Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Music Review - Dark Tranquility - Fiction

This is the first Dark Tranquility album I ever bought, and it's also one of the best metal albums I've ever bought. This is the definition of a fantastic album and it's definitely one of my favorites.

This entire album has a real forlorn feel to it; there's almost a sense of film-noir jazz about it, particularly in the opening seconds of Inside the Particle Storm. There's just a laid back feel to it that's hard to describe, as the music itself isn't laid back. It's just a sort, almost relaxed atmosphere throughout this whole album.

The music itself is chock full of sharp riffs, fantastic drumming (this album has some of my favorite drumming on it) terrific guitar leads and solos and some killer vocals courtesy of Mikael Stanne, delivered in his trademark higher-pitched rasp as opposed to a typical death metal growl. The lyrics are fantastic, with a very cold, futuristic vibe to them, and are one of my favorite things about the album. The production is crystal clear and sharp and fits this album perfectly; kudos to the sound engineer who mixed this record.

The futuristic vibe of the lyrics is enhanced by occasional techno-ish keyboards and industrial-esque breakdowns, though both are used with such infrequency that impact rather than annoyance is what is felt. If there's one musical high point of the album though, it would be Icipher, which stands as one of the best metal songs I've ever heard. The breakdown that occurs mid-song is chilling and in my mind is not only a high point for this album but for the genre as a whole. Every song has its strengths though, from the pounding of Focus Shift to the dark noir-jazz feel of Into the Particle Storm to Blind at Heart with its hard industrial breakdowns. The songwriting here is absolutely top notch.

Fiction is, as I said above, one of my favorite metal albums. It's fast, heavy, well thought and and well written metal with a real forlorn feel to it, and I heartily recommend this to anyone who likes good heavy, aggressive but also laid back (if that makes any sense at all) Gothenburg Death Metal.

Cigar Review - CAO La Traviata

I have to admit, I'm a little biased towards CAO, as they're my all time favorite cigar brand. I've yet to be disappointed by any cigar bearing the CAO label, and when I saw this new and un-smoked (by me anyways) cigar, I had to try it out.

I was not disappointed. This is a medium-to-full bodied cigar, a little on the stronger side though (but not Maduro) with a slow and very even burn (except for the first few minutes, but that was a lighting error on my part). It has that good earthy with slightly salty and bitter taste all CAO cigars have and keeps the same flavors throughout its roughly 50 minute burn. The draw was a bit tight though and it was a little tough to get properly lit, but it kept a good even burn once completely lit with a medium amount of smoke throughout.

My only real complaint I have is that the cigar I purchased began unraveling about halfway through, and by the time I was 3/4 done with it the entire end was unraveled.

CAO has consistently produced one excellent cigar after another, and this is no exception. While not the greatest cigar I've ever smoked, this is a slow burning, flavorful, medium-to-strong bodied cigar that I'll definitely be purchasing more of in the future.

CAO La Traviata
rated 7.5/10
medium-to strong bodied
Nicaraguan and Dominican Republican filler with Cameroon binder

Lighting Methods: Punch, with a tri-jet lighter.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Music Review - Summoning - Oath Bound

Summoning, next to Blind Guardian, are probably the most faithful Tolkien themed metal band out there. These guys really know their stuff and include in their lyrics excerpts from some of his most obscure poems. But what I really love about this band is their absolutely brilliant ability to perfectly capture the mood of the subject matter of the lyrics, in this case having to do with Hurin and the curse on his family (taken from the Silmarillion).

Summoning are like few other metal bands; their music, to be blunt, is very slow and very repetitive. However, the melodies that they repeat are so well thought out and so well written that it produces a vast, deep feel to the music that's unlike any other I've heard. In combination with the plodding and heavy drums devoid of any blastbeats or double bass or even typical metal beats, murky production and non-linear songwriting, Summoning produce music that is completely worthy of the Silmarillion.

There are some truly epic (and not cheesy epic) tracks here, with one of my favorites being Beleriand. The entire song and particularly the chorus ischilling; I'd go so far as to say that this song more or less defines what "epic" should mean. Every song here is long, slow and winding and takes its time building up and up and up, sometimes ending with a climax and sometimes ending with utter silence. The vocals fit perfectly with the music, while not in and of themselves overly amazing screeches and rasps.

If there's one high point here, its the final song, Land of the Dead. This song may just be the greatest metal song ever written; without giving anything away I can say that it is by far Summonings greatest song and an absolute achievement in every way. Absolutely spellbinding in its composition of simplicity and simply one of the most brilliant songs I've ever heard.

This is one of my all time favorite metal (if one call really call it "metal" as there is experimentation with ambient, martial ambient, and several other genres here) and in my opinion a landmark for metal as a whole. This isn't crushingly heavy, mindbogglingly technical or even all that extreme. This is the spirit of Tolkien's Middle-earth captured in musical form.

Tolkien Study#7 - The Silmarillion pt. 2

Going a little farther into the history of Arda we find an interesting event: the coming of Men into the West. This differs from the Elves and Dwarves who were created on the scene; Men more or less just wander into the story from the far East, running from some darkness that they simply won't speak of (and never do, there is very little history on this subject). The most commonly held theory is that they were running from Morgoth, and the strongest evidence for this is in Hurins debate with Morgoth. Morgoth attempted to enslave them from the very beginning and did indeed succeed with some of them, but nothing other than this is ever found out; it seems to be the most closely guarded secret in Middle-earth (other than Tom Bombadil, but that's another post). All that is known is that they came from the East fleeing a great darkness.

The East is something of an enigma in Middle-earth. There are very few references to it, though it would be reasonable to say that it's mostly a desert wilderness home to a very warlike and very numerous people. It's also interesting to note that two of five Chief Wizards went into the East and were never heard of or seen again. The East of Middle-earth is probably one of the most mysterious places in Arda; more is known even of Harad than the East. East is the direction of nearly all evil, with Sauron dominating the peoples of Harad and Rhun (the only named part of the East) and recruiting many of them to his will.

What is it about the East that is so mysterious and dark? It's something of a representation of Sin unchecked (at least in my mind) and allowed to run rampant in ones life and also of a life lived without any clear purpose, meaning or higher calling. A wasteland, completely uninhabited by any kind of people except for warring barbarians and dark spirits borne on the wind. That is what one becomes when Sin is allowed to run in ones life, and I think that is why the East of Middle-earth is so dark and enigmatic. It's simply a vast, wild land where there is no central law and evil is allowed to fester at will.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Top Ten #6 - Master and Commander-The Far Side of the World

This is a movie I initially didn't really think too highly of and didn't even really care about until I first watched it; I thought it was going to be a boring, second-rate pirate movie. I've always thought that it had bad luck in being released within a few months of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie; even though it was several months apart I still think that was one of the main reasons it didn't do as good as it should have done at the box office. It's really too bad this film didn't receive more attention, because Master and Commander is by far one of the best movies I've ever seen.

Russel Crowe and Paul Bettany play the two main characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Mautrin, and the two interact with absolutely perfect chemistry; it really does feel like the two men have been on many long voyages together. The banter and dialogue between the characters is exquisite, and really it's a a joy two watch two such good friends interact so well.

This is in my mind, a nearly perfect movie. The cinematography is absolutely outstanding and some of the best I've ever seen in a movie; from sweeping shots of the Galapagos Islands (accompanied by Yo-Yo-Ma's masterful cello playing) to intense and violent shots of battle to more intimate close up shots of the officers of the ship fellowshipping, absolutely 10/10 for the cinematography. The music, comprised of mostly classical pieces, ranks as one of the best scores for a movie I've ever hear, period. All the acting is nothing less than fantastic, with everyone from cabin boys to the captain being portrayed as well as could possibly be.

There are some hard to watch moments here though, as life on board a ship of war is not all pleasantries. In one heart-wrenching scene the crew is forced to cut loose a man cut overboard so as to save the ship, and it definitely comes in as one of the saddest and hardest to watch scenes I've ever seen. The battle scenes are intense, violent and bloody and is again a very faithful depiction of the brutal style of combat needed for boarding a ship.

Master and Commander is a brilliant depiction of life on a ship of war during the Napoleonic era. The courage and strength of Capt. Jack Aubrey in his leadership is portrayed brilliantly by Crowe in one of his best performances. While at times a brutal and harsh movie, it also is one of the well-shot, poignant, and honest look at the strength and bravery needed to survive the life at sea, and also the strengths of the friendships and loyalty that are also forged on the wooden world of Master and Commander.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tolkien Study #6 - The Silmarillion

I'm going to begin delving into the First age of Arda (the physical world) with an examination of Feanor, who is arguably the most important character in the entire legendarium of Arda. He is the greatest craftsman that ever existed or ever will exist, and was the one who created the Silmarili, the jewels that housed the light of the Two Trees of Valinor in their unbreakable crystal spheres. His name literally means spirit of fire; upon his death his spirit is seen to be so fiery that it consumed his physical body and left nothing but ashes. It is said that no one ever changed his mind by force, and few even by talking ever dissuaded him from anything. His skill at creating with his hands was unrivaled even by the Gods, and it was Aule (who himself was unable to rival Feanor in works of craft) the patron Vala of all craftsmen from whom Feanor got all his skill.

However, he was probably one of the worst people to ever inhabit Arda. His love for his works was an obsession that reached violent and murderous levels (a partly understandable trait when the works he created are seen as the "works of his heart" which he could not ever make again). Such was his obsession with his creation that he was willing to forsake Valinor and journey to Middle-earth to make war on Morgoth until his death or the return of the Jewels and in the process begin a curse of strife and death that destroyed his entire family and most of his race. He had no love for his wife or brothers, and the only affection he had was given to his father, whose murder by Morgoth prompted his rallying of the Noldor in revenge. To be blunt, he was a selfish, self-centered, haughty, murdering,war/fear-mongering and vain Elf, who was responsible for sundering of the Elves from Valinor into Middle-earth, the death of the majority of his people and nearly all of the events recorded in the Silmarillion.

Ultimately I'd say the story of Feanor (of which this is a brief summary) illustrates the danger of the Sin of Pride, and what can happen if pride is allowed unchecked in ones life and that if there is no love for others in your heart, the most impressive, beautiful and monumental thing you ever achieve is nothing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tolkien Study #5 - The Power of Love

Before I begin focusing and dissecting on the Silmarillion and events of the First age like I said I was going to do, I'm going to conclude with one final look at the Lord of the Rings story(though I may divide it into one or two separate posts). There is much to be found here, and though it was not the work of Tolkiens heart it is the most accessible of his writings (in my opinion).

The overall moral backing of the story is rooted firmly in love, camaraderie and mercy/pity. It is the great love between the Fellowship of the Ring that allows it to serve its part as the ultimate destruction of Sauron. Without the deep and binding love that each member of the Fellowship had for the other, despite their vast differences in size, strength and personalities, the Fellowship would have been nothing and the Ring would have gone back to Sauron. One could really say that it was love that was the ultimate destroyer of Sauron. This is probably most evident in the passage where Sam Gamgee literally picks up Frodo bodily and carries him Mount Doom.

Love is a powerful catalyst in the Middle-earth legendarium; indeed, it could be argued that love is THE catalyst in the legendarium, though perhaps some of it is misplaced. Feanors misplaced (or obsession) love for his jewels sets in motion not only a war spanning an entire age, but the reshaping of the entire planet Earth, as well as all the events recorded in the LOTR. However, it is the love of Tuor and Idril, a Man and an Elf, that allows for the salvation and redemption of both races at the end of the First Age. It is Faramirs arguably misplaced (yet still fiercely loyal) love to his father Denethor that almost kills him, yet it is the same quality of love that make his men respect him all the more as a captain of arms. It is the love beyond all hope of Beren and Luthien that results in one of the greatest and heroic feats in the entire history of the world of Arda (which I'll go into more detail later). For all the battles, conflicts and wars fought, it was love that was the primary mover of men and Elves.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Tolkien Study #4 - On Hobbits

An interesting note in Tolkiens writings (particularly the Lord of the Rings) is his use of the smallest imaginable people to accomplish the biggest and most important tasks. While Hobbits are small, mild-mannered, quiet, and even somewhat self-centered creatures, it is through them that the destruction of Sauron is achieved. As said in the LOTR many times, the hope of victory was never based on the strength of arms or the valour of warriors, but rather on the loyalty to the cause of Good and the great love for each other of Frodo and Sam, the Ringbearers.

There is another parallel between this topic and Biblical Christianity, and that is Gods use of the small and insignificant to confound the plans of the wise and powerful. It's a simple concept, really: The plans of the most powerful establishments here on Earth can be brought down and disrupted by the smallest and most insignificant person, and it is most often those very people that God will choose to use to disrupt such designs. Its this sort of thing that gives me comfort, knowing that as big and bad and dark of a place as this world can be, God has it under his control. And to quote Gandalf, "That is an encouraging thought".

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Review - The Children of Hurin

Published 30 years after J.R.R. Tolkiens death, this is the first true standalone version of the the Narn i Chin Hurin, or The Tale of the Children of Hurin. Centered primarily on the tragic life of Turin Turambar and modeled after both Greek and Finnish tragedies, this is a bleak, dark and moving epic tale of the highest caliber.

I'm not going to go into detail about the plot here, but I'll touch on a few key points about the book in general. First off, it is not necessary to have read the Silmarillion (from where the story is drawn) or any of Tolkiens other works, though it certainly wouldn't hurt. Secondly, this is a tragedy. There are few points of light or cheer to be found in this tale, and there is a near tangible cloud of heaviness on the plot and characters. I wouldn't recommend this to people who like light and fluffy stories at all. Thirdly, this is a Tolkien story. That means that it's written in what is nowadays known as an "archaic" form of speaking, and there are lots of what would also be called "long-winded" passages and dialogues; though if one knows of Tolkiens study and love of languages it is made clear that neither of those descriptions are true at all. Going along with that last point, there are lots of odd names and place-names, which for the uninitiated Tolkien reader will no doubt be confusing. This is definitely a work that takes more than one read to fully understand the names and geography of it all.

Now, on to why I think so highly of this story. Simply put, it is moving. There are scenes of heroism, love, courage, grief and self-sacrifice which have yet to be rivaled in modern fantasy and writing in general. There is a genuine sense of history and depth, again because of Tolkiens vast knowledge of linguistics. The sense of brooding and despair can be felt until the very climax of the tale, and it is not a happy ending; but when one studies the writings of Tolkien, it becomes clear that happy endings were not the desired goal.

My final thoughts on the story are this: This is a dark story. It is a tragic story. It is an almost depressing story. But it is also a genuinely moving story of love, and courage in the face of utter defeat; don't expect a light-hearted fantasy tale like The Hobbit. Expect a dark, brooding drama that engulfs one of the most tragic groups of people Tolkien ever invented, The Children of Hurin.

Music Review - Blind Guardian - A Twist in the Myth

The shortest way to sum up this album is that it's really just a much, much simpler A Night at the Opera. It's certainly not the bands best album, nor is it their weakest, but it has a few of their strongest and weakest points. Firstly, Thomen Staunch is gone, so the insane, wildly overdone drumming is repleaced by the capable (but much more laid back in his approach) Frederik Ehmk. The songwriting as a whole has undergone a massive reduction in complexity, resulting in what I wouldn't hesitate to call Blind Guardians most accessible (but not best) album.

I really do like this album, though I seem to be in the minority for doing so. While as I've stated above this isn't a mind-blowing album, it's a very strong Blind Guardian album, chock full of huge choruses, brilliant (in my opinion some of Hansis best) vocals, terrific guitar work and the trademark catchiness that the band has always had. Songs like Otherland, Turn the Page Fly and Another Stranger Me are all excellent, catchy, clever and fun songs and showcase the simple yet catchy strength of this album. The two ballads, Carry the Blessed Home and Skalds and Shadows show that Blind Guardian still know how to write slow, pompous and atmospheric pieces that fit in with the rest of their superb ballads.

There are a few weaker tracks though, and they're concentrated towards the end of the album. Lionheart, The Edge and The New Order just don't have the same punch the rest of the album has; they're decent enough songs on their own but almost seem like afterthoughts compared to the earlier, much better songs. If those three songs had been cut from the album, no harm would have been done to the record.

Perhaps it's just that I downloaded the album from iTunes, but the production sounds a little...muffled, almost quiet, compared to the earlier albums, and there are several instances when Hansi hits the super-high notes and it sounds fake, for lack of a better word. His high-scream of the opening track sounds more like guitar or keyboards than vocals, and it can get irritating at times.

However, those few complaints aside, this is a solid, rocking album from a band that has defined the genre of power metal for years. Strong moments include Fly, which is a brilliant track all the way through and one of the catchiest the band has ever written; Turn the Page, which I recommend for the same reason as Fly, fast, catchy and rocking, another stellar track. A few weak moments aside, I heartily recommend this album.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Music Review - Atmoshpere - When Life Gives You Lemons

When one mentions rap, a few things usually come instantly to mind. Loud beats, overwhelming bass, obscene and often derogatory lyrics and a violent, thug-like attitude and mentality. It's much less common to find a rap artist who is actually that, an artist, without the posturing and strutting of the gangster side of rap; but that's precisely what Atmosphere is.

This album takes more from old time jazz/rhythm and blues than most rap does, with the inclusion of mostly real instruments ranging from steel lap guitars to jazz guitar to more normal synths and beats. The tone of the album is often dreary, nostalgic and bleak, and the lyrics deal with topics ranging from single parenting, how to deal with the loss of loved ones and simple everyday people trying to survive and live their dreams in an often hard and cold world.

The beats here are soft and lacking in the massive low ends of typical rap (though bass is still a very prominent feature), recalling more the style of Mobys more recent efforts. The vocal delivery ranges from soft whispering to an occasionally more angry and forceful delivery and there are often female backing vocals.

The two high points of the album for me would be the nihilistic Painting, with its steel lap guitar and soft beat and Guarantees, a simple song consisting of only mellow jazz guitar riffs and vocals. Both songs contain the real-world, urban and none to hopeful feel of Atmosphere. Other good tracks include the friendly and almost bouncy Yesterday, a piano and drum oriented track about the loss of ones father; and You, which tackles the common theme of single (mostly women) parents working hard to support their dreams and makes excellent use of soft background synths and a catchy chorus.

While not an entirely family-friendly album (there's several uses of harsh language and subject matter) this is a low-key, intelligent and often relaxing album about life and the people, dreams and struggles who inhabit it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Top Ten Movie Countdown #7 - The King of Comedy

There are thousands of good acting performances. There's hundreds of excellent performances. There are dozens of amazing performances. Past amazing there are what I like to call "earth-shatteringly good" acting, and in my experience with movies, there have only ever been a bare handful of earth-shatteringly good acting performances. This is the best out of that bare handful.

Directed by Martin Scorsese and filled to the brim with his signature and evocative style of shooting and with Robert deNiro in the lead role, this is a brilliant film, and in my opinion Scorsese's best and certainly deNiros best.

Everything about this movie is absolutely top-notch; there simply isn't a weak point to be found. Cinematography is outstanding and the story and script flow perfectly with twists and turns that left me gaping and at times smiling. Scorsese is in his prime here, and it certainly shows.

The real high point of the movie, is, as stated above, the brilliant Robert deNiro as Rupert Pupkin, a man desperate to be a late-night comedian. If any proof was ever needed that deNiro is one of the greatest actors to ever live, this is it. This is, in my opinion, the single greatest performance of acting ever captured on film. Not a whole lot more can be said other than this is a brilliant, powerful performance that has yet to be rivaled.

This is a short review, because I can't think of much more to say other than this is a brilliant film with one of the, if not the, greatest actors putting on the greatest show in movies.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tolkien Study #3: Origins

The easy way to answer a question on the origins of Tolkiens fantasy is to simply say Northern mythology (for the most part). Much, if not most of the legendarium is taken from Scandinavian and Northern European epics and poems. Many of the names have counterparts in actual European histories and landscapes and even much of the actual plot of the stories aren't entirely original.

However, in my reading of the Bible, i came across an interesting passage:

Psalms 107
1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

2 Let the redeemed of the LORD say this—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,

3 those he gathered from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south. a]">[a]

4 Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.

5 They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.

6 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.

7 He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.

8 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for men,

9 for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.

10 Some sat in darkness and the deepest gloom,
prisoners suffering in iron chains,

11 for they had rebelled against the words of God
and despised the counsel of the Most High.

12 So he subjected them to bitter labor;
they stumbled, and there was no one to help.

13 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.

14 He brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom
and broke away their chains.

15 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for men,

16 for he breaks down gates of bronze
and cuts through bars of iron.

17 Some became fools through their rebellious ways
and suffered affliction because of their iniquities.

18 They loathed all food
and drew near the gates of death.

19 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.

20 He sent forth his word and healed them;
he rescued them from the grave.

21 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for men.

22 Let them sacrifice thank offerings
and tell of his works with songs of joy.

23 Others went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.

24 They saw the works of the LORD,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.

25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.

26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.

27 They reeled and staggered like drunken men;
they were at their wits' end.

28 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.

29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.

30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.

31 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for men.

32 Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people
and praise him in the council of the elders.

33 He turned rivers into a desert,
flowing springs into thirsty ground,

34 and fruitful land into a salt waste,
because of the wickedness of those who lived there.

35 He turned the desert into pools of water
and the parched ground into flowing springs;

36 there he brought the hungry to live,
and they founded a city where they could settle.

37 They sowed fields and planted vineyards
that yielded a fruitful harvest;

38 he blessed them, and their numbers greatly increased,
and he did not let their herds diminish.

39 Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled
by oppression, calamity and sorrow;

40 he who pours contempt on nobles
made them wander in a trackless waste.

41 But he lifted the needy out of their affliction
and increased their families like flocks.

42 The upright see and rejoice,
but all the wicked shut their mouths.

43 Whoever is wise, let him heed these things
and consider the great love of the LORD.

I read that once over not really thinking about it, then skipped back to it. That passage is nearly the entire Silmarillion in a condensed form.

I've always held the belief that Tolkien had a profoundly spiritual side that no one really was aware of. He was a man of devout faith and that's reflected in his writings; however, it was the reading of Psalm 107 that really made me see just how strong in his faith he was. Everything from a Hidden City to a Straight Way to God stirring up a tempest of the water because of their desperate cries for help is seen in both this passage and the Silmarillion, and I feel that its no mere chance that these similarities exist.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Tolkien Study #2: Basic Ideals - Grace and Courage pt.2

The second most prominent ideal is Grace; not the prayer said before a meal or in dancing, but mercy. The LOTR stories are heavily structured around Grace as a very powerful ideal/act; examples therein abound, however the example I'm going to focus on is the Voyage of Earendil the Mariner

Earendil was one of the oldest components of Tolkiens writing, and was a very important character, possibly one of the most important. Earendil is the idea of the power of simple intercession on behalf of a great cause, and a good analogy can be drawn between Earendil and the Christian faith.

During the course of the 450+ year war of the Elves against Morgoth, there was born a man named Earendil. He saw that the cause of Elves and Men was lost against Morgoth, for since Morgoth was a Valar (and the mightiest of these) there was no hope of victory by force. Earendil took the one Silmaril that had been won back by Beren (another tale altogether which I'll go into in another post), bound it to his brow and sailed off into the West to find Valinor. After a long and hard journey he finally reaches the Valar and begs for their help (remember, the Valar had sworn to neither aid nor hinder the Elves, but also doomed them to eternal banishment from Valinor for going to war), admitting the wrongs that had been done in the course of the war and explaining that it was a truly lost cause without divine intervention. The Valar take council and decide to aid the lost cause, and descend on Morgoth with such fury and power that the land of Beleriand is broken and the face of the world is changed forever. Morgoth is thrown down and cast out of the living world for all of eternity and the war of the Jewels is ended. Earendil, however, is not permitted to go back to mortal lands ever again and is judged as one of the Elves; his ship sails into the Void with the Silmaril on its prow, and is known as the Morning and Evening Star in Middle-earth in the later ages.

The ultimate point of the story, in my opinion, is how powerful grace/pity/mercy can be, and that even the smallest acts of such (though the one listed here certainly wasnt small) can often, to quote Gandalf "rule the fates of many." In fact, Gandalf really summed up the idea of grace in the LOTR during a dialogue with Frodo:

"What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!"
"Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."

"He deserves death."

"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, or good or Ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many - yours not least."

That's one of the more well-known lines from the book/movie, but in my mind perfectly sums up the ideal of Grace on Tolkiens Legendarium.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tolkien Study #2: Basic Ideals - Grace and Courage pt.1

Tolkien's two most prominent ideals, in my mind, are Courage and Grace. Most of the Lord of the Rings story is centered primarily on those two main ideas, along with a host of others. Courage and Grace, however, seem to be the most prominent. This section deals with the former, Courage.

Courage in the Tolkien legendarium is often without hope, cheer or any kind of positive backing. This stems from an understanding of the Theory of Northern Courage, which can be defined in one basic event: Ragnarok. Ragnarok was the day in Northern mythology when every good and every evil thing to have ever existed would fight, and evil would be triumphant. The idea behind this is that even though the right and good side was without any kind of final hope, it wouldn't do to simply let evil run unchecked. Good must oppose evil, with or without hope, because that is simply the way that things are. The moral backbone is one of Tolkiens greatest strengths in his stories; characters so utterly selfless and willing to oppose evil that, if need be, they willingly give their lives that others may reap the benefits of their sacrifice.

Courage here doesn't simply mean not being afraid or just trying to out-macho the opposing forces. It has more to do with a kind of willingness, even if it's a sad and resigned one, to oppose evil no matter what for the purpose of all that is good. As stated above, few if any characters in the legendarium ever have anything even remotely resembling hope. Therefore, courage cannot be defined by a simple hope for the best and ignorance of whatever opposing forces there are. It is defined by a willingness to endure any and all hardships necessary to oppose that which is not Good, whether a physical opponent or negative emotion.

When reading the legendarium, particularly LOTR, there is a real sense of sadness about the characters. Many people make the mistake of confusing sadness, a natural and healthy emotion, with depression and even despair. Despair is what happens when one abandons both hope (which, while not necessarily vital to courage is certainly vital to keep one's spirits up) and courage altogether. Take for instance the father and son duo of Faramir and Denethor, from the latter part of the LOTR story. Faramir says himself it is long since they(his people, the kingdom of Gondor) have had any hope; yet he does not make the mistake of falling into despair, precisely because he hasn't entirely given up on the idea that what he's fighting for is truly the right side. Denethor, on the other hand, loses all hope(due to his seeing Saurons plans in detail) and abandons courage, reason and hope in exchange for a fey madness; one that almost takes the life of Faramir. Faramir certainly had acess to nearly the same knowledge; his duty was a captain of Rangers, and his duty called him to scout far ahead of the main body of Gondorian soldiers to spy on the enemy and report on their numbers and movements. So hope/despair/courage isn't even really dependent on the knowledge of your enemy's strength, its a simple matter of remembering which side you are fighting for. As long as one can remain steadfast in ones cause, regardless of how hopeless it may seem, one will always have hope, and Courage.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tolkien Study - #1

The first installment of this series is going to begin with some basic background work necessary for a closer look at the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien and its meanings, metaphors and applications in life.

A very short and non-exhaustive framework of the completed mythology is as follows (in chronological order):

-The creation of the Universe (Ea) by Illuvator(the One, God)
-The creation of lesser spirits and deities(the Valar and Maiar collectively called the Ainur , the latter of of which Gandalf and Saruman belong to)
-The Music of the Ainur, in which the very fabric of creation is made, and the original rebellion of Melkor, the most powerful of all the Valar and the reason evil exists in the world
-The creation of Arda(earth) by the Valar
- The creation of the Elves and their journey from Middle-earth to Valinor, the land of the Valar.

Those events comprise the very beginning of counted time. I'm not going to go into a detailed history of the world during the First Age, as that would require many hundreds of pages, but a brief summary of the First Age after creation is as follows:

-Feanor creates his Silmarils(there are three) and sets in them the Light of the Two Trees of Valinor, from which the light of the World came.
-The Two Trees are destroyed by Morgoth and Ungoliant, a huge primeval spirit in spider-form. After the destruction of the Trees they steal the Silmarils, and Morgoth retreats to his fortress in Middle-earth(Thangorodrim)
After the theft of the Jewels and the death of the Trees, the Valar bring forth the Sun and Moon to light the world. Feanor rallies his people(the Noldor) together and decides to take revenge on Morgoth for his theft. He leads the majority of the Noldor out of Valinor.
-The Valar, not intending to stop Feanors crusade, deliver an ultimatum of doom, death and sorrow to the Noldor. Feanor attacks the Teleri(Elves who dwelled by the Sea and renowned seafarers) and steals their ships to get to Middle-earth. Thus begins the War of the Jewels. It is in this war that some of the most moving and powerful scenes occur, and it is those that I'll be looking at first.