Thoughts during a holiday tradition

Ah, the Christmas season. A time to reflect, rejoice and rewatch (I made the word up, sue me) some great movies of years gone by. Some people prefer the classics, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas, to name a few. Other people are fans of cartoons like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or Charlie Brown Christmas. In the last two decades, another group of movies have been added to this list, and they’re non-traditional to say the least: the Star Wars trilogy (the original trilogy, not the crap that was produced in the last 7.5 years).

But to me, none of those movies can compare to watching what has become my yearly Christmas tradition, the Lord of the Rings. As geeky as Star Wars? Sure. Despite never having enjoyed that series of books, they are very boring to try and read, unless you’re a history buff, the movies translated enough of the flavor and description of the books into a believable world. Well, mostly believable anyway.

Two things occurred to me as I watched the series this time. First off, after having seen Clerks II a few dozen times, I can’t help but think of Randal’s rants about tLotR, such as this gem:

Randal Graves: [describing the Lord of the Rings Trilogy] Here’s the first movie.
[walks a few steps, staring blankly]
Randal Graves: And here’s the second movie.
[walks a few steps again, pretends to trip]
Hobbit Lover: He is way off, loser.
Randal Graves: You ready for the third movie?
[walks yet again, stops, pretends to throw the ring into the volcano. Shrugs his shoulders and turns around]

As I watch tLotR, I realize how really accurate the above comment is, yet I still enjoy them. True, a bit of my misty-eyed innocence about the series has been stolen away as I have been forced to use a much more critical eye toward the films. I see how uneven the film is and how many, large, gangly plot holes surface, along with some nonsensical uses (or lack of) a proper score are contained within the 10.5 hours of DVD footage (extended edition timings).

The problems with the films are really two fold: the modifications that Peter Jackson did to Tolkien’s works and the inherant weakness of Tolkien’s works to begin with. If you want a good synopsis of the former, check out this site where the author provides a VERY exhaustive list of things that Jackson did wrong.

But what I really want to talk about is the weakness of Tolkien’s work. I am treading on sacreligious grounds for some people, I know, but some of the things about Tolkien have persisted now for years in Fantasy/SciFi, and I think its time we get rid of these things.

My biggest problem is the reliance of ‘magic’ to explain everything, or to get characters out of any sticky plot hole that the author finds themselves in. Don’t know how to get the character away from the 14,000 orcs that are encircling it? Give your hero’s sword the ability to deal 1000 points of damage in a circle all around it, but protect the wielder of the sword simply because he is touching the weapon.

What? Did I hear that correctly? Absurd as it sounds, I’ve read authors doing that very thing more times than I can count. If we consider magic to be nothing more than an unexplainable event, then sure, such a scenario is possible. My problem is that by doing so, we authors make idiots out of our readers by saying, “Just suspend all belief in everything you know because you’re only reading this for fun.” When an author does that even one time, any possible meaning or message they could be trying to put forth in their book, even if it is a minor reason for which they are writing, becomes totally nullified.

As I wrote that last sentence, I was reminded about how many people in our world do the same thing with religion, no matter what religion may be the point of discussion. Many of the 'conservative’ elements in any religion require that adherants take a literal view of all scripture, regardless of the original intent of the passage. It is sad that this is the case, as those who believe as such miss a wonderful understanding of what the author was really intending.

Its not that every element of magic must be explained, but there must be the ability for it to be explained to the reader, even if the characters themselves are totally unaware of how the magic functions. Lets use a common example, that of spell components. I cannot think of a fictional realm which requires spell components that there is a good and logical reason for why certain components are required for certain spells. Why again do I need bat guano to create a fireball? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a small item that is a flammable feul, such as coal, gasoline, oil, charcoal or animal droppings, along with some type ignition agent, like a candle flame? Having the two together, then enhanced by magic inherent to the real, could make a fantastic fireball!

The same could be said for most other spells: spider silk makes for a great web spell, a vial of water for precipitation, gold to plate teeth, etc. (Ok, the last one just made me laugh to think about, but you get the point.)

I can see the counterargument, that this is a fantasy realm and thus it is not subject to the laws of our universe. To that, I say, I completely agree! The author should feel free to make up any law they like. If, in some fantasy realm, plastic can be mined from the ground, that’s fine by me, but don’t just drop a plastics processing plant in the middle of your agrarian society with no explanation as to how a group of people who can’t forge bronze have Tupperware.

Now, back to Tolkien… Frodo wears the ring next to his skin constantly, yet somehow he doesn’t turn invisible until he puts the ring on his finger. What? There is a major logical inconsistency here in regards to the physical realm. Now, it is possible that Frodo putting the ring on his finger is only a symbol that he is now mentally wanting to wield the power of the ring, and that until he gets into that mental frame, the ring’s powers are not activated. That makes logical sense, BUT Tolkien, in my admittedly faulty memory, never says or implies such. True, it could just be a mystery, one for the reader to use his or her imagination to think about, just as I have done here. My problem with this approach is that leaving such an obvious hole untouched keeps more people from appreciating the genre. I love scifi/fantasy and wish everyone on the planet loved it.

An obvious reaction to this would be to explain none of the magic in the realm, which is similar to what Tolkien himself takes. I was impressed by Tolkien’s reluctance to show magic happening, relegating most of that to the background. Doing so fit the story he was trying to tell, as his story was more about the land and history than the actual events through which he unfolded the universe he had created. But most of the stories told today are not milieu, where the realm is the main driver of the plot, but are character driven stories where individual entities and their struggles are what drive the story forward.

If you have a magician in a milieu, how he works magic doesn’t really matter, unless that magic is a forefront part of the realm. Tolkien wrote it as background to the realm, where we knew it was there, but he deliberately downplayed that magic as to not detract from the realm. However, if a magician is a center or near center of a character story, then that magic will be a deep part of who that character is, whether the character actively uses their magic or not.

Supposing that the magic is important to our character, why would we give it only a cursory attempt at explanation or dismiss it entirely? If we substituted magic for another character, likely one of the opposite sex as our magician, and we then told little or nothing about that other character, it seems as if we’re dangling out a carrot in front of the reader, then not backing up the promise that the understanding the carrot could bring. We are lying by even bringing up that other character. The same is true for magic.

I know, I am not an accomplished author. Hey, I’ve written on, but not completed, two pretty bad fantasy books, and that’s not something I really enjoy bragging about, so I try to leave out of conversation exactly how bad they are. What I have done is read a ton of scifi/fantasy, both the great, good, bad and ugly, and know that one common thread in determining the quality of the work is the treatment of magic/technology. If the author sets out to build a world and treats the 'magic’ with contempt in their writing, then the book will never live up to any of the potential it contains.