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January 2, 2003

One for the copyeditors
Posted by Teresa at 08:11 AM *

Andrea Harris’s weblog Spleenville recently had a good long comment thrash about a remarkably fatuous essay about Tolkien that appeared in the online London Times. What fueled the thrash, besides the sheer obnoxiousness of the Times piece, was a fellow named A. C. Douglas, who thought the piece was just swell and modern fantasy is crap, and was taking on all comers.

But that’s not the point. A recurrent minor motif in the thrash was the essayist’s use of the term “inter-ballistic missile.” As Andrea Harris said to Mr. Douglas:

I also notice that you don’t seem at all bothered by his godawful writing. I repeat the question: What the hell is “an inter-ballistic missile”? You are always going on (on your blog) about how you love beautiful writing, and then comes along someone who goes at English with a metaphorical meat-cleaver, and you are unfazed.
Said Mr. Douglas:
An “inter-ballistic missile” is *clearly* a typo. Blame the copy editor (assuming there was one; these days that’s not a good assumption), not the author.
Uh, yeah, right.

He went on:

As to the general writing, the column was a first-rate piece of journalism: Clear, concise, and erudite.
Andrea Harris:
No it wasn’t. It sucked, if I may use a high-falutin’ literary term. Claiming that “inter-ballistic missile” was “a typo” is also a copout. You have no idea whether or not the website messed up instead of the author; but someone who could come up with examples of demented syntax such as [list snipped], could certainly come up with “inter-ballistic missile” his own self.
Whereupon Mr. Douglas triumphantly shot back:
On the matter of “inter-ballistic,” I know for a fact that it’s a typo because any author as clearly erudite as is the author of that piece could make such an error only by way of typo.
Friends, have you ever found yourself unable to speak, not because you have nothing to say, but because you have so much that you can’t see where to begin? It’s like that.

I’m posting it here in lieu of passing Mr. Douglas’s remarks along to every copyeditor I know.

Comments on One for the copyeditors:
#1 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 09:14 AM:

Fatuous is the word. I remember more than a few journals published irate English profs and journalists dissing Tolkien as Fellowship was released in theaters last year.

It cracks me up how Tolkien's success just seems to leave so many literary "experts" speechless, or at least incoherent, with rage.

A regular whiner, I gather, is a retired Oxford lit professor, Dr. John Carey, who remains livid that C.S. Lewis compared LOTR with his favorite epic, Spenser's Faerie Queen. Apparently now he is convinced that John Milton was a terrorist sympathizer. Good company for Tolkien!

A pet peeve of mine is the fact that Harold Bloom, who issued two books on Tolkien (one on LOTR and one on the author in general) as part of his new series on authors and classics, couldn't find the time to include any essays or scholarship written more recently than the mid 1980s (when I was doing my own thesis). Lazy sonofabitch....

#2 ::: Myke ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 10:01 AM:

Best response to the Times article (call me "nerdy-eyed", will you?) I've seen is at:

I was thinking of quoting snatches of it, but I've given up, because it's pretty much all quotable.

#3 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 10:44 AM:

As I posted to the thread at Spleenville, I firmly believe that its ENVY. Simply put, most academics could not write a bestseller if they tried...and many have. I remember one guy at college who sneered at Heinlein obssessively. Every example of "bad" writing came from Heinlein, every ill of modern literature could be traced to "trash writers like Heinlein". The only thing he didn't hook Heinlein to was the decline and fall of the Roman empire--and he was working on that.
It wasn't until I was talking to his grad assistant that I found out Mr. Anti-Heinlein had a couple of rejected manuscripts in his file cabinet...Guess the kind...

#4 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 11:01 AM:

"Inter-ballistic missile" seems to be one of those phrases like "irregardless" that is meaningless, if not contradictory, but people in high places keep using it so it has worked its way into the vernacular. I did an internet search for the phrase and found several instances of it, in two categories of sites: 1) archives of news publications, and 2) fanatical political rant sites posted by anti-Star Wars (weapons defense system) proponents who were quoting either Bush or the news publications.

It would seem to me that "inter-ballistic" might be construed to mean "missiles firing within the range of a battle in progress" i.e. short-range ground-to-ground projectiles, but since that isn't what Star Wars was supposed to guard against I can't put much faith in that theory.

I would say the writer of the Times article and his copyeditor are equally to blame. However, as a copyeditor myself (I make motorcycle manuals) I am often in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to change a word or phrase that is not "standard" English, but will probably be well understood by our readership (disc brakes?disk brakes?).

So the question becomes, did the copyeditor not realize that "inter-ballistic missile" is a meaningless phrase, or did s/he decide to let the phrase stand because s/he figured the readers would recognize it and grasp its metaphorical meaning in the modern warfare/Iron Age pastiche the writer was describing, and anyway substituting "Short-range ground-to-ground projectile" just doesn't have the same ring to it?

I guess we'll never know.

#5 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 11:08 AM:

Hell, Emma, all genre writers probably have horror stories about profs who sneered at our work. I was told to my face I was a hack. My senior project supervisor wanted to know when I was going to write something "serious."

But just as bad as the literateurs who trash SF are the SF writers who stomp their feet and insist that science fiction has grown up, it's more literary now, look at Orwell and Huxley and Crichton and the Nielson Haydens and why won't you let us play on the big court WAAAHHH!!!

#6 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 11:20 AM:

Webster's 10th Collegiate sez that "disc" is a variant of "disk," the preferred spelling. At the last job I had that cared about such things, our style prescribed "disk" except in the specific case of the proper name "Compact Disc." Hence, under this style the correct usage would be "disk brakes."

#7 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 11:43 AM:

"Inter-ballistic missile" seems to be a simultaneous misprision of both "intercontinental ballistic missile" and "anti-ballistic missile" (which is also a rather odd construction when read with a truly literal mind). President W. seems to have meant it in the latter sense, but a BBC report states that, "Mr Putin is pushing for a reduction in inter-ballistic missiles on both sides," which appears to be a misprision of ICBM.

Since Inter Ballistic Missile is now firmly in the vocabulary of youth (thanks to the Transformers animated cartoons) and will be increasingly taken as proper usage, I'm afraid that singling this error out for criticism will eventually result in one's being told that people could care less. In the mean time all I can say is, "I got your inter-ballistic missile right here!" (Though admittedly it is more para-ballistic unless my underpants are too tight.)

#8 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 12:19 PM:

Alan: a disc is a disk is a disque, unless you're a motorcycle mechanic, many of whom become apoplectic if you change their spelling to "disk brakes." Our editorial department is pretty evenly divided on this topic. And since when is Compact Disc a proper name?

Bob: I forgot to mention the Transformers fan page I found in my search. I had to bite my tongue to keep from shouting, GEEK CHECK! I think you're right about the phrase being a corruption of anti-ballistic missile, which is awkward but at least it's a real thing.

#9 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 12:25 PM:

Holly: "Compact Disc" is the spelling favored by Phillips Electronics, who invented the technology and still exert some control on the use of the term.

#10 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 12:35 PM:

The particularly nice thing about the widespread use of "inter-ballistic missile" is that it suggests that the author A.C. Douglas is defending would in fact consider it reasonable usage.

Douglas clearly considers it something to be disclaimed: I wonder how the author would respond to this spirited defense on his behalf which implicitly calls him an idiot if he used "inter-ballistic missile" deliberately.

#11 ::: David Bratman ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 01:33 PM:

Bob Webber wrote, "will eventually result in one's being told that people could care less."

Now there's a well-established misprision for you, because "I could care less" clearly is intended to mean "I couldn't care less."

O Kevin, I think Holly meant that if "Compact Disc" is a proper name, there's a person out there named Mr. Disc, first name Compact.

And - I'm sorry, but I can't resist this, not in this thread - the electronics company is Philips, not Phillips. As the husband of a Phillips who works in the electronics industry, I know she gets her own name misspelled a lot, as the company looms in the industry's conciousness a lot more than all combined human Phillipses. (Or screwdrivers, it seems.)

Feel free to whap any similar errors I've just made.

I should write about this Tolkien stuff, but I haven't read it yet.

#12 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 03:48 PM:

David: Ah, I missed the "proper name" vs. "proper noun" distinction that Holly was making, if indeed that's the distinction she was making.

Sorry about misspelling "Phylllllups".

You probably would not benefit much from reading the Tolkien comments. The only positive aspects of the whole discussion I can see are that some people made very entertaining posts refuting some very annoying errant nonsense. Tom Shippey could have printed A. C. Douglas's writings in Author of the Century as clear examples of how idiotic some of the anti-Tolkien bigots are, but I suspect you know as much about such people as you need to for your life.

#13 ::: Bill Peschel ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 04:25 PM:

This is beginning to sound too much like the Monty Python's British Psychiatric Association sketch.

"The British Airline Pilots Association would like to point out that it takes a chap six years to become a fully qualified airline pilot, and not two. Thank you. I didn't want to seem a bit of an old fusspot just now you know, but it's just as easy to get these things right as they are easily found in the BALPA handbook."

#14 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 05:16 PM:

David, Kevin: yes, I was attempting to be cute in questioning the properness of Mr. Compact Disc's name. But that flippancy stems from my general distaste with Webster's and the Chicago Style Manual, which is a whole other digression.

In re: all the Tolkien nonsense. Emma had a good point when she said it came down to envy; however I would argue that it all comes down to money. Most of us have had our noses rubbed in the artistic integrity/commercial success argument, and I suspect that part of Mr. Fernandez-Armesto(the Times writer)'s spleen stems from the gross amounts of money made by Potter and Two Towers, not to mention our media overdose of those two franchises.

But come on, would he be any happier if, say, a live-action adaptation of Beowulf were suddenly the number-one movie in America and the UK? Probably not. He'd just grouse about the liberties it took with the story and inaccuracies in the portrayal of Nordic life in the 10th(?) century. Remember, Fernandez-Armesto comes from a group that considers primary text a nuisance; the only thing that matters is proving to his fellow fellows how erudite he is.

Quite frankly, that whole article read to me like a guy who used to enjoy fantasy and has been taught to feel ashamed of it. Pity.

#15 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 05:42 PM:

Um, they DID make a movie out of Beowulf. Once removed, to be sure, but The Thirteenth Warrior is clearly Beowulf. My enjoyment of Eaters of the Dead, the novel on which the film is based, was killed by not knowing in advance that he was doing Beowulf. Realizing it for myself made me feel ripped off, for some reason.

The critics loved it, strangely enough. But it wasn't a box-office hit. (Can anyone think of a movie that had both things going for it? I can't.)

#16 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 07:10 PM:

Thanks for the tip, Christopher. I didn't realize 13th Warrior (aka Eaters of the Dead) was Beowulf. Now I'll have to go out and rent it!

#17 ::: Andrea Harris ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 07:46 PM:

I had no idea what I was starting... no really.

Incidentally, I had never heard of "inter-ballistic missile" -- I had only ever hear "intercontinental" etc. etc. "Irregardless," by the way, has the effect on my nerves of nails on a blackboard.

I'm going to have to rent out The Thirteenth Warrior after hearing so much about it. And that book.

#18 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 08:23 PM:

"Inter-ballistic missile" isn't necessarily typo for "Intercontinental ballistic missile." It could be a typo for "intermediate range ballistic missile."

As everyone knows, an intermediate range ballistic missile is one that has a range between 2,750 km and 5,500 km.

Showing those in use on the same battlefield as flaming swords would be interesting. I don't recall seeing that movie, and alas! the learned author of the essay didn't bother to provide the title either. (We will leave aside the problem he has with indiscriminately mixing novels, movies, and TV shows. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.)

Rather than either intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), if the weapon system was in use on the same field as flaming swords I'd expect to see Battlefield Short Range Ballistic missiles (BSRBM), which are ballistic missiles with a range of less than 150 km. (Memorizing the ranges of various classes of ballistic missiles is for people who don't know the word-count division between novella and novelette.)

As to Mr. Putin's use of the term "inter-ballistic missile," I believe that he was speaking about ICBMs. That one does look like a typo.

For Mr. Bush, since he was speaking specifically about the Arrow system, "inter" anything is incorrect. The Arrow system is an Anti-Tactical Ballistic Missile (ATBM).

Back to the learned author of the essay in question: I wonder how he was able to tell the difference between a ballistic missile of any kind and a guided missile.

#19 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 08:33 PM:

Beowulf, Eaters, 13th, blah, blah. Personally, I loved Eaters of the Dead. I was terribly disappointed in 13th Warrior because it was obvious some production flunky had done a hatchet job on the editing (or it was Crichton's interference, depending on which rumor you believe). Same kind of nonsense that Fox pulled with Firefly and succeeded in killing it... no wait, this is the wrong blog....

#20 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 08:39 PM:

.... On second thought, I *did* enjoy the 13th Warrior. You just have to grit your teeth and make popcorn through the first 20 minutes or so.

Sorry, Christopher, I should have acknowledged the 13th Warrior, but I figured everybody already knew it, and I also figured that our scholar would discount it as being "warped" and "pirated."

#21 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 09:56 PM:

John, why some academics react that way is a great mystery. It's as though they're offended that people want to read these books, enjoy reading them, and claim to have a complex aesthetic experience while doing so. The most splenetic of them sound like they think readers should be made to read other, better books. Of course, the real way to get readers to read better books is to have them enjoy the books they're reading now. If they like one, they'll read another -- and they'll be a more knowledgeable reader when they do so.

If those books of Bloom's were published by Chelsea House, I may be able to cast some light on the circumstances under which they were created.

Emma, most writers can't write bestsellers, academic or not. To expand slightly on the remarks I made in the Spleenville thrash, the ostensible article is a loose collection of nonsense. I believe its real point is never actually stated: "Tolkien's books are far too popular, they're getting far too much attention, they're making far too much money, and my books aren't! How unspeakably vulgar. The end of Western Civilization must be at hand. And while I'm on the subject, to hell with Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling, too."

Holly, the motto of everyone who's arguing about the politics of litcrit, in and out of Our Beloved Genre, is "Dignity, always dignity."

All: Disk and disc. Neither is incorrect. Some usage favors one or the other, but for most purposes they're interchangeable. The only firm rule is the same one that governs gray and grey: Either version is fine. Just pick one and stick with it.

#22 ::: Damien Warman ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 11:07 PM:

Bloom is, I believe, most recently published in the US by Warner, and previously by Simon & Schuster/Scribner, Harcourt, ...

I dunno if this has any deeper meaning.

#23 ::: acdouglas ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 12:13 AM:

h dr. , rght lng wth Dr. F-, d sm t hv rsd th r f th fthfl nd th Tr Blvrs blgsphr-wd.

G. Wht srprs.

f y xpctd m t cntn t dfnd hr tht splndd nd mstl rght-n pc by Dr. F- -- hr n ths dn f wld-yd fnts (nd sc-f) fns nd slf-srvng prfssnls sch s yrslf -- y'v mssd yr mn. ftr rdng th grss dstrtns f tht Tms pc nd wht t hd t sy, thr's smpl n pnt. Whl llw tht F- rld bt t mch n th rhtrcl n hs pc, hs cntrl rgmnt (rll n rgmnt gnst th prvsv nd mssv trmph f pp cltr wrldwd) s snd, nd w'd ll d wll t hd hs wrnng.


#24 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 01:16 AM:

Mr. Douglas,
You don't raise ire, sir. You raise pity. Our sympathy for your lack of imagination.

And Teresa, we agree on that point.

#25 ::: acdouglas ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 02:50 AM:

mm wrt: "Y dn't rs r, sr. Y rs pty. r sympth fr yr lck f mgntn."

Ys, ntcd th mpthtc nd sympthtc tn f th rspnss, hr nd lswhr.



#26 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 03:17 AM:

"To sympathize" is not the same thing as "to countenance" or "to tolerate."

We do sympathize.

#27 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 03:22 AM:

One of the most reflexive and depressing defense mechanisms of the presumptuous scoffers' club is the "and now the zealots come out of the woodwork" shtick, as epitomized by ACD's "True Believers" crack. Inevitably, it goes something like this:

Scoffer: "Tolkien... blah blah racist... blah blah simplistic... blah blah SCA geeks... blah blah Thomas Pynchon gently weeps..."

Fan: "I disagree."

Scoffer: "Well, you *would* disagree, since you're all gimlet-eyed nerds secretly yearning to be dominated by Anglo-Saxon patriarchs... there's just no having a rational discussion with you *wee woodsy folk,* is there?"

All it ultimately translates to is a big, sad, empty "neener neener."

#28 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 03:23 AM:

I think a big part of the reaction to Tolkien on the part of academics is a hold-over from the days when all fantasy was verboten. And there's the problem...I don't know any way to address this without a digression, so please bear with me. Last night I went to see the Peter Jackson film of The Two Towers. And I think he's got the characters wrong, and in a very peculiar way: they are all morally much weaker than Tolkien has them; a lot of Tolkien's moral subtext seems to have been lost. And I wonder if perhaps the academics are reading the version that Jackson read.

Having, after some struggle, gotten to
, oh, yes, the author seems to be tangled up in this problem. And in something else: for some reason, most of our arts have partly forgotten how to tell stories, I think. (Hollywood, depressingly, seems to have run out of ideas entirely.) Or perhaps are afraid to tell new ones. The critic under discussion writes "Art demands discipline, and there are no disciplines tighter than those of the real world."
This is a person who wants rules for art, the tougher the better; he is afraid of the freedom of fantasy.

#29 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 03:35 AM:

Go easy on Mr. Douglas. He has just been introduced to one of the local customs.

#30 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 04:33 AM:

On Peter Jackson's morally weaker versions of Tolkien's characters:

We argued about this in the pub last night (the London circle meeting, for those for whom this will resonate). For hours and hours, it seemed; though I think it was only four or five spells of a few minutes each. I need to see the film again. It may be that Jackson has presented morally more dubious characters designed to resonate better in what he sees as our morally more dubious world. Alternatively, he may want to show Faramir (to take the most obvious specific case) as doing the right and noble thing, but feels unable to show how powerful that decision is, in the context of the film, without showing a process of Faramir struggling to make the right choice. Because if you have a movie character who just knows what would be the right thing, and then does it, it's all too easy for them to come over as one-dimensional. I am sympathetic to Peter Jackson (who does, after all, get much right), and so I am inclined to favour this view.

I don't think I would agree that Elrond is shown as morally weaker in this one. Instead, I'm beginning to side with the view that says that sending elves to Helm's Deep undermines the book's treatment of the morality of Elves. They're detached; that's why they're leaving. They're sad about the possibility of Dark taking over the world, but don't feel that it affects them much or that they have much responsibility to do anything about it.

I could take each character in turn; I think the characters have been messed with more a lot more in this film, and it's hard to avoid concluding that the reason why is that, with the probable exception of Eowyn, these characters did not imprint as firmly on Jackson when he was 12 as the members of the Fellowship did. So he feels far less responsibility towards them.

#31 ::: Michael Bernstein ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 07:12 AM:

Since we're digressing a bit into a discussion of the film itself, I was more than a bit dismayed when, during the first Smeagol/Gollum monolog, some people in the audience began to laugh (perhaps 5%).

Jackson's Gollum is, in my opinion, right on the money as far as the character's dialog and 'acting' are concerned, but I found his appearance to be a bit cartoonish (specifically, the eyes were a little *too* big).

Notwithstanding that minor quibble (though it may have contributed somewhat to the problem), I found that the audience's reaction during that scene detracted considerably from an otherwise very enjoyable experience.

My reaction to their mirth was an almost physical revulsion. Somehow, they reminded me of the kind of bullies who shove the 'retards' in wheelchairs out of the way at the supermarket, or who make fun of homeless people.

Hmm. I seem to have digressed quite a bit further myself. Oh well.

#32 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 07:24 AM:

Holly said: "
.... On second thought, I *did* enjoy the 13th Warrior. You just have to grit your teeth and make popcorn through the first 20 minutes or so."

In fact, that was the part of the movie I liked the most. It was the last half hour or so where the movie took leave of its senses and only needed Arnold S. to sling one-liners to be a complete hash.

As to the book--well, I always feel literarily filthy after reading his books. His prose is like a flat, filthy bath of ordinary words. I read the books on airplanes so as to be able to leave them in the seat pocket and convince myself I am donating them to the next reader as I am constitutionally unable to throw a book away.


#33 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 07:48 AM:

Re: the word "typo." When I type (as I frequently do) "jsut" instead of "just," that's a typo. If a typesetter misreads the word "professorial" and sets it as "professional," that's a typo. But if i refer to someone I know named Gretchen as "Gwendolyn," that's not a typo, that's me being forgetful. If I write, "That's the sort of I hate, " [neglecting to write the word "thing" after "of"], that's not really what I'd call a typo (unless the typesetter introduced the error), though I suppose you could call it that; it's more what I'd call a slip of the pen. And if I write "inter-ballistic missile," unless I wrote one of the terms Mr. Macdonald so helpfully elucidates and an ignorant copy editor or typesetter changed it (something highly unlikely, given c.e.s' persnicketiness about such things), then I am either making a slip of the pen, or more likely I am using a term like "irregardless," "nucular," "butt naked," "orientate," etc. that started out as a solecism but has achieved some degree of recognition. This is how new words form. When I was young, it was considered wrong to use "nauseous" to mean "nauseated"; now that usage is so common it's become accepted.

#34 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 08:05 AM:

I think the word for this sort of error is a "braino".

#35 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 09:19 AM:


If those books of Bloom's were published by Chelsea House, I may be able to cast some light on the circumstances under which they were created.

Yep. It is Chelsea House. I think there's a real pile of them being issued as well. But as I said, the Tolkien volumes are underwhelming.

(Jane, Thanks for saying what I've always hesitated to say about Crichton, successful as he is.)

I can personally attest to the resistance to Tolkien in academia. When I did my thesis on his use of Anglo Saxon, my adviser, the late William Alfred (who I think had a go at Beowulf himself at some point in his career) told me my paper was going to have to be good: "They're going to be waiting for you, with baseball bats."

His generation of profs were just typically stuffy. I think the new generation as has been rightly pointed out here is afflicted with envy as well as snobbery.

#36 ::: Jon Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 10:33 AM:

>>Quite frankly, that whole article read to me like a guy who used to enjoy fantasy and has been taught to feel ashamed of it.

In a related note, when poking about for more info on Dr. FFH, I came across an article he wrote for the New Statesman 'bout three years back that's nothing more than a long listing of world history "what ifs", some classic, some not: "What if the [Spanish] Armada had landed, or Columbus had never made it to America? Or the Chinese had become a maritime power? Or the US had won in Vietnam?" (those from the title, more within the article itself). He concludes with:

To identify the genuinely world-transforming changes of our millennium, we need to risk daring shifts of perspective. For history is a muse glimpsed bathing between leaves: with every change of point of view, more is revealed. Hindsight hobbles the imagination. Counter-factual history has had a recent vogue, but it's still a timid technique, practised with inhibition. We need to sweep it into a new dimension: to sharpen our awareness of what happened by imagining how the world could have been different. If we can imagine a different past, we may be better equipped to start work on the next task: reimagining the future.

Granted, alternative history isn't fantasy per se, but still. I guess he draws a strict line of enjoyment between "could have" to "couldn't have." Either that, or something happened in the last three years to sour him considerably towards speculative fiction.

(I wonder what he'd make of Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt, assuming someone filed all genre identifiers off the cover)

#37 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 10:34 AM:

All right, against my better judgment I'm going to extend Mr. Douglas some credit.

When I first read Fernandez-Armesto's article the thought that struck me was, he's got a good point here, but it's wrapped in such unpalatable coating that nobody's going to notice it. I mean, look at the title of the piece, "Fantasy is the opium of the ignorant and the indolent." Is that not clearly a rephrasing of Marx's "Religion is the Opiate of the Masses"? That comment was taken out of context, too.

The heart of Fernandez-Armesto's argument is that we're not getting enough grounding in the classics and in historical fact. You know, I can't argue with that.

But he's also working from the warrant that fantasy is inherently destructive and makes readers lazy instead of inquisitive. Hell, don't blame the fantasy writers for that; they wouldn't be able to pirate the classics if they hadn't read them in the first place. Don't blame the fantasy readers for that; if they weren't inquisitive they wouldn't be reading in the first place.

I suppose he can blame Hollywood for manufacturing sub-standard copies of some really deep works. Many of us do the same thing. The above discussion about character development is a good example of a reader's beef with Hollywood, but face it, folks, you can cram a lot more character, information, and story into a 130,000 word novel than you can into even a three-hour movie. Movies are the ultimate example of show-don't-tell, and any writer knows that it takes a lot more space to show everything than it does to simply tell a few things. In fact, it's best not to think of a movie as a novel at all. Most of them--the best ones--have the narrative structure of a short story. "In the Bedroom" comes to mind.

The biggest weakness in Fernandez-Armesto's argument comes from lumping movies and books into the same category, which is due to a lack of any in-depth understanding of the literature of the genre. Since he *is* a scholar, I'd like to believe that he could frame a more convincing argument given more than a few newspaper inches, but I also believe that if he invested some honest scholarship into this topic he'd change his conclusion.

Bottom line, I think Teresa and Emma are right, that article was born out of envy and resentment. He dashed it off in a hurry and didn't research his topic. But on the other hand, I had to take a friend to task yesterday for lashing into that article without taking the time to read it first. Maybe we should be arguing about the human tendency to jump to conclusions.

Incidentally, Teresa, you lost me with "Dignity, always dignity." Who is lacking in dignity, me or Mr. Fernandez-Armesto?

#38 ::: David Bratman ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 12:03 PM:

The moral weaknesses of Jackson's characters was the type of change that struck me the most in his Two Towers. They get to the right place in the end, but take some implausible detours to get there. For instance, Theoden, having been movingly revived by Gandalf [though the actual transformation looks like a miracle cure from a skin lotion commercial], immediately undercuts the whole point of the scene by deciding to run away and hide - instead of declaring he will fight to preserve his land as in the book. And where does he run away to? The same place that, in the book, he goes to so as to make a defensive stand.

Why does Jackson do this? I think he believes he's making the characters more human, modern, believable. But if Tolkien's characters as he wrote them are so unbelievable, how has their book managed to be so moving and appealing? (And don't say, "A movie has to appeal to more people than a book," for the book has done at least as well as a book as the film has done as a film.)

The reason these moral weaknesses don't work is that they're the weakness of Wormtongue. Unlike him, these Jackson characters make the right decisions in the end, but Wormtongue also had that opportunity (which he's denied in the film, where he's literally thrown out). Tolkien wanted to make a point about the kind of people his heroes were, and Jackson has entirely vitiated it. He's moved the story from Elfland to Poughkeepsie.

#39 ::: David Bratman ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 12:09 PM:

Randolph: Academics who openly criticize the film as if it were the book have already been located, alas. One well-known sfnal academic was on a panel I moderated at ConJose. Acknowledging that she'd never finished reading Tolkien's book, she proceeded to rip it for various plot holes in Jackson's Fellowship. The protests of all the other panelists that these holes didn't exist in the book, and that this wasn't a film panel, failed to stop her.

Robert L., I agree with your distinction between typographical errors and mental glitches, which I call mindographical errors.

Teresa, I have the unworthy wish that you could go over to Andrea's page and disemvowel Mr. Dgls there.

#40 ::: Andrea Harris ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 12:35 PM:

No thanks, I'll leave his arguments as they are, so everyone can read them. That way people can know what the fuss is all about.

#41 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 01:06 PM:

disemvowel--Oh gawd.

that's the best pun I've heard in a long time.

#42 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 01:07 PM:

I think the A.C. Douglas comments are such prdctbl clchs that it's pretty easy to read them in dsmvwlld form. Not arguing that Andrea Harris should smlrly prcss the original fuss, jst sn'.

#43 ::: Jim Meadows ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 01:56 PM:

The mention in this thread about a film version of Beowulf inspired me to go on a web search. I found two movies that sort of fit the bill.

The 1999 film "Beowolf" stars Christopher Lambert and from the accounts I saw, is the usual action movie swordfest, just barely based on the original.

Further removed from Beowulf seems to be 1982's "Grendel Grendel Grendel", an animated film based on the late John Gardner's "Grendel", a variation of the Beowulf epic told from the monster's point of view. The video version I saw listed came from a distributor of family-oriented kids' films, which leads me to suspect the movie didn't quite fulfill Gardner's wishes.

Part of the criticism aimed at the Fernandez-Armesto article is that he confused literary fantasy with its film versions. Can you imagine the article that would have been produced if he had taken the same approach to Anglo-Saxon epics?

#44 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 03:37 PM:

Holly, I do see your point. I'm going to argue with it just a little, and with Mr. Fernandez-Armesto a lot. I want to start by saying I respect you and your intelligence. Any ranting I do is aimed at Mr. F-A, not you.

Start here: Have you ever seen anyone argue that we're all getting too much grounding in history and the classics? Deploring the inadequacy of the general population's grasp of those subjects isn't an argument. It isn't even an observation. It's a gimme, a freebie piece of received wisdom.

Second: Lamenting the decline of literacy is another gimme, a double-platinum cliche; and what's more, it's wrong. Good news: More people are reading more books about history, languages, and mythology (plus every other subject you can think of) than ever before. Next time you're in one of the better sort of airport bookstores -- you know, the ones with all the good trade paperbacks -- notice how many of them are about history. Or go to a Barnes & Noble, go check out the History section. Not only does it have its own turf, but that section is expanding.

Third, and this is a huge gap in Fernandez-Armesto's logic, how does it follow that someone who reads Tolkien and other fantasy must not read anything else? His argument relies on that assumption, but he never substantiates it, and it's contrary to all of my knowledge and experience, and that of everyone I know or work with. I can't begin to count the number of people I've known who've studied history and the classics and been fans of Tolkien. Some of them first got interested in languages, or history, or mythology, because they read Tolkien.

Fourth, his argument also relies on the assumption that the existence of bad fantasy means all fantasy is bad: an error so elementary that it can be demonstrated with Venn Diagrams.

Fifth, he objects in general to the magnitude and pervasiveness of pop culture. But that's what popular culture is: Big. Pervasive. Popularity has that effect.

Sixth, as you note, he conflates movies and books; but can you identify which ones he's talking about? I can't. I have yet to hear from anyone who can. Where is this battlefield where flaming swords coexist with ballistic missiles? What plot is it where all difficulties are arbitrarily and magically whooshed away?

I only know one place where those things both occur, and that's in lists of things not to do when you're writing fantasy and science fiction. I'm sure you've seen those too -- basic stuff, like "Don't resolve your plot via an unforeshadowed and unintegrated deus ex machina," and "Don't randomly mix technological levels unless you've rigorously worked out why this spacefaring culture is still fighting with swords."

I do wonder -- and yes, I'm speculating -- whether Mr. F-A found such a list (they're all over the online universe), and assumed that the errors they describe are a common occurrence in popular genre fiction. It would save having to refer to the actual books.

In summary, you're being nicer than I am. You want to credit Mr. Fernandez-Armesto with good intentions, and I'm finding that more difficult than you do.

#45 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 03:55 PM:

Hi, Andrea! And for what it's worth, I agree with your decision to leave ACD's posts untouched in your comments thread: different venues, different protocols.

ACD isn't the first poster here who's lost his vowels. The rule of thumb is that grossly offensive messages and drive-by trollpostings get deleted, but an excessively uncivil tone just makes your vowels disappear. Vigorous argument is appreciated, but a civil tone is required.

My standing offer is that I'll restore disemvowelled posts if their author gives me a even a halfway decent reason why I was wrong to remove them. So far no one's taken me up on it.

#46 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 03:57 PM:

There are some definitions I use that are sometimes helpful. One is technical: 'science fiction' is 'speculative fiction dealing with the impact of new science or technology on people and society'. By that definition a story about the discovery of fire is science fiction, which is true but not really very useful.

I prefer the following:

Speculative Fiction is a general term for fiction set in a world substantially different than the world we live in, even if only by the presence of a single visitor from another world, or a single piece of technology that we don't (yet) have, or more common appearance of ghosts.

Science Fiction is one type of speculative fiction, in which the world is that our world could reasonably become without violating too much of what we know (or think we know) about the world. I'd also include fiction where the world has always been different than we thought, but where the difference doesn't violate the natural laws as we know them -- too much. FTL travel? Yeah, OK, except for Asaro, pretty much debunked. But still science fiction.

Fantasy is set in a world where the laws of nature are different from those of the world we live in. This difference can be subtle (everyone's astonished when the magic actually works) or not (people don't bother to make straps for their sandals because it's easier to use a spell to attach them to their feet).

This is stuff y'all probably know, though you may not agree with my details.

What mainstream critics don't understand about speculative fiction is the virtue it has of developing the mind. Thinking a lot about worlds that are very different leads IME to realizing that the world doesn't have to be the way it is. I've found it (70's term) politicizing in that way. Allohistory also shares this virtue.

Reading a lot of stories about new technology, I've found, has led to some sound predictions about the impact a REAL new technology will have. Fantasy, for me, has been more about society: what would a completely non-sexist society be like? How can we get there (harder question)? And that has led to acting in ways that tend (in a small way) to promote the tranformation of the world into one I'd like to live in.

But people who read only mainstream novels just find the speculative elements unrealistic, which detracts from their enjoyment. (Chip Delany gave a lecture about this at a con I attended once; the opening lines of Die Verwandlung were one of his examples of how speculative fiction is READ differently than "Literary" fiction.)

Speculative fiction also enables the exploration of aspects of the human psyche that are hard to get at otherwise. A character on my favorite SF TV show was duplicated, molecule by molecule. Then the woman who loved him went off with one copy (there was no way to decide which was the "original"), and he got killed saving the world. She then could not allow herself to be with the remaining copy, she said because she thought the "original" was the one who died, but actually because he reminded her of watching him die, and because she knew that they had identical personalities, and he would probably die on her if such a situation came up again.

This mirrors an emotional experience many people have, of being reminded of someone we've lost (I keep seeing people who look disturbingly like my "missing" coworkers from 9/11), but concentrates it so that it can be explored more intensely.

This is way too long, but I'd also like to point out that prior to modern times, most fiction was speculative in one way or another.

#47 ::: Nancy Hanger ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 03:59 PM:

Right. Like the book that was panned because of all the errors a copy editor had corrected, but which had been STETed by the author. And the pan was aimed at trashing the copy editor for "missing all the errors."

Remind me again why some of us chose production for a living? Oh right. Masochism, clearly.

This is why I've moved back to management and writing.

#48 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 04:02 PM:

Teresa sez: Some of them first got interested in languages, or history, or mythology, because they read Tolkien.

I'm a case in point. I probably would never have gotten a degree in linguistics had it not been for Tolkien. Whether this is good or bad depends on whether you consider its effect on my mind, or my career!

#49 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 05:04 PM:

If I didn't know them from Adam, I could still spot the copyeditors in this thread.

Right, Nancy. Exactly, Robert. No minimally competent copyeditor is going to turn someone's "intercontinental ballistic missile" or "intermediate-range ballistic missile" into an inter-ballistic missile. If they have doubts about ICBMs or IRBMs, they'll look them up; and if they do, no dictionary is going to tell them it should be "inter-ballistic missile."

Could it have been a typesetting error? Might the typesetter's eye have jumped forward to "ballistic" when they should have typed "continental"? It's possible, but it would only be likely if "intercontinental" were hyphenated. Dropping a word is one thing; adding a hyphenated connection to a previously unhyphenated phrase takes a lot more doing. "Intermediate-range ballistic missile" is more of a possibility, in that it is hyphenated; and less of a possibility, in that it's a far less commonly used term. And in both cases, you still have to assume that the proofreader missed it.

Well, anything's possible.

Could the proofreader have done it? The argument there is the same as for copyeditors: They wouldn't make the alteration unless a dictionary told them to do it.

A really harebrained editor might have introduced the error. There, too, anything is possible. But if they had, odds are that the copyeditor or the proofreader would have caught and queried it. "Inter-ballistic missile" might slide past them, but their attention would be engaged by the substitution of "inter-ballistic missile" for "intercontinental ballistic missile" or "intermediate-range ballistic missile."

In my opinion, the likeliest scenario is that the term "inter-ballistic missile" originated with the author. Do we therefore conclude that that's what happened? No! Not on your life! Not unless we've seen every successive state of the text, including the final repro!

(If I'm autopsied after I die, the pied and missing text of Angel Station will be found graven on my liver. To quote Amelie, "Shit happens. Of course, you'd always prefer it happen at the plant.")

#50 ::: Stefanie Murray ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 08:53 PM:

Has anyone here read David Brin's latest take on LOTR from

Any comments?

#51 ::: Holly Messinger ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 08:55 PM:

Major digression, here.

Allison said: "....I'm beginning to side with the view that says that sending elves to Helm's Deep undermines the book's treatment of the morality of Elves. They're detached; that's why they're leaving. They're sad about the possibility of Dark taking over the world, but don't feel that it affects them much or that they have much responsibility to do anything about it."

Haven't heard this argument myself, but a while back I was explaining to my husband, who was feeling a little lost about some of the connections in that movie, "Basically, there's a big bad evil coming, and they all have to band together and fight it or they're all going to die."

I've been assuming that was why Jackson had the elves show up at Helm's Deep, to serve that message (it's kind of moot, though, if the elves can just pack up and leave town). I don't know Peter's Jackson's political affiliations, but I automatically drew a parallel between that message and Dubya's attempts to band together the UN against Iraq, and I found it incongruous against Viggo's outspoken stance against an Iraqi invasion.

Just a weird thought. But you may have noticed my tendency to engage in far-fetched speculations. It can't apply anyway, because those movies were filmed before this recent Iraq business.

Here's another weird connection. Has anybody ever noticed that the Vulcans are basically just elves with bowl cuts?

#52 ::: Ter ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 09:10 PM:

Teresa, thank you for pointing visitors to Andrea's blog. I read much more than the one comments thread.

Thanks, also, for your take on "grey" versus "gray". I've been wanting to hear that from an editorial point of view.

#53 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 10:42 PM:

Oh, gray vs. grey is an ancient copyeditorial thrash. In the course of my professional work, I've been amazed to discover how many writers believe that gray and grey are two different colors. Unfortunately, when you poll them, there's absolutely no consistency in the colors they assign to them, making it a meaningless (and worse, finicky) distinction. Some houses may prefer one or the other, but at Tor the rule is to pick one per book or series and stick to it.

Another never-ending thrash is preferred or first spelling vs. allowable alternate spelling vs. recognized but idiosyncratic spelling vs. spelling it wrong. I tend to allow a lot of latitude on this one, since I don't have complete faith in the concept of English orthography, and the choice of what's first and what's second spelling is so often nearly arbitrary. The exceptions are words where the alternate spellings are misspellings everyone's gotten tired of correcting, like "supercede" and "vermillion." Those are Just Wrong.

Some copyeditors will conscientiously mark every instance of an author using a second or third spelling, which strikes me as wasted effort. Better they should be paying attention to other issues.

#54 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 12:31 AM:

I have a somewhat peculiar take on all of this.

We're going through a cultural caesura; the shift from a created world, essentialist expectation culture to a contingent world, instance expectation culture, as a mattter of general public trends.

This process is by no means certain, and it's certainly not *over* yet; it is been actively fought by lots of folks.

Classics _assume_ the former worldview, the way fish assume water, and, well, lots of folks here and now -- the educated, prosperous, English speaking world, I mean -- don't believe it.

I don't believe the Valar, or Eru Illuvatar, though I can believe in the elves' belief in them; the whole immense tragedy of the tale of the fall of Numenor seems to me a thing peculiar and arbitrary, as does the inevitability of corruption. I don't believe in the idea of a fallen world, it's something horrible and unjustifiable.

Theoden King, I can believe, and Eomer, and Eowyn; the nameless farmer with his spine straightening, Imhrahil, Aragorn saying that he thought it right that Isildur's Heir should labour to repair Isildur's fault; those things I can believe.

I can even believe Frodo's long fight with the Ring, but, well, for me, the Ring is as least as much that whole Abrahamic world view in which it is *possible* to want to control the whole of the earth forever.

This is a real thing, and as real a change in culture and belief as the Protestant Poetics were. The complaint is real, too, though I do not have much respect for the argument that this generation should like what the generations before them liked.

Fantasy, sf, _everything_ being written now has something of this challenged; where do you get the weight of history, the weight of belief and the long conduct of lives in that belief, to write with, when what was simple and obvious is now obviously wrong?

JRRT got it from a long, long way back, in the mists of the Iron Age, in the belief that it was the will to strive on against all odds that made the hero, a thing which someone from a contingent world can admire; he got it also from the certain knowledge in him that there was a morality, a standard of right and wrong, that was one thing not just among Elves and Dwarves and Men, but in all times and all places, a thing which someone from a contingent world is deeply dubious about.

:The Downfall of the Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King: is never certain which truth is upholds, or if the one truth is not the other; it is a profoundly uncertain book, one in which great loss forstalls greater loss, and it is that very tension and passing away of an older, simpler world that makes it so terribly relevant and so honestly powerful in this day, a day in which that thing happens with more truth than the truth got from the mere rushing passage of time.

#55 ::: Andrea Harris ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 12:41 AM:

Stephanie Murray said: "Has anyone here read David Brin's latest take on LOTR from"

Oh yes... I _have_:

#56 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 01:15 AM:

As for the elves, and all standing together, that still bugs me.

It bugs me because Elrond is portrayed as dithery and inconstant; this is the guy who has been fighting Sauron for the last five thousand years or so, who lead forces out of Rivendell to destroy Angmar, who held of all of Sauron's forces after rescuing the survivors of Hollin in the Second Age, the fellow who managed to be wiser than Thingol when it came to his daughter.

It bugs me because Lorien *needs* those troops; they get attacked over and over again, starting shortly after the Fellowship leaves, and I so want to see, and still hope to see, the brief entry from the Tale of Years where is says "Celeborn crosses Anduin; destruction of Dol Goldur begun". Cate Blanchett could absolutely go to town with that, but I digress.

But most of all it bugs me because much of the grief and the loss of Middle Earth is that Men and Elves have become estranged, and that this cannot be mended; that distance is supposed to be there, and to disolve for the sake of seeing dead elves on the ramparts of Helm's Deep is the enactment of the wrong grief and the wrong loss.

It is not that elves and men cannot fight agains the darkness together; it is that men and elves cannot speak to one another about the joys of their hearts and the works of their hands, and that is the thing which has made the world a worse place, passing out of it.

#57 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 01:53 AM:

Teresa, if you will arrange to leave your body to the Museum of Typography, I'll see if I can get Bob Colby to arrange for a post-portem limited edition of liverography, or even liverogravure, to preserve this fascinating phenomenon for future generations of scholars.

And I have decided that "inter-ballistic missile" was meant with deadly but inscrutable irony. Since I'm not an editor and my opinion doesn't matter, I don't need any textual evidence trail, neither.

#58 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 02:53 AM:

I went and looked Felipe Ferne1ndez-Armesto, FRHistS, up, at his department's web page. He's a historian, with quite an impressive list of credentials. All of which makes his article seem even stranger. At first I didn't know what to make of it. But now I think I know. The article might acutally be an erudite joke; a very classy troll. But assuming it's not, I continue.

There are some very odd things in F-A's article. "But unreconstructed myths are usually better. They spring from collective effort, from folk memory and from a shared subconscious." What, does he think no-one first told those stories? The collective unconscious, if a such a thing exists, speaks always through conscious individuals, and there must always be first tellings.

He seems to have the common academic contempt for the visual; "You cannot understand Renaissance painting without knowing the myths of Greece and Rome." That depends, I think, on the nature of one's understanding. There is an enormous lot to be learned about the visual and spatial from those masters, regardless of their mythic content. Indeed, this is central to our cultural history, and I wonder that he does not think more on it. And his error recurs. "Indeed, if you subject the film version of The Lord of the Rings to critical scrutiny, you cease to enjoy it. For the intellectuals in the audience, the only pleasure lies in observing a world created by cannibalising exotic cultures and eluding rational limitations." C'mon, man. I've been criticizing the treatment of plot and character in the film myself. But look at the thing. Pay attention to that artistry. (Descended, too, from the work of those Renaissance masters, whose work he regards as a gloss on his oh-so-important subject.)

Some of what he writes--and what has aroused the most ire in 'blogs, not very surprisingly--"Students who sweat over Elvish and Klingon will never dream in Chinese or Greek," is wildly false, and he didn't even bother to check his assumptions. I expect better of an academic historian.

And now we come to his central concern, "Unmindful of our real roots, we reconstruct an imperfectly imagined antiquity. The fault lies with historians, who have done their best to make the true past boring. Similarly, writers of realistic fiction increasingly address each other, or the prize-awarding committees, instead of the public." I think many of us would agree with this. But he continues, "Meanwhile, we recoil from history because we are afraid of its lessons: it teaches us that we have made no moral or intellectual progress for thousands of years and have grown most in our capacity to do ill. We flee to fantasy in recoil from truth. We are suckered by make-believe because we have lost touch with the majesty of myth. Instead of the past, we fall for pastiche. For those who forget the past, it seems, are condemned to reinvent it."

I can only wonder why anyone would bother to pay attention to history, if what history offers is this counsel of despair. One might hear such from Saruman! And I think I will hand the last word to Tolkien's Gandalf: "'And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower in days to come.'"

#59 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 08:15 AM:

I think he fell in love with his own line: "Instead of the past, we fall for pastiche," knowing it would be widely quoted, and wrote an article around it.


#60 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 08:26 AM:

I have to say Graydon's thoughts on LOTR and culture are about the most interesting I've read in a long time.

The appearance of the Elves at Helm's Deep was definitely one of the weakest ideas, along with Elrond's doubt. The same for Cate Blanchett's tepid voice-over, a piece of weak exposition that could have been better handled giving a few lines of better dialogue to Faramir or Gandalf. But I suppose it's in her contract that she make an appearance in all three films...

But back to F-A, as Randolph Fritz points out.
Unmindful of our real roots, we reconstruct an imperfectly imagined antiquity.

Imperfectly imagined? If F-A had ever bothered to read NYU medievalist Norman Cantor's book INVENTING THE MIDDLE AGES, he might have written a better article. Cantor's chapter on Tolkien is one of the best literary defenses of LOTR precisely because of what Cantor describes Tolkien drew out of the Middle Ages and put so dramatically into the book (and why it has such enduring appeal to those of us living at so far a remove from the Middle Ages):

1. The sense of endemic war as a part of daily life.
2. The long journey on foot, a very common aspect of life in the Middle Ages that has traditionally been overlooked by scholars, and which Tolkien realized to a great degree in his fiction.
3. The heroism of ordinary folk. Again, being so intimately acquainted with the lives of the peasants, yeomen, etc through the documents that survive from the English Middle Ages, Tolkien put into his hobbits and men a very real snapshot of the aspirations, hopes and fears of ordinary people from that period. It's often forgotten that supposedly superior poets of the genre like Edmund Spenser were in fact writing tales about aristocrats in order to suck up to their patrons who were aristocrats.

I wonder how much real history of the Middle Ages F-A appreciates.

(And can I end here by asking anyone who may know: what the heck is up with the pointed ears?? Okay, Elves, maybe. But hobbits???? It's the one thing about the Jackson films that rubs me the wrong way.)

#61 ::: Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 08:48 AM:

The pointed ears piss me off! Tolkien explicitly states that you can't tell elves from humans just by looking at them. What's gonna happen in the third movie when Arwen makes the Choice of Luthien - will her earpoints fall off?!?!?

And I confess that I use 'gray' for everything except eyes. I just like the way 'grey-eyed' looks. Copyeds may hit me with a stick-to-it next time you all see me.

#62 ::: Andrea Harris ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 11:23 AM:

I think in one of Tolkien's letters to his publishers or someone he mentions that the elves' ears are supposed to be "slightly" pointed, but I don't think he meant any more pointed than some normal human ears can be. (I think he was criticising the artwork for one of the books -- I haven't the time right now to look through the whole _Letters_ book and find the pertinent one.) Anyway, I think that this is one instance of where the director went a little too far, but I guess for the films purposes he wanted an extra way to differentiate the "human" characters from the others.

#63 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 12:44 PM:

Holly, I just realized that I forgot to answer your question:

Incidentally, Teresa, you lost me with "Dignity, always dignity." Who is lacking in dignity, me or Mr. Fernandez-Armesto?
The answer is: Mr. Fernandez-Armesto, and everyone else who argues about litcrit.

The line, "Dignity, always dignity" is from Singin' in the Rain. An actor is doing a recap of his career for the Hollywood press, and starts and ends by saying his greatest principle has always been "Dignity, always dignity." His very dignified description of his career is used as the voice-over for footage of his actual career, which is anything but dignified. The "conservatory" where he and his best friend first performed was a saloon, where they jigged and played harmonica for whatever pennies the patrons threw. "They made such a fuss over us," he says in a plummily reminiscent tone, while onscreen we see the saloonkeeper grab both boys to throw them out. It goes on like that for some while: A very funny sequence.

What I had in mind was that while the politics of the litcrit community have a veneer of dignified respectability, underneath they're as self-seeking, petty, and agenda-driven as the politics of any other community, and worse than most.

One of my all-time favorite jokes:

Q: Why are academic politics so vicious?
A: The stakes are so small.
Most academics laugh hard at that one. A few don't laugh at all, because they don't realize it's meant to be a joke rather than a description.

#64 ::: Michael Bernstein ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 05:00 PM:

Graydon wrote:

JRRT got it from a long, long way back, in the mists of the Iron Age, in the belief that it was the will to strive on against all odds that made the hero, a thing which someone from a contingent world can admire; he got it also from the certain knowledge in him that there was a morality, a standard of right and wrong, that was one thing not just among Elves and Dwarves and Men, but in all times and all places, a thing which someone from a contingent world is deeply dubious about.
Something about this reminds me of Kipling's 'Hymn of Breaking Strain'.

#65 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 06:05 PM:

That's the related and parrallel but I think not at all ancestral to Tolkien's thought rise of contingency due to an awareness of the pervasive passive hostility of inanimate objects, and the philosophical changes that were pretty much required to cope with that.

That's important; it's very import to sf, where Kipling's writing can often be read as a modern voice, and most of his contemporaries cannot. But I don't think it's got anywhere near the construction of heroism -- which is pretty explicitly rooted in the contraditions at the foundation of Christian Chivalry -- used in Lord of the Rings.

You could map 'Sons of Mary' to 'created world' and 'sons of Martha' to 'contingent world' if you wanted to, for this place and time, but if you wanted to use it for Middle Earth you'd have to map the surviving prominent Noldor to 'sons of Martha', and they *know* they're not in a contingent world.

Very hard place to tease into individual stranges of tales, Middle Earth.

#66 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 06:38 PM:

John said
"I have to say Graydon's thoughts on LOTR and culture are about the most interesting I've read in a long time."

Hah. If you thin that's good you should see what he had to say about the first one. GRAYDON dear, did you ever get those posts up on a webpage somewhere that we could refer John to:? He has wonderful taste in alcoholic beverages and should be treated nicely.


#67 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 06:59 PM:

Jackson could have done without the ears and just used that special lighting that makes the elves look as if they are lit from within. Plus the elves are the only really clean creatures in Middle Earth, including the hobits in Hobbiton (though I suppose one could say that Saruman the White is clean enough to be an elf. Just not lit the same way.)


#68 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 07:18 PM:

The Elves lack that air of continual scrubbing, yes. :)

Mary Kay -- no, I haven't. I'm afraid I rather lost heart for the idea after seeing the Two Towers movie, on the one hand, and on the other I would really like to get the Doorstop finished before I turn forty. (which is three and a half years away, but given the *last* three and a half years' alleged progress...)

#69 ::: LauraJMG ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 07:38 PM:

Hmmm. Some excellent arguments have been made against the elves showing up at Helm's Deep, but I rather liked them anyway. For me, it was as much a visceral response in favor of standing together against great odds (and the fact that they're so easy to look at) as anything.


#70 ::: David Bratman ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 10:15 PM:

The Elves showing up at Helm's Deep is itself moving, but the problem with it in terms of the story is that, like so much else Jackson does, it undercuts the same point made elsewhere by Tolkien in more subtle ways.

Holly, the notion that Star Trek's Vulcans are merely Tolkien's Elves in space has indeed been suggested before, probably first in 1966.

Chris, I'm not sure where Tolkien says you can't tell humans and elves apart just by looking at them, and most of the evidence I can think of suggests that elves are instantly recognizable. Eomer, on meeting Aragorn & co., isn't sure if they're elves or not, but they are clad in elvish cloaks, and Eomer is inexperienced. Back in Book I Chapter 3, Sam knows Elves as soon as he hears them. Bilbo in _The Hobbit_ chapter 3 can say, "It smells like elves." More relevant, perhaps, is the description of Glorfindel:

To Frodo it appeared that a white light was shining through the form and raiment of the rider, as if through a thin veil. ... His speech and clear ringing voice left no doubt in their hearts: the rider was of the Elven-folk. No others that dwelt in the wide world had voices so fair to hear.

(He is still far away at this point.)

In a letter in 1938 (no. 27 in his published Letters), Tolkien described hobbits as having "ears only slightly pointed and 'elvish'." This suggests to many that Tolkien's elves had more emphatically pointed ears, but his use of "elvish" in quotes suggests to me that he was referring to the popular conception of elves, not necessarily his own elves. Still, the Elvish words for "ear" and "leaf" are related, in such a way as to imply his Elves considered ears to be pointed.

When Arwen makes the choice of Luthien, she becomes mortal but does not cease to be elvish. So nothing happens to her ears. I do not know, however, what happened to Elros's ears ...

#71 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 10:27 PM:

I didn't mind the elves showing up at Helm's Deep, but I deeply disliked them showing up in uniform and moving in perfect unison: as I've said elsewhere, the Battle Droids of Middangeard.

First, uniform accoutrements and close-order drill are a relatively late development in military units.

Second, these guys have been living amidst the semi-constant warfare of Middle Earth for thousands and thousands of years. Every one of them should have his favorite weapons he's been using for the last millennium, and his best set of armor that his father got for a plainchant at a clearance sale in Gondolin these many ages past.

Third, they're a hastily organized force, come in the nick of time to help out in an emergency. Did they wait for their uniform gear to be delivered before setting out, or do all of them keep a full set of Imladris Irregulars military kit tucked away for just these moments? If the latter, how many other sets of seldom-called-for kit are they required to maintain, and is there any way we can get a look at the handbook that lists all of them?

Fourth, externally imposed mechanical regularity is never associated with the good guys in Tolkien's universe. His good is intensely particular, growing more individuated as it develops in its proper paths.

However, much can be forgiven that troop of elves. They, at least, didn't mount a flat-out cavalry charge down a steep slope when there was a schiltron waiting for them at the bottom.

I loved the movie. But at that moment, I was sitting there saying dispassionately, "No, that doesn't work."

I can cope. I had the same reaction in the previous movie when I saw the figures at the Argonath. You couldn't keep those extended arms from breaking off if they were solid stone; and what we can see is that they're made of quarried blocks. No armature in the world could hold that up.

Tolkien describes them as stone pillars carved into the likenesses of men. The obvious model for that would be gothic pillar saints: just the right shape, and some of them make exactly the gesture he described.

Oh, well.

#72 ::: Andrea Harris ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 11:38 PM:

Ah, but those men of Numenor had the technology!

#73 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 12:21 AM:

"I think he fell in love with his own line [...]" Snicker. And maybe so. One thing I think the content article points up is the need for editing (or at least critical reading), of even the very expert. I am still shocked by the despair of the last paragraph. I have rather the impression that Fernandez-Armesto dashed that article off on a really bad day.

"You couldn't keep those extended arms from breaking off if they were solid stone; and what we can see is that they're made of quarried blocks. No armature in the world could hold that up." If it was stainless steel? Sure it could. And stainless would last. Now, the Noldor would no doubt have used a non-metallic embedded fiber instead...wish I could specify that stuff; the light steel behind many brick veneers, I am told, has a nasty way of failing.

But you are most likely right; Tolkien was probably visualizing pillar-saints.

#74 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 01:17 AM:

Agreeing with Randolph here: a sufficiently strong cable or rod under tension, holding the stone blocks in compression, would let the extended arms hold up as cantilevers. The trick is essentially to ensure that even the uppermost regions of the masonry are subject to compressive forces.

#75 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 06:51 AM:

Mithril. They were using an armature made of mithril which they traded in the long ago to some elves for that handbook.

Actually, my son Adam and I had a long talk several days ago about the shiltron. (If Lt. had still been alive, they would never have tried that maneuver.) Adam pointed out that a wizard's staff trumps even a shiltron, as we saw.


#76 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 09:27 AM:

David (I do not shorten your name) - I can't find the explicit reference, but I did find this: Appendix A: V ("Here Follows A Part Of The Tale Of Aragorn And Arwen"); in the Ballantine edition it's ROTK p420.

If you read this section you will discover that as soon as Aragorn realized Arwen was not Luthien, he assumed she was human even when he knew she was Elrond's daughter. He doesn't realize she's an elf until she tells him so:

Then Aragorn wondered, for she had seemed of no greater age than he, who had lived yet no more than a score of years in Middle-Earth. But Arwen looked in his eyes and said: "Do not wonder! For the children of Elrond have the life of the Eldar."

Then Aragorn was abashed, for he saw the elven-light in her eyes and the wisdom of many days...

And by "just by looking at them" I meant "on casual inspection." Things like pointy ears would be noticeable instantly. The voice, which is unmistakeable (especially, as with Sam, when they're singing), is not something you can tell just by looking at them.

And Frodo was carrying the Ring (and had worn it), and had been stabbed with the Morgul-blade! I think the text-semantics of that section makes it clear that he sees the elves differently because of those things; he's seeing the part of Glorfindel that extends into the Otherworld, which Frodo is slipping into (which for mortals pretty much means dying).

#77 ::: John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 10:06 AM:

Hmm, I forgot about that letter Tolkien wrote about hobbits having slightly pointed ears. In the intro to the book he more than once describes them as very similar in appearance to men. That's what made me dubious.

(Hi Mary Kay! What are you drinking these days? The preferred holiday beverage over here for the past few weeks has been the Old Fashioned!)

Graydon, I wouldn't sweat getting the tome done before 40 so much. When it came, I found 40 not nearly as disturbing as 30. And so many writers I admire have done their best work after that age. (For what it's worth)

But, hey—keep going!

#78 ::: David Bratman ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 12:45 PM:

Teresa writes, Externally imposed mechanical regularity is never associated with the good guys in Tolkien's universe. His good is intensely particular, growing more individuated as it develops in its proper paths. This is why the Elvish Close-Order Drill Squad is not just practically unlikely, but false to Tolkien's spirit. The lit-crit reason for Legolas and Gimli hanging out together so much is to show how very individuated different kinds of good can be, and how they can come to appreciate each other while remaining distinct. By contrast, evil becomes all the same: as Saruman grows in evil, he becomes more and more a little Sauron.

Christopher (sorry, but from previous acquaintance with you I thought you were known as Chris: I may have misremembered) - the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, which I have indeed read, is much more ambiguous than is implied here. Aragorn at first believes Arwen to be Luthien in person. Luthien was an Elf. And as soon as Arwen says she's immortal, Aragorn recognizes the physical characteristics he's abashed at having missed.

I think his inability to recognize this at first sight is intended as a sign of his youth, inexperience, and wonderment: otherwise it would not have been necessary to remark on it. Throughout Tolkien's works, many humans meet Elves without needing to be told that they're Elves. This suggests that it is indeed possible to identify them at casual inspection; and though it is also possible to misidentify them, it is a sign of youth or inexperience to do so.

#79 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 01:08 PM:

John says
(Hi Mary Kay! What are you drinking these days? The preferred holiday beverage over here for the past few weeks has been the Old Fashioned!)

Well, at the risk of being accused of hijacking a thread (again), I've been drinking Black Bush on the rocks of late. You know, I've never had an old fashioned--I should probably give it a try sometime. I got started on the Black Bush while I was in Ireland back in October. Lovely stuff.


#80 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 03:36 PM:

Well, the elves and humans do look a lot alike in the movie. They are tall, slender humanoids with the right amount of teeth and fingers and feet that are not hairy. It is in the kempt/unkempt catagory that they part ways. So Jackson gave us all a bit more in the ears and inner light department, in case we mistake--say--Eowyn for kempt, or Faramir with his gelled do, or even the white clad Sauraman as possible elves.

A shorthand visual. He could have made them walk with bell sounds,I suppose, and we could know them as elves that way. Or errant Morris dancers.


#81 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 05:21 PM:

High Elven Morris dancers on a quest.

There is a certain horrid plausibility to the resulting mental image.

#82 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 09:09 PM:

"High Elven Morris dancers"...I just heard a bell...

#83 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2003, 06:08 PM:

I'm several days too late (as this has already become a discussion of TTT), but why the seemingly reflexive distrust of academics? I'd say that the academics I know are slightly more likely to be genre lit fans than the non-academics. If it's good enough for talents as widely varied as Greg Benford and Chip Delaney, is it so obvious that there's something inherently wrong with academia? What people are objecting to is snobbery, something that I doubt is dramatically more prevelant among professors -- even professors of literature -- than among any other profession.

(And Pynchon was nominated for a Nebula in 1973; I like "Rendezvous with Rama", but I think it's a shame "Gravity's Rainbow" didn't win.)

#84 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:12 PM:

(Arriving late)

This is very odd. I can't defend Dr. Fernandez-Armesto's editorial -- and I wouldn't dream of defending Mr. Douglas' defense of it -- but I want to put a word in in defense of the doctor himself.

I've read two of his books (Civilisations and Millenium), and I have to say that in those he comes off as much more intelligent and sensible. (I didn't notice any "inter-ballistic missiles" or other lexographical exotica, either.) And I don't think the accusation of postmodernism and deconstructionism is fair; for the record, he's not a literary critic, he's a historian. The aforementioned books, at least, are lucid, well-reasoned history for the general reader, quite happy on the same shelf with John Keegan and Jonathan Spence.

It's a pity that he didn't just wave off Tolkien as "not my period" and leave well enough alone. Still, he's not the first otherwise intelligent person to make a fool of himself when pronouncing on an area outside his expertise.

There's also a special British way of viscerally hating Tolkien (Michael Moorcock comes to mind) that I think it's hard for people on this side of the pond to quite understand; I wonder if there isn't some of that at work, as well?

#85 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2003, 10:30 PM:

One last tidbit, from Amazon's sample pages of Dr. Fernandez-Armesto's Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed: "Foucault was one of the setters and springers of the trap of post-modernist incredulity, from which we now have to prise ourselves free, scraping belief in objectively verifiable truths, as we go, from the teeth of the trap."

I'm almost tempted to put him in the camp of the hard-SF writers who can't stand being shelved in the same section as A Wizard of Earthsea, rather than that of the English professors who can't stand people's preference for stories of elves over stories of (in Patrick's wonderful phrase) English professors contemplating affairs.

#86 ::: Andrea Harris ::: (view all by) ::: January 10, 2003, 02:25 AM:

The Brits seem especially good at viscerally hating things, usually things that just five minutes ago became popular; or so I recall from my days reading Melody Maker and the NME. In any case, I have had more than one person tell me what a wonderful historian Fernando-A. is, so I can believe it. I can also believe that he is not expert in everything under the sun, and whatever set him off to write that wacky article was one of those things that obviously leaves him flummoxed. I used to get the same reaction from relatives who saw me reading science fiction. What on earth was I doing wasting my time with some story about -- what? an imaginary planet? They didn't get it. I try not to write about things that I don't get (thus you will never see anything about baseball by me), but then I'm not a world-famous, renowned historian with many published works.

#87 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: January 12, 2003, 06:15 PM:

Re: gray vs. grey--

The way I've seen it most interpreted is warm gray vs. cool grey. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any way to deal with the neutral...

#88 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2003, 07:27 PM:

Yeah, that's a gray area.

#89 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2003, 11:38 PM:

On the topic of "inter-ballistic" things - after the Concorde crash a year or so ago, I read an article which talked about the "sheer ballistic power" of it's engines. Interesting to second guess the chain of thought that led to the corruption - indeed, reversal of meaning. Ballistic missiles are big things that vroom (and later boom), so the word must be some kind of synonym for "really big and impressive".

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