1/(Tolkien) || Tolkien*(-1)

I don’t have as much time to read fantasy and science fiction as I did when I was younger, but I would like to recommend two series which I stumbled upon over the past few years and which I just completed.

Jaqueline Carey’s Banewreaker and Godslayer comprise a slim duology which can be fairly characterized as LotR from the vantage-point of Mordor. The correspondences to Tolkien’s narrative are pretty clear and transparent, Carey hits you over the head with her themes. This would probably have been better as a singleton, there just isn’t that much material to work with, and the characterization doesn’t explore new directions in the second book. Nevertheless, it is a nice and satisfying corrective to the Fundamental Attribution Error which crops up in the work of Tolkien and his children, evil is essentialistic in a character, not a function of their circumstance. In some ways Carey’s work has a closer affinity with Greek mythology, with its Prometheus like Sauron equivalent. In contrast Tolkien might not have been totally delusional when he stated that LotR was “fundamentally a Catholic work” in that his cycle did not explore the messy shades of gray which comprise such a vast arc of human experience.

Where Carey’s work is a standard inversion of Tolkien’s narrative, R. Scott Baker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy takes the classic core of high fantasy and the Evil Lord and smokes it with some crack cocaine. If there was ever a sequence of books laced with the sensibility of the cognitive revolution, this is it. Baker is a philosopher by training so I am not totally convinced that the influence is coincidental. If you want a “hero” who brings you down to earth with his lack of idealism, then this is a good series. The last of Baker’s books in the trilogy has a 50 page glossary so he certainly hasn’t stinted on world creation. But with the sharp crispness of the backdrop and the overindulgent prose the many strands of each character can sometimes get knotted, and Baker’s inattention leaves you without a guide out of this undiscovered country. Unfortunately Baker’s “trilogy” is actually the first three acts in a longer cycle, with book 3 prefacing an intermission. The real action on the grand epic scale is clearly to come.

4 thoughts on “1/(Tolkien) || Tolkien*(-1)”

  1. aziz-habiibi asked me to clarify my cryptic comment–razib and i have had some discussion of the Pythagorean Society, and he sent me this email–

    if you read fantasy, you should check out THE PRINCE OF NOTHING
    series. the last 50 pages of book 3 have a lot which intersects with
    some of your ideas of pythogoreans….

    so, i am intrigued and want badly to read it.

    i will try to be more intelligible in the future.

  2. Hey Razib,

    “De gustibus non est disputandum” and all that, but as a horrible hobbit fanboy I have to quibble a bit with the assignment of the fundamental attribution error to the Rings stuff. Looking at the Wiki link it seems to me that you are suggesting Carey’s work (which I have not read) lets us see how reasonable Sauron would be if only we looked at the context he was operating in, looked at things from his point of view, as it were. That seems a bit unreasonable since he was trying to conquer the world and enslave its peoples. He didn’t cut Aragorn off in the supermarket line, after all, or simply try to give people fire.

    Also, and this goes to the characterization of the Rings stuff as “Catholic” as well, Sauron, Saruman, Gollum, etc., all started out as “good guys” and made “bad” choices. They became evil, but were not essentially so, and could possibly be redeemed, if Frodo’s little speech to Saruman at the end of the last book has any weight. When the Rings is called “Catholic” by Tolkien and others I think what they mean is it’s not “Manichean” with evil an independent force from good. Evil is always only something “good” which has fallen away from ideal “goodness”.

    Anyway, I’m late to the thread, and it’s only a personal opinion.

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