Just Keeping Going; or What Does the Balrog Do All Day?

It’s not at all clear how Durin’s Bane, the Balrog from The Lord of the Rings, spends his days. Lurking, evidently. Possibly gnashing his teeth, if he has teeth. Maybe playing Skyrim on a console he’s got stashed way down deep beneath the Misty Mountains.  Certainly the dwarves provide periodic entertainment, and once the orcs arrive, he has someone to hang out with. Lively conversation seems unlikely, but one can imagine some really epic drum circles. Whatever the case, he’s clearly pretty excited for the change of pace when Gandalf and company show up.

The interesting thing about the Balrog, however, is that he is only incidental to the central story. It’s slightly surprising that in a tale about the struggle to defeat Sauron, one of the most badass characters we encounter has almost nothing to do with Sauron… and he’s not alone.

Two of the other most memorable creatures – the Watcher in the Waters and Shelob – are also autonomous evils. About Shelob, for instance, the massive spider encountered by Sam and Frodo, we’re told, “But still she was there, who was there before Sauron […] and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness.” She’s not even an independent contractor in the misery business. She’s a total loose canon.

This is not a complaint. I don’t think these monsters are a flaw in the book, but it’s worth asking why they’re there, worth considering what a fantasy novel (or any novel) gains from the inclusion of malevolent creatures and forces beyond the scope of the central conflict. After all, it would be a trivial edit to loop them into Sauron’s ambit of evil, a matter of few tweaked sentences, a couple of paragraphs at most.

It’s tempting to suggest that the ancillary monsters are there just to keep things exciting. Strolling the Mines of Moria without the Balrog would be comparable to visiting the great pyramids or the Mayan ziggurats; the place is gorgeous, certainly, and possessed of a certain archaeological and architectural interest, but tromping around in the dark for days isn’t the sort of thing to make your blood pound in your ears.


Or we could point out that, though not allied with Sauron, Shelob and the Balrog do help to move the plot forward. It’s hardly possible to have Gandalf the Gray return as Gandalf the White without his trial and death at the hands (claws?) of the Balrog. But then, Gandalf’s transformation could be accomplished just as readily if Durin’s Bane were, in fact, one of Sauron’s henchmen.

So what’s with the random monsters? What’s to be gained from the splintered nature of evil in The Lord of the Rings? Well, everything actually.

The fact that there are foes and forces beyond Sauron himself suggests something crucial about the nature of Middle Earth and the struggle of the main characters. If everything centered on Sauron and his funky jewelry, any victory for good would constitute absolute victory. The inclusion of Shelob and the Balrog, however, suggest a more complicated universe, one that is more inimical to goodness than we might at first suspect.

Even the defeat of Sauron, we realize, will not purge Middle Earth of darkness, horror, or evil; Shelob, though injured and dripping ichor, is not dead at the story’s end. What’s more, our encounter with these few horrors intimates still other malevolent forces waiting undiscovered in forests and caves, mountains and rivers. Evil is not the creation of Sauron, nor will it be defeated with him.

It is the enduring nature of this evil, in part, that makes the ending of The Lord of the Rings so bittersweet. Victory can only ever be temporary, contingent. Somewhere unseen the universe is birthing something awful. Good can never ultimately prevail; the best it can hope is to endure.

This fact, of course, has ramifications for the characters and their struggles. Frodo and Sam succeed, in large part, because their heroism is the heroism of endurance. Boromir, on the other hand, is chock-full of the heroism of battle, but he lacks the ability to keep going, to keep faith and hope in a world brimming with horror. He would be well suited to a high-stakes, winner-takes-all battle, but there is no such battle, no such conclusive victory possible. Boromir is capable of dying in a bright blaze of glory, but he’s not up to the task of living, of persevering, in a world that seems beyond the reach of absolute redemption.

Our world, like Tolkien’s, is filled with Balrogs and Shelobs, and in our world, as in Tolkien’s, the pursuit of the good is often just that: a pursuit, not an end. Heroism doesn’t lie in victory – there is always another dragon or spider lurking – but in just keeping going.

The Lounging and the Bon-bons

Followers of this blog will have noticed that I haven’t posted recently. I can hear you all muttering, “He’s lounging in the November Vermont sun eating bon-bons.” Well, I am. But I’ve also been writing articles about fantasy — they’ve just been ending up in other places. For those of you who are curious, here’s a recap:

The Problem with Prophecy: On the role of prophecy and the troubles it presents. Ruminations on the irritating oracle at Delphi, the book of Revelation, and the Bhagavad-Gita. Also, a raging discussion in the comments section.

Depicting the Divine in Epic Fantasy: Gods are all over the place in fantasy, but it’s tricky to do them well. I take a look at a few different approaches here, with discussion of ass trumpets and brain eaters along the way.

Asymmetrical Ass-Kicking: On real life heroism and what it can teach us about the writing of fantasy. If you don’t know the name Miyamoto Musashi, you don’t know about one of the most bad-ass real-life people ever to wield a sword (or two). Myke Cole was generous enough to post this over on his blog, which is filled with great content. If you head over there, it’s well worth spending some time looking around.

Finally and most exciting, the first seven chapters of The Emperor’s Blades are now up for your reading pleasure. You can check them out on tor.com, here. Feel free to let me know what you think, either on this blog, or in the comments below the chapters themselves. If you like what you find, please consider pre-ordering the book here. It’s cheaper than waiting for the publication date, and it helps me out a lot!

As always, thanks so much for reading, chatting, and generally loving fantasy. Now, back to my bon-bons.


Shitting in the Parking Lot; What Epic is Not

You don’t need to spend much time at the local greasy spoon on a Sunday morning before you hear a conversation like this:

“How was last night?”

“Dude, it was epic!

As a fantasy writer, I always perk up my ears at this sort of remark, eager to hear some tale of a massive struggle, one pitting heroes against gods in a contest on which the fate of humanity (or the nation, or at a bare minimum, the town of Brattleboro, Vermont, population 12,046) depends.

Instead, the account usually goes something likes this:

“Check it out – first we went to Skanky Ted’s, where Jimmy drank, like, fifteen beers in two hours. And there was this dude with, like, a fish tattoo, who kept looking at us, and Jimmy told him to fuck off. Then he hit on this totally drunk chick, but she slapped him across the face, and she told him to fuck off. I was seriously laughing my ass off. Then Jimmy was so wasted that he shat in the parking lot. Epic.”

The Iliad or Mahabharata this is not.

And let’s be clear – I’d never argue that the term “epic” can’t be used in conjunction with a party. Books 20, 21, and 22 of the Odyssey comprise a party. It’s a party in which a king is unveiled, a goddess shows up, one dude gets an arrow through the throat, over a hundred others are killed with swords and spears, and at least half a dozen servants are hung by the neck until dead. Afterward, Odysseus orders the place aired out to clear the stench of human offal, not because, you know, Sally puked on the pong table.

While I’m at it, the term “legend” also seems to have suffered a demotion. Joan of Arc – who single-handedly changed the course of the Hundred Years War, who claimed to speak with angels, and who burned at the stake for her convictions – was a legend. Genghis Khan was a legend. Martin Luther King and Buddha were legends. For better or worse, these folks twisted the fabric of the world, left it fundamentally altered.

Downing a thirty-rack of Busch Light and then hooking up with Jessie and her blond friend from the super-market checkout might be a fun way to spend an evening, but it’s hardly legendary.

Here, though, we come to an interesting point about the convergence of the epic and the legendary with the hum-drum and everyday. In the world of epic fantasy, the old terms retain much of their Homeric heft; we can usually expect gods and goddesses, world-begirdling conflicts, heroines and heroes of exceptional skill, brilliance, and wit wielding magical artifacts capable of turning people into toast, toast into people, and everything in between.

Therein lies a danger.

In the quest to write truly epic material, it’s easy to create characters whose concerns and motivations are so profound, so global in scope, so cosmic in their import, that those characters risk losing all humanity. We want the stakes to be high, but it’s hard to understand a character who thinks, “If I fail, all life on the four lands of Solmianis will perish in a great blaze of unfettered Chaos.” It’s not even clear that people, real people, are capable of considering their own actions in such abstract and universal terms.

The great fantasy writers realize this, of course. The climax of N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon is nation-threatening in scope – truly epic – but hinges on a very private, intimate relationship: a student’s love for his teacher. Rob Stark, likewise, has a chance to defeat the Lannisters and unify Westeros, but the legend must bow to the boy when he falls in love. Caetlyn’s actions, too, though global in effect, stem from the utterly personal terrors and convictions of a mother fighting for her children.

And of course, there’s no finer union of the epic and the everyday than the climax of the The Lord of the Rings. By the end of the tale, Gollum has become entirely mired in his own petty greed, in a solipsism at once completely terrifying and utterly banal. There could be no less epic character than the horribly debased Smeagol, but from the basest and most basic of motives, motives with no end beyond his own immediate need, Gollum makes a choice that ramifies through an entire age. The epic springs, not from a noble knight atop a white steed contemplating the fate of humanity and the world, but from the grubby, unremarkable chambers of the private heart.

So, who am I to say? Stealing a golf cart and driving it into the Connecticut River doesn’t sound particularly epic, but then, you never know what cosmic scale hangs in the balance.

Christ Would Not Be Pleased: Religion in Fantasy

A few days ago, Christians all over America celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ through an odd combination of church-going, egg-hunting, chocolate-eating, and rabbit-venerating. It’s not really news to anyone, of course, that a number of Christian holidays have subsumed elements of earlier, pagan worship, that Easter is also a celebration of spring and fertility, that Santa Claus wasn’t one of the three kings. In fact, the syncretic nature of Christianity, its ability to assimilate and adapt diverse and divergent traditions to its own ends, is often cited as an important factor in its broad appeal. In political parlance, Christianity has a “big tent” that shelters all manner of bunnies, saints, reindeer, and polar dwellers. You need not (outside of the strictest communities) put aside your celebrations of spring in order to worship Christ’s resurrection.

It’s not just Christianity, of course. Over the centuries, the Japanese have fused their traditional Shinto with Buddhism (imported to the islands in the 6th century) to the point where it’s difficult to tell where one ends off and the other begins. Buddhism, of course, originated in India, as a reform movement within Hinduism, which then, in a fascinating move, re-amalgamated Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. This mixing and blending, borrowing and re-appropriation, are important sources for the richness and variety in the world’s religions today.

Oddly, fantasy writers have largely overlooked this fact. The gods and goddesses of fantasy, however vivid, tend to be monochromatic; they usually have a single (or limited) function or association, and, as a result, the iconography and worship regarding these gods tends to be relatively predictable.

Take, R’hllor, from Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. R’hllor is a god of light and fire, and so it’s no shock to discover that his priests and priestesses wear red, that they read the future in the flames, and that they like to burn shit. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like R’hllor. I like the stories of  Azor Ahai. I think it’s a nice touch that Martin points out that the god of flame is also, by logical extension, the god of shadow.

It’s instructive, however, to compare R’hllor with Agni, from the Hindu tradition. Agni is also a fire god, (his name is cognate with the Latin ignus, from which we derive our English word, ignite), but he’s a lot more than that. He’s also two-headed and three-legged. He is a messenger god. According to the Rg Veda, he arose from and abides in the water, an odd characteristic for a fire god. In some traditions, Agni is a god of sex and virility. In others, he’s not his own god at all, but an incarnation of Brahma, or maybe Shiva. Clearly, Martin’s conception of R’hllor is far tidier, far more explicable.

Or take the pantheon of DragonLance. It’s a complex and exciting collection of characters. Each god and goddess has her own interests, motives, and adherents. There are quite a few names to learn, but it’s still strikingly simple to sum up these deities. A glance at this wiki shows that they are easily categorized. Branchala is the god of inspiration, Sirrion is the god of flame, Reorx is the god of the forge, etc. Moreover, the pantheon itself is rigidly organized with an eye to balance: “Each group of gods has seven members, with one major god, five lesser ones, and a god of magic.” Very neat. Very tidy. I like systems, and so I appreciate the thought went into ordering the Dragonlance pantheon. There is pleasure to be found in structure. Nonetheless, this careful structure is utterly unlike the hodge-podge pantheons of other religions (Norse, Greek, Hindu) with their messiness and contradictions.

A quick glance at the dodekatheon, the twelve Olympic deities of Greek tradition, should illustrate what I mean by messiness and contradiction. These gods and goddesses were the big ones, the heavies, the ones who beat the Titans, the relations of Zeus abiding on the mountaintop. Except there’s no real agreement on which ones make the list. Sometimes Hades is there. Sometimes not. Or Persephone. Or not. Heracles? Hestia? Asclepius? Maybe. Depends who you talk to, and where, and when. The same is true of Christ’s twelve apostles; the list of names varies from gospel to gospel. I imagine Christ would not be pleased that we have bungled this detail, but bungled it we have, and that is the point.

The reasons for these discrepancies are clear: unlike the pantheons of fantasy, which are the products of a single mind (or two minds, in the case of Dragonlance) working toward a specific goal, the religions of our real world developed over centuries, under the pressure of historical circumstance and the frailty of human communication and memory. The question, for the writer of fantasy, is whether or not it would enrich a novel to create a “messier” religion. Would the confusions and contradictions of the real world make for a richer imagined setting, or is this the sort of thing we’re trying to get away from when we read fantasy?