Abandon Hope, but Save a Little

Thence we came forth to see again the stars.

~ Dante Alighieri

Dante’s Inferno is not a cheerful poem. It follows the poet Dante and his guide Virgil through hell, upon whose gate are inscribed these words: Abandon all hope, ye who enter hereThis slogan could just as easily be printed on the poem’s front cover. Inferno isn’t a fun read, unless you happen to enjoy long conversations (all written in archaic language and poetic meter) with the tormented souls of damned sinners.

I once wrote about my favorite opening lines in literature, and more recently considered some of my favorite last lines. For example, A Tale of Two Cities ends on a poignant note: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” My all-time favorite last line concludes The Lord of the Rings: “‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

The final line of the Inferno is right up there with my favorites. For a poem whose most enduring words are “Abandon hope,” it ends hopefully. Dante and Virgil leave hell.

I can imagine it so clearly: disheveled travelers, exhausted from climbing in the endless dark, chilled by the ice of hell’s last circle, disturbed by the horrors of the underworld, glancing upward and seeing a sky alight with stars. I can see them stumbling out of the cave into the fresh air, blinking in the soft light from heaven. I can hear cicadas buzzing and feel a breeze stirring the grass. Hell is behind them. The nightmare is ended. After all the circles of hell, they know they’ve reached safety, for they see again the stars.

Thence we came forth to see again the stars

I’m a bit sentimental, but that’s one of my favorite images in all of literature. After literally going through hell, our heroes are safe. They are no longer trapped beneath stone ceilings. Above them, the heavens declare the glory of God. It’s a touching picture, and an uplifting end to a really bleak poem.

In one of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, there’s a similar scene in which the protagonists escape an underworld to find themselves beneath a starry sky. J.R.R. Tolkien’s books also feature characters ending underground journeys by stumbling out into the open, such as Bilbo getting out of the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit and the Fellowship fleeing Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Escaping the underworld to find oneself beneath the sky has become a literary motif, and I dig it.

To conclude, here’s a bit of trivia: All three parts of the Divine Comedy end with the word stars. Neat, huh?

445. How Much Should I Talk about My Book?

All right, guys. Serious question.

How much should I talk about my book project, the Lance Eliot saga, on this blog?

As TMTF staggers ponderously toward its imminent demise, I’m wondering how to fill its final fifty-something posts. I’m also thinking a lot about the changes I plan to make to Lance Eliot’s story. Should these musings intersect? Should I start sharing some of my plans for the Lance Eliot saga—no major spoilers, mind you, just basic stuff—on this blog?

I’m excited about my book project, and eager to share some of my early ideas. I would appreciate feedback, too. As Neil Gaiman observed, “writing is, like death, a lonely business.” Community is important for creativity. I could use the suggestions, ideas, and enthusiasm of my readers.

Writing is hard

A writer needs all the help he can get.

Another potential benefit of writing about the Lance Eliot saga is the possibility of raising interest in, and awareness for, the project. It would also give me a smoother segue from writing a blog about nothing in particular to writing a book.

However—and this is an important “However,” spoken in a deep voice and with a concerned expression—I don’t want to annoy or alienate any of my readers by talking too much about my writing plans. People read this blog, I assume, for… whatever it is that happens here. (Heck if I know.) Most readers don’t come here to read about unrelated projects.

I don’t want readers who enjoy TMTF for what it is to be disappointed by repeated discussions of a completely separate project. I don’t want anyone to feel that TMTF has become a blog “just for that book project,” especially since there is only a limited number of posts left.

If I wrote about my plans for the Lance Eliot saga, new posts might offer character profiles, an updated geopolitical situation for my imaginary world, stories from its lore, thematic elements, and maybe more.

I’m not sure what to do, so I’m leaving this one to you. What are your thoughts? What would you like to see from this blog? Should I share early ideas from the Lance Eliot saga? Should I stick to… um… whatever this blog is already? At this point, TMTF exists largely because of its readers. (I care about you, believe it or not.)

Should I write occasional posts about my book project, or stick to this blog’s usual topics? Let us know in the comments, or send me a note on social media!

393. About Storytelling: Magic, Destiny, and Nanomachines

Here’s a question for you: What do fate, magic, nanomachines, and sonic screwdrivers have in common?

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been playing a video game called Metal Gear Solid 4. Its blend of military intrigue, science fiction, and social commentary is kinda bonkers, but the story’s strangest turns always have an explanation—or, to be more honest, an excuse. That excuse is nanomachines. These microscopic robots are injected into the bloodstream of many characters in the game, giving them superpowers (or super-weaknesses) that defy all other explanations.

How does a character in the game survive being shot in the head and stabbed through the abdomen? Nanomachines. How are entire armies instantly disarmed, disabled, and defeated? Nanomachines. How is a long-dead character revived in a stunning twist? That’s right—flipping nanomachinesEvery impossible twist in the story is explained by these hard-working little bots.

The answer is nanomachines.

The answer is nanomachines. It’s always nanomachines.

In the end, throughout the Metal Gear Solid series, nanomachines are generally the catch-all explanation for things that otherwise make no sense. The audience never learns exactly how they cause immortality, raise the dead, regulate firearms, or do any of the other crazy things they do. Nanomachines are a vague, easy solution to plot holes that can’t otherwise be filled.

Let’s not cast all the blame upon nanomachines, though. Consider how often, especially in fantasy stories, magic is used to explain away things that make no sense. Science fiction often uses technology in exactly the same way. As Arthur C. Clark reminds us, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Marvel’s Thor movie openly acknowledges this when its eponymous superhero tells an ordinary human, “Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.” Thor’s hammer makes no sense. Most of the stuff in Marvel’s movies makes no sense. The easiest solution is to claim that it’s incomprehensible technology and call it a day.

Witness the power of... um... technology?

Witness the power of… science?

Fate and destiny can work the same way. In dramas and romances, these vague cosmic forces offer an excuse for crazy coincidences and irrational behavior.

Then there’s Doctor Who. Flipping heck, is there ever Doctor Who. Besides the good Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, which does anything the plot needs it to do, the show’s many plot holes are waved away by the concept of “wibbly-wobbley, timey-wimey… stuff.”

Do you remember the concept of deus ex machina? It’s when a specific problem in a story is resolved by some contrived or impossible solution. This is the same idea, but bigger and more pervasive. It’s when a deus ex machina, instead of resolving a single problem, becomes the storyteller’s go-to resolution for all of the problems.

As cheap or lazy as this sounds, it doesn’t have to be so bad. It all depends on how it’s used. Some stories don’t need to be burdened by a lot of complicated explanations. If media like Doctor Who or Metal Gear Solid 4 obsessed over details, or else cut out everything that lacked a rational explanation, they would be a heck of a lot less fun. If the audience is willing to swallow a vague explanation, and it enables a better, tighter story, then it becomes a good thing.

Used badly, narrative tricks like magic and nanomachines make a story contrived and unbelievable. Used well, they prevent a story from becoming bogged down in details and explanations, and allow storytellers to focus on other areas of storytelling.

I would call my typewriter monkeys my blog’s version of this trick—a vague explanation for the complicated process of how TMTF is kept up and running—except for one thing. My monkeys don’t resolve problems. They cause them!

385. Review Roundup: Death Game Edition

It has been a while since TMTF’s last Review Roundup. Why don’t we look at some stories about death games?

In these media, protagonists gamble their lives in dangerous games. Some of these are literal: formal competitions with rules. Some are figurative: risky ventures into crime. And one of these stories has nothing at all to do with death games. (I enjoy writing these reviews, but not enough to plan my media consumption around them!)

Let’s talk about The Hunger Games trilogy, Ant-ManThe Big LebowskiIs It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, and Whisper of the Heart.

The Hunger Games trilogy

The Hunger Games trilogyFor the first time in years, I picked up a popular Young Adult novel to find out what all the fuss is about. (My last investigation of a literary sensation led me to read Twilight, a mistake from which I never fully recovered.) The Hunger Games is a pop culture phenomenon, and I meant to find out why.

I dunno, guys. I wasn’t all that impressed. Maybe I’m just a grumpy snob, but the Hunger Games trilogy neither dazzled nor entertained me. The books aren’t bad, but I wouldn’t call them classics.

The Hunger Games books tell the tale of Katniss Everdeen, a pragmatic teen trapped in an impoverished district of Panem. The government of this dystopian country rules its outer districts by fear and humiliation, selecting two children from each district every year and forcing them all to fight to the death. This gruesome event, the Hunger Games, is televised throughout Panem as an amusement for the wealthy; for the poor, it’s a reminder of their powerlessness. Katniss is selected for the Hunger Games, and the books follow her rise and fall from gladiator to celebrity to revolutionary to whiny PTSD victim.

The Hunger Games books are lauded for their smart setup and gripping story. I’ll be the first to admit there is truth to these praises. Panem is an interesting setting. The concept of the Hunger Games is fascinating, providing a way for a corrupt government to placate the rich and subjugate the poor. The story has its twists and turns, and the first book is actually pretty engaging.

However, the characters are mostly dull and unlikable. Katniss, who narrates the story, lacks much personality besides a coldly analytical attitude and occasional flickers of affection. As the books wear on, Katniss is traumatized by her horrific experiences, becoming angsty and angry—a change in her personality, sure, but not for the better. More promising characters, such as foppish Effie Trinket and drunken Haymitch Abernathy, end up disappointing.

When it comes to tone and style, I get the impression the Hunger Games books aren’t sure what they want to be. They have a sort of gritty realism concerning poverty and war. I appreciate that. However, this gloomy approach is at odds with the books’ ludicrous sci-fi touches and predictable Young Adult nonsense. (Yes, there’s a love triangle, and it’s annoying.)

In the end, the Hunger Games books have just enough harsh realism to be depressing and just enough teen kitsch not to be taken seriously. They fall in a literary no man’s land, refusing to embrace either realism or sensationalism, and embodying the worst traits of both. I find it hard to recommend these books.


Ant-ManMoving on to something much more entertaining, Ant-Man is another big, dumb, spectacularly fun Marvel movie. Unlike the Hunger Games books, Ant-Man embraces its own goofiness in a way that’s a joy to see.

Ant-Man begins with Scott Lang feeling very small. This well-meaning ex-convict can’t keep a job or convince his ex-wife to let him spend time with their little girl. When Lang meets an old inventor named Hank Pym—he burgles Pym’s home, actually, but that’s not the point—Pym offers him “a shot at redemption,” meaning an opportunity to put on a high-tech suit, shrink to the size of an ant, and dive back into the life-or-death game of high-stakes burglary.

Look, if you’ve seen any recent Marvel movie, you know what to expect at this point. Ant-Man is full of quotable quips, flashy action scenes, and comic book lore, with a little sentimentality sprinkled here and there.

This time, however, there are two things to make the film stand out. First is an emphasis on father-daughter relationships. This motif isn’t developed as fully as a it could be, but it works. The second thing is that Ant-Man is basically a superhero heist movie, in the same way the first Captain America is a superhero war film and the second one is a superhero cold war thriller. Ant-Man isn’t about saving the world, but stealing stuff… to save the world, I guess.

It’s still a nice touch.

I really enjoyed Ant-Man. It nods at other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe without depending on them, and I look forward to seeing Ant-Man in future films. Not bad for such a little guy.

The Big Lebowski

The Big LebowskiWith that, we move on from a small hero to a larger-than-life one in The Big Lebowski. Ironically, however, the film’s hero isn’t actually the Big Lebowski, but a slacker with the same name (I’ll call him the Lesser Lebowski) who loves bowling, booze, and tacking the word “man” to the end of nearly every sentence.

The Big Lebowski begins when thugs storm the home of Jeff Lebowski, a laid-back stoner known as “the Dude,”  and pee on his rug. It was a nice rug, man. It really tied the room together. The thugs threatened the Dude (and peed on his rug) under the impression he was “the Big Lebowski,” a millionaire with the same name. When the Dude takes his bowling buddies’ advice to seek compensation from the Big Lebowski for the rug, he becomes snared in a game of deception, violence, kidnapping, cursing, and postmodern art.

This movie is sort of a black comedy and sort of a noir crime film, but it’s mostly Jeff Bridges bowling, drinking, and wandering around Los Angeles. In the end, the film’s complex web of crime and deception unravels to reveal a whole lot of nothing, and I think that’s the point: there never was one.

This was quite an entertaining movie. It ain’t one for kids—it has bullets, boobs, and f-bombs beyond count—but for adults with a healthy sense of the absurd, The Big Lebowski is a treat.

Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?

Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a DungeonWell, is it?

The oddly-titled anime Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? is the tale of Bell, a nice young man who longs to become an adventurer—to impress the ladies, of course. He lives in a medieval fantasy town whose existence revolves around the eponymous dungeon: a labyrinth teeming with monsters. Adventurers join familias—guilds sponsored by gods or goddesses—and venture into the dungeon in a dangerous game for treasure and glory. In quest to become a dungeon-conquering hero, Bell accepts the sponsorship of a down-on-her-luck goddess named Hestia. This unlikely pair must work together for Bell to have any chance of becoming a master adventurer and impressing the ladies… well, one in particular.

I won’t lie, guys. This anime is incredibly dumb. Remember what I said about Ant-Man embracing its goofiness? This show does the same, but with roughly ten thousand times as much enthusiasm.

I mean, the anime’s opening theme has a momentary scene of Bell and Hestia brushing their teeth. Look at this. Look at it.

Toothbrush dance (GIF)

This is basically the entire show: dumb as all heck, but endearing in its silliness, with some gratuitous cleavage for good measure.

The world of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? functions exactly like a video game (an MMORPG, to be precise) without actually being a video game. Its adventurers gain experience and level up—heck, they even have statistics (appearing as magical tattoos on their backs) reflecting their competency in various areas. Monsters respawn on a set timetable, and powerful creatures explicitly called bosses guard certain floors of the dungeon. The setting is instantly comprehensible to gamers, but at the cost of making absolutely no sense. Why do adventurers level up? What revives the monsters that respawn? What the heck is going on?!

(It is very faintly hinted that the gods and goddesses of ancient times created this video game-like world for their own enjoyment, but no real explanation is ever given.)

This is a show in which half the female characters have crushes on the hero, like Twilight in reverse, and most female adventurers wear stupid chain mail bikinis. I can’t defend or recommend this anime. It’s really, really dumb.

All the same, I kinda enjoyed it. Bell, who has a massive inferiority complex, is kind and friendly: a welcome change of pace from angsty or arrogant anime heroes. Hestia works odd jobs to support him, despite being, y’know, a goddess. The show seldom takes itself too seriously; the rare occasions it does are some of its weaker moments. For the most part, its good-natured goofiness made it fun to watch, if not intellectually rewarding.

Whisper of the Heart

Whisper of the HeartAt last we arrive at a film that not even I can pretend fits the vague “death game” theme of this Review Roundup: Whisper of the Heart. Because of this movie, John Denver’s all-American classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads” will forever remind me of urban Japan.

Shizuku is a bookish Japanese teen, sharing a cramped apartment with her family. She notices one day that all of her library books were previously checked out by someone named Seiji, and wonders who he might be. Shizuku later ends up at an antique shop. Its owner encourages her to pursue her passion for writing stories, and also introduces her to his grandson: the mysterious Seiji. As Shizuku’s love of writing grows, so does another kind of love.

Studio Ghibli is magnificent. Whisper of the Heart was one of the few Studio Ghibli films I had never seen, and I’m glad I finally watched it.

I’ll be honest: Whisper of the Heart is no masterpiece. Nah, it’s merely a touching, charming, beautifully-animated coming-of-age story with a scene that nearly brought tears to my cynical eyes. By lofty Studio Ghibli standards, this is merely a decent film. By any other standards, Whisper of the Heart is wonderful.

I enjoyed the film probably more than most people because I identify with Shizuku’s desire to write stories. I was Shizuku once, in a manner of speaking: young, naïve, hopeful, insecure, eager to share my stories, and scared no one would want to read them—or worse, that they wouldn’t be worth reading.

Whisper of the Heart has its fair share of sentimentality: far more, in fact, than nearly any other Studio Ghibli film. The movie lacks the effortless grace and emotional punch of the studio’s finest works… but there is one scene, in which several musicians strike up their instruments for a joyful, impromptu performance of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” that brought me closer to crying than any film in recent memory (except Inside Out, of course).

It may not be as popular as Studio Ghibli’s other movies, but Whisper of the Heart is absolutely worth watching, especially if you’re an aspiring writer, a Studio Ghibli fan, or a fan of romance.

What books, films, shows, or video games have you enjoyed lately? Let us know in the comments!

371. Ladies in Fantasy Fiction Need Better Armor

I’m no expert, but I’ve noticed a difference between armor for men and women in fantasy fiction: men wear more of it.

I’m no feminist, but I do believe in treating people with decency and respect. I’m also fairly pragmatic. Most female armor in fantasy fiction isn’t respectful or decent, and pragmatic it most certainly is not.

Here, for example, are male and female warriors from one of the Dragon Quest video games. In the game, they have exactly the same role on the battlefield. Is unreasonable to expect them to wear roughly the same armor?

Amor differencesIn the picture above, the male warrior gets a padded tunic over mail hauberk, along with leather gauntlets, a sturdy helm, a kite shield, and articulated armor plating for his legs. The female warrior, by contrast, gets a tiny mail blouse, half a mail skirt, and random bits of plate armor on her arms and legs.

There are several problems here.

The most glaring issue is sexism, of course. It just ain’t fair for male characters to be fully armored while female characters wear swimsuits. (I’ve touched upon this before.) It exemplifies the concept known as the male gaze: the way visual arts often assume the viewer is male. The male gaze ogles female characters or puts them in revealing clothes, like the chain mail swimsuit above. It’s insulting to women.

(For those ready with the “fantasy fiction is not supposed to be realistic” arguments, I believe at least a small amount of realism makes fiction more believable. If a woman wears dangerously revealing armor, there had better be a good reason for it! For those ready with the “you should stop taking everything so seriously” arguments, I don’t believe fiction is a valid excuse for sexism or double standards.)

This is not, however, a blog post about sexism. Nah, today’s post provides a more pragmatic rationale for giving female characters better armor: the kinds of armor worn by most female characters in fantasy fiction would get them killed.

Let’s take armor styles one at a time.

The chain mail bikini

Chain mail bikiniIt was challenging to find a picture illustrating this style of armor that wasn’t NSFTMTF. (For those who don’t know, NSFTMTF stands for Not Safe For Typewriter Monkey Task Force: a designation covering vulgar language, extreme violence, sexually explicit material, and any media related to Kristen Stewart or Justin Beiber.) Even the picture above pushes the boundaries of good taste.

The chain mail bikini describes any style of armor that (sometimes barely) covers only the naughty bits of a lady’s anatomy. I need hardly describe the practical difficulties of such armor. It exposes vital organs such as the stomach and lungs, providing practically no protection whatsoever. More often than not, what little armor is worn looks like it could fall off at any moment. High heels, which are often worn with chain mail bikinis, don’t allow for quick movement or proper balance.

Are there benefits to chain mail bikinis? I’m really reaching here, but I suppose they could offer good mobility, and might prove distracting to enemies.

Nah. Who am I kidding? Chain mail bikinis are completely useless.

The boob plate

Boob plate armorAs the name suggests, the boob plate is a breastplate with breasts.

Opinions are divided on the usefulness of the boob plate, but the most logical view is that it would probably kill you.

You see, armor doesn’t merely shield the body from sharp or spiky things. It also deflects the force of blows from weapons. A blow from, say, a club will do far less damage if it glances off a breastplate than if it strikes it squarely. In other words, armor is meant to deflect blows, not to absorb them.

The problem with boob plates is that they wouldn’t necessarily deflect blows away from the chest. They could also deflect them inward, funneling them into the cleavage between the breasts—and right into the wearer’s breastbone. Even if a weapon didn’t penetrate the armor, it could fracture the wearer’s sternum. Flipping heck, even falling forward could slam the ridge of metal separating the breasts into the breastbone, breaking it.

As it happens, people who wore armor usually wore padding beneath it, so a woman’s chest would probably be wrapped or padded and wouldn’t require a form-fitting breastplate in the first place.

The battle dress


A battle dress is a dress worn into battle. Like the boob plate, it’s fairly self-explanatory.

I applaud the battle dress for being less blatantly sexist than other styles of female armor… but it still gets low marks for practicality. Long skirts and dresses have the same problem as capes in The Incredibles: they get caught on stuff. A woman can hardly run, ride a horse, or vault over bushes in a dress. Sooner or later, it will snag on something.

Besides, dresses offer no protection… unless they have chain mail or plate armor sewn into them. Then, unless the armored sections are kept close to the body, such weighted dresses are even more likely to snag on stuff. Besides, any heavy part of the dress left hanging, such as a skirt or long sleeve, impedes movement by swinging awkwardly.

The sensible armor

Sensible lady's amorThe armor in the picture above isn’t perfectly practical—it should lose the flowing skirt, and the breastplate really ought to cover more of the abdomen—but it isn’t bad. (I would cut off the braid and add a helmet, but what do I know?) The shoulders, chest, and legs are protected, leaving the arms free and allowing bend at the waist for wielding so large an axe. The armor also looks awesome as all heck.

Women can wear more or less the same styles of armor as men, with minor adjustments for shoulder width. Even adding a slight outward bulge for breasts is fine, provided it doesn’t include the sternum-shattering cleavage mentioned above; a gentle convex curve can deflect blows as well as anything. Designing sensible female armor doesn’t have to be that difficult.

Is impractical lady armor ever appropriate in fiction? I suppose it has its place, such as in comedic tales and parodies of fantasy fiction. In more serious stories, styles of lady armor which would be useless in battle could be used for ceremonial purposes: parades, coronations, etc.

In the end, however, I think practical armor is definitely the best way to go.

274. About Storytelling: Chekhov’s Gun

There was once a writer named Anton Chekhov. Besides writing a play that trapped me in a stage kiss, this contemplative Russian also established the literary principle that has come to be known as Chekhov’s gun.

Chekhov once stated, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

This concept of a background element becoming an important plot point has become known as Chekhov’s gun. Something that seems trivial becomes extremely significant. The thing you forgot from twenty chapters ago defeats the villain or break the hero’s heart.

A famous example of this can be found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by dear old Tolkien. The all-important Ring that ends up driving the whole story starts out as a convenient escape for Bilbo Baggins early in his adventures. When Tolkien brought a magic ring into the story, he originally had no plans for it. The Ring was a handy deus ex machina, a trinket discovered just in time to save Bilbo’s life.

Chekhov's... ring

This is an example of Chekhov’s gun. Yes, I know it’s not really a gun.

Only later did Tolkien decide to make the Ring more than a magical accessory. It became the crux of the story, the thing around which all other things revolved—one Ring to rule them all, so to speak. The rifle had gone off.

Chekhov’s guns tend to be common in plot-driven stories. J.K. Rowling uses this principle all the time in her Harry Potter books, in which later plot developments hinge on minor incidents and random rubbish from earlier books.

Although less common in character-driven stories, Chekhov’s gun can apply to people as well as objects and events. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, kindly Professor Kirke seems unperturbed by wild claims of magical worlds inside his furniture. His composure doesn’t make much sense until the reader gets to The Magician’s Nephew. Here it is revealed that Kirke actually visited magical worlds as a child, explaining his lack of surprise as a grownup.

While Chekhov’s gun is a wonderful dramatic technique, it’s best used with subtlety and restraint. It’s a treat for careful readers and devoted fans to notice trivial things becoming important, but overuse of this principle makes stories seem contrived or confusing.

Incidentally, while I haven’t any rifles hanging on my walls, I do have swords. As much as I appreciate the principle of Chekhov’s gun, I hope my assorted blades stay on my walls in later chapters of my life.

Tolkien on Fantasy

It was a beautiful golden harp, and when Thorin struck it the music began all at once, so sudden and sweet that Bilbo forgot everything else, and was swept away into dark lands under strange moons, far over The Water and very far from his hobbit-hole under The Hill.

J.R.R. Tolkien

There are a few works, just a few, which have given me glimpses of Fantasy.

Sure, I’ve read and seen and played plenty of fantasies. Few have shown me Fantasy. You see, Fantasy is a realm beyond our own: a mysterious, beautiful, dangerous place we are seldom privileged to see. Tolkien called it Faerie.

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

There are worlds we know, the worlds of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy: Middle Earth, Narnia, Hyrule, Spira, Ivalice and others. None of these are Fantasy, yet all of them have given me glimpses of it. Like Thorin’s golden harp, they carried me to faraway places full of danger and beauty and mystery: snowy peaks and tangled forests and mines whose gems shine like stars in the dark heavens.

I enjoy escaping to Fantasy. My brief trips there are never planned, sadly. They just happen, and I think they’re a good thing. Consider these words from Tolkien:

I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?

In my ordinary life, I appreciate my fleeting visits to Fantasy. It’s nice to get away!

204. My Childhood Fantasy

As a kid, I loved fantasy stories. My budding imagination teemed with dragons, hobbits, wizards, weapons and those octopus-monsters from The Legend of Zelda that spit rocks. It was only natural, I suppose, for me to build a fantasy of my own.

The hero of this fantasy was an orphan (of course) with a tragic past (naturally) who overcame adversity to become a mighty swordsman, wizard and defender of the innocent. My fantasy hero was—like all true heroes—named after a character in a video game. Inspired by Link from the Legend of Zelda games, named for a challenger from the Pokémon games, my hero was Lance: a green-clad warrior for whom no quest, challenge or cup of tea was too big.

For a childish fantasy, Lance was ahead of his time. He fit the pattern of the wanderer-hero in almost every detail more than a decade before I recognized the archetype in fiction. Years before I knew anything about Doctor Who, Lance traveled through time and space with a box that was bigger on the inside. (However, unlike the Doctor, Lance didn’t travel in his box. Lance kept stuff in it.)

I didn’t feel the slightest qualm as a child about plagiarizing other stories. Lance used magic to travel anywhere, which included Middle-earth from The Lord of the Rings, Hyrule from the Legend of Zelda games, Hogwarts from Harry Potter and a few more copyrighted realms from books, films and games. (How fortunate that imagination is beyond the reach of lawsuits.) Lance rubbed shoulders, bumped elbows and occasionally sparred with many famous fantasy heroes.

After two years of vivid adventures, Lance slipped quietly into retirement when I entered my early teens. It was coincidence that the protagonist of the story I began writing a couple of years later—which grew into my novel, The Trials of Lance Eliot—had the same name as the hero of my childhood fantasy. Lance Eliot was given his name because the plot demanded it, as readers of the novel know.

I think the coincidence is rather funny. Lance the all-powerful hero and Lance Eliot the wry college student could hardly be more different. I suppose they have at least one thing in common… they like tea.

My imagination is less exuberant and more wary than it used to be. When I read, write or see a story, I find myself looking for inconsistencies, holes and weaknesses. Things have to make sense now that I’ve grown up.

All the same, I hope I never lose that spark of imagination. Making up stuff is fun.

147. Confessions of a Tired Writer

On the coast of Ecuador lies a little town called Same. (In Spanish, it’s pronounced with two syllables: sah-meh.) Although Same boasts a lovely beach, it’s also disfigured by one of the saddest sights I’ve ever seen.

Someone once planned to build a resort on the Same beach, and construction began of a huge hotel. That plan failed. I don’t know the details. The half-finished building looms over the beach, pathetic, silent, empty: a vacant shell of weathered concrete and rusted metal.

I hate to think how many hundreds of thousands of dollars were invested in this aborted hotel. The sight is an ugly one, and unspeakably sad. Someone’s dream died. The ruin isn’t merely an unfinished building. It’s a tombstone. A monument to failure.

That reminds me of something. Something personal.

When I was a kid, I decided to write a trilogy of fantasy novels. In high school, I started a story about a college student named Lance Eliot. At first it was nothing more than a shallow tale of journeys and dragons and sundry fantasy clichés. Early on, it even featured steampunk airships and motorcycles!

Years passed. More than once, I gave up on Lance Eliot and worked on something else. I wrote a couple of detective stories. (In a truly unexpected turn of events, one of them earned a scholarship that paid much of my college tuition!) I tried writing a crime novel. In the end, however, I always came back to Lance Eliot’s journey.

My silly story about swords and sorcerers became something more meaningful: the journey of a man searching for something—the trials of a traveler longing for home—the awakening of a hero from within a selfish, cynical coward. Of course, I kept the magic and dragons and people getting drunk. Lance Eliot’s story remained a fantasy.

It’s not a great story. I know that, but I hope it’s a good one. It has certainly become the most intensely personal project I’ve ever undertaken as a writer. I may not smoke or drink or use dated British idioms, but Lance Eliot and I are very nearly the same person.

It took four attempts over five years, but I finally finished the first part of Lance’s story: The Trials of Lance Eliot. A kindly author introduced me to a literary agent, whose invaluable assistance (and infinite patience) eventually brought my novel to publication as an e-book and later as a paperback.

At the moment, that’s where Lance Eliot’s story ends.

It’s hard to write a novel. It’s harder to publish one. After publishing The Trials of Lance Eliot, I was tired of writing. My life at that time was uncertain and stressful. Having just returned to the United States of America after six months in Uruguay, I had no job, no apartment, no driver’s license and no self-confidence.

Lance Eliot could wait. Once my life had settled down and The Trials of Lance Eliot had sold some copies, I could get back to work on the manuscript for its sequel.

It’s taken a long time for my life to settle down, and I’m pretty sure no more than a few dozen copies of The Trials of Lance Eliot have been sold. I have a job and several blogs and ten thousand other things to keep me busy. The manuscript for the novel’s sequel has been mostly untouched for many months.

Every now and then, however, I think of an empty concrete ruin looming over the town of Same.

The Eliot Papers, the trilogy of which The Trials of Lance Eliot is the first part, has been my greatest passion as a writer for almost as long as I’ve been writing.

Dash it to blazes, I’ve got to finish this thing.

(All right, maybe I do sometimes use dated British idioms.)

Besides my desire to get the deuced story written, I owe it to my agent and publisher to complete the trilogy. He’s invested much time and money in The Eliot Papers. For both our sakes, Lance Eliot must finish his journey.

This brings me to an important announcement.

When I decided to publish miscellaneous creative writing on this blog, I didn’t realize how great a commitment I was making. Posting “Zealot: A Christmas Story” has forced me to make some very hasty revisions and rewrites. It’s been stressful, and I’m not satisfied with the final result.

I can’t keep posting creative writing and regular blog posts if I’m going to make any progress on The Eliot Papers.

Thus, with apologies to my readers, I’m no longer publishing creative writing on this blog.

I’ll post the final chapter of “Zealot: A Christmas Story,” of course, and there’s a brief dramatic sketch I’ll put up on the blog next month. After that, however, TMTF shall revert to its old two-post-a-week schedule until further notice.

I hope that sad old hotel in Same is finished someday. In the end, though, it’s not my concern. Lance Eliot’s story is.

I hope that’s finished someday too.

135. Why J.R.R. Tolkien Is Awesome

When I decided to start writing these Why [Insert Author Name] Is Awesome blog posts, I wasn’t sure with whom to begin. At first I considered G.K. Chesterton, and then James Herriot, and then P.G. Wodehouse.

In the end, of course, I realized there was only one author with whom to begin this exciting new series of posts. One author to rule them all.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you the man who created a universe on the backs of letters and exam papers, writing in his study late at night when the world was asleep, reinventing mythology for the modern age—and doing it in his spare time.

I give you John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, my childhood hero and the father of the fantasy genre.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course, Tolkien didn’t invent fantasy. As I noted in my short, untidy and highly idiosyncratic history of the genre, its inventor was probably a Scottish minister named George MacDonald. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of him. Not many people have. He may have invented the fantasy genre, but Tolkien was the man who made it famous.

Enough preamble. Let’s get down to business.

What makes Tolkien awesome?

The thing that amazes me most about Tolkien is that the world he created is vast—vaster than vast—vastly vast. Tolkien’s world, Middle-earth, is huge. Worlds like Narnia are tiny by comparison.


The history of Middle-earth, meticulously chronicled, spans tens of thousands of years. Its geography (which changes over the centuries) is recorded in maps. Tolkien created languages, cultures, genealogies and even legends—myths within his myth. I once read that Tolkien holds the record for creating the largest fictional universe ever devised by a single person.

Tolkien’s literary style is sometimes a bit ponderous, and many readers are discouraged by the slow pace of the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings, his masterpiece. It’s not a fast-paced, action-packed novel. It takes its time creating a world for its characters to inhabit, and patient readers are rewarded with a story made more powerful by its fullness.

Personally, I love Tolkien’s style. It’s not flashy or funny or avant-garde, but does a beautiful job of conveying images and experiences vividly.

Tolkien weaves many familiar images and archetypes into his world. Gandalf reminds us of Merlin. Rohan comes straight out of Beowulf. The elves and dwarves are borrowed from Norse mythology, and the Shire is unmistakably English. While Aragorn wears armor and wields a sword, Bilbo wears a waistcoat and wields an umbrella. These disparate elements somehow never clash.

Although many of Tolkien’s characters are superb, some lack depth and intricate characterization. With three or four exceptions, the fourteen dwarves in The Hobbit (the prequel to The Lord of the Rings) are so undeveloped that they blur together.

The villain, Sauron, isn’t really a character. Although he’s mentioned frequently, he never actually makes an appearance in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Sauron is more like a threat, an unseen presence haunting these stories like a shadow.

Gollum, by contrast, is developed brilliantly: a minor villain whose slow, faltering steps toward redemption make him a surprisingly compelling character. Gandalf, a wizard, is unforgettable: gruff, powerful, impatient and kind. Bilbo, a timid hobbit, demonstrates a unique sort of courage—not showy heroism, but a quiet, determined bravery built upon resourcefulness and common sense.

Tolkien's Characters

Even Tolkien’s dialogue is memorable. It lacks clever quips and one-liners, but succeeds on a much deeper level: it’s believable. Kings speak with grace and elegance. Samwise Gamgee, a gardener, talks with colloquial simplicity. Tolkien’s books are populated by an enormous range of characters, from ageless sages to degenerate monsters, and their dialogue is no less diverse.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Tolkien’s books is their moral strength. Tolkien never preaches. He doesn’t need to. Loyalty, courage, honesty and self-sacrifice shine throughout his stories. Without ever saying it, Tolkien makes one thing crystal clear: good is better than evil, and good wins.

For someone new to Tolkien, I recommend starting with The Hobbit. It’s a fine introduction to Tolkien’s world and literary style. The Hobbit is a simple story of adventure, like a fairy tale. The Lord of the Rings is more like a myth, featuring a more mature style and a much deeper story.

The Silmarillion, a history of Middle-earth published after Tolkien’s death, isn’t a particularly compelling book. I recommend it only to the most devoted of Tolkien’s readers. The Silmarillion reads like a history textbook: occasionally interesting, but seldom engaging.

For readers who are interested in Tolkien’s other works, Roverandom is a delightful book for children. Farmer Giles of Ham is a funny story about a farmer who tames a dragon, and Leaf by Niggle is a beautiful allegory of a struggling artist.

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, J.R.R. Tolkien is awesome.