Blogging through LOTR: A matter of time

Beside the standing stone Gimli halted and looked up. It was cracked and weather-worn, and the faint runes upon its side could not be read. ‘This pillar marks the spot where Durin first looked in the Mirrormere,’ said the dwarf. ‘Let us look ourselves once, ere we go!’

Happy New Year to you. In this season we think about time, which “like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away.” That makes this a good day, I aver, to discuss the question of time in The Lord of the Rings. At least some aspects I’ve noticed.

I’ve been looking for hints of Norse influences in The Fellowship of the Ring, which I’m still reading (almost done now). One such element seems to be the runestone that Gimli visits, shortly after the escape from Moria (excerpt above).

But the stone is illegible, thanks to time and weather. And that got me thinking about time and the concept of ancient things in the Trilogy. Continue reading Blogging through LOTR: A matter of time

How Do Christians Handle Pain?

“Any attitude that emphasizes hope while ignoring lament comes from a naïve and unrealistic optimism that contradicts our actual experiences. Lamenting without hope, on the other hand, is equally unrealistic, a kind of unfaithful cynicism that ignores God’s activity and crushes us in its unrelenting despair.”

Professor Kelly Kapic talks with ByFaith about his 2017 book which presents itself as “a theological meditation on pain and suffering.

As we close out our celebration of the Almighty becoming a man, Kapic’s book may be just the theological conversation we need to see ourselves as people with originally good, now broken by sin, physical bodies. It’s understandable that we often pray for God to take away our pain and sickness, but as Kapic notes in this video, all of us are either growing older or dead. What we feel and can do now in our bodies is part of the real world in which God calls us to bring him glory.

I regularly get emails from people who have read the book and speak of discovering the role of lament as if for the first time. That tells me, if I am hearing correctly, that we might not be doing a very good job of displaying this biblical expression in our corporate worship and Christian experience.

(See also this listing from WTS Books)

Blogging through LOTR: The pictures in our heads

The Fellowship of the Ring

In recording my Lord of the Rings reading impressions, I keep reminding myself that I’ve got to let the movies go. The web is full of criticism of the films. I can add nothing useful.

But let me say this. I read visually. I stage the scenes in my head, and watch them (more or less) like movies.

The real world movies are hard to get free of. Humans are visual creatures. Things we see inevitably supersede things we imagine, however vividly. As I read (I’m on The Fellowship of the Ring now), I consciously attempt to recall to myself the actual book descriptions, but the actors and sets of the films keep washing over them. (For instance, Frodo is described in the books as “fair,” meaning blond. Doesn’t look much like Elijah Wood at all). For that reason I appreciate the undramatized sections of the novels even more. They are unadulterated, so to speak.

Not that I’m complaining. The movies have many excellencies which I enjoyed. But when I’m reading I want to engage with Professor Tolkien himself. Since the movies came out, they are my main deceivers. But I had deceivers before then – mainly my own misunderstandings.

For instance, on my first reading I got the elves completely wrong. I was in high school at the time, and I still thought of elves as “little” people. I don’t know how I missed the description at the banquet in Rivendell, where both Glorfindel and Elrond are described as being taller than Gandalf. But I did. I imagined elves as basically like dwarves (even to having beards), but better looking. When at last I was disabused of that fallacy (I think my college roommate might have done it), I abandoned it with pleasure.

That was around the time I met a girl who was very like Goldberry. I see her still, in my imagination, every time I read the books. I’m glad no movie actress has superseded that image.

Blogging through LOTR: Concerning dwarves

Seven dwarfs

Continuing blogging my reading of The Lord of the Rings. Still on The Hobbit.

I have an idea that, if J. R. R. Tolkien had gotten the chance to see the Peter Jackson movies, he would have found the Lord of the Rings movies acceptable in parts. But he would have disliked the Hobbit movies intensely.

One of several things he would have hated in the Hobbit movies is the appearance of the dwarves. Both Tolkien and Lewis were keenly interested in dwarves (or dwarfs), and had definite opinions about them. Lewis writes (in Surprised by Joy, I think) about how he loved dwarfs as a boy, “before Disney vulgarized them.” He describes dwarfs as having long beards and wearing hoods. The dwarfs in the Narnia books are always dressed that way. Likewise, Tolkien’s dwarves always wear hoods except when they wear armor.

Peter Jackson, or his costume designers, apparently disliked hoods. Gimli never wears a hood in the movies. I think a hood or two shows up in the Hobbit films, but they’re gotten rid of fairly quickly. Maybe actors won’t wear them because they put their faces in shadow. Aragorn was supposed to wear a hood when traveling as Strider, too. But it’s almost never up.

Tolkien (and by Tolkien, I mean me, because I’m assuming he’d agree with me) would have hated the Dwarf-Elf romance, and the necessity of making one of the dwarfs “sexy” in order to achieve the unlikely goal of attracting a goddess-like Elf. I don’t think he wanted Thorin to look as heroic as the movies make him, either. Tolkien’s assessment of dwarves’ characters is interesting.

There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.

That passage is interesting in light of the fact (I don’t know its source, but it’s commonly cited as authentic by Tolkien scholars) that Tolkien modeled his dwarves, at least in part, on the Jews. The passage above parallels pretty well the opinion of a broad-minded Englishman of Tolkien’s time, when pressed on the subject. It sounds condescending to us, but in that day it was commendably tolerant. It’s consistent with the Professor’s famous retort to German publishers when they queried him about his pure Aryan ancestry.

The Hobbit movies went wrong in so many ways. I’ve heard that somebody’s done a cut that reduces them to one movie, excising all Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit Helper” extensions. I’d love to see that. Tolkien and Lewis might even have tolerated it.

Netflix’s ‘Bright’

Watch a trailer for the new Netflix movie Bright and you’ll see exactly what the movie is, a buddy cop story within an urban fantasy world. As such it stands up well, but, boy, I wish they had shown restraint in the usual content areas.

Will Smith is veteran cop Daryl Ward who has been given rookie cop Nick Jakoby, played by Joel Edgerton, as a diversity hire to meet Los Angeles’s political requirements. Jacoby is an orc. As he described it, his people chose the wrong side long ago and have been paying for it ever since. In a couple conversations, we hear of the nine races who were brought together 2,000 years ago to defeat the dark lord. Now some bad elves want to bring him back, so naturally that’s not going to fly.

The essence of the story is the Ward coming to terms with his bigotry against Jakoby and Jakoby persevering through that and everything else without losing hope. That part is painfully realistic.  Everyone on the force hates him despite his eagerness to please them and be a good cop. They refuse to believe he will remain loyal to his partner or the force at large when pressured by other orcs.

It’s a straight-up buddy cop story. From what I can tell, it follows the pattern set by many similar movies. Perhaps that’s the mindset that gave us 200 f-words for this 117 minute movie (I’m guessing, not counting). When the big bad guys show up, our heroes make a run through a strip club and the bloodshed skyrockets.

So I can’t recommend Bright, even though I like the concept and the big idea. But if you want to see this and have not watched the trailer, I recommend skipping it. It doesn’t spoil the story, but it does take the edge off of all the most dramatic moments.

Reading report: ‘The Hobbit,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit

I keep bellyaching about having a difficult time with my latest Erling book. And this continues to be the case. I make progress – don’t get me wrong – but it’s kind of like punching my way through sand.

So I said to myself, maybe I haven’t spent enough time with fantasy lately. Maybe it’s time to read The Lord of the Rings again, to get my mind onto a different track.

And behold, I did even according to my word. Reading the Trilogy and its prequel, of course, is a time-consuming project. And it’s a little late in history to review the books. So I figured I’d blog my way through them. I can’t compete with the real Middle Earth geeks who’ve memorized Bilbo’s genealogy and know how many miles it is from Buckleberry Ferry to the Grey Havens. But perhaps my modest expertise in Norse mythology and legend may help illuminate one or two points for you, rendering the exercise not entirely worthless to mankind.

I’ve made it through The Hobbit already. There are definite Norse elements in this book. Some of the ones that struck me on this reading were these: Continue reading Reading report: ‘The Hobbit,’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

Did Gingerbread Houses Come from Fairy Tale?

Our family has made gingerbread houses since we were married. We can’t remember whether we made them every year in the beginning or what year my wife worked up a chocolate version. We have made one most years since the kids were born (The photo above is from many years ago). This year’s house was much softer than usual, even though my fist still hurts from busting it last night.

Some people are saying gingerbread houses were inspired by Grimm’s fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel,” but that story was published in 1812. While it may have popularized family gingerbread house-making, Germans were making these cookie houses for a couple hundred years already and had become a Christmas tradition. Tori Avey of The History Kitchen offers many more interesting details from the history of gingerbread.

Gingerbread arrived in the New World with English colonists. The cookies were sometimes used to sway Virginia voters to favor one candidate over another. The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, has recipes for three types of gingerbread including the soft variety baked in loaves:

Soft gingerbread to be baked in pans.

No. 2. Rub three pounds of sugar, two pounds of butter, into four pounds of flour, add 20 eggs, 4 ounces ginger, 4 spoons rosewater, bake as No. 1.

‘Sleeping in the Ground,’ by Peter Robinson

Sleeping in the Ground

I reviewed a previous Inspector Banks novel by Peter Robinson some time back, and my review says I liked it. But I never read another for some reason. I purchased Sleeping in the Ground to try him again. My reaction follows.

On a beautiful day in northern England, outside an ancient church, a wedding party comes under sniper fire. Several people are killed, others injured. Inspector Alan Banks and his team come in to investigate, and soon settle on a suspect – a quiet local man who belonged to a gun club and owned a rifle. When he is found dead in his cellar from a self-inflicted gunshot, the case seems closed.

But it isn’t. Banks’s superior (and others) want to learn why this uncomplicated man – none of whose acquaintances can believe he would kill anyone – could have gone off the rails so. The trail leads to an old murder and a resentment long cherished. Continue reading ‘Sleeping in the Ground,’ by Peter Robinson

How Excessive the Incarnation

I’m not in favor of spending a lot to finance fantasies of Christmas perfection, nor do I endorse the sort of gluttony and the psychological overload of “special moments” that makes us feel as though Christmas is a celebratory marathon to recover from rather than savor. Yet, the basic impulse toward excess is not wrongheaded. In fact, given the theological meaning of Christmas, it’s altogether fitting in its way.

R.R. Reno says the incarnation of God is most expensive, most exorbitant gift ever given. That doesn’t totally justify our modern day Christmas excesses, but it does give them a little room. The problem is less with our excessive celebration and more with how we view our excesses in comparison to God’s.

God does not give himself to us by assembling the good things of life into a giant banquet. Instead, we get Jesus.

A Carol Symphony

Here’s an orchestral work that isn’t played constantly every Christmas season but could easily fit in any holiday concert program. Victor Hely-Hutchinson wrote “A Carol Symphony” in 1927, which was about the mid-point of his life. It hit all the right notes of his London audience at the time, but since then other compositions have crowded it off of our traditional Christmas playlists.

I hadn’t heard of it until today. Have you?

‘Code of Silence,’ by Sally Wright

Code of Silence

The sixth book in Sally Wright’s Christian but not preachy Ben Reese mystery series is a prequel. In Code of Silence, we get to see Ben – university archivist and former World War II Army scout, in 1957, handling his first civilian mystery. We observe him enduring the wrenching loss of his wife in childbirth, and watch as his friend Richard West looks about desperately for some project that will help Ben re-engage with the living.

That project appears in the form of a letter and a package from Carl Walker, a man Ben barely knew. Nevertheless, Carl knew something of Ben’s background, and sent him a letter, books, and the key to a code. Ten years before, Carl had been in love with a linguist who worked for American intelligence. She died, and it was marked down as suicide. Carl was certain that she was murdered by a Russian double agent. Carl knew who the man was, but lacked sufficient evidence to prove it. Now the man has reappeared, and Carl has disappeared.

Suffering from both grief and a head injury incurred early in the story, Ben is nevertheless drawn into the mystery. Before it’s over it will become more than an intelligence cold case, but a race for life to save two innocent people.

I think Code of Silence was my favorite of the entire Ben Reese series to date. Ben’s an interesting character, and the story is suffused with moral indignation over the very real acts of treason performed by a number of known American traitors during the 1950s.

Cautions for mildly intense scenes involving torture. Highly recommended.

Onomatopoeia Are Like Sensual Puns

I just learned Onomatopoeia is the name of a villain in Green Arrow and Batman comics.  Hmpf.

Putting that aside, an onomatopoeia is a word formed from an imitation of related sounds, such as splash, thump, or blink. Wait, blinking doesn’t make any sound, but perhaps it is an onomatopoeia by another name. I don’t know Latin enough to suggest an alternative word.

This writer on Japanese language and culture applies the term to many interesting Japanese words. “A well-cleaned floor shines pika pika, while a light, fluffy futon is fuwa fuwa.” The word for “thorn” is ira and for “annoyed” is ira ira.

Saint Thomas’ Day

Erling Skjalgsson's Death

For a change, I’m going to write a day-specific post the day before, so that if you read it tonight, it can depress you all day tomorrow.

December 21 is Saint Thomas’ Day, the shortest day of the year (though they didn’t know that in the Viking Age. They always figured St. Lucia’s Day, December 13, was the shortest of the year. I’m not sure why. Centrifugal force, maybe).

The death of Erling Skjalgsson (“hero, as you know,” he said, “of my Viking novels”) at the sea battle of Boknasund (Soknasund in the sagas, but that’s probably a scribal error) on December 21, 1028, is one of the earliest datable events in Norwegian history. The earliest is another event in which Erling was involved, the battle of Nesjar, on Palm Sunday (March 25) 1016. Erling didn’t come out too well on either occasion, though the defeat at Nesjar was hardly his fault. Jarl Svein Haakonsson was his commander in that battle, and Svein did not distinguish himself against their enemy, the wily Olaf Haraldsson (later Saint Olaf).

Erling fell victim to a ruse the day he died, again fighting against Saint Olaf’s men. I won’t go into the details; suffice it to say that Erling died with honor and Olaf went away frustrated, soon to flee the country altogether.

Before you ask, yes, I’m toiling away at my next Erling book, which still lacks a final title. As I’ve told you before, it’s a hard book for me to write. I think there are two reasons.

One, Erling’s nemesis, Olaf Haraldsson, appears in this book. This is the beginning of Erling’s long final struggle, a Game of Thrones-like political duel with the young, arrogant Olaf. I like Erling, and do not look forward to depicting his fall.

Two, I’ve gotten into the habit of thinking, “I’ve got to finish the Erling books before I die.” I don’t expect to die any time soon, though the actuarial tables are beginning to catch up with me. But I think I have the subconscious idea that once I do finish the Erling books, I will die. Which is nonsense, but that’s the way my mind works. I’m a fantasy author.

So remember Erling Skjalgsson tomorrow, on the 989th anniversary of his death (think Davy Crockett at a maritime Alamo). Or if you’re doubtful about that, you could remember Saint Thomas the apostle.

‘A Fatal Deception,’ by P. F. Ford

A Fatal Deception

The eleventh entry in P. F. Ford’s Slater and Norman series has recently been released. Ford wrote, in an e-mail to his fans (which I received) that the publication date had been delayed due to certain family problems. Sad to report, the problems show in the book, A Fatal Deception.

The last book was pretty much all English detective Dave Slater, with almost no appearance by his former partner, Norman Norman, who is now a private investigator. In recompense, this book follows Norman (with his new partner, Naomi Darling) as they search for Jenny Radstock, Dave’s former girlfriend. Jenny has been living off and on in hiding, as a homeless person, for some time, and Norman and Naomi travel to the town where she was last seen. What they find is pretty ugly.

I remain a fan of this good-hearted mystery series, but A Fatal Deception shows all the signs of a rush job. There are a number of grammatical errors (though Ford has always been weak in that department). Bits of dialogue are rehashed twice or even, sometimes, three times. In our introduction to one character, we are treated first to a description of his personality, and then a scene where he demonstrates that description point for point. Which makes the initial description entirely redundant.

And not only was the conclusion a downer, but threads were left untied. As if author Ford couldn’t be bothered to finish the story properly.

Ford makes up for the short length of the novel by appending a novella devoted to Norman Norman celebrating a lonely Christmas. This story was more satisfactory, and left behind a pleasant, heartwarming feeling. So I don’t feel entirely cheated.

But A Fatal Deception is not up to the usual standards of a series more memorable for its likeability than for its literary qualities in the first place.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture