chooses to become mortal and wed Aragorn, and thought she will eventually die, she will give life to Aragorn’s line, preserving Order in Gondor.

Another thing that Tolkien ignores is another theme he sets up throughout the story: The One Ring brings death to character in the history of Middle Earth who falls to its corruption.  Isildur, Boromir, Saruman, Gollum, and even Sauron in the end all perish because of their obsession for the One Ring.  There are those who are tempted by the Ring’s power, yet refuse it.  Early in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo attempts to give the Ring to Gandalf, who says, “No!… With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly…Do not tempt me!…I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great, for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.”  Gandalf knows to take the ring would lead to his own destruction.  However, in the Hobbits, the wizard sees the opportunity destroy the Ring.  However, Frodo holds the Ring too long, and when the moment finally comes to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom, he cannot; the Ring has corrupted him too completely. “Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls... ‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam's sight.” It is only because of Gollum that the One Ring was destroyed at last.  Frodo even acknowledges this, “But do you remember Gandalf's words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end.”

Sam, and Merry and Pippin to a lesser extent, are the true heroes of The Lord of the Rings.  They are the characters that grow the most.  Frodo only arrives at Mount Doom because of Sam’s inner strength and fortitude.  Sam is the one who, knowing what the Ring is, has the ability to relinquish it, even after having born it for a time.  True, Bilbo does give it up, but only by not knowing the truth of it and only with Gandalf’s help.  Treebeard and the Ents go to war against Saruman and Isengard because of Merry and Pippin.  Merry found the courage within him to help Eowyn defeat the Lord of the Nazgul.  These are examples of how the three other Hobbits grow over the course of the books, while Frodo only diminishes.  When we reach the Scouring of the Shire, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are the active characters.  Frodo speaks and acts only as a voice of “wisdom”, which diminishes the growth in the other Hobbits over the course of the trilogy.  They have each learned more about themselves and the greater world outside the Shire, and none of them bear the taint on their souls that Frodo possesses.  His presence here robs them of their own heroic journeys, and in some ways, the other three Hobbits have become nothing more than vengeful bullies, only to be held back by Frodo’s voice of reason. It is as if Tolkien degrades Sam, Merry, and Pippin so that Frodo has some purpose here.  Had Frodo died, Sam, Merry, and Pippin could have truly completed their own heroic journeys.

Finally, by examining the mythic traditions Tolkien used as a basis for his story, Frodo’s survival shows that Tolkien turned away from those traditions.   Evidence of this can be seen in two of the three Christ figures in The Lord of the Rings.  Both Aragorn and Gandalf suffer a death of some kind and return stronger.  Frodo does not suffer a death and rebirth, and only grows weaker.  In some aspects, Frodo has the most blatant ties to Christ, in that, during his moments of greatest weakness, he has a Simon (in the form of Sam) who helps not only to carry Frodo’s burden, but also carries Frodo himself.  As Brandon Sanderson pointed out, Tolkien was also a scholar of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon myths.  Like most of the heroes of these stories, Beowulf dies in the final battle against the Dragon.  Even Shakespeare understood that tragic a flaw requires the hero to ultimately perish, hence the doomed struggles of Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet.  Yet, in the end, Hamlet ultimately succeeds in his quest.  Frodo shows his flaw beneath Mount Doom: He becomes corrupted and cannot give up the ring.  Once this happens, Frodo transforms from a romantic hero to a tragic hero.  Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, Tolkien did not have the courage to carry out the mythic and religious traditions he had used in crafting the rest of his story, and cheapens every other death, sacrifice, and heroic journey that takes place in The Lord of the Rings.

I've heard it rumored, that Tolkien stopped work on The Lord of the Rings for over a year after he killed Boromir.  I have no confirmation of this, only several anecdotal conversations at conventions, though most often these tend to have a grain of truth at the center.  If this is even remotely close to the truth of thing while Tolkien was writing his epic, I can believe that he didn't have the courage to kill Frodo at the end.  It may have been his plan all along, right up until the moment where Tolkien had his fingers against the typewriters or his pen poised above his paper, and he just couldn't do, couldn't bring himself to do what needed to be done.

This has been a long post, longer than I expected, to justify this point about honesty in fantastic fiction.    Yeah, I'm up on my soap box, but it's one of the things I'm most passionate about when it comes to fantasy.  We, above all other writers, above all other genres, must honest about our characters and the events they struggle through, cause, and become affected by.  If we can't be completely honest in our attempt to portray these absolutely unrealistic worlds (yeah, I know that sounds like an oxymoron) then we can't expect people to buy into fantasy as a truly literary worthy method of storytelling that explores some unanswerable question of the human condition. 

Do I expect perfection 100% of the time?  No.  But come on, being fantasy writers does not give us the excuse to be frivolous and trite.  Let's have the courage to grow beyond our roots and treat our characters as honestly as we can, even if that means our characters have to suffer through death, and sometimes worse.  On the other hand, we don't make our characters suffer through needless crap because we think it will heighten tension or make them more sympathetic.  Oh, man... Now I realized that's an entirely different problem of this honesty thing I've not even begun to touch on, and in many ways, it makes me even crazier than writers who won't let anything bad happen to their characters.  However, I don't think I'm going to go into that now.  Most of the writers who do that are amateurish at best, even the published ones, and in most cases, their fiction contains so many more errors than that.

So, in closing, writers, please be honest with your fiction and storytelling.  Your stories will be stronger for it, and your readership will become a word-of-mouth advertising campaign for you.  Well, maybe not all of them, but I certainly will.

1 comment:

  1. We're having an intersting discussion of this post over on My "Bard's Cloak" Facebook page, for all those interested.



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