Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Tragic Legacy – The Children of Hurin

Tolkien is considered the father of “High Fantasy” or fantasy stories based on the model of epic quests to save the world (as opposed to “Low Fantasy” or a series of adventures where the main character is more out for themselves). He created a vast detailed world that obviously resonates today not only to readers and writers, but the public at large now that “The Lord of the Rings” movies have come and gone.

So when more of his work comes to light, there plenty of fantasy fans who start salivating. This was the case for “Children of Hurin”, a work that was created from several different accounts written by J.R.R. Tolkien and compiled by his son. Reading the introduction you get a feel for the reason why the story was compiled in the first place – Tolkien felt that it was a key part of the world he created. It didn’t have the vast mythological view of “The Simarlillian” (a work I have yet to be able to get through, despite my love of mythology). And it wouldn’t be like the adventurous duo of “The Hobbit” or “Lord of the Rings”. Instead this fell somewhere in the middle, a solid hero legend.

For the most part you can’t tell that the work was a fusion of different sources. Tolkien does a good job of creating a linear flow to the work and smoothes over the rough patches with minimal interference. My only issue was the first chapter in which the amount of Tolkien-esque names was hurtling at me fast and furious and the whole chapter came across like an info dump. But after that chapter, the story got rolling and was very interesting. It was a solid mix of wanderings, chases, escapes, battles, love and doom.

Doom plays a huge role in the story and in the end makes the book feel very melancholy. Even “Lord of the Rings” has a feeling of sadness to it (what with the elves leaving and everyone running off to the Grey Havens at the end), but the final words of the book and the movie were with Sam, and he seemed to give you comfort that everything was all right.

“Children of Hurin” doesn’t go for the warm fuzzies. It’s main theme is about fighting fate and how fate or Doom if you prefer is too strong to completely break from. But the Doom in this case is powered by the malicious soul of Morgoth (the god-like being who was Sauron’s master). Once Morgoth sets his will against you there is nothing you can do to stop it. The protagonist, Turin, isn’t completely aware of this doom, but as we follow him we see its affects again and again. Still Turin does his best to live a life that he can be proud of and one that does a lot of good (even if it also causes a lot of harm). The story is an epic tragedy in a way, but one governed by the will of Morgoth – now the will of Turin.

How does this tie to “Lord of the Rings” especially since it happen centuries before the more famous story? It actually tells you more about the One Ring. Morgoth doesn’t even need a ring to impose his will. He merely thinks of cursing you and you are cursed. This focused malevolence is made very clear in the book and gives us an idea of how his servant Sauron could create the Ring. The focusing of the will of Sauron into the Ring is much like what Morgoth did in this story.

That said, I think Tolkien fans will find a lot to like in the book. It’s not one I may revisit often, but when I’m in a melancholy mood, or just looking for a Tolkien fix shorter than Lord of the Rings, this will be an easy one to pick up.

What did you think of “Children of Hurin”? What do you think of J.R.R. Tolkien? What do you make of the idea of fate or Doom? Do you ever address that idea in your stories?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Matters of Perspective – Watchmen (novel)

“Watchmen” has been touted as one of the most important graphic novels in the history of the media. Reading a little about it you discover that is changed the way comic books were viewed, perhaps even leading to the phrase graphic novel. It has been called a deconstruction of the superhero storyline. It has been called a work of art. It has been called one of the greatest novels of all time.

So when you see all that hyperbole you can’t help but feel a bit antagonistic. I mean, it can’t be that good right?

What struck me the most while reading “Watchmen” was the fact its impact must have been monumental back in 1986 when it was published. Now, it’s like “Star Wars – A New Hope” or “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis. We can see how innovative it was during its time, but now it seems familiar or cliché (even if it invented the cliché in the first place). Now maybe I’m doing “Watchmen” a bit of a disservice. That is not my intention; I just want to put some perspective on my reaction to it.

When I was done, I felt a little annoyed that all that work went into what was essentially an anti-climax. I understand it was the point. The story is supposed to take all our conventions about super hero stories and shatter them. It did that. But a real great piece of art not only conveys its message but does so in a way that is affecting. Annoyance isn’t really affecting – it’s, well annoying. Did the artists mean to annoy me? You could argue one way or the other. I think they were trying to make me think – and they did a very good job of it.

Now, I’m willing to say that my exposure to the medium of super hero comics is fairly light. In my youth I read some “X-men” (Uncanny and regular). I read some “Transformers” back when those were the rage. I even had a couple compilations of “The Incredible Hulk”, “The Fantastic Four” and “The Amazing Spiderman” when I was really young. I don’t remember them too well, but my parents have stories of me yelling “Flame on!” when I was in my single digits. I have a sense of what super hero comics were before “Watchmen”.

The focus of most of these stories were good versus evil – with lines clearly drawn. It was about action and adventure. Sometimes the superheroes had personal problems, but it was rarely the kind of thing that turned into a feature storyline. The art supported the action and was very functional. Most mysteries were solved in the same issue they were presented. Again, these are broad generalizations based on my experience, I’m sure there were exceptions.

“Watchmen” does not have clearly drawn lines of good and evil. The story is not about action or adventure, but is theme based. “Watchmen” is the first superhero comic book I’ve read that is so rich in themes and ideas, and not only presents them, but also shifts perspectives to provide other views of the themes. All the super heroes have some kind of personal problems and these problems as well as their history take up the bulk of the story. These become part of the themes and feed into multiple ideas. The art not only illustrates the action, but it has deeper layers, sometimes providing ironic imagery, or illustrating the feelings behind the dialogue, or illustrating what is being said in a unexpected way. “Watchmen” forces you to examine nearly each panel and look back at previous panels after you proceed deeper into the book. Some of the questions presented in the book are never answered, and the ones that are only seem to lead to new questions. The world of the “Watchmen” is profoundly changed in the series, but I was left wondering what would happen after the events depicted.

It’s easy to see all the ways “Watchmen” have influenced the super hero genre in nearly all points. It’s a dark and cynical book. And that darkness and cynicism really affected the genre. So much so that most super hero films must be cynical, dark and moody. Just compare Richard Donner’s “Superman” with Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns”. They both portray the same set of characters and are connected even via narrative – and yet the feel between the two couldn’t be more different. “Superman Returns” reflects what audiences expect from comic book super heroes after “Watchmen” changed the game.

“Watchmen” plays with perspective. And as a modern reader, our perspective must be adjusted. Some of us only know the world after “Watchmen” and may not see anything extremely innovative in it now. But it takes more than just reading the surface of the book. It begs to be thought about and examined from all perspectives. It makes it unique and interesting and powerful.

I’m going to tackle the movie in a separate blog, so save your movie specific comments for the next installment.

Have you read “Watchmen”? What did you think of it? Was your perspective of comic book super heroes changed by it, or did your perspective of the genre affect what you thought of it?