N is for The Neverending Story, the timeless fantasy story by Michael Ende. It was first published in the original German in 1979 and later translated into over 30 languages. Part of the story (roughly the first half) was turned into a film; Ende actually sued the filmmakers for using the book’s name without adapting all of it, but lost the lawsuit. Two more films were made, but did not follow the book too closely, only using some of its characters and drastically changing story elements. I won’t go into the films here; as an aspiring writer, the book is of much more interest to me.
One of the things that makes the book unique is the lengths Ende went to in order to have the book published the way he’d imagined it. I mentioned in my A to Z Challenge post on the topic of chapters the fancy artwork (by Roswitha Quadflieg) at the start of each of the 26 chapters, where an entire page is taken up by the drop cap for each letter in the alphabet from A to Z.
But wait, there’s more! This fantasy story is set in both our “real” world and “Fantastica” (the original German name “Phantásien” sounds much better to me, I don’t know why but can only guess that they couldn’t use “Phantasia” for copyright reasons), and, to emphasise when the story switches from one to the other, they are actually in different colours – red for the “normal” world, and blue-green for the world inside the book which the main character reads and into which he is drawn more and more as the story progresses.
There is also fancy scrollwork at the top of each numbered page and there are fancy fonts for chapter titles, including within the chapter body.
At the very beginning of the prologue, there is a mirror image of the inscription of the glass door of the antiquity store in which the story begins.
In short, the book itself, even ignoring the content, is a minor work of art. The story was written with children in mind (although Ende complained that he was being pidgeon-holed as a “children’s book author” while many other books received less attention), but also contains many lessons for adults. Another one I’ve added to my growing “must re-read pile”.
M is for Marvin, the Paranoid Android. If you remember my post on Douglas Adams for the A to Z Challenge on “D”, I mentioned that Marvin was worth a separate blog entry. Marvin is one of the (if not the) best characters created by Douglas Adams. Whether he’s complaining of “this terrible pain” in the diodes down his left-hand side, explaining his view of the universe to a computer (which then goes off to commit suicide), or solving all the major mathematical, physical, chemical, biological, sociological, philosophical, etymological, meteorological and psychological problems of the universe (three times), he’s always ready with a cheerful comment.
Based on a fellow comedy writer, Andrew Marshall, whom Adams met at Cambridge, as well as on himself, Marvin appears in various places throughout the Hitchhiker’s Guide books. In the 2005 film, Alan Rickman voiced the character to perfection.
Here are just a few wonderful comments and snippets of Marvin’s joyful existence:
“It gives me a headache just trying to think down to your level.”
“Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction?”
Marvin calculated to ten significant decimal places the precise length of pause most likely to convey a general contempt for all things mattressy.
[After being left in a parking lot for 500 million years due to time travel] “The first ten million years were the worst. And the second ten million years, they were the worst, too. The third ten million years I didn’t enjoy at all. After that, I went into sort of a decline.”
“You watch this door. It’s about to open again. I can tell by the intolerable air of smugness it suddenly generates.”
“Do you want me to sit in a corner and rust, or just fall apart where I’m standing?”
“Wearily I sit here, pain and misery my only companions. Why stop now just when I’m hating it?”
“I am at a rough estimate thirty billion times more intelligent than you. Let me give you an example. Think of a number, any number.” [Zem replies, “Er, five.”] “Wrong. You see?”
In a fit of boredom (after solving the universe’s problems several times over), he decides to compose a lullaby:
Now the world has gone to bed,
Darkness won’t engulf my head,
I can see in infrared,
How I hate the night.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
Try to count electric sheep,
Sweet dream wishes you can keep,
How I hate the night.
Another one of my favourites is from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where Marvin is left behind (while the humans escape a tall building) to stop a “gigantic black tank”, heavily armoured and with weapons of enormous destructive power. When told that Marvin is there to stop it, the tank becomes suspicious and tries to figure out what mighty weapon Marvin is equipped with to make humans think he could stop the tank. After several wrong guesses, Marvin finally decides to tell the tank.
“You’re thinking along the wrong lines,” said Marvin. “You’re failing to take into account something fairly basic in the relationship between men and robots. […] Just think,” urged Marvin, “they left me, an ordinary, menial robot, to stop you, a gigantic heavy-duty battle machine, whilst they ran off to save themselves. What do you think they would leave me with? […] I’ll tell you what they gave me to protect myself with, shall I?”
“Yes, all right,” said the battle machine, bracing itself.
“Nothing,” said Marvin.
“Nothing?” roared the battle machine.
“Nothing at all,” intoned Marvin dismally, “not an electronic sausage.”
The machine heaved about with fury.”
“Well, doesn’t that just take the biscuit!” it roared. “Nothing, eh? Just don’t think, do they?”
“And me,” said Marvin in a soft low voice, “with this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side.”
“Hell that makes me angry,” bellowed the machine, “think I’ll smash that wall down!”
The electron ram stabbed out another searing blaze of light and took out the wall next to the machine.
“How do you think I feel?” said Marvin bitterly.
“Just ran off and left you, did they?” the machine thundered.
“Yes,” said Marvin.
“I think I’ll shoot down their bloody ceiling as well!” raged the tank.
It took out the ceiling of the bridge.
“That’s very impressive,” murmured Marvin.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” promised the machine, “I can take out this floor too, no trouble!”
It took out the floor, too.
“Hell’s bells!” the machine roared as it plummeted fifteen storeys and smashed itself to bits on the ground below.
“What a depressingly stupid machine,” said Marvin and trudged away.
Due to several cases of time travel, Marvin finally dies in So Long and Thanks for all the Fish at approximately 37 times the age of the universe. His last words are, “I think I feel good about it.”
R.I.P. (Rust In Pieces) Marvin.
In the original radio series, the character was meant to be a “minor joke”, but since they’d hired a voice actor for it, he “had to” write some occasional script for him. Another wonderful case of a writer’s characters taking on a life of their own.
L is for Lord of the Rings. Or for the Lighter Side of LotR. Since most readers would be well aware of what LotR is, and would have read the Tolkien books and/or watched the films (if not, why not?), you don’t need me to regurgitate that for you as part of the A to Z Challenge. Hence this post is more about fun stuff in and around LotR that you may or may not have come across somewhere on the web. If you’re such a die-hard fan that you can’t stand LotR being made fun of… don’t continue reading 😉
MTV Awards 2003
In case you didn’t catch the link in my earlier not-so-serious post on Hobbits (possibly due to Gollum interfering when I was trying to write the post… he’s good at that), here’s a hilarious video of Andy Serkis (Gollum’s voice) trying to accept the MTV Award for Best Virtual Performance in 2003, except… Gollum interferes and starts to mouth off at everyone, including Peter Jackson. This was one of the hidden easter eggs on the extended editions of the DVDs.
Council of Elrond, Jack Black style
Remember the scene where the Fellowship is first formed (“you have my bow”, “and my axe”, etc.)? Here’s a different version, another easter egg from the extended DVDs, also from the MTV awards. Contains, uhm, adult humour, and is also hilarious.
The Secret Diaries of LotR
These secret diaries must have been… uhm… cut out of the movies. Here’s a taste:
Ringwraiths killed: 4. V. good.
Met up with Hobbits. Walked forty miles. Skinned a squirrel and ate it.
Still not King.
Stuck on mountain with Hobbits. Boromir really annoying.
Not King yet.
Orcs killed: none. Disappointing. Stubble update: I look rugged and manly. Yes!
Keep wanting to drop-kick Gimli. Holding myself back.
Still not King.
Sorry no entries lately. V. dark in Mines of Moria. Big Balrog.
Not King today either.
Orcs killed: 7. V. good. Stubble update: Looking mangy.
Legolas may be hotter than me.
I wonder if he would like me if I was King?
Continue reading the full transcript, it gets more intricate as more characters are introduced and you realise how they’re all cleverly interlinked. (Actually, I just noticed that link doesn’t have the full transcript, but I forgot where the “original” was….)
LotR as a Badly-run D&D Bame
Now I have to admit I’ve never played pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons (a friend of mine used to play, apart from that most of what I know about it is from Big Bang Theory), but reading this fictitious script, I can imagine the scene perfectly. 😀
DM: Failed your climb check, huh? You slip and plummet.
PC2: Cool? Dude, you’re falling to your death! Now we have to finish this stupid quest without your mage.
PC1 (ignoring PC2): Can I see my sword?
DM: Err… sure!
PC1: Okay, I want to fall down and grab my sword from mid-air.
PC2: What the hell? You dropped that like two rounds ago when you failed your balance check, then you wasted another round calling me a “fool” in character.
PC2: You know how far something falls in three rounds?
PC1: Okay, I cast a Stilled Silent mage hand to bring it to me, and grab it.
PC2: A whated whated what? No frikkin’ wonder you didn’t have any damned knock spells prepared!
DM (ignoring PC2): Okay, you’ve got it! Glamdring slides into your hand. You see the balrog falling below you, twisting in mid-air, wings slowing his fall.
PC1: HAH! I knew he’d be coming back. Now I got ‘im right where I want him.
PC2: Dude, you’re crazy, you can’t fight a balrog all by yourself!
PC1: I got it covered. My dice are hot tonight, unlike Mr. Critically Fail Every Damned Stealth Roll over there.
PC3 (playing a certain hobbit): Hey!
PC1: Anyways, the balrog is toast. And the XP will be all mine! (rolls dice) Bwah-ha-ha-ha! Natural 20 to start the grapple!
PC3: Frik-dang-blasted high level wizards. “No, you start at 1st level.” What a crock . . .
PC1: A critical! I hang on to him and keep hitting him on the way down. Whack! (to PC2) This is going to be MY kill, baby. All those lovely, glorious XPs for a balrog, mine alone.
DM: (rolls a critical for the balrog that would kill PC1, panics, ignores dice) It missed you! Roll to hit again.
PC1: YEAH! You’re going down, servant of Melkor!
PC2: This is stupid. I’m going to go get some Mountain Dew.
PC2: Is this debacle over yet?
PC1: Almost, man. It’s really wounded, but I’m down to my last few hit points. We beat each other up swimming for a while, then climbed a bunch of stairs, and now we’re on the top of the mountain.
PC2: Oh, brother.
DM: It hit you again for… (roll dice, cheat on result) 5 points of damage.
PC2: 5 points! It’s supposed to be a balrog!
PC1: Shut up. I’m at negative 1. Can I take one last swing?
DM: Umm, sure.
PC1: Hit! And 8 points of damage! Hoody hoo!
DM: Wow – you killed it! It falls off the cliff – 7d6 points of falling damage.
PC2, sotto voce: winnnnggggsss…. it has wings!
DM: – and collapses on the mountain below you.
PC1: Yeah! In your face, balrog! I collapse back into the snow.
DM: Roll some stabilization checks.
DM: You failed them ALL?
PC1 (miserable): Yeah.
DM: Hey, I know! You get all the balrog’s experience points, right? So that puts you up a level, giving you more hitpoints, and you don’t die!
PC1: YES! Hahaha.. I’m unstoppable. Mage with a sword, baby! Balrog-bane!
PC2: You guys suck. I’m going home.
PC1: I’m putting all my new skill points in animal empathy, ride, and disguise (evil wizard).
There’s more where that came from.
Know of any more spoofs or fun things about LotR or similar books/movies? Let me know in the comments, you can never laugh enough.
H is for
hobbitses hobbits. Whether you’re a die-hard fantasy buff or just plain don’t live under a rock, chances are pretty good you know what hobbits are. Those little fellows, also called “halflings” by some, who typically like to put their over-sized, hairy feet up <censored> and live quiet and contented lives in the Shire whenever destiny isn’t bothering them with quests to save the world and such.
Hobbits were invented by the great-grand-daddy of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien, appearing first in The Hobbit in 1937 (which is currently being turned into three movies) and of course later in The Lord of the Rings. I believe they’re mentioned in some of Tolkien’s other writings as well, but, not having read any of those, I don’t know much more than that.
<censored> right! The most famous of them are Bilbo and Master looks after us Frodo Baggins, Stupid Fat Hobbit Samwise “Sam” Gamgee, Peregrin “Pippin” Took, and Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck. And us, and us! Even Gollum was once a hobbit.
sneaky little hobbitses good-natured cousins of humans live longer and mature much slower than we do (Frodo was 50 when he set out from the Shire to deliver my PRECIOUS! the One Ring to Mount Doom), and we hates the filthy little hobbitses are generally liked by the other races of Middle Earth. They spoilin’ nice fish have a strong sense of morals and, despite being rather mischievous in their younger years, tend to “do what’s right” when under pressure.
Hobbits should be given
to nasty Orcses a special place in her lair the heart of every fan of fantasy. <censored> <censored>, you <censored> <censored>-<censored>, my precious!
G is for George R. R. Martin. Too much sex, too much gore, too much wanton violence, and yet it’s storytelling of the highest order. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, upon which the TV series Game of Thrones is based (named for the first book in the series, just to confuse everyone), is polarising yet awesome.
Among GRRM’s less endearing attributes are these (don’t worry, I’ll praise him further down the page as well):
- He fills his book with explicit scenes (both sex and violence) that sometimes seem to be there more for the shock value than anything else. I’m sure many will disagree, but much of that could have been done more tastefully, in my opinion. (The guys at the “Finish the Book, George” blog don’t pull their punches like I’m doing when they point this out.)
- He takes forever to complete the next book and has, in the past, made and broken many a promise about release dates. “You’re not getting any younger, George, don’t you pull a Robert Jordan on us!” If you look at the release dates of the five books that are out (1996, 1998, 2000… so far so good… 2005, 2011… really?), you have to ask yourself what he’s doing with his time. The aforementioned blog is known for sticking it to him for pursuing all sorts of interests and hobbies (cynics would point out that many of them are earning him money) while he could be writing and while his fans languish. Who are we to tell him what to do with his time? True, but then, an author has to have some responsibility to his fan base, doesn’t he?
- He has no qualms getting his readers to identify with his characters only to kill them off with relish. (I actually don’t mind that one, personally, it keeps the readers on their toes.)
But, but, but, but… they’re still awesome books. I don’t want my writing to ever be that crude and explicit – I would feel smutty and cheap, and I’m neither squeamish nor prude – but I can overlook that fact for these positive traits:
- The worldbuilding and the historical background of the world of Westeros and Essos is extremely detailed and makes the setting very believable, an achievement that only the top tier of fantasy authors manage, and to which I aspire. Partially based on the Wars of the Roses (the medieval conflict in England, not to be confused with the film The War of the Roses), it is not hard to imagine that greed to control the throne would drive the characters to do what they do.
- The cast of characters is complex, but not for the sake of being complex, or because GRRM gets side-tracked in too many story threads as the late and great Jordan sometimes tended to do in the “middle books”. It suits the imaginary world they are in, and they all come with their own motivations that mean their actions make sense in the context of the story. So many of these characters are multi-faceted, that is, they aren’t all-good or all-evil one-dimensional gap fillers, making them very realistic. It is usually possible to find something sympathetic in the villains, and something to despise in the heroes, or at least to imagine that such a character could exist.
- It’s not the type of fantasy that waves magic stuff in your face; as with most well-written fantasy, the magic that sets it apart from our own world is merely one of the aspects of the story.
- Even though “not much happens” in many chapters, they are linked to the greater story in such a way as to maintain the reader’s interest.
- It’s just a good read. It’s the sort of long fantasy series I enjoy getting into.
- Even though major characters are getting killed left and right, and even though it seems like things get progressively worse, there’s always that hope that things will turn out right, that karma has to finally wake up at some point and give the characters you love to hate what’s coming to them (even though you know on some level that GRRM wants you to think that only to turn around and smite your hopes with a wave of his pen).
What do you think of GRRM’s writing, of A Song of Ice and Fire, or of the Game of Thrones TV Series (which, by complete coincidence, has just started season 4)? Do you agree about loving some bits and hating others, or are you a complete, unconditional fan, or think it’s tosh that shouldn’t be read by anyone? Let me know in the comments.
F is for Fitz, for FitzChivalry, for Farseer, for friendship, and of course for The Fool. If you don’t know, please go and have a quick read of three trilogies by Robin Hobb (Farseer, Liveships, and Tawny Man), then come back here (oh, fine, read the Rain Wilds Chronicles as well, while you’re at it, what’s another four books between friends… I’ll wait). Otherwise you’d be missing out. Plus, there may be spoilers.
You’d be missing out on knowing and understanding what I consider to be the best-written friendship in literature. No, I don’t mean just in epic fantasy. In literature. Ok, maybe that’s overdoing it a bit – after all, I haven’t even read more than two gazillonths of what’s out there. (Do you think you know one that’s better? Let me know in the comments… but have you read those three trilogies I mentioned?!?) Personally, I can’t think how any friendship of which anyone has ever written could compare. I set no boundaries on my adoration for this friendship. None at all. Do you understand me?
I set no boundaries on my love. None at all. Do you understand me?
— The Fool, in The Golden Fool
Here’s your chance to go away if you don’t want to read any spoilers… [cue elevator music while you scroll down].
The reason I say it’s the best friendship ever written is that it is not really a romance, nor a bromance, nor yet is it entirely platonic. (Well, one of the reasons. I can see I’m making myself very clear here.) I suppose it has a lot to do with the question of the Fool’s gender, an issue that is never fully answered*. It is exactly that lack of a definition of what the Fool is that leaves the nature of his/her/its friendship with Fitz open to the reader’s interpretation. Fitz and the Fool, Catalyst and Beloved… it’s a complicated relationship, to say the least. Fitz has a brilliant mind, but he can be thick as a plank at times. Yet you can’t entirely blame him for wanting to define what the Fool is and what their frienship is, or could be.
You are confusing plumbing and love again.
— The Fool, in Assassin’s Quest
Had the Fool’s gender ever been fully revealed by Robin Hobb, I doubt my memory of it would be as positive, or my joy at re-reading the series as great (I do hope this won’t be revealed when the next book comes out later this year). If you’ve read all three trilogies, I’m sure you’re aware that the Fool’s appearance and persona as he presents it in the Six Duchies (i.e. the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies), changes significantly, though not completely, when she (I don’t think there’s a way of doing this without mixing pronouns) becomes Amber, the mysterious carver of beads (I’ll never forget that “OMG!” moment when it finally clicked after so many hints). The Fool is a masterful actor and can slip into any role without much effort. The only thing the reader knows for sure is that the passion with which the Fool fights for what he believes is the destiny that is best for the world, is unfeigned and constant.
As a White, he is not the same as a human, although he appears much like a somewhat feminine man, or a somewhat masculine woman. Unlike Fitz, the Fool considers “plumbing” to be unimportant, often teasing Fitz about his fixation with it and about wanting to know the Fool’s gender. Only towards the end of Ship of Destiny do we get to see an expression of Amber’s love (however that is defined) for Fitz, when she carves Fitz’s features onto the Paragon, including the earring that is laden with such meaning throughout the series. My interpretation is that she is choosing between carrying out what she believes is her duty as a White Prophet, to guide the “wheel” of the world into a better rut, and giving in to her love for Fitz. She is very young for her kind, but always chooses the former, yet a part of her is always considering the “what ifs” of the latter.
Love isn’t just about feeling sure of the other person, knowing what he would give up for you. It’s knowing with certainty what you are willing to surrender for his sake. Make no mistake; each partner gives up something. Individual dreams are surrendered for a shared one.
— Amber, in Assassin’s Quest
Later, as the Tawny Man and Lord Golden, he is more mature, but being reunited with his Catalyst also brings back the dilemma. Fitz is also more mature and seems more willing to accept the friendship without fully understanding it.
Beloved, I have missed your company.
— Fitz, in The Golden Fool
The friendship even endures after Fitz carries the naked, unconscious Fool to safety in Fool’s Fate. Does he find out the Fool’s gender (or lack thereof)? You would have to assume so. Yet he has the class not go blabbering about it to the reader, nor even to reveal it tactfully. I sincerely hope Robin Hobb’s upcoming trilogy, The Fitz and the Fool, will continue not to spoil my ignorance in this matter*. Sometimes, not knowing can be more delicious than knowing.
I have waited patiently for many a sequel to finally be published. I have cursed George R. R. Martin for making excuse after excuse and delaying publication of a book that was supposedly “almost finished” for years. (At least now he has the TV series to prod him along to finish the books in time.) I have lamented Robert Jordan’s passing and fretted to find out whether his epic series would ever be completed. Never have I anticipated any book anywhere near as much as the next in the story of the Fitz and the Fool, The Fool’s Assassin.
* Update: See my post “Thank you, Robin Hobb!” for the great answer the author gave me when I told her I was hoping she wouldn’t reveal the Fool’s gender in the upcoming books…
E is for Endings. All good things must end, even our favourite books. (Though, thankfully, the ones that are part of a series only end temporarily….) Just like it is said that a fighter is only as good as his last fight, readers’ opinions about a book are often heavily influenced by the way it ends. A very good ending can salvage what may have seemed like an average-quality book when you realise that plot threads that didn’t make all that much sense at the time were just expertly woven into an intricate ending. Conversely, a book that was a great read but has a disappointing ending will leave you with that bitter feeling of disappointment as the last impression.
There are many ways stories can end, from Hollywood-type happy endings to ones that destroy all the hopes the author made the reader build up for the main character(s). Books can end in a manner that makes it clear that this end was as final as it can be, or they can leave the details of what happens next up to the reader’s imagination in an open ending, or they can hint at a continuation in a sequel. Short stories typically have a twist of some sort at the end, all the better to the reader if she didn’t see them coming. Endings can be bittersweet; they can leave the reader wishing for a happier ending while understanding that it was perhaps more realistic the way it was.
(Aside: speaking of endings, have you discovered the End of the Internet yet?)
Which type of ending do you prefer as a reader? Would you rather weep with joy at a happy ending after the main character has been put through the wringer, or have a gritty, realistic ending, no matter the cost to the character? Do you like open endings, final endings, or “temporary” endings? If you’re a writer, do you want the best for your characters, or do you enjoy shocking your readers with their misfortune, or something in between? Let me know in the comments.