Archive for June, 2015

TT: Hi-Ho? Not These Dwarves!

June 4, 2015

JANE: Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been discussing the various races that J.R.R. Tolkien forever made part of the landscape of Fantasy fiction.  It would probably shock many current Fantasy readers to realize that before this novel few – if any – Fantasy novels incorporated a suite of races that has now become routine, if not cliché.

Hi-Ho and Early Fantasy Fiction

Hi-Ho and Early Fantasy Fiction

ALAN: That’s exactly right. Pre-Tolkien fantasy, while it was full of wizards and magic, was almost exclusively human. The classic novel from this period is E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros which tells of the war between Witchland and Demonland. In the course of telling his tale, Eddison also mentions Goblinland and Pixyland and at one point in the story a dwarf appears. However Goblinland and Pixyland are just country names, and even though the inhabitants are referred to as goblins and pixies, Eddison does nothing at all with the idea and it is clear that the goblins, the pixies and all the other characters are human.

Similar comments can be made about other fantasy worlds such as Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories and the Conan the Barbarian fantasies written by Robert E. Howard.

Mind you – I think I could make a good case that Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania were actually High Elves, in the Tolkien sense…

JANE: Oh, absolutely.  I’ve always assumed that Shakespeare’s characters had an influence on how Tolkien depicted his elves.

A few weeks ago, you talked about how hippies really identified with hobbits, and that wizards also entered the cultural landscape.  The popularity of elves, however, seems to be a somewhat later phenomenon.

Did dwarves make a larger cultural impact?

ALAN:  I think dwarves have always been part of popular culture – I seem to recall them appearing in a lot of fairy tales.

JANE:  Good point.  It’s rather strange, but dwarfs, especially treasure-mongering sorts, appear in many fairy tales, in a way that elves do not.  Tales about elves are more likely to be legend lore, rather than fairy tale.

I also think Walt Disney’s depiction of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had a lot to contribute to keeping dwarfs in the popular eye.

So, how do you – personally –  feel about dwarves?

ALAN:  I’ve always had quite a soft spot for Tolkien’s dwarves. Certainly they were isolationists, preferring their delvings under the mountains to any involvement in the larger affairs of Middle Earth. Nevertheless they could not shut the world away completely and they suffered great tragedies as a result. I always felt a little bit sorry for them because of the troubles they had to live through.

JANE: My response to dwarves is much like yours.   Especially in The Hobbit, we get a good look at their interactions and differences in personality.  Because of this, they always seemed more three-dimensional than the elves, since the only elf we get to know really well is Legolas.

However, the dwarves indirectly lead to one of my biggest disconnects with Tolkien’s work.

ALAN: What was that?

JANE: When I was in college I read a translation of Snorri Sturlusson’s Poetic Edda.  Imagine my surprise when, in a piece about the origin of the dwarfs, I found a bunch of familiar names, up to and including Gandalf.  I realized that Tolkien had cribbed them entirely from Old Norse.

It’s startling to come across someone’s source quite so blatantly.  Whenever I’d hear people rave about Tolkien’s brilliant naming, I’d often point out he’d just swiped them.

ALAN: Not only did Tolkien swipe them, he also slightly misappropriated them. Gandalf was actually the name of a dwarf in the Völuspá, the first poem of the Poetic Edda. I can’t remember when or how I discovered that, but it definitely gave me a moment of culture shock when I did!

JANE: Tolkien must have liked the name Gandalf, because the character who would become Thorin Oakenshield was originally named Gandalf.

However, Tolkien later changed his mind and Gandalf became the wizard instead.

Many years later, I learned that Tolkien himself regretted his wholesale use of the names from the Poetic Edda.  It was one of the reasons he came up with the elaborate justification that the “Lord of the Rings” is actually translated from other languages and that the names in it are, in many cases, not the actual names, just borrowings to make translation easier.

ALAN: But that “elaborate justification,” to use your very appropriate phrase, is one of the major things that makes the world of Middle Earth feel so real and so full of history. So I think Tolkien can be forgiven his original theft of all those names because of what it led to.

Now, back to dwarves. In The Hobbit (both the book and the movies) we learn quite a lot about the history of the dwarves and their place in the world. One of the dwarves is Balin and we grow very close to him – he’s a tremendously appealing character. The movies make it quite clear that he is an influential dwarf, wise and battle-hardened. We see him fighting in the dwarf army that lost Moria to the orcs and, at the end of The Hobbit we see him survive the Battle of the Five Armies. We also know that, after Bilbo returns home to the Shire, Balin will lead an army to re-take Moria…

After watching all three Hobbit movies, I re-watched the Lord of the Rings, and I confess that I got a big lump in my throat when Gimli came across Balin’s tomb in Moria. His grief was palpable, and because I had grown so close to Balin, so was mine.

JANE: I always loved Balin.  He had a groundedness (pun intended) that Thorin – obsessed as he was with the Arkenstone of Thrain – lacked.  Honestly, he would have been a better leader all along.

Like Elves, Dwarves have shown a lasting appeal.  They are popular characters for role-players, and I suspect that if they weren’t usually defined as essentially non-magical – even resistant to magic – they would be even more so.

ALAN: Surely that magical resistance makes them great allies if you are enduring some kind of magical attack? But then again, I’m not a role-player…

JANE: Oh!  Absolutely…  But many role-players want to be able to do fancy magic, and if you play a dwarf, that’s out.

A great example of the appeal of dwarf can be found in the work of author Dennis McKiernan, whose first novels were an attempt to provide a backstory for the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy from the point of view of the dwarves.

I should note here that Dennis was an electrical engineer at the time and had no idea about literary rights.  However, he’d always loved the books, thought that there was more story behind the dwarves involvement.  When a motorcycle accident put him in bed with two broken legs, he decided to write the dwarves’ story.

Doubleday was interested and apparently tried to get permission from the Tolkien estate to publish them as prequels.  When the estate would not give permission, Doubleday thought (correctly) there would be an audience for the tales, and asked Dennis to rewrite, creating his own world to set the story in.

These books were eventually published as The Iron Tower trilogy and became the basis for McKiernan’s Fantasy realm of Mithgar.

ALAN: Another good example of the enduring popularity of dwarves comes from the German writer Markus Heitz. He has written a whole series of novels about dwarves, some of which have been translated into English. They seem to be quite popular. I’ve not read any of them myself, but a friend of mine whose judgement I trust is particularly fond of them. It seems that dwarves are everywhere.

I actually know a dwarf in real life. He’s a very tall dwarf, about six feet tall in every direction. But nevertheless he’s a dwarf.

JANE: Okay…  I’ll bite.  How do you have a dwarf who is six feet tall in every direction?

ALAN: It’s simple – I know an actor who was one of John Rhys-Davies’ body doubles (Rhys-Davies played Gimli in the movies). Peter Jackson really does enjoy making life hard for himself – both men are very tall and very bulky, not dwarf-like at all!

JANE:  Bulky works for dwarves…  Doesn’t it?   I wonder why the body-double, at least, wasn’t shorter.  Probably has something to with the CGI work.  I thought John Rhys-Davies did an excellent job with Gimili, despite the height disadvantage.

Now, I feel we can’t discuss dwarfs – or dwarves – without a mention of where the plural “dwarves” originated.  Do you know?

ALAN: No, I don’t. Is that what they call a trick question?

JANE: Not really…  It fits our discussion perfectly.  Tolkien actually created the word.  “Dwarves” (rather than “dwarfs”) was a plural he came up with, later regretted as “ungrammatical,” but by then it was established enough in his writings and in his own mind that he stayed with it.  So, in addition to fleshing out dwarvish culture and taking them from myth and fairytale to popular figures of Fantasy fiction, Tolkien also gave them a new plural!

ALAN: I suppose that’s what happens when you are a philologist!

JANE: Now, we’ve left one mysterious and important race out of our discussion…  Perhaps we can pursue it next time!

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Announcements, Memorial, and Conduit

June 3, 2015

Have I ever mentioned that I’m a little superstitious?  Well, I am, at least about things that seem to be too good to be true.  That’s why I’ve waited until now to tell you about something I first learned back in early April.

Paul Genesse Interviews Me

Paul Genesse Interviews Me

I’ve been invited to be one of the featured authors at this year’s National Book Festival.  This event is a Big Deal.  It’s organized by the Library of Congress and features a hundred or so of (in their own words) “the nation’s best authors, poets and illustrators.”

Making it nicer for me, the National Book Festival is held in my hometown, Washington, D.C.  You can learn more details here.

So, that’s the first announcement…  The second is that S.M. Stirling has asked me to pass on the word that the anthology The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth, which features stories set in his immensely popular “Changeverse,”  will be hitting stores and Amazon on the first of June!  Among the stories featured is my own “The Hermit and the Jackalopes.”

A launch for The Change will be held on June 15th, at the Jean Cocteau Theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Many of the authors plan to attend, so this is a great way to get your copy signed by all.  A second event will be held on June 27th at Page One Books in Albuquerque.

Speaking of the Jean Cocteau Theater, I was there Sunday for an event in honor of Roger Zelazny, hosted by George R.R. Martin, and organized by Trent Zelazny.  As many of you know, Roger was very dear to me.  We lived together the last year of his life and losing him was the hardest thing that ever happened to me.

I won’t pretend that the event was easy.  When I got up to make my presentation, for the first time ever in my life, my mouth went completely dry.  Up to that point, I’d thought that was a metaphor.  It isn’t.  I could barely talk and was too overwhelmed to ask someone to get me some water.  However, though some miracle, I managed to say a few words, then read Roger’s poem, “When Pussywillows Last in the Catyard Bloomed.”  You can bet that I made sure I had water available when, later on, I read another of Roger’s poems, “To Spin is Miracle Cat.”

Presentations and readings, wise, witty, and wonderful were given by Parris Martin, Walter Jon Williams, Melinda Snodgrass, Shannon Zelazny, John Jos. Miller, Steve Gould, and Trent Zelazny.  Joe and Gay Haldeman and Steven Brust weighed in via Skype, and Neil Gaiman sent a videotaped reading from London.

Trent had made a slideshow mingling art inspired by Roger’s work with some photos of Roger.  We watched the Twilight Zone episode George had adapted from Roger’s story, “The Last Defender of Camelot,” followed by George talking about how Roger had befriended him when George first moved to Santa Fe, then some behind-the-scenes details of how the story was adapted to the script.

Later in the evening, there was a dramatic presentation centered around Roger’s play, “Godson,” based on the short story of the same name (which in turn was inspired by the fairytale “Godfather Death.”)  I was familiar with the play already.  I think I was probably the first person to read it.  I’d even heard Roger read it aloud one memorable night at George’s.  However, I had no idea how it would actually work out when performed.

I’m happy to report that it was a delightful presentation.  Andy Primm wrote (and I believe performed) music for guitar to go with Roger’s lyrics.  The small cast did a brilliant job with the handkerchief stage.  Since there was no room for sets, a newly created character, “The Raven,” read Roger’s lovely stage directions to set the scene.  I was very impressed!

And while we’re talking about events…  Over Memorial Day weekend, Jim and I went up to Salt Lake City, Utah, where I was Guest of Honor at Conduit.  We drove up from Albuquerque, stopping overnight in Moab, Utah, so we could visit Arches National Monument.  For Jim, this provided an opportunity to take photos.  For me, it was a great opportunity to immerse myself in a strange, almost alien landscape, not unlike portions of the planet Gryphon on which I’ll be setting my next Honorverse story.  The immersion must have worked, because I started the story soon after we got home!

On Friday, Jim and I completed the drive to Salt Lake.  (Aside: The distance between Albuquerque and Salt Lake takes about twelve hours to drive, longer if you want to stop along the way.)  We checked into the convention hotel and, by 4:00 p.m., I was on my first panel, chatting about the Honorverse with the HMS Jonas Adock crew (aka, the local David Weber fan club).  I had fun telling tales on my good buddy and giving away prizes.

This panel was followed immediately by one on YA fiction.  Then we dined with our good friends, Julie and Nora Bartel, before going off to the Ice Cream Social.  Here some of the Jonas Adock crewmembers made sure we didn’t feel left out.  Soon, other people drifted over to chat.

Eventually, we staggered off to bed.  We rose early the next morning to meet the Bartels (now a full set, rounded out by Ken, Julie’s husband and Nora’s dad).   We went to breakfast at the Little America hotel, where I ate the best French toast I’ve ever had.  After breakfast, we went across the street to tour the astonishing five-star splendor of the  Grand America Hotel, which was built as part of bringing the Olympics to Salt Lake City.  Now I know precisely how to describe a palace, should the need ever arise.  Even the individual stalls in the lady’s room were lined in marble!

Then it was back to Conduit for an amazingly busy day.  I started with back-to-back panels on “The Unpayable Debt” (influences from other writers or mentors) and on Dune on the 25th anniversary of its publication.  Both were lots of fun.

I had an hour break, so we dashed up to my room to grab a few things before the next round.  We came down to meet with Julie for a quick review before our joint panel on “Judging a Book by Its Cover.”  We’d also hoped to find coffee but, in an act of Cosmic Mystery, the hotel coffee shop had closed at 11:00 a.m.  Happily for us, the hotel restaurant made us gifts of two “to-go” cups, so Julie and I were recharged for our event.

After “Judging a Book by Its Cover” (in which we were joined by Eddy Roberts and which included a lot of audience participation), I had time to breathe for a few minutes before bustling off to my reading.  Because I knew Julie wanted to hear it, I read my short story “The Button Witch,” an odd bit of old-style urban fantasy about a strange woman who grants wishes, but only “button wishes.”

When I finished, one of the audience members exclaimed: “My mother collects buttons!” which just goes to show: there is magic in the universe.

After my reading, I galloped off to do a signing.  I’d brought copies of Wanderings on Writing and was pleased how many people bought one.  Icing on the cake, the artist Guest of Honor complimented Tori Hansen’s cover art.

For the final event of the day, I’d asked local Utah author, talented interviewer, and friend Paul Genesse (that’s pronounced “Gen-ess,” like “finesse”) to interview me.  He’d really done his homework and the hour sped by.  Afterwards, we grabbed jackets and went out to dinner with Paul, and two of his friends, Don and Pat.  The evening ended with an unintentional dungeon crawl through the single most confusing parking garage I’ve even been in.  As if commenting on our plight, we passed a car whose license plate read: “Mwahaha,” in the best evil villain fashion.

Sunday, I only had two panels – one on using non-classical mythology, the other on writing in collaboration.  Both were lots of fun.  Jim ended our day by giving a well-attended talk on archeology.  Nora Bartel, age six and a half, had the courage to ask the question everyone really wants to ask, but is too shy to venture: “What do you do when you find a skeleton?”

We explored Salt Lake City with the Bartels that evening.  (The older areas are very lovely.)  We ended with dinner at a Himalayan place.  We’d never had Himalayan cuisine before and liked it a lot.

Monday morning, we were back on the road. This time our destination was Dolores, Colorado, which features the Anasazi Heritage Center.  We got there an hour before closing, but a kind ranger gave us permission to hike the trails, as long as we closed the gates after us.

Tuesday was home again, home again…  I don’t know how people who travel a lot manage!