Posts Tagged ‘Tolkein’

Besides using various weapons and artifacts to slay dragons, there’s a time-honored tradition of heroes emerging victorious by some form of happenstance. For instance, someone (I can’t remember who, but I’ll let you take credit if you remind me nicely) commented that they were surprised by how Smaug was slain in The Hobbit. That is, while Bilbo was in Smaug’s lair he saw the sleeping dragon on its back, and there was a gap in the crusting of jewels that armored Smaug’s belly. Later he revealed this to Bard the Bowman, in Laketown. Bard was able to shoot an arrow into that exact spot, thus bringing down the dragon.

However, as is pretty well known, Tolkein was a scholar of Germanic myth, and who’s the most famous dragon of Germanic myth? Fafnir! Well, Fafnir was slain by Sigurd, who lay in a ditch and stabbed upward through his softer belly. I did a post on Fafnir about two years ago. You can read it again here, if you wish.

Actually, this “lucky shot” ploy comes into quite a few dragon adventures (and some non-dragonish ones). In the first episode of Record of Lodoss War, Woodchuck makes a dragon falter by throwing a dagger into its eye. Afterward Parn kills the dragon. In the first Wizard of Oz book, Dorothy accidentally kills the Wicked Witch by throwing water at her.

To me, it’s a little cheap for a hero to battle a dragon and succeed by accident. At the same time, I think we could all name a favorite legend or myth where the mightiest combatant has just one point of weakness. Achilles and his heel. The sorcerer who hid his heart in a box. Werewolves and silver. Vampires and garlic.

When it comes down to it, even the mightiest foe has to have some sort of weakness. A one-sided battle just isn’t a good story, not matter how logical the outcome. The reality is, most readers are not satisfied when the dragon kills the hero. We want our heroes to triumph in the face of great odds. Even if it comes off sort of random and feels like cheating.

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Babymouse is another popular graphic novel series for young readers, similar to Ursula Vernon’s Dragonbreath series, which I mentioned earlier this fall. The creators here are a brother-sister team, Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm, who have won multiple awards and sold zillions of copies all over the world.

Babymouse, the title character, is an excitable and dramatic young girl who copes with school and peer relationships through her vivid imagination. She reminds me a lot of Ramona the Pest, a first grader who stars in her own series of early readers. The cover copy says Babymouse in junior high, but she reads a around 5th grade to me. This is mostly because the books I’ve seen deal with issues of popularity but not dating. Also, she has only one teacher, and by junior high, kids go from class to class.

Dragonslayer is book #11 in the series. We find Babymouse day-dreaming in school, imagining herself confronting a terrifying dragon — only to have the dragon turn into her teacher, who is handing back a math test. Are we surprised that the grade is equally terrifying? After a few snickers from bullying classmates, Babymouse is presented an even more grueling quest. Her teacher assigns her to join the Mathletes team!

Babymouse dutifully goes to meetings and even makes a few new friends. She goes through fantasy sequences quoting Lord of the Rings, Naria, and more. Does her math improve? Well…

This was actually an issue for me. Babymouse doesn’t solve her problems by learning the math. And why would any teacher assign a failing student to the Mathletes? I’d think some other form of tutoring would be preferable. The other issue is that we only see the titular dragon for a few pages and it isn’t a real character in the story. But that’s just me.

I’ve enjoyed the Babymouse books I read, although they are definitely graphic novels on the lighter side. Don’t look for deep exploration of meaty issues here. Just relax and enjoy this silly and sweet graphic series.

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I hope you’re still with me as I continue my trip back in time, following some of the connections that have made contemporary fandom what it is. We’ve walked backward from Yu-Gi-Oh! to Magic: the Gathering to Dungeons and Dragons, and how each of these would not have been created without the one before it. There’s just one more stop on our journey.

Lord of the Rings was written as a single massive epic, but printed as three volumes between 1954 and 1955. Author J.R.R. Tolkein is sometimes dismissed as a bookish Oxford scholar, but his work was visionary. It won an International Fantasy Award in 1957. That hardly begins to describe its impact.

With paperback publication in the 1960s, the series became much more affordable. It swept college campuses all over the world. The humble Hobbits were seen as counter-culture protesters against forces of industrialization. (This was also the era of Rachel Carson and the first modern action against air and water pollution.)

When I first read them, in the early 1970s, the books were like the Harry Potter series. Smart kids read them, because you had to be smart to understand Tolkein’s vocabulary and follow the multi-threaded plot.

All of us had grown up reading fairy tales and legends such as the Norse mythology Tolkein loved. What electrified aspiring writers was the idea that we didn’t have to be content with the dusty tales of dead cultures. We could write our own! Not only that, Lord of the Rings introduced us to an incredible world with several cultures and a complicated history between them. This is world-building, a bedrock of fantasy today. It’s Tolkein’s great gift to the genre.

Previously, fantasy had been just a niche genre published in a few SF and men’s adventure magazines. Even those were withering. With Tolkein’s success, the genre exploded. First with a score of imitators, some better executed than others, but since about 1980 with more and more work that stands on its own merits.

Tolkein’s ground-breaking innovation led to a host of other ground-breaking innovations. Without Tolkein, we wouldn’t have D&D. We wouldn’t have video games like Skyrim or Assassin’s Creed. We wouldn’t have Magic: the Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Bakugan. Game of Thrones wouldn’t be on TV. Lots of us wouldn’t even have a genre to write in.

All these things we take for granted. We forget there was a time when they didn’t exist. What would our lives be, as writers, as fans, without Lord of the Rings? This is what I tell people who don’t get the problem with film-makers massively changing Tolkein’s story in The Hobbit.

We owe Tolkein, big time.

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When you’re on a good meme, you just can’t let go! So here’s my nod to that catchy pop song, and the five dragons I would never, ever, EVER want to meet.

1) Tiamat, of Sumerian myth. Sea monster and chaos incarnate. Need I say more?

2) Hydra, from Greek myth. Nine dragon heads and so poisonous that even stepping into her footprints will kill you!

3) Smaug, from J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit. The archetypal European dragon: huge, hungry and greedy, with fiery breath and armor plates — but his intellect is what really scares me!

4) Vermithrax, of the movie Dragonslayer. Much like Smaug, though she doesn’t have as much to say.

4) The Copper, E. E. Knight’s Age of Fire. He starts as a runty outcast and works his way up to emperor of dragons, complaining and feeling sorry for himself all the way. I get enough of that from my teenagers, thanks.

Besides the interesting things my choices might reveal about me, I was struck that all my choices in the category of dragons I would want to meet were the creations of 20th Century authors. Like the sparkly vampires and woebegone werewolves of Urban Fantasy genre, dragons are portrayed in a much more sympathetic light these days.

Today’s five is slanted much more to the classic dragons of myth. Even Smaug and Vermithrax, though they spring from modern works, hearken back to the terrifying monsters that have made our ancestors shiver for millennia.

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Q: Do dragons like elves?

A: Yes. They are especially good with tartar sauce!

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Last week, during my holiday break from blogging, I received and enjoyed my first-year report from WordPress. The little fireworks started off tiny, but grew and grew. It’s a fun way to think about how my friendships have grown due to this blog. So I’m starting Year Two with a big THANK YOU to everyone who reads and comments on Wyrmflight. I hope I’ll continue to entertain through the coming year.

This Christmas’s big movie is The Hobbit. As a life-long fantasy lover, I should be way more excited about this than I actually am. The reasons are complicated, and perhaps fodder for a future post. For now, I’ll settle for repeating a blog from February 2012 on the topic of Tolkein and his great dragon, Smaug. Enjoy!
The Hobbit is full of enchantment: Dwarves, Hobbits, dark forests, magic rings found in goblin-infested caverns. Amid all these wonders, Smaug stands out even though he only appears in the final quarter of the book.

He is, in some ways, merely another European dragon lying on a hoard in his dark lair. But Tolkein took that basic form and added something new and remarkable. Something that made Smaug scarier than any dragon before him. Tolkein made Smaug smart.

From the moment he opens his mouth, we know how dangerous Smaug is. Using only words (because riddles are an ancient passtime Tolkein included in his story), he got enough information out of Bilbo to figure out where he came from. He also sowed seeds of doubt about the intentions of Bilbo’s Dwarf companions. These doubts complicated the plot even after Smaug himself was gone.

Like all great villains, Smaug was partly responsible for his own downfall. Bilbo, who wasn’t too dumb himself, managed to flatter Smaug until he rolled over and showed his belly, which was crusted with gems from lying on his hoard so long. The hobbit noted a gap in Smaug’s armor, which was later exploited to bring about Smaug’s death.

Vanity may have been Smaug’s undoing, but he remains a remarkable character. Smaug was nobody’s pet or BFF. He acted for himself, in his own interests, and apologized to no one. In a genre that soon grew crowded with mighty dragons, Smaug stands alone.

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