The Remains of Middle-Earth

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories weren’t cranked out to satisfy an audience demand, and writing them wasn’t even Tolkien’s day job: writing the legends of Arda was effectively a hobby of Tolkien’s, a way to exercise the skills of his professional work in a recreational manner he could share with his immediate family and his friends in the Inklings.

Since Tolkien prepared far more material than he ever actually published, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were enriched by numerous references to a mythology only half-glimpsed by the reader, which plays a major role in creating the impression of a world with a rich past. Sure, it’s entirely possible to fake that sort of thing, but having the structure of those myths worked out both makes it easier to make those allusions seem like they relate to an actual story rather than being made up on the spot and can also help inspire aspects of the present story.

Still, a side effect of this is that after Tolkien died, he left behind a ton of unpublished material, a sizable chunk of which has been released since. First, Christopher Tolkien (with the assistance of Guy Gavriel Kay) produced The Silmarillion, as close a reconstruction of Tolkien’s intended narrative of the backstory of Middle-Earth as could be reached. Much later, three books were produced focusing on the three Great Tales – the stories of the First Age which Tolkien thought had the most scope for being fleshed out into full-length narratives that could be read in their own right; these were The Children of HúrinBeren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin.

Of those who engage with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth texts at all, many have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. A pretty decent number have tackled The Silmarillion and bounced off it hard; for those who enjoyed it, the three First Age books I’d say are also worth a look. For those who want more Tolkien material set in Middle-Earth, however, there’s an even denser, drier inner circle of material than the already a bit dry and dense Silmarillion-tier stuff: that is the raw texts offered up with extensive commentary from Christopher Tolkien in Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-Earth. Few indeed are those who have undertaken the journey into those realms; I, myself, have wandered into the border region and then written it off as not for me. Here’s what I picked up on my excursion…

Unfinished Tales

Despite the title, a chunk of the material here doesn’t really represent actual stories so much as essays and worldbuilding notes. A Description of the Island of Númenor, for instance, is mostly what it says on the tin, but it’s mercifully brief and the geographical details are interwoven with sociological points which set the stage for the next story.

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Ferretnibbles 5 – Wrecking Elven Cities and Drawing Elf Porn

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Note: Ferretnibbles 4 is not conserved here since it was not my own work.

The Fall of Gondolin by J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien)

The Fall of Gondolin is the third of Christopher Tolkien’s standalone presentations of major narratives from Middle Earth’s First Age, following on from The Children of Húrin and Beren and Lúthien. Since he’d hit his early 90s by the time the latter volume was done, Christopher had played down the hopes of his being able to complete this one, but thankfully he has been able to; this time around, he’s much more emphatic that this is well and truly the end of the line as far as his delvings into his father’s Middle Earth manuscripts go.

The three stories in this trilogy constitute the three stories which J.R.R. Tolkien himself thought could sustain an entire novel by themselves, and in each case he made multiple concerted attempts to set down and revise the narrative to a point he was happy with, but all were unfinished to a greater or lesser extent. As I’ve previously detailed, The Children of Húrin is presented mostly as a single, continuous narrative, Christopher Tolkien taking the most complete version of the narrative available and then drawing on other texts to patch over the gaps here and there. On the other hand, in the case of Beren and Lúthien no one version of that narrative was developed and polished to the point where that was possible, so Christopher instead presents the different versions of the texts in order of composition so readers can trace how the story developed from its early, Lord Dunsany-esque prototype into more distinctly Tolkien-ish later forms.

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Shadow of WTF

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

When we last left the story of the Ranger Talion in Shadow of Mordor, he’d started his day being murdered by the forces of Sauron and then things just kept getting worse. Given a strange sort of half-life by being fused with the spirit of Celebrimbor, the legendary elven smith who had forged the Rings of Power with Sauron, we followed their journeys together as they began their guerilla war against Sauron, using the power to control orcs’ minds to turn the Dark Lord’s forces against him.

All this Grand Theft Mordor shenanigans was fun enough, but whilst the original Shadow of Mordor was like the Saint’s Row of Middle-Earth, Shadow of War is its Saint’s Row 2: it takes the gameplay of the original and injects it with a hefty dose of absolutely bizarre nonsense that makes a farcical cartoon of the whole thing.

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Ferretnibbles 2 – Beren and Lúthien, Shin Megami Tensei on the 3DS, and Sithrak Tracts

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Sometimes you want to jabber about something on Ferretbrain to an extent which would be unwieldy for a Playpen post, but not necessarily make for a full-blooded article. To encourage contributors to offer up shorter pieces when the mood strikes them, here’s another set of Ferretnibbles – pocket-sized articles about all and sundry.

This time around, they’re all penned by me, but nibbles from others are always welcome at the usual editorial address. Today’s nibbles concern the latest and greatest in posthumous Tolkien releases, demon-summoning JRPGs, and fantasy porn comic spin-offs.

Beren and Lúthien

Christopher Tolkien is over 90 years old, and he states in his commentary in Beren and Lúthien that he suspects it will be the last book he releases of his father’s Middle-Earth material. If this is so, then he is leaving us on a strong note, because the approach taken here is extremely interesting and makes a virtue out of the fragmentary material he has to work with.

As explained by Christopher in The Children of Húrin, his previous book focusing on a particular legend of Middle-Earth’s First Age, J.R.R. Tolkien thought that there were three stories of that era that were substantial enough to conceivably stand as distinct tales in their own right as opposed to incidents in a wider story. One was the tale of how the hidden elven citadel of Gondolin fell to the forces of Morgoth, one was the doom of the children of Húrin, one was the story told here of how Beren (a human in most tellings, though a rival strand of the elven peoples in the story’s earliest version) ended up falling in love with the elven princess Lúthien, and how her father Thingol challenged Beren to go steal a Simaril from the crown of Morgoth if he wanted her hand in marriage. This was meant to be an insult, since the task was held to be impossible – and yet it was done, though at great price, with Beren losing his hand and even his life and Lúthien only winning him back from the clutches of death at the cost of giving up her elven immortality to share in the fate of mortal men (thus setting a model for Arwen’s similar sacrifice for Aragorn in later aeons).

As with The Children of Húrin, the presentation here is the result of a bit of literary archaeology by Christopher Tolkien – but whereas in the case of Húrin the extant writings were substantial enough that Christopher could massage them into what amounted to a new novel, the various writings on Beren and Lúthien were a much more diverse bunch, with several takes on the story being provided over the years, and written in a mixture of prose and poetry at that. Thus, rather than trying to reconcile them into a single continuous novel, Christopher instead gives us a book that tracks the development of the story, from its first incarnation to its more developed version.

Continue reading “Ferretnibbles 2 – Beren and Lúthien, Shin Megami Tensei on the 3DS, and Sithrak Tracts”

One Does Not Simply Parkour Into Mordor… Oh, Wait, You Totally Can

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game that shouldn’t work. First off, it’s yet another release based off the Peter Jackson movies – an IP with a patchy track record at best as far as videogame adaptations go – but at the same time it bears a generic Middle Earth title, as though it hasn’t quite proved worthy of displaying the more valuable trademarks of Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. Secondly, the plot is utterly ludicrous – a badass ranger of Gondor is wronged by the forces of Mordor, so he simply walks into Mordor and starts hacking up orcs like it’s some sort of misorcist equivalent of Hatred.

Being as I am a man whose disposable income occasionally allows me to drop money on being among the first to get in on a bad joke, I actually bought Shadows based on the plot. I figured that if the game were as desperately silly and tonally inappropriate as it looked, I’d have something amusing to report back to you all, and if it turned out to be an unexpected delight then all the better. Somehow, it ended up being both.

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One Child of Húrin Plus Guest Appearances From His Sister

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

You could forgive people for thinking that Christopher Tolkien has been scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to publishing posthumous work by his father. The Silmarillion, as ridiculously dense as it is, was a project which J.R.R. himself was intending to publish at some point, and provides so much vital context to all the strange allusions made in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to matters occurring in the First and Second Ages of Middle Earth that it’d have been a disservice both to Tolkien’s intentions and to reader’s hopes of understanding half of what Tolkien wrote to leave it unpublished. But Unfinished Tales and the twelve-volume The History of Middle-Earth series were never planned by Tolkien to be published in the form that they were, and contain so much that contradicts the core Middle-Earth texts that it’s difficult to say that they were quite so worthwhile.

The History of Middle-Earth, in particular, is likely to be of more interest to people who want to be able to study absolutely everything Tolkien wrote about Middle-Earth for academic purposes than people who actually just want to read the stories as Tolkien intended them to be read. In fact, Christopher Tolkien reveals in his introduction to The Children of Húrin that whilst the elder Tolkien populated the timeline of his secondary creation with a vast number of incidents, he didn’t believe all of those incidents were worthy of being worked up into fully-developed stories for publication. Of all the sagas of the First Age, which The Silmarillion covers in summary, Tolkien believed that there were three Great Tales which merited expansion into full narratives; these were the story of Beren and Lúthien, the Fall of Gondolin – and The Children of Húrin, which Christopher Tolkien has attempted to reconstruct from his father’s manuscripts with only a minimum of editorial intervention in the form of brief connecting passages to link together the portions of the text into a whole.

Continue reading “One Child of Húrin Plus Guest Appearances From His Sister”

Rotoscoping, Rotoscoping In the Deep

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 attempt to animate the first half of The Lord of the Rings, comprising the entirety of The Fellowship of the Ring and about half of The Two Towers, is a film blighted by ambition. Like James Cameron during the production of Avatar, Bakshi was intent on using the production to spearhead the use of a novel and innovative technique. Unfortunately, in Bakshi’s case, the technique chosen yields visual results that fall far short of the expense and effort involved in deploying it.

Bakshi made the unusual decision to film the entire film using a rotoscoping technique, whereby all the scenes were filmed in live action and then animated, with the animators (including a young Tim Burton) literally tracing the live-action frames, embellishing them, and setting them against lush painted backdrops. (The voice actors, some of whom played their roles in the live reference footage and some of whom did not, then did the voice track). This, as one might imagine, is an insanely time-consuming process; Wikipedia notes that in his later rotoscoped films Bakshi had his animators use the live footage merely as a guide, rather than tracing, since the tracing process took forever.

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