“The Wheel of Time is too daunting,” says Tolkienist. “Wait, what?” Everyone else asks.

Recently, I finished reading The Eye of the World, the first novel in Robert Jordan’s sprawling epic The Wheel of Time. It the first of fourteen novels and quite frankly, it is a bit intimidating. This is coming from someone who has a studied the Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and other collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing on a scholarly level, for fun.

The Wheel of Time seems daunting in the same style that Frank Herbert’s Dune is daunting. The difference being I already decided in my mind when I read Dune that I would go no further than the first book. You don’t have that option with The Wheel of Time. Like Dune, the writing style is long-winded but Jordan, like Herbert and Tolkien, cares about his words being mot juste.

However, this makes for a slow read. A fantasy novel, usually a long read by itself, will take me about two weeks to read. The first Wheel of Time novel has taken me a month to get through. It’s a slog, which usually has a negative connotation, but somehow it’s a good slog? A lot of backstory and history is given in this first book which usually would be perfect for a reader like me, who loves exposition, but by the end of the novel, it was hard to stay focused.

It’s funny, for such well-known fantasy series it is surprising how little I knew about it. Even A Song of Ice and Fire was spoiled for me (The Red Wedding) before I ever finished the second book. With The Wheel of Time, however, I’ve never heard of a single character or setting. Not Rand Al’Thor, Mat Cauthon, or Perrin Ayabard nor Tar Valon, Emond’s Field, or Caemlyn.

When I say the series may be too daunting for me this isn’t a criticism of the books nor does it mean that I won’t continue reading. What I mean is that it’s going to take me a long time to read and truly appreciate the series. As a child, doctors told my mother that I had attention deficit disorder. In school, I could not sit still. At parties, I would run into walls. To fight this, my parents removed all artificial flavors and coloring from my diet rather than putting me on a prescription drug like Ritalin. Now, I struggle to fight distractions when writing and have difficulty staying focused if I read a two books of a series in a row.

I could read each book in the series one after another, but not only would it take longer than if I read other books in between but the series would become a burden rather than what I would do for enjoyment. I look forward to reading the next book in the series, The Great Hunt, after I’ve read two or three other books in between. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read The Lord of the Rings for the twelfth time in ten years.

Hobbit sized editions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Yesterday I received in the mail my pocket sized copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings pictured here:

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Also here:

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The outside feels like this faux leather that bends easily like rubber but seems like it could take a lot of abuse.

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Since they are pocket sized of course the writing is small but the type is equal to any hardcover or paperback edition. In fact, it looks almost exactly the same like they were originally larger and went through a shrink ray.

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In fact, I was surprised to find The Return of the King still included the appendices and the index.

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As far as fitting into my pocket is concerned, it fits about as well as an iPhone 6+. They’re definitely not meant for small pockets or tight jeans but fit nicely in the pockets of my coats, sports coats and blazers.

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They’re a nice edition to my collection and I plan on annotating them to death. If you’re buying these books for the first time though I don’t suggest them.

The Magic of Middle-Earth is Unexplainable, Nor Should It Be.

For this is what your folk would call magic. I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy – Galadriel

 

“Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso : if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories.

This video has been gaining traction today detailing how Legolas could not really see as far as he claims according to the laws of physics. This is a common occurrence when it comes to the fantastical things in Tolkien’s Legendarium. The problem is that Tolkien’s magic cannot be explained using a set of rules. It is more mythical and mysterious like the folk tales of Anglo-Saxon, of Norse sagas, Arthurian romance and probably the Old Testament.

I can’t believe I have to explain this but magic isn’t science, it doesn’t have to be explained. It can be, and that can be fun too. Brandon Sanderson is known for his magic systems. He even has what he calls Sanderson’s Laws for his series of rules when creating magic systems. Patrick Rothfuss goes to painstaking details to create rules for his magic system. Then comes naming. Naming cannot be explained like love, humor or music yet no one gives Rothfuss any guff trying to explain the rules of naming.

My point is you can have a magic system in a fantasy book that does not have rules and the work of J.R.R. Tolkien is a prime example. The problem is that “magic” in Middle-Earth is what men and hobbits calls thing they cannot explain leading to reactions like the Galadriel quote above. “Magic” is part of Arda (the earth) itself and the elves are connected permanently to Arda. What we as readers such as men and hobbit may see as magic the elves see as a natural part of their skills and their very being. It is more of a divine power with few explanations to how it really works.

Here is where critics start throwing out words like Deus ex machina without fully understanding what it means. What makes Tolkien’s works have that mythical feeling about them is that there are aspects that cannot be explained such as the elves, the wizards, Balrogs and beings like Sauron.

Partially to blame is Hollywood, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and films in general. Those are visual mediums, as such they need visuals to convey what is going on. The problem is magics is not all visual in any of Tolkien’s books. While the film showed forcefields and battles of light coming from his staff and slashes of his sword versus the Balrogs swipes and cracks of his whip the fight in the books is more of a battle of wills, a battle of power between to divine beings that we cannot see with barely any swordplay.

The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.
‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’
The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.
From out of the shadow a red sword leaped flaming.
Glamdring glittered white in answer.
There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The Balrog fell back and its sword flew up in molten fragments. The wizard swayed on the bridge, stepped back a pace, and then again stood still.
‘You cannot pass!’ he said.
With a bound the Balrog leaped full upon the bridge. Its whip whirled and hissed.

Neil Gaiman has a great quote about magic in film when talking about the film adaptation of A Winter’s Tale which by the way is a terrible movie mostly despite his warm review of it.

There’s a thing that happens in Hollywood, when you hand in a script with magic in it, and the people at the studio who read it say “We don’t quite understand… can you explain the rules? What are the rules here? The magic must have rules” and sometimes when they say that to me I explain that I am sure it does, just as life has rules, but they didn’t give me a rule book to life when I was born, and I’ve been trying to figure it out as I go along, and I am sure it is the same thing for magic; and sometimes I explain that, yes, the magic has rules, and if they read again carefully they can figure out what they are; and sometimes I sigh and put in a line here and a line there that spells things out, says, YES THESE ARE THE RULES YOU DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION and then everyone is very happy. 

I understand, I really do. It seems frustrating because we live in a world of science that strives to explain how the universe works and that can be beautiful but Middle-Earth isn’t our world. It is a epic myth such a The Odyssey, The Prose Edda, The Arthurian Legends and Beowulf. The problem is people still come along and try to explain it or disprove parts of it.

The other problem that pertains to the video about Legolas’s eyes is the perceptions that elves are just some kind of different humanoid type species. Elves are preternatural beings, outside the rules of nature yet also connected to nature itself. This comes from the Tolkien Gateway entry on elves under arts, crafts, powers and magic.

Other races often spoke of ‘Elf magic’, or of objects made by Elves as if they contained enchantments. It is unclear how accurate it is to call Elvish arts and crafts ‘magic’ or ‘enchanted’. Elves themselves only used these words when attempting to simplify or clarify how elvish-made things seemed to have a special quality that no other races were able to achieve. Powerful Elves seemed to have control over nature and the elements, their clothes seemed to shine with their own light, their blades seemed to never lose their sharpness. Less educated folks couldn’t explain these effects, so they simply called them ‘magic’. However, each race had their own special abilities that seemed incomprehensible to others. Hobbits had a seemingly supernatural ability to hide when they wished to remain unseen. Dwarves were unmatched in the art of mining and building halls underground. Wizards had such wisdom and knowledge of the world and all things in it that they appeared to have mystical powers. To each of these races, what they did had nothing to do with magic, it was just how they did things. It may have been so too with Elves. Whether there was any kind of mystical energy involved in the things Elves made can never be proved or disproved.

N.K. Jemisin who wrote the Inheritance trilogy wrote this great article for io9.com just on the subject of magic and rules titled Why does magic need so many rules? In it she makes a connection of what might be the blame for why modern fantasy readers and viewers need rules for magic in Dungeon and Dragons which has rules clearly defined using systems of numbers. Why stop there though? What about video games which also when it comes to magic has a system in place for how magic can be done but Jemisin argues…

It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death – things no one understands, and few expect to. Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It’s the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not…

 

In LotR, sometimes magic meant forging a ring with a chunk of soul melted into the alloy. Sometimes it meant learning obscure/dead languages, or talking to obscure/dead creatures. Sometimes it meant brandishing a particular kind of stick in a particular kind of way, and shouting really loudly. Sometimes it meant being born with pointy ears, and sometimes resisting magic meant being born with hairy feet. It was organic, embedded, a total crapshoot. And it was wonderful.

 

The point is, magic can have a system of rules such as Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series or Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, hell, my own fiction has a system of magic but quit trying to find fault in Tolkien’s magic system because magic doesn’t always need so many rules.

A Story about Three Other Stories

     Sitting outside in my parent’s backyard, I’ve just finished reading for the second time The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss when I realize it was the first book of a trilogy of books I had completely about twenty days ago with The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.
     Along with Elantris by Brandon Sanderson, these three books were all bought at the Smith Haven Mall’s Barnes & Noble. Since about 2007 my friend Keri and I have had a tradition where I pick her up from her house, we go to Barnes & Noble hunting down books to purchase, and then grab a bite to eat. All along the way, except for the moments when we’re hunting down books, we catch up on what’s going on in our lives.
     I can’t say we’re close friends but I also can’t say we’re not. We both have our own group of friends, jobs, and schools that keep our lives busy. I’ve been mulling it over as I drafted this blog entry on a legal pad, and I would compare our friendship to getting to hang out with that cousin at the big family barbecue, that cousin you have the most in common with but don’t get to see that often. You’re relieved to finally be able to talk to someone on a similar wavelength as you. Plus, with the amount of books she reads and the number of years she’s been writing I have always a new book she can recommend to me. Which is exactly what she did in this story.
     The stories goes, in I believe the summer of 2008 when we went on one of the trips to Barnes & Noble I was looking for something new in the genre of Fantasy. This was after I had absorbed The Lord of the Rings into my being, was heavily read in Science Fiction, was too smug with my Literature Major classes to read Harry Potter (I have since read 1-6 and highly enjoyed them) and had yet the foreknowledge to try George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
     So simply, I asked her “I’m looking for some fantasy books, more modern authors, something new.” We were standing in the fantasy section, and without much thought, she pointed out the three books I mentioned earlier, relatively near each other. “Patrick Rothfuss has been getting a lot of buzz, same with that book The Lies of Locke Lamora. Elantris is a good start for Brandon Sanderson.”
     With that, I bought all three of those books that day but I had a bad habit of buying more books than I could read. A habit that has only started slowly waning this year. Those three books sat o the shelves as I pushed them aside for other books I had bought before them.
     It wasn’t until 2011 that I finally said fuck it and picked up my copy of The Name of the Wind. I can’t count on my hands the amount of books that have engrossed me into their world that quickly. The Lord of the Rings is my absolute favorite books but even I struggled with the Tom Bombadil chapters the first time through. This book I couldn’t put down and finished it in a couple days.
     It just so happened at the time that a guy named Nick Fletcher at my job happened to be a big fan of the book. I don’t know if I’m recalling it correctly but I remember asking him if he had read it and he immediately told me it was one of his favorite books, and that the second book had just come out. After the lengthy conversation, we had about the first book, which I do think made us better friends, I took out my phone, opened the Amazon app and order The Wise Man’s Fear as fast as I could.
     I didn’t read it as soon as it came, though. I have this strange habit when reading. Like when you let the wine breathe for a bit I need to give a novel, especially one part of a series, time to breathe. I have enormous difficulty reading a book series back to back. I like coming back to it later when I’ve read some other books in between. When I do come back to the series it’s like a flood of memories comes rushing back like meeting up with an old friend, catching up while you go to Barnes & Noble.
     So in Summer of 2012 after I finished The Wise Man’s Fear I picked up another one of those three books I had bought, Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. Again, another good book, not a favorite like The Name of the Wind was at that point but I still loved it. I’d later be disappointed by Sanderson’s second Mistborn novel, The Well of Ascension, after highly enjoying Mistborn: The Final Empire. I think partially the reason I didn’t enjoy it was because I forced myself to read the second one right after finishing the first one in a reading competition with my friend, the big The Name of the Wind fan.
     I wouldn’t complete this trilogy of books until July 9th of this year when I finished The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch which almost engrossed me as much as Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle.
     Lesson learn. Trust the Keri. Read the books she recommends to you right away as some of them might become one of your favorite books.