Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 21 (Star Wars)

I never drank the Kool-Aid here. I mean, Star Wars was fine. I enjoyed the movies when I watched them - probably third grade? But the fact that I have to ask the question shows pretty clearly the extent to which this was not a rabbit hole I fell down. I attentively rented the entire trilogy from my local grocery store (ah, the 90s), if only to finally suss out the difference between it and Star Trek, watched them, and was later very puzzled by people who fell in love with them. I still find them terribly overrated, and the continual grating of my ambivalence against people who do love Star Wars has pretty much worn me down to active dislike of the franchise. So, you know. We're doing this because we have to, not because I'm jumping for joy at the entry. Or maybe because I'm secretly a bitter misanthrope who delights in the wave of comments that this will inevitably generate.

Still, regardless of my feelings, there's no arguing with the film's historical importance. There is a clear line that can be drawn across the history of science fiction, splitting it into "before Star Wars" and "after Star Wars." Doubly so if the science fiction is in a visual medium. So for Doctor Who, there's a huge difference in how The Sun Makers, the last story to air before Star Wars opened in the UK, was watched, and how Friday's story, Underworld, the first to air after it. And we can't not talk about it.

But knowing that Star Wars was transformative is not equivalent to understanding why. Let's first set aside the question of innovation. Whether or not Star Wars was, in fact, innovative in terms of what it does with science fiction (I don't think it particularly was), there's really no way to argue that Star Wars didn't mark a huge turning point in how science fiction was seen by the broader culture. It's clearly not that Star Wars was when science fiction broke into the mainstream - there are far too many successful sci-fi movies from previous decades to take that claim seriously. But Star Wars is the tipping point in a transition between two modes of science fiction that we've been talking about since nearly two seasons ago. And for those who have been keeping track, that means that Star Wars is, in the broader culture, the point where Doctor Who's view of science fiction becomes the dominant one. So that's interesting.

Some history. The question of what the first piece of science fiction was is one with a wealth of possible answers. On the other hand, the point where science fiction emerged as a distinct genre is rather easier to pin down - it happened in 1926 when Hugo Gernsback created Amazing Stories - the first pulp to be devoted entirely to science fiction. The first thing we should note about this, then, is that science fiction in its original form did not exist in its "hard" manifestation. When science fiction became a genre (at which point various things before 1926 could be identified as early examples of the genre) it was a specific case of pulp adventure.

So even as "hard SF" developed, it always existed alongside stories in which the science fiction elements were simply genre trappings. Because in a lot of ways, the pulp genres were somewhat interchangeable. Consider, for instance, the fact that HP Lovecraft's stories could often be placed in a science fiction mode, but Robert E. Howard was able to use many of Lovecraft's ideas just as well in Swords and Sorcery-style fantasy stories.

On the other hand, when science fiction began to be taken seriously - in its so-called "golden age" in the 1940s and 50s - it was largely in what we now recognize as the "hard SF" mode. This is the era where definitions of science fiction like Theodore Sturgeon's were formulated - "a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its speculative scientific content," for instance. These were also the days of writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, whose stories often resembled logic puzzles more than actual narratives.

I don't mean that as a criticism, to be clear. Science fiction rose to its golden age in the aftermath of World War II, a war that ended with a tremendous and dangerous feat of science. In its aftermath the world took a deep breath and realized that science had both saved it and that it risked causing its destruction. This was then followed by an explosion of consumer-focused science as home appliances and television became common. This was  the era in which the image of the scientist-as-ultimate-authority came up - an era characterized by things like Vanevar Bush's "As We May Think" and other bits of popular science prognostication. (Bush's essay having appeared in Life magazine almost immediately after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Bush himself having played an instrumental role in the Manhattan Project)

Given that context, a genre about thinking through the consequences of science made perfect sense. Golden age-style science fiction was a genre that responded directly to the concerns of its era, which explains a lot of why it marked the point where science fiction began to acquire some legitimate literary cache. It also helped cement science fiction as a genre - for the first time, it wasn't just a subset of pulp adventure but a genre that could do things nothing else could. You could do much of the plot of "The Call of Cthulhu" in a fantasy setting. You could never do much of the plot of one of the stories in I, Robot that way.

But it's also important to note that this SF approach to science fiction was never the only game in town. The 1950s were full of stuff that was still basically pulp adventure with spaceships. The science fiction that could properly be called a genre independent of all others was still a subset of the larger body of science fiction. The high water mark of the SF approach, culturally speaking, was Star Trek - a mainstream television show that was firmly and unabashedly science fiction in the golden age style.

The problem with the SF approach is that it very much was a product of its times. That's not to say its irrelevant - stuff like the remake of Battlestar Galactica or Duncan Jone's fantastic film Moon are genuinely fantastic recent examples of SF. But once the giddy optimism of the space race gave way to the skepticism of things like Doomwatch there was no way for SF to remain the dominant mode of science fiction. SF was based on the idea that science was going to be the future. Once widespread trust of scientists crumbled to a more skeptical position the sort of "let's figure out how technology will shape the future" approach lost much of its appeal. Simply put, SF requires belief in the existence of the future. Once that belief is gone, SF can't really function and becomes a fairly marginal genre.

As a result, science fiction slowly moved away from being an independent genre and back towards being one of several adventure genres. And that's the context that Star Wars must be understood in. Because while science fiction had been off being its own genre, another one of the pulp genres had been busy having a remake of its own. The key year here is 1954, when J.R.R. Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings and created fantasy as a genre.

The Lord of the Rings is a much simpler story than people give it credit for. Essentially all Tolkien did was take a smattering of Norse myths - most notably the story of Sigurd - and change all the names. And usually not even very much. Again, this is not a criticism. Tolkien had a brilliant idea here. Myths - Norse and otherwise - are popular and beloved for wholly sensible and obvious reasons. But there's a finite number of them. The obvious solution, then, is to start telling myth-like stories severed from their contexts. Which is what Tolkien figured out how to do: create a mythology that didn't actually belong straightforwardly to any given culture.

Now, then, we get to George Lucas's big idea. Lucas figured that if science fiction was going to revert back to being one of many styles then it could be merged with fantasy. In other word, Lucas figured out that you could do fantasy-style myth making with spaceships instead of the trappings of high fantasy. Hence Star Wars, which is essentially a fantasy story in terms of its plot structure and view of the world, but which is set in a world of spaceships and robots instead of in a world with dragons and elves.

Oftentimes this move on Lucas's part is described in terms of the specific source he used for his myths: Joseph Campbell's idea of the Hero's Journey. But describing what Lucas did that way requires an unfortunate thing that I generally take pains to avoid, namely taking Joseph Campbell remotely seriously. But OK. Let's do Joseph Campbell. Why not.

The thing about Joseph Campbell that should immediately make you enormously suspicious is that he claims to have identified a fundamental structure to mythology and heroism that establishes a universal vision of human greatness. This is just too sweeping a claim. But that's not actually the biggest problem. The problem is how cack-handed his approach to it is. He provides an appallingly eurocentric view of mythology that manages to argue that all Eastern mythology is descended from Egyptian mythology and that culture flows primarily west-to-east. On top of that, his view of the hero is absurdly patriarchal. Given that he believes in a fundamental structure in human consciousness that creates the monomyth and that the monomyth is overtly male dominated, the necessary conclusion of Campbell's thought is that patriarchy is a fundamental structure in human consciousness, which, frankly, fuck him. (There are points in reasoned debate about literary theory where it is necessary to tell people to go fuck themselves, and most of them involve Joseph Campbell.) 

No. Campbell is a crank. A well-read crank, but a crank nevertheless. Basically, he identified one story he liked about death and resurrection and proceeded to find every instance of it he could in world mythology. Having discovered a vast expanse of nails for his newfound hammer he declared that it was a fundamental aspect of human existence, ignoring the fact that there were a thousand other "fundamental stories" that you could find in world mythology and that he'd twisted large amounts of world culture badly out of shape in order to suit his pre-selected conclusion. The stuff Miles and Wood suggested Image of the Fendahl was demonstrating the absurdity of? That's Campbell. He has zero credibility in any of the actual academic fields his "research" intersects with. He's pseudohumanities. Which is an impressive feat, and I'm not sure I can actually think of anyone else who qualifies as that. He is Timecube Man with a Bill Moyers special.

That said, the story he identified does work. It's not a transcendent and fundamental aspect of human experience, but it's a pretty good story, and George Lucas was savvy to nick it for the plot of Star Wars. Unfortunately, because Campbell was a lunatic blowhard who claimed that he'd identified a fundamental aspect of human existence, once Lucas showed that it also made money it became the mandatory structure of any piece of science fiction or fantasy made in Hollywood. I mean, unfortunately, this was the real legacy of Star Wars. Hollywood got suckered by a literary crank and came to believe there's only one way to do a large number of movies. And so we continue to get a formulaic structure applied to all manner of things as though it's the only story in the world. When, in fact, it's frankly gotten boring.

There. I said it. The Hero's Journey has gotten boring. There should be an outright moratorium on the Hero's Journey across all narrative forms for at least a decade. The world would be a better place for it. But if we're being honest and fair, and we do try to be, this is incidental. Even if Lucas did fall for Joseph Campbell's quackery, he wasn't trying to convert Hollywood to the cult.

But once you understand that Star Wars is more broadly about wedding mythic structures to science fiction iconography you realize that it's not terribly original at all, what with Doctor Who having been doing it since 1963 (100,000 BC having been, at its heart, about ur-myths). And this is not to particularly privilege Doctor Who. Scads of science fiction was doing this stuff. It's just that nobody had done it with quite the monomaniacal zeal of George Lucas, nor with his skill as a director (which is not inconsiderable - certainly well beyond the skills of anyone else who was directing sci-fi movies in 1977). 

But once this switches to being the dominant paradigm of science fiction, it has some interesting effects for everyone else - ones that go beyond the cliches about effects or mythic structures or cute robots. Because it means that science fiction is viewed in a way that is much, much less focused on actual science and much more focused on storytelling, which had, in the golden age, very often played second fiddle to being clever with playground physics. 

In effect, from this point on science fiction is less genre defined by plot or ideas and more a pile of images that feel science fictiony. And when you put those images into a story it becomes science fiction. This is not in and of itself a new idea, obviously, but even today you can find plenty of people who would cry foul at it. Because one of the things that this distinction splits people on is the nature of "believability" or "world-building" or (one of my least favorite terms ever) "suspension of disbelief." So heck, having pissed off a raft of people by hating Star Wars and then another raft of them by hating Joseph Campbell, let's just go for the triple crown and take down this too.

There's a default mode that people think stories work in. In it, the reader (or whatever the appropriate noun for "consumer of the story" is in a given case) pretends that the work of fiction is really happening so as to respond to it. Related to this is a concept articulated by Tolkien of "secondary belief" in which the work of fiction is treated as if it presents a vision of a world that happens to not be real. In all of these views the problem with something that appears contradictory within a story or that doesn't make sense is that it breaks the "realism" of the story and shatters the reader's immersion.

This is, simply put, wrong. It is not how stories work at all. In the words of Gayatri Spivak, which I think I quoted just recently in the blog, but which I love quoting enough that I'll use it again, novels are not gossip about imaginary people. They are not descriptions of people that just happen not to exist. Rather, they're imitations, as Aristotle put it. Fiction has impact because it resembles the real world in some fashion and thus inherits some of its emotional affect. We care about things in fiction because they remind us of things that are real. And we read fiction through a process of continual interpretation and deciphering. Aristotle describes a plot as a web of events that make each other likely or necessary. Much of reading a work of fiction is working out that web - trying to figure out what the future implications of something are, or trying to work out why something happened based on what happened previously. (Indeed, this understanding of how reading works, as this parenthetical example shows by steadily approaching its conclusion so as to give you time to anticipate what it is, even on the sentence level.)

Understood this way, the problem with contradictions is that they are likely to be points in which the reader is led to make incorrect interpretive decisions for reasons having nothing to do with misdirection or surprise. To mention Doctor Who for a moment, the problem with having the Doctor pull a gun on someone and shoot them in cold blood is not that it's not believable. If that for some ungodly reason happens in the Christmas special the problem will not be that the audience will in some sense disbelieve what happens on the screen. They will not deny that the Doctor shot someone. Instead they will be pissed off because everything about Doctor Who up to this point has told us that we should not ever expect the Doctor to do something like that. And so if it happened viewers would immediately want to know what had happened in order to cause the Doctor to change so drastically, and if that were not provided would rightly reject the story. And the reason they'd be right to reject it is that the story wouldn't be interpretable - there'd be no way to coherently track the viewer's expectations and assumptions as the story goes on.

The point of this digression is to clarify a consequence of treating a genre as an aesthetic. If a genre like science fiction is an aesthetic and not a narrative structure then the nature of what has to be explained in a science fiction story changes dramatically. In an aesthetic, elements can be combined purely because they are the sorts of things that go together. If you have a spaceship, you can put robots on it without having to explain how the robots work or what role they play in the operation of the spaceship, simply because robots are the sorts of things that go on a spaceship. What this means is that things don't have to make sense. You don't actually need a coherent account of the technology or history of your science fiction "world." You just need to be able to tell a story that people can adequately anticipate and interpret.

And furthermore, you can have more than one logic going on at once. Star Wars works simultaneously along the Buck Rogers space action set of expectations and along the Tolkien-style fantasy expectations. Because the Buck Rogers style of stuff is really just a haze of events and style anyway, this was an easy merge, but the fact that it was done so smoothly and in such a high profile fashion did shove the baseline assumptions of science fiction and of genre-based writing in general to a new default position. The crossing of genres and the use of multiple concurrent narrative logics is going to become standard operating procedure starting from now. Again, of course, this is a switch that Doctor Who was ahead of the curve on. 

But there were other switches Star Wars brought that Doctor Who was less ahead of the curve on. Obviously one of the big ones is special effects - the BBC was never going to match Lucas's budget. Doctor Who also was far from near Star Wars on the link between science fiction and action sequences, though those are hardly new waters for Doctor Who to be navigating. And, of course, Doctor Who was mercifully behind the curve on all that Hero's Journey nonsense, largely managing to avoid that crap until 1996. 

Unfortunately, those are all the consequences of Star Wars that everybody noticed at the time, leaving Doctor Who in an odd position. In the short term, it just became profoundly uncool, and the show is going to take a slow and painful beating because of it. In the longer term, though, the shift of Star Wars towards a more story-based and postmodern (in the sense of combining multiple contexts and logics in one work) mode of science fiction also marks the point where the ideas Doctor Who has been using for fourteen years now suddenly take over the world. They just don't bring Doctor Who with them. Yet. 

86 comments:

  1. Essentially all Tolkien did was take a smattering of Norse myths - most notably the story of Sigurd - and change all the names.

    That's a pretty ridiculous assertion.

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    1. It's problematic even as a description of the Silmarillion, which was published the same year as Star Wars came out. Tolkien takes the Norse mythology he uses as source material for the Silmarillion and twists it around in interesting ways.

      More importantly, it's certainly nonsense to apply it to Lord of the Rings, which was the part of Tolkien's work that became a popular and commercial phenomenon. The most important reason why this is so is the Hobbits. Essentially, Tolkien takes three silly 19th century English country gentlemen and one silly 19th century English loyal servant and puts them into the middle of a mythological epic.

      I think, also, that a lot of Tolkien's themes are clear 20th century themes that have no resonance in mythology. The most important chapter of the whole book is the Scouring of the Shire, which has virtually nothing to do with Norse mythology.

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  2. You're expecting a triple adverse reaction? Well, you only get one out of three from me (and that one - which I will get to - is more a matter of conflicting definitions).

    To be honest it's a bit of a relief to read that you don't deify Star Wars. I never bothered to see the first two movies at the cinema, and saw the third only because a bunch of my mates were going and I'd drunk far too much Vodka to say no. I then failed to take any of it in; can't imagine why. I did watch all three eventually, when they were shown on TV, but my reaction was still 'meh' (except for The Empire Strikes Back, which rose a little above the others). So I've never really understood what all the excitement was about. At the same time I was well into The Lord of the Rings, so it wasn't that epic, Hero's Journey-type stories in general left me cold.

    Speaking of which, Campbell's idea has always seemed a bit simplistic to me, so you're not going to piss me off there either. David Brin has a different take from yours, but you might want to read some of his essays: the first one on Star Wars and the Monomyth is here; he also talks about the prequels, and there's another on The Lord of the Rings so you're working in a similar area this time.

    Anyway, here's the one where we do disagree: how dare you diss the phrase "suspension of disbelief"?! You evil blogger, you! I use the phrase, and your example of the Doctor's unexplained shot is exactly the sort of situation when I do so. So n'yer!

    (Actually I'm not bothered, I just happen to disagree. Which is fine.)

    Anyway, another fun read. Thanks!

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  3. Must...convince you....that Star Wars is....amazing!

    Nah, I kid. I love the original movies, but I fully understand turning against something because its fans drive you nuts. That's happened to me a lot, and while it's not fair to the actual work, it's hard to get rid of that aversion once it's built up.

    I think what I like the most about Star Wars is the fact that it deliberately leaves part of the normal science fiction assumptions behind. "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" is another fantasy aspect, but it's also important for saying this is NOT our future. There's no need to tie things back to Earth, or explain how we got to laser swords and space magic.

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  4. I think there's a clash between the claim that "science fiction in its original form did not exist in its 'hard' manifestation" and the claim that "when science fiction became a genre ... various things before 1926 could be identified as early examples of the genre.”Because if, say, Verne's "From Earth to the Moon" is retraoctively dubbed sicence fiction, it's certainly hard science fiction.

    But I also am skeptical of the claim that 1926 is the magic date of genre idetification. The phrase "scientific romance" was in vogue before that date, referring to Wells and Verne alike.

    Given that "SF" is almost always used as a shorthand for "science fiction," phrases like "SF approach to science fiction" just look strange.

    "Essentially all Tolkien did was take a smattering of Norse myths - most notably the story of Sigurd - and change all the names."

    The (essentially anarchistic) idea of a quest not to gain power but to get rid of it seems fairly original, and certainly corresponds to nothing in the Sigurd story.

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  5. I was definitely a child of Star Wars, having come to Who later in life, but I agree w pretty much everything you have to say here. I will only say that the first two films of the original trilogy are still pretty spectacular achievements, though I put that much more on Lucas' collaborators than Lucas himself. Yes, he gets sole writing and directing credits on Episode IV (although curiously neither on the superior Ep V), but he was open to critique and true collaboration in those early days, something that began to elude him on Episode VI and left altogether when he assumed complete creative control over the dire prequels.

    Anyway, that caveat aside, I really appreciate your takedown of Campbell and the Hero's Journey. It's always had the whiff of complete and utter bullshit to me, and you've articulated here why. Not only does it elevate West over East, but it's just another excuse to glorify the individual at the cost of the community that has led to the Wild West capitalism run amok that has brought the entire world to the brink of financial ruin and keeps us there, tottering on the edge of complete chaos.

    Oh, and I agree w the poster above that your reading of Tolkien, or at least your presentation here, is ridiculously reductive. The Middle-earth mythology he constructed is both much richer and more problematic than you've hinted at here, but I think/hope you know that already.

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  6. "excuse to glorify the individual at the cost of the community that has led to the Wild West capitalism run amok that has brought the entire world to the brink of financial ruin "

    If massive government intervention on behalf of the corporate elite while regimenting the rest of the population into compliant worker drones counts as "glorifying the individual," then yes. But if so, it's certainly an eccentric use of the phrase.

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  7. You get very few arguments from me here. I was never a Star Wars fan (always preferring to side with Doctor Who and, later, Star Trek: The Next Generation) and always considered the films ridiculously overrated. They're enjoyable pulp pastiches to be sure (well, the first two films anyway) but that's really all they are when you come right down to it. I also adored your savage takedown of Joseph Campbell, whom I've never had any fondness for: You got a golf clap from me on that one. So happy to know I'm not alone in finding this whole thing a bit silly.

    I will take issue with a couple points in your argument, however. Firstly, I'm going to second Adam, Iain and BerserkerRL in saying I think you don't give Tolkein enough credit. What I think Tolkein did very well was that concept of "world building" you touched upon (somewhat disdainfully I'll admit). Actually, I'll claim that as a genre unto itself: The point of a constructed world is that the story is not as important as the world it takes place in. The actual quest in Lord of the Rings really isn't all that important: Rather, the books read like history textbooks of a made-up world and that's what I think draws a lot of people to them whether they admit it or not. You can of course claim it's no fun to read history textbooks, fantastical or otherwise, and that would be a valid criticism, just keep in mind what they really are. They're not stories, and I think you can have a work of fiction without a story just fine.

    On the other hand, I think you give George Lucas a bit too *much* credit. There are points in your rebuttal where, despite your attempts to slag him off, I worry you come dangerously close to playing into the "Lucas As Revolutionary Visionary Who Single-Handedly Restored Science Fiction" myth that's been built up around him. In reality, George Lucas is nowhere near as singular as he's made out to be. He has a lot of big ideas, I'll grant, but, like Sloman and Letts, he's not terribly good at bringing them to screen. A glance at the Star Wars prequels should be enough to prove that. For most of his movies in the 1970s and 1980s he got his filmmaker friends to edit his scripts behind the scenes and give him advice on which ideas to keep and which to toss out, including Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. Spielberg was also the one who gave Lucas the Star Wars marketing machine when he turned down an offer to turn Close Encounters of the Third Kind into a toy line and pointed the manufacturers in Lucas' direction. It's also been rumoured the cast for the original trilogy, especially Harrison Ford, would ad-lib and drastically rewrite parts of the script because they were so dissatisfied with their material. Knowing this puts his post-1983 output in a new light as the people Lucas used to rely on to help him weren't available to pitch in anymore.

    Also, I'm sorry, but Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica as Hard SF? Really? The show with an elaborate myth arc about circular time and the nature of religion, mythology and God Itself? Helmed by the guy most famous for his work on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, *another* show with a huge focus on religion and spirituality where the dictum was to back-pedal as far away as possible from the perceived technobabble overload of Star Trek: The Next Generation? It may have some Hard elements in terms of how the technology and society works, but SF? Surely not.

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  8. "The actual quest in Lord of the Rings really isn't all that important"

    Gotta disagree -- the quest makes LOTR's central theme "The solution to power in the hands of bad people is not to get it into the hands of good people but to get rid of power itself," which I think is about as profound a moral (an ethical one in the first instance, but of course a political one also) as you can get.

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  9. @BerserkRL

    OK, fair point. Nevertheless, I maintain while the moral itself may be a very strong one the basic plot is still "Chosen one beats impossible odds to overthrow the Dark Overlord" which is about as bog-standard and generic a storyline as you can get. I will grant LotR is probably the Trope Maker, or at least the Trope Codifier of this kind of plot and it's possible I'm just fed up with the innumerable amount of times Tolkein has been ripped off and how his conception of fantasy has become the default one, but it still comes across as not especially compelling to me.

    Taken alongside the sheer amount of time and effort Tolkein put into describing every single minute detail about Middle Earth I still see LotR as primarily an exercise into creating an entire fully-realised world from scratch with distinct cultures, a nuanced and detailed history and then writing the definitive series of textbooks on it. That's what fascinates me the most about that saga: That Tolkein was able to pull something of that scope and magnitude off.

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  10. Have to agree with elvwood about suspension of disbelief. Whilst we clearly don't actually believe fictional stories to be real, I've certainly experienced myself "snapping out" of the fiction when I've come across historical, scientific, or continuity mistakes. And particularly bad ones do make it difficult to take the story seriously. Regardless of what's actually going on in our heads, the phrase suspension of disbelief fits what I experience when it is broken.

    Also agree with various commenters that Tolkien is far more than just Norse myths with the serial numbers removed. Lord of the Rings is an exercise in world-building, and carries influences from the turbulent world in which Tolkien lived through and his Catholic faith, his interest in linguistics, as well as some more original ideas (well, as much as anything is original).

    And as for WGP Josh's annoyance that his concept of fantasy has become the default, I'm not sure that's entirely true. Yes, the fantasy genre mimics Tolkien in some ways, but massively deviates from him in others. It's telling that a lot of fantasy fans don't like LotR.

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  11. Although the scouring of the Shire, for example, borrows from some very old tropes (e.g., Odysseus' homecoming and the bridegrooms), the form that evil takes in the Shire is very much a comment on 20th-century problems.

    "It's telling that a lot of fantasy fans don't like LotR."

    And Moorcock, for example, is quite hostile.

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  12. Tolkein most assuredly drew upon many different sources, the majority of which we've already mentioned and talked about. That's what makes the world-building so evocative: It's how well the tribulations of Middle Earth can be mapped onto 20th century politics and Tolkein's own concerns. The fact that fantastic escapism can be read and interpreted many different ways is part of why the series has lasted as long as it has.

    While Tolkein is by no means the only influence on contemporary fantasy, he's still an incredibly important and obvious one. To be fair, a lot of the fantasy I'm most familiar with is video game fantasy (due to one of my other lives involving attempting to be a video game journalist), which draws heavily from Dungeons and Dragons which in turn was partially designed to cash in on Tolkein's popularity with its target demographic. The conception of the "High Elf" archetype that shows up in almost any work of fantasy I've been exposed to in recent memory is quite often taken right from Tolkein, or at least Norse mythology (which is where Tolkein clearly got it from) and D&D even has a class varyingly called "hobbit" or "halfling". Not to mention the legacy of world-building and epic mythological storytelling Tolkein all but pioneered has become the standard framework for fantasy works: The Elder Scrolls series is the most obvious example, though there are others.

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  13. "It's telling that a lot of fantasy fans don't like LotR."

    Just to put the other side of the argument, I'm a lifelong Tolkien devotee and I don't like the "Fantasy" genre one bit! Tolkien and "Fantasy Fiction" are very, very different things.

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  14. I've thought for a while that hard SF is really defined by an aesthetic rather than by technical scientific correctness. A hard SF world is one where our protagonists have to solve problems that have hard engineering constraints, a world of nuts, bolts and grime rather than gleaming palaces and magic powers.

    In that respect, a movie like Alien is hard SF. Acid blood threatens to burn through the hull, opening up the ship to the vacuum of space. Flamethrowers and motion detectors are jury-rigged from spare parts when the need arises. Of course, the scientific details don't hold up to a great deal of analysis - but that's true of pretty much all stories that are happily called hard SF.

    Something like Buck Rogers would quite definitely not be hard SF under this definition. It's too neat and shiny, too glamorous, zap guns and magical gadgets abound.

    Star Wars, then, sits interestingly in the middle. The plot is pure pulp, of course, and the magic force powers alone are enough to move it away from hard SF. However, the design has a very hard SF feel. The spacecraft may move unrealistically, but they have a beaten-up, properly-engineered look about them that recalls real military vehicles. The blaster guns may be as magical as in Buck Rodgers, but they look like real military hardware. this, perhaps, is why Star Wars manages to have an extra bit of credible reality in the viewer's mind, as compared to Buck Rodgers or any other pure pulp sci-fi. It also perhaps explains some of why many people find the prequels disappointing: the chunky, grubby aesthetic has been replaced with something shinier, sleeker and more pulpy.

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    1. "It also perhaps explains some of why many people find the prequels disappointing: the chunky, grubby aesthetic has been replaced with something shinier, sleeker and more pulpy."

      ...Um, isn't it because the prequels kind of *take place* in a "shinier, sleeker, and more pulpy" time period?

      To put it another way, the Prequel Trilogy takes place in a world that's optimistic and bright and diverse enough to allow characters such as (God save me) Jar Jar Binks to exist, and Anakin Skywalker to be a kid hero. When the Empire comes into its own and picks up steam, the Old White Dude gradually becomes the dominant life form in the galaxy. Why? *Because the Empire has, over time, steamrolled almost every bit of life and color out of the galaxy.*

      Darth Vader ascends to power, and everything slowly fades to gray...

      As for my feelings about "Star Wars," I don't much care for it. I'm a fan of it only insofar as I'm a fan of the "Lego Star Wars" series. :)

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    2. For me, the clue is when they roll out a chrome space ship. The whole ship is chromed. It's meant to be the Space-Fifties.

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  15. Zapruder:

    You're not the only one! I've enjoyed a few fantasy novels, but it's not really a genre I'm much into, and I don't see Tolkien as fitting particularly into it.

    There are quite a few Tolkien fans like me, who are much more interested in ancient myths and sagas, and who have developed that interest through reading Tolkien, but who are mostly unmoved by contemporary fantasy literature.

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  16. Okay, let's get this straight.

    Not that Tolkien didn't build a world, but for Tolkien 'world-building' was a secondary activity (and 'novelist' tertiary). Middle-Earth came about because he needed a world for his imaginary languages and myth-cycle to exist in; and The Lord of the Rings because he needed a story to tell his children. The real work is neither the world-building of Middle-Earth, nor the text of The Lord of the Rings; it is either, depending on which way you want to argue, The Hobbit or The Silmarillion combined with the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.

    Dr Sandifer was clearly using meiosis when referring to Tolkien's achievement; I'm surprised people didn't pick up on that. Tolkien did steal from many Norse myths in creating the work that was the epic myth-cycle of Middle-Earth (the name, of course, coming from 'Midgard') but he synthesised them into something new ('Middle-Earth' is not just 'Midgard' with the name changed).

    As for the idea that the story of The Lord of the Rings is 'Chosen one beats impossible odds to overthrow the Dark Overlord' (and please do not be using the word 'trope' again until you have learnt what it means; hint: it is not 'a common element in genre fiction'; it may help you to learn Greek); sigh. Frodo is the antithesis of a 'chosen one'; the whole point is that the ring has found its way to him by chance, as it passes form owner to owner trying to make its way back to Sauron. He's not a chosen king, born to be special (there are plenty of those in The Lord of the Rings, of all shades of good and bad and on many different axes: Strider, Boromir, Faramir, Theodin, etc, etc); he just happens to be the one left holding the bomb when the music stops, and left to work out what to do with it.

    The Lord of The Rings is ultimately about the struggle of everyday people in a fallen world to do the best they can, and accept whatever grace God throws their way, in the far-from-certain hope that their deeds might turn out to be, as Gandalf says, 'not wholly vain'.

    It's about as far from triumphalist 'hero conquers evil' as you can get.

    The Ron Moore Battlestar Galactica: apart from being deathly boring, it was neither Hard Sci-fi nor Pulp Sci-fi, but the other subgenre that hasn't yet been mentioned: Allegorical Sci-fi. Specifically a political allegory, but that's the subgenre it fits in.

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  17. @SK

    Although I commend you for your detailed synthesis of the arguments presented so far and reading of Lord of the Rings, I can't completely agree with you. As for my use of the word "trope" I do it only because it has become shorthand for "common writing device" in common parlance. Regardless of the Greek etymology, it's a handy way to talk about the way fiction is constructed. I apologise if that offends you. By the way, I do know a little Greek (and Latin too) and simply prefer to default to common interpretations as it facilitates discourse and I'd appreciate it if you didn't jump to conclusions about my character.

    As for LotR, even if the Ring finds Frodo by chance, fate has still "chosen" him in a sense and is thus still a Chosen One. He's not a King to be sure, but he still has a destiny to fulfill. After all, he spends the whole first half of the first book bemoaning the fact he can't pawn off the duty on someone else before finally acquiescing. No-one else is willing or able to take the ring to Mount Doom, thus Frodo must accept his destiny.

    I quite enjoyed Battlestar Galactica. It's one of my favourite science fiction TV series to be honest and I certainly didn't find it "deathly boring". I was very interested in the way it handled spirituality and faith in a very grave and respectful way and the overarching story about the rise and fall of societies and circular time was incredibly fascinating. If I grant LotR is, as you said, about "...the struggle of everyday people in a fallen world to do the best they can, and accept whatever grace God throws their way..." I see no reason we can't afford the same benefit to Galactica, not to mention Deep Space Nine, which from where I stand has essentially the same fundamental theme.

    I think the big debate we're having about "Hard SF" vs. "Pulp Sci-Fi" really comes down to differences in definition of terms. Phil seems to be defining it primarily as a Modernist Utopian fantasy built around principles of technological determinance, a strict adherence to real-world physics and the glorification of scientists. Iain seems to be describing it primarily as an aesthetic of grungy future engineering, which is a very different thing. As for "Allegorical Sci-Fi", I'm not sure that's an actual genre as such, at least in the way we're currently talking about them. Galactica definitely has sociopolitical allegories in it, but that's not the show's entire purpose.

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  18. Iain, that's another aspect of the original Star Wars movie (and let's focus on just the first one for the moment, rather than the other 5) that was both of its moment and timeless, and that I personally love about it. America in the 70s was a pretty grimy place, and I think that's where it came from in the film...and that helped to ground it. Sure, the bar scene in Mos Eisley is neat for all the aliens that are there, but it's also clearly a run down bar in a backwater area of the story. Han Solo's ship might fly fast, but inside and out it looks ugly as hell. If you love it, you love it warts and all, rather than being impossibly well maintained.

    And as a side note, I'm amused that for a post that is focused on Star Wars, commenters are mostly getting bent out of shape about a side mention of Tolkein.

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  19. Iain: Exactly! I just don't see the connection between what I love about Tolkien, and the vast majority of multi-part Fantasy Quest Literature with Elves and Dwarves filling the shelves of the local bookstore. I really don't like Fantasy Quest Literature with Elves and Dwarves! That simply isn't what Tolkien did, though, and I just don't see how he fits into that genre at all.

    What he *did* do was see a space on the shelf next to the Iliad, the Mabinogion and the Edda where the Anglo-Saxon version should be, and because he wanted so badly to read what the ancient English Creation Myth would have been, he damn well wrote it himself.

    SK: thanks for writing mostly what I was thinking about how the plot of The Lord of the Rings absolutely *isn't* "Chosen one beats impossible odds to overthrow the Dark Overlord". I was struggling to gather my thoughts and you expressed it brilliantly.

    The Real Work is The Silmarillion, yes. The Hobbit wasn't set in "Middle Earth" until later editions retrofitted it, and The Lord of the Rings started life as a sequel to a children's book Tolkien himself didn't entirely endorse. As he said:

    "I don't much approve of The Hobbit myself, preferring my own mythology . . . with its consistent nomenclature . . . and organized history".

    Anyhow, weren't we meant to be talking about the vastly less interesting topic of Star Wars, the plot of which *is* "Chosen one beats impossible odds to overthrow the Dark Overlord"?

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  20. "The blaster guns may be as magical as in Buck Rodgers, but they look like real military hardware. this, perhaps, is why Star Wars manages to have an extra bit of credible reality in the viewer's mind."

    Good point. I miss the grubby Seventies sometimes. Also, keep in mind Lucas was directly lifting WWII dogfight film sequences for much of the Tie Fighter--Millennium Falcon fights. (and then lifting from Triumph of the Will for the end of SW---equal opportunities, one supposes).

    I can't really be objective about Star Wars, as I'm of the demographic (born in '72) that was ideally suited for it. The movies were a childhood obsession, not just mine but seemingly every boy's---everything else seemed second-rate compared to them. And the films blessedly ended just when my adolescence began, which was perfect timing.

    Compared with the Hinchliffe/Holmes Who, there are some similarities with Lucas' film, such as the wholesale pillaging of old movies for plots, archetypes, etc. (The Hidden Fortress in SW's case, natch). But the difference is the utter lack of irony in Lucas, especially when compared to the jaundiced mind of Robert Holmes. Star Wars is a compilation of two dozen bad pulp serial films, all of which its creator seems to love---it's a distillation of boyhood memories, the "best bits" of all these B-movies composted into one.

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  21. As for LotR, even if the Ring finds Frodo by chance, fate has still "chosen" him in a sense and is thus still a Chosen One

    So in your universe, every fictional character who's in the wrong place at the wrong time is a 'chosen one' because fate 'chose' them? Roger Thornhill is a 'chosen one'? Philip Marlowe, because he's 'chosen' every time someone walks through his office door?

    he spends the whole first half of the first book bemoaning the fact he can't pawn off the duty on someone else before finally acquiescing

    As in life, where normal everyday folk find themselves, due to the circumstances, with a duty that they cannot shirk. If that makes them a 'Chosen One' then every single person who finds themselves taking care of a sick family member is a 'Chosen One'.

    I quite enjoyed Battlestar Galactica. It's one of my favourite science fiction TV series to be honest and I certainly didn't find it "deathly boring".

    As I often say, there's no accounting for being wrong.

    If it helps, I think The Lord of the Rings is pretty boring as well. There's a reason I pointed out that 'novelist' was not Tolkien's real calling; it was certainly way down the list of his skills.

    But it's nowhere near as dire and tedious as Battlestar Galactica, most episodes of which consist of the setting up of a trivial moral dilemma, about which the characters angst for forty minutes before doing the thing that it was obvious that they would have to do from before the credits. Yawn.

    I [...] prefer to default to common interpretations as it facilitates discourse and I'd appreciate it if you didn't jump to conclusions about my character.

    I think all one needs to form a conclusion about your character is right there (I find discourse is facilitated better by correct use of words).

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  22. Look..I can't understand why Lord of the Rings can't be all of the above. The mere fact we can be arguing over what its *true* meaning is (a concept I really hate, by the way) should be enough indication that it has left different impressions on different readers. That's the sign of a great work, that it can touch many people in different ways. As long as a reading can be supported, that should be all anyone needs. No-one should have the right to tell someone their feelings aren't valid or they didn't have them. I don't even *dislike* Lord of the Rings: I think it's a fantastic effort. I just have a slightly different reaction to it than others. We're all different and we all have different reactions to works. If you disagree with me and think I'm totally off-base fine, just do me the favour of pointing out where you think my argument falls apart without insulting me. If you still think I'm evil and wrong for having a different reading fine, whatever, I don't care.

    As for Star Wars, I at least have very little else to say about it than what was discussed higher up in the comments section. I generally agree with Phil's view on it, have a very similar history with the franchise to him and I've always gone out of my way to dispel myths and legends that have built up around it and George Lucas. Star Wars is a great pulp send-up at heart, just like Indiana Jones, and it certainly did wonders for the genre but that's not the whole story.

    I'm sorry I said anything at all...

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  23. Hi Phillip! Finally finished the archive binge, added you to RSS, and get to actually comment somewhat presently, so here goes.

    I think the reason Star Wars is so well loved ought to be obvious to you, if you think about it. You mentioned in the past that you were horribly bullied because of your love of Doctor Who while at school. There's nothing particularly special about Doctor Who there; fantasy and science fiction in general were both "oddball" hobbies when we were kids (we're approximately the same age, though I'm an Aussie and you're a Yank).

    Star Wars, however, was science fiction only incidentally. What it was that mattered was MAINSTREAM. You could like Star Wars without automatically becoming a target. It's the same sort of thing that Peter Jackson has brought to the fantasy genre with his Lord of the Rings movies - finally there is a fantasy movie that fantasy loving kids can like without getting bullied about it.

    It's nothing to do with Star Wars being a science fiction classic (which I agree, it isn't - although the original trilogy looks like Citizen Kane compared to the prequels) or Lord of the Rings being the most original fantasy ever written (which as you point out is completely untrue) - it's about packaging science fiction/fantasy for a mainstream audience. And once you do that, you can get around to making the good stuff too. Watchmen couldn't have been made without the boom of super hero movie popularity that preceded it; if we ever get Sandman on the silver screen we'll have the likes of the X-Men movies to thank for it.

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  24. "It is no laughing matter," said Gandalf. "Not for you. It was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far: Bilbo's arrival just at that time, and putting his hand on it, blindly, in the dark.

    "There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur's hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Deagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him. It could make no further use of him: he was too small and mean; and as long as it stayed with him he would never leave his deep pool again. So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!

    "Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that maybe an encouraging thought."

    "It is not," said Frodo. "Though I am not sure that I understand you."

    - The Lord of the Rings, Book 1, Chapter 2, "The Shadow of the Past"


    Frodo is perhaps not a conventional Chosen One (that would be Aragorn - though Tolkien does problematise Aragorn's Chosen status in interesting ways). Nonetheless, Frodo is chosen in some sense, by a Providence that the people of Middle Earth apprehend only vaguely and uncertainly.

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  25. I don't think accounting for Star Wars's popularity is terribly hard - it was a well made sci-fi movie that looked miles better than anything that had come before.

    That said, the idea that the Watchmen film is something to be thankful for is deeply offensive to me. :)

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  26. Re: Watchmen - well yes, that tends to be polarising. But it's still "the good stuff" in the sense that it's a much deeper comic book than X-Men or Superman are.

    And apologies for misspelling your name in the previous comment.

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  27. Oh, sure. Though it's notably also not one of my favorite Alan Moore pieces by miles. Certainly it's not nearly as good as any of the three other Alan Moore comics to be adapted for film. Still better than either of the Frank Miller comics adapted for film, though.

    Some larger points - yes, I overplayed my hand slightly on Tolkien. Though the basic point stands - Tolkien reverse engineered large swaths of European mythology, primarily Norse. He did great with it, other than having the worst prose style imaginable (though it worked out better for him in The Simarillion, which I actually prefer to either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings).

    I don't think you need suspension of disbelief in order to account for the feeling of being jarred when an error crops up. I think an understanding of how narrative works that is based entirely on conventions, expectations, and the interpretive process is more than up to the task of accounting for that. What's disruptive isn't an ambiguity in the "reality" status of the story, but to the status of reader expectations - a reader who thought that some of the expectations and rules of real-world science were in play is surprised by an unexpected intrusion of non-real science.

    Which is my basic issue with suspension of disbelief. It's not that it doesn't have explanatory power. It's just that almost everything it explains can be explained by a model that doesn't require a preposterously wooly concept like suspension of disbelief, which tends to have to blink on and off rapidly in order to deal with the fact that there's usually no way to account for a narrative without relying on knowledge of tropes and conventions that are extra-narrative. Which is the crux of my argument against it - there's nothing in suspension of disbelief that can't be accounted for via a more Aristotelean model, and plenty in Aristotle that suspension of disbelief is awkward at best for.

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  28. An interesting thing about Tolkien's prose is that it works really, really well when read aloud, as I discovered when I read Lord of the Rings to my wife.

    I enjoy Tolkien's prose, though I'm not bothered if it's not to other people's tastes. But "worst prose style imaginable"? You've evidently never read any Cat Valente.

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  29. The main problem with Tolkien's prose is that there's so damn much of it.

    Watchmen the comic is interesting and quite worthwhile. Watchmen the movie is utterly pointless. Why on Earth would you want a Sandmand movie? Sandman already exists in its purest form.

    Why on Earth is there this obsession with making movies out of things that already exist perfectly well?

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  30. Philip: "Which is my basic issue with suspension of disbelief. It's not that it doesn't have explanatory power. It's just that almost everything it explains can be explained by a model that doesn't require a preposterously wooly concept like suspension of disbelief"

    I can understand you objecting to the woolly concept; but most people talk in a woolly fashion, and don't intend the phrase to be taken literally. I generally mean something like: interrupting the flow of enjoyment with an event that clashes with my expectations of the story-as-presented-so-far. Though even that cumbersome construction is woolly, and leaves room for deliberate tactics that I wouldn't count as suspender-snapping.

    Of course, all this woolliness is what makes Internet discourse so fun - see the discussion of "trope", above - and I have my own (irrational) dislikes of some woolspeak. The use of "quantum leap" to mean a big change, for instance, always gets on my wick.

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  31. Oh, and 'suspension of disbelief': Yes, finally, someone else who agrees that that, out of everything, is what Coleridge must first and foremost answer to posterity for.

    The problem with 'suspension of disbelief' is precisely that the term is close enough to what's actually going on to seem like a good explanation, and therefore be totally misleading.

    It's a bit like 'point of view', another of my pet hates because it leads people to conflate focalisation, narrative voice, the narrator's diegetic status (and sometimes even tense!) and therefore obscures more than it illuminates.

    I won't discuss literature once someone uses the phrase 'point of view' (do not think of using that to get me to shut up, it won't work).

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  32. The use of "quantum leap" to mean a big change, for instance, always gets on my wick

    You don't think it means a small change, right?

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  33. Without the concept of "Willing suspension of disbelief" there would have been one less joke in the first episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. On those grounds it has to stay.

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  34. Why does it have to be one thing or another? Suspension of disbelief, hard science fiction, science fantasy, aesthetic-driven SF, plot-driven SF, people-driven SF, ideas-driven SF... they're all different ways of telling different stories, and they give us a variety of products to choose from. The trouble with hard SF snobs is they want everything to be hard SF and sneer at things that aren't - but a whitewash of 'proper' SF would be as boring as if everything was science fantasy.

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  35. C. Clodius Sandifero

    "The Lord of the Rings is a much simpler story than people give it credit for. Essentially all Tolkien did was take a smattering of Norse myths - most notably the story of Sigurd - and change all the names. And usually not even very much. Again, this is not a criticism. Tolkien had a brilliant idea here. Myths - Norse and otherwise - are popular and beloved for wholly sensible and obvious reasons. But there's a finite number of them. The obvious solution, then, is to start telling myth-like stories severed from their contexts. Which is what Tolkien figured out how to do: create a mythology that didn't actually belong straightforwardly to any given culture."

    This paragraph is, if you will excuse my bluntness, more than simply overplayed: it is complete and unmitigated rubbish.

    We may begin by cursorily dismissing the statement that the Lord of the Rings is free from attachment to any given culture, since you yourself state that it is synthesised from Norse myth.

    More importantly, the text is immersed not in 20th century thought primarily, but in Catholic theology (and it is for this reason that seeing the rings not as physical arteacts but rather in some sense a reification of the Catholic conception of sin and Original Sin is rather fruitful, though obviously by no means exhaustive. It is also why the book bears in another sense an interesting contrast with Brideshead Revisited.)

    The Lord of the Rings is intimately connected with the Anglo-Saxon roots of English culture - roots which were, of course, also primarily Catholic, and thus held for Tolkien a dual interest.

    (It should also be pointed out that Tolkien was by no means ignorant of either Classical or Eastern literature and myth: not only was he versed in the Classics as might be expected of a scholar of his generation, he also was at least to some extent aware of Semitic linguistics having used these for a basis in developing the Dwarfish language, and also knew some degree of Hebrew, translating the majority of the Book of Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible.)

    It is also interesting to note that not only is Tolkien's work useful to think of as Catholic allegory, most if not all of our sources for Norse myth are in fact records made by (Christian, Catholic) monks. To attempt to divorce the work from this context is highly distorting. I would also argue that trying to then place Tolkien in the context of a genre he effectively invented is to get LotR completely arse-over-elbow.

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  36. "The thing about Joseph Campbell that should immediately make you enormously suspicious is that he claims to have identified a fundamental structure to mythology and heroism that establishes a universal vision of human greatness. This is just too sweeping a claim. "

    Now try telling that to a bunch of Frazer devotees.

    "He's pseudohumanities. Which is an impressive feat, and I'm not sure I can actually think of anyone else who qualifies as that. "
    FRAZER!

    Seriously, how can you trounce the effect of Campbell without mentioning the very similar and equally wrong methodology of Frazer? It fits into a matrix of work alongside Freud's forays into the history of religion, and the brief, fin-de-siecle fashion for attributing every Christian tradition to a pagan source (perhaps in an attempt to de-Judaise it?), which (IMO) has effectively created a total misreading of the West's cultural origins.

    Talking of matrices... the key context for looking at Star Wars as a film are four: A Space Odyssey (1968), Logan's Run (1976), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) [the last of which bears comparison with the 1996 DW TV Movie - both disastrously written, pompous, and beautifully shot]. The difference between Star Wars and Logan's Run effectively demonstrates everything that Star Wars did which was different. The Motion Picture demonstrates beautifully why Star Wars was not sci-fi in the strict sense (and also how not to film sci-fi); 2001 is the other major sci-fi effects triumph (and indeed, a triumph of style over substance).

    " He's not a chosen king, born to be special "
    Cf: Gilgamesh, by far and away THE literary archetype of the hero, even into Western literature (i.e., first Agammemnon, then Odysseus; Aeneas, and, ultimately, Christ, who in the Christian narrative is born of the House of David [let's leave irrelevant questions of the truth of this narrative aside]; the importance of Solomon in Western consciousness is also of course important.)

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  37. "It is also interesting to note that not only is Tolkien's work useful to think of as Catholic allegory, most if not all of our sources for Norse myth are in fact records made by (Christian, Catholic) monks. To attempt to divorce the work from this context is highly distorting."

    Gnaeus, much as I absolutely agree with what you are saying -- that any view of Tolkien that doesn't take his devout Catholicism into account is ignoring what would be, to him, perhaps his defining personal characteristic -- I can't let "the A Word" pass in the context of a discussion of The Lord of the Rings without dragging out this hoary old quote from its author:

    "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous."

    The Lord of the Rings might well have Catholic *applicability* for us as readers (if we choose to read it in that way), but it is most definitely not "allegorical" in the sense that "Frodo stands for Christ", any more than the Ring is "really the atomic bomb".

    Anyhow, you've got me started on Tolkien, and that is really not what we're meant to be doing today. Back to Star Wars! It's really not very good at all, is it?

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  38. Star Wars is what it is, and did what it did very well. People didn't see it in their millions because it was well made (though that helped), but because they bought into and were captivated by the hero's journey. Campbell may be hogwash, but no one this side of intellectual snobbery can seriously deny that the notion of a simple farm boy overcoming the odds to become a great warrior and hero is a compelling and elemental one (*for that particular story* - as I said before, variety is the spice of life; doubly so in science fiction. One of the joys of science fiction, often lost on those immersed within it, is that it can and should be *anything*).

    "Back to Star Wars! It's really not very good at all, is it?" Of course it is, it wouldn't be where it is today if it wasn't. That's just the predictable backlash position on something that has become annoyingly ubiquitous; just as tedious as those who triumph it as the greatest artistic achievement ever. What you really mean is that you don't like it, which is entirely your prerogative.

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  39. It depends what you mean by allegory:

    http://www.rilstone.talktalk.net/allegory.htm

    (I am indebted to that critic for much of my deep understanding of Tolkien's work).

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  40. I don't have time to write a long post, but let's not forget The White Goddess!

    Oh, and am I the only person around here who has tried reading the Epic of Gilgamesh to an infant child as a bedtime story? If I am, please keep it that way.

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  41. (When I say 'my deep understanding' I mean of course 'that part of my understanding, little as it is, which is deep, as opposed to superficial'; I do not mean that my understanding of Tolkien is particularly deep. It isn't.)

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  42. "What you really mean is that you don't like it, which is entirely your prerogative"

    Exploding Eye: What I really meant was what I said: that Star Wars (the six-film series) isn't very good (in my humble opinion, of course).
    I actually do *like* the first film (what we now call Episode IV), which is as exciting and entertaining as a Bank Holiday Afternoon Movie could wish to be.

    There are lots of things I like that I don't think are very good -- much of Doctor Who comes firmly into that category! There are also things that are undeniably "good" that I just don't much care for because they don't appeal to my tastes. I'd like to think that my opinion of the Star Wars franchise is based on what really I think of it, not what everyone else does, though. Not liking something *just because it is popular* is, as you rightly say, a tedious backlash position.

    I deeply love the ubiquitous Beatles, and their cultural dominance doesn't bother me one way or the other: I just genuinely believe their work has merit, regardless of its popularity. Equally, I can't be doing with the Rolling Stones, because (in my opinion) Jagger just can't sing or (more importantly) swing. This again has nothing to do with their incredible popularity -- I just don't think they (or rather, their vocalist) are very good.

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  43. "Exploding Eye: What I really meant was what I said: that Star Wars (the six-film series) isn't very good (in my humble opinion, of course).
    I actually do *like* the first film (what we now call Episode IV), which is as exciting and entertaining as a Bank Holiday Afternoon Movie could wish to be."

    Okay, that's fair enough, I misunderstood what you meant. Yeah, I think the first Star Wars film does exactly what it set out to do with great aplomb... as a six-film series there's certainly more room for debate about whether what it intended and what it actually achieved even come close to marrying up!

    Incidentally, my thoughts on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are exactly the same as yours. :) Quite how the Stones got to be the second biggest band of the 60s - particularly in the face of The Kinks, The Small Faces, The Who and The Pretty Things - is quite beyond me!

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  44. WGPJosh,

    "or at least Norse mythology (which is where Tolkein clearly got it from)"

    A similar conception of elves (also fairies and fair folk) is found in Saxon and Celtic myth as well. It's not until relatively late that all these beings become presumptively tiny.

    Iain Coleman,

    "The spacecraft may move unrealistically, but they have a beaten-up, properly-engineered look about them that recalls real military vehicles."

    And their properly-engineered look (though not the beaten-up bit) is directly borrowed from 2001, a movie that has the feel of hard SF even though it's really nothing of the kind. The spaceships of 2001 are the most direct aesthetic influence on the spaceships of Star Wars.

    SK,

    "Not that Tolkien didn't build a world, but for Tolkien 'world-building' was a secondary activity (and 'novelist' tertiary)."

    As a chronological claim that's certainly true; but what one's reasons are for getting into something initially, and what reasons structure one's ongoing pursuit of it, are rarely the same.

    "and The Lord of the Rings because he needed a story to tell his children."

    That's The Hobbit, not LOTR.

    "please do not be using the word 'trope' again until you have learnt what it means"

    The word means different things in different discourses. In my own field, it means a property particular as opposed to a property universal; but I don't propose to legislate that everyone use it that way.

    "Frodo is the antithesis of a 'chosen one'; the whole point is that the ring has found its way to him by chance"

    See what Iain Coleman said. Also, are you forgetting the last page of The Hobbit?

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  45. My claim wasn't chronological so much as based on Tolkien's skill levels.

    And I think you'll find that chapters of The Lord of the Rings were definitely written to send to his sons, serving during the second world war.

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  46. Long time reader, first time poster. This is why I love this blog. Three statements, made by Dr Sandifer, that anywhere else, would have started a flame war, were discussed rationally and intelligently with arguments both for and against each statement. I feel as if I'm in a modern salon, sipping an excellent whiskey and enjoying a great converation with some very smart people.

    Thank you Dr Sandifer, for taking my favourite TV Show, been a fan since 1971, and taking it to places I did not even think possible.

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  47. Gnaeus: I think the biggest difference between Frazer and Campbell is that the first edition of the The Golden Bough was originally published in 1890. Nowadays Frazer is clearly just *wrong* in method, detail, and conceptual framework, but his ideas are less bothersome in their original context, in which there was no end of daft stuff about myth, some of it worse than Frazer.

    Also, some of Frazer's more orthodox classical scholarship (e.g. his commentary on Pausanias) has aged rather better than his more popular work on myth and religion. There's nothing like that on Campbell's cv, I think.

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  48. "I think you'll find that chapters of The Lord of the Rings were definitely written to send to his sons, serving during the second world war."

    Well, he did send some chapters to his sons. Wheher that was his central purpose in writing them is another question. In any case, he began writing LOTR before WWII, so it's not as though the point of the novel was to have something to send to the front.

    I disagree with you about what's best in Tolkien. I think the moment of brilliance in Tolkien is when he decides to fuse the Silmarillion strand with the Hobbit strand, getting as a result something greater than either of the strands separately.

    (If you've read his early drafts of the opening chapters of LOTR, Tolkien dithers around terribly until the idea of linking the two strands hits him.)

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  49. In Leaf by Niggle Tolkien talks about the desire to walk into the distance without having the distance become mere surroundings. The brilliance of LOTR is that it makes the Silmarillion strand serve as the reachable distance. And the main characters walk into it. Notice how the characters' diction grows more elevated as they travel into the more historically fraught portions of Middle-Earth geography, and grows more homely as they return to the Shire. Language as landscape!

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  50. "If you've read his early drafts of the opening chapters of LOTR, Tolkien dithers around terribly until the idea of linking the two strands hits him."

    This process is indeed fascinating to follow in the early drafts. The publishers are demanding a story about Hobbits, Tolkien doesn't see much point because what he really wants to write about is Middle Earth and the Noldor, and the Alchymical Moment where he realises that he can *do both at the same time* just doesn't occur to anyone for *ages*. You can see him thinking "Damn Hobbit Sequel, distracting me from the important business of my history of the Elves", and what seems to us in retrospect to be the obvious, brilliant solution only really comes about because he was stuck for a name in The Hobbit and stole "Elrond" from The Silmarillion to fill the gap -- the idea that this could be *the same Elrond, in the same mythology*, takes a bewilderingly long time to come into focus, even though it is the key to the astonishing success of the whole thing.

    (Incidentally, the point made earlier about Tolkien not being primarily a novelist seems to me to be equivalent to damning Ry Cooder for not making very successful synth-pop albums. Tolkien isn't a very good novelist simply because he *isn't a novelist at all*, and judging his fictional work by the standards of a genre fully a thousand years younger than the genre he was writing in isn't really comparing apples with apples. The question is not "Is The Lord of the Rings a good Modern Novel", but "Is it fit to be read alongside Beowulf"? -- at which point, as Iain Coleman says above, what some mistake for a "bad novelistic prose style" is revealed as a luminous and brilliant transcript of something designed to evoke literature designed for oral delivery. )

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  51. Well, depends how narrowly you define "novel." By some standards the genre is over a thousand years older than Beowulf. And given how extraordinarily diverse the "modern" novel is, I think it's going to be hard to defend a definition narrow enough to rule out such.

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  52. Changing topics: while I agree, of course, that the Star Wars prequels are vastly inferior to the originals, and that Lucas's retreat from a collaborative to an auteur model of filmmaking is largely to blame, I do want to give the prequels credit on two points:

    a) The prequels are much more politically sophisticated than the original trilogy. As I've argued elsewhere, they're a far more accurate template for understanding contemporary politics tha most mainstream analysis.

    b) The idea of having Darth Vader, rather than Luke, turn out to be the true Chosen One is a nice twist. (Of course the event that makes that reading possible happens in the original trilogy, so only partial points there.)

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  53. SK, regarding my comment about the use of the phrase 'quantum leap':

    "You don't think it means a small change, right?"

    I think it occurs at a subatomic scale, but I wouldn't say that's what it means. Rather, it refers to changes of energy state that cannot be subdivided. One way of reading this is that they are the smallest possible changes; another is that they are changes that occur incredibly rapidly. The latter is closer to common usage, but still doesn't match it very well.

    But that doesn't really matter, because my point was that this is an irrational dislike. The everyday meaning of 'quantum leap' - a large increase - doesn't have to depend on its scientific meaning any more than 'decimation' has to refer to a 10% reduction because that's what it meant in Roman times. Similarly for 'suspension of disbelief' - to bring the discussion full circle.

    Hope that's clearer - it's certainly wordier!

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  54. I think the crucial idea of a "quantum leap" is that it jumps from one energy level to the next without going through any intermediate levels -- so by extension it means a change involving radical discontinuity.

    I do think that "decimation" still means a 10% reduction, and other uses are just mistaken. (My test for whether a word has changed its meaning or is just being used wrongly is the [preponderance of] judgments of those familiar with both uses.)

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  55. Having a PhD in physics, I guess I should weigh in on the "quantum leap" thing.

    The term "quantum leap" isn't actually used in physics these days - "quantum transition" would be a more likely phrase - but otherwise BerserkRL is quite right. The distinguishing feature is that the particle moves from one energy level to another without passing through the intervening energies - it is a discrete rather than a continuous transition.

    Of course, a quantum leap is something that only occurs on the microscopic scale, so the common use of "quantum leap" to denote some dramatic change is stretching the point rather. But to denote a step change, it's a perfectly reasonable metaphor.

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  56. "Having a PhD in physics, I guess I should weigh in on the "quantum leap" thing . . . "

    I just have to echo srodney here: this is precisely why I love this Blog!

    We do need whiskey, though. And smoking jackets.

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  57. SK,

    Okay, back to BSG:

    "most episodes of which consist of the setting up of a trivial moral dilemma, about which the characters angst for forty minutes before doing the thing that it was obvious that they would have to do from before the credits"

    a) Most of the moral dilemmas were not trivial.

    b) If you find agonising over moral dilemmas boring, you're going to have to dump a big chunk of world literature down the drain along with BSG.

    c) As the characters often end up not agreeing on what to do, I'm not sure what you mean about their ending up doing the obvious thing. They can't converge on the obvious if they don't converge at all. (And even when they do agree, often what they end up agreeing on is something morally outrageous, and so a fortiori not obvious.)

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  58. BSG kept me gripped from beginning to end - not boring in the slightest.

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  59. BerzerkRL - Since we're on BSG, I'll say this - it's clearly not hard SF in the sense of developing real scientific concepts into stories. But in terms of how it looks at its world and the sorts of solutions that come up, it's much closer to SF than sci-fi, if we can use that distinction meaningfully. Or, at the very least, it's the most SF thing to hit it that size of big in some time.

    This also seems like a point to clear up what was a bit of an infelicity on my part in terms of clarity - where I talked about "hard" SF not existing in 1926, which you called out upthread. You're right, of course - Verne is clearly SF. But the point where something is recognized as a genre and the point where it begins are, I think, distinct. My point was that Gernsback's definition of the genre did not in any way involve the hard/soft distinction. Texts of both kinds existed, certainly, but the distinction didn't, if that makes sense.

    Your point about scientific romances is more on target, though I wonder if there's a distinction to be drawn between a genre and a movement. Scientific romance was a thing that was going on in the late 19th century - a movement. Science fiction as invented by Hugo Gernsback, on the other hand, is a genre - a thing that exists to define a particular type of pleasure as opposed to a particular set of concepts.

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  60. "Texts of both kinds existed, certainly, but the distinction didn't, if that makes sense."

    Fair enough -- though Verne's comments on Wells do sound very much like a hard SF writer's comments on softer SF.

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  61. (a) The ones I saw were trivial (I have only seen the first series, the end being terrible for all sorts of reasons other than the moral dilemmas that would take too long to go into now);

    (b) Most (good) literature doesn't deal with dilemmas as trivial, or deal with them so terribly, as Battlestar Galactica; and

    (c) Not only was it obvious what was eventually going to happen (which way the dilemma would be resolved), it was usually obvious which characters would be on which side and which would be unhappy with the eventual resolution too.

    It's a tedious, annoying series that is not a tenth as clever or as relevant as it thinks it is. As one commenter, with whom I agree on little else, wrote, 'If you want to say something about the War on Terror, you don't write about robots with spines that light up when they have sex, you write Generation Kill.'

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  62. 'If you want to say something about the War on Terror, you don't write about robots with spines that light up when they have sex'

    Then why bother with science fiction at all?

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  63. No, the question you should be asking is, why bother with Battlestar Galactica when you can get science fiction that doesn't just say trivial things with a tremendous lack of subtlety?

    The fairy lights in the spines are just an extra bit of ridiculousness.

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  64. "I have only seen the first series"

    So you're making imperious judgments about a show you haven't seen most of. Got it.

    "If you want to say something about the War on Terror, you don't write about robots with spines that light up when they have sex"

    So that would be your clue that the show wasn't ever meant to be solely about the war on terror.

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  65. I'm flabbergasted this thread is still going...

    @BerserkRL

    Very good bringing up Celtic mythology: I'm certainly well aware of how the Fair Folk were described in that mythos and how it's dramatically different than the conception of fairies from the Victorian age onwards. I've actually always held a great fondness and fascination for Celtic mythology and one of my projects draws upon it quite heavily. One day I might like to do a social history of pre-Christian Celtic culture of my own as so little ethnographic work seems to have been done on it.

    My point in comparing Tolkein's elves to Norse elves was simply that the Norse tradition is what Tolkein's conception seems the most similar to in my opinion. Certainly he drew from other sources as well, but what we think of as the "High Elf" is very seeped in that tradition, and even the nomenclature "Alf" and the name "Gandalf" come from Norse words. In Celtic mythology by contrast, while there certainly were Otherworlds and mystical beings, it seems to me it was uncommon to call them "elves" and that they didn't bear quite the same resemblance to the creatures described by the Norse. That's all.

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  66. "I'm flabbergasted this thread is still going..."

    There's just so much to say about Star Wars! :-)

    "even the nomenclature 'Alf' and the name 'Gandalf' come from Norse words"

    No no, I'm pretty sure this was Tolkien's source. (At least that's my edda-cated guess.)

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  67. @BerserkRL - that link doesn't work for me ("Referral Denied" error), so I can't tell if you're being sarcastic or what (as the parenthetical would suggest).

    But Gandalf's name (which could be translated generously as 'magic elf') actually comes directly from the Völuspá, stanza 12 (part of the Dvergatal, which is just a list of names of dwarves, mostly):

    Veggr ok Gandalfr, Vindalfr, Þorinn,
    Þrár ok Þráinn, Þekkr, Litr ok Vitr,
    Nýr ok Nýráðr, nú hefi ek dverga,
    Reginn ok Ráðsviðr, rétt of talða.


    It, ahh, goes on like that for some time. Most of the dwarf names from The Hobbit show up in it, including the surname Oakenshield (Eikenskjaldi).

    So, that Tolkien was influenced by Norse texts at least in some naming choices is obvious. But it doesn't stop there - we have lots of elements that show up in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings that it is a pretty safe bet were inspired by Norse legends (mostly from the Volsungasaga), including:

    * A broken sword that is reforged and subsequently Very Very Mighty

    * A magic 'ring' (notably, the 'rings' in the Volsungasaga may actually have been coins/currency, i.e. cursed treasure, because the word 'ring' was used for currency in Old Norse... but the connection is still notable) that brings doom to those who possess it

    * A wandering figure with a beard who knows magic and is known to die and return with more wisdom than before. In fact, Gandalf is enough of an Odin figure that Tolkien wrote in a joke about the subject, in which Gimli (I believe) comments that Gandalf "isn't likely to end up in the belly of a wolf".

    * A dragon guarding a large hoard of gold. Granted, this it may already have been a prevalent image by the time The Hobbit came around. But the Volsungasaga (and its ancestor/derivative stories) is, as far as I know, the origin of this iconography.


    Of course, it *is* reductive to suggest that Tolkien's mythos is just 'Norse myth with the names changed'. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure Phil was employing hyperbole with that particular statement.

    On the other hand, Tolkien *did* work to divorce these myths from their original contexts and re-insert them into a very Christian context. That is, he fused elements from Norse myth with very Christian elements (such as the idea of an absolute 'good' and 'evil'. Really, mostly that).

    So, I have to disagree that it doesn't belong straightforwardly to *any* culture. It belongs very clearly to 20th-century British culture. Heck, you don't even have to be especially *Catholic* for that to apply, since it is, essentially, a mashup of Norse myth and (fairly general/universal) Christian (and thus, modern Western) morality.

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  68. @BerserkRL - okay, that link decided to work for me. I have to say, I find your argument compelling and may be forced to agree with you.

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  69. "No, the question you should be asking is, why bother with Battlestar Galactica"

    Because I like it. Why isn't that enough? It's not as if it isn't an acclaimed and respected show, not that that should matter.

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  70. I'm not a Doctor, I don't play one on TV, and I haven't seen any of the new BSG; so I'll make a couple of comments and then go and post the next entry in my own blog while waiting for Phil's next post.

    First off, thanks to BerzerkerRL and Iain for clarifying quantum leaps. It's what I was trying to say, really, but using more precise terms ('discrete' is better than 'indivisible') and with a slightly different emphasis. My analogy is a change of one bit in a (regular) computer: at no point does the bit represent ½.

    We talk in a language where words and phrases (like 'liberal', 'S.F.', or 'quantum leap') are in a superposition of meanings; in some sense there is no right answer until something happens in the conversation to "collapse" the context so that the listener can pinpoint the meaning intended by the speaker. OK, that's probably b*****ks, and I was just having fun phrasing it in a pseudophysics-y way; but there is a core truth to it.

    Ironically, when I invented a language, it left no room for significant ambiguity, poetry or humour. It was deliberately designed so that words that sounded similar had similar meanings, the vocabulary taking its structure from Roget's Thesaurus. The grammar was completely regular. I studied a little bit of phonetics in my spare time, even sneaking into phonetics lectures when I was doing maths at Oxford; the alphabet (24 consonants and 16 vowels) was based on a careful selection of sounds so that spelling was phonetic. The result was boring as heck, but I had a lot of fun doing it.

    All of which was, of course, inspired by Tolkien. At different times in my youth I loved different aspects of his work. Sometimes it was the LotR story, sometimes the mythology, sometimes the language work. That, for me, was his genius: there was so much to think about. It's also one reason why I don't object to his son publishing what one critic called "gleanings from the great man's wastebasket" - they are, in effect, more behind-the-scenes notes that can help inspire. OK, we also got a lot of second-rate imitations copying the form and trappings of LotR without the heart; but then, Sturgeon's Law always applies.

    I haven't mentioned Star Wars, the main topic of the blog entry. Confession time: I wrote the embedded software for the motion capture equipment used by ILM at the time of the prequels - which means I am partly responsible for Jar Jar Binks. There. I said it. I'll just go now.

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  71. "But Gandalf's name (which could be translated generously as 'magic elf')"

    Or "staff/wand elf" -- and he does carry a staff.
    (I wonder what "happy trotting elf" is in Old Norse.)

    "A magic 'ring'"

    Though the influence of Gyges' ring is strong here too, as a symbol of unaccountable power. Though unlike Plato, whose answer to the question "who can be trusted with the ring?" was "philosopher-kings," Tolkien's answer was: nobody; or if anybody, then not wizards (the closest equivalent to philosopher-kings) but hobbits.

    "okay, that link decided to work for me"

    Here's a different link if others are having the same trouble.

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  72. "I wrote the embedded software for the motion capture equipment used by ILM at the time of the prequels - which means I am partly responsible for Jar Jar Binks."

    Small world! I co-taught a course with Nels Madsen, who helped design the motion capture system for Gollum.

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  73. "Small world! I co-taught a course with Nels Madsen, who helped design the motion capture system for Gollum."

    I'm Inspector LeStrade's body double in Sherlock Holmes 2. Sorry, I was feeling left out.

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  74. I bet you do the scene where his eye explodes.

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  75. I propose that the next Pop Between Realities entry be about Tolkein, just so we can fill its comments section with Star Wars information and debate.

    Of course, having said that, it would actually fill up with woodworking tips, based on a random aside on how crafting works in Middle Earth.

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  76. Not on this blog. You're thinking of Adventures With the Wife in Space.

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  77. The trouble with Adventures With the Wife In Space is that there hasn't actually been much in the way of handy hints on set construction and general woodworking. I'm not even convinced that it's particularly good as marriage guidance. Tardis Eruditorum is much more practical, in its own way.

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  78. @BerserkRL - coming back to this a bit late, but, on 'gandr': http://lexicon.ff.cuni.cz/html/oi_cleasbyvigfusson/b0188.html has the entry on gandr, and it's a wonderfully complex word, really. But it can denote 'anything magical' (a magical person, beast, or object), so I usually pick 'magic' as my preferred translation when it is used as an adjective or part of a compound, as I think this often gets the sense of the word across best. Obviously this doesn't always work, especially in the names of monstrous beasts: 'Jörmungandr' would become 'great magic', which is clearly a weak translation. But it often works as a quick-and-dirty translation choice :)

    Also this seems like a good time for a shameless plug, I co-wrote a facing translation of the Völuspá, available here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/voluspa/16540130

    We did it mostly because an inexpensive, in-print, facing translation seemed to be nonexistent for people without access to academic libraries.

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  79. Police Academy analysed as Campbellian monomyth:

    http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/143871-the-hidden-mythos-of-police-academy/

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  80. Adam B:
    "Anyway, that caveat aside, I really appreciate your takedown of Campbell and the Hero's Journey. It's always had the whiff of complete and utter bullshit to me, and you've articulated here why. Not only does it elevate West over East, but it's just another excuse to glorify the individual at the cost of the community that has led to the Wild West capitalism run amok that has brought the entire world to the brink of financial ruin and keeps us there, tottering on the edge of complete chaos."


    My favorite post on this blog that I've read today.

    I never heard of Lucas claiming to follow Campbell until many years after-the-fact. The impression is, Lucas found Campbell years after-the-fact, then tried to use him as a way to make his "kids' films" seem more "meaningful". Up to then, people had been openly swiping bits of STAR WARS. After, people began openly following Campbell. Which seems even worse. (I can't even discuss how much I genuinly hate, hate, HATE the movie "THE MASK OF ZORRO". Fabulous production in ever single level... but I wanted to kill the writer. It was so deeply offensive to me on so many levels. I could tell Spielberg was behind it, somewhere.)

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