Dated history books

One of my little pleasures is going to estate sales.  I used to go to garage sales, but I generally find them disappointing.  Estate sales, on the other hand, are fascinating.  You get the run of someone's house and even if you don't buy anything, you learn a lot about how other people live.

Of course, you can get phenomenal deals on housewares - things people typically buy new at premium prices.  As my kids start looking at setting up on their own, estate sales are where I will go to get their cookware and minor appliances.

Books are also a great value, and last week I picked up a pair of history books with great illustrations and laughably dated information.  It's not just that the terminology changed, its that archeology has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last 40 years.  The ability to scan empty areas from space to identify otherwise impossible-to-find ruins is a game-changer.

Still they're enjoyable reads with pretty pictures.  I also enjoy the use of A.D. and B.C. in dating.  The stupid CE/BCE terminology is deeply dishonest.  It's an attempt to secularize the Christian reckoning, but all it does is declare all other systems "unscientific."  Just admit that you're using the Christian dating system.

Another advantage is the writing is better, less cluttered with jargon and important-sounding phrases.  The glut of credentialed-but-ignorant scholars was only just beginning, and the humanities still had rigorous standards.  It's worth noting that despite his incredible knowledge, J.R.R. Tolkien never actually completed a doctoral degree.  He didn't need to; his work spoke for itself.

Now any midwit can get one and fancy that they're his intellectual superior. 

Yet another sign of our culture's ongoing collapse, I suppose.

The Eerie Prescience of Tolkien's Palantir

Did Tolkien foresee the internet?

Before you object, consider that a key plot point in Lord of the Rings was the use (and misuse) of the legendary seeing-stones of Numenor, the Palantirs.

Their chief power was to allow communication at the speed of thought, allowing people leagues upon league apart to share visions and thoughts.  It also allowed long-range vision, a sort of pre-modern satellite photography.

Denethor, Ruling Steward of Gondor, possessed one.  Sauron, Dark Lord of Mordor possessed another.  Desperate to learn about his enemy, Denethor used the magic stone to spy on the Great Enemy and so was caught.

Looking at how the internet (and particularly social media) is driving people literally insane, I suddenly recalled how Denethor himself was driven to suicidal madness by what he saw in the Palantir.

His fortress city of Minas Tirith was defended by not just one or two, but seven concentric rings of walls, and built into a mountainside.  While his troops were outnumbered, they also had superior skill and higher quality weapons. 

Yet before the gate was even broken, Denethor's mind was overthrown.  Without the Ride of the Rohirrim and Aragon's decision to take the Paths of the Dead, the city would have been overrun in the first assault - because the Enemy was already inside the walls.

I'm increasingly wary of technology, and I don't go online much these days.  I used to avoid social media out of privacy concerns, but I now do so out of a desire for self-preservation.

The surprise ending

Arguably the greatest challenge to contemporary writers is coming up with a way to make an ending both surprising and plausible.

Game of Thrones failed spectacularly in this respect, and Star Wars did the same.  I think the first big whiff was The Matrix, but plenty of shows start with a bang and end with a whimper.

Of course, sometimes life imitates art, and while this blog generally avoids the pointless churn of political commentary, certainly the last chapter of American involvement in Afghanistan was entirely unexpected.

On the other hand, historians tend to look at wars as wholly contained narratives.  War was declared on this date and ended on the other date, and anything beyond those bookends is beyond the scope of most conventional books.

Sometimes one has to look outside those confines, because in real life, the end of one story necessarily leads to another.  The characters change, the plot lines switch around, but the tale never ends.

J.R.R. Tolkien brought this up in Lord of the Rings, at one point having Sam Gamgee reflect that the stories told of the Elder Days in the Last Homely House had continued down to the present day and that he and Frodo were part of the same plot line that ran back to Beren and Luthien.

And so it is.  As Tolkien also noted in his timeless work, victories and defeats are at best transitory.   Time passes and new challenges emerge.

What is surprising to people at the time will likely seem a foregone conclusion to future generations.

All one can do in such circumstances is do what any solid character would do: muddle through and carry on as best as possible.  It may not be satisfying drama, but then again the story isn't finished and in real life, the actors rarely get to see the final result of their effort.



There and back again, again

Yes, this post title is an obvious homage to The Hobbit, but that's because the J.R.R. Tolkien's little book is so applicable.

Lord of the Rings gets most of the press (for good reason), but The Hobbit has a lot of useful things to say, which is why Peter Jackson's film atrocities attributed to it represent an artistic crime of the first order.

In any event, having just returned from a week-long business trip, I am once again driven to reflect on the truths contained in that little tale.  First and foremost, the subtitle reminds us that for most of us, that's all we ask of our journeys: to go there and come back again.

This doesn't always happen, which is why my departure prayer always carries the request that I be brought safely "there and back again."

Even when it does, we often find ourselves changed by the journey and that home has also changed, sometimes in profound ways.

Such was the case on this trip, and like Bilbo Baggins, I find myself coming back to a different place than I left (though in my case, the change is a joyful one).

I will here throw yet another shout out to the Lord of Spirits podcast, which was my traveling companion for much of the journey.  While some may dislike the giggling pop-culture references, I find them refreshing.  When making a long drive, laughing now and then does wonders for maintaining alertness.


My first 15 years as a Catholic

Traditionally, converts to Catholicism are received into the Church on Easter.  Because I'm special, my family did so on Pentecost, so today marks the 15th anniversary of my conversion.

I went into it knowing it was a process rather than an event and a decade ago I tried to drive this point home as an RCIA sponsor (that's Catholic-speak for mentoring a convert).

Things have changed a lot in the last 15 years and so have I.  Two of my daughters are grown up and the youngest (who was but an infant) is now almost 16.

My understanding of God has changed a lot, too, and while some people hint that conversion will make for less troubles as the result of divine favor, that's not strictly true.  There were a number of crisis in the last decade and a half - simply joining Team Christian didn't give me immunity from adversity.

However, it did give me the means to deal with it in a positive way.

Am I a better person?  I think so.  I also think I'm more moral - not superior to everyone else, just doing a better job of living in accord with Christian values.

While I seem to sinning less, I'm more aware of my past sins, which makes me very humble.  In recent years, one of the aspects of the Church I've come to appreciate greatly is Reconciliation.  It used to be something I dreaded, but now I look forward to it.

Being Catholic also opened my eyes to a world I never even knew existed.  In Brideshead Revisited, Sebastian at one point remarks to Charles that Catholics simply see the world differently.  It's true - and once seen, it can't be unseen.

That new vision has given me a new perspective on favorite authors like Tolkien, and introduced me to new favorites like Evelyn Waugh. 

As I said, conversion is a process not an event, and I'm interested to see what the next 15 years will bring.

I'm not a fan of the Amon Sul podcast on Lord of the Rings

Based on my enjoyment of the Lord of Spirits, I thought for sure I'd love Father Andrew Stephen Damick's Tolkien-centric Amon Sul podcast.

Not so much.

I think I'm fairly near the upper end of the Tolkien fandom spectrum.  No, I don't speak Elvish, but I used to read Lord of the Rings every year, have most everything J.R.R. wrote and can accurately recite some of the songs and poems.

Maybe that's my problem: I seem to know more about the books than the host, which is really irritating.

Father Andrew also makes some pretty significant mistakes, conflating battles, names, events and this combined with his (freely admitted) "fangirl" behavior to really turn me against the show. 

I think the final straw was his refusal to completely and unconditionally condemn the Peter Jackson movies.  These are terrible, both as adaptations and as standalone movies.  I wish to emphasize that second point, because people will sometimes argue that Jackson can't be blamed for having to make a few concessions to the necessities of putting the story on film.

If you take the movies as they are, they are completely incoherent.  The plot is completely incoherent.

I've already linked to my trashing of the film, and so I won't repeat (or add to) my previous invective.  Suffice to say that Father Andrew's unwillingness to put those atrocities in their place - either because he's too nice or simply doesn't see the problems - is a deal-breaker.

I tried, but I can't take it anymore.  I'll stick with Lord of Spirits and leave it at that.

Merry COVID Christmas!

I intend the title of this post to be taken unironically.  Despite the ongoing nonsense by the various Grinches in trying to snuff out the Christmas spirit with lockdowns and fear, Mass was at (diminished) capacity last night and our spirits are high.

What is more, a light blanket of snow arrived just in time to give us a White Christmas, just like the ones we used to know.

Last night I finished a re-reading of The Silmarillion, and Tolkien's extended mythology appropriately concludes with the rising of a new star, a symbol of hope and a promise of mercy and pardon.

2020 has been a crazy year, but through it all, faith has always been a solace.  May you and yours have a blessed holiday.  Merry Christmas!

The much-needed change of the seasons

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a friend in Texas and he lamented the sheer monotony of the weather there.

Coupled with COVID precautious, which essentially leech the fun out of just about everything, he felt as though he was stuck on a treadmill, re-living Groundhog Day, as the metaphor goes.

Being a Michigander, he asked how the weather was and I said the change of the seasons was underway, with the first harbinger of fall showing up in cooler nights.

Since then, the weather has taken a more decisive turn, dropping into the 60s during the day and touching the 40s in the evening.

This is what I consider Ideal Weather.  I love it.

Like just about everyone else, I figured the disease would be bad, but short-lived, as such things historically have been.  What I did not foresee is the political leadership deciding to make the precautions indefinite.  It's profoundly disappointing.

Yet, there are some bright spot.  My diocese reports that not a single case of COVID spread can be traced to Mass attendance.  Not one over months.  So maybe we can loosen things up, perhaps?

Also, I'm glad to see Big Ten football is coming back.  I was all-in on the college game a few years ago before burning out, but now I like the background noise and the occasional game.  Plus, the sports pages are a welcome change away from the howling madness of contemporary politics.

Above all, for me autumn is about tradition, times gone by and fond memories.  It is reflective and comforting.  See it locked up and shut down is particularly hard to take.

We are only getting a glimmer of light, but sometimes that all we need.  Like the distant star peeping through Mordor's gloom, it reminds us that evil can never fully triumph: somewhere, light will still shine unsullied.

More thoughts about writing a fantasy novel

The change of the weather is putting me in a creative mood, and once again I'm at a loss for what to write next.

As I've pondered this question, I realized that the main reason I haven't gotten more than a few pages into a fantasy novel is because of Lord of the Rings.

I first read it in middle school and I've re-read it dozens of times in the years since, most recently earlier this year.  Each time I do so, I'm impressed by the quality of the work and instead of inspiring me to write something on similar lines, I am forced to recognize that Tolkien's masterpiece is the first and last word in the genre.

Obviously, there's a thriving market for fantasy books, and I've read more than a few, but they all struck me a second-rate when compared to the work of the master.  The essential problem is that I can't think of anything to say that Tolkien hasn't already said better than I ever could.

I admit that at one point I was gearing up for a Game of Thrones-style work, but my motivation barely got me to to 15,000 words before failing.  I found the Game of Thrones worldview demoralizing and writing something like it was unpleasant.

Since I write primarily because I enjoy it, I dropped the project.

At the moment I'm re-reading Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End series.  Perhaps it will give me some insight on what I want to do next.  I'm somewhat torn between doing a sequel (or prequel) of an existing work, or striking out with something new (hence the ongoing discussion of fantasy).

The advantage of the sequel is that there's a built-in audience and it's fun to revisit an earlier book.  On the downside, that sort of thing requires careful attention to continuity.  Starting from scratch, on the other hand, offers maximum creative freedom.  Having been recently bound by the constraints of non-fiction, that's what I'm in the mood for at the moment.

Where's my fantasy novel?

With Long Live Death moving to final publication, I'm already thinking about my next project and once again I'm pondering writing an epic fantasy tale.

Why haven't I already done one?

It's a good question.  I'm huge Tolkien fan, spent countless hours playing Dungeons and Dragons growing up, and of course I even did a take on Beowulf.  It's not like I'm a stranger to the genre.

So what's the hold up?  I've done sci-fi horror, space opera, vampires, military fiction and even a romance novel.  Oh, and an entire book of fantasy miniatures rules!  Where's the obvious tie-in to Conqueror: Fields of Victory?

The answer is that because I've spent so much time doing gaming and roleplaying, every time I get going on fantasy story, I get sidetracked (and then bogged down) on world building.

It's weird.  I can write other genres without having to explain the setting in meticulous detail, but when it comes to fantasy, I have to be all Tolkien and discuss language evolution and the date of the ruins.

I've probably written more fantasy material than anything else by far.  Almost all of it was background for DnD campaigns.  In my more mature phase as a writer, I've got give manuscripts that could fit into the description, none of which got very far.  They all come to a screeching halt over setting considerations. 

Until I figure that out, fantasy remains closed to me.