The Food Train

(Wild berries picked by my son)

Tolkien doesn’t really write about kids much in his books. There’s only one child in all of Middle-earth who actually has any dialogue (and the answer to this little bit of Tolkien-trivia is at the bottom of this blog post). But that doesn’t mean that Tolkien didn’t like kids. The Hobbits are, in a way, the manifestation of children in Middle-earth. They’re childlike without being childish, if you know what I mean. Bilbo was the first stay-at-home dad in literature, after all, teaching Frodo (and Sam) how to read, write and even speak a foreign language–Elvish!

Tolkien loved his own kids. He wrote them warm and loving letters throughout his life. They were his original audience, starting with his The Father Christmas Letters and all the way through The Lord of the Rings. During World War II, when Tolkien’s eldest son Christopher was away at war, he wrote to him saying that it was difficult to work without  ”my amanuensis and critic near at hand” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #59). And one of the most interesting relationships in the history of literature is Tolkien’s lifelong friendship with Rayner Unwin (the lad responsible for vetting The Hobbit for his publisher father, and then the man who finally got The Lord of the Rings in print).

At the end of The Return of the King, after Sam has sprinkled Galadriel’s magical soil all over the Hobbiton, the Shire-folk experience one of the most “marvellous” summers ever.

“The fruit was so plentiful that the young hobbits very nearly bathed in strawberries and cream; and later they sat on the lawns under the plum-trees and ate, until they had made piles of stones like small pyramids or the heaped skulls of a conqueror, and then they moved on. And no one was ill, and everyone was pleased, except those who had to mow the grass.”

The above passage is one of my favorites in all of Tolkien’s works. All of the terrible sacrifices that Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin made on their quest to destroy the Ring were rewarded with this scene of happy, healthy children. And the final moment in The Lord of the Rings, if you will recall, is Sam putting his little daughter on his lap. It’s a beautiful symbol of peace and contentment.

This summer has been “marvellous” for us in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve had the perfect mixture of sun and rain, and my kids have been able to gorge on berries every day just like those kids in the Shire. (And the grass, alas, must be mowed much more than I would like.) These long happy days, where nobody is sick with a cold, are a blessing and a gift.

The other day our friends gave birth to healthy twins. They already have two young children in the house, and not a single relative in town. So my wife and some friends put together a “meal train.” They have divided up days of the week to make hearty meals for this family that suddenly doubled in size. Right now my wife is cooking a gigantic dinner of her delicious homemade macaroni and cheese. And I pulled some fat red beets from our garden and boiled them up for our friends’ beet-loving kids.

If you’ve ever had kids you know that the first days after your child (or children!) are born are utterly and insanely exhausting. Making food is the last thing that you want to think about, but eating well is one of the most important things to do, especially if you have other hungry kids in the house.

What my wife and her friends are doing with the meal train is exactly how I imagine the inhabitants of the Shire helping out with newborns. Can’t you just imagine everyone on Bagshot Row pitching in and feeding Rosie and Sam after the birth of their first child, Elanor, as well as their next dozen kids!

It’s hard on parents in this modern age, when families are spread out thousands of miles around the country (or even the world), for people to raise kids. It’s important to create strong friendships, especially with other parents, otherwise you can really feel isolated.

And hungry.

(Trivia answer: The only child character in Tolkien’s Middle-earth books to have dialogue is Bergil, son of Beregond of Gondor. He is ten at the time of the War of the Ring.)

 

 

Tolkien and the Ancient Greeks

[Image credit: The Fall of Númenor by Darrell K. Sweet]

I had to take a hiatus from writing my Shire Wisdom blog for about five months. I had a weird and scary thing happen to my heart (and I’ll write about that in a blog post soon). But I’m all better now, thanks to my family and the fact that I followed what I had learned while writing The Wisdom of the Shire! (Author, heal thyself!)

I was also deep into writing the second book in my Warrior Trilogy. The first book hit the stores on June 11th, and I just got back from Greece where I was finishing up research for Book 3 and meeting with my Greek publisher. You can read about my amazing trip to the very real place where my story takes place here. (I took the photo below this May at the ruins of the citadel of Plataea in Boeotia, Greece.)

A lot of people have asked me why someone like me–a lover of Tolkien and fantasy–would write a historical fiction series. What does it have to do with Tolkien? Well, reading Tolkien as a boy piqued my interest in ancient Greek mythology. I had a teacher, a priest in fact, who told me that the fall of  Númenor from The Silmarillion was based on the legend of Atlantis. It intrigued me to think that Tolkien had learned a story (probably when he was very young) that grew inside him like a magic tree and evolved into something uniquely his own.

Delving into Homer for the first time (which I did so after reading my own version of the Iliad, aka The Lord of the Rings) I was struck by the similarity in the “high style” of some of Tolkien’s writing, especially the battle scenes. In fact, if you read The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien there is this wonderful quote in Letter 142: “I was brought up in the Classics, and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer.” –J.R.R. Tolkien, 1953

In The Wisdom of the Shire I wrote about the Greek legend of the Ring of Gyges and how this story–a ring of invisibility that brings with it a terrible curse–most likely influenced the invention of Sauron’s One Ring.

Tolkien even coined an important literary word using Greek roots: Eucatastrophe. It means “good catastrophe”–a turn of events for the protagonist where everything suddenly goes from utter crap and doom to rainbows and awesomeness (think the finale of The Return of the King and the fall of Barad-dûr).

When I was in college I started reading the ancient Greek playwrights, and then the histories of Thucydides and Herodotus. The real world of ancient Greece, especially the so-called “Golden Age” of 5th century BC Athens, started to pull me in. For years I read everything about the Greeks that I could get my hands on, scouring used bookstores for obscure tomes and scholarly treatises.

About ten years ago I was hired to write a treatment for a documentary set during the Peloponnesian War (the bloody 30-year-long battle between Sparta and Athens). While rereading Thucydides I came across a story that I had glossed over the first time I had seen it. It was the tale of an independent and democratic city-state called Plataea that was invaded in a sneak attack at the outset of the Peloponnesian War. The heroic and clever way that the Plataeans fought off the invaders, and the subsequent epic siege of their citadel (which became the longest siege in the history of the world) struck me as a story that needed to be told. And so I started working on my novel Sons of Zeus.

Ten years later that book is sitting on the shelves in bookstores and libraries around the country. And I am incredibly proud of this story of love, courage and sacrifice. I never would have written this series if I hadn’t read J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. So that’s how a fantasy author influenced me to write a work of historical fiction. And I could rewrite Tolkien’s quote about the Classics like this: “I was brought up in Middle-earth, and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Tolkien.”

Sons of Zeus is available at public libraries in the US and Canada, at Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble, indie booksellers, as well as ebooks and unabridged audiobook.

You Had Me At “Smaug’s Tail.”


 

(Update #2: I saw this again in IMAX 3D and did not enjoy it nearly as much. I’m so glad I saw this in 2D first because if I’d initially seen it in 3D I think I would have really been depressed. The tinted 3D glasses made everything seem dreary and dingy–even the stuff shot in the Shire. My eight-year-old son, however, LOVED it in 3D!)

(Update #1: Really disparate reactions to this blog and the film in general. People seem to either love The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or they feel terribly disappointed. Some have even told me they think Peter Jackson has eviscerated their beloved book. Maybe you have to go into the theater expecting to hate it like I did? I keep remembering little things like the thrush cracking the snail. Anybody who has read The Hobbit will know the significance this scene has for the next film in the trilogy. It’s that kind of subtle detail that makes seeing this movie such a wonderful cinematic experience.)

I saw the movie today in the old school style—2D and 24 FPS. From the opening shot I felt like I was back in that brilliantly realized cinematic world of Middle-earth that so many of us fell in love with almost a dozen years ago. The colors, the feel, the music. It’s all the same as the first trilogy when you experience it at 24 frames per second. But I didn’t really discern the full force of the Wingnut Films movie/storytelling magic in this movie until that shot of Smaug’s fat Dragon tail snaking and flicking as it disappeared through the Gates of Erebor. I started laughing out loud. Not because I thought it was ridiculous. The total opposite. It was because it seemed so real. The little bits we saw of Smaug before this shot showed him to be a badass of monumental proportions (way scarier than the inane monsters in the preview for Pacific Rim that preceded the showing). Smaug’s tail whipping back and forth lazily, like a cat’s tail, as the Dragon sauntered into his new digs…it was just a beautiful and subtle bit of filmmaking.

Surprisingly, this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time. I found myself laughing out loud every couple of minutes during the first part of the film. Martin Freeman has created a character that will become a classic in film history. He is Bilbo Baggins. And I’ll even go so far as to say (and go ahead and crucify me Tolkien purists) that his Bilbo is a way more interesting protagonist than Tolkien created in his book. From Bilbo’s “Good morning” bit with Gandalf, to his interactions with the Dwarves, to his Riddles In The Dark scene with Gollum (a scene that feels like you’re watching two pro-actors in the most awesome black box theatre production of The Hobbit ever staged!), Freeman manages something most actors never accomplish: he lets us see inside his head—see his thoughts—without resorting to pulling a bunch of stupid faces. He’s incredibly subtle in this story of mercy and friendship masquerading as an action-adventure flick. The guy just blew me away. The little vocal hitch he does in his line “I’m a Baggins…(errp) of Bag End” was so perfect. One of those wee miracles of acting that I’m certain he came up with on his own during takes. My god! This guy can even act with his back to the camera! When he wakes up the morning after the Dwarf-party and he’s all alone in his Hobbit-hole, staring down the hall toward the front door facing away from us, you can feel him thinking “Oh crap, what have I done? I need to go on this adventure!” And after he catches up with the Dwarves and realizes he doesn’t have his handkerchiefs and tries to make them all go back to Bag End to get them…so perfect. In the book he merely mentions he’s forgotten them. But in the movie he’s like, “Stop! We have to go back!” Ludicrously pompous. Totally Bilbo.

The Hobbit is a luxurious and beautiful film: the sparks floating out of the chimney at Bag End like magical fireflies, the overhead of Hobbiton as Bilbo races through yards and gardens to catch up with the Dwarves, the pine trees burning on the cliff’s edge…and that last shot of the heaps of gold in Erebor with Smaug shaking himself awake, then revealing his evil cat-like eye (which is basically how I predicted the movie would end in a blog I wrote over three months ago). And what about that scene where Thorin is striding off the felled pine tree, marching into the burning brush toward Azog? It was like a scene from the greatest opera ever staged! (Don’t you wish you could see an opera with Richard Armitage, Orcs and a Dragon? Hell, I’d go.) Should I mention the flight of the Eagles? We’ve seen this before, right? Gandalf’s rescue in The Fellowship of the Ring and Sam and Frodo lifted from the fires of Mount Doom at the end of The Return of the King. But it was way more awesome here. Spectacular. Crazy-ass-fantasy beautiful. That scene where they landed on The Carrock was perfect. And them all gazing across the Wilderlands toward Mount Doom far in the distance. I can’t wait for the next one!

By the way, I know there’s some stupid shit in this movie. Radagast’s bunny sled is simply asinine. But I didn’t care. And there were too many damned scenes with Dwarves and Bilbo on shifting ledges and Dwarves and Gandalf on shifting jerry-rigged goblin gangways and Dwarves and Bilbo and Gandalf on shifting pine trees. Enough with the 3D crap. It doesn’t need it. But still…I didn’t care.

I haven’t had this much fun at a move since…well…since my wife and I got the director’s cut for The Return of the King. And that’s what was so special about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It felt like we were treated to the director’s cut in the theater. I loved hearing the two-minute-long ode to Erebor! I loved the fact we got to see that cool flashback to the Dwarf/Orc battle! (The Battle of Azanulbizar–thanks for this factoid, Tolkien Britta!) I was amazed at how long the scene with the trolls went on. I relished every second of it. And when Gandalf appears and cracks that massive rock with his staff—splits in twain—to conveniently let the rising sun shine forth, thus turning the trolls to stone, I gasped with surprise! That’s movie magic. The writers took a scene from the book and added a clever little twist. “What if the sun were behind the rock. It’s going to be another ten minutes until it’s high enough to shine on the trolls. What would Gandalf do?” Answer: “He’d split the friggin’ rock right down the middle.” Praise to the screenwriters for this cool idea!

I have to say something about the actors. Richard Armitage turns what could have been a stuffy asshole of a character into someone deep and troubled and full of yearning. And James Nesbitt, in what might have been a throwaway roll as the Dwarf-in-the-dorky-hat, turns the raunchily-named Bofur into a sweet yet wicked guy developing a budding friendship with Bilbo. Both Armitage and Nesbitt are rangy men—both over six feet tall. It’s a testament to the skill the filmmakers have achieved with scaling the actors that they appear squat and realistically Dwarfy (yeah, I know that’s not a word) next to Gandalf and the Elves.

I have to praise Andy Serkis for creating the most stunningly realized mo-cap character in the history of film. He should win an Academy Award for best supporting actor even though he’s only on screen for about twenty minutes in this movie. When he falls over after losing the riddle contest—just collapses on his side like a worn out toddler…brilliant! That’s not special effects. That’s acting, dammit!

Oh, and Ian McKellen? He is “Ass-Kicker The Grey” in this movie. Wonderful acting aside, he just plain kicks Orc-arse. The part where he launches the blue bomb in the Goblin King’s Cave was a better weapon than anything I’ve ever seen in a video game. And then he does some serious Orc-smiting. I also loved how they have him be this sort of sheepish guy when he’s sitting across from Saruman at the White Council meeting. It’s like the writers and Peter Jackson said “Gandalf is kind of an f-up at this stage in his life. He’s the Istari who’s always getting into trouble with grumpy Saruman who admonished him for his harebrained schemes.” Gandalf is like Harry Potter trying to get the Ministry of Magic to believe Voldemort is back. It’s hilarious. “Sauron is really coming back!” “Oh, come on Gandalf, he’s dead.” “I dunno, Saruman. We should go to Dol Guldur…Morgul blade…bad feeling…” (I also liked the way Galadriel is already suspicious of Saruman here and speaks to Gandalf one-on-one with her Elven mind-meld.)

Why are critics, for the most part, ripping this film apart? I don’t get it. The production design is stupendous (John Howe and Alan Lee–you guys are masters). I was enthralled. I laughed heartily, I got numerous chills, and I left the theater with a big smile on my face. Maybe the whole 48 FPS thing really is distracting. I don’t know. But I got to go to Middle-earth again, and it was my best trip yet.