Here we have our two contestants for this week’s match, the first in SFF Equines history (but not, perhaps, the last): on this side the tall, white, shining, magical, beautiful king of stallions who deigns to carry the great Wizard; and over on that side, the short, brown, fuzzy, unromantic, pretty definitely not-a-stallion who is not asked whether he wants to carry the Fellowship’s baggage (but as far as Sam can determine, he’s willing).
A serious mismatch, you say?
That, I reply, remains to be seen.
Before we get down to the one-on-one, let’s clarify that a pony is. Just about everybody gets the concept of horse, more or less: four legs, hooves, mane and tail, long neck, long head, eats grass, one end kicks, the other bites, you sit in the middle or you hitch it up to a cart and drive it. The size varies, and sometimes can be very big, especially if it’s a Fantasy Stallion(tm), but it’s always big enough for the standard (male)(Western)(very probably white unless he exists in a different universe where a Khal can be named Drogo, not to be confused with Frodo’s very respectable Hobbit father) human to ride.
So what’s a pony? It is not, contrary to all too popular belief, a baby horse. A baby horse is called a foal or a colt, though a colt is actually, technically, a male baby horse. A female baby horse is a filly.
A pony can be quite small and still be a fully grown animal. In fact the main distinction between horse and pony is height. A pony comes in at or below the standard measure of 14.2 hands at the withers, which at four inches per hand equals 58 inches. A horse comes in above that height.
But! because horse lore can never be that simple, there are horses below 14.2 and ponies (not excessively but still) above it. That’s where you get into physical characteristics. Both horses and ponies are the same subspecies of equid, but pony breeds tend more toward shorter, thicker, and furrier, with extra helpings of mane and tail, and extra coat, especially in winter. They may also have smaller heads than the average horse, and adorable little bitty ears, though that is not a given.
Horses would generally be more lightly built, leggier, with less hair—but you still get Icelandic horses, Mongolian horses, and Fjord horses, all of whom are short, thickset, and furry. So it varies. And some breeds of horse run a gamut from pony-sized to well up in the horse range, including the Arabian; whereas you can get Connemara ponies over 15 hands, and the upper end of the Welsh pony continuum, the Welsh Cob, which gets up over 15 hands as well.
So it all depends.
What it comes down to really is the fact that the horse (or pony) can vary widely in size, and when you get way down to the Mini, that’s called a horse, though it’s much smaller than the pony (top range being 36 inches). The lay person may just want to ask a horse person whether this equine is considered a pony or a horse, and take it from there.
Fortunately for that lay person’s sanity, there really is no ambiguity about the difference between Shadowfax and good old Bill. Shadowfax in my mind’s eye presents as a particularly lovely English Thoroughbred. In the films he was played by an Andalusian (the gorgeous often-white or technically grey horse of Spain with the long, long hair—but not quite like pony hair, it’s finer and flowier). He’s tall and clean-limbed and proud, says Tolkien of the horses of Rohan in general, and he’s long-lived and has machinelike stamina and understands the speech of Men. And, Tolkien adds, he tolerates no training or handling until his One True Person arrives, that being Gandalf, but once he’s consented to let the Wizard train him, he makes certain sure the person (or Hobbit) allowed on his back will never be lost or thrown unless he actually throws himself off.
That’s a lot of horse, and a lot of self-determination. Against that we have Bill, who is small enough to be ridden comfortably by a person between three and four feet tall, so he’s probably between twelve and thirteen hands. He’s a rescue with a past, having been starved and abused by the wicked Bill Ferny, and is sold as a pack horse. He has no say in the matter, and offers no objection. When the Fellowship reaches the back door of Moria, he has to be turned loose (to Sam’s great grief) and left to survive as he can, if he can escape the Watcher in the Water.
Which we know he does, because we’re told he turns up back in Bree, and Barliman puts him to work. Eventually he finds his Sam again, and that’s Bill’s happy ending. Better yet, he gets his revenge on Bill Ferny at the Brandywine Bridge during the Scouring of the Shire, and he’s Sam’s mount when Frodo and company ride to the Grey Havens.
Shadowfax meanwhile carries Gandalf nobly through the end of the War of the Ring, and then takes him to the Havens, but it’s not clear whether he’s loaded on the grey ship for the journey to Valinor. Bill gets to go home with Sam. Shadowfax may or may not get his happy ending. Like Elrond and Arwen, he may have been parted from his loved one forever.
So that’s the first possible win: Bill gets to keep his person. Shadowfax might not. If he is left behind, he gets to go back to being King of the Mearas, which involves running free and making more Mearas, but in terms of emotional life, he’s suffered a terrible loss.
(Then again, if he does make it to Valinor, I’m sure the horses there will welcome a good outcross.) (Ooo, fanfic prompt.)
Even if Bill does get the better end of the keeping-one’s-person deal, Shadowfax has all the advantages in size, speed, and even endurance, doesn’t he? Size and speed are definite wins for Shadowfax, but for sheer blunt sticktoitiveness, there’s a lot to be said for a pony. He won’t be spectacular, he won’t be fast, but he can go on and on and on, and when it comes to living off the land, he’s the clear winner.
Shadowfax appears to live on air and wizardry, but when he’s on his own, he most probably has to eat like a normal horse. That means lots of fiber and some protein and minerals—extra protein for those extra stallion muscles—and that means plenty of good grass or other forage, and grain if he has human help. Because of his size, even if he’s an easy keeper, he’ll need quite a few pounds of fodder a day in order to keep weight and condition, plus he’ll need water to keep it all moving down that one-way street called the equine digestive system.
Bill has the same basic needs, but his smaller body means he can survive on a much smaller amount of feed and water. Pony metabolism tends to be much more efficient than horse metabolism, to the point that in feeding ponies, modern horsekeepers have to be very careful not to overfeed and founder their charges. That includes not just hay and concentrates but pasturage. A pony on rich grass blows up horribly fast. He’ll do much better on smaller quantities of poorer forage.
Shadowfax may need magical help to survive the terrain between Rivendell and Moria in winter cold and hard weather without starving to death, but Bill can live off the country and arrive back at Bree both alive and able to recover from the weight loss he’s suffered from living wild in winter. Tough terrain breeds tough equines, and smaller size allows the animal to make better use of the resources available. An extreme example of this would be the Shetland Isles, whose ponies (and dogs) are famously small, sturdy, and furry.
Pound for pound, too, a pony can be stronger than a horse. Shetlands can carry a grown man with ease, though his feet may drag on the ground. Horses will lose weight-bearing capability as they get larger; a very large horse is challenged enough to carry his own weight around without also carrying a heavy rider. A really big horse is not what you want to carry your very heavy rider, especially if he’s in armor. You want a cob, a stocky, sturdily built animal in the mid rage between pony and horse—14.2 to 15.2 hands. The Welsh Cob is a great example, as is the Lipizzaner. Forlong the Fat, in my head, is riding a largeish Welsh Cob, and the Cob is rocking it.
Shadowfax is quite happy to carry Gandalf, who according to the Eagle is “light as a feather,” and who is not wearing armor or carrying a lot of extra baggage. When that baggage includes a young Hobbit, he’s still not too challenged, since Pippin probably weighs a lot less by that time than he did when he left Hobbiton, and he’s likewise not wearing armor or carrying a heavy pack.
Now Bill at somewhat shy of thirteen hands may not be carrying an armed human or Wizard to battle, but if he’s serving as a packhorse for nine foot travelers, he’s probably got a significant load on his initially bony back. And he’s managing it quite well and even gaining weight as he goes on, just from being able to graze along the way. Not to mention they stop to sleep, and while they’re sleeping, Bill is hoovering up the available forage and immediately converting it to body mass and energy.
All right, so Bill is holding his own here, but what about a literal cage match? Shadowfax has a major size advantage, right? And can pound Bill to a pulp. Right? Especially since Shadowfax is a stallion, ergo testosterone, ergo more muscle mass, ergo stronger.
Well. Maybe. Also aggression, so he’ll have no compunction about ripping Bill’s throat out.
Except Bill has one thing, or maybe one and a half, that helps him manage better than you might think. He’s small, and he’s agile. While Shadowfax is still getting all that real estate up into the air for the rear and strike, Bill has skipped underneath, whipped around, and planted two good, if small, back hooves right where the future foals of the Mearas reside. Then he scampers out of there before the whole screaming mass comes toppling down.
Or if he decides to spare the potential offspring, there’s still the duck-and-bolt, and the hamstring-rip, and the hard kick to the hind cannon that does the big guy in permanently. Bill is quite a good kicker, as his namesake Bill Ferny can testify.
You see, Bill is smart. So is Shadowfax, and horses can be very smart indeed. But ponies have their very own level of ‘tude, and a degree of cunning that has been the bane of many a pony-keeping person of any age, who has to deal with the opening of gates, the jumping of fences (some ponies, notably Connemaras, can jump the moon and throw in Venus for a lark), the breaking down of walls (see above re: pony strength), the thwarting of ropes and ties, the scraping off of riders, and many another would-be restraint on life and freedom.
While Shadowfax is waging noble war, Bill is winning by any means necessary. If that means kneecapping the opposition, that’s fine with Bill. The big guy may have all the strength and speed, but Bill is down low, he can get out of the way fast, and he keeps his eye on the low-hanging targets.
In the end, your noble white steed will win the beauty contest and the race to Gondor, but the little grubby guy with the forelock in his eyes is quite likely to come out of the cage with the prize. He’s got smarts and determination, and overall toughness that even the King of the Mearas will struggle to match.
Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed spirit dog.
It is late in the workday and I am really annoying Carl Engle-Laird, assistant editor for Tor.com Publishing and the acquiring editor for Alter S. Reiss’ novella Sunset Mantle. He explains the plot of the story to me, this congenial monolith standing before a shrieking, bone-wielding ape, but it is not enough.
“Okay, Carl…but what is the book about?”
Two days later I have read Reiss’s story—the prose is speedy, engaging, and ideal for 45-minute commutes on the subway—but I still don’t have an answer to my own question. Sunset Mantle, as far as I can tell, is about a man who thinks he is done fighting but who ends up becoming the figurative rock that allows an enormous independent community to withstand the tide of culturalization. Richard Anderson’s cover is very apt in this regard, a scene from the book exaggerated in scale so that the essence of that scene is given the emotional weight it deserves. So really I do have an answer to the question of just what Mantle is about. I’m just not satisfied with that answer.
(P.S.—Here’s the full Richard Anderson cover because it’s just TOO. PRETTY. to be contained within a mere crop.)
A man who finds himself holding the line against impossible odds, even begrudgingly, is a very common dramatic framework. Conveying that kind of drama in the setting of an epic fantasy can be a lot of fun, as it allows a writer to enlarge the drama to an extent that we rarely get to experience in the real world. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, all Frodo has to do is drop a ring in a hole, but that hole is actually a VOLCANO and that volcano is secreted deep within THE DARKEST KINGDOM ON EARTH and SAM CAN BE REALLY ANNOYING SOMETIMES. We know that Frodo is the least physically powerful combatant in the saga, but that he carries the same desire for resistance that we as readers see in ourselves. So it’s thrilling to see Frodo’s struggle inspire others to help him continue his efforts. This is an inspiring genre of fiction to read; and popular, as evidenced by the fact that there’s so very much of it available.
Sunset Mantle shares this progression, but despite it carrying the trappings of a medieval-esque epic fantasy, its story about resistance is a small one. The main character, Cete, finds himself central to the story simply because he’s the most experienced and competent warrior in the Reach Antach, the distant city into which he has wandered. To be sure, Sunset Mantle chronicles an event that is important to establishing the future of this city, but the outcome of this event surely isn’t the end of the story. The gears continue to turn in the world at large and although the events of Mantle may start a ripple in the pond of this fantasy world, it is left to the reader to imagine what those ripples may be. To continue the Lord of the Rings comparison, it’s like starting Tolkien’s saga with the story of the pragmatic general who trained the soldiers of Helm’s Deep just before it was swarmed with orcs.
Those familiar with video game RPGs like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest would call this kind of small story a “sidequest.” In these epic fantasy video games, these are optional quests that have implications towards your main quest, but aren’t large enough to justify occupying your entire gaming experience. These games communicate repeatedly that the focus of you the player will be the problems menacing the entire world, not just one person, or one town.
Readers of epic fantasy demand a scope of a similar world-shattering size, if only to justify the time they will invest in poring through several 900+ page novels. Grand adventures are emotionally satisfying, as well, and the deeper a reader can get pulled into them, the more the reader will feel as if they are the one undertaking the quest. The length of epic fantasy novels is a factor in achieving this depth, as a longer story allows for greater detail and variation to be depicted.
My head has been filling up with works of fantasy this year. I finally checked out Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence series, which is epic, and fantasy, but somehow neither. I’ve read Jason Denzel’s forthcoming debut novel Mystic, and skimmed the two new Mistborn novels, but mostly I’ve been entirely submerged within The Wheel of Time Companion. The companion volume to Robert Jordan’s epic is dense with information, so much so that it’s been difficult for me to find things that are truly unknown. But they’re definitely in there. And it’s a rewarding experience to stumble across them. As if Robert Jordan is answering a question that only he and I ever thought to ask.
To me, the most rewarding bits within Jordan’s Companion are the “small stories.” The Sunset Mantles that he never managed to fit within the worldwide scope of The Wheel of Time, like Mazrim Taim’s harassment of The Two Rivers, the tragedy behind Serafelle Sedai’s decision to become an Aes Sedai, or the “training” that Cadsuane foisted upon an Amyrlin. These have little, if any, real effects on the main storyline of The Wheel of Time but they give a surprising amount of momentum to the series as a whole. These are stories, small stories, that play out quietly in their entirety while I’m off paying attention to other characters. Missing these small stories in an epic makes that fantasy world feel more like our own. After all, how many stories do we miss in our own lives?
There is plenty of room in epic fantasy for the small stories, it seems. Not only that, but I’d go so far as to say that the “small stories” are what define the epic scope of fantasy. These are the “bricks” in the firmament of these worlds, the guarantee that there is something the reader can explore just over the horizon, the promise that there are real people affected by their world’s perch on the edge of doom.
So maybe, when I asked Carl what Sunset Mantle was about, he was stymied as to why someone whose head has been bubbling under the surface of epic fantasy all this year would be unaware of the obvious truth of “small stories.” This truth was obvious to editor Robert Silverberg when he assembled Legends. And to John Joseph Adams when he assembled Epic. And Shawn Speakman when he crafted Unfettered. The impact of small stories in epic fantasy certainly doesn’t escape George R. R. Martin, who has fashioned several epics, several anthologies, and ascended to the status of cultural icon on the strength of his “small stories.”
See, now I just feel foolish. Better informed, and foolish. Thanks, Carl and accompanying horse calendar.
This article was originally published in September 2015.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and was actually thrilled to discover the major exports of all the countries in Randland. What? Economies are interesting.
Loading out for a weekend set of shows in Kennewick with Leannan Sidhe – if you’re in the area, here’s the Facebook event, c’mon out! Leannan Sidhe is a trad- and trad-style band, so playing a renfaire is something they do on the regular, even if very little of the music is actually Renaissance-specific, and the weather is supposed to be great. See you there!
( Loads of photos and four videos )
( Eight of them, actually )
Now, I could try to do arts... but I haven't tried to do any arting since last October when I tried Drawlloween. I'm not sure I would be any good at this.
On the other hand, I might manage short fics or drabbles on some of these lists. Shadowrun for Urban Fantasy? My WW1 soldiers for Post-Apoc or Steampunk? (their world is already off from our timeline anyway, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch) In years past I'd try Supers but idk now; otoh anyone from Johnny Pandemic's world would fit right in with the Space Travelers theme.
I still have a couple of days to think on this. I know I haven't posted fic on my journal(s) for a long time, and the newer folks haven't seen anything I've written, I'm sure.
If anyone else wants to take a whack at this - art or writing or anything - please feel free, I didn't create these lists. :) Feel free to comment, discuss, whatever. I'm feeling like doing a month long challenge.
(I might also do Nanowrimo again this year, but haven't really thought about that one much yet.)
These are the ceremonies that mark a transition from one social status to another. The iconic example is the transformation of a child to an adult, as seen in the Jewish bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, or the Latin American fiesta de quinceañera. That particular threshold has more or less fallen by the wayside in modern white Protestant American society, but that doesn’t mean we entirely lack rites of passage; graduation is one, and a wedding is another.
Something like getting your driver’s license or the right to vote, however, is not — at least not according to the definition anthropologists use (laid out by a guy named Arnold van Gennep). A rite of passage, at its core, consists of three stages: separation, liminality, and incorporation. The first divides the individual from the social status they used to have; you were X, but now you are not-X. That puts you in a liminal zone, a term that indicates you are standing on a metaphorical threshold, neither fish nor fowl. Finally, incorporation removes you from your liminal state and makes you a member of the new group.
How is separation achieved? In a relatively stripped-down version like high school or college graduation, clothing is a major component. See somebody in a cap and gown? You know exactly what’s going on. Same thing with a bride in a white wedding dress. Other ceremonies, especially in other parts of the world, may incorporate other elements, ranging from body paint to an all-night vigil to the use of hallucinogens to induce an altered state of mind. The passage to adulthood in a hunter-gatherer society could be a multi-day affair, with tests of skill or religious ceremonies not permitted to be seen by people of the opposite sex. Basically, the more obviously an individual is marked out and divided from the normal world around them, the easier it is to tell that you’re looking at a rite of passage.
This puts you into a liminal state . . . and I have to say that, as a writer, this is the part that makes me sit up and take notice. Folklorically speaking, liminal things are powerful, and they are dangerous. Societies depend on organization for their stability, and so anything that slips free of the usual categories is at a minimum charged with psychological power. Past the minimum? Being liminal is literally magic. For example, women undergoing Shinto weddings wear a white hood over their hair to conceal the demon horns they supposedly grow. And if you’re writing fantasy . . . yeah. You can run with that “liminality is magic” idea as far as you like. Especially if the person undergoing the rite of passage gets separated from society, but never reincorporated (e.g. because something interrupts the ceremony).
But it would be a pity if they never got reincorporated, because that’s where the parties happen! There are probably rites of passage that don’t involve a big feast afterward, but it’s such a standard element of reincorporation that I just tend to take it as a given. More ceremonial stuff can happen, too, like the individual being formally welcomed by their new peers, or given their first chance to exercise the rights they’ve just gained.
Reincorporation especially matters if the separation and liminal stages were traumatic. Our modern rites of passage are usually pretty tame, but anthropologists have documented some pretty severe practices, with the person undergoing trials for which the word “torture” wouldn’t be exaggeration. Is this done out of cruelty? No — at least not in general, though it’s always possible that the individual in charge of the whole show is cruel and abusing their power. Rather, the idea is that the more you go through as a part of your rite of passage, the stronger a bond you feel to your new group when you join them.
I can attest to this, at least on a minor level. In college, our marching band had what we called “freshman cuts,” which was the point at which freshman who failed to measure up to a certain standard would (theoretically) be cut from the band. We all knew this wasn’t true — they wanted as many warm bodies on the field as they could get — and the college had rules against hazing anyway, so the various activities around freshman cuts were 100% optional, and everybody knew it. If you didn’t want to go through with them, nobody would say boo. Me? I was majoring in anthropology and folklore. Of course I went through it. And I came out the other side with the story of what the “Brown punch” was like my year, a story that got shared with the band members both senior and junior to me, just as they shared their own tales. I’ll spare you all the details, saying only that every component of the punch was perfectly potable or edible and utterly revolting when combined with all the other ingredients . . . and that drinking it, though in no way a “fun” experience, is one I don’t regret in the least. Because it did what it was supposed to: it created a bond, a sense that I had gone through a trial that had made me kin to everyone else who had done the same thing.
Because rites of passage are a two-edged sword. Colleges outlaw hazing rituals because they make people who don’t go through them feel excluded, and there have been excesses that leave people traumatized or outright injured. But such rituals also promote bonding and group identity, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And while having a rite of passage to mark the transition from one life state to another may result in you being thrust into a new role before you truly feel ready for it, it also makes it crystal clear what your role is. Do you have the rights, responsibilities, freedoms, and privileges of a child, or those of an adult? A single person, or a married one? A civilian, or a member of a military group? Muddying the waters between those things may cause difficulty.
What things have you gone through that you would consider a rite of passage?
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The most important thing about this fascinating and diverse mythology isn't whether or not it's 'real', it's what it says about modern culture. I've been researching this title since I was a child, nervously turning over the pages of 'real life UFO' books. -- Paul Cornell
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Yesterday, the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies played in theaters as a prelude to its release on DVD/Blu-ray. And so with battle cries, the clash of weapons, and then a somber dirge, we have seen the trilogy-that-wasn’t-really-a-trilogy conclude. To be honest, I found it to be a curious admixture of satisfying and unfulfilling; the former because as a film saga, there is both excitement and sufficient closure, and the latter because it would have felt more complete, more “extended,” if Peter Jackson had deigned to drop in a few more looked-for elements from the books. But hey, war goats!
Spoilers follow for The Hobbit films.
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films get a lot of flak for being overwrought, overlong, or “like butter scraped over too much bread.” Many of the criticisms are valid enough (I have some of my own), some are a matter of taste, and some, I feel, are simply misguided. My view, as a fan of Tolkien first and Jackson second, is that the naysayers are judging the films for what they’re not. They are not a cinematic translation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s singular novel but an adaptation in the truest sense of the word. Specifically, they are an adaptation of events in Middle-earth 60 years prior to the Bilbo’s famous eleventy-first birthday party, and that includes those from the The Hobbit and those implied from the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings.
To adapt something is to change, alter, or modify it to make it suitable for new conditions, which is where the problems occur for fans of a richly detailed story. No, not merely a story, a whole legendarium (Tolkien himself called it such) that lots of people care a hell of a lot about. The expectation seems to have been that Jackson should have kept to the books closely, should have told the story just as Tolkien did. But ultimately, that’s just not realistic and it would have made for a disjointed prequel.
It’s not like Jackson didn’t know what’s in the books; in addition to knowing them well, he was surrounded by Tolkien scholars, Elvish linguists, and other literary experts. Rather, he’s an uber-successful director, producer, and screenwriter who has to wrangle massive movie budgets and we’re not. He loves Tolkien’s work but had taken on the self-imposed, if herculean task of maneuvering a beloved tale through the Hollywood machine. Have you ever watched a comic book, novel, or even play adapted to film and thought, “That’s exactly how I would have done it”? If you have, then that’s amazing! If not, well, in this age of Hollywood remakes, reboots, and adaptations, why expect these films to be any different?
I want a faithful adaptation as much as anyone. But I am not a Tolkien purist about it because I think that Peter Jackson adding Tom Bombadil to The Fellowship of the Ring would have been as absurd as, oh, say, adding a scene in The Hobbit where Thorin & Co. enter the Lonely Mountain right after sending Bilbo in—you know, to go in quietly and do what they had specifically employed him to do. “That, Master Burglar, is why you are here,” Thorin says to him. So yes, that scene was too much. Do I love seeing what various chambers in Erebor might look like? The forges, the billows, the vats, the cavernous abyss of a great mine shaft? The fantasy nut in me says hell yes! But the Tolkien reader in me says no, not for a gratuitous and overlong action sequence, and not at the cost of undermining Bilbo’s quiet resolve.
Certainly not at the cost of losing this wonderful moment from the book:
It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.
Of course, it’s hard for any film to portray a character’s internal thoughts, which is all that moment is, but I think most of us would agree that Martin Freeman would have done an excellent job visually depicting Bilbo’s trepidation. Peter Jackson opted not to try this, and we can and must live with that. The book is not demeaned, but the movie is the lesser for it.
Likewise, Peter Jackson opted to keep Bombadil out of The Fellowship of the Ring, which it must be remembered had been his first foray into Middle-earth. And which, honestly, we’re still lucky even happened. And I agree with nixing Tom not because I wouldn’t like to see him or his oft-referenced yellow boots on the big screen—because that would be both fun and surreal—but because I don’t think anyone but die-hard book fans would have had the patience for him, his lovely but passive wife Goldberry, or his flamboyant, “Ring a dong dillo” self. Simply look at the numerous complaints of “too many endings” levied against The Return of the King. Jackson’s Fellowship would have faltered with the excess of Tom Bombadil (and even the barrow-wights, which I’d dearly love to have seen) and then millions of people would never have come to know or appreciate the greater works of Professor Tolkien. And the Tolkien Estate’s book revenue wouldn’t have increased by 1,000% (in the UK) as they did despite its utter contempt for Jackson’s meddling.
I reread all the books after seeing the films and I enjoying every unabridged word. Likewise, I’m happy to watch Peter Jackson’s six adaptations as a hybrid member of the audience, fully accepting that no one demographic can be fully satisfied. Among the many, you’ve got:
- Hardcore Tolkien fans who gripe at every change from the books (but still go see the films).
- New fans who loved the films and have now discovered the books.
- Action-adventure moviegoers who just want to be entertained but probably won’t ever read the books but “OMG look how badass that elf is with all the arrows and the shield-skating acrobatics and crumbling-tower-climbing and monster-bat-riding!”
- Kids, especially young girls who, according to the director himself, might be glad to have a relatively strong female character to root for (in Tauriel and Galadriel), where otherwise The Hobbit would have had none.
The point is that untold numbers of people have enjoyed all three Hobbit films, sometimes because of—and sometimes despite—their Jackson-expanded elements. Now that the Extended Edition of The Battle of the Five Armies is upon us, I’d like to consider the bigger picture.
I found The Battle of the Five Armies to be extremely fun. And a fine conclusion. And by that I mean that it’s a fitting capstone to the prequels for Jackson’s Rings trilogy. I never had qualms about The Hobbit being split into three films on principle. From the coming of Thorin to Bilbo’s home (July of the year 2941) to the return of Bilbo to Bag End (June of 2942), about 11 months pass. That story is told with three films. Meanwhile, from Frodo’s departure with the One Ring from Bag End (September 23, 3018) to all four hobbits returning to the Shire after Sauron’s defeat (November of 3019), about 14 months elapse. Again, three films. The span of diegetic time is comparable. Granted, there are more moving parts and political conflicts during the War of the Ring, but just as in the Rings trilogy, there is plenty happening behind the scenes during the quest for Erebor that Tolkien addressed long after writing it. The White Council moving against Sauron in Dol Guldur is one prime example.
It’s been said that “the filmmakers have wrung all they could out of the source material,” but I find that to be a lazy stab because it’s simply untrue. Indeed, that’s the irony. While three Hobbit films meant there should be room for some fleshing out of otherwise sparse details—the very thing people are complaining about, that he made a short book longer than they felt it needed to be—Jackson still didn’t actually cover everything. What he did do was garnish the films with more action and adventure. The Extended Five Armies is rife with monstrous combatants and innovative new war machines—trolls clad with gruesome-if-amusing armaments, dwarven ballistae that can and do shatter a hail of elven arrows, and bolt-firing war carts to name a few. It’s a true spectacle. Where Tolkien nerds might roll their eyes and wish for the story to get on with things, there is an audience for this and it does please.
And here’s an interesting development from the Extended Five Armies that really struck me: Before the orcs arrive, the Elves and dwarves do actually begin their battle at Dáin Ironfoot’s command. There is a clear loss of life on both sides, even though it’s brief. It’s heartbreaking to watch, a tragic consequence of the tension built up to that moment. You would think Azog, spying this elf-dwarf conflict from his command tower, would just let things play out! Regardless, the orcs arrive and with seemingly no hesitation—I love the unspoken certainty of this—the Elves and dwarves cease their fight with one another and engage the common foe. As if they had no heart to fight one another anyway. But both have an ancient hatred for orcs!
Battles and monsters are certainly Jackson’s forte, and the films cater to the movie-going crowd more than to the book-reading crowd. For those of us in the middle of that Venn diagram, it’s enough. At least in the new scenes, we are treated to seeing more of Thorin’s company engaged in the battle—including the unexpected removal of the axe blade in Bifur’s head! There is plenty of dwarf humor in the fray, but against the gravity of what’s going on, I found that to be quite welcome. Oh yeah, and Balin riding the war cart and peppering wargs with ballista bolts? Yes to that. This is part of a larger segment showing that the ride to Ravenhill to challenge Azog was considerably more difficult than we first assumed from the film’s initial release.
Some of the Extended moments weren’t quite enough to satisfy and they didn’t tie in well with previous ones. For example, we get only a few extra seconds of Beorn’s arrival at the battle and his ursine, orc-mashing fury, but nothing more. And though Gandalf has a few additional words for Thorin while the dwarf fumes at Erebor’s makeshift gate, I kept waiting for him to somehow mention Thrain, who he discovered in Dol Guldur in Desolation. If not in this scene, then in another. “Tell Thorin that I loved him,” Thrain had said to Gandalf. “Will you do that? Will you tell my son that I loved him?” Gandalf never does. It’s a small thing, but it would have made for better continuity to include.
I can abide almost any extension or stretching of characters and themes and battles, so long as they’re not completely antithetical to Tolkien’s ideals, but only if the existing story, including the appendices-based backstory, is exhausted first. There is much we never get to experience from the books. The animals at Beorn’s house; the Eagles and their eyries (and why they help at all); the drunk Wood-elves and Thranduil’s interrogation of the dwarves; the thrush and its world-saving delivery of vital information; the aftermath of the battle—all of these have been kept out. In the behind-the-scenes features of the DVDs, you can even see that some of these were filmed (such as all the captive dwarves being brought before the Wood-elf King, not merely Thorin), but never made even the Extended cut. Sadly.
But these are movies; they need to take into account a movie-goer’s patience (and bladder). Think of all that was removed from The Lord of the Rings, which has a full run-time of just over 11 hours. Given that, are you in the “What, no ‘Scouring of the Shire’?” camp or the “Nah, it’s fine as is” camp?
Still, in The Battle of the Five Armies, every second of screen time given to the character of Alfrid was one less that could have been better used developing the White Council’s purpose. Explaining who they are exactly, how their Rings of Power relate to one another, that sort of thing. We get only teasings of the world these immortal Elves and wizards come from: we glimpse Narya, Gandalf’s ring, and of course Galadriel’s. There is so much story in the rings that never comes out. Whereas Alfrid is an unnecessary, cartoonish weasel. In any case, it seems the Master of Lake-town’s fate in the book has become Alfrid’s fate in the film and the dragon-sickness gets to him. In the Extended cut, Alfrid does get his comeuppance. While I’d prefer he simply vanish to starve in the Waste with his stolen gold—but how do you show that in a film? (you can’t)—for some it may be satisfying to see Alfrid meet his mouthy end.
The White Council’s ousting of Sauron from Dol Guldur still feels the most truncated, even in the Extended Edition, if only because we know there’s plenty of lore behind it. It has a direct bearing on other events, which Gandalf touches on briefly later and it explains why he stirred Thorin to his quest and nosed around Dol Guldur in the first place.
Per Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings:
Among many cares he was troubled in mind by the perilous state of the North; because he knew then already that Sauron was plotting war, and intended, as soon as he felt strong enough, to attack Rivendell. But to resist any attempt from the East to regain the lands of Angmar and the northern passes in the mountains there were now only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills. And beyond them lay the desolation of the Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect. How could the end of Smaug be achieved?
I enjoyed seeing the ringwraiths in their more spectral form, even if their inclusion via the High Fells of Rhudaur were an addition. This is a prime example of where I don’t mind Peter Jackson’s tinkering; it was never made clear by Tolkien where the Nazgûl would have been during this timeframe. No harm, no foul, why not see them again? That said, more spellcasting and less wizard-fu in the Dol Guldur skuffle would have been preferred, but it’s still gratifying to see Galadriel finally invoke some epic, Silmarillion-flavored might. She will one day return there, after all, when the Shadow is defeated.
Also from Appendix B:
Three times Lórien had been assailed from Dol Guldur, but besides the valour of the elven people of that land, the power that dwelt there was too great for any to overcome, unless Sauron had come there himself. Though grievous harm was done to the fair woods on the borders, the assaults were driven back; and when the Shadow passed, Celeborn came forth and led the host of Lórien over Anduin in many boats. They took Dol Guldur, and Galadriel threw down its walls and laid bare its pits, and the forest was cleansed.
But I do wish her bearing was brighter and less dark-queen creepy, which is clearly meant to gel with her Fellowship manifestation. In Five Armies, she is not being tempted by great power, she’s using her own. I think the visual connection was too much handholding. Likewise, I wish her voice was not once again layered and pitch-dropped—Jackson’s sound crew, having proved themselves throughout all six films, could have done way better than use that cheap trick.
Still, in the Extended cut, we now get to see her utterly obliterate Gandalf’s orc jailor—who seconds before was ready to cut the wizard’s ring from his finger after beating on him. Indeed, the orc was strangely informed: he knew of the Ring of Fire and demanded to know “Where are the others?” That is when Galadriel arrives and makes short work of the orc.
Saruman himself is underused throughout the trilogy, though it was a joy to see the much-aged (and now late) Christopher Lee return to the role. He is the head of the White Council, and though he kicks serious Nazgûl ass in Five Armies, he seemed more horrified than intrigued at the sight of the Enemy, who he was charged to oppose from the start. I was hoping for deeper insight into his own corruption and eventual betrayal. In the canon, he was already desiring the One Ring for himself at this time and had discovered only two years prior that Sauron’s servants were searching the Anduin near Gladden Fields. Which is why he’d finally agreed to move against the Dark Lord, to keep him from finding the One first.
“Leave Sauron to me,” seems to be the only hook we get. But anyone who’s read more about Saruman knows that he regarded Sauron as a rival, not merely an enemy, at this point in time.
As for Tauriel and Kili, this is all there is to it: In An Unexpected Journey and only in the Extended Edition, we see Kili eyeing an Elfmaid in Rivendell, so we know he’s prone to elven interests. Then in Desolation, he meets Tauriel and actually falls for her (as much as a dwarf can in so brief a time) and is subsequently saved by her efforts. Then in Five Armies, it all comes to a head and one dies trying to save the other.
I’ll say two things about this subplot then leave it alone, since much has already been said and because it’s a small matter compared to the rest of the story.
Tolkien’s Elves, while portrayed quite differently in the films than in the books (a topic for another time), are still presented as a tragic, if powerful race. To me, the tale of Kili and Tauriel is less about an Elf and dwarf romance as it is the adversity that lies between an immortal and a mortal. That is a theme that Tolkien cared much more about and he played with this idea several times, in Beren and Lúthien, in Aragorn and Arwen. Even Elrond and his brother Elros were given the choice of mortality or immortality; Elros chose the doom of a mortal Man (and surprise, chose a mortal wife), while Elrond chose immortality. The brothers were therefore parted by the passage of thousands of years.
There is also precedence for a rare fondness between Elves and dwarves despite their ancient and Silmarillion-documented feuds of the past. In the Rings trilogy, not only do Legolas and Gimli forge an everlasting friendship with far-reaching effects, but Gimli is powerfully smitten by the beauty of Galadriel and it changes him deeply. The dude won’t shut up about her sometimes, it’s awesome.
And it happened in a moment, at their first meeting. Like…Tauriel and Kili, though of course one is romantic and the other is not. Against all these, the cinematic contrivance of Tauriel and Kili’s brief but unexplored love is nothing to fret about. Yes, it’s annoying to see an Elf lose her head, teenager-style, in the midst of a great battle—and more so because she’s one of the few female characters—but she’s still the only Elf pushing to oppose the orcs because it’s the right thing to do. Even Legolas would not have without her urging, and daddy Thranduil merely covets gems. (Side note: In one podcast interview, Hobbit writer Philippa Boyens clarified that the white gems that Thranduil wanted to badly had been commissioned for his wife, before her death, and that is why he is so fixated on his claim. It’s all he’d have of her, since Legolas tells Tauriel that his mother’s body was never found. To immortals such as Elves, memory can be everything. Even Boyens wasn’t sure if Peter Jackson would add this detail into the Extended cut, and in the end, he did not.)
So you may feel the Elf-dwarf romance feels forced, and the alleged affection between Legolas and Tauriel is also hard to buy into—in part because the films have made Elves colder than their literary counterparts—but it’s also harmless. So a character with little personality in the book (Kili) is given feelings for a character nonexistent in said book (Tauriel). Big deal. It’s not like Jackson gave Bilbo a girlfriend. Thankfully.
Honestly, I’m just happy to see female Elves, period, especially in battle. In the massive ranks of armored and militant Elves—at Helm’s Deep or even in the Last Alliance prologue—are there any? I did manage to glimpse a few female warrior Elves among the masses in Five Armies, though. Good.
The fact is, the biggest portion of the trilogy are the adventures of the titular hobbit, and Martin Freeman’s Bilbo remains the highlight, diminished only in scenes where he’s upstaged by the actions of others. I was quite content with his role in Five Armies, since the “Thief in the Night” sequence was more or less faithful to the book and his involvement in the battle itself was extended only lightly. Bilbo’s parting words with Thorin as the dwarf lies mortally wounded were meaningful to me, if much too abridged—but then that’s generally my only complaint. The Extended cut, at least, does reveal the funeral for Thorin, Fili, and Kili, as well as the crowning of Dáin Ironfoot. Though it is brief, it brings more closure to the story.
If you watch the films and then read the corresponding events in the book, you’ll find that Tolkien’s storytelling method has a curious, tell-don’t-show chronology to it—something he did in The Lord of the Rings but perhaps not as arbitrarily as in The Hobbit. I’ve heard it complained that Fili and Kili’s deaths were “much better” in the book by naysayers of the film. To that I say, there was no scene at all in the book relating their deaths, merely a past perfect, after-the-fact summation of what happened. All we get is:
Of the twelve companions of Thorin, ten remained. Fili and Kili had fallen defending him with shield and body, for he was their mother’s elder brother.
So I for one am grateful for the things we do get to see brought to life on the big screen. The Rings trilogy was full of satisfying “off screen” moments from the books brought on screen, like the Ents’ assault on Isengard and Boromir defending the hobbits from orcs. Hell, to me Dáin Ironfoot’s portrayal in Five Armies was enjoyable even CGI’d as he was, and seeing an army of dwarves gratifies the D&D freak in me. Dáin, like Bolg, like Thranduil, like most of the dwarves, are given personalities Tolkien doesn’t take the time to do.
And that’s fine that he didn’t. It was a single book he wrote before launching the true enormity of Middle-earth. Tolkien was a revisionist, and even went back and made changes to The Hobbit once he started to write The Lord of the Rings. (In the first edition of The Hobbit, Gollum bets Bilbo his magic ring if the hobbit wins their riddle game—imagine that!) But Tolkien was content merely to bridge The Hobbit with Rings in other ways and not rewrite everything from the start.
2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring is a miraculous, groundbreaking film and each of Jackson’s installments since have, in spirit, style, and Tolkien lore, been like a carbon copy of the previous one, so that 2003’s The Return of the King was still excellent and felt close to Fellowship, but 2014’s The Battle of the Five Armies is certainly a far cry from it. Yes, it’s far more flash and action than rich storytelling and certainly bears even less resemblance to the source material, but it is at least consistent with its own vision of Middle-earth. And that’s what they all are: the vision of one man (Jackson) who stands at the vanguard of an army of talented artists and filmmakers. Because of that army, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to experience. And Howard Shore’s score still somehow legitimitizes it, just like a John Williams score and a lightsaber sound effect can still, just for those choice moments, invoke nostalgia in even the crappiest Star Wars film.
The Hobbit trilogy is not perfect, of course not. There are numerous things to pick at. The stone giants sequence in An Unexpected Journey was needless showing off of CGI and presented a hazard to the characters only vaguely suggested in the book. The barrel-riding scene was turned into an action sequence that downplayed Bilbo’s day-saving role in their escape. But at least the stone giants and the barrels are in the book. Some of the added dialogue just doesn’t work. Fili telling his brother “I’ve got this!” at Ravenhill is gratingly anachronistic and not remotely Tolkien-esque. Though a pretty mild offense, I found Saruman referring to the Necromancer as a “human sorcerer” disappointing because the word “human” is never used by Tolkien to refer to Men in the books. Legolas and Tauriel reaching Gundabad and returning again in so short a time undermines the length of Bilbo’s entire journey. Jackson certainly played fast and loose with geography.
All the birds and beasts have been de-anthropomorphized. The Eagles did not speak, and neither does Roäc the raven nor the thrush. Beorn’s sheep, dogs, and pony friends don’t serve Thorin and Co. their meal as they do in the book. But these things wouldn’t exactly be in keeping with The Lord of the Rings, anyway—neither Tolkien’s nor Jackson’s.
When I first saw An Unexpected Journey, I loved it but I have learned to accept the things that didn’t play out more like in the book. Why, I fretted, didn’t they use the Great Goblin’s actual dialogue from the book? Sure, add some new lines but don’t replace what was there wholly. But I’ve learned to let it go. As J.R.R.’s own grandson has said, the films “kind of have to exist in their own right.”
Repeated viewings of all six films continue to impress me, and watching the making-of featurettes on the Extended Edition DVDs you can see some light shed on reasons for the changes even if they’re not what you’d have done. For me, I pine not for a perfectly faithful translation of the books but for the additions that could have been. The opportunities for greater context were there, right under Peter Jackson’s nose. We’ve met Radagast (who totally would have been given at least a cameo in Fellowship if Jackson has made the Hobbit films first), we’ve heard of the “two Blueses,” and we’ve seen the White Council in action. Why not use all that to show, even just a little, what Gandalf really is, why he’s constantly prodding everyone to oppose Sauron, and how he had the power to “rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”
Why not address the Nine, the Seven, and the Three? Especially the Seven, since the fate of Durin’s folk, their greed, and Sauron are all related? It was Sauron’s work that fanned the gold lust of the dwarves through the Seven Dwarf-rings. In the Extended Desolation, some time is spent showing how Thrain once had the last of the Seven but how it was cut from his hand by Azog. Why show the rings at all if we’re not going to learn something more of their power?
But alas, that would not have been done so easily, as a lot of that lore comes from The Silmarillion and the Tolkien Estate has not yielded that license. Not to mention the awesomeness of The Unfinished Tales, which reveals all kinds of good stuff about the Istari—and Saruman specifically.
The films are not the books and shouldn’t be judged as such. If they’re not what you hoped for, fair enough. You can’t please everyone, but don’t try and take them away from those they did please. As old John Ronald Reuel himself wrote in his Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings:
As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often as fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.
Personally, I’m pleased with any franchise which shows, however briefly, Belladonna Took’s son as a small child, merrily play-battling with Gandalf the Grey, a symbolic and touching moment for all that would follow. Not only does it show that a mighty Maia spirit was fond of the simple Shire folk, it also shows why he would select one of them in particular to turn the tide.
Jeff LaSala can’t wait to read The Hobbit to his son, who is much too young to realize how nerdy his dad is. For now, they’ll just be pointy-eared denizens of Middle-earth together for Halloween.
Conversely, Dark Horse has been putting out their own series of EC reprints. These versions are digitally recolored and are published in chronological order. There are some here.
I will probably continue to use Fantagraphics' versions for the time being just because I already have them in my collection but I was wondering which versions you would prefer to see if I was able to pick from both.
Date: 15... (more at http://www.thomryng.com/camino/camino-
Originally posted at Pilgrims on the Way. If you wish to comment, please do so there.
File under: Map, Photo of the Day
( 8 pages below the cut )
Next issue, Arba and Dakarba, the witches.
James Cameron has formally announced that a new Terminator movie is in development. Given that he basically lives on Pandora with the Na’vi now, Cameron will be producing while Deadpool’s Tim Miller is in the director’s chair. Arnold Schwarzenegger will return and, more interestingly, so will Linda Hamilton.
That’s…good news? Probably? Maybe? Perhaps? After three increasingly ambitious and, unfortunately, increasingly incoherent sequels the Terminator series is looking a lot like it’s way past its obsolescence date. Cameron’s vague mutterings about Arnie playing the person the T-800’s physical form was based on don’t exactly help matters, either. Schwarzenegger getting to play out the Terminator version of Logan could be interesting, but—unless the film is building to a very definitive ending, rather than another sequel—there’s not really much point.
Besides, the best continuation of the Terminator saga has already happened on TV.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles ran for two seasons from 2008 to 2009. It starred a post-Heroes Thomas Dekker as John Connor, a pre-Game of Thrones Lena Headey as Sarah, and a post-Firefly Summer Glau as Cameron, a terminator sent back to protect John. So far, so familiar.
But what makes The Sarah Connor Chronicles work is how far it dug down into the central existential horror of the Terminator franchise’s premise. Jumping forward in time to 2007, Sarah, John, and Cameron find the present day riddled with elements of the temporal Cold War between Skynet and humanity. Resistance fighters with multiple agendas, Terminators dropped throughout history, and other various factions all competing for power, survival, and control of a future that was increasingly as mutable as the liquid metal of the T-1001.
It’s frequently brilliant, and a lot of the series’ strength is down to the cast. Headey’s pensive, driven Sarah, tormented by nightmares of the future and her predicted death from cancer, is a fantastic anchor for the show. This was exactly the Sarah we saw at the end of Judgment Day, a woman at peace with her past, and making peace with her future. She’s still driven, still deeply intimidating, but has a dark sense of gallows humor that helps to power the show’s emotional engine.
Elsewhere in the cast, Dekker does excellent work as John. His performance also draws on the movies, focused on the John Connor we met in Terminator 3. One of the very few elements of that movie that truly works is Nick Stahl’s take on John. His arc—from not being sure of his purpose or place to becoming the leader the future needs—is the exact one Dekker follows and, with the extra space and time afforded by TV, the character development works far better, here. There’s a moment at the end of series highlight “Goodbye To All That” where John breaks down as he realizes almost everyone he knows or will ever know will eventually die for him or on his orders, and it’s heartrending. It’s also absolutely a characterization in line with the gobby little asshole that Edward Furlong played and the dazed, lost young man that Stahl depicted. This is John becoming John and fulfilling his destiny, even as he and his deeply weird family try and stop Skynet from doing the exact same thing.
The new elements the show brought to the mix were where it really soars, however. Richard T. Jones as FBI Agent Ellison becomes a focal point for the other side of the show’s apocalyptic algebra: a normal man exposed to incontrovertible proof of something impossible, struggling to balance that knowledge with both his rationality and his faith. Jones is great in the role, equal parts Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive and Joe Don Baker’s Darius Jedburgh in Edge of Darkness, and Ellison was given some of the show’s meatiest, most interesting material.
The same can be said, I was pleasantly surprised to find, about Summer Glau. I’ve never been a big fan of Glau’s work, but her turn as Cameron is easily some of her best. The episodes “Allison from Palmdale” and “Self Made Man” in particular really dig into the idea of the Terminators as machines that could learn. Cameron’s struggle to cope with the memories of the woman she was based on in “Allison from Palmdale” are fascinating to see, while the latter episode is a weirdly sweet, charming bottle episode that explains what Terminators do instead of sleep. Bolstered by a fantastic guest turn from Todd Stashwick as a Terminator who arrived early and ended up as the embodiment of the American dream, “Self Made Man” is a profoundly eccentric hour of TV anchored by Glau’s careful, precision performance. Likewise, Garrett Dillahunt as the recurring T-888 villain Cromartie does an excellent job of exploring the stresses these pure, perfect machines are undergo when their programming collides with their experience.
But for me, the true breakout character of the show is Derek Reece. Played by Brian Austin Green, Derek is Kyle’s older brother who was sent to the past for very different reasons. What could have been a terrible plotline clicks from the moment he first arrives, and Derek completes the ethical framework in which John is being raised. Sarah is his moral and psychological rock, Cameron knows what he can do—and (to a lesser extent) would do, and Derek is the constant reminder of every soldier he’d send out to die. “Goodbye To All That” explores this in tremendous detail and to great success, but it’s a thread that runs through the entire show: John Connor as a man out of his own time, existing in a psychological and ethical null space between what’s expected of him, what he’s done, and what he should do. He’s a living one-two point, around which strange things continually occur.
The show’s real genius, however, is in how it explores the consequences not just of time travel but of time passing. A Season 2 plot saw Stephanie Jacobsen appear as Jesse Flores, a Resistance fighter from the future and Derek’s former partner. In another highlight episode, “Complications,” Jesse captures a man she claims tortured Derek almost to death in the future.
Except that Derek has no memory of that ever happening. And his Judgment Day took place on a different day than Jesse’s.
Jesse, along with Shirley Manson’s Catherine Weaver, embodies not just the idea of Judgment Day as a fluid point, but the future itself being unstable—not set, but fluid. Skynet designed Terminators that were too self-aware, humans fled to the past with no intention of saving the future, and the right course of action became obscured not by the fog of war but by the fog of uncertainty, conflicting agendas, and personal choice. Echoing John’s message to Sarah, via Kyle Reece, way back in the first movie, our heroes must fight to change the future, striving for an outcome far more complex and interesting than the binary mutual annihilation of the original timeline.
That desire to continually explore the most complex, most personal consequences of the story’s premise is the show’s greatest strength and, ultimately, what doomed it. It’s refusal to take the easy way out, or to fall back on “Terminator of the week” plotlines meant that that the series only lasted 31 episodes. However, history has vindicated its approach again and again. Almost a decade later, The Sarah Connor Chronicles stands as the single successful continuation of the Terminator series since the original two movies, and set a high benchmark that nothing that’s followed it has come close to meeting. Combining thoughtful, intellectual science fiction with action, consequence, character and a bone-dry sense of humor, it’s a hidden gem that’s perfect for rediscovery. Terminator 6 has a lot to live up to.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.
And being an “Audible Deal of the Day” means you get to spend very little to get the book — in this case something like $3. The deal as far as I know is limited to the US and maybe Canada, and it’s only for today. So if you want it at this price, you need to jump on it. It’s perfect for the folks who love audiobooks, or for the folks who have never tried audiobooks but would be willing to give them a chance at a low price point, or for the folks who simply want Wil Wheaton to read to them in those dulcet tones of his.
Here’s the link to the audiobook. Enjoy!
As I open another chapter of the Stormlight Grimoire, my in-depth exploration of the many magical systems of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, I find that it is time to turn to a new topic. There are volumes more to be said about Surgebinders, and even, I’m sure, more to be discovered about the Windrunners, to whom I paid special attention last time, but that will have to wait for future books. In the meantime, let’s talk about Soulcasting, the magical process of transforming rocks into wheat, Settlers of Catan style.
Oh, I’m sorry, maybe I forgot to mention that I’m a huge nerd. Deal with it?
(Editor’s note: this article is originally from 2013, and therefore does not discuss Words of Radiance or Oathbringer. Be aware that spoilers for these novels and other Cosmere stories may appear in the comments.)
Soulcasting, in broad strokes, is the ability to turn just about any substance into one of ten categories of substance by focusing stormlight through gemstones. So far as we can tell it is limited to only ten substances, although if the Mistborn trilogy has anything to teach us it is not to be satisfied with the established body of knowledge in one of Brandon Sanderson’s universes. New gemstones might be discovered with unknown soulcasting properties, just as Vin discovered new allomantic alloys. For now, however, here is the list of gemstones, with their associated properties:
|Sapphire||Translucent gas, air|
|Smokestone||Opaque gas, smoke, fog|
|Diamond||Quartz, glass, crystal|
|Emerald||Wood, plants, moss|
|Garnet||Blood, all non-oil liquid|
|Zircon||All kinds of oil|
|Topaz||Rock and stone|
Sadly for my Catan analogy, it seems extremely difficult, if not impossible, to turn rocks into sheep using this system.
The Chemistry of Soulcasting
These designations seem arbitrary at first. In fact, it was this arbitrariness that made me suspect that there were more Soulcasting-enabled gemstones. As I attempted to think of a substance that would fall outside one of these categories, however, I found myself mostly at a loss. I’m eager to hear if any of you can think of some simple substance (so, not a sheep) that would fall outside all of these categories. Given that lead-in, I think I might be able to figure out the underlying physical/chemical reasons that define these categories and make each of them worthy of being separate.
Let’s look first at Sapphire and Smokestone. Both can Soulcast specific kinds of gasses. What separates them is their opacity. Really? That can’t be right. Looking into it, I don’t think that any of the standard elemental gases are technically “opaque” in normal conditions. The other things that Smokestone can Soulcast, smoke and fog, are both mixtures that contain not only gases, but also airborne solid and liquid particulates. Air, on the other hand, is by pure definition a mixture of gases. I’d bet you anything that Soulcast air contains no airborne solid or liquid particulates.
With this separation in mind, I think it’s possible to detect that the different categories of Soulcasting are actually separated chemically, rather than the somewhat impressionistic categories we currently have. So blood, in this example, is a bit of a red herring. It’s metaphorically charged, for certain, and Jasnah soulcasting Shallan’s blood to remove the poison is certainly striking, but the fact that blood is listed first covers up the fact that garnets can Soulcast any non-oil liquid. Oils, on the other hand, have a totally different chemical structure than blood, or water, or fruit juice, or what have you. They’re hydrophobic, actively repelling water, and lipophilic, making them capable of mixing with other oils and fats. And it makes perfect sense to separate quartz and crystals from other kinds of rocks and stone: molecules in crystals form a crystal lattice, arranging themselves in an ordered pattern in three dimensions. Most rocks and metals are instead polycrystals, made up of many microscopic crystals fused together. It also explains why fire is its own category. Unlike everything else on this list, fire isn’t a solid, a liquid, or a gas. It is, instead, a plasma. I’m sure that if the people of Roshar could conceptualize any other plasmas, they could Soulcast them using rubies.
I’m very curious about the Soulcasting of plants. At face value, plants are a lot more complicated than the other things on this list. We know a lot more about Soulcasting plant matter, though, since it’s the most common task that Soulcasters perform. Soulcasted food is apparently very bland and mushy. Perhaps there are people who can Soulcast things into a complicated living system like an oak tree or a prickletac, but that must be a task of monumental difficulty. Likewise with heliodor, which can craft meat or flesh. There might someday be a Soulcaster who can make a bunch of rocks into a real sheep. I’ll hold onto hope.
There are a lot of different ways to Soulcast. Because Jasnah and Shallan are potential initiates to two different orders, the Elsecallers and Lightweavers, if I remember correctly, we know that at least two orders of the Knights Radiant were able to Soulcast. In addition, fabrials have been devised that allow non-Surgebinders to Soulcast.
Shallan, who discovered Soulcasting entirely by accident, managed it through communication with a spren. While she was panicking about the symbol-headed invisible beings that she thought were driving her mad or coming to kill her, one of them spoke into her mind, asking her what she was. She told it the truth, that she was terrified, and was instantly transported to a vast sea of glass beads. While flailing about, she grabbed one of them, which corresponded to a glass goblet in the room around her, and convinced it to change. Stormlight which she had unwittingly drawn in flowed from her into the goblet, and it melted into blood.
I’m fairly certain that the process of buying access to that sea of glass beads with a personal truth is unique to the order of Lightweavers. The journey to that location, which is DEFINITELY the Shadesmar, in the Cognitive Realm, is also requisite for the Elsecallers, since Jasnah follows Shallan there. I’m not certain that both orders require specific gemstones to Soulcast specific essences. Jasnah called for a garnet when she needed to Soulcast Shallan’s blood, and Shallan had one when she turned the goblet into blood, so I think it’s likely. It’s the only magical art that care at all whether its Stormlight comes from gemstones, let alone specific kinds of gemstones.
What’s fascinating about all this is that, although the distinctions I made above are based on differences in chemical and physical arrangements, the process of actually Soulcasting seems to be much, much fuzzier. Shallan wasn’t thinking about the difference between a crystal lattice and blood. She wasn’t even thinking about blood. She was talking to a little bead that decided it was happy to change from a cup into a pool of blood. Soulcasting involves interacting directly with objects as they are represented in the Cognitive Realm. It doesn’t just have to change their physical structure, it has to convince them to occupy a different conceptual space. It seems to require more persuasion and bribery than artistry. I expect, however, that watching Shallan practice will reveal depths of possible artistry to Soulcasting.
I know almost nothing about the real experience of Soulcasting using a fabrial. Throughout the entire course of The Way of Kings I don’t think we even see anyone have a conversation with someone who Soulcasts using a Soulcaster fabrial. Interlude I-8: Geranid, gives us a hint, though. The ardent Ashir speculates as to whether people can eat in Shadesmar, and decides to look to see if anyone’s written about the experience. The ardentia knows about Shadesmar, and also controls the Soulcasters, so the fabrials might also involve this same journey and bargaining process. It seems too… polite, though. So much of the artifabrian’s task seems to involve forcing order onto a disordered state and finding creative ways to break the rules.
This article was originally published in December 2013 as part of The Stormlight Grimoire.
Carl Engle-Laird is an assistant editor with Tor.com Publishing as well as Tor.com’s resident Stormlight correspondent. He can lose a game of Catan within two moves. He dares you to beat his record. You can follow him on Twitter here.