January 10th, 2002


The Way of the Warrior

One of the things I like best about the Lord of the Rings movie, is that they let the warriors kick butt and take names. Over the years, there seems to have been a gradual softening of fantasy, which irks me. My idea of a cool fantasy hero is Beowulf, Heracles, or Conan, an epic warrior who slays monsters and rights wrongs and generally acts heroic -- not a simpering kid, overwhelmed farmer, or laughed-at scholar.

I realize why fantasy has gone the way it has ... and actually, Lord of the Rings has a lot to do with it. Before LotR, Conan and his ilk were the rulers of fantasy literature. But then Tolkien's quiet, unassuming hobbits came along and turned the genre on its head -- and were a huge hit. With very few exceptions, just about all of the fantasy written these days can trace its origins directly back to Tolkien (or to Tolkien by way of "Dungeons and Dragons"), and that's cool, for those who want it, but it's not really my cup of tea.

Of course the irony there is that Tolkien was consciously adopting the epic form -- i.e., he was using very specific literary techniques harkening back to The Odyssey, The Iliad, Beowulf, and so on. But like Milton with Paradise Lost, Tolkien took the epic, chopped it, channelled it, gave it a fresh paint job, and made something else out of it.

To give Tolkien his due, he does have plenty of gung-ho action in LotR, even if it takes a while to show up. Conan stories open on the battlefield ... Tolkien stories end that way.

But a lot of the Tolkien emulators don't actually seem to like action very much; many are quite frankly meeklings of the saddest kind. Sure, they have their characters wield swords against the baddies when the time comes, but their heart's not in it ... their first instinct is to flee, all the while crying about what a bad, bad world it is that could have such wicked meanies in it. (Or, even better, flee until they're backed into a corner, then destroy their foe using some power they got by being "the chosen one," that they fear, barely understand, and terribly regret having to use.)

My own instinct is to pick up a big ol' bastard sword and cleave the baddies in twain, scoop up the treasure, and ride off into the sunset. I guess it's the barbarian in me (for I've certainly got quite a bit) -- but that's why I prefer old-school sword and sorcery to more contemporary high fantasy.

This leads back to what I was getting at with the LotR movie -- it doesn't pull any punches. In a film industry where critics were bashing the soft-sell Willow as being too violent, LotR has big, bad monsters doing their accursed best to slay the heroes -- and sometimes succeeding. The devastation of Isengard, Gandalf's sufferings at the hands of Saruman, Bilbo's wound, and Boromir's tragic end are all important aspects of the book that could easily have been pulled punches -- but weren't -- and I applaud the filmmakers for that.

And to counter these big, bad monsters, we have big, great heroes ... Gandalf facing the balrog, fully knowing that its power will overwhelm even him; Aragorn taking on the Nazgul; Boromir lopping off orc heads right and left; Legolas firing off arrows like a gatling gun; Gimli avenging his slain dwarven brothers ... great stuff. :) The heroes are made that much more admirable, by the fact that they're taking on powerful enemies and winning. Not by accident, as a certain space opera has recently cheated us with, but by hard work, courage, pain, and sacrifice, the stuff of true heroism.

This is a Lord of the Rings that even Conan would pay good money to go see. :)

-The Gneech